Don’t Be Fooled!

The plan: to walk a section of the South West Coast Path, starting at Clovelly and ending at Padstow.

The imagined route: an undulating, easy coastal path with the odd bump, reminiscent of the Seven Sisters cliffs, punctuated by cosy tea rooms.

The reality: a remote wilderness hike consisting of extreme climbs and descents with nowhere to fill a drinking bottle, let alone order a cream tea.

After spending most of the summer hiking the South Downs Way and returning to the Seven Sisters as part of our ‘training’, we thought this one would be a doddle. My hiking friend, Paula, and I have been across the world together on some pretty adventurous hikes but this one would be a proper holiday, we said. Not like Kyrgyzstan or Armenia, where we’d been wild camping and struggling up mountain passes at altitude. Let’s be kind to ourselves, we said. Let’s have a proper holiday in lovely Devon and Cornwall.

Hartland coastline

Trouble is, we thought the guidebook was exaggerating when it said the South West Coast Path, made famous recently in Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, was ‘challenging’ and ‘relentless’. We thought that was just a warning for people trying to attempt it in flip-flops. Oh how wrong we were.

The first stretch, Clovelly to Hartland Quay was the ‘easy’ day at just over ten miles, but even that had its fair share of ups and downs. It took longer than we thought to reach our destination. However, there was at least a kiosk at one point serving ice cream. As we sat down to dinner at Hartland Quay Hotel (the only place to stay), we read about the following day’s fifteen miles to Bude. The hardest stretch of the entire path… Challenging/severe… Don’t be fooled by the easy start… People in the hotel gave us a look when we said what we were doing. One said we had ten deep valleys to encounter, another said five. Someone mentioned waterfalls. How challenging can it be? we said to each other. Surely not as bad as Kyrgyzstan, where I’d been in so much hip pain I’d had to get on a horse…

Worse. Worse than Kyrgyzstan. More than ten deep, deep valleys to climb into and out again. All the way down to sea level, over a little bridge spanning a waterfall and up the other side again. Relentlessly. No tea rooms. No scones. Just climbing. And then the next day, too: Bude to Boscastle.

Hartland coastline

No one talks about this side of Devon and Cornwall. No one says that it’s proper wilderness hiking with no facilities and no one around. It felt like being on the west coast of Ireland, Scotland – or even Iceland or the Faroes, Paula said (having been to both). And we agreed, this was harder hiking than Kyrgyzstan, which had been the hardest thing we’d both done together (Paula said only Greenland was worse).

We both belong in hiking groups that never venture here. It’s hard to get to and hard to herd groups of people here. We met people in ones and twos doing the same thing, most notably two women in their seventies who were wild-camping the whole thing and this was their last stretch. They didn’t even use tents – they were using tarpaulin to sleep under. “This is what you do in your seventies!” they shouted as we parted ways.

We met a young woman who had walked from Gloucester who was trying to find a suitable place to camp; we saw another who was lying against her pack, waiting for us to walk past so she could pitch her tent. It was next to a herd of goats. We yodelled and I think she heard us.

Speke’s Mill Mouth

As we took on every uppy-downy (as they became known) of the trail, we mused on how, if we’d known what this part of the trail entailed, we wouldn’t have attempted it at all. We wouldn’t have seen the incredible rocky outcrops pushing out into the glittering sea, or heard the crash of the Speke’s Mill Mouth waterfall as it plunges into the sea. We wouldn’t have seen the purple-heathered slopes at Cleave on the way to Bude, my personal favourite moment of the trip, or experienced the pride and joy of looking back at the valley we’d just traversed. Every climb and every descent brought a new ‘wow’ moment and a new angle on the breathtaking scenery and there was barely anyone else there to witness them with us.

We knew when we were approaching a car park or a village because people would appear with dogs and it would feel like an intrusion. As we got closer to the more popular stretches of the path we mourned the loss of the wilder stretches and realised that with cream teas came crowds. At Tintagel we finally lost it. The whole place was shrouded in fog and drizzle, and people were queuing up to walk across a new bridge to the castle from which they could see nothing. Get us out of here! we thought and promptly took a taxi to Port Isaac, which was pouring with Doc Martin fans.

As the weather improved, the hiking got easier, but our hearts were still in that wilderness we’d left behind. We’d overcome a psychological barrier and could face a deep valley without dread, just acceptance. We knew if you started counting them it was the road to exhaustion; you just have to get on with them. I had practiced my yogic ‘santosha’ – conscious cheerfulness – to get me through the hard stretches. I smiled and sang to myself, knowing that smiling is proven to make you feel happier. I can confirm that it works. I sang, “One singular sensation” as I walked sideways down hillside steps with my hiking pole, Bob Fosse-style.

The heathered slopes at Cleave

And joy of all joys – I’ve finally invested in hiking boots that are wide enough for my feet. I had no blisters. Nothing. After years of being crippled on day one of a hike. I am like a woman renewed – no hike is too far for me now.

We surprised ourselves on this ‘holiday’ (and agreed that it wasn’t a holiday). We climbed every mountain and forded every stream: without injury, without tears, without blisters. We each employed a different approach and it worked – Paula likes to get up a hill very quickly to get it done, I prefer to plod slowly and continuously and get there without breathing through my arse. Before now, I’ve tried to rush up hills and felt awful. It’s easier when you’re not in a group to take your time. “Steady as she goes” is my mantra. We’d meet at the top and congratulate each other on a job well done.

And can I sing the praises of a pasty as the perfect hiking lunch? A meal wrapped in a pastry case, still warm from the morning’s oven. Thank goodness we made sure we had packed lunches and pasties with us from every town we stayed in. There was nothing in between each stop apart from that first kiosk, the two cafes at Crackington Haven and Sandymouth Cafe outside Bude. They were like oases in the desert.

Crackington Haven beach

At first we were disappointed not to be staying in Padstow (aka Rick Steinville) but then we discovered the YHA at Treyarnon. What a find. A sea view, a glorious beach, food being served through a hatch. I’d definitely go back there.

A woman in her seventies (or eighties?) approached us as we waited for the bus into Newquay, hiking all completed.

“In my day when we were walking, we didn’t allow getting buses.”

Me: *death stare*

Paula, smiling: “We’ve just hiked from Clovelly, actually, and we’re done.”

Lady: “Oh!” *looks Paula up and down incredulously. Looks at husband in disbelief* “Oh wow – you’ve done all that!”

Us: “Yes, yes we have.”

*gets on front seat of top deck of bus and whoops with joy*

Descent into Boscastle – Beeny Cliffs

East Side Story

In my last blog post, I talked about how I’m a West End Girl. I always have been. I grew up in North Wales, with frequent excursions to the west coast, I’ve found spiritual homes in the west of India and Ireland, and actual homes in the west of London and now Sussex. So when a friend who is a hiker and journalist asked me to be a plus one on his exploratory trip Northumberland, I did hesitate for a moment. I’d been there before, as a result of university summers with Geordie friends, so I knew how beautifully bleak it is, with long stretches of beach punctuated by castles, but east coasts don’t hold as much interest for me in general. They’re flatter, less shattered by wind and weather and I do like a bit of dramatic Atlantic coastline.

My friend’s brief was to hike the Northumberland Coastal Path (62 miles) over four days and write about his experience for BBC Countryfile magazine. I hadn’t hiked much with him before, but I thought, what the hell? We’re all staycationing now so why not start with this? It would be a chance to revisit all those places I’d loved in the ’90s – I had images of kippers from Craster and fish and chips in Seahouses in my brain, alongside the bleak ruins of Dunstanburgh castle. I’m in, I said.

Dunstanburgh

We’d be carrying all our stuff but staying in B&B accommodation so this was my opportunity to showcase my light-packing skills. I carried a 33L Osprey rucksack, which, when full, is a perfectly carry-able weight for a day hike. One thing I did before I set off was to make piles of the things I thought I’d need for the trip, and then systematically remove anything I thought was ‘excess’. As women, we often take multiple choices for outfits but I find once I’m out there that I can wear things more than once (shock!) and sometimes even three or four times. I learned that on my trip to Kyrgyzstan a few years ago where we didn’t have showers for six days. It’s ok to rough it a bit – and actually it’s quite liberating.

With my worldly goods on my back. Capture: Peter Elia.

Since I’ve started growing out my silver hair and not wearing any make-up except for mascara, my packing list has got shorter and shorter. Women are often burdened by what they think they’ll need for a trip, when really, if we just thought like men – “I’ll need four t-shirts, two pairs of shorts and four pairs of pants” – we’d be way more able to take ourselves around the world at a moment’s notice. I’d always viewed The Man Who Hiked The World‘s trips with awe, thinking, “Well, I could never do that”. But then I did, in Kyrgyzstan, and I’ve already told you how life-changing that trip was for me.

One thing we talked about during the trip is whether or not this sort of thing qualifies as a holiday. I felt very strongly on my trips to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia that they were not holidays. Adventures, yes, but not a holiday. For me, a holiday implies some sort of rest element, and maybe a bit of culture, not a relentless slog up mountains and camping next to glacial lakes with ‘natural’ toilets. We agreed that to be a holiday, you’d have a shorter day hike, perhaps ten miles instead of the 15-20 we were doing in Northumberland, then do more each evening and maybe include a rest day for cultural visits.

Pre-Bamburgh breakfast at the Bamburgh Castle Inn, Seahouses, overlooking the Farne Islands.

As always, I push myself too hard (and, I’ve discovered, wear the wrong size shoes) so I had an enforced rest day in Bamburgh where I was able to hike barefoot along the beach and back to the castle, limp around it, and then visit the Clocktower Cafe for a massive scone with jam and cream. TMWHTW went on ahead, determined to continue on the coastal path for his article.

You may remember this happening to me on the Isle of Wight when I tried to circumnavigate it. But magic happened that day as it did this time. I was forced to rest at Freshwater and duly discovered the delights of Dimbola Lodge and Wightwood Pizza. I have been back there every year since. If I’d just hiked through it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything was there.

Happy, freckly me! Capture: Peter Elia

Similarly, I felt happy and rested after my solo Bamburgh trip and happily caught up with TMWHTW over dinner that night, my blisters already healing. I think I need moments on my own and moments of rest. They make me happy.

The other thing that makes me happy while out walking is stopping to talk to people. TMWHTW had to do it for his article and I tagged along, finding all the ‘interviews’ with locals along the way fascinating. From a meat-pie merchant to a kipper-smoker, it was so interesting to hear how old and new family businesses had and were coping with seismic shifts in business opportunities over the past weeks, months and decades. There is a quiet, open gentleness to the (mainly) men we spoke to in the north east, which reminded me of my university friends’ dads who were both the same. There were people who were passionate about the coastline and its wildlife and the businesses they’d set up there.

Pilgrims veggie pies on Lindisfarne

One of the highlights for me was the starting point at Cresswell at the Drift Cafe. TMWHTW sat and talked to someone from AONB Northumberland who knows the coastal path in minute detail and the quiet owner of the cafe who offered us lovely coffee and cakes (all with great COVID measures in place, obviously). There’s something about a start point on a hike – it’s so full of hope, joy and excitement, and even though the weather wasn’t perfect that day, the size of those massive sandy beaches and windswept dunes is enough to make your soul soar.

The main highlight for me was the accommodation at Alnmouth at the Shoreside Huts. It was ridiculously romantic, in the original sense of the word: huts on a hillside perch, overlooking the sea but not overlooked; a woodburner that kept us toasty even with the door open; food supplied by a local deli for that evening and breakfast the next morning.

Shoreline Huts – I could live here…

I could have stayed there forever. We got up at 5am to see the sunrise holding hot mugs of tea made on the little stove. There was someone else doing the same thing out on the rocks below. The coastline is studded with incredible birdlife such as kittiwakes and Arctic terns and the locals know all about them. We laughed when we heard the owner of the Shoreline Huts, Dale, refer to the Farne Islands as the ‘Geordie Galapagos’. We did a Serenity Boats sunset trip, but sadly without a sunset. Still, we did see seals, the incredible migratory Arctic terns and the cutest little puffins, who were on their way off from the Farnes, we were told.

Sunrise at Alnmouth

I did feel discombobulated walking with the sea on my right – I like it to be on my left, but AONB Ian had told us that it is best to hike the path south-to-north so that the sun is on your back, not on your face (I like to walk into the sun, not away from it, but boy I was glad of his advice later on what was to be the hottest day of the year).

We ended up in Berwick-upon-Tweed – somewhere I’ve routinely driven or trained past on the way up and down to Edinburgh Festival or my ex-in-laws. I had no idea how beautiful it is, and worthy of a stay in itself. We met with a local tour guide and incredible information store, Derek Sharman (Derek from Berwick!). He took us on a sunset tour of the amazing Elizabethan walls that I had no idea were there. Put it this way, I ended up looking up housing for sale in this beautiful Georgian town.

Beautiful Berwick at sunset

Could I live on an east coast? I could probably get used to it… Having coffee early on a sunny morning on Lindisfarne kind of confirmed that for me. While TMWHKW was scrambling over the outer edges of the island to get the best shot of the Priory before the crowds arrived, I bumped into someone from Wrexham, near my hometown in North Wales. He was wearing an ‘Eryri’ (Snowdon) t-shirt so I had to ask him if he was Welsh. We get everywhere, you know. We looked out over the causeway where the tide was slowly coming in and I realised it was just like the River Dee which separates my hometown from the Wirral – a shifting quicksand area that stops hikers from walking on this part of the coast.

Lindisfarne in the early morning – tide coming in

“I wished we’d stayed here overnight,” said TMWHTW, packing up his camera.

Well, there’s always a next time…

You are the Light

I’m writing on day fourteen of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, which is also day fifteen of my going through four airports (Goa, Mumbai, Dubai, Gatwick) to get back to here.

I’m still in awe of the kindness shown to me by my landlady and landlord (landpeople?) who welcomed me immediately into their home, trusting that I would have avoided the virus on my trip back. We’d never met each other and yet now it seems I’ve been living here for months, in a good way. I will never ever forget their kindness for as long as I live.

So far I’ve had no symptoms but I am one of many people who think they have had the virus already. I think I may have had it a few weeks ago, when I felt generally run-down and like I was going to come down with something, and I had a strange pain in my lower right ribs which prevented me from taking a full breath. I thought it was muscular at the time but now I’m rethinking it. I think it’s already been through me. In India.

Similarly, the family I’m staying with think they had in on a French skiing holiday, where all three of them came down with a horrible cough and a fever and were laid up in bed with the ‘flu’. We’ve heard much about the ski resorts being an epicentre of the virus, especially in the early days of the ‘super spreader’ news, so this seems to tally.

All of my friends seem to be split between those who think they’ve had it, based on having at least one of the three key symptoms (dry cough, fever, breathlessness), and those that are still unsure, despite having at least two of them. I’m someone who would be only too happy to say I’ve already had it so I don’t quite understand this uncertainty. Is it a form of denial? Maybe. Maybe it would be too much to think about how many people we’d potentially infected without realising it.

In the wake of my flight from India I’ve been thinking a lot about denial and how much I was in it back then. Thanks to the intervention staged by my friends I finally came to my senses, but I am astonished at the lengths I went to to convince myself and them that staying in Goa would be a good idea. Currently I have a small number of friends doing the same thing to me and I can hear my own voice from two weeks ago in the Agonda bubble. One of the interventionist friends said she almost cried when I was about to get into the taxi to the airport and sent her a message saying I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. Thank goodness I carried on.

I’ve actually had to mute all the news from India and social media from Goa specifically because I’m finding it too stressful to look at. I had a twisting feeling in my gut when I was there because it was telling me I had to go and I believe that my gut was right. That feeling returns every time I look at Goan Facebook threads and messages and for my own mental health, I’ve turned them off. I respect friends’ decisions to stay there but that decision wasn’t the right one for me. One of the interventionist friends told me yesterday that it wouldn’t be long before news would be being censored by the Indian government and internet searches restricted. I hadn’t even thought of that and it already appears to be happening.

I’ve actually continued with my Agonda lifestyle here in Worthing – an early morning or evening walk by the sea every day. I am once again enjoying the sunrise, or sunset, but here I am walking in a warm coat and gloves, carrying a flask of hot tea, basking in the cold air hitting my face after so many months of hot air. I was so ready to feel cold – I now know that I spent too long in a hot region and if I ever get the chance to go to India again I’ll spend some time back in much-cooler Rajasthan. I like wrapping up warm and my energy levels are higher in cooler climes. As such, I’m very happy in a sunny-but-cold Worthing.

There are joys to be found during lockdown, whether it’s watching dogs running after tennis balls on the beach (I miss Zimbo), finding stones or paving stones with optimistic messages painted or chalked on them on the seaside benches (no, I don’t touch them), seeing the sun sparkling over wet pebbles by the shoreline, or an unexpected ‘good morning!’ from a passer-by.

There are also sadnesses to witness: street drinkers in the early morning light, putting their world to rights, shouting at each other angrily. I see the same guys every morning and I wonder about the state of the nation’s mental health after a long, rainy winter and when the lockdown is over. There must be a lot of people not coping and I’m almost more worried about that than I am about COVID-19.

I have started, like many yoga teachers, to teach classes on Zoom, which I’m loving. They punctuate the week, for one thing, and they keep my teaching up after Goa. I love teaching beginners, and I think it’s my calling. I’m someone who found it hard to find a way in to yoga, thinking it wasn’t for me, so I can help people at least overcome that first hurdle. I’m gateway yoga, if you like. Message me if you’re interested in taking part.

On my lockdown exercise walk I have a lot of time to think through things and I’ve been musing on how this global event has been the biggest-ever challenge to selfishness the post-war generations have ever seen. For the first time, we’re being asked to think and act on others’ behalf and it’s clear that a lot of people find that concept very hard.

Before I left Goa, a British man told me that he was ‘going to act completely normal’ when he got home and that vulnerable people ‘should just get out more’. Needless to say I am stepping away from people like him in future. This is a Brexiteer who blamed foreigners for scrounging from the UK welfare system who is currently happy enough scrounging from the Indian community who is forced to help him because he is ‘stuck’ (ie, choosing to remain there because it’s cheaper than being in the UK and only opting to fly home if the UK government lay it on for free.)

People show you who they are even on a simple lockdown walk, run or cycle, when they are unwilling to step out of the way or deliberately cough in your direction when you do step out of the way. Even how someone buys something, taking all the stock of an essential rather than what they actually need, is an indicator. Never has it been made more clear who the empaths are and who is simply looking out for themselves. I try to remember to ‘be the change I want to see’ and simply manage my own behaviour but it is hard not to judge such levels of selfishness.

I’ve also found this time has confirmed what I’ve thought for a long time about my ‘loved ones’. It’s always upset me a lot to think that I don’t have any direct loved ones caring about what happens to me, without any husband, children, parents or siblings around (some of those by choice, it has to be admitted). But now I have a clear picture of who was there when the chips were down and I’m glad to have it confirmed. I don’t want to say ‘you know who you are’ but you do. And I’m so glad you’re there.

But here’s to my new family by the sea, with their dog, Nerys, and cat, Bob. I’m so very very grateful.

Agonda Diaries – week 14

This has been a week of reconnecting with friends after my Rajasthan week, and looking back on the whole experience. I fell in love with Udaipur so much that I’m going to stay there for a while next season. I need to not be in Agonda for the Christmas drinking season and will arrive here mid-January, when things have calmed down a bit.

Udaipur has little or no ‘ex-pat’ (aka immigrant) British population because it’s not easy to come by booze there, so people tend to pass through to look at the palaces, forts and temples and move on. Of course, I loved it, the chai-drinking culture, white people being in a minority, and I’m not done.

This started a chain of decision-making about my plans to return to the UK this summer and the inevitable question of what I’ll do next. I’ve decided to do a short-ish visit to Shimla-Spiti Valley-Manali before I return so I can suss out the Himalayas as a potential place to stay for a few months next summer. I like the idea of breaking up the year into two- or three-month chunks.

This also started a chain of people insisting on telling me about their own Indian odysseys and either insisting I do what they did, insisting I’ll love the places they loved, or refusing to dwell on the fact that they haven’t been to Spiti Valley, meaning they can’t tell me how much they loved it and how much I’ll love it. As someone who likes her own experience of self-discovery I wonder what compels people to follow in another’s path. I just need my Lonely Planet, not a trail of other people’s favourite restaurants. After Pushkar, which I disliked when most of my friends loved it, I’m going to blaze my own trail (and burn the evidence behind me).

I came back to Agonda to find the sand shelf on the beach had reformed, after apparently being flattened and then created again after a couple of stormy days. It hasn’t stopped the turtles coming on to the beach to lay their eggs, though – we have seven nests now, and the first lot is due to hatch next week. Watch this space!

We’ve also had a spate of high-tides in which pairs of dolphins have appeared just offshore in the early mornings. I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying one or two along the beach as they surf through what must be shoals of tiny fish.

I also had the pleasure of a day trip with The Most Handsome Man in Goa, who remains in my life in a different way, discovering the tiny Mashem beach near Galgibaga, and going back to Talpona and the little gem Tejas restaurant for vegetable biryani and Hello to the Queen dessert. TMHMIG is brilliant at these days out – the thrill of the bike ride there on coastal roads, playing in the waves, choosing the right food for lunch, and getting me back somewhere lovely to watch the sunset. I always feel the happiest I’ve been in years during and after one of these ‘dates’.

He also had to deal with the bothersome regular occurrence of Indian Boys With Cameras, who inevitably turn up right behind us whenever we find a deserted beach. Two of them popped up as we were in the water, putting their stuff right next to ours on the beach. I was fuming. They must have seen the steam coming out of my ears and one of them waded in to ask us if there was a problem? Yes, I said. You’ve got this whole massive empty beach, and you’ve chosen to put your stuff right next to ours. Plus I’m sick of being trailed by Indian Boys With Cameras. We’re on a roadtrip from Hyderabad, he said. We’re just taking pictures of the location. He probably did get a couple of pictures of us but I liked that he came to check everything was ok. The one thing that is a certainty in India is a gang of boys with phones, drones and cameras. That is the biggest problem I face in India. Maybe people just like to herd. I prefer to leave the pack behind…

Talking of packs, I got bluff-attacked by a pack of dogs by the river in Agonda last night. I didn’t take my stick because I wasn’t expecting a flat, wide beach to run on, and simply took my chance. To all those people who make fun of me for carrying a stick – you try being surrounded by ten dogs barking and snarling at you, while all the humans stand around not doing anything to help. They seem to get more feral when the weather is cooler for some reason. Even Sanjo is leaping up and scratching my arms with his claws.

This weather is reminding me of British summer – cool mornings and evenings and warm days… I can’t wait to experience the real thing in May…

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

Dear reader…

I didn’t file a diary entry for week twelve because I spent most of it wondering which end to put near the toilet (bad shakshuka) and trying to complete an urgent work deadline. Thankfully, both things were finished by the time I left for my trip to Rajasthan last Thursday.

The purpose of the trip was twofold – firstly, to experience the Jaipur Literature Festival, the biggest book show on earth. Apparently over 400,000 people visit it each year, and as it’s free to the general public, it’s one of a kind. I don’t know why, but I thought it was going to be like Frankfurt or Bologna – both international trade book fairs, but of course, the clue is in the name. It’s a book festival, like Edinburgh. But oh, the calibre and diversity of the panels. I realised that I have never been to a book event without working at it and it was so glorious to be a punter. I sat and listened to Madhur Jaffrey, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lemn Sissay, Howard Jacobson, Jung Chang, Lindsey Hilsum among others talk about writing memoir (highly pertinent to me), fiction and the lives of women. Lemn Sissay was a particular highlight – his emotional intensity charges a room and his story (of being stolen from his mother and placed into ‘care’) is heartbreaking.

Jaipur, unexpectedly, reminded me of Bologna. Huge medieval stone buildings the colour of amber and ochre, hot beverages served outdoors on every corner (chai, rather than coffee), scooters whizzing everywhere, people shouting and gesticulating, and of course, a population of people interested in books. All with added cows and monkeys.

On this whole trip I have been waiting to experience this much-vaunted ‘real India’ I’ve been told about, featuring people dying and defecating on the side of the road. I managed a whole week in Rajasthan, including rural areas, without seeing any of that, and I’m more convinced than ever that what people mean by ‘real India’ is ‘really poor India’. I think there’s a kind of slum tourism at work here, among foreign travellers – a competition to see who can do it more cheaply, and more ‘with the locals’. I find it a bit distasteful, to be honest. To flaunt our relative wealth on a ‘novelty’ trip that others have no choice but to experience isn’t my bag. I travelled by low-cost airline (SpiceJet) and by chair-class train. It was all completely ‘normal’, other than the trains, in particular, being a bit old.

Things are allowed to be old here. There isn’t a need to constantly renew everything every three years in a cycle of perceived obsolescence. If an item is functional, it lives on as itself, without even a fresh coat of paint. If an item isn’t functional, it turns into something else – it’s given a different function, eg an empty oil drum becomes a stool outside a chai bar, a saree/sari becomes a curtain or tablecloth. A Delhi resident I met at the fair said she misses the old recycling culture in her city: “Everything has to be new, now,” she said. “We used to re-use everything but now it’s discarded to make way for the new things.”

I could only feel guilty as this is definitely the effect of Western capitalism. Yet again, I was forced to wonder why we need so many new things in the west when the old things were just as good. I even remembered saying to my ex-husband, who loved fixing things and making them last for decades, “Why would you do that when you can just buy a new one?” Oh how I have changed that tune … I’m horrified at how far I bought into capitalism and for so long.

I loved Jaipur, with it’s palaces and forts. And I realised something – I love cities with Islamic architecture. There is a much higher proportion of Muslim residents in Rajasthan and it’s reflected everywhere from the male-oriented chai/coffee culture and the millions of Mughal-made arched doorways and windows, filled with coloured glass and ornate paintings. In the City Palace and the Amber Fort there are miles of cool stone corridors with small windows opening onto incredible vistas. Everywhere there is another archway to walk through and another coloured glass window or mirrored wall to marvel at.

I stayed at a heritage hotel, with unique, individually hand-painted rooms (Pearl Palace Heritage) and hired a Muslim tuk tuk driver from Jaipur City Exploring, Sharukh, who knew the city like the back of his hand. I loved the crazy driving and the beeping. It’s like a dance – everyone makes room for each other and there is no rage. It just sounds like rage, to a Western ear, trained to hear beeping a horn as an expression of frustration. It isn’t in India, it’s simply, ‘I’m here’ or ‘go ahead’. And it’s compulsory to do it, which is why the backs of lorries say, “BLOW HORN OK”. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t mind walking out in front of oncoming traffic so it suits me here – you have to trust or believe that the person will stop or move round you, and there’s a greater likelihood of that here. I also don’t mind dirt and dust. You can’t enjoy being here if you’re addicted to hand sanitiser…

On the advice of numerous friends, I then changed my plan to stay one more night in Jaipur to go to Pushkar, which was on the trainline towards my next destination, Udaipur. It turns out that most people’s delight in it stems from experiences in India twenty or thirty years ago, because now it feels like a Hindu theme park. I did enjoy wandering through the bazaar down to the lakeside ghats but the best bit for me was getting lost at night looking for a way out to a tuk tuk – I came across a temple doing pooja, with all the bells clanging, drums beating and a priest holding candles aloft outside, gesturing across the lake. I later discovered that the cacophony is intended to remove ‘obstacles’, to clear the mind of distractions. The sound is intended to create the om, the sound of the universe, of the sun. Once I knew that, the frequent nighttime poojas in Udaipur soothed me rather than frazzled my nerves.

I caught the train from Ajmer to Udaipur and loved the whole experience. Big brown leather reclining chairs, the chai man going up and down the corridor, someone popping up to sell power boosters for your phone, even Dominos pizzas from a delivery bag. It’s a completely logical pop-up economy and people are entrepreneurial about it. I met young, male entrepreneurs in all three cities, keen to capitalise on the tourist rupee. They work so hard to give you the best experience they can. And then you find out that they sleep in their tuk tuk, a bit like the north Indian guys in Agonda, who sleep on the tables of the restaurants they work in.

Oh, Udaipur. I’m completely smitten by you. To the point where I’m thinking of staying with you for a while, next season. As always in India, someone randomly popped up to tell me to do it – a Brit who lives there for six months every year. He’d travelled everywhere in India since he was seventeen, and he confirmed that Udaipur is the best place to live. “It combines a city with a village feel,” he said. “And everyone is so lovely.” I couldn’t agree more.

Yet again, I was reminded of Italy. I’m not the first person to make the connection between Udaipur and Venice. The city is set next to two lakes, and there are ghats and boats at various points all around Lake Pichola and Fateh Sagar. Sheikh, the young entrepreneur responsible for the awesome Doctor Cafe in the very cool Lal Ghat area, took me on a scooter safari into the hills and farm villages around Udaipur at sunset. This is where he grew up, he said, living a simple life. I clung on as we whizzed around Lake Badi (Tiger Lake) and the surrounding villages, small children waving ‘hello’ wherever we went. Still no defecation on the side of the road (ok a few men were having a pee), just people living in simple houses, without new things. I guess it might be a relatively affluent area, considering its proximity to the city and I probably saw its produce being sold by the women in the lively vegetable and spice bazaar in the city. The women wanted me to give them pens – I’m bringing them next time.

Because there will be a next time. I’ve fallen in love with Udaipur and I’m not done. I’ve seen most of the sights and I want to go back and truly just dwell there. I liked the noise and the clanging of the tuk tuks and pooja bells. I liked the chai society and the namastes (they don’t say it much in Goa and laugh when I say it, like I’m being an affected yogi). I like the medieval buildings that are simply ageing as they are, happily in their natural state. A bit like me, really.

But before you think I’ve romanticised everything about it, the day before the bazaar visit, people in the city centre were beaten with bamboo sticks by the police for protesting against anti-working class laws (I was warned off going near it and saw someone else’s video). Many of the shops were closed and the temples remained quiet. I’m not stupid enough to think that everything is perfect here, but it’s real and it’s open and I love that about it.

See you soon, Udaipur.

(Note: I stayed at the extraordinarily beautiful Little Garden Guest House in Udaipur, run by the incredibly helpful Akshay. Highly recommended.)

Agonda Diaries – week eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words are my thing, it turns out.

Agonda Diaries – week ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agonda Diaries – week nine

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

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

Mangaldas at the helm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agonda diaries – week eight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mat is calling. Namaste.

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.