Reunification in Australia

The worry-filled woman who had needed so desperately to be alone in sorrowful silence in Fijihad evaporated.
In Sydney I suddenly walked taller. I felt a belonging I had been waiting for since childhood. The Cockatoos on high rise buildings, the hot still air, the landmark monuments and the very mannequins in shop windows audibly cat called 'You GO girl' to me as I passed them. 

I arrived in Australia with no itinerary and many forming ideas around the potential to connect with an ancient part of myself and my history.

It is important for you to know this: I grew up in green, rolling, rural England hearing anecdotes about Australia and being read stories from precious illustrated books about Australian animals, spirit - magic and the Dreamtime*. My parents had personally carried these books back from their folkloric year in Waga-Waga in the 1970's just before my twin brother and I were born. (Waga-Waga is a town in New South Wales, South of the Murrumbidgee river whose name is from the Wiradjuri dialect, it means something like 'Where the crows meet'). My twin and I were in utero in Australia. In other words, I had been to Australia before and been touched by its magic, I just hadn't had a window out.

*The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are collections of ancient tales of the great rocks, rivers, trees and indigenous animals of Australia coming into being. Woven into these stories is the idea that immortal spirit beasts and man created this great land through encounters as hunters and travellers looking for the places they belonged and trying not to get eaten.

'The Giant Devil Dingo' is is a story that captivated my brothers and sister and I. This telling from the beautifully illustrated book we had should give you a feel of the magic of the Dreamtime stories.

I had been waiting my whole life to meet Australia. Now that I had been travelling alone for almost six months I felt mentally uncluttered, light and able to enjoy each 'wow' as it unfolded. Sydney is clean, crisp colour, grunge, heat, sophisticated stone, kitsch, brash, fresh green and subtle as well as feeling familiar and safe. I relaxed into being an unshielded self.

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Winifred: My granny's mother. This photograph was in Mary's collection (who you will hear about Marvellous Mary shortly). My mum (AKA the family tree oracle) thinks the photograph must have been taken when Australian relatives visited my granny and her parents sometime between 1920 and 1930, when my granny was little.

I intentionally spent a lot of time on my own wandering the different quarters of the city. I gathered up cultural ingredients, stirring into the broth of the idea of myself as part of a lineage of people connected to Australia. Now that I had cleared all the futile internal worry away, I suddenly had inner space to consider who I was, who I couldbe...

I began to connect to the memory of who I was before tryingto be an adult got in the way of just being me. Australia pulled at recollection of those story books from childhood. I not only remembered the Dreamtime stories, I remembered the small scruffy girl who listened to the stories and endlessly re-told them to herself as she played in the mud and grass, pretending to be in Australia. This curious child had made her own projected dreamtime about who she would be as a grown up, a woman who fulfilled an initiation into adulthood through travelling the world alone. I realised I had stepped into my own projected future albeit a decade later than my child self would have expected. I had come far enough to trust myself alone in the world and now I wanted to reach through time to connect to the bloodline seeds of mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and aunts and uncles whose souls seemed to want my attention.

Am I really saying that my ancestors hummed to me in Australia? Well, let me put it like this:

1) The whole of the country seemed to ooze a nature based spirituality.
2) The urban-human space seemed to be borrowed only; nature was a visible, audible, numinous presence everywhere, as if waiting for an opportunity to overgrow and reclaim every inch of space. 
3) I have a scattering of relatives who live in Australia, descendants of the siblings of my granny's mother, Winifred who died in 1942.

I felt a spiritual potency of place. Knowing that early in the last century some of my relatives had arrived in Australia for the first time too, I really felt like I was being quietly accompanied by the drifting strands of my ancestors. As if I was fulfilling a sacred destiny by being there. I am sure it reflects my need at that time to reach back into the story of who I am, who the collective women in my history have been. A need to make myself up afresh, now that the hunched over world weary woman, who flew out of manchester months ago had finally been vanquished.

My journey from Sydney to Sydney on a map was a thin line drawn in a rough square covering the edges of almost a quarter of that whole great country, I made quick stops in most places staying for one or two nights before moving on. My far away family, scattered in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide welcomed me with open arms and hearts. I travelled delightedly on night buses, day buses and in mini vans. Saw sunrise at Byron Bay, stayed in a hostel where cockroaches criss-crossed the floor between bunk beds and crawled over bodies (and faces) in the night. I fed Kangaroos in Adelaide and made long lasting eye contact with descendants of the Giant Devil Dingo. I saw underground dwellings and opal mines at Coober Pedy and photographed Koalas in Port Macquarie. I slept in a Billy-bag, under the stars almost next door to the epicentre of Australian spirituality - Uluru - before visiting its mysterious dry vastness the next day. Though I later found out that my own mother has never been, I convinced myself whilst there that she had walked upon the sacred rock at Uluru with me (us) in her belly.

I can't finish this postcard without telling you about Gwen and Mary. My Aunts who lived on a farm outside Melbourne. Daughter of the daughter of one of Winifred's siblings, Mary - who lived an extremely full life - joined the glowing ancestral embers in the 'other place' this year.

Gwen and Mary showed me photographs, visitor book entries documenting my parents visiting when my brother and I were in utero and told me stories of being at Uluru the day it was given back (I had seen photographs of the same event in Sydney Museum days before). I saw photographs of my great grandmother Winifred - and saw my grandmother, mother, sister, aunt and a little bit of myself in her face.

Gwen and Mary had travelled A LOT. They had plenty of stories to share with me. Most memorable, time in Eastern Europe driving a Lorry with a companionable rescued chicken ('chook') happily tucked into the cab for weeks. The chicken laid eggs that Mary collected and boiled at various hostel stops. She assured me that you can keep a hard boiled egg (in its shell, tucked in your biker-jacket pocket) for a couple of weeks on the road and not get ill eventually eating it. Gwen and Mary were typical of the lineage of women I knew already about in my family: quietly bold beyond belief, irreverent, kind and earthy.

From cackling Kuckaburras to unconventional aunts a collective numinous message echoed through me in Australia:
You are seen.
You belong.
Keep walking...

I was transitioning into the next iteration of woman that I understood how to be. It felt easy and wonder filled. It didn't feel like change rather a returning to myself. I had finally developed an understanding of how to have faith in my journey in my own scatty way: An ability to stay cool - curious even - and keep walking in the face of the unseen, unknown and unlikely.

Next stop Malaysia



LA & Fiji

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LA was Coca-Cola and Sushi, bright lights, pink smog, traffic and affluence. My host James (a friend of mine’s brother working for an Architect firm in LA) scooped me up from the airport and delivered me back there the next day. Internally I was mourning the end of the first half of my trip. I had been so afraid for many parts of travelling alone in Latin America but had also made some wonderful human connections and had discovered that I had a total badass somewhere within me. I was beginning to feel myself transforming albeit in a not yet completely graspable way: My inner badass felt elusive still, she appeared unexpectedly like a capricious sprite to pull me out of trouble or stick up for me. At this point, she always melted away in the night. 

James was keen to share his typical Friday night in LA with me. This meant gathering up his friends and going to several bars all about forty minutes drive from each other. Our last stop, in the small hours was a small gathering at a guy’s house on the promise of some very rare Tequila with an aristocratic grub inside the bottle. The host and we guests did not really seem to gel. He withheld the Tequila, bringing it out only when all guests were about to leave. He seemed experienced in the leveraging of his power. In the car on the way home, throats burning and teeth sore from the mean snifter, James and friends whooped with laughter and took turns to make cruel impressions of Tequila bloke. I felt detached and puzzled about the peculiar exchange of Tequila for human company and human company for Tequila. I suspected that we might be monsters for socialising as payment for a (mercifully small) measure of liquid that tasted like the smell of surgical spirit (and WHAT is the grub thing all about? Mostly we freak out if there is something insecty, dead or alive, in our beverage). No time to reflect, I was off again to another flight. To Fiji.

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I had carried details of where to go when I got to Fiji all the way from the UK. A friend had been to a peaceful and beautiful island on his honeymoon ten years ago. I booked and paid for a 5 night stay and excitedly waited for the bus and then boat to take me there. Within the first crucial micro seconds of making an impression, the other backpackers on the boat and I locked in a mutual disdain. They chugged beers. I watched the water and wondered what I had done to be disapproved of. When we arrived I gradually discovered that my time on the island would be more entwined with the beer chuggers than felt ideal. Firstly, I would be sharing a dorm with the girls from the group. As I settled myself in, I had a chance to eyeball these women. There was a caustic vibe amongst them.They seemed defensive and sharp. Each was haunted by a wild eyed destructiveness and in a hurry to get into bikinis and flip-flops in order to get into the sun and chug. My inner badass whispered to me: ‘you don't need anyone's approval’. Curiously, in the shadows of myself a little corner ached to be accepted by this group. A toxic urge seeded itself; an intention to find an opportunity to impress them. We are so often made up of apparently incompatible feelings in social situations. We have a need to be true to ourselves and stand firm yet also a drive to connect, conform and fall in. Sometimes authenticity is difficult to recognise within ourselves when all options feel like uncomfortable choices.

I had expected hibiscus flowers, ocean breezes and calm. What with the group games, participatory dancing sessions at every meal and singles ceremonies, this destination was more like a lager breathed love-island. I felt so rookie and foolish for not researching the place at all before booking my five nights. The mainland felt a long way away, too far to swim to. Still, I was keen not to waste a single day of my trip, even if I did feel like a total fish out of water. On the first afternoon, I walked as far as I could to find a peaceful spot, deciding that time on this island would be my meditative segue before Australia. I would run a one woman retreat for myself. I felt a deep need to process the last few months and knew I wanted quiet to do that. Distressed by feeling the treacherous little bit of me that wanted to join in with the crazy kids, my inner sensible began its admonishments for even thinking about screaming into oblivion in beachwear at this point. The island felt altogether too little. I could not escape the sound system, which would become an irritating metaphor for the noise inside my own head over the next days.

My lofty plan was to write in my journal on the beach daily, reflect and find stillness. I was sure I would be very good at that. Each time I tried to sit in quietness and just be, my inner noise sabotaged serenity and jabbed at me: ‘What the hell is wrong with me that I can't engage in organised fun?’ ‘Why can't I just let my hair down and join in with the group games?’ ‘Why do I have to make everything mean something?’ ‘WHY do I have to be so bloody self conscious all the time?’ ‘Why do I have to feel so uncomfortable dancing?’ ‘Why am I such a control freak?’ ‘Why can’t I just shut up and enjoy this beach?’ ‘Why am I ruining this trip with my incessant noise?’ ‘Why can’t I just BE?’ I tried to sit it out for days. I tried to stop the inner noise. Eventually I burst and sobbed on the beach for about 100 years, one afternoon. I cried myself into a limp rag-doll and then dragged myself to my dorm for a curative, deep sleep.

When I woke next morning, I noticed that I didn't care quite so hard about the whispering girls in my dorm. I didn't feel under threat. My own wild eyed destructiveness had been physically felt in order to be discharged. I saw that all that separated me from these women was how we responded to our own awkwardness and confusing messages within ourselves. Now, I felt unexpectedly connected to them. Like we were practically sisters. Who was I to judge their partying? (I mean really, was it any worse a way to spend time than crying alone on a beach?) I chuckled to myself and finally relaxed into being a (slightly puritanical) hermit amongst the twisted fire-starters. Peace finally came just as I was about to get the boat back to the mainland.

On the boat back to Nadi I thought about the way I had handled myself on the island: I felt an awareness of the badass within looking after resources, making sure I had the energy I needed in order to continue my journey. Now my inner questions were softer and compassionate: ‘What if my reservedness on the island and my abstinence and urge for solitude were me choosing how to spend my energy, choosing who to give my time and attention to?’ Had something within me known that I needed to release the anguish I had been carrying around? Was that why a quiet place felt so important to find? ‘What if my weeping wilderness was something like an initiation, a breakthrough?’ Transformation, they say is painful. It happens in increments. It isn't an even crossing over, there is much messy backing and forthing. There are gullies of self doubt and fear amongst the eurekas, summits and broad smiles. We can't transform without darkness. When we dive into our darkness we touch the edges of our strength and find gifts we did not know we have. We can’t un-discover what we find, making sense of it often takes us time, a willingness to trust ourselves and an appetite for the unexpected.

One by one in a quiet cafe bar in a hostel in Nadi a clutch of women happened upon each other by chance. All craving quiet. All of a gentle disposition. As we sat talking to one another we realised that each of us had a story of unexpectedly finding ourselves amongst hard-core party people, on different love-islands somewhere out there in the Fijian waters. We had all been together apart in our private storms of un-belonging. During the evening a cat who had been avoiding the guests with classic feline insouciance came and sat with us. We all hung out, ate and talked and played cards. When the bar tables were pushed aside and blankets put on the floor for a faux ceremony, we shrugged, took it all in our collective stride and exchanged smiles and knowing glances. We giggled, shared and felt unafraid. A powerful collective feminine energy rose - a magical thing that happens when women hold space for each other and connect.

A holistic sense of social acceptance comes after we learn to accept ourselves whole. Revealing our flawed selves is how we become visible to our tribe, who will come to find us once they see us...

Yoke of our experiences in Ecuador

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After two weeks of intense and busy travel through Ecuador with my fearless, ultra-efficient travel partner du jour Danielle, I spent my last few Ecuadorian days enjoying a slower pace. In one spot for a time, I surrendered to my need to wilt around in the gaps between excursions. Danielle and I had been on trains and buses, on horseback into the mountains. I had felt my spirit rehydrated when visiting my first Art gallery in months in Cuenca. We had seen animal masked hoards partying in the streets, break-dancing gangs body-popping at markets, indigenous farmers dashing up hillsides with their flocks and misty villages cuddled up in the skirts of volcanoes. Finally we came to pause in one such town, Baños.

After a particularly adventurous morning cycling, I was delighted to casually saunter to the natural hot springs in quiet, modest Baños with a young Swiss pup called Shawn. Shawn, the antithesis of Danielle, was relaxed and disorganised. He was able to enjoy travel without a plan and constant forward motion. Travel for Shawn was about being in one place for  while and nonchalantly becoming acquainted with it. As he and I sat chatting at the edge of one of the pleasingly warm volcanic pools, Shawn told me that he had smuggled a raw egg (still in its shell) into the springs in his shorts. He was convinced/indulging in some very poetic wishful thinking that the egg would be perfectly soft boiled, by the volcanic power of the springs by the time we left. Shawn was so utterly sure that we would be eating boiled egg all the way home, that I began to doubt my own inner knowing/scientific understanding that ifwecould get into the water without cooking, the egg would (surely) also remain in the raw, in his pants.

Earlier in the day we and the rest of our hostel family had been on a bike ride. I had lost all but Shawn and David on the way back: Being very healthy young men with long powerful legs who were almost falling off their bicycles politely cycling at my pace, I gave them my consent to tear off back to the hostel. Then I was alone on a road somewhere in Ecuador, without a map, without my passport, feeling suddenly slightly unsure about exactly which way we had cycled to get to where I was. Glad of the $40 I had tucked into my shoe but uneasy about whether $40 was really enough to make a difference in a crisis, I kept my cool right up until I had fallen off my bike in the slimy mouth of an extraordinarily long and un-lit (pitch dark) tunnel, gouged into the waist of the mountain. Spooked and letting out little shrieks as giant lorries growled passed in the dark, I turned into the cowardly lion, pulling my own tail and convincing myself that I had invited the peril in because I had not come prepared for this situation. My fear-filter kicked in and I all but soiled myself getting through that bloody tunnel, convinced all traffic passing through was aiming to kill me for sport. Thanking my lucky stars that I had emerged into the light with my life, I saw that I had to more or less immediately get through another virtually identical tunnel.

Hanging out poolside with Shawn was like carrying around a comfort blanket or looking after someone's labrador puppy for the day. He had a gentle self assured wisdom about him and just enough of the absurd to be really enjoyable to be around. I can't think of anyone else I know who would smuggle an egg into a hot springs like it was the most natural thing in the world. His genuine disappointment at the egg not being cooked when he cracked it open outside the pool, after he had put so much faith into it cooking was uniquely touching. After a few seconds of disappointment he looked up and said 'Well, fancy pants, we will simply have to try again.' He was sure that the egg should have cooked, it was that something had failed in the experiment. 

Before entering the second tunnel, I felt a little spike of petulant defiance. As if I had just caught the Universe throwing a little curve ball practical joke at me: I imagined the cosmos pedantically saying 'You wanted to be a lone woman traveller...' with folded arms and raised eyebrows. Or ' If you can't do it properly you will just have to do it again...' With what my dear mother would describe as '(extremely) bad grace', I sulkily stomped my way through the second tunnel like a bizarre one act, one woman show; half furious half terrified, I cursed the cosmos and God and whoever else was behind this trick. Afterwards,  I knew that this anger infused method of travel was not the best version of myself, but when I exited the tunnel alive,  with just a few scrapes and bruises and got back on my bicycle for my slow, deliberate ride home I felt freaking invincible.

Shawn and I did go back to the pools and we took eggs in and we tested them in all the pools and inspired multiple intrigued, worried, amused and lightly outraged looks from the Ecuadorian pool users and afterwards we broke the eggs carefully, expectantly into the gutter (yes, they were still raw) and laughed at our experiment. It was the play of it, the experience that had mattered, the possibility of surprise and the childish fun we had had on the way over the top into failure. The experiment only failed if you measure the very final outcome.

In the case of the lone woman travelling through two tunnels alone, the experiment only fails if you expect her to remain calm and collected as she picks her way through both of them in the dark. If you measure the outcome of that experiment however, you will find her a little more fearless than when she started out, a little closer to being the badass she is becoming...

Colombia

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I spent my last 24 hours in San José loitering apathetically, waiting to fly to Bogota. Slouching back at my favourite hostel, ready to move on. I watched Elf with a Canadian girl called Brianna, both heavy limbed in our pre- Christmas homesickness. In that gap of waiting with adventures paused, we sank into our shells and numbed out the emotional turbulence. Elf still makes me melancholic for all the wrong reasons. I said goodbye to Costa Rica, promised to be back sometime and boarded my flight to Bogota.

At Arrivals, I could see two short, dark haired, dark eyed women with rounded intense faces. Two sets of thick rimmed glasses, two hopeful frowns, two denim jackets. The women shared holding up a grainy A4 photograph of my face. 

Dazed and suddenly shy, I did my best to speak politely in Spanish to these women during our car journey. I couldn't quite grasp exactly who they were. The whole situation tested my very limited Spanish beyond its boundaries. Finally at the house in Bogota, I discovered that one of the women was my friend Caroline’s mother-in-law and the other her sister (auntie-in-law?) At the house, there was Caroline.

Caroline's Mother-in-law was most concerned that I had not spoken to my parents on my journey yet. On hearing this fact she clutched at her heart and asked about my 'poor mother' who must be 'worried sick'. Quite unexpectedly I was placed by a telephone and given international codes in order to make the call. This was the first contact I had had with anyone from home since I had left America. I had been in regular email contact and had been actively avoiding calling them. I had justified this decision by telling myself that this trip was meant to be about self discovery, self reconciliation and self reliance. The truth was that communicating but not speaking to my loved ones who were so so far away had made being away easier. I didn't have to feel and then manage the pain of missing them all and feeling so fitfully frightened on my own. Not speaking meant not connecting with difficult emotions about being out of reach, out of safety and in another universe.

When I talked to my parents that day I felt a squelching sense of powerlessness: How could I possibly share what had happened over the last couple of months in a five minute phone call? How could I cope with the puppy-yelps of emotion I felt in my throat at just hearing their voices so quiet and far away on the phone? The conversation felt disembodied. I was business like and polite because I would not allow the bundle of real responses to open up and spill out of me. I told myself I was doing what I had to do, but the witnessing of my own cowardice lodged in me somewhere.

The embracing thing about my parents and my friend Caroline is that their strategy for encouragement and support is to quietly be on side. They accept the core of me and the ‘who’ of me more than I can even see and accept it by myself and that serves to show me how I can do the same. I am unusually lucky in having parents who have never simply followed the rules for their own lives, but lived ‘intentionally’ decades before it was a thing. When things have fallen apart for me, my parents have offered unconditional support, held back and allowed me to decide who to be and how to respond without rescuing or smothering me when the path gets hard to follow. Later my parents revealed to me just how anxiety inducing my travel had been for them, but in that call and in the time building up to my trip they were stoic, supportive and encouraging. 

Caroline had already paved the way for me to be accepted into the bustling organism of her family. Over the next ten days, I felt wholly accepted, held and embraced. 

Caroline's tribe of Colombian family was a cast of extroverts, introverts, quiet observers, gregarious linguists, studious teenagers and uninhibited children, half of whom live in Colombia, half in Cardiff. This family was conservative and kind. Sometimes there would be fighting, arguing and shouting, but tensions dissolved quickly in the mix of honesty and compassion. I have never been amongst people who found so many reasons to smile and laugh. Everyone had space to be themselves and to speak their minds. Compromises were found quickly and thoughtfully. Reunions in Colombia are rare and special occasions for this family. Not a scrap of time could be wasted on grudge bearing or sulking.

I witnessed such a breadth of affection between them all during my ten days with them. From exasperated and heated conversations over art to Caroline's auntie-in-law simply holding her tiny mother in her lap and stroking her hand and hair as if she were a child. This family held and soothed one another. Each giving and receiving this expansive affection with such extraordinary grace and poise.

On Christmas day, I found that my own mother extended her love through parcels of incredibly thoughtful little presents: a tiny watercolour set, a breathable lightweight jacket, books, mini notepads and cards reminding me that I was loved. Feeling the chasm of geographical distance between me and home, I avoided my feelings in response, for fear that I would not be able to recover from their impact. I packed the gifts away in my backpack and dared not look at them.

At the airport separating from each other my Colombian hosts wailed and sobbed. Hearts broke. Handkerchiefs saturated. They hugged for decades and finally trundled cases away from each other.

From a distance just before going my own way, I saw the Cardiff half of the family joking together at souvenirs, still drying the last of their tears and getting on with getting to their flights. I was puzzled but struck by the humble bravery of that presence of being.They had been able to pass through the hiccuping wrenching sobs and emotional punch of separation and bring themselves back into laughter in the now.

I considered this: Maybe the only way for me to be able to laugh as hard and as quickly as this family was to stop being so afraid to feel my feelings. Stop imagining there would be no recovery, no escape, that I would be devoured whole by grief or sadness should I let it in. Caroline's family allowed themselves to react, in the moment, even if it meant heart break. The glue of their being with each other was their emotional honesty. Maybe it is only possible to laugh as much as they do if you are prepared to go to the difficult emotional places too. Just as my own parents and Caroline were able to be so accepting of me, I needed to stand back from myself, stop protecting and smothering myself and have the bravery to let myself feel.

Tamarindo

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The Tamarindo I met was quiet and gentle of pace. I was able to relax into solitude and flatten my romance-ruffled feathers. I began to explore what being electively alone felt like. I booked solo excursions and classes and walked the beach alone. In the way of my head and heart cooperating or not cooperating, I was completely over my lost love but completely devoted to it. I thought of myself as still being in a couple, even though I had known the German man for such a short time. This still-attached-to-him thinking freed me up to not think about anything around boyfriends and being in a partnership. I was voluntarily locked into something abstract and unavailable, a trick of the mind which made me feel free.  

My routine pieced together quickly. I signed up to do a Spanish class with another young woman called Susannah. A dutch girl in her early twenties who responded with defensive fierceness to most things. She enrolled in the class and then relentlessly cut it, often meeting me later and writhing with confused anguish about missing the class again that day. Susannah had chosen to stay in an unabashed booze fuelled party hostel and spent many a morning and evening snapping at dorm mates about the noise and mess. I admired her tenacity in defending her needs every single day, but found her accommodation choice a curious one as she seemed to need peace more than parties.

I ambled quietly from Spanish School to Surfing lessons each day and struck up a strange friendship of limited vocabulary with ‘Coconut man’. Coconut man sold ice cold coconuts and drinking straws. He skimmed the top off each coconut he sold with an agricultural hack of his machete. The coconuts travelled on ice in a crumbling polystyrene cool box, strapped to a broken sack truck. I admired the resourcefulness and grit covered lack of glamour about this set up, the rustic honesty of spirit. Coconut man didn't care whether I could speak Spanish or not, he just was: either you want a coconut or you don't. Either you accept a straw from his torn dressing gown pocket, or you don't. I quietly wondered why Susannah couldn't let herself just be, like this guy. Catching myself being a little bit smug and feeling all learn-ed about her problems: I asked myself why I could n't just let myself be? for that matter: My little tricks were not so very different to hers. 

For example, I was certain that I was a surfer - you know, deep in my soul. I tried repeatedly to be a surfer. I had been on surfing courses and surfed with friends back home. I was just about able to push myself up on my board and catch a wave suitable for a nervous 6 year old - I had the slightly humiliating experience of attending surf school with a bunch of children who nailed standing on their boards (in the water) in Bude, so I speak from experience about the suitability of particular waves for 6 year olds. The thing about this surfing thing was that I was coming to realise that the sea is GIANT. The sea is rough and not in the least bit bothered about whether you live or die.

The sea in Costa Rica is also a place where big, sleek and toothy, malevolent eyed sharks live. To get to the surfing bit of the sea in Tamarindo, I had to paddle on my board over a famously river crocodile-filled bit of river, so was already wide eyed and adrenal by the time I got to the indifferently rough sea to attempt to surf. Throw in a cocky surf instructor, who was too cool not to have a crush on (damn him!) for my one to one tutoring and you have all the ingredients needed to accelerate a revelation:

I wanted to be a surfer because of the endless cool value I thought it would earn me. When it came to actually doing the work, I just couldn't find any way to enjoy the almost-surfing I was engaging in. I found it frightening, frustrating and exhausting with no reward. The prospect of improving and thus having to go further out to sea to surf, filled me with horror. Against all internalised  'I am NOT a quitter' messages. I quit and instantly felt the liberation of a Spanish language school absconder, without the desolating consequences.

A week or so later, in Monteverde, Susannah and I had put ourselves at the top of some very tall trees in the rainforest and Susannah was hopping mad because she didn't like the sweaty rainforest, she hated heights, she didn't like zip wires and she hated wearing harnesses and the helmet.

Susannah was firing all of her fear, anger and frustration at me, because feeling completely safe in the trees, I felt no need to scream. Susannah perceived my not screaming as a direct criticism of her for finding it impossible not to scream at this time. I hadn't known going into this activity that I was not a screamer - but it made perfect sense to me not to scream. I wasn't afraid.

Feeling the fear and doing something anyway is to strive. To leap towards the thing that terrifies you and forces you to grow and then to emerge alive and well on the other side is character building. Stretching beyond our comfort zones to get to our higher selves is the real calling of every human. In our supervised activities and holiday adventures there in costa Rica, the opportunity to grow was present in a much more unexpected way.

There, two women held up versions of themselves that they thought they should be as travellers and repeatedly tried to make the different costumes fit. When the realisation came that these outfits weren't really true reflections of themselves, they had a choice to make.

My heart wanted to be in those trees, to deeply breathe in the rainforest. I wanted to be friends with the sea but not part of it, to be able to speak enough Spanish to get by in South and Central America, but not really make the effort of fluency. Susannah really wanted to simply explore and sit on the beach and figure herself out, she didn't want to learn Spanish or party all night or mess about in tree tops any more than I wanted to take my chances in the shark filled sea: 

We had a chance to see ourselves for the people that we really were. A chance to stop fighting so hard to be someone else and to accept ourselves. Although we were less capable in some things than we wanted to be, if we could be brave enough to really look in the mirror, we had a chance to acknowledge that we were so much braver, calmer and stronger than we thought too.

Heart shaped rocks in San José, Costa Rica

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This is the exact moment, the exact view I saw when I realised that the unknowns I would continue to experience everyday on this trip not only yielded great opportunities for personal growth, it was also possible that unknown could be exhilarating and wonderful - it wasn't always going to be scary. This view of San José, a friendly, modestly exuberant city squeezed up next to the mountains and volcanoes, quietly excited me. I felt super-charged. I couldn't wait to get started actively seeking out the unknowns of Costa Rica. 

If I were in that moment today, I would probably take a selfie. Instead, I took a photo of metal rooftops, the view of the moment. I wanted to hold on to that feeling, that state. I experienced an incredible lightness, a lightness I have experienced only a handful of times in my life. I was alone, on a roof in Costa Rica and filled with JOY and self belief. I felt embraced by the connections I had made at the Turtle project. I was rebooted, calm and almost floating with gratitude. I felt truly free. San José was my oyster! I was in no hurry to leave this roof for now. It felt important to stay still and enjoy this contentedness. I sat awhile with my journal open and began pouring my thoughts into my book, delighted to have space and time to myself.

Before I travelled and since being around 14 years old I had firmly believed in my core that to be a fully actuated and happy woman, you need to be in a loving long term monogamous relationship. You can read more about my previous life and how attempting to uphold and serve that belief at all costs worked out for me here: WHAT?! You really thought that?!

The very idea of that thought being a driver for my behaviour, makes me blush a little now. I know there is nothing wrong with being in a relationship and of course it is human to seek a partner.
I was not doing this trip in search of a boyfriend. In fact I would say that this trip was the absolute opposite of seeking a boyfriend. And yet... In that beautiful blissed out moment of oneness, a man approached my table and asked if he could sit... I glanced up and answered him 'Sure.' 
I was irritated and intentionally a little icy, because this was my morning - my big glowing moment on my own and I didn't want anyone to sit on my cloud while I was enjoying being there so much, alone.

And then we started to talk and he was generous and funny and interesting and we seemed drawn to each other. I invited him to the museum I would go to that afternoon and we enthusiastically shared the excerpts on pages we had highlighted in our guide books. My inner dialogue was rational and soothing: We can just be friends, I mean, he seems nice and it is perfectly possible to be just friends, nothing wrong with company in a museum. Its not like its a date...

The next day we went on an excursion together and then another. The tone of my inner voice changed a little, it was a tiny bit shrill:
I mean he obviously doesn't like me like that and anyway I don't think I like him in that way and I shouldn't be doing this, because this whole thing is about being strong on my own, remember?..
After a little resistance (because I was irritated by how pre-destined it seemed that we should meet and how everyone kept asking him if I was his girlfriend and he didn't seem able to say 'No') I let my guard down and we conjoined. 

A ten day relationship blossomed. Barely breaking eye contact with each other we scrabbled through caves and visited volcanoes, saw and smelt sulphurous, sputtering fumarolés. We bathed in natural springs, scrubbing ourselves with lemons and sand to try to get rid of the eggy stench of the water afterwards. We white-water-rafted in funny safety helmets, hiked on mountains and through ancient rainforests. We watched capuchin monkeys steal from the pockets of clothes left on the beach while the garment owners swam unaware in the distance. We saw a sloth wobbling through trees and toucan in the wild. We shared a lodge room with and Iguana. Honestly, it was like a montage sequence in a rom com, even down to drinking from fresh coconuts and finding a heart shaped rock on the beach at Parque Naçional Manuel Antonio.

I loved the safety of our closed unit and the ease of travel in our pair. We wrapped ourselves in this intense intimacy. This was easier than lone travel. I started to relinquish my power and decision making skills. 'I don't mind - you choose' became a regular response to the question 'what next?' I was watering myself down, still desperate to hang on to this sense of security, in spite of my revelation on the roof. We spent less than two weeks together and when we parted I was convinced that I loved him and that he was 'the one'.

Emotionally wrung out and alone again. I took a bus from Liberia to Tamarindo and kept my eyes closed almost the whole way, processing the experience of being entirely with someone and then entirely without them.

In my tent, inside a barn in Tamarindo (brilliant idea for a hostel!) I journaled for pages about the uniqueness of this man and the significance of meeting him. Though I was sure my heart was broken, I woke up next day feeling a little bruised but strong. Journaling had memorialised the experience and made it a place I could visit if I needed to. There is an expression, an idea that we meet people for a reason. At the time, I thought I had met my husband. Our story had a couple more episodes to go yet. It would be much, much later that I would come to understand that this man was not my life partner but a mirror.

Our tender but ultimately dysfunctional union was an accelerated remake of all the other intimate relationships I had ever had. The way I was with him enabled me to see my self-reducing behaviour when in the role of girlfriend more clearly than I had in or after any previous relationship. He was a catalyst for inner change. By the time our connection concluded - when I finally let go, I knew that I had to take the risk and the pain of transformation. I knew that only changing would eventually lead to a place within where I could be happy all by myself. I knew this because I had experienced that joyful oneness before, on a roof in Costa Rica.

 

Tortuga Feliz, Costa Rica

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If Belize City taught me that it was possible to go above my nerve, the lesson I should have taken from Belize City airport was be selective when to listening to well meaning advice. 

I experienced a few 'advisors' on my journey, they happened to mostly be women and I happened mostly to need them to say precisely the opposite of what they actually said. I didn't yet know that I could and should take what they said with a huge pinch of salt. Later, I decided that I could benefit hugely from becoming impermeable to the ideas, opinions and advice of others. I realise that my inability to close my ears and heart to the thoughts of others has thrown me before and still continues to blindside me if I'm not careful...

The suggestion that my next destination; San José was full of drug lords and gun crime, women were categorically not safe alone there and that I should change my flight immediately and go somewhere 'more female friendly', dissolved my newly grown fear-proof armour and I began to get that dread feeling in my knees and bowel again...

My spirits had been wildly elevated when I first arrived at the airport: I was sure I had conquered my terror of the unknown, had some dollars left and was in good time to smoothly transit from Belize to San José. I was excited to be going to volunteer at a Turtle Conservation project, breezy and carefree able to DO THIS travel THING. In the mint green and beige sprawl of the airport lounge, I struck up conversation with an American woman with savage mosquito bites speckling her legs. Together we sat with two other women, and talked while we waited for our flights. Inadvertently flanked by these three concerned mother hens, the process of confidence erosion began.

I sat heavy-legged in fear, part trembling, part self-soothing about my impending death by gunfire for the entire flight. I arrived in San José wobbly, insecure and exhausted. I retreated into my familiar shell of safety anxiety. The journey from airport to hostel and then to bed went smoothly. I awoke late the following morning and ate well, taking things slowly. The main event for the day was finding the bus station and buying a ticket for my departure the next day. From the bus window I silently toured the city on my way out. Not so scary...

When you come from privilege* Its easy to confuse a lack of material wealth with danger. Fiscal poverty IS a heavy shackle, interferes with education and limits choices. Financial wealth* can limit in a different manner and can take away our ability to see other ways of existing as possible or enjoyable. Material wealth holds us to it and makes us overly anxious about it ever leaving us. Perhaps it is to push beyond our understanding, to see that life can be rich and lived well with barely any possessions. Simple food can be nourishing. Existence can be stripped back to the bare bones of basic and still allow for joy, love, connection, kindness, laughter and fulfilment. The Conservation project was a place where all of these values dwelt. There also, was the most incredible chance to see real turtle eggs crack open to release avatars of hope which would scuttle in tiny persistence to the sea.

If you Google the conservation project 'Tortuga Feliz', you'll find it. It has evolved much in 10 years. I am delighted to see it looking a little more sponsored and supported. Ten years ago it was smaller, more 'rustic' and still run as closely as possible to the ideological aims of its founder, Paul Lepoutre, Who I believe was Dutch. I believe he was a Zen Buddhist and I believe he really struggled to get the project going. When I was there, the uncertainty of the future of the project was a recurring subject of conversation and the lack of long term funding a real concern. Paul Lepoutre had died four months before my arrival, unexpectedly and suddenly. Organisationally the project was grieving his loss, in flux and needing to make some difficult decisions.

The golden kernel of this project was paying local Poachers to become Trackers: replacing the paid work of taking** eggs from the ground, with paid work finding turtle eggs and carefully moving them to the 'hatchery' - a rectangular bit of sand that was guarded by volunteers. The volunteers took turns to keep a vigil, protecting the eggs from hungry crabs, ants and seabirds. Eventually the delicate eggs would hatch all at once and send hoards of 'tortugitas' to the sea. Together the volunteers and residents worked to protect the turtle eggs, feed the various other animals about the place, build new shelters and work in the garden. We ate together and played cards and dominoes together by torch and candle light in the evenings. There was atmospheric magic there in that transient gentle community, a quiet but glittering-warm peace.

There was no electricity (no lighting, heating, TV, email or phone) It sounds really challenging but in fact it was glorious. Time spent speaking to the people I worked with nourished my time spent alone. Each soul had a beautiful back story and a reason for being there. All of us had in common a tired restlessness. All sought to temper that and teach ourselves to be still and present in our own lives. This was a place to retreat and reframe. Much like me, many of the volunteers had several rational reasons for travel and then the undefinable persisting urge to travel that eventually caused them to take the leap.

Many of the resident Trackers were ex-cons and recovering from dependency problems, or both. Men whose past lives had been hard and had shattered - sometimes at their own hands. They had found this place as a last hope and were gently rebuilding their lives, finding routine and kinship. I had many conversations with one of the residents in particular. A Colombian in his 60s Kiko, was a human book of stories. He was bow-legged and potbellied with leathery brown skin and sinewy branch like arms. One front tooth was chipped in half and his arms bore scars. He often wore a baseball cap and always wore a neckerchief. In the evenings he would arrive post ablution in his dazzling pressed white jeans. How he kept them so white and clean in such a muddy, dusty environment was a mystery to us all. If ever you asked him, he just smiled with pride and looked slightly distant. He had had many incarnations in employment, among them he had been a gardener for the super-rich in Miami. He had travelled the seas and returned to Colombia.

Kiko talked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a reverential whisper and was fond of F Scott Fitzgerald's work. He also liked The Cosby Show and cheese flavoured Tortilla chips. He had seen a Black Jaguar not far from the volunteer accommodation, could identify local plants and tell you which bits of the sea were ok to swim in, where to find river turtles and how to make a palatable hooch. He was a friend to the animals mostly, but despised Molocoton (which means 'Peach') a mongrel with a permanent snarl affected by a deep whip scar wrapped about his muzzle. Peach was generally docile with an unashamed tendency to growl menacingly from time to time. He hung about the camp and had been known to nip volunteers. Kiko also disliked all Americans, claiming that they had crop sprayed his village in Colombia. He believed in the supernatural power of the wildlife realm: 'Bad magic, Soosan' was how he responded when another tracker collected the skeleton of a dead coral snake in order to make himself a creepy necklace. I loved our conversations and replayed his stories in my head during my lone walks. 

I realised I sort of wanted to be Kiko. The quantity of regenerations he had stretched himself into, each time leaving everything behind to begin again, fascinated me. Peach would accompany me on my walks as far as the creak and then he would stop and bark at me before turning back, periodically barking back at me if I did n't go with him. I thought him a great dog. He seemed to know, in the way that only dogs can, that there could be nothing more perfect for me on a lone walk than canine company. He would simply appear and walk along with me.
 

These two left an impression upon me that I cherish. Both flawed and scarred. Both walking through life comfortably alone, knowing their own limitations, strengths and will. Willing to take risks and explore the unknown. For now this was their home. I felt a resiliency about these two, more so than with any of the other residents. If you picked either one up and moved them to a completely new location, they would find the quickest way to survive and thrive and in the case of Kiko, show up to Dinner in beautifully pressed white jeans and a killer neckerchief.


A note on privilege and wealth
*If you are reading this I call you privileged and wealthy, because you have an email account, you have a device of some kind to look at that email on, you have a change of clothes and aren't hungry without the means to do something about it immediately and I'm pretty sure you live inside a solid building. I don't view having wealth as a problem, I know some folks struggle with financial wealth, I really don't. In fact I am usually in a state of wanting to have more money than I currently have and wondering how to make that happen. I don't despise wealth. I like money and find it extremely useful for buying things but also for the choice it provides me with. I also see myself as incredibly wealthy and privileged already. If we compare ourselves to someone who has absolutely nothing in this world - and that lack hasn't been a personal choice, then we are all rich beyond all imaginings. And if we talk about our individual inner wealth of potential as humans, then we are all crazy-rich beyond all imaginings...


A note on turtles and human activity
** Hunting and gathering turtles and eggs on this little island had a significant negative impact upon turtle populations. Hopefully the project work will make a countering positive impact. There is also a very great impact made by tourism, in the broader region, building developments for wealthy tourists and backpackers. One of the many incredible things about turtles is that they circle, just after they hatch before going down to the sea. The turtle is taking a mental photograph of the coastline. This is where the turtle will return in about 30 years to lay its eggs. The tiny turtle, no bigger than a regular bar of soap chops its way down to the sea. 1 in 1000 will make it to the Gulf Stream, 48 hours away. Each turtle also has an inbuilt compass of sorts. With these tools for navigation, when the time comes to lay its eggs, the turtle will head for its place of birth. It will swim the 48 hour journey (hassled by keen-to-fertilise males) from the Gulf Stream and exhausted peep out of the water when it thinks it is almost at the shore. When the coast line is different the confused animal will sink back into the sea and return to the Gulf Stream dispersing her eggs into the water. There is a painful irony in all of we backpacking volunteers contributing to efforts to save turtles, whilst simultaneously contributing to the industry building on coast lines everywhere in the region...

 

 

Merida

The beautiful thing about my arrival in Merida was the opportunity to see myself as someone who feels the urge to panic, but doesn't yield to it. I arrived in the rain with my backpack ready to make the simple walk to my hostel. Merida was fairly busy, I had a map and a had booked in advance. Things were good. 

As dusk dimmed the day I was still walking. Still trudging the loop of blocks I had been circum navigating for over an hour unable to locate the alley my hostel was on. My printed map was now smudging in the rain. This neighbourhood was quieter than the main square and there were notably less people about. Eventually I found an American couple who I wouldn't let go until they led me to my hostel. 

The dorm was open plan, I did not expect a giant man from the Ivory Coast to arrive, but he did. I was also quite surprised when he took a shower (I repeat, open plan dorm) and shouted at me to get him his towel. Once dressed, he was quite specific about me definitely not looking in his briefcase. When I showed a total lack of interest, he flashed the case open. It was stuffed full of dollars. Spooked, I left the dorm and set out to find something to eat.

At the diner, the soup waiter managed to get my name out of me and tried to get me to the night market with him. The next day a polite artist, after accompanying me around an art gallery, wanted me to get onto his bicycle so that he could take me to his truck for a city tour. Both men used shaming and guilt and then ridicule as tools to try to bend me to their will. When I returned to my dorm Ivory Coast Giant demanded that I go to Cancun with him to go dancing that night and then back to his country to be his girlfriend - 'because a woman travelling alone is always in danger'. He also explained that I couldn't be his wife because he was already married. He was sure his wife would not mind me being his girlfriend.

I was calm and firm, when batting these strange and slightly coercive flirtations away. Things could (maybe) have gotten more sinister with each encounter, but they didn't. It was waring and I didn't want to sleep in the same room as a man who had pestered me to be his mistress. After a night of blinking hyper vigilance rather than sleep in the same room as him, I moved hostel. As I lay awake in my last night at that first hostel in Merida, I recognised that I was transforming.

I could feel an internal robustness growing. Completely on my own (with no mobile phone) thousands of miles from anyone I knew and in a totally foreign landscape I had a sense that I couldn't afford the vulnerability of panic or fear - somehow I  began to disconnect from these feelings. I still felt luminously foreign. I also felt a sense of duty to myself. After everything it had taken to be doing this, I couldn't allow myself to waste any of it by being afraid.

My focus and memories of that brief stretch in Mexico (even now) feel preoccupied with the idea I had that I was constantly in danger. I wanted the truth to be that my gender had nothing to do with my ability to travel alone or not. The trouble was that I didn't really know yet whether I was up to it.

Disassociating from my fear was allowing me to dive into the visual world - or perhaps it worked the other way around, the more I focused on noticing my external surroundings, the less I had to inhabit my frightened inner space. I was gradually looking up and around me and immersing myself in taking photographs.

 

 

 

 

Caye Caulker

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To my surprise, I had survived the first few hours of being in Belize City. Dinner for one happened in my tiny cell of a room, a not entirely pleasant blend of cereal bar, banana and some UHT fruit juice. I had emptied my back pack and was re-rolling and re-packing everything, just to keep myself occupied. I had no plan for tomorrow, I couldn't reach that far ahead in my twittering nervous head. When I heard two female voices in the lobby of the hostel, speaking a little English and a little Spanish, my heart leapt. 

Hallelujah! Hannah and Layla appeared from nowhere and took me under their collective Nordic wing. In their company I felt safe enough to start to explore what being a lone woman backpacker could be. Together they modelled confidence in the face of the pushy and patriarchal and a relaxed faith in the basic idea that things would be ok. They flitted between being spontaneous party people and street wise and assertive.

Together we travelled to Caye Caulker where we hired bicycles and peddled around the island. We felt marvellously immune to the cat-calling with the relative speed advantage of the humble push bike. Hannah and Layla's laid back confidence was infectious, their enthusiasm for eating well and relaxing was exactly the discipline I needed. After a few days we left Caye Caulker and travelled North over the Mexican border to a simple tourist spot on the coast called Playa Del Carmen. 

I started to relax and eat properly and sleep well. Started to take walks and trips on my own to places like Chichen Itza. Still spookable, but increasingly resilient to the unfamiliar. The girls and I shared a room, spent our time separately during the days and came together in the late afternoons and evenings to eat. Low key was exactly what I needed for a time and I began to enjoy being alone to walk around and take photographs and gently explore. When the girls planned to head back to Mexico City, I made my plans to head to Tulum and Merida. Parting was so sad. We swapped something each from our backpacks, hugged for a long time and resisted tears. My next few days were alone, travelling and visiting Tulum, staying as the only guest in a Posada next to the site. I started to feel like I could do this...
More soon x

 

Belize it baby

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If I look back at my travels as a series of lessons through contrasting and testing experiences, beauty, wonder, connection and solitude (and I often do): I would say that my arrival in Belize city was probably the hardest test of all.

I arrived at my very small and depressing room with a decision to make: Taxi back to the airport? Or: Become a woman who travels alone around the world? I was almost peeing with fear about the thought of setting foot outside, but I knew I had to. I grabbed my small pack, a few dollars and nothing else (with the rationale that it was less to lose when I got mugged, which felt like an inevitability at that point)...

Walking up North Front Street in my best casual stroll, I experienced one of the things Belize is known for: Men and young boys riding bicycles or walking along the street shouting 'Hey Sexy' or 'Hi Honey'... 'What's your number?'. I suppose I hadn't expected it to be quite so common place or physically in-your-face. I found it unnerving, but it happened so frequently on that one shaky walk that I numbed to it. It felt important not to show my terror about this simple walk, you know; in case people realised I wasn't local.

I managed to buy some bottles of water, keeping my cool when a lightly aggressive drunk man asked me why I was buying water and whether I had a dollar for him. Boosted by my escape from death in the water/spare dollar exchange, I walked over the swing bridge and up the road a little, where I came to a fruit stall. I decided that I would really integrate with the locals now, by buying a banana from the (quite frightening looking) vendor. He was tall, broad and in a customised combat jacket. His styling and general poise borrowed heavily from the Military Dictator epoch. 'Hi there. One banana please.' 

He had a rough hook in place of his right hand. I saw his scarred wrist first, with a crude contour map of mending skin just above where his hand had been lost. I made quick assumptions about the violence involved in the loss of his hand and tried not to betray my thoughts when I spoke. The hook was resting by the bananas. 'Two dalla.' he said with shark-eyed hatred. I paid my two dollars, took the banana 'Thank you' and rattled, I hurried away. 'A HA HA HA HA... TWO DALLA?' He bellowed theatrically after me 'White girl jus pay TWOOOO Dalla for a banana! A BANANA!!' I was embarrassed by my stupidity and white Westerness, guilty and awkward. I also felt a bitter sting of anger: He's blown my cover. Now everyone knows I'm not local!


My photographs from the first few days in Belize are all in a sort of near focus, I only attempted to capture the things I could without having to move my arms too much or draw physical attention to myself by creating unusual body shapes or lingering in one spot for too long. I was so jumpy and worried about the obviousness of my foreigness. I was convinced I would be mugged or kidnapped or would inadvertently blunder into danger. Blending in has been a go-to social strategy since childhood. In Belize city everythingwas so different to anything I had ever seen or been amongst before that blending in was impossible. I stuck out. I felt like a total fish out of water, wide eyed and gasping. Things did get better! It just took a while to be able to relax and trust that things would be alright...

More in the next few days x