women travel tips

Homestay Tips

Globetrotters find homes on the road
by Kari J. Bodnarchuk

The first time I visited Jakarta, Indonesia—feeling groggy after a 15-hour train ride and disoriented in this unfamiliar city—I was relieved I had arranged to stay with Margaretha and her family. As my local, Indonesian hosts, they welcomed me into their home and shared their customs, values and viewpoints with me, as well as a great city map.

When Margaretha wasn't working, we shopped for spices at the markets, cooked gado-gado (noodles with peanut sauce) in her kitchen, spent time with three generations of relatives, and talked about everything from Javan dance rituals to women's rights. We also explored areas of Jakarta not mentioned in any guidebooks, places I never would have discovered on my own.

By the time I left Margaretha's home, three days later, I understood more about Indonesian culture than I had learned during two months of travel in the country. And, I'd made friends for life.

As you plan your next vacation—whether it's to Indonesia or Burlington, Vt.—consider joining a hospitality club. As a member, you can stay with local families or individuals, and swap ideas, build new friendships and gain insight into each other's worlds.

In at least 130 countries worldwide, local hosts take visitors into their homes, and provide safe, friendly environments for cultural exchange. Some hospitality groups are geared specifically to individual or women travelers—you stay with other women around the globe—while others target senior adventurers or travel groups.

When you join a hospitality club, you typically receive a list of hosts in the region you're visiting, with information on each person's background—address, job, family, interests, hobbies and languages spoken, as well as a notation on how many people he/she can host and for how long. Stays can range from two nights to a month or more, depending on the arrangements you've made with your host and how well you hit it off.

During an 18-month, around-the-world journey, I spent anywhere from two days to two weeks with 24 different host families, including a train conductor in New Zealand, students in Indonesia, a doctor in Malaysia, a retired teacher in Thailand, and a shoemaker in India. These were, by far, some of the most profound experiences of my trip.

You can organize your stay before your vacation or once you reach your destination. Since my plans changed almost daily during my trip, I arranged visits en route through letters, e-mail or phone calls.

In some cases, you may spend a majority of the visit with your hosts, taking part in daily life. In fact, people in lesser-visited, rural areas may go out of their way to spend time with you. At other times, you may entertain yourself during the day and spend evenings with your host.

A hospitality stay can be the entire focus of your vacation—visit a sheep herder in Scotland or a social worker in India, and immerse yourself in the culture. Or, it can be one aspect of your trip: If you're planning a 10-day vacation to the Swiss Alps, with just a few days on the slopes, you can spend your extra time living with a local family.

Hospitality clubs are great for travel within the United States and even your home state, too. If you're a Bostonian planning to visit Bend, Ore., stay with a local host and discover what life is like in a small-town ski haven, 3,000 miles away from home. Or, if you grew up on Cape Cod and have never been to the Berkshires, you can spend a weekend with a family in North Adams, for instance.

You typically pay an annual fee to join a hospitality club and, in some countries, are occasionally asked to chip in for food, but you never pay for a place to sleep (which can range from a luxurious bed to a spot on a floor). These organizations, however, are not free-accommodation clubs, and many have a strict screening process—an application and interview—to ensure that travelers are truly interested in cultural exchange, rather than a cheap crash pad.

For your benefit, hosts are also screened before they're allowed to join, to ensure that they can facilitate hospitality stays. If your aims, and those of your host, are noble, the exchange may be one of the most profound and rewarding travel experiences you'll have, and the friendships you make may last a lifetime.

The following list may help you decide which hospitality group suits you best.

Hospitality Groups

Started by American students in Denmark in 1948, Servas is a non-profit, non-denominational and non-political peace organization active in about 128 countries that aims to "build world peace, goodwill and understanding" by getting people from different cultures and backgrounds together.

There is a two-night minimum stay so you have time to get to know your hosts, but if you hit it off well they may invite you to stay longer. You may also prearrange a longer visit before you arrive.

It costs $65 (annually) to join Servas in the United States, plus a deposit for host lists (i.e. $25 for five countries). Return the lists when you get home and receive your deposit back. For more information, write US Servas, Inc., 11 John St. #407, New York, NY 10038 (telephone: 212-267-0252; e-mail: usservas@igc.apc.org; website: www.servas.org).

An offshoot of Servas, Hospex is a hospitality exchange group started in 1991 to foster cross-cultural friendships by connecting academics and students with hosts. Currently, there are Hospex members in more than 35 countries. There is no membership fee, and homestays include free accommodation (e-mail: hospex@icm.edu.pl; website: http://hospex.icm.edu.pl).

Seniors Abroad
Seniors Abroad offers hospitality exchanges for adventure travelers over 50, between the United States and New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.

"People my age didn't have this chance when they were younger," says Evelyn Zivetz, who founded Seniors Abroad in 1984. "The point is to meet people our own age group in another country, learn about their lifestyles, and make global friendships. It's also a great way for single women to travel."

Participants can do two five-day homestays in New Zealand and three five-day homestays in Australia (25 days total; program runs every February), or three to four six-day homestays in Japan (18 to 24 days total; program offered every October). Those interested in the British Isles can stay with families in England, Scotland and Wales (three five-day homestays in each country; 15 days total; program every September). Seniors Abroad matches participants with hosts, and arranges transportation to each country. Participants cover travel expenses, but there is no fee to stay with hosts on this volunteer-run program.

Alternatively, US seniors can host visitors from Japan (program held every May) or New Zealand and Australia (held every June) for six-day homestays. For more information, write Seniors Abroad, 12533 Pacato Circle North, San Diego, CA 92128 (telephone: 619-485-1696; fax: 619-487-1492).

Women Welcome Women
This non-profit, UK-based hospitality group encourages and enables women worldwide to visit each other and, in the process, foster international friendships. More than 2,500 members, ranging from 18 to 90 years old, belong to the group. Membership fee is approximately $30. Write Women Welcome Women, 88 Easton Street, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire HP11 1LT, UK (telephone/fax: 44-01494 465441; website: www.womenwelcomewomen.org.uk).

The Experiment in International Living
EIL's Individual Homestay Program enables high school and college students to live with host families in one of more than 20 countries, for three to five weeks. But, EIL can also arrange customized group homestay programs for adults. You choose the length, start dates and country, and pay a fee to EIL (a non-profit group) for administrative costs in arranging the visit. Occasionally, a small stipend goes to the host family to cover food and other minor expenses. Homestays include a strong cross-cultural element, and often a service-oriented project (for example, working on the peace process in Belfast or in refugee camps in Thailand).

Write The Experiment in International Living, P.O. Box 676, Kipling Road, Brattleboro, VT 05302-0676 (telephone: 800-345-2929; e-mail: eil@worldlearning.org; website: www.worldlearning.org).

Lesbian and Gay Hospitality Exchange International
Host stays available for gay and lesbian travelers in more than 40 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North, Central and South America. Annual memberships cost about $21. Write P.O. Box 612, Station "C," Montreal, Quebec H2L 4K5 Canada (telephone/fax: 514-593-0300; e-mail: lghei@odyssee.net; website: www.microtec.net/~lghei).

Thanks for the stay
Thank-you gifts and gestures are appreciated worldwide. Here are a couple of ideas:
  • Bring (or memorize) a recipe and cook your hosts a meal to say thank you—make sure it's a recipe for which you can find all the ingredients in the region you're traveling.

  • Bring photos of yourself and postcards of your hometown to leave behind as reminders of your visit—some host families will appreciate and value these items more than expensive gifts.

  • If you've stayed longer than originally planned, or if you just want to offer a special thank you, make sure you find out what types of gifts are appropriate in the country, culture or region you're visiting. In Vietnam, for instance, giving someone yellow flowers is considered an insult and an act of betrayal, so you would want to avoid that. Look for the "Culture Shock" book series or Roger Axtell' "Do's and Taboos Around the World: A Guide to International Behavior" to find out what types of gifts are suitable.
All rights reserved. © Kari J. Bodnarchuk

This story first appeared in The Boston Globe. It is available for reprint by the author (contact ekarib@yahoo.com).

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