A Walk of One’s Own

On Monday I’m going to be making my way from London over to the Isle of Wight for the very first time. My plan is to walk the entire 69-mile coastline over the course of four days, and blog about it as I go. I will, of course, be doing it solo.

St Catherine's Oratory (photo via www.isleofwight.co.uk)

St Catherine’s Oratory (photo via http://www.isleofwight.co.uk)

If you’re not from the UK, then let me tell you a little bit about the island. It’s in the English Channel, just off the south coast of England. It’s famous for being Queen Victoria’s holiday destination of choice, the world’s oldest sailing regatta, a couple of great music festivals and having dinosaur fossils in its limestone rocks. To get to it you take a ferry or hovercraft from Portsmouth, on the mainland.

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Round the Island yacht race (photo via http://www.isleofwight.co.uk)

After a number of years in which I’ve perfected the art of going on holidays on my own abroad, this summer I felt the urge to explore my own country. I’d been reading Robert Macfarlane‘s wonderful books about walking and knew I wanted a walking holiday. I met someone from the Isle of Wight who extolled its virtues to me and thought a coastal circuit would suit me fine. Then I found Wight Walks, who organise everything for you, including accommodation and transporting your bags between venues.

Yarmouth Pier (© Jason Swain)

Yarmouth Pier (© Jason Swain)

Day one is going to see me travel over to the island and stay for a night in Ryde. Day two will be the start of the walk, from Ryde to Shalfleet, 16.7 miles. Day three will take me from Shalfleet to Freshwater (16.6 miles); day four – Freshwater to Ventnor (17.6 miles), and day five, Ventnor back to Ryde – 19 miles.

Ouch. Here’s the full itinerary.

I’ve already blogged about my new-found love for walking, having been inspired by Cheryl Strayed and Robert Macfarlane’s books. I started walking to and from work in the centre of London (about 4.5 miles each way) last summer and now I’m addicted to it.

Freshwater Bay (© Jason Swain)

Freshwater Bay (© Jason Swain)

I build in a walk into town on most days, weather permitting, and have started choosing my wardrobe based on suitability for walking. Each walk gives me time to listen to the radio, contemplate things and even dream up new ideas for blogging. They also give me the chance to see some wildlife, as it involves a large canal section, where Canadian geese, ducks and moorhens roam. I need a bit of that in the city.

© Jason Swain

© Jason Swain

So I’m hoping to be able to Tweet, Instagram and Periscope a bit on the island, even though I’m told the phone signal is a bit dodgy. If it is, it is. I’ll do an update each evening when I find wifi. I’ll be using the hashtag #wightwalk.

Looking forward to having you join me on my journey.

Headon Warren (© Jason Swain)

Headon Warren (© Jason Swain)

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Flying Solo – a further comment

Today I was asked to provide comments for a Huffington Post article on solo female travel, in response to this scaremongering one on the Mail Online. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2960567/Most-dangerous-holiday-destinations-women.html

They didn’t print everything I said, so here’s the full thing:

The only times I’ve particularly felt unsafe while travelling were when I had let my preconceptions about a country fuel my fears. I have been holidaying alone for nearly five years and taking those first steps into a Thai town, a Turkish city or an Egyptian village are incredibly scary. I once allowed myself to believe I’d been drugged in a shop in Dahab by a shopkeeper, when in fact it was probably a panic attack brought on by fear. Similarly in Kenya, a scary group of men on motorbikes I kept seeing when out running on my own turned out to be a taxi rank. Of course, women are viewed differently in these countries, and it would be stupid to not be on your guard, but as someone who is fully aware of the potential hazards, I walk in confidently and try to see things as they really are.

I always watch men on holiday with a sense of envy. They are completely free to roam wherever they like, without much fear for their safety. There is a reason why some of the best travel books are written by men and not by women, and I long to be as free as those guys riding round Thailand on motorbikes without a care in the world. But I know my situation isn’t the same as theirs and have to adapt my experiences to fit.

My advice to any solo woman traveller would be, be aware of the potential hazards by reading up before you go. Beware of scaremongering features like this one in the Mail, and opt for sensibly written guides from Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Yes, it’s wrong to have to restrict your behaviour or clothing options in certain settings, but it does make sense. I do agree with this article in terms of trusting your gut instinct when it comes to certain situations. If something or someone is making you feel uncomfortable, get out of there, even if you discover later that your fears were unfounded.

I think it’s a shame that many women will read an article like this, which is typical Mail scaremongering, and be put off from travelling alone and discovering the world. Many people would prefer women to stay in a domestic setting and not discover the joy of solo travel. Yes, you should know the hazards and look at other intelligent travellers’ tips on staying safe, but never let it stop you from taking those steps into the wider world.

(Edited comments appear here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/02/23/women-solo-travel-saftey_n_6734512.html?1424697457)

 

Flying Solo

Well here I am, back to the central concept of my blog – literally flying solo from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, at the end of another glorious holiday on my own.

I’ve got the routine down pat. From that first holiday in Thailand (see my very first post – Consciously Uncoupling) where I spent days feeling sorry for myself in an exotic location, I’m now a veteran of the experience, knowing how to play it, how to pace my time and how to react when people question me about it.

Today I got questioned by one of the hotel’s numerous managers: he had thought that by reading my book alone on the beach that I didn’t like the hotel. Nothing could be further from the truth – feeling relaxed enough to do that on day one is pretty much my personal seal of approval. Why is reading alone seen as such an antisocial activity? This came on the heels of another hotel employee asking me why I was reading rather than relaxing – to him the two were very definitely exclusive – and later I was told that all the staff thought I was a doctor because I was wearing glasses and reading books. Wherever I go I am known as the ‘lady with book’ – people seem genuinely surprised that I read.

But like many solo travellers, the book is my travelling companion, my security blanket, my go-to item when I’m plunged into an unfamiliar setting. I can quickly immerse myself in a fictional (or non-fictional) world when I’m surrounded by couples and families on the beach, at dinner in a crowded restaurant, in a coffee shop filled with Egyptians or Turks. When a book is with me, I have a bubble to escape into, and I zone out all of the noise and activity around me. It’s so much more than ‘just a thing to do with your hands’ when you’re on your own.

I tend to punctuate my time on holiday by booking a few trips – this time to the White Canyon in Nuweiba (where you have to haul yourself out by a rope!) and a submarine trip to see fish on Napoleon Reef (I don’t swim). This is a great way of meeting new people, especially if you’re thrust into potentially life-threatening situations, as in the canyon.

What thrilled me on that trip was seeing an Egyptian couple bring along their one-year-old (beautiful Maryam) and entrust her safety completely to the guide. For most of the walk/climb through the canyon, he held her on his shoulders and she slept with her head on his. He even took her with him when he climbed out of the canyon using only the rope. The parents were mildly anxious, but not freaking out, as I would have been. It made me think about challenges and scary things, and how they’re not so scary when you get up close to them. That guide held out his strong dark hand every time I exclaimed, “I’m scared!”, and pulled me up over a boulder or tricky climb. I kept thinking, ‘well if he can do it with a baby on his head…’

The first time I came to Egypt I was scared. Of the people, my perception of the culture and religion, the language. Everything. It didn’t help that a Dahab shopkeeper spiked my tea when I went into his shop – I literally ran out and off to the hotel shuttle bus, vowing never to go back again. But I’ve gone back again and I’ve laughed at how normal it all seems because I’m not seeing it all through the veil of scariness. I walked past his shop, at night this time, and stopped to talk to other shopkeepers who’ve simply sold me something without hassling me (although the non-hassling ones are few and far between – I make a point of going into their shops. By the way, I don’t think that shopkeeper intended to drug me – the tea had a mildly fuzzing effect that was probably intended to relax me into more shopping. He looked genuinely surprised when I ran out.)

That first time in Dahab town, I swathed myself in a long dress and scarf around my head, so as not to ‘stand out’. No wonder I was hassled. This time I noticed Egyptian girls (I didn’t see many women over 30) running around in jeans and jackets, hair streaming free. However, the best moment was spotting a convoy of Muslim girls on quad bikes heading into the desert, in full headgear. You go, girls.

From the Bedouin guy next to the hotel selling me Turkish coffee and giving me some bread to help him feed the birds in his tent, to the guy selling me boat trips, it didn’t take long before I stopped thinking these people were just after me for something. Of course, they’re selling their wares, but both guys took time to chat to me, to tell me about their lives and make me feel comfortable. Add to that the Egyptian couple in the canyon, who left an open invitation to their place in Cairo and emailed pictures they took of me wobbling and panicking up the canyon wall.

In many ways, the canyon trip represents the challenge of holidaying alone for me – I knew it would be beautiful-but-frightening. That I might fear for my life as I made my way through and wish I wasn’t there at all, but then smile heartily over a Sakara beer that night and feel my soul enriched by the experience. I would want to do it again. And I do.

This brings me on to an experience I call The Rollercoaster. Each and every holiday alone does not go to plan. I never end up doing what I think I’m going to be doing on any given day and I’ve learned to ride the rollercoaster, wherever it may take me. Four years ago, a terrible New Year’s Eve in Thailand led to a wonderful New Year’s Day, where I rode around Koh Samui on a bike, in between two Thai women who wanted to show me around. We eventually we went clubbing and had the time of our lives. I resolved then that NY Day is the new NY Eve.

The trick with The Rollercoaster is not to give up when things feel a bit grim. On your own at dinner one night? There’ll be a party invite the next, or an unexpected meeting with an old friend in a bar in town … or new one. Don’t expect anything and everything will happen in its own good time. It always does, and it’s just done it again. I love it. It’s life.

The other trick is not to rely on anyone else for your plans. I once met two Australian sisters in Phuket and they promised hand on heart to come back after their trip to Phi Phi to spend the last day of my holiday with me. I looked forward to it so much and they never showed. But I did end up meeting an Indian air stewardess in a bar and we went clubbing together, so all was not lost.

The Rollercoaster.

Part of me just wants to get on the waltzers, or even just the children’s spinning teacups, and have a nice ride round with no thrills or spills. But then the lure of the unseen horizons over the top of the rollercoaster’s peaks and loops are too much for me and I have to send myself there.

It’s always, always worth it.

(From Sharm El Sheikh airport, which really does need to get wifi)