A Search for Serenity

090-IMG_2713While riding the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, Vietnam, I had a realization: for the last 5 weeks, or so, my life has been nearly stress free.

I come and go as I please. I have no one to answer back to. I wake up when I want to, go out when I want to, and move on to the next destination as I please.

This stands in stark contrast to my life back in New York, where every move is dictated by personal goals, social pressures, family/work/school obligations.

While I should be relishing in these moments, I ironically find myself filled with worry:

If I am so stress free now, how am I going to acclimate to my life back at home, where the least stressful of my days involve a full day’s work, a full night’s worth of homework and classes, and a whole lot of minutes spent commuting in between?

I have tasted life that is actually lived, and I don’t know if I have the energy to go back to place where we toil endlessly  for things we have no time to enjoy.

When I walk through the streets here I can’t help but pity the locals who I know have limited social and economical mobility.

I pity the fact that the village children don’t know that they can have a better, easier, more convenient life in the city. I pity the city children for they are hardly likely to see the world beyond where their parents’ makeshift motorbikes can take them.

More than I pity the low wages and simple lives, I pity what seems to be a lack of motivation.

For the most part, lots of people here are content with doing whatever it takes to get by, but nothing more. There is no “american dream” they are working for: they only hope for the safety and security of their loved ones. For food on the table and a roof on their heads, and once they’ve secured that, why must they work harder?

And then I remember: They don’t need my pity. In fact, I can use a taste of their contentment. I live in a city where all of my shortcomings glare at me on the daily. Where I am constantly reminded of how little I have and what I have yet to achieve. Where an opulent life is more applauded and desired than a happy one.

I am reminded about all the times in the past twelve months where I found myself caught in a never ending torrent of homework, family obligations, weddings, personal discontent with my lack of personal achievements. Like those times I was  caught on the subway at 11:41 p.m., an unfinished take home exam due at midnight awaiting me, the guilt of another missed engagement party weighing on my conscience, and the knowledge that there’s only another only a few more hours until I will be back on the subway for work. Again.

In those moments I comforted myself by closing my eyes and letting my thoughts take me to far away places. The Kotel plaza on Thursday nights, the sounds of song lifting my soul. The picture perfect beaches of Puerto Rico, or the unpaved roads in the Santa Rosa village in Nicaragua.  Places where I can disappear, leave my hectic life behind me. Where I could sit back and observe as opposed to being a cog in a machine, struggling to get ahead while simultaneously being bogged down and absorbed by the stuff I need to have, buy, do and remember.

Now, my pity turns into envy: I wish I could be content with just being. I wish I could stop measuring my worth by my achievements and the achievements of those around me. I wish I could be at peace without having to close my eyes and go somewhere far away.

One of my favorite things about Vietnam are the houses. Inspired by French colonial architecture,  the the exteriors are majestic and vibrant, featuring large french doors that are kept open at all hours, inviting passerby to get a peek inside the locals’ homes and lives. It’s a literal window into their world. I love watching from the street, seeing the families gather on low stools, eating their dinner of rice, fresh raw veggies, and seafood, watching television together, talking, laughing and relaxing together. It’s just so beautiful and calming.

Sure, there are difficulties here. And I don’t mean to romanticize what for some may see as an impoverished life. But we all have our privileges, and this is one, I as a westerner, am yet to indulge in. The simplicity and content. I wonder if it’s even possible for me to achieve such a state of inner calm, enough to allow me to just sit down, relax, and just be.

The hustle and bustle of city life is as natural to me as the beating of my heart. I am composed of the stresses it entails. I thrived on it and nearly choked on it, but I hope I can let it bleed out just enough to allow some room for inner peace and calm. I pray to G-d that I can bottle up the serenity I find around me out here and put it to use where and when I need it most. It’s the only souvenir I ask for.

Traveling Sucks

I know, I know. I’ve reached a pathetic new low, succumbing to attention grabbing click bait just to get you to read my blog.

But forgive me, because I’m not a blogger and it’s 3am here in Phuket, Thailand, and I just spent four hours attempting to sort out my finances (the kind of thing I travel to escape from, but follows me, inevitably.)

Rainy, dreary, cloudy Phuket, Thailand.

This beautiful vacation destination–filled with palm trees, surrounded by sandy clear blue beaches–is a mush of grey fog.

And on the table next to me is a notepad on which I have scribbled a list of my failures and mistakes I’ve made so far on this trip.

Yes, I know. It’s day number four since we’ve got here and I’ve already made so many mistakes that a small part inside of me just wants to give up. There’s a voice in my head saying that maybe traveling isn’t for me, maybe I’m doing this for the wrong reasons, maybe I should give up, go home, or have stayed in Israel longer. After all, there is so much I could be doing there.

This is the part of traveling no one really talks about:

Realizing that you’ve booked two flights for places you just decided you no longer want to go to.

Realizing that you packed too much clothes, too nice to give away, but too nice to wear and that the clothing here is SIMPLY adorable and perfect and only $1.50, but you have no room in your overloaded backpack to fit them.

Realizing  that it’s going to be raining for the next 3 weeks, and that maybe schlepping your macbook pro with you wasn’t the best of ideas.

Realizing that you’re just a sham, pretending to know what you’re doing in this world, all sophisticated and well-traveled and whatnot, but really you’re just trying too hard to be “different” or “interesting.”

Feeling like an imposter for staying at hotels and motels as opposed to stuffing yourself into a dank room with 9 other complete strangers in a rundown guesthouse, or camping under the moonlight, praying not to be eaten alive by a pack of wolves or a swarm of mosquitos.

Or when you realize that you made too many promises:

Promises to plan everything thoroughly, but before you know it, you’re on the plane and hardly have a plan in mind.

Promises to call your family every few days, but it’s been 2 weeks and you still haven’t called.

Promises to live in the moment, but you’re still stressing out about all the mistakes you made, the ever imminent threat of malaria, the flight you need to catch tomorrow, your lack of sleep, and the bills you forgot to take care of back at home.

Promises to blog, and upload pictures, and write out every step of your itinerary so that you can share every incredible moment with your friends.

I am learning that traveling isn’t just about fun, “finding yourself” or “broadening your horizons.” It’s about losing yourself and making mistakes and promises you can’t keep.

I promised to blog, but I realized that this trip, for me, is an attempt to just let go and let it be. To just allow time and fate to carry me, as opposed to crafting my destiny so carefully that I barely have room to enjoy the moment I am in right now. So will I be blogging again? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I won’t be making any more promises because I don’t want to bear the weight of regret. I want to be light and free and present, and if that means I make a fool out of myself, then so be it.

I read this interesting article today in which the author asserts that the real way to find yourself is not to travel, but to stay at home.  And her point is somewhat true. You won’t find yourself while dancing wildly at  club, playing card games with a bunch of strangers, riding elephants, bungee jumping or ziplining across the rainforest.

But you will find yourself in the mistakes you make and the lessons you learn from them.

So allow me to close off with the classic cliche: Sometimes to find yourself, you just have to lose yourself.

Cheers to mistakes!

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revival of the dead

Four days ago I did something very, very silly: I posted on my Facebook page my idea of starting a travel blog/website geared toward Jewish shomer shabbat/kosher travelers. I thought that I would get a small conversation going with a couple of my well traveled Facebook friends who would either support the idea or point me towards resources that were already out there. Instead, I got an overwhelming amount of positive feedback, with lots of people telling me that this is something they were looking for and something that they would contribute to.

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My reaction: Oh, Crap.

Because now I actually have to get my highly inconsistent, overworked and overtired brain cells together to formulate stuff… stuff that will be informative and helpful and that people will actually want to read.

But let’s be realistic: I don’t know quite how long that will take to set up. Or whether I’m the right kind of person to do something like that.

So in the meantime, I’ll dust off this dying blog and revive it just enough so it can forget it ever went to that awful place where dormant blogs go to die.

My travel partner here, Suki, is the creative and entertaining one, while I like to get all technical and analytical and sometimes freakishly deep about stuff.  So she’ll be guest posting more often than I do so you can follow our journey AND be entertained. :)

Happy reading & bonjour from Paris! (Don’t get too excited- it’s just a layover!)
xxHello Paris

pickle guys: a conversation about change and preservation

Exterior: The Pickle Guys

The last remaining pickle shop of Manhattan’s Lower East Side is an unassuming structure squeezed amongst red pre-war brownstones on Essex Street and bearing a green vinyl sign proclaiming “The Pickle Guys” in large yellow letters. Its owner, 55-year-old Alan Kaufman — or Al, as he is known to his friends and devoted customers — is more than just a brine master: he is a historian who has devoted his life to the art of preservation of not only food, but of a lost era.

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“I’m not really big on change, and I like to keep it the way it always was. That way, when people come down, they can see how it used to be,” he says. “You know, it’s tradition. You gotta have tradition.”

The owner, Fifty-Five-year-old Alan “Al” Kaufman, is more than just a brine master: he is a historian whose life is focused on the art of preservation of not only food, but of a lost era.

Pickle Guys was first opened in 1980, after Kaufman left his position as manager in the once-famous Guss’s Pickle Shop, which has since closed. But pickles, says Kaufman, “have been here in this neighborhood since 1910.

At the start of the twentieth century, the Lower East Side was known for its peddlers and hot dogs, and of course, its pickle shops, which were often founded by  Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

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“If you’re coming into a country you don’t know anything about, you’re not gonna come to Miami, you’re not gonna go to Colorado,” Kaufman explains. “’The boat let me off here? I’m gonna go three blocks away from here’, and that’s it. And that’s how it started. They brought over what they knew, and they knew how to manufacture pickles. It was a comfort food, it was inexpensive to start up a pickle business, and that’s what they did.”

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At this point in time, however, the community is changing as a new wave of gentrification sweeps through the  historical mecca.

“This neighborhood is changing, it’s becoming gentrified,” Kaufman says thoughtfully. “Do I think it’s better? I don’t know. It’s a good neighborhood, I know that. It’s a very nice neighborhood. But I kinda miss the old days… People who come here now expect to see the old days. It’s not like that anymore.

“Now we are the last real, traditional pickle store standing. We actually make everything by hand; there are no machines here.”

There isn’t even a cash register. “We take money and do the math in our head,” shrugs Kaufman. “We don’t have a machine that says ‘give three dollars’ back. We do it the old way. People need to learn how to add. You start using the machine, you forget how to add.”

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Inside the shop, long, fluorescent lightbulbs hang off the low ceiling, casting shadows over the bright red plastic barrels strewn alongside an exposed brick wall, each filled with pickled delights — pickled olives, pineapple, herring, cucumbers, and pickled watermelon in the fall, if you are lucky enough to snag some before it sells out.

But the most popular item here? “Sour pickles,” Kaufman asserts. “We sell more than anything else here. I’ll go through at least one barrel, two barrels a day just of sour.”

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You could say that Kaufman embodies the community of the Lower East Side: he is loud and boisterous, with a spirited laugh, a broad smile and an old-school sensibility and friendliness.

2014-04-08 17.31.55Although Kaufman was born, raised, and resides in Queens, he has made the Lower East his second home, becoming a fixture in the community– particularly the Jewish one– which makes up the majority of his clientele.

“I feel very connected to everyone down here,” he says. “I’ve been here so long, I’ve seen at least three generations of families buy pickles from me. So I kinda have a personal connection to everyone here. I feel comfortable walking around here. People thank me for actually being here, and in most jobs, nobody gives you a thank you.”

In the spring and summer months, the storefront opens to the street. With Passover soon approaching, Kaufman’s long-time friend and part-time employee, Chris, grinds fresh horseradish while wearing a gas mask to prevent his eyes from tearing. It’s an unusual sight, even for New York City, and passersby stop to watch the show.

One such bystander is an elderly woman sporting a cane and white, curly, short hair, who asks for sweet Passover horseradish.

But they’ve stopped making it, says Kaufman, who acknowledges changing tastes of his clientele: “The young people these days like their horseradish hot.”

Freshly Ground Horseradish

“If things change, we change with them,” he acquiesces. “In the old days, we only had a couple of barrels. Over the years, I carry more and more items. I carry roughly thirty-five, thirty-six items, everything in barrels. We expand more to get more revenue.”

2014-04-08 16.54.57-1As much as the LES is changing, Kaufman’s one hope for the future is to continue the legacy of preserving the traditional atmosphere that his shop brings to it.

“I would hope that this store is here forever,” he says. “My hope is to finish my lifetime here and give it to the employees who are here, and hopefully they’ll finish taking care of it in their lifetimes.”

And after that?

“I don’t know,” he admits. “Let’s hope they’ll be able to make the rent.”

Photos by: Chaya Bar-Chaim

Owning Less, Living More

Santa Rosa Village, Nicaragua
Santa Rosa Village, Nicaragua

 

During my travels this past week with a Jewish Social Justice organization, Justifi, I spent a lot of time discussing the consequences and perils of overconsumption, not only on the planet but on our psyches.

When traveling through a country like Nicaragua,  you are surrounded are locals struggling to  eek out a living in whatever way they can while being subject to inferior education and jobs. Life is not easy, yet the people are so happy and content.

The contrast between our lives and their’s becomes quite apparent. Since I’ve gotten back, I haven’t stopped thinking about my own consumption habits and how complicated our lives have become because of the things we are constantly amassing.

We live in the most affluent of times, inside a gigantic bubble of the stuff we buy and hold on to.

As a result, I find myself suffocated, suffocated by possessions. Every day there is something else I want, something else I need. A new bag, a new gadget, a new pair of shoes. Hardly a week goes by without a box arriving from Amazon addressed to me, with yet another item I convince myself I can’t live without.

I own so much more than lots of people, yet I will still manage to find a reason to keep buying more. When I’m stressed, I’ll surf the web in the hopes of finding a product that can soothe me by creating the illusion of a convenient life. Every wedding will mean a new dress, every trip will mean a new suitcase, every season a new wardrobe. And while I own these things for convenience or esteem, the more I have of it the worse I feel about myself.

The same carries over to our digital “possessions.” We obsess over maintaining constant documentation of the things we do or see, largely through photos, videos, statuses and screenshots. We no longer rely on our memories to remind us of where we’ve been or what we’ve felt. As a co-worker put it, we used to come home from an experience and tell a story. Now we come home and tell others to check our FB/Instagram/Twitter updates, to see our curated, manipulated, and carefully filtered snippets of a story.

And at the end of the day we are left with thousands upon thousands of digitized items we store across our iCloud, Dropbox, and social media accounts.

The problem is that our live’s become cheapened when they are so documented.

In the past, photographs were valuable. Who doesn’t cherish that rare photo of our grandparents as kids?  In the future, our live’s will have been documented in such utter detail, unlike ever seen before in history, yet who will be interested if there is such an overwhelming excess of it?

The minimalist movement has gained traction simply because more and more people are feeling sick from the burden of their possessions.

Maybe that’s why I want to travel. When I travel, I live simply. I take only what I need, spend only what I have. Like they say “out of sight is out of mind.” Away from home, away from my things, I forget they even exist.

So I wonder:
How do I live minimalistically without compromising my desire to look and feel good, especially while living in a world where looks determine success and possessions mean power? And furthermore,  how do I expand that to my digital life and social media?

I haven’t quite figured it out, but I am going to try to live a more minimalistic life.  It won’t be easy for me, as I am as materialistic as they come. And I might never even get there entirely. But at the end of the day, I’d rather spend money on experiences I want to remember rather than things I want to forget I own.

Maybe the more stuff I lose, the more of myself I’ll find.

Happy travels!