I’ve been living in South Goa for nearly four months now and yet again, I’m following my old routine of early morning walk on the beach, masala chai, yoga, breakfast then work.
I don’t emerge from my room (or wherever I’m working) until the hottest part of the day is over, which is after 3pm (and usually 4.30pm for me). I’ll then go somewhere on the bike or go for another beach walk before dinner. It’s very similar to my routine in the UK, minus the bike rides.
Two women in the house where I’m renting rooms were shocked to discover that my daily routine doesn’t include swimming in the sea or sunbathing, and it doesn’t even include sunset. They asked me why I come to Goa at all if I don’t do those things.
I am equally shocked that someone might think that Goa is ‘only’ those things. For me, sunrise is the best time of day here – cool enough to walk in layers, quiet on the beach, fishing activities to meditate on, eagles circling overhead, dolphins offshore, incense wafting down the sands, dogs stretching and then trotting over to say hello. At sunset, the beach is noisy and busy, it’s much hotter and humid, mosquitos are starting to come out and the fishermen are long gone. And let’s be honest, Indian sunsets outside monsoon aren’t as dazzling as some I’ve seen in the UK. The hour after sunset is when the magic happens – when the orange-pink glow blushes in the sky.
Despite attempts to force it to be a part of my routine, swimming just isn’t. The waves are hard to swim against here and I find the whole salty hair/sandy body thing a faff. I like doing it now and again when my hair needs washing, but that’s it. I much prefer being on the water in a boat than in it. I don’t like lying in direct sunlight, so sunbathing isn’t for me either – the sun I get is only during my walks or on the back of the Enfield. In a country where pale skin is prized, I’m happy to hang on to mine. I can’t help thinking that a tan is basically just skin damage that fades within weeks, so no, I don’t do that either.
So what do I do in the paradise beach location? Why do I come to South Goa if I am avoiding its so-called main pleasures? Because it’s so much more than that. It’s winding roads through forested ghats, green rice fields bordered with bright saris tied to bamboo poles, villages where puja creates smoky light in the late afternoon, monkeys playing in tamarind trees, blue chai carts next to bridges, temples filled with laughing women, hilltop views over hills and down to the sea, children shouting and waving as they walk home from school. I’d trade a day of this for ‘sun-worshipping’ every day of my existence.
Full disclosure: I stole my title from one of my favourite travel books by Paul Theroux. I thought of him when I boarded the 7am Vasco-Shalimar Express at Margao (Madgaon) to Hosapete Junction, from where I’d be taking a tuk-tuk to World Heritage site, Hampi.
I’ve ridden Indian trains before in Rajasthan, but never a sleeper like this one, that travels a total of 2,000 km across India. (I forgave it for being an hour late on the way there and three hours late on the way back). I always book 2A class (second-class, air-conditioned) which is a decent standard class on any Indian train. The journey each way cost me around £8. People always tell horror stories about Indian trains but I haven’t seen any of it because I book this class. I was nervous about the loo situation but it turned out to be close to my berth and relatively clean, with handsoap next to the sink! It was a squat toilet but it didn’t open onto the tracks as people had warned me – they’ve fitted new ‘bio’ ones.
The real theatre of Indian railways begins almost as soon as you board (before, even) as the mad scramble for seats takes place and everyone sizes up their neighbours. I was ‘of interest’ to the family opposite me who did their best to work out where I stood in the social order. Where was my family, my husband? Was I travelling alone? (shock) Why wasn’t I ordering lunch? (greater shock).
My head is still ringing with the sound of ‘chai-eee, chai-eee’ as the seller goes back and forth, pouring hot chai into tiny cups for 10p each. The same with ‘samosa, samosayyy’ which is also living rent-free in my head. Because they’re so busy and so long, everything comes to you on Indian trains. No walking to a buffet car – someone takes your order for lunch and it gets delivered onto the train at the next big station (Londa, in our case). Water, chai, samosas, batata vada (spicy potato patty) – everything you need comes past at some point.
Every seat has a charging point so I worked for part of each journey on my laptop. Cue more questions from people around me.
The most amazing element of these journeys for me was the seating arrangement. Both times, my sleeping berth was on the lower of the two tiers. I want to lie down for the whole journey and watch India go by out of the window, but if the person above me wants to sit down, then I have to give that up and let him (or her) sit next to me. I kept thinking about how this would never work in the UK. Can you imagine two strangers coming to an agreement on sleeping and sitting?
The journey back, even though three hours late in the end, culminated in a reminder of the boundless joy of Indian families as we passed the spectacular Dudhsagar Falls near the end. The whole family opposite me squished into my berth to get a view, then asked for a pic with me afterwards.
One thing’s for sure, it’s hard to be an introvert when you’re on an Indian train.
The perfect Valentine gift for yourself or a friend – my seven secrets to a successful single life:
You don’t have to get married – I used to think that coupledom was the only valid life choice. It isn’t.
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.
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.
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.
You can go on holiday on your own – you can do exactly what you want, when you want, without having to compromise. Win!
Single life isn’t perfect (but neither is coupledom) – it’s a rollercoaster but I know which ride I’d rather be on…
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):
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…
I didn’t expect to not hike when I booked this holiday in the Svaneti region of Georgia. I am with my hiking group and they have gone off ahead of me, booted and rucksacked, as I take in the view you see at the top of this blog post outside our guest house for one of the four nights along the route.
I managed to get a severe blister on my heel at the very start – a combination of not having hiked for a couple of months while I was in Goa, hot weather and boots that are slightly too big for me. I have been unable to walk uphill without the various compeed plasters and tape coming off so I’ve given up.
Instead of feeling devastated and down about this turn of events I have felt calm and peaceful – joyful even – at this new opportunity. An opportunity to have the restorative holiday my body was craving after two months of intensive yoga training. I feel broken physically, but very healed on the inside.
One of the values we learned on our course was that of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence. This is one of Sage Patanjali’s ‘yamas’ – values attached to emotions in his ‘eight limbs’ (‘Ashtanga’) of yoga and I have thought about it a lot this week.
This non-violence applies to thought, word and action as they are applied to other humans, animals and plants. But perhaps the most important of these is non-violence towards oneself.
I began to apply this philosophy whilst yoga training because I had a shoulder injury that had come about by throwing myself punishingly into yoga classes during my first month in Goa. I tried to be kind to my body and allow the shoulder to rest. I could almost hear it thanking me.
In Goa and here in Georgia I have been struck by our need to punish our bodies in order to feel happiness. We have to do exercise in order to ‘deserve’ the food we’re eating or the drinks we have afterwards. Yet the yoga philosophy says that happiness is our true nature and that we don’t need to deserve any of it. It is our birthright and we just need to access it by stripping away the obstructions to it that our minds put in its way. This is the entire goal of yoga and it has worked its magic on me.
In Kyrgyzstan last year I had a terribly painful hip but was determined to hike up mountains until my body told me otherwise. The moment I allowed a horse to take my weight was one of the happiest of my life. Why did I have to climb every mountain pass to feel worthy?
Here in Georgia I was once again given access to a horse and this time took it gladly. I stopped thinking of this week as a hiking marathon with its rewards of cake and khachapuri (cheese bread) and started to allow myself to have the holiday I needed – a restorative one.
Good things happen when you give yourself permission to stop. You spend time with local people and that time slows down. You find that you enjoy riding a horse and are not so scared of them next time round. You learn to trust them when they take you through rivers and up steep hills. My horse this week was called Tornado – a name that filled with me with fear when I first heard it but it turned out the family he belongs to named him ironically.
Gegi, his owner, guided me around the paths the hiking group were taking and I got small insights into his world as we clip-clipped along. He knew every Georgian on the route and they greeted him like family, warming us and drying Gegi’s clothes when it poured down and giving me a seat by the stove, pressing hot coffee into our hands.
And now I have practised a little yoga in front of this glorious view while one of the young guys who lives here plays trance music that seems to match the mountain view. I am waiting for a car to pick me up to transport me to Ushguli but while I’m waiting I have created my first new vinyasa yoga class after getting my first call as a cover teacher.
I like this flexibility of thinking: turning what could be seen as a disaster into an opportunity. How great if you could apply this philosophy to your whole life.
I remember two things from the yoga training that really have become useful in my life. One, that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to any situation -I choose to reshape this holiday for myself into a restorative one. Two, that to avoid stress and anxiety we should simply do what needs to be done and get on with it. The simplicity of this last statement blows my mind. Just do what needs to be done: in my case, stop walking, take care of my open wound, hire a horse and enjoy the moment in this incredible landscape.
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.
Recently, I was asked in a questionnaire what year I would like to go back to and why. After deliberating awhile I realised that there was only one year I could go back to: 1928. This is the year my mother was born; the year that women gained electoral equality with men in the Equal Franchise Act; the year that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous A Room of One’s Own speech to the women of Girton College, Cambridge.
How amazing to have been there, listening to Virginia exhorting the assembled young women to “possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”
I’ve realised that this blog is my response to Woolf. I left my marriage when I felt I was financially able to – it really was the trigger – and I’d waited a long time for it to happen. Since then, I’ve lapped up my freedom and dipped so deeply into that stream. I eventually felt compelled to write about my experiences. Virginia would be so proud.
I’ve also recently read Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road and been similarly inspired. It made me smile, the chapter entitled ‘Why I Don’t Drive’ because like Gloria, I can drive but I’ve stopped, preferring public transport. And like Gloria, I don’t drive “because adventure starts the moment I leave my door”.
I remember my honeymoon to New Zealand. The two of us spent the whole time in a motorhome, speaking to no one, having miniature meals out of the miniature fridge and stacking everything back neatly so that it didn’t fall out of the cupboards when we were driving in the mountains. I remember the relief of speaking to the petrol-station attendants as we bought the infamous steak-and-cheese pies from the heated cabinets (try them). I wish with all my heart that we’d at least driven round in a car and stayed at motels – at least we’d have more people to speak to, and I’ve have had less time to ruminate on whether or not I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.
I’m 50 next year (I know, right?!) and I’ve been having some ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve decided on a smorgasbord of experiences rather than a big single one, although I am tempted to return to Costa Rica. It’s just too beautiful not to return to…
Anyway, one of the things I’m really settled on is that I will walk. A lot. On my own. I love it, and I discovered that Woolf did too, walking in London, Cornwall, Sussex and Spain, believing that walking benefits mind, body and soul. On a recent return trip to my beloved Isle of Wight coastal path, I felt my soul sing with every step. I can’t not go back there.
I am thinking about the Camino – the pilgrim’s routes that form a web of walks all over northern Europe to the final destination in northwestern Spain: Santiago di Compostela. I know it’s a well-worn route, but I might try the Portuguese coastal way. The last time I was in Portugal I was miserable, with a ‘friend’ who was bemoaning the loss of a boyfriend and taking it all out on me. I wrote a diary whilst there, detailing my longing to escape. It would be great to go back and reclaim that country for myself.
I’m also thinking of the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruises. I know it sounds like I’m already applying for my Saga reward card but ever since I visited Norway I’ve been keen to go back and see that coastline properly. The Hurtigruten was once a postal ferry that plied along the Norwegian coast – now it does it mainly for pleasure-seekers, it seems, but I’d love to try it. It’s on the list.
And finally, and yet another inspiration I got from a book I’ve recently read (Wildwood by Roger Deakin) I’m thinking about trying Peddar’s Way in Norfolk. I’d never even heard of it until I read the book. And I’d never heard of Roger Deakin until I’d read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And so, my circle of book-based life-enhancement goes on.
And so does my relentless search for another coastline to love. At some point I have to revisit the glorious Wild Atlantic Way, because for me, no other coastline has quite had that magic. Dahab in Egypt has come close, but nothing speaks to me like that west coast of Ireland. I’ve driven it, yes, but I’d like to feel my hiking boots on the ground and the inevitable drizzle and sunshine (often at the same time) on my face.
And then there’s the Guinness and Tia Maria to try again in that bar in Allihies…
Last weekend I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years – go back to Venice. It was twenty-five years ago that I was first bewitched by the place, swearing I’d only go back for a romantic break with someone ‘special’. That person didn’t rock up, so goddammit, I went there by myself. I booked a cool, boutique hotel, planned my four days out using Lonely Planet, and re-entered the fantasy world of the city.
What I’d forgotten is that it’s like entering a restaurant on a perma-Valentine’s Night. The place is festooned with love and lovers, now taking ‘kelfies’ – my made-up word for kissing selfies. In front of every building, work of art or bario serving spritz … there they were. I didn’t really notice it last time I was there – I was too entranced with the place. Also, I was young enough to think I’d have my time there to do that. Lol.
So really, what I was doing was the Iron Woman Challenge of all solo holidays. Going to the most romantic place in the world as a middle-aged woman on her own. “I can totally do this!” I thought. And I did. Kind of.
I managed to dodge the rose-thrusting touts around St Mark’s square, and chuckled when I heard an American woman behind me cry, “Do I LOOK like I’m with anyone??” That’s the thing when you’re a female solo traveller. You suddenly realise that you’re surrounded by them. We’re quite well-camouflaged, actually. No one suspects the woman blending into the surroundings looking like she’s just waiting for someone, but we see each other very clearly, emerging from the scene. And there are more and more of us every year, it seems.
Even at the airport I’d gone to the champagne bar and made eye-contact with at least three other women doing the same thing as me: treating ourselves to a lovely glass before jetting off, because we could. I spoke to one of them and she was going to Berlin, but not before sneezing all over me and giving me a cold three days later. Thanks, love.
Anyway, on my first night I was full of the joy of being alone and free in the most beautiful city in the world. I’d planned a walk around San Marco, which would culminate in a spritz at a bar I’d been recommended. Of course, Venice being Venice, I couldn’t find it so I found an accommodating restaurant – the Rosa Rossa – who found me a table tucked away outside. I smiled at my good fortune and ordered a spritz.
Fifteen minutes passed and couples were starting to surround me. They appeared to be being served promptly so I reminded the waiter (he seemed to be the manager) that I’d been waiting for fifteen minutes. He broke out in what can only be described as operatic ritual humiliation of me in front of the other customers. Waving his arms around, he remonstrated with me, shouting that I’d only been waiting for five minutes and couldn’t I see that they were busy and now, you see? Here is the drink you’ve been waiting for. Prego, PREGO!
I died a little in my seat. I also sat there for about five minutes choking back tears. He came back out to take my food order and instead of doing what I should have done – stormed off – I told him I’d order if he promised not to shout at me. It was the worst meal I’ve ever had in Italy, for so many reasons. The couple next to me looked shocked.
Thinking about it, what annoyed him about me was probably that I was the least important of his customers, but the one that ventured to complain. Had I been in a couple, I’m sure I’d have been served immediately. Had I been a girl of twenty-four, as I had been the last time I visited, I think he’d have been all over me. But me, just sitting there, at forty-nine, with no man or baby to make ‘sense’ of me, just got his goat.
I placed a review on TripAdvisor as soon as I left the restaurant. His reply says it all:
So there it is, for all to see. It was definitely fifteen minutes because I’d checked in on Swarm as I arrived and looked back at the time. Maybe those minutes fly by when you’re in a couple, but I’m betting a manly cough towards the waiter would’ve got him running.
If you’d like to see the restaurant in question, and the review, now read by over 200 people, then here’s the link. Note that all the subsequent rave reviews are from couples and groups. Sadly my review didn’t link to my usual profile, where I’ve posted many rave reviews of hotels and restaurants. I’m pretty sure this is the only bad one.
It happened again on my return boat trip to the airport. The boat driver shouted at me for trying to pay at the wrong moment. I teared up again. So this is what happened in twenty-five years – I’ve gone from being catcalled to shouted at. I’m in the way.
Don’t get me wrong, in between those moments, the weekend was a dream of renaissance art and architecture, of La Traviata in a palazzo on the Grand Canal and Vivaldi in a frescoed church. It was cicheti and wine in a tucked-away street ‘bario’ and a pistachio gelato next to a fantasy-scene of sparkling waterways and winking gondoliers. It was everything I remembered the first time, but much more. And I’m going to go back.
And when I go back I’m going to remember the conversation I had with a woman who was visiting the city with her husband. He’d gone off to do something else and she’d taken a seat next to me in a bar, and was taking a breather with a beer and a cigarette. I told her about my solo-travelling thing and why I’d got into that and she suddenly blurted out that she too was wishing she was on her own, and that she was thinking about leaving her husband. She probably only told me because I was a complete stranger, but I did start to wonder about all the kelfie-taking love-puppies I’d seen in gondolas. How many of them were wishing they were with someone, or no one, else?
I remembered feeling like that on numerous holidays, even my honeymoon, and felt glad that at least I was free of that. Free of scanning every place I went for the guy I was ‘supposed’ to be with. It’s exhausting, and at the very least, unfair on the person you are actually with.
So Venice. I came, I saw, I conquered. I am so in love with you that I don’t think I can leave it at that. You can make me feel elated and transcendent, but you can also make me feel like dirt on your shoe.
I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.
I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.
We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.
The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.
Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.
On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.
On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…
When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!
I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.
On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.
I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.
So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.
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…
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.
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.
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?