by Sasha Alyson
If travel, for you, means experiencing other cultures, then consider a homestay for your next vacation.
“What I like best about travel is forgetting about work,” says Deborah. “I plan my trips to keep me occupied, both physically and mentally. If I just spread out on the beach, it takes half the week before I stop thinking about the upcoming budget meeting.”
Jason travels to relax. “I love cruises. There’s always something new to do and lots of people to meet. Somebody else does all the planning. I can just show up and have a good time.”
“The best part of travel is discovering the entirely different ways that people live,” says David. “I stayed with a family in rural Italy last fall. I’d say this family had about a third the buying power of their American counterparts. And yet their quality of life seemed every bit as high or mine, or that of my friends. Way superior, in some ways. It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
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Three people, three entirely different motivations for travel. Deborah and Jason will always have an easy time finding the vacations they like. For those like David, who want to up-close experience other ways of living, it can be harder.
David was traveling as a member of Servas, an organization specifically set up to arrange two-day homestays for travelers who want more personal contact in the spots they’re visiting. Servas was formed after World War II as part of the pacifist movement, on the premise that we’d all be more reluctant to declare war on another country if we had had friends there, and better understood its culture (and cultural differences). It isn’t a gay organization, but for many years, Servas has included sexual orientation in the non-discrimination pledge that members are asked to sign.
Traveling as a Servas member is simple and decentralized, but takes advance planning. Prospective members are interviewed to be sure they understand the spirit of the organization. Then they get a list of hosts in the country they plan to visit. Hosts include single people and families, students, working people, retirees, and perhaps a few idle rich. The list briefly describes each host, their interests, languages spoken, and where they live. Then it’s up to the traveler to ask prospective hosts if they can accommodate a visit on a certain date.
You can also be Servas host, an ideal situation for people who can’t travel as much as they’d like to, but who enjoy contact with people from other countries. A host simply agrees to be listed; travelers contact you, and if the timing is inconvenient, you simply give your regrets. There’s no obligation at any time.
I’ve been a member of Servas as both a traveler and a host (and recommended it to my friend David, quoted above). Both experiences rank among my most treasured travel memories, and I stayed in touch with a half-dozen people I met. I traveled in western Europe, but Servas has members in 135 countries.
Servas isn’t for you if you primarily want to travel within a gay or lesbian milieu. Most hosts are not gay; some are, but may or may not say so on the list. And you should understand that you aren’t meeting a true cross-section of the population: Becoming a Servas host involves quite a bit of self-selection. But if you’re eager to meet a wide variety of friendly people, and to experience close-up how another society functions, I cannot recommend it too highly. (Servas: 212-267-0252)
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A different, and explicitly gay, approach to home visits is taken by Mi Casa, Su Casa, whose primary service is arranging homeswaps for traveling gay men and lesbians. Since 1992, Mi Casa, Su Casa has helped gay and lesbian travelers for whom even the smallest hotel is still too commercial.
The company’s primary service is homeswaps. You’re going to Barcelona for a week and Fernando wants to visit the U.S., so you juggle your schedules, and you stay in his otherwise-empty home or apartment while he stays in yours. You may never meet Fernando, but after living in one another’s abode, you’ll share a bond that can often translate into continued contact. You may meet some of Fernando’s neighbors and friends, and feel more a part of the community that a typical tourist could.
Mi Casa, Su Casa also also offers other arrangements: Brief homestays while the host is at home, which you later reciprocate; and even ways just to rent a room in someone’s home for a longer or shorter period. Mi Casa, Su Casa. (800-215-CASA)
FOLLOW-UP: Mi Casa, Su Casa went through an inactive period early in 2001, but is back in business with a new owner. A similar service is also now offered byHome Around the World.According to its site: “Members in over 20 countries delight in offering other gay travellers a warm welcome, whether exchanging homes, offering hospitality, being a paying guest, renting an apartment or simply looking for new friends. Gay travel has never been more affordable, so easy and so much fun!”
Another newer service is Gay Homestays, based in England and offering a variety of homestays, self-catered apartments, and gay B&Bs throughout much of Europe, and in a growing number of other countries.