Bali: The Song of Silence

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Nyepi is Bali’s New Year’s Eve and national day of silence. Shops are closed, televisions and lights are turned off. No fires are lit, no work is done. Tourists aren’t allowed to leave their hotels and even the International airport shuts down — not a single flight in or out. It’s a day of self-reflection that captures the essence of an a legendary island that was perfect for a solo, soulful, escape.

I had moved out of New York and (back) across the country, accepted a new job and agreed to spend my life with a person… all at the same time. Although it was not Nyepi when I arrived in Bali, I hoped the waves and jungle rains would be just the trick to untangle my tightly wound thoughts and emotions. Everything I felt was wonderful; but wonderfully overwhelming. I needed solitude. The silence focus on everything ahead and leave the rest behind.

Bali is Indonesia’s only Hindu island. With a culture so intertwined with religion, it’s easy to understand why Bali stands apart from other Indonesian islands. Balinese Hinduism uniquely fuses the worlds of people, spirits, demons and gods into a highly philosophical approach to life. Nature is “power” and spirits and ancestors are treated with the highest respect, believed to impact all aspects of life. As gods are everywhere, so are Balinese rituals. They strive for harmony between the living and the dead, honoring this power balance with daily ceremonies. It’s the balance that seems to entrance visitors with the hope of discovering a similar, yet internal, understanding of purpose and control.

 

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I was trying VERY hard to not be all “Eat, Pray, Love” about the experience, but when a rainstorm woke me up that first morning, my brain jumped straight to, “METAPHORICAL CLEANSE!” I made a mental note to think this positively the next time it rained in Seattle and stepped out to the open air living space, watching the heavy drops dance across the surface of the pool. Slipping into the water, I floated there with my eyes closed, letting the rain drum on my face. The sun rose, and the jungle came alive. Monkeys hollered, birds chattered and I couldn’t deny that the warm rains welcomed a freshly cleansed day. A symbolic start to my trip.

Heading to yoga, I almost trampled a tiny basket of flowers and crackers sitting outside the guesthouse gate. The sun had barley risen, yet every storefront, shrine and intersection had a version of this offering. Most were lit with a stick of incense that perfumed the morning air. “Canang Sari,” are daily offerings to the spirits to bring good health and prosperity to family and friends. I contemplated the one outside the yoga studio and wondered, briefly, if there was anything I did consciously and purposefully every day. Then I got distracted by a gecko and walked into class.

Perched on a mat under a vaulted ceiling of woven reeds, high up in the trees, the NYC detox began. Out with honking cabs and transactional relationships, in with a slowed pace and the deepest commitment. Goodbye to the safety of tight community, and hello to the juggling of relationships, starting over (again) and being far away from the place I felt most alive.

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Four hours were spent practicing “the art of surrender” and deepening my yoga practice each day. The rest of the day found me sprawled on the beach, reading and writing. I flew through books and unraveled my thoughts while dipping in and out of swimming pools and sandy stretches, fueling up with açaí bowls, green juices and avo smashes (courtesy of the Aussie-expats).

 

I talked to as few people as possible throughout those ten days, caught up in my round-the-clock meditation.

I listened to the silence and found it had a lot to say… about New York, a new year, relationships, promises, goals and hopes and dreams and fears.

I started letting it all go.

 

The demands of the every day mean we are always reacting. Happy, sad, stressed, annoyed, overwhelmed, uncertain, insecure… hell, the only reason I was in Bali was because I was drowning in my own emotions. Too overwhelmed by the people, choices, changes, to even know how I felt about them. Finally, twisted in a ten-minute yoga pose, I found only on the vibrations of my heart and depth of my breath. I focused not on everything outside of me, but on everything within. The more I surrendered to the pressures and the desire to react to them, the more space I created for excitement, gratitude, and forward motion.

I thought about Nyepi, the day of silence, and the wisdom of the Balinese to spend the day before the New Year in a state of surrender both to the world and to themselves. While the idea of shutting down JFK on New Year’s Eve is extreme, the spirit of Canang Sari felt just right. Much like a prayer before bed, these offerings are simple meditations — daily acts of faith. Whether a morning sun salutation or a moment of focused breathing, pausing to surrender to the things you can’t control moves you closer to what you can: your body, your breath, and ultimately, whatever is at your core.

I’d traveled all the way around the world to learn how to close my eyes and breath. No more anxiety about a future I didn’t know yet, or a past I couldn’t change. By surrendering control, I actually gained it. ■

 

 iPhone snaps from my Bali beach days:

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I really did try to steer clear of the “Eat, Pray, Love effect” while in Bali (it’s a thing). I didn’t even visit Uluwatu or any of the famous destinations, as I wanted to make it my own adventure and not follow the typical tourist route.

That caveat aside, if you’d like to borrow from my DIY yoga retreat, here are a few tips:

 

Canggu, my sleepy surfer village, for a not-so-touristy Bali experience with all sorts of fun experiences.

The Practice Bali, for a thoughtful Yin yoga practice in the most beautiful of yoga settings

Cold Acai bowls for lunch after a hot afternoon in the sun from Nalu Bowls 

Brekkie with the cool kids at Crate Cafe 

Coconuts Guesthouse to stay with the kindest family and have their stunning pool all to yourself for a rainstorm

The Kirana, if you want your digs to be a bit more glam

Sipping tea and juice on the front porch of Cafe Organic, which feels like your best friend’s island home

Vegan salads in the garden under the twinkle lights at The Shady Shack

Surf board rentals from the friendly faces at Batu Bolong Beach

Sunset beers at Echo Beach Club 

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Afterglow: 36 hours on the Oregon Coast

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Hunter and I got married on Saturday. As in FIVE DAYS AGO, Saturday. It was magic, and then it was over.

Our nearest and dearest flew from around the country and the world.
Our family threw three full days of parties in our honor.
We danced, hugged, laughed and cried, poured a champagne tower and ate Dunganess Crab by candlelight — all fueled by the sugar rush from ten+ different desserts.
By the end of it all, my dress was dirty but my heart was full. Little Red Corvette blared as we sped away from Hood Canal on Sunday with the windows down and stupid happy smiles spread across our faces.

We’d spent 8 months imagining what that weekend would feel like and suddenly we knew. It was everything. So much so that we wondered how we would reacclimatize to society, still high on love and salted caramel chocolate wedding cake. Enter, Oregon. A state that barley even registers to your average East Coaster. To many, it might as well be the end of earth, and that’s exactly why we went there.

Mrs. Smigel’s pink-lipsticked grin greeted us at her B&B as we pulled up to one of the very last houses on the very last road. The bed sheets matched the tea set, a blue and white china pattern you’d expect from your favorite British aunt. The only perceivable sound was the steady crashing of waves.

For 24 hours, I daydreamed exclusively of wedding weekend bliss. It’s funny though, how a weekend so emotionally charged can be just as memorable as one that’s a portrait of zen. The juxtaposition of wedding intensity and Oregon tranquility left us perfectly balanced.

It was a deep breath that tasted of ocean mist, salty waves and beach grass. We took naps in the sand with sun on our faces, browsed bookstore shelves and walked miles and miles, hand-in-hand, with the ocean swelling around our ankles.

The days passed with craft beers on tap, steamy stargazing baths in the outdoor soaking tub, beach fires (and s’mores!) until way too late, and crab, oysters and clams, straight from the sea and into our bellies. We even polished off the last slices of wedding cake while watching the sun melt away and drinking an Oregon Pinot Noir, straight from the bottle.

The Oregon Coast has all the charm you want it to. For us, it was the stuff wedding dreams were made of. Time together. Just us. A sweet celebration of the commitment we’ve made and the bond we now share.

Our wedding memories will never be beat, but to bask together in their warm glow on a misty Northwest beach?

That is the true love story.

 

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Visiting Manzanita, Oregon?
We only had 36 hours, but here’s what we had time to fall in love with…

Everything about Mrs. Smiegel and her Zen Garden B&B. From the Japanese garden to the outdoor soaking tub (kimonos provided!), it was the perfect place to relax. Don’t miss her sea bass crepe for breakfast.

Crab, clams and oysters straight from the sea at Kelly’s Brighton Marina. Bring your own sides and don’t miss all the local beers in the fridge. For the full PNW experience, hire a boat and pull your own pots. Word on the coast is that Jetty, down the road is pretty fun, too.

Tots and sauce and all the fried fish at the Sand Dune Pub. Wash it all down with 17 draught beers.

Good book smell. Armed with hot cappuccinos, we staved off the morning mist pouring over the pages in Cloud & Leaf.

Whiskey flights at Macgreggor’s Whiskey Bar. Ask for Chip and don’t miss his (perfectly not-too-sweet) secret family recipe amaretto.

It’s not the coast without ice cream (and fudge and taffy but sometimes enough is enough). We had our cones scooped from Schweitert’s for breakfast dessert. It’s a thing, just ask my mom.

 

 

(photos all shot on iPhone)

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My Maine Thing: Roadtripping the coast of New England

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It started in Boston. Hunter arrived on the red-eye, picked up a Jeep, and scooped me from the train station the moment my bus rolled in from NYC. It was Labor Day and we were road-tripping. We could already smell the saltwater and fried clams as we pulled onto Highway 1. Maine was calling our names.

There was something about Maine. Even from afar, it seemed like a place worthy of making the effort to experience. Browsing blogs and google-map marking lobster shacks sent me instantaneously into a happy dance. I hadn’t even been yet! But Maine delivered. Loaded with the things I love: smiling faces, ocean breezes, fresh food. Void of the things I don’t: traffic, arrogance, cement. And while both lobster and blueberries would rank high on a list of simple pleasures, it wasn’t the food or the scenery or any single attribute that made Maine so special. It was all of it tied together, all of it for real. Rarely did I come across a restaurant with an instagram account. Never did I feel I was being sold to. Could Maine be great simply because it was? Not because it was trying to be? How’s that for a modern day brain-teaser.

Our first stop was Bob’s Clam Shack where I was shocked to find the white haired woman behind the counter was in no rush for me to arrive at my order. “Lillian’s style clams or Bob’s!?,” I lamented… “I don’t know!” “Take your time,” she smiled. There could not have been a stronger indication that we were no longer in New York. I “decided” on one of each, and we loaded up on lobster rolls, clams and ice cream before rolling out to Rockland. The seaside hotel was still and sparkling. Perched slightly higher than the ocean, the sprawling lawn was dotted with those white plastic chairs that scream summer and cold rosé in keg cups. We obliged.

For dinner, we headed to Primo, a true farm-to-table establishment. Most of their produce and meat come from the surrounding farm with the restaurant, a multi-room, sprawling farmhouse, at the center. The upstairs bar was surprisingly hip and happening on a Thursday night for a town of 7,000. I admit to doing some aggressive New Yorker things just to get us seats at the bar (vacation takes time to settle in…) where we slurped oysters and drank martinis made with local gin. (Because it’s always wise to match your gin to your seafood!) After moving downstairs for dinner, we popped some bubbly that played nice with all the local produce. The feast included hand-rolled cavatelli with grilled chicken and mushrooms, garden lettuces, plump lobster raviolis and pan roasted halibut with crab cakes and shrimp tomato burr blanc. Cannolis, courtesy of the kitchen, stuffed with fresh ricotta and crushed pistachios arrived to end the night.

The next morning delivered a cotton candy sky as the sun practically rose inside our cottage, pouring through the windows with the ocean breeze. To no one’s surprise, Hunter had spied a sign for doughnuts on our way home from dinner. The Willow Bake Shoppe turned out to be a Rockland tradition, boasting 50+ years of fresh, fried dough. Sitting on the rocky seashore, we licked the sugar from our fingers, sipping hot coffee and marveling at the serenity and beauty we’d so easily slipped into. Things in Maine were off to a good start.

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En route to Camden, we burned some calories on the Maiden Cliff Trail. The view of Lake Megunticook from the top was a worthy reward, but the smiling faces along the way were the best part of the hike. The colorful cast of characters included everyone from toddlers to golden retrievers to friendly foodies who directed us to Harbor Dogs for lunch. In Camden’s picturesque port, a retired ship captain enchanted us with stories from yesteryear as part of Camden’s annual windjammer festival. Comments like “Camden, the most beautiful place in the world. Why ever go anywhere else?” were genuine and charming. Armed with fish burritos and sitting with our legs swung over the edge of the dock, we plotted ways to convince him to come along as our tour guide for the rest of our trip. Well curated gift shops and browse worthy bookshops like The Owl and the Turtle made a happy stroll through Camden, but the adventures of Acadia awaited.

Cruising into Bar Harbor, the sun was soft and low. Every island, lobster shack and B&B glittered. I call this golden hour, but for Hunter, it’s happy hour. And when in Maine, this means blueberry beer hour. While I’m not usually a fan of flavored beer, the Sea Dog blueberry on draft was fun and not too fruity. Also, anti-oxidants. Score another one for Maine.

Seemingly everyone recommended Thurston’s Lobster Pound. But while the lobsters were tempting, the long lines weren’t. Instead, we opted to explore some lesser trafficked lobster locations. It didn’t take us long to find Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound where they happily pulled our selections from the tank and plunged them into boiling baths. Once red and ready, we tore in, plunging huge chunks of sweet meat into melted butter, covering our hands and bibs with evidence of the massacre, licking our fingers and washing everything down with local beers.Back in town, we wandered the sweet streets of Bar Harbor, poking our heads into restaurants with live bands and buzzy pubs savoring the last days of summer. At Side Street Cafe, we were (well, I was) tempted by a piece of blueberry pie. We (together this time) ate it from stools and a high counter on their large wooden deck, watching night settle over town.

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Sunrises became part of our daily itinerary, so the next morning, we joined 2,000 of our closest friends atop Cadillac Mountain. It was a unique experience to be the first in the U.S. to watch the sun rise, launching us into a full day of outdoor activities. We took full advantage of Acadia’s 47k acres, completing a stunning hike, spending some time sprawled out on Sand Beach, and cruising the full park loop. Despite it now being September, the weather was stunning. The sun danced.

A post-lobster-roll-lunch adventure took us to the south side of Bar Harbor where we discovered the 158 year old Bass Harbor Lighthouse, a terrific bakery (Little Notch!) and (surprise surprise) more blueberry beer. For dinner, lobster continued to rein supreme. We carried a to-go picnic feast (and some wine…) from Rose Eden back up Cadillac Mountain to watch the sun set over the endless bays, islands and harbors. With corn, mussels, two whole lobsters and blueberry pie, it was a feast for kings — fitting with the view of an entire kingdom below.

While watching the sunrise from Cadillac was a must-do experience, we got smarter for day two in the park. The Coffee Cup Diner quickly became our morning favorite both for its 5am open time and the jolly folks who rocked out to rock n’ roll oldies while cooking our breakfast sandwiches. Loaded with egg sammies and blueberry (obviously) muffins, we headed to Acadia’s iconic “Thunder Hole” with a picnic blanket and our thermoses of coffee. While we might not have been the first people in the country to see the sun lift from the horizon, we were completely alone, perched on the edge of the world, drinking up the beauty of the coastline.

Leaving Bar Harbor was tough. The park engulfed me up in the best of ways. The crashing waves, towering trees, the warm, friendly sunshine… there are few things as all-encompassing of heart and soul. I commemorated my love-affair in sweatshirt form… which I decided was a better idea than a tattoo. You’re welcome, mom. M-A-I-N-E is scrawled across my sweatshirt as I type this. A perfect memento of my summer love. We grabbed green juices, Hunter’s least-favorite but a much needed respite from lobster, from Thrive Juice Bar & Kitchen and some fantastic treats from Morning Glory Bakery before begrudgingly loading up the Jeep and heading south.

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En route to Portland, I assumed my position… feet up, shades on, window down. As I don’t have a driver’s license, (yes, a minor oversight on my part being the one who suggested a road trip…) Hunter graciously accepted responsibility for the road. My job was simple: find the cutest places to stop for provisions. A continuous flow of lobster shacks, picturesque harbors, peek-a-boo white sand beaches and signs pointing every which way for ice cream and blueberry pie meant that we had no shortage of places to stretch our legs.

At this point, we’d eaten a lot of lobster. But the quintessential waterside lobster shack still beckoned. The description of Waterman’s fit the bill, so we headed for the James Beard winning, family-owned eatery. Something was in the air at Waterman’s and it wasn’t just the salty breeze. Was everyone always this friendly? Was the line always this long ? Why was everyone hugging?? As we approached the window, we noticed the sign: “It’s been our pleasure serving you these last 30 years. Today marks our last day.” Perplexed with our luck, we joined the crowd and enjoyed our best lobster meal yet. Perfect lobster rolls on soft potato buns, sweet whole lobsters, and more of Maine’s addicting signature purple dessert. Since it’s BYOB, we chilled a bottle of lobster wine (yep, it’s a thing) in a plastic bucket and poured ourselves glasses to wash down the feast. Luckily the beach was only a few feet away for a sunny siesta.

A few hours later, the sweet serenade of a ukulele welcomed us to our Portland Airbnb. #KeepPortlandWeird must apply to both coasts, which we were more than alright with. There was far too much to see (and eat) in a single day, but we put on our game faces. Happy Hour started with punch at The Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. Ceviche snacks, martinis and platters of oysters followed at Eventide. When our table at Central Provisions was finally ready (yes, we waited 3.5 hours….) they treated us to one of those epic, stop you in your tracks, everything is perfect, meals.

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Our late night of eating didn’t stop us from again beating the sun, making our way to Cape Elizabeth to watch the day begin over Portland Head Light. Coffee and doughnut pitstops were in order on our way back into town, letting us sample local coffee culture at Tandem, a gas station converted into hipster-coffee-utopia, and finding it very difficult to pick between the flavors of sweet potato confections at Holy Donut. At least the blueberry was an easy choice.

Fall arrived on cue as Labor Day was cool and misty. We made our way back towards the city via some of Maine’s famous white sand beaches. At a small fish shop, I convinced the owner to package up some deconstructed lobster rolls so we could assemble our lunch while on the road. Lobster roadie-rolls were a welcome treat somewhere between New London and Stamford.

The sun came out as we crossed through Connecticut and we cruised back into the city, on one of those not-too-hot yet brilliantly sunny summer afternoons. The Maine halo even made the FDR on a holiday weekend feel easy breezy.

Maine made everything effortless. The next delicious meal or heart-stopping view was never far away. And if you couldn’t quite find it, there was always someone willing to show you the way. It’s that kind of authenticity that allows a deep and fast bond — when every interaction adds a new page to the same story that you simply can’t stop reading. Unapologetically relaxed, unanticipatedly delicious, every town, person and roadside produce stand was more charming than the last. I’ll be back for you, Maine. And when I do, I know just what to expect. Because no matter what changes, you’ll always do your Maine thing. When everything comes from the heart, it’s hard to be anyone but yourself.

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If you’re hungry in Maine, here’s what we recommend: 

Bob’s Clam Hut for (obviously) clams. Get both.
Primo for a lovely meal in a beautiful place.
The Willow Bake Shoppe to continue the donut tradition
Harbor Dogs for fish “tacos” that look surprisingly like fish burritos…
Rose Eden Lobster if you want the real deal and aren’t interested in crowds or long lines
Side Street Cafe for blueberry pie that’s absolutely #worthit
Little Notch Bakery for provisions on the South side of Bar Harbor
The Coffee Cup Diner to stock up before the sun’s up
Thrive Juice Bar & Kitchen for green juice to balance all the lobster
Morning Glory Bakery if you need to drown your sorrows in carbs on your way out of town
Portland Hunt + Alpine Club for perfect cocktails in the heart of Portland
Eventide for the raw bar and friendly faces
Central Provisions because it’s really worth the wait
The Holy Donut if seeing that picture of perfect donuts made you a little hungry

Tunes to get you off and cruising…

Tulum Unplugged

February 2015 was the 3rd coldest February in the history of New York City.
Coincidentally, it was also the first February I spent living in New York City.

So after a month of sleeping in my winter coat and wrestling with the quasi-dreadlocks caused by constant beanie wearing, I swore to myself: Never again. By fall, flights were booked for a February 2016 escape to the Riviera Maya. Nevermind that I headed to the airport in a light sweater, my frozen memories were still enough to justify a few days in the sun.

Four hours and a few beers later, I caught up with Hunter south of the boarder. In a tiny Fiat with Guanajuato plates, we bumped over topes and along the Eastern Coast of Mexico. With the windows down and a scratchy Meixcan radio station humming a modern ranchera, we sped past the endless mega-hotels that lined the coast. The sea teased us from the occasional break between the tall walls which was just enough to know we were nearing paradise.

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A pitstop for fresh juice… then another for a morning stroll through Playa del Carmen. (Which it turns out, was exactly the right time to eat ice cream for breakfast.) Back in the car, we wound down a mile of dirt road to a dead end beach. There was so much to see that we wondered if we’d ever actually reach Tulum itself. After an hour (…two perhaps? maybe three??) spent in beachside hammocks with lobsters and micheladas, we decided we weren’t really sure if it mattered.

The four months that filled the gap between purchasing flights and flying them had been filled with unabashed praise for the paradise of Tulum. Seemingly every New Yorker had a story of yoga and green juice, whole veggies at Hartwood and mezcal at Gitáno. For that reason, we were pleasantly surprised to find the town nearly deserted when we finally arrived, already sun-kissed and seafood stuffed.

Tulum was everything they said it would be.

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Our “hotel” consisted of solar-powered, oceanfront, coconut-palm-roofed bungalos nestled in the sand and opening to the ocean. The fish was fresh, the people were charming, and the sun and waves swallowed us whole. Hunter took charge of locating the ultimate diving adventures, then ensured that outside of the dive boat, we were never without a tropical beverage. I found the best food, curated a playlist and located most serene stretches of sand. The entire trip, Tulum stayed perfectly quiet. Sensuously calm. It was the ultimate remedy to trial dates and content calendars.
We actually relaxed.

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Remote beaches and rural villages are some of our favorite travel destinations — places that could be truly be called the edge of civilization. Tulum was not one of them. But in a strange, magical way, Tulum has a similar effect. Removed from the chaos, it surrounds you with everything necessary for a hard reset.

Most people know that I’m not usually big on beach vacations. But a few days in Tulum reminded me of the power of disconnection. Just a few hours from JFK, I transformed from “always on” to “be back later.” And those four days spent exploring cenotes and climbing ruins made me forget about my swelling inbox, instead filling me with creative energy that had me excited to get back to work. That’s rare, and important, and wonderful.

You don’t have to travel halfway around the world to rebalance your soul, I realized. When deadlines and busy seasons don’t allow for exotic escapes, something closer to home can be equally powerful. Just make sure you bring the right bungalo boy.

 

L+H’s guaranteed good times guide to Tulum:
Sunrise yoga at Maya Tulum
Taco toppings bar at Antojitos La Chiapaneca 
Catch (and eat) your own lobster at Chamico’s
Scubadive on the moon with Léo
Breakfast mezcal at Be Tulum
Mexico City’s best DJs live at the Coco Tulum beach bar

And if you needs some cruising tunes… 

 

All images shot on an iPhone 6 with Moment Lenses

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Solstice — Celebrating change, bittersweet and beautiful.

Every six months are marked with a solstice — a turning point marking a seasonal shift and (of course) an opportunity to celebrate. We host candle-lit dinner parties, shake bottles of champagne or even ride through the streets naked to show our excitement. Despite the celebration however, the solstices — both winter and summer — are bittersweet. While we dance in an abundance of daylight in the summer, we suddenly move towards darker days. In the winter, we look forward to the sunshine to come, but hold our celebrations in the shadows of the shortest and darkest day of the year. The solstice marks change, and change comes with a trade-off. We wave farewell to the old before greeting the new.

 

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I spent this year’s summer solstice contemplating this exchange. This year, the solstice not only marked a change for the seasons, but a significant one for my life. I’d climbed into Hunter’s (patiently waiting) car on Friday after walking out of TEAGUE for the very last time. We’d escaped to the Olympic Peninsula, camped along a crystal clear lake, sipped ice-cold beers in a canoe and hiked a few miles through the mud along the coast before we collided with the Pacific Ocean. Watching the sun sink into salt water always reminds me of my  inconsequence while simultaneously stuffing me with excitement for shaping my place in the imminence of tomorrow. On this solstice, I felt this dichotomy more than ever.

 

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I thought back on the past few years, overwhelmed with gratitude. Thankful for my time at TEAGUE — for the people I’d met and the lessons learned. Blessed to have a guy by my side who supported me through the ups and downs while I’d learned to stand on my own two feet. It wasn’t simply a day of reflection though — no solstice is. It was one marked with change. From 10pm sunsets to 4pm ones, and for me, from what’s familiar in Seattle to what is undiscovered in NYC.

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The days might be getting darker now, but that’s not a metaphor for despair. For me, the darker days are just the uncharted ones. The next few years will be an adventure through both darkness and light. Each day, like each solstice will be bittersweet, and all of them will deserve celebration.

LC

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Dubai, A City In Progress

Standing in the airport upon arrival in the desert, I watched a woman in a full, veiled burka walk arm in arm with a robed Arab wearing a trucker hat. Caught off guard, I watched the next group of  women more carefully. After some Aussie’s in cutoffs and tank tops, I saw more burkas, but this time with Fendi handbags slung over their shoulders and Prada loafers peeking out from beneath the robes. As I understood burkas to be a symbol of modesty with the purpose of not drawing attention to oneself, these flashy designer fashion statements didn’t make sense. I realized then that Dubai would not be the ‘Middle Eastern Mecca’ I expected. It was a place far more diverse — and completely unique — in its inhabitants, cultural identity, and societal expectations.

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The city was a fascinating juxtaposition of East and West, which had me determined to understand what was at its core. I spent an afternoon getting myself lost in the markets and back streets, searching for qualities that would help me knit together my understanding of what defined Duabi’s culture. While slurping mango juice to stay cool, I learned how to string figs, stumbled through a shark auction and talked to people from countries I didn’t even know existed. Quickly, I realized that the only unifier of Duabi’s culture was that every person, culture, language and belief structure contributing to it, was different.

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Since over 85% of the approximately 2 million people who call Dubai home are anything but Emirati, it’s the Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, South Africans, Jews, Christians, Muslims (and more) that fill the streets, open shops and cook dishes from their homelands. Their imported traditions are what are felt, smelled and heard, creating a cultural melting pot large enough to live up to Dubai’s reputation of grandeur. The entire week I was there, I never talked to a native.

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The notable absence of a unifying local undercurrent increased my curiosity about what I would find in the newer parts of the city, so I traveled into its heart to compare. Crossing “The Creek” cost only 1 Durham — just 27 cents! A lone bargain in a city where cocktails can cost $60 USD. Diera crumbled with charm on one side of the creek while Dubai gleamed, shiny and new, on the other. It was the ultimate physical representation of the divide sensed throughout the entire city.

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Once arriving on the other side, the contrast was most evidenced by looking up. Rome might not have been built in a day, but Dubai built 400 skyscrapers, the world’s tallest building, most populated aquarium and finest hotel in just 20 short years. With all of the fantastical architecture and landmarks, it’s hard to know where to look, and then, what you’re even looking at. The architecture in some cities tells a story, but these cities are past their formational twenties. While it has shot up some impressive towers, Dubai’s story, and sense of self, are still under construction. It may have celebrity chefs, man-made island communities and an indoor ski hill but it hasn’t yet arrived at how to tie it all together.

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Even though Dubai lacked its own version of Parisian street cafes or Bernini sculptures in graffitied alleyways, it has developed an interesting formula for bringing a super-city from the sand dunes to the sky. Dubai catalyzes its economy by enticing the expats that comprise a large majority of its population with tax-free salaries. They will never (yes, never) be granted citizenship, but they are paid well and given freedoms that many would never dream of at home. While these foreigners keep the gears turning, the native Emirati enjoy incredible benefits. Each are given land, money to build a house, free electricity and water, and money for each child, helping to grow the native population.

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Contrived, artificial and calculated as much of it seemed, the sheer extravagance also forced me to stop and marvel. The way the sail silhouette of the Burj Al Arab framed the sinking sun was undeniably beautiful, even with a giant wall separating the peasants (myself ) from the “7-star hotel” guests. And viewing the dancing fountains, choreographed to “Thriller”(of course), from the top of the Burj Khalifa was nothing short of spectacular.

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So as I sat on the beach with bathwater waves lapping at my legs, I also marveled at how much ground Dubai has covered (figuratively AND literally) in 20 short years.  As the current fastest growing city in the world, one can’t help but wonder what will happen there throughout the next 20. A clash of cultures and an ever-expanding playground, Dubai will no-doubt continue to carve out its place in the world’s list of super-cities. I sincerely look forward to returning a few decades from now and getting to know the more mature and self-assured version of a city I was lucky enough to get to know in its youth.

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