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.)

Agonda diaries – week seven

People say to trust your gut, don’t they? I say it to people who are in the throes of a decision-making crisis, but so many of us question those pure instincts even when they are screaming at us. I’ve relied on mine so many times but this week I didn’t listen as much as I should.

I’ve had a week where my gut was telling me one thing while my head was telling me what it thought I ‘should’ do, based on what others might choose. I wrestled with the issue for a few days before listening more closely to my gut and realising that it had been right all along. The moment that clarity settled inside me, I felt so much happier, and when teaching my next yoga class, I realised how important it was for me to be happy with myself when passing on the joy of yoga to other people.

I find these moments of clarity most often when I am walking along the beach. For a week or so, I was working for a couple of hours at 6.30am and missing my morning walk to the river and back. On some days I even missed the sunset walk too, and I felt something die a little in my soul. Now I have them back I am feeling so much happier.

It’s so simple, that walk. The mornings are cool, now, and the sand is almost cold underfoot. I’ve found that the sand is warmer where the outgoing tide has just left it, and it feels lovely to walk on it after the cold touch of the dry sand. I like to step on the sandy ‘pouches’ – air-filled sand pockets that I thought contained a sea creature, but I’ve noticed that the waves cause them as they bubble onto the shore. It’s like a game of bubblewrap popping as I walk along – something about depressing one of these bubbles is so satisfying as your foot sinks down into it.

I love that part of the beach where the river waters meet the sea. There is something about the confluence that is calming when you’re grappling with a decision. I stand and stare at it for quite a long time, noticing how the waters flow over each other for a while, trying to compromise.

I’ve also started to run the same way in the evenings, when the tide is further out and there is a wider plain of hard sand. I’ve tried it with running shoes on, which offer stability and mean I don’t have to focus on random rocks or broken glass that might be in the sand beneath my feet. This week I tried it barefoot and it was actually lovely. I think I’m going to do that more.

I made a pact with myself to only run the beach if it feels good and if I can smile while I’m doing it. So far, so good. People seem perplexed as to why I carry a long bamboo stick when I walk and run – if you’ve been bitten by a beach dog you know that a stick is a great preventative measure. I don’t intend to use it – it seems to be enough that I am carrying it. Also Zimbo and Sanjo are less likely to jump up when I’m carrying it, I’ve noticed. A small win.

I worked out that Agonda is at least 50% down on its usual numbers of seasonal tourists, purely based on the numbers turning up to the drop-in yoga classes I attend. This time last year, they had two shalas full, running simultaneous classes. This year it’s just the one, and even that’s not full. I’ve noticed that some visitors feel the need to decamp to a busier place, but a quieter Agonda makes me want to stay here even more.

Of course it’s not great for those people running businesses, but my attempts to give prospective visitors some information about Agonda being open for business met with some criticism in a local Facebook group so I deleted the list and came out of the group. Sometimes people reject help and I have to accept it. Sometimes people like to cluster around negative comments and I have to accept that too. Thankfully some people really appreciated the list and approached me by direct message to glean the information.

My policy to date has always been to tell the truth about a situation, to present a scenario exactly as it is, no sugar-coating, no beating around the bush, but I have found that while most people seem to appreciate the honesty, others can’t bear to hear the words, often specific words. An interesting response to my Facebook post was that I ‘shouldn’t’ have used the word ‘demolished’ with regards to properties on the beach that have actually been demolished. Despite weeks of the word ‘demolished’ being used over and over again on every social media outlet with regard to Agonda. And me, warrior-like, trying to stop people describing this beautiful beach as a ‘war zone’. I say the word ‘demolished’ for the first time and suddenly it’s not ok.

You live and learn.

Agonda Diaries – week six

Whenever people say to me, “You’re living the dream! I’m so envious!” I always reply by saying it is possible to feel sad in paradise. Believe me, I’ve experienced it all over the world. I’ve cried on beaches in Thailand, Costa Rica and Egypt. Somehow these palm-fringed locations make a feeling of sadness or loneliness stronger because you’re not meant to feel those things here. But you can, and do.

I haven’t had a terrible week, I was just feeling sad and a bit lonely last weekend for reasons I won’t go into here. I started to do that thing of ‘wandering the earth’ that I do back home when I’m feeling like this, but this time the earth was simply Agonda. And then, just as I was at my lowest ebb, a motorbike came wobbling towards me carrying my friends Hannah and Dave and their precariously balanced luggage and guitar. It was so good to see them I nearly knocked them over with hugs on the street. They are just such great people – nice and normal. They love dogs as much as I do. Thank goodness for Hannah and Dave.

As well as his guitar, Dave has brought his harmonica and when he spontaneously began to accompany Taylor the guitarist at Silent Waves resort, it was a beautiful moment. He played along with guitarist Willem to Mr Bojangles – a song with such poignancy. I felt so proud of him as he shyly took to the stage. It takes guts to get up there.

Part of the reason for me feeling so discombobulated is that I’ve started teaching public yoga classes. I watched Dave get up on ‘stage’ (aka a raised bit of sand) and tried to channel a bit of his bravery. I think it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done – preparing and teaching a class full of hopeful yogis. I tore myself to pieces beforehand and during the classes, feeling sure people would just leave or pick me up on something I’d got wrong. It turned out the only person who wanted to leave or criticise me was myself.

I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends at Sampoorna – hugs and kind words and “it’ll be fine” times a million. I’ve also had one or two people returning to my classes – thank you Daniela and Uwe. I have resolved to keep going and ‘screw my courage to the sticking-place’, but this whole week I’ve felt very emotional and I’ve hardly slept. There’s been another full moon, too. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

I haven’t spent as much time on the beach this week, but when I have it has more than delivered. Firstly sunsets to die for and secondly a sea otter, who emerged near Simrose last Wednesday at 8am, and swam all the way along the coast to its rocky home, accompanied by me alongside (walking, I might add). He, or she, swam silently by people in the ocean who didn’t notice they were sharing the ocean with such a glorious animal, and he stopped to come out of the water with a silver fish in his mouth at one point, to eat breakfast. I was pointing him out to people but few were interested. Vasudev (Captain Nitesh the boatman) was as excited as me, though, because he loves the nature in his home village.

I’ve also discovered the delights of Charlie’s street food van by Gita’s clothes shop in the main street. Gita introduced me to Charlie one day when she was having her lunch. I was persuaded to come back for a snack lunch the next day and sampled an omelette and bread roll for 25 rupees. The next day I had bhaji with bread roll for 50 rupees. Both were delicious and Charlie is so lovely. I like that you stand and chat with him while you eat. He’s there all day from 7.30am to 10pm at night serving delicious food. And for someone on their own, this is a way of bypassing the awkwardness of sitting somewhere on your own. I sense that I’ll be going to Charlie’s cart a lot from now on.

In dog news, Sweetpea has been spotted on the beach again and again, and I’ve just left her in the company of a Portuguese family, being fed titbits. It’s so lovely to see her out and about again. The old Sweetpea has returned. Zimbo and Sanjo are still my pack, but I saw Zimbo cosying up to a group of people at Jardim a few days back so I know I share him a bit.

Papaya, the Kopi Desa dog, has started to walk up to me for a cuddle whenever I stop by, after years of ignoring me. Same with Jerry (Gary? the jury is out on which name it is) at Simrose. He’s ignored me for years (apart from sitting outside my Simrose hut two Christmasses ago) and suddenly he’s butting my legs with his head. I don’t know what’s caused the change but I love it. More dogs to cuddle for me.

Ocean is growing bigger and stronger every day and now sits on the beach to watch the sunset with his human and canine friends from Love Bites. I saw the election news from back home and cuddled Ocean to remind myself that beautiful, innocent things exist in the world.

I have decided that I won’t let the news get me down. I won’t let it fill me with negative thoughts and feelings of helplessness. I will simply strive to live a life that is as good as it can be. Many people have been quoting Gandhi on Twitter and Facebook: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I’m not sure if he said those exact words, but that’s what we were taught in our yoga teacher training at Sampoorna because it’s part of Indian philosophy (otherwise known as Hinduism). It’s all you can do when it comes down to it – be in control of your own thoughts, words and actions.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve hit my 11-month soberversary this week and the fact that I almost missed it shows how much I’ve moved on from my drinking lifestyle. I’d rather watch a sea otter in the ocean early in the morning and say hello to a dog named Sweetpea.

Agonda Diaries – week three

This week began with an incredibly colourful visit to Chaudi market. Mr Happy drove me there and I wandered around for an hour or so taking in the sights under its yellow canopy. It was the yellowest place I’ve ever visited, and therefore one of the happiest, filled with stallholders selling every kind of fruit, vegetable and spice, plus a range of plastic goods from combs to soap dishes. Yet again I succumbed to the beaded necklaces and bought three silvery ones to wear on the beach. As you’ll know from previous blog posts, I like a bit of sparkle. They’re £1.50 a strand…

It was all yellow…

Like many people in Agonda, the purpose of my visit to Chaudi was really to use the ATM because the one here is closed indefinitely. Of course the ATM was broken in Chaudi too, so I’m having to use a local cash-exchange place that charges commission. I’m letting it go – it is what it is. Things could be a lot worse.

I’m keeping up my swimming practice at my Secret Swimming Location but I have now added a Not-So-Secret Swimming Location to my portfolio – the Wild Berry Resort just outside Agonda. I had the huge blue pool almost all to myself on Sunday, for three or four hours.

The lovely pool at Wild Berry

When I say ‘almost’ I mean I was accompanied by a huge domestic row between what looked like two guests but I gather they may have had more to do with the management, judging by the staff’s reactions. In extraordinary scenes, a woman beat her partner about the head while two other men stared at their phones nearby. He appeared drunk and she kept shoving a phone in his face, so I took a wild guess and thought he may have cheated. It was actually horrible seeing a man getting beaten like that – imagine if it had been the other way round? Would we have all sat around ignoring it? Thankfully the pair were encouraged to leave the pool area and took their argument elsewhere. Lord knows what happened to him.

Talking of men, I have met two extraordinary ones this week. Sven from Germany, who is the happiest person I have met in a long time, has joined me for breakfast at Simrose most days this week. It turns out that he has never touched a drop of alcohol (“Am I a real German?!”), and he told me he’d ordered a ‘Sex on the Beach’ cocktail the previous night “without the alcohol and without the sex.” He laughs like a drain at his own jokes and it’s infectious. He has two grown-up children and has their faces tattooed on his chest – he obviously has an amazing relationship with them and it’s so lovely to hear him talking about them.

Every day Sven climbs aboard a scooter and explores South Goa and I envy him his freedom. I’m still too scared to ride a bike here so it does mean my daily activities are restricted to Agonda unless I want to hire Mr Happy or a Tuk Tuk. He tells me he’s been mistaken for Bruce Willis by some Russians who asked for a selfie. Cue infectious booming laughter.

Then, as I was writing a piece on men doing yoga for Sampoorna Yoga School, I met Luke, a 35-year-old yoga teacher from Manchester. He’d been taken to a yoga class following a divorce and a period of depression. He now says yoga is a tool he uses to help himself cope in society and teaches other men back home who are struggling to cope, as he once was. He talked about the social pressure on men to be the ‘alpha’, to curb their emotions and act competitively and aggressively. On the yoga mat they can choose to step away from all that. As he spoke, I thought about Sven and his ‘alpha’ appearance, all muscles, earrings and tattoos, but how all of that is undercut by his clear-eyed grin and the way he talks about his children. We need more Svens and Lukes in the world.

My Chicas

I have continued to get to know the pigs who live behind me and have started to call them ‘Chica’ whenever I see them. They seem to like it and honk their approval. I met the guy who owns the house where the pigs ‘live’ and asked them if he had names. No, he said, but he calls them ‘Chico’. I’m not sure if he’d heard me talk to them but I like to think I just guessed their collective name correctly. I also found out that Orson the puppy is in fact called Ocean. I’d misheard Umesh say his name. He’s now got a tiny collar and is running about outside Love Bites cafe.

My name is Ocean!

My early morning walk on the beach was wild this morning. I didn’t have my phone so I can’t show you a picture, but the waves were crashing high onto the beach, almost into the buildings along the shore. I’ve never seen it like that and was told this is what it does during monsoon or just before a cyclone arrives.

Everything is much calmer now so I hope it was just a post-monsoon blip but you never know.

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, Ocean, giving me another reason to use Love Bites as a remote office.

Umesh and Ocean

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.