Aloha Uncle Ben

June 14, 2019

We’d all had almost a year to prepare for this goodbye, since Ben passed away in July 2018, but it was still hard to say it. And we were also saying goodbye to Liam, Ben’s grandson who passed away at age 14, in December 2017.

Aunt Pam had planned and fretted over the logistics, but in the end, it was a seamless ceremony at sea, held on a sunny afternoon at Poipu Beach on June 10, 2019. Those in attendance (my parents, my three cousins, my Aunt Pam and some close family friends of Pam and Ben’s) had flown in from all over the country bringing our love for Uncle Ben and young Liam with us.

We all gathered on the beach around a bright white catamaran canoe, which was decorated with white plumeria flowers and bunches of tea leaves.

A conch shell was blown, signifying the beginning of the ceremony, orkapu. Ben’s three children and his wife boarded the boat quietly at the edge of the water, then the boat was pushed into the surf and the local owners paddled it straight out toward the horizon, stopping just shy of the big waves breaking on the reef. Ben’s best friend Bill sat in the center.IMG_2423

I swam behind the boat, trailing behind, but trying hard to keep up. I almost swam into a honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle) and then watched him surface to take a breath—a good omen. I took it as a sign of Ben and Liam’s presence.

They stopped rowing and the boat was now facing me, staying sideways to the break. As I treaded water in the swirling warm sunlit green sea, I felt the rush of the surfers bearing down on us to my immediate left, along with power and force of heavy walls of water breaking onto the reef. Behind me I sensed the peaceful sleep of three monk seals on the island and to my right, I felt calmed by the sea turtle sentry circling silently in the shallow shoreline. So much of ocean’s glory seemed to be laid out before us.

And directly in front of me, the catamaran canoe rocked back and forth in the choppy swirling water, with Kauai’s southern coastline fading off in the distance in pre-sunset glow. In the boat sat Ben’s wife and three children, silent and stoic and scared.  And Ben’s best friend, Bill, who was charged with the responsibility and honor of sliding off the wooden cross bar into the sea, to release ben and Liam’s ashes underwater.IMG_2427

I looked on as Bill lowered down into the water between the connected canoes. Then I watched underwater, as Liam’s ashes disbursed into prisms of sunshine that pierced the saltwater. Then it was time to say our final goodbye to Uncle Ben. I sunk down underwater again and watched as his ashes, the last of his physical being, were released into the gorgeous green sea. I felt quiet, and still, and sad. When I came to the surface everyone on the boat was silent. Then a huge set rolled in, and I thought the boat was going over. But it was OK. I had a sudden intense feeling that spirits had played a part in that set’s timing.

Then there was chanting, followed by the conch shell being blown again to signal the end of kapu. But everyone was still so quiet during the ensuing noa. Then the boat was steered toward shore.

I swam behind it, and when everyone finally got to shore there was a lot of hugging and crying. Ben and Liam were laid to rest. And there was a general sense of release and surrender and sadness, and peace.

It had been a ceremony at sea of scared silent stoicism, befitting Uncle Ben, a scared silent stoic.  And just like him, there was chaos all around, from every angle, but there in the center of the storm his presence was felt: silent, scared and stoic.  And the ceremony site was special because it had been held where Liam had surfed. Liam, who passed into Heaven at the age of 14, just seven months before Ben’s own passing, had absolutely loved that place.

We gathered on a rooftop and spoke about Ben and Liam and read little readings and looked at old photos. We hugged and drank champagne and ate steak that Bill barbecued, and salads that Brendi, Pam and Debbie had made. And there was Debbie’s chocolate pistachio Bundt cake, Ben’s favorite. And we remembered. We packed everything up to go to bed, just as a light rain began.

Aloha, Ben and Liam…

Rest in Peace.

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My Tribute to Ben, read in Kauai on June 10, 2019

Uncle Ben was such a patient man. He was someone that I loved when I was a kid, just because he was family. But took my cousin Tanya and me on a great college visit to Brown when I was a teenager and I had the best time with them both. And have carried with me the fondest memories of them from that trip. When I thought of him, I would think “my uncle Ben who teaches psychology in Southern California and plays with train sets and model airplanes” That was what always came to the forefront, but I knew he was also a great professor, and a thinker. And that he reminded me a lot of Grandpa Newton.

Then I became a mom in April 1998 and cousin Christine came to help me the summer of 1999, just before Jeffrey was born, and she would always call home to talk to Ben for any kind of  “how do you fix this thing in the house?” support. Christine was so house-handy and she attributed it all to Ben. I was extra thankful and grateful to him for that expertise.

I remember on our world tour trips, the ones where I really got to know and love and appreciate his quirks and methodical ways, how much he helped me. Our trip to Northern Spain where he and dad drove the “prison van” and we all had such a good laugh in that garage up in Gijon. And on our trip to Istanbul, I will always remember that moment when he came running up the hill (very un-Ben) in a sweaty panic because he’d gotten separated from the group, then he broke into such sweet relief upon finding mom and Pam and me in the Mosque. And in Portugal, I loved watching him walk tall around the streets in that big hat to stay safe from the sun while he talked about his guns.  He always had a kind of cowboy way about him. He was picky and particular, and fastidious, but I grew to appreciate all of that about him.

But the thing I loved most about Ben was in the way that he talked. I tend to spin and be too hyperactive for my own good, and Ben had a way of calming me down with his monotone voice and long-winded professorial diatribes. It didn’t seem to matter what the topic was, so long as he went on and on and kept the tone consistent.

I fought them at first, but at some point, on some trip, I realized it was like fighting yoga class. Ben was like was a yoga class. I’d fight to go, but once I finally went, I realized how absolutely fantastic and relaxing it was, and that it was exactly what I needed. I grew to love Ben for who he was, and for what he said, and why he said it, and how he said it—not just because he was family.

I was so completely devastated by last year’s course of events. Hopes were so high in April and May for a cure and full recovery. He was so upbeat as he described his upcoming “stem cell birthday” to me as I sat at his feet in his San Diego living room. Then the realization sank in during June that things were going the other way.

I deeply regret that I didn’t rush to JFK when I heard the news that he was on the way home from the hospital in July. I may not have made it, but I wanted to be there to say goodbye to him—this husband of my Aunt Pam, this father of cousin Christine and cousin Jesse and cousin Tanya, this grandfather to Liam, and to Thomas, this brother in law to my dad and father-in-law to Paul.  And, this dear friend to Bill and Debbie, Brendi and Don.

So I’m here today, in this very pretty place, with all of you, to say it “Goodbye Uncle Ben, I love you.”

 

Paddleboarding in Prague? Huck Yeah!

May, 2019

If you are like me, and travel is about having an authentic adventure and feeling that special connection with your new surroundings, then look no further. I met a bonafide Huckleberry Finn of river life, right here in the center of Prague.

IMG_1674At 21 years of age, Samuel is an old soul who holds an astonishing amount of history in his head and a clear love of the Vltava in his heart. The safety of all participants is his paramount concern, and he keeps all who join him very calm and reassured with his genuine smile, bare feet and relaxed, casual demeanor.

This river is a jewel—a clean and friendly waterway to be celebrated and revered. Dotted with swans, ducks, little fishing boats, paddleboats, sailboats, riverboats and small ferries, it feels more like a cozy little neighborhood. And being on a board, paddling at your own pace, is a much better vantage point to view the buildings and bridges of this incredibly well-preserved medieval city. And it’s also a much better work out, and better way to truly experience the river than standing on a bridge or boarding a boat.

This is a safe experience for all, with inflatable boards of different sizes and lightweight adjustable paddles. The upwind paddling can be a good arm work out in heavy wind, but the downwind glides are fun and easy. Every guest is assured of a great upper body workout, including great balance and core strengthening. But the beauty of paddleboarding out on the water, is that you don’t even realize you are getting such a good work out in, because you are just having too much fun!

When you get back on land, it feels like you have conquered the river and are taking a very unique piece of Prague home with you.

On a warm and sunny day you will find many people gathered to relax and enjoy the ambiance from the riverbank. They come for the view (and that view will now include you!) as you paddle along and they marvel at your balance and wise choice to paddle with the veritable Samuel.IMG_6633

You, on the other hand, get to see Prague from a much more elevated vantage point. You are experiencing the force and power of the river’s water firsthand, and feeling at one with it, while viewing the city from a buoyant perch, as you float and glide and dip your paddle in to propel along her gentle, graceful surface. And as you do, your heart and mind will find a new gentler and slower pace, more in line with the water. And you are released from the struggles of land life, both physically and mentally. You find a new Zen, with so much wide-open space to breathe and relax into.

IMG_8323You find the river’s flow, feel the glide, sense the float, and discover your own inner strength and power—you are empowered. The wind is on your face and tickling the hair on your arms and you feel it cool your neck, while the sun warms your back. You are in that most gorgeous special atmosphere, the one where the water meets the air, and where the water’s power can be more easily felt.

IMG_1670This Bohemian Sea, as it is commonly referred to, is the longest river in the Czech Republic (at 270 miles long), and has flowed from so far away to get here. You feel it’s power and age as it holds you up and carries you along. And you think about all the damage this river has caused when it floods its banks (most recently in 2002), but also of it as the lifeline of Prague in terms of historical significance. “Prague without the Vltava River would be like an orchestra without its conductor.” And you care so much more about her history, and her future. And you are so grateful for the opportunity to have experienced her so up close and personal.

As guide and guru of this important and powerful river-force in Prague, Samuel also helps his guests feel more connected to the city’s history with relevant stories, fun facts, and tid-bits along the way while paddling. And his comfort level on the water will ease all worries that might pop up out there on the river. He really is your own personal Huck Finn, and your own River Ambassador to the magnificent and magical Vltava environs here in Prague. Learning a new waterway most definitely requires an ambassador!

IMG_5567 2I highly advise signing up for at least two SUP excursions, as we did, since the weather is fickle here. And temperature and wind conditions do make the river a markedly different experience. And as they say, you can’t step in the same river twice, because both you and the river will be different each time you enter the water. So the beauty of this experience is that you can never paddle this river the same way, no matter how often you go.

Prague itself is quiet, clean and industrious. It is a serious place with seriously gorgeous architecture to admire just about everywhere. So embrace your inner ghoul, get ready to eat a lot of goulash and Trdelnik (Prague pastry), and savor the silence. There are extraordinary sights, smells and history to be soaked up while you spend time here. Just don’t forget to get out onto the river to see it all from a paddleboard, with Samuel of SUP Prague. You won’t regret it!

 

Surf at Your Own Risk

Rincon, Puerto Rico February 12, 2019

On arrival into Rincon, PR, this small surf town was eagerly anticipating the swell forecast for the following day. Swell Info predicted 5 to 7 feet for Rincon South. I woke the next morning to see some sets breaking overhead at Maria’s with about 30 surfers scattered about the break.

I felt fearful, as I often do, since I probably did not have any business going out there that day, but I’m so sorry Mom and Dad, I did go. I love it too much and I can’t seem to stay away from this intense sport that I fell in love with some eight years ago.

I managed to catch a few waves and I felt so good, and so grateful. Then after lunch I paddled out for a second session. I was alone at that point, but eager to join the lineup at Maria’s. At least that was my plan.

I entered the ocean at the keyhole, which is a small opening in the coral that edged the beach, then paddled out, heading toward Maria’s. I made sure to keep the pistons (an actual shipwreck’s engine pistons which stuck straight up out of the shallow reef), to my far left. I knew how dangerous it would be to get close to them. I was doing fine, or so I thought. The current and the swell in this easier area was much stronger than I anticipated.

I was pushed back toward shore by a strong breaking wave while the current pulled me further left than I realized, and all of a sudden my paddling was pointless. My 9’0” longboard would not move forward toward the lineup. I was suspended, stuck. I knew I couldn’t afford not to be moving forward right now. Waves were coming and I was in the highly precarious impact zone where waves arc up and crash down onto the very shallow coral reef three feet below.

I paused in confusion for a moment, then panic set in as I looked back and saw that the pistons were less than 2 feet behind me. I was literally on top of them, and the reason I could not move forward or get clear of them was because my leash had somehow fully encircled the left piston and was now holding me tight to it. Another wave of panic flooded me when I realized a wave was coming and would definitely smack me straight into both pistons.

IMG_1720I only had a split second to act to prevent a horrible injury. So I reached down to my left ankle and released the velcro of my leash.  Just at that moment the wave came and so I shoved my board to the right to get it clear of the right piston just as I felt the force of water propel me up, over and between the two pistons, toward shore.

I had gotten free. I was now closer to shore, with the pistons safely behind me. So I hucked myself back on my board with the leash dragging loose behind and paddled as fast as I could to cross back through the keyhole and onto the beach. I then raced to wash my coral cuts and catch my breath. I was shaking from my close encounter and feeling awash with shock and gratitude that I had escaped such a close call.

I was in the middle of scrubbing my hand, and hadn’t even gotten to the slice on my back yet, when I suddenly heard a cry from the beach. It sounded either angry or scared. I couldn’t tell which, but either way it sounded serious. So I ran over toward the voice. I saw that it was a surfer bobbing on his short board in the water, very close to shore, yelling “Call 911!!!”

Already at a high level, my adrenaline spiked.  I had friends still out there surfing Maria’s. IMG_1769A guy on the beach called 911 and several others began heading toward the water’s edge. On the horizon we could see a mass far out in the water, moving toward shore. The mass was slowly coming closer to where I was now standing, at the keyhole I’d just used to exit the ocean.

The mass was now close enough to make out. It was a cluster of 7 to 8 male surfers helping to propel a body lying on a surfboard. I whimpered and watched, helplessly as they hoisted this heavy, unconscious male body wearing just a pair of striped swim trunks across the coral threshold of the keyhole.  One of the guys carrying him yelled “who knows CPR?” and a small brave blonde woman jumped up and said “I do!” Then they lay him down in the wet sand. It was such a dire sight to behold. I felt yet another wave of adrenaline.

The woman began chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him, this wet sandy surfer without a name. He had a cut on his forehead and his surfboard lay abandoned nearby on the sand.

A big circle gathered and so many different people worked tirelessly with chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth. All these good Samaritans were hoping and waiting for a sign of life. When white foam spewed from his mouth and also from his nose, I felt a burst of hope. His eyes were slightly parted, gray and sandy. I noticed that his belly rose as the CPR continued and everyone kept taking turns with the chest compressions and the breathing. But this unnamed surfer was still not coming to.

Someone asked for a defibrillator and so I ran like crazy to look for one, but had no luck. My adrenaline was on overdrive now and it was making me run circles, touching the shoulders of this group in support and solidarity as the life-saving efforts continued.

The ambulance finally came, after about 15 minutes, and took him away on a stretcher, breaking up our circle of hope and help. Many of us followed the paramedics to the parking lot of Maria’s Beach, then told the paramedics what we knew and what we had seen.

It was at that point that one guy stood beside me and said his full name. He then told them that he’d been the one to find him, in the dangerous impact zone of Maria’s break, floating facedown still attached to his surfboard with his leash. I had chills. It didn’t explain what actually happened to him, but it somehow gave more clarity.

IMG_1491Then a young woman offered me a hug on the beach and I was so moved by the support of this surfing community, with all that I had witnessed up till now, and then with this hug.

A few hours later, many of us were standing at Calypso Bar overlooking Maria’s beach, where live music played loudly. IMG_1553We heard from a local guy that his name was Poncho, he was from San Juan, and he was a great surfer. And yes, he’d died.

Why? What happened out there? Over the next two days I heard “a paddleboard hit him,” then, simply, “he drowned,” then “he had a brain aneurysm.” All I knew was that this man was gone. And perhaps the most likely scenario was that a surfboard struck him in the head in the mayhem of Maria’s, causing him to lose consciousness and drown.

It was awful. It had also been beautiful to witness how a community had come together to do everything they could do to save this stranger, this fellow surfer.IMG_1426

My tiny coral cuts and near miss at Pistons was a faint blip, put in sharp relief to such a larger tragedy.  And on this big wave day in Rincon, my being prevented from joining that lineup might just have been a blessing.

I surfed for the next several days, with coral living in my hand and constant thoughts of a life taken at sea.IMG_1348

 

Going Out West to Ski: Worth It?

Steamboat Resort, CO February 2019

As I packed up my five bags including a large unwieldy ski bag and a big boot bag, I began to wonder if all this schlepping was worth it. I mean honestly, I have a home in Vermont—why on earth would I travel all the way to Colorado on multiple flights just to ski? It seemed ridiculous to me. The snow can’t be that good, or different. But some incredible friends invited me, and I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to spend time with them, so I went.

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My close friend Robin Azer, who writes for Snowbrains.com, came too, making it that much better, and so she and I arrived at LaGuardia on a cold Super Bowl Sunday morning. We checked our many awkward-sized bags of ski and winter gear before boarding our United.com flight to Denver.

Robin is a true gung-ho skier, and I found her knowledge and excitement about all things skiing to be infectious.IMG_0839I may be a lifelong skier, but at this point in the trip I’m doing my fair share of whining, resisting and still wondering why I am enduring all this hassle. But nonetheless, we head west to the Rocky Mountains.

We transfer in Denver to board a small plane to Hayden, the airport that services Steamboat Springs. Once we are ensconced in our tiny window seat spaces the captain comes onto the loudspeaker saying “Good morning folks, the conditions at Hayden are white out with less than 1 mile visibility, so I’m going to have to run the numbers before making my decision.” I start to think of plan B, which I run by a lovely woman named Sue, sitting beside me, since she’s been a Steamboat resident for 26 years.

“We can rent a car and drive,” I say. But her response is “let me share my story about driving the pass with you.” And so she goes on to tell me her harrowing tale of a near death experience in a white out storm years ago. So there goes plan B.

We are stuck. I feel anxious and helpless as the captain runs the numbers. He finally comes back on the intercom 15 minutes later saying, “Well folks, looks like there’s been a dramatic change in the weather and Hayden is now sunny and clear with plenty of visibility, so we will be taking off shortly.”

The planeful of passengers lets out a collective sigh of both disbelief and relief. Mountain weather is so fleeting, severe and unpredictable. And so we take off on our 28-minute flight. I watch out the window as the gray clouds part, giving way to jagged mountain peaks and brilliant sunshine. We land into our airplane’s shadow enlarging across a shimmering white blanket of snow.IMG_0679The GoAlpine shuttle that Robin had smartly reserved is there to collect us and all our gear. We board it with about ten other passengers, and greatly enjoy the driver’s cheery disposition as well as free coupons and advice about the area during our scenic 30-minute drive to Steamboat. The shuttle drops us off at Wyndam Vacation Resorts Steamboat Springs.

The awesome concierge who greets us gives us more après ideas. And just as we are orienting ourselves, my dear friends Ben, Jake and Kristin arrive after flying from Boston to Denver and then braving the pass in a rental car. All five of us then settle into a beautiful three bedroom space on the top floor of Building 5, just four minutes from the base, with options of a free shuttle or gondola to get there. There was a hot tub outside beside the building, and it suited us all perfectly.

Being loyal Patriots fans, finding a spot to watch the game was key. So we went to the very lively Slopeside bar over at the base. It had a friendly crowd, but we found it way too noisy to focus on the game. So we settled in at our new Wyndam home instead, to cheer the Patriots on to victory. We got to sleep early that night, in anticipation of our first day on the slopes.

Day 2 was our first day of skiing and snowboarding. The highlights of the day included Taco Beast for lunch where we ate delicious tacos served straight out of a snowcat, without having to leave the trail. We spent the day skiing and boarding in the wide open trails and tucking into some gladed terrain, finding pretty good conditions. But I still wasn’t sure this was that much different from what Stratton, VT offered. I wasn’t convinced this was worth all the effort it took to get here from New York.

But I loved the crew of fun-loving souls I was with so much, all so full of positive energy and a zest for life that any would envy. IMG_0825This hardy group had enough camaraderie to make a trip to the supermarket a fantastic time.

At the end of the day, we braved a half hour drive and rough roads in 4-wheel drive to reach the highly touted Strawberry Park Hot Springs at dusk. It was worth it though, to sit in the middle of the woods on such a cold night—under a sky full of stars—soaking in a natural mineral spring of 104 degree water. IMG_0757

Day 3 was a powder day. And a shift began in how I felt about this place. The trails began to feel more like smooth powdery snow slides, as we swish-swashed down their silky, fluffy buttery wonderfulness. And it felt more like floating than skiing. I felt weightless and all our smiles seemed to get bigger with each run.  Robin was excitedly saying “fresh pow”, “playful” and “flow rides” a lot, and my resolve to not be too impressed with this place began to thaw.

The lifties wore cowboy hats and cool outfits, with matching attitudes. It felt to me like they all knew something I didn’t, and I began to think I might want to find out what that was.

Then a local guy, who worked for Wyndam, and who we were skiing with, said “watch this,” as he held up a handful of granola up high. A bird instantly flew straight out of the woods to land in his hand. It was so unexpected and fun to see wildlife acting so tame and predictable.

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As we rode, our group got more rowdy from the adrenaline, as we jostled with each other on every chairlift ride and gondola ascent. At the end of Day 3, I felt like my legs were made of jello, and the altitude helped to make the Happy Hour margaritas in town at Salt and Lime go straight to my head. The tacos were inexpensive and delicious and we hit up a local dispensary afterwards, just because we could. But the chocolate shop—Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory was the bigger hit in my book.

Day 4 brought us even more powder and that took us into the trees. We spent the entire day skiing gladed trails that were often very steep. The powder was deep and the woods felt like a giant playground. I woo-hooed a lot and definitely felt fear, but the thrill was greater. We had a Denver local with us this time, a cousin of Ben’s, who guided us well into every gorgeous trail like Shadows, Closets, Triangle 3, the Fletcher Glades, Biscuits, Gravy and Christmas Tree Bowl. We decided to lap it on Morningside lift until our legs gave out and so we stopped at the insanely delicious Four Points Lodge for lunch.

But other than that short break, we could not stop chasing the high of feeling our skis turn and land between each aspen and pine in such deep pillow pockets of champagne powder. The experience had us all giddy with exhilaration and breathing heavy from high altitude exhaustion. We often watched in awe as Jake sent it off jumps like a pro everywhere he could find them.

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One of us, dear Erin, IMG_1284sadly lost a cell phone in all that powder between the trees, but the high we were all on made it almost a non-event.

We hit the beloved TBar for aprèsIMG_1097 and reveled in the warmth, solidarity and post ski day story-telling of that established, intimate slope-side space.IMG_1117

Day 5 brought more powder and so we took our tired legs into the trees, yet again, where we got lost…and then found. And I finally understood the joke, during a catch-your-breath moment in a small clearing in the middle of The Gulley (a glazed trail marked “Double Diamond-Ex” meaning experts only, not kidding). Colorado is worth it. And Steamboat is a magical spot full of such beautiful secrets and special places.

We ascended in the gondola at the end of our last ski day, racing to rise above the red orange glow of sunset that lit up the Colorado Rockies.

When we got to the top, we reveled in a purple and pink glow while the local happy hour crowd danced to live music. IMG_1202We then rode the gondola back down in thrilling darkness, under a sliver of new moon and twinkling lights the Steamboat Base area below.

Winter Carnival had begun, and so we stumbled into fun snow sculptures in the quaint cowboy downtown later that night as we explored a bit of nightlife.

On Day 6 we departed, with such profound gratitude for the sunny skies, those powder-filled days of tree-skiing, and the overall high of Steamboat Ski ResortIMG_0935

 

“Family-mooning” in the Tahitian Overwater Bungalow

 

 

Ah, the exotic South Pacific, it brings out the dreamy romantic in everyone.  And so, after years of talk and dreaming—not to mention a full year of planning—we went. And no, it was not our honeymoon or an anniversary. We went with our children—yes, our teenage children.

 

Armed with fuzzy memories of the 1980’s film Blue Lagoon, along with songs from the more recent Moana, we headed to Tahiti. And to be honest, I’m not sure many other trips could have lured our college and high school kids to spend nearly three weeks with “just us.” It actually reminded me of the many Disney trips from long ago, when destination was driven by their preschool pleas. But this time they didn’t want Buzz Lightyear or Ariel, they wanted overwater bungalows, just like Kim Khardashian. Thanks social media, and Kim.

And since summers have become more about internship opportunities than family bonding, Christmas break was the only chance to go. So, although the best weather in French Polynesia is actually in June, July and August with less heat, humidity and rain, we took our chances and landed in Tahiti in full rainy season.

If you are contemplating taking a family trip to this part of the world and want to know if it is worth going, our answer is a resounding yes. To stand amid all that natural beauty is as breathtaking and exhilarating as you think it will be. Actually more so. And it is most definitely worth the expense, long haul, and jet lag (which was surprisingly minor.)

Of course we endured family fights and teenage drama, who doesn’t? But when you are in such a stunning part of the world, the sulking is softened by picturesque coastlines, paddle boarding and fresh fish every night.

 

And if you do retaliate, it might just mean tossing someone’s book out a bungalow into the glistening green water below. This may have happened…OK, it did happen. The point is that this tropical paradise of volcanic origin is just too gorgeous to let spoilsports win out for long.

We began this family vacation by flying from JFK to LAX on Jet Blue, then hopping onto an 8 hour Air France flight to Papeete, Tahiti, which is the gateway to the Society Islands. We chose hotels for their overwater bungalow experience,

 

but many we met along the way were quite content with their cruises, such as Windstar and Paul Gaugin. A seven or ten day cruise to Tahiti and the society islands, paired with a week exploring New Zealand would be a perfect plan for next time.

Upon arrival, the immense heat and humidity set us into a slow motion while calm enveloped us in the form of Tahitian smiles, relaxed attitudes, and fragrant welcoming leis working their magic at just-below-nose level. Time felt more precious, and our heartbeats found a new rhythm, one set to the pounding Pacific surf. img_3896

We were whisked from the airport in an SUV, amidst a frenzy of ‘la ora na’s (hello) and maururu’s (thank you), bound for the remote and lush Tahiti Iti, where our rustic hotel, the Vanira lodge, felt more like a tree house. It had sweeping ocean views and a relaxed atmosphere of open-air thatched huts. And no matter where you were on the property, from hammock to restaurant to outdoor shower, you could train your eyes on the waves crashing on the outer reef in the distance.

 

First things first, the heat was oppressive, so we shed clothing and searched for sunscreen. We plowed through our luggage for converter plugs and bikinis, as endearing geckos scampered along rock walls, adorned with pungent greenery. It was all so intoxicating, but I held on to my reason for being here—to see the infamous Teahupo’o wave up close—even if my enthusiasm was unmatched.

The hot moist air made us lazy so gazing off into the ocean horizon from the hammock became a thing, and so did crawling into the pool, lazily trying to decipher the French being spoken by the staff and other hotel guests. The outdoor shower was a standout with its extraordinary water views.

We then climbed into a pick up truck with a local guide, all three kids in the flat bed, hanging on tight and then laughing in the sudden rain. We piled aboard a simple motorboat in the marina, taking in the stunning shoreline and glimmering shades of blue in the lagoon, as we headed toward the reef. The breeze was a blessing and I honestly hadn’t expected to get this close, pulling up right beside the Teahupo’o break.

 

The force of so much water approaching such a shallow reef created such a glorious wave. To see its curling shape and power, feel the mist and sense that exhilaration—that was why we’d come. It was so beautiful, and so extremely wild and perfect. I could have stayed right in that spot for days. But we pulled away, and motored over instead to a sandbar in the lagoon where we could all jump in and swim our first of many swims in salty sweet surrender.

 

We reluctantly returned to Tahiti, staying at the Inter-Continetal Hotel, which lies a mere five minutes from Papeete airport, and boasts prime sunset viewing over the Sea of Moons and volcanic peaks of Moorea.

 

 

 

While in Tahiti I found the surfing with Tamahee Surf School was fantastic at Mahina’s Orofara break, with a sandy bottom and big warm waves.

 

The next day we flew to Bora Bora, which came from Tahitian word Pora Pora, meaning first born, indicating it may have been the mort important island after Ra’iatea. But to us, it felt like landing in Oz, with such mind-blowing exquisite colors, especially after the crowded, hot, free for all nature of the island airports. We all stood like wide-eyed five year olds at Disney, in full wonder, awe and amazement at the beauty before us.

 

We were silenced by the vibrant colors all around us and the natural beauty of Mount Otemanu, sticking out up out of the sea like a hitchhikers thumb, surrounded by a lagoon comprised of every shade of blue imaginable, and some I was sure didn’t even exist. It felt wrong to steer my gaze away from this majestic mountain majesty, even for a minute.

 

In bleating heat, we soared across the pale green lagoon in the shuttle boat from the airport to reach our home for the next 5 nights—The St. Regis, Bora Bora. The balmy sea breeze kept us breathing, while the turquoise water kept us riveted to our spots.

 

As we disembarked, we were greeted with the most heartfelt smile from our own personal butler, the exuberant and efficacious Scott Shen.

This young guy was an amazing human who managed to make each of us feel like royalty. He whisked us around the extensive hotel grounds by golf cart–

 

and seemed to have no one else to care for but us (not true) and nothing else he’d rather do (also not true). The illusion was perfect though, and we all adored him and felt so grateful for his presence, constant attention and almost eerie anticipation of our needs.img_5601While there, we packed each day with activities into each day, like snorkeling in the lagoonarium, paddle board racing against other hotel guests, sailing, kayaking and riding bikes.

 

But we also lounged a lot in a hammock strung up between driftwood poles in the lagoon, feeling as if we’d climbed right into a travel magazine spread.

 

At night, we dined on French cuisine at Lagoon by Jean-Georges,img_5875as sharks swam beneath glass just below our feet.

 

We spent plenty of time—including Christmas Day—enjoying our overwater villa’s front row seat to all that marine life, complete with a large suspended infinity pool and drop dead view of Mount Otemanu.

 

Soaking in that view each morning while drinking coffee then jumping into the emerald sea was a truly unreal way to start each day.

 

It was the perfect paradise perch, complete with glass panels in the floor so that you could watch the fish below, even while in the bathroom!img_5380We also did down dogs alongside celebrities, jet skied around the entire island,

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performed in a Polynesian dance show,img_6496and had massages in the spa (backdrop for the movie Couples Retreat).

 

We bonded with marine life by helping heal sea turtles for a day at Le Meridien Turtle Center,

 

then swimming with lemon sharks, sting rays and moray eels.

 

We channeled mana while eating more coconuts, pineapples and vanilla bean than we knew we could, while giving in often to the urge to buy local black pearls.

The view somehow kept getting better with each sunrise and sunset, while relaxation and Instagram photo ops were endless. We got better and better at throwing our bodies off the deck into the warm sea, in surrender and celebration.

 

One morning while swimming in front of the villa, I was followed by a pair of sting rays and got nervous. img_6550But it quickly turned to jealousy, as I wished for gills so I could stay down there and glide permanently around with them in all that silent pale green glory.

Another time I lost my goggles and within minutes a hotel jet ski arrived, thanks to Scott Shen of course, in a futile search for them, proving the Kardashian-level of pampering at this resort.

 

Needless to say, when we had to leave the St. Regis, after five nights of such royal treatment, there were many tears, as we said farewell to Scott Shen. He waved to us non-stop until our boat was out of sight. We felt like we were saying goodbye to family.

 

We took the quick Air Tahiti Nui flight to Raiatea img_7978where we boarded a 40-foot motorboat to explore both a vanilla plantation and a black pearl farm on nearby Taha’a—known as the “vanilla island.”

 

We spent that night at Opoa Beach resort in Raiatea in side-by-side open-air cottages beside a deep blue lagoon fringed with layers of turquoise and seafoam green on the distant horizon.

 

The bright white porches and hammocks at Opoa allowed for some amazing decompression time. I will always remember reading in that hammock, glancing up at the lush motu wedged within a triangle of sand, sea and palms, a salty sea breeze cooling my skin to the perfect temperature.

 

To avoid stepping upon the life-threatening stone fish (Brooke Shields, Blue Lagoon), we are told to protect our feet when snorkeling. The ride in a small skiff out to Bird Island was breathtaking, as we spotted sting rays, fish and mesmerizing coral gardens.

 

We then headed by boat to the super remote and tranquil overwater bungalows at Le Taha’a Island Resort, a Relais & Chateau. It’s set on a small island near the main island of Taha’a, where coral gardens were out of this world. We snorkeled through the labyrinth, with a strong current guiding us, while we fought to not let it push us straight into the reef.

 

It was also a paddle boarding paradise, where rainbows shot from sky to sea img_7815img_8762So connected to the sea were we, as we swam blissfully in shallow green lagoons with baby black fin sharks. To the west, lay  the perfect view of Bora Bora, while the lush tranquility of Taha’a sat to our East.

 

And after two days of Taha’a calm, we made the very long journey to Moorea via boat, plane, car, and ferry. We settled into the Hilton to celebrate New Year’s Eve in overwater bungalows, set in a shallow lagoon between Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay.

 

Some highlights in Moorea were our dinner of champagne and parrotfish at Moorea Beach Café

 

and our waterfall hike with VIP tours, rich with island history, fresh fruit, and flora and fauna lessons.

 

We especially loved our ATV ride on our last day, which left us on such a high, wild-eyed from the adventure of ascending to Magic Mountain peak. We’d covered a lot of ground from the center of the crater that birthed Moorea through pineapple fields, up to dizzying heights and the usual pitstop for fresh pineapple and fell in love with soursop ice cream.

 

We had also hit our stride in Moorea in the overwater bungalows, swimming and exploring the coral gardens of the lagoon with even more bravado, like little Mermaids.img_3104

 

 

One crazy moment while I was far out by the barrier reef, a manta ray just slid beneath my board as I hovered a few inches above the coral. I caught my breath and seemed to swallow all those glorious shades of blue and green like they were delicious dessert flavors. img_9104Sinking into that salty, buoyant, and buttery smooth blue-green water each morning was such a natural therapeutic tonic. I actually whimpered as I climbed back up the wooden ladder to the bungalow for the very last time, realizing that life would now have to resume, without this water in it.

 

But we did leave, wishing we could somehow pack up that night sky of stars and Milky Way like a blanket and stuff it into our bag. img_4909We rode the ferry back to Tahiti to spend our last night at the Intercontinental Hotel in Papeete, then flew back to LAX on a 7 hour Air France flight. We topped the trip off with a whirlwind weekend in LA, staying at Casa Del Mar to look at a few colleges and connect with family and friends before our final leg home to JFK.

Landing in New York, after three weeks of warm sand, emerald seas and hot wet tropical air, we were assaulted by windchill and leaden skies as our Tahitian skin shed off us in thin sheets, rebelling against the dry air. I held my breath and shut my eyes, trying hard to hold on to my imaginary gills and pale green underwater memories.

 

In Love with Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma)

 

 

You often hear people say “we live on the lake”. But by on it, we mean on the edge of it, on terra firma, and in America that probably means a house with running water and electricity and a pretty view. Well, in Inle Lake, living on the lake has a whole new meaning. And for those who have read about it, I can personally attest that the descriptions just don’t do justice to this incredible part of the world. The United Nations added Inle lake to its World Network Biosphere Reserves in 2015, the first biosphere reserve to be added for Myanmar.

We were lucky enough to get a first hand glimpse into this 45 square mile freshwater lake set up high in the mountains, at an elevation of 2,900 feet. It is the second largest lake in Myanmar and ranges from 7 feet deep during the dry season to as deep as 17 feet during the rainy season.

Most of the 70,000 Intha people who call Inle Lake their home are devout Buddhists and self-sufficient farmers. The floating farms and gardens they have created are breathtaking. And according to Wikipedia, it has been designated a Ramsar site since 2018, meaning it is a wetland area worthy of international importance in terms of conservation and protection.

And that is all wonderful, but as I move within the peaceful waterways of this civilization by long wooden boat, words like impossible and ingenious come to my mind.

As visitors, we can’t help but fall a little in love as we marvel at the quiet sense of simple certainty and serene being of the Burmese people. Each productive Intha soul, complete with stoic smile, flip flops and a traditional longyi, further enhance our admiration of this kind, beautiful, and hard-working culture.

 

Our little group absorbs this new take on lake living with our mouths agape. We are speechless at the sight of a whole community perched up high, listing on stilts and growing entire farms hydroponically, tended to by wooden boats. These gardens rise and fall with changes to the water level, which means they are resistant to flooding and yet constantly benefit from such optimal access to the water.

These boats are usually made out of teak and held together with handmade wooden dowels and cat tails mixed together with a type of tar, one that is both flexible and waterproof. And they are an essential part of living, as each home is reachable only by boat, hoisted above the black lake dotted with clumps of water hyacinth and lotus flowers. The magnificent lake reflects so perfectly, gloriously disorienting us, as we search for the true sky.

 

For a while, I imagine myself into this life, as I gently climb onto precarious wooden planks of primitive walkways and gently cross bridges to reach homes of bamboo thatched walls and windows and tin rooves. I slide out of flip flops at the threshold as I enter. I’m grateful it’s warm, as it can get quite cold here at certain times of the year.  And I’m happy that the lake level is not too high and flooding everything, nor too low, threatening the floating market.

IMG_1779To make a living I can see spending my days, my years, operating a loom. The loom has strings, bamboo pedals and a hanging bucket of river rocks to help power it, as my shuttle quickly passes across the warp and weft. Life is hard, raw, straightforward. The complex pattern I use helps me weave a colorful traditional longyi, using threads of silk and lotus. The pay is nominal, the work is hard but my complaining is non-existent. Buddhist beliefs drive my quiet acceptance and surrendering stance. I don’t know any differently.

 

I smile and my mouth is red from the betel nut I’ve been chewing for years. My teeth are broken or missing. My gums are not healthy, but my smile is still joyful. My face is painted with layers of thanaka today, as it is every day, for both sun protection and to enhance my beauty. The special paste is made in my home each day, by rubbing tree bark on a small circular stone and mixing it with water.

My longyi is a little dusty from sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor where I eat my htamin jin from a tiffin box for lunch every day with the other workers. It has MSG in it. I also love fried crickets. Dogs roam free around the small space that constitutes our weaving factory, appearing to carry the same devout acceptance of their fate. This is life lived in Inle Lake.

 

Then I come back to reality and remember I am here merely as part of a small group of visiting foreigners. So the sturdy wooden boats that we ride in, which are usually filled with about 15-20 passengers, are just for five of us, plus the driver.

 

He sits or stands in the stern, operating the outboard motor. It is simple and does not have much of a muffler, but is ingeniously designed to operate in what appears to me to be a mere 6 inches of water at times. The put-put-put noise of the various engines on the lake become hypnotic, lulling us all into silence.

 

Water hyacinth, bamboo, lotus, palm trees and teak trees are ubiquitous here. The lake air that rests between these mountains is so fresh and clean and the clouds have never been more white, the sky never more blue. And the freshwater lake is a black mirror, serving to duplicate each night’s spectacular sunset.

 

At night the stars are more than I’ve ever seen, and when the sun comes up lush green, misty mountain folds appear and flank the lake.

 

I spy a bird, black and motionless, drying its wings while perched on a lake rock and behind that a fisherman squats alone in the stern of his long wooden boat. He is wearing a conical straw hat and the traditional longyi and holding his oar up high for a split second before pounding it down with gravity and might onto the solid dark water. The splash seems like the only sound that has ever been. The ripples seem endless. This is fishing.

 

Then he stands and wraps his leg around the oar to row the boat forward, leaving his two hands free to work the net. I’m spellbound at the artistry of it. The sight of him standing on the stern of the boat is so breathtakingly beautiful and impossible, defying gravity and physics. And yet there he stands, with a lifetime of practice, casually and with confidence, like a surfer perched on a wave with all ten toes wrapped over the nose of his board.IMG_2173

In this early morning pink light with such pungent stillness and vibrant greens against blackest blacks, I’m transfixed.  This is not what I thought Myanmar could ever be, but here it is, in all its delicate majesty- a space on this earth that I’m so grateful to have witnessed and experienced, if only briefly. I cannot recommend it more.

 

Re-Entering Yangon, Myanmar

IMG_9969What does travel to the controversial destination of Myanmar (or Burma, as some still affectionately call it) mean today as a US citizen? It means getting a raised eyebrow from the Verizon Wireless salesman when you ask if your travel pass will work, as he fidgets saying, “um, well that country’s not supported.” It means signing on with a well-established tour company. It means getting a visa far ahead of time. It means loading up on cow colostrum. It means getting a flu shot. And it means landing in at least one other country (ours was Singapore) before reaching Yangon.IMG_9946

And for me personally, it means walking out of a Singapore Airlines flight this morning to the same musty smell and moist heat that I experienced on my last trip here to Yangon (Rangoon) back in May 1997 as a newlywed with my husband Rob. A lot has certainly changed since then. It was so much more deserted and empty back then, and Aung San Suu Kyi was still under a form of house arrest, a mere 6 years after earning her Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a defender of human rights here in Yangon, in response to military brutality. Today she is State Counsellor (similar to being Prime Minister) of Myanmar.

During my college days (1987-1991) I was tangentially involved with Amnesty International and her struggle was paramount back then.  She was a Gandhi, a Joan of Arc, an Evita, a champion of doing the right thing in the face of so much wrong. She personified human rights to college-age me.

Now, I stand as a mom of three, as they stamp my visa and passport and allow me into this country once again. My parents and I are warmly greeted by a man in a long skirt who smiles and thanks us for coming to visit his country. His gratitude has an urgency to it as he gushes,  “It is so important to have visitors now, especially now, your visit means so much for our country.” He is referring to the recent military events that have happened up north and how that has so negatively affected tourism to this country.

But we are here, my eager and adventurous parents and I, to explore this country that has suffered so much under such a corrupt government. Our guide proclaims, “we are better now, we are the 13thmost corrupt government. For a long time we were 2nd, behind Somalia,” he pipes up optimistically, smiling his biggest smile. I try to echo his optimism as I let his statistics sink in.

I change the topic and inquire about the yellow paste I spy on so many Burmese faces out the van window and am quickly told it’s Thanaka. We are then given a lesson in how to apply it while we are checking into our hotel, as we sip ginger concoctions through lemongrass straws and settle into the intimate allure of this space along with the smell of wafting incense. Our other guide rolls the bark onto a smooth stone and she adds a little water to create a paste. IMG_9958I find it calming and clever and realize that this is a lot like what I used to do when I was 8 years old playing pretend in the backyard, crushing stones with Krista Jones and applying the powder like it was make up. The bark is a natural sunscreen and also a skin smoother. Later on at Scott market I can’t resist buying a container of the stuff for a dollar.

We settle into our lavish teak bedrooms complete with mosquito netting adorned beds, IMG_9979then manage foot sugar scrubs and a swim before sauntering off to Bogkok Aung San Market, (aka Scott market) to hunt for jade and gold, clothing, fabrics and purses. The prices are extremely low and we buy a a few items. But my real focus is on the pink dresses and shaved heads of the young nuns who seem to be everywhere in the market. IMG_9998The youngest girl looks to be about 4 years old. I give them as much kyat (Burmese currency) as I have in my purse.

We finally birth our way out of the market, all the more sweatier for it, IMG_0007and head to The Strand Hotel. It has been 21 years and I wanted to see if it had changed since our stay there just after it’s first restoration in the 90’s. (Coincidentally it just underwent yet another facelift in 2016 and is now even more polished, and has a pool and is much busier, that’s for sure.)

Then we head back to the sanctuary of our hotel, the Belmond Governor’s Residence located in the quiet tree-lined embassy section of Yangon to nap. Boy my parents have a lot of energy! We are lulled to sleep by the jasmine and sandalwood scented serenity that this hotel provides.

When we wake, we watch a movie about Ang San Suu Kyi entitled “The Lady.” I cry three times at such stoic bravery and selfless choices made for her country.

Afterwards, we dine alfresco in the soothingly warm, still, humid night air on a teak porch surrounded by floating lotus flowers and small shimmering green ceramic tiles which line the pool’s shallow floor. IMG_0023It could be 1921. Nothing except our cell phones tell us otherwise.

It’s the end of our first day in Buddhist Burma, and it’s also Halloween 2018. And I realize that the only costumes I saw today were real ones, small, pink and dusty. And worn every single day…and not necessarily by choice. 🇲🇲IMG_9985