THE DUBAI STORY
Sometimes you know when shit will hit the fan but all you can do is brace yourself. Mentally prepare as you are going into battle and do the best you can. The older I get, the more it hits me how much of a blessing it is to be a homeostatic human. For me, life is a war everyday. A war to stay alive on the inside, outside, in our minds and amidst our being. For the past two years I've begun to crystalize this perspective as I sit on the bus commuting back home thinking how each person is a complex mix of matter - each a world of its own. Watching my father battle cancer for a year really informed this outlook as I witnessed firsthand how this same system can breakdown. In a million different ways like a game of domino. He couldn’t open his jaw, walk, manage pain or even breathe by the end of his life. So yes, I always remember everyday that our bodies are fighting and functioning to keep us alive - all the trillions of cells and vital organs and the brain that controls everything, simultaneously and subconsciously receiving and giving signals to the rest of us. We have 100 billion neurons in our brain alone that allows for all of this to happen. We move, we speak, we communicate how we feel verbally and non-verbally. We are made of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, calcium and phosphorous. We make decisions, regulate our emotions, balance, think, dream and reason. It’s a vessel that controls our body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and breath all at the same time. We have eleven systems co-existing together to keep our life as we know it in tact. How wild is that? But sometimes shit hits the fan. The cards fall against your favor. You are given the task of coping with a lot of things at once. And that’s how Dubai began. It was six months of going back and forth, three of those where I kept my sister’s cancer a secret from the rest of my family up until getting my travel details days before the trip began. I had been in the hospital the day before as my sister removed half of her thyroid. She was still there, recovering as I boarded my Emirates flight. I had slept five hours and had so much to do while enduring chronic cramps that left me swollen during my cycle. Before I left for the airport, I said to the world out loud, laughing: bring it on. Lets see how much I can really handle.
I had a whole row where I slept, barely ate and watched the Whitney Houston documentary on Showtime, opening up my empathy to how achingly tragic and beautiful it was all-in-once. She was someone I regularly listened to as a teenager on my walkman during an angsty teenage sob in my room. I fast forward to now and think about how much has changed. Who would have ever thought I’d be on a plane to travel across the world to an unknown land because of something I had created? I imagine the headline would be: "girl who loves to throw confetti on people gets to fly across the world to throw more confetti on more people because of never giving up and Instagram.” It felt like every single person who had supported me or participated in the work was going with me as well. And that anyone who has a dream and idea can make it happen. This was a win for all the dreamers, doers, artists, humans that want to create and impact the world while they’re here. As we came off the plane, we were greeted by our driver who had been told by his boss that we were American celebrities. This sent Amanda - a dear friend and supporter who has come along to assist me on this trip - and I into a delirious laughter, relishing in the absurdity of that. The next hour I was in my room, unpacked and passed out at 7pm. I awoke at midnight to receive the news that a dear family friend of mine had been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that left her paralyzed for the rest of her life. After that, I threw myself into work until the sun came up, smacked on some fierce red lips and came straight to breakfast: ready set go.
Our itinerary was fully loaded as we wanted to really splash the market and have a successful event where at the end of our week everything would culminate into a 3-hour celebration debuting a new loyalty program at the retail brand Sauce. Their store was in the Dubai Mall - the biggest mall in the world - and it would be during the end of Dubai Shopping Festival, an initiative funded by the Department of Tourism. They were our sponsors and we even got to go to their building and photograph regular women working there. That was by far one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had as I asked an extremely diverse group of women what they celebrate only to hear the same answers that I’d heard from women across the world back home. I thought: we all are really the same, where the similarities will always outweigh the differences. That week it was decided that I would be photographing a dozen influencers leading up to the event so we could properly promote it and have a sold-out soiree. At the event, I would be in the window display dousing people at the front of the store as there was a regional celebrity - Fouz - doing a meet-and-greet in the back of the space. Everything in-between was pieces of cake, tinsel decor and an amazing collection of retail at your disposal. It all sounded amazing but we had a lot of work to do. The tone of the trip was a sprint marathon, fighting to sleep for at least six hours each night. But honestly? It was the most amazing week of my life even thought I didn’t really have a moment of self-care. We worked alongside the Sauce team - an amazing group of humans - at the Dubai Design District (D3) where we created all of the backdrops together, DIY-style and conducted all of the influencer photo shoots, guerilla-style as we would use any pocket of their studio to get the most diverse shots. Orchestrating this was a feat in itself and formed into a beautiful camaraderie while manifesting our world of sparkle.
On the first full day, before we went completely full force, the only tourist activity I managed to do was go to the desert. My friend Ashni was serendipitously in Dubai at the same time and all three of us ventured to the Arabian desert for some SUV-ing, ATV-style. It was nearly eight hours long and, in hindsight, I should have drank a dozen water bottles before. We were all the way in the back of this auto-rollercoaster as we dipped and turn with each sand dune. I was holding on for dear life trying not to let my vertigo get the best of me. It was simply just too much for my body to handle but all I could do was my best to survive and breathe. When we got to camp, I was exhausted as I took in the sight of what you would expect: camels, bellydancers, Arabic food yet I was mostly overcome with the sexiness of the desert. The delirious mystique of it all as I reminisced about past lovers in my monochromatic red pajama outfit. Later that night I could barely keep my eyes open and began imagining what time of day it was across the world and what all of my loved ones were doing.
The first job I ever had was like being part of Project Runway: we were given tasks and challenges that we had to figure out ourselves and achieve at the highest level possible, usually with an unrealistic budget and unthinkable time constraints. So I realized quickly how I operate under pressure: when time becomes a count down. Part of me thrives on it and excels but at a cost - where I will hold my pee in for hours, feel faint after forgetting to eat and be on a dominantly liquid, caffeine diet. I’m not proud of how I fail to take care of my body but, when you’re in the moment, all you can do is your best to survive and thrive. I knew the rest would come after when I was back home. But still, there’s always a comedown when you’re up in the clouds, laser-focused and producing like a machine so my amygdala naturally got triggered to feel all the intensity that my mind hadn’t processed yet. It was nearly midnight - my red lipstick a faint blush now - as we were all working away making a life size tinsel cake and backdrop materials. I was sensitive, frustrated, burnt out and defeated as I blasted my noise canceling headphones, yearning for no one to talk to me in the next few hours. I felt like an animal that was about to pounce and had to use all of the tools that I’d acquired over the years to calm myself down and get some perspective. Needless to say, there’s nothing that a night of sleep - albeit six hours - can't alleviate.
As things began to form, the excitement built until everything came together on the day of the event. When you’ve put so much effort, thought and energy into something, you vacillate between love and fear. In this case, I was working up until the event - barely having enough time to shower and take a breath before photographing 60 people for three hours straight. So, I was in a mood and needed to be in a different mood. Even while we were setting up in a hurry and things weren’t going smoothly, everything faded once I began asking every person: what do you celebrate? There were so many people in the store and outside watching all of this happen. Media and press. Eight pounds of confetti. An entire wall of photos. I definitely blacked out to a certain degree as I try to be as present in the moment with each person that I connect with and photograph. And again, after asking over 1,000 people in the US this question, it was so touching to hear all of these women (+ some men) from this part of the world share the same things that they cherish: love, family, friends, perseverance, dreams and just the simple fact of being alive. At the end, everyone working at the store began to cap off the night as they walked down a wooden runway strutting and dancing with confetti. I was so high with energy that my hands were shaking and I couldn’t imagine walking out of the store filled with confetti with just my gear as we went to dinner.
It was the last night as we sat down in front of the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world - having a traditional Arabic meal filled with hummus, manakeesh, falafel and an endless array of sauces. The Dubai Fountain was nearby, performing every 30 minutes that evening. The next one was coming as a crowd began to form and Whitney Houston came on. It had been a tribute to her so I began to walk toward the fountain. It has been the first time I was really by myself and I could feel my Dad’s presence. I think he really would have been so proud. And shocked as he’d never been to this part of the world or known for these types of things to happen. A nostalgia came over me as I think about who I was while watching the Whitney Houston documentary on the plane ride coming here. My eyes were wet then and they began to tear now as I took in this entire week with my father. So much can change in an instant, a moment, a week of your life. This was my way of warming up into my 28th year, where I knew it would be life changing. It already has as I ran away and found something bigger than myself where every cell in body allowed for me to seek and live it.
P.S. A video recap above from the amazing Amanda Espiritu who was in her own transition changing career paths during this trip and dove into experimenting with video. This is her first piece:)