I started this blog on the shady terrace mentioned below, the Pacific Ocean just a short walk away. I continued it in the comfort of my London home, to the gentle hum of the washing machine. And I finished it off in my studio, looking out on a church steeple and grey skies. I wouldn’t normally drag out a blog that long – I guess this one was pretty special to me.
Despite the change in location, I decided to keep the original intro – I felt it important to record the moment …
I’m writing this blog from a shady terrace high above the beautiful beach of San Agustinillo, Oaxaca, Mexico. I’m in a rocking chair with my feet up, there’s a cat on my lap and an ice-cold mango juice within arm’s reach. It may not be the most comfortable blogging position – the cat’s a little difficult to manoeuvre around – but right now, I couldn’t be happier.
There have been many other magic moments like this in the last few weeks so it’s appropriate I’m writing this blog – the first since I left Mexico City and the last before I leave the country – at a hotel and restaurant called La Casa Magica.
Other magic Mexican moments: learning to wakeboard on a lagoon; surfing one morning as a pelican swooped in front of me; swimming in the sea at sunset on New Years’ Eve; dancing salsa until the early hours – one of my all-time favourite occupations that I managed to do three times in the last month, not including the times I danced around the house or a hotel room (salsa dancing makes my heart sing – I feel like I’m floating, flying even); skinny dipping at night, once in the sea and once in a plunge pool outside my apartment on New Year’s Day; eating chile prawns, garlic fish and guacamole; travelling in the back of a truck along sunny roads lined with palm trees; giggling uncontrollably at things that weren’t even that funny; conversing with the locals in a language I love and – a particularly vivid memory – lying on a sun lounger on the beach a few metres away from the crashing waves of the Pacific, gazing up at the night sky filled with stars, singing along to karaoke tunes playing in a nearby bar and resting my head on the broad shoulders of a beautiful man.
Yes, you heard me right. This single lady has had a wonderful holiday romance. Who would have thought it? Well, maybe I had an inkling I might meet someone in Mexico but I try not to travel with expectations. And even if I had thought a romantic interlude was on the cards, I couldn’t have imagined that it would be such a positive experience or that I’d walk away from it feeling so happy, healthy and emotionally strong.
Even before my holiday romance began, I was having an amazing time – being reminded of the joys of solo travel, particularly when I’m fluent in the local language.
It took me a while to get on the road again after a week in Mexico City – my fear and indecision threw obstacles in my path and robbed me of my peace for a day or two – but once I was moving, I felt silly for having fretted so much and really couldn’t understand what I’d been so worried about. Or rather I could – I was scared, of being lonely, particularly at Christmas, so I’d latched on to some of my old coping mechanisms: anxiety, chronic indecision and control.
But of course, I needn’t have worried.
As soon as I got off the plane in Puerto Escondido on Christmas Eve, I met an Aussie surfer who was also travelling alone and just as keen as I was to hang out. I spent Christmas Day morning on a beautiful empty beach and took a trip around a stunning lagoon in the afternoon with a friendly British couple I’d met at my hotel. At sunset, we watched baby turtles crawl across the sand and into the sea – free at last.
On Boxing Day, I came across a wonderful Mexican lady and a fellow fan of fun when I went to get my legs waxed. A few hours later, the Mexican leg waxer and I went salsa dancing in a fantastic bar with a live band. I spent the next day on the beach with one of the Mexican guys we’d met on the dance floor and, later that evening, I had a great conversation about life and love with a handsome Argentinean when the Mexican leg waxer and I hit the town again.
I’d been in Puerto Escondido just a few days and already felt quite at home.
Then, just when I was starting to feel a little unsettled – I’d met the Mexican guy again but he’d drunk too much beer and was hitting on me persistently so I’d walked away along the beach as the sun sank into the sea behind me – I ran into a traveller I’d met in Mexico City and we went to eat some fish tacos and drink frozen lemonade.
I didn’t know it then – I thought we’d just be sociable for a few days – but that was the start of a 10-day relationship (for want of a better word – liaison perhaps?) that was, for the most part, a huge amount of fun and that helped me grow more than I could have imagined.
After a rather colourful, rocky and reckless past in terms of my relationships with the opposite sex – my recklessness was at its height in my 20s when I lived in Mexico – and after a number of failed relationships more recently, I think I’d lost faith in my ability to make healthy choices when it came to guys or to enjoy the company of a man without feeling terrified of getting myself into a muddle, or of hurting him or getting hurt. I was always walking on egg shells, trying not to trample on my own emotions or those of others and feeling restricted by what I thought I ought to be doing or not doing.
I think I thought I had to stay away from men completely unless I was sure it was going to be for ever – but of course, I never could stay away. So I’d end up in situations I didn’t want to be in – in relationships I knew were wrong for me or feeling guilty about things I had done. Brief encounters left me feeling empty and longer relationships – although they haven’t lasted more than six months in my recent past – left me feeling incapable of making good choices and pretty glum about my romantic prospects.
But this time, I made a choice to live in the present, to forget all my rigid rules and regulations, to trust my instincts and the guy I had met and to have fun. The result was a lot of laughing, skinny dipping, more salsa dancing, karaoke singing (from the beach lounger) and a new sense of freedom around men and life.
Of course, I had the odd wobble with the guy – the odd needy moment or twinges of guilt and worry. And I’m sure, given long enough, my over-analytical brain that’s now many miles from the sunshine, sand and surf would come up with a long list of reasons why it wasn’t all that good for me.
But right now, I’m celebrating the fact I had a lovely holiday romance and was able to walk away from it without any tears (I repeat – without any tears!) and feeling good about myself, happy to let him go and content to continue my journey in the opposite direction.
This feels new. It feels different.
And Mexico was good for me in a whole host of other ways. The decision to spend a month there had a lot to do with rediscovering my adventurous spirit – a spirit that had been very much alive and kicking when I lived in Mexico City from 1995-2000 but that had been fuelled by unhealthy behaviours throughout those years – binge eating, starving, excessive drinking and the courting of danger, to name but a few. As I described in my Mexican memoir, my fun, free exterior disguised a good deal of inner turmoil.
So was I capable of returning to the scene of the crime – as I like to refer to Mexico on occasion – without using those crutches? Was I capable of taking healthy risks, with my feelings (by spending Christmas away from family and New Year away from friends), with my security (by travelling in a country where I was mugged at gun and knife point), with my money (by spending a lot of it) and with my perfect little London flat (by renting it out).
It seems the longer I had spent in my cosy life in London (ten years now), the more fearful I had grown of solo travel, of potential danger and of loneliness. Before I got to Mexico in 1995, I’d travelled alone through Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and parts of the United States for 18 months, hitchhiking on deserted highways, running out of money in numerous places, finding random jobs from fruit picking to dish washing to be able to keep going. One of my first trips in Mexico, after I’d managed to get out of Tijuana, was down to the depths of the Copper Canyon, a journey I made on the roof of a rickety bus to heighten the adrenalin hit.
On the outside, I was fearless, but I was also rather foolish.
But in recent years, things had got very safe – as an experienced extremist, I’d gone to the other extreme. I’d taken organised group holidays (yoga trips or activity breaks) rather than solo adventures, preferring to know exactly where I was sleeping, what I’d be doing with my days and the kind of people I would meet. I’d decided I was no good at sharing rooms and could only sleep if the conditions were perfect (total darkness and quiet). I’d decided my days of solo wandering were over.
So Mexico was an attempt to break out of a mould that had become a little too restrictive.
But the change didn’t happen overnight. I started my trip with a good amount of fear. As I made plans to head to the beach for Christmas, I worried too much about how comfortable the journey would be, where I would stay, if I would be safe and who I would meet. I tried to control everything to reduce the chances of feeling lonely and insecure. I compensated for my fear by over-planning and over-spending. I tried to buy my peace of mind and sense of well being.
But of course, no amount of money or luxury can buy emotional security or inner peace. They’re free, which is a real blessing, but sometimes we have to challenge ourselves so our sense of inner security and peace can develop. They’re like muscles – they need to be flexed in order to grow.
And that’s what I believe I did in Mexico. I stepped out in faith, sometimes with very wobbly legs, but I stepped out all the same. And God and the universe provided for all of my needs, with chance encounters and great connections, as well as some difficult moments that really helped me to grow.
An experience I had learning to surf could serve as a metaphor for overcoming my broader fears. I’d fallen off my board and a novice surfer almost collided into me as I struggled to get back on. I cut my foot on rocks I didn’t know where beneath me and I was pummelled by a set of waves. I took myself to the shore and as I examined my bleeding ankle and emptied the water out of my nose and ears, I experienced something akin to a panic attack.
On reflection, I think the experience had triggered a childhood memory – of when my Mum’s boyfriend threw me into the deep end of a Spanish swimming pool before I knew how to swim. But on both occasions, I didn’t throw in the towel. As a child, I took myself out of my depth in the sea with my brother and taught myself to swim. And as an adult, I picked up my surf board and waded back into the water, only to catch the next wave and ride it into shore. Of course, I could have given up my surfing ambitions and sat on the beach in the sun. But then I would have missed out – on an opportunity to challenge my fears, to grow through them and to do something I love.
By exploring other experiences, I also learned on my Mexico trip that I don’t, in fact, need perfect conditions (total darkness, silence, aloneness and expensive surroundings) to get a good night’s sleep. Once again, I just need peace of mind. And I was also reminded that I much prefer travelling by local bus or open-air truck than in a taxi that costs ten times as much.
Towards the end of my month, I was having such a good time that I even decided to extend my stay (although only after a huge amount of deliberation that turned into chronic indecision). I was looking forward to a few more weeks of adventure, returning to places I’d visited before but with different eyes. I made the choice to stay but my plan didn’t work. I couldn’t extend my flight. That’s OK. It feels fine to be home.
But my thirst for adventure, solo travel and Latin cultures has returned with a vengeance and I’d love to find a way to spend a month in Peru (one of the few Latin American countries I haven’t been to) in the not too distant future. I can wait around in London for someone to adventure with – or I can go on my adventures alone and open myself up to a world of opportunities and experiences.
In the meantime, I hope I can hold on to my adventurous spirit and make the most of what London has to offer – particularly its salsa bars.
And on that note, I’ll leave you with a song I danced to in Puerto Escondido and at my friend’s wedding in Acapulco (if my memory serves me correctly), as well as around my hotel room on a number of occasions. It’s by Luis Enrique, a Nicaraguan artist. The tune is a brilliant one to salsa to and the lyrics (written out in Spanish and English here in case you want to read them) talk about living for the moment and not trying to control the future. Check out the fancy footwork of the backing singers and try and stop yourself from dancing (oh yes, and excuse the rather abrupt ending, if you get that far) …