Westward Ho!

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.

One thing I do know, I belong in the west.

Seaside Stories

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.

Fish for sale!

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’.

Sea Lane Cafe

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…

Her name was Lola

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!

Paula’s seagull

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 see Nordic the dog on a regular basis

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.

Nerys doesn’t want to walk with me 😥

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?

Bobbity

You are the Light

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.

Love in the Time of Corona

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.

You have made me feel loved.

Agonda Diaries – week 14

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…

Agonda diaries – the Rajasthan edition (week 12/13)

Dear reader…

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.)

Agonda Diaries – week eleven

This week the cool winds have blown into Agonda, bringing with them a freshness and relief from the unseasonable heat. The weather pattern is about a month late here, and it’s still doing strange things, with monsoon-like waves suddenly creating a huge sand shelf for most of the length of the beach. Dogs, cows and people are teetering on the edge of it, seeing if they can find a way down to the shoreline below.

I hadn’t realised how much I loved and missed a cool wind until this one arrived. It has been truly blissful to walk on the beach, morning and evening, feeling it blowing in my hair and around my body. I see people running each morning, wearing headphones, and I wonder why you would want to intentionally blot out the sound of the ocean and the wind in chorus: nature’s ‘om’. I really don’t get it. You’re missing everything that is beautiful about the world. Mind you, people always used to ask me what I listened to while I was hiking alone in the UK – nature, I’d say. What is the point of blotting it out with manmade noise? Still don’t get it.

It’s been a week of realisations. One – a key one for me – is how important it is for me to be productive. Over the festive period I had a lull in freelance work which would have been great if I’d allowed myself to relax into it and use it as a holiday. Unfortunately I didn’t, and I started to feel really down about everything. I blamed the full moon or the Christmas forced-fun machine, but actually I think it was simply that I wasn’t very productive. I felt every day that I should be achieving something and I wasn’t. Now I’ve had a new block of work and I feel happy again. There is a structure to my days as I plough through it.

I’ve also realised the importance of doing something you’re good at – that you’re fluent in, whilst you’re learning a new skill. I’m loving my yoga teaching but I don’t yet feel completely fluent and confident in it (despite some nice feedback). Plus I’m still trying to master some asanas (poses) that I’d like to have in my body before I teach them to anyone else. Blending the learning experience of teaching with editorial work where I know exactly what I’m doing is great for me. One without the other seems to throw me off somewhat. Yin and yang, I guess. One can’t exist without the other.

One of the biggest realisations of this new year is that I’ve turned from a sunset person to a sunrise person. I remember previous holidays in Agonda, where sunset would be the highlight of the day, as it is for many tourists here. I would order a cocktail and sit and watch the sun go down, along with lots of people doing the same thing on the beach. I felt a sense of hope and excitement for the night ahead – anything could happen, and it did, while I was under the influence of alcohol.

Now I walk the beach during sunset, glancing at it occasionally, but prioritising the walking over the watching. Since stopping drinking I’ve started to think about why so many people turn up to celebrate the setting of the sun when the rising of it is a much more positive thing. I walk during sunrise, now, and I’ve realised that this is a much more hopeful and optimistic experience for me. Why was I putting so much hope into brain-numbed darkness? The morning, the daytime was here all along. The dogs frisky and tumbling over each other on the cool sand, the fishermen sharing out the overnight catch, the boys singing happily in the Simrose restaurant, preparing for the day ahead.

I am a sunrise person and I want to walk in the daylight, not the darkness. Sadly this means that my time with The Most Handsome Man in Goa has come to an end. No more Nighttime Girlfriend.

The sunrise moment does come with some surprises and yesterday’s was finding a dead rat in savasana on the yoga mat outside my door. Marshan the landlord and I concluded that a cat had deposited it there. Thankfully there was nothing there this morning.

In other animal news, there are numerous puppies at play on the beach, enjoying the adventure of the sand ledge, turtle number three has laid her eggs, and both pigs have now been sold. I miss them. I haven’t seen the foal on the beach this week – I wonder if he’s been sold too. If you stay here for more than a month you start to see animals disappear, including Simba from Sampoorna Yoga School and Foxxy from Samudra Surf School. We don’t know where they have gone.

Time to stop writing this and get on with some productive editorial work. I’m really loving it this week.

Words are my thing, it turns out.

Agonda Diaries – week ten

The week started so well, with an overnight stay at nearby Khola beach. They call it paradise and it is, made up of a beautiful beach, a river and shady palms. It’s cooler than Agonda at Khola, and there are no mosquitoes, miraculously. I still haven’t worked out why … maybe it’s the absence of cows…

The Most Handsome Man in Goa joined me there for dinner and then an early-morning jungle walk at 7am. The walk simply follows the river upstream towards the Shree Laxminarayan temple, where I’d previously found the praying Nandi. I loved it, even though it meant wading through shallow water for some of the way. We tiptoed round some small rice fields, misty in the morning light. I could see why the river was so small at the beach end – much of the water has been diverted.

Being in Khola overnight is a bit like being on a Greek island when all the day-trippers on boats and scooters have left. There is just you and the delicious silence – no whirring AC (it’s not needed) or droning mosquitoes to spoil it. It was the best sleep I’ve had so far in Goa.

I had a bit of a dramatic tuk tuk drive over to Khola as we found a couple who’d fallen off their scooter on a dangerous bend in the road. They were from Mumbai. She was in shock – the driver – and and tuk tuk driver was amazing, throwing water in her face to keep her from passing out, and bandaging up her husband’s hands. “I’m never driving a scooter again!” she wailed. And reader, that was the moment that I decided that I’m not even starting. The likelihood of having an accident is really high, based on the evidence I’ve seen so far. Everyone has at least one story and I don’t want one of my own. The tuk tuk driver took all three of us back to Agonda where his friend was waiting to take the couple to the hospital.

In animal news, a new puppy appeared at Agonda Diva resort but promptly disappeared, Coca Cola the cow continues to terrorise Mandala, Zest and On the Way cafes and a second turtle has laid her eggs on the beach. Sweetpea is appearing further and further away from Simrose on the beach and she has met TMHMIG, and they seemed to like each other, despite her preference for white people (they feed her).

I have had another weird week, feeling unsettled and stressed for no apparent reason. I have got a lot of work projects either hurtling towards me or that need wrapping up, but that’s not it. I am feeling in the midst of a transition. I hit my one-year soberversary on Friday and the gulf between me and the drinking set in Agonda appears to have widened. I don’t think you realise, when you’re drinking, that all you can talk about is drinking. And if it’s not the actual drinking, it’s what you and your friends did because you were drinking. I must have been like that. I just can’t take part in it any more and I’ve found myself wondering where I fit in here. I’m not part of the yoga set and I’m not part of the holiday drinking set. My mind keeps wandering back to my hiking tribe back in the UK. I miss them. I need to decide where I am going to be when these twenty-five weeks are up and I think I know that I don’t want to be a permanent digital nomad.

I have booked my first Indian trip outside Goa – to Rajasthan. I will be attending Jaipur Literary Festival at the end of this month, and will then take a trip to Udaipur by train. Palaces and forts – something to look forward to…

Agonda Diaries – week nine

This week has been marked by a series of new beginnings, not just a new decade. The first Olive Ridley turtle laid her eggs on the beach at 4.30am on January 2 and they will hatch in 44 days’ time. I’m hoping I will be there to help them into the sea, as I was earlier this year, watching them waddle towards a light held aloft by the forestry commission official (aka Turtle Guy). They think it’s the moon, and they walk towards the crashing waves with little or no chance of survival. Turtle Guy told me that the odds are one in 100. It’s so moving watching the little creatures be swept up by the waves – a story circulated among tourists that their mother is waiting for them offshore. TG told me bluntly that this is a myth – they’re out there completely on their own. I can relate.

The happy news came through that Captain Nitesh’ wife Ashwita gave birth to a baby girl and I can’t wait to meet her. I’ve bought a pair of the tiniest Ali Baba pants I could find in Gita’s shop to give to the baby. I keep thinking about how lucky this little girl will be to have Nitesh and his family all around her as she grows up next to the river in Agonda. I took a river trip with Mukesh, Nitesh’ brother, and his dad Mangaldas (‘Das’) this week and now I almost feel part of the family myself. I saw another sea otter and a stork-billed kingfisher (apparently very rare). That river trip never disappoints, even though Das had to push the boat through various sections because the tide was so low.

Mangaldas at the helm

Having ended 2019 saying no to being a nighttime girlfriend, I have happily said yes to being a daytime one. New Year’s Eve saw an almost Groundhog Day repeat of the scene two years ago, when I was about to leave the NYE party alone and a certain someone I shall refer to as The Most Handsome Man in Goa (how he was introduced to me) appeared. I figured the universe must be telling me something if he appeared again in the exact same place at the exact same time two years later, and so I heard out his apology.

We have since been on two blissful day dates to Canaguinim and Polem beaches. I have never really had the simple pleasure of walking hand-in-hand with someone along a beach, with them stopping occasionally to take a picture of me (without being asked to do so) and suggesting we stop for lunch somewhere. This week I realised that I never heard the words ‘let’s do this’ from a man I was with. Just the simple acknowledgement that he is with me and wanting to suggest something to do together. ‘Let’s’. Yes, let’s.

The inevitable fly in the ointment is that TMHMIG works evenings in a bar and doesn’t finish until late (which is why I had become Nighttime Girlfriend). I have struggled this week with being the only one in a group of friends who isn’t on a drinking schedule, ie going to bed at 2am or 4am and getting up at lunchtime. I am tired at the normal time and want to go to bed at 10pm, just when the party is getting going. Interestingly, a new member of the group tried to use me as a scapegoat for his own not-drinking. He was told about my alcohol-free state and jokingly asked if I needed to see a doctor. I politely replied that he may be the one to need one (being the one choosing to pour ethanol down his gullet). It turned out that he wasn’t drinking either, and not only that, he was about to go on an alcohol-free retreat in north Goa. Aha I thought – another one of those people who pretend to be drinking and ‘fun’ whilst actively avoiding the stuff and using me as the scapegoat to deflect attention from themselves. But I see you, scapegoater, and I will always call you out. It’s nice not drinking, isn’t it, Noah?

Just putting this here – info via Clare Pooley (sobermummy)

I noticed a similar thing at a work party I attended late last year – people who made a lot of noise and fuss about how much they were going to let rip at the party, and specifically how much they were going to drink. I noticed that on the night, they were the ones to have one glass and then sneak off home. The drunk people didn’t notice. I remember this when I was drinking – the ones you thought you’d be partying with were never there at the end. But by then it was too late for you. You’d taken them at their word and ‘let rip’ but they had only pretended. Now I’m sober, I see these people everywhere. Great that they’re not drinking but not great that they feel they have to pretend to, to fit in.

I’ve been greatly amused this week to see how the various dogs in my ‘pack’ respond when I bring them a little treat in the morning. Sweetpea gently lays hers on the ground while she waits to see if there is another one to be had. Sanjo eats his straight away. But Zimbo carries his a little way off and digs a little hole to bury it in the sand for later. Perhaps there is something a little human in these three responses. I’m definitely a Sanjo. Why wait?

Agonda diaries – week eight!

Yes, it’s my two-month milestone. I can’t quite believe I’ve been here that long! I feel so settled in my big red house that it already feels like home.

The landlord, Marshan, invited me to his family Christmas lunch this week – such a lovely act of kindness. I decided to start the day by going to mass at the local church. Although I’m no longer a practicing Catholic (aka an atheist) I enjoyed it. Going into Catholic churches when I’m abroad is something I like to do to remember my mother. This one was festooned with a pink blousy canopy outside to shade the congregation – Catholicism, Indian-style. I did get quite emotional when seeing a western woman who had trouble walking go up to receive Holy Communion from the priest. She was crying and I wanted to give her a hug. I think I needed one too. Something about Christmas always gets to me – memories of family Christmasses past, and how there will never be another.

I turned up to Marshan’s having bought a painted glass candlestick, which I immediately broke by lightly tapping it against the stair rail. Sigh. Oh well – it’s the thought that counts. However, I later found out that people don’t exchange gifts at Christmas here – the ones under Marshan’s tree were fake. The real gift is food and good cheer, and your presence, not presents. At the lunch I met a woman and her daughter from the famous self-contained, self-run community Auroville in Kerala. It sounds like an interesting way to live – it’s mission is to “realise human unity’.

I found a little bit of human unity in Marshan’s house, as we all gathered, shepherd-like, around Elish, Marshan’s grandson. He is a smiling, gurgling, laughing boy who wears black and white bangles around his little wrists. His chocolate-button eyes made us all go gaga for him.

It’s also been a week of beautiful beaches as my friend Shubham took me back to Galgibaga, another turtle beach with nothing built on it, where we pretty much had the whole expanse to ourselves. The beach is lined with casuarina trees, not palms, affording shade from the blistering heat. We played in the sea, where Shubham found a dragonfly that had been hit by a wave. He held it aloft in his hand, to dry it out and to see if it could be brought back to life – sadly, it couldn’t.

I also paid a visit to Khola (Cola) beach, which I had decided I didn’t like because of a visit I’d made by boat where I was hot and bothered and couldn’t find a shady place to sit and relax. This time I came in through the jungle/river route, fully shaded with palms, and could see why everyone raves about it. People were walking in the river to keep cool – that’s my kind of paradise.

Dog-wise, there is little to say except that there’s a new litter of puppies at the river end of Agonda beach, and I had a little play with one of them who decided to squeal at my feet. Ocean isn’t really a puppy any more – he’s so independent and headstrong now. No more cuddles there. It seems to be crabbing season with the dogs, with so many of them digging each morning, bums high in the air all over the beach. I’m afraid to say that there is now only one pig outside Casa Red Shade. I think one of them went into Christmas lunch…

We’ve had a partial solar eclipse which excited me way more than anyone else, it seemed. At breakfast it went oddly dusk-like, but that was the extent of it. Business as usual on the beach.

After last week’s meditative diary entry, I have continued to have a very thoughtful week. I’ve been musing on the power of the word ‘no’. Women are socialised to be ‘yes’ creatures – it can be so hard to opt out of something you are being asked to do, but don’t really want to. I said ‘no’ to a couple of things this week and the reaction from others was interesting. I was asked if I’d enjoyed my break (assuming I’d said no because I was taking a holiday – nope), if I was stressed or tired (no – I’m just saying no), and asked if I could state exactly when I could say yes in the future (when you ask me in advance). It throws people when you stop saying yes to everything. They try and attach a problem to it – she must be stressed, she must be nervous, she must be tired, she must be depressed. What if she is just saying no?

Once more I have run into the problem of becoming a ‘nighttime girlfriend’. I’ve been here before – the guy I’m seeing has all the daylight hours in the world to offer his friends (or his hangover) but nothing for me. I get the darkness, when I all I want to do these days is sleep. So I’m claiming those hours back for myself and saying ‘no’. I don’t need anyone by my side but the person who might appear there would need to be able to walk next to me in the daylight. To that, I say a resounding YES.

I intend to start 2020 by focusing on all the things I am saying YES to, and there are many. As always, Agonda offers me opportunities that I could never see coming and I now need to balance those with the opportunities hoving into view from the UK. I am loving teaching yoga but also researching and writing about it in blogs. I have become interested in pursuing Hatha yoga (having trained in Ashtanga-Vinyasa) so I think this may be in store for me in 2020. All of this has to sit alongside my editorial work in children’s books which I still love and pursue. It’s quite the portfolio career…

One thing I’ve started this week which I’m about to do when I’ve finished this piece – yoga self-practice. A yogi friend said to me last week that the most important thing was to work on my own practice. For a while I thought he meant in a class, but no, he meant on my own. I’ve been attending classes for so long, I wasn’t sure I had the willpower to do it. But this week I did. And I loved it. I did a Lisa version of the Ashtanga primary series, modified with blocks and straps, Iyengar-style. I felt like I could really focus on my breathing throughout and that I disappeared into a little bubble for an hour or so. So I’m still going to do led classes, but I will intertwine them with a little ‘Mysore’ self-practice too. And sprinkle in a few barefoot runs and swims on the beach for variation.

The mat is calling. Namaste.