Agonda Diaries – week two

After the seismic activities of last week in Agonda, it’s been a fairly calm and restorative one. Partly because I’ve slipped back into doing morning yoga at Sampoorna Yoga School and using the office there a few mornings a week. It’s lovely to feel part of the yoga village again, and to catch up with a few yogi friends.

A dog that used to run in and out of class during my training has now been adopted by the school – it’s a bit sad to see him chained up in the morning, but I can see why he is. His unbridled joy when he’s let loose towards the end of breakfast time is a sight to behold – he sprints round and round the restaurant.

It’s taken a while for my beach dog pack to realise who I am again, but finally Sanjo and Zimbo (who live at Jardim do Mar on the beach) have resumed their customary massive run at me every morning and follow me down the beach. They caused a bit of doggy mayhem by following me all the way home this time, upsetting the dogs that patrol the main street outside Kopi Desa – Zimbo looks so upset when I don’t ‘save’ him from them as any good pack leader would.

Sanjo and Zimbo – the highlight of every morning on the beach

After last season’s dog bite, I’m not taking any chances, so I carry a bamboo stick in the morning on my beach walk. That’s the time when the dog population of Agonda is at its most lively and whilst they’re probably playing with me, sometimes that play turns into a biting match. They’re quite rough with each other, so you can see where it comes from. The stick works as a preventative measure – I don’t intend to start using it, but it seems to ward off unwanted attention just by having it. Even my pack are a bit wary of it.

One of the highlights of this week was walking past my two pig neighbours who were fast asleep and making cute snuffly noises. I heard that their piglet had died in a bike accident so I hope they managed some trouble-free sleep. Bless them…

Sleep well, Mr and Mrs Pig

This week I’ve witnessed the early morning catch a few times, when the fishermen of the village pair up to drag the nets in by man-hauling them ashore. I’ve only ever seen them when the nets are already in and on the beach so I didn’t know that this is what they did each morning. It’s like watching a silent tug-of-war as two teams of men haul each side of a net in to the beach.

One of two teams of men hauling in each side of a net, watched by dogs – 7am

The full moon earlier this week caused some really strange happenings on the beach. One on day, the tide seemed to be sucked right out all day only to be thrown back at the beach at sunset. Even Vasudev was worried about his boat – I saw it pitch violently as it came back to shore on the crest of a big wave. I knew it was a tidal thing, but it did an the eerie pre-tsunami feel to me.

The town has been very quiet in the wake of the cyclone and the demolitions that took place last week and I have spent some time fighting the scaremongering that’s going on about Agonda online. “It’s a war zone,” said one British guy, annoying me so much because it’s still the beautiful town and beach it always was, just minus his favourite bar. I can see people talking about not coming here because of what they’ve heard and it makes me so angry – Agonda needs the tourist business more than ever and people are so ready to desert it just because their favourite bar closed. I am pretty sure it will have recovered by Christmas.

Yet again I’ve met some interesting people this week. Peter the ex-teacher and psychologist who has a particular interest in left- and right-handedness, swam with me for a bit at ‘rock beach’. He talked to me about the ‘tyranny of the right’ and how we are all unconsciously persuaded to use our right hands to write. Being a leftie I am so glad my parents let me use my left hand after a short period of ambidexterity as a child. I think they did that because my uncle had been left with a stammer after being forced to use his right hand as a child.

At Sampoorna I’ve also met Meritxel and Adri from Spain who are running Yoga Sin Fronteras (Yoga Without Borders), a non-profit organisation bringing yoga to disadvantaged people around the world. I’m so impressed with their drive and optimism, I’ve been lending an editorial hand on their website. It’s one of those ideas that you think should have been done already. The best ideas are always like that.

And finally, I can reveal that I have found a Secret Swimming Location. I have found it difficult to swim in the sea so far (dolphins spotted right at the shore’s edge this week!) because of the huge full moon waves and general fear, but I have been granted access to a small pool where I can practise my new swimming skills in peace. I’m not sharing the location because technically I’m not supposed to be there, but boy, I’m glad I am. The water is freezing cold and when I float on my back I can see a circle of palm trees and eagles (they look like kites) soaring above them. Perfect after a hard day at the office…

Agonda Diaries – week one

I think we can safely say that this has been rather a dramatic week, and not only because I have uprooted myself from my London home to move to Goa for six months.  

When I got here, Cyclone Kyarr had just departed the shores of Agonda and has left the beach strewn with debris. I have read that it reached the intensity of a category 4 hurricane, and is the strongest storm recorded in Goa for twelve years. The winds reached 155 miles per hour.

I spoke to the boys at the local bar, Kopi Desa, and they said they hid from the storm at Love Bites, my new cafe find. Despite three earlier visits to Agonda, I never went in there because of the name. Now I find that it’s a perfect bohemian hang-out, complete with rooftop chill area, and the cheapest good Thali in the area at 200 rupees. Waiter Umesh saved a small puppy from the storm, Orson, giving me another reason to use Love Bites as a remote office.

Umesh and Orson

Little did I know that there would be another cyclone hitting the town in the form of 200 policemen and women with a number of JCBs, set to demolish twenty-two illegal shacks on the beach. For anyone who tells me that Goa isn’t the real India, well let’s just say I’ve seen the real India this week. I’m not going to discuss the whys and wherefores here, but the town is still in shock. The threat of this has hung over Agonda since I’ve been visiting but, as a local friend told me, no one expected it to happen. It’s the first time in twelve years of working here that they’ve seen anything like it.

If all of this devastation wasn’t enough, I arrived with my own mini-cyclone in my stomach, picked up at Oman airport in a suspicious frittata. It’s always bad eggs with me – I once thought I was going to die from one in Kenya. I spent my first night hunched over a toilet, moaning in agony. Still, I thought, at least I’ll be beach-body ready.

Having recovered from that, I’ve set about reconnecting with all my friends here – Vasudev who runs Tranquil River Tours; the boys at Kopi – Shubham, Ram, Kapil, Shiva and Manoj; Mr Happy at Agonda Villas; Dinesh, Binesh, Ajay, Malika, and Manish from Simrose; Sudhir and Veena from Sampoorna Yoga School, and Gita who has her own stall near Kopi.

One of the joys of staying here is how many conversations I get to have every day. I can be in London and know my friends are all around me but only properly connect with them on social media or at a pre-arranged time. Here, I physically see people every day and have a chat. It’s part of the ritual. I’m trying to wean myself off my phone so I tend to leave it charging in my room.

And then of course there are my animal friends. I found out from Mr Happy (aka Anandu, which means ‘bliss’), that White Horse, star of a previous blog post, has died. Thank goodness Sweetpea is still here at Simrose, but she is out of sorts. Another beach dog has moved in and taken her place as lead Simrose dog. She is lying sulking under benches every day, because he takes no notice of her barked warnings.

Sweetpea – Queen of Agonda

Zimbo and Sanjo, my pack, are still there on the beach, Zimbo sporting an anti-rabies green marker on his head – he must have been vaccinated as part of the Mission Rabies project here in Goa. Apparently they have vaccinated over 12,500 dogs so far. Having been bitten last year, I’m glad to hear that, but now that I’m running on the beach a few times a week, I have taken to carrying a big stick just in case. It’s usually one dog that goes feral and that’s all it takes.

Coca Cola the cow is still hanging out in bars and cafes in town (I heard another Brit call her ‘CC’ yesterday) and Papaya the grumpy dog is in residence at Kopi. I’ve also spotted ‘Gammy’ – Agonda Villas’ dog with a broken leg, and ‘Phantom’ – the black-and-white-faced dog that hangs out with him.

Coca Cola tries out the vegan food in Zest

I’m now trying to establish a routine that is panning out to be morning exercise – either yoga, running, walking or swimming – followed by late breakfast and then I start work around noon until 4pm. Then it’s time to walk in the evening sun and catch up with everyone on the beach. I work again in the evenings on my writing or editorial projects, depending on what’s going on and the wifi connection. Goa borrows its electricity from neighbouring state Karnataka so it can be an on-off affair, especially during the recent post-cyclone storms.

And of course those wonderful stranger conversations have already started happening. I met Peter at the swimming beach (south end) yesterday, a former teacher and child psychologist who told me about his work on left- and right-handedness, and how forcing a child to work with the other hand can lead to disharmony and abnormal behaviours. I spoke about the Ida and Pingala, the two sides of the body we learned about in yoga training – the left being passive, thoughtful, cool, guided by the moon, the right being active, physical, hot and guided by the sun. The goal of yoga (or one of its many goals) is to achieve balance between the two.

Then I met a wonderful young couple at Kopi who had met here – he, a German childcare professional and she, from Calcutta, a film producer. We had one of those conversations that I can only have here. We were talking about what makes Agonda so special and he said it was something about it’s reflective quality, a mirroring of yourself. I laughed and said I’d come to exactly the same conclusion and I’d talked a lot to my therapist about the reflective quality of the light here. There is something in it that shows you who you really are or who you could be and it makes you rethink everything. It’s hard to articulate but all who come here seem to know what it is.

I have twenty-five weeks here, and have completed one, and I intend to post a diary entry every week. I hope you’ll join me on this adventure. I’m not sure what will happen after the six months are up but I’m sure Agonda will show me the way.

Ahimsa

I didn’t expect to not hike when I booked this holiday in the Svaneti region of Georgia. I am with my hiking group and they have gone off ahead of me, booted and rucksacked, as I take in the view you see at the top of this blog post outside our guest house for one of the four nights along the route.

I managed to get a severe blister on my heel at the very start – a combination of not having hiked for a couple of months while I was in Goa, hot weather and boots that are slightly too big for me. I have been unable to walk uphill without the various compeed plasters and tape coming off so I’ve given up.

Instead of feeling devastated and down about this turn of events I have felt calm and peaceful – joyful even – at this new opportunity. An opportunity to have the restorative holiday my body was craving after two months of intensive yoga training. I feel broken physically, but very healed on the inside.

One of the values we learned on our course was that of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence. This is one of Sage Patanjali’s ‘yamas’ – values attached to emotions in his ‘eight limbs’ (‘Ashtanga’) of yoga and I have thought about it a lot this week.

This non-violence applies to thought, word and action as they are applied to other humans, animals and plants. But perhaps the most important of these is non-violence towards oneself.

I began to apply this philosophy whilst yoga training because I had a shoulder injury that had come about by throwing myself punishingly into yoga classes during my first month in Goa. I tried to be kind to my body and allow the shoulder to rest. I could almost hear it thanking me.

In Goa and here in Georgia I have been struck by our need to punish our bodies in order to feel happiness. We have to do exercise in order to ‘deserve’ the food we’re eating or the drinks we have afterwards. Yet the yoga philosophy says that happiness is our true nature and that we don’t need to deserve any of it. It is our birthright and we just need to access it by stripping away the obstructions to it that our minds put in its way. This is the entire goal of yoga and it has worked its magic on me.

In Kyrgyzstan last year I had a terribly painful hip but was determined to hike up mountains until my body told me otherwise. The moment I allowed a horse to take my weight was one of the happiest of my life. Why did I have to climb every mountain pass to feel worthy?

Here in Georgia I was once again given access to a horse and this time took it gladly. I stopped thinking of this week as a hiking marathon with its rewards of cake and khachapuri (cheese bread) and started to allow myself to have the holiday I needed – a restorative one.

Good things happen when you give yourself permission to stop. You spend time with local people and that time slows down. You find that you enjoy riding a horse and are not so scared of them next time round. You learn to trust them when they take you through rivers and up steep hills. My horse this week was called Tornado – a name that filled with me with fear when I first heard it but it turned out the family he belongs to named him ironically.

Gegi, his owner, guided me around the paths the hiking group were taking and I got small insights into his world as we clip-clipped along. He knew every Georgian on the route and they greeted him like family, warming us and drying Gegi’s clothes when it poured down and giving me a seat by the stove, pressing hot coffee into our hands.

And now I have practised a little yoga in front of this glorious view while one of the young guys who lives here plays trance music that seems to match the mountain view. I am waiting for a car to pick me up to transport me to Ushguli but while I’m waiting I have created my first new vinyasa yoga class after getting my first call as a cover teacher.

I like this flexibility of thinking: turning what could be seen as a disaster into an opportunity. How great if you could apply this philosophy to your whole life.

I remember two things from the yoga training that really have become useful in my life. One, that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to any situation -I choose to reshape this holiday for myself into a restorative one. Two, that to avoid stress and anxiety we should simply do what needs to be done and get on with it. The simplicity of this last statement blows my mind. Just do what needs to be done: in my case, stop walking, take care of my open wound, hire a horse and enjoy the moment in this incredible landscape.

Ahimsa. Try it.

Silent Day

As part of our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna, my group was offered the chance to have a Silent Day as part of the course. Initially, led by an apparent lack of study time, the answer from the group was riddled with panicky ‘no’s. But a few of us were thinking, ‘I bet this is going to be one of the most profound experiences of the whole thing’ and backed the plan. In the end we agreed to go for it and I’m so, so glad we did.

One of the five ‘Niyamas’ or personal practices, in Sage Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga established 3,000 years ago (ashtanga means eight limbs) is Tapas. It refers to the practice of removing yourself from your comfort zone so you can understand and harness your desires. Fasting, silence, giving up your smart phone – these are all part of the same practice. We were to have a day where we could not speak to each other, we could not even look at each other, and were not allowed to read anything, listen to music or look at our phones. The wifi would be switched off. The only thing we would be allowed to do is journal the experience. We were free to absorb the nature around us and to reflect internally on ourselves.

I was intrigued to see where my mind would take me. It’s already pretty active so what would it do if it was given a whole day to run riot? I would write it all down in my little peacock-covered notebook. I’m looking back through the notes now and can remember the day panning out from breakfast, where I found it so difficult not to even look at my friends, through to dinner where I was bursting with things to tell them – discoveries I’d made that day – and could not.

The day began with a mysore practice of Ashtanga – self-conducted but all together in the same shala. I had been nursing a shoulder injury throughout the whole course and I needed to modify everything. I realised, in my silence, that I need to be kinder to my shoulder, to my body. It can do so much, so beautifully. I wanted to be grateful to it.

I got to savasana – corpse pose – at the end and I cried. I had a sudden overwhelming joyous memory of being at university in a contemporary dance class with my friends. I felt the joy then of moving as one unit, and I’d felt it return in this shala. Perhaps I don’t like being alone in the world as much as I think.

Whilst lying there, hearing my fellow yogis breathing and completing their last asanas, I thought of ‘Rock Beach’, the place in Agonda where I could swim in calmer waters with Karma Joy, and how she’d encouraged me over and over to come to Sampoorna. I thought of baptism and rebirth, and thought ‘this is the place I have done it.’

Later that day I forced myself into the midday sun. For many people this is their comfort zone, paradise even, when the sun is high and they are most likely to tan. For me, it is extremely stressful. I have to be slathered in Factor 50 because I burn so easily. I have to coat my hair in coconut oil before I get in the water to stop it drying out and I don’t like stickiness or sand on my body. Despite my recent swimming lessons I am still afraid of the waves (although less so) and I don’t like how you have to repeat the slathering every time you come out of the water. I had spent other middays until now in my ice-cold air-conditioned room, hiding and studying.

I wrote in my book: “why can’t I be one of those women who just strips off and gets in the water?” Why was I worrying about everything? I even started to think I’d gained weight, just to add to it all. But I just sat there, in my bikini in the blinding white light, forcing myself through these difficult thoughts.

And then Chris appeared. Chris is a woman on my course whom I grew to love over the three weeks. In the very first week, there was a connection between us. We’d done a very emotional introductory session where we had to go round the room and look into the eyes of every person and hold their hands. I still don’t know why that elicited so much emotion but it did. Who knew that just properly looking at someone was such a profound thing? When it was her turn, Chris stood silently before me with my hands in hers, squeezing them and nodding her head, as if to say, “it’s ok, I am here and you are calm.” It was really beautiful.

And now, in that blinding midday light, she came walking up the beach towards me. She gestured without looking at me to move over on my beach throw and stretched out beside me. We lay next to each other and I was smiling. What a connection. This woman – wise, funny, beautiful – was yet another spirit guide in my Agonda journey. Everywhere we went that day we crossed paths, as if we were dancing.

I got up to go into the water and later, Chris told me that she didn’t know I had gone – she could still feel my energy next to her. I had thought she might join me, but when I looked back she was gathering her things and walking back along the beach. I smiled.

The waves were strong that day due to pre-monsoon weather and standing in front of them I felt baptised and renewed. I remembered that I’d had a fantasy, brought on by my ex-husband’s Endless Summer surf movie poster, of being on a bright white beach with a surf boy. Now I began to wonder if the fantasy was only meant to have me in it. But then the image of a tall handsome Indian man joined me in the light, with his dark eyes that shine into my soul and a smile that lights up my heart.

I had stood in the waves holding hands with him a few weeks earlier and had tried to commit the image to my memory because I could not accept that this could actually be true. That I could be happy. I’ve got so much wrong in this life so far – especially spending years with the wrong man – that I could scarcely believe it could ever be right. But I couldn’t deny that every time I thought about him I felt happy and it made me cry with joy. He makes me want to be my natural self because that’s who he sees in front of him.

On that beach, in the blinding white light, I allowed myself to plan a future that includes him and makes me happy. “Everything seems so aligned here,” I wrote, “so right. Maybe it was always meant to be be like this. I am literally bursting with happiness. This is how you shine even brighter in your life – you come to a place you love, to people you love, doing a thing you love.”

Later that day I went up to my favourite shala, the one from which I could see Rock Beach in the distance, and lay on my mat, notebook beside me. This shala is surrounded by swaying palms with birds and monkeys all around. You can hear the waves crashing on the beach below.

I knew that Lucie would join me. As with Chris, I’d had a profound connection with her in the ‘circle of tears’ as I now refer to it. We had held each other’s hands right at the beginning and Lucie’s tears set me off. I felt moved to give her a hug. After that moment we were never very far apart. We would find ourselves sitting near each other in class or in the restaurant, so much so that it became a standing joke. I’d often have Chris and Lucie on either side of me, wherever I was. And here they were again, at my side on Silent Day.

Lucie padded into the shala as I lay there and assumed her position on her mat, journal in front of her. I lay there with my eyes closed, smiling, as I had done with Chris, glad that my two kindred spirits had managed to communicate with me on this day. At one point I considered getting up and going to give Lucie a hug because I could hear her softly crying. But I decided that it was enough to be with her there as she worked through her own stuff. I tried to broadcast love and support from where I lay.

And then I realised something. I realised that it didn’t matter how much we knew about the Sanskrit names for every asana or chakra – what was important as a yoga teacher was to know yourself. The practice of yoga is about discovering your true nature – unconditional joy – and physical practice is about 20% of the action required to get there. What Silent Day had done was give us all a chance to meditate, consider and better understand ourselves.

I had done mine under the blinding white light of the Agonda sun, and later I mused on how the state of enlightenment is often linked to seeing a white light during meditation. I don’t claim to be enlightened after Silent Day but I liked the symbolism of the light and I had managed to make some conclusions and decisions about my life in that time.

Before bed, we meditated with our course director and he asked us to consider the gentle moon. All I could think about was this gentle man in my life. He is working on a cruise ship and in my mind, I could see it sailing under the moon on the ocean wave. I couldn’t wait to get to bed so that I could wake up the next morning and tell him how I felt about him.

I woke at 5am and the wifi was still off.

It would have to wait.

You’re the Voice

I’ve been doing a three-week 200-hour yoga teacher training course in Goa and it’s coming to an end tomorrow. I can scarcely believe that this is my life but somehow I’ve been directed to Agonda, this beyond-special place, to study at Sampoorna Yoga School for Mind and Body. And it is a body- and mind-altering experience.

I can also scarcely believe that the one note I’ve been given from the start about my teaching is that my voice could be louder and more confident. What?? This is me!! The person who regularly chairs and appears on panels in the publishing world, who has presented to large, industry audiences, who loves to talk confidently in front of her teams, her colleagues and her peers. It’s my thing, if you will.

And yet here, in this jungle behind the beach, my voice was diminished. I knew when I was asking questions of the teachers that they couldn’t quite hear me and were screwing up their faces in that way that people do when they’re trying to hear someone. In my head, my voice sounded sonorous but clearly it wasn’t. On my first teaching assignment, I thought I was projecting loud and clear, but no – I’d done well but the one comment was that my voice needed to be louder. This came back in the feedback from my fellow students. Of all of the things I thought I’d need to think about, this was not it.

I thought about it during our breathing and mantra meditations. I heard my voice omming and repeating the Sanskrit mantras and I knew the feedback was right – there was something tentative and weak in my voice. My throat felt a little choked like there was something trying to get out. This was new. I always felt like I had a voice. It was the one thing I ‘did’ have.

Last night at dinner a group of us were talking about the way the world celebrates extroversion over introversion and how many of us loved our Silent Day because we love to be quiet, and with ourselves alone. I told them that I’d arrived in London as a quiet, introverted young woman and I’d had to work hard to adopt the extrovert practices of the people around me in publishing. Introversion appeared to be frowned on and only extroverts got promoted. I did two lots of training in one job where we did the Myers Briggs personality colour test twice. In the first year I did it, I was a quiet, calm, harmonious green. After working within an extroverted management team for a few years, the chart showed that I was now leading with my red leadership side. I was proud of that transition and of saying that I wasn’t the woman who arrived in London all those years ago. Who wanted to be green when you could be red?

The aim of yoga is to unite the mind, the body and the self, but more specifically, its goal is to unite the self with one’s true nature, which is unconditional joy. How beautiful is that? Over the last eighteen months where I’ve been practising it, I have found myself returning to a person I was years ago, when I was still in Wales and not working in London. In a previous blog post about giving up alcohol nearly five months ago, I refer to feeling like I’ve had a ‘factory reset’. I now realise that yoga (and a very good therapist) has led me to this place and giving up alcohol was just part of the journey.

Here, in Agonda, I have started to find a voice again, beyond the words I’ve written in my book and in this blog. I realised that my voice had been internalised over the past few years and I was swimming around in the noise I was making inside, some of it spilling out into this blog. It is a different thing, to stand in front of people and speak as your true self, no microphone to amplify you, no industry framework to prop you up. You are just you, standing there, trying to communicate with your students in the clearest, simplest way possible. I couldn’t believe, at first, that aside from my volume issues, the one thing I found most difficult about the teaching was finding the words to guide people into asanas (poses). I can talk very fluently about children’s illustrated books, but suddenly I found myself unable to find the words to guide someone who’d never done downward dog before into the pose. The simplicity was the problem.

Slowly, slowly, I have started to find the words, and the clarity and the volume needed to communicate effectively. I almost feel like I’ve had to learn to speak again. I’ve had to learn to look people in the eye again and talk to them from the heart. These have been the hardest things. I caught myself not being able to look our course director, Sudhir, in the eye when I first asked him a question in my weedy voice. I was horrified. This isn’t me! I thought. I wanted to sound strong and competent and clever and I just sounded like a woman trying to ask a question and not finding the right words or volume.

In the final week of training I noticed that my voice had changed in the chants and in the teaching. It felt easier to think of the words I needed and to find the voice to communicate them. Yoga practice is a humbling experience, especially the ashtanga we’ve been studying, and I’ve examined my need to be the strong, competent, clever one and realised that this needs to be laid aside (not least because Sudhir told me this ‘intense craving’ is one of the Bhagavad-Gita’s three gateways to hell).

I am simply a woman trying to ask a question and finding the right words and volume.

Because I Did

This truly feels like the end of an era. The era of essentially going to the same beach around the world, time and time again. The beach towns even look the same: Dahab, Agonda, Tamarindo – to name but three of my regular destinations.

This is the end of an era that lasted eight years, of losing myself in in far-flung beach towns, sometimes taking days to leave the place I’m staying in. Often crying hard, sometimes behind sunglasses on the beach, I now think of it as a form of self harm. Why not take myself to an incredibly romantic location to ‘really’ feel lonely and out of place?

Meanwhile I’ve been learning that wherever the sun goes down over the sea, there are always good people trying to make their way in the world. They just have different resources to hand and a different way of looking at things. But they all love animals, children, the sea, the sun and their friends and families.

I have journeyed back to the places I’ve loved twice, sometimes more times, happy to find a familiar place, a familiar face. I’ve said I’ve done it because I’ve wanted to really get to know a place, but it’s usually because the first time in a place I’ve spent days on my own feeling scared to go out. When I finally do, I kick myself for not getting out earlier and immediately plan to return. I want to experience a place properly from the start. And it’s always worked beautifully the second time round.

This is the first holiday I’ve had where I haven’t cried. Not once. Last year I sobbed all the way to the airport – the driver said, “madam, please control yourself!” This is also the first holiday where I haven’t drunk a lot. I’ve gone to bed early and risen early to go down to the beach to have coffee, say hello to the dogs and walk on the beach. Then I do a yoga class and have breakfast. I read books and eat ice cream. I buy beads and beach dresses and swim in the sea. Because I can now, having learned to swim this year.

I sit at the bar more for the company than the anaesthetic of booze. I find it don’t need it to chat to people any more. Even last year’s White Horse, with whom I completely identified as she roamed the beach and bars every day, has disappeared.

In 2018 I did an extraordinary thing. I pushed myself so far outside my comfort zone I was in a galaxy far far away. I went to Kyrgyzstan, with my hiking group. A trip that involved trekking, horse riding, camping, bitter cold, nomads, ‘natural toilets’. I knew there would be ups and downs (literally and spiritually) but didn’t know they’d be quite so up and quite so down. I had had a hip problem that flared up even before we’d started, on a walk round a market. I convinced myself I’d have to go home. I got my period on the first night in a yurt – two weeks’ early – no one tells you that altitude can do that. I cried and was convinced I was turning back.

My companions urged me to maybe get to the next stage before deciding, and little by little they brought me along with them.

Reader, I did it. I rode horses with nomads and climbed to 4,000 metres in the most epic landscape I’ve ever seen. I ate yak stew and drank vodka with Kyrgyz horsemen who laughed at our toilet humour. I am forever grateful to that group of people, and to Gary from Go London who organised that trip and knew I could do it. The ‘well done’ hug he gave me at the end of the trip made me cry, but this time from pride, relief, and joy.

Something switched in my brain on that trip and I’m not the same person I was at the start of 2018. I am discovering my boundaries and they are greater than I thought.

I am discovering the boundaries I need to put in place to ensure a happy and fulfilling personal and working life. I have seen a therapist who helped me beyond all expectation. She knew that I was carrying around a sadness deep inside of me that needed to be released and comforted. And so it is. She is. The ten-year-old little girl who lost her daddy and has been walking the earth ever since, looking for him. That girl lives with me, now.

I haven’t blogged this year because all of this was in progress. I couldn’t think of what to write down because it was in flux in my head and I couldn’t form a coherent set of ideas.

But do you know what? I think I’m ready to write my book.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

I’ve just received my DNA results and my ethnic story has slightly rewritten itself. For most of my life I’ve felt very strongly Welsh but always with a strong pull towards Ireland. The first time I ever visited there (Donegal) I knew it was my spiritual home and in many ways my journey on Ancestry.com has been about confirming that. I found the link quickly, on my mother’s side – a very clear line coming from Ireland to Liverpool and then into North Wales. It explains the Catholicism and the twinkle in the family eyes.

Growing up, my mother told me her family thought there might be some French blood in there – she had a French nose, she said. She also had glorious cheekbones. There had to be something else mixed in. There is – 26% Western European (likely to be Belgian, French, German or Dutch – even Swiss). Later in my life, I’ve wondered if there was some Jewishness in me – it turns out there is – 4% to be exact – probably from Eastern Europe.

As well as an unsurprising healthy dose of Scandinavian blood, there is the very small matter of 1% East Asian. A friend tells me I’d only need to go seven generations back to find a full Asian parent in my ancestry. I wanted a surprise and I got one – how cool would it be to track that parentage back?

One thing’s for sure, I am a woman who feels connected with the world beyond our shores and this DNA test confirms it.

I’ve had some friends take this test and been wholly blindsided by the reversal of the narrative around their ethnicity. Barring the Asian curveball, I am pretty much who I thought I was. Perhaps a tad less Celtic than I thought but a strong European mix. But other people have discovered that their family story isn’t quite as it’s been told over the years. It makes me think of the Alistair McGowan episode of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? when the impressionist was blown away by his father’s Anglo-Indian roots and the fact that his name hails from Ireland, not his beloved Scotland, where he’d always felt a spiritual pull. As my mum used to say, it just shows to go you.

It’s made me think about how we construct narratives around ourselves to make sense of our place in the world. I’ve spent years trying to place myself – ethnically, professionally, socially – and this blog is part of that exploration. If you don’t fit a pre-set narrative, this is what you do. As a fifty-one year-old woman I ‘should’ be juggling my publishing career with a bunch of teenagers and mid-life crisis man at home. I ‘should’ be holidaying in a cottage in Cornwall with my family, not preparing to trek through Kyrgyzstan with a group of mostly strangers. I ‘should’ be spending Christmas in a chaotic household filled with multiple generations, not walking along a Goan beach, solo, with an occasional white horse for company.

I’ve compared my own story with other stories of like women. I connected with Elizabeth Gilbert and her Eat Pray Love story, but over time I realised mine was not going to end with the Love bit so I looked for a new narrative to connect with. I found another with Cheryl Strayed when I read Wild, and then saw the movie. A woman who’d lost her mother and then gone wandering off into the wilderness to find her true self. But again, that narrative ended with marriage and babies. I’m sensing that this is not my true path.

In the search for my own narrative I’ve found pieces of others’ that have resonated hugely but no one story arc that matches mine. I’ve tried to find an essential truth behind what happened to me and why, tracing from my happy childhood, through the pain of early parental loss and the fracturing of a family, to a coupling and decoupling, and an establishment of my solo self. I want to get to an absolute truth and tell the story, and not hide the reality.

Over a number of years, I’ve developed a habit of seeking out and telling the truth (as I see it) about situations. I’ve also discovered that sometimes people don’t really want to hear it and prefer to believe a falsehood to make themselves feel ok. Maybe because I had to face reality so early on in life I prefer to look at things square on, and not flinch from the truth. I want to prepare myself for the reality, and not believe in false hope. I like to know what the exact weather forecast is and be ready for it, rather than ‘hope’ for the sun to come out. That way disappointment lies.

In the workplace over the years, I’ve become the ‘meme destroyer’ – running around throwing proverbial wet cloths over flaming untruths that gather around rumour and conjecture. I’m always amazed at how far these will go and what people are willing to believe. And also, how disappointed they are sometimes when you tell them the truth – when there’s nothing to complain about any more (ditto the weather).

I once worked for a company that was described to me early on as a ‘dysfunctional family’, when in fact it was more akin to a domestic-abuse situation. The staff who’d worked there for a long time described office life there as ‘rough and tumble’ and the boss as ‘a bit of a character’ – I called it being bullied by a manipulative narcissist. People refused to hear it at first, but gradually, even now, after a few years, I received emails from them saying ‘you were right’. I could see that they had constructed narratives to be able to cope with the situation and told themselves they were true. They didn’t want to hear me state the reality out loud. But I had to. The boss hated that I walked around with a folder containing the facts, not willing to listen, let alone believe, the gaslighting.

I’m not saying that I’ll never fall for a falsehood ever again, because I do all the time, because I like to believe people when they stand in front of me, talking. I was in Gower in Wales earlier this year and met a woman running her own coffee shop. Her other job was being an editor on films like Wonder Woman. I excitedly reported the news to one of the guys in the group. “And you believe her?” he said. “Well yeah, of course,” I replied. He was amazed at my readiness to believe and I was amazed at his cynicism. I instantly recalled myself showing a picture of me holding a sloth in Costa Rica to a local: “How do I know it’s real?” he said. “Do you have a video to prove it?”

In many ways I’m glad I’ve retained a willingness to believe someone’s story, in spite of being spun so many falsehoods over the years. I’m rewriting my own narrative on a daily basis, but I try to root it in the absolute truth – and here it is, on the third anniversary of me starting this blog.

You can choose to believe my story or wait for a video to prove it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Horse

Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they just need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with them.

Sex and the City

Every day in Agonda village, south Goa, a white horse walks slowly from her home through the streets. She heads down to the beach where she will walk slowly from back and forth along the shoreline until sundown. Throughout the day, she stops off at a beach hut or two for a slurp of water, then at sunset, she stops serenely to allow people to take a photo of her. Then she makes her way back, stopping off at a bar or two, to poke her head over the counter. It marks a passing of the day, a ritual, like the morning yoga class or the feeding of the cows on beach before the sun goes down. I asked if she had a name. “White Horse,” they said.

I witnessed all of this from my Simrose beach hut and got caught up in its rhythm. It seemed to form part of a constant thrum of activity, which was underpinned by the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. I arrived at 2am and couldn’t believe how loud they were at high tide. I was woken by them several times during the course of my stay and had to wear earplugs. “Oh yeah – always get a hut further back from the beach,” people said, who had been there before. The waves are the soundtrack to everything and even the yoga teacher used their rhythm to breathe against – a technique I learned called ujjayi or ‘ocean breath’.

If I sound like I’ve gone all spiritual, I sort of have. People said, “Oh Goa isn’t the real India”, thinking of the trance scene the litter-strewn beaches of the north. Well it was real enough to me, and I loved it. I did yoga class every morning I could with Lucia, who was from Italy and filled with hypnotic phrases about the various chakra and how I could focus on them. I had had a stressful time at work before Christmas and was coming back to a promotion that promised an extremely busy time ahead so I made the most of the chance to connect with myself and the sea (which I love to be beside and float in a boat upon but I can’t swim in).

The biggest surprise was finding that I knew most of the vinyasa poses already from my time training in contemporary dance. I didn’t know that Martha Graham had nicked them all to become ‘the mother of modern dance’. Even in the two weeks I was there I started to feel my old dance body coming back – strong back, strong core, a stretched feeling in my hips and legs – a feeling I never thought I would recreate.

I developed my own White Horse routine. It involved walking on the beach, yoga, then breakfast, reading on my hut deck, lunch, more reading, another walk, cocktails, dinner then drinks at a bar. As with my very first solo trip abroad, it took me three days to leave the resort. I was a little bit scared of what would be there (so much scaremongering about India, especially for women). But as it was Christmas, I just spent the first few days in the resort, enjoying the efforts the staff made to make it fun and festive. I spent Christmas Eve with a brother and sister from Manchester – the brother lives down the road from me in London. Small world…

On Boxing Day I decided I needed to venture out. I found a single strand of shops and stalls selling clothes, jewellery, spices, and copious sarongs. I found friendly shop-owning women, all telling me I was their ‘first customer of the day’ and therefore they were giving me ‘the best deal’. Even though I knew it was all sales talk it was fun and I bought beach dresses and loose trousers. I didn’t get hassled once by men other than to ask if I wanted a taxi. I felt safe. I spotted a bar on my way back with my spoils and liked its vibe, and promised myself I’d venture out later. It’s always tough that first time. It always requires a bit of Dutch Courage to make that first step so I made mine a Caipirowska.

I pulled up a stool at Kopi Desa and immediately a guy from Birmingham slid into the seat next to me and asked if I’d mind chatting to him. As he rambled on, I could see a couple, obviously British, trying to catch my eye to see if I needed help. I can’t remember how I made it over to them but I did and they said the guy had been hitting on lone women all day. It’s always a British guy, never a local. They introduced the barman as ‘the best-looking man in Goa’. I couldn’t disagree.

Over the next few nights I met more Brits there, plus Indians, Scandinavians and Coca-Cola the cow who popped in for a drink every evening. The bar is open to the street so you’re surrounded by everything, from the bell-ringing bread boy on his bike in the early evening, to the beach dogs scouring for scraps. I spent New Year’s Eve with friends I met in this bar, watching fireworks on the beach at H2O. I had the best New Year’s Day ever.

I’d started dating someone before Christmas and whilst I’d enjoyed the time we spent together I wasn’t truly sure I was ready to commit to them. At first I thought my trip to Goa was getting in the way of progress, but in truth it gave me time to reflect and think about what I really wanted. I watched the White Horse, a symbol of freedom without restraint in many cultures, completing her daily ritual with no one to stop her. I remembered one of my favourite Sex and the City quotes, cited at the top of this post, and knew it applied to me. I thought about returning to Agonda, a place I already knew I loved, with a partner and I felt sad. I knew I wanted to come back on my own, with no one reining me in or saddling me with their needs and wants.

I knew I didn’t want to be one of the many women with families I’d witnessed, anxious and hovering over their brood (and injured animals), unable to just relax by themselves and watch the ocean. I’d sat next to a woman on the plane out, who was separated by the aisle from her family and spent 10 hours slightly angled towards them, watching them, whilst they completely ignored her and vegged out with dad. I didn’t want to be a woman in an unhappy coupling, waiting until she’s in a group to make sly digs at her partner. I’ve done that and it sucks.

I did want to be the free woman on New Year’s Eve who whooped at fireworks with the happiest couple on earth, Lucy and Jason, who were on their honeymoon mega-trip. A couple who are happy to spend time with a single woman are rare indeed – and you know they are the strong ones who will last. And I did want to be the woman who shared a bottle of prosecco with the best-looking man in Goa when the fireworks were over.

If the New Year is about making choices and stepping forward with the right ones, then here I stand: unfettered, mane blowing in the breeze, stamping my hooves with joy.

A Relationship with Rain

I find other people’s reaction to rain stressful. They hate it. Simply loathe it. They think it’s out to get them and specifically times itself to appear on days when they specifically didn’t want it to. They think that it’s going to rain forever when it comes. I like to call this reaction Ark Syndrome, or Weather Catastrophism.

I find myself being a keyboard warrior on social media, fighting on behalf of rain, pointing out that it rains all year in Britain, and it’s not something that only happens in autumn and winter. It has done the same thing for millennia. The sun always comes back. Yet still, the collective wailing, the disappointment: “Where has the summer gone??!!”

I’ve just returned from another Costa Rican adventure where for the first week, I ventured into the rainforests around the Arenal volcano. I stayed in a treehouse, regularly doused by rain, and found myself going to bed early, lulled to a sweet slumber by the sound of the rain on the roof and the animals feeling alive in it. I went on rainy hikes wearing a huge poncho and laughed as I stood next to a thundering waterfall made more epic by the rain. The power. The power of all that water.

Maybe because I spent the first twenty-two years of my life in North Wales, I’m completely fine with rain. It makes countries beautiful and gives you sunsets to die for. I wouldn’t dream of visiting Costa Rica in the dry season when everything is bone-dry and brown (apart from the central rainforest). What would be the point of that? Everyone smiles in the rain in Costa Rica. It does it for six months of the year so what would be the point of being miserable in it?

In Britain, people are weird about weather. Because it’s constantly changing, we live in a world where no one believes forecasts and lives in an eternal state of hope about the mythical boiling-hot days to come. They forget to enjoy the early summer days in June when it’s cooler because it’s ‘not summer’ until it’s 40 degrees. Then suddenly its autumn, they pronounce that year’s summer null and void, whilst forgetting they could enjoy those ‘in between’ days. What a damn shame.

I went to Costa Rica during their ‘Little Summer’ – a break in the rainy season during July and August. For me, it truly is the best time to go. It still rains, but not nearly as much. For me the rain gives welcome respite from the glare of the sun and roasting temperatures. It gives rhythm to the days (and nights) and makes plants and animals happy. I found it soothing to listen to at night, and during the day when I was ill. When it’s torrential everyone stands around looking at it in awe, laughing. It reminds me of when it snows here, and everyone goes a bit hysterical with delight. (I prefer rain.)

Why do we make our relationship with rain so hostile, when it’s ever-present and never going to go away, when it’s life-giving and soothing? I simply don’t understand it. I’ve chosen to accept it, enjoy it, even – there was a time when I wouldn’t walk to work in it. Now I’ve just upped my waterproof game instead. Maybe hiking has given that to me.

Also, I look at weather forecasts. When I hear, “Let’s hope the weather clears up later!” I can often be heard saying, “It’s going to rain at 4pm and then the sun will come out at 6.30pm.” People seem genuinely surprised that I have this information to hand. I don’t know if it’s a refusal to accept reality that no one looks at a forecast, but in a nation where changeability of weather is the only constant, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t. Know what’s coming so you can deal with it.

It’s made me think that people like griping about the weather – they don’t like it when you take away the guesswork and provide the actual information. They like to think that they are in combat with the rain, and I’m just spoiling it by taking away their weapons. Radio stations pronounce rainy days as ‘miserable’. I say they’re just rainy.

I’ve realised that my favourite places in the world are in countries known for rainfall. New Zealand… the west coast of Ireland… the Costa Rican rainforest… the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Weather has made those places what they are and I love them for that. I’ve been soaked by rain and sunburnt in all those places – the latter always happens because I’m never expecting it.

And that brings me to my point. Stop expecting everything to be perfect and conform to the perfect summer. Expect rain and sunshine to be part of every season in Britain or you’ll be constantly disappointed. Do you really want to live in that perpetual state? Can you really not remember that last year the exact same thing happened, or that prior to one week of rain in August we had around two months of near-constant sunshine? I know because I walk to work and I think I’ve had to put my umbrella up once.

Make a relationship with rain that works for you. Lay down your weapons and just face it full on. You’ll find yourself in a much happier place.

As the Scandis say, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’.

 

1.-Pina

 

 

 

¡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.

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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.