I love to travel and meet the locals. It’s even better when I stay in their home, meet the family and am taken to places only the locals know. I belong to a worldwide club called The Friendship Force. Let me give you a taste of some of my experiences.
Denis and Dasha, a young couple in their late twenties, live in a modest home in the tiny Ukrainian village of Makarov. The first night they showed me the bathroom and said I was welcome to have a shower. The bath had a shower hose situated away from the tiled wall. I found it difficult to get into the bath as it was so high – it was a bit like mounting a horse. After initially being mortified by the watery mess I made in the bathroom, I changed my technique and by the end of the week I was competent. Innocently I asked if they had a bathmat. I’m not sure if they normally have such a luxury in the Ukraine. The next day there was a lovely new “bathmat” about 2m x 1.5m. How easy it is to make mistakes and assume we all have the same things. There were wonderful meals together, beautiful scenery, a salt mines visit and the Chernobyl memorial. I experienced a Cossack sword dance and talked to the dancers; visited schools and was impressed with the students’ English skills. I even went to a symphony orchestra concert, and the MC came down into the audience to speak to us “Aussies”. One of the amazing memories is when Denis and Dasha and a couple of their young friends took us to visit a priest. He was once a Cossack and still has his sword. We drove for miles in the flat open countryside of crops and vegetable farms, nearly to the eastern Russian border. Perched on top of a ravine was his church. It looked down the steep green slope to a thicket of trees beside a babbling stream. Father Paul had been building his church with his bare hands for about 20 years. He had no money and relied on visitors to make donations of food and money. His water supply was the nearby stream. And let me tell you it was a very steep climb. He still has another 20 years before the church will be completed. In summer this area can reach +40º and winter –40º. This was not a story from history; this was something I saw firsthand. A story of passion, commitment and hardship. I can’t recall now but I doubt that he had electricity.
Whilst most people have a bucket list and enjoy seeing the sights, they rarely have an opportunity to be involved with locals. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that “little old me” is finally standing on soil that I’ve dreamed about for decades. Experiencing firsthand how people live and the daily problems they face, is to me something that cannot be bought. It is a privilege and an education to have friends all around the world. You might only meet them once, but you can keep them as friends forever.
I’ve had the opportunity to live with people in many lands, most are middle class like myself, some are very wealthy with magnificent homes, and others, like Denis and Dasha, live modestly. The people we meet and the friendship we share are constant whichever country we may be visiting. The motto of our club is “changing the way we see the world”. We can visit one of the 360 clubs worldwide and stay with a family for seven days.
People go out of their way to make your experience comfortable and wonderful, and likewise, you do the same for your visitors. We like to think of ourselves as Ambassadors when we travel, showing our “new Friends” that we are kind, thoughtful, generous and respectful to their culture and beliefs. Over the last ten years I have hosted many people from all walks of life. From a bus driver, to a man who had worked in a senior position at the Pentagon. A teacher or two, and man who owned a fleet of trucks and a coal mine. You get the picture.
My club is called The Friendship Force. If anyone is interested in learning more or wishes to join, contact me on 0419 594 182 or go to w: melbournefriendshipforce.org.au. Our Clubs are non-denominational, non-political, they are all about Friends not judgments.