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.

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.)