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…

 

 

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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

 

You Go, Girls

I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.

I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.

We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.

The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.

Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.

On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.

On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…

When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!

I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.

On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.

I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.

So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.

You go, girls.

You’ve Been Mangoed

As I write at the breakfast table, my iPhone is in the hands of a Bedouin who is skilled in taking phones apart, cleaning them, and putting them back together again. I’ve been told that he can get anything out of them. My phone has been mangoed.

I knew it was going to happen, too. I’d been carrying round a slightly leaky carton of mango juice in my bag for a day and knew it would spill on something. It spilled into a pocket of my bag, into which I unwittingly thrust my phone. Lovely. It carried on working as normal for a few hours so I thought I was in the clear, until it started saying NO SIM and suddenly trying to delete apps without me telling it to. I tried the old ‘bag of rice’ trick overnight to no avail.

I asked a range of people about my options – everyone mentioned the guy in Asilah Square with the magic touch so we went there last night. If he fixes it, I will be astonished. I’ll update you in my next post…

Poolside view, Acacia Hotel.

Poolside view, Acacia Hotel.

So this meant that I had a day without my iPhone and it turned out to be blessing. I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the pool of the Acacia Hotel, which is closer to the sea than the one I’m staying in (I checked out one of the rooms – pretty cool – around £30 per night). It has a relaxed poolside vibe with some interesting people busying themselves with dive trips, and a gorgeous restaurant overlooking the sea. I’ve just found a spot among the Bedouin cushions and stared at the Gulf across to Saudi Arabia.

The view from the restaurant over the Gulf of Aqaba across to Saudi Arabia.

The view from the restaurant over the Gulf of Aqaba across to Saudi Arabia.

As you do. I’ve also been joined by a variety of animals – Bufra’s daughter, Fatty, and a load of cats. NB. Don’t order the tuna salad unless you have a water gun by your side. They appear like something out of Dawn of the Dead.

Fatty is sleeping, with the trademark Bufra smile on her face.

Fatty is sleeping, with the trademark Bufra smile on her face.

You may have noticed that I’m a tad obsessed with the animals of Dahab, specifically the dogs. I have a theory that it is the Dogs of Dahab who rule the town, the humans are just incidental. There are street dogs, pet dogs, dogs that run gangs who literally hound each other around town, dogs that smile, dogs that can’t bear it if you stop stroking them, dogs covered in battle scars from a hard life, puppies that pull the hem of your dress. I heard that people often adopt dogs they like to save them from living on the streets. Sniff.

Yesterday I met my friend Sara’s little puppy and had a cuddle. I needed it after the iPhone fiasco. Puppy cuddles are the way forward, it seems. And a little retail therapy – I bought a couple of dresses from a guy I know who never hassles me and a bangle from quiet Mohamed Ghareb in the gorgeous Why Not shop (I ‘know’ him via Instagram). If only Egyptians learnt that the way to the tourist dollar is by NOT asking them to come into their shops. I make a point of only shopping in the quiet places.

After spending the day watching people prepare snorkelling and diving equipment at the Liquid Dive Centre next to the hotel I realised I must be the only person not doing it in Dahab. I can’t swim. I keep asking around for boat trips I can go on that don’t involve getting in the water. Why do I have to? What happened to just being on a boat? They seem to think it would be boring – not for me. The sea is never boring.

If I go on a dive boat I know I’ll be hassled to death, “Just wear a lifejacket! You will love it!” No. No I won’t. I will panic and you will have to save me. I’ll spend the whole time being a dickhead in front of everyone and having to explain myself. I almost feel bullied in these situations, to be honest. If one thing could improve my Dahab Days, it would be a simple boat trip into the Gulf. Just with my book and some drinks. Surely someone can provide that?

Until then, this is where you’ll find me…

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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)

 

The Kaleidoscope Effect

I knew I’d be writing a post about this topic at some point and I’ve been waiting quite some time to write it. I’ve just got back from a business-and-pleasure trip to the Middle East, and I knew I had preconceptions of what it might be like, and I knew they’d be challenged.

Over recent years, I have found that I have often carried a hotchpotch of preconceptions, misconceptions and travel-guide images of a place in my head when I go abroad. It takes days or even weeks for the reality to emerge and I call this the Kaleidoscope Effect. Like those childhood toys that contained tiny colourful beads, which you’d shake and see a clear pattern emerge through the eyepiece, I realise that my first impressions of a place are always way off and I have to shake them hard to discover what is really there.

I first noticed this effect when I went on a trip to Poland to visit a friend who was teaching English in Warsaw. I remember thinking, ‘bread queues and headscarves’ as I packed my bag, but how wrong I was. In the early 1990s the country was just emerging from its communist years and whilst the first thing I saw in the city was a load of soldiers parading around in the huge Soviet-style plaza, some of them with Lech Walesa moustaches, the thing that most struck me over the course of the trip was the youth, beauty and vitality of the place. Incredibly handsome, be-cheekboned university students were striding around everywhere in greatcoats, heading to cafes on the Nowi Świat (New World Street) to presumably talk about politics and philosophy (or is that another preconception?). I’d thought that Poland would be cold and uninviting, even in summer, so then spent a happy day sweltering in a chunky jumper at Chopin’s house in the countryside, listening to a world-renowned pianist being accompanied by a pondful of singing frogs.

Then came Kenya – possibly the biggest Kaleidoscope moment of all. I stayed in a coastal town near Mombasa called Watamu. Each day I went back and forth along the road between the house I was staying in and the bustling town. Sometimes I was driving, sometimes running. At first I saw poverty, dirt and latent danger in the shambas along the road. I’d run every day in the early hours up to a certain point and turn back. There’d be a gaggle of men on motorbikes under some trees, just staring at me. I had The Fear and could never get past them. That is, until, a Kenyan guy in the house explained that this was the local taxi rank. I felt ashamed that I had assumed they meant me harm.

One day, I ran past a shamba with a dog and it chased me. A woman, who was looking after her kids started laughing her head off at me, as I flailed around, the dog merely playing with me. Other villagers, and the taxi drivers, joined in and soon we were all laughing. How odd I must have looked among this nation of professional runners, white-skinned, red-haired and sweaty, not to mention wide-eyed from my encounter with the dog.

It wasn’t until a tourist remarked to me that he thought the level of poverty and lack of hygiene was so dreadful, and how awful it must be to live there, that I found myself violently disagreeing with him (inside my head). I had started to see smiling faces, happy babies, cleanly swept shambas, well-fed goats and laid-back taxi drivers. I’d said ‘jambo’ (hello) every morning to the group of tall Maasai living in a shamba outside the house – they were working as security guards at the local hotels and sending home money to their families in the Mara. I’d got to know the Kenyans in the house where I was staying, who had never been to Tsavo (the park nearest to them which cost too much for them to enter) and crowded round to see the pictures of animals on my camera, the youngest woman cuddling up to me, smiling.

And oh, that trip to Tsavo. We’d been warned of the Somali terrorist threat, which was very real, and were forced to drive there in a tourist convoy for safety. Before long the safari guys had left us behind but what remained were streams of kids going to school and adults going to work, smiling and shouting ‘jambo!’ as we passed. By the time we arrived at the gates of Tsavo my face was stuck in a smiling rictus and the effect of all that happiness stayed with me for weeks afterwards. It was better than the equatorial sunshine (which incidentally burnt me to a crisp when I was in the shade by the pool not wearing any sun factor).

And so to the United Arab Emirates. As a self-identified feminist I knew I was going to have some opinions about it. I already holiday in countries with Muslim populations – Egypt and Turkey are favourites – but in a sense, these tourist destinations don’t count because the locals are used to foreigners turning up and ignoring their cultural ‘rules’. But I enjoy respecting local culture so have already built up a bank of appropriate clothing and knowledge about what is considered respectful behaviour. I’d had encounters I didn’t enjoy (a man spiking my tea in a shop in Dahab, for instance, or seeing man in shorts and t-shirt walking next to his fully covered wife in the blazing Turkish heat) but have largely been left alone – Bodrum in Turkey is particularly liberal because it has a large gay population.

But I knew that in the UAE I was going to encounter a different level of all of this. Not a tourist destination, a dry state (and not just in a desert way), Sharjah operates under Sharia law with particular restrictions on clothing. This was going to be interesting. I decided to push any preconceptions aside and just experience it. What emerged in the Kaleidoscope was a hugely respectful scene. I already knew that Muslim communities are famed for their incredible hospitality and friendliness, so to experience that was less of a surprise. But watching men and women quietly make their way into the mosque near the hotel, under the hypnotic call of the Muezzin, made me realise that these are just people living their lives, respectful of each other and the code they choose to live by. The men here were mostly as covered up as the women (men cannot wear shorts), and the only surprise encounter I had was to see a Western couple in short shorts striding through the town. To me, they were the odd ones out and appeared so disrespectful – I started to wonder why we feel the need to disrobe so much in the west. My mother had always said that she’d covered up more in Kenya, to keep cool, and I could see the sense in the flowing white and black robes of the locals as they swished round the corniche. I had brought my long, cool, flowing clothing and was happy to wear it out and about. Why are we so hell bent on getting our bodies out? For me it makes no sense, as I don’t tan. I’m happy to preserve my skin in the sun and I always sit in the shade on holiday. With Factor 50 on.

I suppose it comes down to having a choice and being free. If you were forced to shroud yourself in fabric by law, then there would be cause for revolution, as we’ve seen in Iran with the emergence of the My Stealthy Freedom women, determined to let their hair flow free with no enforced hijab: https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom?fref=ts. I saw many variations of clothing for women in Sharjah, from skinny jeans and a shela (head wrap), to a full flowing chiffon abaya, just covering designer jeans and heels, and framing a beautifully made-up face. And some women just wore what they want, with as much skin as possible covered up. (This is a useful guide to appropriate clothing for visitors: http://www.grapeshisha.com/about-uae/uae-clothing.html).

Before we pronounce on anyone else’s culture or way of life, I think it’s useful to take a Kaleidoscope moment. Our preconceptions are built on years of false information mixed with truth and we don’t know what the reality is until we’ve witnessed it first-hand at close quarters and let it slowly reveal itself. There will still be things we don’t agree with or don’t sit well with us, but that view is often reciprocated by the people we’re judging. Before we pronounce on the policing of people’s clothing we should take a moment to consider how much our own clothing is policed by our own gender, by fashion, by our social groups. Same, same, but different, my friends.

When I exchanged a smile with a woman in a full black abaya in Dubai airport who was late for her flight, and she made the international sign for ‘phew!’ at the check-in desk, I just thought, ‘we’re just two women, flying somewhere, each with our own lives and wardrobes. And we still recognise a kindred spirit.’

Because we should.