© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
It has been my experience that people who travel for pleasure fall into two main camps: tourists and travelers. Tourists tend to have less time and less frequent trips and they don't want to spend time on organizing lots of logistics themselves. They want the security of having their itinerary locked-in in advance. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and go on guided tours. Many want the romance of an international encounter but at arm's length from the locals. Travelers, on the other hand, often take long and frequent trips. They want to "make things up as they go" and might not have any accommodation or travel tickets booked at the destination. They stay with host families. They buy food at bakeries and supermarkets and they picnic in scenic places. They wander the back streets in search of the unexpected opportunity, photo, or personal encounter. To be sure, many people have a leg in both camps and one approach does not fit all circumstances or personalities. Both have their place and their adherents. As for me, I prefer to be a traveler as much as possible.
Many of my trips have involved stays with strangers, most of whom I had contacted in advance—but maybe only one or two days before—through one organization or another. Some hosts were people I met while on the road and others were "friends of friends". Some of my travel diary readers have commented on how exciting it must be to arrive in some far-off place with an as-yet unknown "friend" waiting to meet me and to share hospitality and a cross section of their life and community. And yes, it generally is exciting. Inevitably, I am asked how I organize a home stay and whether I have encountered any problems. And since I also host travelers, I am asked about that too.
What follows are some of my experiences, both as a host and as a traveler. I also offer some advice for anyone considering hosting or traveling in this manner.
Europeans Tête-à-Tête with the Philistine Americans
My first experience in hosting via an organization came through American Host Program (AHP), a group that, unfortunately, is now defunct. During the Cold War, a teacher couple from California was traveling in Europe. They were disturbed at the negative view that many people had of those arrogant war-mongering Americans ("What? Us warmongers?"), so they decided to do something about it. They invited teachers and librarians to come to the US for 30 days and to stay 10 days with each of three families or 15 days with each of two families. Guests had to have reasonable English skills so they could have a prolonged and meaningful exchange with a small cross section of the real America (you know, with people like me, immigrants!). Hosts provided accommodation and meals and were asked to be ambassadors for their country. To be sure, it was a big commitment for both parties, but it was only once a year and it was a great opportunity to have a meaningful exchange and to make lasting friendships.
From 1988 through 2000 Jenny and I hosted 12 sets of guests, 10 of whom were on their own (seven women and three men) and two who brought spouses. They were from Austria (1), Finland (1), France (2), Germany (7), and Sweden (1). Three were born and raised in the former East Germany. As well as hosting them, I have stayed with or visited eight of them at least once and one of them, Astrid, numerous times. She has also visited me again. I keep in touch with four former guests via my trusty and cheap Skype internet phone software.
Seventeen years ago, I read an article in the travel section of the Washington Post newspaper about a couple traveling in Wales with their 3-year-old daughter and staying with host families. The host organization was Servas International. Soon after, Jenny and I joined as both hosts and travelers and three years later, we also became interviewers for new members. [As it happened, our first Servas trip as a family was to Wales where we stayed with three completely different hosts.] Servas has members in more than 60 countries and is a peace-based organization intended to facilitate dialog between people from different countries, regions, or cultures. [I host and stay with members from other parts of the US as well as other countries. After all, the US can be viewed as 50 different countries.]
Most Servas hosts provide accommodations and meals for two days and nights. The rule is that a traveler doesn't just "use" a host for an overnight stay or wear out their welcome over a longer period, although hosts and travelers can agree to other terms. For example, a veterinary surgeon in Mexico offered a month's stay provided guests helped him in his practice. Some hosts offer longer stays if you buy language lessons from them. One man offered a long stay if you worked some hours each day helping him renovate his large villa.
There are also Day Hosts, people who cannot—or chose not to—have people stay overnight; perhaps they live in student dormitories or are priests or nuns. They like to meet guests for coffee or a meal, to take them on a walking tour, or to practice their English. Day Hosts are great! They allow for meaningful contact with little commitment. In either case, travelers arrange directly with hosts based on entries in host books, each of which covers a single- or multiple-country region. Membership runs for a year at a time and each country charges an annual membership fee.
I've stayed with hosts in Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Uruguay, the US, and Wales. [As I write this, I am staying with the second of two hosts in Normandy, France, where I'm spending a 7-day holiday after a business meeting in Paris. The experience has been fantastic, despite the inclement weather, and I'm already planning a return trip; thank you Jean-Claude, Brigitte, and Martine.]
Given the "competition" from internet-based hosting organizations, Servas is looking at going online in some form or another. However, one of its strengths is that membership requires personal references and an interview.
Servas conducts an international conference every few years. Some countries host annual conferences and some local chapters hold regular events. In the Washington DC area, we have a summer picnic and a Christmas party, with occasional functions through the year as members chose to organize them. The idea for these is to allow local members to meet each other in addition to the people from out of town who they host.
Bring out the Best China
My first internet-based hosting experience was with Hospitality Club in 2005. I was planning a vacation to Hong Kong yet there were no overnight Servas hosts there—only Day Hosts. As it happened, Hospitality Club only had Day Hosts too, but I made contact with a number of members living there, and an expatriate American and two young Chinese businesswomen each agreed to meet me. The American took me on a walking tour of the financial district and had a meal with me at an Irish pub where his wife joined us. One Chinese woman took me to a banquet with her extended family. The other took me to a neighborhood restaurant and brought two friends who wanted to practice their English and to pepper me with questions about travel.
Can I Surf Your Couch?
In mid-2008, I was staying with a Servas host in Philadelphia and he introduced me to CouchSurfing (thanks Todd). This internet-based organization is very popular. There are members in pretty much every corner of the planet. Although I have yet to stay with a host—I tried to in Rome, Italy, in May 2009, but without success—I have hosted quite a few members, mostly domestic travelers within the US. One of them finished up living with us for five weeks while he worked on the Obama Presidential campaign, a cause dear to our hearts.
The Second Viking Invasion
Some friends of ours were involved in a Danish program that needed extra hosts one year. Jenny and I were "pressed into service" and discovered that that year's group was made up of retirees from the island of Fyn who were amateur folk dancers. They were traveling around the eastern US having a holiday and performing. We hosted the leader and his wife and had a great experience. (I have stayed with them twice since and met their extended family.) In subsequent years, we hosted other adult groups as well as members of several Danish national youth gymnastics teams.
Konnichiwa and Domo Arigato
In 1999, I read in our local newspaper about a hosting opportunity. A company nearby provided business English lessons and customer service training to employees of foreign companies. Most students were from Japan and their companies sent them for 2–12 weeks. Over the 3-year period before the school's closing Jenny and I hosted 14 Japanese men and woman, most of whom stayed with us for two weeks. The school gave us $120/week towards the cost of meals and we were asked to spend at least an hour a day speaking English with our guests and helping them to use the skills they were learning. We had some great experiences and I visited several of our guests back in Japan. On one memorable occasional at a dinner party we hosted I prompted Harusa to "sing us a song", and without fluster she broke into a Japanese girl-scout campfire song.
Don't Wait for a Knock at Your Door
You don't need to be a member of a hosting organization to host, however; you just need to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. For example, while staying in a youth hostel in New York City I gave my contact information to a German traveler called Frank who was headed toward Washington DC. I invited him to stay, and he did. (Separately, I had also invited a Chinese professor called Frank to stay, so when someone called Frank phoned Jenny to be picked up at the station she looked for Chinese Frank when it was German Frank waiting!) Whenever I meet interesting people on my travels, I hand them a business card. I do so more to keep in touch on a personal level than for possible business connections.
Once, I was waiting at the Toronto airport for a flight that had been delayed by the first snowstorm of the season. I got talking to a young Brazilian mother who was flying home to Rio with her 5-year-old son. We were together more than an hour before our flight was called. We didn't sit together in-flight but I saw her at the airport on arrival. By then she had missed her connection to Brazil and was going to have to spend the night until the next flight 24 hours later. Although she was prepared to deal with that, I told her that in 15 minutes, my wife would pick me up, and we could host the two of them. She hesitated for all of five seconds before accepting. The next day, she gave me a music CD by well-known Brazilian singer and songwriter Tom Jobim. Although it wasn't something I would have bought for myself, I came to really like it and 10 years later I still play it regularly, thinking often about that fortuitous meeting.
I remember well a very nice random act of kindness bestowed on Jenny and me when we traveled to Brussels with our 3-year-old son. We'd ridden a public bus to the Waterloo battlefield and were eating our picnic lunch at the top of the huge earthen memorial. There our son played with a girl about his own age so we got to meet her parents, a Canadian couple posted to their embassy in Brussels for several years. They invited us to ride back to the city with them and to spend the afternoon and an evening meal at their house, after which they'd drop us back at our hotel. We cheerfully accepted and had a very nice time.
Opportunities are all around us; we simply have to recognize and take advantage of them.
Some Host and Traveler Considerations
There are many things for a potential host or traveler to consider. Based on personal experience, these are the main ones I cover when interviewing new members for Servas:
- Home Access: Should the host give the guest a house key? Some hosts require that a guest leave when the host does—possible early in the morning—which means that the guest typically cannot get back in until the host is back home. In general, this is very inconvenient for the guest. Traveling can be hard work and some days you just want to lie in bed, read a book, and write postcards, do laundry, or rest.
- Food: Discuss any food restrictions and allergies. Hosts or travelers may be vegetarian or vegan. Don't be shy as a host about asking guests to contribute food or, if you are a guest, to bring food or offer to buy food. Remember, the host is already providing accommodation without charge.
- Generosity: Hosts are well advised to not say "Make yourself at home" since they have no idea what the guest's home life is like.
- Helping Out: Good guests offer to prepare food, cook, clean, and help with other household chores without needing to be asked.
- Phone use: Understand the rules about phone use and the cost of calls.
- Smoking: Do not violate any smoking rules of the host. [I have heard of a case in which the host said, "You may smoke in my house, but if you do you may not exhale!"]
- Appropriate Expectations: If a guest wants a choice of food, that's called a restaurant. If they want an en suite bathroom or a private bedroom, that's called a hotel.
- Computer stuff: Is internet access available and, if so, what are the costs and limits? Travelers often take many digital photos, which fill up memory cards. Offering guests to burn pictures on a CD-ROM or DVD is very thoughtful, but don't be shy about charging for the media you use.
- Space: Give everyone his or her space. Don't s/mother your guests but don't ignore them either. Don't over plan.
- Convenience: Discuss things that might be needed unexpectedly such as umbrellas, hats, gloves, water bottles, and picnic equipment.
- Interaction: Unless it has been pre-arranged otherwise, be prepared to spend some quality time with each other and to have a meaningful exchange. A host stay should be more like a good bed and breakfast experience rather than a cheap hotel visit.
What's the Worst that can Happen?
So what are the risks of inviting strangers into your home? Should you be worried about them stealing all your stuff or running up large telephone bills with international calls? What if they are escaped mental patients who killed their families with an axe?
After 20 years of hosting, I am very happy to report that I have had none of the problems most people think might occur. And, apart from some family photos, home movies, and personal effects, household goods are replaceable. It's just stuff, right? My experience has been that if you are that much in love with your stuff you probably aren't a real traveler. [I met a man who complained he had no shoes until he met a man who had no feet!] As for the escaped mental patient, if he stays at my place he'll simply think I'm a fellow patient. We'd probably get along just fine.
The worst I can report is a lack of synergy, punctuality, or sensitivity. (Fortunately, not all were with the same guest!) In the latter case, Jenny and I hosted a young Russian man who lived three hours away on the mid-Atlantic coast. He was using the program to stay with families on weekends to get to meet Americans and to learn about their culture. However, a few hours after we met him we decided that we needed to have a serious talk with him about his approach. When he didn't understand something or didn't agree with it he expressed very strong opinions about it even saying things like "Why do Americans do such stupid things?" and "We had much better ways of doing that back in Russia." The next day we told him that sooner or later he was going to stay with someone less understanding that us, and they would simply tell him to go back home if he was going to be that ignorant and arrogant, and rightly so. While his intent was good, his execution was seriously flawed.
In this internet age, I have computers and gadgets throughout the house with protected wifi access. However, because my internal network is not secured from one machine to the other (to allow Jenny and me to share files), I don't give open access to my computer systems. If guests have their own laptop, they can "plug in" without breaching my security. Take sensible precautions and you should be fine.
As far as staying with strangers, I have never felt any environment was unsafe or unhealthy. I've had a couple of experiences that made me wonder why the hosts bothered, however.
As with many other aspects of life, problems in hosting can arise from a lack of communication and unreasonable expectations. Most can be avoided with a little planning and some common sense. As a host, ask yourself what you'd reasonably expect as a traveler, and as a traveler ask yourself what you'd reasonably expect as a host. While it's not necessary to be a traveler to be a good host or vice versa, experiencing it from both sides certainly can help. I've had many great experiences from hosting and from being hosted, and I have made some long-term friends. I've really gotten to appreciate that "normal" is relative to the experience of each person even within the same country or region.
Is hosting or traveling for you? Are you more interested in the journey than the destination? Are you more interested in the cultural aspects than the sights? Do you want the challenge of being an unofficial ambassador for your country even if you disagree with your country's policies? (One Mexican host held me personally accountable for much of the illegal immigrant policy that was being enforced in California!)
You never know what new friendship, experience, or adventure is waiting for you around the corner. But don't sit at home and dream about it, go make it happen. Create your own luck. Oh, and beware of hosts and travelers who list "axe murder" under their personal interests!