Stories We Tell Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Relationship with Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

1.-Pina

 

 

 

1928

Recently, I was asked in a questionnaire what year I would like to go back to and why. After deliberating awhile I realised that there was only one year I could go back to: 1928. This is the year my mother was born; the year that women gained electoral equality with men in the Equal Franchise Act; the year that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous A Room of One’s Own speech to the women of Girton College, Cambridge.

How amazing to have been there, listening to Virginia exhorting the assembled young women to “possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

I’ve realised that this blog is my response to Woolf. I left my marriage when I felt I was financially able to – it really was the trigger – and I’d waited a long time for it to happen. Since then, I’ve lapped up my freedom and dipped so deeply into that stream. I eventually felt compelled to write about my experiences. Virginia would be so proud.

I’ve also recently read Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road and been similarly inspired. It made me smile, the chapter entitled ‘Why I Don’t Drive’ because like Gloria, I can drive but I’ve stopped, preferring public transport. And like Gloria, I don’t drive “because adventure starts the moment I leave my door”.

I remember my honeymoon to New Zealand. The two of us spent the whole time in a motorhome, speaking to no one, having miniature meals out of the miniature fridge and stacking everything back neatly so that it didn’t fall out of the cupboards when we were driving in the mountains. I remember the relief of speaking to the petrol-station attendants as we bought the infamous steak-and-cheese pies from the heated cabinets (try them). I wish with all my heart that we’d at least driven round in a car and stayed at motels – at least we’d have more people to speak to, and I’ve have had less time to ruminate on whether or not I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

I’m 50 next year (I know, right?!) and I’ve been having some ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve decided on a smorgasbord of experiences rather than a big single one, although I am tempted to return to Costa Rica. It’s just too beautiful not to return to…

Anyway, one of the things I’m really settled on is that I will walk. A lot. On my own. I love it, and I discovered that Woolf did too, walking in London, Cornwall, Sussex and Spain, believing that walking benefits mind, body and soul. On  a recent return trip to my beloved Isle of Wight coastal path, I felt my soul sing with every step. I can’t not go back there.

I am thinking about the Camino – the pilgrim’s routes that form a web of walks all over northern Europe to the final destination in northwestern Spain: Santiago di Compostela. I know it’s a well-worn route, but I might try the Portuguese coastal way. The last time I was in Portugal I was miserable, with a ‘friend’ who was bemoaning the loss of a boyfriend and taking it all out on me. I wrote a diary whilst there, detailing my longing to escape. It would be great to go back and reclaim that country for myself.

I’m also thinking of the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruises. I know it sounds like I’m already applying for my Saga reward card but ever since I visited Norway I’ve been keen to go back and see that coastline properly. The Hurtigruten was once a postal ferry that plied along the Norwegian coast – now it does it mainly for pleasure-seekers, it seems, but I’d love to try it. It’s on the list.

And finally, and yet another inspiration I got from a book I’ve recently read (Wildwood by Roger Deakin) I’m thinking about trying Peddar’s Way in Norfolk. I’d never even heard of it until I read the book. And I’d never heard of Roger Deakin until I’d read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And so, my circle of book-based life-enhancement goes on.

And so does my relentless search for another coastline to love. At some point I have to revisit the glorious Wild Atlantic Way, because for me, no other coastline has quite had that magic. Dahab in Egypt has come close, but nothing speaks to me like that west coast of Ireland. I’ve driven it, yes, but I’d like to feel my hiking boots on the ground and the inevitable drizzle and sunshine (often at the same time) on my face.

And then there’s the Guinness and Tia Maria to try again in that bar in Allihies…

 

 

Pura Vida!

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

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

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Red-eyed Tree Frog seen at Finca Verde Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

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Surfer on wave watch at Playa Langosta, Tamarindo

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

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

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View from my hotel balcony over Tamarindo

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

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

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

And that is exactly what did happen.

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

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

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

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

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The hot springs near Rincon De La Vieja

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

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

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The view of Playa Avellanas from Lola’s Restaurant

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

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

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Holding a young sloth at Finca Verde Lodge

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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