** von Renee **
Organizing a lengthy Servas trip staying takes time, flexibility and genuine interest in Servas hosts but is well worth it! Servas members are well-traveled, well-educated and wonderfully hospitable, full of useful tips and often eager to show off their neighborhood.
My greatest challenge on such trips is adjusting to fully different circumstances and hosts every two or three days, especially if one wishes to (or must, in my case) cook in vastly different kitchens. Each host lives in his/her/their private universe and if you’re sensitive and considerate the spectrum can prove massive, from sport-loving families to enfeebled elders to recent immigrants to recently divorced single dads.
I want to do it, want the richness and challenge of it. It’s impossible to enter so deeply into various lives and lifestyles. For me my hosts are the highlight and purpose of the trip, not a sideline, and motivating me to devote time, thought and much energy months in advance. By choosing travel destinations with many hosts, I have confidence that I can find enough and that if I don’t find hosts, that something will turn up once I’m near the town I’m seeking to find a host — often hosts offer to let one stay with friends or relatives if a another host cancels at the last minute.
I begin by studying the list of hosts for an area. Self-descriptions often reveal a great deal about who hosts are, how they spend their time, where they have lived and traveled, often even about their diet and religious or sexual preferences. I don’t want to stay with all hosts — golf is not my thing. I have my own interests and preferences and sometimes my intuition simply warns me away from someone. I know what interests me and you will know what appeals to you.
I then type onto a separate Word document the entire descriptions of those with whom I wish to stay, in the order I wish to travel, then compose an email to the host who most appeals to me in that area, briefly describing myself and why I’m traveling. I then — and I believe this is the key — relate to their interests or where they’ve lived, creating a bridge between us. If they are musicians I offer to play guitar for them if they can find me one. If they’ve traveled or lived in South America or India I offer to send them books I’ve written on my travels there. If they like theater I offer to send them a collection of my plays. Since I’m only writing hosts I genuinely wish to get to know and spend time with, this is easy, though it requires total customizing of each request letter. Whereas the first section — who I am and why I’m traveling — can be used repeatedly, this second section varies for each letter.
I also describe what kind of guest I am, what is unique to me — in my case my health-related diet, my flexibility and independence, anything which might require a host to act other than usual.
I then mention how I might be helpful, such as teaching the kids English. I’ve stacked firewood and washed windows. It’s important to me to make clear that I want to spend time with the hosts, they are not just free lodging for me, i.e., that I’m aligned with the goals and customs of Servas.
Only then do I request to stay for two or three nights with them beginning on such and such a day, closing with warm regards from Vienna and appending my digital LOI.
What kind of response you can expect depends first upon how thoroughly you’ve attended to the above tasks. I generally get about a 1/3 response, more in some countries, less in others. If one host stands out as having a great deal in common with me, I write him/her/them first and mention that I will not write anyone else for two days, letting them know that I specifically await his/her/their response. If none is forthcoming, I then write two or three others, again waiting two days before writing others.
To some extent whatsapp is replacing email, especially for younger hosts. So, if I don’t get a response to my email, I sometimes send a text message asking the prospective host to look at his/her email.
It’s important to keep close track of days and dates because you don’t want to confuse the hosts and have to scramble to readjust — it can be a terrible mess. I keep track with a trip file I keep current when I sent out the request; if there’s a response I note down what it is and my own response to it.
It took me two months to plan this trip. Most people are much too busy to want to spend this kind of time. I am not busy, I can attend to the few things that are important to me, such as meeting wonderful Servas hosts!
Shortly before leaving on the trip I send out confirmation letters to the first half of my hosts. I also write letters to the rest of the hosts, keeping them as drafts I will later gradually send from my smartphone as my arrival dates approach.
Best of luck!