¡Group!

For my fiftieth year, I wanted to scatter adventures throughout the year, rather than focus on one big one. I began with a return to my beloved Isle of Wight and its hypnotic coastal path at Tennyson Down. Again, I found I had it mostly to myself. I smiled when I saw two older women (older than me) scurrying down the Down towards me one morning. One was obviously a fell runner, the other striding out at speed with her dog. ‘That’ll be me in fifteen years,’ I thought. I hoped.

My first Island adventure three years ago was one filled with blisters and exhaustion. All the hiking I’ve been doing since then has made me more robust and able to take in the miles. My feet have toughened up (whilst still maintaining the acceptable public face of a pedicure). A friend recommended boots that were comfy from the very first wear. You can find them here. (I recommend Ellis Brigham because their in-store service is brilliant).

I’d planned on doing a classic milestone birthday walk on part of the Camino, the network of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and end up at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I mentioned it to a few hikers in my London hiking group, and they kept mentioning the joys of a town called Burgos, which sounded appealing. But a few kept mentioning a place I’d never heard of before – Picos de Europa: a spectacular mountainous national park in northern Spain that I would love. No none-hikers I mentioned it to had heard of it (and indeed, even in Spain it’s not widely known) so I decided that was my destination.

The week’s walking would be with adventure-holiday specialists Exodus, whom I’d never tried, but everyone recommended. In the recent past, I’ve avoided group holidays, preferring to ‘fly solo’, but a mountain region in Spain? It couldn’t be done on my own very easily. And having overcome my irrational bias against doing anything in groups (I used to think it was sad), it felt like the right next step. I know from my current hiking groups that people are largely great. There’s always the odd one you fail to click with, but I’ve made some really good friends through it and it’s changed my mind about shared experience.

I decided to throw myself into the group experience, starting at the airport. Most of our 15-strong group had been on the same flight and we’d all done the same thing: looked around for ‘hiking people’ on the flight and struggled to spot any likely candidates. When we met at Bilbao airport we were a disparate bunch – the only thing marking us out being above-average rucksacks with telltale bits of kit and huge ‘I can’t wait to hike’ smiles.

Hiking has taught me many things but this holiday taught me some more. It taught me that I am fit enough to walk up 1000-metre ascents with virtually no stops, whilst being able to play word games with fellow hikers. It taught me that the youngest person in the group is not necessarily the fittest – in our case, a 70-year-old man was the fittest, and most eager to scale peaks. I was happy to walk in his wake with his wife – we were the three Welsh ‘mountain goats’.

It taught me that some people hum or sing involuntarily when they’re happy and you know when they’re feeling below par because they stop. It taught me that unlikely people enjoy singing songs from the musicals, specifically My Fair Lady (I’m looking at you, Richard…), and that a slight, quiet man walking with poles, who knows everything about anything, can be a retired fireman with a heart of an ox, who has saved people from burning basements.

I learned that the group rally round people who are struggling. I attempted to scale a very small peak and freaked out about the vertiginous nature of the climb. I was ‘talked up’ by my more courageous colleagues and given a helpful arm to hold on to on the way down by the guide. It was one small step for womankind but meant the world to me.

18301036_1701183489897082_1516762560455002264_n

Me being triumphant on the peak wearing my new Picos t-shirt

I learned that it feels a bit rubbish not to join a splinter group for a more challenging ascent. As I waited for the others on the slopes below, I knew I’d made the right choice not to go (it was a scree slope with an even more vertiginous drop) but it wasn’t nice being left out. It occurred to me that the group thrived on shared experience, and each time we split up, it eroded that joyous feeling a tiny bit. They returned with ‘I did it!’ faces and it made me feel defensive and sad.

On the last day of hiking, I was striking out with my fellow mountain goats, mostly ahead of the pack. It was suggested to me later that some people had deliberately slowed down so that they could support people who were struggling at the back; that they could’ve gone faster, but chose not to. I felt selfish in my urge to strike out, to get the most out of the experience for me. Should I have held back?

I was reminded of the guy who sacrificed his own time in the London Marathon this year to help another who was struggling. I’ll confess that I’ve looked at that footage more than once and thought, “I’d run over the line first then go back for him”. Or maybe not. It’s made me question my self-professed team-player status. Am I in it for the team? Or am I just in it to get my personal best?

I think part of this thinking comes from a feeling of having been held back by people over the years. Held back from the horizon ahead, from crossing the finish line. I felt it when I finally made the decision to go to university (four years after sixth form), with no one around me suggesting that I should. My ballet teacher, whom I’d been working for, exclaimed, “if I’d known you were clever I would’ve suggested it years ago!” Indeed. Thank goodness I got there under my own steam.

I felt it when I’d got over the point where both my parents had died and was about to forge ahead unbroken, and my ex-husband’s parents started dying. It wasn’t his fault, but I wanted to run away and be free.

I felt it when I was on holiday with him and I’d want to walk over the next horizon, or stay out for that extra drink with the locals, and he didn’t. I’ve felt it when I’ve been out with friends who want to go to home early on a night out and I’m still yearning for action.

I’ve met all of these challenges by striking out on my own to continue the voyage, feeling like I’m peeling people’s clasping fingers off me as I pull away, thinking: “You can’t stop me doing what I want to do, stop trying to hold me back with you, I want to go further than you.” I’ve walked over the next horizon, stayed out for that extra drink and now it feels like my default setting.

But the best moments of this trip took place as a shared experience with the group (our Spanish guide, Alvaro, shouted ¡Group! when he wanted our attention). I genuinely forged connections with most of the group that I hope will last. After I’d hugged the last one coming through passport control at the airport, I had to rush off otherwise I’d have got upset.

All ages, all backgrounds, all experts in something fascinating (Janet and her plant knowledge!). Sharing G&T orders, bottles of cava, hairdryers, baguettes, bizcocho and an admiration for the guide.

I think my experiences over the years have caused me to be wary of other people trying to hold me back. That’s made me concentrate on the quality of my own experience, and that’s what solo holidays have given me the opportunity to do. But oh, the group.

Team Mountain Goat. You taught me oh so much about myself, about alpine plants, about Spanish history, about canals engineered in mountains, about hiking socks, about not washing waterproof jackets because they’re never the same after. But the main thing you taught me was how great people are. Especially hiking people.

Dedicated to Team Mountain Goat: Janet, Gill, Pete, Chris, Manisha, Anthony, Jenny, Vanessa, Hugh, Alvaro, Jennifer, Susan, Mandy, Richard and Jas.

 

Pura Vida!

It’s almost six years to the day that I first embarked on one of my solo holidays. I deliberately chose somewhere far away (Thailand) so I wouldn’t be able to chicken out and fly home ahead of time. I found the first few days really challenging (read about that here) but once I found my groove I couldn’t wait to go back again. And I did, a few months later.

Since then I’ve found a couple of places I love – Bodrum in Turkey and Dahab in Egypt – and visited them over and over again because I feel so comfortable there. This year, though, I felt like trying somewhere new, not least because I can’t currently fly to Dahab (flights aren’t currently going to Sharm-el-Sheikh from the UK) and Bodrum has been at the centre of the refugee crisis in the last year or so. I didn’t feel right to go there for pleasure.

13735094_1381194168562684_3425733696853586646_o

Red-eyed Tree Frog seen at Finca Verde Lodge

Costa Rica has recently loomed onto the UK holiday horizon, partly because of the reintroduction of direct flights there from tour operators like Thomson (they started last November). I’d seen a friend’s holiday pictures over Christmas and thought it looked like the perfect destination for me – beautiful beaches, lush forests, interesting flora and fauna. I booked it before I could think about it too much.

My destination was Tamarindo, a surf town in the north west on the Pacific coast. At this time of year, the rainy season, the Pacific side is the driest, and July gives a short respite in the rains, that the locals call ‘Little Summer’. It rains a bit, but not nearly as much as it does between May and November in other months. What the rainy season does give you is a daily spectacular sunset, and Tamarindo is famous for it. Nary a day goes by without one lighting the curious cloud formations in a unique, glorious way.

13690928_1380547925293975_9185537645095567330_o

One of the many glorious sunsets viewed from the Esplendor hotel…

Towards the end of my holiday I decided to take a ‘sunset cruise’ that hilariously turned into a ‘storm cruise’ with a dash back to the shore and being told to run for it across the beach because someone had been killed by lightning the week before. During my two-week trip, the lightning strike happened, plus a guy got his leg chewed off by a croc in Tamarindo estuary (he was walking where he shouldn’t) and a volcano erupted. Costa Rica is certainly ‘lively’ when it comes to natural-world news.

Tamarindo is happily also famous for its party atmosphere. One of the things I need when I’m away on my own is access to lively nightlife. I’ve found I can lose myself in local bars and clubs, whereas it’s more difficult in a quiet restaurant. I need lots of people around at night, and Tamarindo (or Tamagringo, as the locals refer to it) doesn’t disappoint. As the guides suggest, it has something of a ‘spring break’ feel about it, with a range of bars catering to the American surf crowd.

13708252_1373924932622941_1245494570877072872_o

Surfer on wave watch at Playa Langosta, Tamarindo

I preferred the local ‘Tico’ places – like Pacifico, where you can’t stand still for five seconds without someone whizzing you round the dance floor to the latest salsa hit. And then there’s the Crazy Monkey Bar, where everyone heads on a Friday night, split between a Gringo and a Tico dancefloor. Guess which one I headed to? Yep – Tico every time. Much more fun, and more relaxed. Beware the free shots given to ladies though – Guaro chilli shots are pretty lethal.

I’ve realised that what I really like is a hotel base, near to a lively town, but just out of the way enough to get away. The Esplendor Tamarindo is perched on the hill above the town and has spectacular views of the sunset from a swim-up bar. Howler monkeys fight for territory in the trees around the infinity pool and the tree-lined hills behind the hotel are filled with birdsong all day. Every room faces the ocean so it’s a place where no one feels disgruntled with their room choice.

13719494_1374476499234451_4210174872116654219_o

View from my hotel balcony over Tamarindo

(I wondered why the staff were a little bit grumpy in the hotel, when everyone tells you how friendly the Ticos are. It turned out, according to a tour guide, that it’s Argentinian-owned. That seems to be the byword for bad service in Costa Rica.)

The hotel/town situation reminded me very much of my first solo experience in Thailand. There, I was staying in an extremely romantic hotel, upgraded to a seaview, but I had access to a nearby party town that was only two minutes away. I could leave behind the romantic couples looking at the sunset and head into town for fun.

I laughed when I realised the similarity, but not so much when I realised how daunting it is going to a completely new continent so far away, on your own. I’d forgotten, in the years of repeat visits to Bodrum and Dahab, that it’s fairly stressful not knowing how things work. I quickly realised what was going to happen – it would take me several days, or even a week, to get into the swing of things, and then I’d want to book a repeat visit so I could go back and do it properly.

And that is exactly what did happen.

Luckily for me, I had a bit of a false start to the holiday, meeting a guy on his own in the hotel. He had found out lots of local information via an American guy who had retired there, and it gave me an instant solo-holiday boost. He was also great to hang out with, and we ended up touring the local bars one night, in what appeared to be a live Bacardi advert. We packed it all in – karaoke, salsa, house music – it was one of those nights. When he left a few days later I came crashing down with the realisation that I was on my own and I’d have to make my own fun. I really did wallow for a bit and it brought back those first wretched days in Thailand. But I did what I did back then, and booked some trips to shake off the gloom.

And then I met Nolberto the tour guide. My first trip was a guided group hike to Rincon De La Vieja – one of the four active volcanoes. Nolberto, like many of the Tico guides I came across, was well drilled in the history, culture and politics of his country. There is no army, he told us proudly. The money is spent instead on health and education, and education is compulsory for 7-12 year olds. He told us that the first mile or so of the hiking track into the forest is paved so that people in wheelchairs could enjoy the experience.

I realised why people want to live in Costa so much. Everything is focused on a better quality of life – ‘pura vida’ – the pure life statement that punctuates pretty much everything a Tico says.

During a post-hike visit to some hot springs, an American woman asked me what I thought about Brexit. They all did, every time I met one. And all but one was hugely sympathetic to the 48% Remain voters and worried about the threat posed to the US by Donald Trump. Hillary just HAS to get in, said one. I said it might be a good idea to prepare for the worst, just in case. So many of us in the UK had been caught out by complacency and it would be wise to go there in your head before it happened.

13732005_1375549559127145_861512237273799110_o

The hot springs near Rincon De La Vieja

Mostly I get scowled at by women in couples on these sorts of holidays. They appear to think I pose some sort of threat, and their partners pick up on it and are invariably too scared to talk to me. A few times I got approached by women who were genuinely interested in what I was doing on my solo holiday and were comfortable enough in their marriages to include me in their family group. I really appreciated it. Thanks, ladies.

I’ve found, especially now I’m older, that I also get ignored by staff in restaurants and beach clubs. I’m told it’s because they can get more money out of couples and groups, but it felt as though it was the ‘cloak of invisibility’ that descends upon women after the age of 46. Seeing a waiter who had previously ignored me, running after a group of young surf girls at Lola’s, kind of confirmed that for me. Mind you, that was during my low point, so I was probably more sensitive than normal. Lola’s is a fantastic restaurant on the glorious Playa Avellanas – highly recommended. Especially the free Imperial Beer you get when you tell the waiter off…

13691181_1379581968723904_9194854519305022816_o

The view of Playa Avellanas from Lola’s Restaurant

Anyway, back to Nolberto. He’d given me his card on the trip and as he’s freelance, I thought I’d book him to go on my next trip to Monteverde. (Book him by email here: Eltwintours@hotmail.com). I’d tried booking a group trip in town, but they seemed to run only when they could amass enough people and I didn’t want to wait and miss out. On the spectacular drive there (it’s a cloud forest in the mountains), Nolberto had a habit of shouting, “Vámonos!” every time he overtook a slow vehicle (which was a lot). I started shouting it as well, and it made us laugh so much. He was great fun.

I realised how great it was to have a private guide on that day. It happened to be Guanacaste Day – the day that people in the north-western region I was in celebrate their annexation from Nicaragua. And boy, do they celebrate it. On the way back from Monteverde we stopped at Bar Y La Griega near Santa Cruz and they had a cimarrona band playing. It was a group of high-school boys standing outside the bar in the dark playing a frenzied mariachi-style music (which is usually accompanied by dancing puppets). One of things I’d never have witnessed if I’d been on a group tour.

13891790_1381212251894209_8102175278859950150_n

Holding a young sloth at Finca Verde Lodge

Nolberto also tracked down sloths for me – I couldn’t visit the country and not see at least one. We travelled back to the volcano region to Finca Verde Lodge in Bijagua, which turned out to be a little gem of a place with hardly any visitors. We saw three small slots nestled high up in the cecropia trees they love so much and were told that they only come down about twice a week for toilet purposes.

Amazingly, one popped down while I was having my lunch and Nolberto passed it over to me to hold. It is simply one of the most beautiful moments of my life. It felt like a hairy baby, this 8-month-old three-toed sloth, that naturally curls its arms around you for a cuddle. He was stoned, of course, from the cecropia leaves, but his smile came from being a three-toed sloth. They all have them. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them.

 

13735679_1381216841893750_5365012855514581366_o

Norberto holding the 8-month-old three-toed sloth

Nolberto also encouraged me to zipline whilst at Selvatura Park in Monteverde. I was really scared but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. It comprises 12 ‘flights’ across 18 platforms and once I’d (literally) got into the swing of it, I was dying to do it again. I had to be ‘accompanied’ across a few flights by random guys – you had to do some of them in pairs. Thanks to the three guys who gallantly placed their legs around my waist without even knowing my name.

13775418_1379026305446137_1830020612837835696_n

As with Thailand, I’m now feeling an overwhelming urge to return to CR. I wish I’d spent way more time in the mountains and done a lot more hiking. I wish I’d spent more time partying in the evenings and not so much going to bed early. I wish I’d spent more time with the locals. I wish I’d gone one step further on my first attempt at snorkelling in the sea but panicking in a life vest was as far as I got, and that was a lifetime achievement (I can’t swim).

I suppose it’s like that old adage about leaving the dinner table still wanting more.

I’ll be back, Costa Rica, I’ll be back…

 

 

Wight Walk – Day Five

Apart from last night’s glorious experience at Cantina, Ventnor wasn’t really appealing to me at first. But after a good night’s sleep and with blisters under strict control, I found it all so much more impressive in the morning.

I decided to go back to the coastal path and made my way to Steephill Cove – a place that has been recommended to me by so many Wight lovers. I can see why.

Steephill Cove

Steephill Cove

A strand of higgledy coffee shops and surf shacks line the cove, and when I arrived there it was bright and quiet. Here’s my Periscope. A coffee at the Beach Shack at the end of the strand has to rank as one of the best experiences of the trip. They have a bar with stools that overlooks the sea – it’s ridiculously beautiful.

View from the Beach Shack

View from the Beach Shack

Then it was further up the coastal path to Ventnor Botanic Gardens. Don’t make the mistake I made and go for the official entrance – I now realise I could’ve got in quite easily round the back of the gardens straight from the coastal path. An unnecessary circuit on still-fragile feet.

Palm Garden at Ventnor Botanic Garden

Palm Garden at Ventnor Botanic Garden

After the relative wildness of the coastal path and Steephill, I found the gardens all a bit too manicured and ‘curated’. I’m afraid I pretty much whizzed around it (after using the wifi in the café – no signal at all in Steephill) and got back to the coastal path as quickly as possible.

And so to Crab Shed for lunch, home of the crab pastie. I managed to grab one of the little tables at the front of the place, which is only open 12pm to 3pm but is oh so popular. They were offering prosecco with their crab – and who was I to turn that opportunity down?

Prosecco and crab pasties at the Crab Shed

Prosecco and crab pasties at the Crab Shed

I hopped back to the Beach Shack for another coffee and a read of my book, but I did feel self-conscious among all the (very middle-class) families there. I felt much more at home among the masses by the main beach at Ventnor in the end, despite Steephill’s impressive strand. I’d love to go back there with a friend.

Main beach at Ventnor

Main beach at Ventnor

I boarded a bus bound for Ryde which took me through the attractive old town of Shanklin and then Sandown. Of course, I should’ve walked through both towns, but sadly my feet weren’t up to it.

And so back to Ryde, into the welcoming abode of Joan and Brian, where I started my journey. It’s funny how quickly you can bond with people – I really looked forward to seeing them at the end of my journey and they told me they’d been following my blog.

The balcony room at San Remo B&B

The balcony room at San Remo B&B

It’s funny how these trips always come down to the people I meet. Mary, the mad cyclist, Clare the Chinese blogger, Christophe the German runner, and John White the walker.

And all the B&B owners: lovely Joan and Brian with their granddaughter Eva, Rowena who picked me up in Shalfleet when I was half dead, and Sue and Joe with their pet seagull, Ziggy, in Freshwater Bay. And then all the dogs and other animals I’ve met – too numerous to list here.

So this is the end of the trip, barring the hovercraft from Ryde in the morning. It didn’t quite go to plan, but there again, I think that plans are sometimes meant to be broken. And there will always be kind strangers there to help you out when that happens.

Hope you’ve enjoyed it all as much as I have – let’s do it again some time.

View from the coastal path, Ventnor

View from the coastal path, Ventnor

You Look Summery!

If I had a pound for every time someone tells me I’m looking ‘summery’ I’d be a rich woman.

It usually happens on warm, sunny days, in the summer, when I’m wearing attire appropriate to the season. But still, people appear to be surprised that I have opted for an outfit that is so blatantly appropriate, perhaps with bright colours or a floral print.

I live by a mantra that is ‘dress for the temperature, not the weather’, because living in Britain, you’d have your ‘summery’ clothes on for about five days if you only chose to wear them when the sun comes out. I start wearing my summer wardrobe (which lives in a case under my bed during the winter) right from the start of the summer, perhaps even in April or May if the weather is mild.

It puzzles me that even now, on July 4, many people and the media are still saying ‘look forward to the summer!’ when I, and the Met Office, think it’s been here since 1 June. It amuses me that at the merest hint of cloud cover, Londoners are back in winter coats and scarves, even if it’s still twenty-two degrees.

Some days I’m ready for the ‘summery’ onslaught. It usually happens right at the start of the season, when I have dared to wear a shorter sleeve or, horror of horrors, decided to get my legs out. It can happen up to five times a day and I really have to stop myself shouting, ‘BECAUSE IT’S SUMMER’ and adopt a gracious smile instead.

I started dressing season-appropriately for a number of reasons, the main one being the temperature mantra I mentioned previously. Why not get a few good months out of your summer clothes while you can? Another reason is Sex and the City. I always admired that the women in the show would go out and meet each other in a nice dress, not wearing a coat. I thought about how Brits can’t go anywhere without a cardi, light jacket or a padded duvet coat, ‘just in case’, and I decided to leave mine behind when I went out. You don’t need any of those things if it’s raining during the summer – just an umbrella. And yet, and yet, we cart these things round with us like our lives depended on them.

That got me thinking about how we wear certain clothes as armour, especially in cities. Until recently, I’ve felt very exposed without a jacket, coat or even a large bag to cover up my body – it prevents a level of scrutiny from men and women that makes me uncomfortable. We also use them to make a statement – a biker jacket toughens up a feminine dress, or a suit jacket will give it a professional edge. Without either, we are slightly undefined, I think.

We also wear clothes as much to blend in, as we do to stand out. Women, in particular, worry about ‘what everyone will be wearing’ on the run up to an event, some even going home to change if they arrive at a party to find everyone else is dressed up, or dressed down. When I first moved to London from North Wales I had to learn how to dress down at every occasion. Non-Londoners love a bit of bling when they go out but I could see the looks from some of the women I came across at parties, sheathed in black and grey jersey, when I had a bejewelled jumper on. Those looks said, ‘way too shiny, lady’.

I recently went to a gay Pride party where we’d all been asked to wear something with a rainbow theme, but hardly anyone went for it. I stood there in my big stripy dress, looking like the Uncool One, while people came up to me saying, ‘you look rainbowy!’ as though I’d just decided to do it on a whim. It was the ‘summery’ thing again, I thought, as black appeared to be the colour-of-choice that night.

I thought about a recent conversation with a young female friend who said she bought everything in black, mainly because she felt insecure about herself. Luckily, I experienced Trinny and Susannah training in the ’90s, which dictated that women should never wear black after a certain age, and never, ever keep nice clothes ‘for best’. I’m quite grateful to them for that – I rarely buy black now and love wearing vivid colours. But ooh, people do love commenting on ’em.

I guess I’m just going to have to get used to it.

10446645_1111401128875324_1424357165550764132_n

Me looking rainbowy and proud!