Home Away from Home

Yes, there’s no place like home. Friendly faces, shared meals, all
the comforts of, well, home. What if you could have them even when
you’re far away?

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.

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