Feeling Acadia’s Pink Moment Fantasy

It’s no secret that I’ve always been an enthusiast of the American West. I was born and raised in the region, and am currently in a never-ending love affair with it. But that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I fled to eastern possibilities, when I abandoned my glorious Rocky Mountains (and parents) for the sloping hills in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.  I flew across the country to attend high school for three years at a boarding school called Deerfield Academy.

When I arrived, I noticed the forests on the East Coast were leafier, the mountains more rounded, docile, and fluent and the confinements of the boarding school’s grueling academics, competitive student body, and brutal toxic masculinities made leaving campus on holiday breaks incredibly freeing.

One of my favorite trips happened on a long fall weekend and took me up to the coast of Maine. But my first weekend in the Pine Tree State was far too short and the weather spat a cold October drizzle the entire time. I knew I would have to come back down the road to explore Maine’s ruggedly handsome coast in better weather, specifically its famous Acadia National Park.

This past June, I was finally afforded the opportunity to return to “Vacationland”, as it is so affectionately nicknamed on its state license plates. Since I began the trek in New York City, I invited my friend Charlie Wilson, an actor in New York, to join me for the journey.

Charlie and I went to Deerfield together, though we didn’t know each other well as students. I do remember us once sharing a sit-down dinner table during my second year at the school. I was one year his senior but he already towered over me, tall, skinny, and daddy-long-legged at some outrageous height like 6’4’’. We made easy small talk in our preppy coat and ties for that month-long rotation but otherwise didn’t overlap. Also worth mentioning, neither of us was out in high school.

It wasn’t until about five years later that our paths crossed again. He was screaming “YAS” and tossing one dollar bills as Shangela (the robbed, All-Stars 3 winner) performed an energetic medley on stage at the mountaintop party at Aspen Gay Ski Week 2017. I approached him just after Shangela had snatched a five dollar bill from his long outreached arm, “Charlie Wilson?!” I yelled tapping him on the shoulder, “What?! You’re gay?!”

We kept in touch after skiing together that weekend but hadn’t seen each other until I arrived this summer in New York City. We took a train to Bedford Hills where Charlie grew up, picked up his SUV, and headed North the following morning.  On our way to Acadia, we climbed Katahdin, lost our wigs, and then two days later, made our way East, to the famous Mt. Desert Island, the host of the 102-year-old Acadia National Park.

It was early summer and as soon as we crossed the bridge that took us from the Maine mainland to the paw-shaped island the national park resides on, we were greeted by hairy beardtongue, dame rockets, and of course, one of the many icons of the park—fields of thick purple lupine. Fat, fuzzy bumblebees went from flower to flower in their own version of a drunken pub crawl, sloppy on nectar. Charming roads wound us to Acadia Cottages, a queer-friendly ma-and-pa accommodation on the sleepier southwest side of the island. The little cabin came complete with a deck and campy, lobster printed curtains.

That night we read guidebooks of the area to best plan the following day and put together our must-dos. On our list was the popular (for all the right reasons) Beehive hike, a swim at Sand Beach, lunch (and ice cream) in Bar Harbor, a glance at the crassly named Thunder Hole, a walk along the carriage paths, and a sunset in Wonderland, a beach on the south side of the westernmost finger of the island where the region’s famous pink rocks supposedly light up and glow even pinker than the imagery of Janelle Monae’s latest single. The whole beach is a lovely hue as the sun sinks below the island dappled horizon.

The phenomenon is one of the island’s treasures, something I had read about in the writings of Terry Tempest Williams and that had been described to me by a friend who graduated from the island’s tiny liberal arts school, College of the Atlantic.

The following morning we drove straight to the park’s famous Beehive Loop Trail and parked behind the long line of cars. This would be a good time to point out that although one of America’s smaller national parks at (49,052 acres, compared to Yosemite’s 761,747 acres) the park received 3.5 million visitors in 2017 (Yosemite was just above, at 4.3 million.) Since Acadia is quite small and compact, its massive attendance is much more noticeable as there is less space for visitors to spread.

The Beehive trail buzzes itself over the granite boulders of Champlain Mountain with the help of ladder rungs and platforms added by the park service. While the hike isn’t for the faintest of heart, it isn’t necessarily scary—but its few airy scrambles certainly excite. At the 1,070-foot summit, only a small portion of the park can be seen but the vastness of the sea is felt. In summer, the lime green of the island’s thick forests contrasts brilliantly against the big blue of the Atlantic.

The park was once the home of Wabanaki people before it was taken over by French Missionary colonists who eventually conceded the land to England in 1713 during the French Indian wars. The land was then controlled by Massachusetts, became American after the revolution, and by the 1850s, was already a popular vacation destination. It wasn’t until a man named Charles Eliot (later with the help of his father and George B. Dorr) pushed for its conservation into a National Monument in 1916 before it was upgraded to National Park status in 1918.

The area is also well known for being the vacation land of the Rockefellers, and their presence has literally been cut into the landscape in the form of 50 miles of carriage trails commissioned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1915-1933. Now, cyclists take the winding trails past lakes, rocky shoreline, and historic mansions.

The point of all of this backstory is to show that Acadia, unlike many western national parks, weaves in and out of the man-made. It is among the borderlands of a place where people “summer” and where woods and shorelines are wild, but where just offshore human presence exists in the form of, bright, fluorescent, bobbing lobster buoys.

The boundaries of the national park wind and weave as you drive, hike, or cycle and it becomes clear its entrance and exits are far more complex than the few in-and-out roads of many western parks. In many ways with its big crowds and idyll eastern setting, the entire island feels like a giant summer camp for families, tourists, and outdoor enthusiasts.

After our hike up Champlain, we were sweaty, and so, we decided to swim. At the very originally named Sand Beach, we set up some towels among the other tourists and we might have also taken a glance or two at the brawny lifeguard who observed the beachgoers from a high, white chair.

We ate snacks, watched the sandpipers and ruddy turnstones feeding in and out, in and out, as the waves crashed and receded, but most memorably, we continued one of our many in-depth talks about the confusion of our separate queernesses within the unforgiving old-boy cultures of our boarding school. The talks, beyond our bonding, turned out to be some of the most cathartic experiences of the trip, where we were able to unwind and reel in the tangled anchors of the past.

Since we were both closeted in high school, we had kept a lot bottled up. For one, our crushes. We roared as we exchanged their names— Charlie’s was a strong, curly-haired Vermonter in my year. We laughed the loudest when he told me that he once brought his crush his laundry, hoping subconsciously that the act would make the boy swoon for him. Charlie at least got a “thanks” from his crush.

My lacrosse-playing, wildman crush once said there wasn’t enough room at a table to sit next to him.

We both agreed that one of the most confusing things about our school was its rampant homophobia combined with an overt homoeroticism that seemed to linger into the new millennium from a time before co-education when the school was all boys.

The best instance Charlie had to illustrate our observation happened one night after study hall when his dorm gathered in the common area for snacks prepared by the dorm’s resident faculty. One shirtless boy, a lax (lacrosse) bro sat in another shirtless boy’s lap and called another, quieter, more feminine boy in the dorm a faggot.

My nearest example was from the school’s communal showers, where everyone pretended not to be looking at each other’s dicks but were certainly looking at each other’s dicks. I remember one boy, screamed at me “shave that bush, Colorado!” Which got a big round of laughter, as well as about 20 other boys to check out my dick.  There was also a hell of a lot of towel snapping at butts, which I remembered being surprised to learn happened in real life and not just puerile jock movies.

We concluded that the boundary between homosociality and eroticism was thin and wove in and out, like the borders of Acadia National Park with the land of Mount Desert Island. We concluded that that line, as young queer boys, was not helped by malicious homophobias, internal or otherwise. That the bromances we had witnessed (and perhaps even longed for) at our school by our heterosexual counterparts were just an unnamed and poorly documented form of an incredibly intimate male/male relationship. We knew the tortuous years at the school had resulted in our thick, thick skin. Skin we would need for our swim in the Atlantic.

We scurried to the shore, much like the sandpipers, but ran back just as fast as the shorebirds when the waves hit our ankles. The water couldn’t have been warmer than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It was ice. In fact, I’m sure it once was ice. I imagined the frigid currents cruising down from the North Pole by way of the Labrador Sea before it curled around Nova Scotia. We clutched our pearls, gasped loudly, and finally dunked ourselves in its frostiness.

The rest of our afternoon consisted of recovering from minor hypothermia in the hot summer sun, eating cleverly named ice cream (the Bay of Figs) from the busy tourist town of Bar Harbor, a walk on the Rockefeller’s carriage paths around Jordan’s Lake, and finally a drive back to our side of the island to finally catch the pink moment in a little area of the National Park called Wonderland.

A short five-minute walk took us from the parking lot through the salty shore conifers—black spruce, jack pines, balsam fir—to the pink, rocky coast of granite slabs and grussy beaches. As the sun began ducking the horizon, Wonderland began to turn rosier and rosier, though, not as magical as I had built it up to be. But as a romantic, I lead myself to believe that it was as pink as the inner shell of a queen conch shell. In Wonderland, we were watching the day put on its lacy nightgown before a long cosmos-drenched evening.

We tidepooled the shore for starfish in their little granite bowl galaxies and basked in the sun’s final coral hoorah. Looking out to the sea, on one of the shelves of the North American continent, it was cliched but true to feel at the edge of the big world, reeling in the heavy anchors of our prep school past, raising our proud pink sails, tacking eastward to unheralded deliverance.

Dragging My Gay Ass To The Top of Kilimanjaro

When I originally came up with the brilliant idea of hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, it was more of a joke. I didn’t actually think it would pan out…but it did. Once my flights were booked and I had more than 6 months to train, I knew deep inside that I wasn’t going to do anything to prepare for this adventure, except spend a lot of money on really great name brand gear. I lied to myself and kept pushing back on practice hikes. The gym and me never really got along so I wasn’t going to start now. As a master procrastinator (any of my editors can confirm), I wasn’t going to give in, and I would worry about it later. When later arrived, I was scared shitless of what I had signed up for.

After landing in Africa, I had a little over a week before the hike would begin. During this waiting period, the tour I was with involved us visiting parts of Kenya and Tanzania, including the Serengeti. We were also camping, so in my mind, this was great training for the camping I would be doing as I hiked a mountain — the tallest mountain in Africa. It was also during this time that I met a few of the others who would be taking the challenge with me. One of the first people I met, a lovely woman named Lucy, began to talk about the high altitude training that she went through at her gym back in Sydney. It was at this point that I began to panic internally. I nodded my head when I was asked about my training, in an effort to deflect without truly answering.

After our week of camping and spotting wildlife came to an end, it was time to make our way to the entrance of Mt Kilimanjaro National Park, where we would meet the remainder of our small group — ten in total. It was that night, at dinner, that I learned that four out of our group of ten identified within the queer spectrum. Two gays, a lesbian and a bisexual, oh my! I had my suspicions but it was the other gay man on the trip that quickly brought it up at dinner and got everyone to divulge their sexual preferences – I was glad he did because I immediately felt safe. I somehow knew that there was an understanding between the queers that we would be there for one another during this difficult hike to the top, which spanned over 5 days. Thankfully, the other six members of our group were all unfazed by our mini-queer takeover, and just like that, our family of 10 was bonded and we would conquer this mountain together. This was the same night that I also learned that most of the others had also not done much to train, so I was a bit relieved as I finished my third pint of beer.

The days that followed were miserable but memorable, mainly because of the amazing people that I was with. We were all suffering throughout, in one way or another, so it was easy to bond over our pain. I was doing it, though, and each day, as we got closer and closer to the base of the mountain, while gaining altitude, I was priming myself for what ultimately would be one of the most difficult experiences of my life. On summit night, we departed base camp at around 11pm with a goal of reaching Uhuru Peak (the very top of Kilimanjaro) by sunrise, which we did.

The way up was thankfully in the darkness because I didn’t have time to freak out over the steep grade of the climb, or notice how easy it would have been to fall off the side of the mountain. It wasn’t easy; nothing about this entire trip was easy. I was a solo traveler, climbing a mountain with strangers turned friends whom I had just met. The saint-like porters and guides that accompanied us were our lifelines. They watched every movement we made and at any sign of hesitation, they were there to reassure us and or carry our packs for us. These guys, along with my fellow hikers, are the reason I made it to the top, plain and simple. And that sunrise was magical. Not being able to tell the difference between the snow on the ground and the clouds surrounding the peak was something I will dream of for the rest of my life. The sense of accomplishment I felt was enough to start my waterworks. I cried because it was that damn beautiful. I had never cried over natural beauty so I was really taken aback when I did.

But now it was time for the climb down, and with the intense heat burning our skin and lighting the path we took to get up, I took a few moments to gasp at what I had just done because it was seriously terrifying. Going down was just as difficult because of the severity of the steepness. And for those who have trouble with their knees, it can be harder. A few years back, I had seriously injured my knee while trying to play it cool with my attractive surf instructor in Australia. It was raining, and I slipped off the board in 2 inches of water after successfully riding a wave into shore. Looking back, I always wished my surfing accident that led to months of a knee brace would have been a bit sexier, but it wasn’t, and I was forever reminded of my embarrassing slip with a right knee that often pained me, especially when walking or hiking down hills.

It wasn’t until I was about 25% completed with the tiresome downhill that I felt my knee twist and lost my balance before falling onto a porter and we both tumbled a few times over before he grabbed me by my jacket and stopped us both from continuing to slide. At this point, I knew my knee was done for the day, as I thought I felt the same sensations I did after slipping off that surfboard. We gathered our things and I stood up, only to realize that it was going to be a very painful way down. I put my arm around the porter and he helped me as best as he could as I hobbled down the mountain. My only option for getting down was to hike down, as services are limited. Once we reached a more comfortable portion of the mountain, where it wasn’t as steep, more men came to my rescue. They would take turns as I continued to place my arms around their shoulders and make my way down. I was holding back my tears and was doing everything I could to just make it to base camp.

A few hours into my pained journey down, a man from base camp (whom was not affiliated with my tour company whatsoever) met up with us, and he insisted on asking me about what had happened. I explained, and he didn’t seem convinced that my injury was as severe as I felt it was. It was then that he placed his hands on my leg and pulled it in one jerk force. He was under the impression that I had dislocated my knee and was attempting to reset it, without asking. I screamed in agony and the tears shot out from my eyes without hesitation. He looked at me and said, “Men don’t cry, stop crying, you will be fine.” I was gutted. All of the confidence I had built up over the last couple of weeks, the sense of accomplishment I had just felt while looking at the sunrise on top of Kilimanjaro, my sense of safety as a gay man in Africa, all of it, gone in an instant.

I couldn’t blame him. He wasn’t making that comment maliciously, but it ripped right through me and left me emotionless. I stood up, pointed to two of the porters and asked to continue the hike down. I was silent for the rest of the way down, ignoring the pain I felt in my knee and in my heart. As I walked into the hut where the 9 others were waiting for me, as I was the last to arrive back down, I looked at them and immediately burst into tears. My safety net was back and I once again felt supported. Our guides later came to me and showed concern, but it wasn’t the same. I could see they were worried that I was upset, but I wasn’t. I was just uncomfortable with the situation, and being shamed for crying didn’t help the situation whatsoever.

At the end of the day, I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, something I will always be proud of, and something I’ll most likely talk about for years to come. It was something I never thought I could do, but I did, with the help of my diverse new group of friends. Tears were shed, my masculinity was questioned, ligaments were abused…but none of that can ever replace those memories of the epic views from the top of Uhuru Peak.

The Best Way to Travel While There

My entire 17-day experience throughout Kenya and Tanzania was experienced through Intrepid. This was my first solo traveler group trip and although I was a bit hesitant at first, after completing this one, I’m ready to book my next. Intrepid Travel sends more than 100,000 travelers across the globe with their more than 1,000 itineraries. The Best of Tanzania itinerary offers adventure seekers the opportunity to experience Tanzania’s most famous natural wonders like the vast Serengeti plains, Ngorongoro Crater, Mt Kilimanjaro and the shore of the Zanzibar coast.

Swimming the Heath

In the middle of the night in late July 2006, a few paparazzi stalked the late queer icon George Michael from the bushes of Hampstead Heath, London’s largest park. He ridiculed the photographers for invading his privacy as they snapped photos of him exiting the hedgerows with a burly 58-year-old.

In an interview shortly after the tabloids were published, Michael said, “The fact that I choose to do that on a warm night in the best cruising ground in London – which happens to be about half a mile from my home – I don’t think would be that shocking to that many gay people.”

To this day, 12 years later, the Heath still remains one of London’s cruisiest places, but there is far more to the park than a clandestine parade through thickets of lurking eyes, butt grabs, and crotch pats below the razzle-dazzle of a North London moon.

At 790 acres, the park is the green lung of London, and on warm spring, summer, and fall days, Londoners come out in gaggles. There are loving picnickers on fleece blankets discreetly complementing their brie with pinot grigio, university students with their shirts off reading Kafka, rambunctious birthday parties of freeze tag-playing children, barefooted football players juggling with their mates, jazzercisers beside the lush woodlands, and birders on the lookout for blue tits, coal tits, and ring-necked parakeets.

But most sensationally, there are some 25 ponds freckling the green landscape, some of which are swimmable (year round!) and looked after by lifeguards. Among the most popular are the ponds on the eastern shoulder, just off Millfield Lane. There is the Mixed Bathing Pond for all genders, as well as a separate Highgate Men’s Bathing Pond and the Kenwood Women’s Bathing Pond, which as of December 2017 officially welcomed trans women.

At the recommendation of a daredevilishly handsome local, who I met while riding bikes the day before on the canals of London’s Eastside, I made my way to the Highgate Pond, because I will forever be a sucker for a swim.

I had grown tired of perusing museums, pretending to gawk at the famous architectural sites, palaces, and towers all fat with tourists. I was no longer impressed by the beefeaters and their silly red dresses and even sillier black hats. I did not want to hear another word about the Royal Wedding, I wanted to see Londoners letting loose in the good ol’ out of doors—I was ready for cold water and a frolicsome afternoon.

I grabbed a towel from the hotel, my book, my journal, and descended to the tube from Shoreditch’s Old Street and sweated ridiculously as the stuffy London Underground zipped me 30 minutes across town.

As I made my way to the ponds, I strolled over the rambling clay hills of the park punctuated by great willows.  And as I did, I felt two things simultaneously. The first was that since I was among such vast, well-kept English lawns (and had read a great deal about England in high school and college), I felt like what I imagined Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice once felt like as she rebelled against the patriarchy of her time, running on the wide-open meadows of Netherfield as the heroine of her own narrative.

The second feeling was cheekier, most likely because I was at the Heath. I felt the chutzpah of a young, hairy-chested, mullet-flaunting sex pot—like George Michael in the Wham! days of yesteryear.

Isn’t it wild that simply by being in a new place, full of sunshine and possibility, we can acquire wildly delusional confidence?

By 3pm, I had strolled half a mile from the Camden Underground and arrived at the Highgate Pond in brilliant sunshine as speckled wood butts and red admirals flopped happily from yarrow to purple harebells. It was a Sunday and one of the first sunny days of the season. It was the kind of Sunday everyone had been pining for, to darken their winter hues and flirt like floozies with the shining sun. The type of day that made one say, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!” and “zip-a-dee-ay” but also: “my, oh, my, what a wonderful day!”

On the outskirts of the men’s ponds, hundreds were squeezed into a sliver of grass beside the tall trees—here was excitement for warmth, for heat, for sun on bodies, for the possibilities of summer, perhaps, even for horniness, for leisure and for checking out the sun spilling itself generously onto other bodies.

And how were the bodies, you might ask?

Well, to begin, I no longer felt quite as sex-potty as I walked the commons of nuclear heterosexual families—there were cliques of men proudly displaying six packs that were cut so deeply they could hold an entire quart of lemonade in their chasms and butts so rotund I was becoming quite suspicious that they had snuck a soccer ball or two in the lycra swimsuits covering their hindquarters.

But never compare yourself to others, old chap, I told myself— everyone was wonderful and I was a part of their afternoon contingent. Some were paler than others, some had the littlest darn nipples I’ve ever seen, while some had nips as enormous as a £2 coin. There were bruin bellies and hairy backs as thick as carpets, freckled shoulders, as well as smooth, completely shaven legs beside wild Hobbit feet, and all of them were canoodling in the sun.

I read on the grass, alone, for half an hour after arriving, before a man around my age in glasses and a messy bird’s nest of hair,  sat nearby and read his own book—Blood Moon by Federico García Lorca—and soon we chatted and I found out that he was a playwright himself, recently single, and a grad school student who resented his ex-boyfriend who he claimed had become much funnier since they had broken up.

“I’m not mad about the breakup,” he said, which meant, of course, he was very mad about the breakup considering he was telling a random and delusional American stranger in the park about it. “I just wish he wouldn’t have been so dull while we dated. You know?”

I did know, man.  I mean, what’s worse than dating a bore, only to find out they’ve become hilarious after parting ways? And worse, apparently, this ex-boyfriend was now writing plays too—and apparently they were good.

“I come here every Sunday,” he told me. He never had to worry about seeing the ex-boyfriend because he was a “vampire” who hated the sun—and swimming.

“It’s the only place I feel like I can relax, have a spliff, cool down, and I always make a mate,” he said with a wink.

And like that, I had been upgraded from the ‘stranger by the pond’ to ‘mate’ in the matter of a casual conversation. What wasn’t to like about the Brits?

But soon, the humidity and heat persuaded me it to swim even though I was enjoying talking spitefully about someone else’s ex I didn’t know (but was honestly curious to meet to see how funny he really was).

I left my new mate who wasn’t yet ready for a dip and made my way to the busy gate of the Highgate Pond where men of all ages whizzed in and out, every single one ignoring the £2 entry fee on a self-service payment machine. Through the doorway marked “Men Only” a large concrete courtyard opened where men dried off, changed, and loitered.

On the left, in a small section were the nudists. The classic nudists you can already imagine without me even describing them—but I will anyway.

Mostly baby boomers unafraid of their bodies, unlike those modest changing-under-the-towel millennials. Some were bald, some were alone, and others were in groups with such casual rapport it appeared they were weekend regulars. They must be here every Sunday, I thought. They gathered and talked and there seemed to be a general consensus that like the invisible boundaries at a nude beach, this walled off area was the place for al fresco butt nakedness and who would complain about that?

The other section was much larger, like an outdoor locker room where brief moments of nudity were common. Pedestrian clothes were shucked and exchanged for board shorts, rugby shorts, booty shorts, or athletic cut briefs. Boyfriends changed next to each other beside straight fathers and their sons. Straights beside gays, bros between queers and none of them with fears for they were bonded in a comradery of mirthful summerness because beyond the changing area was the dock, and at the end of the dock, there was a diving board that launched you into a pond that persuaded even the most mature man into a brief cannonball of puerility.

I dropped trou and changed into short, leggy swimmers and felt quite European for the first time, maybe ever, as I made my way down the dock toward the diving board where there was a queue.

As I waited, I observed the pond that was sunk into the ground, dug in the 17th or 18th century and filled by the underground waters of the River Fleet and guarded by large three-story tall trees that hid the pond coyly from onlookers. It was a private sanctuary of freshwater dunking.

“That’s bloody cold!” one rugby-built man yelled to his friends after attempting a dive that became more of a belly flop in his clumsiness. I was, however, happy to hear the word “bloody” again as the synonym for “very.” It’s how I knew I was again in the Commonwealth and reminded me of my Australian days, years ago.

“That is bloody cold!” One of his mates yelled soon after a strange leap off the board that was somewhere between cannonball and a nerdy nose plug jump. But there was laughter as all of them pulled themselves from the dock for another go.

And then, it was my turn.

I stepped onto the diving board and looked out onto the water of the pond where wild lap swimmers went from buoy to buoy, where two Egyptian geese nestled in the reeds and yapped up an angry duet at a nearby squirrel.

I had not dived in a while, but with this group of well fit mates nearby, I knew the pressure was on, even though the stakes were incredibly low after their pitiful diving performances despite their clear athletic prowess.  

As I walked to the end of the board, again, I was again hoping for the repose of an Elizabeth Bennet, but also, again, the nonchalance of a George Michael fresh from the cruising hedgerow.  So I leaped, brought my hands together, bent my body in a nice arc, pointed my toes, and plunged into the cold waters still lingering from winter, slowly being persuaded by summer.

If I were to rate the dive, it would have been an 8— except for the fact that my shorts weren’t tied tightly enough and the men on the dock had let me know as soon as I surfaced that they had been yanked over my bum.

“That’s a bloody white arse!” They cackled, they laughed, and I loved the cheekiness of it all—here in London, we could be teenage boys again and tease strangers for lunar buttocks.  

The water was fresh, the men and boys were swimming all around in jocundity as the cicadas buzzed on the shore plants, and the trees dazzled their lime green leaves like eccentric jazz hands in the gentle afternoon breeze.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pity the tourists in humid, concrete traps of the city center—Big Who? The Tower of Where? Buckingham What?

I put my hands behind my head, puffed my chest to the sky, floated, and looked at the clearest bluebird sky I’m sure London’s ever seen humming George Michael’s “Outside”—

 

Let’s go outside (let’s go outside)
In the sunshine…

Back to nature, it’s human nature.

The Weekender: Bangkok

Just last month, the Tourism Authority of Thailand–a part of the Thai Government’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports –hosted the first ever Thailand LGBT Travel Symposium in bustling Bangkok. This is a monumental milestone not to be overlooked. While Bangkok ( and Thailand in general) has long been a queer travel hot spot for its more liberal views on gender diversity as well as the country’s notorious queer nightlife, the Thai government is now officially making a commitment to welcome queer travelers from the world over. Could this mean gay marriage is somewhere on the horizon?

Thailand is vast, from the pastoral strawberry fields of the North to the famous limestone islands of the South, so let the country’s capital city serve as your official introduction to “The Land of Smiles”. Whether you’re touching down for just a few days before touring the country, in town for Asia’s biggest gay dance party,  gCircuit, or staying for business for a few weeks–there is an endless excitement on the effervescent streets of Bangkok. From cosmopolitan restaurants to markets filled with the scents of sizzling curries, Bangkok is a wild concrete jungle of rivers, tight streets, and leaping overpasses–navigated best by tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis, pencil boats, trains, cars, and of course, by your own venturesome soul.  

 

Bhumibol Bridge and River bird eye view landscape in Bangkok Thailand

Friday

4:00pm–Cruising

Begin your the weekend on the Supanniga Cruise and sip your welcoming craft cocktails on this 40-person river cruise (many other river cruises are packed with 200-300 people and lukewarm buffets soured by amateur karaoke). Pass by Bangkok classics like Wat Arun and see the city at its most colorful as the golden afternoon casts itself upon the jagged skyline.

6pm- The Creative District

One of Bangkok’s buzziest neighborhoods is its emerging Creative District. Here, historic, modern, local, and European architecture are interwoven beside the mighty the Chao Phraya River. Many of the buildings are occupied by vibrant restaurants, bookstores, jewelry shops, and art galleries–like the Seredia Gallery which just featured artist Sudaporn Teja’s queer exhibit  “Loves Get Better with Time Quietly.” After the gallery, make some new friends at one of the district’s many cozy pubs like saki bar Jua or gin bar Teens of Thailand.

 

 

8pm-Never Ending Flavors

Let’s get straight to to the noms. Not far from the Creative District, just off the banks of the Chao Phraya, in a converted ice factory, is the handsomely designed The Never Ending Summer, which even after 12 days in Thailand, still held its own as my favorite meal of the entire trip and certainly, my favorite Thai meal ever. Each dish is exquisite and puts a zesty spin on a Thai classic.

Saturday

8am-Chatuchak Market

The trick is to get up and beat the heat (and crowds) at the legendary Chatuchak Weekend Market–an outdoor market with over 15,000 stalls that covers 27 acres (you can literally and figuratively get lost here.) What are you looking to buy? Knock-off Aussiebum jock straps? No problem. A meerkat? A stingray? I’m vehemently opposed to the sale of wildlife, but anything and everything exists within the market, legal or not.  Soap in the shape of dicks? You got it. Dicks in the shape of soap? I didn’t see any, but I’m sure it’s there. Be sure to bring cash and follow your nose for the street food vendors and many restaurants tucked inside. Make sure to bring cash, and why not make your first attempt at bartering?

10am- Thai Massage

That was a lot of walking, and I know you broke a sweat and the heat has you snoozy. Let’s Wake up with a trip to Divana Spa for one of the best massages in town. What would a trip to Thailand be without experiencing a little nuat phaen thai (Thai-style massage?) With techniques nearly 2,500 years old, the Divana’s Siamese Relax treatment is a great pick me up that will rock, roll, pull, and compress you.

12pm-Lunch by the River

How about some more tasty and modern Thai overlooking one of Bangkok’s most gorgeous landmarks, Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn? One moment you’re on the busy, touristy streets outside the city’s most famous temples of Wat Pho, the next, you’re inside the elegant and air-conditioned Sala Rattanakosin Eatery and Bar (part of a cute boutique hotel, the Rattanakosin) being offered cool towels soaked in lemongrass ordering Thai-iced teas and flavorful Phanaeng curries.

 

Beautiful Thai Temple, Wat Benjamaborphit, temple in Bangkok, Thailand

3pm-SO Good

We love a pool party. If you’re lucky enough to be in Bangkok during the last Saturday of the month, be sure to check out the SO Sofitel Bangkok’s vibing monthly pool party So Pool Party. Some months are certainly queerer than others, but the event always has a strong LGBT contingent.  A gorgeous infinity pool spills out into views of the wild sprawl of Bangkok and a lovely mix of locals, expats, backpackers, and business people splash about at one of Bangkok’s hippest and most queer-friendly hotels.

6pm-Khao San Road

Although only 410 meters long, the street is said to have “one of the longest dreams in the world.” Here you’ll find true backpacker’s paradise. Cheap accomodations, an overabundance of Wifi cafes, tour planning offices, buses to Chiang Mai, street performances, cheap restaurants, grilled insect stands, as well as some of Bangkok’s more controversial sides, like the infamous ping pong shows. No matter what budget you’re on, it is worth a self-guided stroll and a stop for a late afternoon coffee or happy hour to exchange tales and tips with fellow travelers.

8pm-Sky High

Here’s the thing–I’m a real sucker for a rooftop bar and I thought I’d seen them all. Moonbar at the Banyan Tree Hotel Bangkok absolutely knocked my socks off. Located 61 floors up, this hot spot is constantly in the top 10 of the world’s rooftop bars. The lofty heights, minimalist house music, and celebratory atmosphere are sure to make your experience dreamlike as you sip away and feel the thick Bangkok breeze.

Late-Dancing

You’ve been itching and scratching to go out,  here’s your chance. Check out GoGrrrls!, a “girl-love-girl” all female-DJ dance party that’s been igniting Bangkok since 2013. As in any big city, venues and dates rotate so keep up to date on the event’s Facebook page.

More mainstream Thai nightlife can be found at Silom Soi 2, a hub of queer bars that cater more specifically to men. “Soi” in Thai means “ally” and this one is filled to the brim with gay establishments. The most popular is DJ Station (and its nightly stripper show) but don’t be scared to explore beyond this hot spot–it’s always more exciting when you choose your own adventure. Looking for a little more of a local experience? Check out Fake Club or APP Arena, which both put on quite the show as well.

Sunday

1pm: MOCA Bangkok

Nightlife goes late in Bangkok. Rise when you can, but when you do, make your way to The Museum of Contemporary Art Bangkok for five stories of  thought-provoking modern Thai art (with a few international artists on the fifth floor). The museum stands out among others for showcasing artwork that tackles and comments on many of the skeletons hidden in Thailand’s closet.

3pm: People Watching in Lumpini Park

Bangkok’s Central Park. This whole weekend you’ve been hurtling through a vast concrete jungle of impossible skyscrapers, tight alleys, and bumping shows–now it’s time to take in a moment of respite at the 142-acre Lumpini Park with a self-guided stroll. Called by some the “Green Lung” of Bangkok, the park is a hotspot for joggers, birdwatchers, bikers, picnickers, swan boaters, and local flora and fauna–including massive water monitors who casually pop out of the pond to sunbathe.

7:30pm: Maggie Choo’s

Sunday night in Bangkok mean’s a stop in at Maggie Choo’s, a well-known jazz bar that hosts a popular gay night on Sundays. Located in the basement of the Novotel Bangkok Fenix Silom, this long standing party puts on a great weekly drag show that’s hosted by the host of Drag Race: Thailand Pangina Heals.

The Snugs

Fancy Pants-SO Sofitel Bangkok

Billing itself as “Bangkok’s First Urban Design Hotel,” the SO Sofitel is one of the hippest hotels in the city and a constant draw for queer travelers looking for luxury and mingling. The hotel has 237 rooms decorated by the elements in four different layouts: Water, Air, Earth, and Metal. The property also hosts a gorgeous infinity pool, and many of the rooms look out onto the soothing expanse of Lumpini Park. Rooms from $208 USD and up.

Goldie Locks- Sala Rattanakosin

This cute, Thai-owned boutique hotel is located right on the waters of the Chao Phraya and looks directly at Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. The hotel is the perfect option for those looking for a more intimate accommodation that doesn’t lack in luxury. Rooms from $140 USD and up.

Backpacker- Minimis Hostel

One of the most aesthetically striking hostels in Bangkok, the Minimis Hostel is a great place to stay on a budget, without feeling like you’re on one. Beds starting from $22 USD and up.

 

The Queer Traveler: Interview with Blogger Meg Cale

During a recent panel discussion at the first ever LGBT Thailand Travel Symposium in Bangkok, INTO heard travel blogger and social media influencer Meg Cale say that “the bar is set so inexplicably low for lesbian travelers, that really, by doing anything at all to cater to queer women, the LGBT travel industry will be raising the bar.”

After the panel,  INTO interviewed Cale, who currently runs one of the most popular lesbian travel blogs, Dopes on the Road, with her wife, Lindsay Cale. With over 75k readers and 250,000 clicks (just this year alone), Dopes on the Road is one of the most widely read queer travel blogs.  With over six years of travel writing/blogging experience and features in Cosmopolitan, Travel + Leisure, and HuffPost, Meg and Lindsay are some of the most knowledgeable ambassadors for queer women who travel. Their site combines guides like “Summer Packing List for Gender Neutral Clothing” to “40 Safety Tips for LGBT Travelers” as well as top picks for queer women with listicles like “20 Best Lesbian Parties and Lesbian Festivals in the World“.

Your blog, Dopes on the Road is one of the most followed lesbian travel blogs, can you tell me about how it started?

Meg Cale: I started Dopes on the Road when I moved to South Korea for a job in 2013. My first posts were off center grainy photos of me packing to leave for Korea in my girlfriend’s [now wife’s] house. But from the moment I pressed publish on those first heinous posts I was smitten by the world of nomadic entrepreneurship and blogging.

It didn’t take long for me to realize there was very limited information for queer travelers online and started to get questions from folks looking to move to Korea, teach ESL, and travel as queer couples. My background in LGBT advocacy gave me a unique skill set when answering many of these questions. Which is when DotR morphed from personal blog to becoming more professional.

I hoped that DotR would become a space on the internet for LGBT people like me to find resources for travel that felt more familiar to my community. I knew I wanted to inspire others to have adventures in everyday life without sugar-coating the reality of traveling as an LGBT person.

LGBT travelers face a unique set of difficulties when seeing the world. The policies and social acceptance of LGBT people varies widely from country to country, but the reality is that safety is still a huge concern for people when LGBT identity is illegal in 83 countries and territories around the world. It’s my hope to lead by example and inspire other LGBT people to seek out adventures around the world and engage in building community around the world.

 

Since the blog’s founding, what countries have you lived in and how many countries total have you been to?

We’ve lived in three countries, South Korea, the United States and we’re currently based in Merida, Mexico. I stopped counting countries a while back because it felt silly to me but it’s somewhere in the mid-40s, I believe. I find it silly because I don’t want to view travel as a series of hunting trophies but rather a collection of experiences that helped to shape who I am as a person. Of course, as a blogger, being able to say I’ve been to over 100 countries or I’ve been to all seven continents is a professional accolade but it’s definitely not my driving motivation in what we do.

Having experienced so many different countries and cultures, what are some of the best tips you’ve learned that may be helpful to queer women while traveling?

Queer women, nonbinary people, and transgender folks deal with unique issues that other members of the LGBT umbrella may not understand. Queer women, for example, will always be women, a marginalized group in many areas of the world. They are also queer which makes us doubly at risk for potential issues of discrimination and violence. I don’t say this to scare anyone but rather as a cautionary tale. The compounded risk makes research all the more important.

There are several questions queer women should consider before traveling abroad. The first and harshest: can you pass as straight and cisgender? Being able to pass as straight and cisgender is an incredible privilege when visiting countries that aren’t as friendly to LGBT people. If you can, it may be as easy as refraining from physically touching your partner or outing yourself while traveling. If you can’t – you have to decide what options feel safest.  

 

What are your top three favorite travel destinations/experiences for first time queer female travelers?

This one is so tough but I’d say my top countries are Thailand, Spain, and Canada. They all offer very unique experiences but are some of the most welcoming and affirming countries in the world.

For a very social traveler, what are the best worldwide festivals and gatherings for queer women?

Palm Springs’ Dinah Shore is the biggest lesbian festival in the world and a rite of passage for queer women these days. But it’s far from the only event! I recently published a list of some of my favorite lesbian parties and festivals around the world.

What are your favorite destinations and experiences for more experienced travelers?

Oh so many – I loved Banos, a tiny little town in the cloud forest of Ecuador, because waterfalls are a dime a dozen and adventure sports are a way of life. While you won’t find luxury hotels in Banos, you’ll find a new respect for nature and people with the biggest hearts.

Since you began working on the blog with your wife, Lindsay, can you tell me about some of the troubles you have had around the world while traveling together?

Most of our issues traveling have more to do with Lindsay’s gender expression than our sexuality. Lindsay is 6′ tall and very androgynous. She’s significantly taller than an average man in many countries. She’s masculine but not quite masculine enough to always pass as male. Which brings issues everytime we’re doing a gendered activity which is way more frequently than you can imagine. Anything to do with swimming, locker rooms, changing, bathrooms, security scanners, outfit changes, and required clothing has the potential to become anywhere from annoying to physically dangerous.  

How could the travel industry adapt better to accommodate queer women?

I’d love to see gender neutral bathrooms and changing facilities in airports, hotels, and other public tourism venues. Somedays while we’re on the road Lindsay opts to not eat or drink anything for hours and hours to avoid public restrooms. When you’re nervous about having your basic human needs met it’s nearly impossible to enjoy your day. Solving this issue can be as easy as changing signage on already existing single use restrooms to be gender neutral.

I’d also love to see more inclusive marketing campaigns and product development with queer women in mind. It can be as simple as using real queer women rather than models and making sure that their gender presentation is reflective of the broader community.

Recognizing the lack of queer women specific events and tours for queer women in the travel industry, you’ve begun taking on the role of trip planner/organizer. How has that changed your perspective on the travel industry? Which trips do you have coming up?

One of the biggest issues for queer women is the lack of spaces for us to meet each other. Sure, we have apps and social media but many of our bars, coffee shops, festivals, and bookstores have closed. We launched our first group trip last year to Dinah Shore as a way to make space for folks looking to meet people and build community. The first trip was a huge success so we’ve decided to do our next trip to Thailand in October of 2018.

Being on the trip planning side of the industry has really opened my eyes to the millions of tiny details that go into creating a successful trip. It gives me a new level of appreciation and respect for the attention and diligence that goes into the work that agents and trip planners have.

You speak at a lot of travel symposiums and conferences as a respected voice within the industry. What are the main topics you like to bring up?

I’m constantly talking about inclusivity, gender expression, transgender travelers, and content marketing. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get to hit all of those topics in one panel discussion. I love being a voice for queer travelers because it’s an opportunity to start a conversation that ultimately leads to a more empathetic and reasonable relationship between the brands who would like to work with us and the LGBT community.

Lastly, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be, and why?

This one is so tough because I love so many places but I’d have to say either Chiang Mai, Thailand or Brooklyn, NY. They have more in common than you may think at first. Brooklyn is home for me. I wasn’t born there but it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to truly belonging somewhere. Chiang Mai is a city in northern Thailand that’s well known for its numerous temples, elephant sanctuaries, and as one of the largest digital nomad hubs in the world. There’s some beautiful examples of Thai culture but there’s also a growing startup tech scene that is one of the most interesting and innovative places in the world.

Check out Meg and Lindsay’s adventures at Dopes on the Road and on Instagram — @megcale and @lindscale.

Magical Realism in the Mojave

A curious land.

Roadrunner leaves its prints on the sand.

This is a desert so out of the ordinary a hunk of it was designated the Queer Mountain Wilderness Study Area by the U.S. government in 1992—the same year I was born.

This is a queer land.

I identify with land that has been othered.

Here in Mojave National Preserve, we are in the thickest thicket of joshua trees in the world.

Here in Mojave National Preserve, we are in a very different type of forest.

My friend Anna is among their many whimsical arms lifting up her own to the late afternoon sun in an appreciative salutation. Her hair is up and brushes the sweat on the back of her neck.

This grove of trees lie in the crotch between the rotund 70-acre Cima Dome and lofty Kessler Peak.

Cima Dome is so massive, that if you were plopped on to its summit, you wouldn’t even know you were on the top of a mountain.

It would just look flat.

It is the result of a work-shy volcano.

We had pulled off I-15, the highway that darts through the Mojave Desert and passes right by the sparkler of Las Vegas.

We are south of the City of Sin, off a pavement road, off a dirt road, off a dirt road, off a dirt road near a place called Cima and we have decided to get a better look at our surroundings.

We set up camp. We are on a road trip that will eventually dribble us into Los Angeles.

We follow the roadrunner’s signature that loops like cursive across the sand.

I wonder what kind of things the ground bird chases.

There are prickly pear by our ankles, some of them are generous and offer us their blooms.

A few ladybugs explore the cup of the blossom in hope of aphids.

Most don’t know that the combined weight of all the insects in the world is many many many many times more than the mass of humanity.

We could be squashed by their weight, like an anvil falling off of a butte onto Wile E. Coyote as the Road Runner meeps by.

Right now, in the goldening hours of the day, the desert is giving us curtains of color. I’m not sure what the curtains are made of.

Dust? Distance? Trickery?

The curtains help break apart the space that seems too big for comprehension.

The colors we are seeing are gold like the ore once dynamited, ransacked and left as abandoned mines across the preserve, purple like the underbelly of pillowing storm clouds, and billows of pleasant powder blue.

Anna tells me magical realism doesn’t solely exist within the pages of an Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez novel.

She knows.

She writes award winning stories about girls that are actually manatees that get hit by boats.

She writes stories about hearts like cuckoo clocks.

I always remember that image.

We’ve all had a lover with a heart like a cuckoo clock.

Anna says magical realism isn’t just alive within the beloved films of Hayao Miyazaki.

It exists elsewhere and everywhere.

She has taught me to see the world more fantastically.

It has made me see some mountains as handsome. It has helped me make a blue spruce a boyfriend.

It has helped me feel the arousal of the river’s caress and the sensuality of the breeze when I was alone and ran across the sand dunes of the preserve without my shorts.

It has made me see two hills like the breasts of a woman or, depending on their distance and globularity, like the buttocks of a man.

It has helped me understand what Georgia O’Keefe was really painting when she painted flowers.

Before, I was none the wiser.

But now I know what O’Keefe was really up to when she painted mountains whose spurs spread like legs with wild juniper bushes in their crotches.

All of this has helped me anthropomorphize the land.

If we all saw the land as a person worth loving, we might not have bombed the Southwest with nukes in the 1950s and departed so many downwinders.

If we all saw the land as a person worth loving, we might not have a current administration so giddy to continue the poisoning of land. Trump and Zinke have already gifted 1.3 million acres of the Mojave to miners ready to abuse the desert.

If we all saw the land as a person worth loving,  we would have never had any of these damn pipelines or oceans with plastic islands the size of Texas.

Starbucks has just banned straws.

We like this, but the containers are still plastic.

Literary critic Matthew Strecher once defined “magical realism” as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

 

For some stories, it’s the appearance of an ancestor returning to guide a main character on their journey, perhaps a grandmother returning with wisdom on how to fight fascism and greed. For others, it’s the emergence of a talking animal—like the enormous and godly golden carp of Rudolfo Antoya’s Bless Me, Ultima.

Many other things can happen in the realm of magical realism.

You see, I’ve always believed in the magic of our surroundings, but I had never seen anything truly out of the ordinary.

Yes, polychromatic sunsets and rises, galloping horses on black sand beaches, platypuses darting through the waters of a billabong— but it wasn’t until Anna and I found ourselves on the summit of Kessler Peak, in the middle of the Mojave that I was persuaded.

The Mojave National Preserve is the third biggest wilderness area in the lower 48.  It’s not easy to imagine 1,600,000 acres.

But that doesn’t mean they should make it smaller.

The preserve was designated by Congress in 1996 under the California Desert Protection Act. And under the Obama administration, new land was protected around it—Mojave Trails National Monument with the dazzling Cadiz Dunes and the stately pinnacles of Castle Mountains National Monument.

These preserves have official borders but the land doesn’t recognize them and nor should it.

They blend together as one like watercolors on the page.

The California Desert Protection Act was the grandchild of a woman named Minerva Hoyt who loved the desert so much, she made herself a part of its bloodline.

You would need a million lives to see everything in the preserve and all of these monuments.

You have to camp in the middle of it and take off your clothes and yell a big yippe-ki-yay just to understand the importance of immensity and the possiblitity of space.

The danger of exposure.

There is freedom in space.

In the preserve, there are sand dunes called Kelso that at night, act as a ladder to the moon.

Did I mention that these dunes sing?

Sand dune tunes.

The dryer they are, the sweeter their chorus.

There are mountains called the Old Woman Mountains and a peak called Old Dad Mountain that I’ve renamed Yes Daddy Peak.

There are cliffs with holes like Swiss cheese that birds nest in.

There is a cross that is a memorial to WWI soldiers that was the feature of a Supreme Court Decision that was later stolen and then found 500 miles away in Half Moon Bay, California.

There is physical abandonment in the form of mine shafts and ghost towns with rich tales of death.

There are lava beds and canyons and cougars and even bighorn sheep.

There is a beach without an ocean called the Devil’s Playground that stretches into salt flats of ancient lakes.

As Anna and I climb higher to 6,000 feet on Kessler we can begin to believe all of this. We know that there is not enough time to see it all but that we are many people in this world and maybe we can see it all together and hear about the places we’ll never make it to.

We can begin to imagine all the bugs and insects that are out there as soon as the dusk birds and bats start fattening their bellies.

When we finally reach the top of Kessler, we look for the summit log. We are curious who was before us and where we fit on this mountain’s narrative.

Shadows are casting themselves elegantly and are dressing other mountains and valleys with a sultry black velvet robe that is quite sexy if you ask me.

We continue our search for the summit log among rocks and yuccas in all of that sexiness.

We are writers and are enthusiastic to put our black ink onto  parchment weathered by the Mojave.

We need to tell the next readers who we are and what we saw and log our admiration.

There is a rusty can underneath a rock and the breeze is blowing hard at the top but it isn’t cold, it is like the breath of a dragon.

When we grab the can and open it, the small notebook falls out and so do hundreds of lady bugs.

Some are red and spotted. Others are missing their sports—perhaps they were blown off by the wind, perhaps they had been rubbed off onto other ladybugs.

Some are almost pink and others are the colors tomatoes turn after being in the sun too long. Some are so washed out they are yellow. Whatever their color or spot count they keep spilling from the ground below the can and I am persuaded by the weight of insects.

We are paralyzed by awe and only able to capture the moment by story.

They continue to erupt from the mountain as if we have sliced a laceration across the crown of the mountain. It is as if the mountain is bleeding. It is as if the mountain is a volcano erupting lava like the tectonic plates have passed over a hotspot of spotted insects.

The mountain erupts ladybugs into the sky and they rush to explore the preserve as if it were going somewhere.

(Instagram) Guide to East London

East London, which includes Shoreditch, is the city’s hipster equivalent to L.A.’s Silverlake or New York’s Williamsburg. There’s street art, an abundance of gourmet donut shops, trendy boutiques and a signature tattered black clothing style. Fancy farm-to-table, organic, vegan, and gluten-free restaurants line the streets, with hole-in-the-wall cheap eats spots filling in the gaps. Make sure to look right as you’re crossing the street — not just for cars, though, as bikes dominate here. In a massive city such as London, it’s great to have a dedicated area that feels a bit more underground and separate from the rest. For all you Instagram addicts, Shoreditch will not disappoint. What follows are some top Instagrammable spots to impress your followers with.  

A post shared by BOXPARK Shoreditch (@boxpark) on

Boxpark

Boxpark Shoreditch opened in 2011 as the world’s first pop-up mall. Entirely constructed out of retrofitted shipping containers, Boxpark is a mixture of a street food market and local/global brand emporium. Boxpark offers affordable and flexible leases for lifestyle brands, cafes, restaurants and galleries.

Old Spitalfields Market

Open 7 days a week, this daily market is home to a selection of carefully chosen traders, craftsmen, artists and artisans, all selected for their quality of product in addition to the stories they have to tell. In the center of the market there are ten fully stocked kitchens where exceptional contemporary and authentic cooking is showcased.

Summer eves

A post shared by Nicoline Brindfors (@nicolinebrindfors) on

Exmouth Market

This market is buzzing every weekday around lunchtime with local workers and residents who have come out to taste some of the best street food London has to offer. This is the “real” London, tucked just far enough away from the more touristy parts of the city.

Camden Market

What started off as a small arts and crafts fair, supposedly temporary and only open on Sundays, quickly grew into the largest market in London, open seven days a week. Camden Market is a diverse community of creative sellers, street food traders and independent stores next to the Regent’s Canal. There are over 1,000 places to eat, shop, drink and dance in this historic London location.

We are loving the summer colours in store at the minute🌈☀️

A post shared by Rokit Vintage (@rokitvintage) on

Rokit Vintage Shop

This vintage clothing and retro treasures shop originally started in a stall in Camden but has since grown to open four stores. Each item here is hand picked with style-conscious, environmentally-aware vintage lovers in mind. Their pieces date from the ‘30s to the ‘90s and cover every major trend.

Ballie Ballerson

What’s better than a ball pit for adults? How about many ball pits for adults inside a really kick-ass bar? There’s a main pit as well as two other exclusive pits for VIP and/or buyouts. The drinks are uniquely strong and the photo ops are endless. Be sure to make a reservation because adult ball pits are definitely in and you don’t want to be stuck outside missing out on all the fun.

Whitechapel Art Gallery

A combination of galleries, exhibitions, artist commissions, collection displays, historical archives, educational resources, and a Café/Bar and Bookshop, the Gallery is open all year round, with lots of photo-worthy art to choose from.

Old Truman Brewery

East London’s revolutionary arts and media quarter is home to a hive of creative businesses as well as exclusively independent shops, galleries, markets, bars and restaurants. For more than twenty years the Old Truman Brewery has been reimagining its ten acres of vacant and derelict buildings into office, retail, leisure and event spaces. The finely tuned mix of business and leisure has created a unique environment within London.

ATIKA London

This 6,000 sq. ft. shopping hub has an extensive amount of curated vintage clothing, showcasing 20,000 unique pieces dating from the late ‘70s to early ‘00s. They mainly stock high-end labels as well as sports brands with an extensive range of denim.

The Jones Family Project

Set up by a group of friends, this independent restaurant and bar provides the perfect atmosphere for sharing food, drink and quality time with friends. Their ground floor bar has space to work and play, while their main dining room features a full a la carte menu. If you’ve never experienced a London Sunday Roast, this is the place to try one. Their set menu offers either a two or three course meal.

Alternative London

Discover what the guidebooks wont show you. If you are still itching for more of East London, consider an off the beaten path walking tour with this award-winning company. The East London street art and graffiti tour will surely give you access to some quality picture worthy locations while also showcasing some of the places you might not have seen on your own.

Z Hotel Shoreditch (Recommended Stay)

With 111 bedrooms, this perfectly situated hotel is both convenient and inexpensive. The rooms are compact but have everything you need within. The lobby offers a complimentary wine and cheese hour for guests and the service level is beyond what one would expect. Again, the rooms are a bit on the smaller side, but they are clean and modern and the location is unbeatable.

The Hidden Homoerotics of Oslo’s Vigeland Installation

A Scandinavian gloom settled over Norway’s capital city and my friend Frida and I pierced through it on city bikes like arrows. As a local Oslo-ite originally from the the untouched lands of the country’s Lofoten archipelago, Frida was used to inclement Norwegian drear and so the the two of us spoke of sunnier times. A few years ago we met below Cape Town, South Africa’s glorious Table Mountain, where we spent our off time from our study abroad courses exploring the mountain’s many ravines.

 

Reconnected years later on my short Norwegian jaunt, we were braving the chilly rain to visit one of Oslo’s most popular tourist attractions: the Vigeland Installation at Frogner Park.

 

Before my trip, I had never heard of the sculpture park, and I’m surprised I hadn’t—it is currently the largest sculpture park in the world by a single artist and receives over a million annual visitors. The 1942 installation was funded by the Norwegian Bank and contains 212 statues that blanket some 80 acres of Oslo’s Frogner Park; a place of hills, pathways, public pools, and ponds.

 

 

Frida and I dropped our bikes by the park’s entrance and dawdled across the long quad to the the Vigeland Installation. Among the melancholy of elements, the sculptures of humans far in the distance stuck out like sore thumbs in their bronze and granite brilliance—not to mention their nonchalant nakedness in contrast to the bundled and Gore-Texed tourists.

 

On the barrier and railings of the installation’s commencing bridge were 58 bronze statues of men, women, and children. Many of them were frolicsome, like the statue of the man piggybacking his son or of the handsome athlete with his arms stretching ebulliently to the sky. Others showed what appeared to be same-sex intimacy, like the statue of one girl cradling another, or the one of two men locked in a lustful look. And then there was the bizarre, like the angry and lone toddler throwing an epic temper tantrum—or the most wicked, one of a man being attacked by four flying babies.

 

This first set of bronze bridge sculptures served as an introduction to the park and showed some of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s (1869-1943) main themes: humanity, relationships, and the circle of life. By displaying the figures nude (and without naming any of his works) Vigeland achieved a timelessness reminiscent of Greek marble sculptures, each obliging the viewer’s interpretation.

 

 

The night before we visited the park, Frida and I had cooked dinner for her collection of close friends (to name a couple, there was Kristine who had just arrived by train from a surprise weekend in Stockholm with her boyfriend, and there was Anders who as a teen once flew on skis as a jumper.)

 

As our night wound down and we drank Norwegian lagers, I began researching Vigeland’s Installation and found images of the statues. Besides the statues of heteronormative relationships and families, there were also a few naked men wrestling and naked women caressing one another. But despite many of statues’ obvious homoerotics, very few had validated their queerness.

 

I did, however, find that many critics of the installation said it expressed misogyny and fascism and had consequently painted Vigeland as Nazi-sympathizer akin to German artist Arno Breker. And while earlier reports and stories of the statues found the statues disturbing — French/Danish/Norwegian art critic Pola Gauguin said in 1945 that the installation “reeks of nazi mentality” — others, more recently, have not seen the sculptures as brutally.

 

 

Many were emotionally inspired, like Washington Post writer Jennifer Moses, who said of the installation in 2016: “All I can say is that you have to see it to believe it…You stand there staring, jaw dropped, tears flowing.”

 

The Daily Mail expressed neither abhorrence nor astonishment with the collection, naming the works “the weirdest statues in the world.” I slept excited to gather my own interpretation.

 

Frida and I spent the least amount of time in the park’s second section, the fountain that was once designed for the Norwegian Parliament, Eidsvolls Plass, but instead became one of the centerpieces for Vigeland’s installation. Here, a massive sculpture of muscular men held up a giant cascading bowl, while statues of children played in trees on the fountain’s perimeter.

 

 

We climbed the stairs beyond the fountain high into the park’s most iconic section, where 36 statues composed of iddefjord granite from the west coast of Sweden circled a towering monolith composed of 121 bodies of men, women, and children; young and old, strong and weak.

 

This high plateau of the park however, was guarded by a circling series of iron wrought gates decorated by male and female group nudes—though they were always separated by gender. One of the gates contained six men, and appeared to be a sort of precursor to later Tom of Finland sketches (another controversial character, like Vigeland, who eroticized Nazis in his early work), evidenced by their identical hypermasculine builds highlighting muscular buttocks, barreled chests, and bulging calves, as well as for their communal nudity and close proximity to one another; they are touching each other and smiling. On the iron wrought gates with women, two separate naked trios lock arms and smile as their long hair full of flowers flutters in the wind. But these gates aren’t the only homoerotic works in the park.

 

 

Among the 36 granite statues at the center of the park, I found three statues of women in close partnership: the first two young and naked women play and contort their bodies into a ring, a second nude pair shows a woman with her arm slung affectionately over another woman, and in the third, an older woman cares tenderly for another.

 

And alongside these women are plenty of male/female couples (some in throes of love, others in violence) as well as a statue of two children riding their mother like a horse (and using her braid as a bit), as well as a skinny elderly man squashed between two old women, and one statue of two muscular men caressing each other so closely, you can’t tell if they are kissing or quarreling.  

 

Queerness is portrayed not only in bronze and granite at the installation, but also in wrought iron gates. Of the nearly 212 statues and gates, there are same-sex couplings and homoerotics portrayed in about 15 of the works—depending on how generous or strict you are with your interpretation. But it ends up being below 7% of the sculptures, not far off from the self identifying statistics on the percentage of queer people in the world.

 

Vigeland’s attention to idealized male bodies, genitalia, and over the top musculature shows his preference for the male body—it is an ode to hypermasculinity. But the anatomical realism of many of his male statues only adds to the homoeroticism of the same-sex statue pairings.

 

 

In the middle of the high plateau of statues is the installation’s most famous work: an obelisk composed of 121 nude human bodies shooting 45 feet upwards.

 

As Frida and I milled around the statues, I kept coming back to the monolith. For in it, I see the critics’ interpretations of historical abhorrence as well as modern day amazement .

 

I observe the crushing weight of a society piled upon each other with only few benefiting and I understand the terrifying comparisons by critics to footage of the mass graves of Holocaust concentration camps, but I also see inspiration. Although the figures are locked in granite, they appear to be alive in animation— a mix of bodies, genders, orientations, experiences, and spirits struggling through the difficulties of existence but simultaneously emboldening each other skyward.

 

What do you see?

 

Embrace Biophilia at This New Manhattan Hotel

I’m checking out The Assemblage John Street, a brand new coliving, coworking, and biophilic-designed property (using natural materials, vegetation, lighting and other natural features) in New York City’s Financial District.

 

It’s about 5:45pm and I’m waiting for an the elevator after touring a 12th floor king studio apartment hotel room. When the stainless steel doors of the elevator part, I’m greeted by a guest of the hotel and as I go to press my floor number I see it is already lit. Floor 3. My man-bunned elevator friend and I are both traveling to the same floor.

 

Since it is New York City and we are in an elevator, we experience that awkward moment of silence after saying hello and we soon cascade into a silence of avoided eye contact. Typically, these moments of “do we make small talk or remain silent?” are soundtracked by elevator music of corny do-do-do-da-dahs and minimalist percussion; a few groovy yet mundane guitar riffs here and there if you’re lucky. But not in The Assemblage John Street. The Assemblage is hip, trendy, luxurious, and highly curated.

 

Bumping in the elevator is music that I can only describe as a Tycho sunrise set from Burning Man. It’s minimal, it’s deep house, it has international as well as intergalactic elements, and as my new elevator friend and I are transported nine floors lower I descend in my mind to the playa of Black Rock City, just as the sun is beginning to rise over the hazy desert horizon after a long and strange night.

 

“It’s so,” I say to my elevator friend pointing to the elevator speakers, “…Burning Man?”

 

My man-bunned acquaintance laughs, “Dude,” he says, “this whole hotel is Burning Man.”

 

 

There is some truth to Man Bun’s words. From the ayurvedic restaurant, intention-setting fountain at the front desk, living plant art on the walls, bountiful yoga classes, and massive gong by the front door, there is certainly an emphasis on wellness, unplugging, spirituality, and nature. It’s Burning Man without the desert, camping or wild revelry. There is no bar in the hotel, but there is a focus on making connections, friendships, and creative collaborations with strangers on the floor pillows of the coworking space. From a section of The Assemblage’s “about” section: “John Street offers a friendly, open-minded place of convergence and growth for those at the frontier of social change, self-exploration, and discovery.”

 

I ask my elevator friend a second question before we approach our stop. “Are you going to the sound healing meditation class, too?”

 

“Of course, man,” he says with a smile that is not only as wide as a New York City avenue, but also the breadth of the Mojave desert.

 

 

The Assemblage John Street is the second and largest project for the brand. Located 2.5 miles (and only a few subway stops) from the John Street location is the brand’s first property, The Assemblage NoMad, a 12-floor co-working space (starting at $200 per month) complete with hundreds of communal hot desks and private offices, four meditation rooms, a restaurant, and a tranquil rooftop garden. Also part of The Assemblage family is The Sanctuary, a nature retreat 2 hours outside of the city designed around “reconnecting with nature,” with workshops in “self discovery” and retreats for specific groups, like June’s all women weekend.

 

With the success of NoMad as a popular coworking and lifestyle space in New York City,  The Assemblage John Street opened this past spring to offer an extended experience to overnight guests and short term visitors of Manhattan. The concept comes from an emerging need for short term rentals in large cities and takes its place somewhere between the international SoHo House and NYC-based WeWork, who just launched their newest hotel, WeLive.

 

Each of the property’s 79 room apartments (starting at $359 per night) are available for both short and extended stays with full use of the property’s coworking spaces—nearly 300 hot desks, lounge seating, three meditation rooms, a tea ceremony room (I attended my first cacao ceremony on my last morning before departing) as well as two calming terraces, a rooftop patio, restaurant, yoga studio, AND an elixir bar (I sampled the Lucid Dreaming elixir before going to sound healing- which was, to say the least, a wild, wild time.)

 

 

As the class convened (and my elixir kicked in), the Himalayan chimes and gongs were readied in the sound meditation room. As everyone situated themselves comfortably on the floor, I chatted with a few of the incoming participants. Among the twenty sound meditation enthusiasts were fashion designers, tech start-up big shots, writers exhausted by their old routines of traversing the city in search of spacious and WiFi-capable friendly cafes, as well employees of larger companies who had leased out The Assemblage’s more private office spaces.

 

Many of the participants were using the sound healing meditation as a relaxing break before working long into the night while others were winding down after a heavy day of meetings and emails and phone calls and screen staring. I overheard many of them of them planning to stay beyond  the meditation for the evening talks and events that happen a few times a week, from “Organize and Meditate Presents: White Fragility” to the screening of The Narwhal’s Wake.

 

Wherever they were or weren’t going after, there was an intimacy among them—it doesn’t seem logical to join The Assemblage if you don’t believe in collaboration, friendliness, social and environmental engagement.

 

Soon the long-haired instructor dressed loosely in linen pants instructed us to lay on our backs on the pillows. The session began with chimes and bowls before booming into gongs—ending an hour later with a chorus of chants.

 

 

From Forbes to CNNMoney, New York City always finds itself atop lists of the United States’ most stressful cities. The reasons are predictable and endless: the highest population density, escalating costs of living, serious lack of greenspace (except for Central Park).

 

But in the concrete jungle of the Financial District, The Assemblage John Street offers a little bit of nature—or at least the reminder of it with biophilic design—with garden terraces and rooftops, a commitment to natural lighting, preserved tree fungus ornamenting hallway walls, hundreds of cacti spread across the coworking floors, as well as the hotel’s moss-coated entrance tunnel (as well as  the live moss installations in each hotel room) that infuse the entire building with a sweet, earthy perfume.

 

The greeting scent of the entrance’s moss alone provided me with instant rejuvenation after walking the loud, trash-piled sidewalks and sewer-steaming streets of Manhattan (honestly, what the hell is steaming from those sewers?!). As a nature lover and tree hugger, I adored these touches of the natural world blending kindly with an urban work space, for it’s been estimated we spend nearly ⅓ of our lives at work—some  90,000 hours.

 

Moving to the countryside and truly “connecting” with nature isn’t practical for everyone— so if we must live in a mega-city and we must spend 90,000 hours of our life at work—let all coworking/living spaces, hotels, homes, and as many public spaces as possible be filled to the brim with cactus and moss and Cateracterum Palm and fiddle leaf trees as well as anything else from the most glorious and lofty kingdom, Plantae.

 

Let us smile in the presence of plants.

 

Let us not overlook biophilia as a hip trend set by luxurious hotels and coworking spaces by rolling our eyes like we do when our friends tell us their Burning Man tales—let biophilia be the bedrock of our future planning and commonplace in public spheres.

Cover photo courtesy of Inna Shnayder

Hanging in Huntington Beach – 10 Things Not To Miss

Huntington Beach, AKA Surf City USA, has always been a hidden paradise to those immersed within surf culture, but the northern Orange County city really hasn’t been on the travel radar much, until now. The city is ramping up efforts to make the itself a destination for every type of traveler that’s looking for a California beach town, centrally located between both San Diego and Los Angeles. Below is a list of things not to miss while visiting or passing through Surf City!

It’s lit 🔥 #SurfCityUSA (📷: @calbaptist)

A post shared by Huntington Beach (@surfcityusa) on

Beach Bonfires – Not every Southern California beach allows bonfires, but Huntington Beach actually has over 500 bonfire rings available to the public – free of charge, on a first-come, first-serve basis. There’s no better way than to enjoy the coastline with friends, as well as some marshmallows.

 

Surf City Nights – This special street fair that takes place along Main Street between Walnut and Orange Avenue in downtown Huntington Beach, occurs every Tuesday, year round. During Surf City Nights, there’s a farmer’s market, bounce-house for the kids, street performers – both musical and non-musical acts – sidewalk sales, and restaurant samplings, among other fun stuff.

Pacific City: Shopping and Dining – Located right on Pacific Coast Highway with killer beach views, the city’s newest shopping, dining and lifestyle destination opened in November of last year. It boasts over 191,000 square feet of unique shops and eateries. Saint Marc Pub-Café, Bakery & Cheese Affinage is the one dining option that is an absolute must. This new restaurant concept that allows patrons to order and pay via an iPad, offers nostalgic Americana cuisine and caters to both the local surfer just wanting some tasty bacon to go and the dedicated Sunday brunch crowd wanting to spend hours sampling from the eclectic menu.

Attended our board meeting today 🤙🏼 #SurfCityUSA 📷: @lorileavelle

A post shared by Huntington Beach (@surfcityusa) on

Immerse Yourself in Huntington Beach’s Surf Culture – There’s a reason it’s called Surf City USA, and the city is extremely proud of its surf culture. The Surfing Walk of Fame is like its cousin in Hollywood,  a stretch of sidewalk that pays tribute to the immortals of surfing. The Surfer’s Hall of Fame honors legends of surfing by immortalizing their handprints, footprints and signatures in the sidewalk, in front of Huntington Surf & Sport. The highlight there is the life-size bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing. And for a more educational experience, the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum is a nice fun place to explore. The museum houses collections of surfing memorabilia and has rotating exhibits.

Enjoying the last bit of weekend 🤙🏼 #SurfCityUSA 📷: @derekrliang

A post shared by Huntington Beach (@surfcityusa) on

Walk the Huntington Beach Pier – The pier came to existence in 1904 and is a landmark and integral part of Huntington Beach. Today’s pier, which has been rebuilt after two storms in the 1980s, stretches 1,856 feet into the Pacific Ocean, making it one of the longest piers on the West Coast. The crowd is a great mixture of both visitors and locals, and it offers the perfect place to catch a sunset.

Explore Huntington Harbour – Located on the northwest corner of Huntington Beach bordering Seal Beach and Sunset Beach, Huntington Harbour is made up of five man-made islands bounded by a network of navigable channels and the land surrounding them. Water activities here include stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, electric boats, sport fishing and gondola rides, all which provide views of beautiful multi-million dollar homes, private docks and yachts.

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve – This place is one of the best birding spots in the United States, attracting nearly 200 bird species, including rare and endangered species. The reserve is open to foot traffic and offers 8 miles of hiking trails for both the bird enthusiast as well as the bird admirer.

Huntington Dog Beach – Got a pup, or just love dogs? If so, Huntington Dog Beach is an amazing 1.5 miles of pure pooch paradise. Named one of the country’s top 10 Fido-friendly beaches by Fido Friendly Magazine (yes, that’s a real publication), this beach is doggie nirvana. The beach is off-leash so make sure your dog is semi-trained and up for some fun with many, many friends.

Weekend plans 🚴‍♂️ 🌊🌞🌈 #SurfCityUSA 📷: @lyndikennedy

A post shared by Huntington Beach (@surfcityusa) on

Beach Volleyball – There are 20 courts that cluster around the north and south side of Huntington Beach Pier, and ten more courts are grouped by two between the pier and a nearby hotel resort, so if playing or watching volleyball is your thing, this is the place to be. Just bring your own ball or rent one from the many beach concessionaires or borrow one from your hotel. The Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) Tour takes over the Huntington Beach Pier annually for a three-day competition and full-on beach festival. The tournament also features interactive activations, athlete appearances, vendors, and more — all free to the public!

How we commute to the beach 🏄🌴☀️ #SurfCityUSA 📷: @stillalexander

A post shared by Huntington Beach (@surfcityusa) on

Surf Lessons and the US Open of Surfing – Consider surf lessons in Huntington Beach the same way you would consider hitting a home run in a Major League Baseball stadium, or shooting some hoops in an NBA arena – because that’s exactly what it’s like. Surf lessons can be taken at numerous locations throughout Huntington Beach, including nearby resorts and hotels. Additionally, the US Open of Surfing, the world’s largest surf competition and lifestyle festival, is held each summer, and over half a million people descend upon the beaches to enjoy nine fun and sun-filled days.