Sometimes, a person’s first travel is sparked by Wanderlust. My first time was precipitated by desperation.
I flew to New Zealand with a one-way ticket, a backpack, and a bruised and confused spirit.
Because it had all gone wrong.
“Who am I?”
The question reverberated through my mind. The words bounced off of my skull and dented its smooth surface. Those three words made my head explode.
I couldn’t breathe.
Three months prior, I’d been engaged to a mentch. A real mentch. The kind that is deified in yeshiva education systems. The kind of guy that a girl can get if she plays her cards right.
And I had charted out the projected course of the entirety of my future.
I was going to live in New York and he was going to study in Kollel. I was going to financially support us for a while and he was going erect the foundational cornerstones of our home with concrete blocks of Torah.
I was going to be a good wife and he was going to be a good husband. I was going to be a good mother and he was going to be a good father. We were both going to unite as one and be good All-We-Had-Been-Trained-To
It was all organized.
But while everything went according to G-d’s plan, nothing went according to mine.
My engagement fell apart. I was left with a perfectly fitting wedding dress and a diary filled with expectations and plans for a future that no longer existed. Those little red “Rabbi and Mrs. A” hearts filled my margins. I had drawn them in pen.
They couldn’t be erased.
In that moment when all of my carefully diagramed life maps burned, I could think of only one place that I wanted to be.
“Who am I?”
Other questions added their voices and created a crescendo of astonishing and painful harmonies. “What am I doing with my life? Where am I going? What do I want?”
Instead of answering these questions, I ran.
I decided that I didn’t actually have to answer any of these queries. All I had to do was reinvent myself. I would just go somewhere and start over. Be reborn. Morph into something great.
I landed on the tarmac in Oceania and could sense it: my New Beginning. The smells were different. The colors were vibrant. The landscape. The people.
During the week, I would go on short trips with travelers. For Shabbat, I’d return to the Chabad House to help prepare and host massive Shabbat meals. In an effort to engaged Israeli backpackers, I worked on becoming fluent in Hebrew (after two years of study in Israel, I still knew basically nothing). I learned how to gut freshly shechted chickens and supervise the milking of cows for the purposes of Cholov Yisroel milk.
I embarked on my first multi-day hike in Abel Tasman National Park and returned in utter pain due to homicidal mosquitos.
When added together, those mosquito bites felt like death. But they also felt like life.
Because I was living.
I covered the “Rabbi and Mrs. A” hearts in my diary with thick paintings of green hills and blue skies and convinced myself that I had effectively erased my past.
I effectively occupied my mind with so much color and business, that the violent, carnivorous question of “Who Am I?” was silenced.
And I was happy. And excited. And alive.
But in the down moments, the moments without the Israeli tourists and the tasks and the random encounters, the “Who Am I” question could still be heard. It had been gaining strength despite my efforts to passively starve it into nonexistence. I’d tried to escape it, but all I had done was force it from the front of my consciousness to a refuge in the darkest corner of my heart.
After a month, I realized that though I was halfway across the world, I was still in the exact same mental place. I had not moved an inch. I was distracted, yes, but I remained a confused, broken girl.
I still looked at myself in the mirror and saw the labels that my upbringing and society had written and plastered upon my skin. I still utilized tactics like Facebook and exercise and talking to flee from my mind and my existential queries.
I still had no idea who I was.
I realized that I needed to stop running. I needed to stop talking.
What I needed to do was listen.
I bought myself a single person tent, some hiking boots, a pot, and a burner, and started hitchhiking around the South Island. My diet consisted of rice, peanut butter, oatmeal, fruits, and vegetables. And every Shabbos, I would buy a fish.
Because what’s Shabbos without fish?
I would meet people (mostly Israelis) in hostels, grocery stores, and near campgrounds. New Zealand is small, and often, travelers cross paths on numerous occasions. In true Jewish form, whenever Israelis meet another Israeli, an instantaneous family relationship develops. Information about places visited an people met is exchanged. When backpackers would meet me, they would sometimes say, ‘Ah! The Chabadnikit! We’ve heard about you!’
At one point, I joined a few other travelers in climbing to a hut at the top of a 1800 meter mountain. The sites were glorious. The clouds were glorious. The people were glorious.
The following morning, I told my group that I was going to descend alone. That I would meet them at the end of the hike.
I have subsequently learned that that is not the best of ideas.
Because while clouds are beautiful to look at, they are not the most comfortable things to hike through. They are cold and wet and confusion-inducing. An hour after I started walking, backpack in tow, I realized that I’d been engulfed by mist. I could not see the trail marker behind me, nor could I see the one in front of me.
While I was a tad bit nervous, I didn’t panic. I figured that I could just sit down and wait until the mist dissipated. Or my friends descended and stumbled upon me. Or… something.
And it was fine. I’d be fine. I pulled out my iPod, ready to relax and wait.
But my iPod was dead.
It was so cold that it had frozen to death.
And that was when I became frightened.
I wasn’t scared because I was alone and couldn’t find my way off a mountain. I was scared because a dead iPod meant that I would be alone with my thoughts.
I sat there alone for four hours, listening to the subtleties of the world. The sound of the wind. The feeling of the rocks.
I sat there alone for four hours, listening to the subtleties of my mind.
That ‘Who Am I’ question came out of the closet and sang in its full glory. And because I had nothing to distract myself, I immersed myself in its melody.
I thought about the things I had done so far in my trip and the things I wanted to do. And the things I had done so far in my life and the things I wanted to do.
And the kind of person I wanted to be when no one was looking.
Because I had this thing I’d do when I wanted to make a decision. I would go from person to person and ask each one what they would do in my situation. Even after they would advise me, I would go back and check again, “are you sure that’s what you think?”
I wouldn’t even ask myself what I wanted to do. I’d just stack up all of those gathered opinions and my conclusion would be whatever happened to emerge on top.
Because I had never given my inner voice a voice.
Eventually, I got off of that mountain. But I descended with the paradigm shift. It struck me that all of us, as unique individuals, shouldn’t be asking people how we look in outfits. We should be asking ourselves how we feel in them.
That we need not be scared of questions, because the answers are within us. Sitting there. Waiting for us to shut up and attend to what they’re saying.
(True answers are very quiet, and very patient).
My travel was driven by a desire to forget.
But what it did was help me remember.
Remember that who I am, who each and every one of us are, is a Soul. A brilliant, unbreakable, unwavering Soul.
And Souls don’t need to run away from disappointments for fear that they will destroy them. What they need to do is to stand in the midst of the rubble of decimated dreams and look at them for what they are: experiences from which one can build.
Bright souls rummage through the wreckage of difficult experiences and pick and choose the things of value. They walk, arms laden with invaluable valuables, towards the future.
At the end of 3 months in New Zealand, I was staying at couple’s farm in the middle of the Marlborough Sounds. The kind of island that you have to commit to going to for an entire week, because the mail boat (the only way to access the island) only comes on Tuesdays. It was just them, me, and their million sheep.
I had been accepted to an excellent nursing program in New York, but was strongly debating about whether or not to return.
Because I was finally connecting. Breathing. Thriving. I could hear my Soul. I could hear my voice.
I didn’t want to go.
When I told the farm owner, Bill, about my dilemma, he asked me, “When was the last time you prayed?”
I proudly responded, “I pray twice a day.”
“No, I don’t mean like that. I mean when is the last time you took time to pray. To talk to G-d. To listen?”
Upon my hesitation, he instructed me to go sit on his dock and forbade me from returning until I had made a decision.
It took 3 hours of conscious prayer and listening for me to decide that my mission was not in New Zealand. Because that respite I had been seeking? I’d found it.
I knew Who I Was.
So two months later, I went home.
Home to the closet boasting my fitted wedding dress. Home to the diary filled with red hearts covered over with green paint.
All of which could now be appreciated as a part of growing pains. And adventure. And discovery.
Since my New Zealand trip, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit. I’ve learned how to be a safer, more conscientious traveler. How to backpack in a way that gives my parents (a tiny bit) more peace of mind. I now primarily visit third world and developing countries for about a month at a time. And I travel alone.
I don’t go to see sights. Nor do I go to party or escape reality.
I go to tune in.
To recalibrate and reconnect. To listen. To breathe.
To remember what it feels like to trust myself. To hear myself.
Because our guts… our Souls… are worth listening to.
Originally Published in Ami Magazine