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Funky Morrissing in London – meet Syd Pochin


4 Minute Read

‘The one thing that gets me is, you just get six guys and a musician, and you’ve got a show. It all comes together ‘

Syd Pochin and I are having a pint in a Battersea pub where House music is playing in the background. It doesn’t seem as far away from the sound world of Cornish Billy or The Worcester Hornpipe as you might think.

‘When I’m dancing, I’m thinking this is tradition, this goes way back to a bygone age when there were no electronics. And no boxed sets on the couch.’ Whereupon Syd deftly traces the Rabelasian history of Morris Dancing as the resident musician of the Westminster Chapter. The stipendiary gig, he tells me, goes back to Henry VII bringing in an artisanal take on things to lively up the Galliards and Lavoltas in the court cloister. A bit later, Will Kemp was doing Morris moves instantly recognisable to country people all the way from London to Norwich.

Dance was a bush telegraph of allusion and social mobility like folk song tweaked visually and musically cross-country and quite possibly across continents. ’This is how we do it’ as youngers chant at Raves. If you’ve ever shaken a leg at a wedding reception or a corporate do, or indeed ventured out with a bit of A of A–style Flamboyance, it seems we’ve actually being Morrissing without noticing it. Syd got me wondering, as the house soundtrack ran on, about Ceroc, Capoeira and The Four Tops among other things.

These days Westminster Morris is itself the host of a Day of Dance in Trafalgar Square and radial hostelries in W1 which this year falls on May 12th. For reasons best known to itself, Westminster Council has just given them the morning, around noon, thus far. Although the Morris tradition is maintained and respected in the new world of dance diversity – Bhangra, Lindyhop, you name it – by the likes of Cecil Sharpe House for instance, the repository of many of the tunes in Syd’s cheery repertoire – you hopefully will be lucky enough to come across him on one of TFL’s busking pitches up West as I was recently.

Syd’s fascination with Morris began when he left the Wirral for a ten-year stint in Systems Consultancy with KPMG in Hong Kong. ‘I got involved with the Round Table and we used to put on an Ox Roast every year – we came across the Honk Kong Morris, about 15 guys from Ove Arup and other Anglo- Chinese outfits.’  One wonders how the present administration in Hong Kong would respond – given the Chinese urban habit of Tai-Chi in the morning.

Morris, as a team game, appears the soul of joshing democracy.  The ‘corners 1 and 6, 2 and 5 dance together, corners and middles rotate as does the leader, then the middles 3 and 4. Then everyone dances together’. Tempo is moderated democratically over a swift half.  Westminsters’ bush telegraph moderates to the Cotswolds’, while across the country, according to your locality, you might find ‘swords’ (actually used, Syd explains, to brush down pit ponies while the miners danced in lieu of showering facilities), handkerchiefs (fluttering Moorishly to waft away evil spirits) or clogs (factory girls square bashing to the looms’ groove to keep warm). Even, in Syd’s Liverpool days Pom-Poms, where female troupes with melting-pot influences from Tiller Girling to The Nolans and Cheerleading – practised enthusiastically under the handed-down Morrissian aegis. These days, Open Morris welcomes women and all the colours of the terpsichorean rainbow.

Syd’s first encounter with the musical kinship of Morrissing harks back to the Scouseward pub residency of The Spinners, whom you might remember as beacons of Scouse diversity on night-time TV in the seventies – you had to arrive early to get a seat. He has in turn gravitated to a Wednesday night residency at the Brewhouse in Islington, near Highbury Tube, which hosts all manner of guests and where taking the floor is a distinct possibility post-hot-desking or mid-prandial. Taking things a step further, Syd says newcomers are very welcome to give Morrissing a go when the Westminster team practices on Wednesday nights at St John’s Hall, Hyde Park Crescent, Tyburnia – not far from the wonderfully communitarian Funky Nuns of that ilk in fact. Your school day memory of folk dancing might be a tad stiff and curricular, but happens upon Syd busking, and his colleagues shaking a leg as the weather warms and I challenge you not to feel a spring in your step. I do. And find yourself warmly encouraged – nay instinctively emboldened to join the dance.

More information at www.westminstermorris.org

The Westminster Morris Men on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCY6ns2hnyfM-iHjXVz2QmWA

www.islingtonfolkclub.co.uk   at The Brewhouse on 21st April then every Thursday from May

Andy’s radio conversation with Syd is at

https://www.mixcloud.com/andy-bungay/saturday-4th-april-ft-syd-pochin-westminster-morris/

AofA People: Ben Cornish – Juggler, circus performer, workshop leader


3 Minute Read

How old are you?

 59

Where do you live?

I live in Exmouth in Devon just a 2-3 minutes walk from the beach.

What’s it like to be your age? 

I’m definitely not one of those people who says that I don’t feel any different to how I did when I was 18/25 etc.

I feel like I have always felt the age I am. That said I tend to try and avoid being responsible for anything after years of bringing up children!

Certainly, I am aware of aches, pains & things not working as well as they used to. A few years back I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and then a couple of years later contracted late-onset asthma.

So after 50 years of never being ill or seeing a doctor, my life has changed quite radically.

What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?

Paradoxically, in some ways, I am less opinionated than I was at that age but I am more certain of what I do know now.

I am far more patient now than I was as a young man and yet outraged at more things. For instance, how can so many people in the UK still vote for the bastard Tories? Parking charges, not being able to contact anyone etc

What about relationships?  

I have a smaller circle of friends than back in the day but the depth of those relationships is greater.

How free do you feel? 

I have been self-employed all my adult life and that has resulted in a life with a great deal of freedom.

I still feel free, but with all the restrictions imposed by COVID and the feelings of environmental responsibilities, perhaps less so than in the past.

What are you proud of?

My children. The fact that I have some really long-term relationships with wonderful people. I have never been unfaithful.

I have earned my living (as a comedian, juggler, workshop leader, and circus performer) doing something I enjoy that gives people pleasure. I can still make people laugh.

What keeps you inspired?

I love what I do & feel like I continue to develop my creativity and understand the mechanics of that better than ever.

My partner, Ange, who is a prolific landscape painter, constantly inspires me also. My incredible 90-year-old mother is also an endless source of inspiration and support.

When are you happiest?

Eating delicious food with friends and family. Walking on a beach with Ange. Practicing.

Being at juggling festivals and playing with friends I have known for many years.

Where does your creativity go?

Into my practice and my teaching. Playing the ukulele & trying to write songs & I have just finished writing my first book. It’s called Juggling and the Art of Practice.

What’s your philosophy of life?

Energy & charm will always trump talent.

Always try to create value wherever you are and whatever situation you are in.

My outlook is informed primarily by 25 years of Buddhist practice (Soka Gakkai member for 25 years, now lapsed)

Dabbling in Osho-lead philosophy…spent a month in the Ashram in Pune 6 years ago

Friendship and kindness are the most important things in life.

You can’t take anything with you when you go.

And dying?

See above. I have no real fear of death.

I came very close in August 2019 after a massive asthma attack & at the time, felt that if I hadn’t made it, I wouldn’t have had any regrets.

Are you still dreaming?

My actual dreams are rarely remembered. I have never really had much ambition.Are there still things I want to do?

Yes, but are they of burning importance, no. I am largely content in life with what I have, what I am doing & where I’m going.

You can see Ben juggling here – https://www.facebook.com/benjuggler/videos/10214707312781883

www.circusberercus.co.uk

Navigating Loss Around My Health


1 Minute Read

I’ve been mulling over how to tackle this piece for some time now. Procrastination has been easy and finding excuses not to start writing has afforded me some distance from the intensity of feelings that I was experiencing when the notion of writing first appeared in my thoughts.

And then, one evening, at a small gathering of friends over supper, I was entertained/enthralled/appalled (in equal measure) to hear the views espoused by one of the guests (a new acquaintance) who talked at length and with great enthusiasm, about his very real intention to have his head cryogenically preserved immediately after his death, to upload the contents of his brain to some future supercomputer or AI system.

When I asked him ‘why?’ he couldn’t believe that everyone wouldn’t want to live forever in this way – if they could. (This currently costs £100K, so not exactly accessible to all!) He was also hugely animated and excited at the prospect of advances in medicine that would prevent ageing, rid the world of chronic disease and prolong the human lifespan by many decades.

I found myself wanting to mention minor details like the climate change emergency and looming nuclear war but that felt a bit churlish so I just listened. in that space, I found myself wondering why we humans can’t seem to help ourselves becoming attached to just about anything and everything. The idea of loss, leaving, giving something up or surrendering is often an anathema to us and yet, in so many philosophies and faith traditions, the ability to do just that, let go and simply be, is the key to bliss, to heaven on earth, to enlightenment.

My personal journey with loss is a constantly evolving one and I have come to regard loss as part of the ebb and flow of life; a process that bestows as much as it takes. This insight doesn’t make it any less painful but somehow easier to live with. I have learned that there can be layers of loss – from the catastrophic and life-changing, through the intensely personal landscape of relationships and love, to the shared sense of loss of control that (for me) came with the global pandemic.

My own experience of life-changing loss came with me being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease at 51 after months of increasingly failing health. I was shocked at how quickly my body could go from being strong and resilient (able to run marathons, take on endurance races, scuba dive, look after a family and hold down a high octane career) to hardly being able to get out of bed each day and struggling to walk down the road. There was a strong sense of relief when the diagnosis (vasculitis) was eventually made and I finally had a recognised label rather than a troublesome set of symptoms. Surprisingly (to me), being acutely ill was the easy part. I have a background in nursing and I know how the system works, what good medical care is capable of achieving and that advances in science usually mean that what is tricky to treat now may well be mainstream within a decade.

And so it was. I adopted a project management approach to making myself as well as I could be whilst getting to grips with living with a long-term condition. I negotiated a change of work, moving into a part-time role facilitating the development of an education strategy and coaching the teams that would deliver it – pretty much all of it doable from my bedroom office via WebEx (this was pre-pandemic, pre-zoom).

I spent the next ten years surfing the waves of being well and on top of things, dealing with the impact the condition was having on myself and my family and friends (they too had to learn the new normal, they had lost the old Nadia, the woman with never-ending energy and they had to get to know the new, slower, tamed version) and coping with bouts of severe relapse caused by minor infections.

I was hospitalised with sepsis three times and each time I focused on what had worked before: rest, diet, building mental resilience, some work, some exercise and being with my family. After the third episode of sepsis (I nearly died this time) I decided to take the early retirement option that came with my NHS pension and I started to do some occasional teaching with my local university on the nursing degree programme.

I used myself as a living case study to illustrate the journey of someone with a long-term condition. I hadn’t anticipated how much I would learn from this experience and, at the same time, how painful it would be to regularly revisit my recent past and relive the feelings of loss that accompanied the changes in my life. I often found that I came away from one of my lectures exhausted, pulse racing, heart-thumping, needing to find a quiet place to decompress and let the sense of panic inside me recede enough for me to be able to drive home. I suspected that I may have PTSD and I decided to stop working altogether. It was such a huge relief.

When the pandemic hit, I had already spent several months in wind-down mode – dog walking, baking, gardening and visiting my family and grandson as often as possible. I loved this new way of being. I felt relaxed and able to breathe. My health was (relatively) good, and I felt fit, certainly fit enough to take on lockdown. And then I found myself waking in the middle of the night with an overwhelming sense of impending doom and loss of control.

It didn’t matter how well I looked after myself, if I caught this virus I would at best lose my kidneys (vasculitis having caused chronic kidney disease) and at worst not survive at all. The sense of loss was immense and engulfed me (it makes me tearful to remember it). Suddenly the things I had taken for granted were no longer certain, medicine and science were struggling to deal with the unknown, we couldn’t go to see our family and simple pleasures like sharing a meal with friends or going to the cinema simply ceased to be.

I had to find an anchor, something to help me recalibrate and gain some much-needed perspective. This came in the form of sea swimming and practising gratitude. The sea swimming was easy, a no brainer for me. It gave me the chance to be outdoors in nature with one close friend and to simply be. In that being, my mind started to be still and a space opened up in which I could see things to be grateful for – and there were many. I didn’t beat myself up for having felt such a sense of loss, I acknowledged it and was grateful to be able to feel it and still be safe, housed, warm and well-fed and not be suffering financially.

I realised how lucky I was, I am, I have been and how much harder life is for so many people. This isn’t to say that if you’re fortunate you somehow give up the right to feel the pain of loss. It isn’t a competition. Each of us will experience the impact of loss during our lives, whatever our circumstances. I believe that our ability to navigate loss is not necessarily dictated by those circumstances. It is more to do with learning to surrender and, in doing so, becoming aware of some innate wisdom that is hidden in plain sight – the wisdom of the annual cycle of nature; the dying down and wintering in order to rebuild and rebirth in spring and grow in summer through to harvest; the wisdom of your body, especially your gut – when it is telling you to stop. Even if you just stop for a bit it makes a difference. I became aware of the wisdom in rediscovering old joys and discovering new ones – who knew that there is so much to see on a walk to the shops or a busy commute.

My most recent relapse has taken me down some deep holes and involved another layer of loss because it coincided with a family trauma. I have done my best to hone my navigational skills and to learn some new ones. I have found myself drawn to and interested in the power of prayer and incantation, I have gained huge comfort from practising the universal loving-kindness meditation and I have surrendered to the process of a new treatment regime and the possibility of needing a kidney transplant in the not too distant future. I have learned that I will never really know what ‘living with covid’ is actually supposed to mean for someone like me.

Each layer of loss has bought with it a new gain, and so it goes. I tend my garden, I write, I walk much more than I run and I am still swimming.

The link to the Universal Loving Kindness meditation

https://www.mindful.org/this-loving-kindness-meditation-is-a-radical-act-of-love/

 

What I Learnt About My Gut


1 Minute Read

I have had a lifetime of learning about my gut, in particular my bowels, and I know that I am not alone!  I am quite sure many of you reading this will have had debilitating and hard to understand issues with your gut at some point in your lives. Like me, you have probably tried all kinds of supplements, nutrition adjustments and food restrictions to help your gut work in a comfortable and effective way. Like me, you may have become frustrated with how little impact all this has had and not know what to try next. Maybe like me, you have discovered that talking about mental health and bowels in the same breath is a good way of ending a conversation.

It was only when I realised that my gut was illustrating and responding to my emotional status, both current and historical, that I began to have some understanding of what was going on. It was only when I began to understand that in Eastern traditions the lower belly is considered the centre of emotional and spiritual growth, that I began to see the potential there and to feel the emotions there.  It was only when I studied the anatomy and physiology of the gut that I developed awe and wonder for its incredible beauty and complexity.  And it was only when I read some of the recent research into the gut microbiome and the enteric nervous system (aka the second brain) that I began to understand how the different tissues in the gut were able to hold onto difficult experiences in the past that impacted our gut function from that moment onwards, that this all started to fit together into one huge puzzle.

If I tell you that every moment of every day your gut is responding to how safe you feel, that every moment it is remembering times when you did not feel safe and sometimes this all gets mixed up together into a tangled experience that is hard to fathom. Does that resonate with you?

My gut has memories of a traumatic childhood and then a near-death experience later in life (I was scuba diving in cold water and started breathing in seawater) which left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or as I like to call it now Post Traumatic Gut. Many nights were spent waking with palpitations, nausea, dizziness, cramps, diarrhoea, then days feeling depleted and sore and only just functioning. I was feeling isolated and helpless often and not knowing where to turn for help.

Our bowels and our mental health are intimately connected, one reflecting the other all the time. As a child not able nor allowed to talk about how I felt whilst witnessing the emotional explosions of others, my gut was often constipated and its enteric nervous system moved beyond fight and flight and into freeze as I dissociated from the people and the world around me. As a teenager with anxiety and depression, I remained emotionally stuck. Later in life, and after my accident, I began to do my emotional work and my gut came on that journey with me. I am still travelling, but I know I am not alone.

As a CranioSacral Therapist, I was also seeing many people with mysterious chronic gut issues in my practice. I decided to take action. After a long period of research and trying out strategies and bodywork techniques for myself and clients, I wrote a new curriculum for the Upledger Institute, ‘CranioSacral Therapy and Listening to the Enteric Nervous System’ which I now teach internationally to support other practitioners help the people coming to them. I also wrote my book, published by Upledger Productions in the USA and UK, It’s All In The Gut which is for anyone interested in emotional stress and the gut. This is written through my personal story in an effort to make it engaging and relevant but also contains much of the recent research, the anatomy and physiology and, of course, strategies and meditations to help anyone reading with a gut issue.

Alongside this, I have a YouTube Channel Colon to Cosmos, which has some visualisations and meditations to support people on their journey of exploration with their gut.

So what can you do? The fundamental way to help yourself is to do your emotional work, through CranioSacral Therapy, talking therapy or any therapeutic practice that works for you. Emotional stress is the number one thing that has a negative impact on our microbiome and our enteric nervous system and all the layers and cell populations in the small and large intestines. This includes stress from the past as well as the present. It doesn’t matter how many avocados you eat, it will make little difference if you do not address these fundamental issues.

Alongside this work, you can support your gut health by being active, especially outside in nature. Your gut bacteria love being taken for a walk, just 30 minutes a day will help them. Learn to breathe. Eat a clean diet (avoid processed anything or anything with a list of ingredients as much as possible!) and drink plenty of water. Make time to do anything that makes you happy whether that is singing, yoga, knitting, cooking, gardening or anything at all that you love.

All of this will support your gut health and your vagal tone which is also important for healthy and happy gut function. We have so much more power to help ourselves than we may think.

So is my gut health perfect now? No more than my mental health. I am still anxious often and my bowels can be fast and uncomfortable. I also have periods of calm and normal function. The difference is that I now listen to the message my gut is sending me and do my best to deal with the emotional issue if I can or at least recognise it, as well as doing the things that help. For me these are yoga, weight training, walking by the river, talking to friends and so on. Like I said, I am still travelling.

If you would like to learn more about how this all works and how you can help yourself, you can buy my book It’s All In The Gut here:

www.nikkikenward.store

And ask any questions, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

A Street Market in Spain – Viva Los Llanos!


1 Minute Read

I’ve always liked Los Llanos. It’s a Saturday street market just outside the town of Albox in Almeria, Spain. In the top section you can find fruit, veg, bed linen, second-hand clothes, old furniture, silver jewellery, plants, homemade jam and rescue puppies. Down the steps, there’s a sizeable rastro (flea market) with old tools, antiques, musical instruments and a Moroccan shop with a cornucopia of goods. In my early days living in Spain, I’d sometimes come with 20€ and mostly leave with a good, if unexpected haul – I once got a top-quality djembe drum for 5€.

One of the best things about the market is the diversity of the stallholders – a mixture of Spanish, Moroccan, Romanian, Ecuadorian, African, English, Gitano and moreSuch variety is rare in this part of Spain, and it almost feels like my native southeast London. There’s even a bookstall playing loud roots reggae. I love reggae, but you hardly ever hear it in this area.

So when I found out that Lynda, an English woman from my village, had a bric a brac stall at Los Llanos, I decided to ask if I could share it with her for a few weeks in the run-up to Christmas. I wanted to shift some old clothes and other things that were cluttering up my house. I was delighted when she agreed.

I started on Saturday 4 December. Ahead of a move back to the UK, Lynda was selling her stuff for just 1 or 2 euros, so I did the same. On my first day I sold an electric brasero* for 3€ and a lamp for 2€. It didn’t seem much, but I decided to spend my takings. They went a long way – I got pair of crystal earrings, a vintage shift dress and a pansy for the garden. I was chuffed. It felt like an alternative reality where 5€ is a decent sum of money.

The second week I did better. Electrical goods seemed popular so I took some mini speakers, as well as the remains of a job lot of linen cushion covers a friend had given me. Both were snapped up immediately, swiftly followed by a vintage juicer and some clothes. I took 25€ and found a much-needed pair of tongs for my wood burning stove (1.50€) and a useful credit card holder (€2). I needed a second-hand axe and the Moroccan shop said they had one at home (unfortunately they never found it).

Often, when you’re shopping for something, you just can’t find it. But Los Llanos was proving this theory wrong because it kept offering up exactly what was needed. In Week 2, this was demonstrated in an extraordinary way.

A woman picked up one of Lynda’s craft books. She wandered off with it. When she came back to pay, she said she’d been looking for the book for years after giving it away in the 80s. She’d searched everywhere, even contacting the publisher, but it had gone out of print. Her husband turned the front cover. ‘Look,’ he exclaimed, ‘she wrote her name inside. It’s actually hers!’ It was the woman’s own copy – last seen somewhere in the north of England and surfacing some 40 years later in an Andalusian street market.

Weirdly, she didn’t seem too surprised. She paid up and wandered off, leaving us nonplussed. ‘Do you think she says that every time she buys something, in the hope she’ll get it for free?’ Lynda asked.

Rhythms of the market

Being there every week, I noticed how the stallholders changed. There were regulars like Lynda, and there were others who came and went. The stall next to ours had different people all the time. One week there was a Spanish lady selling exquisite handmade children’s clothes, the next week a young African man with a job lot of small leather jackets for 5€ each. My favourite temporary stall was in the rastro section: a selection of beautiful old instruments: violins, trumpets, cellos and flutes. I wondered what stories lay behind them.

Lynda

After a few weeks on the market, Lynda and I were getting to know each other better. Although I knew she did markets, I hadn’t realised how serious she was about her stall, for which she made an interesting collection of dolls, cushions and other crafts, and sourced an eclectic selection of clothes, craft books, antiques and jewellery. She treated it like a job, tapping into what people want with skill and generosity. I found out how practical she is, too. Not only is she a keen crafter and a skilled cook, she’d singlehandedly re-roofed a portion of her Spanish house with a friend’s unwanted tiles. ‘I just looked at how the others were laid in an interlocking pattern and copied it,’ she said. It took four days and 148 tiles and the roof never leaked again.

It was only when I knew her better that I noticed how she quietly sipped tea at lunchtimes, not wine like the other retired expats. She was returning to the UK to find more mental stimulation – something I crave, too. People always said there were bound to be people like me in the area, but I’d never expected them to be hiding in plain sight right under my nose!

Week 3

I rocked up late after a disturbed night and knew I wouldn’t sell anything. I decided to gather information instead. The first stop was Dean the bookseller, who I’d been plucking up the courage to approach. I bought a couple of books to smooth the way and said: ‘I like your music.’ He looked indifferent, but I persisted. ‘Do you know any local venues that play reggae?’ He still wasn’t forthcoming. It was only when I said I’d done some DJ-ing in London that his ears pricked up and he remembered that he and his partner had visited a new reggae café by the coast the previous weekend. A new reggae café by the coast?! The market had given me what I wanted again! We chatted a bit more and he started playing one of my YouTube roots reggae playlists*. As I walked away I wondered if the Lubrin Dub Club would become my legacy at the Los Llanos market.

After Christmas

Lynda’s return to the UK was delayed, so after Christmas she was back at Los Llanos again. It poured with rain the first weekend, so she didn’t go, but the market had become a habit for me and I went anyway. The place was half empty and the woman behind our favourite veg stall had time to chat. She told me that all her products were organic, grown on her farm. I bought a big bunch of spinach, eight oranges, two kilos of carrots, some bananas, two onions, three peppers, a garlic and four tomatoes for just 7.80€ and was surprised by an unusual desire to cook. Then I had a quick look round before leaving and there, in the middle of a stall of second-hand tools, sat the full-size axe I’d been seeking since Week 1. It was priced at 18€, but the stallholder said I could have it for 14€ – which was lucky as all I had left was 15€ in small change.

As for Lynda, she did one more market. I went along to see her and she gave me the last in a long line of freebies – a handmade elephant cushion to remember her by. I got her something, too, a pair of silver earrings from the jewellery stall. I presented them to her over lunch the next week. She was thrilled – and promptly reciprocated with offers of her butane gas heater, a shopping trolley and a pressure cooker! I had to smile. Los Llanos – the market that gives you everything you want, and a few things you didn’t know you wanted, too!

* Electric version of the large metal tray of burning coals traditionally placed under Spanish tables covered with a long tablecloth, to warm up the people sitting round the table.

* The Lubrin Dub Club is a series of World Reggae playlists that I’ve compiled on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzfw2_S2TRll28rWuEhvoH8tZpBCh_XPR

Photo of Mercadillo Rastillo Internacional Los Llanos de Arboleas c/o Facebook.

How Many Miles? Rolling Home Here I Am


9 Minute Read

So, my dear friend Rose nudges me to get writing something for AoA.

I say nudge, but it feels more like a poke. A benign poke, but a poke is more staccato than a nudge, and is always a gift. I always say yes, and then I’m writing to some kind of deadline, which serves the writing of the piece.

Maybe boundaries she says, something about boundaries.

Humm, says my mind, mind… yes, says my deeper and quieter voice. Just yes.

I mean, I don’t really write self-help, and that’s where my mind went. I come from a field of trauma so unspeakable that I didn’t know what a boundary was, and I certainly didn’t know I had any right to say no to anything. Especially, as it happened, anything sexual. I am a long way down the road from there, and I am in many ways, the more obvious ways, pretty good at saying no when required. I have had to say it a lot (too much) over the last 3 or 4 years before my back surgery in 2020, because so many simple pleasures became impossible to manage.

I teach, in a manner of speaking, some of my psychotherapy clients a few bits and bobs about boundaries.

So, the whisper of yes, that this is the thread to pull in the writing, well that’s me going down below what I think I know. What I do know, because I don’t want to disrespect the effort it has taken to learn about edges and space between, and the beauty and freedom to be found in the simplicity of saying yes, and no, and I’m not sure yet, let me think about that.

Underneath, and underneath more, there is a place where I am only a beginner at the slippery business of saying the no, that is saying a just born yes to what has been waiting a lifetime to see if I make it.

Yes, I do finally see you there, so utterly alone, so defeated. I finally see the disembodied homeless and hopeless. Me. Caroline the Compassion Queen with all my talk of welcoming and fields of kindness, only just got to the place where you became visible. I can see you through a vale of tears. I only just made it, and I know there is comedy in this. Tender comedy, tragicomedy… we are all, in the soap-operas of our little lives, trying to get home before we have to go.

My perspective. It might not be yours.

Remember, I am not in the self-help section.

I didn’t know how to listen to my body, though I probably would have told you I did… I got parts of me home. Dear God, my life has been a pilgrimage, and the many homecomings have been anchoring, rooting me into this earth, the ground, leading me to a sense of place that wasn’t defined by violence and self-murder. I found kin along the road. I wasn’t alone. I started to see myself in the mirrors of my ragged fellow travellers. The original mirror was argued with, bits of it fell off, shattered, got swept away.

If we lived in delusional Disneyworld, where all was linear and orderly, where we get a psychological fact and that’s that, well, we wouldn’t be human.

Nothing at all about my post-surgery experience has been as I might have written it. I didn’t write it, because I didn’t believe I would have a life rolling on for very long post-surgery. As many of you know, I had planned to leave – had surgery failed to significantly improve the constant agony that had become my reality. The chaos of my NHS surgery being pulled on the day, the despair, the undefended asking for help, the outpouring of generosity from so many through crowdfunding – like an enormous wave of unconditional love that had me 5 days later in my surgeon’s Harley Street Clinic, receiving the very best version of the spinal fusion that is currently available. All of this brought me here.

Here.

Here, to where I didn’t expect to be, so I hadn’t written myself in, I’d written myself out. It has been more than strange to turn back towards a life I wasn’t expecting, and find it full of fragments of old stories.

I have stopped tapping on my keyboard. Ground to a halt.

I’m looking for a word that captures that first year of afterwards. The one that won’t go away, even though I’m pushing hard, is torture. I don’t want to say it. Hyperbolic, my critical mind says loudly, but truth be told, it is the right word. So much of what and how I understood things started falling away. I probably spent that first year trying to hang on to them. That felt like torture.

With the love of some straight-talking mirrors, you know, my people. My kin. My heart buddies, I started to allow what was already happening. I stopped fighting. Not just like that, but I did turn a corner. I turned towards my most homeless, abandoned and separate self… the one that was turned away from at the very first breath, by a mother that could only feel hate, revulsion and horror. I come from that lineage.

Along to highways and byways of slogging onwards, of course I came to learn and understand that I had turned away from myself in that very same way. And, yet I had missed the embodied abandonment, until instead of deciding to take my own life because the NHS couldn’t give me what the same surgeon could if I paid him. At that point, I couldn’t not meet myself in the unoccupied house of my own ravaged body. The surgeon said my lower discs were dust, that he could sweep away and build structure and architecture. That this would hold me straight for the rest of my life.

I didn’t know this then, but only if I got it. Only if I saw the one I turned away from, because I didn’t know how not to, because I couldn’t stay with the overwhelming experience of arriving in the world in a tiny body, constantly flooded with sensation, if there was no-one there to stay with her. I internalised revulsion and absence. It was all I had to breathe in. I took that into every cell, fibre, blood and baby-bone of me. Understanding the absence and revulsion and the marks it left on me, I learned how to stay with much of what wasn’t stayed with. I found fields of kindness that caught me when I fell out of the fighting not to be depressed.

I just never, ever noticed that the pain in my body that has been as true and baseline as depression has – is the embodied expression of the same simple, unbearable, tragicomedy of my little life. I pushed on through everything, every moment of everyday, not listening to a single cry or whimper, not hearing my body pleading for mercy. Even on the dance-floors of redemption and in the kitchens of love, everything always hurt, and hurting got louder and I got deafer, and in the end the discs at the bottom of my spine were dust and I could barely move, and I literally could not continue to stay alive if this was my lot

Back to the boundaries.

I am surgically repaired enough to revert to pushing through, so I had to turn towards that baby that wasn’t stayed with, and ask her to forgive me for the very long wait, and ask her to show me how to listen. I had to stop fighting with ideas about becoming someone better (physically) and appreciate I am here already and that words like limits and capacity are love words, not dirty words. I live with pain. I never thought in my wildest occasional dream that I wouldn’t, but I live with pain and that is not all there is of me. That is a very big difference. I manage with medication, prayer, physical and energetic support, disciplined and simple core strength maintenance, but mostly by listening to this 63-year-old body that has been waiting a literal lifetime to be heard.

Attuned.

A word that brings tears to my eyes.

A word that shatters my heart into pieces of tenderness that are unfathomable because they belong in the tiny, helpless, wordless and lonely body of a baby, that I can actually feel from the inside of her.

I don’t fancy living many more years. I’m not going to get old, old.

And, I am here living now, and I am attuned to the SOS from the toil of getting here. I’m listening. The message is singing its purest note. I will work less. I am saying no, and I’m sorry I’m not taking any new clients for the foreseeable future. I am making the work – that I’ve come to love and trust myself in more and more as I land by my own fireside – fewer in numbers. If I don’t, I will spend the rest of my life giving too much holding, and spend the space in-between recovering rather than being Here.

Here to breathe.

Here to finish my one little book.

Here to see more of the ones I love.

Here to not know what’s going to happen next.

Here to yield to This, over and over until This is the end of being in my forgiving body.

My body will always hurt.

Sometimes that feels overwhelming.

At this moment, really allowing the truth and the grief to be here, I am flooded with something I don’t have one single word for. I find myself here more often though and am so very grateful. In the absence of one word, or anything elegant, it’s the ‘Everything in This’.

I don’t often spell this out, but a lifetime of clenching against embodiment has left pain everywhere. It was my back that collapsed, and that has been the doorway to Home, but everything hurts: head, neck, hands, fingers, shoulders, arms, eyeballs, joints… That’s how it rolls, and all of the hurting has been so lonely, and isn’t anymore.

I listen, imperfectly, and love, imperfectly, every hurt, every clench, every soften and re-clench and soften. I have given up fighting to be a different me, though sometimes I forget I have, and then I remember again…

Gratitude.

Humility.

Hilarity.

It’s all I’ve got.

The Culture Interview – singer/songwriter Luz Elena Caicedo


8 Minute Read

Luz Elena Caicedo, in her 50s, is the brilliant Colombian singer/bandleader with Conjunto Sabroso, a world-class Latin band who has performed everywhere from the UK to China. Luz has just released her FIRST VIDEO and it’s of the beautiful Yo Soy Mujer Con Tantas Mujeres Dentro (I Am A Woman with So Many Women Inside) which celebrates women and also highlights their global struggles. It coincides with International Women’s Day today. It also comes out at a time when Colombia has just made abortion legal. You can watch it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJk3Q7G5dqU

Tell me something about the connection between this song and International Women’s Day?

I would say that because the song focuses on sorority and the idea that we are in essence a collage of the many other women in our lives, and because it both celebrates women’s achievements and highlights our universal struggles, it is directly connected to this special date.

Some would argue that Women’s Day should be every day but I believe that having a specific date to mark International Women’s  Day – is an acknowledgement of our struggle, and of the fact that we have only gotten this far because of the courage, battles, alliances, support, and sacrifices made by so many other women before us. As I say in the song: ‘…we are standing on the remains of many others sacrificed…’

And also about the making of this video? The director is a woman too?

Yes, the video director is Alejandra Jimenez a Colombian film-maker. It really was an organic process, I happened to sing the song (which I was in the process of recording), in her husband’s Zoom birthday party during the lockdown, and she really liked  it, she said ‘that is an amazing song, it really touched me, Luz Elena we have to do a video of it…’, I didn’t think she was serious, but the next time we met, she brought it up again, and I was so flattered, I said of course that I would be honoured.

She explained her vision and what she wanted to do, which was to include shots/images from the women in my family, as well as other close friends. I said I would also like to include some of the Latin American songstresses who have influenced me musically, such as La Lupe from Cuba, Toña La Negra from Mexico, and Mercedes Sosa from Argentina who all appear in the video, intertwined with images of women in marches, social leaders, indigenous women, as well as images alluding to mother earth ‘La Pachamama’ to which I dedicate a verse to in the song.

As Alejandra says, there are many layers to the video. Another important aspect of the creation of the video was the various women coming together contributing their time and expertise, namely my niece Lina Maria Caicedo also a filmmaker and archive producer, who provided all the archive footage, and supported me throughout the process, and Elena Rodriguez who assisted Alejandra with technical issues. This video truly was an example of sorority at its best!

Do you relate to particular women’s struggles in the world?

I don’t consider myself a feminist, although you could argue that I may have perhaps rewritten the narrative of what was expected of me as a Colombian woman from a conservative family, given that I chose not to have any children, and that I am a bandleader and lead singer of a band in a male-dominated genre, in that sense I would say that perhaps I’m more of a feminist by action than by personal perception.

I don’t belong to any active group combating gender inequalities, but of course, I relate to the many issues and struggles that as women we all face, for instance, less pay, less credibility as an artist, fewer opportunities in professional settings, the fight against domestic violence, the legalisation of abortion etc.

Tell me how Conjunto Sabroso started?

I never intended to be a Salsa singer, I was a Colombian and Latín folk dancer for many years, I actually saw myself as a dancer who sang a bit and played a bit of guitar. However, when I came back from my year abroad in Mexico in 1992 the Latin/Salsa scene had exploded in the UK. I was told there was a Salsa band auditioning female backing singers, and I went to audition and got the gig.

It was a 7 piece band, all men plus me. I didn’t really like their repertoire, but it was an opportunity to sing professionally which I had never done before! My harmonies were not very strong and after 8 months they told me I was going to be on a three-month trial, and that I would have to go if I didn’t improve because they were ‘…going up in the world, and I wasn’t moving with them…’ I felt very hurt naturally, but I decided to leave soon after that conversation, and form my own band, where I wouldn’t be told what to sing by a man.

I realised I was more of a lead singer, as I felt like I was in the straightjacket of singing backing vocals with a bunch of men and just looking pretty. I formed a band where I had the freedom to do what I wanted, specially choosing my own repertoire, which was very liberating. It was a great lesson, it gave me the courage to start something that has stood the test of time. Today I am proud to say, we are one of the most popular and longest-running Salsa bands in the UK, and are blessed to have some of the most outstanding, talented and experienced musicians on the Latin scene playing with us!

And your history as a singer? Did everyone in your family sing?

There are no other musicians in my family but my maternal grandmother (I am told I look very much like her) and her sisters sang in family reunions when they were young, they apparently had very beautiful voices. My grandmother lived with us, and I have beautiful memories of her singing all day, and singing to us, she would have a different song for each one of us.

How important is it for you that you are Colombian?

Being Colombian is very important to me, I love my culture and our music. Being a Colombian folk dancer as a teenager gave me a sense of belonging, and that was very important in my formative years, as I understood my place in this society. I am part of an immigrant family, and have the benefit of enjoying the best of two different cultures, as I love London and the amazing multicultural aspect of this amazing city!

How do you choose the songs that you sing which come from all over South America?

In terms of the Salsa band Conjunto Sabroso, I choose them with Wilmer Sifontes, who is co-leader of the band with me. One of us will suggest a song we like. If it makes us both want to dance, we have it written out and for sure it goes in the set. I have written a few of them, and the audience really like our original tunes, so we must be doing something right…! 😉

For Matices Latinos which is kind of a contemporary folkloric Quartet, I choose most of the songs, and it’s an opportunity to play many different genres from the Latin American songbook. We have the benefit of sharing the same language in most of the Latin American countries and therefore we listen to each other’s music, which is what makes it so interesting. I am now singing more of my own songs in this band.

And are some of them passed down through your family?

The songs are not necessarily passed down through our families, but we have been definitely influenced by the music our mothers and fathers have listened to. Dancing and festivities and celebrations are Intergenerational in our culture, so we get to share much of the same music!

How is it being Colombian in London?

It’s great, as I said before it feels fantastic living in one of the most iconic cities in the world. I feel very privileged to be here, I love London for its openness and respect for people’s individualism. I love that there is space and audiences for all types of music, including mine, and that because there is so much appreciation for the arts here, it’s an amazing place to thrive if you put your mind and effort into it.

We think of salsa when we think of Colombia but tell us something about La Cumbia?

Cumbia is an Afro Colombian rhythm from the Caribbean Coast, and it is also Colombia’s national rhythm. It is traditionally played with drums, Gaita which is an Amerindian and ancestral flute, and voice. You also have orchestrated Cumbias, and this music is danced throughout Colombia, Latin America, and has also taken Europe by storm in the last ten years.

What have been some of your favourite gigs?

Some of my favourite gigs have been playing in China in The Beijing International Festival, at The Poly Theatre in Beijing in 2001, playing in Kenya at The Kijani Festival in 2007, playing at The Jazz Café after coming out of lockdown last year was pretty special, playing two open-air gigs in Carnaby Street also last year was amazing, and two weeks ago playing at Tomek Zaleski’s life celebration event, who was a renowned Salsa DJ and collector who did so much to promote Salsa music in the UK and sadly passed away this January! He did the liner notes for our first Conjunto Sabroso album!

Look out for @conjuntosabroso on Insta.

 

 

My Retreat in Sri Lanka


1 Minute Read

Towards the end of my twenty years living in Dubai, discussions with friends turned to future retirement and the question of whether we’d settle easily back into Britain. One friend Bobby shared his vision of buying some land in Sri Lanka and developing a community for other like-minded souls to retire to.

This idea seemed quite revolutionary at the time – little did we realise he’d spawned the idea for the Exotic Marigold Hotel!

Sadly, Bobby passed away before his time, so his dream would never become a reality, but it always stuck with me.

Then, in 2011 aged fifty, my life changed significantly – I was newly single and had children going into further education, which called for a move back to England.

It was only when, in 2016, after the combination of a recent trip to India and the launch of the TV Series ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’, that I recalled Bobby’s vision. Maybe retiring to that part of the world was not such a pipe dream after all?

Despite the ongoing Covid situation, with things being very up in the air until the last minute – literally as we took our 72 hour pre-flight PCR test – in January 2022, my plan for a Real Marigold Hotel in Sri Lanka was unfolding.

Number one project had been to find the perfect property which I did – a private home with local staff who could share their culture, and a British manager who could share her expatriate lifestyle in Sri Lanka.

I researched flights, locations, activities, health care (particularly due to Covid), costs, visas and cultural experiences.

The trip was aimed at midlife women – nothing against men at all – but I work with (mostly single) midlife women in my UK retreat business, Soul Sisters Community, and wanted them to view this as something they could consider doing alone.

I positioned it as an opportunity for solo travel into a community – being brave to plan on your own but knowing there would be a like-minded group to join.

Unlike my ‘New Life Purpose’ workshop retreats in Britain, the time spent in Sri Lanka was a combination of both retreat and holiday. Yes, we visited all the tourist spots – whale watching, elephants, turtles, markets, museums – but we also spent many hours talking about life, sharing past experiences as well as our hopes and fears for the future.

‘After years of feeling stuck in a rut with my marriage I knew I had to do something for myself.  Making the trip to Sri Lanka alone was rather daunting but also exhilarating. Despite the fact Rachel had arranged everything, I felt quite brave, which in retrospect, having done it now, seems quite silly. The time away from everyday life, family and phones allowed me the space to reflect. As I swam early every morning with just the birds and monkeys for company I felt at peace with myself for the first time in a long while.’ K.

‘I had a brilliant time. I haven’t laughed so much in years – not something you’d expect with a group of strangers. It was almost as if a sense of relief had overtaken us all – to be away and carefree, no matter how temporarily – was incredible. So were the monkeys stealing food from the table!

I can’t imagine living anywhere other than England, at the moment anyway, but the experience certainly opened my eyes to the fact that we do have choices and they are just ours for the taking.’ A.

For my part I’m not ready to take the Marigold plunge just yet, but will 100% be offering similar style trips next winter and seeing where that leads me.

www.soulsisterscommunity.com    3 day retreats to discover your next life journey with journaling and tarot.   The next retreat starts on March 8th.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of a Good Travelling Companion


11 Minute Read

One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things   Henry Miller

I’m not one of those people who like to travel alone. I like to share my experiences with someone else. However, I don’t underestimate the difficulties of being with someone else for 24 hours a day. I know it’s a testing experience. There are many areas for conflict. It can break a close friendship.

After two years of not just Covid-prevented trips but also working on projects that needed all of my attention, I was keen to go away. I’m always interested in exploring new places and I’d loved going to Senegal in West Africa with my son a couple of years ago. I wanted to do more in that part of Africa. Ghana arrived by chance – I was chatting to someone who worked for the same charity as me. He happened to have built an eco-lodge on the coast in the Volta area of Ghana called Meet Me There, I looked at their website and decided then and there that Ghana would be my new destination.

That was summer 2021 and of course, I had no idea what would be happening with Covid and it was pre-Omi. I invited my partner, Asanga to come along. January is always my favourite time to get away, a long way away; to flee the pervasive grey, the post-Xmas blues, to lighten the emergent year.

Eventually, Asanga declined. A few years ago, he and I faced our differences on this front. He declared that he was no longer – he’s 78, has a major climbing injury and is happy with the heavenly landscape of sea and mountains in North Wales – interested in long haul trips abroad. But he was supportive of my continuing enthusiasm.

I was stumped because none of my usual travelling companions was available. And then I happened to be talking to an old friend, Ruby Millington – we met when we both worked as freelance journalists for the Evening Standard’s Metropolis 30 years ago – and she confessed that she’d wanted to go to Accra for some time to check out the style and the art. That she’d read it was the new New York.

We’d never been anywhere at all together that lasted longer than an afternoon but in September, we booked the plane tickets. It was a commitment and a leap into the Covid unknown. We booked a recommended hotel/hostel in Accra and the eco-lodge for a few nights and then we did nothing except rest in a kind of uneasy contentment about our future plans.

There was a flurry of worry amongst my friends as Omicron arrived in South Africa. I explained that South Africa was a long way from Ghana. Ghana, in fact, had very low Covid deaths – just over a thousand according to their official figures. For some reason, I had faith.

In mid-December, I realised that I needed not only my Booster Covid vaccination but also diphtheria/typhoid, tetanus and yellow fever. Not just one vaccination but three. I tried to get out of the yellow fever one – I managed to find proof that I’d had it in 1978 in New Orleans and these days, it’s meant to last for life – but Ghanaian regulations stipulate that you need to have it in the last ten years. I had it. I have survived so far.

This was the beginning of the tenaciousness that was required before we even set foot in Ghana. A whole trip in itself. There was the visa situation. There were umpteen conditions to fulfil – a written invitation from our host, proof of a hotel, proof of money, flights, a vaccination pass etc. Ruby and I almost lost the will to live trying to fill it in online. And then we had to get the Ghanaian High Commission in Archway – after a lateral flow test in the morning.

Finally, just before Xmas, we had our visas. Hurrah.

Ruby looks after her incredible 96-year-old mum, Maria – who (bless her) was really keen for her daughter to get away for 18 days – and was organising for a lovely local woman to go in every day, as well as preparing meals for the freezer and a multitude of other tasks. I hadn’t realised what a superwoman, Ruby was. She actually managed to ring her mum every day while we were away – from petrol stations (Ghana’s petrol stations are often like palaces, they have oil and are proud of it), from the side of busy roads with a Pentecostal choir singing nearby. It was one of her many travelling feats.

And then there were the British Airway requirements. As well as the PCR test to do.  Uploading vaccination passes, Travel Codes that took hours to obtain from a Ghanaian-approved website – we spent hours trying to work it all out. We failed to upload them and arrived on Jan 6th 2022 at Heathrow feeling weary and anxious.

It was a good sign that it was a pretty smooth check-in, after all. A six-hour flight and then there was a mini-crisis for me. I could hardly walk as I arrived in Accra. My ankle had been affected by sitting in one position on the flight, I wasn’t sure what was going on. But I had to hobble up and down the airport getting the incredibly expensive Lateral Flow test and the results. And then my bag was one of the last to arrive. Luckily Ruby was there to help out. We both took it as a good sign that a holy man from Senegal was arriving at the same time to chants and hoots from a group of local Muslims.

BUT WE HAD ARRIVED IN ACCRA. We celebrated with a beer at midnight amid the gorgeous equatorial heat next to the pool at our travellery hotel/hostel. We had booked separate rooms aware that we hadn’t voyaged anywhere together and as a space precaution. In other words, we might need that space from one another.

I really liked Somewhere Nice – mostly occupied by young people backpacking or working for NGOs – there was a big breakfast table for the sharing of tales and I found out from a couple of Parisian-Cameroonian women some good local places to eat – but Ruby wasn’t so keen. She saw the layers of untended dust and dirt, I saw the communal thing.

Accra was confusing to navigate at first – not to mention my difficulty walking which thankfully only lasted a day – lots of duel carriageways and am not sure Ruby was convinced by the ‘new New York’ description. But something happened on the second day that cemented our travelling relationship. We had decided to look at art galleries; in the evening, I suggested we go to the 1957 Gallery (the year of independence, Ghana was the first African country to leave its colonisers under the socialist vision of President Nkrumah in 1957) which was located in the five-star bling Kempinsky Hotel. We visited the bold figurative works on the walls and then cocktailed at the pool bar. Afterwards, we, unlike everyone else, didn’t have a taxi waiting for us so we actually walked down the road. There was a daunting black James Bond-type armoured Hummer outside too. Just as we were about to hail a cab, we noticed that there was music emanating from the National Theatre nearby. We decided to check it out.

The next moment, Ruby was taking photos – she’s an ardent Insta woman – of what seemed to be a band on the red carpet. Within seconds, the lanky be-dreaded, be-hatted, be-shaded main man had ushered us onto the red carpet as well and then into what turned out to be The Young Ghanaian Achievers’ Awards. Losso Saabele – king of afro-pop and dancehall – was up for Artist of the Year.

Here we were in our casuals amidst Ghanaians dressed up to the nines in sparkly shoes and sequinned dresses. The award ceremony was slightly shambolic – sorry Ghana – nominations were missed. And sin of all sins – our man should have won and he didn’t. It’s now being re-awarded to him. Talk about La La Land. Anyway, he did invite me for a little dance as part of his performance which of course I rose to the occasion for!! And Ruby recorded!

And then Losso, his crew and the Rs went back to the Kempinsky Hotel for a little after-party. It did it give me great pleasure to witness Losso with his unicorn-like front dread wandering around this ultra-shiny hotel occupied mostly by foreign military-medal-adorned dignitaries.

This was only Day 2. The rest of the trip saw us continuing to have a blast. Ruby turned out to be a perfect travelling companion. I was the guidebook queen – I like actually reading about the places – and she was the savvy tech queen. Which meant we both organised but in different ways. I researched places to go, she was able to book hotels and guide taxi drivers (we wondered how anyone ever got anywhere in Accra because none of them had a clue where we were going). She had a local SIM card, I opted not to.

There was a sense of equality. She is good at snooker, and I am good at table tennis! The snooker was in a nightclub, the tennis at Meet Me There. Payments were shared easily. Phew. Ruby is more than generous. She lent me 3,000 local cedis (about £350) when I couldn’t withdraw enough to travel East.

Meet Me There turned out to be a delightful destination – we had the best rooms (one each still) right on the lagoon. Every detail had been attended to – gorgeous décor, carved wood tables, amazing food, compost loos, ever-friendly staff. And we were actually in the middle of the local Dzita community. Local fishermen/boys were all around. There was a dispute one morning which MMT staff went over to successfully mediate. An older man had accused the younger ones of overfishing the lagoon and he was probably right. And there were deeply expressive church services that went on next door. Don’t go to Ghana if you are uncomfortable with noise!

All the profits from MMT go to their Dream Big Ghana Foundation. One morning, the co-manager Christian took us to see the magnificent compost toilets – purple paint and tiles with showers too – that they had built in the local school. And they also had created ones in the local villages. There are big public defecation and urinating issues in Ghana. The NGO also does educational workshops about the ‘compost’ which can be used to fertilise crops and that is the whole circular point. Great activities as well as an educational centre with books and computers for local children. And tree-planting.

Next was the mountains of the Eastern Volta region – the river was dammed in the 60s to make a huge, huge lake which provides most of Ghana’s electricity – and here in these much more basic lodgings, we decided to share a room. It was a big dormitory room and it went well. This was the new Ruby and Rose sharing a room period.

We loved the mountains. Cooler and more innocent. On the first afternoon there, in the highest village in Ghana, it was a Friday and there were about five processions going on. They were transporting their dead loved ones – often in ambulances with the sirens blaring out – to their homes for a wake. The atmosphere was celebratory. Everyone ignored us which we were very happy about. And they didn’t seem to mind us being there either. The next day, their loved ones would be taken to the cemetery. This was happening all over Ghana.

There were a few difficult moments later on in the trip but we dealt with them well. Ruby – with her tech-savvy – booked us into a dodgy hotel where we actually had to share a bed. That was fine in the end but the hotel was a guest house in the middle of nowhere. And then there was the characterful Rasta in Cape Coast in the West who charged us 60 US dollars for a shared room that turned out to have no water (yes it was a serious local problem but other hotels had paid to have extra water). And he had omitted to tell us. We had to get angry and demand our money back for the other two nights. We managed it and remained united.

We shared a sense of curiosity and desire to learn about Ghana and Ghanaians. We both like to mix up our experiences. And we both loved travelling around – that on the road feeling.

Our new ways of seeing included appreciating the Ghanaians for their eagerness to connect, their friendliness, their expansiveness, their grace. One of my son’s best friends is just like that, but I hadn’t realised that it was because his grandma is Ghanaian and she looked after him as he was growing up. She passed on this sense of ease and generosity.

Well, it was a wonderful 18 days. We packed so much in. And I haven’t even mentioned how intrepid Ruby is. I found her inspiring. I ended up doing something that I would never do – using a rope to descend some rocks. I only did it because she had already done it.

Rwanda has been mentioned.

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