Tag

nomadic life

musafir, pirates, ship, kenya, africa, travel, distant relatives
Adventure, Africa, Nomadism

The Floating Pirate Community you always wanted to Join is Real… & it has a Name

Musafir is more than a ship. She’s an ideal—a vision and symbol of another way of life.

Those who built her and those who meet her find themselves swept up by the singularity of her story.

Musafir—or Msafr in Ki-Swahili—is Arabic for traveler. And indeed, the soul of the 70-foot (21-meter) dhow is travel. When I met her in early 2015, she lay at anchor in Kilifi Creek, on the North Coast of Kenya. Just 3.6 degrees south of the equator, Kilifi rests in equal proximity to the chaos of Mombasa to the south and the ancient port town of Lamu to the north, yet remains utterly tranquil.

During my two months in Kilifi, I visited the nearly-finished vessel often.

sailboat, dhow, musafir, distant relatives, toby israel

The approach to Musafir required a two-minute swim, or a one-minute kayak ride, through calm saltwater. At the boat’s hull, the water glowed a brilliant green as though illuminated by the vessel itself.

Louis, a 30-year-old Frenchman from Burgundy who arrived in Kenya in September 2011, rested on board, a feather in his dreadlocks and a worn pair of shorts around his narrow hips. He had been building the Musafir for three and a half years.

Work on the deck had begun only a week prior to my arrival, and a jumble of boards—some secure, others less so—sprawled before him. From several beams a collection of items hung: one hammock; woven baskets; a blue glass evil eye; a shard of mirror; solar lights; and a Kenyan flag.

The mirror reflected the bright afternoon sun as Louis spoke:

“It was the idea of freedom that called to me. The idea of doing something else. That’s why I started traveling, because I saw that this life that was suggested to me was not exciting. I think with this vehicle [Musafir] we can send a message somehow to the world. Not screaming it loud, you know, but by touching people pole pole [slowly in Ki-Swahili], showing that another way is possible. And if you follow your dream, even if you think “no, it’s impossible,” it’s possible.”

Louis, along with an Italian man named Paolo, is one of the project’s “initiators.”

kenya, sailing, dhow, kilifi, musafir, numundo, transformational travel

In theory, however, “the boat belongs to whoever is on board.”

He laughs and adds, “Me I’m just the Chai Wallah. My job on board will be to make chai and coffee. Just now, you know there are so many other jobs to do and no one else is around to do them.”

The project relies on donations, crowdfunding, and—above all—the resources of those who have devoted their lives to actualizing it. Louis, Paolo and many volunteers repeatedly poured their savings into building costs.

Historians differ on the exact origins of the dhow (a broad category encompassing many particular models). Some declare it Arab in origin, while others trace its roots as far as ancient China. A lateen sail and long, narrow hull differentiated the dhow from its Mediterranean kin. Many were constructed in Kerala, South India, known for the quality of its timber. Until Vasco da Gama’s arrival to Africa in the 15th century, wooden pegs and coconut rope—not nails—held the vessels together.

Kipini has long been a notorious hub of expert Swahili construction, and thus a natural, far-off-the-beaten-path starting point. Musafir made its maiden voyage from Kipini to Kilifi (more accessible and less isolated) in November of 2014. In four days, she traveled 75 nautical miles, carrying fifteen passengers, a goat who would not see the end of the journey, and several chickens who would.

Musafir, which, more precisely, is a jahazi (a Lamu-style dhow), is held together by copper nails rather than coconut rope. A few power tools for sanding and drilling assisted her construction, and she will eventually have an engine, too. However, Badi (the fundi, or master ship-builder), largely employed traditional techniques.

Cotton canvas sail; old wood from Kipini; axes and sweat.

musafir, boat, dhow, sailing, kenya, africa, adventure travel

Building a boat of this size by hand is an endeavor few would undertake, but those involved agree that their labor adds inimitable depth.

Louis elaborates, “Does it have soul? Does it have a special energy added to it? I think it does… Day after day of work, you start to know every piece, every nail. It makes it totally unique. You can be sure there won’t be two dhows like this in the world.”

Dhows once traversed the Indian Ocean, sailing along the Arabian and East African coasts, and following the monsoon winds all the way to India and back. They carried dates from Basra, curved daggers from Muscat, gold and ivory, carved chests, spices and mangrove poles—and ideas. The dhow enabled the exchange of languages, people and ideas as well as goods.

Likewise, Musafir will transport stories, goodwill, and possibly trade items. When the traveler and its travelers make port, “the vision is to have this exchange of culture—learning from communities and doing what we can to fill any specific needs.”

Louis, Paolo and others made an exceptional effort to integrate into their temporary homes. They learned Ki-Swahili and befriended the Kilifi men who spend vast swathes of time cleaning the nearby beach. They drank mnazi (coconut palm wine) and worked closely with local experts.

Cross-cultural understanding, they have understood, is an integral component of modern-day travel. Along the Swahili Coast—a vibrant blending of deep Islamic roots and centuries of Bantu, Arab and Indian influence—such insight requires time and complex awareness.

musafir, distant relatives, pirates, community, travel, africa, toby israel

What could inspire a group of unconnected people from around the globe to live and work together towards a common goal? It’s not the physical ship, though many involved love to be at sea. More than anything, it is the promise of freedom.
Dario, a volunteer from Sicily, explained,

“I think it appeals to people who are curious, adventurous… and who have a little craziness around, because it’s not a safe environment. I fell in love with the idea. To travel, to have access to any country. There are no roads, you know; you are just thinking where to go and you go.”

Travel represents both a means and an end. For these Musafiri, there is no “after” in sight—only oceans and journeys to discover.

Dario peeled a mango with a recycled blade and spoke over the snapping of the green tarp overhead as the wind churned and the light became hazy with the setting sun.

“Musafir is about traveling,” he says. “It’s about life. It’s about getting to know new cultures, new people. It’s about growing, because while you travel across the globe you’re able to learn many, many things that can be illuminating. It’s about helping out as well. It’s an idea that can amuse people, because if you think about building a 70-foot sailing boat in order to travel around the world, wow, it’s a bit of a crazy idea. But eventually… You’re sitting on it. The boat floats. We’re here talking about it. So it’s a project that shows that if you really want something, you can do it.”

To leave the ship, I could either climb down the rope ladder on her port side or jump into the warm waters of Kilifi Creek. The inimitable Distant Relatives Ecolodge was only a five-minute walk away. Their eclectic blend of earthy vibes and tropical hospitality served as a base for the Musafir team, as well as myself, for some time.

musafir, kenya, kilifi, distant relatives, transformational travel

 

When Louis and Paolo first arrived in Kipini, many of the villagers regarded them with suspicion.

Why did they live in poverty while spending large sums on Musafir’s construction? Why wouldn’t they use the finished ship to turn a profit? With their long hair and beards, the villagers concluded, the men must be undercover Mossad or CIA agents come to spy on them.

The answer to these questions, however, was and is simple:

Musafir is not a business. She is a message.

Dario concluded, “It’s important as well to come down here and understand what it means to take part in such a big project. It’s very challenging, and it’s wonderful in itself. It teaches you a lot—shows you great beauty.”

For those who dreamt her into being, Musafir is a message of freedom and unity. She is a lesson in perseverance and an example of a way of life not yet lost to the world.

When she sets sail, a traveler’s soul will go with her.


Anyone inspired by this project has several options. One can, if the fit is right, sign on as a volunteer for several months. Alternately, one may support the project financially by donating here.


Originally published on NuMundo’s Transformational Times. 

Continue reading
Related posts
What is Transformational Travel, Really?
October 23, 2018
Don’t Ask me where I’m From, Ask me where Home Is
September 6, 2018
“How Many Countries Have You Been To?” & Other Questions I Avoid
August 2, 2018
toby israel, home, travel, costa rica, nationalism
Central America, Nomadism

Don’t Ask me where I’m From, Ask me where Home Is

One balmy evening in Domincal, Costa Rica, two friends and I found ourselves stuck in conversation with a friendly tourist from the United States. Despite the best of intentions, he was boring us all.

We didn’t feel like chatting, and the dance floor was calling. So, when he inevitably asked, “Where are you all from?” we answered in the least gracious way possible:

“I forgot,” said one friend.
“I’m undecided,” said the other.
“I don’t know,” I finished. 

After close to a year living in Costa Rica, we thought our responses were a clever alternative to the repetitive small talk we had come to dread—with tourists and locals alike. Our unfortunate conversation partner doubtless thought we were very rude.

However, our reluctance to answer a seemingly simple question touches on a deeper issue for me, and perhaps for many vagabonds.

I have small talk fatigue. I’m tired of regurgitating the same facts. What’s more, I haven’t lived in the place I grew up (is that where I’m “from”?) for 10 years. I haven’t lived in the pace I receive mail (is that where I’m from?) for five years. It just doesn’t seem like relevant information anymore.

I definitely have small talk fatigue. But that’s only part of the problem.

As someone with vaguely European features, I never had to deal with the “No, where are you really from?” bullsh*t growing up. (That’s another ballgame entirely). But having spent most of my adult life outside the U.S., having a distinct accent in every other language I speak, and being obviously foreign more often than not, I face two questions with higher frequency than could possibly be healthy:

Where are you from? And, why are you here?

I just don’t want to answer these questions anymore. My place of origin is probably the least interesting thing about me. It leads inevitably to more uninteresting questions. Yet it is always, always the first thing we ask. (I am also guilty of this, though more and more I try to catch myself before it slips out). And, if I do answer the question, “ah,” they say, as if now they know everything there is to know about me.

I reject the very premise of the question: that the world is made up of nations, and that we “belong” to the arbitrary borders within which we were born.

I refuse to identify with a nation simply because we have collectively consented to buy into this fiction. I refuse to flaunt my country of origin (utterly accidental, and in no way representative of any personal merit), as if it were something to be proud of.

Do the advantages and disadvantages of our birthplace, the cultural conventions of our upbringing, and the social constructs of our particular place in the world play a large role in shaping our selfhood? Of course. They play a massive role. I will be the first to make this point. But do these factors define us in our entirety? I strive every day to ensure that they do not.

Is it an exceptional privilege to reject a national identity and seek a global one? In a way, yes. Few have the luxury to choose to dissociate from the title on their birth certificate or passport.

Yet, I believe we are all capable of taking a critical look at the structures we have been handed as incontrovertible—at the stories we have been taught as truth. We all have the choice to accept the world given to us…or to deconstruct it, fiction by fiction, and build a new one.

I was born in the United States. I have a U.S. passport.

On the one hand, this tells you everything: my position of privilege, my opportunities for work and education, my background, and cultural references.

But on the other, this tells you nothing about my values, my vision, my spirit, or my heart.

I was born in the U.S., but don’t ask me about that.

toby israel, home, travel, costa rica, nationalism

Ask me, “Where is home?” I will tell you:

Home is Costa Rica, for now.
Home is with my family, wherever they happen to be.
Home is my community—global.
Home was South Africa, Zanzibar, London, and Italy… for a while.
Home is in my body.
Home is a hot shower and a good meal.
Home is wherever I am welcomed—and wherever people are kind, good, and full of love (everywhere).
Home is many, many places, and sometimes it is nowhere at all.

And maybe tomorrow I will tell you something different. Isn’t that so much more interesting?

Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m at home. Then, maybe, we can talk about something real.


Originally published on elephant journal.

Image used with permission from Marc Maksim Photography.

Continue reading
Related posts
What is Transformational Travel, Really?
October 23, 2018
The Floating Pirate Community you always wanted to Join is Real… & it has a Name
September 23, 2018
No One is Talking about God (Poetry)
August 22, 2018
Nomadism, Travel Advice

“How Many Countries Have You Been To?” & Other Questions I Avoid

Originally published on elephant journal.

Nowhere on my website will you find a tally of countries I’ve visited. Not on my Instagram either.

Several times, I’ve debated changing my policy about this. It appears to be de rigueur for writers and bloggers in my niche of adventure travel and digital nomadism. And, I am proud of the ground I’ve managed to cover in relatively few years.

However, I’m much prouder of how I’ve covered it.

Hitchhiking thousands of kilometers through Europe, learning (basic) Swahili in Zanzibar, building community in Costa Rica—these are the stories I want to tell about my years on the road, which numbers can never do justice.

Numbers may tell you how many kilometers I walked, how many years I lived out of a backpack, or—yes—how many stamps I have in my passport. But numbers won’t tell you what the Phnom Penh pavement felt like under my bare feet, how my shoulders ached after carrying my life with me across Spain, or the many amusing (stressful) ways I crossed all those borders.

I think you get my point. The number of countries I have visited is, like any other tally, just a number. It is not, in my opinion, very interesting information.

Furthermore, it is already an exceptional privilege to travel as I have done. I am deeply grateful to sustainably maintain the nomadic lifestyle I find so exhilarating. It seems unnecessary to proceed to flaunt that privilege in such a one-dimensional way.

I also dislike the rhetoric, only too common in the travel blogosphere, that “more countries = more happy.” There is no happiness equation. A fuller passport does not equate to a higher happiness index—though travel can certainly lead us down many paths to fulfillment. I am wary of contributing to this superficial conversation in any way.

countries, travel, vagabonding, nomadic

All that said, I would hate to raise objections without offering solutions. I wouldn’t waste your time with criticisms of displaying the “travel number” if I didn’t have some alternatives in mind.

When I tell new friends about my vagabondish lifestyle, more often than not their first question is, “So, how many countries have you been to?” I’ve come up with a lot of ways to avoid (or transform) that one. Here are my favorites:

1. “Let me tell you about my most recent trip to X.” Stays on topic, but narrows the conversation down to a specific, less superficial angle that I actually want to explore.

2. “A lot… I’ve been living nomadically for quite a few years.” Vague, but hopefully avoids anything that might come off as boasting.

3. “Honestly, I’d rather answer a different question.” The most direct answer, and usually goes over well when delivered with a genuine smile.

4. “I actually don’t think it’s that interesting. Let me tell you a story instead.” Also direct, and opens space for the exchange to move toward a subject of mutual interest.

5. Just tell them the number…once in a while, it’s easier to go with the flow and answer the damn question.

I like these answers because most of them are rather versatile. The same tactics can help us to gracefully evade personal questions we don’t want to answer, small talk we don’t want to engage in, and norms of conversation we don’t want to support.

I hope travelers with similar misgivings to my own may take away a helpful solution or two.

May your backpack be light and your feet happy—no matter how many borders they’ve crossed!


I also don’t really like “Where do you come from?” Stay tuned for some thoughts on that.

Continue reading
Related posts
What is Transformational Travel, Really?
October 23, 2018
The Floating Pirate Community you always wanted to Join is Real… & it has a Name
September 23, 2018
Don’t Ask me where I’m From, Ask me where Home Is
September 6, 2018
wanderlusters, toby israel, travel
Adventure, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Wanderlusters: Running Away Doesn’t Work. (But Run Anyway!)

Originally published at elephant journal—7 September, 2016.

This is fun.

I’m going through some old writings in anticipation of a possible project or two, and as always, it is a fascinating adventure to chat with my former self.

And while I’m not currently in the wildest of wanderlusting phases (actually, I’m solidly planted in Costa Rica for at least another 6 months while I cultivate events and retreats here), I still think this is some pretty good advice.

For you, wanderlusters:

wanderlusters, toby israel, travel light

Hello, my name is Toby Israel, and I am an adventure addict and wanderlust junkie.

And no, I’m not sorry.

I won’t lie to you. What everyone tells you is true: you can’t run away from your issues. Nope, doesn’t work.

Every sadness, heartache, loss, fear and insecurity has trailed me down the road of my nomadic life, following my sandy footprints like unwanted travel companions. If my heart were a backpack, you could not lift it onto your shoulders, so full it is of loves and lives. These things do not simply vanish into an Instagram-ready snapshot captioned, “Let that sh*t go.” Oh, no. Did you really think it would?

Vagabonding, as I like to call it, has never solved a single problem. Not a crumbling relationship. Not a fear of heights. Not a longing for security.

Indeed, “running away” is an empty promise. Walking off into the sunset, guitar slung across your back, Sufjan Stevens illogically emanating from the empty fields—I mean, come on, I can hardly write it, it’s so cliché.

Here’s the thing: running “away” may be impossible—but beautiful, wise wanderlusters, you should run anyway.

Run as far and as hard as you can.

Run with purpose. Run with laughter. Run with mad, passionate glee.

You’ll know when it’s time to stop—or you won’t, in which case you’ll keep running.

Wandering isn’t a cure, but it is (I believe) a path.

If that path calls to you, sowing iridescent oceans and unfamiliar cobble-stoned streets in your dreams, then honor the call. (If it really calls to you though, you don’t need me or anyone to tell you that.) Wandering won’t fix you, but it could uncover your self to your self.

wanderlusters, toby israel, travel

Would I have ever jumped off a 152-meter bridge had I not chased the magical yeti of adventure, facing a fear of heights in the process? Would I have hitchhiked 6,000 kilometers across Europe had I not answered my call and started to run? Would I have healed my heart had I ignored the balm of open skies and fresh wings—instead staying earthbound and numb in the familiar places I once called home?

Maybe. Probably not. And I’d have far fewer stories to show for it.

Sorry, but I am not sorry. I am every damn cliché you could write about the wandering millennial seeker roaming the world for years on end—and I am exquisitely filled with joy about it.

Sometimes, we have to come back, go home, stay still to “find ourselves”—but maybe, just maybe, sometimes we’re waiting to be found at the end of a bungee cord, the top of a mountain, the last hour of an 800-kilometer trail. Wouldn’t it be a shame not to go and see?

Remind me then, what is this thing I’m supposedly running away from? I cannot see it, for I am too busy testing my wings.


Hey, feeling wanderlusty? Check out my upcoming retreats in Costa Rica and come hang out in paradise for a while! 😉

Continue reading
Related posts
What is Transformational Travel, Really?
October 23, 2018
The Floating Pirate Community you always wanted to Join is Real… & it has a Name
September 23, 2018
Don’t Ask me where I’m From, Ask me where Home Is
September 6, 2018
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.

Continue reading
Related posts
What is Transformational Travel, Really?
October 23, 2018
The Floating Pirate Community you always wanted to Join is Real… & it has a Name
September 23, 2018
Don’t Ask me where I’m From, Ask me where Home Is
September 6, 2018