Travel for Women: She's got the whole world in her hands

A global organisation that encourages female friendship is joining in the celebrations for International Women's Day. By Rachel Henry

"I'LL MEET you at the arrivals gate," said Sandy Darrall. Scary words from a US Customs Inspector, but Sandy wasn't about to haul me off to a small, windowless room; she is a member of Women Welcome Women World Wide (5W), the international friendship organisation, and had offered to put me up for a night at her home near Freeport, Grand Bahama.

"You'll see me - I'll be the big woman with short red hair," she'd said on the telephone. When my plane landed, more than an hour late, she was there with a welcoming smile, waiting at the gate.

Sandy has only recently joined 5W, which has 2,600 members in 67 countries. It's a simple and clever idea. You send a donation - minimum pounds 20 - to the 5W office in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and they send you a list of their members. You can then contact any member on that list, in any country, and ask to stay with them, or suggest meeting for dinner or coffee, whatever is acceptable to both parties. Your own details will go on the list - with assurances of strict confidentiality - and other members can contact you. But there's no obligation; if you don't want a fellow member, her husband and six children to stay, you just say so. All arrangements are made privately.

"5W tends to attract people who like travelling, and who are open to other cultures," said Jayne Spinks-Dear, 36, who joined 5W last year. Jayne, who is deputy head of Woodlands School in Basildon, Essex, and her surveyor husband, Richard, have two children, Andrew, three, and one- year-old Kathryn, who were "born clutching passports". 5W has members who welcome children (and husbands and partners), and last summer Jayne took Andrew and Kathryn to stay with 5W members in Germany. At half-term they went to Brussels. "You can do all sorts of things when you're staying with people who have local knowledge," she said, "and the children love it."

On the other side of the world, in Hobart, Australia, 33-year-old Helen Starosta is about to set off on a six-month trip to Europe. Fifteen members responded to her request for contacts in the 5W newsletter. One woman in Austria has offered to spend a week showing her the country, and Helen will be staying with others in France and near York. "It's easier to meet local people with 5W," she said. "That feeling of being made welcome, that makes a big difference, especially when you're travelling on your own." Heather Cockrell, 61, of Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, agreed. When she visited Hungary recently her hostess took her to places that "were not secret, just hidden"; they went swimming in hot cave springs up in the hills.

5W was set up in 1984 by Frances Alexander, 63, a former teacher and currently mayor of High Wycombe. "When women join us," she said, "they and their families become international. And that, in a global village, is no bad thing."

Frances emphasised that 5W is not about cheap holidays, but about cross- cultural friendship.

Members, who range in age from 17 to 90, often write to 5W to say how much they enjoyed a visit, as guest or hostess, but there is the occasional glitch, where cultures clash or when someone forgets to write a thank- you note. One member warns of bathroom customs, when visitors come from countries where lavatory paper goes into the bin rather than down the loo. 5W stresses that "clear communication is the key".

Women Welcome Women works on the basis that "friendship is the best passport", and with the majority of members it works well, and local doors open wide.

Sandy took me to meet her friends for a beach picnic; we toured the island, propped up the local expat bar at Club Carib, and ended up on a yacht in the harbour. I gained a friend and had a marvellous 24 hours. As a hotel-bound tourist, I would have missed it all.

Women Welcome Women World Wide is based at 88 Easton Street, High Wycombe, Bucks, HP11 1LT (01494 465441); or www.women welcomewomen.org.uk

Finding Friends Around The World

"IF YOU reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home. You are like a pebble thrown into water; you become wet on the surface but you are never a part of the water." James A Michener's stern warning to travellers is quoted by Friendship Force, one of several organisations that give the visitor the chance to become immersed in a foreign country.

It was founded by former US president Jimmy Carter and current Friendship Force president Wayne Smith. "You are invited to stay in the home of some friends you haven't yet met. Our exchanges include a one or two-week homestay with optional post-exchange touring in the region."

The best contact for Friendship Force is its website, www. friendship- force.org

Other organisations which link up hosts and travellers include the following:

Servas This international organisation was founded 50 years ago by an American Quaker. It has around 10,000 members and runs a worldwide network of hosts and travellers, established in 80 countries. It aims to promote international understanding and the exchange of ideas. To become a Servas member, you need to be interviewed by a co-ordinator and pay a joining fee. You get a list of members in your chosen country, and you then make contact with the host on the understanding that you will stay for two nights. Call 0181-444 7778, or e-mail servasbritain@unat.com

The Experiment in International Living - billing itself as "an international non-profit organisation promoting intercultural learning through homestays, educational group travel, study abroad, language training, au pair, and other cultural immersion programs".

The British office of EIL is at 287 Worcester Road, Malvern, Worcestershire WR14 1AB (01684 562577); its website is www.eiluk.org

Simon Calder

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