Home Away from Home

Suzanne B. Bopp Escape (www.escapemag.com)
Web Specials Archives


Content Tools

Related Content

Forget Historic Writers’ Homes

Just because a famous writer once lived there doesn’t make it a successful tourist destination....

How Many Words Do You See in a Day?

It may be a shock, but today alone you may well view more words than Tolstoy put in War and Peace......

The Housing Crisis and Homelessness

Amid all the talk about what the stimulus bill will do for homeowners facing foreclosure, the latest...

Homebrew History: The American Beer Renaissance

In 1979 there were 44 beer breweries operating inside the United States, and the American palate was...

That's the idea behind homestays, a lodging alternative that is spawning a new approach to traveling abroad. You still go wherever you're going, but instead of checking into the nearest hotel, hostel or hole-in-the-wall upon arrival, you hang your hat in a local home. For the next three days or three weeks, your room key is the family house key. You share the same roof, the same dinner table and some good times with your live-in hosts-who know the neighborhood better than any travel agent.

An extension of the B&B concept, homestays now occupy their own unique corner of the travel market-one that is expanding and producing companies like U.S.-based American-International Homestays, Inc., which began setting up home bases in the former Soviet Union in 1988. Ten years later, they're sending Americans all over the globe while sticking by a simple philosophy. 'Most people going to another country want to meet people in another country,' says AIH director Joe Kinczel. 'Our mission is to help Americans make friends overseas. You can't make friends with a building, and probably not the hotel concierge either. Instead of going to Berlin and meeting other Americans who happen to be there, why not meet a Berliner?'

The company operates by hooking up its clients with a home abroad that meets three standard requirements: The hosts speak some English; they have an empty room; and they want to interact with Americans. In exchange, travelers must have an interest in the homestay hosts' own culture-which explains the three-day minimum stay (starting at $59 a night in most places). 'If somebody's just doing this to save money,' Kinczel explains, 'we tell them that's not what we're all about.'

Budget concerns may have been the initial reason Kit Kucinkas, a teacher from San Antonio, got interested in AIH homestays, but she quickly found others when Kinczel organized her first home trip-a Mongolian retreat with a family of circus performers. The wife was an aerialist, the husband a weight lifter and trick rider. And their son, the only English speaker in the household, was in the hospital following a trick ride gone wrong. Despite the language lapse and the couple's hospital visits, Kucinkas immediately found herself accepted into the family. The night she arrived, she and her traveling companion were left with a cousin, who knocked on their bedroom door in the late hours. 'Movie. Movie,' she interjected in Mongolian-inviting them to come and watch Ghost with her on TV.

'If you don't meet the people, you don't know anything about where you've been,' says Kucinkas, who's been on four homestays since. And there's just no way to get to know people like being in their home.

Meanwhile, Kinczel is fulfilling his mission-arranging trips that have resulted in hundreds of lifelong friendships, and even the odd marriage. In the unusual case of a personality clash between host and guest, the local AIH organizer will come to the rescue with different arrangements. 'Maybe ten times out of 10,000 there's a real problem,' Kinczel says. 'Sometimes a new family has no idea what to do, and they do the worst possible thing. In that case, we give a refund.'

But usually expectations are exceeded-and clients, like Florida-based Huldah and Dick Bredenberg, get hooked. Heading to Moscow, the couple hoped that a homestay might offer them a more authentic travel experience. 'We didn't want to just see the sights,' Dick notes. 'We wanted to know what it was like during the war. What the schools were like.' They arrived as strangers to their Moscow host, but bonded quickly and got a few perks that weren't being handed out at the tourist bureau. The couple was eager to see a war heroes' cemetery that was off-limits to Americans at the time, so their host walked them right past the guards, heads down, while she chatted in Russian. 'When you get to know a person like that,' Dick says, 'it changes your travel experience. You're not only going to see what locals do, or where they go. You participate in their lives.'

Jim Koningisor, a Boston consultant, made the same discovery with his wife and four kids during a string of Native American homestays in the American Southwest. After deciding to avoid the usual 'drive-by vacation,' the family stayed with Sioux, Navajo and Hopi families on their reservations. They learned how to set up a tepee (and sleep in it). They heard the story of Wounded Knee-from a man who'd been there. Later, Koningisor's 12-year-old daughter gave the trip rave reviews. 'I saw and learned more than I ever had before,' she wrote, 'even if that meant eating buffalo guts.' Which it did.

The trip was arranged by anthropologist Robert Vetter, who runs Journeys Into American Indian Territory. He's recently added homestays to his cultural tour menu. 'The objectives of people traveling are changing,' notes Vetter. 'They used to go to be in a different place. Now that they've been all around, the objective is to get a sense of culture and the people who live there. There's a richness of experience when you've been accepted into the heart of the people who live there and shared meals and daily life.'

Going into a stranger's home, of course, does require education, openmindedness and, yes, some guts-on both sides. Unlike passive, window-seat modes of travel, homestays are intrinsically dynamic and immediate experiences. A cultural exchange will always be taking place between strangers sharing varied experiences-broadening two horizons in the process.

Charles Gibbs, president of Creative Adventure Club, a company that incorporates homestays into some of its trips, likes to make sure that his clients are prepared for this. 'We ask them, 'Can you pee in the woods?'' he says. CAC specializes in trips to Indonesia, Australia and the Asia Pacific area, so a homestay might mean joining the whole tribe in a Borneo longhouse, or spending a night or two in a Thai home held up by stilts so you can pull your elephant right up to the porch. 'You have to make sure people can handle what's going on,' says Gibbs. 'In the western part of New Guinea, none of the women wear tops; the men's balls are hanging out in the breeze. Before they go, people might think it's disgusting; afterwards, they think it's cool. You can hear about it. You can read about it. But this is raw life.'

And if one of the reasons for travel is to get closer to it, homestays are a perfect vehicle. 'Our lives may be totally different, but there's a curiosity about people,' Gibbs says. 'What makes life interesting is when you can go out and see somebody whose whole frame of reference is different than yours. If you can spend a night or two with a family, you're going to see things you've never seen before.'

Trying out a homestay can open up a whole new world. Search the Internet and you'll be inundated with options-homestays to fill every need. There are homestays on Wyoming cattle ranches. Homestays exclusively for gay men. Farmstays in the Australian outback. Wherever you're going, homestays can deliver the very things most travelers leave their towns to find. Not just new places-but new people. They let you have your adventures-as well as a place at the end of the day that welcomes you back home.

Jim Koningisor, a Boston consultant, made the same discovery with his wife and four kids during a string of Native American homestays in the American Southwest. After deciding to avoid the usual 'drive-by vacation,' the family stayed with Sioux, Navajo and Hopi families on their reservations. They learned how to set up a tepee (and sleep in it). They heard the story of Wounded Knee-from a man who'd been there. Later, Koningisor's 12-year-old daughter gave the trip rave reviews. 'I saw and learned more than I ever had before,' she wrote, 'even if that meant eating buffalo guts.' Which it did.

The trip was arranged by anthropologist Robert Vetter, who runs Journeys Into American Indian Territory. He's recently added homestays to his cultural tour menu. 'The objectives of people traveling are changing,' notes Vetter. 'They used to go to be in a different place. Now that they've been all around, the objective is to get a sense of culture and the people who live there. There's a richness of experience when you've been accepted into the heart of the people who live there and shared meals and daily life.'

Going into a stranger's home, of course, does require education, openmindedness and, yes, some guts-on both sides. Unlike passive, window-seat modes of travel, homestays are intrinsically dynamic and immediate experiences. A cultural exchange will always be taking place between strangers sharing varied experiences-broadening two horizons in the process.

Charles Gibbs, president of Creative Adventure Club, a company that incorporates homestays into some of its trips, likes to make sure that his clients are prepared for this. 'We ask them, 'Can you pee in the woods?'' he says. CAC specializes in trips to Indonesia, Australia and the Asia Pacific area, so a homestay might mean joining the whole tribe in a Borneo longhouse, or spending a night or two in a Thai home held up by stilts so you can pull your elephant right up to the porch. 'You have to make sure people can handle what's going on,' says Gibbs. 'In the western part of New Guinea, none of the women wear tops; the men's balls are hanging out in the breeze. Before they go, people might think it's disgusting; afterwards, they think it's cool. You can hear about it. You can read about it. But this is raw life.'

And if one of the reasons for travel is to get closer to it, homestays are a perfect vehicle. 'Our lives may be totally different, but there's a curiosity about people,' Gibbs says. 'What makes life interesting is when you can go out and see somebody whose whole frame of reference is different than yours. If you can spend a night or two with a family, you're going to see things you've never seen before.'

Trying out a homestay can open up a whole new world. Search the Internet and you'll be inundated with options-homestays to fill every need. There are homestays on Wyoming cattle ranches. Homestays exclusively for gay men. Farmstays in the Australian outback. Wherever you're going, homestays can deliver the very things most travelers leave their towns to find. Not just new places-but new people. They let you have your adventures-as well as a place at the end of the day that welcomes you back home.

FromEscape(Sept., 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.


Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next






Post a comment below.

 








Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
Country:
Email:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!