A travel agent at heart...I just didn't know it!
Vtravel is a Cape Town-based Independent Travel Company started by myself, Vanessa - the "V" in Vtravel. My love for travel was nurtured during school holidays while teaching in London, and my love for all aspects of travel is evident in how passionate I am about both my business and yours. But it didn't always seem to be my destiny to become a Travel Agent....
No signs of a potential Travel Agent in our midst!
Over the years of my constant travels, my dad Cecil could always be heard in the background saying, 'Where do you think you're going to?? Plettenberg Bay?? You can't get your traveller's cheques on the way to the airport!!' I was such a 'loskop' I once left my passport in my coat pocket stashed away in the top of my cupboard in London while I was due to be holidaying in Toronto. On arrival at Heathrow I was horrified to realise my vital missing item, and thank god for my friend and flatmate Alon Lefkowitz, who fished it out and whisked it over to Heathrow...just in time to miss my flight - not even my usual Leo charm or powers of persuasion could save me from those stern Brits at check in. Once I gave my late 85-year old Granny Anne dangerously high BP by dropping her so late at the airport that she missed her flight back to Johannesburg - thankfully she loved me enough to forgive me. I also gave my Canadian aunt Robyn and my sister Emma a mild heart murmur in the car in Toronto, when on the way to the airport I got this sick lurching feeling in my stomach as I decided to look properly at my ticket for the first time. As nonchalantly as I could, I announced that I'd 'misread' our KLM ticket and that we were a full 24 hours late for check-in! Thankfully this time my Leo charm and airport begging paid off and we got on the flight on standby - Emma was squeezed in to Economy and I was put in...THE COCKPIT!! (Did I mention I'm a nervous flyer, thanks to a luverly Dan Air flight from Tel Aviv to Paris where we lost cabin pressure and people were screaming, praying and clutching to their Rosaries. Needless to say I ended up making sugar water for the nervous praying priest next to me!! of course I more than lived to tell that tale) Whilst sitting in the cockpit feeling the natural urge to press some of the 175 buttons and switches, I remember telling the pilot that I was a 'screamer' (which I am) and he sternly told me, 'You do not make a SOUND before or during take off....ot even if you see an elephant on the runway!' I will never forget that ridiculous image, nor the beautiful storm we witnessed mid-flight with a complete bird's-eye view of the lightning - truly magical.
Besides the usual mini-breaks we took while teaching in London, one day my teacher friend Joanna Goodwin decided to arrange Trip no 1 to Eastern Europe consisting of a one-way airticket from London to Tel Aviv and a one-way bus trip several weeks later from Warsaw back to London. We booked nothing in between because...life is a journey, right? With Jo on her UK passport and me on my SA passport, I knew I was kosher arriving in Israel, so I just got my Polish visa for the end and we were all sorted! In all my excitement of escaping the concrete jungle of London, and with all the dealings at STA, nobody seemed to notice the few European countries I'd be bussing through on our coach trip from Poland to London. Anyway, ignorance is bliss and off we set with stars our eyes and me with not much cash in my walle; Six weeks of heavenly travelling ensued, including me being chaperoned onto the flight at Ben Gurion Airport because I was so busy spending every last shekel on duty-free chocolates that I didn't hear my name being called over the loud speaker...MANY times!! When I arrived by Merc nogal, high-tailing it down the runway, and I boarded the plane with adrenaline pumping through my veins and my eyes saucer-wide, I will never forget seeing Joanna casually flipping through a magazine without a seeming care in the world. From then on I knew I wasn't going to be babysat!
Our adventurous journey covered places including Antalya (gorgeous fairy-lit boats at night with festive music), Pamukkelah (most stunning setting with the salt travertines at sunset), Prague (beautiful old Jewish quarter, totally mystical city overall), Brno (largest lazer disco in Europe), Bratislavia (met two Holocaust survivors who showed us their tatttooed numbers they'd had removed and kept in a matchbox), Bucharest (unforgettable gorgeous gypsy bonfire festival at night), Transylvania (Dracula's Bran castle and an exquisite train ride through Carpathian mountains), Sofia (gorgeous churches, gate crashed a Greek Orthodox wedding where we ate food and picked up lucky money off the floor - well, we were backpackers on a budget!), Budapest (ate Borscht soup served by old Jewish women near the Great Synagogue) to name a few. We slept on the beach in Varna, drank beautiful "Bull's Blood" in The Valley of the Beautiful Women in Eger, danced all night in Brno and walked the Karly bridge by night in mystical Prague...the world was our oyster and I was truly in my element. But all good things must come to an end, and so we boarded the bus in Warsaw en route to London, exhausted and full of accumulated 'treasures' while I was totally emptied of my last Pennies...unfortunately I didn't make it past the top step. One look at my passport and the conductor said, 'Off the bus! No visa!' My shattered nerves. Shock, horror, despair, but never panic...everything for a reason, RIGHT? Once again, Jo was boarded and sat with a serene look on her face...and I was left wondering where my next meal was coming from as I waved her and her backpack goodbye. To add insult to injury I got a mammoth 15 Pound fine on the way back to my hotel, as I thought I'd be clever and not pay the measly tram fare back to our hostel (every little bit usually helps!) I'd misread jipping the Polish rail system, as I'm sure the Polish police are part Mafia as the guy followed me OFF the tram (while I feigned ignorance showing him empty pockets & only TC's) and stalked me through town wisely shoving me in the direction of an American Express. I begged inside for protection but they politely declined and I had to pay my fine...good old V - always wanting to play with the big boys but then not wanting to take the heat when it doesn't go my way!
All I can say is thank GOD for Jo and her secret stash of emergency TC's (I'm sure she was a child scout!) I was also 'saved' by a holocaust survivor in war-time clothing who brought me bread and salami while making me promise to learn more languages - she'd taught herself 12 in her lifetime. I spent my few stranded days wisely and volunteered at the Jewish cemetry to help clear up the desecrated graves. One afternoon I went curiously looking for this mass grave (I have a morbid fascination) and wandered off the main path into the desolate woods. Suddenly I was being pointed at and chased by some hairy hobo who literally came walking out of a tomb-style burial place as if straight out of a horror movie - FREAK ME OUT! I remember saying before fleeing, 'I don't have anything for you!' and then ran as fast as my little legs would carry me. I didn't even excuse myself from the clean up committee, I ran straight out the gates, hopped on and off trams in odd directions and finally found myself sitting on a park bench where I 'randomly' (I'm a fatalist) met the holocaust survivor who would come to be my saviour. To my absolute HORROR, while I was telling this woman I'd just met about my weird encounter in the cemetry, the VERY same hairy hobo was suddenly IN THE PARK and he pointed at me the same way and started coming towards me again...I just remembering shouting at her, 'RUN, I will explain later!' and we walked and ran and got lost in the crowd. To this day I have never been able to explain how he could ever have found me nor what he could have wanted from me. All I can say is strange things happen to me, but I'm always blessed and generally very lucky in life. That night I met a wonderful young Polish man Leszek at an outdoor concert and we stayed in touch for years after that; he even posted me a red rose (arrived squashed full of with brown goo) which was so sweet, so everything for a reason.
Funny enough I never thought of going back to STA in London and blasting my travel agent for not advising me about visas...MY how times have changed, now you need email disclosures ;-) God bless my saviour Pops, Cecil Frankal who kindly couriered over a one-way airticket to fly back to London. I tell you what, war-torn Warsaw is not a city where 3 days exactly fly by - a hard lesson learned! But it's the most beautiful city at night, full of gorgeous lights which are my absolute best, and becuase I love authentic, real places (how I like my people!) it held a lot of fasciation for me. During the war 85% of the city was destroyed, but all the residents kept bits and pieces and the old town was literally REBUILT and restored using special stones and tools to preserve its authenticity. love it!
Still no signs yet of a potential travel agent in our midst!
Trip no 2 to Russia and Asia, notably the exotic and enticing "Trans Siberian" train trip attracted a couple more intrepid SA travellers namely the ever-happy Renee Marcus & the suarve Dave Abdo (our designated bodyguard); the three of us handed over our cash and passports to Jo who was the leader of the pack. Little did I know I should have been taking notes on how to bribe the Mafia for Russian visas. We had a one-way ticket into Moscow, a one-way train trip on the trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing (we took the no-meals option to save some Shekels...eating on route was interesting to say the least!) and then a one-way flight back from Phuket to London. We travelled off-the-cuff and on the spur of the moment (not always easy when Chinese only seem to like people with certain facial features and CLEARLY we didn't fit the mould) and so we were randomly given hard seats instead of soft sleepers for a 17 hour journey when some backpackers after us got the soft seats, grrrrr! We traversed Russia, Mongolia, China and Thailand...of course we didn't get to use our costly Vietnam visas for our stop in Hanoi that we were SURE we'd fit in? Had we consulted a map of China before departure, it would have also saved us a whole lot of time, money and aspirations - we were NEVER going to make Vietnam as well in 6 weeks - do you have ANY idea how big China is?! We didn't but we do now!
To see the Great Wall of China was something incredibly special, particularly while in motion on the train. It's even more impressive up close and Dave was constantly bombarded by hordes of Chinese women wanting to take a picture with our strapping young Western man...the three of us didn't feature in the mix, we were just chopped liver. Doing an 8-night train trip in a tiny compartment is a sure way to make or break a friendship. Thankfully, we were the perfect mix of personalities and it forged bonds that still last to this day - it's impossible not to get close when you're sharing your squirrelled food over 8 days, negotiating meals together out of the train window during a quick platform stop in some remote village where nobody speaks English, sharing a Coke bottle for your turn to 'shower' in the moving train squat toilet because we had the 'cheap seats' sans washing facilities, or while dancing and doing karoke in our cramped compartment to Celine Dion songs blaring from our portable radio while trying to dodge the home-made washing lines containing our wet underwear strung from our beds to the window. And the real friendship test happened while cleaning up our friends' 'regurgitation' of the champagne-mixed-with-toxic-Russian Bear vodka-mixed-with-that-day's-meal, after a serious night of playing drinking card games with the Irish and Russians in the dining cart. No names mentioned :) When we tried to hand in the grotty sheet that contained said regurgitations to our Chinese compartment steward he looked at us and disgustedly said in his best English, 'horrible! terrible!' and summoned us to be on our way. Needless to say we had to sleep for the rest of the journey with the sheet buried as deep as possible in our storage area below the bunk bed. We still laugh about it today.
From the most exquisite churches in Moscow (St Peter's Basilica) to the Tomb of the Forgotten Soldiers just outside of Beijing (China's declared 8th wonder of the world...we are still wondering why!!), we giggled our way through a brilliant trip. The Chinese food was brilliant and nothing at all like the generic delights that Chinatowns serve up all over the world. We drew pictures to try ensure Renee and I kept 'kosher' (a feeble attempt at a pig with a big cross over it) and each morning ate the most delectable fresh fruit we had ever tasted served on kebab sticks from street vendors. We had amazing massages by blind people on the streets of Beijing. On a long and taxing train ride from Beijing to Kunming, where the conductor wouldn't even accept our bribe to upgrade to soft seats so we could escape the chickens and 'spitting' men sleeping under all the seats, we befriended some locals and learned how to count to 10 in Chinese. Eeh, Aah, Sah....all part of the fun and making memories while leaving your indelible mark on someone else's heart.
We met a German hippie traveller named Ronnie on route, who travelled with us as far as he could. I fell in lust and he then came to visit us in Cape Town a bit later, and I visited him back in Germany...flirtations and friendships forged while travelling are just the best. We went jungle trekking in Chiang Mai and slept with the hilltribe people on little straw mats, after they delighted us with local singing and dancing into the night. We went up to the Burmese border, river rafted in the jungle river after trekking for hours (poor Rene who kept up the rear!) and we rode elephants - I was brave enough to ride on the elephant's neck, and as I settled myself there, he carefully tucked his ears underneath my legs to secure me...it was the sweetest moment ever. We saw 'pussy galore' in Thailand and observed things popping out of orificies that we could hardly believe even with our own eyes! We guarded Dave with our life in that bar as we had heard of the local women who run up huge tabs tricking you into buying their drinks and cigarettes...we just said 'NO!' to everything and they almost wouldn't let us leave after our few soft drinks, but eventually we muscled our way out.
Phi-Phi island remains for me, to this day, heaven on earth. I took the most perfect sunset picture there, and Jo and I still argue over whose shot it was! We lay, snorkelled, swam with exotic fish and sand sharks, indulged in reading books and just totally relaxed after a very arduous and physical journey. We ate the most gorgeous seafood and enjoyed the beautiful unspoilt island which was sadly to be devastated but then reconstructed after the Tsunami. I still love sending people there as for me its truly paradise. I have yet to visit somewhere so beautiful and it was a fitting end to our trip. We thought we were clever and bought Business class tickets for R350 more from Phuket back to Bangkok on our way home, but due to bad turbulence we weren't served a THING and couldn't get the full benefit...grrrrr. Our flight was so bumpy on landing I was apparently holding Renee's hand assuring her we were going to be fine, but I was actually digging MY nails into HER palms. ha ha ha! When the captain made his standard announcements, Renee turned to me in horror with a white face and said, 'DID HE JUST SAY CABIN CREW PREPARE FOR CRASH LANDING!?!'. Thankfully he was just giving a muffled version of 'cabin crew prepare aircraft for landing!' We nervously giggled for absolute ages long after landing, over that. Back in London we carried on teaching until my visa ran out and while toying with staying illegally so that I could save and travel more, I decided to do the 'right thing' and come back to South Africa to try find a teaching job in a good Jewish school.
Still no signs yet of a potential travel agent in our midst!
On arrival back from my 2 year stint in London, I couldn'face a government teacher's salary after raking in the heavy Pounds. My sister Emma Levin kindly scoured the papers daily and innocently found an attractive Flight Centre ad for consultants - imagine my family's HYSTERICS when I announced I would be applying for the job of a travel agent! The big bonus was that no experience was necessary, you just needed half a personality and the ability to sell your favourite destination. I was almost instantly hired of course, so passionate was my description of my time on Phi Phi island that I practically had the interviewer snorkelling on her own little piece of paradise. The rest, as they say, is history. I took to travel like a duck to water and after applying my natural leadership skills coupled with my natural affinity for patience and passion, I quickly moved from consultant to position of Flight Centre Manager.
In my second year at FC I achieved the esteemed Million Dollar Consultant status and was whisked off to Bali for a 5-star royal affair at their Annual Awards ceremony at the highly recommended Nusa Dua Beach Resort. Unfortunately I caught bronchitis on the plane from Sydney to Bali, and so I spent most of my 5 days horizontal and crying for my Dad, ha ha. Especially when I got my first ever butt injection after fearing that I would live out my last few days in a hotel room in Asia...so sick was I. Needless to say I got better , made it home and went onto even greater things. After three hard-working years at FC I moved on to Embassy Travel, then went in-house agent for the Hasson Brothers, followed by American Express, Seekers and Thompsons Leisure Ttravel. Having run out of good agencies to try 10 years later, a kind-hearted angelic client-turned-friend Wayne Freed of New Way Engineering saved the day and single-handedly gave me a hand up on and so Vtravel was born after my Dad came up with the name at sunset in Paternoster. A hand up is indeed far more effective than a hand out and I am forever indebted to him for giving me "wings to fly!" Wayne is an angel.
Mazeltov....never mind Travelstart, a Travel STAR is born!
I have a wealth of travel experience with my last amazing trips including a stint at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, many return Amtrak journeys (I'm a train junkie!) following my heart from New York to Atlanta and I also managed a luxury Med cruise onboard the esteemed Crystal Serenity. Some of my most memorable travel moments of all include watching early morning Tai Chi on the streets of Beijing, waking up after overnight camping on the bank of the Sea of Galilee, having our Bangkok rickshaw driver pop a wheelie!, seeing the Great Wall of China from our Trans Mongolian train window, Friday night prayers at the Wailing Wall, watching the sun set from the pools of Pamukkelah, hearing Jack Johnson for the first time in a pub in Hoi An, Jo stubbornly clinging to her pastry AND bag while a gypsy tried to rob her in Bucharest, seeing the KGB headquarters in Moscow, taking an 18-hour hard seats train ride in China full of staring locals and clucking chickens, a delicious 15-Pence meal of Bulgarian Shopska salad, sleeping in a hospitable church...on the beach...in a bus shelter...on the cold steps of a police station...all in Bulgaria!!, drinking Bull's blood in the Valley of the Beautiful Women in Eger, Hungary, visting Dracula's Bran Castle in Transylvania, walking amongst the magical Carpathian mountains, Romania, snorkelling on Phi-Phi island and seeing a sandshark, 'iscovering Cyringe while in Kusadasi, Turkey, seeing snow for the first time ever on Christmas Day on Mount Hermon, Israel!
The Flight Centre training has given me the competitive edge in finding my clients the best deals at the best prices, while my commitment to the success of Vtravel and my passion for helping people on any level is what ensures that you and your company are offered a personalised and professional service that will keep you coming back for more. All my business is word of mouth.
Vtravel has grown phenomenally in five years and has just gone from strength to strength relying solely on the support of repeat and referral clients. Thank you so much to my special clients who have helped me more than they realise - New Way Engineering - John & Wayne Freed, Denise & Rhys Abrahams, Uncharted Africa - Catherine Raphaely, Mrs Cupido's Church group tour, GF Marketing - Riaan Ferreira, David Pearce & Lyuba Bridger, Kibsons International - Jamal Hussain & Daniel Cabral, Mavericks-Shane & Viktoriya Harrison & Karin, Fastfell-Shaughn & Inge Frost, Bandit Chippers - Hugo and Willem Van der Merwe, Boss Freight - Warren & Dominique Boyd, The Network-Kim & Duncan, Excellent Meat - Liaqat & Abbas Sonday & Jonathan Herbert, Xander Ferreira, Lindiwe Suttle, Steven Harris - Furnspace, Reagola Consulting - Bradley Hermanus, Julian Mulder, Orbis - Lene Overland and Venaisha, Coronation Fund - Bev Duncan, Sally Manderson, Laurenda Prins, Richard Martin - SA Metal, Steven Meyer in OZ, Edgar Oberhofer - Capec, Shelly McCormick - Woolworths, Creative Graphics International - Shaun Rosenstein & Mogamat Yusuf Taliep, The Haupts & The Prestons, Nicola Sharp - Kruger Law, Emboss Designs-Emma Levin, Urte Dahlmann, Celestial Gifts - Odette Butcher, The Uria Family - Cravings and S.W.E.A.T, to name a few...I'm eternally grateful and will continue to offer my best service and best prices 24/7/365.
What goes around comes around, so keep spreading the good karma all round! This Advert totally embodies the way I live my life, who I am, and how much joy it brings me to keep spreading the love and the 'wealth'...