Servas -- a letter of introduction to another culture

The sky threatens rain over the highland hills as our small skiff chugs across the choppy waters of the Scottish seacloch. Ian MacKenzie and his son, David, take me across. I am sitting amidships and David standing at the stern, his hand on the tiller of the three-horse outboard. Huddled in the bow, I lean over my pack to protect it from the splashes and ponder my fist experience as a Servas traveler.

My two days on the island with the MacKenzie family has been arranged through the international, nonprofit organization known as Servas, a nongovernmental organization of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Established just after World War II, Servas has been linking travelers and hosts for 30 years in an effort to create understanding between people of different cultures with the goal of strengthening world peace.

As we near the shore, Ian lets out a scream at his sheep, which have wandered over the line onto his neighbor's croft. The woolly creatures scuttle quickly back as we pull the boat up on the MacKenzie beach.

Ian opens a gate and brings me into the only cultivated half-acre on his 60 -acre croft. In Scotland, the gardens are fenced in and the sheep run everywhere else, munching grass, flowers, young trees, and all growing vegetation. Within the MacKenzies' fence are 10-foot pine trees, fruit trees, an enormous vegetable garden, a little pond with ducklings, a chicken coop, a greenhouse, a barn with one milking cow, and the house, surrounded by flowers. all this, Ian explains, is a result of 15 years of hard work by his wife, Sheila , and him. Before they came here, the land was a wet, rock-strewn field on its way to becoming a peat bog.

The 10-year-old twins run out to meet us, and Sheila brings a tray of tea and bread hot from the oven to eat on the small square of lawn.

I hand over my Servas card with my ID photo and my letter of introduction. Before being accepted as a Servas traveler, I had a personal interview, paid $25 (it is $30 for a family), and made out a detailed application that included an essay about myself. That application and essay were photocopied to become my introductory letter, to be mailed ahead or given upon arrival. This procedure helps to protect hosts from travelers who would misuse the organization as a good way to find no-cost accommodations for a tourist trip.

Ian mentions that he has about 12 Servas travelers each year, and the vast majority of them are helpful and sincere in wanting to get to know his family.

He excuses himself to go plant potatoes. When I inquire if I can help, he hands me a shovel and leads me to an area of the garden that needs to be dug up. I am amazed at the ashy color of the thin layer of soil, yet Ian assures me it has been improved vastly over the years by the cow manure and seaweed dumped into it.

Part of being a Servas traveler is to experience the life style of the host home. A host is not expected to entertain. Work goes on as usual and the Servas traveler pitches in wherever possible. Not all of the time need be spent together -- a Servas traveler might go off for a walk to explore around -- but the most important part of the visit is that host and traveler take som time to talk, to get to know each other.

After lunch, the twins take me for a long walk to the top of the hill. They run down the uneven field, shouting with glee as they tumble to the ground and roll a few feet. I follow with mroe caution, picking my way down over the loose rocks. The heather is not yet blooming, but I envision the purple splendor of that Brigadoon setting later in the summer.

We take some time to enjoy music. Ian plays recorder with one of the twins. Sheila, David, and the other twin use violins, and I accompany on the piano.

That evening, by gaslight -- there is no electricity -- we pore over photographs, those I brought of my house and family and theirs in the photo albums.I pass out my small gifts -- Servas travelers generally bring something -- of a Swiss Army knife for Ian and a carved wooden figure of a New Hampshrie lobsterman for Sheila.

My visit is two nights long, the prescribed Servas length, long enough to get to know each other without being a burden. As I prepare to leave, Ian jokes that he won't take me across the loch, he plans to keep me there all summer to do the weeding and dishes.

The MacKenzies are one of 207 host homes on the Servas list for England, Scotland, and Wales. Hosts are on six continents of the world, in 80 countries. The word Servas comes from the Esperanto word "ni servas," meaning "we serve." Roughly 2,000 travelers are approved annually, 800 from the United States alone. It is possible for Americans to travel the Servas way within the US, on the theory that it has many diverse cultures within one country.

For mroe information on Servas, write to the headquarters for the United States: Servas, 11 John Street, room 406, New York, NY 10038 (212) 267-0252).

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