06.12.2013 - 06.16.2013
My journeys in Moscow and Azerbaijan this year and Albania, Croatia, and Slovenia last year were with an organization called Friendship Force.
Friendship Force was originated by Jimmy Carter while he was President to allow ordinary citizens from around the world to meet one another and become friends. The force of friendship would bring greater understanding and reduce conflict moreso than armed forces. Since then, Friendship Force has grown to thousands of local groups throughout the world. It is overseen through a national office in Atlanta housed in Carter's non-profit offices.
When you travel with Friendship Force, you are hosted by the Friendship Force club in the city to where you have traveled. You stay in members' homes and have the opportunity to become friends and actually experience how everyday normal people live.
Without Friendship Force, I would have never had the experiences I had in Azerbaijan and last year in Albania. Without Friendship Force, I would have been too nervous to travel to Moscow by myself. It would have never entered my mind to even go to Albania and Azerbaijan!
BUT it is still group travel. Even when the group is small, you must travel as the group with all the accompanying frustrations and enforced schedule. Only the homestay is independent, and FF rules do not allow them to let you roam independently.
In Moscow, this was the first FF experience for my host. Unfortunately, she found it quite burdensome which made me feel quite uncomfortable. Sometimes she became so petulant that I did not always display my best manners. In Baku, very little English was spoken so I spent hours hearing more of everyday life in Baku than I could understand. Believe me, Aseri and Russian are not quietly spoken languages - especially when you cannot understand a word.
Although I enjoyed both my FF trips and excursions, I think this will be my last one. The wonderful experiences are overshadowed by the negative. Most FF members from the USA that I have met are interested in inexpensive group travel and sometimes display ugly American behaviors.
Instead, I think I will stick to Couch Surfing and perhaps and the Affordable Travel Club. I will also try Servas. Some travelers find that home rentals through Air BnB are also conducive to meeting locals and having everyday instead of tourist experiences.
In St Petersburg, I had a CS host who met me at the train station. She showed me how to use the metro immediately. On the first night, we looked at the map and she showed me which metro stops to take. Then, I was on my own and could do what I wanted and when.
We also organized another event on the CS website to meet up with other CS members. With opportunities like these, a traveler is just as likely to have everyday experiences with everyday people as you do with Friendship Force without the group burdens. And if it doesn't work out or becomes even better than originally planned, you can always change your plan.