Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Confessions of an Obama Volunteer

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


In 2008, I did something I'd never done before. No, I didn't start enjoying visits to the dentist. I didn't start wearing women's underwear either. [That began much earlier!] And I didn't stop dreaming about a date with Sigourney Weaver. What I did do, however, was to give money to a politician. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, I admit it. I actually gave a significant chunk of change to someone who was running for election. No one held a gun to my head. I did it willingly. And not only did I do it once, in the Democratic Primary election for the US Presidency, I did it again in the general election. So what was in it for me? Well, in return I got a signed photograph of Candidate Obama and his wife, Michelle, which I promptly stuck on my office wall, after having torn off the half containing him and replacing it with a picture of me!

The Democratic Party's Primary

In the US, the final candidates for the main parties for many elections are chosen via a series of primary votes. In the case of the Presidential Primaries, these culminate in each party's National Convention. For the Democrats, this was held in late August 2008, at which time my main man, Yo'bama, defeated Queen Hillary to become the Democratic candidate.

To vote in the US, one must have US citizenship, and I got mine in May of that year. By then, it was too late for me to register to vote in the primaries for my home state of Virginia. However, I was registered in time for the general election in November. [Unlike some states, when one registers to vote in Virginia, one need not give a party (or independent) affiliation.]

The Russian Connection

As the presidential campaign progressed, I got more interested in being involved beyond contributing money. And then, possibly by divine intervention, I got an email from a fellow member of the international hosting organization CouchSurfing.

Mikhail was born in Russia and had emigrated to the US with his family some years earlier. He was attending the University of North Carolina where he was majoring in Political Science. He had taken a year off from school and had gotten a job with an organization that had been hired by the Obama campaign. He had been assigned to the northern Virginia area for two months; however, he couldn't find an affordable furnished apartment in the area and contacted me to see if I could give him a place to stay until he found his own place.

After a few emails and a phone call, I decided that apart from both of us being immigrants who had just gotten citizenship, he and I were on "the same page" regarding the Presidential candidates, so I invited him for a long-term stay. Most days, he left early and returned very late. However, on several occasions, we did get to talk at length over a meal about how the campaign was going. It was interesting to get an "inside" picture.

In the last months of the campaign, Obama was positively rolling in cash contributions. So much so that he could afford to send many representatives right into the Republican heartland causing the Republicans to expend resources they could ill afford, to defend their own territory. As a direct result, after five weeks, Mikhail was reassigned to another area and he moved out.

The Local Office

The Obama campaign had an area office about three miles from my house, so I went there to offer my services as a volunteer. What they mostly wanted were people to phone voters or to go house-to-house. I was adamantly opposed to both those roles, and said so repeatedly. The campaign had set up a national database website, which tracked all known supporters and potential supporters across the country. With all the money that was pouring in, they could afford—and had—a very sophisticated system. I settled on a job scanning into the database bar-coded information from questionnaires filled out by the phone callers and doorknockers. So for several afternoons each week I sat in a back room doing data entry.

Each day for the five days after I signed up, I got a phone call from the local office asking me when I could "come in and make phone calls". The first few times I politely informed them that I had declined to do that kind of work, and they "promised faithfully to update their list so it wouldn't happen again." From the fourth call onwards, my replies were short to the point of being rude, until finally I said that if they didn't get their act together I'd consider going over to the McCain campaign. That seemed to fix the problem.

The local office consisted of several suites of rooms the use of which had been donated by a local business. Other businesses donated all the food and drinks consumed by us worker bees.

There were Three Young Ladies from Princeton

In the weeks leading up to the general election, the Obama campaign juggernaut picked up a lot of support, and people were falling over each other to volunteer.

Princeton University had a Democratic Party chapter on campus, and members were enthusiastic Obama supporters. However, New Jersey—Princeton's home state—was very likely to "go Obama", so they were looking for a neighboring "swing" state to which they could go and "make a difference". As the state of Virginia was "in play", they came here. [Virginia had last voted for a Democratic President in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson won.]

The local campaign office asked workers to provide housing for the Princeton students. I put my name on the list and was assigned three young women. They arrived on a Friday night and stayed two nights, and they knocked on a lot of doors. Each morning, I got up early to cook them a breakfast that would tide them over for the day, and we also ate together one night.

It was an absolute joy to have them around. They were smart, they had opinions that they could defend, and they were articulate. Unlike many Americans their own age, they didn't use the word like in every sentence. After their visit, I had the distinct impression there might yet be hope for the next generation!

Vote Early and Vote Often!

My life in the US started in Chicago, a city well known for "interesting" political activities, especially during the time of its great Democratic Mayor, Richard J. Daley. I first heard of the slogan "Vote Early and Vote Often" there.

In Virginia, voters can request to vote before Election Day if they have any one of a number of "hardships". As I would be working more than eight hours on voting day, I was eligible to vote the week before, and I did. And I was very glad as that meant I did not have to stand in a long line for hours in the rain, as did many people on Election Day.

The Big Day

On November 4th, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, as required by the Constitution, the big day came. I reported to my local office at 7:30 am and received my marching orders. Throughout the morning, I was to deliver bottled water and Obama-related promotional materials to volunteers staffing the desks at various voting places in my home county. If electronic equipment that relayed back exit-poll information malfunctioned, I was to bring back paper records. And if it started raining—which it did—I was to deliver rainproof ponchos to the volunteers.

For about five hours, I made numerous trips to different areas. However, as the day progressed, more and more volunteer drivers showed up and there was nowhere near enough work for all of them. So I gave up my slot and helped in the office instead. One of the main tasks we'd been told to prepare for was that of picking up people without transport and taking them to their local voting place. However, I heard of no such requests all day.

The polls closed at 8 pm. Everyone in the office was upbeat and talking about attending a big function nearby; however, I decided that a hot shower and an early night were in order. Besides, the Presidential election results wouldn't be known until the next morning. [Apart from the Presidency, Virginia was choosing a Federal Senator for a 6-year term. The very popular and eloquent former Democratic Governor, Mark Warner, won that race handily.]

I was in bed by 10 pm and asleep by 10:01. What a day!

The Glow in the Aftermath

Two days after the election, I headed off to Japan for an extended business trip with some vacation days added as well. I flew to Tokyo and spent the night there in my favorite ryokan (inn) in Ueno Park. The next day, I boarded the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and got a window seat. Soon after, an older gentleman boarded and sat next to me. He had some English-language magazines including one with a photo of President-elect Obama on the cover. He was a university professor who still taught in Japan and who had studied and taught for some years in the US.

We started talking about the election and I told him of my activities as a volunteer. Well, his face lit up, he stood up in the aisle, bowed towards me, and shook my hand vigorously, all the while saying "thank you". Later that trip and during subsequent trips abroad I got a similar reaction as people "welcomed the US back into the international community of nations". The damage done by George W. Bush and his team, to US prestige around the world, was starting to be repaired. Yes!


At the time, I gave Obama my support and I even invented a slogan, GoBama! However, he seems to have forgotten about me. He doesn't call and he doesn't write. My guess though is that he hasn't forgotten my contact information, and that he'll come looking for me again in time for the 2012 Presidential election.

A byproduct of my efforts is that I seem to be permanently on the Virginia and national Democratic Party mailing lists despite the fact that I am not a member of the Democratic Party, or any other party for that matter. I'm one of those independent types who have the audacity to vote on the merits of the individual candidate.

The US has fixed-term elections, which means that we know the Presidential election will always be on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years, and that the new President will be sworn in at noon, Eastern Standard Time, on the following January 20th. As such, the President-elect has about 10 weeks to put in place a transition team to get ready to take over the Executive Branch of Government. The President-elect and some of his team get to sit in on meetings at the White House and at various government agencies. They also start to vet and select their nominees for cabinet positions (which must be approved by the Senate). It seems to me that having 10 weeks to "get up to speed" before taking office in any country is not only useful, but also necessary. However, in many (most?) other countries it seems that the new leader is sworn in within days of winning the election. That is, they have next to no transition period, which I find very surprising.

So, now that President Obama's honeymoon is well and truly over, what do I think of his performance to date? I definitely think he was the right person for the job, and, frankly, I don't pay much attention to his ratings or the mainstream media. He certainly inherited some big messes and a few new crises have landed on his plate since the election. To be sure, he's made some missteps, but that's fine with me. No amount of preparation can get a President-elect completely ready for the job. He's a quick learner and he's not afraid to delegate to the good people with whom he's surrounded himself. And I am delighted that he can speak intelligently at length on any topic of substance. [When his predecessor was in office, I was constantly embarrassed by his lack of ability to talk "off the cuff". His supporters claimed that was fine with them because he spoke just like them. My response to that has always been that I think we should expect a lot more from a leader of the free world!]

Oh, by the way, as I was working for the campaign and "spreading the word", people kept asking me why I supported Obama. I looked them in the eye and very seriously said, "Because he and I have one very important thing in common. We're both in love with his wife!"

Travel: Home Stays

© 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.

Peace, Brother!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Helping Out: Good guests offer to prepare food, cook, clean, and help with other household chores without needing to be asked.
  5. Phone use: Understand the rules about phone use and the cost of calls.
  6. 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!"]
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Space: Give everyone his or her space. Don't s/mother your guests but don't ignore them either. Don't over plan.
  10. Convenience: Discuss things that might be needed unexpectedly such as umbrellas, hats, gloves, water bottles, and picnic equipment.
  11. 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!