November 19, 2012

An interview with our newest luxury travel expert

Meet Elizabeth Mandel, the newest luxury travel specialist at Artisans of Leisure. She’s an intrepid traveler (she honeymooned in Tibet!), an accomplished film producer and director, a mother of three daughters, a foodie, and a great member of our team.  In addition to being passionate about cultural travel, she is also an expert on culinary travel, Jewish touring, the arts and adventure.

Elizabeth MandelQ: What do you like to do when you are traveling?
I always try to focus on what makes a place unique. I love to wander, to get a sense of a place and its people outside of the usual tourist destinations. I always seek out markets—food and crafts—but I also always try to visit the local supermarket, which is where you really get to see daily life, as well as to discover the food and goods that are typical to the destination. I enjoy archaeological sites, well-preserved towns, and interesting architecture, including that of churches and temples.  I also love the performing arts and always try to catch whatever is on. Dance and music are always particular attractions, because language is not an issue.

Q: What other experiences do you prioritize when you travel?
I often prioritize adventure travel, especially trekking and scuba diving. Both of those activities open up entire worlds that are otherwise unseen and enhance the feeling of discovery. I love the pulse and excitement of cities, but I also seek the solitude and tranquility of nature travel.

Q: What are some of your favorite places?
I have a particular love for Asia and find myself returning there time and again. Every time I open my eyes there I feel that I am experiencing something new. Four particular favorites in that region are Japan for its culture, food and aesthetics; Cambodia for its ruins and the resilience of its people; Nepal for its unnerving landscape; and India for its extremes. Other favorites are Israel, Spain, Chile, Iceland and Mexico.

Q: Where have you traveled most recently?
Croatia, and we loved it. I’m looking forward to designing luxury Croatia tours for Artisans of Leisure.

Q: You have three young daughters. How does traveling with your children affect your experience of a place?
I have always traveled with a sense of urgency, a feeling that I had to see everything, because there is so much to see. Traveling with kids has forced me to slow down. I also love the feeling of rediscovering a place I’ve been before through their eyes. I also find that traveling with kids enables me to connect with people—everyone wants to ask about a baby!

Q: Tell us about some of your favorite food experiences while traveling.
I love eating street food. An Indian specialty, pav bhaji, spiced vegetables cooked until they melt and served with buttered buns, is possibly my all-time favorite food, although it’s in close competition with an array of Indian street foods, such as behl puri and aloo chat. In Vienna, I enjoyed warming up with potatoes and chestnuts roasted on an open drum, washed down with mulled wine. I love mezze/tapas style eating—you get to try so many different things. Japan, of course, is a food paradise. The cuisine extends well beyond sushi. Izakaya, Japanese sake pubs, serve terrific dishes, including an array of incredibly delicious grilled fish and ochazuke, a simple soup made from rice and tea that I often make at home. I still crave oden, a fishcake stew of sorts, when it gets cold here. Shojin ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, is divine, and kaiseki, a highly elegant multi-course meal, is as exquisite to look at as it is to taste. I always try new fruit when I travel, and my first taste of mangosteen was a revelation.

Q: Do you collect anything?
While I was living in Japan, I bought quite a bit of pottery, and one of the highlights of my time there was taking a tour of famous pottery towns. I try to supplement my Japanese pottery with pots and bowls from other countries whenever I travel. I also have a wonderfully diverse and colorful collection of masks and puppets from Japan, Indonesia, Burma, Bulgaria, Mexico and Central America, but they scare my kids, so I have had to temporarily put them away. I also seem to have amassed a collection of textiles from around the world.

Q: What do you buy when you travel?
In addition to pottery and crafts, I also like to try to take home local foods and spices, as well as useful items used locally. For example, the Vietnamese make coffee using individual filters that fit right on the coffee cup, and in India I picked up several beautiful shawls. Some of my other favorite purchases include a temple umbrella and a tattoo book from Burma, compasses from Laos and China, miniature paintings from India, a rug from Morocco (although I’ve never been able to actually use it) and of course my own temple rubbing from Angkor.

Q: How did you get involved in making documentary films?
I have a Masters in International Economic and Political Development. I had been working in that field for some time, and was inspired by the way many of the grassroots organizations I was working with were using media to create social change. I was drawn into that world. I was a producer for a long time, and a few years ago I directed a feature-length film, Pushing the Elephant, which aired on PBS and played around the world. It is about a mother and daughter, Rose Mapendo and Nangabire Moise, who were separated by war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We used the film to talk about war, reconciliation and gender-based violence. Media is an incredibly powerful way to create dialogue around and educate about new ideas, just the way travel is.

Q: What are some of your favorite films that take place in or are about other countries/cultures?
Perhaps my all-time favorite film is Rashomon. It asks important questions about the nature of truth and perception, which I think transcend culture. Every time I see a film by Pedro Almodovar, I want to pick up and move to Spain. Food films such as Eat, Drink, Man, Woman are great, and I enjoy films that transport me back to places I have lived, such as Salaam Bombay.  I also love documentaries that explore socio-political issues, such as Taking Root, about Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.

Q: How did you become interested in the performing arts?
I give my parents credit for this. From a young age, they took me and my sisters to the ballet, theater, concerts, opera.

Q: What are the top performing arts experiences you recommend in destinations around the world?
Japan is outstanding for the range of performances available, many of which are accessible to non-Japanese speakers, and which run the gamut from ancient to cutting edge. In addition to Noh and Butoh, I adore Taiko (Japanese drumming) Bunraku (marionettes), Kabuki and Takarazuka, which is an all-female musical revue. Even if you don’t speak the language, the costumes, sets, movement and music make these performances worthwhile. Indonesia is another amazing destination for the performing arts, which include gamelan music, kecak dance-dramas and shadow and wooden puppetry. And Indian dance is spectacular. I regret not having been able to see the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, as much for their history—the Khmer Rouge attempted to annihilate the art, and were almost successful—as for their grace.

For sheer weirdness, I recommend the Russian-era circus that still performs in Vientiane. Burmese puppet theater is quite interesting, as are Vietnamese water puppets. Theater in London almost goes without saying, as does attending a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic, as much for experiencing their concert hall, the Musikverein, as for hearing them perform; likewise attending La Scala in Milan. In Italy, it is always a great experience to attend concerts in churches, for the opportunity to hear sacred music performed in the location intended.  I was raised on the ballet, and the Paris Opera Ballet is not to be missed. I might plan a trip around seeing the Royal Danish Ballet or a Russian ballet tour one of these days, or perhaps a trip to Wuppertal to see Pina Bausch’s company in its home.

I also greatly enjoy non-formal performances, such as the debating monks of Sera Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet, or great street festivals, which are a form of performance in and of themselves.

Q: What are some of your favorite destinations for Jewish history, heritage and culture?
I try to attend Sabbath services everywhere they are available, because they offer an opportunity to participate in community life, even while on a short visit.

Naturally, Israel is the ultimate Jewish travel destination. Jerusalem, of course, is the holiest of cities, with the richest historical significance and home to the country’s most religious population. However, the country at large presents a more representative view of how the typical Israeli lives, and I think gaining a truer sense of Jewish/Israeli culture today includes delving into Tel Aviv’s remarkable culinary and cultural scenes.

Mumbai (Bombay) is a fascinating Jewish destination, and its community is lesser-known than that of the Jews of Cochin. The Baghdadi Jews were a significant presence in Bombay commercial life in the 19th century, and contributed to the growth of the city—you will see the Sassoon Dock, the Sassoon Library and the Kadoorie School. The Bene Israel Jews, who have been in India for over 2,000 years, have a small but active community, and visitors are warmly welcome to participate in community events in a way I have not seen elsewhere.  There are a number of synagogues throughout the city and the suburbs, two or three of which are active on the Sabbath. The community takes great pride in the fact that it is one of the only Jewish communities in the world that has not faced persecution from its host community.

While there are only twenty Jews left in Yangon, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is still open, and should not be missed on a visit to the city. Attending synagogue in Marrakesh is an extremely warm experience.

Participating in resurgent Jewish life in Europe is exceptionally moving. My paternal grandparents lived in Vienna up until 1939, so that location has particular resonance for me. In addition to the Jewish Museum and the Museum Judenplatz, there are plaques on street corners throughout the city commemorating Jewish life prior to the Holocaust. Prague’s Old New Synagogue is Europe’s oldest active synagogue. The cemetery dates back to the 15th century and has twelve layers of graves, including the grave of the Maharal, the alleged creator of the Golem of Prague. The Old Synagogue in Dubrovnik is the oldest Sephardic synagogue still functioning in Europe, and it is poignant to reflect there on the more recent genocide in the former Yugoslavia in light of the unfortunate history of the Jews in the Balkans.

Q: What inspired you to work at Artisans of Leisure?
When I found out about the job opening, it immediately resonated with me. I am passionate about travel, and the chance to spend my day talking, thinking and writing about it, organizing and planning it, seemed like a dream. I was taken by the type of tours the company specializes in—highly specialized luxury tours to the world’s most interesting destinations for clients with sophisticated tastes and interests. What really caught my eye, though, was the bio page of the people who work here—people with intimate knowledge of those destinations, and a like-minded passion for travel and the experiences that accompany it. It made it feel like a terrific match.

Q: Tell us about some of the trips you are planning right now for clients.
At the moment I am planning trips for clients who are traveling to Austria, Germany, Burma, Japan, Mexico, Israel, Egypt and China, all countries which I adore. It’s exciting to work on tailoring the trips so closely to the clients’ interests, including setting up cooking classes in Egypt and Israel, both of which have superb food; advising on the best shopping for art in Burma, one of my personal favorite shopping destinations; and suggesting fun activities for kids in China.

Q: Where do you want to go next?
I’d love to bring my family on an Artisans of Leisure tour in New Zealand or the Galapagos and Peru.

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