Discovering the Joy of Travel

I’ve recently been wondering as to whether people who love to travel are born with the “travelling gene” or if instead, they acquire a taste for it. In a way it might be similar to how some develop a taste for wine or classical music. You might recall how much you enjoyed your first sip of Zinfandel and have now expanded to explore other varietals. Perhaps you started with Beethoven’s classic “Ode to Joy” and have developed an appreciation for Wagner’s darker moods. Travel is similar and that desire to see more of the world is likely to grow from your first trip to the grand theme parks in Orlando, Florida. In my early travel career I visited Orlando on an annual basis.Image result for orlando skyline But my journey towards travel goes farther back. I believe that my love of travel began in elementary school.  Love might actually be a word too strong for that tender age, but it was definitely a crush. At 7 or 8 years of age I was the star of a school play that featured the lead character (me) as someone who travelled the world.  According to my mother I “wore a navy blue dress with beautiful small white striping all over”. I carried a small suitcase as I met other children in other nations as portrayed by fellow students in regional costumes. At one point in the performance I was on stage solo, likely for the finale. I sang Disney’s classic “It’s a small World after all!” to tons of applause (also according to my proud mother). The experience allowed me the simulation and thrill of travel without leaving the Bronx. It was a good indicator of what my future would hold. Living in the city is likely where I also learned tolerance and appreciation for other cultures and different foods. My first journeys started with my family travelling from New York City to Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where the biggest attraction was and still is the Zane Grey House. Zane Grey was a dentist but better known as a prolific writer specializing in the Western genre. His former home is set along the Delaware River and functioned as a private bed and breakfast before the National Park Service acquired it. It currently operates as a museum.Image result for zane grey house However, that wasn’t what brought us up to the idyllic little town. My Grandfather travelled from Manhattan to buy his meat from the Lackawaxen butcher, because, in his words, it was better. He also stopped to fill multiple empty bottles with the fresh water that flowed from a spring on the Hawk’s Nest highway that runs along the Delaware River. The long car ride from the city was boring but what I hated most was crossing a single lane rickety wooden bridge. It caused such panic that my grandfather insisted I put my head down in my lap as if not seeing the actual bridge would assuage my fears. In later years I learned the bridge that I feared was designed and built by John Roebling. Mr. Roebling is considered the “father of the modern suspension bridge” and is also the designer of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.  I was leery of both the sturdiness of the structure and potential oncoming traffic as the bridge was built with a single lane and drivers waited to take their turn crossing. Given Mr. Roebling’s experience and the patience of the locals, both were needless worries.

Long before Mickey Mouse set down roots in Orlando, Florida, Disneyland in Orange County California was the penultimate family trip and travel wish for every child. I was very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to attend a regional school competition for students excelling in the field of retailing. The winner would progress to the next level of competition in Anaheim California. I was successful in the visual display category, what you might call “window dressing” and in a prescient peek into the future, won with a travel themed display. It was then that I visited my first travel agency to request travel brochures for my entry project. I also visited a luggage store where the Manager was kind enough to lend me a few suitcases to promote my theme. To my surprise, I won first place elevating me to the next level of competition and was soon singing “California here I come” courtesy of DECA, Distributive Education Clubs of America. According to their website DECA “is a student-centered organization whose program of leadership and personal development is designed specifically for students enrolled in marketing education classes.” It wasn’t my first plane ride but it was the longest. Our group arrived from all 50 states and we were given the special treat of a reserved private visit to Disneyland.Image result for disneyland The only way to top that would have been to win first place and move on to the international competition. But a second win for me was not in the cards. The park and freedom from parental guidance were both a distraction from the task at hand and I returned home without so much as an honorable mention. Did I lose? Yes, at that competition. However, I came home a winner having discovered the joy of travel.

Travel Agents in this Era, 2018

A new year can be a time for change, reflection and improvement. A desire to improve my writing skills prompted me to review previously published articles to learn how I might enhance future articles. While scanning, I found this piece originally titled “Travel Agents in this Era”, written and published in February 2013. Several thoughts immediately crossed my mind; the first, “good gravy, have  I really been writing this column for 4 years?” The second, “where did the time go!?!” The third thought was that this particular topic of Travel Agent use was still very relevant. Four years later, potential clients still call the agency seeking help arranging trips and the first question is often a sheepish “are people still  using Travel Agents?” The answer remains a resounding “Yes, absolutely!” The number of bookings that we’re processing at the agency has surpassed the best year we previously enjoyed in 2001. That was prior to the tragic events of September 11 when travel came to an abrupt stop and the general population’s eventual discovery of Expedia. As a reminder, Expedia is also a Travel Agency, minus the local office. In comparing notes with other Travel Agents in the surrounding areas, they too, report that their 2017 booking numbers were up, way up and 2018 is starting strong. That’s good news for the economy, good news for us in the travel industry and even better news for you.Image result for increase There are many options available to help you with your vacation planning.  Some things have changed over the last 4 years. Bookings for river cruises have definitely increased and Destination Weddings have continued to experience a surge in popularity. I hope you enjoy this encore article and that a wonderful year filled with new adventures awaits you.

Someone recently asked me if I and my kind are extinct.  By “my kind” they were referring to Travel Agents. Well, honestly I don’t know. How does extinct feel? I assume the user was referring to the competition from online booking websites that today’s traditional Travel Agent has to take into consideration. However, unless you’re booking directly with an airline, then chances are, you are booking with a Travel Agent. They just happen to be an Online Travel Agency, also known as OTAs, without an office for you to visit and without brochures for you to thumb through.  Travel Agents have evolved and adapted to new channels of retail distribution. Most have web sites, Many are engaged in Social Media. But if you really want to be social you can stop in and meet us face to face. Planning travel is fun. Sharing that excitement with someone who plans travel professionally adds to the excitement and definitely adds a different dimension to the conversation. Some of us have traditional offices while some of us have decided that we wanted the more personal environment of inviting you into our home offices.  Unlike the average consumer, we in the industry eat, drink and breathe travel on a daily business while the average traveler increases their immersion usually only when preparing for a trip. Our idea of after work fun is meeting with the representative of a large cruise line to hear about their latest ship board products and promotions or new itineraries. I can almost hear you saying “boy, those Travel Agents really know how to party!”. Most Travel Agencies in Dutchess County have annual sales that would make other retail establishments envious. Yes, we talk about it and no, I don’t believe that we are falsely inflating our numbers in an attempt to flex our muscles at each other. We even consult with each other for special recommendations that we can trust and find that our working relationships are improved because of our interaction. It’s not unusual for a local Travel Agency to call me for a suggestion on Costa Rica because I’ve been there and they might not yet have had the chance. They will reciprocate when I want a professional suggestion for a client who plans on visiting a locale that hasn’t yet made it on to my itinerary. Let’s be real, if I simply travelled all the time, I would never be in my office to help others book their trips.Image result for travel agents

 

What exactly does a Travel Agent do? They stay current on developing trends and emerging destinations. They go from hotel to hotel in order to compare features and determine which would be best for their clients. Travel Agents also read trade papers and study and regularly attend travel conferences and product seminars on site to be able to say that they’ve been there and done that. Does it cost more to book through a traditional Travel Agent? That’s a question with several answers. I can attest that we are all price conscious. We want our clients to get the best value for their dollar. It is true that sometimes Online Travel Agencies will trade advertising space for a much better product rate than available on the open market. However, you also trade selection to a limited inventory in return for that better price. I know because I’ve tried to recreate some of my own journeys on line and in many cases, couldn’t.

 

How do you find a “good” Travel Agent? Well, you can start by asking your friends for a good recommendation. You can check with organizations such as ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) who have strict guidelines of standards that Agencies must meet in order to be considered a member. Locally, there’s a group called Hudson Valley Travel Professionals of which I am also a member. This is a group of competing Travel Agencies who meet regularly, not to check out the competition, but to discuss emerging trends in travel, business challenges and how to be better at our trade. Along the way, we became friends and sometimes even travel together.  Many of us have taken our special interests and developed them into specialties. My agency, Embassy Travel, specializes in Vacations and Honeymoons.  I, personally, have an affinity for travel that allows viewing animals in their natural habitat.  Speaking of viewing animals in their natural habitat, I invite you into my office or into the offices of any Dutchess County Travel Agent. Come see what we can do to make your next trip even better.  I’m sure that you’ll find that we “dinosaurs” are far from extinct and as a matter of fact, plan on being around until the next era.Image result for exotic animals

New Year, New Ideas

When I first decided to write a “Resolutions” column for the New Year I hopped on line to see if a similar article had been previously published. Dozens of pieces populated my screen indicating that the time worn idea might have or should have run its course. Still, the theme is appropriate. However, what I gleaned from my research is that all of the articles are self-centric. Each piece reflected the authors’ own goals for themselves. I’m feeling a bit brazen and have decided to craft resolutions for everyone else, whether or not anyone requested that I do so.  Here, I boldly offer my suggestions for truly making changes in your travel life.Image result for new year's resolutions

Baggage – a classic double entendre. For purpose of clarification, I am referring to luggage and not your personal misgivings about an ‘interesting” past.  Travel is as trendy as fashion in clothing. Remember saddle shoes and poodle skirts from the 50’s and bell bottom pants from the 60’s? If you’re still wearing the big shoulder pads from the 80’s you’re probably still carrying your baggage when you travel. I’ll jump past the early 2000’s with the pull behind you Roll-a-boards and suggest you consider investing in the latest in travel trends; luggage with spinning wheels. The Spinners will make the porter-less trip through the airport a breeze as your 360 degree turning wheels allow you to glide effortlessly to your departure gate. Image result for rolling luggage in airport

If you’re ready to live life on the edge, how about going cold turkey? I’m suggesting ditching the check in lines and going straight hard-line carry on. You’d be surprised with how far a little bit will take you. The most experienced travelers have baggage down to an art form. Poetry in packing. No lost luggage and no waiting at the carousels watching everyone else’s prized possessions spinning around and around.

Take the Path Less Travelled – Once you’ve upgraded your luggage you might consider downgrading your vacation. Perhaps it’s time to experience something other than a mega cruise ship or an all-inclusive resort. My next suggestion to travelers everywhere is to STOP doing what everybody else is doing. Dare to be different. The most requested vacation these days is often aboard a 5000 passenger cruise ship with all the bells and whistles that include rock climbing walls and Ice Bars. I’ll assume that everyone is now familiar with rock climbing walls and no explanation is needed. The Ice Bar is a newer and unique concept where you pay to go to a warm weather destination and then don a faux fur coat to drink cold alcoholic beverages in a room chilled to 32 degrees. The irony doesn’t escape me, nor hopefully you.Image result for ice bar The second most requested vacation is an all-inclusive resort. This is a land based vacation where your accommodations and all of your entertainment, meals and beverages are part of your package cost. The services are provided by, and experienced at, the host hotel.  I too would admit to enjoying all-inclusive resorts. They’re easy. You can continuously indulge in food, drink and activities without the worry of a post vacation bill coming due. In return for that bounty you trade the opportunity to meet the locals. You deny yourself the opportunity to find a gem of an authentic restaurant with truly incredible food. Sure, you are welcome to leave the resort for a day to seek off site experiences, but most don’t. That’s a shame because you never get to know the soul of a destination.

“Exploration is Really the Essence of the Human Spirit” – Not everyone has the opportunity to go to the moon like Frank Borman, the author of this quote. Astronaut Borman was the Commander of Apollo 8 on the first mission to fly around the moon. He was willing to take himself out of his comfort zone to seek a new horizon and have an out of this world experience. He literally changed his perspective on his daily life and how he viewed “home”. I suggest you do the same. Take yourself out of your comfort zone, make yourself nervous, challenge yourself and take the path less travelled. Really! The numbers are climbing for the amount of travelers who strike out solo. If the thought of wandering the back roads of Portugal searching for wineries on your own makes you really uncomfortable ask a friend to join you. What’s that? You say that you have no friends willing to accompany you? Join a tour. Today’s tours come in many different flavors and vary in flexibility. The latest trend in travel allows you to join like-minded travelers without having to share a room with someone you met 3 hours earlier. Travel experiences can be crafted to allow you the comfort and companionship of travelling as part of a small group for just a portion of your journey. You then have the opportunity to venture solo for a bit and either rejoin your tour in progress or become a member of a different tour. The options are almost limitless. You are bound only by your imagination and okay, perhaps your wallet. Wishing you a new year filled with marvelous journies.                      “Where ever you go, go with all your heart.”- Confucius

The Gift of Travel

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain. This is one of my favorite quotes. I believe the sentiment so strongly that I have a tattered printed version at my desk in the travel agency. I have also included it on my travel agency’s website. Call me a hopeless optimist but I believe that travel, not diplomats, are the path to world peace. Face to face interactions help us to understand and participate in the customs of other cultures. When we travel and share a meal we’re showing respect for the local way of life and participating in yet another thing every living creature has in common besides breathing: taking in sustenance. If nothing else, we discard the differences and enjoy indigenous commonalities. Travel allows us to step out of our comfort zone and if we allow it, to also reshape our notions about people who don’t look like us, talk like us nor dress like us.  Perhaps this holiday season, this year, you’re seeking something meaningful, maybe even life changing? Therefore, what better time than the most wonderful time of the year, to give your family the most wonderful gift of their lives? Giving the gift of travel to your family opens magical worlds. If you introduce both children and adults to other ways of life they learn acceptance of other cultures. They understand and eventually grow to appreciate history. We often take for granted all that we have. Your family may develop compassion and empathy when they see, firsthand, how little others around the world have and how hard life can be. That’s not a bad thing. Perhaps they’ll realize a desire to help others who barely have a roof over their heads. Sometimes kindness and compassion form naturally. Sometimes they need to be taught, preferably by example.  Here are some ideas to entice you to eschew the commercialism of the holiday and embrace the love of the season.Image result for kindness

Experiential travel is a growing trend for families looking for something more engaging than sitting on a beach. That “more” could be discovering ancient civilizations such as the Incas. Trips to Costa Rica, Mexico and Belize are common during the Summer months. Travel to these destinations during the holidays allow you to celebrate Christmas in predominantly Roman Catholic cultures with a Central American twist. Parades in every town feature the Holy family and their search for accommodations. The emphasis is on “Baby Jesus” and far less Santa Claus. The mood is celebratory and at the same time reverent. Your children may make friends with other kids who don’t look like your kids and who may not speak your language. Fortunately, children have a unique ability to move beyond or not recognize economic differences as they play with trucks in the sand or take a turn striking a piñata. You can also zipline in Costa Rica, the country where it originated or see the turtles burying their eggs in Tortuguero. You won’t want to let the kiddies know that they’ll be learning something. After all, it is vacation time.Image result for tortuguero national park turtles

“Voluntourism” This hybrid word represents the fastest growing trend in the travel industry. Combining volunteer work with travel allows for meaningful and rewarding interaction while visiting a destination. Whether you choose to help humans by teaching skills that improve hygiene or construction or promoting skill sets for women to improve their economic security, the benefits are long lasting. Including your children in the effort teaches them to become citizens of a world that extends beyond their cell phones. They learn to look past their bedroom walls, their towns and their borders and to see all humans as equals. If animals and wildlife are your passion, as they are mine, there are many opportunities.  Compassion may come naturally to some. To others, Voluntourism helps them develop a sense of empathy and perhaps a desire to volunteer.  I can think of no better way to embody the spirit of the holiday than by giving back to others.

“Faith based Travel” December is absolutely replete with religious and cultural holidays. In alphabetical order you have Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, which, in a cluster of joy, this year are all being celebrated during the same week. The celebration of Chanukah, which can be spelled several different ways, is not observed as a religious holiday.  It’s more like a fun festival. The miracle of a one day supply of oil lasting for 8 days is represented by the Menorah, a candle holder featuring 8 candles plus one called the Shamash used to light the other candles. On the first night of observation one candle is lit. On the second night, two candles are lit and continues until the eighth and final night when all the candles are burning bright.Image result for menorah

Foods that are cooked in oil such as potato pancakes, called latkes, are traditionally served in addition to sufganiyot, or as we know them: jelly donuts!  Yum. The arrival of Christmas Eve is heralded in two places; Vatican City in Italy where Midnight Holy Mass is celebrated by the Pope and in Jerusalem at Church of the Nativity. An annual re-creation of the search for a place to stay for the night when the inns were full leads the faithful to Manger Square. The entrance to the church is a low doorway that forces you to bow to enter. My guide explained that the height of the door was designed to prevent disrespectful behavior by nonbelievers who would enter the church on donkeys. You must also bow or kneel on the ground to peer through a fourteen-point silver star embedded in white marble which covers the Altar of the Nativity, the birthplace of Christ. Overhead, a gold and silver chandelier lights the vestibule that bears the inscription: “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” which translates as: “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary”. It’s crowded yet the visitors are reverent. No travel is required to celebrate Kwanzaa which has its roots based in African culture. It is observed in private homes from December 26 to January 1 and is a uniquely African American celebration. Void of the commercial glitz that often accompanies the dominant holidays allows it to be a personal and fulfilling holiday. Seven days feature seven principles, focusing on personal strength and empowerment that include: Unity, Self-Determination, Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. It is a time of renewal, introspection and community.

However you celebrate, whatever you celebrate, we at Embassy Travel wish you peace in the coming year.

Give a Man a Fish

Recently, I was asked to help serve dinner at a local shelter that provides meals and a place to stay at night for those without a home. It was a last minute request but I immediately said “yes”. I joined a small crew of other volunteers in the kitchen of a local Church. There were five of us. A husband and wife team were preparing a large basic salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. We were expecting to feed approximately sixty people and I worried whether we would have enough food. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I realized that the people we’d be feeding must ask themselves the same question every day. Two other volunteers had each prepared a large casserole tray comprised of chicken for protein, root vegetables, creamy soup to form a sauce and add taste. Pasta stretched the meal to feed as many as possible.  Only two of us headed to the shelter where we would meet a third volunteer. The first task was to set the diner style tables, each able to seat 4 people. We laid down the paper napkins and covered them with a 3 piece setting of plastic utensils. A holiday touch of chocolate biscotti wrapped with a paper band sporting a turkey, was placed beside the cutlery. The three of us worked in tandem. One person ensured the food was hot enough to warm the night chill out of the bones of our “guests”. She also plated the food. Two of us took the role of wait staff. We served 3 shifts of 20 diners. With each plate I presented I was thanked. When a request was made for an additional slice of bread it was asked without expectation but with hope. The biscotti brought smiles to weary faces. Many saved the treat, perhaps to savor later or because they did not know when the next meal would come.Image result for soup kitchen

You may wonder what this has to do with travel. My answer is “nothing” but yet, “everything”. Hunger is not unique to certain areas. Indeed, I have seen hunger around the world. Guilt creeps in knowing that I make an effort to control what I eat while others must ration the gift of someone’s left over food. It troubles me when I see food being tossed in the garbage knowing someone will likely pull it out to feed themselves or their family. Being able to travel is a privilege. Being able to have regular food shouldn’t be.  Food insecurity is not unique to the United States, it’s universal. Unfortunately, it may be one of the issues that most nations have in common.

The problem is much closer to home than you might want to believe. Dutchess County is rated as one of the top ten counties in New York State. Yet locally, many go to bed hungry.    It’s called food insecurity. Far too many face a daily challenge of providing themselves with sustenance until the next meal is secured. There’s a saying that you might find familiar “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”  Unfortunately, some people are in a position where they can’t learn to “fish” or worse, they’ve given up trying. I still carry regret about an incident in Grand Central Station. My train wasn’t due to leave for 30 minutes and I purchased dinner from a food stall. I had eaten about half of my meal and wrapped the leftovers to bring home. A young man approached me and asked “excuse me, are you going to finish that?”  I replied “yes” and he wished me a good day. It didn’t occur to me that he might be hungry. Shame washes over me when I think about how humbled or desperate a person must have been to ask me for my leftover dinner and I refused. Surely I wouldn’t have suffered from missing a meal but it likely had been a while since he had eaten.

As the holidays approach this can often be a season of “want“: I want a big screen plasma television, I want a new Iphone, but for many, the needs are simpler. I want my stomach to stop hurting from hunger. I want a coat to keep me warm as I search for a place to spend the night. I want to feel safe when I close my eyes. I want to know that someone, somewhere cares about me. Feeding America.org states on its website that in 2015 “42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children.” That number represents 15.8 million households or 13% of all households countrywide. One local deejay has been extremely successful at filling the coffers of the local food bank for more than a decade. Mark Bolger’s original food drive project, was created during his previous job at another radio station. Today, Suff the Bus continues under the helpful direction of the Iheart media team.

This year they were successful in collecting 12,000 pounds of food and $10,000.00 in cash, surely a testament to the worthiness of the cause.  Mr. Bolger further supported the effort in his current position on Mix 97.7 when he created Jam the Van. If success can be measured in tractor trailers, the radio station was doubly successful having filled two with food donations. Jam the Van also raised approximately $18,000. According to their broadcasts each dollar raised equates to $10.00 worth of food. I say “Bravo” and well done! $180,000.00 will now be available to Hudson Valley residents needing a helping hand. I’m not rich but if I can manage to feed stray animals I reasoned that I sure as heck can find the means to help feed my fellow humans. One request from a friend asking me to help at a homeless shelter provided the opportunity. In this season of plenty I urge you to remember those who have very little. Please do your best to look past the reason and instead search for a solution. Taking my own advice I approached the venture with the intention to not presume or to judge. I didn’t need to know why someone didn’t have a job or a home or a family who cared about them. I wasn’t looking to lay blame or fault and I sure as heck know that I’m not going to solve the hunger problem even in Dutchess County. But, I do know that, much like the starfish tale, that night at the shelter, my efforts made a difference for someone.Image result for charity

Harvest Moon

Roasted turkey with stuffing, sweet and mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, apple pie and pumpkin pie; these are the traditional foods of the Canadian Thanksgiving. The similarities, including football games make you wonder which celebration came first; American or Canadian. Canada celebrates on the second Monday of October and their holiday predates ours by almost 50 years.  While the exact origins of their reasons for giving thanks are not clear, it is most widely attributed to Martin Frobisher who set sail from England. Grateful for his safe arrival to New Foundland he decided a party was in order and the tradition continues to this day.  As Americans we too have a lot to celebrate and have a national holiday that allows us to reflect upon our bounty and give thanks once a year.  When it comes to classic American holidays, the tradition of gathering around the Thanksgiving table is at the top of the list.  The image is so beloved it was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in one of his most iconic and recognizable pieces in the 4 Freedoms collection called “Freedom From Want”.

The United States will celebrate Thanksgiving this week and while we consider it to be an “American” holiday, Canada and other countries demonstrate that the giving of thanks is not unique to our culture. Indeed, humankind has been giving thanks for centuries.  It was the Pilgrims who first sat down to feast in 1621 and are recognized as being the originators of what we now call Thanksgiving. In 1863 President Lincoln elevated the party status to National Holiday.  Many cultures also hold an annual celebration to give thanks or to celebrate the Harvest Moon and the bounty she delivers. Let’s take a quick trip around the world.

Israel: Sukkot, also spelled as Succoth, is the 7 day Jewish Festival often called the Feast of the Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths. The unusual festival name originates from Sukkots which are hut like shelters.. This represents the nomadic dwellings that sheltered the Jewish people as they spent 40 years in the desert. It is also a celebration and time of giving thanks for the bountiful Autumn harvest crop enjoyed following the fast of the High Holy Days.Image result for sukkot

A traditional observance of the holiday will often include a recreation of the temporary structures, known as Sukkah, in public places of worship and in the backyards of the faithful. To honor their ancestors, Jewish families will dine and may even sleep in the Sukkah. The Sukkah are purposely built as temporary structures which also represents that life is temporary. Sukkot was observed this year on the evening of October 17 and will be celebrated next year on the evening of October 5, 2017.

China: The Chinese people celebrate the Mid Autumn festival, an event that I’ve written about in a previous article. Visiting Hong Kong late one September and searching for a place to have dinner I was drawn in by the noise of what sounded like a party. In fact it was a street festival, a celebration in honor of the Full Moon and I was lucky enough to arrive just in time to see the dragon dance performed. I will never forget the colors, the energy and the excitement of that spectacle. Sampling moon cakes and strolling among the colorful stalls was also memorable and I’ll always be grateful that I wandered a bit further and allowed my curiosity to lead me to a wonderful experience.

Barbados: Closer to home, in the Caribbean Sea, the island of Barbados celebrates Crop Over. The Bajan Festival blends the traditions of both England and African harvest celebrations and signals the end of sugar cane harvest season. While, no longer a staple crop of the British influenced island, the locals have kept the party going. Calypso music, elaborate costumes, parades and the ceremonial delivering of the last cane of the season make this a unique gratitude festival. The Crop Over season lasts from May to August culminating in Grand Kadooment Day. Best described as the Grand Finale with a colorful and grand parade and street carnival.

Africa: If you’re a fan of yams there’s a party just for you. I do love yams. It doesn’t matter if they’re baked, fried or mashed, I love the sweet potato so much, I’m happy to eat it plain, straight out of its warm, steaming jacket. Imagine my delight to learn that there’s an entire festival dedicated to celebrating yams. As a root crop it’s a staple of the diet of many cultures, especially in poorer nations. A bounty of yams that can be stored for months means that there will be a steady supply of food and that’s worth celebrating.  Harvest feasts are held during the Fall period on two continents both in Africa and Papua New Guinea. Parades, dancing and singing, tribal drumming and eating yams are all a central part of the festivities.Image result for african yams

Great Britain: The Brits hold their own version of a Harvest Festival and it is considered to be one of the oldest known of all the Harvest Festivals. According to website “Country File” there is a charming tradition of making corn dolls from the last sheaths of the harvest which expressed the farmers’ joy and hope for the future. The dolls were placed on the banquet tables when parishes held their huge feasts and kept until the Spring to ensure the continuation of a good crop next year.  This custom began with Saxon farmers, who believed the last sheath contained the spirit of the corn and represented the goddess of the grain.

Australia: Autumn arrives “early” down under. The geographic location of the continent is such that the Aussie Fall coincides with our Spring. Therefore, harvest time arrives in March and so does the annual festival celebrating the crops of grapes and apples.  Instead of sitting down for one big feast, the locals party for days.  The Aussies will compete in grape crushing competitions which naturally leads to wine competitions. Street carnivals and a grand parade are a part of the festivities and nothing says “thanks for the bounty” better than fireworks. For the Grand Finale no festival is complete without the crowning of an ‘apple n grape’ ambassador.

So many people and so many countries with so many problems still have much for which to be grateful. The celebrations may differ but they are a direct reflection of the people who are celebrating. The one thing we all have in common is gratitude.  As you sit down with family and friends, holding hands around the table and giving thanks for the bounty in your lives I wish you a joyous celebration.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year.  The statement might seem odd at first if you equate “travel” with flying. However, the majority of people travelling over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house are most likely to do so by car on the day of the holiday. When the last piece of pie has been eaten, AAA estimates that 46.9 million Americans will have travelled to be with family and friends. The majority will travel during the holiday period between Wednesday and Sunday. That number represents an increase over the previous year and is expected to either remain the same or increase again this year.  Driving is often the preferred method for destinations 300 miles or less.Image result for traffic It’s more economical as a family of four to pay for gas rather than airline tickets. However, let’s say your relatives live in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina which is just under 600 miles south. The average airline ticket from NYC during a non-holiday period currently costs approximately $193.00 per person. For a family of 4 your total travel cost is a reasonable $772.00. Let’s look at the same airline, same flights for November 23 returning November 28, 2016. The rate is $462.00 per person at the time I am writing this. Multiply $462.00 by 4 passengers and you are at a whopping total of $1848.00. That number is pre seat assignment cost and paid checked luggage. This local family would need to depart their home 4 hours prior to flight time to drive to the airport. Once there, they need to locate a parking space, check their luggage, be cleared for travel by airport security and still arrive at the departure gate on time. If they lift off as scheduled for the hour and 45 minute flight, you’re looking at a total time investment of almost 6 hours. If the same family packed the SUV, loaded the kiddies and hit the road, their drive time would be between 9 to 10 hours. The extra 4 hours in each direction could yield a savings of at least $1076. That hefty total might be enough to tempt many to drive. Some distances are just too great to attempt with a young family. Despite the hefty costs, longer distances are often best accomplished by flying. This mode requires much more preparation if you wish to get the dates, times and the rates you want. When planning to reserve a holiday period flight, it is best to devise a plan that focuses on organization, a willingness to get in the game and commitment to a strategy. This is the travel industry’s Super Bowl and the best prepared team is usually successful.Image result for crowded airport

It can be a challenge to find reasonably priced fares. Especially on flights from the local airports that will allow you to work a full day and yet make it in time for pre-dinner festivities. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Avoid connecting flights during any holiday even if it saves $100.00 or more. The money you save won’t be worth it if you find yourself stranded in Chicago due to a missed connection. I suppose you could use the $100.00 you saved to buy snacks and beverages while you wait for your next flight.
  2. Pack the car and fill your gas tank the night before departure. This will eliminate the extra time spent double checking the house for anything left behind.  You also avoid an additional 15 minutes of anxiety if you have to wait in longer than normal lines for the fuel pumps.
  3. If your drive to the airport takes 2 hours, you should allow 3 hours to make the same drive in case you get stuck in holiday traffic.
  4. Increase the regular 2 hour check in time at the airport for domestic flights to 3 hours. For international flights increase your arrival at the airport from 3 to 4 hours prior. It’s amateur time, baby, and the airports will be filled with novices unaccustomed to packing correctly to ensure an expedient check in. It’s likely that security lines will move slower than normal.
  5. Pack your own snacks in case of delays and to save money. Fortunately, airport food is getting better but the higher prices reflect not only the increase in quality but also the convenience.

Perhaps the stress of the airport or the cost of the flights has you thinking about driving to be with your family in Raleigh-Durham. Departing from Dutchess County you would drive approximately 600 miles in each direction. If your car averaged 30 miles per gallon highway driving, you might expect to use 40 gallons of fuel.  The cost of gas in the local area is an average 2.39 per gallon and will decrease as you drive South, eventually dropping to an average of $2.20. If I use only the New York pricing we can expect that your total travel cost should be under $100.00. That number doesn’t include the snacks purchased during rest area stops.

Opting to drive allows you to set your own schedule. You determine your own departure and arrival times. It is also a premium opportunity to encourage family bonding. Trivia games, singing with the radio or playing an old fashioned round of “I Spy” (I spy something red with 8 sides = a stop sign) are fun ways to pass the time.  I also spy a good chance to sneak in a geography lesson. Parents could prepare trivia information for each state they’ll pass through to teach the kids or grandkids about state capitols, and historic landmarks. The names of local sport teams might spark enthusiasm as you wind your way down or across the states. This is memory making at its best and NO headsets allowed. Talk about how they are related to the people they will be meeting. Sneak in a good manners lesson about how to greet people. Explain what a “Kid’s table” is. Pack pillows and blankets for mid trip naps.Image result for sleeping in car Bring sandwiches, snacks and beverages to keep costs and stops along the way to a minimum. Bathroom and refueling breaks will be necessary and you don’t want anyone to be tempted by expensive sugary treats and snacks available for sale.

This might seem like a lot of effort and it will be but it will be worth it. Of all the suggestions I offer above, the best advice is this: remember to be grateful for the bounty that is your family.

A Day in Dubai Part 2

Is there any such thing as too much money? It’s doubtful that I’ll ever know. If it is possible, then the physical incarnation of that status is Dubai, U.A.E.. Dubai is a principality of the United Arab Emirates, a collection of territories ruled by dynastic families. They do “richer” bigger, better and flashier than any other country. Their grand wealth originates with oil, likely not a surprise to anyone.  Upon my return from Kenya, Africa I had reserved a “layover tour”. It was designed to allow onward bound passengers a quick overview of Dubai between connecting flights to other destinations.  In the article previous to this I wrote about the first part of my tour which started in the desert and had the unexpected bonus of meeting a caravan of camels. The second part of my tour introduced me to the city of Dubai.  It would be a private day tour: It was affordable, it would be tailored to meet my time constraints and I would be able to focus on what I wanted to see. A driver and tour guide were my city escorts. I hopped into the back of a black Mercedes Benz to start the 5 hour whirl around Dubai.  Rising from the desert much like you would imagine the city of Oz, it is the wealthiest city and also the cleanest city I have visited. The city is so new it still sparkles.Image result for mercedes benz in dubai

While money may not be able to buy you love, it can buy the biggest and the finest of almost anything on the planet. My tour started with the Zabeel Palace, home of the Royal family. I assumed no one was home as I didn’t see anyone who resembled a King or a Prince, so we just did a drive through. It was for the best though, as we had a tight schedule to keep. Our next “stop” was in front of Emirates Towers, the financial center – a further reminder of how rich they are and how “rich” I’m not. The Burj Khalifa is indeed impressive, a modern skyscraping building 163 floors tall and currently the tallest building in the world. When offered the opportunity to visit the observation deck on level 125, I declined. Not for fear of heights but as a time-saving option and a preference to see things on the ground in real perspective. We continued to the legendary shopping malls for a peek into how the rich and famous live and shop. Burjuman Mall is a 3 story mall with all the finest retailers represented.Image result for Burjuman mall You could pop in to Chopards and pick up a $36,000 watch on a whim or visit Bvlgaris next door for a jeweled necklace at $52,000. How do you choose? On a much larger scale, since it clearly doesn’t snow in the desert, the people of Dubai have brought the snow inside the Mall of the Emirates.  A 242,000 square foot snowscape is complete with indoor ski lifts, 5 slopes and wait for it – a black diamond run providing an artificial day in the Alps!  During this incredible “couldn’t afford anything” shopping experience the need arose to use the restroom. Modern in every way, it was also immaculately clean. That’s thanks to the employee whose only job is to keep the facility sanitized which includes a full “brush swishing” each time a stall is used. I was impressed. The third window shopping extravaganza brought us to the Dubai Mall. This is the mall for the less wealthy. What it lacks in diamonds in makes up for with the multi-story aquarium that houses a variety of aquatic creatures including sharks. The animal rights person in me doesn’t approve but I do have to admit that it gets your attention. This was a far less authentic retail experience than visiting traditional outdoor markets. Our next stop was to visit the spice and gold markets, which are known locally as “souks”. The souks were located in the Deira District across the Dubai Creek. My touring team and I boarded an Abra, a traditional wooden boat, to cross the main waterway. Doubting the stability of the vessel I put my faith in my guides (who surely wouldn’t get a tip if I drowned) and the other locals, who also were headed to the markets. We entered the marketplace and without even seeing the merchandise, knew immediately that we were in the Spice Souk. The heady aromas created an exotic experience mixed with tasting options. Stalls packed with both locals and tourists crowding the aisles were made more challenging each time bags of new merchandise were ferried to its intended seller. The merchants called out to passersby, each vendor trying to encourage potential customers to enter his or her shop. Fresh herbs were plentiful and depending upon how much you wished to purchase, your selections were hand measured and scooped into small brown bags. The gold market had almost as many options but was less frenzied. Perhaps, like me, the other shoppers were dazzled by this incredible display of wealth. The window shops glittered with the sparkle of thousands of pieces of gold jewelry. This was not jewelry as we know it – bracelets, necklaces or rings. Nestled on the velvet pillows in the display windows you could find gold cuffs, gold head pieces, and elaborately detailed full bodice draped necklaces that sparkled from a woman’s neck down to her waist, often used as a bridal accessory. If you aren’t a fan of gold, no worries, there were plenty of diamonds, gem stones and platinum from which to choose as well. I do like a market that has something for everyone, yet I still came away empty handed! As always l tried to squeeze in more things than time allowed. There’s always one more thing to see or do and we found ourselves running a bit behind. I urged my driver to go a bit faster and was informed that it was not wise to exceed the speed limit.  I remarked on the performance level of the car they were driving and questioned their restraint at not exceeding the speed limit. Politely but with a hint of humor they explained that most locals do not speed. The Police would not only catch up to us but would likely spin circles around our vehicle, pass us and wait for us to catch up to them.  Police squad cars are a mix of confiscated Aston Martins, Bugatis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and McLarens, some of the fastest cars on the road. I’m happy to report that we didn’t get pulled over and I arrived at the airport on time.Image result for police cars dubai

A Day in Dubai (Part 1)

After 9 incredible days in Kenya, Africa it was time to say “goodbye”.  Squeezing in one final early morning safari prepared me for the long ride back to the airport.  My return flight was on Emirates Airlines with a connecting stop through Dubai. Having a choice of several layover times, I did the opposite of what most would have chosen. Instead of the shortest layover, I chose the longest. My research showed that “layover tours” were not only available but were a very popular option for a day in Dubai. It wouldn’t be a comprehensive tour during those 10 hours between flights but would provide enough time to see the major highlights and the storied excesses of wealth. There was no need to commit to additional hotel bills or unpacking and repacking. There was no extra time away from home or work required. It was a perfect arrangement to allow me to see just the right amount of this fascinating country. The red sand dunes were particularly alluring and also at the top of my wish list.Image result for dubai sand dunes

I wanted to see the sun rise over those dunes and that meant an early start. My flight arrived into Dubai at 4:45 am and my prearranged private tour would depart from the airport at 5:30 am. The guide was wide awake and a bit too energetic for someone like me with jet lag and sleep deprivation. It was dark when we departed the Dubai airport and the sun wasn’t expected on duty for at least another hour.  We drove to the desert in less than an hour and the soothing motion of the easy ride lulled me. Drifting in and out of a light sleep it was physical proof of how tired I actually was. Despite the guide’s attempt at conversation, I wasn’t good company. Regret quickly crept in about overestimating my stamina.  How could I possibly withstand 9 hours of additional touring?

My singular request had been to watch the sunrise over the desert. I rarely get to see a sunrise in my daily life and imagined that this had the potential to be an extraordinary experience.  We arrived at the desert as darkness began to fade and give way to the first signs of color. Horizontal bands of violet melted into pink before blending into orange and then finally, golden yellow. At the center of this grand prism of color was a small but brilliant circle of light, the sun.   We watched in silence as the sun rose and appeared to grow in size. When my guide started taking photos too, it was proof to me that this was more than a nice experience – it transcended to spectacular. The early morning glow on the dunes was worth every mile.  It was quiet and still and easy to feel like we were the only people on the planet, until, the “crowd” arrived.Image result for sunrise over desert

The dunes are a home base for camel rides. It was not something that interested me and at that hour of the morning they weren’t open for business. Several camels were standing in a holding pen. They were hidden behind silk panels to either prevent them from seeing out or tourists from peeking into the pen. As always, I’m drawn to animals so I approached the pen and pushed my hand past the material walls. The camels were eager for interaction][=-++ and I obliged with a few pats. My driver was waiting and the sun was rising. My attention was redirected to watching the sky and returned to stand with my driver. Apparently word spread fast that an animal lover was in their midst. Almost silently, the dromedaries left their stockade and we were soon surrounded by a caravan of camels. Twelve curious creatures, who likely were looking for a snack, were just as satisfied with a few strokes on the head. They were gentle, they were smelly and I could not have been happier. Camels come in two makes and models. The Bactrian is the two humped camel and found mostly in Central Asia. It has a relative called the Wild Bactrian Camel which, unfortunately, is critically endangered.  Those that remain are found in Northwest China and Mongolia. More than 90 percent of the world’s camels are of the Dromedary variety the same as my new “friends”. But there was nothing common about the experience of meeting them. Eventually, they decided to move on. There was something mystical, even ethereal about watching them cross the sandy slopes silhouetted in the light of a new day.

With the day officially started it was time to return to the city for more touring. I didn’t want to leave this place of peace, sunlight and camels but I boarded the SUV. Having been very explicit about not wanting to bash dunes, my driver insisted it was something that I needed to experience. I disagreed. As a frequent victim of motion sickness, I have a pretty good idea of my level of motion tolerance and politely declined. He was driving – we bashed dunes. Lightly. Dune bashing can be best described as a roller coaster using an SUV as the vehicle, without the security of being attached to rails. Your experience is completely dependent upon the driver’s skills and level of bravado. Similar to a rollercoaster you ride to the top of a dune. Once you crest, the driver controls the speed and direction of the descent, often sliding sideways before continuing an ascent of the next dune. Sometimes you are moving forward, sometime sideways, before swooping down to the base and starting again. I didn’t enjoy it – wouldn’t do it again (never say “never”) – but at least now, I have bragging rights.Image result for dubai dune bashing

It was hard to leave the serenity of the desert but the day was just starting and we had many miles to cover. We headed back to the city of Dubai in daylight and morning work traffic to where my tour of the man made landmarks would continue.

The dunes were covered with the tracks of daredevils that preceded me. It seemed like a violation of the beauty and delicacy of the sandy hills. Then you remember that mother nature always reclaims what is hers will eventually wipe away the tracks left behind by humans.

Common at our Cores

I frequently mention that I came of age in New York City. People often shrink back when you mention the Bronx, unless of course, you’re speaking with another person who grew up in the Bronx. They will understand. They get it. The Bronx was different in the 60’s and early 70’s. It was a nice cultural blend.  As I reminisce over childhood photos, I now notice what I failed to see back then. My friends and I didn’t look alike. There was definitely “variety” of the cultural type and that variety was – is good.  The people smiling for the camera from the front stoop of our apartment building were just my “friends”. Yet, now I know that we differed in color, religion and languages. It didn’t matter. What mattered was whether the older boys would block us from the playground with their game of stick ball or if it was hot enough for the water sprinklers in the park to be turned on so we could cool off. These memories came to me as I sat in the departure lounge of the airport..

I wondered what the cause of this nostalgic flashback was and recognized that it was fear! Fear of the unknown about the journey I was about to undertake by myself.   As I sat in JFK Airport with three long hours before departure, I felt uncomfortable I was ready to embark on a long journey into areas where my appearance, language and style of dress would be different from the local people. Very different. I had chosen Emirates Airlines based upon their excellent reputation. Emirates is an airline lauded for its service and owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, known for their wealth and excess. Perhaps you’ve seen a well-known sit-com actress emerging from the shower in First Class aboard one of this carrier’s planes?Image result for emirates airline

This would be the first leg on my journey to Africa. Due to the home port of this particular airline, our first destination and my connecting point, would be Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates. The passengers gathered in the waiting area offered a brief glimpse into what would soon be the majority population. Both by being a female travelling solo and skin tone, I was now in the minority.Image result for dubai airport

The flight was a very pleasant experience and most of my fellow travelers were returning home after a visit to the United States. As we began our descent, I noticed that several women made their way to the restroom. Not an uncommon happening but many returned to their seat wearing traditional attire, having packed away their casual clothes, We exited the plane and as I entered the terminal I quickly realized that as a light-skinned female unaccompanied by a male I was an oddity. However, I was treated with courtesy and allowed myself to explore the features of the terminal.  The airport of Dubai is unlike any other airport I’ve experienced. Immaculately clean, high tech with amazing design features that include a multistory waterfall, pristine public restrooms and shops where, if the need should arise, you could quickly grab a new Fendi bag or replace your diamond bracelet for something more glamorous and not miss your connecting flight. Many travelers sported Western attire but there was a noticeable increase in the number of men dressed in Thobes, an ankle length cotton tunic over matching pants. Some wore hats or a keffiyeh scarf, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress. The variety in women’s style was broader. Many women wore street clothes with a fashionable hijab, a scarf worn to cover their head.Image result for dubai women headscarf

Others wore an Abaya, a loose, black robe that covered their street clothing. I spotted a few women in a traditional Burqa which completely covered their bodies except for their eyes. It was an incredible contrast to the high end fashion available for sale in the stores at the airport. As I boarded my connecting flight to Nairobi I was less conscious about my gender and more so about my complexion. Likely, it was more of a personal interpretation as the attention I received appeared to have more to do with curiosity than prejudice. The airport in Nairobi is best described as primitive and similar to the smaller airports in the Caribbean. A bus transferred us from the tarmac to the luggage and immigration area. The economic disparity evident in equipment, facilities and lack of sophistication of service presentation. There seemed to be no one in charge, no organized plan for moving the arriving passengers to the next stage of the journey. Yet, it works. Eventually, we all made our way through the terminal and I to my pre-assigned driver. The percentage of people who look like me had shrunk to under 1%. I am now in the minority population.  As an unofficial “ambassador” of the United States, I do my best to appear friendly, respectful and to fit in, eager to embrace Kenya. The financial disparity between Kenya and Dubai is impossible to ignore. The poverty in Kenya glaringly obvious, the desire for a clean city is pushed to the bottom of a long list of needs. At the top of that list are food, shelter and a regular income, enough to provide for a family. I had engaged a private driver to meet me at the airport. Riding through the city past stores and hotels I noticed that every establishment had some form of security. Public facilities were gated requiring that all visitors be screened and recognized before gaining admission. Yet, during the daytime hours I was comfortable enough to walk from my hotel to the convention center. I found that if I greeted the local citizens, they always responded with courtesy. I began every query with the local greeting of “Jambo!” It’s familiar, shows respect and indicates that I know something, even a tiny bit, about their culture. When I needed to ask for directions, the people I approached were reserved but helpful. Were any of the locals uncomfortable seeing me or interacting with me? Perhaps, but no one indicated such. I experienced warm hospitality, national pride and courtesy. I also learned that despite our outward appearances and material coverings, at our cores, we all have much in common.

If you enjoyed this article, head to https://embassytravelny.wordpresscom/ to read my previous  Southern Dutchess News articles.