© 2012 chicoSol
posted Jan. 13
This past fall, after I had completed one of the U.S. tours I manage for foreign musicians, I ventured out on a solo tour of my own.
In search of interesting places to stay, I turned to Servas, an international network of hosts and travelers I had just heard about.
Though new to me, this organization has been around for 63 years. Founded by an American conscientious objector and several British
peace organizations, it aims "to build stronger foundations for world peace by helping concerned people meet and learn from another."
So far, I've been a Servas traveler in just four homes, but every host enjoyed stories about my touring experience with Pakistani
musicians. They in turn shared fascinating travel stories with me. Moreover, each of my hosts and I discovered we have much in
common, particularly our outlook on U.S. politics and our interest in knowing people from around the globe.
I didn't know that would be the case when I boldly asked a couple I had just met at the November Servas conference in Fort Lauderdale,
Fla., for a ride from one side of the state to the other. They were at least 10 years older than I, and, based on first appearances,
might have run with a different crowd.
Although I met the Koesters at the beginning of the three-day conference, I didn't see much of them until it was time to go. Meanwhile,
I had gravitated toward the few foreigners present. In the breakfast line, I met Danielle Serres of France, head of the European Servas
peace committee. She introduced me to Juan Manuel Briseño of Colima, Mexico. He and I immediately discovered we had a friend in common.
During a get-acquainted game in which we were to talk with as many people as possible, I met Samira Sattar, a Pakistani woman living in
Lauderdale. She later helped me send messages in Urdu to the musicians I had worked with who were already back in Pakistan.
The Koesters, retirees from upstate New York who had moved to Florida a couple of years earlier, seemed quiet until I got in their car.
We enjoyed talking politics, nutrition and contra dancing. By the time we arrived at my destination in Naples, we were friends. They invited
me to stay at their house before I left Florida. "We'll have other Servas visitors, but that doesn't matter," they said. "We have two guest
By then, Tom's glowing smile and Shirley's friendly chatter had won a place in my heart. I decided to stay with them in Fort Myers, Fla.,
for a couple days before continuing on to South Carolina.
Anne and David Winkler-Morey, middle-aged teachers on a 14-month bicycle trip around the United States, were settled in one guest room when I
got to the Koester home a week later. I was delighted to find a fiddle and a piano keyboard in my room.
We all took a drive to a nature reserve before dinner, looking for manatees, but finding only butterflies. Back at the house, we sipped wine
on the screened-in porch and then enjoyed a lively dinner conversation. I invited the bicyclers to stay at my house when they reach California
sometime next year.
After the cyclers took off the next day, Tom, Shirley and I took another nature hike, this time admiring a 10-foot alligator and dozens of
beautiful birds – roseate spoonbills, anhingas, egrets and others unidentified. Unfortunately, we didn't get back to the car early enough
to avoid the thousands of hungry mosquitoes that devoured my neck and shoulders. But we had another lovely evening meal on the patio next
to their community lake.
Sharing stories over an evening meal is an integral part of the Servas experience. Overnight stays typically last two nights, but contact
can also be made with "day hosts" willing to show a traveler around in a strange city.
After my non-Servas stop in South Carolina, I took the train to Washington, D.C. Hayden Wetzel, a longtime host who has traveled throughout
Europe and Asia using Servas contacts, greeted me at Union Station, handed me a city map and helped me buy a metro ticket. A consummate travel
guide – yes, that's what he does professionally following a long career in the federal government – he explained how to use the National
Archives, which was exactly what I had gone to the Capital to do. Again, the serendipitous coincidences of common ground pleased me.
Will and Tish Grant, who live outside a small Chesapeake Bay village, would be my next and final Servas hosts of this trip. In her first e-mail,
Tish had written, "We'd love to host you. Since we moved here full time from Washington, D.C., we've had very few travelers. In D.C. we had
Servas visitors all the time (as you can imagine)." After a short-email exchange, she realized she'd be in D.C. about the time I was to visit,
so she offered me a ride.
We got to know and like each other on a three-hour drive, stopping at a Thai restaurant in Gloucester to meet her husband. The Grants told me
they had enriched their children's lives by hosting foreign visitors for years, and that the children, once grown, had toured Europe with a
series of home stays and no hotel bills.
They definitely went the extra mile for me, renting Segway Personal Transporters for a short tour of Yorktown, Virg., and later driving me all
around historic Yorktown and Williamsburg.
We also shared an interest in Latin America as well as a common political outlook.
They proudly introduced me to friends as a "Servas traveler." Perhaps I'll introduce them to the Koesters, who will soon take a trip to see
family and friends up north. That's how Servas networking works.
Editor's note: Servas, a worldwide cooperative cultural exchange network fostering peace, goodwill and mutual respect,
includes over 15,000 homes and institutions in more than 125 countries on six continents. Both travelers and hosts are
interviewed before being accepted as members.