Tag Archives: Hospitality Exchange

Travel, Allophilia, and World Peace

From time to time, I ask myself “What is this thing about travel? It’s a lot of hard work, and usually costs more than staying home. So why do we do it?”

The answer usually isn’t long in coming: I’ve enjoyed and profited by the different perspective that meeting other cultures provides. Travel is one of my favourite activities for satisfying my incessant curiosity. It engages me fully: most of the time when I’m visiting some place new, I find myself solidly in the present moment. And in every culture I’ve visited, I’ve found some aspect I like better than my own.

Similarly, learning other languages has let me see where my own language constrains my view of reality. Knowing different ways of thinking gives a certain freedom from one’s own unconscious inherited biases. Plus you get a whole new set of proverbs.

Hiroshima destroyed

Destructed Hiroshima with autograph of “Enola Gay” Bomber pilot Paul Tibbets

Recently, I got to thinking about the connection between international travel and world peace: “See the world, while helping to prevent World War III!”

A possible WWIII had been one of my personal bugbears since watching – in my teen years – a 1960s documentary depicting the horrors of an atomic attack. With the war in Vietnam heating up, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. The decades that followed offered little indication that wars were going out of style: the Cambodian civil war, the Iran-Iraq War, the Rwandan genocide, the Afghan conflicts, the war on Iraq, the Ugandan civil war punctuate a long list of lesser conflicts. Today there is conflict in the Ukraine, not to mention ISIS. The world’s nuclear missiles have yet to be mothballed.

Hiroshima injuries

Hiroshima, Japan. 1945-08. Hiroshima street scene after the dropping of the atomic bomb of 1945-08-06

Still, being anti-war brings a certain negativity to life. Is there more to peace than just the absence of war? I was pondering this recently and wondered if the growing discipline of positive psychology had been applied to this question.

An internet search for “world peace” together with “positive psychology” led me to discover a new word: “allophila.” The neologism was coined by Todd Pittinsky, the author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” when he realized there was no word to describe the opposite of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” Tolerance, the absence of intolerance, was not really it. There had to be a word for more “positive attitudes of behaviors towards the members of another group.”

Us Plus Them

“Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” by Pittinsky

In Dr. Pittinsky’s research, it turns out that decreasing intolerance does not equate to increasing allophilia. Furthermore, high allophilia seems to be much better at guaranteeing peace than does mere tolerance. As we’ve seen recently in several world hotspots, political demagogues have been able to wipe out years of tolerance in short order, sending formerly peaceful societies into internecine warfare. Perhaps what was missing was a higher degree of allophilia, manifested in terms of curiosity, comfort, engagement, and even kinship, affection and enthusiasm for members of other groups.

What organizations, I wondered, were fostering curiosity, engagement or enthusiasm for other cultures?

The obvious first answer was the original hospitality exchange, Servas International. Founded in aftermath of WWII by an American conscientious objector, the mission of Servas is “to help build world peace, goodwill and understanding by providing opportunities for personal contacts among people of different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities.” Their system of “open door” directories made it “possible for people of various nations to make visits to each other’s homes.” Servas now has official UN status and boasts of about 20,000 hosts in about 100 countries. Cheryl and I have been among those opening their doors for the past two decades.

Servas International

Peace through cross cultural understanding

Lately, Servas has been facing some stiff competition from the new Internet hospitality exchanges such as Couchsurfing. The old paper-based organization is having trouble quickly adopting the new technologies used by Internet startups, and their membership is ageing. Travelership is down.

A debate is ongoing about whether these new Internet exchanges represent the same peacebuilding ethic, or whether they’re just about cheap travel. Site names like GlobalFreeloaders and WarmShowers suggest the latter. Cheryl and I decided to join Couchsurfing as well as continue our Servas association. We have hosted and traveled with both organizations. In all cases, we try to adhere to the original vision of cultural interchange: hosts and guests interact like friends, often eating or cooking together. The Servas and Couchsurfing hosts we’ve stayed with have all done the same. It’s not just about accommodation: when we’re in that I-wanna-be-alone mood, we book a hotel or AirBnB.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Meanwhile, while Servas struggles to bring their 100 constituent national organizations into the Internet era, a Servas discussion group within the Couchsurfing site expresses two opposing views. The first tries to encourage Couchsurfers to adopt the more allophilic perspective of Servas. The second suggests this was never the intention, nor should it be. We hope the former view predominates – although we never discount the value of free accommodation.

And while travelers may view a hospitality exchange as merely a cheap way to travel, it’s hard to see what hosts get out of offering free room and board if it’s not the opportunity to connect with people from other lands and cultures. So perhaps the allophilic spirit is alive and well in the new Internet world.

Santiago de Cuba

Our boys jamming with a couple of local musicians in Santiago de Cuba (circa 2006)

Will it help? Is WWIII becoming less likely because of the humble hospitality exchange? Perhaps these words from the founder of Servas provide a clue.

“This story is not only about the beginning of Servas but the awakening of a mind on a slow overland trip from Norway to India. Confrontations with divergent cultures replaced my colored glasses with an often diamond clear vision. An ever deepening awareness from immersion in diverse ways of life shook up my ingrained assumptions. From shades of gray suddenly rainbow colors burst into my consciousness. Freed from the shackles of my upbringing and a classic American mentality I began to soar with the perspective of a global citizen. The human community emerged as a magic quilt of life styles and manners of thinking and living, a single tapestry of myriad designs unfolding before me.

“Shifting from a tourist absorbing scenic vistas to a traveler actively searching the central ideas of cultures happens gradually. At first the subtle thought/observation changes are unnoticeable. Then one discovers that a once passive and barely opened mind has blossomed into an inquisitive flower hungry for pollination. As I learned to listen with empathy, the most humble persons from distant corners of the globe became my mentors, pulling me into undreamed of chambers of thoughts and insights. I was no longer a touring observer looking in but a participant savoring many ways of life.”

Near Plitvice

Near Plitvice Park in Croatia, a 1990s war memorial stands guard over a bombed out home.

As I continue my investigation of this new concept, I have a question for you: which organizations are you aware of fostering world peace through intercultural allophilia?

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Question:

Which organizations foster world peace through intercultural allophilia? Please leave a comment below.

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Travel the World without a Passport

In our previous post, we shared some of our experience staying overseas with Servas and Couchsurfing hosts.  This week, it’s our turn to host.

When Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had “traveled a good deal in Concord”, we don’t think he had his profile listed on Couchsurfing.org.  However, we’ve been able to experience some of the world’s wonder simply by offering hospitality and good cheer to wandering strangers.

We started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

Playing it safe: we started by hosting a Couchsurfer who we knew from years back

We started hosting with a listing in the Servas directory, and more recently added a Couchsurfing profile to our visibility.  In both cases, we hosted before traveling with these networks, but this is not required.  In fact, there is no explicit tie-in between hosting and traveling – save for conscience.

We felt confident offering short-term accommodation to visitors with Servas, knowing that they had supplied references and been interviewed to get their official letter of introduction.  As we gained hosting experience and became comfortable with the concept, adding couchsurfers to our guest list was not much of a stretch.  In place of references and interviews, Couchsurfing profiles have verification, online reviews, and “vouching”.

Do Couchsurfing hosts need to offer a magnificant guest suite as our recent hosts in Provence did?  No, as the name implies, even a couch will do.  Servas listings in Europe often indicate that a sleeping sheet or bag is required.  Our own offering is a little rustic.  We try to make it up by being informed guides and scintillating conversationalists.  We ‘d rather our visitors remember our kindness and wit than the ridge down the middle of the fold-out bed.

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

Relaxing after a local hike with a young visitor from Spain

We’ve found the average age of travelers we’ve hosted to be younger than the hosts we’ve stayed with.  This is partly by design:  we often choose older hosts.  And youth is a time to “seek one’s fortune.”  For some of the oldest hosts we’ve met, their traveling days are behind them.  Hosting is a way to stay in the game, both by exposure to new people from new cultures, and by sharing past travel experiences with visitors.

We’ve enjoyed all of our hosting experiences over the years with Servas and Couchsurfing.  Each story is unique.  Our first visitor this year was Christoph, a young man from Germany completing his PhD thesis with a study of the North American distribution of an invasive weed species.  He had flown into Montana and was making a large circle tour that included our area.  He had chosen our home because we happen to live near a large infestation.  Who knew?  He explained that he had to pay for accommodation out of his limited research grant.  Christoph could only stay one night before driving several hundred miles to the next infestation, but we spent a great evening over a bottle of wine discussing everything from religious discrimination in Europe to crossing international borders with bags of weed seeds.

Local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Our local Renassiance Festival is a crowd-pleaser

Maud, a young woman from the French Alps, was traveling between long-term WWOOFing engagements on opposite sides of the country.  It was interesting to hear her first impressions of life on an organic farm in the New World.  In return, we showed her around the area, and offered her suggestions on where to stay when her mother came to join her.  Like most Servas and Couchsurfing visits, Maud’s stay was limited to a couple of days.  Servas has a policy of restricting stays to two days barring an unsolicited invitation by the host.  Couchsurfing has no official policy but recommends a similar time limit.

Have we had any troubling experiences?  Not really.  Once we had to exercise our “no” muscle.  A few years back, a young visitor from Prague broke several Servas rules when he asked, “Can I borrow the car?  Can you help me find a job here?  Can I stay longer?”  It is helpful to be able to

One of many local attractions

One of many local attractions

set clear limits without undue stress.  In our case, it wasn’t hard to say, “No, no, and no,” but others might find this challenging.  Our experience with this guest left us a little edgy, but with other positive experiences, we soon forgot this.  Until, months later, we received his unsolicited apology letter in the post.  Traveling is a learning experience for all of us.

Our most memorable hosting experience was non-standard.  Anaid, a young Mexican woman studying English on a student visa had been stranded here for several months by a travel snafu.  Her mother in Mexico had contacted Servas to make sure her daughter wasn’t left wandering the snowy streets.  Our local Servas coordinator contacted hosts with a special request for longer-term back-to-back stays to house the young woman until she could return to Mexico.  We chipped in about 10 days, and together with other hosts within a hundred mile radius, Anaid’s accommodation gap was covered.

As with traveling, hosting is about enjoying the unexpected.  Anaid’s letter of introduction – written no doubt by her mother – sported a grainy black and white photograph of a young woman with pigtails and a traditional school uniform.  However, when we first saw Anaid, she was wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying a soccer ball – and her beaming smile revealed a tongue stud.  No doubt some of this would have been news to her mother … as would the news that Anaid had indeed spent at least one snowy night on the streets of the inner city.

A young student from Mexico at a local diner

Our young student from Mexico at a local theme diner

Anaid proved to be a delight.  She was helpful and easy-going.  She brought us some Mexican artwork, and our family still enjoys her easy recipe for enchiladas that she demonstrated for us one evening.  She was quite happy to accompany us on whatever we were up to, like spending an hour watching underwater coaching videos from Cheryl’s swim team.  Whenever we were tied up, she’d just pick up her soccer ball and head out, telling us she’d find someone “on the street” to play soccer with.  The first time we heard this, we were doubtful.  But she always found her game.  We suppose the young men in our town also fell under her spell.

A visitor such as Anaid lets us see our hometown in a new light.  Naturally, we took her to some of the local attractions we liked to visit.  We also discovered that her biggest unfilled dream was to see some of the filming locations for a popular TV series.  We looked them up and went on a tour.  Snapping pictures of familiar backdrops, she laughed, “I’m going to sell these for a million back in Mexico!”

Another visitor at the diner

Another visitor at the diner

As we’ve said, visitors are not expected to reciprocate with their hosts.  There is no requirement to offer anything other than a helping hand with the chores.  Couchsurfers can mark their profiles as “no couch available” or “currently traveling”, and even Servas hosts who are “receiving” are always free to decline individual requests without apology.

Still, most of our recent visitors have offered us accommodation back home and we’ve stayed in loose touch with many of them.  One offer in particular, we look forward to accepting before too long.  In a mid-size town in the Mexican mountains – “a place of eternal springtime” says she – a young woman named Anaid still lives with her very grateful mother.  We’ve promised to look them up when we’re in the neighbourhood.