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My Favorite Organization Ever

Being a part of Servas is like having family all over the world. It’s actually better than family. People join Servas because they want you to visit them when you are in their country. Not always the case with family.

Since I have no home, I’m always a traveler and never a host. Servas visits are for two nights, and everyone (hosts and travelers) is screened in a face- to- face interview. Servas charges a small annual membership fee, and travelers pay a deposit for host lists in the countries they want to visit. During the visits, however, no money changes hands.

My first Servas visit was with Gabi and Batsheva in Tel Aviv in 1988. Before the trip, I saw their names in the Israel host book; I wrote asking if I could stay with them when I visited. They welcomed me as they would an old friend. They fed me, toured me, guided me, and shared their stories as I shared mine. I helped with the cooking and clean- up and bought a meal or a snack here and there.

After only one day we felt so close that we decided their single son, then living in the Dominican Republic, and my single daughter, then living in New York, should marry! Never happened, but we did have fun planning the meeting and discussing the wedding. It was wonderful getting to know them.

Their love for each other made being with them a pleasure. Gabi and Batsheva met in an orphanage. Their parents were killed by the Nazis. During and after the war, the surviving kids were taken from Europe to an orphanage in Palestine.

The two found themselves among the oldest children there and ended up working on the same projects and caring for the younger kids together. They fell in love. Batsheva had a sister, Tova, who was also in the orphanage. I never met Tova, but Gabi and the two sisters shared a special closeness as the only survivors of both families. The sisters meant everything to each other.

As we shared our stories, Gabi, Batsheva, and I developed a special bond. Servas is like that. A level of intimacy is quickly established, and you always leave feeling as though you have made a new friend— or extended your family.

Several years later I returned to Israel for my cousin’s wedding. I called Gabi and Batsheva. Gabi answered the phone. He was excited to hear from me, but he explained that Tova had recently died and Batsheva was devastated. He didn’t think she felt ready for guests. The two women had been incredibly close, he reminded me. I suggested that maybe this time I could take care of Batsheva. They talked it over and decided it was a good idea.

I didn’t exactly take care of her, but I did some cooking and a little cleaning; and Batsheva was able to share her happy Tova stories, as well as her pain.

On the second day of my visit, Batsheva received a letter from a Servas friend in Brazil. Claudia had heard about Tova’s death and written a sympathy note. She had included her e- mail address. I offered to write to Claudia on my computer. In the e- mail I introduced myself to Claudia, and then Batsheva dictated her response while I typed. I left the next day, sad, but pleased that I had been able to help.

Four years later in Argentina, I once again connected with people through Servas. I was staying in my friend Gera’s home in San Miguel, outside of Buenos Aires, so I didn’t need a place to stay, but I wanted to meet people in Buenos Aires. I took out my host list and called a few people. The response was fantastic. Servas members invited me to share meals, parties, and excursions.

After I had met a number of hosts, they told me that a group of them planned on taking a boat across the river the next Sunday to meet Uruguayan hosts. Would I like to come?

Of course.

Our two groups got together in the charming Uruguayan town of Colonia and wandered for a few hours before lunch. Everyone wanted to talk a little to everyone else, so two of us would walk and talk for a while, and then we’d switch. The first two Uruguayans I met insisted that I come back as their Servas guest (which I did). I was able to converse with them in Spanish, although they both spoke better English than I did Spanish.

The third person I met asked me not to speak Spanish. “My Spanish is not very good,” she said. “My English is better.”

“But aren’t you from Uruguay?” I asked.

“No, I’m not. I’m from over the border in Brazil.”

It was at that point that we introduced ourselves. “My name is Rita. I’m from the United States.”

“Oh, my God,” she said. “I can’t believe it. I’m Claudia.”

Yes, she was that Claudia! We hugged like old friends.

And cried. And a month later I was a Servas guest in Claudia’s house in Brazil.

If you’re a traveler and a connector, check it out. It’s an amazing organization: www.servas.org or www.usservas.org.

Reprinted from "Female Nomad and Friends" by Rita Golden Gelman. Copyright © 2010. Published by Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.


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