I’ve realised that I’ve got a thing about the west. Not ‘the west’ as in globally, but I appear to gravitate west in all things.
I live in West Worthing in West Sussex and I walk in a westerly direction every morning. To go east doesn’t feel quite right, although I walk back in an easterly direction. I walk east in the evenings in order to walk back west and enjoy the sunset.
I’ve noticed that on the way out in the mornings, going west, I feel creative, imaginative, hopeful and dreamlike. Coming back in an easterly direction I am facing the reality of the day. I start to rush knowing I need to get back to ‘my desk’ (aka the kitchen table) and my brain starts to fill with my ‘to-do’ list.
It’s happened with holiday destinations over the years. I favour west coasts – often battered, dramatic, elemental – over east-facing ones: smooth, calm, unremarkable (I know – not all east coasts…). I’ve visited New Zealand and pretty much stayed only on the west coast, I’ve been to the west coast of Ireland many many times but never Dublin. I’ve visited the west coast of Costa Rica twice, driven the west-facing Skeleton Coast in Namibia and have lived on the west coast of India.
When I’m going west, I feel like I could just keep travelling, keep moving over the horizon, but when I’m travelling back in an easterly direction it feels like I’m on a return journey. I wonder what it is that drives me west so much. Is it something to do with me being left-handed, and therefore my brain veers left when faced with its internal north? Is it because I grew up on the north-west Wales coast? I’ve no idea, I just know it’s a thing that I do. It’s my internal compass. Even when I moved to London I went to university in the south west, later lived in the north west, and in between forayed into Buckinghamshire, to the west of London. When I moved to Brighton in the ’90s, I quickly moved west into Hove.
It simply feels ‘off’ to me in the east of anywhere. I can’t really put my finger on why. I can only stay for about an hour in East London before I want to go back west. Once, I was on a date watching a really bad comedian in an East End hipster bar and he starting making fun of me in the audience because I ‘looked posh’ (I was wearing a fake-fur jacket). Really, he didn’t like it because I wasn’t laughing. When I got up to leave, he said, “Are you going back west to the poshos?” “Yep,” I said in front of everyone. “Get me out of here.”
This week in West Sussex has seen some high winds buffeting the coast. They’re southwesterlies and they create, it seems, the biggest waves here. I’ve been watching the kite surfers out west – and out in force since lockdown rules allowed them out – and it’s a real delight to watch grown men (and some women) whoop with joy as the wind carries them high above the waves. I’ve seen videos of people jumping over the pier so it’s a thing here. God I wish I could join them. As I watch, I imagine myself skimming the waves, lit by the bright spring sunshine, grinning as the wind takes me. Having not long learned to swim, it’s probably not something I should leap into but I confess I’m tempted.
Every morning that I walk west, I dream of just carrying on going on the coastal path, all the way to Cornwall. I thing of Raynor Winn’s Salt Path and the epic journey she and her husband did around the south-west coastal path and wonder if I could just do that. Me and a tent. Maybe a small dog in tow. I dream of owning a small white cottage in a west Wales coastal village, where I can see the sea from my desk and walk in the wind every day. I dream of hearing curlews at dawn, just like Dylan Thomas did.
For the first time, some of these dreams seem attainable. Maybe not right now, but they’re within reach.
This has been a week of reconnecting with friends after my Rajasthan week, and looking back on the whole experience. I fell in love with Udaipur so much that I’m going to stay there for a while next season. I need to not be in Agonda for the Christmas drinking season and will arrive here mid-January, when things have calmed down a bit.
Udaipur has little or no ‘ex-pat’ (aka immigrant) British population because it’s not easy to come by booze there, so people tend to pass through to look at the palaces, forts and temples and move on. Of course, I loved it, the chai-drinking culture, white people being in a minority, and I’m not done.
This started a chain of decision-making about my plans to return to the UK this summer and the inevitable question of what I’ll do next. I’ve decided to do a short-ish visit to Shimla-Spiti Valley-Manali before I return so I can suss out the Himalayas as a potential place to stay for a few months next summer. I like the idea of breaking up the year into two- or three-month chunks.
This also started a chain of people insisting on telling me about their own Indian odysseys and either insisting I do what they did, insisting I’ll love the places they loved, or refusing to dwell on the fact that they haven’t been to Spiti Valley, meaning they can’t tell me how much they loved it and how much I’ll love it. As someone who likes her own experience of self-discovery I wonder what compels people to follow in another’s path. I just need my Lonely Planet, not a trail of other people’s favourite restaurants. After Pushkar, which I disliked when most of my friends loved it, I’m going to blaze my own trail (and burn the evidence behind me).
I came back to Agonda to find the sand shelf on the beach had reformed, after apparently being flattened and then created again after a couple of stormy days. It hasn’t stopped the turtles coming on to the beach to lay their eggs, though – we have seven nests now, and the first lot is due to hatch next week. Watch this space!
We’ve also had a spate of high-tides in which pairs of dolphins have appeared just offshore in the early mornings. I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying one or two along the beach as they surf through what must be shoals of tiny fish.
I also had the pleasure of a day trip with The Most Handsome Man in Goa, who remains in my life in a different way, discovering the tiny Mashem beach near Galgibaga, and going back to Talpona and the little gem Tejas restaurant for vegetable biryani and Hello to the Queen dessert. TMHMIG is brilliant at these days out – the thrill of the bike ride there on coastal roads, playing in the waves, choosing the right food for lunch, and getting me back somewhere lovely to watch the sunset. I always feel the happiest I’ve been in years during and after one of these ‘dates’.
He also had to deal with the bothersome regular occurrence of Indian Boys With Cameras, who inevitably turn up right behind us whenever we find a deserted beach. Two of them popped up as we were in the water, putting their stuff right next to ours on the beach. I was fuming. They must have seen the steam coming out of my ears and one of them waded in to ask us if there was a problem? Yes, I said. You’ve got this whole massive empty beach, and you’ve chosen to put your stuff right next to ours. Plus I’m sick of being trailed by Indian Boys With Cameras. We’re on a roadtrip from Hyderabad, he said. We’re just taking pictures of the location. He probably did get a couple of pictures of us but I liked that he came to check everything was ok. The one thing that is a certainty in India is a gang of boys with phones, drones and cameras. That is the biggest problem I face in India. Maybe people just like to herd. I prefer to leave the pack behind…
Talking of packs, I got bluff-attacked by a pack of dogs by the river in Agonda last night. I didn’t take my stick because I wasn’t expecting a flat, wide beach to run on, and simply took my chance. To all those people who make fun of me for carrying a stick – you try being surrounded by ten dogs barking and snarling at you, while all the humans stand around not doing anything to help. They seem to get more feral when the weather is cooler for some reason. Even Sanjo is leaping up and scratching my arms with his claws.
This weather is reminding me of British summer – cool mornings and evenings and warm days… I can’t wait to experience the real thing in May…
People say to trust your gut, don’t they? I say it to people who are in the throes of a decision-making crisis, but so many of us question those pure instincts even when they are screaming at us. I’ve relied on mine so many times but this week I didn’t listen as much as I should.
I’ve had a week where my gut was telling me one thing while my head was telling me what it thought I ‘should’ do, based on what others might choose. I wrestled with the issue for a few days before listening more closely to my gut and realising that it had been right all along. The moment that clarity settled inside me, I felt so much happier, and when teaching my next yoga class, I realised how important it was for me to be happy with myself when passing on the joy of yoga to other people.
I find these moments of clarity most often when I am walking along the beach. For a week or so, I was working for a couple of hours at 6.30am and missing my morning walk to the river and back. On some days I even missed the sunset walk too, and I felt something die a little in my soul. Now I have them back I am feeling so much happier.
It’s so simple, that walk. The mornings are cool, now, and the sand is almost cold underfoot. I’ve found that the sand is warmer where the outgoing tide has just left it, and it feels lovely to walk on it after the cold touch of the dry sand. I like to step on the sandy ‘pouches’ – air-filled sand pockets that I thought contained a sea creature, but I’ve noticed that the waves cause them as they bubble onto the shore. It’s like a game of bubblewrap popping as I walk along – something about depressing one of these bubbles is so satisfying as your foot sinks down into it.
I love that part of the beach where the river waters meet the sea. There is something about the confluence that is calming when you’re grappling with a decision. I stand and stare at it for quite a long time, noticing how the waters flow over each other for a while, trying to compromise.
I’ve also started to run the same way in the evenings, when the tide is further out and there is a wider plain of hard sand. I’ve tried it with running shoes on, which offer stability and mean I don’t have to focus on random rocks or broken glass that might be in the sand beneath my feet. This week I tried it barefoot and it was actually lovely. I think I’m going to do that more.
I made a pact with myself to only run the beach if it feels good and if I can smile while I’m doing it. So far, so good. People seem perplexed as to why I carry a long bamboo stick when I walk and run – if you’ve been bitten by a beach dog you know that a stick is a great preventative measure. I don’t intend to use it – it seems to be enough that I am carrying it. Also Zimbo and Sanjo are less likely to jump up when I’m carrying it, I’ve noticed. A small win.
I worked out that Agonda is at least 50% down on its usual numbers of seasonal tourists, purely based on the numbers turning up to the drop-in yoga classes I attend. This time last year, they had two shalas full, running simultaneous classes. This year it’s just the one, and even that’s not full. I’ve noticed that some visitors feel the need to decamp to a busier place, but a quieter Agonda makes me want to stay here even more.
Of course it’s not great for those people running businesses, but my attempts to give prospective visitors some information about Agonda being open for business met with some criticism in a local Facebook group so I deleted the list and came out of the group. Sometimes people reject help and I have to accept it. Sometimes people like to cluster around negative comments and I have to accept that too. Thankfully some people really appreciated the list and approached me by direct message to glean the information.
My policy to date has always been to tell the truth about a situation, to present a scenario exactly as it is, no sugar-coating, no beating around the bush, but I have found that while most people seem to appreciate the honesty, others can’t bear to hear the words, often specific words. An interesting response to my Facebook post was that I ‘shouldn’t’ have used the word ‘demolished’ with regards to properties on the beach that have actually been demolished. Despite weeks of the word ‘demolished’ being used over and over again on every social media outlet with regard to Agonda. And me, warrior-like, trying to stop people describing this beautiful beach as a ‘war zone’. I say the word ‘demolished’ for the first time and suddenly it’s not ok.
This week began with an incredibly colourful visit to Chaudi market. Mr Happy drove me there and I wandered around for an hour or so taking in the sights under its yellow canopy. It was the yellowest place I’ve ever visited, and therefore one of the happiest, filled with stallholders selling every kind of fruit, vegetable and spice, plus a range of plastic goods from combs to soap dishes. Yet again I succumbed to the beaded necklaces and bought three silvery ones to wear on the beach. As you’ll know from previous blog posts, I like a bit of sparkle. They’re £1.50 a strand…
Like many people in Agonda, the purpose of my visit to Chaudi was really to use the ATM because the one here is closed indefinitely. Of course the ATM was broken in Chaudi too, so I’m having to use a local cash-exchange place that charges commission. I’m letting it go – it is what it is. Things could be a lot worse.
I’m keeping up my swimming practice at my Secret Swimming Location but I have now added a Not-So-Secret Swimming Location to my portfolio – the Wild Berry Resort just outside Agonda. I had the huge blue pool almost all to myself on Sunday, for three or four hours.
When I say ‘almost’ I mean I was accompanied by a huge domestic row between what looked like two guests but I gather they may have had more to do with the management, judging by the staff’s reactions. In extraordinary scenes, a woman beat her partner about the head while two other men stared at their phones nearby. He appeared drunk and she kept shoving a phone in his face, so I took a wild guess and thought he may have cheated. It was actually horrible seeing a man getting beaten like that – imagine if it had been the other way round? Would we have all sat around ignoring it? Thankfully the pair were encouraged to leave the pool area and took their argument elsewhere. Lord knows what happened to him.
Talking of men, I have met two extraordinary ones this week. Sven from Germany, who is the happiest person I have met in a long time, has joined me for breakfast at Simrose most days this week. It turns out that he has never touched a drop of alcohol (“Am I a real German?!”), and he told me he’d ordered a ‘Sex on the Beach’ cocktail the previous night “without the alcohol and without the sex.” He laughs like a drain at his own jokes and it’s infectious. He has two grown-up children and has their faces tattooed on his chest – he obviously has an amazing relationship with them and it’s so lovely to hear him talking about them.
Every day Sven climbs aboard a scooter and explores South Goa and I envy him his freedom. I’m still too scared to ride a bike here so it does mean my daily activities are restricted to Agonda unless I want to hire Mr Happy or a Tuk Tuk. He tells me he’s been mistaken for Bruce Willis by some Russians who asked for a selfie. Cue infectious booming laughter.
Then, as I was writing a piece on men doing yoga for Sampoorna Yoga School, I met Luke, a 35-year-old yoga teacher from Manchester. He’d been taken to a yoga class following a divorce and a period of depression. He now says yoga is a tool he uses to help himself cope in society and teaches other men back home who are struggling to cope, as he once was. He talked about the social pressure on men to be the ‘alpha’, to curb their emotions and act competitively and aggressively. On the yoga mat they can choose to step away from all that. As he spoke, I thought about Sven and his ‘alpha’ appearance, all muscles, earrings and tattoos, but how all of that is undercut by his clear-eyed grin and the way he talks about his children. We need more Svens and Lukes in the world.
I have continued to get to know the pigs who live behind me and have started to call them ‘Chica’ whenever I see them. They seem to like it and honk their approval. I met the guy who owns the house where the pigs ‘live’ and asked them if he had names. No, he said, but he calls them ‘Chico’. I’m not sure if he’d heard me talk to them but I like to think I just guessed their collective name correctly. I also found out that Orson the puppy is in fact called Ocean. I’d misheard Umesh say his name. He’s now got a tiny collar and is running about outside Love Bites cafe.
My early morning walk on the beach was wild this morning. I didn’t have my phone so I can’t show you a picture, but the waves were crashing high onto the beach, almost into the buildings along the shore. I’ve never seen it like that and was told this is what it does during monsoon or just before a cyclone arrives.
Everything is much calmer now so I hope it was just a post-monsoon blip but you never know.
After the seismic activities of last week in Agonda, it’s been a fairly calm and restorative one. Partly because I’ve slipped back into doing morning yoga at Sampoorna Yoga School and using the office there a few mornings a week. It’s lovely to feel part of the yoga village again, and to catch up with a few yogi friends.
A dog that used to run in and out of class during my training has now been adopted by the school – it’s a bit sad to see him chained up in the morning, but I can see why he is. His unbridled joy when he’s let loose towards the end of breakfast time is a sight to behold – he sprints round and round the restaurant.
It’s taken a while for my beach dog pack to realise who I am again, but finally Sanjo and Zimbo (who live at Jardim do Mar on the beach) have resumed their customary massive run at me every morning and follow me down the beach. They caused a bit of doggy mayhem by following me all the way home this time, upsetting the dogs that patrol the main street outside Kopi Desa – Zimbo looks so upset when I don’t ‘save’ him from them as any good pack leader would.
After last season’s dog bite, I’m not taking any chances, so I carry a bamboo stick in the morning on my beach walk. That’s the time when the dog population of Agonda is at its most lively and whilst they’re probably playing with me, sometimes that play turns into a biting match. They’re quite rough with each other, so you can see where it comes from. The stick works as a preventative measure – I don’t intend to start using it, but it seems to ward off unwanted attention just by having it. Even my pack are a bit wary of it.
One of the highlights of this week was walking past my two pig neighbours who were fast asleep and making cute snuffly noises. I heard that their piglet had died in a bike accident so I hope they managed some trouble-free sleep. Bless them…
This week I’ve witnessed the early morning catch a few times, when the fishermen of the village pair up to drag the nets in by man-hauling them ashore. I’ve only ever seen them when the nets are already in and on the beach so I didn’t know that this is what they did each morning. It’s like watching a silent tug-of-war as two teams of men haul each side of a net in to the beach.
The full moon earlier this week caused some really strange happenings on the beach. One on day, the tide seemed to be sucked right out all day only to be thrown back at the beach at sunset. Even Vasudev was worried about his boat – I saw it pitch violently as it came back to shore on the crest of a big wave. I knew it was a tidal thing, but it did an the eerie pre-tsunami feel to me.
The town has been very quiet in the wake of the cyclone and the demolitions that took place last week and I have spent some time fighting the scaremongering that’s going on about Agonda online. “It’s a war zone,” said one British guy, annoying me so much because it’s still the beautiful town and beach it always was, just minus his favourite bar. I can see people talking about not coming here because of what they’ve heard and it makes me so angry – Agonda needs the tourist business more than ever and people are so ready to desert it just because their favourite bar closed. I am pretty sure it will have recovered by Christmas.
Yet again I’ve met some interesting people this week. Peter the ex-teacher and psychologist who has a particular interest in left- and right-handedness, swam with me for a bit at ‘rock beach’. He talked to me about the ‘tyranny of the right’ and how we are all unconsciously persuaded to use our right hands to write. Being a leftie I am so glad my parents let me use my left hand after a short period of ambidexterity as a child. I think they did that because my uncle had been left with a stammer after being forced to use his right hand as a child.
At Sampoorna I’ve also met Meritxel and Adri from Spain who are running Yoga Sin Fronteras (Yoga Without Borders), a non-profit organisation bringing yoga to disadvantaged people around the world. I’m so impressed with their drive and optimism, I’ve been lending an editorial hand on their website. It’s one of those ideas that you think should have been done already. The best ideas are always like that.
And finally, I can reveal that I have found a Secret Swimming Location. I have found it difficult to swim in the sea so far (dolphins spotted right at the shore’s edge this week!) because of the huge full moon waves and general fear, but I have been granted access to a small pool where I can practise my new swimming skills in peace. I’m not sharing the location because technically I’m not supposed to be there, but boy, I’m glad I am. The water is freezing cold and when I float on my back I can see a circle of palm trees and eagles (they look like kites) soaring above them. Perfect after a hard day at the office…
I think we can safely say that this has been rather a dramatic week, and not only because I have uprooted myself from my London home to move to Goa for six months.
When I got here, Cyclone Kyarr had just departed the shores of Agonda and has left the beach strewn with debris. I have read that it reached the intensity of a category 4 hurricane, and is the strongest storm recorded in Goa for twelve years. The winds reached 155 miles per hour.
I spoke to the boys at the local bar, Kopi Desa, and they said they hid from the storm at Love Bites, my new cafe find. Despite three earlier visits to Agonda, I never went in there because of the name. Now I find that it’s a perfect bohemian hang-out, complete with rooftop chill area, and the cheapest good Thali in the area at 200 rupees. Waiter Umesh saved a small puppy from the storm, Ocean, giving me another reason to use Love Bites as a remote office.
Little did I know that there would be another cyclone hitting the town in the form of 200 policemen and women with a number of JCBs, set to demolish twenty-two illegal shacks on the beach. For anyone who tells me that Goa isn’t the real India, well let’s just say I’ve seen the real India this week. I’m not going to discuss the whys and wherefores here, but the town is still in shock. The threat of this has hung over Agonda since I’ve been visiting but, as a local friend told me, no one expected it to happen. It’s the first time in twelve years of working here that they’ve seen anything like it.
If all of this devastation wasn’t enough, I arrived with my own mini-cyclone in my stomach, picked up at Oman airport in a suspicious frittata. It’s always bad eggs with me – I once thought I was going to die from one in Kenya. I spent my first night hunched over a toilet, moaning in agony. Still, I thought, at least I’ll be beach-body ready.
Having recovered from that, I’ve set about reconnecting with all my friends here – Vasudev who runs Tranquil River Tours; the boys at Kopi – Shubham, Ram, Kapil, Shiva and Manoj; Mr Happy at Agonda Villas; Dinesh, Binesh, Ajay, Malika, and Manish from Simrose; Sudhir and Veena from Sampoorna Yoga School, and Gita who has her own stall near Kopi.
One of the joys of staying here is how many conversations I get to have every day. I can be in London and know my friends are all around me but only properly connect with them on social media or at a pre-arranged time. Here, I physically see people every day and have a chat. It’s part of the ritual. I’m trying to wean myself off my phone so I tend to leave it charging in my room.
And then of course there are my animal friends. I found out from Mr Happy (aka Anandu, which means ‘bliss’), that White Horse, star of a previous blog post, has died. Thank goodness Sweetpea is still here at Simrose, but she is out of sorts. Another beach dog has moved in and taken her place as lead Simrose dog. She is lying sulking under benches every day, because he takes no notice of her barked warnings.
Zimbo and Sanjo, my pack, are still there on the beach, Zimbo sporting an anti-rabies green marker on his head – he must have been vaccinated as part of the Mission Rabies project here in Goa. Apparently they have vaccinated over 12,500 dogs so far. Having been bitten last year, I’m glad to hear that, but now that I’m running on the beach a few times a week, I have taken to carrying a big stick just in case. It’s usually one dog that goes feral and that’s all it takes.
Coca Cola the cow is still hanging out in bars and cafes in town (I heard another Brit call her ‘CC’ yesterday) and Papaya the grumpy dog is in residence at Kopi. I’ve also spotted ‘Gammy’ – Agonda Villas’ dog with a broken leg, and ‘Phantom’ – the black-and-white-faced dog that hangs out with him.
I’m now trying to establish a routine that is panning out to be morning exercise – either yoga, running, walking or swimming – followed by late breakfast and then I start work around noon until 4pm. Then it’s time to walk in the evening sun and catch up with everyone on the beach. I work again in the evenings on my writing or editorial projects, depending on what’s going on and the wifi connection. Goa borrows its electricity from neighbouring state Karnataka so it can be an on-off affair, especially during the recent post-cyclone storms.
And of course those wonderful stranger conversations have already started happening. I met Peter at the swimming beach (south end) yesterday, a former teacher and child psychologist who told me about his work on left- and right-handedness, and how forcing a child to work with the other hand can lead to disharmony and abnormal behaviours. I spoke about the Ida and Pingala, the two sides of the body we learned about in yoga training – the left being passive, thoughtful, cool, guided by the moon, the right being active, physical, hot and guided by the sun. The goal of yoga (or one of its many goals) is to achieve balance between the two.
Then I met a wonderful young couple at Kopi who had met here – he, a German childcare professional and she, from Calcutta, a film producer. We had one of those conversations that I can only have here. We were talking about what makes Agonda so special and he said it was something about it’s reflective quality, a mirroring of yourself. I laughed and said I’d come to exactly the same conclusion and I’d talked a lot to my therapist about the reflective quality of the light here. There is something in it that shows you who you really are or who you could be and it makes you rethink everything. It’s hard to articulate but all who come here seem to know what it is.
I have twenty-five weeks here, and have completed one, and I intend to post a diary entry every week. I hope you’ll join me on this adventure. I’m not sure what will happen after the six months are up but I’m sure Agonda will show me the way.
I find other people’s reaction to rain stressful. They hate it. Simply loathe it. They think it’s out to get them and specifically times itself to appear on days when they specifically didn’t want it to. They think that it’s going to rain forever when it comes. I like to call this reaction Ark Syndrome, or Weather Catastrophism.
I find myself being a keyboard warrior on social media, fighting on behalf of rain, pointing out that it rains all year in Britain, and it’s not something that only happens in autumn and winter. It has done the same thing for millennia. The sun always comes back. Yet still, the collective wailing, the disappointment: “Where has the summer gone??!!”
I’ve just returned from another Costa Rican adventure where for the first week, I ventured into the rainforests around the Arenal volcano. I stayed in a treehouse, regularly doused by rain, and found myself going to bed early, lulled to a sweet slumber by the sound of the rain on the roof and the animals feeling alive in it. I went on rainy hikes wearing a huge poncho and laughed as I stood next to a thundering waterfall made more epic by the rain. The power. The power of all that water.
Maybe because I spent the first twenty-two years of my life in North Wales, I’m completely fine with rain. It makes countries beautiful and gives you sunsets to die for. I wouldn’t dream of visiting Costa Rica in the dry season when everything is bone-dry and brown (apart from the central rainforest). What would be the point of that? Everyone smiles in the rain in Costa Rica. It does it for six months of the year so what would be the point of being miserable in it?
In Britain, people are weird about weather. Because it’s constantly changing, we live in a world where no one believes forecasts and lives in an eternal state of hope about the mythical boiling-hot days to come. They forget to enjoy the early summer days in June when it’s cooler because it’s ‘not summer’ until it’s 40 degrees. Then suddenly its autumn, they pronounce that year’s summer null and void, whilst forgetting they could enjoy those ‘in between’ days. What a damn shame.
I went to Costa Rica during their ‘Little Summer’ – a break in the rainy season during July and August. For me, it truly is the best time to go. It still rains, but not nearly as much. For me the rain gives welcome respite from the glare of the sun and roasting temperatures. It gives rhythm to the days (and nights) and makes plants and animals happy. I found it soothing to listen to at night, and during the day when I was ill. When it’s torrential everyone stands around looking at it in awe, laughing. It reminds me of when it snows here, and everyone goes a bit hysterical with delight. (I prefer rain.)
Why do we make our relationship with rain so hostile, when it’s ever-present and never going to go away, when it’s life-giving and soothing? I simply don’t understand it. I’ve chosen to accept it, enjoy it, even – there was a time when I wouldn’t walk to work in it. Now I’ve just upped my waterproof game instead. Maybe hiking has given that to me.
Also, I look at weather forecasts. When I hear, “Let’s hope the weather clears up later!” I can often be heard saying, “It’s going to rain at 4pm and then the sun will come out at 6.30pm.” People seem genuinely surprised that I have this information to hand. I don’t know if it’s a refusal to accept reality that no one looks at a forecast, but in a nation where changeability of weather is the only constant, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t. Know what’s coming so you can deal with it.
It’s made me think that people like griping about the weather – they don’t like it when you take away the guesswork and provide the actual information. They like to think that they are in combat with the rain, and I’m just spoiling it by taking away their weapons. Radio stations pronounce rainy days as ‘miserable’. I say they’re just rainy.
I’ve realised that my favourite places in the world are in countries known for rainfall. New Zealand… the west coast of Ireland… the Costa Rican rainforest… the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Weather has made those places what they are and I love them for that. I’ve been soaked by rain and sunburnt in all those places – the latter always happens because I’m never expecting it.
And that brings me to my point. Stop expecting everything to be perfect and conform to the perfect summer. Expect rain and sunshine to be part of every season in Britain or you’ll be constantly disappointed. Do you really want to live in that perpetual state? Can you really not remember that last year the exact same thing happened, or that prior to one week of rain in August we had around two months of near-constant sunshine? I know because I walk to work and I think I’ve had to put my umbrella up once.
Make a relationship with rain that works for you. Lay down your weapons and just face it full on. You’ll find yourself in a much happier place.
As the Scandis say, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’.
For my fiftieth year, I wanted to scatter adventures throughout the year, rather than focus on one big one. I began with a return to my beloved Isle of Wight and its hypnotic coastal path at Tennyson Down. Again, I found I had it mostly to myself. I smiled when I saw two older women (older than me) scurrying down the Down towards me one morning. One was obviously a fell runner, the other striding out at speed with her dog. ‘That’ll be me in fifteen years,’ I thought. I hoped.
My first Island adventure three years ago was one filled with blisters and exhaustion. All the hiking I’ve been doing since then has made me more robust and able to take in the miles. My feet have toughened up (whilst still maintaining the acceptable public face of a pedicure). A friend recommended boots that were comfy from the very first wear. You can find them here. (I recommend Ellis Brigham because their in-store service is brilliant).
I’d planned on doing a classic milestone birthday walk on part of the Camino, the network of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and end up at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I mentioned it to a few hikers in my London hiking group, and they kept mentioning the joys of a town called Burgos, which sounded appealing. But a few kept mentioning a place I’d never heard of before – Picos de Europa: a spectacular mountainous national park in northern Spain that I would love. No none-hikers I mentioned it to had heard of it (and indeed, even in Spain it’s not widely known) so I decided that was my destination.
The week’s walking would be with adventure-holiday specialists Exodus, whom I’d never tried, but everyone recommended. In the recent past, I’ve avoided group holidays, preferring to ‘fly solo’, but a mountain region in Spain? It couldn’t be done on my own very easily. And having overcome my irrational bias against doing anything in groups (I used to think it was sad), it felt like the right next step. I know from my current hiking groups that people are largely great. There’s always the odd one you fail to click with, but I’ve made some really good friends through it and it’s changed my mind about shared experience.
I decided to throw myself into the group experience, starting at the airport. Most of our 15-strong group had been on the same flight and we’d all done the same thing: looked around for ‘hiking people’ on the flight and struggled to spot any likely candidates. When we met at Bilbao airport we were a disparate bunch – the only thing marking us out being above-average rucksacks with telltale bits of kit and huge ‘I can’t wait to hike’ smiles.
Hiking has taught me many things but this holiday taught me some more. It taught me that I am fit enough to walk up 1000-metre ascents with virtually no stops, whilst being able to play word games with fellow hikers. It taught me that the youngest person in the group is not necessarily the fittest – in our case, a 70-year-old man was the fittest, and most eager to scale peaks. I was happy to walk in his wake with his wife – we were the three Welsh ‘mountain goats’.
It taught me that some people hum or sing involuntarily when they’re happy and you know when they’re feeling below par because they stop. It taught me that unlikely people enjoy singing songs from the musicals, specifically My Fair Lady (I’m looking at you, Richard…), and that a slight, quiet man walking with poles, who knows everything about anything, can be a retired fireman with a heart of an ox, who has saved people from burning basements.
I learned that the group rally round people who are struggling. I attempted to scale a very small peak and freaked out about the vertiginous nature of the climb. I was ‘talked up’ by my more courageous colleagues and given a helpful arm to hold on to on the way down by the guide. It was one small step for womankind but meant the world to me.
I learned that it feels a bit rubbish not to join a splinter group for a more challenging ascent. As I waited for the others on the slopes below, I knew I’d made the right choice not to go (it was a scree slope with an even more vertiginous drop) but it wasn’t nice being left out. It occurred to me that the group thrived on shared experience, and each time we split up, it eroded that joyous feeling a tiny bit. They returned with ‘I did it!’ faces and it made me feel defensive and sad.
On the last day of hiking, I was striking out with my fellow mountain goats, mostly ahead of the pack. It was suggested to me later that some people had deliberately slowed down so that they could support people who were struggling at the back; that they could’ve gone faster, but chose not to. I felt selfish in my urge to strike out, to get the most out of the experience for me. Should I have held back?
I was reminded of the guy who sacrificed his own time in the London Marathon this year to help another who was struggling. I’ll confess that I’ve looked at that footage more than once and thought, “I’d run over the line first then go back for him”. Or maybe not. It’s made me question my self-professed team-player status. Am I in it for the team? Or am I just in it to get my personal best?
I think part of this thinking comes from a feeling of having been held back by people over the years. Held back from the horizon ahead, from crossing the finish line. I felt it when I finally made the decision to go to university (four years after sixth form), with no one around me suggesting that I should. My ballet teacher, whom I’d been working for, exclaimed, “if I’d known you were clever I would’ve suggested it years ago!” Indeed. Thank goodness I got there under my own steam.
I felt it when I’d got over the point where both my parents had died and was about to forge ahead unbroken, and my ex-husband’s parents started dying. It wasn’t his fault, but I wanted to run away and be free.
I felt it when I was on holiday with him and I’d want to walk over the next horizon, or stay out for that extra drink with the locals, and he didn’t. I’ve felt it when I’ve been out with friends who want to go to home early on a night out and I’m still yearning for action.
I’ve met all of these challenges by striking out on my own to continue the voyage, feeling like I’m peeling people’s clasping fingers off me as I pull away, thinking: “You can’t stop me doing what I want to do, stop trying to hold me back with you, I want to go further than you.” I’ve walked over the next horizon, stayed out for that extra drink and now it feels like my default setting.
But the best moments of this trip took place as a shared experience with the group (our Spanish guide, Alvaro, shouted ¡Group! when he wanted our attention). I genuinely forged connections with most of the group that I hope will last. After I’d hugged the last one coming through passport control at the airport, I had to rush off otherwise I’d have got upset.
All ages, all backgrounds, all experts in something fascinating (Janet and her plant knowledge!). Sharing G&T orders, bottles of cava, hairdryers, baguettes, bizcocho and an admiration for the guide.
I think my experiences over the years have caused me to be wary of other people trying to hold me back. That’s made me concentrate on the quality of my own experience, and that’s what solo holidays have given me the opportunity to do. But oh, the group.
Team Mountain Goat. You taught me oh so much about myself, about alpine plants, about Spanish history, about canals engineered in mountains, about hiking socks, about not washing waterproof jackets because they’re never the same after. But the main thing you taught me was how great people are. Especially hiking people.
Dedicated to Team Mountain Goat: Janet, Gill, Pete, Chris, Manisha, Anthony, Jenny, Vanessa, Hugh, Alvaro, Jennifer, Susan, Mandy, Richard and Jas.
It’s almost six years to the day that I first embarked on one of my solo holidays. I deliberately chose somewhere far away (Thailand) so I wouldn’t be able to chicken out and fly home ahead of time. I found the first few days really challenging (read about that here) but once I found my groove I couldn’t wait to go back again. And I did, a few months later.
Since then I’ve found a couple of places I love – Bodrum in Turkey and Dahab in Egypt – and visited them over and over again because I feel so comfortable there. This year, though, I felt like trying somewhere new, not least because I can’t currently fly to Dahab (flights aren’t currently going to Sharm-el-Sheikh from the UK) and Bodrum has been at the centre of the refugee crisis in the last year or so. I didn’t feel right to go there for pleasure.
Costa Rica has recently loomed onto the UK holiday horizon, partly because of the reintroduction of direct flights there from tour operators like Thomson (they started last November). I’d seen a friend’s holiday pictures over Christmas and thought it looked like the perfect destination for me – beautiful beaches, lush forests, interesting flora and fauna. I booked it before I could think about it too much.
My destination was Tamarindo, a surf town in the north west on the Pacific coast. At this time of year, the rainy season, the Pacific side is the driest, and July gives a short respite in the rains, that the locals call ‘Little Summer’. It rains a bit, but not nearly as much as it does between May and November in other months. What the rainy season does give you is a daily spectacular sunset, and Tamarindo is famous for it. Nary a day goes by without one lighting the curious cloud formations in a unique, glorious way.
Towards the end of my holiday I decided to take a ‘sunset cruise’ that hilariously turned into a ‘storm cruise’ with a dash back to the shore and being told to run for it across the beach because someone had been killed by lightning the week before. During my two-week trip, the lightning strike happened, plus a guy got his leg chewed off by a croc in Tamarindo estuary (he was walking where he shouldn’t) and a volcano erupted. Costa Rica is certainly ‘lively’ when it comes to natural-world news.
Tamarindo is happily also famous for its party atmosphere. One of the things I need when I’m away on my own is access to lively nightlife. I’ve found I can lose myself in local bars and clubs, whereas it’s more difficult in a quiet restaurant. I need lots of people around at night, and Tamarindo (or Tamagringo, as the locals refer to it) doesn’t disappoint. As the guides suggest, it has something of a ‘spring break’ feel about it, with a range of bars catering to the American surf crowd.
I preferred the local ‘Tico’ places – like Pacifico, where you can’t stand still for five seconds without someone whizzing you round the dance floor to the latest salsa hit. And then there’s the Crazy Monkey Bar, where everyone heads on a Friday night, split between a Gringo and a Tico dancefloor. Guess which one I headed to? Yep – Tico every time. Much more fun, and more relaxed. Beware the free shots given to ladies though – Guaro chilli shots are pretty lethal.
I’ve realised that what I really like is a hotel base, near to a lively town, but just out of the way enough to get away. The Esplendor Tamarindo is perched on the hill above the town and has spectacular views of the sunset from a swim-up bar. Howler monkeys fight for territory in the trees around the infinity pool and the tree-lined hills behind the hotel are filled with birdsong all day. Every room faces the ocean so it’s a place where no one feels disgruntled with their room choice.
(I wondered why the staff were a little bit grumpy in the hotel, when everyone tells you how friendly the Ticos are. It turned out, according to a tour guide, that it’s Argentinian-owned. That seems to be the byword for bad service in Costa Rica.)
The hotel/town situation reminded me very much of my first solo experience in Thailand. There, I was staying in an extremely romantic hotel, upgraded to a seaview, but I had access to a nearby party town that was only two minutes away. I could leave behind the romantic couples looking at the sunset and head into town for fun.
I laughed when I realised the similarity, but not so much when I realised how daunting it is going to a completely new continent so far away, on your own. I’d forgotten, in the years of repeat visits to Bodrum and Dahab, that it’s fairly stressful not knowing how things work. I quickly realised what was going to happen – it would take me several days, or even a week, to get into the swing of things, and then I’d want to book a repeat visit so I could go back and do it properly.
And that is exactly what did happen.
Luckily for me, I had a bit of a false start to the holiday, meeting a guy on his own in the hotel. He had found out lots of local information via an American guy who had retired there, and it gave me an instant solo-holiday boost. He was also great to hang out with, and we ended up touring the local bars one night, in what appeared to be a live Bacardi advert. We packed it all in – karaoke, salsa, house music – it was one of those nights. When he left a few days later I came crashing down with the realisation that I was on my own and I’d have to make my own fun. I really did wallow for a bit and it brought back those first wretched days in Thailand. But I did what I did back then, and booked some trips to shake off the gloom.
And then I met Nolberto the tour guide. My first trip was a guided group hike to Rincon De La Vieja – one of the four active volcanoes. Nolberto, like many of the Tico guides I came across, was well drilled in the history, culture and politics of his country. There is no army, he told us proudly. The money is spent instead on health and education, and education is compulsory for 7-12 year olds. He told us that the first mile or so of the hiking track into the forest is paved so that people in wheelchairs could enjoy the experience.
I realised why people want to live in Costa so much. Everything is focused on a better quality of life – ‘pura vida’ – the pure life statement that punctuates pretty much everything a Tico says.
During a post-hike visit to some hot springs, an American woman asked me what I thought about Brexit. They all did, every time I met one. And all but one was hugely sympathetic to the 48% Remain voters and worried about the threat posed to the US by Donald Trump. Hillary just HAS to get in, said one. I said it might be a good idea to prepare for the worst, just in case. So many of us in the UK had been caught out by complacency and it would be wise to go there in your head before it happened.
Mostly I get scowled at by women in couples on these sorts of holidays. They appear to think I pose some sort of threat, and their partners pick up on it and are invariably too scared to talk to me. A few times I got approached by women who were genuinely interested in what I was doing on my solo holiday and were comfortable enough in their marriages to include me in their family group. I really appreciated it. Thanks, ladies.
I’ve found, especially now I’m older, that I also get ignored by staff in restaurants and beach clubs. I’m told it’s because they can get more money out of couples and groups, but it felt as though it was the ‘cloak of invisibility’ that descends upon women after the age of 46. Seeing a waiter who had previously ignored me, running after a group of young surf girls at Lola’s, kind of confirmed that for me. Mind you, that was during my low point, so I was probably more sensitive than normal. Lola’s is a fantastic restaurant on the glorious Playa Avellanas – highly recommended. Especially the free Imperial Beer you get when you tell the waiter off…
Anyway, back to Nolberto. He’d given me his card on the trip and as he’s freelance, I thought I’d book him to go on my next trip to Monteverde. (Book him by email here: Eltwintours@hotmail.com). I’d tried booking a group trip in town, but they seemed to run only when they could amass enough people and I didn’t want to wait and miss out. On the spectacular drive there (it’s a cloud forest in the mountains), Nolberto had a habit of shouting, “Vámonos!” every time he overtook a slow vehicle (which was a lot). I started shouting it as well, and it made us laugh so much. He was great fun.
I realised how great it was to have a private guide on that day. It happened to be Guanacaste Day – the day that people in the north-western region I was in celebrate their annexation from Nicaragua. And boy, do they celebrate it. On the way back from Monteverde we stopped at Bar Y La Griega near Santa Cruz and they had a cimarrona band playing. It was a group of high-school boys standing outside the bar in the dark playing a frenzied mariachi-style music (which is usually accompanied by dancing puppets). One of things I’d never have witnessed if I’d been on a group tour.
Nolberto also tracked down sloths for me – I couldn’t visit the country and not see at least one. We travelled back to the volcano region to Finca Verde Lodge in Bijagua, which turned out to be a little gem of a place with hardly any visitors. We saw three small slots nestled high up in the cecropia trees they love so much and were told that they only come down about twice a week for toilet purposes.
Amazingly, one popped down while I was having my lunch and Nolberto passed it over to me to hold. It is simply one of the most beautiful moments of my life. It felt like a hairy baby, this 8-month-old three-toed sloth, that naturally curls its arms around you for a cuddle. He was stoned, of course, from the cecropia leaves, but his smile came from being a three-toed sloth. They all have them. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them.
Nolberto also encouraged me to zipline whilst at Selvatura Park in Monteverde. I was really scared but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. It comprises 12 ‘flights’ across 18 platforms and once I’d (literally) got into the swing of it, I was dying to do it again. I had to be ‘accompanied’ across a few flights by random guys – you had to do some of them in pairs. Thanks to the three guys who gallantly placed their legs around my waist without even knowing my name.
As with Thailand, I’m now feeling an overwhelming urge to return to CR. I wish I’d spent way more time in the mountains and done a lot more hiking. I wish I’d spent more time partying in the evenings and not so much going to bed early. I wish I’d spent more time with the locals. I wish I’d gone one step further on my first attempt at snorkelling in the sea but panicking in a life vest was as far as I got, and that was a lifetime achievement (I can’t swim).
I suppose it’s like that old adage about leaving the dinner table still wanting more.
Apart from last night’s glorious experience at Cantina, Ventnor wasn’t really appealing to me at first. But after a good night’s sleep and with blisters under strict control, I found it all so much more impressive in the morning.
I decided to go back to the coastal path and made my way to Steephill Cove – a place that has been recommended to me by so many Wight lovers. I can see why.
A strand of higgledy coffee shops and surf shacks line the cove, and when I arrived there it was bright and quiet. Here’s my Periscope. A coffee at the Beach Shack at the end of the strand has to rank as one of the best experiences of the trip. They have a bar with stools that overlooks the sea – it’s ridiculously beautiful.
Then it was further up the coastal path to Ventnor Botanic Gardens. Don’t make the mistake I made and go for the official entrance – I now realise I could’ve got in quite easily round the back of the gardens straight from the coastal path. An unnecessary circuit on still-fragile feet.
After the relative wildness of the coastal path and Steephill, I found the gardens all a bit too manicured and ‘curated’. I’m afraid I pretty much whizzed around it (after using the wifi in the café – no signal at all in Steephill) and got back to the coastal path as quickly as possible.
And so to Crab Shed for lunch, home of the crab pastie. I managed to grab one of the little tables at the front of the place, which is only open 12pm to 3pm but is oh so popular. They were offering prosecco with their crab – and who was I to turn that opportunity down?
I hopped back to the Beach Shack for another coffee and a read of my book, but I did feel self-conscious among all the (very middle-class) families there. I felt much more at home among the masses by the main beach at Ventnor in the end, despite Steephill’s impressive strand. I’d love to go back there with a friend.
I boarded a bus bound for Ryde which took me through the attractive old town of Shanklin and then Sandown. Of course, I should’ve walked through both towns, but sadly my feet weren’t up to it.
And so back to Ryde, into the welcoming abode of Joan and Brian, where I started my journey. It’s funny how quickly you can bond with people – I really looked forward to seeing them at the end of my journey and they told me they’d been following my blog.
It’s funny how these trips always come down to the people I meet. Mary, the mad cyclist, Clare the Chinese blogger, Christophe the German runner, and John White the walker.
And all the B&B owners: lovely Joan and Brian with their granddaughter Eva, Rowena who picked me up in Shalfleet when I was half dead, and Sue and Joe with their pet seagull, Ziggy, in Freshwater Bay. And then all the dogs and other animals I’ve met – too numerous to list here.
So this is the end of the trip, barring the hovercraft from Ryde in the morning. It didn’t quite go to plan, but there again, I think that plans are sometimes meant to be broken. And there will always be kind strangers there to help you out when that happens.
Hope you’ve enjoyed it all as much as I have – let’s do it again some time.