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.

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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