I’ve been thinking about comfort zones. On Saturday evening, I walked up a heather-covered fell with no one else around, in wind and rain, at the end of the day when I really should’ve been heading back. I even tried to go further but my gut was screaming to go back. I found out later that I was heading into a notoriously boggy area so my gut had been right (as always).
Today I tried to cross that bog and found myself panicking (and crying) in the middle of it, believing myself to be stuck. There were fighter planes from the local RAF base flying at eye level with me as I stood in the middle of the bog. It was a most surreal moment. I got out, but I’d crossed my comfort zone again.
I know when I’ve stepped outside it – I start to breathe quickly and shallowly, I feel like crying, and then I start talking and singing to myself (and to sheep) to keep my spirits up.
I kept thinking about 26-year-old Alex Staniforth from Chester, the fell runner I cheered into town on Friday night, as he completed his Bob Graham Round in 27 hours – 42 fells, 66 miles, 26,000ft – unaided. I kept wondering how hard it must have been to have been on top of a fell at 2am, on your own, with only a head torch to help you.
I later found out that he has already attempted Everest twice, aged 18 and 19, stopped only by the Nepal earthquake and the avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas. The holder of the record for the ‘double Bob Graham’ – 84 fells in 45 hours – is a woman my age: Nicky Spinks.
The thing about the Lakes is that you keep meeting inspiring people. It’s where people congregate, bright-eyed, to share tales of fells they’ve traversed and people they’ve met. I realised that I’d met legendary fell runner Joss Naylor when I was hiking here last. I had no idea who he was at the time but he had an aura around him. He was the first to congratulate Alex on his Bob Graham, of course.
And then there was Lisa Bergerud in my last blog post, with her incredible story. I remembered what she’d told me about deep breathing when I started to panic today. Like many people here, Lisa has learned to keep pushing against her comfort zone, and in my small way, so am I.
And the soggy dog? I met a man and his very wet but happy labradoodle, heading towards the fell I’d been up on Saturday evening. I was so glad to see them both. He called his dog “Soggy Doggy” when I stooped to pet him.
“That’s the name of today’s story,” I thought, and continued on my way, stopping only to chat to two Scottish guys who were off to wild camp in the rain, grinning.
This truly feels like the end of an era. The era of essentially going to the same beach around the world, time and time again. The beach towns even look the same: Dahab, Agonda, Tamarindo – to name but three of my regular destinations.
This is the end of an era that lasted eight years, of losing myself in in far-flung beach towns, sometimes taking days to leave the place I’m staying in. Often crying hard, sometimes behind sunglasses on the beach, I now think of it as a form of self harm. Why not take myself to an incredibly romantic location to ‘really’ feel lonely and out of place?
Meanwhile I’ve been learning that wherever the sun goes down over the sea, there are always good people trying to make their way in the world. They just have different resources to hand and a different way of looking at things. But they all love animals, children, the sea, the sun and their friends and families.
I have journeyed back to the places I’ve loved twice, sometimes more times, happy to find a familiar place, a familiar face. I’ve said I’ve done it because I’ve wanted to really get to know a place, but it’s usually because the first time in a place I’ve spent days on my own feeling scared to go out. When I finally do, I kick myself for not getting out earlier and immediately plan to return. I want to experience a place properly from the start. And it’s always worked beautifully the second time round.
This is the first holiday I’ve had where I haven’t cried. Not once. Last year I sobbed all the way to the airport – the driver said, “madam, please control yourself!” This is also the first holiday where I haven’t drunk a lot. I’ve gone to bed early and risen early to go down to the beach to have coffee, say hello to the dogs and walk on the beach. Then I do a yoga class and have breakfast. I read books and eat ice cream. I buy beads and beach dresses and swim in the sea. Because I can now, having learned to swim this year.
I sit at the bar more for the company than the anaesthetic of booze. I find it don’t need it to chat to people any more. Even last year’s White Horse, with whom I completely identified as she roamed the beach and bars every day, has disappeared.
In 2018 I did an extraordinary thing. I pushed myself so far outside my comfort zone I was in a galaxy far far away. I went to Kyrgyzstan, with my hiking group. A trip that involved trekking, horse riding, camping, bitter cold, nomads, ‘natural toilets’. I knew there would be ups and downs (literally and spiritually) but didn’t know they’d be quite so up and quite so down. I had had a hip problem that flared up even before we’d started, on a walk round a market. I convinced myself I’d have to go home. I got my period on the first night in a yurt – two weeks’ early – no one tells you that altitude can do that. I cried and was convinced I was turning back.
My companions urged me to maybe get to the next stage before deciding, and little by little they brought me along with them.
Reader, I did it. I rode horses with nomads and climbed to 4,000 metres in the most epic landscape I’ve ever seen. I ate yak stew and drank vodka with Kyrgyz horsemen who laughed at our toilet humour. I am forever grateful to that group of people, and to Gary from Go London who organised that trip and knew I could do it. The ‘well done’ hug he gave me at the end of the trip made me cry, but this time from pride, relief, and joy.
Something switched in my brain on that trip and I’m not the same person I was at the start of 2018. I am discovering my boundaries and they are greater than I thought.
I am discovering the boundaries I need to put in place to ensure a happy and fulfilling personal and working life. I have seen a therapist who helped me beyond all expectation. She knew that I was carrying around a sadness deep inside of me that needed to be released and comforted. And so it is. She is. The ten-year-old little girl who lost her daddy and has been walking the earth ever since, looking for him. That girl lives with me, now.
I haven’t blogged this year because all of this was in progress. I couldn’t think of what to write down because it was in flux in my head and I couldn’t form a coherent set of ideas.
But do you know what? I think I’m ready to write my book.
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…
Last weekend I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years – go back to Venice. It was twenty-five years ago that I was first bewitched by the place, swearing I’d only go back for a romantic break with someone ‘special’. That person didn’t rock up, so goddammit, I went there by myself. I booked a cool, boutique hotel, planned my four days out using Lonely Planet, and re-entered the fantasy world of the city.
What I’d forgotten is that it’s like entering a restaurant on a perma-Valentine’s Night. The place is festooned with love and lovers, now taking ‘kelfies’ – my made-up word for kissing selfies. In front of every building, work of art or bario serving spritz … there they were. I didn’t really notice it last time I was there – I was too entranced with the place. Also, I was young enough to think I’d have my time there to do that. Lol.
So really, what I was doing was the Iron Woman Challenge of all solo holidays. Going to the most romantic place in the world as a middle-aged woman on her own. “I can totally do this!” I thought. And I did. Kind of.
I managed to dodge the rose-thrusting touts around St Mark’s square, and chuckled when I heard an American woman behind me cry, “Do I LOOK like I’m with anyone??” That’s the thing when you’re a female solo traveller. You suddenly realise that you’re surrounded by them. We’re quite well-camouflaged, actually. No one suspects the woman blending into the surroundings looking like she’s just waiting for someone, but we see each other very clearly, emerging from the scene. And there are more and more of us every year, it seems.
Even at the airport I’d gone to the champagne bar and made eye-contact with at least three other women doing the same thing as me: treating ourselves to a lovely glass before jetting off, because we could. I spoke to one of them and she was going to Berlin, but not before sneezing all over me and giving me a cold three days later. Thanks, love.
Anyway, on my first night I was full of the joy of being alone and free in the most beautiful city in the world. I’d planned a walk around San Marco, which would culminate in a spritz at a bar I’d been recommended. Of course, Venice being Venice, I couldn’t find it so I found an accommodating restaurant – the Rosa Rossa – who found me a table tucked away outside. I smiled at my good fortune and ordered a spritz.
Fifteen minutes passed and couples were starting to surround me. They appeared to be being served promptly so I reminded the waiter (he seemed to be the manager) that I’d been waiting for fifteen minutes. He broke out in what can only be described as operatic ritual humiliation of me in front of the other customers. Waving his arms around, he remonstrated with me, shouting that I’d only been waiting for five minutes and couldn’t I see that they were busy and now, you see? Here is the drink you’ve been waiting for. Prego, PREGO!
I died a little in my seat. I also sat there for about five minutes choking back tears. He came back out to take my food order and instead of doing what I should have done – stormed off – I told him I’d order if he promised not to shout at me. It was the worst meal I’ve ever had in Italy, for so many reasons. The couple next to me looked shocked.
Thinking about it, what annoyed him about me was probably that I was the least important of his customers, but the one that ventured to complain. Had I been in a couple, I’m sure I’d have been served immediately. Had I been a girl of twenty-four, as I had been the last time I visited, I think he’d have been all over me. But me, just sitting there, at forty-nine, with no man or baby to make ‘sense’ of me, just got his goat.
I placed a review on TripAdvisor as soon as I left the restaurant. His reply says it all:
So there it is, for all to see. It was definitely fifteen minutes because I’d checked in on Swarm as I arrived and looked back at the time. Maybe those minutes fly by when you’re in a couple, but I’m betting a manly cough towards the waiter would’ve got him running.
If you’d like to see the restaurant in question, and the review, now read by over 200 people, then here’s the link. Note that all the subsequent rave reviews are from couples and groups. Sadly my review didn’t link to my usual profile, where I’ve posted many rave reviews of hotels and restaurants. I’m pretty sure this is the only bad one.
It happened again on my return boat trip to the airport. The boat driver shouted at me for trying to pay at the wrong moment. I teared up again. So this is what happened in twenty-five years – I’ve gone from being catcalled to shouted at. I’m in the way.
Don’t get me wrong, in between those moments, the weekend was a dream of renaissance art and architecture, of La Traviata in a palazzo on the Grand Canal and Vivaldi in a frescoed church. It was cicheti and wine in a tucked-away street ‘bario’ and a pistachio gelato next to a fantasy-scene of sparkling waterways and winking gondoliers. It was everything I remembered the first time, but much more. And I’m going to go back.
And when I go back I’m going to remember the conversation I had with a woman who was visiting the city with her husband. He’d gone off to do something else and she’d taken a seat next to me in a bar, and was taking a breather with a beer and a cigarette. I told her about my solo-travelling thing and why I’d got into that and she suddenly blurted out that she too was wishing she was on her own, and that she was thinking about leaving her husband. She probably only told me because I was a complete stranger, but I did start to wonder about all the kelfie-taking love-puppies I’d seen in gondolas. How many of them were wishing they were with someone, or no one, else?
I remembered feeling like that on numerous holidays, even my honeymoon, and felt glad that at least I was free of that. Free of scanning every place I went for the guy I was ‘supposed’ to be with. It’s exhausting, and at the very least, unfair on the person you are actually with.
So Venice. I came, I saw, I conquered. I am so in love with you that I don’t think I can leave it at that. You can make me feel elated and transcendent, but you can also make me feel like dirt on your shoe.
Last night consisted of a reunion of sorts – I met up with some of the friends I’ve made during my numerous visits to Dahab. Most or all of them have worked in the restaurants along the main seafront but now one of them has a new job in a new place – Sea House – so we thought we’d meet there.
Dahab’s restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.
As I walked alone from the hotel in Mashraba (south of the bridge) to Masbat (north of the bridge), through the brightly lit shops hung with clothes, lamps, and bits of Egyptian ephemera, I laughed to myself about the first time I came here, in the daytime. I’d got the shuttle bus from a hotel outside town and was scared to death of the place with all its hustle and bustle. Mainly hustle.
Cats playing outside Why Not – a great little shop in Dahab.
Now, I feel no fear whatsoever. In fact, it’s almost gone in reverse. This time, I’d been worried about getting into town via an alley behind the hotel. It snakes behind some housing and a café and brings you out on El Mashraba Street. I was terrified of walking it in the day, never mind in the nighttime but when I asked around everyone seemed astonished that I would be scared of it. “It’s completely safe!” they cried. So I tried it. And it was.
This happened on my last visit when I pulled back from a moonlit walk towards the lagoon because it was dark, and ‘you never know who’s out there’. Again, my friend couldn’t believe I was scared. Here, walking around in the dark is just what you do. It’s when it’s coolest, of course.
So last night I strode out in the full knowledge that I would be completely safe. And no matter what hassle I got, it would always be about trying to tempt me to buy something, not an assault on my physical being. I mused on the fact that at home, I get unwanted catcalling on a regular basis – on average every half an hour on a walk along the canal from my house – and recently, I was flashed at. I suppose I’d thought the hassle I got here would be the same, but I’ve realised it’s retail-related hassle – the best line I’ve had so far is, “Come and look! It’s cheaper than Asda!”
We were joined in the restaurant by one of the guys and his one-year-old son – his wife has just had a baby and he seemed stunned with happiness, repeating “al-hamdulillah” (‘thanks to god’) whenever he was congratulated. Toddler Abdullah was taking it all in his (wobbly) stride and I was incredibly touched to see a group of men compete for Abdullah’s attention, wanting to pick him up, kiss and cuddle him and take him for a walk round the restaurant. It transpired that a few of the guys had stepped in to look after Abdullah while his parents were otherwise occupied – it’s a real ‘framily’ support network down here, especially as nearly everyone is away from home and family.
Today I went back to the glorious lagoon beach, a long strand of golden sand that I fell in love with at first sight. I bagged a day pass to use the Swiss Inn Resort (£10) which gives you use of a sunbed, towel, and all the facilities in this lovely hotel. If you want a good all-inclusive, I recommend it, and the Jaz Dahabeya next door. Both good quality, family friendly hotels with the best spots on the lagoon and good food.
I met Bob – one of the ‘framily’ who works on the beach – he calls me ‘sister’ now. He looked at my whiter than white skin and told me I should use his failsafe way of getting a tan. Going into the sea, not showering the salt water off, dry out for 15 minutes, then repeat. I fear my Welsh skin would object so I stuck with Factor 50.
I spent the day reading the first book in Elena Ferrante’s quartet, My Brilliant Friend. I was initially put off by the cover but I am riveted by the Neapolitan saga.
I must be the only person in Dahab who can’t swim so I gingerly walked into the azure water for a quick dip a few times. I generally just sit on the sand (it’s in a shallow bit) and watch the fish swim by me. I get so much pleasure out of this simple act. I’m scared of the water but I’ve managed to find a way to enjoy it that suits me.
The glorious Lagoon Beach.
A slow peeling away of ingrained fears has characterised my visits here, from being too scared to walk in the dark to too scared to go in the water, but I am hopeful that the latter, like the former, will slowly fade away.
If ever there was a place to learn to swim, I believe that this is it. In my own piece of paradise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
One of the main topics on my ‘must blog about’ list for Because I Can has been the concept of drinking alone. Not just sitting on my sofa watching TV with a nice chilled Prosecco or Picpoul De Pinet in the fridge – actual Going Out To A Bar On My Own.
I’ve been doing it for around four years now, on and off, so it’s become part of normal life for me, but it still amazes some people when I mention it and I find myself explaining what I do, how I do it, and reliving all those moments in bars that happened on my way to normalising this activity for myself.
It all began back in the Camino bar near King’s Cross. I’d already separated from my husband and was hitting the after-work social scene quite hard. On the odd occasion, all of my friends were busy doing other things and I became frustrated that my social life depended on other people being available. Why did it have to be like that, I thought? If I want to go out, I should be able to go out, just as guys do, with a newspaper and a pint at the end of the bar. But as we all know, if a woman does that, an assumption is made that she is touting for business, and I don’t mean hoping a recruitment consultant will buy her a drink.
I became determined to try it out so one night I took a copy of the Evening Standard to Camino – a very busy after-work bar filled with ‘young professionals’. I was maybe pushing the age range up a bit just by walking in. I went to the bar, ordered a glass of wine, took a perch on a bar stool and studied my newspaper.
Nothing happened. No one stared, no one propositioned me, no one cared.
It felt amazingly liberating.
So I did it again. I found that sitting on a bar stool right next to the bar offered me the most ‘invisibility’. People assumed I was just waiting for someone, or at least just there temporarily. I took work with me, or read a book, and barely looked up at the people around me – it was just so easy to blend in. I enjoyed the look on guys’ faces as they saw me finish my drink and leave the bar. “Oh my god, she was actually on her own, not waiting for someone!” Ha.
Every now and again someone would notice me. Usually a woman. In a pub in Belsize Park one stood next to me at the bar and asked, “Are you here, alone?” Yes, I replied. She told me how much she admired me for it and promptly ordered me a glass of wine. I watched her go back to sit with her partner and they both looked at me admiringly as I grinned back. I loved it.
I haven’t always been looked at admiringly by women for doing this. I noticed that if I went to bars alone on holiday, as I did in Thailand on my first solo jaunt, I’d see a (usually British) couple in a corner, the woman glowering at me and the man looking impressed. I don’t know why these women felt annoyed by me being on my own but I have experienced it a few times.
Only this year in Turkey, an older British woman, with her more-impressed husband, told me she thought people who holidayed alone were “sad” and she “felt sorry for them.” As I left them sitting smugly on the beach to go shopping, I thought, “I’d rather be heading to a bar in Bodrum on my own than sitting next to you on a beach, love.”
Now it’s just part of my normal routine to take myself off to a pub now and again. After a hard day of meetings, I like nothing better than grabbing a copy of Grazia and ordering myself a glass of wine in my local pub. The bar staff know me and every now and again someone I know joins me. If they don’t, no biggie. I don’t need a wing person. I know lots of people who can’t go anywhere without one – going running, to a bar, shopping, on holiday – all of these things I do on my own. It’s uniquely liberating. Why wait for someone else to validate your activities when you can own them yourself?
Whilst going to a bar alone might shock some people, what about going to a club? I’ve done it, lots of times. In a busy environment like a club, no one knows you’re on your own. You may have become separated from your friends, you may have just arrived and are looking for them. No one notices. It’s easy to slip in, grab a drink, go for a dance and slip out again. Oh the joy.
I started doing it because my friends tended to end nights out earlier than I wanted to end them. We’d go out for a drink or a meal, and I’d be back in my flat at 9.30pm/10pm itching to carry the night on. I got so frustrated by it one night that I just thought, ‘fck it’ – I’m doing it. What would a guy do? He’d just go out and see who was there. So I did. About half the time I’ve done it, I’ve bumped into people I know. When I haven’t, I’ve survived it. Loved it, even. People are so caught up in their own bubbles that no one notices me: at the bar, on the dance floor, moving between rooms. I’m just a woman in a club, albeit older than the average. Do I care about that? No. And seemingly no one else does.
I haven’t done my club routine in a while because once I’d done it a few times I’d largely got it out of my system. It’s no longer a case of me feeling like I’m missing out on something when the evening ends ‘early’, it’s more that I know what’s out there should I want to take it further, and I can if I want to. The night is never over if I don’t want it to be and it’s not forbidden territory – it’s there for the taking if I want it.
Last week I downloaded the Timehop app and it showed me what had happened in my life across all social media, for the last four years on this day. July 13 2010 – I booked my first holiday alone, in Thailand. It would turn out to be a momentous move. I and my then husband had agreed to split in May that year – I had initiated the split. We were sharing the same house, in separate rooms and I longed for freedom and to start leading my own life. I called Trailfinders and said ‘where can you take me?’ and they suggested 10 days in Phuket at a lovely resort. I booked it before I could think about it too much.
That was the first of six holidays I’ve been on, on my own. I am now a seasoned solo traveller, used to pacing my days to my own rhythm, not having to think about anyone else’s likes, dislikes, lack of energy or enthusiasm. I can see everything I want to see, when I want to, for as long as I want to. It’s gloriously liberating. Even a day out now, with friends, reminds me how much I end up compromising my own desires to fit in with theirs, and how much I long for that holiday space alone.
But it didn’t start like that.
Those first few days in Phuket, I was wretched. I seemed to be surrounded by happy couples, mooning over each other. Everywhere. That first night, I sobbed into my beautiful dinner and it heralded three days of the same pattern: bawling my eyes out throughout the night, dragging my piglet-eyed self to breakfast the next morning (thank god for shades) and recovering throughout the day on a sun-lounger at the end of a jetty with no one else on it.
My hotel view in Phuket, featuring my daily ‘recovery jetty’.
I had travelled far away from home deliberately, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hop back on a plane if I couldn’t stand it any more. It worked. A combination of supportive texts from friends urging me to get out of the hotel and explore (and one particularly good one who reviewed the hotel’s website and suggested a few trips and beauty treatments for me) made me do it. I sat at the hotel bar at Happy Hour, dressed nicely with a little makeup to hide the piglet eyes. I needed a couple of margheritas to give me the courage to leave the hotel and go into Patong – the ‘Brighton’ of Thailand.
I laughed when I tentatively stepped into a tuk-tuk only to find it took me about two minutes to get into town – I resolved to walk next time. Then I hit on a course of action that never fails to work abroad – find an Irish or Aussie pub and go sit at the bar with a drink. There was live music playing and I sat there, no one staring (except a British couple, which I’ve found is always the case), smiling into my Thai beer as I swung my legs on the bar stool. No one spoke to me that night but they did when I came back the next night, this time dressed in a more relaxed style in shorts and a vest. A crowd of Aussies took me under their wing. They couldn’t believe I was on my own and to be honest, neither could I. I was 43 and all my friends were holidaying with their partners.
Well my partner for that holiday was Dougie. Aussie, Thai boxer, black-haired, hot-as-hell Dougie. Riding around on the back of his hired motorbike, I felt a sense of that freedom that I envy guys for – when you see gangs of them, shirts off, riding around Thai islands without a care in the world. (Do you ever see gangs of girls doing that?) I still envy those guys. The world is made for them and they rejoice in it.
The world is seemingly not made for a forty-something woman who decides to leave her marriage (to a really nice guy), not to have children and go it alone. This blog is going to look at some of the unexpected things I’ve encountered since I’ve gone solo (they’re pretty much all unexpected), from men my age assuming I want to trap them into coupledom, to women buying me congratulatory drinks at the bar; from dining alone to finding myself sandwiched between two Thai women on a tiny bike on New Year’s Day. There’s a story to tell, and I want to share mine.