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…

 

 

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Venice, Vidi, Vici

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.

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The gold sofa in the reception at AD Place Hotel

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.

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The view from Ponte Dell’Accademia. Staggeringly beautiful.

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:

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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.

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A Dorsoduro canal-way.

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.

But at least I feel alive in your presence.

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Puncinello by Tiepolo in Ca’Rezzonico palazzo on the Grand Canal

 

Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It

I wrote this essay for the tenth anniversary of Eat Pray Love – author Elizabeth Gilbert put a call out for people to say how her bestselling book had changed their lives. Their stories will be published in book form, entitled Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It in April this yearMy story didn’t make the final cut so I thought I’d publish it myself here.

Dedicated to Katherine.

I was given a copy of Eat Pray Love at the airport by an American girlfriend. A girlfriend who knew I was struggling with my marriage and no doubt hoped it would make a difference to my life.

Initially I was wary of the Julia Roberts quote on the front cover, telling me she’d given a copy to all her girlfriends. ‘Ugh – self help,’ I thought. As I browsed the pages in the airport bookshop I saw a few mentions of ‘god’ that made me roll my eyes a bit. ‘American navel-gazing ‘hallelujah’ twaddle’, I thought.

But I started reading the book on the plane to San Francisco. And it spoke to me. Who was this woman, singing my life with her words?

The marriage that on paper, seemed perfect. Nice guy, nice house, nice life. And yet it wasn’t enough. It was making her miserable. The desperate nights on the bathroom floor.

Although I hadn’t gone as far as a bathroom-floor experience, I was feeling increasingly desperate. The year before this holiday I’d had an epiphany on a work trip. I’d just turned forty and had an encounter with a man at a party that had reset the way I saw myself. He looked at me and described what he saw – “half woman, half girl,” he said. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me. Including my husband.

I was in the midst of a boom-time, career-wise. I was spending most of my time in the office or in the pub after work, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it all out of my system before I went home.

The work trip was to Cannes Film Festival and I‘d been invited to a party hosted by one of the big studios as I’d been working with them on a huge project. And boy, was I ready to party.

I danced energetically and happily with one guy for most of the night. He was from my part of the UK and we got on well. It felt so good to be with someone I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.

At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and after an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool, the others drifted back to their rooms. I was still high on the experience of the party and couldn’t face going to bed. I went to my dance partner’s room.

At this point, you’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. This guy lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. Nothing more than a brief kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so.

I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.

The plane I was on a year later was heading to San Francisco, where Cannes guy lived. It wasn’t the whole reason I was going, but it was a strong part of it. He actually chickened out of meeting me by telling me he was in the UK when he wasn’t, but that trip sealed my fate.

I’d read Eat Pray Love on the flight out to SF and spent the week with my friends thinking about my situation. I remember a moment, sitting on a lakeside somewhere in Sonoma, watching my friends swimming then laying my head on my drawn-up knees. I needed to be free and I needed time to think about how to do it.

The answer came a few months later in the form of a promotion, and with it, financial independence. I walked home from a shopping trip one day (I did these frequently on my own – more escaping from home life) and told my husband as soon as I got in. I wanted a divorce.

And oh, the sadness of that moment. He was one of my best friends. We’d shared adventure holidays together, built homes together, stood next to each other when parents had died, when jobs were lost.

Crucially, though, we hadn’t held each other when the bad things happened. One of the main reasons why I felt the way I did was because he simply hadn’t been there to support me when the chips were down. He’d pretended to be ill when my mum died, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He’d ignored the fact that I was in London during the July bombings. He’d got angry when I nearly drowned in a river.

He just didn’t care.

He didn’t love me enough.

He was a good friend, but not a great one.

But now I could break free, and in doing so let him go and find a new life with someone he might be able to love properly. Maybe he’d even start a family, as I’d been resolutely childfree-by-choice.

With Elizabeth Gilbert in mind, my first action, post-separation, was to book a holiday to Thailand on my own. I’d thought about Bali but I was keen not to become a Gilbert Groupie and just shamelessly copy her journey. I pictured Bali filled with women-of-a-certain age, all roaming around yearningly looking for a Felipe of their own.

As it turned out, I wasn’t looking for a Felipe – I needed freedom, not a new, permanent man in my life. In Phuket, I found Dougie, a young Aussie Thai boxer, who carried me round the island on the back of his moped, my hair streaming behind me as I grinned with joy. Like Cannes guy, he’d approached me with candour about my older-woman attractiveness, saying I was ‘cool’ and much more chilled than the younger women he was used to. He’d had testicular cancer some years before and was just trying to enjoy life. We enjoyed it together for a short time.

In a way, that first Thai holiday was my ‘bathroom floor’ moment. I cried myself stupid in my hotel room for three days before getting out and meeting Dougie. I’d been surrounded by couples in a lovely hotel and found myself weeping into my dinner, night after night. Only the good offices of friends made me wash my face, put on a nice dress, and walk into the nearby town to see what was going on. I was so afraid, but there was nothing to fear. Dougie and his friends were there.

But that holiday wasn’t enough for me. It had been a test to see if I could holiday alone, so I immediately booked a return visit to Thailand when I returned home. Next stop, Koh Samui.

My longed-for freedom came as I found myself befriending two Thai women and whizzing round on their motorbike, one in front of me, the other behind me. ‘Farang sandwich’, I quipped, ‘farang’ meaning ‘white European’. At a club in Chaweng, I met Andrew, another Aussie, who was still partying on New Year’s Day, after a big New Year’s Eve on Koh Pha Ngan. We danced, we laughed, he marveled that I was in my forties. I loved it. I loved him.

Those Thai holidays became the first of many, and now I am a seasoned solo traveller. I’ve even started a blog about ‘flying solo’ as it’s something that’s come to define my new-found independent status. In many ways, Dahab in Egypt is my Bali, where I have friends I return to frequently. It is my happy place.

At home, I can go for a drink or have dinner on my own and it feels like the most empowering thing a woman can ever do. I haven’t found my Felipe, but in a sense I don’t want to right now. The end of my journey hasn’t happened yet and I can’t wait to find out who’s waiting for me.

Eat Pray Love made me do all of this.