walk, choose your path, toby israel, adventure
Adventure, Central America, Nomadism

Remember: This Journey is Just a Walk in the Woods

Uncertainty. How many times must I meet you before I remember your stubborn face?

In work, in travel, in body, in love—nothing is truly stable, not at the core. That is the only certainty.

I have learned this lesson so many times, it rolls off my tongue like a prophecy when I speak to friends and vagabonds-to-be about my lifestyle. Yet, I find I must repeatedly teach myself my own lessons, too.

We’re all just human.

We seek, endlessly, for a secure future, a safe home, a lasting relationship, a full stomach, a rich coffer. To do otherwise would render us saints or bodhisattvas. To do otherwise would mean to no longer be human.

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The best we can do, then—maybe—is to remind ourselves often that our search for certainty is futile… and then to go on searching anyway.

The best we can do, maybe, is to see the humor in it all.

To observe our fallible human hearts and laugh at them—and love them.

Lately, I’ve been obsessing somewhat over where I’ll live when I return to Costa Rica in September. I know it’s too early to make this decision. I know. Each time I jump on the same cycle of thought, I remind myself of this. I stop. And then the next day I start all over again.

It just is. Asi es.

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It’s okay. I’m human.

I note without blame or frustration the patterns in my own life—the relationships where I’ve grasped at tomorrow, cities where I’ve hastily sought a room to call home, homes where I’ve ignored the “here” to plan my escape to “there.” I observe all this with a glint of happy laughter.

What a blessing, to have arms strong enough to grasp and a heart strong enough to learn, over and over again, to relinquish control.

“I know you’re tired but come, this is the way.” — Rumi

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This journey is really an aimless walk in the woods, but we forget that. In my imagination, the remembering goes something like this:

Angel: Look how many beautiful trails there are! So many possibilities!

Devil: But, which is the best route to get where we’re going?

A: We’re not going anywhere, come on! Remember, we’re just walking for the joy of it.

D: Right… right. Any path will do, just—

A: Just what?! Any path will do. That’s all.

D: Just, better be careful to choose the right one.

A: What do you mean? There is no right way to get there if we’re not going to any “there” in particular. That’s the whole point.

D: But, what if there are waterfalls on that trail? We wouldn’t want to miss out on any natural wonders, would we?

A: And maybe there are unicorns on this trail. We just don’t know until we try, do we? We’ll see what we see and miss what we miss, and our walk will be exactly perfect.

D: Might as well just stay here. Wouldn’t want to risk heading off in the wrong direction.

A: Not an option. We’re walking. Anywhere. Somewhere. Nowhere. Does. Not. Matter. But we can’t stay here. Life is moving, and we have to move too. So get up, count to three, and choose.

D: But, but… what about unicorns? And waterfalls? What about monsters? There could be monsters! No way, not worth the risk.

A: One.

D: Nope. Not going anywhere.

A: Two. Remember: There’s no right way, only the way you choose to walk.

D: Not sold. Monsters, remember.

A: Wherever you walk, that is where you’re going. Three.

D: …

A: I’ll choose, then. That way.

toby israel, vagabondess, nomadic, uncertainty, journey, choose, walk

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10 Hours in Nairobi (Airport!)

Final Destination: Jinja, Uganda—the mouth of the Nile

Tuesday, 12 April, 2016—Nairobi, Kenya

The New York Times may have all the tips for how to spend your 36-hour weekend in Nairobi, but you only need 10 hours to enjoy all the delights of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport!

It’s going to be a long day, so wear comfortable shoes. The following is only a sample itinerary—feel free to craft your own.
5:50 a.m. Early bird gets the worm and all that. Arrive at Nairobi airport from whatever your previous port of embarkment may be. Drink in the fresh morning air (but please, not the water) and stumble toward your connecting flight. 
(Note: This is best enjoyed on minimal rest, so try not to sleep too much on your red eye.)
7:15 a.m. Pole pole (slowly), friends. Delays are normal, especially with Kenya Airways. The Avanti Cafe on the ground floor has reasonably priced tea and friendly and sympathetic staff. (They’ve heard your story before; don’t bother.)
Savor your mediocre latte and partake of the only free wifi in NBO. Don’t miss the sights: Watching disgruntled tourists aimlessly milling about in growing impatience is one of the unique pleasures of the airport experience.
8:15 a.m. Board your flight and prepare for take-off. Don’t worry, your day’s not over that quickly—we’re just going for a quick aerial tour of the beautiful city of Nairobi.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view on your 10-minute cruise above Kenya. “Technical issues” are just an official way of saying, “please don’t leave yet, Nairobi airport has so much more to offer.” 
9:35 a.m. Make good use of an hour on the ground before deplaning, and get to know your fellow adventurers. Enjoy a stale, rubbery apology croissant, courtesy of the airline, too. You’ll need your fuel; we still have 6 hours to go! You may also like to observe the unloading of your luggage, which was heading toward your final destination just minutes before.
10:50 a.m. Experience extreme disorganization first-hand. Join the pack, and wander confusedly from gate to gate, really getting to know the twists and turns of the Nairobi airport. Intimate knowledge like this is rare for the average tourist; you may even have time to peruse the least authentic curio shops in all of Kenya.
11:25 a.m. Head to Table 49 for a classic airport dining experience. As you sample your chocolate-cardboard muffin and piping hot tea, you may appreciate the opportunity to practice your Italian, French, Swahili or German language skills with some of the other diners—this is an international airport, after all.
12:10 p.m. Wave goodbye to some of your new friends as they head to the next (now fully booked) flight, then get to know some of the airline staff as they place you on the next one—5 hours later.

12:45 p.m. Why not head back to the unsurpassed Avanti Cafe for another visit? After all, no one has given you any free water, and you’re probably thirsty. Browse through Facebook, and daydream about arriving at your destination before dark.

1:25 p.m. Stroll upstairs to Table 49 for another complimentary meal. Totally edible chicken, rice and spinach, and a bottle of water to boot! Enjoy getting to know the remaining stranded passengers from the morning, and observe the effect that sleep deprivation may have on your conversational skills (hint: they improve).
2:55 p.m. Meander down those gray, expressionless airport terminal hallways one last time before you have to leave. Join the desperate crowd at gate 15, and since you’re early, why not finish up your conversations with your new friends.
3:50 p.m. Get on that plane, friends, it’s time to fly. Cross your fingers that your checked baggage makes it on with you, and settle in for a nap—you’ll need it. Safari njema (safe travels)!

In complete seriousness, as desperately long and painfully disorganized as my unplanned, extended layover in Nairobi was, I don’t think I’ve ever had as many conversations, in as many languages, with as many strangers, in one day. We were all looking out for each other, united in common misfortune and misery—which, miserable as it was, was also pretty cool.
And, it’s always better to laugh. Running on 3 hours of sleep and very disappointed to be spending my day off in an airport—instead of with friends in Uganda—I quickly found the entire situation completely absurd, and I had to laugh.
You have to laugh.
Frustration is useless, especially in airports, and a bit of humor can make a bleak day far more bearable.

So, enjoy your next visit to the Nairobi Airport, and let me know if you want any more tips—I’m probably an expert now.


Update: In Jinja, Uganda now, visiting some friends I haven’t seen since a year ago in Kenya, and enjoying some much-needed R and R. My checked luggage, if you were wondering, miraculously made it here, too!


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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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Poetry & Fiction

The Men Who Saw (A Poem of Sorts)

Happy New Year!

This is not the typical style of work I share here, but I’ve been sitting on this whimsical little poem for quite a while now, and I figure now is as good a time as any to share it. May this be a light-hearted reminder to open our eyes (in all senses of the phrase) to the beauty of those people and places around us in the coming year…

The Men Who Saw

Once, the world was full of men who looked
with eyes as big as pans to cook—
Jaws hanging low, right down to the floor,
they looked and looked, ’til they could look no more.
The women and girls, and little boys too,
Could not understand all this looking to do—
And they shouted and pleaded to those big staring eyes
To just once sink deeper, and see them inside.
But the men who looked did not know what they meant;
Their days in looking and staring they spent…
Until one day a blind man appeared in their midst
And taught the men the lesson they’d missed.
At the first the men could not see why
This blind one’s attention brought so many smiles—
The women and children explained it all:
Though he could not look, he saw straight to their souls!
The men who looked hemmed and pondered;
They scratched their heads and thought and wondered.
At last one of their lot closed his eyes in amazement,
And refused to open them, despite much persuasion.
“I’ve got it, my friends!” He shouted with glee.
“The blind one’s vision is fine; the fault lies with me.
Though we look and we stare every day of our lives,
The world that we know is a palace of lies!”
And so the men who looked became the men with eyes closed,
and they finally knew what it meant to see souls.
Nevermore would they suffer such empty stares,

when the truth which they sought—beyond closed eyes was there.

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Cows on the Beach (Photos)

There is something delightful about seeing herds of cows wandering along the beach.

Sure, when I stop to think about how much manure is probably swept up during high tide, it’s suddenly much less delightful. But still, they’re adorable and particularly photogenic, so I’ve found myself taking a (uselessly) large quantity of pictures of cows on the beach.

Lest they be wasted, I am sharing the best ones here.

Don’t worry—more are surely on the way. I will update this post with more cows on the beach as I see them!
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Africa, Culture, U.S.

Kenya V United States (A Fun Chart)

This blip of time back in the U.S. has offered me some perspective on both Kenya and my home country, and a chance to reflect on how the two compare. So I had myself some fun and made this chart.

Granted, some of these are generalizations based only on my own experiences; nonetheless, I think the following juxtaposition could be both entertaining and illuminating. Enjoy!


United States
Airport employees mostly smile.
The women working security at the Mombasa International Airport are delighted at my attempts to speak Ki-Swahili, try to convince me to find a Kenyan husband, and totally crack up when I joke that I already have seven and I don’t want any more.
Airport employees rarely smile.
I try to make a joke with the woman directing the passport control line about the man who seems to be trying to cut in front of me. The look she gives me is closer to shock than anything else.
Pedestrians are responsible for themselves.
Crossing the street is on you. Try not to get hit.
Pedestrians are the drivers’ responsibility.
There are crosswalks. Cars stop at them.
Salad could be anything made from vegetables, be it mango salsa or tomatoes and onion… or mixed greens!
Divisions (or the corresponding linguistic term).
Caeser salad; cobb salad; garden salad; waldorf salad… you get the point. So many kinds of salad out there, and we will name them all!
People have been using digital currency for a while. Not a big deal.
Apple Pay.
You can pay for things with your iPhone now. It’s a big deal.
All the time. Everywhere. Buses blast awesome music (sometimes too loudly), as do shops, restaurants and motorcycles. Usually I like it.
The usual suspects (restaurants, bars, retail) play the usual tunes, and then yoga classes, of all places, blast terrible hip hop. I don’t like it.
Police take people’s money and call it Christmas. (As in, “So, what did you get me for Christmas?”)
Police take people’s money and call it the law.

(See the excellent John Oliver clip below.)

Are nuisances so problematic in Lamu that they were loaded onto boats and shipped to a remote island (Kiwayu), where they continue to be nuisances.
Are beloved pets.

Love him (from what I can tell). I even bought playing cards with Obama’s face on them a couple weeks ago.

Apparently at least 50% of citizens do not love him. And I’ve never seen Obama cards, though they might exist here too.
 Local food is the norm.
The main fruit and veg market in Kilifi features whatever is grown (which is a lot!). Imported foods are exorbitantly marked up.
 Local food is a trend.

I hope it’s a trend that will stick, but the supermarkets I’ve seen still stock masses of produce from around the country and the world.


And there you have it! Kenya V United States… Not so different? Not so similar? Maybe a venn diagram would have been better..

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This Blog Post is Slumped Against the Bathroom Wall

This blog post is slumped against the bathroom wall like a drunk sorority girl on Saturday night.
This blog post is camping out at the Madrid Barajas International Airport for the next 12 hours.
This blog post isn’t wearing any underwear.
This blog post is afraid of the rain… which is why this blog post is stuck at the only café in Terminal 1 where it is apparently forbidden to lie down.
This blog post was disappointed to discover that the only source of power in the entire Estacion Intermodal de Almeria resided in the women’s restroom.
This blog post ate digestives and coffee for breakfast at 6am, purchased with centimos.
This blog post will continue wearing these clothes (perhaps with a change of underwear) for another 24 hours, because this blog post is the virtual incarnation of honey badger.
This blog post brushes its teeth in public bathrooms.
This blog post is running out of free wifi, and, furthermore, is rather irritated by the lack of free wifi at airports worldwide.
This blog post is going to Kenya.
This blog post is the unglamorous side of travel: sleep-deprived, hemmed in by bad weather, and rough around the edges. But you know what? This blog post doesn’t mind.

…This blog post needs more water…

My most recent home: Murtas, Spain

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In the last three weeks, I have spent approximately 35 hours in airports. Just in airports. I stayed the night in JFK, had a 10-hour layover in Newark, and passed in and out of the truly lovely Burlington International Airport at least 4 times. In my time here, I’ve noticed a few things.
Airports are strange. They are a bit like the purgatory of travel—the holding area you must pass through before moving on to better things (or worse, depending on where you’re heading). And this limbo-land of modern-day crossings offers every temptation your heart might desire: free WiFi (with the notable exception of JFK), cuisine from every part of the globe that never quite satisfies, an orgy of coffee and a baffling number of retail options.
Like purgatory, airports play host to every kind of person, too. Uniformed escorts wheeling old ladies with too much perfume to and fro. Business men in suits. Children visiting relatives, signs that read “unaccompanied minor” (or something to that effect) draped around their necks. Students carrying tattered backpacks. The mysterious person who left an empty handle of cherry-flavored vodka lying on the bathroom floor at the airport in Detroit. Somebody had a very drunk, cherry-scented neighbor on their flight Monday.
These vague, loosely defined souls crowd onto escalators and through security lines, into cafes and along moving walkways, each with their own, individual mission to arrive. They rarely seem to notice one another.
Babies are the notable exception to this rule. They will stare at you forever if no one stops them.
In the first class lounge (which I talked my way into in Newark), the light is softer, the announcements muted, and the cushions thicker. (Oh yes, and the food is free.) But you can make yourself comfortable elsewhere if you only find the right nook, the right corner in which to nest. I have found, too, that it is worthwhile to buy a drink or a sandwich at a sit-down restaurant just to have someplace to sit.
There is a 24/7 diner in JFK where the waitresses don’t mind if you lie down and sleep at night.
In Detroit, there is a really interesting fountain that can easily kill 10 minutes if you are early—I have been sitting here gazing at it for at least that long now. I have yet to find the pattern the jets of water follow.
I have noticed that most people are happy to chat if you engage them, like the Australian girls I met in Newark, or the guy working at the Skinny Pancake in Burlington. Others are perhaps too happy to chat, like the people trying to buy drinks for the Australian girls in Newark, whom I obdurately ignored. Still others will surprise you by how much they don’t want to talk, like the woman I smiled at in line last week who abruptly turned away in response.
Airports exist at a strange midpoint between private and public space. Most people seem to carry a small bubble of impermeable air with them as they travel through. I know I certainly do. And yet our meals, our naps, our personal conversations and our arguments take place in shared, public space. The airport paradox.

It is always too cold, or too loud, or too hard or too rushed. Airports are anything but comfortable and warm. And yet, I kind of like them. They are the limbo-land of my crossings to the next place, my next destination, and for that alone, they are bearable.
And then there is this awesome tunnel at DTW (Detroit):

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We’re Running Low on Unicorns

Unicorns seem to be one of those funny, random, reoccurring themes that run through my life. They are joined by the word vagabond, feathers, the color purple (I mean the color, not the book), and plenty of others that I forget about until they pop up once more, unannounced.

I remember a couple friends who once told me they had decided I was like a unicorn. That is, I was a rare and magical creature. Naturally, this is the best compliment I have ever received to date.

Unicorns, along with horses, became one of my favorite things to draw as a young girl. To be honest, they were one of the only things I could draw with any accuracy.

Not mine.

Yesterday at work, I started a grocery list while waiting for customers to arrive. I made it through yogurt, granola, bananas, cheddar, and cayenne before things got busy. At the end of my shift, I folded up the list, stuffed it in the outside pocket of my backpack, and, as I typically do, completely forgot about it when I stopped at the Middlebury Coop on my way home.

Today, I pulled the list out of my bag to use as scrap paper, and noticed my coworker’s delightful addition: unicorns.

“How did you know I was running low?!” I asked her by text.

She replied: “Aren’t we all.”

Indeed. Aren’t we all running low on unicorns.

Now, I could take this much too far into deep, metaphorical waters, and I am tempted to do so, but I will refrain myself. Take from it whatever you choose. A bit of silliness as you segue into your weekend. A nonsensical story only peripherally about unicorns. Or an unintentionally insightful comment on the diminishing place of whimsy in our world.

It would seem we’re running low on unicorns. Would you mind picking some up at the store?

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Animals Who Think They Are People

I can’t believe I never got around to posting these. I spent a good chunk of my 2012-2013 travels photographing animals who seemed to really believe they were people. One part photos of animals standing on things in entertaining ways; one part dogs being dogs, goats being goats, etc; these photos never fail to make me chuckle.

Something about this rooster standing on a motorcycle is so delightful. These roosters really want to go for a joy ride, but they can’t find their keys!

“I could have sworn I tucked them in here somewhere.” “Dammit Bob, it’s always something with you!”

Dogs are notorious for thinking they are people.

“Who? Me? I’m not a dog. Nope, no dogs here.”

This dog really wants to go to school, but they won’t let him in.

And this dog is still waiting for his meal to be served.
“Um, excuse me? I think you forgot something.”

This monkey may or may not think he is a person, but he knows he is pulling one over on that silly lion.

“I sit on your head, lion!”
And last but not least, my favorite travel photo, which I have definitely posted before, deserves to join this list: a goat riding a cow.
I hope you enjoy these moments of classic animal behavior as much as I do!
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