Dear Servas members,
I have just spent three and a half months in Europe. My main destination was the Netherlands, where I visited my son and daughter-in-law, and new grand-daughter. It was great to see them for so long, but I thought that, like any young couple with a new baby, they would probably want a few breaks from grandmother-in-law. It was a great opportunity to visit some other countries and give the young family a bit of space, by trying out my new travel membership with Servas.
I have been a host for a few years and love meeting and interacting with people from all over the world. I live in Dorrigo NSW, Australia, and don’t get to many visitors as you do need a car to get here. However, I’d already made some great friends with my rare visitors, and was looking forward to seeing some of them again.
My first guest experience with Servas was in Norway. On the way to Oslo I dropped of to see a Norwegian friend in Telemark, a province south of Oslo. It had been snowing there - the biggest falls for years. The countryside was spectacular; snow-covered mountains, frozen lakes, pine and silver birch forests with snow still around them. My friend lives in a cabin high in the hills overlooking a lake. We travelled right up the narrow valley to the Norse Industry Akbeider Museum, which commemorates the English and Norwegian resistance which destroyed the Heavy Water plant in the 2nd World War (WW2). To get to the museum you cross the famous suspension bridge where bungy jumping was in progress. How very scary. If you visit this area in autumn it is possible to go into the woods and pick wild berries such as wild strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and mushrooms. The hunter-gatherer in me can’t wait to visit then.
I met my Servas host family in Oslo, where they lived in an artists’ colony near a picturesque lake. The family were Mum (Tira), Dad and two children. Tira has been involved all her life with Servas, firstly with her mum and dad, later as a student, and now with her own family. With them I had the opportunity to enter into discussions about society, politics and how their country is managed. Servas offers so much more to travellers visiting a country. For example, coming from Australia, how else would I have learnt so much about ice! How it forms, when it is getting thin, what to do if you fall in...
Over the next couple of days, I visited Vegeland Park, with nearly 200 sculptures of men, women and children experiencing different emotions, from crying babies to loving couples to people in old age. It is such a wonderful park to spend many hours in. I also went to the Nobel Peace Museum, with its history of inspiring women and men who changed the world we live in, and the New Opera House, and the art museum. Here is held the famous Munch painting “The Scream” - quite overwhelming and depressing, when you see it ‘face to face’ - but I was lucky to see a beautiful Modigliani, my favourite artist.
The next day, after a great evening with my family and a good meal and lively conversation, including English practice for the kids, I visited the Viking Museum. This is special for me as I have Viking heritage, with ancestors inYork in the north of England. Norway has special meaning for me.
Back to Holland now after a wonderful time in Norway, my next Servas break was to Israel, where I met up again with a wonderful couple whom I had hosted in Australia, and who had asked me to visit them in Israel. They helped me to work out all the most interesting places to go and see in my short time in Israel.
Through the contacts of my Servas hosts, I had a wonderful and special experience - I was able to visit the famous Palmach Museum. The museum is a series of cave-like rooms that you walk through, while projected onto the walls of the caves are films telling the story of Israel. It is as if you are walking through the past, with events happening, life-size, all around you – as if you are part of the crowd in the history of Israel. Many Israelis visit this museum - I went through with a group of soldiers from the Israeli army - but few tourists know of it or get to go there.
In just ten days in Israel I saw and learnt so much. It was not just the places that, in such a short time, I could never have seen without the help and guidance of my Servas hosts - wandering around the 4,000 year old city of Jaffa, seeing the huge Bahai temple and gardens in Haifa, seeing the Templars German colony in Tel Aviv and Haifa (the remnant of the nineteenth century German Christians who had come in an attempt to convert the locals to Christianity!), visiting the Druze Community on Mount Carmel, with their distinctive religion, walking through the huge crusaders’ castle in Akko, crossing the Jordan River, walking through Nazareth, the city in which the Virgin Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, circumnavigating the Sea of Galilee from where, surrounded by the many kibbutzim of the area, I could gaze up at the Golan Heights… I saw and learnt so many things that I could never have experienced, staring out through the windows of a coach and listening to an official tour.
I learnt that Judaism and Islam are not monolithic religions, but rather are made up a dozens of sects, each with their own ways and views. I met, not only my wonderful hosts, but their friends who dropped by, and their children, with their own families. I found Israelis so politically alive and aware, discussing difficult issues openly and eagerly. I experienced the strange (to an Australian) mix of public manners in Israel, where people are far more brusque and assertive than in my culture, but at the same time so communicative and helpful the minute you ask for assistance. Above all I had endless discussions with Servas hosts.
As soon as I arrived in Jerusalem I went to Yad Vashem. This is a remembrance museum of all the heroes who were tortured, persecuted, treated as outcasts and put to death by the Nazi government of Germany in the last world war. This included all Jewish men, women and children from all the countries invaded by Germany in WW2. Over 6 million people were murdered.
It is an overwhelming atrocity, told with passion and clarity by the survivors and descendants of these victims. As I walk through the Hall of Remembrance and heard or read the stories I feel deep sadness for the tragedy that we call the Holocaust. This is a reminder to all of us of man’s inhumanity and extreme prejudice to his fellow humans. It is a powerful place and I would like to believe we, as part of the human race, are learning its lessons. (Near the end of my spell in Europe, I visited Denmark and learnt the story of the Danish king in WW2, who, during the occupation of his country by Germany, wore a star of David himself, in protest against the new laws imposed on the Jewish people in his country.)
My first impression of the city of Jerusalem was its whiteness. All the buildings are built of the same material or are the same colour and the ground looks parched. The only colour to be seen is the Dome of the Rock with its gold-covered dome. It is not until you have been there for a few hours that you notice the green of the trees and gardens and the beauty of the place.
There is an overpowering feeling of the history; if you have been brought up a Christian (which I was) this is where it all began — in a way, my history too. Looking out from the Mount of Olives to the Judea desert or towards the old walled city; tracing the history of Jesus down past the garden of Gethsemane, where I saw 2,000 year old olive trees; Mary’s Tomb; walking along the Via Dolorosa where Jesus carried the cross, and the holy church of the sepulchre, or gazing at the Western Wall, important for all the different denominations of the Jewish people, the only part of the wall accessible to them, or The Dome of the Rock, important to the Islam faith. Wandering the Old City is like living in ancient times. It seems that little has changed. The streets are lined with small shops selling anything from food, trinkets, and pottery to jewels and much more, with the overall scent of oriental spices.
The rest of the city is a busy metropolis, full of people from all nations, Israeli soldiers, and security officers ready to check your bags etc. It is a great place to enjoy a coffee, or a meal with lots of hommos and olives, to while away the time watching the people and sights of a large city. I loved it.
I stayed with a wonderful Servas woman, who helped me with my understanding of the many faiths, and how the majority of Israel wants peace. One of her many volunteer jobs is to regularly spend time at the check-gates barring the way from Palestinian Jerusalem to the Jewish Quarter. She or other volunteers are nearly always in attendance there, as observers to see there is no harassment or aggression towards the Palestinian people entering the Jewish zone. She is a Jewish lady who believes in peace. I admire her bravery and passion for life, and enjoyed talking with and learning from her in her peaceful home and garden.
My day started early, 05:30am to be exact. I wasn’t really nervous: after travelling in Israel by myself I felt I could go anywhere on my own. The plane flew into Elat on the southern coast of Israel. Here the group was met by our guide for the day. We boarded the bus and proceeded to the check-point into Jordan. On the walk through I got talking to an Argentinian woman. What a lovely surprise to find she was also a Servas host and traveller! We swapped many memories of our experiences, all positive. I hope to meet her again when she visits Australia.
The drive through the desert to Petra was a terrific experience. The drive was on the very ancient Kings Road, part of it through the Great Rift Valley which stretches from Syria to Mozambique. The Great Rift Valley has been of special interest to me for years, with its interesting history and ancient finds of early man by the Leakey Family. We observed wonderful rock structures, with different colours due to mineral deposit in the rock face, and passed scatterings of Bedouin black goat-hair tents. I saw the view of Wadi Rum, of TE Lawrence fame, from the top of a hilly range, again like travelling back in time.
Al-Siq was the start of our descent into the canyon of Petra. We followed a long winding trail or gorge, a natural crack in the rock. Suddenly we catch a glimpse of the Treasury, a large monument carved into the rose-coloured rock. As we follow the trail it becomes larger and quite magnificent, and we come to more rock buildings—in fact a whole township carved into the rock. It is an awe-inspiring spectacle built or carved by the Nabataeam kingdom whose culture was approximately from 60BC to 200AD.
At one of the stalls I got talking to a young man, a Bedouin with an Australian accent. It turned out he was the son of Maguerite Van Geldermalsen, author of “Married to a Bedouin”. I had read this book and met her at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. I bought a ring from him, a very nice one made by the local women.
It was a very hot day and a long walk to the top of the canyon again, but we where rewarded by a very pleasant lunch at the top.
Then it was back to Elat and Tel Aviv, where my wonderful Servas couple waited up for my return from my great day, tired but happy. Next day brought a final breakfast with my hosts, this time near the sea at Herzliya. It was a good end to my stay in Israel.
Like my own Servas visitors, my hosts in both Israel and Norway were such travel-minded people — people who know that there is a world out there, countries and cultures and ways beyond their own borders, and who are interested in learning and teaching each other more about this wonderful world and its many peoples.
Later in my time in Europe, I took a guided coach tour to the Baltics. I saw many beautiful and interesting places, but the contrast with the Servas experience was huge; I was just looking in from the outside.