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Time to get off your toches and travel

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HOWARD SACKSTEIN

Life appears to be an endless chase, seeking out those moments of perfection that make everything worthwhile. That is the magic of travel. The whiff of new smells, the taste of exotic spices, the incomprehensible language, the culture that makes no sense at all, and the embrace of people who have nothing other than their warmth and hospitality.

My life journey has taken me to 75 countries around the globe, each one exceptional in its uniqueness.

Lurking in the shadows of the jazz hall, I realised that South Africans just don’t know how to travel. Sure we sit on the crystal white beaches of Mauritius, and dance at the full-moon party of Koh Phangan.

We do New York in the snow, and the sales in London at the end of Chanukah. We worship at the Western Wall, and take cruises on the Mediterranean, but travel is meant to expand the mind, educate and open us to new cultures and ideas. We, as a community, seldom venture beyond the comforts of the known.

In the hope of encouraging more South African Jews to explore the nether reaches of the globe, I’m suggesting 20 life experiences, all of them unusual, remarkable, doable, and accessible. They are meant to take you, shake you, and give you an experience impossible to forget:

1.            Take a 4×4 through Salar de Uyuni, the salt deserts of Bolivia, and see the fluttering Israeli flags that decorate the Dakar Rally pit-stops in the white desert. Stay in hotels made entirely out of salt, where even the chairs and tables are pillars of sodium, and take photos in a unreal moonscape where no perspective is possible.

2.            Stay in a tree house in the Amazon jungle, and visit the Chabad shul of Manaus, the largest city in the rain forest. Swim with fresh-water dolphins in the Rio Negro, and be escorted by an Amazonian woman with a “Jewish papi”.

3.            Eat Falafel in Cuzco, Peru, before you start your trek on the Inca trail to the ruins of the hilltop village of Machu Picchu. After your hike, bath in the hot natural springs of the village of Aguas Calientes.

4.            Practice your Hebrew in the tiny islands of San Blas off the coast of Panama, where most of the tourists are Israeli. Each island has a few huts, a few palm trees, and a handful of Israelis. Eat at the kosher restaurant in the little seaside village of Bocas del Torro, and visit starfish beach.

5.            Stop for lunch at the Chabad of Playa del Carmen in Mexico, before revelling the night away at the Coco Bongo nightclub, part Cirque du Soleil, part Mardi Gras. Swim with turtles in the ocean at Akumal Beach.

6.            Eat at the huge Red Heifer Kosher restaurant in Cancun Mexico, before spending your days on the whitest, widest beaches, and the most aqua water you have ever seen. Many of the tequilas are under the supervision of the Mexican Beth Din.

7.            Stop by the Jewish community centre in San Jose, Costa Rica, for a quick game of tennis before sitting in the warm vulcanic natural pools at the foot of Arenal volcano. Choose your beaches from either the Pacific or the Caribbean, in the only country in the world without an army.

8.            Go kosher whisky tasting along the Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland, and eat smoked salmon in the ruins of Castle Urquhart on the banks of Loch Ness.

9.            Chase after the northern lights on a safari in Tromso, Norway, where darkness lasts for months on end, and Shabbos never comes out. Play with the dogs before dog sledding, and spend a day with a Sami tribesman reindeer herder.

10.          Eat raw herring from a kiosk in the flower market in Amsterdam, before heading to the Portuguese shul, where candles still illuminate a synagogue with no electric lights or heating. Don’t forget to book well in advance to see the Ann Frank House, and recover in a coffee shop in Rembrandts Plein.

11.          Visit a shul in Berlin, only recently rebuilt after the Kristallnacht destruction, before heading out to Checkpoint Charlie, and trying to find remnants of the Berlin Wall.

12.          Take a hamper with you from Rabbi Butman in Phnom Penh when you go to watch the sunrise over the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap Cambodia, matched only by the pyramids in their beauty and scale. The Phare circus in Siem Reap rescues street children, and teaches them performance skills and a new life.

13.          Take a hot air balloon over the thousands of Buddhist temples and stupas of Bagan in Myanmar after visiting the shul in Yangon (Rangoon) looked after by the single remaining Jewish family in Myanmar. Join one of their trips on Shalom Tours.

14.          Before heading off to the most beautiful beaches in the world in El Nido on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, stop by Manilla to learn how the Filipino government saved thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution in World War II.

15.          While wandering through China, pop by the city of Kaifeng to see the rich history of Chinese Jews, who are thought to have arrived in China with Marco Polo on his trade missions to Asia. Don’t miss a hike along the Great Wall, but the most spectacular sight has to be the terracotta soldiers in full military formation in the excavation pits of Xi’an.

16.          Japan is hot at the moment with the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics just around the corner. Hang out in the Gion Geisha district of Kyoto, and stop at midnight to ring the peace bell in Hiroshima to commemorate the destruction wrought when America bombed Japan at the end of World War II.

17.          When next in Israel, cross the border into Jordan and visit Petra, the ancient city carved into the mountains of the desert. Amman is a spotless, beautiful city that will remind you of Jerusalem with its white stone buildings.

18.          For complete rest and relaxation, take a ferry from Sihanoukville in Cambodia to the islands of Koh Rong Sanloem. Hike across the island to watch the sunset, and wander back through the desert by torchlight. There are no roads on the islands, and no cars or bikes. To get around, you walk on the beach – a perfect getaway for Shabbat.

19.          When next in India, stop by Kochi (Cochin) Kerala, home to India’s once 20 000-strong Jewish community. Visit the ancient Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town, with its hundreds of brass and gold chandeliers donated by congregants over its 350-year-old history. After shul, hop on a houseboat, and cruise the backwaters of Kerala before heading south to the beaches of the red cliffs of Varkala, the home of Indian massage.

20.          Nepal boasts one of the largest Passover seders in the world, but don’t miss out on Pokhara lake at the foot of the Annapurna trail of the Himalayas or Nargakot, where you can watch the sunrise over the highest peaks in the word at an elevation of more than 7 000 feet (2 133m).

So, before you pack your next bikini for Mauritius, think of a few more reasons to make the Cohens next door just a little more jealous of you and your family.

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