A rainy homestay trip to Wales, toddler-in-tow.
"I don't like going to poets' houses," our 3-1/2 year old daughter, Alana, protested, after trudging in the rain through the narrow cliffside trail to Dylan Thomas's seaside cottage in Laugharne. "I want to go on the swings."
The grownups wanted to go to poets' houses. And to craft shops. And on endless long rides on twisted, narrow country roads. And hiking through the mist in the mountains of Snowdonia. But traveling abroad with a young child is an exercise in compromise, and when the weather is against you, it gets that much trickier.
Wales is beautiful in all the brochures and guidebooks: blazing sun illuminating sheep-covered hillsides of a deep, intense green. The hillsides really are that green, but that's because it rains constantly. We developed a theory that photographers around the country are on call all the time. Their beepers sound if a patch of sun is spotted within ten miles. Then they jump in their cars and speed off, cameras loaded and ready, so they can grab those magnificent tourist bureau shots before the clouds roll in again a few minutes later.
Just imagine what that rain does to the ground cover when there are so many sheep around (three times as many sheep as people, we were told). And this week Alana had chosen to develop a fear of sheep manure. After several bouts of screaming and very little progress at the foot of a sheep-covered hill, we resorted to carrying her as we climbed up to the ruins of Carreg Cennen, a cliff-top castle near the edge of the Brecon mountains, abandoned some centuries earlier. The rain had let up briefly, but the wind chill factor at the summit must have been - let's be generous - around 35 degrees (Fahrenheit, that is). "I'm cold," she wailed after we finally reached the top. "Let's go home."
But somehow one of us came up with a brilliant diversion: "Why don't you pretend you live here?"
The brightness returned to her face, as she galloped over to the remains of an old turret. "This is my room, and my animals will sleep here with me. I have thirty sheep, and fourteen goats." The fantasy went on for over an hour, as we ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, and went to sleep in the castle - as her guests, of course. She lived here all by herself, without her mommy and daddy. As we explored each room, she told us its purpose, who stayed there when they visited her. The same device carried us through the famous Caernarfon Castle and several others.
* * *
What made it enjoyable in spite of everything was staying with families. For several years, we've been members of an international traveler-host network called Servas. (The name is Esperanto for "to serve.") Founded in Scandinavia in 1948, Servas has members in over 90 countries. Its purpose is to foster world peace by breaking down cultural barriers. Travelers thumb through a directory and contact hosts whose interests match their own. A standard Servas visit lasts two nights, though families may sometimes arrange a longer stay. No money changes hands, except to reimburse expenses such as long-distance calls.
A Servas visit not only provides deeper insight into the local culture, but also an insider's view of the real attractions - and what rip-offs to avoid. And at its best, Servas creates opportunities for deep and long-lasting friendships. Finally, of course, Servas makes traveling a lot more affordable.
Some people use the network just to travel, or just to host. We do both. As hosts, we've been privileged to entertain guests from Israel, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Denmark, and the Netherlands. When we've travelled, we stayed with: a Moroccan in his Paris apartment, a dormitory houseparent at a university in Jerusalem, a park superintendent near Mesa Verde, Colorado, and many equally fascinating people all over the world.
Among our hosts in Wales were three families with children. Celia, a former midwife, and Mike, a legal aid lawyer, had four boys ranging from 3 months to 9. They were happy to provide us with extra bedtime reading (all three of us were getting tired of the 5 small books we had brought for Alana), a rubber sheet, and stimulating conversation around the woodstove after the children had all gone to bed. Alf and Jo and their two daughters were equally hospitable, piling us with pots of strong tea and heaping plates of fresh breads, zesty cheeses, and steaming casseroles.
Yet even they complained, "Next week is midsummer, but it's like midwinter out there." True enough! We had just driven through the neighboring coastal town of Aberaeron, about 30 miles south, and decided to walk along the beach. The small gusts of wind a block inland turned to gale force when we reached the unprotected sands. We held onto our sweaters, hats, cameras and accoutrements, and walked backwards to avoid swallowing a meal's worth of silica.
* * *
Adam and Frances and their three children lived several kilometers up a one lane dirt road through a sheep field, in a 400-year old restored stone house in the foothills of Snowdonia. During the few sunny moments - in truth, we did have at least an hour of sunshine most days, divided into five- or eight-minute chunks scattered throughout the day - the kids pedalled down the dirt hill on tricycles, or walked along the brook in the back of the house, while we helped the grownups dislodge some of the large stones inside an old pig shed they were converting into a home office. Our three-day stay with them included a trip to their children's two-room country school for a recitation of poetry and music by the elementary school kids - all in Welsh - and, of course, a hike through the mountains.
Our hosts had reinforced our scanty rain gear with Wellingtons: high rubber boots. They knew a good place to hike with children about 30 minutes away, on the other side of Mt. Snowdon. We packed a picnic lunch and set off early, hoping to beat the clouds that were quickly rolling in.
As Adam drove, we noticed the mist thickening, then a few drops of rain appearing on the windshield. Yet our hosts seemed unruffled, and they had a 10-month old baby. So we didn't protest. By the time we arrived at our starting destination, it was pouring. Following our hosts' example, we cheerfully zipped up our raincoats and carried on. Even Alana intrepidly made her way despite the sheep and their offerings.
We got about halfway up a waterfall, over some slippery pointed rocks, and a rather treacherous plank that served as bridge. (By this time Alana had given up the bravery, and the adults were taking turns carrying her). Finally, someone decided it might be a good idea to turn around. Just then, the sun came out for its obligatory cameo appearance; we sat in the muck, wolfed down our sandwiches, and tried, unsuccessfully, to get down the mountain ahead of the ominous black cloud that was quickly approaching. For months after that, when confronted with the suggestion of anything more than the four-block walk to the center of our town, all Alana would say was, "I don't like hiking."
A Servas trip has a number of benefits: Visiting people breaks up the isolation and insularity of traveling; the comfort of companionship and a home-cooked meal at the end of a long day on the road is a welcome change from dreary motels and roadside coffee shops. However, all three of us could always be convinced to stop for food, especially as an alternative to squabbling over conflicting agendas. As vegetarians, and after years of hearing horror stories, we were prepared for Britain to be a gastronomic nightmare. But the quality of British foods is scorned for no good reason - the careful consumer can always find tasty, healthful delights even in the pubs. Months later, we find ourselves shopping at gourmet stores for imported Weetabix cereal, "lemon cheese" (a form of jam), Cheshire and Stilton cheeses, Lancashire currant pastries, and other goodies. Actually, we ate better in Wales than we have in New Orleans or Mexico. We'll probably always remember the Grand High Tea we had in the Welsh anomaly of Portmerion (a pseudo-Italian, privately owned village, best known as the location for "The Prisoner" TV series). We had an appointment with someone at the hotel there, and - while we waited in front of a fireplace that looked like the Medicis had used it - there came the most elegant snack we've ever been served: even Alana's orange juice came on a silver platter. And as we were leaving, up rolled a Daimler limousine, depositing a Victorian bride and groom.
Other highlights of Wales included the Center for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, filled with many hands-on exhibits and animals that will delight all ages. We can see why this area was chosen as the site for a wind power generation farm! At our host's converted chapel in a small village nearby, the winds repeatedly blew open the inner door, despite a barricade of wooden chairs and a five gallon bottle of motor oil. We also enjoyed the National Museum in Cardiff, where kids could try their hand at grinding corn, Stone Age Celt style. We took turns exploring the museum, leaving the other parent to watch Alana grind out about a tortilla's worth in two concentrated hours. And all three of us got our needs met and were satisfied.
We gave into Alana's pleas in Cardiff to ride a bus - or "bws," as the Welsh spell it - and hopped on a double decker, which served the dual purpose of placating a whining child and buying us some warmth and dryness. However, explaining to the impeccably polite bus driver that we didn't quite know where we planned to get off caused some confusion, since the fare system is based on distance. Thank goodness for the passenger who had a cousin in Boston, who showed us how to walk back to our hosts.
Even government officials were very warm. At one point, coming back from market day in one of the larger towns, we found a bobby just about to write out a parking ticket for our rental car. Shel strode up and put on the broadest American accent he could muster. "Is there a problem here?" he asked. We were parked in a no parking zone, but the sign was in Welsh. We had a nice, brief conversation about tourism, traffic regulations, and the differences in European and American driving - and we didn't get the ticket!
On our last day, as we stopped at Shakespeare's house on our way back to London, Alana repeated that she didn't like going to poet's houses. But, having met twelve years earlier at a poetry reading in Greenwich Village, we insisted. Alana sulked as we made our way to the ticket counter. "Well, where is the poet?" she finally demanded.
"He's dead. He died a long time ago."
"Oh." She looked confused for a moment. "Did he get squished?"
We made our way through the kitchen, bedroom, and writing rooms, suggesting to Alana one last time, that she might want to pretend she lived here. We don't expect her to grow up to be Shakespeare. But we're sure that even at 3-1/2, she got benefits from going overseas: new friends, new foods...and a chance to deal with fear of sheep.
Versions of this article originally appeared in the Washington Post and the Worcester, MA, Telegram & Gazette, 1992/1993.
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook (which contains full contact information for over 20 homestay and home exchange organizations), and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.
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