Servas International

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I'm going to crib directly from Wikipedia here for a bit, to explain what Servas is:

Servas International is a non-profit worldwide cooperative cultural exchange network bringing people together to build understanding, tolerance, mutual-respect, and world peace. It works toward world peace by encouraging individual person-to-person contacts. It operates through a network of Servas hosts around the world who are interested in opening their doors to travelers, and, 'on the other side of the coin', many open-minded travelers who want to get to know the heart of the countries they visit.
And as Servas themselves say:
Servas is divided into nine regions around the world, each with its own coordinator. Each Servas coordinator maintains a list of approved hosts and travelers for their region. Names and addresses of hosts appear in annually produced lists which are made available only to approved travelers.

Through Servas, travelers have opportunities to meet hosts, their families and friends, and join in their everyday life. Where convenient, hosts may offer two nights (or more) accommodation and invite travelers to share a meal.
Or to put it simply, the whole thing is basically pre-screened and therefore safe(ish) couch surfing. I get vetted by the organization here in Canada and become an approved traveler with an official letter of introduction. Hosts get vetted by their local organization and then appear on a list of approved hosts that I have access to as I travel. I look over the list before arriving in a new city and contact hosts who look interesting or appropriate, and they're free to say yes or no according to their own criteria or schedule or whim.

I was first exposed to Servas many many years ago in the dim past of 1988 when I spent a summer in London, England working in the stock room of a W. H. Smith bookstore during the day, and being a tourist on evenings and weekends. My much savvier traveling partner joined Servas before we left, so on a foray to the Continent we were able to secure about 4 nights of accommodations and a couple of meals while visiting Paris. Now that I'm planning my much longer trip, I think it makes sense to hook up with Servas again. Not only does it give me the chance to save a bit of money on accommodations, it's also a way to connect with real local people in the places I visit and get a far more intimate sense of the customs, foods, culture, language and life of the area.

I've already made contact with the local Winnipeg coordinators for Servas, and we've agreed to get together in January for the formal interview process that will get me on the approved travelers list, and give me access to the lists of approved hosts in each country. (Unless, of course, they find out about my secret fondness for petty thievery and kicking puppies, in which case all bets are off.)

I really don't think I'll want to arrange all my accommodations this way - I'm pretty sure that would be a lot of work, and I'm also pretty sure that there will be lots of times when I'll want to be more anonymous. Still, it's another tool in the arsenal, and I'm looking forward to deploying it on occasion.