Everything is food

One of the things I’ve been learning on my Indian philosophy course with Sudhir Rishi is the idea that whatever we take in through our senses is ‘food’. Whatever we taste, smell, see, touch or hear feeds not only our physical body but becomes associated with our thoughts and moods, our memories of joy and sadness. You might say, ‘we are what we sense’.

My hike yesterday was filled with the smell of wild garlic, the sight of yellow dandelions, the sound of birdsong and lambs, the taste of lemon drizzle cake and the feel of warm wood under my hands as I passed through gates.

While walking, I thought about how I feed my body and mind, not always with the things that make it happy, whether that’s scrolling on my phone, watching trash TV, eating processed food, drinking alcohol or listening to an argumentative political radio show.

Once you start thinking of all these things as food, it’s easier to cut some of them out. In Indian philosophy, everything in existence is ‘god’ including your own body, so why would you offer it something bad? I’m not saying I’ll be able to change all my bad habits overnight but it’ll make me stop and ask myself some questions before I let them in again.

The Sound of the Universe

I love hiking on my own. It makes my soul happy. When I wandered the hills around my home in Wales as a girl I felt like I was looking for something – or someone – to complete me. It felt circumstantial that I was on my own and not my fault, but now I realise that I’ve chosen to be on my own for most of my life. I need it to recharge, especially in nature.

I think this is the definition of introversion and for so many years I pretended to be an extravert. I had to, to get somewhere in my career, but she ultimately was not me. Now, I sit alone in silence, working in my flat and listen gratefully to the silence. I love it – no noise to fill the space. I don’t need it. The sound of birdsong is my music. There’s so much of it, when you tune in.

I remember someone asking me what I listen to on my long-distance hikes. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The sound of the universe, maybe, the Om. I always used to wonder what the thrum of the earth underneath my feet was and now I know.

It is Om.

Be Your Own Valentine

The perfect Valentine gift for yourself or a friend – my seven secrets to a successful single life:

  1. You don’t have to get married – I used to think that coupledom was the only valid life choice. It isn’t.
  2. You don’t need a wingperson – I used to wait for friends to accompany me to drinks, dinner or a concert, before I realised I could do it all by myself, and love it.
  3. You can date whomever you want (and it doesn’t need to be forever) – coming out of a socially condoned marriage opened my life to dating younger men and men from very different cultures. All of these experiences have enriched my life, and continue to do so.
  4. You don’t have to have children – even though it seems as though everyone is doing it, you can opt out. It is a choice not a given.
  5. You can go on holiday on your own – you can do exactly what you want, when you want, without having to compromise. Win!
  6. Single life isn’t perfect (but neither is coupledom) – it’s a rollercoaster but I know which ride I’d rather be on…
  7. The greatest relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself – it’s a cliche for a reason. If we don’t put ourselves first, no one else will.

Now available on Amazon for only £1.99 (ebook) and £4.99 (paperback):

Soggy Dog Story

I’ve been thinking about comfort zones. On Saturday evening, I walked up a heather-covered fell with no one else around, in wind and rain, at the end of the day when I really should’ve been heading back. I even tried to go further but my gut was screaming to go back. I found out later that I was heading into a notoriously boggy area so my gut had been right (as always).

Today I tried to cross that bog and found myself panicking (and crying) in the middle of it, believing myself to be stuck. There were fighter planes from the local RAF base flying at eye level with me as I stood in the middle of the bog. It was a most surreal moment. I got out, but I’d crossed my comfort zone again.

I know when I’ve stepped outside it – I start to breathe quickly and shallowly, I feel like crying, and then I start talking and singing to myself (and to sheep) to keep my spirits up.

I kept thinking about 26-year-old Alex Staniforth from Chester, the fell runner I cheered into town on Friday night, as he completed his Bob Graham Round in 27 hours – 42 fells, 66 miles, 26,000ft – unaided. I kept wondering how hard it must have been to have been on top of a fell at 2am, on your own, with only a head torch to help you.

I later found out that he has already attempted Everest twice, aged 18 and 19, stopped only by the Nepal earthquake and the avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas. The holder of the record for the ‘double Bob Graham’ – 84 fells in 45 hours – is a woman my age: Nicky Spinks.

The thing about the Lakes is that you keep meeting inspiring people. It’s where people congregate, bright-eyed, to share tales of fells they’ve traversed and people they’ve met. I realised that I’d met legendary fell runner Joss Naylor when I was hiking here last. I had no idea who he was at the time but he had an aura around him. He was the first to congratulate Alex on his Bob Graham, of course.

And then there was Lisa Bergerud in my last blog post, with her incredible story. I remembered what she’d told me about deep breathing when I started to panic today. Like many people here, Lisa has learned to keep pushing against her comfort zone, and in my small way, so am I.

And the soggy dog? I met a man and his very wet but happy labradoodle, heading towards the fell I’d been up on Saturday evening. I was so glad to see them both. He called his dog “Soggy Doggy” when I stooped to pet him.

“That’s the name of today’s story,” I thought, and continued on my way, stopping only to chat to two Scottish guys who were off to wild camp in the rain, grinning.

Happy Soggy Doggies, the lot of us.

Back down the fell, alive and well…

Read my new memoir, CHEAT PLAY LIVE, and leave me a review! You can buy it here: https://linktr.ee/redwoods1

I wandered lonely as a cloud…

…except I didn’t. I love walking alone but I also love bumping into incredible people on the way, especially when I’m a bit scared in a white-out on a narrow path on a Lake District fell! As always, a guardian angel looms out of the mist to guide me on. It has happened so many times…

Lisa Bergerud is a fell runner who has done the Bob Graham round twice – once in her twenties and once in her forties (42 fells/66 miles in 24 hours).

She also fell off Sharp Edge ridge on Blencathra and smashed her entire body up. She recovered with physio and now works as a ranger for John Muir Trust, dedicated to the conservation of wild places. As we walked along (fast) she was picking up litter as she went.

She left me as I found a place for lunch and I watched her run off down the heather-covered mountain. She’s not supposed to run for her job but she loves it too much. What an amazing woman.

Because I Did

This truly feels like the end of an era. The era of essentially going to the same beach around the world, time and time again. The beach towns even look the same: Dahab, Agonda, Tamarindo – to name but three of my regular destinations.

This is the end of an era that lasted eight years, of losing myself in in far-flung beach towns, sometimes taking days to leave the place I’m staying in. Often crying hard, sometimes behind sunglasses on the beach, I now think of it as a form of self harm. Why not take myself to an incredibly romantic location to ‘really’ feel lonely and out of place?

Meanwhile I’ve been learning that wherever the sun goes down over the sea, there are always good people trying to make their way in the world. They just have different resources to hand and a different way of looking at things. But they all love animals, children, the sea, the sun and their friends and families.

I have journeyed back to the places I’ve loved twice, sometimes more times, happy to find a familiar place, a familiar face. I’ve said I’ve done it because I’ve wanted to really get to know a place, but it’s usually because the first time in a place I’ve spent days on my own feeling scared to go out. When I finally do, I kick myself for not getting out earlier and immediately plan to return. I want to experience a place properly from the start. And it’s always worked beautifully the second time round.

This is the first holiday I’ve had where I haven’t cried. Not once. Last year I sobbed all the way to the airport – the driver said, “madam, please control yourself!” This is also the first holiday where I haven’t drunk a lot. I’ve gone to bed early and risen early to go down to the beach to have coffee, say hello to the dogs and walk on the beach. Then I do a yoga class and have breakfast. I read books and eat ice cream. I buy beads and beach dresses and swim in the sea. Because I can now, having learned to swim this year.

I sit at the bar more for the company than the anaesthetic of booze. I find it don’t need it to chat to people any more. Even last year’s White Horse, with whom I completely identified as she roamed the beach and bars every day, has disappeared.

In 2018 I did an extraordinary thing. I pushed myself so far outside my comfort zone I was in a galaxy far far away. I went to Kyrgyzstan, with my hiking group. A trip that involved trekking, horse riding, camping, bitter cold, nomads, ‘natural toilets’. I knew there would be ups and downs (literally and spiritually) but didn’t know they’d be quite so up and quite so down. I had had a hip problem that flared up even before we’d started, on a walk round a market. I convinced myself I’d have to go home. I got my period on the first night in a yurt – two weeks’ early – no one tells you that altitude can do that. I cried and was convinced I was turning back.

My companions urged me to maybe get to the next stage before deciding, and little by little they brought me along with them.

Reader, I did it. I rode horses with nomads and climbed to 4,000 metres in the most epic landscape I’ve ever seen. I ate yak stew and drank vodka with Kyrgyz horsemen who laughed at our toilet humour. I am forever grateful to that group of people, and to Gary from Go London who organised that trip and knew I could do it. The ‘well done’ hug he gave me at the end of the trip made me cry, but this time from pride, relief, and joy.

Something switched in my brain on that trip and I’m not the same person I was at the start of 2018. I am discovering my boundaries and they are greater than I thought.

I am discovering the boundaries I need to put in place to ensure a happy and fulfilling personal and working life. I have seen a therapist who helped me beyond all expectation. She knew that I was carrying around a sadness deep inside of me that needed to be released and comforted. And so it is. She is. The ten-year-old little girl who lost her daddy and has been walking the earth ever since, looking for him. That girl lives with me, now.

I haven’t blogged this year because all of this was in progress. I couldn’t think of what to write down because it was in flux in my head and I couldn’t form a coherent set of ideas.

But do you know what? I think I’m ready to write my book.

A Walk of One’s Own

On Monday I’m going to be making my way from London over to the Isle of Wight for the very first time. My plan is to walk the entire 69-mile coastline over the course of four days, and blog about it as I go. I will, of course, be doing it solo.

St Catherine's Oratory (photo via www.isleofwight.co.uk)
St Catherine’s Oratory (photo via http://www.isleofwight.co.uk)

If you’re not from the UK, then let me tell you a little bit about the island. It’s in the English Channel, just off the south coast of England. It’s famous for being Queen Victoria’s holiday destination of choice, the world’s oldest sailing regatta, a couple of great music festivals and having dinosaur fossils in its limestone rocks. To get to it you take a ferry or hovercraft from Portsmouth, on the mainland.

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Round the Island yacht race (photo via http://www.isleofwight.co.uk)

After a number of years in which I’ve perfected the art of going on holidays on my own abroad, this summer I felt the urge to explore my own country. I’d been reading Robert Macfarlane‘s wonderful books about walking and knew I wanted a walking holiday. I met someone from the Isle of Wight who extolled its virtues to me and thought a coastal circuit would suit me fine. Then I found Wight Walks, who organise everything for you, including accommodation and transporting your bags between venues.

Yarmouth Pier (© Jason Swain)
Yarmouth Pier (© Jason Swain)

Day one is going to see me travel over to the island and stay for a night in Ryde. Day two will be the start of the walk, from Ryde to Shalfleet, 16.7 miles. Day three will take me from Shalfleet to Freshwater (16.6 miles); day four – Freshwater to Ventnor (17.6 miles), and day five, Ventnor back to Ryde – 19 miles.

Ouch. Here’s the full itinerary.

I’ve already blogged about my new-found love for walking, having been inspired by Cheryl Strayed and Robert Macfarlane’s books. I started walking to and from work in the centre of London (about 4.5 miles each way) last summer and now I’m addicted to it.

Freshwater Bay (© Jason Swain)
Freshwater Bay (© Jason Swain)

I build in a walk into town on most days, weather permitting, and have started choosing my wardrobe based on suitability for walking. Each walk gives me time to listen to the radio, contemplate things and even dream up new ideas for blogging. They also give me the chance to see some wildlife, as it involves a large canal section, where Canadian geese, ducks and moorhens roam. I need a bit of that in the city.

© Jason Swain
© Jason Swain

So I’m hoping to be able to Tweet, Instagram and Periscope a bit on the island, even though I’m told the phone signal is a bit dodgy. If it is, it is. I’ll do an update each evening when I find wifi. I’ll be using the hashtag #wightwalk.

Looking forward to having you join me on my journey.

Headon Warren (© Jason Swain)
Headon Warren (© Jason Swain)

Flying Solo – a further comment

Today I was asked to provide comments for a Huffington Post article on solo female travel, in response to this scaremongering one on the Mail Online. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2960567/Most-dangerous-holiday-destinations-women.html

They didn’t print everything I said, so here’s the full thing:

The only times I’ve particularly felt unsafe while travelling were when I had let my preconceptions about a country fuel my fears. I have been holidaying alone for nearly five years and taking those first steps into a Thai town, a Turkish city or an Egyptian village are incredibly scary. I once allowed myself to believe I’d been drugged in a shop in Dahab by a shopkeeper, when in fact it was probably a panic attack brought on by fear. Similarly in Kenya, a scary group of men on motorbikes I kept seeing when out running on my own turned out to be a taxi rank. Of course, women are viewed differently in these countries, and it would be stupid to not be on your guard, but as someone who is fully aware of the potential hazards, I walk in confidently and try to see things as they really are.

I always watch men on holiday with a sense of envy. They are completely free to roam wherever they like, without much fear for their safety. There is a reason why some of the best travel books are written by men and not by women, and I long to be as free as those guys riding round Thailand on motorbikes without a care in the world. But I know my situation isn’t the same as theirs and have to adapt my experiences to fit.

My advice to any solo woman traveller would be, be aware of the potential hazards by reading up before you go. Beware of scaremongering features like this one in the Mail, and opt for sensibly written guides from Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Yes, it’s wrong to have to restrict your behaviour or clothing options in certain settings, but it does make sense. I do agree with this article in terms of trusting your gut instinct when it comes to certain situations. If something or someone is making you feel uncomfortable, get out of there, even if you discover later that your fears were unfounded.

I think it’s a shame that many women will read an article like this, which is typical Mail scaremongering, and be put off from travelling alone and discovering the world. Many people would prefer women to stay in a domestic setting and not discover the joy of solo travel. Yes, you should know the hazards and look at other intelligent travellers’ tips on staying safe, but never let it stop you from taking those steps into the wider world.

(Edited comments appear here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/02/23/women-solo-travel-saftey_n_6734512.html?1424697457)

 

Flying Solo

Well here I am, back to the central concept of my blog – literally flying solo from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, at the end of another glorious holiday on my own.

I’ve got the routine down pat. From that first holiday in Thailand (see my very first post – Consciously Uncoupling) where I spent days feeling sorry for myself in an exotic location, I’m now a veteran of the experience, knowing how to play it, how to pace my time and how to react when people question me about it.

Today I got questioned by one of the hotel’s numerous managers: he had thought that by reading my book alone on the beach that I didn’t like the hotel. Nothing could be further from the truth – feeling relaxed enough to do that on day one is pretty much my personal seal of approval. Why is reading alone seen as such an antisocial activity? This came on the heels of another hotel employee asking me why I was reading rather than relaxing – to him the two were very definitely exclusive – and later I was told that all the staff thought I was a doctor because I was wearing glasses and reading books. Wherever I go I am known as the ‘lady with book’ – people seem genuinely surprised that I read.

But like many solo travellers, the book is my travelling companion, my security blanket, my go-to item when I’m plunged into an unfamiliar setting. I can quickly immerse myself in a fictional (or non-fictional) world when I’m surrounded by couples and families on the beach, at dinner in a crowded restaurant, in a coffee shop filled with Egyptians or Turks. When a book is with me, I have a bubble to escape into, and I zone out all of the noise and activity around me. It’s so much more than ‘just a thing to do with your hands’ when you’re on your own.

I tend to punctuate my time on holiday by booking a few trips – this time to the White Canyon in Nuweiba (where you have to haul yourself out by a rope!) and a submarine trip to see fish on Napoleon Reef (I don’t swim). This is a great way of meeting new people, especially if you’re thrust into potentially life-threatening situations, as in the canyon.

What thrilled me on that trip was seeing an Egyptian couple bring along their one-year-old (beautiful Maryam) and entrust her safety completely to the guide. For most of the walk/climb through the canyon, he held her on his shoulders and she slept with her head on his. He even took her with him when he climbed out of the canyon using only the rope. The parents were mildly anxious, but not freaking out, as I would have been. It made me think about challenges and scary things, and how they’re not so scary when you get up close to them. That guide held out his strong dark hand every time I exclaimed, “I’m scared!”, and pulled me up over a boulder or tricky climb. I kept thinking, ‘well if he can do it with a baby on his head…’

The first time I came to Egypt I was scared. Of the people, my perception of the culture and religion, the language. Everything. It didn’t help that a Dahab shopkeeper spiked my tea when I went into his shop – I literally ran out and off to the hotel shuttle bus, vowing never to go back again. But I’ve gone back again and I’ve laughed at how normal it all seems because I’m not seeing it all through the veil of scariness. I walked past his shop, at night this time, and stopped to talk to other shopkeepers who’ve simply sold me something without hassling me (although the non-hassling ones are few and far between – I make a point of going into their shops. By the way, I don’t think that shopkeeper intended to drug me – the tea had a mildly fuzzing effect that was probably intended to relax me into more shopping. He looked genuinely surprised when I ran out.)

That first time in Dahab town, I swathed myself in a long dress and scarf around my head, so as not to ‘stand out’. No wonder I was hassled. This time I noticed Egyptian girls (I didn’t see many women over 30) running around in jeans and jackets, hair streaming free. However, the best moment was spotting a convoy of Muslim girls on quad bikes heading into the desert, in full headgear. You go, girls.

From the Bedouin guy next to the hotel selling me Turkish coffee and giving me some bread to help him feed the birds in his tent, to the guy selling me boat trips, it didn’t take long before I stopped thinking these people were just after me for something. Of course, they’re selling their wares, but both guys took time to chat to me, to tell me about their lives and make me feel comfortable. Add to that the Egyptian couple in the canyon, who left an open invitation to their place in Cairo and emailed pictures they took of me wobbling and panicking up the canyon wall.

In many ways, the canyon trip represents the challenge of holidaying alone for me – I knew it would be beautiful-but-frightening. That I might fear for my life as I made my way through and wish I wasn’t there at all, but then smile heartily over a Sakara beer that night and feel my soul enriched by the experience. I would want to do it again. And I do.

This brings me on to an experience I call The Rollercoaster. Each and every holiday alone does not go to plan. I never end up doing what I think I’m going to be doing on any given day and I’ve learned to ride the rollercoaster, wherever it may take me. Four years ago, a terrible New Year’s Eve in Thailand led to a wonderful New Year’s Day, where I rode around Koh Samui on a bike, in between two Thai women who wanted to show me around. We eventually we went clubbing and had the time of our lives. I resolved then that NY Day is the new NY Eve.

The trick with The Rollercoaster is not to give up when things feel a bit grim. On your own at dinner one night? There’ll be a party invite the next, or an unexpected meeting with an old friend in a bar in town … or new one. Don’t expect anything and everything will happen in its own good time. It always does, and it’s just done it again. I love it. It’s life.

The other trick is not to rely on anyone else for your plans. I once met two Australian sisters in Phuket and they promised hand on heart to come back after their trip to Phi Phi to spend the last day of my holiday with me. I looked forward to it so much and they never showed. But I did end up meeting an Indian air stewardess in a bar and we went clubbing together, so all was not lost.

The Rollercoaster.

Part of me just wants to get on the waltzers, or even just the children’s spinning teacups, and have a nice ride round with no thrills or spills. But then the lure of the unseen horizons over the top of the rollercoaster’s peaks and loops are too much for me and I have to send myself there.

It’s always, always worth it.

(From Sharm El Sheikh airport, which really does need to get wifi)

Specs and the City

I love my Sex and the City box set. I really do. I’ve watched it many, many times. For me and many women it became an era-defining examination of womanhood, friendship and relationships. I still find new resonances in it now, new ways in which it reflects aspects of my own life, and at various times, I feel a real kinship with one of the four girls, depending on what’s going on at the time. If you ask them, most women know if they’re a Carrie, Miranda, Samantha or a Charlotte (I’m a Miranda/Samantha combo).

But there’s always that episode towards the end of the final season where the ham-fisted scriptwriters create an allegory of womanhood that does not sit well with me. It’s called ‘Splat!’ and it’s the episode in which a 40-year-old socialite bemoans the end of her party lifestyle in New York, declares she is “so bored she could die” and promptly trips over her Manolos and falls out of the window. Later, at her funeral, Miranda quips, “the party’s officially over,” and Carrie rams the point home, “She wasn’t always so tragic… Ladies, if you are single in New York after a certain point, there is nowhere to go but down.”

Nice one, SATC. Way to make every woman over forty like some cast-off piece of shit. Even worse, this is the episode where the smugly loved-up Carrie is parading her fifty-something hot Russian lover in front of her fifty-something hot female boss, who is forced to date ‘a hobbit’ because younger women like Carrie are stealing men from her age-appropriate ‘wading pool’.

Carrie ends up giving up her work, her life in New York, to go to Paris with The Russian, just to escape the horror of being single and nearly forty in New York, where all her friends are partnered up before they reach their ‘scary age’.

It’s only in these final stages of the box set that I start to not love SATC. Up until then, I love its celebration of female independence and identity but ultimately, it’s just one Big search for a life defined by a being with a man. Even if that man is emotionally unavailable, jealous of your success or obsessed with his work.

I know this is partly because the series was made during the nineties and early noughties, when everyone was supposed to be filled with the Y2K meltdown fear. It almost represented a kind of pre-war moment where everyone rushed to couple up before the apocalypse.

But I couldn’t help but wonder … what would the storyline be if it was made now?

Wouldn’t it be interesting if the show hadn’t copped out to coupledom and looked realistically at the lives of women post-forty, living in a city, with their own flats and good jobs, just doing their thing and having a great time? I know plenty of them. I am one of them. Hell – I’m up for starring in this new show.

I reckon Carrie would be back in her East 73rd street apartment, having decided that The Russian was too up his own ass, and Mr Big was too much like hard work. She’d have her own column in Vogue (she’s moved on from the New York Star), two more book deals, and be the proud owner of a vintage-fashion boutique in SoHo (rather than a walk-in wardrobe built by her rich fiancée). She may also have invested her book royalties in Steve and Aidan’s second bar – a cocktail one, obviously.

I’m always disappointed that Carrie gives up her hard-won, didn’t-want-to-marry-even-gorgeous-Aidan independence to plump for a guy who can barely say the word ‘love’, even at the end of six seasons. Sure, he makes her laugh but he doesn’t offer the ‘ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love’ she says she’s looking for.

Everyone in the show except Carrie has to deal with a huge reality check towards the end – miscarriage, dementia, cancer. This is the stuff of life, in my experience, not waiting to be swept off your feet in a Parisian hotel and into a shiny new NYC apartment by a suave city boy. But Carrie is the ’90s Holly Golightly, a child-woman on the look-out for a father figure to rescue her. She doesn’t deal with reality very well (I can’t bear Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

At the end of the box set and into the first (disappointing) movie, I always feel more akin to Miranda than anyone else. Her life is derailed by a mother-in-law with dementia (my mother suffered from it) and she has already lost her own mother. And then there’s Samantha – her mantra of “I love you but I love me more” means she ends up choosing independence over an unsatisfactory relationship.

Been there.

But the show does momentarily find its centre again in those last lines uttered by Carrie: “…the most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well that’s just fabulous.”

Abso-fuckin-lutely.