Some Of My Favorite Tour Guides

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Some Of My Favorite Tour Guides

“To let life happen to you is irresponsible. To create your day is your divine right.”Ramtha

A great tour guide is one that creates an experience that you will remember. The best guides I’ve had have left me wanting to go back to the destination or have left me feeling like I’ve made a new friend. I have had many amazing tour guides but I picked ten in no particular order.

Ogus Kaya, Turkey

Ogus is such a warm, friendly and truly motivated guide. He is organized and punctual. We traveled for a few weeks in Turkey with him. He taught us a tremendous amount about the history and architecture. I was obsessed with the Mosque architecture of Sinan. We felt that he wanted us to love Turkey as much as he did and i think everyone did.

One of the highlights of the trip was the balloon ride over Cappodocia. I like my feet on the ground and was not going to do it. He finally said that he would go with me. He reminded me that he had two small children and one on the way. This balloon ride became one of my most cherished travel memories which I would never have done without him. ogus 51@yahoo.com

Petar Vlasik, Croatia

Petar was my first internet tour guide. After a land tour and small boat tour both cancelled, I decided to take my kids and plan a trip through Croatia by myself with Petar. This was the first time I had ever done anything like this without a husband. It was before Trip Advisor. He was recommended by Rick Steves  (so i knew he wasn’t a serial killer). Petar was smart, funny and so knowledgeable about his beautiful country.

We had a wonderful trip. Croatia is still one of my favorite countries for those who have not been there yet. I did not listen to him about hotels and I was sorry. I learned from Petar that a good tour guide always knows best and to trust my instincts about internet tour guides. http://www.dubrovnikrivieratours.com

Dvir Hollander, Jerusalem, Israel

Dvir’s knowledge, insight, humor, non judgmental world view and kindness made touring this amazing city with him a special experience. We met at lunchtime and we were hungry. When Dvir recognized that we were kindred spirits about food, he described himself as a “ friendly dictator” when it came to where we should eat.

If you are going to Jerusalem, I highly recommend hiring him – not just for the delicious food, but for how much you will learn and experience. He has the unique ability to figure out just what you want to do and then he casually adds in what he feels you are missing. The trip was perfect. Contact him at hollander2000@gmail.com.

Guide Gift Bangkok,Thailand

Gift was another guide that I found online before trip advisor. I read the reviews on her page and went with my gut. She is knowledgeable, kind, and fun to be with. I felt like I was seeing Bangkok and Ayuthetta with one of my friends.

She has her plan but is always ready to change if there is something you want to do. She also knows a very good place for Thai Massage. When you are in a part of the world that feels very different from yours, Gift can make it feel like home.
http://www.privatetourthailand.com)

  Do Sy Quy “Buffalo Joe”Hanoi, Viet Nam

My guide in Hanoi  was Mr. Do Sy Quy. He was my first guide in Viet Nam  and set the tone for an amazing experience. “Buffalo Joe” is kind, friendly, funny, intuitive and very knowledgeable about Hanoi and Viet Nam history.

I connected with him immediately and feel like I have a friend in Hanoi. i will always remember our drive to and from Ha Long Bay and everything we did –  especially the Thanh Chuong Viet Palace. http://www.incensetravel.com

Andres Miguel, Buenos Aires, Argentina

i have had a few great guides in Argentina but I had to pick Andres Miguel because he is a tango dancer.  Everything we did that day was related to tango  –  a boat on a river, good food, shopping, a milonga and always tango stories. He changed things around and went with what interested me.

The boat ride was an impromptu surprise as was eating at a family restaurant on Sunday for the best empanadas. He was the perfect tour guide for me and gave me a gift of the perfect Buenos Aires day.  tango@culturacercana.com.ar

Jose Villa, Cartagena,Colombia

The hot, sleepy city of Cartagena is such a special place and seeing it with Jose is the way to go. Being alone he let me tag along to teach English at their church and visit the music school his son Kevin attended..They were both knowledgeable and fun.

We saw the old city, beaches, markets, took a private boat to the islands, visited a fishing village, paddled a canoe through the mangrove tunnels and strolled the streets of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I stayed an extra few days because I loved this city and felt so safe and taken care of. http://cartagenadestiny.com

Carolina Velasquez Obreque, Santiago, Chile

Carolina was our tour guide in Santiago and Valparaiso. She was funny, knowledgeable and organized. She came to us through Vaya Adventures. We spent a beautiful day with her exploring the Casablanca wine region between Valpo and Santiago.

The trip was seamless – except when I lost that paper that they give you at customs when you land. Apparently it’s very important in Chile. She went with me to get a new one before driving to Valpo which is why I am home and able to write this. I highly recommend spending some time in Chile with her. https://www.vayaadventures.com

Michai Bojanowski , Wroclaw, Poland

Michai is a wonderful guide who loves his country. With knowledge and humor, we spent a long day in Wroclaw exploring the beauty of the city. He incorporates the darkness of the past as we explore the Jewish quarter. He has such passion for passing on the truth.

Before lunch I saw a street art drawing of man looking out the window. I ask about it. He tells me it is Poland’s most famous poet and playwright Tadeusz Różewicz.

After lunch, he has brought copies of a beautiful poem that he thought would go with what he was speaking about.He made sure we learned a little extra. I love that.  michal.bojanowski@chidusz.com

Wayne Thomas, Aukland, New Zealand

I usually don’t write  about a half day group tour of a city but I learned and retained more information with Wayne Thomas of Bush and Beach Tours http://www.bushandbeach.co.nz/, then any day tour I have ever been on.

He has a way of passing on knowledge that is sometimes funny and sometimes personal  that makes you remember it.  This is a wonderful welcome tour of New Zealand. I highly recommend him.

Fly safe,
JAZ

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The Last Rabbi Of Piotrkow, Poland

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The Last Rabbi Of Piotrkow, Poland

“Summer came. For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me, the sky was the color of Jews.” Marcus Zusak The Book Thief

It is hard to visit a place where a war has thrown your family into chaos and left many of them dead – even if you had not been born, yet. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s grandfather was the last rabbi of Piotrkow. We stopped there with him on our way to Warsaw.

The Great Synagogue of Piotrkow, was built in 1793 after thirty years of planning. It was a famous site in Poland. The synagogue was severely damaged by the Nazis and serves as a public library today. 

We saw the remains of a polichrome wall painting of the Torah ark, riddled with bullet holes. 

We met with  Polish teenagers from a  high school Jewish studies program. Most of them had not met Jews before. 

Amichai tells them that his grandfather was Piotrków Trybunalski’s last chief rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau. Following the German occupation, Rabbi Lau was ordered by the German authorities to represent the Jews of Piotrków Trybunalski and carry out the German’s commands. The Jews were sent to the Pyotrkow ghetto and he tried to help them and organize life for them there. In October 1942, Rabbi Lau was deported to Treblinka with his congregation and murdered. He chose to stay with them. One of his sons was also on this transport and he too was murdered.  Rabbi Lau’s wife was murdered in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Three of his children survived and immigrated to Israel after the Holocaust. Amichai read the story where his father writes about the last time he and his brother saw their father. They were five and sixteen years old. 

“For the first time in many months, my father approached me and kissed me on my forehead as I was sitting on the couch. A warm tear fell from the corner of his eye, landing on my cheek. “Let us follow the example of our patriarch Jacob, who arranged his family in preparation for the conflict with his hostile brother Esau. Jacob divided his family into three camps, hoping that at least one would survive,” this is how my father explained his plan for survival. Mother and our youngest brother, Israel-Lulek, who was five, were sent to hide with a neighbor, to wait out the hell-storm of the deportation. Father decided to send me and Shmuel to the glass factory. He imposed on himself the same fate as that of his community, to stand together with them, to be deported, to partake of whatever fate would befall them. “Just as a shepherd does not abandon his flock to a pack of wolves, so I will not run to save myself, abandoning my flock.” This is what he said regarding his decision to report for the deportation.” Naphtali Lau-Lavie,

When Amichai finishes his story about their survival, there is tense silence. Some of the kids are tearful. He did not tell his story to preach morality or to cast blame on those who only knew of the Nazi regime from history books.

He told it to transfer an optimistic message of hope and faith in humanity. The wish is to apply these lessons in today’s world to eradicate the racism and xenophobia that still exists in every society. 

Everyone has questions.

The students seem to want to understand the Jewish experience during World War ll. It’s important for them to know what happened. They also wanted to know how Trump got to be president and what it was like to live in Los Angeles. I always find that no matter where I am in the world, we are more alike than different.

I have to thank Amichai for bringing both his unique form of spirituality and his personal story to Poland.  I will always be grateful for your kindness and humility in helping us process the difficult things we were seeing.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Jewish Wroclaw, Poland

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Jewish Wroclaw, Poland

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” John Steinbeck

In 1933, 20,000 Jews lived in Wroclaw.  In November 1938, the New Synagogue was destroyed in a fire during the Kristalnacht pogroms.

Between 1941 and 1944, the majority of Jewish residents of Wrocław were transferred to death and concentration camps. A  group of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust settled in Wrocław after 1945. The communist authorities organized an assembly point for the Jews, in Wroclaw, who wanted to go to the USA or to Palestine. As a result, about 10,000 Jews were there in February 1946. The significant emigrations diminished the number of the Jews in the city. In 1968 it came to another wave of emigrations, which left only 500 Jews in the city. In the late Polish People’s Republic (PRL), the Jewish activity started disappearing. The White Stork Synagogue in Wrocław was the only synagogue in the city to survive the Holocaust.

In 1974 the Communist authorities took over the White Stork Synagogue. The Jews regained the White Stork Synagogue in 1994.

Restored in 2010 after a decade-long renovation, it now serves as a cultural center. Lauder Etz-Chaim School was established, as well as a kindergarten and the synagogue choir which is the only one in Poland. 

Chidusz is a Jewish magazine published by our Wroclaw guide Michai Bojanowski. I read it from cover to cover. There are stories about the present, the Holocaust and general news about Jewish life in Poland.

Michai is a wonderful guide who loves his country.  He is young and believes it is his responsibility to do the best for people who don’t have a voice in Poland anymore.  His passion reminds us not to forget them and not let it happen again. Young Poles today were not around during the Holocaust but many feel that they owe the truth in remembering the past to the victims.  Michai takes us through all of Wroclaw ending with the Jewish area.

Wroclaw is lucky to have such a fine representative of their city and we were lucky he was our guide.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Things I Have Learned In Wroclaw, Poland

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Things I Have Learned In Wroclaw, Poland

We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” – Hilaire Belloc

Wroclaw is a particularly hard city to pronounce. It is pronounced something close to Vroslav.

Wroclaw has had a long a varied history stretching back over a thousand years. For many years Wroclaw was a German city named Breslau. and this influence can be seen in the architecture throughout the city. Wroclaw is now part of Poland, but it has also been part of the Czech Republic and Austria.

Preceding World War II, Breslau (now Wroclaw) had the third largest Jewish population of all German cities.

Because of the many rivers, islands, some 200 or so bridges and the sheer beauty of the city, Wroclaw has a growing reputation as the Venice of the North.


Some could argue, but Wroclaw is allegedly the most beautiful city in Poland.

In Wroclaw, the bar and pubs don’t prepare to kick you out at 11pm; they are just getting going around this time. As a general rule, some places will stay open until the last person leaves.

The market square is another one of those most picturesque squares in Poland.

It was totally rebuilt after World War ll.

Many of the buildings in Wrocław’s picturesque old town are painted with bright colors that reflect the city’s youthful and creative vibe.

Wrocław is one of the leading academic centers of Poland and is home to a number of universities.

Students flock to Wrocław not only because of the excellent standard of education it offers but also because of its vibrant, cultured way of life.

There’s an interesting history behind the gnome settlement in Wrocław.

Back when the city was controlled by the USSR, gnomes slowly began appearing as a sort of subversive calling card of the underground Orange Alternative movement who began to protest against the oppressive conditions with silliness and fun.

The police while covering up anti-regime slogans looked the other way about the gnomes.

The gnomes have become a symbol of freedom in Wrocław ever since.

Gnome hunting makes for a fun, unique afternoon.

They are hidden all over the city. See how many you can spot!

Today there are over 250 dwarves hiding in plain sight around Wroclaw, serving as a fun tourist sight and sometimes even a surprise for locals.

Tourist maps and GPS coordinates are available at tourist shops for those who want to go dwarf hunting.

It sounded like a stupid thing to do but when I got there, I was in.

The gnomes are cool.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Jewish Krakow

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Jewish Krakow

“As the Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel warned years ago, to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”  Iris Chang

 Krakow was my first stop in Poland. I was there for a week.  It was a picturesque city with unseasonably hot sunny weather and friendly people. My hotel overlooked the stunning Vistula River and Wawei Castle. It was not the grey and gloomy city of the black and white World War Two or Communist photos.

Maciej Zabierowska from the Auschwitz Jewish  Center was our very knowledgeable, interesting guide in the Jewish quarter Kazimierz. We walked around the streets, decorated with colorful street art and set with trendy cafes, cool bars, art galleries, and boutiques.

Maciej’s stories of the history and the peeling, old, facades of the buildings, allowed me not to forget the terrible horrors which took place right there, not that long ago.

We start at the Old Synagogue which was badly looted during World War ll and is now a museum.

The museum shows the history and culture of the Jews of Krakow.

Dating from 1553, the Remuh Synagogue is Kraków’s smallest but most active synagogue, with Shabbat services once again taking place here each Friday.

The synagogue was established by the family of famous 16th century Polish Rabbi Moses Isserles – better known as ‘the Rema,’ The old Jewish Cemetery is next to it.

Kazimierz has many  Jewish-themed tourist restaurants. Its “Jewish” cafes present a nostalgic, literary image of prewar Jewish life — some with taste and sensitivity, others in a disturbing way.

I didn’t eat in them but it looked like they were going for old world shtetl chic. Some of the names of the restaurants are in Hebrew style letters.

I checked a few menus and there were things like Rabbi’s salad and Yiddish fish. There were Klezmer bands playing music (like Volare?)  it had a Jewish Disneyland feeling but without the  Jews.

There are many Lucky Jews. The Lucky Jew comes from Polish folk art. In many places, not a trace is left of the Jewish community that once lived there. That blank space is filled today with images of Jews––figurines, pictures, magnets, postcards, and more. The lucky Jews are negative stereotypical caricatures of the Jewish people.  They seem to reflect the preconception that Poles are antisemitic.  According to the Poles, it is an amulet or good luck charm, like a happy fat Buddha. Little Lucky Jews stand at cash registers holding bags of money or a coin for good luck.

There are also paintings and caricatures of them. It is based on centuries of living side by side and stereotypes. Their story is complicated and due to some protesting, there are less of them now. 

We stop in at the Pharmacy Museum.

It is five floors of all kinds of things used as pharmaceuticals but we are here to see the exhibit about Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who operated a pharmacy in the Kraków Ghetto during WWII.

He was the only Roman Catholic pharmacist in the area to decline the German’s offer to relocate outside the ghetto.

He helped with medication, often free, hair dyes for changing identities, tranquilizers for children during Nazi raids, smuggling food and messages etc. His story is on display here.

We continue on through the ghetto.

The Galicia Jewish Museum is home to the permanent photographic exhibitions, Traces of Memory: A contemporary look at the Jewish past in Poland, and An Unfinished Memory. The goals of the Museum are to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions typically associated with the Jewish past in Poland.

Oskar Schindler saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.

  This incident was made famous by Stephen Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List’.

Located on the site of Schindler’s Enamel Factory is the Historical Museum of Krakow which tells the story of Kraków and its inhabitants during the Second World War.

Visitors can explore artifacts,  photographs, eyewitness accounts, films and multimedia exhibitions, which show the history of life and tragedy during this time.

Gosia Fus,  our guide here and in the old city is visibly moved as she guides us through the exhibit. (memorial)

The Plaszow Concentration Camp was not far from the Schindler Factory and four kilometers from the Market Square.

Amon Goth the brutal camp commandant lived on the hill overlooking the camp. The Schindler workers walked back and forth every day. It is a mass cemetery of unmarked graves and pits filled with corpses.

it looks like a wide expanse of grass and stone. The camp was built on top of two cemeteries and the tombstones were used as pavers in the roads. It went from a forced labor cam to a mass execution site of the Jews from the emptying Krakow Ghetto.

There are no headsets, tour guides or multimedia displays and I walk the grounds to try to feel the past beneath my feet. 

We go to our first Shabbat at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. It is run by a New Yorker, Jonathan Orenstein. Rabbi Amichai Lev Lurie who is traveling with us leads a beautiful, thoughtful service which puts everyone in a spiritual mood.  I am sitting next to a Holocaust survivor who had been hidden during the war. There is a school group from Israel, converted Jews who found out a grandparent or relative was Jewish, and some Polish Jews. The staff, volunteers, and community were warm and welcoming. We had a typical  Sabbath Dinner. The doors are open to all. Make it a point to stop in if you are there on a Friday night.  

I have to thank our guides in Kraków  Maciej and Gosia for their kindness, empathy, and knowledge. I did not know what kind of people i would find in Poland after all that history and the right-wing media publicity. I have traveled enough to know that there are always a few people in a country who will change your life for the better. You have to travel to open up a worldview that is almost impossible to comprehend without meeting the people in a country different from yours. Both Maciej and Gosia are those kinds of people.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Who Will Write Our Story?

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Who Will Write Our Story?

“What we were unable to shout out to the world, we hid underground. May this treasure end up in good hands, may it live to see better times, may it alert the world.”Dawid Graber -one of the people who buried the archive

During the darkest period in their history, Emanuel Ringleblum a historian,  gathered a group of scholars and intellectuals and formed the Oyneg Shabes. (named that because they usually met on Saturday) It is one of the most astonishing research projects in history. Ringleblum believed that writing history from “within the event” instead of after from memory would give a clearer picture of what was happening.

It started as an attempt to collect as much diverse information about Jewish life during this period. They handed out notebooks to people in the Warsaw Ghetto to write their stories within the event and time frame. They reached out to other cities in Poland as well. They collected and wrote diaries, journals, reports, art, literature and studies of life in the ghetto. They also saved newspapers,  ration tickets, letters and postcards, German orders, invitations to ghetto events, theatre posters, fliers, schoolwork, tram tickets and candy wrappers. 

I read one book that was recommended for the trip entitled Who Will Write Our History? by Samuel Kassow. I did not realize that in Warsaw, the Jewish Historical Institute  housed this archive and I would actually be able to see it.

The project changed when news of the mass murders began and the group started documenting the destruction of the Jewish people in Poland. One of the earliest reports about the Nazi extermination of the Jews to reach London and the West was about the Chelmo Extermination Camp. It came from the Oyneg Shabes.

The materials from the Ringelblum Archive were buried in ten metal boxes and two milk cans. The first cache was hidden in August 1942 during the Great Deportation. The other in February 1943 a few months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The fear at this point was that none of the two hundred members would survive to know where to dig it up but three of them survived. Emanual Ringleblum and his family did not. 

Reading excerpts from the 6,OOO documents was harrowing and heartbreaking but seeing it displayed at the Jewish Historical Institute made their heroism real for me.

They say that history is written by the victors. Poet and Oyneg Shabes member Gustawa Jarecka,  described it as” a ‘stone hurled under history’s wheel to stop it.’ It could not stop it but it gave a voice to the victims and a clear picture of the destruction. ( calculations of deportations)

The first cache was unearthed shortly after the war in September 1946, while the discovery of the second trove came in December 1950.

There was also a third cache which has not been found. Rachel Auerbach who was one of the survivors says that “If the third part of the Ringelblum archive is ever found, it will include my papers  turned over after the deportations began, it will include a ticket from the ghetto’s laundry with a poem  by Yisroel Shtern about a tree in the ghetto.”

Fly safe,

JAZ

Things That I Have Learned In Krakow, Poland

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Things That  I Have Learned In Krakow, Poland

“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.” Roman Payne

Perched on Wawel Hill in Krakow, Wawel Castle is one of the most important structures in Poland. It was the residence of Polish kings for centuries before being converted into a museum and extensive art gallery in 1930.

The ornately decorated cathedral (no photos please)  and the royal staterooms are good to include in your visit.

The castle represents nearly every European architectural style, including Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque and consists of a number of structures situated around the Italianish main courtyard.

As in other countries, it is good to be the king.

In Wawel Castle, there is an exhibition of one painting. It is an original painting by Leonardo da Vinci “Lady with an Ermine.” Only five other cities in the world can boast a painting by da Vinci, so don’t miss it. The painting was bought in 1800 by Adam Czartoryski, a Polish prince. It was moved to Paris in 1836 and returned to the Czartoryski Museum in 1876. Hidden from the Nazis in 1939, the painting was found and formed part of Hitler’s Berlin collection before ending up in Waiwei as the property of Krakow’s Nazi commandant, Hans Frank. With Soviet troops getting close, the painting was rushed back to Germany. American soldiers finally confiscated it and returned it home to Kraków in 1946. The painting has since become one of the city’s most loved treasures.

Krąków’s Jagiellonian University was established by King Casimir III the Great in 1364 and is the oldest university in Poland and second oldest in Central Europe.

Krakow is an old town of young people. The twenty-eight Krakow institutions of higher education have over 200,000 students attending them. The population of Krakow is 760,000 thousand. 

St. Mary’s Trumpet Call can be heard playing hourly from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica – a major symbol of Kraków. The melody always stops short, which symbolizes the legend of a trumpeter who, in 1240, wanted to warn the locals of an approaching enemy, but was killed by an arrow.

Krakow is a city of churches, which is especially visible in its historical center.

In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of the city willingly gave themselves into the hands of the Saints, who would protect them and help them with all life problems.

Krakow is one of those European cities that takes pride in having a cold cut produced and branded there -like Parma. Kielbasa Krakowska  or Kielbasa Lisiecka are the products whose taste has been synonymous with Polish sausage.

Another specialty of Krakow is the famous bagel (obwarzanek krakowski). The ring-shaped braid of bread covered with poppy seeds is sold on every corner in the city.

It was baked in Krakow since the Middle Ages and popularized by the Jewish community who emigrated throughout the world. 

MOCAK is a very interesting and thought-provoking contemporary art museum.(art makes you free)

The museum has a wide range of contemporary art and sculpture, all well presented and explained in a spacious modern building.

There were some excellent pieces challenging nationalism, globalization and war.

There are both Polish and International contemporary artists represented.

Many European cities have an Old Town, but Kraków definitely has one of the best.

The medieval architecture is especially fascinating and it’s big enough that you can spend all day walking around it.

Kraków’s Market Square is the largest medieval commercial square in Europe (each of its sides is 200 m long).

It is forbidden to feed pigeons in Krakow. The locals hate them. (a few hungry pigeons)

There is a lot of weird sculpture in Poland. The big head in Rynek Square is one of them. It is a good meeting point because every tourist can find it. The head is Eros, the God of Love. Why the blindfold? Because love is blind?

The Vistula River, Poland’s longest, runs through Kraków just outside of the Old Town and Jewish District. There are more locals than tourists enjoying it.

The riverfront is long and wide and goes along both sides. It’s lined with a sidewalk, grass, parks, and a few boat restaurants.

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During World War ll, the Nazis occupied beautiful Krakow. Hans Frank looked over the terror from his office on Wawei Hill which is why Krakow was not destroyed.

Krakow is one of the most charming cities. it is hard to believe there was so much death and darkness in such a peaceful place with all those churches. 

I would like to thank Jo Fisher and Aryeh Maidenbaum of Jewish Heritage Travel for putting together such an interesting, well thought out trip through Poland. I have learned so much of the history and complexities of Poland and appreciated the thoughtful intelligent guides and of course, the great hotels.  Hope to travel with you again, some day.

Fly safe,

JAZ