Tag

nomadism

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.

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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! 😉

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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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struggle
Culture, Europe, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Struggle: A Travel Manifesto

If you travel (or live), where the mother tongue is not your mother tongue, you will struggle. The mundane will become complex and challenging, and you will no longer take your habitual fluency in the everyday for granted.

This is a good thing.

It shouldn’t be easy. (Or at least, I strongly believe that it is through challenge, discomfort, dis-ease that we grow best.) So, this is my travel manifesto for you…

Go out into the world, and struggle:

Struggle, to purchase underwear.
Struggle, to ask directions.
Struggle, to talk about the things that matter to you.

Comprehending the cost of your coffee will be a minor victory.
Catching a compliment on the first go will be cause for celebration.
Navigating a simple interaction will thrill you—as it never could at home.

These are all very good things.

For it should not be easy, this day-to-day living.
It should not be easy, this being in the world.

So struggle, to take the bus.
And struggle, to order at the bar.
Struggle, to understand.
Struggle, to say you have understood.

For it should not be easy, this everyday living.
It should not be easy, this quotidian life thing.

When it is easy, we forget—

We forget that buying our coffee is in fact a minor victory,
that a compliment is cause for celebration,
that understanding is a miracle,
and being understood doubly so.

So struggle,
and don’t forget
that it is a privilege to move through this world with grace.

And when you do forget,
as, invariably, we do,
Go out again
and travel.

Remember what it feels like
to struggle for the simplest of rewards.

Remember not to take
anything for granted.

Remember how to move
through this world
with grace.

 

— Monday, 15 May; train Barcelona—Paris

 

*Image photographed in Belleville, Paris. Artwork by rnst.

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Nomadism, Poetry & Fiction

Ah, The Life Of A Vagabond (Poetry)

It’s rare that I share poetry here (if you want more of that, check out my column on elephant journal). But I would like to share this piece with you, as I think it gets at the heart of something bittersweet and utterly beautiful, which I and my vagabonding friends sometimes struggle to express.

I hope it will speak to you.

***
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
We all say it with the same
self-mocking irony
and laughing-sad eyes.
The same funny mix
of melancholy
and mad joy.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
We choose to be the mad ones,
don’t you think?
Must keep choosing it,
lest the madness
Slip
through our twirling hands
and leave us with
mundanity.
 
So we love
madly—
and leave
And dance
wildly—
and believe
Seek ceaselessly—
and receive,
Maybe.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
Do you ever wonder
why we don’t
just
stay?
I do, but then I remember
we are all following the same
piper,
dancing a rhythm only some can hear—
The call doesn’t stop,
and neither
can
we.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
Keep choosing it,
lest the madness
Slip
out of reach
like tears,
lest passion
settle back down
to the silt
at the depths of our eyes,
lest love become
a rarity.
 
Ah, the life of a vagabond—
They intone,
and I echo their prayer.
Call
and response.
A psalm
for swirling, wandering
souls,
A litany so powerful
we must believe it,
An incantation writ on the horizon—
we go to it dancing.
we go to it dancing.
***
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solitude, unknown, adventure
Adventure, Nomadism

The Intoxicating Unknown, and Solitude

The plane lands with a jolt. Rolls to the gate. Shuts off the engines.

You and the other passengers file off the aircraft. Through the terminal. Past immigration. Baggage Claim. Customs.

You step outside into a country where you know no one.

Perhaps you don’t speak the language. The air is different. Heavy and humid. Or maybe cold and sharp. Your nose catches new smells and catalogues them as memories—later, this will be a remembered place.

Welcome. You have just crossed into a vast field of unknowns.

Is it terrifying—or exhilarating?

Someone asked me recently if it ever gets lonely, this solo traveling.

There are many answers to that question. I’m having a bit of deja vu, because I think I’ve offered some of them before (maybe in this, or this), but I have something new to say about it today.

Basically, no, I don’t.

I have experienced dozens of iterations of the above scenario—arriving by air, land or sea—and for me it is always exhilarating. That is, in part, why I will fly from Rome to Agadir, Morocco at the end of September—to spend six or seven weeks in a place where I know nobody.

While I love traveling with or visiting friends (and do so often), I crave the spaciousness that only comes with solitude. Maybe you do too.

Nothing can replicate it. It arrives the moment we leave every known thing behind us. Hug our loved ones goodbye outside the airport. See our traveling companion to the train station, then turn back to a foreign city alone. Click “complete payment” on a one-way ticket for one.

Solitary spaciousness arrives when face the forest, the mountains, the desert—whatever our alluring yet frightening place may be—with a pack on our shoulders and uncertainty in our chest, knowing that no one is coming with us this time.

Does that scare you? It probably should. There are monsters in the forests, the mountains and most of all the cities. But more than that—more than that there are monsters in our hearts and minds.

I believe that is what people fear most of all when they fear setting out to travel alone. There is the external risk, of course, but I suspect loneliness—ourself facing ourself—instills greater terror.

Why don’t I ever get lonely, then? I’m not actually sure, not entirely. Maybe I do, but it no longer scares me, and so I call it solitude instead of loneliness. I do know this:

Our comfort zone expands every time we step outside of it and thrive there. There is nothing more intoxicating, full of life and purpose, than entering the unknown territory alone.

So go.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

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Adventure, Europe, Nomadism

Did You Find What You Were Looking For? (Camino Reflections, Part 10000)


My last visit to London, in July of this year, I had dinner with a former classmate. We had taken “Intro to Buddhism” together.
I didn’t know it then, in my first semester at Middlebury College, but many themes from that course would wind their way through the following years of my life.
Over our glasses of red wine—Merlot, I think—I recounted a memory of that class that stands out from the rest. It’s funny, sometimes, what ends up sticking in our minds.
Someone had asked our professor if he wanted to reach enlightenment—if that’s what he was seeking.
He had answered softly (he always spoke softly):

“I’m not so interested in enlightenment. I’m interested in the possibility of expanding my awareness.”

Maybe this is unhelpful, and maybe I’ve spent too much time around Buddhist philosophy, but this is what I have to say in answer to that oft-repeated question, “Did you find what you were looking for.”

No.

Longer answer: 

I wasn’t looking for anything, so I doubt I would find it. That’s the difference between a trip and a journey—only one has a destination.
I found no thing on my Camino journey. Nothing. I did not have any epiphany. My life did not change.
If you set out walking (meditating, praying, anything) in search of enlightenment, I think you will be disappointed.
And that’s not depressing; it’s inspiring. It is exhilarating, this not knowing. It is enthralling, this seeking-but-not-finding. It is magnetic, this grey in-between-ness of no-thing—neither empty of wisdom nor full of answers.
If “no” is not a satisfying response, I’m sorry, but it’s the only one I’ll give—at least for now.
No, I did not find what I was looking for.
I wasn’t looking for, you see.
Something on the same subject I wrote about halfway through the Camino, in a moment of clarity:

“Will I come back wiser?” asked my ego. 

I don’t know, my more honest self replied. I think I’d be the last to know.Do any of us come back “wiser” from anything? 

I have my doubts. 

I will come back with bigger calves from walking and stronger shoulders from carrying my pack. 

This is certain. 

I will carry in my heart thirty peaceful mornings where dawn breaks over still meadows, and the wind whispers a song only I can hear. 

This is certain.

I’m not interested in finding. The beauty is in the in-between.

***
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Europe, Nomadism

The Modern-Day Renunciate

Sobrado de Monxes Cathedral, Galicia, Spain.
He asked if there was water nearby.
The two dogs, attached to his belt by lengths of thick rope, were thirsty.
We were about sixty kilometers (or several days) outside of Santiago when we met him. I regret that we didn’t get a chance to ask his name.
He carried a huge walking stick, clearly decorated and carved by him, and an unraveling straw hat with a green band around it advertising for Amstel. He carried fishing gear, slept in a tent with his dogs and was running out of money. He had lost his passport one night in a flash flood, given away his watch. His hair and beard were unkempt and reddish brown. His eyes, wide, never quite focused on ours.
In a thick, thick accent, he briefly told us his story.
He had been a farmer in the Czech Republic. In December of 2015, the bank took his farm and everything he owned. So, he left with his dog and started walking. The second dog they found drowning in a river one night—still a puppy, it had huge paws, sure to be a big dog.
When he reached Santiago via the Camino Frances (the most popular route, a bit farther south), he turned around and started walking the other direction along the Camino Norte (the Northern Way, where we met him). After telling us about the dog, the money, the passport and the watch, he concluded:

“So probably I will spend my life walking. Just me, the dogs. I speak Spanish, so when I run out of money maybe I will find work somewhere, for a while. I think it is a good way to live, just to walk.”

I think I can empathize. If I lost everything like that, I would probably lose any faith I had in property, money, things. I would probably—maybe—start walking and settle into a state of non-owning, non-needing, non-grasping, too.
On the Camino, you run into a few of these modern-day renunciates.
They’re not out for a month-long holiday, or even a six-month sabbatical. They’ve dropped—or lost—everything, and they’re walking, not for pilgrimage, not for a temporary detox, but for life. 

I admire them, just as I admire anyone with a single-minded passion so single-minded that it borders on pathological. I think I understand the impulse, though I can’t imagine ever committing my life to just one activity. Different strokes, is all.
More than anything, I’m fascinated by what appears to me to be a growing global trend, as the “real world” becomes harder and harder to stomach, of starting walking (or traveling, or what have you) and never stopping.
Society has always had its renunciates. Those who live outside the bounds of normalcy—normal time, normal family, normal work, normal life—and follow another Way. I suppose the only difference is that our modern world doesn’t know as well what to do with them. It demands passports. It requires that we identify our place, our role, our function. It is, quite frankly, nonplussed by this growing race of outsiders. And yet, they are growing. 
If you ask me, there will always be renunciates—those who chose not to participate in the world offered to them. And if you ask me, it’s not a problem; rather, it is for the rest of us to accept and allow their presence, walking the narrow paths between the borders of society.
We told the former Czech farmer that there was a small shop in a house in the next town, just a kilometer farther along. He woke the dogs from their nap on the sidewalk, and we set off in opposite directions.

Without a doubt, he is still walking.
***

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Adventure, Africa, Nomadism

Journeys All The Way Down

Goes into the post office to mail home some books… 30 minutes and 90 stamps later ^^

Once, a great guru came to a small village. 

He gave a long speech and held forth on many subjects, and he claimed that the world rested on the back of four elephants. These, in turn, stood on the back of a turtle.

After the wise man had finished talking, an old woman came to ask him a question.

“Guru-ji,” she said, “You say the world is held by four elephants, which in turn are standing on the back of a turtle. But I want to know, what is the turtle standing on?”

The man’s eyes sparkled as he answered, “Why, it’s standing on the back of another turtle.”

“But what is that turtle standing on?” asked the old woman. 

He smiled and said, “Madam, it’s turtles all the way down.”

The above is an amalgamation of a dozen versions of one of my favorite philosophical tales (variously attributed to Eastern and Western lore). It comes to mind today as I slowly, dare I say reluctantly, pack my things and prepare to leave Cape Town.
Why, I’m not exactly sure, but I think its suggestion of infinite yet symmetrical unknowns appeals to me in this moment of transition.
As I clear out the fridge, eating my last grapefruit, savor my last coffee at my favorite cafe, enjoy a last (unseasonably hot) afternoon at Clifton Beach and write a “last blog post” before shipping off to my next destination, I seek a clever way to avoid the “lasts” altogether.
An enigmatic symmetry and circularity have entered into my travels lately. Returns and revisits abound, and endings, more often than not, prove to be intermissions.
And so as I peer into the infinite unknowns ahead, I suspect there is more circularity in my future. Journeys bending and spiraling in on themselves in unexpected ways.
After my last coffee, I go to the post office to mail home a few notebooks’ worth of extra weight. Thirty minutes later, I leave behind a medium-sized envelope impressively plastered with 90 stamps.
The scenario is comical and exaggerated; together, the post office teller and I systematically paste rows of stamps onto the package.
I’m reminded of other boxes and envelopes I have shipped from other locations—usually filled with items whose monetary value falls far short of the cost of shipping. (Of course, you can’t put a price on memories.) Often accompanied by absurd postage situations.
Circularity and symmetry.
No “lasts” in sight.
If I were to ask a wise man to surmise my future, I think I could guess at the conversation:

“What comes after today?” 

“It’s another journey ahead for you, of course.”

“And what comes after that journey?”

“Why Madam, it’s journeys all the way down.”


Journeys all the way down…

***
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Nomadism

Vagabonding vs Bonding: On Staying in Touch

Reunited in Cape Town: Hiking Table Mountain
Is it hard to form deep, enduring friendships when you’re always moving around?
I get that question a lot.
The answer, as you could probably guess, is no and yes.
My close friends and family span the globe, but I know I could call any one of them today—or, better yet, show up at their doorstep—and they would offer me all the love and support I could need. Of course, it goes both ways… minus the doorstep, which I don’t always have.
And then, I typically find it easy to connect with the people around me, wherever I find myself.
My neighbor? New friend and dance buddy.
My housemate? New friend and hiking buddy.
Strangers on a train? You get the idea.
Answer one: Depth is easy. So no, it’s not difficult to connect deeply—be it for an hour, a week or a month. The more layers of artifice I burn, the more easily, and more deeply, I find connection—everywhere.
But then there’s that other, more elusive quality: endurance. 
Does it last? How? And if it doesn’t, how meaningful is a friendship formed in Thailand and set to rest in Laos? How deep does connection really run if it can’t follow me across borders and years?
Answer two is longer…
Recently, a close friend from university paid me an impromptu visit in Cape Town. Keeping the spontaneity flowing, we rented a car, picked it up the next day, and drove nearly 1,000 kilometers east, toward the Garden Route (a popular region for tourists) and a particularly beautiful place called Nature’s Valley (though we didn’t know yet that we were going there).
As we drove on the wrong side of the road through endless stretches of caramel-colored hillsides, we caught up on the milestones of the last year of our lives. As we hiked through fynbos (vegetation unique to the Western Cape) and down to wild, windswept beaches, we discussed philosophy and travel, mistakes and purpose. As we pitched our tiny camping tent amidst rows of elaborate palatial campsites in a dilapidated caravan park, we laughed like no time at all had passed.
Time had passed. Clear from the very new lines around my eyes and the shifting sands of love, death and discovery that shaped the contours of the interim months—or was it years?—of our lives.
And yet, connection had endured.

Roadside picnic on the Garden Route, and a very rare selfie.
I could list a dozen more examples off the top of my head. Old friends joining me for segments of my travels; new friends opening their homes to me when I arrive in their city; strangers offering me a place to sleep, and becoming friends through that inimitable alchemy of giving and gratitude.
And then there are the other friendships, the ones that take root in the rich soil of new experiences shared, yet wither when transplanted to the barren realms of social media and virtual communication—or perhaps they refuse to leave in the first place.
Still, these, too, endure in their own way.
A note out of the blue from a passing acquaintance met several years prior.
A supportive comment on an article from a familiar face whose name I had forgotten.
An unexpected coffee with a high school friend with whom correspondence had been sporadic and stunted.
Silence doesn’t always mean disinterest.
I should know, since I rarely hear from many I consider my closest friends.
Distance doesn’t mean detachment.
I should know, since I repeatedly choose to be continents, miles and time zones away from my loved ones.
Staying in touch is remarkably difficult for an era of unprecedented “connectedness.” I have nothing to brag about—those who know me will be sure to tell you—but I am constantly working to do better.
I’ll repeat: distance doesn’t mean detachment. 
Connection is there. Depth is there. Consistency? We’re all working on it. 

Forced to choose between travel and connection (that is, vagabonding and bonding), I’ll choose “C” every time. No and yes. Both. I think it’s possible.

***
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