Goodbye to Dahab

I’m writing this in my final few hours in Dahab, once more struggling with the idea of leaving this amazing town. The wind is softening the heat of the sun today, and I’m just sitting by the pool, hearing my last call-to-prayer (I think) and mentally preparing for the trip back to Sharm El Sheikh airport.

Whenever I say I’m coming here people say to me, “ooh isn’t it dangerous?” No. No, it really isn’t. I’m pretty sure it’s more dangerous living in London, where only recently someone got shot on a road near to mine, and various members of ISIS in Syria have been recruited from a local school.

To get to Dahab you have to get a taxi from Sharm airport and drive for about an hour through the mountains on quiet roads. There are two police checkpoints on the way, and depending if your driver is friends with them or not (or well known) then you simply pass through after the usual Arabic pleasantries. Given that the queue for passport control is about a tenth as busy as at a London airport, I’m fine with this. At one point, you had to join a convoy of cars to drive through the checkpoints, now this is not the case.

Southern Sinai is perhaps the most security conscious of all the Egyptian governorates because it houses the all-important tourist industry. Hence the police presence. ISIS are active in one tiny corner of this 1 million-square-km country, in the northernmost part of Sinai, bordering Israel. Whenever I mention this to a local friend, they express surprise that it’s even a consideration to tourists given that it is so far away.

I fly with Easyjet to get here and at 4hrs 45mins outbound, it feels quicker and quicker every time I do it. Almost always, I’m the only passenger going to Dahab – thankfully – but I always think, “Oh you have no idea what you’re missing out on…”

I’ve written a lot already about how scared I was of everything here, and how those fears have eroded over time. I now know that I am incredibly safe here, from walking alone in the dark, to leaving valuables lying around in a cafe or by the beach. People respect my person and my belongings and I know that they would drop everything to help if I found myself in a ‘situation’.

It’s all too easy to translate the shopfront ‘hassle’ as something more insidious, as I did previously when I had a panic attack inside one, but it’s just the way things work here. However, even the locals are learning that the less they hassle, the more likely it is they’ll get tourists to come in to their businesses.

Now I’ve just got to adjust to the culture of nothing quite being what you think it’s going to be. This applies to the timing of things, the cost of things, and what you expect things (like day trips) to be. At first you think you’re being taken for a ride, but you soon realise that this is just the way things are here. Nothing is quite what it seems at first, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s often an improvement, if you let yourself go with it. You can save yourself a whole lot of bother if you just adopt the local, ‘what can you do?’ shrug and get on with it.

So once again I’m leaving here knowing full well that I’ll be back. The only fear is that something will prevent me, but I somehow know I’ll find a way to return to this magical place.

I’m stopping now because a cat wants to climb on my keyboard… See you on the other side.

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I’m writing this on the other side, filled with horror and sadness at the news about the Russian Metrojet plane crash. Not only for the deaths of innocent people and the grief of their families, but also for my friends in Dahab who rely on tourism for their livelihoods. As they say, I hope all will be ok, inshallah.

You’ve Been Mangoed

As I write at the breakfast table, my iPhone is in the hands of a Bedouin who is skilled in taking phones apart, cleaning them, and putting them back together again. I’ve been told that he can get anything out of them. My phone has been mangoed.

I knew it was going to happen, too. I’d been carrying round a slightly leaky carton of mango juice in my bag for a day and knew it would spill on something. It spilled into a pocket of my bag, into which I unwittingly thrust my phone. Lovely. It carried on working as normal for a few hours so I thought I was in the clear, until it started saying NO SIM and suddenly trying to delete apps without me telling it to. I tried the old ‘bag of rice’ trick overnight to no avail.

I asked a range of people about my options – everyone mentioned the guy in Asilah Square with the magic touch so we went there last night. If he fixes it, I will be astonished. I’ll update you in my next post…

Poolside view, Acacia Hotel.
Poolside view, Acacia Hotel.

So this meant that I had a day without my iPhone and it turned out to be blessing. I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the pool of the Acacia Hotel, which is closer to the sea than the one I’m staying in (I checked out one of the rooms – pretty cool – around £30 per night). It has a relaxed poolside vibe with some interesting people busying themselves with dive trips, and a gorgeous restaurant overlooking the sea. I’ve just found a spot among the Bedouin cushions and stared at the Gulf across to Saudi Arabia.

The view from the restaurant over the Gulf of Aqaba across to Saudi Arabia.
The view from the restaurant over the Gulf of Aqaba across to Saudi Arabia.

As you do. I’ve also been joined by a variety of animals – Bufra’s daughter, Fatty, and a load of cats. NB. Don’t order the tuna salad unless you have a water gun by your side. They appear like something out of Dawn of the Dead.

Fatty is sleeping, with the trademark Bufra smile on her face.
Fatty is sleeping, with the trademark Bufra smile on her face.

You may have noticed that I’m a tad obsessed with the animals of Dahab, specifically the dogs. I have a theory that it is the Dogs of Dahab who rule the town, the humans are just incidental. There are street dogs, pet dogs, dogs that run gangs who literally hound each other around town, dogs that smile, dogs that can’t bear it if you stop stroking them, dogs covered in battle scars from a hard life, puppies that pull the hem of your dress. I heard that people often adopt dogs they like to save them from living on the streets. Sniff.

Yesterday I met my friend Sara’s little puppy and had a cuddle. I needed it after the iPhone fiasco. Puppy cuddles are the way forward, it seems. And a little retail therapy – I bought a couple of dresses from a guy I know who never hassles me and a bangle from quiet Mohamed Ghareb in the gorgeous Why Not shop (I ‘know’ him via Instagram). If only Egyptians learnt that the way to the tourist dollar is by NOT asking them to come into their shops. I make a point of only shopping in the quiet places.

After spending the day watching people prepare snorkelling and diving equipment at the Liquid Dive Centre next to the hotel I realised I must be the only person not doing it in Dahab. I can’t swim. I keep asking around for boat trips I can go on that don’t involve getting in the water. Why do I have to? What happened to just being on a boat? They seem to think it would be boring – not for me. The sea is never boring.

If I go on a dive boat I know I’ll be hassled to death, “Just wear a lifejacket! You will love it!” No. No I won’t. I will panic and you will have to save me. I’ll spend the whole time being a dickhead in front of everyone and having to explain myself. I almost feel bullied in these situations, to be honest. If one thing could improve my Dahab Days, it would be a simple boat trip into the Gulf. Just with my book and some drinks. Surely someone can provide that?

Until then, this is where you’ll find me…

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Al-Hamdulillah

Last night consisted of a reunion of sorts – I met up with some of the friends I’ve made during my numerous visits to Dahab. Most or all of them have worked in the restaurants along the main seafront but now one of them has a new job in a new place – Sea House – so we thought we’d meet there.

Dahab's restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.
Dahab’s restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.
As I walked alone from the hotel in Mashraba (south of the bridge) to Masbat (north of the bridge), through the brightly lit shops hung with clothes, lamps, and bits of Egyptian ephemera, I laughed to myself about the first time I came here, in the daytime. I’d got the shuttle bus from a hotel outside town and was scared to death of the place with all its hustle and bustle. Mainly hustle.

Cats playing outside Why Not - a great little shop in Dahab.
Cats playing outside Why Not – a great little shop in Dahab.
Now, I feel no fear whatsoever. In fact, it’s almost gone in reverse. This time, I’d been worried about getting into town via an alley behind the hotel. It snakes behind some housing and a café and brings you out on El Mashraba Street. I was terrified of walking it in the day, never mind in the nighttime but when I asked around everyone seemed astonished that I would be scared of it. “It’s completely safe!” they cried. So I tried it. And it was.

This happened on my last visit when I pulled back from a moonlit walk towards the lagoon because it was dark, and ‘you never know who’s out there’. Again, my friend couldn’t believe I was scared. Here, walking around in the dark is just what you do. It’s when it’s coolest, of course.

So last night I strode out in the full knowledge that I would be completely safe. And no matter what hassle I got, it would always be about trying to tempt me to buy something, not an assault on my physical being. I mused on the fact that at home, I get unwanted catcalling on a regular basis – on average every half an hour on a walk along the canal from my house – and recently, I was flashed at. I suppose I’d thought the hassle I got here would be the same, but I’ve realised it’s retail-related hassle – the best line I’ve had so far is, “Come and look! It’s cheaper than Asda!”

We were joined in the restaurant by one of the guys and his one-year-old son – his wife has just had a baby and he seemed stunned with happiness, repeating “al-hamdulillah” (‘thanks to god’) whenever he was congratulated. Toddler Abdullah was taking it all in his (wobbly) stride and I was incredibly touched to see a group of men compete for Abdullah’s attention, wanting to pick him up, kiss and cuddle him and take him for a walk round the restaurant. It transpired that a few of the guys had stepped in to look after Abdullah while his parents were otherwise occupied – it’s a real ‘framily’ support network down here, especially as nearly everyone is away from home and family.

Today I went back to the glorious lagoon beach, a long strand of golden sand that I fell in love with at first sight. I bagged a day pass to use the Swiss Inn Resort (£10) which gives you use of a sunbed, towel, and all the facilities in this lovely hotel. If you want a good all-inclusive, I recommend it, and the Jaz Dahabeya next door. Both good quality, family friendly hotels with the best spots on the lagoon and good food.

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I met Bob – one of the ‘framily’ who works on the beach – he calls me ‘sister’ now. He looked at my whiter than white skin and told me I should use his failsafe way of getting a tan. Going into the sea, not showering the salt water off, dry out for 15 minutes, then repeat. I fear my Welsh skin would object so I stuck with Factor 50.

I spent the day reading the first book in Elena Ferrante’s quartet, My Brilliant Friend. I was initially put off by the cover but I am riveted by the Neapolitan saga.

I must be the only person in Dahab who can’t swim so I gingerly walked into the azure water for a quick dip a few times. I generally just sit on the sand (it’s in a shallow bit) and watch the fish swim by me. I get so much pleasure out of this simple act. I’m scared of the water but I’ve managed to find a way to enjoy it that suits me.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.
The glorious Lagoon Beach.
A slow peeling away of ingrained fears has characterised my visits here, from being too scared to walk in the dark to too scared to go in the water, but I am hopeful that the latter, like the former, will slowly fade away.

If ever there was a place to learn to swim, I believe that this is it. In my own piece of paradise.

Wight Walk – Day Five

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.

Steephill Cove
Steephill Cove

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.

View from the Beach Shack
View from the Beach Shack

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.

Palm Garden at Ventnor Botanic Garden
Palm Garden at Ventnor Botanic Garden

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?

Prosecco and crab pasties at the Crab Shed
Prosecco and crab pasties at the Crab Shed

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.

Main beach at Ventnor
Main beach at Ventnor

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.

The balcony room at San Remo B&B
The balcony room at San Remo B&B

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.

View from the coastal path, Ventnor
View from the coastal path, Ventnor

Wight Walk – Day Two

I’m sitting in a pub called the Horse and Groom in a village called Shalfleet, which is (allegedly) 16.7 miles from Ryde. My feet are throbbing and aching under the table, testament to the extra eleventy one miles they added because of a diversion inland, due to coastal erosion at Gurnard.

Gurnard beach
Gurnard beach

I think I’d rather have risked a cliff falling on me.

What I expected to be a quick detour inland actually turned out to be a whole heap of extra mileage, and at 16.7 miles, the walk was already at the limit of my capabilities. And I’d decided to stop off to see Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s holiday home (at least an extra couple of miles). And I got lost in Thorness which saw me going in a complete circle, thanks to a girl who was so sure the coastal path was ‘just up there’. It was ‘down there’.

Not that bad for a diversion - view over Thorness Bay
Not that bad for a diversion – view over Thorness Bay

Anyway. The question tonight is whether or not I’m going to continue tomorrow? I’ve got blisters – one big one on my right inside heel and under my third toe (weird). I’ve burst them in the hope they will be ‘aired out’ overnight and then Compeed will save me. I’m wearing Merrell cross-trainers – they’ve never given me blisters before – but even they were unable to cope with the strain of today. Really pleased with my Fabletics outfit and North Face jacket though (they’re not sponsoring me).

There were so many good things about today. A full English breakfast to start the day followed by a ‘send off’ from Poppy and Heidi – two spaniels resident at San Remo B&B. Then met at the other end by Mia and another Heidi, resident at Brookside Farm Cottage B&B.

Mia the 'jug' – Jack Russell and Pug cross
Mia the ‘jug’ – Jack Russell and Pug cross

My many encounters with Mary – the woman who is cycling the same route as me, but can’t seem to be able to follow the path. She passed me three times before Cowes, unable to comprehend that I was walking ahead of her. She made me laugh – no doubt we’ll meet again before the trip is through.

Then the glory of Osborne House, an absolute jewel in the crown. I just had time to wander around the gardens (you only have to pay to get into the house, I discovered) and I’ll definitely be going back.

Osborne House
Osborne House

The little chain ferry that links East and West Cowes and costs 40p. Apparently fares have only just been introduced and the locals are outraged. In an Isle of Wight, really-quite-nice-actually way.

And lunch at the Well Bread Bakery in Cowes followed by the insta-glamour of Cowes marina. It literally took my breath away with it’s blustery charm, gun salutes, and outrageously green waters contrasting with white boats. Here’s my Periscope.

Glorious Cowes marina
Glorious Cowes marina

I set off from Cowes, the half-way mark, with so much joie de vivre, mainly brought on by a huge coffee and a massive focaccia baguette containing emmental and ham.

The diversion away from the coast did exhaust me, but even during my lowest point, I was able to laugh about going from Cowes to cows, as I passed a big beef farm en route to Shalfleet.

The final straight - almost too much for me, today
The final straight – almost too much for me, today

I knew this was going to be tough – I like to challenge myself. I will be so disappointed in myself if I wake up and feel I can’t continue. Tomorrow it’s all coastline – white cliffs and everything. I have to do it, even if I end up coating myself in Compeed…

Wight Walk – Day One

No actually walking yet, other than exploring a bit of Ryde, but I’m here in the Isle of Wight for the very first time.

It surprised me how quick it was to get here – around three hours door-to-door from London using public transport. Apart from a young woman on the train who uptalked all the way to Portsmouth, even managing to mix in a bit of vocal fry, the journey to the south coast was rather uneventful. (I’m not sure you want to hear about my unabashed love for a hot tea, a bag of Mini Cheddars and a KitKat when I’m on a train journey.)

Boarding the hovercraft at Southsea
Boarding the hovercraft at Southsea

I loved the speed and power of the hovercraft over to The Island (as it’s known to locals) – it made me laugh that the schoolboys behind me were discussing how they’d quite like to die at sea (the crossing was quite rough).

I checked in to my B&B for tonight, San Remo, which I’ll return to at the end of this odyssey. I was greeted by the friendly owners Joan and Brian, and their delightful granddaughter, Eva.

The garden at San Remo B&B
The garden at San Remo B&B

The room is so comfortable and beautifully furnished, I’m having an early night after writing this. I can’t wait to meet their three spaniels in the morning when I tuck into my Full English breakfast – I can hear the odd bark now and then, coming up from the garden. (I had a King Charles Cavalier as a child – they are absolutely gorgeous.)

Ryde Harbour
Ryde Harbour

I’ve had a stroll around the harbour this afternoon (here’s my Periscope) as I’m rather partial to the clanking sound of halyards in the wind. They didn’t let me down. I was rather surprised, however, to spy two naked women striding into the sea while I was filming. Managed to avert my phone camera in time. Good on you, loves.

There appears to be a rather healthy bowling tradition in Ryde, with two large teams of players dressed in white on the green next to the esplanade. It reminded me that my Uncle Bruce used to play bowls for Wales. True that.

Bowling scores on Ryde esplanade
Bowling scores on Ryde esplanade

I seem to be absolutely shattered already and I haven’t done any real walking yet. Just heading up to Olivo on Union Street for a huge pizza and then buying some snacks for tomorrow appears to have worn me out.

Tomorrow morning will take me to Shalfleet via Cowes, and I’m hoping to look in at Osborne House on the way. I hope you’ll keep me company.

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)

A Year of Blogging

It’s a year to the day that I started this blog, and nearly seventy posts later, I’ve learned quite a lot. One the main things I’ve learned is how much I enjoy writing, and that is something I never knew about myself a year ago. I started the blog because some good friends gave me the confidence to do it, and I’m very grateful to them for that.

So here are the Things I’ve Learned:

I write quickly

I write fast and post quickly. It’s part of my character to want to do things in the moment, not wait for a more perfect time. I often write first thing in the morning, having woken up with an idea I want to write about, or the news might prompt something, as it did when 4chan released those pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. It takes me about half an hour to get everything down and I often edit material after I’ve posted it. I usually have to abridge a post to 750 words for Huffington Post.

Personal is good 

My blog is really honest and people seem to enjoy that. My most-viewed posts are the ones where I share something really personal from my life. I was surprised at the reaction to The Silence last year, in which I confessed to once having had depression. I think it’s something that should be talked about, not hidden away and that is part of the purpose of my blog.

People message me privately

Quite a lot of what I write about seems to resonate with people to the point where they have to tell me the same thing has happened, or is happening, to them. I don’t get a huge amount of public comments on the blog, but I do get a lot of direct messages from people telling me about their experiences. A surprising amount of men and women messaged me about Ping Pong, in which I talked about being child-free by choice.

I publish myself

I do try and make my posts timely and topical, tying in to current trends, ideas and news stories. By hashtagging my posts appropriately it can make a huge difference to the number of views. For instance, I republished my Epiphany ‘body image’ post on Huffington Post using the #everybodyisready tag, from the protest against Protein World adverts.

I work to a set of ‘brand values’ for Because I Can and my keywords are: clarity, honesty, openness, authenticity, myth-busting, revelation and debunking.

Dating is the hottest topic

My most-viewed post by far is Sixth Date Syndrome, and the myriad ways it is searched for on Google tell me that I’ve discovered a Thing that isn’t just happening to me. Every day (including today) people search for it, view it and hopefully learn that it’s not just them. I’ve also enjoyed debunking myths about female sexuality and the ‘cougar’ trope.

Men enjoy my posts

I have a posse of Secret Male Admirers for my blog. They come up to me at parties and tell me how much they like the insight into the female psyche. I am mainly writing for women like me but my main responders on Twitter and WordPress appear to be men. Surprisingly, women seem to have more of a problem with my feminist leanings than men.

People disagree with me but don’t say it

Recently a few people have revealed in person that they don’t agree with everything I write. I’d never expect them to as these posts are just my opinion, but they only tell me face-to-face, rather than on social media. I’m always surprised I don’t get more open disagreement in my comments, especially as they are inherently feminist.

I naturally ‘cluster’ things

I do this all the time at work and in life – see patterns of behaviour or trends and then cluster them together to make a Thing. This is what I’ve tapped into to write the blog. Noticing that women shove other women has been one of the more surprising moments in the past year, as has observing men leaping out of my way when I run.

I could actually write a book

I’m currently in the early stages of writing a novel based on my experiences. Writing the blog regularly has made me realise how I can write 1000 words really easily. I decided against a memoir because I wanted to shape my story and fictionalise some of the elements. I’m finding it quite difficult because my blog ‘voice’ is the one that comes most naturally to me.

A big thanks

To everyone who’s followed me, tweeted me, retweeted me and Facebook-shared me. It means a lot every time it happens.

To mark my anniversary, I’m going to be ‘live-blogging’ a solo walk around the entire coastline of the Isle of Wight next week, so stay tuned.

The top ten most-viewed posts on Because I Can (in descending order):

1. Sixth Date Syndrome

2. In Support of J-Law

3. The Silence

4. Things I’d Tell My Daughter

5. The One Where I’m Absolutely Not a Yummy Mummy

6. Toxic People

7. Bare-Faced Cheek

8. Ice-Breaker

9. In Praise of Younger Men

10. Epiphany

 

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)