Have you ever heard of SERVAS?
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.
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.
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.
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.