Category

Adventure

wilderness, wildness, wild
Adventure, Nature

The Wild Song and Where to Find It

Seek. Wildness.

The signals have been clear for a while now. Years. This is one of the most important things we can do in our overly sanitized, regimented, domesticated world.

This is the wordless impulse that drives me ever further into the waves, the mountains, the physical and spiritual frontiers of the man-made. That galvanizes me to push the limits of my body, break past the boundaries of my known experience. This is the imprecise call that sent me on a vision quest, on an 800-kilometer trek across Spain, and next on a week-long journey into the wilderness of northern Greece.

There is a song; I believe we all know it, whether we recognize it or not. It sounds like the sun on pine trees and tastes like bold green and smells like an almost-forgotten dream. It instructs us to seek wildness.

Every so often, I try to do its bidding.

If you have the slightest interest in eco-restoration or rewilding, I highly recommend a book by environmental writer George Monbiot called Feral. In it, he imagines a world—perhaps utopic, but nonetheless exhilarating—which is not free of humans, but free of human arrogance. In this world, elephants and lions, wolves and bears once again roam their natural habitats in Europe. In this world, human beings have relinquished the delusion of mastery and allowed a far wiser, far older system of order to reestablish.

In that world, we wouldn’t need to seek out wild places, because they would exist in abundance. Perhaps the same would be true of our internal landscapes…

In the meantime, however, it is not always so easy to immerse in wildness. That is why I am traveling to the mythic, mystical island of Samothraki to participate in a Wild Wandering School run by my good friend Casparo Brown.

There I hope to learn a few more of the words to the wild song that so enchants me.

But I’m not writing this post out of self-congratulatory narcissism (that’s what mirrors are for). I am writing in the hope that you will stop, for a moment, and listen.

That song—the one that sounds like pine and tastes like green and smells like a lost past… you don’t have to travel so far to hear it. Sure, the wild places in our world are harder and harder to reach, but the ones within haven’t gone anywhere.

I hear that wild song in un-self-conscious dance. In play. In getting lost. In risk. In fear. In hunger. In wonder.

If you listen, maybe you will hear it too.

Seek wildness.

Put down the screens, the structure, and the insipid sterility for a minute and close your eyes. Underneath the rules ripples a harmony far wiser, far older than you or me.

If you listen, maybe you will hear it.

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life lessons travel
Adventure, Nomadism, Travel Advice

7 Hardcore Life Lessons Travel Teaches Faster

Travel is a relentless teacher.

There are no bathroom breaks, no question and answer sessions, and no weeks off for study or review.

We jump in, and there we are. We learn on the fly, or we fall on our face. Or, we fall, and then we learn to fly.

Whatever the order of events, we learn, and we learn fast when we get out there. These are a few of the life lessons I’ve found travel teaches fastest:

1. Let Go of Expectations.

That time you think you bought an apple pastry at the Finnish supermarket, but when you bite into it the orange mush inside is anything but apple—and it might be tuna fish. The time you order the cheapest thing on the menu at a rural Kenyan restaurant, and of course it turns out to be beef tongue. When you board your train to Rome, and find out you’re heading to Geneva…

Yes, life is full of surprises; never more so than when we don’t speak the local language, or are in too much of a hurry to ask questions. At some point, I realized I’m more surprised when I do get what (or where) I wanted than when I don’t.

Welcome the unexpected.

2. Eat the Food.

I’m not vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, vegan, low-fat or high anything else. While I’ve met many brave souls who stick to their dietary restrictions while on the road, I’ve learned it’s a hell of a lot easier (and maybe healthier) to eat whatever’s available. Not to mention unique culinary-cultural experiences don’t usually follow our rules. I frequently choose to eschew the privilege of choice (the eschewing of which, yes, is a privilege in of itself) in favor of honoring a friend’s hospitality or sampling a street snack I’ve never seen before.

Eat the food. Maybe we regret it the next morning, but in the balance, it’s worth it.

3. Be Flexible.

Would you sleep in a boat? Would you sleep on a coat? Would you sleep on the floor? Would you sleep while they snore? It’s not Dr. Seuss; it’s a night in the life of a traveler. Parks, boats, train hallways, packed dirt, wooden pallet, moldy shack, noisy dorm—if you can name it, I’ve probably slept there.

Flexibility is a skill, not an inbred talent, and one which I’ve cultivated over many years. Be it food, sleeping quarters, hygiene or travel arrangements, I’ve learned—had no choice but to learn—flexibility is king of the travel kingdom.

Travel will teach us to be flexible like a ballet class on steroids.

4. The World is your Toilet.

Lest this be misconstrued, I’m not suggesting you relieve yourself in your friend’s bedroom or the public gardens. Rather more in the vein of number three, we don’t always get to be picky about our WC. London city street at three a.m.? Hey, everything’s closed, and the next bus is an hour away. Edge of a Himalayan field? The alternative is the middle of the village road.

Bottom line: we can’t be prissy about where we piss, and sometimes we have to get creative.

5. Technology Won’t Save You.

Sure, Google Maps is super handy for getting from point A to B in a new city, but it has never helped me get back when my phone dies. I’ve seen enough power blackouts and internet outages to firmly believe we can never rely on technology. It may disappear without warning—or it may not be useful once we drop far enough off the map.

We have to be resourceful—without any resources.

6. People Will.

When you’re outside the service zone, a friendly shepherd will give you directions, and he and his three dogs and two dozen goats will accompany you for the next kilometer of your journey. When you’re stranded on the side of the road, well-meaning strangers will (usually) stop and pick you up.

When emergency strikes, technology won’t save us, but the human beings around us will.

7. No Fear.

When I said yes to a stranger’s invitation to dinner in Nepal, she became a friend, and her family’s hospitality gave me one of my most memorable experiences of the trip. Jumping on another friend’s motorcycle for a two-day ride from Mustang to Pokhara tied it for first. Wherever I go, I try to say yes to every (reasonable) opportunity.

Not everyone will agree with my “yes-woman” policy, but I stand by it. From hitchhiking to midnight swims, and mountain climbs to backstreet wanders, it has led me to a treasure trove of adventures—and no regrets.

In short: leave fear behind, along with the high heels. Where we’re going, we won’t need them.

 

What did I miss? Please share your travel-taught lessons—I’d love to hear them!

***

Originally published on elephant journal.

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toby-israel-afraid-ocean-nature
Adventure, Poetry & Fiction

The Girl Who was Afraid of Everything—Fiction

The Girl Who Was Afraid of Everything.

(A break from the usual—story time!)

***

Once there was a girl who was afraid of everything.

She lived on a tropical island of fearsome forests surrounded by cavernous seas. All the other islanders lived for adventure, it seemed, but not her.

She watched the towering ocean waves rolling toward her, and gasped at the audacity of the swimmers who danced in the roar of the surf, bodies like slippery eels.

Hugging her knees at a safe distance on the beach, the girl said to herself, “I could never do that.”

As the children of the island dove, jumped, and spun into a thundering waterfall, the girl dipped her toes in the pool below and shivered with fright.

“I could never do that,” she thought again.

She hovered at the edge of the forest that bordered the village and peered through the trees. The hunters chased great beasts on foot, leaping tree roots and serpents with ease and clutching arrows in their teeth.

The girl sucked in her breath at the sight and shook her head with finality as she whispered, “I could never do that.”

And so the days turned into months turned into years, and the girl became a young woman. Still she was afraid of everything. The other young men and women of the island made fun of her, and she withdrew ever deeper into her fearful heart.

One day, all the young people of the village ran off to play in the waves. A storm was brewing, and each wanted to prove their mettle. Only the girl stayed behind. She sat on a rock, drawing patterns in the dust, and an old, old woman came to sit beside her.

“What’s wrong?” asked the old woman.

“Everyone has gone to play in the waves, and I am all alone,” said the young woman.

“Why don’t you go with them then?”

“Oh, I could never do that.”

“Do you want to?”

“I… I don’t know. I never thought about it.”

And indeed, she never had, so fixed she had been in her certainty that it was impossible.

“Well,” said the old woman, “perhaps you should ask the others how it is they manage to do what you believe you never could.”

And that is what the young woman did.

She went to the swimmers and asked, “Oh swimmers, tell me how you can be so brave to swim like slippery eels in such big waves. Are you not scared?”

They laughed. “Of course we are scared, little sister,” they said, “but we must swim.”

Next she went to the divers and asked, “Oh divers, please tell me how you can be so fearless to dive without hesitation into such a big waterfall. Are you not scared?”

They laughed. “Of course we are scared, little sister. But we must dive.”

Finally, the young woman went to the hunters and asked, “Oh warriors, please tell me how you can run after such big beasts. Are you not scared?”

They laughed. “Of course we are scared, little sister. But we must hunt.”

She had a lot to think about.

And so she sat on her rock at the edge of the village, and she thought. And thought. And thought. And thought. And this is what she decided:

“If the swimmers must swim, and the divers must dive, and the hunters must hunt, perhaps everyone has something they must do, which, when they find it, makes them brave. Perhaps I too have something I must do, and when I find it, I will not be afraid.”

Soon after, a terrible drought struck the island. The oldest of the villagers could not remember its equal. The fruit in the trees withered in the sun and fell like stones, and the crops in the gardens shriveled and disappeared like smoke. The river dried up to a trickle, and the waterfall ceased to thunder. The people began to starve.

Now, there is something I have not told you about this island.

While the islanders were daring and brave and courageous and fearless, while they could swim and dive and hunt with abandon, and though they were happy, they could not love. From the youngest boy to the oldest woman, it was, they believed, quite impossible. Legend had it that this love business was far more perilous than any wave, or rock, or beast.

But, the legend went on, one would be born amongst them who would be braver than all the rest, who would not be afraid of loving, and who would save their island from destruction when calamity struck.

The young woman who was afraid of everything (formerly the girl who was afraid of everything) watched her neighbors starving and the crops failing and the river drying up to a trickle. She watched these things, and she listened to the prophecy and the legends that issued from parched, ancient lips, and she retreated deep into her fearful heart. Deeper than she had ever gone.

And there, beneath the fear, she discovered something she had not expected. Something that was not fear. Something that moved and flowed and had no bottom.

As she touched this mysterious well at her core, it spilled over and fell onto the cracked earth. She opened her eyes and looked at the blurred scene before her.

And… she… loved.

She loved the village, and the villagers. She loved the jungle, and the beasts. She loved the river and the waterfall, the ocean and the beach. She loved the island, the earth, the sky…

… and so the prophecy came to pass.

With her love, the woman ended the drought. The skies opened, the rains came, and the island prospered for a long, long time.

And she never stopped loving, the woman who was afraid of everything except that most perilous of nature’s inventions. She grew old, and still she loved.

Whenever a young, fearful villager asked her how she could be so brave as to love, when all around her believed it to be impossible, and was she not scared (and they asked her this often), the woman who loved laughed and laughed.

“Of course I am scared,” she would answer, “but I must love.”

***

Previously published on Rebelle Society.

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solitude, curious
Adventure, Europe, Nomadism, Travel Advice

When You Don’t Want to be Friendly and Open and Curious

That’s okay. It’s normal. Go ahead and hermit.

 

I stare resolutely out the window of my Uber at the windy Cape Town day, quite determined to see that any attempts at conversation die a quick death.

As our fellow hostel guest in Matosinhos (northern Portugal), a kind man from Tokyo determined to talk about marijuana at length, engages my friend in discussion about alternative cures for cancer, I stare resolutely at my book, quite determined to leave the onus of politeness on her.

A talkative-looking chap sits down next to me at a cafe. I pretend not to speak English, or Portuguese, or French, or Spanish…I stare resolutely at my coffee cup, quite, determined to be Russian for the next hour or so.

Surprised?

I write so much about openness in travel, without giving any stage time to its inevitable counterpart: closedness.

I think I’ve touched on this before, but never really delved into it: No one can be “on” all the time.

For permanent vagabonds, this can be a slow realization. After all, aren’t curiosity, openness, and willingness to engage the key ingredients to meaningful travel experiences? Sure, but then, so is balance.

I love my alone time. Fiercely. I am probably less social, less inclined to long chats, and less of a people person than you are (and I don’t know who is reading this).

I write often about kindness, talking to strangers, being open to the world—and rarely about selfishness, ignoring talkative strangers, and withdrawing from the world.

But balance, right?

Lest you mistakenly conclude after reading my blogs that one must always be friendly, happy, and socially-inclined in order to travel, let me assure you: I’m not.

After all, how else would I get so many articles written?

Someone once told me that I like the idea of people more than I actually like people, and he was probably right. Humans are so fascinating! Culture, language, food, stories—I love it, and I want to soak it all in…50-90% of the time. The other 10-50%, I really cherish my own company (another key ingredient for solo travel), and I don’t want to share it.

Balance.

For those naturally inclined to solitude, there’s a spider-web-fine line—at which you may choose to stare resolutely while seeking to avoid conversation—between comfortable, uncompromising introspection, and exhausting, unrelenting openness. And if you can dangle from that line by your toes, in an incredible feat of mental acrobatics, you just might find the recipe for richly balanced, joyful adventure.

Maybe your travel soup will have some of the same ingredients as mine:

> Ample time to read, write, yoga, and think
> Bizarre and fascinating interactions with strangers
> Learning experiences of all variety
> Wordless (heart-centered) communication with people and spaces
> Silence in abundance
> Dancing and other movement in abundance
> Kindness
> Selfishness
> Outward-focused curiosity
> Introspective curiosity
> Creative exploration
> Physical adventure

So happy travels, and happy soup-making—I hope you’ll find just the right balance.

Please share your favorite ingredients if I’ve forgotten any!

 

Photo Credit: Zen Monkey Photography

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adventure, hitchhiking
Adventure, Europe

The Rough and Wrinkled Side of Adventure

Sunday, 23 April. Porto, Portugal.

Welcome to the world of unplanned adventure.

It’s messy. It’s unphotogenic. It’s wild-ish.

It’s kind-hearted French tourists warning you that you’re being followed (you know already) and offering to accompany you wherever you need to go (you’re touched).

It’s hastily scribbled hitchhiking signs, crumpled and smoothed out again. It’s sloppy smiley faces in the O’s of Oporto. It’s red eyes after too much dancing in other people’s clouds of smoke, and not enough sleep. It’s aching feet and dirty jeans.

It’s strange people chasing after you in the street to tell you they like your hat.

It is so far from glamorous that any Instagram post on the matter seems discordant.

It’s empty coffee cups and chipped tiles, half-formed impressions flitting in and out of your mind. It’s improvised, individual, and in flux, but not quite indescribable. It’s sauerkraut and beets for dinner, because the Russian supermarket is the only one open on Sunday evening.

It is chaotic. It is alive. It is enlivening.

Welcome to the world of rough, messy, unplanned and unplannable adventure.

It’s not just on the other side of the world (though it’s here, too). It’s in your backyard—as long as there’s dirt. It’s in your dreams—as long as there are dragons. It’s in every crumpled page, wild dance, and imperfect human encounter that appears in the archives of your life.

And isn’t it beautiful?

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Adventure, Europe, Nomadism

The Strangeness

 

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

Sorry, Robert Stevenson, on two counts. First, I still haven’t actually read any of your books, but I swear they’re on my list. Second, I’m going to have to disagree with you on that lovely and popular quote of yours.

Because I’m starting to think that there are only foreign lands. That nothing is, after all, familiar or domestic. That when we spend a portion of time “abroad,” away from what was once home or something like it, we realize that “home” is just as strange, just as illogical, just as arbitrary as all the rest.

***

The sun is out in uncharacteristic force, and as I walk down the street in Chelsea, London, it reflects back at me with a grin off a row of tall, identical apartment buildings.

The walls are spotlessly white. The streets are free of garbage. The public transit runs seamlessly.

I have just arrived this morning from Cape Town, South Africa. And as I am coming to expect when I jump continents, I’m slightly bewildered by everything… The old lady in a mauve pantsuit and Ugg boots pushing her walker with one hand and holding her mauve hat with the other. The young men wearing shorts and T-shirts (whereas I have just pulled my down coat out of storage). The utter politeness of traffic on Kings Road.

Politics and economics, on the other hand, run parallel. Xenophobia and poor economic choices rule the day, here as much as elsewhere.

I digress. It is the strangeness that lingers with me today, and which I would attempt to describe. The slight eeriness of one of the places I consider a home base. A flutter in my stomach as I amble along the too-neat lanes and study the too-same rows of pretty buildings.

London.

London, where I stay for free. London, where I have friends, a climbing gym membership, and a regular cafe, supermarket, and aerial dance studio.

London, where I don’t need a map.

London, where I keep coming back, although I can never quite decide if I even like the place.

As I do in Cape Town, I have a community here. And so I return again and again, such that it has become familiar, evan banal, to visit.

Except, not this time. This time, it is the sense of strangeness, not of homecoming, that strikes me first. The roads too straight, the people too well dressed, the pavement too clean, the attitude of the entire city just a bit too…deferential.

As spring unfurls in the flowering magnolia trees and the underdressed pedestrians, London opens her arms to me, and I hardly recognize her.

This, too, is a foreign land.

And if this is foreign, then nowhere—nowhere is anything but.

Why talk about this strangeness? This foreignness of the formerly familiar?

“This is our tragedy….our fictions are killing us, but if we didn’t have those fictions, maybe that would kill us too.” ― Salman Rushdie

It’s critical to acknowledge the inescapable quality of strangeness in a world brimming with fearful people seeking security in the familiar. People who genuinely believe there is a “right” way to build a city, be in a city, be a city.

There is no right way.

There is no “standard” from which all other lands digress in various degrees of foreignness. Such a standard is fiction, and it divides us.

Perhaps the truer statement is this:

All lands are foreign, and it is us, only us, who are the same—everywhere.

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wild
Adventure, Africa, Nature

The Wild-Tame Peculiarity of Safari (and 10 Wild Photos)

Sabi Sand Game Reserve, Mpumalanga, South Africa

A male leopard wakes from his nap and stretches lazily.

Three safari cars—Land Rovers, I think—have parked just meters away.

The leopard yawns, stretches again, and begins to move.

His eyes are amber-grey, and he gives us only the briefest of disinterested sidelong glances before deciding to ignore us entirely and amble along the road. He remains impervious as the three cars crisscross his path to allow their passengers optimum angles—a bizarre new animal behavior pattern to which he and many other species in the bush appear wholly adapted.

At one point he passes so close to my side of the car that I can see the individual hairs that make up his spots and the supple play of muscle beneath his skin.

***

There is something both bizarre and breathtaking about finding yourself within hand’s reach of a wild animal and knowing that you’re safe.

That is the wild-tame peculiarity of safari. Or, at least, of my safari.

Over the course of three days, my family and I found ourselves nose-to-nose with elephants, zebra, giraffes, leopards, and lions, thanks to the skill of our third-generation guide and the collaboration of the game reserves. We observed hippos, white rhinos, hyenas, and vultures from just a couple meters away.

The sheer size, power, and wildness took my breath away—and it made me wonder about this paradoxical dynamic whereby wild animals accept wacky, camera-toting tourist behavior as the norm and an ecological system seems to evolve to accommodate it.

Predator and prey alike enjoy the ease of travel on dirt roads cut for the convenience of safari trucks. A mother leopard defends her cubs against hyenas as you would expect, but observes our approach with indifference. Some—though not all—impala (a species of adorable antelope) fail to shy away at the no-longer-alien sounds of car engines and human voices.

One thing is certain: This industry is a boon for the anti-poaching efforts across the safari-regions of the African continent. It brings revenue to places that desperately need it, and government protection to the wild animals responsible for it.

Perhaps even more important, it has the potential to raise awareness about and appreciation for species and environments slipping into endangerment or collapse. A key element of environmental protection not to be underestemated.

I hope to share more as I learn more, but in the meantime, here are some “up close and personal” photos of the wild animals that allowed us to share their space:

Mama leopard with cubs.
 
Fun fact: A herd of zebras can also be called a dazzle.

 

“They look at you like you owe them money.” — Unknown, on water buffaloes
No introduction needed.
Who wants to go for a swim?
So many elephants!
The animal that evolution seems to have forgotten.
 
My brother, the rarest of the wild animals.
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travel, challenge, new, friends
Adventure, Travel Advice

12 Ways to Move/Travel to a New City/Country Where you Don’t Know Anyone—and Totally Rock It

I write about venturing into the unknown often.

You might say it’s my favorite theme—in life and in art. You could say it’s my greatest fear—in love and in travel. You could say it is a subject so rich and fascinating it proves an inexhaustible source of meaning and poetry.

You could say any of those things, and you would be right.

Ah, the not-knowing…it is terrifying, exhilarating, life-affirming indeed. But maybe you want a bit more practicality and a bit less poetry; maybe you have concrete travel plans on the horizon (even tenuous possibilities or dreams), and poetic rambling philosophizing isn’t helping all that much. I get that.

I drop myself into cities and countries where I know no one on a regular basis. I enjoy the challenge and the freedom, but I also forget that this is a practice like any other, and may seem somewhat inaccessible at first. I want to demystify it.

The following suggestions stem from my years of solo traveling. I don’t necessarily follow them all for every trip, but one could in theory. I believe each one has a deep potential to cushion the fall into unknown territory.

1. Reach out to friends and acquaintances.
A simple “Do I know anyone in _____?” on Facebook can yield unexpected results. This method has found me friends (and often couches) in otherwise totally anonymous destinations from Prague and Montenegro to Berlin, Sicily and more.

2. Mine for connections.
Social media is a multifaceted beast, but it really comes in handy for certain kinds of travel. Asking my Facebook friends (and sometimes blog followers), “Does anyone have any connections in ___?” in the past has found me a house to rent in Cape Town, a Shabbat dinner in Paris, a yoga teaching gig in Zanzibar and so much more. The more I travel, the more this network grows—exponentially, it would seem. Couchsurfing is another amazing resource for making connections for friends and couches both.

3. Be bold—ask questions.
Every piece of information we could possibly need is available on the ground. No need to read travel forums, or even look up directions (although by all means do both if it sets your mind at ease). Depending on where I am in the world, there are metro maps, info centers, or throngs of aggressive taxi drivers at every possible port of arrival. Barring that, the local person sitting next to me on the bus/plane/train/ferry is usually an excellent resource.

4. Get Lost and Like It.
I have developed an impressive habit of always going the wrong way first. If it’s straight, I go left. If it’s left, I go right. I then employ method #3, ad infinitum, to take the longest route possible to my intended destination (thank you, legs). Getting lost is a common consequence of going in blind; even if we don’t like it, we can bring our sense of humor along for the walk.

5. Set up a work trade.

While it is 100% possible (and yes, fun and exciting) to just go explore a new place and find your way upon arrival, I have often found more depth and connection through work exchanges. Websites like wwoofing, workaway and helpx are just a few of many platforms for finding interesting, short-term placements abroad. Working or volunteering is, in my experience, one of the most effective ways to integrate into a community and create my place in the formerly unfamiliar. It is also an incredibly practical resource for information.

6. Set up an Airbnb.
If, like me, you need to work while you wander (or, also like me, you don’t want to commit to too much socializing), but still want an entree into local community, Airbnb is unparalleled. Set your price, browse your options, and choose a host who seems interesting. I’m still in contact with several of my Airbnb hosts, and owe unique memories (like tasting the best chocolate gelato in the whole world) to them.

7. Keep up with hobbies.
I always carry two extra pairs of shoes with me: dance and climbing. Dancing tango in Kenya, salsa-ing in Berlin and climbing in Cape Town, I’ve connected with people I never would have met otherwise. Same goes for surfing in Morocco and hiking in Spain. Those are my passions; follow yours, and you’ll find your people—anywhere.

8. Become a regular.
There is something uniquely grounding in being a regular customer (in a cafe, restaurant or even corner store)—in simply being recognized. When our default mode is anonymity, feeling seen, known, familiar offers a powerful sense of place. Especially when I have a few weeks or months somewhere, I find myself accumulating these “regular” spots. Though utterly departing from all known routine is a key—even necessary—element of travel for me, glimpses of familiarity within the unknown provide welcome—even necessary—moments of respite.

9. Let go of should’s.
I believe having a mile-long checklist of “must sees” and “must dos” limits potential for spontaneous discovery. I tend to get a decent amount of touristing in when I visit a new place, but I try not to force it. Excursions happen organically—often with new friends—when I genuinely want to do them, and not because I feel like I’ll be failing at travel if I don’t.

10. Cook.
My experience of travel altered hugely when I started to prepare a lot of my own meals (just as I used to when I lived in one place). Not all, of course, since tasting local cuisines is hands down the best part of traveling, but many. Wandering local markets, I’ve honed new language skills, felt rooted in my home-of-the-moment, and saved serious money. Choosing an Airbnb with a kitchen facilitates this, as does staying with friends. Cooking a beautiful meal has long been my favorite way to thank my hosts for their hospitality.

11. Talk to strangers.
They’re not scary—usually. When they are creepy, it’s usually pretty clear to my intuition. Strangers are typically one of three things: treasure troves of insider information, friends you haven’t met yet, or an excellent story for later. Instructions for talking to strangers: eyes up, shoulders down, words out.

12. When all else fails, fail.
I have days—sometimes weeks—where my social self goes into hibernation, my patience drops to zero, and the challenge of the unknown shifts from exhilarating to tiresome. When that happens, I take time to write, read, call friends and family, and simply be. No one can be “on” all the time. This lifestyle of exploration and discovery has curves and cycles, just like any other. These moments of pause make the adventure all the richer.
 
May your journeys be—yours.

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Adventure, Africa, Europe

Johnny Cash and Slow Travel

8:15 a.m. Self-Service Restaurant “Mediterraneo.” Grandi Navi Veloci ferry from Tangier to Barcelona.

I look up from my breakfast—a somewhat sad assortment of boxed orange juice, cold croissant and drinkable cappuccino—and observe the other diners. Some are in groups or pairs. Many are young Moroccan families. Many are alone.

Of this last group, few are doing anything (checking phones, or even reading). They’re just sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around. For some reason it reminds me of Johnny Cash’s famous response when asked for his definition of paradise:

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

I’m not even a particular Johnny Cash fan, but something about that phrase—or more, the slowness it implies—fits this mood.

People choose to travel by ferry (around thirty hours from Tangier to Barcelona, rather than two or three by plane) for many reasons. The slightly cheaper cost. The relative ease and comfort of sleeper cabins and lots of space to roam. The vaguely romantic allure of faded, Titanic-style old world luxury.

And—I suspect—some people choose it for the slowness.

Sitting in a deck chair for hours watching the boat’s trailing wake. Pacing the endless red-carpeted hallways, hands skimming smudged brass banisters, stepping inside and outside and inside again with no special aim.

Sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around.

Because there’s nothing better to do. Because the boat will get there—slowly—and we have time. Because, just like Johnny Cash, we recognize that the smallest moments contain the whole universe—if we slow down enough to dwell there for a while.

For me, that is the essence of slow travel: dwelling in a moment while everything shifts around us, knowing that we’re on our way.

Another reason to take the ferry: They have puppies!!! (If you’re lucky…)
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Adventure, Europe

Zen & the Motorcycle Passenger

Sorrento Coast,  Italy

(Mom, you’ll want to skip this one.)
The headlights of oncoming cars are a blur as we race down the center line of the autostrada (highway) from Sorrento to Napoli. I settle into the peculiar flow of this navigating traffic as we weave in and out.
Yellow lines, black sky, breathe in, breathe out.
Yellow lights, black tires, breathe in, breathe out.
Accelerate, brake. In. Out.
It’s just me (passenger-monkey) and my friend (driver-pilot). Fear hopped off this train hours ago, and I’ll tell you why.
***
È stata una giornata bellissima. It was a gorgeous day. Perfect. My friend met me with his vintage motorcycle at the Salerno train station (a half-hour train ride from Napoli), and we (along with seemingly every Italian ever on this last weekend of summer) set off for the Amalfi Coast.
The fresh wind in my face balanced the hot sun as we followed hairpin turns opening onto one dazzlingly beautiful vista after another. The hum (or, more accurately, roar) of the engine blended with the waves and the wind, and conversation was sparse. The sky turned to dusty rose, orange, teal as we rounded past Amalfi and up the Sorrentino coast at sunset.
I must have contemplated my death a hundred times that day.
I usually do when I travel as a motorcycle passenger, and I don’t think it’s morbid. There is a quality of zen to this process of that renders it uniquely compelling for me.
There’s the, “oh shit, this is dangerous” moment, followed by the, “there’s nothing I can do to change my vulnerability in this situation” realization, culminating in (temporary) total surrender to the inalterable fact of my own mortality.
Then a sudden acceleration and, “oh shit,” and we begin again. As the minutes or hours blur on, I slowly stop picturing the many gruesome ways in which this could end badly, my pulse slows, and my shoulders relax. Once that last ripple of fear smooths out, I ender a space of zen acceptance—it’s pretty blissful there.
If you’re thinking I sound nuts, allow me to ask you a question:
How often, in your day-to-day life, do you contemplate your own mortality?
If you’re a healthy, well-enough-off human, I’m guessing it’s not all that often. And yet, we are all mortal; we are all helplessly vulnerable to myriad risks. We all walk a fine line between life and death all the time.
We are all on a precipice.
***
That yellow double line of a Napoletano highway, framed by black sky and black asphalt, is only a metaphor, no more and no less terrifying than the reality we all face. Every day.
The magic of this motorcycle zen is not the “added risk.” Rather, it (and surely a thousand other activities) forces me to reckon with the transience always enveloping me—always enveloping us—and to breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy the view.
***

I took a video so you could catch a view, too!

 
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