Tag

wander

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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Adventure, Central America, Nomadism

How to Return when there is No Turning Back

The plane lands. The boat docks. The train whistles as it arrives at the station.

You step off. Pause. Look around.

Friends and loved ones wait with brilliant smiles and open arms to welcome your return. They look just like the pictures you carried in your mind, and yet… The station looks just like your memory of your departure, and yet…

Is this home? The place you left? It feels different, but you know it has not changed. No, you have changed. Or rather, you have become more yourself, and you do not yet know how to share this new, deeper you-ness with these specters of an earlier time.

You have crossed oceans, scaled mountains, fought dragons, and befriended shadows. You have faced challenges you could not imagine, and you have learned your strength.

But this. This seems insurmountable. How can you possibly carry your lessons back? How do you return?

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

Reintegration. Maybe this is the hardest part of the journey. The return.

I know this. We all do. It’s archetypal stuff. Gather so much beauty, so much wisdom, so much knowing—but then, how to bring it home, into the body, into the mind, into the world?

The heart opening, horizon shattering, mind growing is the first step, not the end of the road. For every obstacle we overcome, there is a higher one around the bend. For every road we walk, there is a longer one still to travel. For every difficult journey we complete, there are yet more turbulent waters to navigate up ahead:

The return.

Everything that follows.

We come back from our journeys changed. More sombre, or more joyful. Heavy with nostalgia, or lighter with all the baggage we have dropped along the way. Wiser, or more innocent—or both.

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We live more lifetimes than we could hope. We die small deaths, traverse dark nights, emerge at dawn with new perspective. None of it matters, and yet—I go on, we go on, because the sun still shines. Because the leaves still whisper. The birds still call. The guitar strings still vibrate.

Just as they have always done.

And so we still follow rules of time, of dress, of conduct. We still shine, speak, sing, dance, play—just as we have always done. But we feel like crying and laughing both, because we won’t be the same. We will never be the same.

the return, cape town, toby israel, beach

We have traveled far. We have met dragons. We have shed the layers of ourselves, and now we put them back on. Now we return, full of questions.

We have said hello to the unknown and moved beyond it. We have touched secrets and tasted their blessings on our tongues, our skin, our hearts.

One thing is certain. There is no turning back.

 

Beach Photos Used with Permission from A Different Story Studio

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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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Europe, Nomadism

In Defense of Aimless Wandering, Revisited

I’m riding from Sweden to Finland on a ferry named Grace, pondering over aimless wandering. I’ll come back to that.

Grace is probably ten stories high. She has a club room and a casino, cafes and restaurants, cocktail bars and a dog toilet. She is more floating apartment building than ship, but she floats as she is meant to and she will bring me from Stockholm, Sweden to Turku, Finland in just over eleven hours. For fifteen pounds, that was a slow travel bargain I couldn’t pass up.

I’m the foggy kind of tired after a weekend of midsommar celebrations, camping adventures, and repeated sunrise-instigated wakeup calls at 4:30am.

The weather sympathizes. Thick clouds crowd the sky and cast the archipelago (stunning, by the way) in monochromatic grayscale. A drizzle comes and goes; the “sun deck” is slick and empty.

I sip sour-tasting ferry coffee, which does nothing to clear my head, but successfully destabilizes my hands, and watch the procession of tiny islands. Some have just enough space for a single house; others boast dense stretches of pine forests. I daydream up a contraption that could hitch to and unhitch from the passing ferries and allow me to island hop. (I realize they’ve already invented one better…it’s called a motorboat.)

And I’m thinking about wandering. Aimless wandering.

In fact, I’ve been thinking about aimless wandering since it came up in discussion during the week-long wild wandering school in which I participated earlier this month.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about aimless wandering for much longer than that—since one of my first forays into vagabonding in early 2014—and just briefly forgot to think about it until that discussion reminded me.

For the past couple of years, my wandering hasn’t been so aimless. With so much work to do and so many friends to visit, I’ve planned my travels more often than not. “You’re in London in July? Great, I’ll come to London in July.” “I have one week free after Portugal…perfect, I’ll see you in Barcelona.” “I need wifi for work this week; I’ll just stay in the city.”

But there is value in wandering aimlessly. So much value. I still believe that.

As I gather the skills to wander ever more gracefully, I hope to welcome more aimlessness back into my life. I’d like to invite you to do the same…

What is aimlessness? It is space, and it is time. Space to move without restraint or reservation, and time to observe without hurry. Space to expand, in body and spirit—and time to be utterly still. Space for silence. Time for reflection. Space for reflection. Time for silence.

Aimlessness isn’t purposelessness. Not to me.

Aimlessness isn’t meaningless. Quite the contrary.

Aimlessness isn’t absence from life; it is full-bodied presence in it.

To wander aimlessly is to move through the world without the conceit that we actually know what is coming next. That is, to move through the world with grace. (Told you we’d come back to it.)

So here I am, sitting on a ferry named Grace, thinking about aimless wandering.

And I’m thinking that maybe aimless wandering isn’t a choice, but a description of how we are, all of us, moving through life. Whether we like it or not. Whether we acknowledge it or not.

We don’t know what’s coming next, but we can go to it with purpose. We can go to it dancing.

There is space to expand, and there is time to be still.

Why not embrace it?


Leaving Stockholm:

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

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Culture, Nomadism

The First Time: When the Travel Bug Bites

Some people will reminisce—with nostalgia, regret, or a little bit of each—about their first cigarette, their first drink, or their first time trying X (fill in the blank with your substance of choice).

Me?

Alcohol was never a big deal in my family, and I’ve stayed away from cigarettes like my life depended on it (oh wait, it kind of does).

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t have a “first” on which to reflects with the romantic fondness of well over a decade of distance.

I’m talking about travel, of course.

Several early family vacations could count as that first—London, Canada, Florida—but one in particular stands out in the box of mismatched, half-faded memories I carry: Italy.

Italy, first and most enduring love of my life… after horses. That first visit I only remember in glimpses: The heat (there was a record-breaking heatwave that summer). An old woman in a bead shop, and a strand of irregular, aquamarine beads (I would finally turn them into a necklace some fifteen years later). Crisp, white slices of coconut beneath a cascade of water glittering in the sun. Venice canals and dreams of carnevale (I have yet to visit at the right time). Cappuccinos for breakfast, and several subsequent bathroom breaks over the course of the morning. Fairytale mountain villages, and cities shimmering under summer sun.

I have since been back to visit nearly a dozen times, learned the language, and made numerous friends across the country. I have bungee jumped in Piedmonte and reignited a passion for adventure in Sicily. I’ve indulged in pizza in Napoli, anchovies in Genoa, and fiori di zucca in Rome.

Just thinking of it makes my mouth water and my palms tingle.

Italy.

But the dreamlike beauty of these childhood memories is about so much more than one country. It marks a beginning.

I could trace my enthusiasm for the wonder of discovery to many moments—many trips:

Dancing in a circle of women in rural Senegal at age sixteen.

Wandering the streets of Spanish cities at Christmas-time with my peers, age fifteen.

Age seventeen, arriving in Paris alone, and growing into a sense of adventure once too big for me.

I could pick any of those or countless other journeys, but I choose to locate my travel awakening in that sweltering Italian summer many years prior. A seed already planted. A map already drawn across my future—big, swirling letters spelling, WANDER.

And so I have. And so I do.

The first time we meet ourselves is extraordinary indeed. Even if we’re too young to realize it. Even if we repeat the experience countless times thence. Even if we’re full of shit, and it wasn’t like that at all, and that dreamlike beauty is just the result of fifteen years’ obfuscation.

So, I’m curious: what was your first time traveling like?

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Nomadism

Reflections on a Birthday: Wandering, Searching, & Answering the Call

Yesterday, I turned 24.

The past year has been anything but boring as vagabonded my way from Europe to Africa to the U.S. and back, teaching yoga, doing marketing, starting work at elephant journal and publishing over 100 pieces of writing along the way.

Some of it I’ve written about here; much of it I haven’t. I’m committed to keeping this a travel blog only, and so today, that’s what I’d like to focus my birthday reflections on: this journey.

A little over a year ago, I decided to go on a vision quest—four hungry days and nights alone in the Vermont wilderness.

I was looking for something… I didn’t find it.

I found nothing, in fact, save for a few lovely dragonflies, ducks, and one very long, very cold night stranded beneath the stars.

Traveling—maybe—is a little bit like that.

First, we answer the call. Second, we set out into the unknown. And third… third maybe we bring back nothing from our journey. What then?

As I’ve written before, I’m not searching for [fill in the blank], and so it’s very unlikely that I’ll find “it” anytime soon. And sometimes I find myself stranded beneath those metaphorical stars—cold, hungry or lost… or all three!—and I wonder how the hell I ended up there. What crazy, impulsive, excellent decision got me there?

But it’s always the right place.

The stars never wonder why I’m there; they know, and at least that’s one of us.

You see, I have a philosophy I love about journeys, choices and life, and it basically goes like this:

Each of our lives is like a forest, or a valley, a mountain a desert, etc—it doesn’t matter—absolutely covered in paths.

When we look around, we see all of those paths—infinite options, possibilities—choices to be made.

But when we look behind us, we see only one path—our footsteps in the sand, tracks through the woods, etc—our path.

That path—our path—is the only path we could have walked, because it is the one we have walked. And each choice we make—once it is made—is the only choice we could have made, because there it is behind us—another footprint, another step on our path—past.

We answer the call; we make our choices. 


I find this outlook deceptively simple, quite practical and deeply compelling. Maybe you will too.
When I look at the year behind me, I see each step that has brought me to this place (a cozy couch in London, England at this particular moment). I regard that winding journey without regret and with no small measure of appreciation, for without it I would not be here—the only place I could possibly be.

When I look at the year ahead, well, I do so with butterflies in my stomach and wings on my heels, because the forest is so vast—the paths so numerous—that I can take in but a fraction of it at a time.

And that is every life—not only mine. Every year, every birthday, every moment and every step.

I believe that, and the stars agree.

Thank you for being a part of this journey—as a reader, a friend, a star, or all three!

***
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Africa

The Importance of a Quest

Today, I spent an hour looking for soap.
Not just any soap (those who know me will know how picky I am about my soap… shampoo, lotion and face wash too!), but a soap without chemicals, fragrance, glycerin or dye.
As I walked down the uneven dirt road from the beach to the village—slick with mud from the rains that won’t stop this year—I thought about three things:
First, I wondered if my skin would be red later from the inescapable equatorial sun, still hot-hot at three in the afternoon. Second, I considered the fact that a less stubborn person would have long ago sucked it up and bought any of the ten brands of Imperial Leather impersonators—all rich with the aromas of chemical fragrance and a lingering colonial stench. And last, I recalled countless similar hunts from this trip and others past, and I wondered why they were so important to me.
I love a good quest.
A walk through a crowded market becomes a treasure hunt when I am looking for an uncommon fruit, or a rare blend of spices. The simplest of goals—acquiring a cup of chai, the perfect gift, stamps or fish sandwiches; finding a historical monument; the beach; the highest outlook or the bus onward—transmutes the everyday into something vital and full of purpose.
When I am looking for something, no matter how trivial, every interaction suddenly has a point. Intensity. Urgency. Meaning. Senseless conversation finds itself replaced by words imbued with the strongest magic: A reason for existing.
I am not merely walking; I am searching. And a search is an adventure.
Now, I will be the first to champion aimless wandering for the sake of wandering—searching not for,but because. A search for nothing is far preferable to no search at all. But a search for somethinganything—well, that is the best of all.
As I stride from supermarket—proffering Dettol, Imperial Leather, medicated soap, skin lightening crap and a host of other pastel-hued and plastic-scented delights–to gift shop stocked floor to ceiling with everything but soap, I exchange the now familiar greetings and then ask for soap (sabuni ya kuoga). I explain in a mish-mosh of Swahili and English that I don’t want chemicals, and people are helpful, understanding, and repeatedly direct me onward, toward the village.
Stepping into a shop selling only soap and flip flops, I am presented with more options. An unmarked, waxy pink bar, which I don’t trust because it is the color of pepto bismal. A new and equally off-putting brand of skin-lightening bullshit. And a bar of clove soap marked “herbal” and “home-made” on the box, on which the lack of ingredients at least allows for the possibility that it is actually chemical-free.
I buy it and return home. My quest is complete.
A search for soap—or chai, or the beach, or any number of things—is, on the one hand, silly and hardly worth thinking about. And yet, a quest is a quest, no matter how small. Those who have experienced the alchemical change that occurs when purpose is added to their day’s equation will understand that it is not the depth, but rather the presence of an objective that counts.
Today, it was soap. Tomorrow perhaps it will be a decent cappuccino, gifts for my family or an empty stretch of shoreline. I won’t know until the next whim or need grips me and I set off again in pursuit of something, someplace or even someone (I may hate waiting, but it is another kind of purpose, after all).

There is joy in wandering, and there is joy in searching simply because, but the single-mindedness of quest is a different, and I think necessary, component of travel and life.
***
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In Defense of Aimless Wandering

Somehow two months have managed to sneak by me since I last posted anything.

In that time I have tried every tropical fruit available in Sri Lanka, spent a night with my family on a houseboat in Kerala, celebrated Christmas Eve with a very drunken Keralan Santa Claus, celebrated New Year’s Eve with my big brother in Varkala, completed an intensive yoga teacher training in Goa, learned about energy healing, overstayed my Indian visa, traveled 40 hours by train from Goa to Calcutta to get an exit visa, sat on the stoop of a man named Asheef and listened to his life story, eaten every kind of street food, sampled scorpions in Bangkok, learned how to make curry paste, biked 70 kilometers to a waterfall in Laos, kayaked from one city to the next, explored a massive cave, avoided abduction by tuk tuk, gotten sick, gotten better, rushed, relaxed, walked, danced and wandered.

Whew! The longer I’ve put off catching up, the more daunting the task has become. Since I couldn’t hope to fill in all the gaps, I will call that caught and move on to a topic that has long occupied my thoughts, especially in the last couple weeks…

Ah, aimless wandering! Some would denigrate you, belittle and besmirch your name, but I would like to come to your defense. Each day, I wake up with no set plan, no idea where I will be tomorrow, and no worries. Each day stretches out before me in an infinite rainbow array of possibility, so bright that the future beyond resembles Sri Lankan hill country, where thick gray fog conceals green valleys of unknown depth.

In moments of doubt I worry that this traveler’s lifestyle I have chosen to adopt for a few months might be frivolous, or that others may judge it so. But then I remind myself: I spend each day from sunrise ‘til well after dark with my eyes, mind and heart wide open—how many people can truly say that? Each day is dedicated to the new, consecrated by the unknown and celebrated by the joy of movement.

If life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans (thanks, Jack), then maybe, just maybe, it is only without direction that we can truly live.

I suspect I may seem to be glorifying an ambitionless, idle existence, writing a slacker’s manifesto as it were. Not so. If plans are the sticky rice of life, then flexibility and spontaneity are the hot red curry that makes that rice not only edible, but beautiful.  I would make the distinction between life without destination and life without intention—the former can manifest in aimless wandering, while the latter results in meaningless grasping.

It is when we wander with purpose that we become frustrated, lost in the twists and curves of an unfamiliar city, unable to arrive at our destination.  But when aimless, without direction, wandering realizes its full potential, and we find suddenly, on arriving, where we were heading all along.  The best swimming holes, cafes, temples, parks and people are not to be found, let alone enjoyed, in a hurry.

To wander aimlessly takes courage, to defy society’s demands for plans and commitments; confidence, to stand by a pursuit that on the surface has minimal value; and perhaps a wisp of insanity and a shred of common sense, to know when to keep going, and when to stop, respectively.  In small doses it can cure most ills, and in large ones it is a lethal injection to normal life.  I defend it wholeheartedly but within reason.

To you, aimless wandering, without whom every journey would be routine.

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Nomadism

Why Travel

Killing two birds with one stone: First essay of the semester, first blog post!

Why? 

More often than not, when I informed people this summer that I would soon be leaving for Nepal, they asked me why. Why Nepal? Why leave Vermont? Why?  After two years at Middlebury College, where travel, like exercise and flannel shirts, seems to be self-evident, I was taken aback.  Why not, of course.  To study to learn to adventure to explore to experience.  Is that not reason enough?  Nestled in the idyllic green mountains of Stowe, Vermont, where I lived and worked for the summer, I repeatedly encountered that most derisive of queries: why.  I felt that inherent in that single word, whether spoken in earnest, in confusion or in horror, lay another, insistent question.  Why travel?

For the first time, I sought to defend a passion whose worth I had always believed to be obvious.  I travel because to read about the world is not enough.  To know, to truly understand those places practices people beyond our immediate acquaintance, we must engage with them.  As I see it, under the new demands of globalization we have an unprecedented responsibility to know the world that has been brought to our doorsteps.  The “other” (a long-time favorite of social scientists and a frequent guest in my own academic essays) now routinely faces us from television sets, newspapers and computer screens, but our awareness halts there.  The many “others” outside this insular, Western, American society approach closer and closer along with their worlds, and continued resistance to knowing them demonstrates a pigheaded denial.  Cross-cultural learning, and ultimately understanding and tolerance, is not a choice, but a necessity.  Travel, then, when feasible, is necessary as well.

Following the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight to India and statement that since the PLA’s arrival in Lhasa “the Tibetan government did not enjoy any measure of autonomy,” the New China News Agency criticized his “so-called statement,” responding that “Tibet’s political and religious systems were all laid down by the Central Government in Peking… In modern history the so-called Tibetan independence has always been a scheme of the British imperialists for carrying out aggression against China…”[1]  Such gross distortions of reality did and will proliferate under the influence of world powers like China.  Statements such as these have and will become truth, picked up by media and parroted to the world.  This new truth, once accepted by a group at large, becomes for all intents and purposes reality.  Hegemony, in a word.

When I mentioned that unfortunately my itinerary would not include a stop in Tibet and someone responded, “Is that still around?” I witnessed the consequences of more than half a century of distortion and untruths.  When, working as a waitress, I told a table about my upcoming trip and one woman said, “Nepal? Isn’t it all backwards over there?” I didn’t bother responding, but these incidents are why I believe in travel.

Do I travel, then, to combat hegemony and engender large-scale cross-cultural understanding? My goals are hardly so lofty.  I travel to know and experience the world at an individual level.  When I examine my motives, I find, underlying the basic urge to explore, the hope that in some small way I might approach this higher objective as well.  My drive, however, remains personal: to study to learn to adventure to explore to experience.  And yes,Why not?


[1] Avedon, John F. “In Exile from the Land of the Snows.” Harper Perennial: 1997. P68
**Many thanks to the beautiful, brilliant Emma Pask for listening to me when I first tried to articulate these thoughts, hopefully they’ve made some kind of progress since then.
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