Why I Don't Care about International Relations

accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought...

Pure Light, Pure Life: A Costa Rica Snapshot

At the edge of Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, in 6 am light The light falling through my windows at 6...

On Growing Wings & The Value of Figuring It Out for Yourself

I have the clearest memory of asking my father for help tying my shoes. I was sitting on the...

But Still: A Short Story on the Wisdom of Trust

“Trust no one,” the wise ones said. Deep-lined faces, milk eyes clouded with all the memories of all the misfortunes...

How to be an Incorrigible Optimist, or, What I’m Doing in Costa Rica

“We are the crazy ones who choose to believe in peace,” he concluded. One sliver in a blurred progression...
Central America, Peace
Why I Don't Care about International Relations
Central America, Nature
Pure Light, Pure Life: A Costa Rica Snapshot
Adventure, Central America, Travel Advice
On Growing Wings & The Value of Figuring It Out for Yourself
Adventure, Poetry & Fiction, Travel Advice
But Still: A Short Story on the Wisdom of Trust
Central America, Culture
How to be an Incorrigible Optimist, or, What I’m Doing in Costa Rica

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Hi, my name is Toby Israel.

I like to call myself an incorrigible vagabond. (It hasn’t caught on…yet.) I search for dragons, searches, and cross-cultural understanding—and then I share those discoveries with you.

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international relations
Central America, Peace

Why I Don’t Care about International Relations

[Our] accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought to have a monopoly on the path to the future. — Wade Davis, Wayfinders

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

After a challenging three weeks in an International Relations course, I realized something…

Wait. Let me rewind first. Three wekes ago, I wrote:

Anthropologist Wade Davis—and particularly his book on indigenous systems, quoted above—has left a deep impression on me in the past year.

He expresses, with compelling eloquence and abundant case studies, my own feelings about our modern status quo. In these first few weeks at UPeace, I have seen the Western paradigm for peacebuilding and conflict resolution repeatedly touted in assigned readings as the apex of human thought, with few voices raised in opposition. (Makau Mutua comes to mind.)

While traveling over the last three years, I have encountered countless well-intentioned people doing far less good than they had hoped.

I believe it comes down to arrogance.

The problem is that we think we know everything. We think our truth is the only truth—that our reality is Reality. We are self-centered enough to believe human development is linear (and concentrated in the “West”) and that anything that came before, or from outside, is irrelevant to our future as a species.

This narcissism holds repercussions far wider than the field of peace and conflict studies. It impacts economic systems, food production, development, immigration policy, and so much more. Even worse, it closes our minds to all the wisdom available to us within our own history, and it stunts our capacity for creative and critical thought.

Human innovation is limitless, but only if we are humble enough to apply it to the flaws in our own paradigm.

As a storyteller, I am most interested in the role individuals play—as agents of change, or as champions of a flawed system. It is individual arrogance that calls America the “Greatest Country on Earth” and believes it devoutly. It is individual arrogance that can watch a system of production far outpace the earth’s capacity for regeneration and call that progress. And it is human arrogance that promotes the universalization of broken structures in the name of peace, employing many kinds of violence to achieve it. I believe real progress will come from empowering individuals to think critically and tell new stories about peace.

This is why I’m drawn to movements like social permaculture, rewilding, and experiential learning. These proceed with humility and open minds, don’t assume they have all the answers, and look beyond a human-centered, modern Western paradigm for solutions.

I do not believe there is anything idealistic about such an approach; given the circumstances, it might be the most pragmatic yet.

international relations

You see, I wrote the above words from the perspective of a writer, a student of anthropology, and a poet with an enduring interest in indigenous wisdom. The readings in my recent course, on the other hand, offered answers mostly rooted in the rigid and ethnocentric tradition of International Relations.

In our final assignment, we were asked to, “Cite the theoretical frameworks and readings that have most influenced your thinking.”

Instead, I decided to be honest—and not to simply put words on the page for the sake of a grade.

I had to admit that those theories and readings had not influenced my thinking—not in a meaningful way.

They made me question the utility of any political system at all. They made me seriously consider becoming an anarchist. And they have made me wonder if perhaps my incorrigible optimism is not so well-founded.

With the utmost respect to the field of International Relations and those dedicated to it, I am not at the University for Peace to learn about Neorealists and Neoliberals.

I do not care about great powers, nor small ones.

I do not care if China will be the next hegemon, not really.

I do not care if my worldview would be classified as “Cosmopolitan” or “Neorealist.”

I believe in the potential for transformation at the micro level, and I direct all of my efforts in my work—in writing, facilitating, editing, and learning—toward that end. I believe that the actions and choices of individuals and communities have an increasingly global impact.

This impact does not care what experts on civil society say about it. This impact will go on impacting regardless of what I say about it.

I believe in the exceptional power of media to inspire, accelerate, and sustain that transformation. International Relations speaks of hybrid warfare. Perhaps we could also speak of hybrid media: Individual “influencers” with audiences numbering in the millions. Online forums that subvert the status quo and utilize new blockchain technology to circumvent established channels of communication (and power) entirely. Anonymous “actors” who sway the tide of public opinion.

A single policy change may touch millions of lives (for better or worse), but so can a single viral article.

So, what do we do with that power? I am refining my answer to that question day by day. This new media is a masterless force, and I hope I can have a tiny, tiny role in directing its course—by adding my own voice to the multitudes and advocating for tolerance, understanding, equality, love, and curiosity, and by supporting individuals to find their voices and harness their experience for positive change.

The theories and paradigms I have studied so far paint an excellently accurate picture of the “world as it is,” but I am more interested in the “world as it could be.”

It is critical that we see things as they are if we wish to shape them to a vision of how they could be—absolutely. Frameworks and theories are useful tools for organizing practice, innovating solutions. Yet, as Einstein (or, it may have been Mark Twain) famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

From where I sit, even new theories look suspiciously similar to old ones. Human-centric. Stubbornly rooted in a Western paradigm. Of limited relevance to the average human being.

The extraordinary young entrepreneurs I met in South Africa, in Kenya, in Zanzibar do not need our theories. Are they not already doing more than any of us to promote peace in their communities? The writers I have worked with for years, supporting them to share stories of trauma, of sexual abuse, of mental disorder, may or may not agree with Kant’s theories on peace, but they are practicing peace—and inspiring others to do the same.

The yoga students in my classes do not need theories of transformation to transform.

The lesson is in the practice.

None of this is to discount the value of large-scale institutions, nor the power of structural change. Indeed, transformation must occur at all levels—for instance, nations signing onto the Paris Agreement; big business investing in corporate responsibility; entrepreneurs pursuing eco-restorative initiatives and non-traditional models of growth; and individuals committing to drastic changes in lifestyle.

But while the knowledge I have gained in the past three weeks is undoubtedly valuable as such, my work is not there at the level of state actors and UN resolutions.

My work is not theoretical—or, I do not want it to be.

I find it impossible to understand how my actions, here at the most micro of levels, have any bearing on these expansive theories.

And that’s okay.

There are seven billion of us here on the planet, and more on the way. There is no shortage of shoes to fill.


Adapted from a (perhaps overly honest) final reflection paper for my recent course at UPEACE.

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light
Central America, Nature

Pure Light, Pure Life: A Costa Rica Snapshot

At the edge of Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, in 6 am light

The light falling through my windows at 6 am cleans the sleep from my eyes.

I study how it falls on the striped tablecloth, on the laundry hanging on the porch, on the dishes in the rack by the sink, now dry.

This light has weight. Depth. And levity.

As I walk through it to bring my compost to the pile at the edge of my yard, the light transforms the ordinary into magic. Last night’s rain glistens on blades of grass, hibiscus flowers, palm fronds. The air itself breathes, infused with life, illuminated.

The mossy track up the hill to the road could lead anywhere, in this light.

Portals could appear around the bend, elves could shimmy down the velvety rays, and I would not be surprised.

This 6 am, 7 am, 8 am clarity washes away the dark and the rain and the heaviness of the night before. It redeems the incessancy of the September rains. One could take flight in it; its very existence defies the gravity of the season, washes the soul, and lifts the spirit, suspending it in lush, velvet lucidity for the rest of the day.

And this 6 am tableau expands to touch all the senses. Birdsong rides upon the coattails of the light, insisting that all who hear it enter into the day. It is more effective than any alarm. Moths who stumbled inside at midnight, addled by electric bulbs, buzz now at the windows, anxious to rejoin the jungle. Close behind the birdsong sings the scent of dawn—wet earth and drip-drying branches—with the promise of a fresh beginning.

Amnesiac mornings, yesterday forgotten.

And within the light that trails the birdsong that carries the wet earth smell, a prescience of the daytime heat to come. Already, nighttime chill begins to dissolve. Cool tiles underfoot raise goosebumps, and the air is just brisk enough that one feels compelled to carry a sweater, which will be obsolete within hours.

Finally, the taste of 6 am light—because sunlight like this has flavour just as it has weight… dark green, a little bit dusty, rich and smooth on the tongue like homemade whipped cream. Or sweet and bright like ripe pineapple. Or tart and effervescent like good champagne.

It lingers. Leaves an impression.

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

Pure life, this light.

But I don’t think there is anything particularly rare about it. Surely you could find light like this—uplifting and exquisite and soft to the touch—anywhere. Not only in Costa Rica. Not only in the jungle.

I think, though I have no proof, that we can find this light whenever we open space to it. When we slow down our mornings to hear it, deepen our gaze to observe it, stick out our tongue to taste it…

Sunlight everywhere reaches out its fingertips, nudges the soul to take wing, offers prayers for a velvet, amnesiac morning.

Pure life—

Not a destination, but a way of beginning.

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wings
Adventure, Central America, Travel Advice

On Growing Wings & The Value of Figuring It Out for Yourself

wings

I have the clearest memory of asking my father for help tying my shoes.

I was sitting on the bottom step of our unfinished basement—I must have been around four years old—trying to remember something about a rabbit and a hole. And there was my father, who already had all the knowledge I needed about shoelaces and rabbits; he could help me.

But instead he said, “You can tie your shoes yourself.”

And I did.

Maybe that memory is real. Maybe my mind constructed it out of dozens of memories like it. I don’t think it matters.

My parents pushed me to “tie my own shoes” throughout my childhood in countless ways, large and small. It’s one of the gifts for which I’m most grateful. Without a doubt there is a fine balance between holding a child’s hand and pushing them out into the world alone. I have no idea what that balance is—one of many reasons I’m not a parent.

As an adult, I’ve made a religion of self-sufficiency. Perhaps I’ve taken it to too much of an extreme, but that is what I have done. Solo travel, distance walks, one-way flights to countries where I know nobody, constant seeking for edges—my own, and the world’s…

Some people are adrenaline junkies. The Unknown gives me my high.

When I moved to Cape Town for the first time in early 2016, I didn’t know anyone there. I came with a name—a friend of a friend—and an address. When I found out that the house I’d already paid a deposit on was nowhere near the center of the city, I hitchhiked my way to climbing gyms, dance classes, and cozy cafes until I figured out the informal shared taxis.

Would it have been easier to have friends, family, or resources at my disposal, ready to give me rides, show me the ropes of a chaotic transport system, and introduce me to new friends? I’m sure it would have—but then, would I have learned as much?

I’m a firm believer that we grow fastest and fly farthest when we push ourselves well beyond our comfort zones. Experience has taught me a key paradox to traveling (and living) in a state of discovery: To thrive outside our comfort zone, we must trust, absolutely, that we can thrive outside our comfort zone. But to truly believe in our capacity for flight, we have to fly.

In essence:

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Now, there are a few key elements to this jumping-off-cliffs-and-growing-wings business…

First, that balance. We are none of us an island, as a wise writer once said, more or less. For every cliff we jump off alone, there may well be another to whom we say, “not today,” and third on which we find a companion to hold our hand on the way down. Balance.

Second, support. While my parents were teaching me to tie my own shoes, they were also giving me love and support every step of the way. I am blessed to know that my family and friends are always there, ready to cheer me on when I fly, or pick me up if I take any knocks on the way down. Family, friends, community—a support system, even if we never call on it, makes it so much easier to jump.

Third, will. You could argue that personality or background determine our ability to grow wings, and I would disagree with you. While stubbornness is my dominant personality trait, and I don’t like following directions, I have met so many others far more resourceful than I, of every possible personality type and cultural background. I don’t believe it is personality; it’s will. Tautological though it may sound, to figure it out for yourself, you have to want to figure it out for yourself.

To grow wings, you have to grow wings.

Easy?

Wrong question. It’s possible, and that’s really all we need to know.

Happy flying!


Many thanks to a good friend here in Costa Rica, whose conversation on this subject pushed me to articulate what exactly I think about it!

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trust
Adventure, Poetry & Fiction, Travel Advice

But Still: A Short Story on the Wisdom of Trust

“Trust no one,” the wise ones said.

Deep-lined faces, milk eyes clouded with all the memories of all the misfortunes of all the ages, they hummed with knowledge of the world’s evils and ills.

“But why?” the innocent ones asked.

Smooth smooth skin, crystal eyes free of such heavy knowing, they saw only beauty — believed in the bright spark glowing in all the souls of all the bodies of all the beings around them.

“Take heed,” the wise ones replied. “Once, we were like you, crystal eyes and silk skin and child hearts untouched by sorrow. But now, but now, but now, but now…” the fragments of harsh lessons learned echoed in that mournful “but now.

The innocent ones began to look around them with more caution.

The knife-edge teeth of the sharks — who had once been their friends and accomplices in underwater adventures — suddenly inspired fear. The midnight eyes of hawks and gulls — who had once delighted the children with their dramatic displays of flight — now reflected frightened stares.

The highest branches of the oldest trees — once safe refuges of friendship and warmth — revealed the word Danger writ into the grooves of their bark.

The knowing, the knowing, the knowing — it descended upon the children like a milky white shroud, swirling thoughts of evils and ills in once-clear minds, and soon it was they who echoed the mournful tales of the ancient wind and rocks around them:

But now, but now, but now.

Yet, not all the children bowed before the knowing and donned the severe cloud eyes of the wise ones.

No, there were the other ones too, and when the wise ones said Trust no one and the innocent ones asked But why, these last few held up a hand for quiet and called softly, “Wait.”

And some of the innocent ones stopped to listen.

The other ones continued, “Once, we were like you, crystal eyes and silk skin and child hearts untouched by sorrow. Now, our eyes, our backs, our hearts, too, carry all the memories of all the misfortunes of all the ages. Our skin, too, carries knowing in every pore.

Yes, the world will knock you down, cheat you, hurt you, lie to you and disappoint you. You will not be innocent forever; the wise ones speak true…”

And then, milk eyes creased in child heart smiles, and the other ones echoed the joyful melody of the waves and the sky and the mountains around them:

“… But still, but still, but still, but still —

the spark you see in all the souls of all the bodies of all the beings is there.

But still, but still, but still —

Trust anyway.”

trust


Originally published at Rebelle Society.

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Central America, Culture

How to be an Incorrigible Optimist, or, What I’m Doing in Costa Rica

“We are the crazy ones who choose to believe in peace,” he concluded.

One sliver in a blurred progression of notable speakers and presentations that overfilled my two-day orientation at UPeace (University for Peace) in El Rodeo, Costa Rica, his words stuck with me.

The volcanic mountains of San José rose in the hazy distance outside the window. Over 100 students from several dozen countries filled the seats beside me. Anyone pursuing a master’s degree in Peace Studies must be at least a tiny bit of an optimist.

I certainly am.

To trust, to believe, to hope—this is my daily act of rebellion in a world that tells us only to fear, to hate, and to doubt.

Our world is full of darkness. And it is full of light. I am an optimist not because I do not see the darkness (of course I do—who could ignore it?), but because I choose to always strive for its opposite.

The world is at war; I hope for peace.

Humans are cruel, petty, hateful, and foolish, but I believe—I know—they are more often kind, generous, loving, and wise.

No matter how many times I encounter the former, I continue to trust. This is not naïveté; it is optimism. Because my world—the world I want to live in—must deserve my faith.

peace, optimist, costa rica

How can we be incorrigible optimists in a world that is constantly turning on its head?

Simple.

We choose it.

We rebel against cynicism and decide to be optimists. There is no other way.

That’s what I’m doing here at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Choosing to believe in peace.


More stories of discovery, peace and adventure in Costa Rica are on the way. What do you want to read about? Let me know and I’ll probably take your suggestion on board!

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stillness
Nomadism

If I Could Fly: Seeking Stillness in Movement

Vermont. Early August, 2017. Stillness.

It’s 1:04pm, and the August sun is hitting my laptop screen at just the right angle that I must squint to see what I write.

The bus rattles and sways on the two-lane Vermont highway. Pen and paper prove unusable.

I have music in my ears for a change, and it makes me think of caravan routes through the desert, the rolling gait of long-legged animals on sand, the scorching white heat of a cloudless sky at noon.

I look out the window to my left and witness another set of elements entirely—green mountains, gentle New England sky. Yet, the felt sense is the same. It is a tenuous impression I have tried and failed to describe so many times, I nearly believe it impossible.

It is the thing that calls me to move and whispers instructions to my intuition. It is the thing that taught me to dance, barefoot and alone. “Wanderlust” is an incomplete surrogate for the thing I mean.

I look outside again.

There is a story in the sky, like always; I could spend the whole ride watching the shapeshifting drama and chuckling to myself. Mountains undulate on the horizon, soft and green and melodic; I could spend the whole ride tapping out their rhythm against my thigh. Walls of trees enter and leave my sight, as varied yet indistinct as an ocean of faces in a crowded subway car. I could spend the whole ride absorbing their anonymous features.

I could spend the whole ride sitting here, doing nothing, too—and for someone who loves to do things that’s already remarkable.

Several weeks ago, I shared my favorite ways to pass a long train journey. Reading, writing, and snacking all featured on the list. So did “doing nothing.”

stillness

I wish I could remember the first time I experienced the peculiar, meditation-like (but not quite meditative) peace of being in motion, but I do remember the first time I wrote about it. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, frequently on endless bus rides through astonishing landscapes, I first tried to put words to an enigmatic sensation:

What are you looking for?
I am searching…
I am searching for—
I am searching because
it is only in movement
that I find stillness.
In running I am free;
In dancing I am liberated.
But if I could fly—
Ah if I could fly,
I would be truly
Boundless.

— “If I Could Fly,” 2013

********************************

I think it’s time to revisit this finding stillness in movement that has occupied my traveling thoughts for so long. I would like to try again to define the thing that calls me to move and calms me through action.

What is it about being in motion—in trains or on foot, by boat or in dance—that soothes my mind into a stillness I have never found in sitting meditation?

What is it about being in motion that, like an embodied lullaby, so entrances me—and, I suspect, many lovers of movement?

The answer is in the question.

Movement entrances. It occupies us—or at least it occupies me—so fully that there is absolutely no space for thoughts of elsewhere. Other times, other people, other places…these disappear in the all-pervading “this-ness” of moving. (Moving my body through space, or being moved through space, it hardly matters, so long as the coordinates change fast enough to pull my thoughts with them.)

Four years ago I started writing about the inner stillness that arises when all else is in flux. Years before that, I experienced the same outcome in yoga and ecstatic dance. Its hold on me hasn’t loosened. I think it’s safe to say that this magic stillness is my only addiction. A single taste has you seeking it again for the rest of your life.

A vagabond knows this. A dancer knows this. A meditator or a yogi knows this.

However you step outside the borders of your skin and embrace “this-ness,” you will never be satisfied to remain inside the lines again.

I hear two things more often than anything else:

“What are you looking for?”

and

“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

But it’s not a “what.” It’s a who and a why and a how. It’s a voice that calls me to move and a sense of boundlessness that keeps me coming back. It is a way of moving through life and through space.

It is not a thing I can find and then be done with.

It is the searching that gives meaning and form to the sought.

And so we keep chasing shadows through the desert and melodies through the mountains. We keep seeking stillness in movement.

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path
Nomadism

As Long As You’re Moving, You’re On Your Path.

In this moment of deep transition, a few brief thoughts on “following our path,” and what that really means.

A well-intentioned friend recently cautioned me about falling too far from my path as I meander, in my peculiar way, through experience and discovery.

I had to laugh. Such words of caution beg the question.

If we do not believe there is One True Path, how can we fall from it?

pathKinetic Freedom

I am on my path.

It twists and curves riotously, joyously. It is sheer movement.

Angels dance on wingtips overhead, and devils on their tails below. They sing together of freedom.

I am not lost, my dear. Or, if I am, I do not wish to be found.

Because there is wilding here, on my path. There is witching, here on my path. There is wonder and meaning and laughter and growth—here on my path.

And on yours too, I have no doubt. I never claimed to walk the One True Path.

I know only a little about kinetic freedom, and it is enough to keep me spinning, spinning, spinning recklessly through parabolas and whorls—along this path that is unfailingly mine. Always changing. Always growing with me.

I choose it for myself.

No one is “falling” here. Only dancing.

As long as you’re dancing, you are on your path. As long as you’re moving, you are on your path. As long as you can read your footprints in the sand, you are on your path.

Choose it.


Next Stop: Costa Rica. Home for the next 12 months. Hasta luego!

 

Photo Credit: A Different Story

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Adventure, Travel Advice, U.S.

What to Do with a 10-Hour Train Ride

I’ve done that thing again.

That thing where I look at plane tickets, look at train tickets, enter all available data into an elaborate equation (something like, Value = Adventure / Cost + Adventure x Time + Cost/Environmental Cost) and decide to take the ten-hour train.

Again.

You see, adventure counts twice in my calculations… and I value my time a bit differently.

So I’m sipping on free hot water (having exhausted my ten-hour snack supply in just over seven hours), watching an obstinately rainy day pass me by—all the way from Vermont to Philadelphia.

It’s not a bad day for a train ride, I have to admit. The sky is a study in gray. Wisps of cloud catch in green hills, blur the horizon, put me to sleep.

I wake up quickly; I think my feet are getting frostbite. I set up camp in the cafe car. Consider diving into a pile of work. Think the better of it. Return to staring out at the nondescript, along-the-tracks landscape.

I’ve taken so many absurdly long train, bus, and ferry rides, keeping count lost all meaning a long time ago. Barcelona to London: Why go in two hours when you can take two days, via Paris and the Chunnel? Tangier to Barcelona: What fun is the plane when a thirty-hour boat ride gets you 100% there? Stockholm to Turku: Thirteen hours and no regrets! Goa to Kolkata: In hindsight, maybe forty hours was a a bit long…

A love of slow travel, a desire to lighten my footprint whenever possible, and a stubborn resistance to doing things the easy way all feed into these choices.

But I realize that whiling away an entire day—or more—on a train doesn’t come without practice. I haven’t forgotten my astonishment at my fellow passengers in Nepal, where I took some of my first twelve-hour bus journeys. They put me to shame, doing nothing for the entire journey, never complaining, and maintaining perfect serenity during the hours of touch-and-go traffic leaving Kathmandu Valley.

And so, if you have a ten-hour train journey ahead of you, or another trip just as daunting, I’d like to offer a few of my favorite activities to help you pass the hours:

  1. People watch. This activity could, without exaggeration, occupy all ten of those hours, especially when coupled with eavesdropping. The man in the seat behind me telling another passenger how he never learned how to read words, only concepts. The woman across the aisle discussing, at length, a petty workplace drama. The endless procession of human faces, voices, expressions—mundane and extraordinary at once. Yes, one could certainly people watch for ten hours.
  2. Crochet, or otherwise make things. When I traveled from Philadelphia to Miami by train in 2013, I spent about four hours of the thirty-hour odyssey crocheting a hat for a particularly odd and impressively drunk character sharing the cafe car with me. Activities that occupy the hands but leave the mind free to wander are ideal for long trips.
  3. Read. Bring a fresh book you know you’ll love. The longer the better. This time I brought The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, and it enthralled me. If you’d happily sit on the couch with a good book all day, you can stop reading right now; your ten hours are sorted.
  4. Write. Whether or not you’re a writer is beside the point. Write down observations, stream of consciousness, the funny things people said while you were eavesdropping. These words may serve some purpose later on, or you may never look at them again. Also not the point.
  5. Make lists. If you can’t think of anything else to write, there are always lists. I happen to love lists—the way they sit uselessly on my desktop after I make them, their satisfying list-ness, the irrational sense of efficiency I feel when writing them. Maybe you’ll be equally entertained by this activity… or maybe not.
  6. Eat. On travel days, I drop any preferences or pretenses I usually have about food. Today I feasted on cherries and leftovers, but sometimes it’s chocolate and chips. While normally I wouldn’t advocate for eating out of boredom, long train (or bus, or ferry) rides are a special exception. Entering a liminal space, free from the normal constraints of time and metabolic physics, is one of the advantages of traveling this way after all.
  7. Work. Just kidding—travel days aren’t work days! Be it a lack of reliable wifi or the soporific rattling of tracks, these journeys don’t usually support much work. But if you need to get things done, there’s certainly time.
  8. Do nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. Stare out the window and daydream about mountains that hold up the sky. Close your eyes and turn the rocking of the train into music. Lean back, put your hands in your lap, and just sit there. I think we could all do with a little more nothing in our days. A ten-hour train ride is a good place to start.

Additional uses of time that may inspire you: listening to music, meditating, talking to strangers, walking up and down the aisles, stretching, deleting old files off your phone, gobbling fresh air in the areas between coaches…

Think that just about covers it!


How do you pass a long journey? Please share your favorites with me!

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going out alone, dance, dancing
Adventure, Europe, Travel Advice

How to Go Out Alone (& Not Hate It)

It’s 2009, and I’m eighteen. Paris is home for the year.

It’s a chilly night in early winter. Ten or eleven o’clock. I’ve just gotten off the metro somewhere in the center of the city.

Buzz. Buzz. The text messages, which don’t yet reach underground, arrive in a flurry. “Can’t make it.” “Running late. Might bail.” “May come later. Not sure.”

Well shit. I’m not going in there alone. My first instinct is to flee right back the way I came.

But then I glance at the bar—warmly lit wood and brass, clientele dressed in the ultra-chic black uniform of the city—and my natural stubborn streak takes over.

So what if no one else is coming? It’s Friday night, and it took me forty-five minutes to get here. I’ll be damned if I go home without at least checking out the scene.

I open the door. Step into the warm light. Rest an elbow on the narrow wooden bar. Order a glass of wine—white, I think.

The clamor of several dozen voices reaches my ears at once. I absorb it as I sip my wine, but before long someone strikes up a conversation with me, and my focus narrows to just one. I practice my French. Find that it comes easily with strangers, without pressure. Somehow I find myself at a table with a dozen young people from the south of France. Celebrating a birthday—I think.

The evening flows, and I leave for home many hours later, glowing with perverse satisfaction more than anything. I went out alone, and it didn’t suck. So there, world!


I’ve been meaning to write this piece for years. All credit goes to the friend who asked me last week what I did about going out alone when I travel: Thank you for reminding me.

That night in Paris was, in a way, a pivotal moment in my solo travel career. It’s one thing to hop on a train alone, sightsee alone, or even eat at a restaurant alone. We might do all of these things with ease, yet panic at the thought of entering a bar or club without backup. And by “we” I mostly mean “we women,” as that is the experience I feel I can speak to.

Why? Why is this the impassable limit of independence?

Well, first off, we’ve had it drilled into our heads that this simply is not done. That old fear rhetoric strikes again. Creepy guys, lechy guys, drunk guys; social stigma, weird looks, pitying stares; feeling lonely, awkward, unpopular, uncomfortable—

Ahhh stop! Forget it. Let’s never go out alone. We’re convinced. Right?

No! Let’s go out alone, because, as usual, reality is better than our imagination—and certainly better than our nightmares.

I went to bed that November night in Paris feeling empowered. “Not sucking” may seem like a low bar for an evening out, but when we’re conditioned to expect utter disaster from any solo foray into social adventures, “not sucking” is actually high achievement.

In the years since, I’ve often gone to pubs, live shows, dance clubs, bars, and festivals alone. Sometimes I even—gasp—prefer it. Story for another time.

going out alone, dance, dancing

I think the “how” of going out alone is fairly self-explanatory, but I’d break it down something like this:

> No expectations/low expectations. If you’ll happily go home disappointed, a nice evening out is a pleasant surprise.
>> Stay sober-ish. Obvious. Safety in self-possession, especially if you’re trying the solo adventure thing.
>> Stay open—to possibility, to people, to surroundings. There’s potential in everything.
>> But be prepared to deflect all the kinds of creepy. Welcome to the world. Books are excellent shields. So are crazy-arm, spinning-jumping dance moves.
>> Just open the damn door and go in.

Worst case scenario? It’s terrible, you go home, and you can blame me later for even suggesting such a thing.

Best case scenario? You learn that you truly can do anything, because you’re a badass, and life isn’t as scary as everyone tells you.

Cheers!

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won't you stay
Nomadism, Poetry & Fiction

“Won’t You Stay?” A Short Story about Leaving.

Written in Taghazout, Morocco in October 2016. Originally published in elephant journal.

Won’t You Stay?

won't you stay

A bird came to rest on a branch outside my window one day. It sang such a beautiful tune, I nearly cried.
“Won’t you stay?” I asked the little bird.
“I could stay,” it replied, “but that is not what these wings were made for.”

A fawn appeared on the hill outside my window one day. Its silent grace was so lovely, I nearly cried.
“Won’t you stay, and rest by my side?” I asked.
“I could stay,” it answered, “but that is not what these legs were made for.”

A fish jumped in the river outside my window one day. It moved with such effortless joy, I nearly cried.
“Won’t you stay?” I called to it hopefully.
“I could stay,” it answered, “but that’s not what these fins were made for.”

A man knocked on my window one day. His eyes were such pools of wild grace as he watched me pack my bags. Tears slipped from my eyes.
“Won’t you stay?” He asked, though his heart knew the answer.
“I could stay,” I whispered, “but that’s not what I was made for.”


Read the original piece on elephantjournal.com

Image: Used with permission from Paula Barkmeier

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