Just when I was feeling ultimate confusion about why the hell I’m picking up and traveling again, leaving behind community, a job, friends, family, temperate sunshine-y weather, familiarity…. I ran into a fellow traveler.
As someone who has impeccable timing in life, I received an email yesterday about an amazing program called the LIFE program in Israel and India. Ten months of leadership training and individually customized professional internships in the field of social change and innovation. Five months in Hyderabad, India, and five in Jersualem, Israel.
Sweet. Here I am scheduled to be leaving in less than a month for Tel Aviv to do the Tikkun Olam program, and I choose to spend two hours on the phone with the Founder and Director of a whole other program this morning rather than sticking to the plan of braving the Israeli Consulate in SF to get my visa. It’s my typical self-imposed decision insanity crisis. Maybe you’re familiar.
So I brewed some beer with Warren and went for a walk. I always find that walking is a much better alternative to sitting and stewing over a big decision. Something about the movement, and the physical act of progressing forward in a straight line helps bring my rational thinking in line with my emotions. But today I didn’t get very far. Laptop in hand, I headed for Philz Coffee in North Berkeley to think, research, and write. On my way in, someone caught my eye.
It was the front desk receptionist from my Yoga studio. Now, I have always been a yoga skeptic. But something about this past year has had me craving my downward dogs. Maybe it was the chaotic spiritual aftermath of what I now call the “dengue fever detour,” or maybe it was just the undeniable magic of a good teacher, but I’m now a regular at Yoga Mandala. Enough to recognize the woman from the front desk with the incredible blue-green eyes and the strange semi-European accent.
We said hello, exchanged formalities, and somehow the topic of India was broached (she had just returned from a trip). I asked if I could pick her brain a bit, and we ended up in what turned out to be the best (and most honest) conversation I’ve had in 2011. I can’t recreate it here, but it soon became obviousthat we were kindred souls (without using such a tacky phrase) and that travelers share the bond of speaking a common language. She told me about India, yes, but she gave me a kind of reassurance I’ve been craving since I told the first person that I was bound for foreign lands again.
“Don’t worry about what you’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “When you’re in India, or any country for that matter, you never know what will happen. It’s magical. You’ll find that you’ve accomplished or learned something completely different from what you set out to achieve.”
Her words were like a soothing balm for my tormented soul. Not to be melodramatic, but I’ve felt to unsure of myself, like an awkward filly venturing out into the exciting yet terrifying world of independent adulthood. “I’m going to do a volunteer fellowship…?” I hypothesize when asked what I plan to do in Israel. “I’ll be placed in an NGO that works for coexistence????” I assure people that I’m excited, when in my most anxious of hearts I’m terrified that I’ll fail in my unnamed mission, or that I’ll return to the U.S. completely clueless as to my next step, single and broke to top it off, with no degree or professional skill-set to show for it.
While I feel hindered by the constructs of American individualism-obsessed, goal-worshipping society, I also am sure that I don’t want to float free and meaningless through the vast wide world like some kind of selfish tourist-gypsy. I don’t fit in at festivals, and I think hula-hooping is stupid past the age of 12. I feel obligated to use my intelligence and education to better the world, and yet I feel panicked at the thought of having to choose a profession. Like most Americans, I care about making my family proud and looking attractive to potential employers. I want friends and boyfriends to think I’m cool and adventurous, but struggle with the doubt that they might dump me once they realize they can’t count on me to be around for a while.
In truth, I don’t know what to expect when I’m abroad. The best things usually happen when you least expect them, and the relationships seem to materialize from thin air. One day you’re wandering alone through a crowded street trying to find your hostel, the next day you’re boarding a ferry with your new best friend Jane that you feel like you’ve known forever, discussing ex-boyfriends and Nietzche. You set out to save the monkeys of China, and you end up re-discovering your childhood passion for writing in journals, and reveling in smog and nauseating overnight bus-rides in Vietnam.
After our chat, I felt reassured that the universe had FINALLY sent me a sign that I’m gonna be okay. That I’m not fucking up my life, or signing my death sentence for an eternity of isolation, poverty, and homelessness by going on an adventure. Whether I go to Israel, or India, or both or neither, I’m going to have an incredible learning experience by leaving my comfort zone and boarding a plane to another world.
This woman, this gorgeous international supermodel of a traveler, kissed me on the cheek, assured me of my own wisdom, and thanked me for stopping to talk to her. I hate to rest on the words of those before me, but in this case the Grateful Dead said it best:
God Bless the Dead, and God bless fortuitous encounters with strangers on the street of Berkeley, California. I’m home again in my own skin.