This blog article is written by HomeExchange member Heather, who spent her summer traveling and home exchanging in the U.S. after learning about HomeExchange from the movie "The Holiday." Want to share your own home exchange experience with us? Do so here.

September 27 was World Travel Day. Like most Americans, I didn’t celebrate World Travel Day by hopping on a plane to some far-flung corner of the world. Most far-flung countries of the world won’t even have us. Like 45% of Americans, I am considered high risk. I have a laundry list of co-morbidities, and because of this have stayed mostly isolated since March.

Today I was supposed to be in the beautiful Tuscan medieval walled town of Lucca, Italy. I traded my modest condo in Maui for an extraordinary villa in Tuscany on and boy, did I trade up. Sometimes it happens that way on HomeExchange. Sometimes you get the better house and sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s relative because not everyone values the same criteria. I love traveling this way. It’s like I get to experience what my life would be like if I had been born into a completely different family, in a different city, religion, and economic standing.

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It’s freeing and is a travel experience that I find more authentic than any other. I get to have a different house, furnishings, and sometimes a different dog or cat. I eat different food and even have to shop for food differently (eg. Don’t touch the fruit in Italy without gloves!). I have to relearn the most basic things sometimes. It thrills me and I learn so much each time I am welcomed into another person’s home.

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable virtues of men and things cannot be agreed by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime." I am inspired by this, and yet however inspired, I am not welcome today in the country where my home exchange is nor am I welcome in the state where my regular home is, either.

In May, I packed up my car and my little shih tzu, Gidget, and drove to Ketchum, Idaho. It seemed like a safe way to still practice social distancing while indulging my wanderlust and provided me an opportunity to feel safe with a more interesting view.

What started as a two-week home exchange turned into a stay in nine different cities from May through September, and a 4,000-mile road trip.

I traveled to mostly rural destinations but through some of the fastest growing cities in the US. As I traveled, COVID cases spiked, civil unrest and the fight for justice became headline making, world changing political divisiveness grew more aggressive, and fires burned much of the west.

I did not want to go back to the city I started in with all of this going on. I started to feel scared to go back, and truly blessed for this opportunity to go from house to house. Sometimes I was still scrambling for a new place to go when it was time to leave the old one. But as I didn’t feel safe where I started, and I wasn’t welcome where I had planned to be, I just kept pressing on.

Ketchum, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone, Gallatin Gateway, Butte, Missoula, Kalispell, Whitefish, Glacier National Park, Couer d’Alene, McCall, Boise, and everywhere in between. Driving exactly 4.5 hours from place to place— the longest I could go with out stopping to use a restroom in the middle of a pandemic.

Today we find ourselves not welcomed in many other countries of the world. Today many Americans find themselves not welcomed in their own communities. A pandemic spreading faster than the coronavirus is upon us, and we find ourselves isolated from our friends and family and estranged from everyone that believes differently than we do.

I have friends on both sides of the divide. I’ve largely managed to stay out of the fray, but it hasn’t always been easy. My health issues seem to grant me some sort of immunity from the argument. People on both sides profess that there must be change, but everyone believes that the only solution is for the “other side” to change. So positive are we that we are on the correct side and the other side is wrong that we can see no reason to try to understand those that believe differently. The other side is not just in error, but they are stupid, evil and dangerous. I’ve come to believe this comes from spending, as Twain writes, “too much time vegetating in our own little corner of the earth."

We live in neighborhoods with people just like us. We get our news from sources that agree with our views. Our friends click “like” to everything we say or they soon find themselves not our friends. We even vacation with people who share our same brand loyalty. Our lives can be predicted by social media algorithms dividing us all up into little camps. We would somehow all live in a perfect world if only the other side would disappear.

But as travelers, we know better. We can choose to explore a life completely different than our own to discover. As travelers we not only walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (stilettos, in my case), but through HomeExchange, we can actually sleep in their bed, eat their food, read their books, and even walk their dog, depending on how we choose to travel.

Whether it is live or virtual, what could happen if we traveled in our own country with eyes focused on learning and understanding? What if we mindfully visited people who think and believe completely differently that we do? Whether it is another state, city, or just a neighborhood in your own community where people look different, live differently, and vote differently than you do.

My pandemic road trip took me to both red and blue states this summer, through counties that largely identified with one political party or another. I saw a home in Montana that had both a Trump/Pence sign and a Black Lives Matter sign. I saw people passionately fighting for the Blackfoot tribe who have been decimated by the virus. Half of Glacier National Park is in Blackfoot Nation. Many people were disappointed to not be able to go, but when it was explained to them, I never saw a single person argue.

A man made me very nervous by not wearing a mask in Couer D’Alene, Idaho, and stood too close to me, but then he went out of his way to ensure that my dog had water. I watched a Trump parade in Idaho where everyone had a mask on. In another place, I was criticized for wearing one. I saw a woman on a street corner every time I passed, day in and day out, holding up her Joe Biden sign in a very “red” community. A native American, an African American, and a pastor each holding signs that the other one mattered.

People with different views than mine still invited me into their homes and trusted a stranger to care for it. Not only a stranger, but a stranger trading my home for one that no one can even go to yet due to travel restrictions. All the homes I stayed in bent their no-pet policy for me. I had hoped to find a house on the border of California and Oregon, but could not agree with anyone on an exchange. Three people that could not accommodate me in their homes later wrote to check on me when the fires broke out to see if I was safe. They didn’t know me, will likely never meet me, but they were still concerned about me even when we couldn’t agree to make an exchange work. Because we are fellow travelers.

Isn’t that what we all are? Fellow passengers on the same planet all traveling around the same sun. Different people with different beliefs, all on the same journey.

HomeExchange is the opportunity to expand our cultural understanding of the world. We do more than share our homes with each other, we share our lives.

While so many of us are dreaming of the day we can once again visit somewhere new, I am reminded that the somewhere new to explore and learn more about might indeed be in our own backyard.

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