Help Spread World Peace with SERVAS

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Have you ever heard of SERVAS?

https://usservas.org/
https://usservas.org/

 

I hadn’t, until last summer when hubs and I were preparing for a trip to Europe. When travelling outside the country, we try to connect in some way with locals, as a way to understand and at least briefly experience what life is like for the people who live in that destination. Often we rely on friends and acquaintances to connect us with people around the world, but for this particular trip to Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece we were coming up mostly empty-handed.

Hubs knew there were organizations out there that connect travelers with hosts – something a little more submersive than what you would experience with Airbnb or couchsurfing. He did some online research and discovered SERVAS.

SERVAS is an international federation of national groups that connects a network of hosts and travelers. They were founded shortly after World War II by those committed to fostering world peace, people who wanted to do their part to ensure nothing like that devastating war would ever happen again.

The purpose of the group is to help build understanding and goodwill by giving people the opportunity to connect with others from different backgrounds, cultures and nationalities.

It’s world peace, one conversation at a time.

Here’s a video that explains it a little more:

After filling out an application, providing references and having an in-person interview, we were accepted into the group and went about making arrangements to stay with hosts. As a Servas Traveler, you may stay for free for two nights with approved hosts. Over 100 countries participate in the program.

Over the course of our three-week trip, we spent seven nights with an amazing couple in Istanbul and one night with an equally amazing couple near Thessaloniki, Greece. To say that we were met with warmth and generosity would be an understatement.

In Istanbul, we spent evenings talking at length with our hosts about life in the city, their travels, the role religion plays in their culture. They taught us how to properly make Turkish coffee, helped us sample the best of the local cuisine, gave us maps and endless suggestions of what we should see during our stay, gave us our own room in which to stay, and introduced us to the delights of a full Turkish breakfast. Even their three cats welcomed us as part of the family.

Me and my new friend, McBule
Me and my new friend, McBule
Our delicious breakfast that our wonderful host, Esra, prepared for us.
Our delicious breakfast that our wonderful host, Esra, prepared for us.

In Greece we were collected from our hotel, treated to an amazing homemade lunch, and toured around their small village. We visited their dairy farm, spent a fun afternoon and evening touring Thessaloniki and were even driven to the airport the following morning. Not to mention the warm bed to sleep in.

IMG_0401

Through this program, you are encouraged to behave as though you are a member of the family during your stay. You learn about your host’s customs, culture, food, ideologies, issues, struggles – you name it. You help prepare meals. You meet other family members. You experience a level of intimacy with total strangers that is practically unheard of if you were traveling in a way that most tourists do – so much so that many times you become lifelong friends.

It is eye-opening, mind-opening and heart-opening.

There is virtually no way to go through an experience like this and not come out with a deeper understanding of those who may at first seem different than you, but who end up being human just like you, with many of the same fears and hopes.

Less than a year later, these places where we stayed have experienced violence on an international level. At least twice now Istanbul has been the target of bombings in areas frequented by tourists. We can’t help but remember walking in these very places with our new friends, and we worry about their safety and how these events are affecting their lives in a real, tangible way.

Hubs and I posing on the trolley, near the site of the most recent bombing in Istanbul.
Hubs and I posing on the trolley, near the site of the most recent bombing in Istanbul.

There is so much to fear in the world right now. It would be so easy to close our borders and stay home, worrying that if we step outside we may be the next anonymous victim of violence. Places that once seemed safe have become targets. We could be next.

But I challenge that notion.

This isn’t the time to turn away from the hurt. We should be turning towards it and facing it together. There is no better way to destroy hate and intolerance than through travel. It’s easy to stay in our own little cocoons, but there is so much world out there, there are so many beautiful, warm-hearted, welcoming and amazing people to meet. There are more of us, more of the people who want to bridge the gap and foster mutual respect and peace, than there are of those who wish to terrorize. But we have to be willing to meet them – either here at home by opening our doors to those who are different, or by visiting them on their home turf.

I invite you to learn more about SERVAS. Visit their website. If travel is outside your means at the moment, consider becoming a host. You have nothing to lose, and only a greater understanding of the world and our place in it to gain.

We can spread world peace, one conversation at time.

 

 

 

The Mystery of Ferdinand the Frog – SOLVED!

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ferdinand2

Well, at least we THINK we solved the mystery.

A little backstory:

About four years ago we were suddenly plagued by this extremely loud chirping/croaking sound coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the backyard and only at night. It seemed like it was coming from the trees, and each night we’d go out and gaze up into the canopy of our fig tree and our neighbor’s trees for whatever bird was making such a racket, but to no avail.

I researched bird sounds of Southern California and could find nothing that matched the sound I was hearing. For a week I poured over websites and listened to recordings of dozens of birdsongs. I finally gave up, reaching no conclusions.

Then, oddly, I heard the sound once during the day. I leapt from my desk, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever it was now that it couldn’t hide in the shadows. Instead of coming from the trees, however, it sounded like it was coming from the pool, and the sound was echoing up into the air.

And then I spotted him. A tiny frog, no bigger than a quarter, clinging to the side of the pool, singing his little heart out.

My instinct was to squash him because he was SO. DAMN. LOUD. But I reconsidered, and called hubs outside so he could see the devil for himself.

Adam was instantly smitten and gave him a name – Ferdinand. Well, shit, once you name something it’s really hard to kill it.

So, that first summer, every night Ferdinand came out and sang his lonely song, looking for a mate. Sometimes he’d jump into the pool and swim alongside us. Mostly he kept out of sight. We couldn’t figure out how he’d arrived at our house. It is very dry in the Valley, and not hospitable to frogs in any way, really. We figured he hitched a ride with the pool man.

In the fall, his song stopped, and we thought that was the end of that. We surmised he’d probably gotten eaten by a cat or a bird or a squirrel or something.

But the following spring, he started up his song again. A little online research uncovered that frogs hibernate. Who knew? He sang his lonesome song again that summer, pining for a mate that would never come. I imagined him as a lonely traveler, with nothing but his banjo to keep him company. A little something like this:

mermaid

Or perhaps even this:

kermit-banjo

This went on for three or four summers, I can’t quite remember. We came to love his sound, signaling the beginning of warm weather and leisurely nights swimming in the pool. It was always fun to spot him, and we got one really good picture of him, clinging to the side of our Jacuzzi.

ferdinand

But he went quiet in the middle of last summer, and we haven’t heard his call this spring, so we’re pretty sure he’s in froggy heaven now. And we never did figure out what kind of frog he was or where he came from.

Until now.

Hubs happened to see an article yesterday about an invasive species of frog from Puerto Rico the coqui frog – that is suddenly making an appearance in Southern California. They’ve hitched rides in the nursery containers of tropical plants. Which reminded me that I once saw a tiny frog in a nursery pot at the Home Depot in Signal Hill….

Hmmmmm…could Ferdie have been a coqui? If you listen to recordings of their call, they sound an awful like what I remember Ferdinand sounding like.

Here’s a recording of a coqui:

And in this (poor quality) video you can hear Ferdi in the background:

And he resembles the coqui in both size and coloring.

Coqui Frog-005

What do you think?

Do you think our little Ferdie was the scourge known as the coqui frog? Apparently, they’ve been a very unwelcome addition to the nightscape of Hawaii, which is usually quiet and peaceful. But in Puerto Rico they are loved. I guess it’s like the difference between a flower and weed – it’s really up to the interpretation of the person dealing with it.

Nonetheless, we’ve alerted the people in SoCal who are keeping track of this frog’s proliferation into the Los Angeles area. I think we might be their first instance of a coqui frog spotting in the San Fernando Valley.

So, the mystery of Ferdinand the Frog is most likely solved. We still miss the little bugger. We really grew to love his sound, and how he connected us with the wildness of our own backyard. Even here in the depths of suburbia, we have so many species of birds, insects, plants and amphibians to marvel at. Learning about them is a joy – it makes me feel more connected to the world and reminds me how we’re all just sharing it together.

 

When Your Childhood Best Friend Moves Away

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You guys, I’ve been really sad.

You see, my childhood best friend is moving away.

Here’s the thing – we actually moved away from our small Indiana hometown a long time ago. We both left for college at 18. And other than a couple of very short stints during adulthood, we’ve lived elsewhere. I’ve been in southern Indiana, New Jersey, New York and now Los Angeles. She’s been in Tennessee, Georgia, Colorado, Montana, northern California and now Washington.

But we lived on the same street – Grant Street – growing up. My parents have lived in the same house for almost 40 years. And her parents have lived in the same house for almost 40 years.

Until now, that is.

My childhood best friend’s parents just sold their house and are moving to Washington in a month.

The house in the foreground is my best friend's parents' house. Sniff, sniff...
The house in the foreground is my best friend’s parents’ house. Sniff, sniff…

I feel like I’m 12, and that I’ve just been delivered very bad news. As a kid, the only thing worse than being told that your family is moving is being told that your best friend is moving away forever. That was like my worst nightmare.

And now it’s finally coming true!

I know I’m being ridiculous. Neither of us has lived in our hometown for ages. We only see each other once every two years for a couple of hours at Christmas. In fact, I’ve probably visited her more in her other homes throughout the years than I have at her parents’ home.

But still…a chapter is closing. For good.

I spent as much time in her house as I spent in my own. My family lived in a small, newer construction home. Her family lived in a big old Victorian home with a creepy basement and an equally creepy attic with a big yard and a spare bedroom. We could go a whole day without seeing anyone else there. We made haunted houses in her bedroom and tried contacting spirits with her Ouija board – which seemed totally possible in her house. It was spooky and fun and it felt like home.

It’s weird to think I’ll never set foot in that house again.

In my best friend's bedroom our Sophomore year of high school, in front of the Hair Metal Wall of Fame
In my best friend’s bedroom our Sophomore year of high school, in front of the Hair Metal Wall of Fame

As an adult, I’ve lived in so many different apartments and houses that I’ve lost track. I don’t miss most of them in any kind of profound way. And even though I lived in the same house my entire childhood, if my parents were to move I don’t think I’d be very upset. But for some reason, my best friend’s parents moving out of their house has stirred a deep part of myself.

Perhaps it’s because it was my escape. I always looked forward to going there, whether we were spending an afternoon in the backyard pretending like we were leading a travel adventure show through the wild or staying up until midnight on a sleepover and chanting into the bathroom mirror in the dark, “I hate you Bloody Mary.” It was a place of magic and friendship. It was a place of daydreams and HBO (which my family never had). And now it will only live in my memories. Although, in all honesty, it has only been a memory for many years.

In her driveway, after our shift at McDonald's.
In her driveway, after our shift at McDonald’s.

I’ve written about the importance of place before, and her house inspired the house in my first novel, Inside Chance. The place itself is a character, a living, breathing part of the world that influences in no small measure who we become.

Part of what has made me into the person I am today is that house in which I spent so much time growing up. And I’m going to miss it.

Goodbye, house...
Goodbye, house…