Tired of hotels? You'll feel at home with 'Servas'

Group helps travelers forge ties around the world with home stays

After almost 15 hours in flight I was ready to parachute through the window at the sight of land. But I waited to "deplane" until I arrived in Auckland -a city that is like a bit of Europe plunked down in the South Pacific.

Unlike many who come to backpack around New Zealand, I didn't start by catching a bus for one of the funky-but-crowded youth hostels in the center of town. I rented a tiny car and drove to Gail and Brian's house, a bit north of the city.

The couple became my surrogate parents. They fed me, put me up, showed me the city, and provided lots of kind advice about visiting New Zealand. I quickly felt at home.

We came together through Servas, an international organization that promotes peace by connecting people from different countries.

More than 14,000 Servas members in 135 countries welcome guests for two-night visits. Members who can't have overnight guests befriend visitors as day hosts.

No money is exchanged, but guests frequently bring a present and assist hosts in whatever ways seem appropriate. In Lucerne, Switzerland, for example, I stayed with Jacques, who lives in a tiny community a short ferry ride from the city. One morning he sent me off to a little diary to fill a bucket with fresh milk.

On another trip, a friend and I stayed with Giancarlo in Siena, Italy. One night we fixed dinner for him, and the next day he squeezed us into his tiny Ford for a personal tour of four medieval Tuscany towns.

Built to unite people

Servas was created 50 years ago in Denmark in the wake of World War II. The conflict that killed so many in Europe was continuing to divide its many nationalities.

An American living in Europe named Bob Luitweiler - in concert with some educators - formed a loosely knit group called Peacebuilders to provide opportunities for work, study, and travel in other countries. Peacebuilders was renamed in 1952 to Servas, meaning "we serve" in Esperanto.

"Servas is not a low-cost hospitality program," says Mr. Luitweiler, who now lives in Bellingham, Wash. "It's a program to build understanding of social conditions and social movements in various parts of the world. And this helps individuals become active in their local communities."

It can be a challenging way to travel. "Going into people's houses and sharing their routine is actually quite hard," says Chris Slader, Servas International's president, who hosted me in Wales. "It's a total involvement with other people."

Not all visits are intense. And many in the organization believe the cause of peace is well-served simply by forging friendships.

Carol Grosman, a Servas member from Washington, D.C., made an important friend when she hosted a German guest.

"We completely hit it off," says Ms. Grosman, who is Jewish and has had little contact with Germans. "Stereotypes or negative images about a whole group subside when you've had a positive experience with an individual."

Bring the kids

Servas members are encouraged not to discard their suitcases once they have kids. Many hosts not only are equipped to accommodate families but specifically request them as guests.

Deborah and Curt Pierce, Servas members from Massachusetts, recently traveled to Italy with their two children. The trip "opened their eyes to the vastness and beauty of the world, as well as its different customs and ways of living."

Karl and Emily Kosok have traveled with their two girls to France and Costa Rica. But some of their best Servas experiences have been as hosts.

"Hosting gives kids a fantastic opportunity to meet people from all over the world from different backgrounds," says Mr. Kosok, who is national co-chairman of the US Servas board.

Servas veterans note that it's a good idea to intersperse Servas stays with ones at hotels or hostels. Indeed, Servas visits generally do require more effort. But they also can provide the comfort of staying with friends when far from home.

During my New Zealand trip, I found myself in Christchurch, desperately weary of buses and of bunk beds in hostels, and a bit lonely. I called Daphne, a retired woman who lives on a tiny farm outside the city. For the next two days she cared for me as a son. At the end of my visit, I was refreshed and grateful to add my name to the many in her guest register, travelers from around the world who are now her friends.

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