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.

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.

“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. 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.

Watch out for Rattlesnakes!

The Sonoran desert In Tucson Arizona was not as I imagined it would be. It appeared scruffy, almost barren. I suppose I expected something grander since travel guides frequently mention its beauty. But my first thoughts were that it needed a good landscaper. At some points you’re travelling a 6 lane highway with the desert on either side of you. It makes the vegetation seem less majestic and more like roadside overgrowth. The most recognizable symbols of this dessert are the cacti, Latin plural for cactus. Most specifically the Saguaros. Saguaro cacti are what you envision when you think of cactus, a rotund trunk with multiple branches turning up towards the sky. The kind you see in Road Runner cartoons that look as though you should hang your hat and coat upon one of the arms. These iconic symbols of the West are beloved to the point of being protected by law making it illegal to harm, mutilate or remove them from public lands. Pronounced as sawaro, they can grow to over 45 feet tall and the hearty plant can live to be 100-150 years old. They are benign, harmless plants unless you happen to accidentally back in to one. The other unofficial symbol for this region in the Southwest seems to be the Rattlesnake and you wouldn’t want to accidentally back into one of them either. Arizona actually has an official state snake. The Arizona Ridged-nosed Rattlesnake was formally recognized as the state reptile in 1986. That’s power for you, right there, and the power appears to rest within the fangs of those slithering little bullies. Actually, the snakes would much rather run than fight and usually won’t bite unless they feel threatened. Wikipedia lists 38 types of snakes that can be found in Arizona, 16 of which you need to be mindful of. If you do some research you will see that slightly over half of the venomous snakes who call Arizona home are rattlers. Each breed bears a different name that is often directly related to the patterns on their skin. Twin-spotted and Black-tailed rattlesnakes or Western Diamondback rattlesnakes actually sound exotic. Some are named for the locations where they can be found such as the Sonoran Sidewinder or the Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake. Considering the amount of times I was cautioned to watch out for rattlesnakes you would believe that they are everywhere, waiting to pounce and strike on a moment’s notice.  The truth is, they are just as likely to be afraid of humans as we are terrified of them. In fact, I was surprised to see how small they were. Slither softly and carry a big set of fangs appears to be a successful marketing plan for the snakes and coerces much larger humans to grant them a wide swath of space, providing that we see or hear them. Even baby rattlesnakes are born with a full set of baby-sized fangs that are preloaded with venom. The presence of rattlesnakes looms large and no matter where I went the rattlesnake warning followed me. As I ventured outside the Mission San Xavier del bac Church on the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Indian Reservation, the newly familiar phrase ”watch out for rattlesnakes” was called out to me multiple times. The same scenario played out in the less developed foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains as I foolishly dashed into the brush attempting to photograph a Roadrunner. That foray ended with a stern lecture and a reminder to be cautious. Okay, I’ll give you that last one, it probably wasn’t my best decision. Well, I’m bigger and hopefully smarter and maybe the snakes should watch out for me. But I decided it was probably best not to get into a hissing competition with something that had the ability to incapacitate me, even temporarily with its bare fangs. Drama aside, it’s quite unlikely that you’ll die of a rattlesnake bite with the current odds at one in 50 million. To add a little perspective, your odds of winning a major lottery are almost 1 in 3 hundred million yet most people who believe that they will actually win the lottery exercise little caution when entering the desert. The long held belief that a rattlesnake bite is an immediate death sentence is more western film folklore than current fact. The other long held belief about cutting the site of the bite and sucking out the venom is not a good plan of action either. According to the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, the current suggestion for a snake bite victim is to stay calm, remove rings or bracelets in preparation of swelling and get thee to a hospital, quickly. That’s it, three simple steps, with Step1 “stay calm” probably being the hardest part. I can’t think of a better time to panic than after being bitten by a rattlesnake. When I finally did come face to face with the snake of death we were on opposite sides of safety glass at the Sonoran Desert Museum. Despite being called a “museum” the facility is more like a zoo in that they have captive live animals on display. This is where I saw my first and only Rattler and he/she was behind the safety of double pane glass. There’s a cold beauty to these creatures with absolutely no sense of connection like you might experience with other animals. I watched for a while, fascinated at their ability to move themselves, gracefully, with no appendages. I watched as it flicked its tongue, attempting to collect odors in order to “smell” what was happening in its environment. It’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy for snakes and reptiles in general but my time with the lone Rattler renewed my appreciation for the beauty and wonder at the variety nature has created.

Destination: FUN!

Destination Weddings are among the fastest growing sectors in the travel industry. For those who have yet to be invited to a Destination Wedding, I’ll give you a quick rundown.  The simplest description is that it’s a Wedding and a Vacation combined and gives couples the opportunity to get married in a beautiful destination such as a Caribbean beach, the Canadian Rockies or perhaps a Tuscan villa. Basically, whatever the couple’s entwined hearts’ desire. These Weddings are increasing in popularity because they allow the Bride and Groom to save money and lots of it. Most resorts will offer a basic wedding package as a complimentary feature for hosting the big day, knowing that they will sell many more rooms to your invitees. In addition, instead of one big day, the couple and their friends and family get to have several days celebrating together in a relaxed atmosphere. The parents of the Bride like them because it’s easier on the wallet and the additional travel costs incurred by prospective invitees   often keeps the guest list in check.  If the wedding is hosted at an all-inclusive resort, the meals and alcoholic beverages are included in the package price, thus transferring one of the largest expenses of any wedding to the attendees, who pay their own way. The guests like them because it gives them an opportunity to visit a new destination, confidently, knowing that friends will be there and it’s likely to be a great time.

The “destination” part of a Destination Wedding doesn’t always have to be exotic or require a passport. Some brides may dream of Mexico or even Tahiti but one of the best Destination Weddings I’ve ever attended was just outside of Ithaca, New York in a lesser known town called Dryden. It’s a small “blink and you’ll miss it” bit of paradise, whose square footage measures less than 95 square miles. Sparsely populated, with more cows than people, its most recent human population count totaled 1832 locals. If you’re wondering what’s in Dryden, the quick answer is “farms”. However, it’s not so much what’s in Dryden as it is what’s not in Dryden. You don’t have high rise buildings, large malls or traffic jams. You do have an easy, genuinely neighborly feel that sets you in “relax” mode almost immediately. The Destination Wedding I attended was held over a Labor Day weekend, perfect for an almost 4 day getaway. It was an easy drive, with no security checks, no standing in lines and as a passenger, I was guaranteed a window seat during the entire ride. After checking in to The Country Inn and Suites, a cute property with simple rooms and good proximity to the wedding site, the party got started.  The pre Wedding festivities included an evening get together around a bonfire. While other bridal couples toast with champagne, we instead toasted marshmallows and created S’mores, the treat that involves a toasted marshmallow placed between two graham crackers with a thin slab of chocolate. It’s a gooey but delicious mess and was a perfect reflection of the down home feel of life in a small town. The Wedding was held the following day and it was beautifully traditional and held in a local church. After the vows were made we headed back to the farm for the reception, specifically in the far less traditional location of a barn. The cows had temporarily been relocated, and replaced by tables and chairs and a band. There was plenty of dining, drinking and dancing, and it was a wonderful night and no one was in a hurry to leave. However, the fun didn’t end after the bouquet was tossed. In fact, it was just getting started. The following morning as the cows were coming home to reclaim their barn, we humans were boarding a chartered bus. The motor coach was to serve as our designated driver for the day as the plan included visiting several of the local wineries, best known for their Riesling wines. The wine was plentiful, the food samples delicious and the atmosphere was definitely lively. In honor of our hosts, the Bride and Groom, many, many toasts were made to their happiness and future lives together. The Bride had also arranged for us to have lunch later in the afternoon. The winery she chose had excellent food and an incredible view overlooking the vineyards. Many of these wineries also offered cider, both hard and regular. Sure, the local grapes usually steal the spotlight but the region offers much more beyond the vineyards to entice you to stay awhile. Boating on the nearby Finger Lakes is scenic, relaxing and tops the list of things to do. Nearby Ithaca is home to the Moosewood restaurant. The Moosewood is famous for their vegetarian approach to life and meatless recipes, a philosophy they embraced long before it became trendy. It’s a great place to enjoy lunch or dinner and perhaps pick up an autographed copy of their most requested recipes in “The Moosewood Cookbook”.

If you eschew national chain hotels in favor of unique accommodation, boy, do I have a suggestion for you! The William Henry Miller Inn, also in Ithaca, is a dog friendly and charming Victorian Inn that offers a variety of accommodations, including a suite that welcomes your best friend. The fact that they house  a resident cat and dog, both rescues, only makes their approach to inn keeping more comfortable and I think it plays a part in their topnotch rating. Although, I have to admit that yummy breakfasts and an 8pm dessert table also add greatly to their appeal. All good things must eventually come to an end so too did my visit in Dryden. The icing on this wedding cake weekend included a final “life on the farm” experience. The Bride and Groom had taken their leave and departed on their Honeymoon but arranged for a tour of the entire farm. A tractor pulled wagon allowed us a visit back to simpler times when a ride through the cornfields and the peace of the open fields was enough to make anyone happy. We watched dairy cattle grazing and we pulled corn directly from the stalks, giving me probably one of the best wedding souvenirs I’ve ever gotten. I haven’t been back to Dryden but I’m happy to report that the current population in Dryden, NY has been updated. The count now stands at 1834 as the bride and groom added 2 boys to their family, future farmers, no doubt.