10 things I learned about myself in Wales

Having just been on a trip to my homeland which didn’t go quite as planned…

1. I am adventurous but I have my limits, and I reached them. I hired a vintage 1973 campervan and had no idea they were so difficult to drive until I got stuck, seven miles in, on my first hill. I climbed what seemed to be a relatively low mountain but the weather came in and I couldn’t see my way down a scree slope off the summit. I turned around and found another, safer, way down the mountain.

2. I love tiny living. I already live in a very small flat and I love the challenge of finding a place for everything and finding uses for every hook, nook and cranny in a small space. The one rainy day I had, I did my laundry and was completely cosy inside my van all day. I loved it.

3. I love rain. I do. I’m Welsh and it’s what makes Wales beautiful (and Ireland, Scotland and the Lake District). The more it rained, the more the land shone in the ensuing sunshine and the more the lakes, rivers, streams and waterfalls sparkled.

4. I learned not to believe everything people say. Often, when you go on an adventure, people warn you that you won’t be able to do things or get essential items, usually based on experience from ten or twenty years ago. I will trust my gut next time because it was right. Ironically, the one thing these people didn’t fancy telling me was how difficult the van was to drive. They ‘didn’t want to say’. Sigh.

5. I have an actual family. I have constructed a highly independent life because I am an orphan with no familial safety net. When I found myself in trouble, my cousin and his family were there for me and I felt a sense of love and belonging in Wales I haven’t felt in decades. Watching the build-up to the Queen’s funeral with my lovely aunty (my mum’s sister) was a precious time – in the ‘80s, I used to go to her house to watch ballet videos (we didn’t have a video player).

6. I love my homeland. Hiraeth – the longing for the place your spirit lives – is present in me. When I am in the rolling fields, surrounded by the mountains, with the sparkling sea in the distance, I feel truly at home. I realised that I have found versions of this landscape around the world but they’re nothing like the real thing. Wales, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.

7. I am a people person. Yes, I’m an introvert, but I thrive on transitory contact with people. On one hike I didn’t see a soul for five hours and it was horrible. I need people. I love Welsh people, like the man at the information centre who saw me passing and ran out with his hand-drawn directions to a mountain I’d enquired about.

8. I flow like water. Like a Welsh river, I can change my course when there is an obstacle in my way. I switched from a coastal driving holiday to a mountain camping one in a day. This sort of curveball happens to me a lot on holidays – like my injuries in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Georgia – each time my adventure turned into something even more amazing because I had to work around the original aim. This time, I knew exactly what to do, and the mountains were calling me to them. It turns out that my spirit lives in them.

9. I love Arthurian legend and my homeland is filled with it. I grew up reading the stories but wasn’t aware of their inherent Welshness until now. I wasn’t aware that the lake below Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) is Glaslyn, into which the sword Excalibur is said to have been thrown.

10. I can climb mountains. Yes, I get scared when the weather comes in, and no, I won’t climb an edge with a steep drop on each side for the ‘thrill’ but boy, I can climb a mountain. Being on my own gives me the freedom to go at my own pace, start and finish whenever I like, or change my course if I want to.

There is no freedom like it.

Misty

White horses appear to be a theme in my life, so when I sat down to eat my lunch during yesterday’s hike, I wasn’t surprised to find one munching some grass right next to me.

Misty’s owner told me that she is 15 (about 45 in human years) and that she was rescued from a bad life in Ireland where she’d been forced to have lots of foals and been in a road accident.

Now she lives a peaceful existence on the South Downs, but is still afraid of fast-moving bikes and cars.

What I didn’t know is that the grass that surges after summer rains is like crack for horses. It’s full of sugar and they go crazy for it, hence the munching. Misty’s owner said they’d ‘work it off’ by having a quick trot after lunch.

After she left, her soulful eyes looking at me sideways under long lashes, I thought about Misty in her midlife prime, having lived a difficult life but finding peace (and sweet grass) on the South Downs and realised we had a lot in common.

If you’ve read Cheat Play Live you’ll know how White Horse in Agonda was my spirit animal, showing me what a free and independent life could be like, by the sea. Misty, although not completely free, reminded me that the next move I make needs to be where the grass is sweet and the humans are kind. I think I know where that is.

The Ultimate Freedom

On today’s hike I saw a young woman carrying her paddleboard out of the sea, barefooted, about to cross the road back to her home. I told her that it looked like she was living the dream, and she said it was only the second time she’d been out on the water. She pointed to a distant structure in the sea and told me she’d got out as far as that and it felt really far away and she got scared, but she made it back. She had that look of wild elation.

She asked me where I was going and I told her about my solo hike. I told her how I loved the freedom to choose where I was going and sometimes I felt scared but it made me feel alive. I told her how good it was to see a solo woman coming out of the sea with her board tucked under her arm, the ultimate freedom.

I’m about to complete my final refresher driving lesson before my road trip in a campervan in September. I know I’ll feel scared, not having driven for over ten years, but I know I’ll feel free and alive. I’ll be announcing more details in my next newsletter (link on page).

Mountain mantras

I tackled a mountain horseshoe hike this week on my own and I’m so proud of myself. I hike solo a lot but there’s a big difference between the South Downs or a coastal path and the big Lakeland fells. There are steep drops, which I’m really afraid of, and some scrambling (meaning you have to use your hands). Scrambling at the top of a fell with a steep drop to one side had me chanting mantras and practicing my yoga breathing.

The thing is, you’re never alone up there. I met and chatted to lots of people and there is an exchange of information that really helps you make the right decisions for your walk. It’s all too easy to find yourself in difficulty on the side of a fell if you pick the wrong path.

I completely forgot about everything that’s been plaguing me recently – I focused on my map and how to place my feet on the rocks and I feel like my brain has been replaced with a new one.

I use an app to navigate – Outdoor Adventure – and today I had a paper map as back up, which I had to use. But it was the human input that really helped me that day – people here really know these fells and they’re keen to help other people enjoy them too.

I met two Yorkshire women who were doing the same route and we compared maps to check we were on the right path. I met them at the end in a sunny pub garden for a pot of tea and they gave me a lift back to my B&B.

Yesterday I had pain in my knee going downhill – after the strenuous horseshoe hike – and was really struggling to get down a fairly easy descent. Two men who were putting out flags for a fell race immediately said, “IT band. Get a roller on it when you can.”

I’ve had this issue before – when the side of your thigh tightens up and pulls on your hip and knee and knew exactly what I needed to do. It used to happen when I ran a lot and pushed myself too hard.

“Extend your poles going downhill – it’ll give you more to lean into.”

Instant relief.

“We can give you a lift back into Keswick if we see you at the bottom,” they said. But I declined – there was a tearoom waiting for me and a regular bus schedule.

Think you can’t hike on your own? Wondering what the point is? I’ll say this – you’ll talk to more people when you’re on your own than you would with a sidekick.

Because you can.

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.

Freedom to roam

Hiking solo means that I often meet people I wouldn’t otherwise get to chat to if I was with someone else. It’s the great advantage of being alone – I actually meet more people, but not for very long, which is just perfect for me.

I met Caroline and Dan, two old friends catching up over a two-day hike, at The Pink Pit Stop – where there always seems to be someone willing to chat.

Me (left) with Caroline at the Pink Pit Stop

“I’ve just seen the happiest dog in the world!” Caroline said, in the queue for coffee and a brownie. I was amazed that it wasn’t Gnasher, the resident terrier.

They were going my way and happy for me to join them hiking and we spoke about freedom. Caroline spoke about having lived in San Francisco for a long time and how much she felt free there. I told her that SF had been the setting of a life-changing moment for me, finding a shell on a beach there and making a decision to leave my marriage.

We talked about ‘home’ and what that means and decided that we both felt nomadic and tied down by mortgages and property ownership. She has a husband and two children and feels the pressure to put down roots to provide stability for her family. It goes against her DNA, she said.

Dan was scampering around taking pictures as we talked but he said there was a woman in his life who wanted her freedom too and he wasn’t sure if he could cope with her being away travelling so much. I told him about my long-distance relationship and how it had made me reassess what is ‘normal’ versus what feels right. Perhaps it was time for Dan to think about the advantages of being in a relationship with time spent apart, we concluded, especially as he’s an adventure junkie too. Not every life adventure has to take place in a couple.

At the end of the hike they were going to the pub in the evening sunshine and I experienced a pang of longing for my past life of downing a chilled glass of white wine (or three)after a long walk. Instead, I said goodbye, felt grateful for such wonderful company and chose freedom from alcohol. It’s the only path for me.

Poor You!

I’ve just come back from a trip to Dahab in Egypt (an hour north of Sharm El Sheikh in South Sinai) and one of the fun parts of the holiday was teaching my friend silly English words and phrases in exchange for Arabic ones.

I told him a story about a person I know who loves it when things go wrong in my life, so I’ve stopped saying anything negative about what’s happening to me on social media. If I post something really positive, with only an iota of negativity, she will pick up on the latter and exclaim, ‘poor you!’ This makes me feel angry.

The Egyptian, as he has become known, seemed to pick up on this phrase and repeated it back to me randomly the next day, pulling the pseudo-sympathetic face that goes with it, that I’d obviously used the day before. It made us laugh so much – everything that didn’t go to plan came with an explosive ‘poor you!’ and we’d collapse into giggles.

This happened on a day when the British were exercising their right to vote (well, 66% of them were) and I was struck by the ridiculousness of The Egyptian exclaiming ‘poor you!’ when I told him of the horrific result. Just the fact that we are allowed to choose our own government and vote in a democratic and free society is something of a privilege. Yes sirree, I checked my privilege.

The election happened to be in the same week that disgraced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was due to find out his fate: just three years’ imprisonment for embezzling millions of pounds of state funds. His earlier life sentence for the deaths of 800 protesters in the 2011 Revolution had been thrown out the previous November. The month before my trip, Egypt had seen its first democratically elected head of state in Egypt sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mohamed Morsi had used his status to grant himself unlimited power, resulting in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The Egyptian said that the freedom everyone felt after the Revolution was so sweet, but so fleeting. There was no follow-up plan, so corruption and power-wrangling quickly set in.

The Egyptian had been working in one of the restaurants in Dahab where three anti-Mubarak nail bombs went off in 2006. He’d been lucky, but he stumbled outside to see bodies everywhere and people running into the sea. The emergency services were not quick enough to save all the casualties. Twenty-three people died, mostly Egyptians.

Now, the police crawl all over Sinai, ostensibly to protect the tourists from the threat of terrorism, but the reality is that they prefer terrorising innocent Egyptians. There are two checkpoints between Sharm and Dahab, but the police are only interested in who the drivers are, not who’s in the back of the cab. They make a huge deal out of making people wait, checking ID, being suspicious. If they think that tourists don’t notice what they are doing, then they are very wrong. It stinks.

The general consensus is that the police are bored, just making stuff up to give them something to do. Their directive is to leave the tourists alone – even if they’re the ones committing a crime in public, they will pick on the Egyptian with them and ignore the foreigner. It’s horrible but a fact of life and the locals’ response is a chilled ‘what can we do?’

I ended up going on a glorious day trip with a group of women of all nationalities: Egyptian, Swiss, Austrian, Anglo-Greek and me, Welsh. One of the main topics of conversation was the ‘woman problem’. Apparently the women of Egypt are rising up in a way that is making the male population uncomfortable. Of course, being a feminist, this was music to my ears. Some women are not happy with the deal – just staying in and looking after children and cooking for their men. (Some of them are, it has to be said, and some of these aren’t Egyptian. Russian women seem to enjoy it and many Egyptian men in Dahab marry them. It’s a good match.)

One night, I saw two Egyptian women having a ‘ladies night’ out – their kids were running around outside while they sat in a restaurant, chatting and drinking tea. One was breastfeeding. One was sitting alone with her child. It was so great to see that.

Initially it wasn’t as great to see little local girls running around the town all day selling homemade bracelets. I’d see them walking on isolated roads carrying their wares from town to town, and worry for their safety. No, the women told me, this is their moment of freedom and they are completely safe. As soon as they start their periods they are confined to the house, drinking tea with the other adult ladies of the family. It seems as though some mothers have started hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the men in the house, just to prolong their freedom, even to the point of trying to make the girls look younger. It seems to work.

As I sat there in my bikini, being served Bedouin food by a woman fully covered except for her eyes, I checked my privilege again. I could stride into Dahab and into this beautiful Bedouin isolated beach settlement (Ras Abu Galum, in case you’re interested) and literally let my hair down, wearing a bikini.

I may never say, ‘poor you!’ again, unless in jest with The Egyptian. Poor, poor us, and our democratically elected government who aren’t embezzling millions of our pounds to fund their palaces (I’m sure someone will point out that they are doing this), or killing 800 protesters who happen to disagree with their policies. Poor us, and our freedom as women to go about as we choose after we become adults, to have jobs, wear what we want and have sex outside marriage.

Yes, yes, I know everything is relative, but it is worth putting things in perspective every now and again.