If you’ve been wondering where I disappeared to, it’s partly due to this book. I didn’t know it, but I needed the headspace (and body space) to come back to it. I wrote the first draft in India in early 2019 but that version was for me and I should never have shown it to anyone else. I put the text in a digital drawer and thought I’d never get it out again. But then, during and after lockdown, an extraordinary thing happened (I won’t spoil it because it’s in the book) and it made me want to revisit it. I had an incredible urge to be on my own and strangely, coronavirus gave me that opportunity.
So here is CHEAT PLAY LIVE, my memoir, which follows my story across a sequence of beaches around the world, from my home coast in North Wales, to New Zealand, Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and India. I write about the experience of losing one’s parents at a young age, and how that affects everything that comes after, especially using alcohol as an anaesthetic. It’s story about a search for freedom but it’s also about a search for love. I’m publishing it on my mother’s birthday – August 14 – because it’s my gift to her and my dad.
The ebook is available for pre-order on Amazon around the world, Kobo and Nook (by the end of today, I hope). The paperback will be available for pre-order next week. Both editions will publish on 14 August. Here’s the blurb:
Beaches are places where the universe speaks loudest, where earth, air, fire and water meet in their purest form. They broadcast a message we can only hear if we let ourselves walk quietly in the light and listen.
On a beach in California in 2008, Lisa finds a shell on a rock, its two halves open to the sky. On the outside it is sea-worn and unremarkable, but on the inside it gleams like a jewel. It is as though it is lying there, waiting to be found and cherished – like her. She uses the picture she takes of that shell to set up an online profile that will end her marriage. It leads her to more beaches around the world – to Kenya, Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and India – in search of freedom from the fear of a life alone, from society’s expectations of a fortysomething woman, and the freedom to choose how she wants to live.
For fans of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Lisa Edwards’ story is about the search for a life beyond the one prescribed for women: marriage, babies and a high-flying career. Childfree-by-choice, she is determined to fly solo, going on holidays on her own, as well as to restaurants, bars and even clubs. But grieving for her parents, she begins to depend on the anaesthetic that alcohol gives her and it steers her life in unexpected ways. During the course of her journey she dates married men, younger men, men her own age and Muslim men, but none of them are prepared to give her her freedom. In India, she discovers yoga and a tribe of women who show her a new path, breaking the lock on the secret she’s been keeping inside her since she was a little girl.
I’ve got this mantra in life. It’s about always sharing information if I think it’s going to help people. In more recent years I discovered that not everyone does this.
I have walked into toxic work environments that have been known to others and they haven’t said anything, choosing to let me find out for myself. I have also walked up mountains at altitude not knowing that my phone will immediately lose all its charge in the cold (keep it in your sleeping bag overnight) or that my period could start at a certain height, even if it’s not due. These are all items of information I now share with people, because I want them to have the benefit of that knowledge.
I mean, why wouldn’t you? In many ways, it’s the whole point of this blog. I want people to know about some of the things I’ve learned so that they can avoid the same pitfalls if they can, such as the hugely damaging effects of drinking, working in a toxic environment or of marrying the wrong man.
I recently thought about this mantra again when I was walking the Cumbria Way with The Man Who Hiked the World for his latest journalistic endeavour. For one thing, no one had ever told me that there even was a Cumbria Way – even though I’m from the north west, I only knew the Lake District through its sets of mountains and lakes. I didn’t know there was a trail linking them all together. Until now. And TMWHTW is going to tell the world about it in his next article.
One of the best stretches of this 70+-mile path is the section taking you through Stake Pass, in the Langdale/Borrowdale area. What we didn’t know, as we left the wonderfully cosy and comfortable Langstrath Inn, was that we’d be walking through a series of streams and rivers all along the way. Recent heavy rainfall had made small tributaries gush into the main river and we would both become adept at hopping across stones and boggy land to reach our destination.
That morning, an elderly hiker stopped us to say that he’d encountered ‘a huge amount of falling water’ that would likely obstruct our onward journey. He’d had to turn back, and he looked seasoned in the hazards of walking in the Lake District. He did say that there was a broken fence sitting across the water that we could perhaps hold on to as we crossed. “If we were feeling agile,” he said.
We’ve often been told about upcoming hazards on hikes, only to find them easily surmountable. This time, we found a family of three staring at the falling water, wondering how they were going to get through it. Completely out of character for me, I found it easy. I saw the fence the old hiker had talked about, I saw a series of stones I could step across, and I went for it without thinking too much about it. I was over in seconds.
Later on, in the ensuing days, my journey across bogs and streams wasn’t as surefooted. I found that if I spent too much time thinking about the crossing, I was more likely to stumble. When I just walked up to it and made the leap I was fine. More often than not, we employed teamwork – TMWHTW would go across first, and then extend a supporting hand to me. I know that first journey across the river was made easier by the information handed on to me by the old man.
TMWHTW tried to pass on the information about the water hazard to another hiker going the other way. “We’ve already seen it,” he said gruffly, clearly not enjoying being told about it. It made me realise that not everyone wants key information to be shared – they do want to encounter challenges for themselves. I think it’s a bit like my aversion to ‘looking for recommendations’ when I’m visiting a place. I don’t want to be told to repeat someone else’s experience, I want to tackle and discover it myself. I get it. Still, I was very thankful to that elderly hiker that day.
The same theme of sharing information came up in a more amusing way when we started our two-night stay in Keswick at the amazing Sunnyside B&B. At breakfast on our rest day, I noticed a tiny pair of scissors nestled perfectly in the centre of a pot containing sachets of sauces. “They’ve literally thought of everything!” I exclaimed, in awe of their attention to detail. Later the landlady said it had come about when she spotted that a customer had brought her own tiny pair of scissors for this very purpose. She could never open the damn packets. “Why didn’t she tell me??” the landlady demanded. “I know…” I said. We are both people who tell everyone everything, clearly.
We barely saw anyone during our time on the less-popular stretches of the Cumbria Way, but we did spend a day with Harrison Ward, aka Fell Foodie, who cooked us a Moroccan Chickpea Stew on a Wainwright – Castle Crag. This is someone who shares his love of the outdoors through the medium of cooking in it. Why rely on a butty, he says, when you can bake a loaf of bread while you’re swimming in a tarn? Well, indeed. If I was still a publishing director, I’d be offering him a book deal. Now.
I was so impressed by people like Harrison who run about on the ‘fells’ (you’re not allowed to say ‘mountains’ or ‘hills’ in the Lake District) being all clear-eyed and flushed with exercise. Fell runners were all around Keswick, heading up into the foothills (probably ‘footfells’) of Skiddaw, which I was told is ‘Skidder’, not pronounced like ‘jackdaw’ as I’d previously thought. I used to run a lot in my thirties – I later realised it was a subconscious bid for freedom from my marital home, but I suddenly missed it terribly and vowed to start again once I returned home. I’ve been out twice – for some reason my hamstrings really hurt, so I’m not going crazy with it. Baby steps…
I’d describe as half ‘Type 1 fun’ and half ‘Type 2 fun’. Type 1 is fun at the time while Type 2 is only fun after you’ve completed it. There were many sun-drenched Type 1 moments, notably on the way into Keswick from Skiddaw, walking out of Keswick towards Castle Crag and along the banks of Coniston Water. But there were also long stretches of boggy stumbling in between. As always, for me, I might not enjoy every moment at the time, but I look back with so much pleasure on what I’ve done when it’s complete. All I can remember now is hopping over stepping stones in Langdale, being followed by flocks of smiling Herdwick sheep in Coniston and devouring sandwiches in a storm-tossed bothy near Caldwick.
We managed to complete the path just before Lockdown 2.0 hit our shores and I’m so glad we did it. I’ve been so lucky this year to have done so much. Not only did I spend the first three months of 2020 in India, visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival plus a stay in Udaipur, but I managed to fit in the Northumbrian Coastal Path, the South West Coast Path, the Cumbria Way and the Isle of Wight into my summer and autumn hiking schedule. In many ways, this has been one of my best years. I’ve even found joy during lockdown, on the sun-filled shoreline in Worthing.
I’ve had a slight wobble, in that the plan was for me to return to India for the winter season again. I was supposed to shuttle back and forth and had plans to live in different parts of the country for a while, now I’ve ventured outside Goa. That plan has obviously had to change and I’m now staying in Worthing, and the UK, for the foreseeable. But, I can’t help thinking that this is meant to be, and universe is doing its thing again. I love where I’ve chosen to live and I like what’s happening in my life here. It’s Type 1 fun.
The plan: to walk a section of the South West Coast Path, starting at Clovelly and ending at Padstow.
The imagined route: an undulating, easy coastal path with the odd bump, reminiscent of the Seven Sisters cliffs, punctuated by cosy tea rooms.
The reality: a remote wilderness hike consisting of extreme climbs and descents with nowhere to fill a drinking bottle, let alone order a cream tea.
After spending most of the summer hiking the South Downs Way and returning to the Seven Sisters as part of our ‘training’, we thought this one would be a doddle. My hiking friend, Paula, and I have been across the world together on some pretty adventurous hikes but this one would be a proper holiday, we said. Not like Kyrgyzstan or Armenia, where we’d been wild camping and struggling up mountain passes at altitude. Let’s be kind to ourselves, we said. Let’s have a proper holiday in lovely Devon and Cornwall.
Trouble is, we thought the guidebook was exaggerating when it said the South West Coast Path, made famous recently in Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, was ‘challenging’ and ‘relentless’. We thought that was just a warning for people trying to attempt it in flip-flops. Oh how wrong we were.
The first stretch, Clovelly to Hartland Quay was the ‘easy’ day at just over ten miles, but even that had its fair share of ups and downs. It took longer than we thought to reach our destination. However, there was at least a kiosk at one point serving ice cream. As we sat down to dinner at Hartland Quay Hotel (the only place to stay), we read about the following day’s fifteen miles to Bude. The hardest stretch of the entire path… Challenging/severe… Don’t be fooled by the easy start… People in the hotel gave us a look when we said what we were doing. One said we had ten deep valleys to encounter, another said five. Someone mentioned waterfalls. How challenging can it be? we said to each other. Surely not as bad as Kyrgyzstan, where I’d been in so much hip pain I’d had to get on a horse…
Worse. Worse than Kyrgyzstan. More than ten deep, deep valleys to climb into and out again. All the way down to sea level, over a little bridge spanning a waterfall and up the other side again. Relentlessly. No tea rooms. No scones. Just climbing. And then the next day, too: Bude to Boscastle.
No one talks about this side of Devon and Cornwall. No one says that it’s proper wilderness hiking with no facilities and no one around. It felt like being on the west coast of Ireland, Scotland – or even Iceland or the Faroes, Paula said (having been to both). And we agreed, this was harder hiking than Kyrgyzstan, which had been the hardest thing we’d both done together (Paula said only Greenland was worse).
We both belong in hiking groups that never venture here. It’s hard to get to and hard to herd groups of people here. We met people in ones and twos doing the same thing, most notably two women in their seventies who were wild-camping the whole thing and this was their last stretch. They didn’t even use tents – they were using tarpaulin to sleep under. “This is what you do in your seventies!” they shouted as we parted ways.
We met a young woman who had walked from Gloucester who was trying to find a suitable place to camp; we saw another who was lying against her pack, waiting for us to walk past so she could pitch her tent. It was next to a herd of goats. We yodelled and I think she heard us.
As we took on every uppy-downy (as they became known) of the trail, we mused on how, if we’d known what this part of the trail entailed, we wouldn’t have attempted it at all. We wouldn’t have seen the incredible rocky outcrops pushing out into the glittering sea, or heard the crash of the Speke’s Mill Mouth waterfall as it plunges into the sea. We wouldn’t have seen the purple-heathered slopes at Cleave on the way to Bude, my personal favourite moment of the trip, or experienced the pride and joy of looking back at the valley we’d just traversed. Every climb and every descent brought a new ‘wow’ moment and a new angle on the breathtaking scenery and there was barely anyone else there to witness them with us.
We knew when we were approaching a car park or a village because people would appear with dogs and it would feel like an intrusion. As we got closer to the more popular stretches of the path we mourned the loss of the wilder stretches and realised that with cream teas came crowds. At Tintagel we finally lost it. The whole place was shrouded in fog and drizzle, and people were queuing up to walk across a new bridge to the castle from which they could see nothing. Get us out of here! we thought and promptly took a taxi to Port Isaac, which was pouring with Doc Martin fans.
As the weather improved, the hiking got easier, but our hearts were still in that wilderness we’d left behind. We’d overcome a psychological barrier and could face a deep valley without dread, just acceptance. We knew if you started counting them it was the road to exhaustion; you just have to get on with them. I had practiced my yogic ‘santosha’ – conscious cheerfulness – to get me through the hard stretches. I smiled and sang to myself, knowing that smiling is proven to make you feel happier. I can confirm that it works. I sang, “One singular sensation” as I walked sideways down hillside steps with my hiking pole, Bob Fosse-style.
And joy of all joys – I’ve finally invested in hiking boots that are wide enough for my feet. I had no blisters. Nothing. After years of being crippled on day one of a hike. I am like a woman renewed – no hike is too far for me now.
We surprised ourselves on this ‘holiday’ (and agreed that it wasn’t a holiday). We climbed every mountain and forded every stream: without injury, without tears, without blisters. We each employed a different approach and it worked – Paula likes to get up a hill very quickly to get it done, I prefer to plod slowly and continuously and get there without breathing through my arse. Before now, I’ve tried to rush up hills and felt awful. It’s easier when you’re not in a group to take your time. “Steady as she goes” is my mantra. We’d meet at the top and congratulate each other on a job well done.
And can I sing the praises of a pasty as the perfect hiking lunch? A meal wrapped in a pastry case, still warm from the morning’s oven. Thank goodness we made sure we had packed lunches and pasties with us from every town we stayed in. There was nothing in between each stop apart from that first kiosk, the two cafes at Crackington Haven and Sandymouth Cafe outside Bude. They were like oases in the desert.
At first we were disappointed not to be staying in Padstow (aka Rick Steinville) but then we discovered the YHA at Treyarnon. What a find. A sea view, a glorious beach, food being served through a hatch. I’d definitely go back there.
A woman in her seventies (or eighties?) approached us as we waited for the bus into Newquay, hiking all completed.
“In my day when we were walking, we didn’t allow getting buses.”
Me: *death stare*
Paula, smiling: “We’ve just hiked from Clovelly, actually, and we’re done.”
Lady: “Oh!” *looks Paula up and down incredulously. Looks at husband in disbelief* “Oh wow – you’ve done all that!”
Us: “Yes, yes we have.”
*gets on front seat of top deck of bus and whoops with joy*
In my last blog post, I talked about how I’m a West End Girl. I always have been. I grew up in North Wales, with frequent excursions to the west coast, I’ve found spiritual homes in the west of India and Ireland, and actual homes in the west of London and now Sussex. So when a friend who is a hiker and journalist asked me to be a plus one on his exploratory trip Northumberland, I did hesitate for a moment. I’d been there before, as a result of university summers with Geordie friends, so I knew how beautifully bleak it is, with long stretches of beach punctuated by castles, but east coasts don’t hold as much interest for me in general. They’re flatter, less shattered by wind and weather and I do like a bit of dramatic Atlantic coastline.
My friend’s brief was to hike the Northumberland Coastal Path (62 miles) over four days and write about his experience for BBC Countryfile magazine. I hadn’t hiked much with him before, but I thought, what the hell? We’re all staycationing now so why not start with this? It would be a chance to revisit all those places I’d loved in the ’90s – I had images of kippers from Craster and fish and chips in Seahouses in my brain, alongside the bleak ruins of Dunstanburgh castle. I’m in, I said.
We’d be carrying all our stuff but staying in B&B accommodation so this was my opportunity to showcase my light-packing skills. I carried a 33L Osprey rucksack, which, when full, is a perfectly carry-able weight for a day hike. One thing I did before I set off was to make piles of the things I thought I’d need for the trip, and then systematically remove anything I thought was ‘excess’. As women, we often take multiple choices for outfits but I find once I’m out there that I can wear things more than once (shock!) and sometimes even three or four times. I learned that on my trip to Kyrgyzstan a few years ago where we didn’t have showers for six days. It’s ok to rough it a bit – and actually it’s quite liberating.
Since I’ve started growing out my silver hair and not wearing any make-up except for mascara, my packing list has got shorter and shorter. Women are often burdened by what they think they’ll need for a trip, when really, if we just thought like men – “I’ll need four t-shirts, two pairs of shorts and four pairs of pants” – we’d be way more able to take ourselves around the world at a moment’s notice. I’d always viewed The Man Who Hiked The World‘s trips with awe, thinking, “Well, I could never do that”. But then I did, in Kyrgyzstan, and I’ve already told you how life-changing that trip was for me.
One thing we talked about during the trip is whether or not this sort of thing qualifies as a holiday. I felt very strongly on my trips to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia that they were not holidays. Adventures, yes, but not a holiday. For me, a holiday implies some sort of rest element, and maybe a bit of culture, not a relentless slog up mountains and camping next to glacial lakes with ‘natural’ toilets. We agreed that to be a holiday, you’d have a shorter day hike, perhaps ten miles instead of the 15-20 we were doing in Northumberland, then do more each evening and maybe include a rest day for cultural visits.
As always, I push myself too hard (and, I’ve discovered, wear the wrong size shoes) so I had an enforced rest day in Bamburgh where I was able to hike barefoot along the beach and back to the castle, limp around it, and then visit the Clocktower Cafe for a massive scone with jam and cream. TMWHTW went on ahead, determined to continue on the coastal path for his article.
You may remember this happening to me on the Isle of Wight when I tried to circumnavigate it. But magic happened that day as it did this time. I was forced to rest at Freshwater and duly discovered the delights of Dimbola Lodge and Wightwood Pizza. I have been back there every year since. If I’d just hiked through it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything was there.
Similarly, I felt happy and rested after my solo Bamburgh trip and happily caught up with TMWHTW over dinner that night, my blisters already healing. I think I need moments on my own and moments of rest. They make me happy.
The other thing that makes me happy while out walking is stopping to talk to people. TMWHTW had to do it for his article and I tagged along, finding all the ‘interviews’ with locals along the way fascinating. From a meat-pie merchant to a kipper-smoker, it was so interesting to hear how old and new family businesses had and were coping with seismic shifts in business opportunities over the past weeks, months and decades. There is a quiet, open gentleness to the (mainly) men we spoke to in the north east, which reminded me of my university friends’ dads who were both the same. There were people who were passionate about the coastline and its wildlife and the businesses they’d set up there.
One of the highlights for me was the starting point at Cresswell at the Drift Cafe. TMWHTW sat and talked to someone from AONB Northumberland who knows the coastal path in minute detail and the quiet owner of the cafe who offered us lovely coffee and cakes (all with great COVID measures in place, obviously). There’s something about a start point on a hike – it’s so full of hope, joy and excitement, and even though the weather wasn’t perfect that day, the size of those massive sandy beaches and windswept dunes is enough to make your soul soar.
The main highlight for me was the accommodation at Alnmouth at the Shoreside Huts. It was ridiculously romantic, in the original sense of the word: huts on a hillside perch, overlooking the sea but not overlooked; a woodburner that kept us toasty even with the door open; food supplied by a local deli for that evening and breakfast the next morning.
I could have stayed there forever. We got up at 5am to see the sunrise holding hot mugs of tea made on the little stove. There was someone else doing the same thing out on the rocks below. The coastline is studded with incredible birdlife such as kittiwakes and Arctic terns and the locals know all about them. We laughed when we heard the owner of the Shoreline Huts, Dale, refer to the Farne Islands as the ‘Geordie Galapagos’. We did a Serenity Boats sunset trip, but sadly without a sunset. Still, we did see seals, the incredible migratory Arctic terns and the cutest little puffins, who were on their way off from the Farnes, we were told.
I did feel discombobulated walking with the sea on my right – I like it to be on my left, but AONB Ian had told us that it is best to hike the path south-to-north so that the sun is on your back, not on your face (I like to walk into the sun, not away from it, but boy I was glad of his advice later on what was to be the hottest day of the year).
We ended up in Berwick-upon-Tweed – somewhere I’ve routinely driven or trained past on the way up and down to Edinburgh Festival or my ex-in-laws. I had no idea how beautiful it is, and worthy of a stay in itself. We met with a local tour guide and incredible information store, Derek Sharman (Derek from Berwick!). He took us on a sunset tour of the amazing Elizabethan walls that I had no idea were there. Put it this way, I ended up looking up housing for sale in this beautiful Georgian town.
Could I live on an east coast? I could probably get used to it… Having coffee early on a sunny morning on Lindisfarne kind of confirmed that for me. While TMWHKW was scrambling over the outer edges of the island to get the best shot of the Priory before the crowds arrived, I bumped into someone from Wrexham, near my hometown in North Wales. He was wearing an ‘Eryri’ (Snowdon) t-shirt so I had to ask him if he was Welsh. We get everywhere, you know. We looked out over the causeway where the tide was slowly coming in and I realised it was just like the River Dee which separates my hometown from the Wirral – a shifting quicksand area that stops hikers from walking on this part of the coast.
“I wished we’d stayed here overnight,” said TMWHTW, packing up his camera.
I’ve realised that I’ve got a thing about the west. Not ‘the west’ as in globally, but I appear to gravitate west in all things.
I live in West Worthing in West Sussex and I walk in a westerly direction every morning. To go east doesn’t feel quite right, although I walk back in an easterly direction. I walk east in the evenings in order to walk back west and enjoy the sunset.
I’ve noticed that on the way out in the mornings, going west, I feel creative, imaginative, hopeful and dreamlike. Coming back in an easterly direction I am facing the reality of the day. I start to rush knowing I need to get back to ‘my desk’ (aka the kitchen table) and my brain starts to fill with my ‘to-do’ list.
It’s happened with holiday destinations over the years. I favour west coasts – often battered, dramatic, elemental – over east-facing ones: smooth, calm, unremarkable (I know – not all east coasts…). I’ve visited New Zealand and pretty much stayed only on the west coast, I’ve been to the west coast of Ireland many many times but never Dublin. I’ve visited the west coast of Costa Rica twice, driven the west-facing Skeleton Coast in Namibia and have lived on the west coast of India.
When I’m going west, I feel like I could just keep travelling, keep moving over the horizon, but when I’m travelling back in an easterly direction it feels like I’m on a return journey. I wonder what it is that drives me west so much. Is it something to do with me being left-handed, and therefore my brain veers left when faced with its internal north? Is it because I grew up on the north-west Wales coast? I’ve no idea, I just know it’s a thing that I do. It’s my internal compass. Even when I moved to London I went to university in the south west, later lived in the north west, and in between forayed into Buckinghamshire, to the west of London. When I moved to Brighton in the ’90s, I quickly moved west into Hove.
It simply feels ‘off’ to me in the east of anywhere. I can’t really put my finger on why. I can only stay for about an hour in East London before I want to go back west. Once, I was on a date watching a really bad comedian in an East End hipster bar and he starting making fun of me in the audience because I ‘looked posh’ (I was wearing a fake-fur jacket). Really, he didn’t like it because I wasn’t laughing. When I got up to leave, he said, “Are you going back west to the poshos?” “Yep,” I said in front of everyone. “Get me out of here.”
This week in West Sussex has seen some high winds buffeting the coast. They’re southwesterlies and they create, it seems, the biggest waves here. I’ve been watching the kite surfers out west – and out in force since lockdown rules allowed them out – and it’s a real delight to watch grown men (and some women) whoop with joy as the wind carries them high above the waves. I’ve seen videos of people jumping over the pier so it’s a thing here. God I wish I could join them. As I watch, I imagine myself skimming the waves, lit by the bright spring sunshine, grinning as the wind takes me. Having not long learned to swim, it’s probably not something I should leap into but I confess I’m tempted.
Every morning that I walk west, I dream of just carrying on going on the coastal path, all the way to Cornwall. I thing of Raynor Winn’s Salt Path and the epic journey she and her husband did around the south-west coastal path and wonder if I could just do that. Me and a tent. Maybe a small dog in tow. I dream of owning a small white cottage in a west Wales coastal village, where I can see the sea from my desk and walk in the wind every day. I dream of hearing curlews at dawn, just like Dylan Thomas did.
For the first time, some of these dreams seem attainable. Maybe not right now, but they’re within reach.
As I’ve been walking the coastline here every day for my lockdown exercise, between Worthing and Ferring, I’ve been chatting to a few people along the way. It seems that the lockdown has made us all a little bit more open to talking to other people, at a safe distance, of course.
For me, it started with ‘fish guy’ – I still don’t know what his name is, but he has a small shack on the seafront where he sells fish every day. He started in about week two of lockdown, and had everyone queuing two metres away. I got chatting to him one day when I was buying some fish-pie mix for my landpeople (I’m a lodger in a family home) and asked him how business was. “My business is about 70% hotels, restaurants and pubs,” he said grimly, “but I’d rather be here, outside, eating a packet of crisps in the fresh air.”
In ensuing conversations I’ve asked him about his boat, which goes out every day from Shoreham, and his business, which he runs with a partner, and his dad (I think). He has good weather forecasting equipment so I’ve taken to asking him about the forecast each week too. I quite like that he calls me ‘honey’ – it started as ‘love’ – sometimes a woman needs a ‘honey’.
I’ve also chatted to Pete, who runs Sea Lane Cafe in Goring with his brother. He opened tentatively a few weeks ago, to sell takeaway teas, coffees and the best scones I’ve ever tasted. He also has a fantastic two-metre system going on in the cafe where people come in one door and out of another, all maintaining a safe distance. He was in Thailand when COVID came in – he seems shellshocked by the escalation of it all, but I am so grateful that he has opened. I know he’s come in for a lot of flack for it online but anyone who goes there can see he is taking all the health and safety measures seriously. The much-awaited Bluebird cafe in Ferring opens its doors for takeaways tomorrow – I can’t wait…
One of my best chats was with ‘birdwatching man’ who sat with his chihuahua Lola and a large telescope on the WW2 pillbox near Ferring one day. I asked him what he was looking for and he reeled off a list of seabirds I can’t quite remember. I asked him what the best thing he’d ever seen was. “An albatross,” he said. “We tracked it all the way along the coast.”
My friend Paula has had a seagull who appeared to be talking to her through her window on a number of occasions, tapping the glass with his beak. Bird experts tell us that it’s a territorial thing. He is likely to be talking to what he sees as the opposition – himself – and telling him to move along!
I’ve started to see the same people early in the mornings, doing their exercise at the same time as me, either down on the sands at low tide or up on the coastal path at high tide. I wonder if we’ll all carry on saying ‘hello’ to each other every day after all this is over… I do hope so. I wonder if they look at me and think, “Oh there’s flask-of-tea woman” as I go past, as I have similarly labelled them with obvious characteristics, oftentimes by their dogs.
I defy anyone to show me something more joyous than dogs at low tide. They are careering round the sands away from their owners and I love hearing grown men shouting, “Mabel!” at the tops of their voices. The dogs never listen. They often approach me to say hello, and I can see they’re wondering why I don’t bend down to stroke them.
Nerys the dog here at my new home won’t come with me on my walks. We’ve tried two or three times to get her beyond the end of the road with me but she pulls us back home each time. My landlady says she has separation anxiety.
Most unexpectedly, my main animal relationship is now with Bob the cat. He’s the one waking me up with his mewing (his food tray is outside my room), he’s the one curling up on my bed (he’s there right now) and he’s the one stretching out on my yoga mat when I’m trying to teach or practice. Who knew a cat would be the affectionate one between a cat and a dog?
I’m writing on day fourteen of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, which is also day fifteen of my going through four airports (Goa, Mumbai, Dubai, Gatwick) to get back to here.
I’m still in awe of the kindness shown to me by my landlady and landlord (landpeople?) who welcomed me immediately into their home, trusting that I would have avoided the virus on my trip back. We’d never met each other and yet now it seems I’ve been living here for months, in a good way. I will never ever forget their kindness for as long as I live.
So far I’ve had no symptoms but I am one of many people who think they have had the virus already. I think I may have had it a few weeks ago, when I felt generally run-down and like I was going to come down with something, and I had a strange pain in my lower right ribs which prevented me from taking a full breath. I thought it was muscular at the time but now I’m rethinking it. I think it’s already been through me. In India.
Similarly, the family I’m staying with think they had in on a French skiing holiday, where all three of them came down with a horrible cough and a fever and were laid up in bed with the ‘flu’. We’ve heard much about the ski resorts being an epicentre of the virus, especially in the early days of the ‘super spreader’ news, so this seems to tally.
All of my friends seem to be split between those who think they’ve had it, based on having at least one of the three key symptoms (dry cough, fever, breathlessness), and those that are still unsure, despite having at least two of them. I’m someone who would be only too happy to say I’ve already had it so I don’t quite understand this uncertainty. Is it a form of denial? Maybe. Maybe it would be too much to think about how many people we’d potentially infected without realising it.
In the wake of my flight from India I’ve been thinking a lot about denial and how much I was in it back then. Thanks to the intervention staged by my friends I finally came to my senses, but I am astonished at the lengths I went to to convince myself and them that staying in Goa would be a good idea. Currently I have a small number of friends doing the same thing to me and I can hear my own voice from two weeks ago in the Agonda bubble. One of the interventionist friends said she almost cried when I was about to get into the taxi to the airport and sent her a message saying I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. Thank goodness I carried on.
I’ve actually had to mute all the news from India and social media from Goa specifically because I’m finding it too stressful to look at. I had a twisting feeling in my gut when I was there because it was telling me I had to go and I believe that my gut was right. That feeling returns every time I look at Goan Facebook threads and messages and for my own mental health, I’ve turned them off. I respect friends’ decisions to stay there but that decision wasn’t the right one for me. One of the interventionist friends told me yesterday that it wouldn’t be long before news would be being censored by the Indian government and internet searches restricted. I hadn’t even thought of that and it already appears to be happening.
I’ve actually continued with my Agonda lifestyle here in Worthing – an early morning or evening walk by the sea every day. I am once again enjoying the sunrise, or sunset, but here I am walking in a warm coat and gloves, carrying a flask of hot tea, basking in the cold air hitting my face after so many months of hot air. I was so ready to feel cold – I now know that I spent too long in a hot region and if I ever get the chance to go to India again I’ll spend some time back in much-cooler Rajasthan. I like wrapping up warm and my energy levels are higher in cooler climes. As such, I’m very happy in a sunny-but-cold Worthing.
There are joys to be found during lockdown, whether it’s watching dogs running after tennis balls on the beach (I miss Zimbo), finding stones or paving stones with optimistic messages painted or chalked on them on the seaside benches (no, I don’t touch them), seeing the sun sparkling over wet pebbles by the shoreline, or an unexpected ‘good morning!’ from a passer-by.
There are also sadnesses to witness: street drinkers in the early morning light, putting their world to rights, shouting at each other angrily. I see the same guys every morning and I wonder about the state of the nation’s mental health after a long, rainy winter and when the lockdown is over. There must be a lot of people not coping and I’m almost more worried about that than I am about COVID-19.
I have started, like many yoga teachers, to teach classes on Zoom, which I’m loving. They punctuate the week, for one thing, and they keep my teaching up after Goa. I love teaching beginners, and I think it’s my calling. I’m someone who found it hard to find a way in to yoga, thinking it wasn’t for me, so I can help people at least overcome that first hurdle. I’m gateway yoga, if you like. Message me if you’re interested in taking part.
On my lockdown exercise walk I have a lot of time to think through things and I’ve been musing on how this global event has been the biggest-ever challenge to selfishness the post-war generations have ever seen. For the first time, we’re being asked to think and act on others’ behalf and it’s clear that a lot of people find that concept very hard.
Before I left Goa, a British man told me that he was ‘going to act completely normal’ when he got home and that vulnerable people ‘should just get out more’. Needless to say I am stepping away from people like him in future. This is a Brexiteer who blamed foreigners for scrounging from the UK welfare system who is currently happy enough scrounging from the Indian community who is forced to help him because he is ‘stuck’ (ie, choosing to remain there because it’s cheaper than being in the UK and only opting to fly home if the UK government lay it on for free.)
People show you who they are even on a simple lockdown walk, run or cycle, when they are unwilling to step out of the way or deliberately cough in your direction when you do step out of the way. Even how someone buys something, taking all the stock of an essential rather than what they actually need, is an indicator. Never has it been made more clear who the empaths are and who is simply looking out for themselves. I try to remember to ‘be the change I want to see’ and simply manage my own behaviour but it is hard not to judge such levels of selfishness.
I’ve also found this time has confirmed what I’ve thought for a long time about my ‘loved ones’. It’s always upset me a lot to think that I don’t have any direct loved ones caring about what happens to me, without any husband, children, parents or siblings around (some of those by choice, it has to be admitted). But now I have a clear picture of who was there when the chips were down and I’m glad to have it confirmed. I don’t want to say ‘you know who you are’ but you do. And I’m so glad you’re there.
But here’s to my new family by the sea, with their dog, Nerys, and cat, Bob. I’m so very very grateful.
It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog post. Truth be told, I lost the urge to write about my time in Agonda. It was a blur of beach walks, dogs, work, Enfield-bike trips and lovely meals and I wanted to be as present as I could be, and not waste time retrospectively writing about them.
My last post was on 9 February, and my, how the world has changed since then. I’m back in the UK, having rushed back before India shut borders and stopped all flights. I’m living on England’s south coast, another beach, but one bathed in bright but cold sunshine. I’m only allowed out once a day for a walk and now that walk has become so so precious. I’m living in a new home with a new family, including a dog and a cat. I am near a very good friend but I can’t see her at close quarters because she’s ashmatic, and a high-risk for coronavirus.
It’s all happened so fast my head is spinning. I’m jetlagged and confused and unable to concentrate on work. I’m worried about work being cancelled.
Thank goodness I made myself focus on every step I took on Agonda beach because now I can feel the sand pressing into my toes, the hot breath of the sea on my legs, the press of Sanjo’s head into my thigh as he came in for a hug in the morning and the smile of The Most Handsome Man in Goa as he heard me say something in Konkani (the Goan language).
I can hear the sound of the bread boy’s horn blowing at 5.30pm, the cows mooing outside my door and the boys shouting at each other behind the bar at Kopi Desa.
I can hear Gita shouting, “How are you, darling?” and the sound of her laughing at me as I walk down the road towards the red house where I lived.
I can feel the Enfield roaring underneath me as we flew up to the Red Crab restaurant on it and the sound of us shouting the signs out as we passed them on the way to Cabo de Rama: “Harsh shop! Flat to rent! Rise up, nation army! Laxminarayan temple! Babu shop!”
I can feel The Most Handsome Man in Goa’s stomach (named Chicken Biryani by me) as I held on for dear life as we banked around corners, and the pat of his warm hand on my leg as he told me not to be scared.
I can transport myself back to him bringing a chocolate cake into Love Bites for my birthday, having carefully balanced it on the bike from Chaudi, and him taking pictures of me as I cut into it. I think that might have been the happiest day of my life.
My goodness, it was so hard to leave him and Agonda. I said goodbye to all of the dogs one by one and their little faces broke my heart. They didn’t know I was going. I hugged the boys at Simrose and said goodbye to Gita and Charlie, knowing I’ll be back as soon as I can. But when will that be?
I left Agonda because three friends staged an intervention. Two of them pressed me to see the reality of the situation while I was still caught up in the wonder of Agonda. To me Goa seemed to be a better option than coming home to virus-infested UK but they didn’t agree. I argued that India seemed to have the situation so much more under control than the British government, and it is true that they are widely acknowledged as making the right moves to contain the epidemic.
Agonda IS a good place to stay if you don’t want to catch the virus. Goa is currently virus-free, so why wouldn’t you want to stay in a paradise Almost all the foreigners in Agonda were vacillating between staying and going and I was one of them, until my friend’s husband sent me an email entitled GET OUT OF INDIA NOW. He said that of course everything was fine now, but I was to think about what it would be like later, when foreigners might not be so welcome in India, especially if the locals are fighting for their own families’ lives. And I’d be the last person to get any sort of healthcare if I needed it.
What I hadn’t asked myself is if Agonda would be a good place to stay in a nationwide lockdown, and in the event of the virus going wild there, a good place to find healthcare. With the help of my friends I projected forward a week or so and realised I’d be stuck in my room, not allowed to go out at all and reliant on my landlord and landlady for food and water. I decided I couldn’t bear to witness my beloved Agonda in this way. I knew I’d be lonely and miserable even if there were other people I knew around.
I knew foreigners (and locals) would break the curfews, but I am not someone who does that. The rule is the rule for a reason and it should be respected, especially in a foreign country. In my view, by breaking curfews we are risking people’s lives and making foreigners a target for anger. I’m not prepared to do that.
India is good at fighting epidemics because it knows how to force people to lockdown. As we’ve seen, the UK has a far less dictatorial approach, but that relies on people observing rules. So far we’ve seen that they haven’t. However, I decided I’d rather take my chances with the virus in the UK than be beaten with a bamboo stick for daring to go outside in Agonda. The sticks aren’t happening there yet, it seems, but I wasn’t prepared to wait to see them appear.
So far I have walked every day along the seafront in Worthing and I have practised the kind of mindful walking I did in Agonda, noticing every brilliant detail. The sound of a seagull’s call, the crash of the waves on the pebbled beach, the coloured glass on the (now closed) pier, the silence of no cars, no crowds. The spring flowers pushing through and dogs looking happy to be with their owners, unaware of the crisis unfolding around them. Children on scooters with their parents all to themselves.
And then there’s the British people, shyly smiling at each other from two metres away, making jokes at the till point, thanking the staff for working, saying, “If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry, eh?” The Blitz spirit.
I think when it came down to it, there were two things that brought me home early from India. Firstly, I wanted to fight this war on my home turf, and there is no doubt that it is a war with an unseen enemy. Secondly, I wanted someone to tell me to come home.
And they did. I have very good friends.
Thank you Kay, Woody, Paula and The Most Handsome Man in Goa.
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 file a diary entry for week twelve because I spent most of it wondering which end to put near the toilet (bad shakshuka) and trying to complete an urgent work deadline. Thankfully, both things were finished by the time I left for my trip to Rajasthan last Thursday.
The purpose of the trip was twofold – firstly, to experience the Jaipur Literature Festival, the biggest book show on earth. Apparently over 400,000 people visit it each year, and as it’s free to the general public, it’s one of a kind. I don’t know why, but I thought it was going to be like Frankfurt or Bologna – both international trade book fairs, but of course, the clue is in the name. It’s a book festival, like Edinburgh. But oh, the calibre and diversity of the panels. I realised that I have never been to a book event without working at it and it was so glorious to be a punter. I sat and listened to Madhur Jaffrey, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lemn Sissay, Howard Jacobson, Jung Chang, Lindsey Hilsum among others talk about writing memoir (highly pertinent to me), fiction and the lives of women. Lemn Sissay was a particular highlight – his emotional intensity charges a room and his story (of being stolen from his mother and placed into ‘care’) is heartbreaking.
Jaipur, unexpectedly, reminded me of Bologna. Huge medieval stone buildings the colour of amber and ochre, hot beverages served outdoors on every corner (chai, rather than coffee), scooters whizzing everywhere, people shouting and gesticulating, and of course, a population of people interested in books. All with added cows and monkeys.
On this whole trip I have been waiting to experience this much-vaunted ‘real India’ I’ve been told about, featuring people dying and defecating on the side of the road. I managed a whole week in Rajasthan, including rural areas, without seeing any of that, and I’m more convinced than ever that what people mean by ‘real India’ is ‘really poor India’. I think there’s a kind of slum tourism at work here, among foreign travellers – a competition to see who can do it more cheaply, and more ‘with the locals’. I find it a bit distasteful, to be honest. To flaunt our relative wealth on a ‘novelty’ trip that others have no choice but to experience isn’t my bag. I travelled by low-cost airline (SpiceJet) and by chair-class train. It was all completely ‘normal’, other than the trains, in particular, being a bit old.
Things are allowed to be old here. There isn’t a need to constantly renew everything every three years in a cycle of perceived obsolescence. If an item is functional, it lives on as itself, without even a fresh coat of paint. If an item isn’t functional, it turns into something else – it’s given a different function, eg an empty oil drum becomes a stool outside a chai bar, a saree/sari becomes a curtain or tablecloth. A Delhi resident I met at the fair said she misses the old recycling culture in her city: “Everything has to be new, now,” she said. “We used to re-use everything but now it’s discarded to make way for the new things.”
I could only feel guilty as this is definitely the effect of Western capitalism. Yet again, I was forced to wonder why we need so many new things in the west when the old things were just as good. I even remembered saying to my ex-husband, who loved fixing things and making them last for decades, “Why would you do that when you can just buy a new one?” Oh how I have changed that tune … I’m horrified at how far I bought into capitalism and for so long.
I loved Jaipur, with it’s palaces and forts. And I realised something – I love cities with Islamic architecture. There is a much higher proportion of Muslim residents in Rajasthan and it’s reflected everywhere from the male-oriented chai/coffee culture and the millions of Mughal-made arched doorways and windows, filled with coloured glass and ornate paintings. In the City Palace and the Amber Fort there are miles of cool stone corridors with small windows opening onto incredible vistas. Everywhere there is another archway to walk through and another coloured glass window or mirrored wall to marvel at.
I stayed at a heritage hotel, with unique, individually hand-painted rooms (Pearl Palace Heritage) and hired a Muslim tuk tuk driver from Jaipur City Exploring, Sharukh, who knew the city like the back of his hand. I loved the crazy driving and the beeping. It’s like a dance – everyone makes room for each other and there is no rage. It just sounds like rage, to a Western ear, trained to hear beeping a horn as an expression of frustration. It isn’t in India, it’s simply, ‘I’m here’ or ‘go ahead’. And it’s compulsory to do it, which is why the backs of lorries say, “BLOW HORN OK”. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t mind walking out in front of oncoming traffic so it suits me here – you have to trust or believe that the person will stop or move round you, and there’s a greater likelihood of that here. I also don’t mind dirt and dust. You can’t enjoy being here if you’re addicted to hand sanitiser…
On the advice of numerous friends, I then changed my plan to stay one more night in Jaipur to go to Pushkar, which was on the trainline towards my next destination, Udaipur. It turns out that most people’s delight in it stems from experiences in India twenty or thirty years ago, because now it feels like a Hindu theme park. I did enjoy wandering through the bazaar down to the lakeside ghats but the best bit for me was getting lost at night looking for a way out to a tuk tuk – I came across a temple doing pooja, with all the bells clanging, drums beating and a priest holding candles aloft outside, gesturing across the lake. I later discovered that the cacophony is intended to remove ‘obstacles’, to clear the mind of distractions. The sound is intended to create the om, the sound of the universe, of the sun. Once I knew that, the frequent nighttime poojas in Udaipur soothed me rather than frazzled my nerves.
I caught the train from Ajmer to Udaipur and loved the whole experience. Big brown leather reclining chairs, the chai man going up and down the corridor, someone popping up to sell power boosters for your phone, even Dominos pizzas from a delivery bag. It’s a completely logical pop-up economy and people are entrepreneurial about it. I met young, male entrepreneurs in all three cities, keen to capitalise on the tourist rupee. They work so hard to give you the best experience they can. And then you find out that they sleep in their tuk tuk, a bit like the north Indian guys in Agonda, who sleep on the tables of the restaurants they work in.
Oh, Udaipur. I’m completely smitten by you. To the point where I’m thinking of staying with you for a while, next season. As always in India, someone randomly popped up to tell me to do it – a Brit who lives there for six months every year. He’d travelled everywhere in India since he was seventeen, and he confirmed that Udaipur is the best place to live. “It combines a city with a village feel,” he said. “And everyone is so lovely.” I couldn’t agree more.
Yet again, I was reminded of Italy. I’m not the first person to make the connection between Udaipur and Venice. The city is set next to two lakes, and there are ghats and boats at various points all around Lake Pichola and Fateh Sagar. Sheikh, the young entrepreneur responsible for the awesome Doctor Cafe in the very cool Lal Ghat area, took me on a scooter safari into the hills and farm villages around Udaipur at sunset. This is where he grew up, he said, living a simple life. I clung on as we whizzed around Lake Badi (Tiger Lake) and the surrounding villages, small children waving ‘hello’ wherever we went. Still no defecation on the side of the road (ok a few men were having a pee), just people living in simple houses, without new things. I guess it might be a relatively affluent area, considering its proximity to the city and I probably saw its produce being sold by the women in the lively vegetable and spice bazaar in the city. The women wanted me to give them pens – I’m bringing them next time.
Because there will be a next time. I’ve fallen in love with Udaipur and I’m not done. I’ve seen most of the sights and I want to go back and truly just dwell there. I liked the noise and the clanging of the tuk tuks and pooja bells. I liked the chai society and the namastes (they don’t say it much in Goa and laugh when I say it, like I’m being an affected yogi). I like the medieval buildings that are simply ageing as they are, happily in their natural state. A bit like me, really.
But before you think I’ve romanticised everything about it, the day before the bazaar visit, people in the city centre were beaten with bamboo sticks by the police for protesting against anti-working class laws (I was warned off going near it and saw someone else’s video). Many of the shops were closed and the temples remained quiet. I’m not stupid enough to think that everything is perfect here, but it’s real and it’s open and I love that about it.
See you soon, Udaipur.
(Note: I stayed at the extraordinarily beautiful Little Garden Guest House in Udaipur, run by the incredibly helpful Akshay. Highly recommended.)