Wrestling With Mass Tourism in Phang Nga Bay

Earlier this month, Maya Bay, one of southern Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, closed indefinitely to allow coral reefs and ecosystems surrounding Ko Phi Phi Le island a chance to recover.

The stunning area was once the location for the 2000 film, The Beach, which featured a svelte, post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio in a paradise-gone-awry thriller. While the movie didn’t steal many hearts (it received a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes), its setting did. Alongside the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, also shot in the region, the film put the limestone karst islands and their gold sand beaches on the map as one of the hottest spots in southeast Asia.

The island of Phuket, beyond its natural beauty, is also known notoriously as a party paradise where backpackers come from far and wide to let loose in the monthly Full Moon parties. While these parties draw a more heteronormative crowd (though they can at times and in certain pockets be quite queer-friendly), the island also hosts some of the best queer nightlife in Thailand outside of Bangkok.

It is in fact the only province to organize a Pride festival, a large colorful (and wild) week that takes place every April. Aside from the festival, the island hosts incredible drag cabaret shows in a collection of gay establishments that make the region incredibly popular for queer tourists.

Because of the many attractive factors drawing tourists to the Phuket region, many of the beaches and bays surrounding Phuket and Phi Phi now consequently bear an overabundance of activity. To say it kindly—they are being loved to death. In Maya Bay’s case, sometimes as many as 5,000 people a day are crammed onto the thin beach while 200 boats bob side by side in the warm, polluted (yet beautifully green) waters where nearly 80% of coral reefs have diminished.

When I visited Phuket over the summer, I was aware of Maya’s closure (the bay was originally temporarily closed for a few months over the summer before being closed indefinitely this fall) as well as the national park, Ao Phang Nga National Park, being placed on Fodor’s “no” list for 2018 to give the area a chance to recover. I felt guilty about visiting, concerned about my place as a tourist, another invasive number in the region’s mass of tourists, contributing pollution simply by my presence.

As a backpacker and hiker, I’ve always valued leave-no-trace principles— leaving places the same (or better) than I’ve found them. But as a travel writer, I wanted to see firsthand what drew so many tourists to the region. I wanted to witness the spectacle of mass tourism and decide if the must-do boat trip was even worth recommending if it rightfully deserved its place on the “no” list.

I decided to join despite my initial reservations, comforted that I would be seeing the region with John Gray’s Sea Canoes, a thirty-six-year-old company that has won recognitions like the Skal Ecotourism award and has been praised for its commitment to hiring only local guides.

I was also partially persuaded after reading about the owner, John “Caveman” Gray, a wild, crunchy man who often cleaning up the sea by kayak. In one photo, he paddles an entire shattered plastic chair on the stern and a heavy bag of plastics on the bow.

At the end of Gray’s mission statement on his website, he says, “Never Give Up! Mother Nature cannot afford to lose the Battle for Planet Earth!”

Gray’s hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, and ocean-saving online presence gave me an assurance of the company’s commitment to the region, as well as the well being of the world at large, and so, I stepped onto the boat more open to the experience, something I wouldn’t normally partake in because of its large group numbers.

After embarking on a massive two-story boat from Phuket filled with inflatable kayaks, a handful of local guides, chefs, and around 30 guests tackled the day forging across the stunning Andaman Sea that was further dramatized by sheets of rain that the limestone karst formations loomed behind like bashful titans, until a mid-afternoon sun burnt off the rain and the day became perfectly blue.

Our first stop after crossing leagues of open water was to take a look at the famous James Bond Beach. Our guide talked over the microphone about why the company doesn’t stop at the beach or at Phi Phi Islands where many tour boats allow their guests to feed the local, wild monkeys on Monkey Beach.

“We at John Gray Sea Canoe want to take you to places a little more remote,” he told us, “And we don’t want to overwhelm the environment or feed the beautiful animals.”

In front of us at the beautiful James Bond Beach, there must have been around 60 boats and perhaps several hundred tourists squished on the narrow little beach. There were stands set up on the beach selling coconuts and trinkets and drinks. Here, paradise was lost, and it was quite sad to see. There were so many people on the beach, they were almost only able to walk in a line as if they were in a crowded night club, or waiting in line to get into Coachella—going against the tide of bodies would prove difficult.

We forged on, making our way to places “a little more remote.” We came to a set of islands within the national park that surprisingly didn’t have any other boats—except for three other John Gray Sea Canoe tours each carrying the same amount of tourists and guides as our boat. The company certainly knew the islands and caves to explore where basic level tour operators didn’t trek, but by putting four boats in a location at the same time, the tour never seemed remote or particularly wild—but maybe that wasn’t the point.

We were soon assigned our kayak guides, hopped onto the inflatable boats, and were paddled beside the remarkable limestone formations where vines and trees full of tropical birds and buzzing insects screeched and sang.

Gradually, we approached a small opening in the formation, a “sea cave” that was only possible to squeeze below in low tide. My guide paddled us to where the cave ceiling was so low that he had to guide our boat with his hands, pushing slowly against the walls as I laid on my back—the limestone only an inch from my nose—until we entered a beautiful circular inlet of mangroves. It was like being in the middle of a miniature jungle, though, in the middle of the sea. The walls towered hundreds of feet above us as plant life clung on dearly to their sides.

This environment was, to say the least—sensational. The experience was a truly unique adventure made accessible to anyone. A place that typically required caving skills, kayaking skills, a decent level of fitness, a high sense of adventure, as well as complex ocean navigation skills to reach was made accessible to nearly all by John Gray’s Sea Canoe. Over fifty kayaks at a time were paddled around the secluded sinkholes, making the remarkable experience no less stunning, but much busier, constantly reminding me of my presence as a tourist.

I’ve lived a lucky life of exploring beautiful landscapes, but seeing these karst formations with their unexpected sea caves was one of the most exotic and unforgettable experiences I’ve had—it was here in the ease of accessibility to adventure and exploration, coupled with a warm, tropical climate that I realized an obsession for the region. One did not have to be a a hardy outdoorsy person to enjoy the day. It was the perfect blend of excitement, scenery, and relaxation.

For the rest of the afternoon, we explored two other islands, had drinks on the boat, and got the chance to explore one karst formation without our guides, paddling around the warm waters in the late afternoon sun—my favorite part of the day—before eating a delicious Pad Thai dinner on our boat.

We ended the trip just after sunset, pushing floating lanterns (which we collected after use) of leaves, wood, and flowers that we made and lit with candles in the deepest, darkest and most crowded cave of the day as bioluminescent plankton were activated like fireflies with our every paddle stroke. Finally, we hopped on our main boat, before transferring to a speedboat and chugging back to the island of Phuket.

I commend the Thai government and parks service for closing Maya Bay indefinitely to give it a chance to recover, much like I commend the American Bureau of Land Management (in this instance) for managing truly delicate public lands, like Arizona’s Wave, with permits that only allow 20 visitors a day.

The challenge, I believe, in showcasing the world’s most incredible landscapes will always be one of great balance. Our national parks, all over the world, make stunning places accessible to nearly anyone, paving roads to quiet summits, wide trails through rough landscapes, and boat tours to beautiful bays.

Their very designation as a national park—synonymous in my opinion with “spectacular place with millions of visitors”— can ruin the very place we are attempting to protect, whether it be from traffic jammed roads in Yosemite Valley, packed beaches in Thailand,  eyesore developments over the Grand Canyon, or worse of all, by human waste.

I wrestle with this question daily as a travel writer—how do we get everyone to experience these incredible lands so they can begin to care about nature, climate change, and our world’s public lands, without overexposing the landscapes and consequently loving them to death?

It is too easy as a writer to recommend other places near Phang Nga Bay in Thailand that are stunning and lesser visited, but wouldn’t that just help bring more boats and tours their way? What happens when the lesser visited becomes just as popular—will we one day have nothing less?

In the instance of Phang Nga Bay, I do recommend seeing it perhaps in an even more in depth way if you’re looking to avoid crowds, whether it be a multi-day tour with John Gray or other “eco-friendly” companies like Paddle Asia. But even though these trips will offer more solitude, they still expose the hard-to-get places to more humans, but at least in smaller, private groups and with higher leave-no-trace principles there is true respect for ecosystems.

As I would never say “don’t immerse yourself in the granite-walled vistas of the Yosemite Valley” or “don’t walk the rim of Bryce Canyon,” I could never tell someone to avoid the karst landscape of Phang Nga Bay. It is one of the places in the world that makes you feel deeply and wonderfully for our earth. It is the type of place that reinvigorates your own zest for life. The question is: how can we the people protect the earth from humanity so we never forget it, and for that matter, ourselves?

Don’t Be Afraid of Solo Travel

I received a frantic text from my sister recently. She had just departed for a two week cruise in Asia and was meeting two of our cousins at the starting point of the trip. She was texting to let me know that her travel buddies had royally screwed up and didn’t receive the appropriate visas and that she was going to be stuck on this epic cruise itinerary alone for the first week. While sending the obligatory ‘that sucks’ response, I thought to myself: “She’s so lucky.”

When I first started my wild back-to-back travels for work, I typically always preferred to travel with someone else — usually another travel writer. And don’t get me wrong, I still love to do that every now and again. But what I learned from the first few solo trips I did was that solo travel is seriously good for you, like all around good for your mind, spirit and soul. It can also force you to have some seriously deep internal conversations with yourself.

What I most feared about traveling alone was what people around me were thinking, as if anyone really cared, but I couldn’t control the insanities that my wandering mind would come up with. Eating alone, exploring a city alone and just not relying on someone to help me make those never ending decisions that come along with traveling was something I had to overcome. Once I did, my travel experiences changed drastically. Now I make sure to not only plan amazing trips with my friends and colleagues, but to also plan some equally great trips for myself. Although they could be great shared with someone else, I can make them great just going alone.

David Duran

Solo Group Travel

An easy way to dive into traveling alone is to travel with a group of strangers. Some might even argue that this is harder than being alone ,because of the social anxieties some of us face when forced to interact with people we’ve never met. Particularly as a queer person, taking a trip where you’ll literally be stuck with strangers that could potentially make you feel uncomfortable is yet another layer of concern.

We’re all unique, but when meeting strangers, I don’t tend to immediately discuss my personal life and prefer to casually let my sexuality come out through natural conversation.  On my recent first-ever group trip, it was a week before I realized one of the other travelers in our group was also a queer man. He, like me, was not keen on disclosing his sexuality unless the right moment had presented itself. That had taken both of us more than a week, and still might not have happened had our group not merged with new people. One of them, a very confident gay man, walked up to us individually and asked about our sexual orientation.

Once the ice was finally broken and I knew I could be more comfortable being myself, my trip completely changed for the better. That said, even if things didn’t occur the way they did for me, the trip would have been a success. I was forced to interact and socialize with people from all different walks of life, even those I normally wouldn’t spend time with. That’s a win for me.

David Duran

What I realized about traveling alone is that you are left alone with your thoughts, which can be scary because let’s face it, the shit that runs through our minds at times is the reason why we typically avoid our thoughts. With all the alone time, you are forced to actually listen to your inner ramblings and make sense of them. But after the initial shock of having all that time to yourself where you are forced to make decisions wears off, you’ll surely come to realize how great it is to not rely on anyone but yourself.

Doing what you want, eating when and what you want or even just blowing off an entire day to just end a lazy day with an evening stroll around a new city can be exhilarating…once you’ve realized how great the freedom of being alone can be. Fair warning to yourself though, solo travel can be addicting and can lead to full on recluse status, so enjoy your time alone but invite a friend on a trip every now and then.

Ecuadorian Endorphin Rush

Growing up, my Bolivian father’s best friend was from Ecuador, and they would always talk about the similarities between the two countries. I was fortunate at a young age to visit Bolivia several times and by my 10th plus trip, I began exploring all the other countries in South America. But I always discounted Ecuador, mainly because of those overheard conversations between my dad and his closest friend. I didn’t really have anything against Ecuador, but it was just at the bottom of my priority list, so when I got the opportunity to travel there recently, I was more than ready to put aside my preconceived notions about the country and head there with an open mind. For this trip, I was traveling with Contiki, on a group tour (The Lava Line) with a bunch of strangers, something that was still relatively new to me. But I was looking forward to not having to plan much.

Quito

The moment I landed in Quito and smelled some of the local food in the airport, I knew I was in for a good trip, even if all I was going to be doing was eating like a local. The high altitude of Quito means that the staple diet is starch and meat based, leaving veggies out of the equation. My time in Quito was short, as it was mostly a starting point, a place to meet the other travelers and to prepare for the week ahead. Contiki is geared towards a younger demographic (ages 18-35), so I was surrounded by lots of young people, all looking to make the most of their time on their trips. As a result, night 1 of our trip included an exploration of some of the local breweries…and later bars. Once the flaming shots were imbibed, the night was pretty much vaporized from my memory, making the bus ride the next day a bit more challenging. I was thankful for having packed ear plugs and an eye mask so I could sit on the bus and avoid reality for a few hours while my body slept off the mixture of liquids it had endured just hours before.

ME to WE

This particular Contiki trip was different from the rest because they had partnered with ME to WE, an innovative social enterprise that empowers people to change the world with their everyday consumer choices. Contiki guests had the opportunity to divert from the original itinerary for two days to instead experience a ME to WE project in a nearby area. For our particular experience, ME to WE sent us to the depths of the Amazon rainforest to their exclusive lodge where we spent two nights learning about the local communities. We met with a local healer who performed a cleansing ceremony on those who wanted one, learned how to make chocolate, and even perfected our spear and blow dart training. But the highlight of this entire add-on was the opportunity to go and work on a project that ME to WE was involved with. For us, that meant traveling to a small community to visit a school that was in the process of being completed. We were there to work, and that day it was all about mixing cement by hand for a portion of a sidewalk next to the soon to be new community dining room which was located next to the classrooms. It was sweltering hot and the work was demanding but being able to see the sidewalk afterwards was beyond rewarding. The short time we spent there actually made an impact, and that was all that mattered. ME to WE does so much beyond this small partnership with Contiki, but I was grateful for the experience as I was able to learn more about the organization (and you should click the link above to learn more too).

Baños

Thrill seekers need to look no further than the small town of Baños. After the amazing time in the Amazon, it was time to celebrate our accomplishments and experiences with some high-adrenaline adventures. Our first stop included walking nearly behind a massive waterfall, something so simple yet incredible. The next couple of days here had me doing all sorts of things that I never knew I wanted to do, like rappelling down waterfalls, zip lining across canyons, bridge walking, and scariest of all, making our way up the side of a canyon wall, hooking and unhooking our safety line with each step along the way. And just when I thought all the thrills had come and gone, we made our way to a swing at the “edge of the world” that overlooked an active volcano, because apparently our heart rates hadn’t been put through enough during the last couple of days in Baños. Everything we did was optional, but never wanting to feel left out, I reluctantly did everything.

Guayaquil

As our trip came to an end, our last stop was the largest and most populous city in Ecuador, Guayaquil. To be honest, it was a great way to end the trip because the options in the city were limited to a couple experiences, with the best one involving walking up a massive staircase that was lined with bars and pubs. The best way to endure this experience was to hike to the top and slowly make your way down, stopping at different watering holes along the way. The week had been filled with non-stop adventure that came in different forms. From eating carb-heavy foods to mixing cement to overcoming fears while climbing for my life on the side of a cliff, everything we did had my heart working overtime, all leaving me wanting more. 

Kayaking Victoria Harbor

My Dad and I are in the colorful Victoria Harbor paddling our arms off so that we’re not in the landing zone of a descending seaplane.

For such a quaint provincial capital city, Victoria’s harbor is one of incredible action.

Besides the buzzing planes (many of which  are a part of Harbour Air’s fleet, the largest seaplane operator in the world) there are massive ferries that blow their blaring horns for all of the city to hear as they pull in at the end of the day and drop off locals, hoards of tourists and their cars and then again as they depart for the mainland the next morning.

There are also smaller watercraft, like sailboats and motorboats and then there are the paddlers: kayakers, canoeists, rowers, and dragon boaters, all sharing the same multi-use harbor.

The guide of our intimate three-hour-long kayak tour with Ocean River Sports and Adventures tells my Dad and me that the harbor is so busy, that it’s patrolled by a harbor guard who ensures the safety of all boaters, planes, and paddlers. We see him later on our tour, he is in a black boat, wrap-around sunglasses, and means business as he goes after a negligent sailboat full of rosé drinkers in the landing zone.

After we cross the harbor and the tipsy sailboat is diverted, the seaplane plunks its pontoons into the water with rugged grace, quickly coming to a complete stop before taxi-ing off the floating Victoria terminal. Kayaking the waterways and harbor, especially in the regions’ high season, is an exciting place to begin our exploration of British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria.

Victoria Harbour

Located on the southern tip of the epic Vancouver Island, Victoria is the biggest city on the island, and second biggest in the province, but most noteworthy, it is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest. Victoria was established in 1843 as a trading post of the Hudson Bay Company, though, the region had been home to first nations people, the Coastal Salish and Songhee, for thousands of years before Spanish and British arrival.

Since its founding in the 19th century, the “Garden City” capital has become a booming tourist destination, cashing in over 3 billion per year.

It is felt on the town’s promenade. There are the summer tourist staples: ice cream and fresh lemonade stands, shops with swag with pictures of seaplanes, orcas, and the city’s famous parliament building. Grand and bright flower arrangements decorate the sidewalks and entryways of the city’s most significant buildings.

During my Dad and my’s British Columbia trip that included a weekend in Vancouver and a road trip that transversed the island to an extended stay in the seaside town of Tofino, I knew that as a travel writer I wanted to check out Victoria to see what all the hullabaloo was about. I mean, 3 billion dollars in tourism for a city of 350,000 is substantial!

I knew there had to be more to the city than the classic tourist stops I’d read about. While I loved the aesthetics of the gardens, tea houses, and grandiose hotels like the famous Fairmont Empress, and the horse-drawn carriages, these main tourist draws didn’t excite me — but I knew there must be more to the city and region, this was Vancouver Island after all, an outdoor enthusiast’s mecca, not just a town “for little old British ladies” as one harsh Vancouverite I spoke with wrote it off before I visited.

My Dad and I arrived in Victoria after a short puddle jumping flight from Vancouver before renting a car, and driving the surprisingly bustling streets and checking into our hotel, The Inn at Laurel Point, located right on the harbor.

What I loved about the hotel and much of Victoria, is the ode to beautification, whether it be the tranquil Japanese inspired landscaping of the Inn, or the city’s nearby and famously over the top Butchart Gardens, so much of the city’s aesthetic is is ornamented in natural spectacle and it already rests in one of the most gorgeous pockets of the Pacific Northwest.

For this reason, as well as the region’s incredibly temperate climate of dry summers and wet, rarely freezing winters, the city has become a place for retirees seeking a life of ease without sacrificing excitement and culture. Victoria has been named one of the top 20 cities for quality of life, according to Numbeo.

I knew that by signing up for a kayak tour, we’d get to see the other, active and natural side of Victoria.

Victoria Harbour

As we paddled deep into the Gorge Waterway from the main harbor, this became abundantly clear. Alongside the water, small private docks stretched like fingers into the water and led to beautiful apartment buildings, house boats, and homes that hid in the foliage of the red-barked Pacific madrones.

The homes, with canoes resting eagerly on their wood docks, resembled the classic Canadian summer cottage but were just a short drive from downtown and an even quicker boat ride. They proved that one could have it all- a permanent, year-round vacation home in near a city of significance.

Best of all, the further we paddled long kayaks with gentle easy strokes rotating side to side, the wilder the waterway became. Once polluted as a heavily industrial harbor, the inlet is now teaming with wildlife. Blue herons, endangered in the region, waded their thin legs in the shallows and seals sunbathed their blubbery bodies on smooth driftwood.

We paddled below bridges that spanned the inlet and by islands with golden grasses. One particularly memorable landmark was an old train bridge that had since been converted into a busy bike path as a part of the rails to trails initiative that stretches from Saanich to Victoria to Sooke, proving Victoria as a place of activity and motion.

Having grown up kayaking every summer in Canada on the lakes of Algonquin Provincial Park and later instructing kayaking at a camp myself, I was immediately in love with paddling the waterway and dreamt of a little home on the inlet. I mused of paddling into town to watch the city’s famous Symphony Splash in early August.

My father loved being on the water. I’m certainly and proudly his son. Although our thin sea kayaks were tight, I saw him smiling as the bright sun reflected off the surface of the water.  My dad has always been a man of the water. He began as a past waterfront instructor at a summer camp in New York, became an accomplished high school and collegiate rower, and just a few years ago, rafted the entire stretch of the Grand Canyon.

I grinned too, having him with me as we explored new territory together on cool northern waters. We were reunited on a father-son trip.

Victoria Harbour

As the afternoon went on, we eventually turned around after having a snack of the season’s last wild blackberries that hung off the inlet’s shores.

Soon, we traced our strokes back to the harbor where we began our paddle. From a distance, we could still see that the harbor was busy as ever with seaplanes flying overhead to other adventurous locales, like Tofino and Whistler, with boats departing for afternoon whale watching tours all while many of the tourists of Victoria watched the spectacle from the promenade with ice cream cones and lemonades in hand.

Victoria’s robust tourism flourishes, I determined, because it is a place of hidden contrast. For some, it is a luxurious launching point for further exploration with adventure lurking in its own harbor, and for others, it is a place to come to relax, indulge, stroll, and take in the beauty of cool, pleasant days.

5 Fall Festivals and Fairs We’re STOKED For

If you think the festival season is over—think again. The fall shoulder season allows unique and alternative festivals to exist without the competition of corporate, mainstream greed (we’re looking at you, Coachella). And with the kids and families locked into the school year, travel is much less stressful, and, depending where you’re going, significantly cheaper than the busy summer months and holidays. Below is a list of interesting and out-of-the box festivals we’re quite stoked for:

RiSE Festival, Mojave Desert, Nevada. October 5-6, 2018.

The RiSE festival is a wonderful holistic alternative to the self-indulgent super festivals. This two day event, now in its fifth year, is expected to draw 25,000 attendees to the Mojave desert just 25 minutes outside of Las Vegas. Each day of the two-day festival begins with a leisurely afternoon, a delicious lineup of food and beverage trucks, and music acts like Mardevela and Emmit Fenn. But the main event is the stunning lantern release that takes place after dusk. Attendees prepare and write on their own lanterns before releasing them into the dark desert sky for an inspiring spectacle, each lantern symbolizing its creator’s own unique story. The sustainable event (all lanterns are collected and are 100% biodegradable) is the largest lantern festival in the world and  has spread to both Dubai and Australia. What resolution, prayer, or message will you write on your lantern?

 

San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, San Francisco, California. November 11-19, 2018.

Self-declared as the first and longest running transgender film festival (now in its 21st year), the SFTFF is the perfect counternarrative to mainstream portrayals of transgender people in film. As artistic director Shawna Virago said last year in an interview- “Hollywood gets it wrong—very wrong. Come see trans and gender-variant people telling our own stories. Come see trans characters played by trans actors.” This year’s festival takes place at the Roxie Theatre and while the festival’s lineup has yet to be released (at time of writing), favorites from last year include the queer musical The Gold Fish Casino and the premiere of a Macy Gray music video Stop Drop Roll featuring gender-fluid choreographer Jenzi Russell.

 

Telluride Horror Show, Telluride, Colorado. October 12-14, 2018.

Love genre films? You can’t miss the Telluride Horror Show, now in its 9th year. For three days, watch a spookily curated mix of horror, sci-fi, suspense, and thrillers in the town’s unique and historic theaters. Aside from the 70 feature and short films, there are events, talks, and activities to meet and connect with other genre film lovers, as well as an endless array of outdoor opportunities to explore in the spectacular mountain town. And with Telluride’s deadly mining history, you might even see a few ghosts around town yourself!

 

New York Queer Zine Fair, Manhattan, New York. October 12-14, 2018.

Taking place at the NYC LGBT Center (208 W 13th St), the New York Queer Zine Fair will exhibit 50 queer zine-makers, artists, and publishers. To name just a few: HOMOCATS, Brooklyn-based artist Kaylee Rowena, and Oakland-based artist Anand Vedawala. Besides the chance to check out and buy the work of queer independent artists and storytellers, there will be queer collage parties, Belladonna* poetry readings, and panel discussions featuring the current editor of Straight to Hell, one of the longest running genre-defying queer zines, going strong since 1971.

 

Way OUT West Film Festival, Albuquerque, New Mexico. October 12-18, 2018.

Albuquerque, New Mexico is having a moment. Over the past few years, the city has been mentioned countless times as a city on the rise. It’s no surprise it is host to the Way OUT West Film Festival, now in its 16th year. The festival is put on each year by Closet Cinema, “New Mexico’s leading GLBT non-profit organization dedicated to presenting a diverse array of GLBTQ images through film media arts.” This year’s lineup includes films from 20 countries, including features like the documentary Studio 54 and Mapplethorpe, as well as short films like FEMME (featuring Aja as a fairy-drag-mother) and Dyke Bars Never Last.  

6 Reasons To Visit New Orleans Beyond Bourbon Street

New Orleans has always been a city that championed the arts and celebrated culture. This has led to a healthy gay social scene, drawing many LGBTQ artists and performers to the French Quarter. But the real reason folks flock to New Orleans, and in particular Bourbon Street, is for the parties. What started as a small house party in the Treme has grown to an infamous happening – Southern Decadence. The event draws more than 180,000 mostly LGBT partiers to New Orleans. Decadence is one of the city’s top five tourist events, right up there with Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.  But it’s not all just about Bourbon Street. New Orleans has so much to offer. Next time you’re in the Big Easy, take some time to enjoy the other offerings beyond Bourbon Street.

1. Area Plantations Back in the day when New Orleans was home to more millionaires than any other city in the country, back when cotton was king, the Antebellum plantations along River Road dominated. Today, they are now tourist attractions and they offer a glimpse into the city’s past.

Each plantation offers its own snapshot into the region’s agrarian history and most are within easy driving distance from New Orleans. Some of the plantations have restaurants and even overnight accommodations (for those who want the full historical experience, sans the actual manual labor).

2. Cemeteries The city of New Orleans is built below sea level, so you can only imagine that burying the dead became a problem for the earliest residents of the city. To overcome this topographical obstacle, residents began to entomb the departed in elaborate marble chambers above ground, which are now one of the city’s most lingering attractions. Wander the purported resting places of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, musician Al Hirt and Civil War general P.G.T. Beauregard, all residents of what is known in New Orleans as the Cities of the Dead. Many offer guided tours, others you can explore on your own…if you dare.

3. Museums Museums aren’t for everyone, but in a city filled with such a rich history and diverse culture, the museums offer an opportunity to learn the stories behind Mardi Gras, Indian costumes and culture, and immersion in the largest collection of Southern Art. Walk in the footsteps of America’s Greatest Generation at the world famous World War II Museum – in New Orleans, you’ll find endless places to explore and learn. Art, History, Family/Children’s, Historic Homes, Mardi Gras, Nature, Multicultural, Religious…there’s a bit of everything.

4. Historic Buildings & Homes Discover a portal into New Orleans history by touring the homes, drawing rooms, gardens and courtyards of some of the nation’s oldest original French, Spanish and American architecture. Whether you’re visiting a Creole cottage in the Treme or a grand plantation home, these homes are living memories of lives lived and lessons left behind.

5. Parks City parks in New Orleans are essentially extended backyards that offer entertaining places to picnic and barbeque, or just enjoy a lazy afternoon. All the parks are easily accessible by walking, streetcar or bike. The Spanish Plaza, dedicated by Spain in 1976 to the city in remembrance of their common historical past and as a pledge of fraternity in the future has a fountain surrounded by the seals of the provinces of Spain as its focal point, which also makes for a great meeting spot. Tucked behind Audubon Zoo across the Mississippi River levee, (known by locals as) “The Fly”, a waterfront portion of Audubon Park is a great spot to relax and take a breath from the hustle and bustle of New Orleans. Folks come out here to hang out, toss a Frisbee, have a crawfish boil, barbecue, or watch the sun go down over the river.

Palmer Park is a 5.6-acre park full of greenery located Uptown at the intersection of Claiborne Ave. & Carrollton Ave. The park is family friendly with a playground and monthly art fairs. It also is the home to many festivals, concerts and tours. Fulton Street is home to the 25,000-square-foot Fulton Square, an outdoor event space that plays host to block parties, concerts and special events. Woldenberg Park is great for biking, walking, jogging or just to sit back and relax next to the mighty Mississippi River.

6. Churches of Historical and Architectural Interest Historic places of worship, whatever their persuasion, tell stories of neighborhoods and the diverse population that has shaped the New Orleans we see today. Settled as a Catholic city, New Orleans is home to Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States as well as St. Augustine Church in Treme, celebrating freedom from oppression. There are also Jewish synagogues, Islamic Mosques, Hindu shrines and small voodoo temples.

Where To Stay: NOPSI Hotel

Located in the heart of the Crescent City’s vibrant and convenient Central Business District, NOPSI is just two blocks from Canal Street and the bustling French Quarter. The guest room design presents refined furnishings and décor at the highest levels of luxury, all uniquely inspired by the building’s industrial history. Their restaurant, appropriately named “Public Service,” features a menu that honors the Gulf Coast’s hard-working fishermen and farmers. NOPSI Hotel also features a shimmering rooftop pool and bar, with an incredible city view.

DID YOU KNOW? LGBT rights were recognized by New Orleans City Council in 1991, with the passing of a gay non-discrimination ordinance. In 1997, Louisiana earned the distinction of being the first state in the Deep South to pass a hate crimes law that covered sexual orientation, and New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial extended domestic partner benefits to city employees. And, in 1998, New Orleans became one of the earliest cities to add gender identity to its list of groups protected from discrimination.

Image via Getty

7 Baja California Experiences You Probably Didn’t Know About

With the current administration hell bent on dividing our country from our neighbors to the south, there’s no better time to drive across the Mexican border to explore the splendor of Baja California, where the beaches are inviting, the food is deliciously cheap and the people are friendly. Long gone are the days of a dangerous Tijuana, as the border town has jumped on the bandwagon of becoming a tourist attraction. Tijuana is just moments from San Diego and deserves more attention. And of course, just beyond TJ, Baja California is proving that the Mexico accessible by car (for border states) is just as worthy as the Mexico we all dream of flying to (Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, etc.). Check out these unique experiences you can drive to in Baja (or fly to via San Diego and then drive to).

Surf Camp in Rosarito

Just a 30-minute drive from Tijuana, Rosarito is home to some of the best surfing Mexico has to offer. Baja juts out into the Pacific and is exposed to storm-generated swells that can come from the North Pacific, creating some of the best surf on the west coast. When you stay at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, guests can surf the waves where the Mexican national championships were held! Don’t forget to re-fuel post-swells with the region’s standout delicacy – (cheap) lobster.

Craft Brewery Hopping in Tijuana

While Tijuana still evokes a vibrant nightlife scene, the city has also evolved into a hotspot for innovative craft beer that rivals its north-of-the-border neighbor, San Diego. The Plaza Fiesta craft beer district includes an open-air galleria with 15 craft breweries, many of which have opened in the past five years. Favorite breweries include Border Psycho, Fauna, Insurgente Brewery, and more.

Hike Through Giant Cactus in the Valley of the Giants in San Felipe

A short drive south of San Felipe, you will find the appropriately named park called Valle de los Gigantes. The valley is home to an impressive forest of cardón cacti, the tallest growing cactus in the world. The massive cardóns can only be found in Baja California and Sonora and are capable of growing to heights of well over 60 feet and can weigh up to 20 tons.

Visit a Secret Beach in San Quintin

 

Located 35 miles from the center of San Quintín, La Lobera is a special place—a huge sea cave, created by a natural ceiling collapse that has exposed a ‘secret beach,’ often enjoyed by sea lions. It is considered a natural sanctuary for resting and breeding sea lions and has become one of the most impressive and beautiful tourist attractions in the region.

Stargazing in a Bubble Between Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe

Campera Hotel Burbuja (translation: Bubble Hotel) is an eco-minded resort with 12 clear bubble-shaped tents that offer guests unobstructed views of the vineyards and starry night skies. Immersed in Valle de Guadalupe, the fast growing travel and wine region of Baja California, the hotel is located just minutes from dozens of nearby wineries and restaurants that showcase the same level of next-gen design and innovation.

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Bahia de Los Angeles

Bahía de Los Angeles, also known as the “Bay of Angels,” is a coastal village along the Gulf of California where people visit to experience the great outdoors through a variety of adventurous activities. One of the most unique offerings of the area is the chance to swim and snorkel with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez, where travelers can share the ocean with 20 to 30 of these magnificent creatures, which can grow up to 50 feet in length. For example, trained experts at Ricardo’s Diving Tours take groups of 6 on half-day diving or snorkeling boat excursions, after outfitting them with all of the necessary equipment to see the legendary “gentle giants” up close.

Visit Ancient Cave Paintings in Cataviña

Located in and around Cataviña are a number of cave paintings, mostly around 1,000 years old. The paintings hail from the Yumano and Cochimí Indians that inhabited the Baja peninsula for generations. The paintings are usually found in deep caves and in between large rock formations, where they are protected from extreme temperatures and wind.

Leaf Peeping in the ‘Yaspen’

Last week I flew from Burbank, California over the mighty spine of the Rocky Mountains before landing on the flat plains beside Denver International Airport.

On the short two hour flight, my face was pressed against the window, especially towards the tail end of the trip, when massive groves of aspen trees lit up the chiseled peaks of Colorado like brightly colored confetti.

Electric yellow, atomic tangerine, and bright fire-truck red.

Enthused by the vistas from 30,000 feet, my little tree-hugging heart was overjoyed and yowled nothing but YAS!

Aspen trees (Populus tremuloides), after all, are known affectionately to a quirky few as YASPENS because when they flutter their thousands of leaves together in the breeze and turn gold in autumn, it’s hard to say anything but YAS and WERK BITCH, and maybe even, COME THROUGH YOU QUAKING BEAUTIES!

Living in Los Angeles for the past two years—a seasonless time capsule of aggrieved sublimity—I haven’t had the chance to peep the famous autumnal spectacle I’ve cherished since I was a boy growing up in Colorado.

Seasons, everyone complains in southern California, I miss them.

I knew shortly after sniffing the crisp Rocky Mountain September air and driving the swelling I-70 west over the many colorful mountain passes towards Vail that it was time to hike myself right into a grove for some up close and personal leaf peeping.

Leaf peeping?! You ask. What is this ridiculous term?!

The thing is, I’m sure you’ve leaf peeped before without even knowing it (and fuckin’ loved it). Now you know it’s a legitimate (though seasonal) hobby. But if you’ve never leaf peeped, or if you’ve never even heard of the frivolous term, then now is the time of year to give it a dabble.

Leaf peeping is the pumpkin spice latte of the eyes and the decorative gourd of the soul. It is the autumnal turtleneck sweater of visceral experience.

It’s easy, too.

All you have to do is go outside and stare at big, fluffy, deciduous trees whether you are in New England or New Mexico or anywhere else.

On my first full day in central Colorado, I rose excited for leaves.

I met up with my longtime friend and fellow leaf peeper, Anna Suszynski, a favorite co-adventurer from college days. Together, we’ve explored magical realism in the Mojave, face-numbing powder days on skis, and canyons under untamed meteor showers.

Anna knows full well the magic of the American West, as well as the natural world at large. She’s a writer who humanizes every being. She is especially fond of Colorado landscapes and their popular YASPEN trees. She brings her own magic with her everywhere she goes—or maybe it just follows her.

We converged with a hug early in the morning at a trailhead called Whiskey Creek by the side of I-70 between the local mountain towns of Minturn and Avon.

The trail we followed was one made for mountain bikers, but it was shared generously by all. It followed a steep, swerving line uphill through the tall grasses and woody shrubs until it gave way to an open prairie surrounded by YASPEN.

Before us, against a robin-egg-blue sky, the deciduous trees were dancing their little hearts out as they lost themselves in the nippy morning breeze.

The fluttering sound the trees’ leaves make in the wind has given them their informal name of quaking or trembling aspen but I don’t agree with these adjectives.

They imply anxiety, frailty, and tremendous unease. YASPEN are not these things—YASPEN are confident, at ease performers.

The flutter of their leaves is a sensational mountainside melody. Visually, the trees are enthusiastic dancers serving fiercely energetic jazz hands—flamboyant fingers fluttering for that over-the-top, super-glam effect. The groves in wind are a dance troupe that has all of Broadway quaking in their kinky boots.

Midway through the peep-sesh, we entered a mature grove.

The tall and thin mid-sized YASPEN giants beside their evergreen friends swayed lovingly from side to side.

The trees are love-hearted leaf havers and white-barked beings whose trunks have hundreds of coal black eyes that watch you carefully as you walk among their family.

One of the reasons we all love the YASPEN is because they are trees of community.

In that way, they aren’t unlike our extended queer family.

Each clonal grove is a single organism connected by the roots.

While each tree may look like its own individual being, the organism grows and progress and endures life as one.

When one single tree dies, the entire grove notices, feels, and mourns its lost sibling.

The oldest YASPEN colony in the world, the mighty Pando, lives in South-Central Utah and covers 106 acres.

It is said to be possibly the heaviest organism in the world, and perhaps the oldest, too, at an estimated 80,000 years old.

Pando is sadly dying and we don’t know exactly why.

If I were to guess, it would probably rhyme with schmimate schmange.

I’m not sure of the age or health of the colony Anna and I witnessed dancing above the Vail Valley of Colorado, but I can assure you like all YASPEN  groves I’ve visited, this one felt especially ancient and wild.

Beneath the trees the golden grasses had been flattened by sleeping elk herds. Grey jays and western bluebirds zipped about and a couple of times on the trail, we came across the color scat of the black bear.

YASPEN are home to so many.

The eyes on the trees watched us and the birds and the winds loosened their bright yellow leaves on our backpacked selves before they dropped to the musk ground. The ground that was already beginning to swallow them before the snow prepared to cover them.

By mid-October, the trees will lose all of their leaves and transform from wonderfully fluffy friends as shaggy as a lion’s mane to dormant, striped trunks.

It is this ephemerality that makes us love them so.

It is the same ephemerality that makes us love the summer’s wildflowers and the winter’s snow. It is only in the limited-edition that we miss what we once had and appreciate what we once saw.

Especially trees, our life givers.

Our carbon dioxide killas, air suppliers, our life givers.

As Anna and I walked among the mature grove we looked nowhere but up as the leaves as fluttered against one another like little tambourines.

The sound is indescribable- but I will make an attempt.

It is a like a little stream rushing in spring, only softer. It is like a rain stick turned upside down, only gentler. It is the cool voice, singing you into submission.

Hermann Hesse, the Nobel Prize-winning poet once wrote these famous lines on our friendly living giants—“when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

As we listened, I remembered I’ve been communicating with the YASPEN my entire life.

They are another extended family, a comforting chosen family.

I’ve always entered a grove politely, like a guest taking off their shoes before stepping into an acquaintance’s living room.

I’ve always respected the trees, once stopping a lovestruck couple who once thought that gouging their initials framed by a heart into the soft delicate wood of the trees was acceptable.

I have always played with the trees, and I know Anna has too, for in that stand we resorted to childhood tricks and gathered many of their fallen leaves into big fistfuls before tossing them back into the air for a second wind.

I know we have always played with the trees because we hugged their white trunks that whitened our bodies with their powder and swayed in the gusts with our hands twinkling in the air.

In the YASPEN, we can play and be a part of a family even when we are alone.

We can feel all of the beauty even when we feel like we don’t have any of it.

We can skip through them and beside them in the tall grasses of the subalpine and montane like Anna did, sprinting, catching bright yellow leaves loosened by the wind as they were strewn across the mountain landscape.

Or as Anna said to me after the hike-

“They are like groups of breathing communities that live together so close.”

I’m thinking of Anna holding one of the leaves up to the stupidly blue Colorado sky, a leaf that was yellow, and orange, and a little bit green.

“We could be like that in the future, Miles.”

How Rainbow Flags Turned Palm Springs Blue

Palm Springs is a resort town, a private desert oasis, and a solidly Democratic city in an otherwise purple county. That stubborn blue streak is thanks to the 1980s gay community, which adopted Palm Springs as a new home during the AIDS crisis.

“When people looked for a healthy place to recover, we were perfect,” said Renee Brown, associate curator and director of education at the Palm Springs Historical Society. The weather and privacy of the town were primary draws for those in recovery, she said.

In 1984, when the Pines West Resort began to welcome gay men recovering from AIDS, the city council and the mayor “went berserk,” according to Brown. Then-mayor Frank Bogert claimed that the world would think Palm Springs was “the place to come get AIDS.”

Despite the pushback, arid Palm Springs quickly became the ideal destination for those living with AIDS to rest and recuperate. That, alongside the purchasing power of gay couples interested in mid-century homes, caused a major shift in the city’s LGBTQ population.

“Here, your demographic is young, retired LGBT people with an active lifestyle,” Brown said.

Palm Springs ranks first in California and third in the country among cities with the highest number of same-sex couples per 1,000 households, according to 2010 census data from the Williams Institute at UCLA. Palm Springs is also a top-five leisure destination for gay and bisexual men, according to the LGBTQ research firm Community Marketing & Insights. Riverside County, where Palm Springs is located, has about 10 same-sex couples per 1,000 households, ranking fifth in California.

According to Syd Smith, an archivist and volunteer at the Palm Springs Historical Society, the biggest change in the city’s history was its transformation from a “white conservative town” to the liberal, gay-friendly resort community that residents and tourists know today.

Politicians “weren’t happy” when LGBTQ people first moved into the city, he said. These days, Palm Springs couldn’t be more different. In fact, every city council member is now part of the LGBTQ community.

A history of conservative politics

Palm Springs has a storied history with conservatism. It hosted the 1968 Republican Governors Conference at the Canyon Hotel, where president-elect Richard Nixon and Governor Ronald Reagan spoke alongside House Minority Leader Gerald Ford. Influential Republican figures like Bob Hope and the Annebergs also made a home out of the private desert town.

In 2007, the city hosted the 34th National Federation of Republican Women’s Convention. Rudy Giuliani spoke at the convention alongside Republican Rep. Mary Bono, who served California’s 45th congressional district for 14 years, following her former husband, the former actor and Republican politician Sonny Bono.

David Wallace, author of “A City Comes Out: How Celebrities Made Palm Springs a Gay and Lesbian Paradise,” has lived in the city for about 12 years. In his view, Palm Springs in the 1950s and ’60s was “one of the reddest towns in California.”

That conservative influence declined after the LGBTQ community started to migrate to the town, Wallace said. Eventually conservatives lost control of city’s political power structure.

“They couldn’t do it anymore,” Wallace said. “There were too many gay people here.”

Gay Republicans certainly exist, and they came out in support of President Donald Trump throughout the 2016 election, but they seem to be far and few between in Palm Springs.

In the past 10 years, many conservatives have left the town in favor of red states like Tennessee, complaining about the anti-Trump sentiment in Palm Springs and the Democratic hold on local politics. According to the Desert Sun, the number of registered Republicans in Palm Springs decreased by 40 percent between 2006 and 2016.

“I don’t know any gay people who aren’t liberal,” Wallace said.

How LGBTQ politics define the city

Despite its history with conservatism, Palm Springs still managed to become a liberal city nestled in the moderately conservative or purple Riverside County. That is largely due to the strong LGBTQ presence in the town, according to historians and political scientists.

“Our progressive or liberal slant definitely leans toward LGBTQ issues,” Brown said. Palm Springs keeps LGBTQ issues relevant in political conversations through economic powerhouses like the Palm Springs Cultural Center, which puts on nationally renowned LGBT film festivals and hosts speaker events, farmers markets and book clubs.

In a resort town like Palm Springs, where LGBTQ tourism is so prominent, Wallace argues that it is nearly impossible for homophobic businesses to survive.

“You can’t be a gay-unfriendly business here,” he said.

With an economic drive to serve the LGBTQ community — and a higher number of same-sex couples than anywhere else in the state — Palm Springs is naturally connected to the LGBTQ community. In this town, that means Democrats rule.

Ronald Loveridge, a former Riverside mayor and former council member who teaches political science at the University of California, Riverside, has observed the liberal shift in the county over several election cycles.

“It’s much more diverse. The LGBT candidates are more numerous, there are more women candidates,” Loveridge said, commenting on the changes in Riverside as well as the country itself.

Palm Springs today

In regards to the recently elected all-LGBTQ city council of Palm Springs, Loveridge emphasized the uniqueness of the political moment.

“How many councils across the country have that marker?” he said.

The council, elected in 2017, remains the only all-LGBTQ city council in the United States. The city also boasts the third openly gay mayor in Palm Springs and the first transgender woman elected to a nonjudicial office in California, as well as a bisexual council member and two other gay council members.

Considering the gay representation provided by the all-Democratic city council, Wallace said, “You don’t fight city hall here. You own city hall.”

This story was produced as part of CONNECT, NLGJA’s training program for student journalists.
 
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Did Lord Byron Graffiti The Temple of Poseidon?

In the fall semester of my junior year in college, I took a literature course in Athens titled “The Romantics in Greece.”  

The main character of the syllabus was one of the saltiest dogs of English poetry, Lord George Gordon Byron, who over the course of his short, but flirtatious, 36-year life spent a significant amount of time in Greece on his privileged Grand Tour, before eventually dying of fever in 1824 after commanding a rebel army in battle for the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. The supporting roles of the class syllabus went to the usual suspects: Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Plato.

During the course, we followed the authors’ writings around Greece and read them aloud on location in the theatre of Dionysus, beside the marble bubble butts of the National Archaeological Museum, on the sauntering promenade of the seaside town of Nafplio, and along the donkey trodden hillsides of Hydra. Most importantly, the two worlds were combined on the Cape of Sounion where we hunted for Byron’s name that he supposedly carved into a column on the coveted Temple of Poseidon, like some enamored, reckless teenager.

Besides these exciting travels, there was plenty of homework. So much, that we the only way to complete it all was by lubricating our minds with cheap plastic bottles of red wine that we purchased from a little old lady vendor for three euro at the foot of the Acropolis.

Our small class of 15 passed around the crinkly, screw-topped bottles in a circle many nights and tackled the assigned readings together, discussing the unique ancient Greek literature alongside its resurgence through the lens of the 19th-century romantics. Most memorably, we read Plato’s Symposium, the classical text in which multiple philosophers deliver their own interpretations on love.

One night, as the moon shone over Athens, the class held our very own symposium.

When I stood to proclaim my speech, under the influence of Dionysus and angsty for a first boyfriend, I realized my own interpretation was inspired by Aristophanes’ famous myth of the rolling people who were originally intertwined for life in pairs of male/male, female/female, and male/female. But soon Zeus grew jealous of their love, and so he split them in two, and the pairs, separated, spent their lives pining for their other half.

That was the night I fell a little bit in love with some of the ancient Greek philosophers and writers.  There was great comfort reading depictions of love between men and love between women (hello, Sappho) from texts thousands of years old. While same-sex relations acceptance was by no means perfect in ancient Greece (and the country today still doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage) and words like homosexual, gay, and queer were thousands of years from forming, it is still comforting to view the ancient Greeks in the grey; freer from the spectrum.

The course resonated further with its Byronic compliment as the poet was well known to be entangled in affairs with men (and women) throughout the course of his life. One of the reasons for his Grand Tour to Greece, at least according to his correspondence with his friend Charles Skinner Matthews, was to further explore this aspect of his orientation, away from the constricting climate of 19th-century England. I, like Byron, had taken myself to Greece to learn a little more about my homosexual heritage.

_

During our second week of the course, we ventured from our university in the country’s capital for a day trip to Sounion, a little over an hour drive southeast along the winding coast. I was thrilled to finally see the physical overlap of these historical celebrities, the god of the sea and Lord Byron, in the form of a temple, tagged like a highway underpass.

Sitting pretty on the head of the region’s cape was the nearly 2,400-year-old Temple of Poseidon. The trip to the tip of Attica is a classic migration for tourists of Athens, especially for sunset visits, where the light spills onto the eroded columns and illuminates the marble like peach fuzz before it sinks divinely into the Aegean Sea.

Of 36 original columns, a mere 15 remain, each of them so finely carved that their doric styling is still obvious. Even in ruin, the greatness of the temple is felt; its  rectangular, hexastyle architecture remains stately in destruction. It isn’t difficult to imagine it polished and mighty with a 20-foot bronze statue of Poseidon that both dominated and ornamented the space. It was easy to imagine sailors, soldiers, and maidens praying below, asking for calm seas and safe returns.

Perched 200-feet above the sea with commanding views in three directions, it is no wonder the ancient Greeks built the temple on the summit of the Sounion Cape. This, I remember thinking the first time I saw it, was a place for a sea god. This was a place for Poseidon, known by his many epithets: the offerer of calm seas, the tamer of horses, the spring maker, the earth-shaker, or by his informal philandering reputation, the skirt/tunic chaser.

Within many myths, the bearded ‘yes, daddy,’ stupidly ripped, god of the sea was just as horny as his sky brother, Zeus. He’s been said to have had over 80 female lovers and a handful of male lovers, including Nerites, his chariot driver, the boy of stunning beauty, and Pelops, the Olympic racer who he abducted and helped cheat in the games.

Not by coincidence, the island of Patroclus sits faithfully near the temple, 2 miles offshore from the cape like a face floating with its forehead and nose just above the waves. It is named after the brave warrior of Homer’s Iliad; the best friend, role model, and widely considered lover of the demigod warrior Achilles, who Hollywood miserably straight-washed, removing any possibility of romance in their production of 2004’s Troy, rewriting the man as Achilles’ “cousin”, despite Phaedrus’ ode in Symposium (and many others both in classical and modern literature) about Achilles and Patroclus as lovers.

Patroclus was the man who loved Achilles so much, he dressed in the demigod’s armor and died fighting Hector. Of course, Poseidon was on the side of the Greeks, of Patroclus and Achilles who sailed around the very Cape of Sounion, on their way to Troy.

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Our class arrived at the Temple of Poseidon, quite sunburnt and salty an hour before sunset. Before hiking the hill to the ruins, we had spent the afternoon at the nearby Sounion Beach, a classically cramped Greek beach with hundreds of umbrellas, a sub-luxe beach club with poor but expensive service, and a charming seaside cafe. Surrounding the cape are many beach houses. On top of being a place of ancient significance, it is one of retreat, luxury, and second home-owning.

At the beach, tourists—mostly German— took in the last amber days of October in their speedos, two pieces, and, believe it or not, one very fashion forward three-piece. A few women went topless — in fact, a few women from my class even felt the European oomph and loosened the strings of their tops. “We’re abroad,” they said, with nonchalance. I even rolled up my boardshorts, hoping to tan my ghostly white thighs—instead, I acquired lobster quads.

At the temple, many tourists (not just three-piece wearing Germans) ambled around after the large tour buses had dropped them off in a timely manner for the sunset. Languages from around the world buzzed below the columns of the temple, photos were asked to be taken by strangers, selfie sticks were stretched into the sky and peace signs were being thrown enthusiastically. A western wind blew the coolness of the sea over everyone, chilling the sweaterless.

As a class, led by our two professors, we were asked to gather in a circle to do another reading. Typically, in public, I cringe at being seen with a large group, but, the number of fanny-packs, bucket hats, and passport necklaces worn by the tourists around us eased me. Plus, I am a nerd, and love hearing poetry read aloud.

That day’s pick was on the nose — Byron’s “The Isles of Greece,” a 96-line canto, a poem within a poem, the satirical “Don Juan.” This specific section is an ode for the country and voices his passion for its independence from the Ottoman Empire and even mentions Sounion. Byron began the poem in 1819, five years before his death. One by one, we belted the verse over the sound of the sea, the wind, and the tour buses humming the engines far below until its final stanza—

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,

Where nothing, save the waves and I,

May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;

There, swan-like, let me sing and die:

A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—

Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!

With the final line, Byron’s toast, we raised our own plastic glasses that we had brought and filled with more cheap wine. We downed its sweetness in one gulp as the sun fell.

Afterward, a few of us began our search for Byron’s graffiti. And as I wandered the ruins of the temple, I began to wonder what it was that had drawn Byron so deeply to Greece, to fight so strongly for its independence. As such a rich, famous, and talented man, he could have easily passed his life writing, using his legendary handsomeness and flirtation to sleep his way across the world and into the hearts of more men and women. Where did his sudden allegiance to a place that wasn’t his home come from?

From what I learned, the answer is best shown post-mortem. After passing, much of Europe mourned the loss of their celebrity. Imagine a rockstar-like passing, comparable to the mania that surrounded Michael Jackson’s death.  It is said that while his body was being prepared to be sent back to England, the Greeks literally kept his heart in Missolonghi. The Greeks named towns and sons after him, and there was even talk that had he survived the war, he may have been named king.

But when his corpse arrived in London’s royal Westminster Abbey, it was said his body was rejected for burial due to “questionable morality.” Questionable morality? Certainly his queerness, possibly his rumored incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. But the reason he removed himself from England in the first place was to escape its confines, as his friend wrote, to explore. And so, he became a writer who “lived his writings.”

While the chaos of 19th century Greece was more accepting than his homeland, it wasn’t perfect. But the Isles of Greece show that he found a love of place, a home in his heart, even if he knew it could never run through his blood.

From what we had read online, his graffiti was a little harder to find than originally planned as a wire fence kept tourists off the ruins, and the inscription was rather small. With a hint from our professor, we found it at the base of the ruins.

There, in the corner, etched on the second block of ancient marble, was “BYRON” in neat calligraphy.

Now, for the record, I’m against tagging one’s name on ancient artifacts and natural features, hell, even desks and lockers and with locks on bridges. It seems self-important and negligent. Ruffian and puerile. Who cares if JED & JESSICA were here or there? Or if John jerked off in a given bathroom stall? I don’t.

But for some reason, Byron’s name among the other many other 100+ year old defacements was all right by me. Listen, graffiti-ing isn’t a good look for anyone, but if anyone pulled it off, it was “the mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Byron. It added a layer.

In the end, was it anticlimactic? A bit. The temple, its views, and the Greek sunset far surpassed the etching. It was also, quite honestly, hard to really see. I also have a habit of forgetting my glasses at important times and that day was no exception.

By the way, there is a school of thought that points out that there is no evidence the graffiti is Byron’s. There isn’t much to catch him red-handed, after all, and it could have been one of his hundreds of thousands crazy fans. But does it matter if the inscription is Byron’s or not?

No.

The story here, at least to me, is a classic one. It’s the story of finding your own family as a queer person. For some of us, those are friend groups in our cities, our drag mothers and sisters, our allies and our best friends, for others, it is the voices, prose and texts of our literary heroes, the films, songs, and art of our idols.

For Byron, it was the spirit of an entire country on the brink of independence. But not just any country, one with ancient history that although imperfect, validated (and at times celebrated) his queerness.

Whether or not he literally carved himself into a lineage of godliness and greatness on the blocks of a man-loving divinity’s temple during one of his two visits is trifling, for Byron has clearly left much deeper marks.