Sacred Water, Sacred Air

Some days we invest, and sometimes we cash out, reaping the benefits of our expenses. I invested in Thailand, in both financial and emotional meanings, and the rewards immediately flooded my lungs and my soul with freshness.

I arrived on Koh Tao via ferry on Monday morning, after a weekend traveling from Berlin and exploring the heart of Koh Samui (avoiding the heavily tourist-trafficked beaches). I strolled directly down the street to Ocean Sound Dive + Yoga after checking into my hotel. Yoga and dive were two of my three vacation objectives, and I immediately wanted to dedicate my energy to my intent.

In the course of five days, I spent about nine hours practicing yoga and more than thirteen hours in my SCUBA course, including almost four hours underwater. Both rituals emphasize specific breathing. SCUBA divers should breathe normally, but the sensation feels unnatural at first, with the body’s tendency to hold its breath underwater. Yoga practitioners emphasize an ujjayi breath, where we slightly constrict the throat while inhaling and exhaling. With proper, conscious attention, the ujjayi breath creates a deeper breath and a sound that coincidentally resembles ocean waves or the noise pattern of breathing through tanked air (or Darth Vader’s breath!). In both practices, it’s inhale, exhale, repeat. And in these special surroundings, the breath brings simultaneous relaxation and alertness. The investment of each inhale is rewarded immediately and sustained through the exhale.

 I attempted an underwater airplane pose, just for self-entertainment.
I attempted an underwater airplane pose, just for self-entertainment.

In my observation of Thailand’s islands, stepping inside a shop, restaurant, or most businesses is more metaphor than reality. A dozen pair of Havaiana flip flops rest on the doorstep, gently removed as patrons enter, and otherwise there’s little distinction between indoors and outside. The ocean air is everywhere. Researchers have found that ocean air contains healthy negative ions associated with positive emotional feelings. These ions augment the body’s oxygen absorption and balance serotonin levels, and may be the explanation for the serenity and joy that some people find visiting the ocean, waterfalls, taking a shower, or rolling down a car window.
Inhale, exhale, repeat. Invest, reap rewards, repeat. 

In the right environment, breathing can stimulate an enlightened emotional state. For me this past week, I boosted my spirits underwater and on the mat at Ocean Sound Dive + Yoga.

Trading Hallo for Hola

When I moved from Boston to Berlin in October, I set an intention to stay in Berlin for awhile, not to escape for weekends in other cities. I’ve moved enough times that I know the necessity of being grounded in a new home, and with the move being permanent – or at least indefinite – planting my roots matters. In past homes, I liked to escape at least one weekend a month, so I grew antsy sitting still, but the time passed quickly. The commitment graduated into Christmas, when I did return to the US to be with my family, and then I spent New Years in Berlin. Come February, my mental roots feel firmly placed here.

Of course, stability means it’s time for a change of pace. My work arranged a group trip to Spain to experience their carnival in Cádiz and Málaga. About four-dozen co-workers flew to Málaga, then traveled by bus across the rolling landscapes of Andalucia’s southern coast. Our bus poked in and out of view of the coast as we gazed at the countryside, speckled with rocks and white-washed resort towns.

Those of us who arrived in Málaga on Friday night convened around 1 a.m. with the early arrivals in an international karaoke club in the city center. I didn’t see any karaoke personally, but by default, our presence made it an international club.

 We danced, and I met the man I'd like to be when I'm eighty-four years old. His hair wiry, Einstein hair and his thick-rimmed glasses frames suggest nothing of his free flowing and rhythmic spirit. Thanks,  hombre . We danced, and I met the man I’d like to be when I’m eighty-four years old. His hair wiry, Einstein hair and his thick-rimmed glasses frames suggest nothing of his free flowing and rhythmic spirit. Thanks, hombre .

After a very late bed time, we stumbled into breakfast at our hotel. The buffet catered most varieties of food, including the Spanish’s infamous tomato puree and olive oil offered for toast. Simple and delectable. Me gusta lo.

On to Cádiz for the real adventure. Our bus journeyed westward. Some slept. Some read. We all stared out the windows, mesmerized by the sunlight, which doesn’t exist in Berlin’s winter months. When the driver stopped at a roadside shop for a break, we spilled out both doors, resting like crumbs in a crack, not out of fatigue, but merely in gratitude for the opportunity to bask in warm sunlight. As we rolled toward our afternoon lunch and winery tour, Paola and I killed John with our discussion of various pastries and baked goods. I’m sorry the banana wasn’t enough, John, but when I have a chance to talk about new types of cake, I’m committed.

Eventually, we reached our destination: a winery tour at La Gitana in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, north of Cádiz. “Winery” may be a bit too generic, as this region specializes in sherries, and this winery vints primarily manzanilla. Perhaps due to some hunger and difficulty interpreting the presenter’s Spanish accent, distinguishing the beverages names and meanings created significant discussion. Mostly, I could conclude four facts from our tour:

  • El vento, the wind, creates the right conditions for a unique sherry in this region.
  • I like amontillado (from the cask!) Honey wine is also good, though I don’t think that’s what it’s called.
  • The vanenciador uses a vanencia to scoop and pour wine from the barrel into glasses. It’s a nifty device that looks like it requires training but supposedly doesn’t.
  • I like jamón. The other plates – tuna sandwiches and tomato soup, bocadillos de atún y sopa de tomate – filled my stomach, but the Spanish ham is the real money maker slash mouth-waterer. Yum!

From the winery, we walked through town to the coast. With a few glasses of wine in my veins, I found the adrenaline to strip to my underwear and sprint into the ocean. Everyone else looked and laughed, until eventually Michael joined the swim team. We basked on the beach and sipped cold and warm drinks with the locals on the patio of a beachfront café. The afternoon faded into a dusk that felt like it would never end. We aren’t so familiar with sunsets after 5 p.m.

After a stop for some essentials – beer, water, toilet paper – we continued on to our accommodations at “the camping” (as my Spanish colleague called it in English). We were the sole occupants of a small village of bungalows. Each slept 5 people, with running hot water and a small kitchen – the bare essentials for a house, efficiently designed without an inch of wasted space.

We convened next to their kitchen in a large banquet tent, where wine and beer flowed as the tapas incrementally filled our plates and stomaches. Dinner graduated into conversation and dancing in our bungalow neighborhood, and a large group followed the crystal clear sky’s stars and constellations to the beach, where we listened to the waves crash, and eight of us were brave enough to attempt a post-midnight swim. Nature refreshed my spirit and sobered my soul that night.

Each bungalow has its own porch with patio furniture, and the objects told the story of our night when we woke up. My bungalow became the last survivor, with the most chairs and empty bottles. We’ll never know whether the yukelele music softened before the bird’s started chirping.

In spite of the varying amounts of sleep, most of us made it to the banquet tent for desayuno, a classic breakfast of sandwiches, with the option for jamón Serrano, mantequilla (butter), and/or queso (cheese). The Spanish speakers amongst us spoke for the others, letting countless cups of cáfe con leche (coffee with milk) flood the table.

As the tent filled, our plot thickened. We had creatures, like a bird, a dinosaur, a lobster, and a rat, mixed with future-disco-people, a devil, an Indian-Arabian knight, hippies, ballerinas, flamenco dancers… every variety of costume under the sun. My first impression of carnival is that it’s Halloween, where any type of dress can become a costume. The circus brigade boarded our bus into Cádiz. In the thirty-minute ride along the peninsula, I added more characters into our mix, as I became a makeup artist and painted some of my colleague’s faces.

Our first stop in Cádiz was the world’s slowest lunch – no offense, I know it’s Spanish style! – in a beachside restaurant. The tapas came in most varieties, except the Spanish struggle to understand a vegetarian diet. (They served crumbled jamón on the  vegetarians’ tomato soup yesterday.) Luckily, I have a flexible diet, which included a plateful of cake, thanks to the fact that everyone else left the table by the time dessert arrived.

After some time digesting in the sun and shooting group photos on the beach, we meandered along the beach, toward the palatial facade of the old city center at the end of the peninsula. Confused by the crowd flowing in the opposite direction, we were reassured when asking for advice. People were going to see the start of the parade, which would start in an hour and last three hours. We continued on our path, squeezed into and through the village streets, and were spat into the center where beer flowed and floats of identically-costumed Spaniards sang about politics. I guess that’s the specialty that Cádiz offers for its carnival?

After a few hours in the heavy crowds, we returned to walk along the coast and enjoyed dusk and sunset at a beachside bar and restaurant. Tempted by the urgency of the celebration, most of us filtered back into the city streets to watch the parade finish, then followed (er, I danced…) the crowd of people to the “party,” which meant standing in the streets and alleys to drink and eat. Though many of us had never been to carnival, we were surprised to not see much music or a “pulsing” fiesta atmosphere. Still, I see the spirit of the people in their celebration, and I am grateful to have played a part. We returned to the camping at 11 p.m. and enjoyed another night of music and cheers on our bungalow porches.

Monday morning brought the same sequence of sandwiches and broken Spanish, without the costumes and with more sleep deprivation. It’s like “yum!” but without the exclamation point, just “yum.” After breakfast, we boarded a much quieter bus for the return to Málaga, where we had a fantastic sit-down lunch. Some of the fish were grilled on the fire on the beach directly in front of the restaurant. The other fish… tasted just as good 🙂 as did the second plate of flan that I graciously ate for someone else.

With evening flights lined up, tired bodies, and an impending return to Berlin, we again found ourselves lounging in the sand. I walked along the beach, with my barefoot feet rubbing chilly water, feeling both spiritually restored and physically exhausted. I guess that’s what you get when you leave Berlin’s winter for a weekend getaway on the coast of Spain.

Just Hang On & Don’t Slow Down

155 kilometers didn’t seem so far. 96 miles is less than 110, which is what I rode five weeks ago, up Massachusett’s scenic north shore to the Maine border on a crisp fall day. So when my colleague Balázs invited me to join Rapha’s “transfer ride to the heart of the GDR,” and after three weeks of no road rides, I signed up.

(Let’s skim over the fact that the ride sold out last week, and I spontaneously nabbed the spot of the single cancellation when I coincidentally opened the invitation link again on Friday night. “Oh, you’re Stephen. You just signed up the other day,” they acknowledged at the check in table this morning.)

I knew what I was in for, distance-wise. The weather was more of a gamble: somewhere between 1 and 5°C, chance of rain, clouds… ideal for cycling, and I pieced together an early winter kit from assorted cycling, ski, and outdoor apparel. Distance. Weather. Speed? I could probably manage almost 100 miles in six hours. Curious where we went? Keep reading, and see our route on Strava.

 Rapha's Dirk Kaufmann delivers the morning pre-ride briefing. Rapha’s Dirk Kaufmann delivers the morning pre-ride briefing.

Six hours in the saddle requires significant readiness: carbohydrate intake, hydration, strength, flexibility… I should have eaten a bigger dinner and a bigger breakfast. I should have conditioned my energy levels a bit more, and maybe stretched with some yoga on Saturday. Instead, I learned a few lessons.

Lesson #1: No pictures doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

[Update – 15 Nov: Steffen – introduced below – is not only a master cyclist. He also captured the day on camera, so thanks to him for the photos that I’ve added.]

If we’d moved more slowly, I’d have spent all day photographing the picturesque fields and small towns that comprise the former German Democratic Republic, now known as Brandenburg, Instead, we’re stuck reliving the photographs from my memory. Potsdam’s stunningly symmetric castles rise from gardens and forests, and a late fall visit far supersedes the July heat wave that I suffered two years ago. Green and yellow fields have begun saying goodbye to summer, now illuminated by a burst of sunlight hanging low on the grey horizon, as the days grow shorter. Summer-style homes rest like polka dots on the edges of towns connected by well-paved one lane roads, while perfectly-laid cobblestones coat the streets and sidewalks. The same sunlight sheds contrast of the horizon against the forest, as stiff, tall tree trunks rise to the sky, only broken by the needled-branches that pierce the grey clouds and the road that carries us onward.

Lesson #2: Germans have hospitality within their hardiness.

Heroes and angels in Germany will teach you to ride fast(er). Steffen Weigold, the ride coordinator who just quit his gig with the Tour de France, called me a machine at the end of the ride. Let’s be clear: he’s the real engine, because he rode alongside and physically pushed me several times when I fell behind the pack. Altogether, the guys (and also the gals!) that joined today’s group ride epitomized German sport. They brought steady energy, humor, quality equipment, and timeliness to the road. I guess I expected a bunch of hard-asses, but they had a soft spot that highlighted team camaraderie in a pack of strangers.

So about the pack: it’s important. Like, don’t let go of the pack. I’ve drafted friends on rides throughout Boston, but more for fun than out of necessity. I’d never ridden in a group numbering 40-plus, and maybe Steffen’s superhuman sixth sense detected this when he told us to stay close in the morning briefing. I forgot. Maybe I never knew? Now I know. Even before I hungrily dragged behind mid-morning, when Steffen saw me riding a few meters behind the others, he pointed out that the gaps between riders accumulate and make the group very spread. Before long, you’re riding on your own, and at that point, you might as well be in the front, taking the wind for everyone. You want to stay in the slip stream.

Lesson #3: Choose a strategy.

I did want to stay in the slip stream, but I couldn’t … at first. I especially struggled with miles 30-50. We escaped the stop-and-go of the city perimeter and then zipped along open fields that stretched between the various lakes (sees) west of Berlin. The dikes that separate the farm fields catch wind easily, and I couldn’t find the energy to hug the wheel of the riders in front of me. That’s when Steffen found me first. I knew I was struggling, he knew I was struggling, and I knew I could make it. Steffen was my first saviour, and the second sacrament came in the form of the CLIF bar and energy gel that I downed on our quick stop after traversing open fields of the Brandenburger Osthavelniedrung.

When we stopped to fix a flat shortly after, I took the liberty to remove my gloves, untie both pair of shorts (two for warmth), and listen to nature’s calling at the edge of the road. Of course, I had time… Wrong! The support van had the tire replaced within two minutes. Suddenly, after catching up, I was gloveless and not ready to move with everyone else. Steffen found me, and pointed out: “you had three minutes and now you lost it.”

 Pictured from left to right: everyone else, me Pictured from left to right: everyone else, me

“You have to be smart, or you have to be strong.” As he rode beside me, instructing me in the ways of the group ride, he gave my lower back a big push, and I pedaled my way into the group.

Lesson #4: It’s true, the slip stream is faster.

Dodging between the pack and my own wind and winded-breath at the back, I met the third saviour, Jan. You know Jan Schur, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist? Yea, Jan was a special guest on this ride, and he was hanging around at the back of the pack, with another struggling rider riding his slip stream. He waved me in, too, and shouted something at me in German. As I’m becoming comfortable with blatant I-don’t-know-what-you-said-to-me statements and expressions, I came clean:

“I don’t speak German.”

“Just hang on.”

Ah, yes, just hang on behind the Olympian, and you’ll make it to lunch. And I did.

I downed two sandwiches, a bunch of snacks, and the first Coca-Cola I’ve had in years. Our van driver, Dirk, mentioned that if I needed to rest, even for 10 minutes, I could snag a ride with him, then rejoin the group. After learning my lessons this morning, I trusted myself. Be smart. Be strong. Ride the slip stream.

For the second half of the ride, I held on to the pack, only falling behind once, due to the resistance of a very poorly graded gravel road. As my speed slipped and the others zipped past, I concluded that Germans choose one of three options for roads and paths: pave asphalt and cement to be as smooth as butter, level every paver to be as-good-as pavement, or power through bumps and cobblestones as if they were no different than roads. Take note of the infrastructure and endurance, America.

Otherwise, I kept up, chatting with Balázs and hugging the wheels of my fellow riders. We pedaled into Bad Belzig just before 4 pm, precisely 6 hours and 53 seconds of ride time after we started. The coordinators’ planned estimate? From their email: “We are aiming to ride the 155km and 1000m of elevation in 6 hours.” Sigh… German punctuality.

As we waited for the warm soup and cold beer to flow from the hotel restaurant bar that would host our dinner, Steffen delivered one final lesson.

Lesson #5: Attitude makes a difference.

Earlier in the morning, he’d already told me that believing I could do it would give me energy; I’m not sure what prompted the remark, because I did believe I could do it, and I thought I looked happy, despite my struggle. I was happy, just tired.

I reduced the morning struggle to my lack of fuel, and eventually realized that I also had a tendency to lose the pack when ascending hills or coming out of curves. Hills are just harder, especially when you are barely keeping up. Corners make me nervous, probably due to scraping every facet of my knee while racing around the cul-de-sac as a kid. Steffen saw it, too.

“I can see you improved. Now you have to have more confidence, and don’t slow down on the curves,” he said, as we settled in for a well-deserved pint of beer in a dimly lit castle hotel somewhere in a forest west of Germany.

Other than being a bike apparel company, I’m not sure what Rapha means, where it comes from, or how I ended up riding through the German countryside with a group of very in-shape cyclists. Despite this, I am surely glad that I hung on, and I know what Rapha means to me, thanks to Steffen and Jan.

All Because A Question

A good piece of chocolate is smooth in texture, with a complex profile that tickles its way across the tongue as the crystal structure melts and the warmth untempers the cacao butter. The nuttiness folds into the floral aromas, and the richness massages the soul.

A good “bye” is smooth, too, and it embodies complexity. Uprooting myself has been a soul massage of its own kind, because multiple emotions awaken. “It’s bittersweet,” Mom said. “It’s like chocolate.” When I leave home, whether physically moving or stepping outside of my comfort zone/home, there’s a simultaneous unwrapping of sadness, excitement, and appreciation. 

Everyone in the States asked, “how long are you going for?” They said it’s not goodbye. “It’s ‘see you later,’ because you’re coming back.” Yes, I’ll be back to visit. But beyond visiting, I’m not sure when. It’s not a matter of being opposed to Boston. (I love Boston.) It’s the principle of my non-singular sense of home. For now, as of Sunday, I live in Berlin, and that’s the only plan for now. Where would I come back to? Am I a boomerang or a frisbee? What are you? 

To clarify my tone, I’m okay with you asking. I needed to clarify my answer. If I were a billboard, I’d read “it never hurts to ask.” Or if you prefer my therapist’s version: you have a right to ask; they have a right to say ‘no.’ So please understand, you should ask. If you ask. I won’t say, “no, I’m not going back,” but I don’t have a plan or end-game. 

I do have a reason. This original ask was a long time in the making. I studied and lived in Denmark six years ago, and upon my stateside return and consequential reverse culture shock, I knew I’d be back in Europe someday. Years ago, I gently scribbled “live abroad again” onto my list of long-term goals. That list is now complete, and it’s time to ask more questions, to challenge myself in new ways, and to listen for the answers that reveal themselves when I see a new world.


So the question it all started with: well, it wasn’t quite a question. (I’m subconsciously averse to asking for things that have the potential to receive a “no” response.) My ask was a offer, instead. After a year of contemplation, in May, I told my boss that I was open to relocating to our Berlin office, if the opportunity felt right or necessary for the company. A month later, the timing was right. Sebastian told me that he thought it made sense for me to move, and my insides suddenly felt the potential of my new reality. I was visiting Berlin at the time. “Oh my god. My next trip may be a one-way ticket.” (Spoiler: it was. I arrived Sunday.)

With the next chapter in sight, I quickly contemplated the adventures I’d yet to experience in Boston, and my pen birthed my “Boston bucket list” onto paper. My teal notebook listed favorite tastes (what I call “flavorites”) to rediscover, mixed with new challenges to reach the summits and the depths of my home.

While I didn’t complete the admittedly ambitious Pemi Loop in the White Mountains, in a portion of the route, I was privileged to experience one of the most visually rich and adrenaline-laden nights of my life. “Do you want to go for a hike, instead of driving home this afternoon?” With a close friend and his bro-tographer (get it? brother who’s a photographer), I stargazed on the Bond Cliffs, and we descended at 2 a.m. to drive and reach work in Boston by 9. If you ask me whether it was worth it, I’ll give two words – “Summit: achieved” – we’ll let this picture speak its thousand:

In the midst of the impending move, I took an August vacation and rediscovered the joy of SCUBA diving while in the Gulf of Eilat, off Israel’s Red Sea coast. Suddenly, my longtime “would be nice” desire to dive in Boston became a priority for my last few months.

I’ve realized in the urgency of moving that there are many things I want to do, and that the doing requires only a little more energy than the wanting.

Do you have a place or an experience at your fingertips that you’ve long contemplated trying? A person you want to get to know? What are you waiting for? It can’t hurt to ask. It never hurts to try.

Come October, with the move closing in, I called a few local dive shops. “Any chance you have openings for diving this weekend?” Neither Neil nor I had recent cold water diving experience, nor had we ever dove in Boston. Like in all life experiences, we started where we could. Within a week of my proposition to Neil, on the afternoon after my Flour “internship,” we explored the brisk, foggy waters off Grave’s Light in Boston Harbor, spotting a sea lion, lobsters, crabs, fish, and corrals of many colors. Depth: dived. (Yes, that’s the past tense verb of SCUBA diving.)

The other pursuits started as questions, too:

From my co-worker, Caitlin: “Can we find time to ride to Walden Pond together before you move?” We regularly discussed my pre-work summer morning rides. Nothing like a crisp fall Friday morning to kick that kickstand. Ride: completed.

To Sebastian: “Do you still want to bike to Maine? October 7th?” And just like that, after a few training rides to test our endurance, we were dining on lobster rolls in Kittery, Maine, with our wheels locked outside to roll us home. Century: cycled.

To the woman who I met at a farm stand two years ago: “Even though you told me to call in August, do you have any openings for cranberry bog tours this Sunday?” “We have one opening, because someone canceled.” Appointment: scheduled.

And to many a friend: “Do you want to wake up at 7:30 on Sunday to drive to Acushnet, Massachusetts (where’s that?) to go on a cranberry bog tour?Bog: toured.

All because a question. 

All this – sorting and packing my belongings into suitcases and boxes, saying goodbye to every friend, exhausting my pursuit of adventure across Boston, cleaning out my desk and briefly pausing work, documenting my existence and asking for permission to exist someplace else with a Visa, beginning the search for a new physical home, stretching the geographic canvas on which my friendships unfurl – because a question.

Thanks to the urgency of moving, I’ve solidified my sense of home in Boston, by making more memories and more friendships. Multiple send-offs across friendships spanning many years have given me cause to experience appreciation unlike anything I’ve experienced before, challenging my emotions further when the time for goodbye came. 

Why am I letting go of something so good?” I asked Kyndal when we said our goodbyes last week. The answer comes in reflecting on what I’ve created. In March 2014, Boston was nothing more than a place that I’d visited, and I knew I liked it. Now, it’s home, and home is especially hard to leave when it’s a space you create. When you move, you willingly remove yourself from your home, your creation. In the physical sense, you decide what material goods matter and which are now someone else’s. The old physical home disappears. As Mom reminded me, “once you leave, coming home won’t be the same again, because home changes.” After this, home becomes a memory.

Today, Berlin is nothing more than a place that I’ve visited, that I know I like.

After this, Berlin’s memories will start to become a home.

All because I believe I can make something even better. 

All “because the best miles are yet to come.” (Shout out to the gas station sign that I spotted on my last ride to Walden Pond.)

All because a question.

Nu skal vi dans!

Six years after we met at DTU and I visited her hometown, I had the privilege of attending the wedding of my Danish friend, Mette. While the whole wedding concept is generally comparable to what I’ve seen in the United States, a few traditions stand out as special for a Danish “bryllup.” 

It’s good luck for the bride and groom to dance before midnight. “And there’s a risk of that not happening?” I thought. Surprisingly, yes. Mette and Asger led with the first dance at ten ’til midnight, and the dancing continued until 5:30 am, just in time to shut our eyes before the sun flooded the horizon.