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Wanderlust Blog

Here at Amazing Journeys, we’re lucky to have the best jobs in the world—and we think our good fortune is worth sharing. So, when your next journey seems like a distant dream, take a few minutes to explore our WANDERLUST blog—it’s chock-full of engaging tales and helpful tips from our travels around the world.

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New Year’s Traditions from Around the World

Tuesday, December 29th, 2020

by Malori

Here it is, the week of New Year’s and I am at home. I’m usually working at “light-speed” finalizing logistics, programs, wrapping gifts and packing for myself and 70 others. So now I am getting a taste of just what it is that most people do over the holiday weekends of Christmas and New Years…going for walks in the snow, watching lots of movies, eating Chinese food, playing games and catching up with friends via Facetime or Zoom.  It’s a bit surreal for me and seems really strange for me to be here.

You see, it has been an Amazing Journeys tradition since 2002 to be away on a cruise for the New Year’s holiday.  It goes without saying, we are missing this once-a-year opportunity to sail into the new year with you, all of our friends. The planning, the excitement, the anticipation… it’s all part of a normal December for me and the rest of the team here at AJ.  Over the past nearly 20 years, we have traveled to close to home places such as the Caribbean, Mexico, the Panama Canal and Hawaii, and some exotic locales such as South America, India, the UAE, and Asia during this time of year.  It’s provided memories that are still fresh in our minds, and helps to get us through these times of this “travel black-out” we’re all a part of.

While on our New Year’s Eve cruises, we always share New Year’s traditions from the countries we are traveling.  Since we are unable to travel around the world, at least we can celebrate as though we’re traveling with our INTERNATIONAL NEW YEAR’S FUN FACTS:

NEW ZEALAND: Gisborne is 308.4 miles west of the International Date Line and thus is the first major city to see the beginning of the New Year (however it is Kiritimati, Republic of Kiribati that is the first “city” in the world to see the first sun rise for the year, and Amazing Journeys was there on New Year’s Eve 2002/2003).

LATIN COUNTRIES INCLUDING SPAIN, MEXICO, BRAZIL, COLUMBIA, ARGENTINA, CHILE AND OTHERS: Residents of Latin American countries down a grape with each of the twelve chimes of the bell during the New Year countdown, while making a wish with each one. On New Year’s Eve, women who want to find love in the New Year wear red underwear, or yellow if they want money. Other traditions include sweeping the dirt out and taking luggage outside as a symbol of future trips. (Side note – some of our travelers in Chile last year bought me yellow underwear for prosperity in 2020 – it didn’t work).  (And another side note – I will be walking around the block with my suitcase on New Year’s Day with hopes of future travel and I hope all of you will join me on this one!).

TAIWAN: The end of the year is celebrated with concerts held in all major cities.  Recently, the nation has used higher technology to communicate among the cities via video, enabling the cities to count down together.

SOUTH AFRICA: In downtown Jo-burg, locals throw old appliances out the window

FINLAND: It’s a longtime Finnish tradition to predict the coming year by casting molten tin into a container of water, and then interpreting the shape the metal takes after hardening.

PANAMA: Effigies of well-known people—called muñecos—are traditionally burned in New Year’s bonfires in Panama. The effigies represent the old year; immolating them is meant to drive off evil spirits for a fresh New Year’s start.

JAPAN: Many Japanese decorate their house with a New Year’s wreath made from rice straw and a lucky talisman and hang it on the door.  The tradition on December 31st is to eat toshikoshu soba – their long noodles symbolize a longevity and wealth.  They listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which is commonly associated with New Years in Japan.  At midnight, the New Year is welcomed with 108 bell chimes in alignment with the Buddhist belief that this brings cleanness. It’s also considered good to be smiling going into the New Year as it supposedly brings good luck.

SWITZERLAND: Ever hear of dropping a dollop of cream on the floor to ring in the new year with good luck, wealth and peace? Well that’s what some do in Switzerland — it’s thought to bring a year of abundance. Some Swiss also observe the tradition of dressing up in costumes to invoke good spirits and chase evil energies.

PORTUGAL: In the northern parts of Portugal, children traditionally sing carols as they visit houses where they are given coins and treats. The songs they sing are called janeiros and are said to bring good luck.

DENMARK: Danes ring in the New Year by hurling old plates and glasses… against the doors of friends’ and relatives’ houses. They also stand on chairs and then jump off them together at midnight. Leaping into January is supposed to banish bad spirits and bring good luck.

Although we’ll miss traveling with you during the New Year, we hope you’ll celebrate in grand style, in whatever tradition you choose.  If you’re home alone, dance like nobody’s watching.  That’s what I’ll be doing –wait, that’s what I always do even when traveling!  Just have a great time!

Wishing you a New Year filled with health and happiness and dream of the day we will traveling together again.

We Show You the World and You Mean the World to Us

Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

by Michele

Vacations That Change Your Life, originally, a tagline when created, was with the thought that the travel experience alone would be what changed your life.  What we have come to understand and have witnessed for decades, is that in addition to that, our journeys are changing your personal life here at home as well.


As we are now spending time at home and riding this wave together, we have felt the strength of our Amazing Journeys family.  Since we first received the “shelter in place” orders, one of our top priorities was to continue to share the power of positivity and what better way than to continue our time together even if for now it is virtually. Trivia, Lunch and Learn, Ice Cream Social, Happy Hour, Art Gallery Crawl, Shabbat and the list goes on.  We have even seen new faces online who we can virtually welcome into our AJ family until we can welcome them in person somewhere in the world.

I know from hundreds of calls I have had over the years, no one ever truly expects how their life will change when traveling with a group of AJers. Oftentimes, I find myself telling the first-time caller that I am personally still in touch and friends with several from our very first trip in 1993. We form special bonds and they have changed my life and I know have impacted many others.

After speaking with one of our newer AJ friends recently, he said something very poignant as before he traveled with us, he really didn’t know what to expect.  His personal observation was there have been some wonderful “unintended consequences”!  He thought he was just signing up for a tour but what he came back with was new friends that enhanced his world.  Looking back on many conversations from the last 20+ years, we hear all of the time:
…I met my best friend on my trip.
…All of my fellow Broadway goers I met through AJ.
…So many that celebrated my milestone birthday were my friends from AJ
…Going through a challenging time, when I looked around, I realized most
were my travel friends from AJ.


As we navigate these uncharted waters, I have learned now more than ever, there is so much to be thankful for.  Although we show you the world, we want you to know that you mean the world to us and also to each other.


Please feel free to share with us one moment or friendship that has changed your life as we would love to hear from you and be thankful together!

The Wandering Jew

Friday, August 28th, 2020

by Malori

Traveling around the world, I’m so fortunate that I get to see a plethora of amazing sights. And the experience that I hold close to my heart is sharing our Jewish heritage with our travelers in faraway lands throughout the world. Whether joining a local community for Shabbat services, creating our own community for holiday observances or bringing back prayer to a synagogue that hasn’t seen Jewish life for years, or sharing the Hora with those who may not have ever experienced it, these are the moments treasured by myself and our groups alike.

We have had the good fortune to see many of Europe’s Synagogues. The largest and most magnificent I’ve experienced is Budapest’s Dohany Street Synagogue. Built in the mid-19th century, the architectural style is Moorish Revival and is truly remarkable.  With seating for 3,000 participants in its main sanctuary, it also houses a museum, a graveyard, and sits on the site of Theodore Herzl’s home. But in addition to the glorious interior, it’s the experiences one has that is the most memorable,  Being brought up to the bima and away from the crowds of visitors, we pre-arranged the opportunity of having their world famous Cantor lead us in prayers, together as an Amazing Journeys community.  Our voices rang to the top rafters of this massive interior structure.  Just outside the doors to the most beautiful synagogue in the world, we were taken to the site where thousands of Jews were murdered during the 1930’s and 40’s.  Anyone who has been to Budapest will have vivid memories of the stories of the atrocities that happened along the river dividing Buda and Pest and elsewhere in the city.

While most of our Jewish experiences are pre-planned by our Amazing Journeys team, some are bashert or, just happens because they are meant to be. When headed to the Azores, a remote group of islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 930 miles off the coast of Portugal and 2400 miles off the US coast, I received a call from a would-be traveler.  She said her dad was on a business trip a few years prior, along with a business associate, a Catholic woman who was born in the Azores. They asked about a run-down building they saw while walking down the street and were told it was a hidden synagogue from the 1800’s.  For over 30 years, the two had decided to raise money to restore the synagogue, and took trips to Ponta Delagada on the island of San Miguel until they had restored the Sahar Hassamain Synagogue into its original look.  They also created a museum and included details of Jewish life in Ponte Delgada. Upon hearing the story, we wanted to take our group to visit as well as have Shabbat services there.  In advance of our Amazing Journeys visit, we asked employees at the museum, those running the fundraising organizations and were told it was a museum and was not used as a synagogue for nearly 60 years. We asked different times and in different ways, and still the answer was no.  We arrived in the Azores, visited the museum as part of our tour and later, at the end of our day of touring, I mentioned to the guide we had been hoping to have our Shabbat services inside the synagogue.  She said, “why not?”  I told her we had already had a long line of “no’s” from everyone we spoke to and she said, “I work for the Mayor… I can make it happen.  Give me until tomorrow (Friday)… I am certain I can get this approved.”  Sure enough, she did and we kept our secret from the group.  Later that evening, I asked everyone to meet in the hotel lobby so we could have Shabbat services together, followed by dinner.  We walked the 4 blocks to the synagogue and had a private service in this 130 year old space.  We all realized the specialness of this experience, and that we were bringing voices of prayer to these walls that had not heard songs for decades.  Many of us cried.

Sometimes synagogues appear in the most random of places, nevertheless, they are houses of prayer.  Cochin, India was once known as ‘Jew Town’ because they were located along the Spice Route and had many Jewish families who settled there.  Cochin is filled with many synagogues, some being currently brought to their original beauty as houses of worship by congregations in the US and other countries who want our Jewish history not to be lost forever. We visited several synagogues in the once bustling area.  My favorite was one synagogue visit where we had to pass alongside of several aquariums filled with fish to reach the entrance of the synagogue.  Not very fitting for a house of worship, it reminded me that having a defined prayer space is a gift.  People in different parts of the world will make sacrifices so that they can pray as Jews.  While in Cochin, we met Sarah Cohen, the last Jew in Jew Town.  We spoke to Sarah, then in her 90’s, who still produced handmade challah covers.  Sarah recently passed away at the age of 95, leaving the former Jew Town devoid of Jews.

We have celebrated Shabbat in synagogues in Cuba where in Havana there are still two shuls, and as always, there is the one you “don’t go to.”   We have prayed with 400 visitors and Jewish business people living in the area in Shanghai, China and said prayers in a tiny underground hidden shul at Auschwitz in Poland.

 

One of the most sobering was in Linz, Austria where we had Shabbat services at The Linz Synagogue.  This meaningful symbol of our Jewish religion and our heritage sits just one block away from the balcony where Hitler gave one of his earlier hate speeches.  On the tiny balcony in front of the Rathaus in the main square in Linz, Hitler proclaimed the Greater German Reich on May 12, 1938.  He called Linz “my home.”  It was so important that here, we came together to pray as one.  This reconstructed Synagogue was both architecturally meaningful and hauntingly spiritual. Our voices during services were loud and proud as we aimed them to reach the heavens.

Whether one is Jewish or not, most likely a Jewish wedding is associated with dancing the Hora to Hava Negela.  On our travels, we have created the fun and fervor of the hora in many spaces and places on earth, including the most remote spots imaginable. We taught a local dance troupe in Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal in an archipelago comprising four islands off the northwest coast of Africa, to dance the hora.  Even more remote, our Amazing Journeys travelers to Antarctica did an impromptu singing of Hava Negila around an Israeli flag, after doing the Shehecheyanu blessing, a common Jewish prayer to celebrate special occasions. On a recent trip to Tanzania, we met the Hadzabe people, an isolated tribe who still hunt for their meals with poison arrows and spears. They live under bushes and move about Tanzania, following the game. Here, after this tribe taught us their dance, we showed them ours!  Although we couldn’t communicate through verbal language as they still use the “click language,” the language of dance was our connection. Although we weren’t 100% sure our movements would translate favorably, we’re still here to talk about it!

In India, just outside of Varanasi, the holiest city in all of India, we celebrated Tu’ BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees.  I asked our guide to provide me with a space under a tree, so that we could say some prayers and experience this holiday. He was proud to bring us to the Bodhi tree where Buddha was enlightened. Nearby, we found a tree we could sit under as a group and celebrate Tu’ BiShvat.

Sometimes it’s the remoteness and serenity of nature that connects us most to God. In my favorite spot on the planet, our heli-hiking lodge in the Bugaboo Mountains in eastern British Columbia, Canada, our group celebrated Shabbat with a setting filled with glaciers, mountains and granite spires. It’s the most majestic backdrop to a memorable Shabbat.  Equally so, perhaps my favorite Shabbat ever was facing Uluru, formally known as Ayers Rock, in the Outback of Australia.  Here, we perched ourselves on a large, red rock, indicative of the landscape of this desert area, complete with challah, wine and candles as I led the group through Shabbat services. As the sun set and the colors of Uluru changed with the changing sunlight, surrounded by our Amazing Journeys community in song and prayer, it brought us to tears.

Of all the exploration we do on our Amazing Journeys, it’s our visits to explore our Jewish heritage, see synagogues and visiting Jewish communities throughout the world, and  it’s the Jewish celebrations in which we participate that are always the most memorable part of the trip and our travelers remember for years to come.

What Happens When Tourism Stops

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

by Malori


Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world and is included on any list of the Top 10 Employers globally.  It’s hard to fathom just how large this industry is until you begin to break down the numbers.  In 2019, travel and tourism directly contributed nearly 3 trillion dollars to the GDP.  And in the US, it was the largest contributor to the GDP with a total of over 580 billion US dollars last year. Tourism employs 330 million worldwide.  Sometimes these numbers can be difficult to understand until we break it down further.

Tourism is on the brink of disaster.  Tour guides we have been working with for years in India, Africa, China and Vietnam and have developed friendships with are looking outside of tourism for other work.  Imagine, when we visit Tanzania and hire a Masai Mara guide, the ones we love to jump with and who takes us into their dung huts to show us life on the Mara– this one-day guided experience will feed 10 others in his community with this one encounter.  We recently visited Thailand.  The absence of visitors can change the life of vendors who are on the streets with their food carts, t-shirt sellers, elephant sanctuary workers and tuk-tuk drivers who cannot see their way to bringing home payment so their family can survive another day.  The Moroccan carpet sellers, the mustache-festooned doormen at our hotels in India, our Jewish tour guides in Rome, the jovial bartenders on your last cruise, the ferry captain in the fjords of New Zealand, hiking guides, olive oil tastings in Greece… it all shuts down.  Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with the Vice President of a major worldwide hotel chain who told me 50% of his hotels will shut down in Europe next month… and they currently have occupancy rates in the single digits. Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of people will be out of work in that scenario? Only a handful of cruise ships are sailing.  That’s another 1.1 million out of work employees from around the world. Add to that, it is expected that 50% of the more than 60,000 travel agencies just in the US will be out of business by September.  When tourism stops in its tracks, the ability of millions of people to put food in their mouths stops, too.

As the Chief Amazement Officer at Amazing Journeys, I take my job very seriously.  Because I know that not only am I crafting tours that include highlights within each destination we visit, I am also taking care of the locals… small business owners who can provide experiential memories, sure to make your trip that much more enjoyable, while feeding their local community at the same time.  Whether it’s a surprise tuk-tuk ride to see the sun set over the Taj Mahal, a food tasting tour, shopping at the local market before attending our cooking school in Vietnam, wine tasting in Israel, tasting whiskey in Ireland and scotch in Scotland… it’s all part of putting money into the local economies and more specifically, the individuals who are feeding several members of their community.

At Amazing Journeys, not only do we take great pride in creating a tour that you will remember for the rest of your life, we also take seriously our responsibility to take care of those who take care of us.  And we do this by generating opportunities for local populations.  We know that tourism is a force for good. Those of us working in tourism and those who travel… we are all in this together – we are one community.

What Do I Miss Most About Travel – Barry

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

by Barry

This blog should actually be titled: What I Miss Most About Malori NOT Traveling!


My life with Malori runs at about 70 miles an hour… on a slow day.  When she’s away from home, traveling with Amazing Journeys, I’m able to slow down a bit and can turn our house into my personal (but temporary)  “Man Cave”.  I’m able to do things when Malori travels that I just wouldn’t attempt when she’s at home.  Take a look at some of the things I look forward to when Malori travels:

 – I eat some of my meals right out of the pot I cook them in.
 – I make a big pot of chili and have it for dinner EVERY NIGHT for the week!
 – I read the entire Sunday New York Times every week (with a pot of coffee).
 – I’ll have a cigar if I want to.
 – I go to sleep with the television off.
 – If my socks don’t match, I’ll never know.
 – On the weekends, I never have to change out of my gym shorts and t-shirt.
 – If I want to scratch, I can.
 – I do the dishes when I run out of clean ones… sometimes.
 – I don’t have to separate laundry into light, medium and dark… they’re just dirty or clean.
 – Iron clothes?  What’s an iron?
 – One pot meals are the rule.
 – Why should I take the clothes out of the dryer and move them to my dresser, they just end up back in the laundry anyway.  I use that as my closet.
 – Nothing is better than a book, a Scotch and a cigar while swinging in a hammock for hours in the backyard.
 – I don’t have to worry if the toilet seat is up.
 – I can go to sleep as early as I want.
 – Chips and salsa are a food group, right?
– I have time to do some of my many projects.
 – I can take all day Photo Safaris if I want to.
 – I can hop in our boat and take my own cruise on one of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers.

As you can see, when Malori’s not at home I’m not bored.  I just run my life differently.  But, if you want to know a little secret, my life is more fun when she’s in town… but don’t tell her that!