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How I Found my House in the Magical Spanish Mountains


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I started my Spanish adventure in 1997, just as Tony Blair ended 18 years of Conservative rule with the slogan ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. I was one of a number of young BBC journalists helping with the count on Election Night, but soon after fled the BBC on a trip to Mojácar in Spain, on the pretext of finding a cheap house to buy. I didn’t seriously think I would get one.

Accompanying me was my old friend Mark P, who had ridden to Mojácar on his motorbike a decade before. My friend Lucy’s house was empty, so we stayed there. We had instructions to call Jacqueline, the French postwoman for the mountain villages, who put the word out for villagers with houses to sell.

It was a beautiful early-summer day and the road to the mountains twisted and turned up through arid countryside, almond trees and old ruins until arriving in the pretty whitewashed village of Bédar, with a long view back down to the sea.

Jacqueline was waiting in one of a pair of bars facing each other on the road in. Tall and thin with a mahogany tan, long black hair framing strong, handsome features, and wearing lots of silver jewellery – she was unmissable.

Jacqueline drove us down a narrow unpaved road running under the looming peaks. We undulated through tiny settlements and over a rambla [dry riverbed] before accelerating up a perilously steep bank on the other side, to end up at a collection of three or four houses strung out along the top. We bumped down a track to one, a wide, two-story house set in an overgrown garden with several olive trees.

I don’t remember much about the house, apart from that the kitchen was outside, and the water supply was rationed from the nearby balsa [water store] where you took your turn on a rota with the neighbours. There was a ramshackle outhouse, and I remember standing near it while Jacqueline and a neighbour discussed which of the stones on the ground marked the house’s boundary. The discussion went round and round, much like the roads that had brought us there. Then, none the wiser, we all piled back into the car for the drive back to Bédar where Jacqueline dropped us at the bar and drove off.

I remember feeling out of my depth, and telling Mark that what I’d really like would be something less remote, perhaps a little house on the edge of a village. We decided to have a quick drink before driving back – and then I realised that the key to our hire car was no longer in my possession. I tried to call Jacqueline but got no reply. There were no buses. We were stranded.

What happened next was, as they say, fate.

A young blonde dressed in black leather came through the door and strode up to the bar. After exchanging a few words with the bartender, she came over and asked where we needed to go. When we said ‘Mojácar’, she offered to drive us. As we weren’t in a position to refuse, we accepted.

Nadja was Swiss, and although quite fluent in English, all her sentences came out back to front. When I told her that we’d been looking at houses, she said that she had one to sell, “with mains water, electricity, a telephone socket and seven terraces.” It sounded very grand so, to rule it out more than anything, I asked how much. “Four million pesetas,” she replied (approx. £16,000). It was the same price as the house we’d just looked at.

What’s more, Nadja’s house was on the edge of a small village – just as I’d wished for.

When we reached the main road, our saviour pulled into a garage and bought three cans of lager from a vending machine in the forecourt. We drove the rest of the way to Mojácar swigging beer and listening to her peculiar jumbled steam-of-consciousness conversation. I concluded she was very sweet but most likely mad.

I didn’t think I’d call about the house, but a few days later curiosity got the better of me and we made a date to visit.

To get to Lubrín we had to return to Bédar and carry straight on, up a narrow white asphalt road that twisted its way through a magical landscape of hills studded with olive trees, yellow broom and thyme. At the top we passed the village of El Campico before descending to El Marchal where the road broadened out and continued another 5km to Lubrín.

The strange thing was how at home I felt. While the views were far-reaching and magnificent the road itself felt cocooned and cosy. We didn’t meet another vehicle that day and in the years to come, I rarely did. If it did happen, I often knew the driver, and we’d stop to chat.

Nadja and her English boyfriend Steve were expecting us. Margaritas tumbled over their garden wall, and on the left of the house were the seven terraces Nadja had referred to, planted with almond trees and flowers.

By the end of the week, we’d agreed on a price and employed a gestor to manage the sale. We sealed the deal over a breakfast of beer and tapas in Mojácar.

Back then, Lubrín was my freedom. The village seemed not to have changed since the Fifties. Set in a valley, whitewashed houses were built up the side of a hill, around an enormous red brick church in the middle.

My house, later christened Casa Becca by a guest, was set off to the right, built into the side of  ‘El Castillo’. Many Spanish towns have a ‘castillo’ hill, on top of which the original Moorish watchtower would have stood.

All the roof beams were tree trunks, gnarled and twisted, interspersed with traditional caña – cane. Stone stairs led up to a low-ceilinged dining room leading to a big kitchen with an enormous fireplace at the end. There was a windowless ‘cave room’ with a huge rock from the mountainside protruding within. More rooms led around to a third bedroom opening onto the front of the house at the other end. The bathroom, down by the main front door, was a very basic affair with an old toilet and a plastic shower over a dug-out portion of the stone floor. In its 200 years, the house had barely changed.

Although there was a phone socket, there was no phone line and, back in 1997, no Internet. Apart from the 6am bus to Almeria City, there was no public transport, either. Compounded by the feeling that I’d stepped back in time, Lubrín felt properly remote. Nobody would ever find me. I’d been unhappy at the BBC so it was a huge relief to find myself there, completely cut off from social pressures.

I turned into another person when I was in Lubrín. Scruffy, dusty, carefree. I wore flowery shift dresses and tatty shorts. The only other foreigner in the town was a Dutch guy who I never met. My friends were old men who regaled me with tales about the village and my house’s past. I found out that Casa B had been the home of the village transportista who took goods and passengers to the coast in his donkey and cart, and that a man had been shot outside during the Civil War.

My main friend was Paco, a portly fellow of about 60. He had small, dainty feet and spoke in a soft, high voice, often reciting poetry or playing with words. Like many men from the village, he’d emigrated during Franco’s rule. He’d worked in Switzerland as a carpenter – he said he’d made furniture for David Bowie.

Another frequent visitor was Christobal, a wizened, Steptoe-like man who would exhort, ‘Mujer, mujer!’ [Woman, woman] in the style of a whiny flamenco singer at the start of every sentence, while encouraging me to buy his house or be his wife.

Paco and I became good friends. Even though he didn’t speak any English and I not much Spanish, he was an excellent communicator and we understood each other surprisingly well.

Soon after I bought my house, Paco took me to his land in La Alcarria, a beautiful valley on the other side of the main road. On the land was an old trunk which he ceremoniously opened to take out two fold-up chairs – one for me, one for my friend. He set them out and we sat down – looking north over an infinity of hazy mountain ranges – the ones in the foreground like rows of reclining elephant backs. Paco loved his land and was planning to build a house on it.

When I think of the early days I remember warm friendships and laughter. Paco would accompany my friends and I on excursions in the car, or come round for raucous suppers on the patio, or we’d have mad nights out in what I christened the ‘Young Mans’ Bar’ next to the post office, where the clientele would chorus ‘Paco Toro!’ when he arrived with two young women on his arm. When I was the only foreigner in town it really was fun.

Slowly but surely, Lubrín caught up with the rest of the world.

A few settlers from England arrived every year. There was Ponytail John, who built his own house out in the campo, and Dave Beach, a lugubrious hippie with great taste in music. There was Sally and Ann, possibly the village’s first ‘out’ lesbian couple, and their neighbour Bill, a gay accountant. There was Mandolin John, always with a beautiful girlfriend. Tourists rarely found their way to the village, but when they did it felt bizarre. To me, they looked big and out of place. Sitting outside the Plaza Bar, they were like giants on a small stage.

Around 2003 the dear little road from Bédar to El Marchal was widened and tarmacked, and with that more and more foreign settlers came. The tipping point for me was when a young suburban couple arrived. Until then, the foreign residents had had something alternative about them, a touch of the pioneer. But these people had none of that. And with that, it was as if my secret hideaway had been busted and my freedom was gone.

Solo Visits

I started coming to Lubrín on my own around 2002. At first, I was nervous. I’d fly in from Gatwick, drive back in my hire car, make the bed and smoke the emergency cigarette I left on the dining room desk. Then I’d go out for provisions from Antonio and Fina’s late-night shop – and see who was around. One time I didn’t get home till midnight after being waylaid by Mandolin John and a friend of his. Another time, I woke up at 4 am in a panic. It was pitch dark and I had the sensation I was entombed within an endless Spanish mountain range – there were no buildings after mine. In my 40s I would often wake up in the night. For a while, an insomniac bird nesting in the roof would be up around the same time, moving about. I found it comforting.

Paco and I grew apart. Lubrín had won the massive El Niño lottery in January 1998 with a prize of 1400m pesetas (about 8.5m euros). Paco was one of the winners. He didn’t spend the money at first, but a few years later he bought a radio-controlled airplane and a souped-up black sports car with red flames blazing on the sides. Where once he had been patient and good-humoured, he became impatient and his gentle high-pitched voice became gruff. He’d tear off to holiday towns like Aguadulce in the sports car and return with torrid tales of his exploits.

They wouldn’t let him build a house in La Alcarria (the plot was just 1m too narrow). Bitter, and obstinate to the last, he built a swimming pool instead and put a squalid kitchen and bathroom underneath. He surrounded the pool with weird totems like plastic fans and dolls’ heads on sticks.

There was a succession of dogs he didn’t know how to look after and on occasion he’d chase English settlers in his car. The gentle, communicative Paco I knew and loved had vanished, and when I asked people how he was, they just shook their heads and said, ‘perdido’ – lost. He died in 2010.

Middle Years

So far, I’d only visited Lubrín for short holiday breaks but when I started my Spanish rug and tile business it became the base for buying and sourcing expeditions. From 2006 onwards, I’d embark on huge solo road trips around Andalusia several times a year. I visited Valencia, too, to go to the Cevisama tile fair, once driving 400km cross-country from there to Cordoba to visit our main supplier. I visited Granada and embarked on crazy missions to find new suppliers in a series of remote locations. I particularly loved going to Priego de Cordoba, a baroque gem perched atop a cliff in the Sierra Subbetica Natural Park. I’d stay at Hostal Rafi where the bar was like a Spanish version of the US series Cheers. Rafi was even playing Bruce Springstein the first time I went. My second visit coincided with a noisy religious procession, the virgin being borne through the streets, children dressed up for their communion and a major football match blaring out from TVs. Hostal Rafi was in the middle of it all – the centre of the world!

Priego was four hours from Lubrín. Driving there in the autumn you’d see bonfires blazing high on the horizon. There were deserted mountain passes where you could go for hours without meeting a soul. At these times, I’d marvel at how, sometimes just the day before, I’d been caged like a bird in my London shop watching traffic thunder by, and now was soaring free in the mountain air, maybe 100 miles away from anyone else.

Occasionally I ended up in dangerous situations like the time I took the wrong route to the pretty village of Castril, 890m above sea level on the edge of the Cazorla National Park. As the track got narrower and narrower, I found myself with no choice but to accelerate up the precipitous bends with an overweight load of wholesale ceramics in the back. Dusk was falling and I remember thinking, ‘no-one knows where I am and I might die,’ followed by a half-crazed relief when I reached the top to witness a herd of goats galloping home in a cloud of dust. It was a quintessential Spanish moment.

Now…

In 2016, Lubrín became my freedom for the third time. Disgusted by the Brexit vote in March 2016, my first thought was to leave the UK. On the basis of having a Spanish house, I applied for Spanish residency. To my surprise, the application was successful and I moved out here in 2018.

Today, Lubrín is firmly rooted in the 21st Century. There are street lamps along the road in, and a small industrial estate just north of my house. There’s a world-class olive oil press, a honey factory and modern milking sheds for the goats. The once-silent hills are full of light and noise. There’s a small housing estate opposite me, too, mainly occupied by British families who now make up a sizeable proportion of the population.

Stubbornly ‘unreformed’ for years, Casa B has been updated to make her long-term habitable. The tree trunk roof beams have gone, as has the insomniac bird. The cave room has a window. The dining room and kitchen have been knocked together and the ceilings raised. A proper bathroom has been added.

I study Spanish, teach English and Creative Writing, blog, write and walk the hills. Everyday life is time-consuming – I collect my water from the mountain spring at El Campico and drag it up to my house in a trolley. In the winter I must bring in wood, make fires and clean the stoves. More satisfying, this year I picked my olives for the first time and took them to the press in exchange for some superb Lubrín olive oil.

It’s been a little tough, establishing a life here on my own. It can be awkward negotiating social groups as an older single woman. It’s taken time to find work, or friends on my wavelength, but I keep on. Perhaps the fourth freedom will come when I really don’t care what other people think.

In the absence of family, Casa B has been my continuity. Last March, returning from winter respite on the coast, it was surprisingly nice to be back. Even though I had to hoover the flaky paint off the walls and clean surfaces thick with muddy dust, it was just lovely to hear the birds again, and the goat bells, and the church ringing every quarter-hour. Enduring country sounds. The sounds of home.

Postscript

In June 2021, I went to a dance performance at Kensal Green Cemetery in West London. ‘Dance Me To Death’ was a project started by AofA’s Rose Rouse, with all the dancers in their 60s or older. At the after-party, I was on a table with a couple from Clapham. When I asked if they knew the province of Almeria, the woman gave a little start. She said that she’d visited a place called Bédar one Christmas in the Seventies. Back then, black-clad village ladies washed their clothes at the communal fountain and collected water in huge water jugs on their heads. Donkeys were the main means of transport, roads were few, and Fi and her boyfriend had walked four miles up to the village from the bus stop. On Christmas Eve, the village ladies taught her to dance Flamenco – she pulled her body up straight to demonstrate. She looked happy as the memories resurfaced, and I thought how great it was that we should meet by chance almost 50 years later, two strangers transcending time and space to share our experiences of a tiny, faraway place that has meant so much to us both.

Perhaps the magic lives on, after all.

Becca is running a trio of online Creative Writing courses. Each runs for six weeks and a number of themes are covered, including Fantasy & Transformation, Imagery, Characterisation, Dialogue, ‘Fragmented Writing’, Theme, Plotting and more.

Classes contain excerpts from a range of relevant authors and a 25-minute writing exercise based on the theme of the week. There’s time for students to read their work and discuss, and homework is given.

Featured authors include Kei Miller, Tim Winton, Margaret Atwood, Rose Tremain, Carys Davis, Jo Shapcott, Joyce Carol Oates, Tim O’Brien, Andrea Levy, Helen MacDonald, Jeanette Winterson, Tricky, Tracey Emin and Melissa Harrison. 

The Creative Writing courses will run from mid-September, along with the journalistic ‘Write an Article in a Week’, which runs over two weekends. The price for each course is £125, with a 10% reduction if you book up for two or more. Becca is currently developing a new course on Memoir Writing.

For more info please visit https://beccaleathlean.wordpress.com or email lubrinbecca@gmail.com

My Love Affair with Italy


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Annie Llewellyn has an academic background in Psychology and has lived and worked in Wales for many years. She is grateful for the years she spent in academia because she was able to teach and research In Europe. In 2002, she met and married an Italian and has never lost her love for this amazing country. She is now resident in Italy for much of the year and works remotely while still trying to work out the bureaucracy and the language.

The route to Italy began when my daughter came home for the weekend with a copy of an advertisement that she had found in the Sunday Times ‘Lonely Hearts’ section and I think she wished to divest herself of coming to seek me at weekends so that she could spend more time with the current boyfriend. The advertisement said that the gentleman concerned had a cottage in Wales and a house in Italy and was looking for someone to share his life with and I put it on one side thinking he would have loads of applicants.

One day I was feeling particularly lonely, and I decided to phone him, bearing in mind that I hadn’t seen a photograph as this was before the days where you swipe left or right based on physical characteristics. We had a chat on the phone, and I felt quite excited to be asked out on my first date. I dressed very carefully in a red dress and high heels (never usually wear these things). I found my date waiting for me in a high street in a mid-Wales town and we went to a rather seedy pub full of slightly inebriated locals. To say it was ‘love at first sight’ was simply not the case and in fact, it was very much the opposite. He was a slightly rotund, very well-dressed businessman whose accent belied his private education and his Italian ancestry. We looked slightly out of place I have to say in this rather run-down Welsh pub on a Saturday night.

The conversation though was interesting, and we spoke of many deep things such as the sudden death of his previous partner at a young age and his heartbreak at this. I saw a survivor and someone who was very likeable. I spoke of my yearning to travel to see other countries now that my children had grown up and I had time on my hands not to mention the unfaithful but long-lasting relationship with a younger man (we can go there another time). Richard – yes, that was his name – talked of how he longed to wander the beaches with his dogs on a rope lead and divest himself of all connections with money and become a gypsy. I have to say I only found out later than he knew how to sell himself, but I digress from my story.

I got ready to leave and said that I had enjoyed his company, but I didn’t think we were especially suited. I also thanked him for arranging to meet and moved to get up and go and I wished him well with finding the right person. He then said: ‘Would you like to eat?’ and I had to admit to feeling peckish and so we found a local Indian and we ate a good curry. He confided that I was the fourth date of the evening and that there had been 350 applicants so far, but I was the best of them all.

Of course, after the troubles of my previous relationship where I had lost not only my husband but most of our worldly goods which went to buy his new younger model a house and car – this somewhat bolstered my ego. We parted as friends and he said that he would phone me before he left for Italy the next day to complete on his house and I wished him a good trip and drove away thinking that I would never hear from him again. Yet, the next morning I received a text thanking me for a beautiful evening and promising to ring me on his return from Italy. My thoughts returned to him during the week as I wondered whether he had completed on the house and then on Thursday morning he texted me to say that he had completed upon the house. And I replied that ‘I am delighted that you have achieved your dream’ as he had been born in Florence and the text came back to say ‘you are my dream’ and I honestly had to get out of the bath to read it properly because the bath was steaming up the screen of my phone. I had never considered leaving Mid Wales again let alone taking up with a foreigner who admitted years later that he had sent it over a drunken lunch with his sister.

During the time that Richard was away, there were several gossipy lunches with girlfriends and the consensus was that what had I got to lose? Well, there was the issue that he wasn’t my physical type; my style of man was more along the lines of a tortured poet but as my friends pointed out my last attempt at tortured poets had certainly not gone well. A week after Richard’s return from Italy he invited me to his farmhouse in South Wales and we sat outside drinking gin and tonics and the first night he cooked me a beautiful meal of roast duck with all the trimmings and the housekeeper had put flowers in the spare room next to my bed.

We spent the days exploring the nearby market town and getting to know each other and, in the evenings, we ate out in Abergavenny. It is true that Italian men have the gift of romance and this one played Maria Callas, and I began to enjoy the ease of his company. Despite the heavy romancing, I continued to sit on the fence but four weeks later the school holidays were drawing close; and Richard made me an offer of two weeks in Italy followed by two weeks in Spain and I was absolutely hooked. I had probably been planning to spend the holidays scrubbing the skirting boards and put that against jetting off to a country that I already loved and of course, I accepted.

Before we left, I was introduced to the Italian mother and she was utterly lovely a gorgeous, lithe lady in her late 80s living in Fulham. She had once been part of the Folie Bergère in Paris where she had met her Italian Count but sadly the Florentine family didn’t feel the same. I too was similarly dismissed when I met Richard’s children who apparently treated all his girlfriends in the same way and would clearly have preferred him to return to their mother so that they could resume their private education.

I had anticipated a lazy drive down through France to Italy but any hopes of that were dismissed as we navigated the M4 to the ferry. Once Richard joined the motorway down to the South, I began to realise there is no such thing as a lingering road journey to an Italian. It was hot and he drove very fast and in mid-France, I began to dream of flights wondering how much more I could take of this road trip with Puccini blaring from the speakers. I quickly learned that Italians manage their women in a manner that is subtle but designed to get their own way.  We arrived at the house 18 hours after we left Dover having navigated the long incline to the house, a truly nail-biting drive and one of the most dangerous in Italy. There are 13 hairpin bends and some of them are the switchback type. Passing places are few and it is a single-track road much beloved by cyclists and people in camper vans seeking a rural idyll after the joys of Florence, Rome, and Sienna. We arrived about 3 am in the morning. I was absolutely shattered and planned to catch the first flight home from Pisa as soon as morning light dawned.

I awoke the next morning to warm sunshine flooding the room and threw open the shutters and I was blown away by the view. It was literally love at first sight as my eyes took in the rugged mountains, the breathtaking views and the valleys shimmering in the warm sun below. I would come to love that view and I drank it in every morning and was there until late evening draining the last drop of prosecco from my evening aperitif. You couldn’t hear a sound and after the hectic drive and the journey, I felt that I had come home. Many people experience this when they first come to Italy and indeed, I had felt this on my first trip, but something gripped me on that visit that has never left my soul. I love the bones of Italy and I don’t feel the need to do the touristy things that Italy offers to many (although I do them in passing) but it is the experience that grabs me more than anything. It is being alive under the Italian sun as it were and simply being and there is no more pleasurable meditative state.

Every day I fell further in love with Italy and Richard. I would sit and people watch, and few words were exchanged between Richard and me as I immersed myself in people watching and eating dinner late in the evening at different restaurants. I loved to peek into doorways as we paused to gaze at the tranquil gardens where I imagined sitting in the evenings. The Italians, of course, rarely sit in their gardens during the day preferring to shade themselves from the sun. I lit candles in the evening on the terrace and Richard prepared simple food, which we bought from the market vendors during the day.

Richard and I were not lovers before we embarked on the trip but I fell in love with him during this trip. It wasn’t my usual passionate kind of encounter but the simple love of a man and woman who meet in mid-life and are appreciative of the time they spend together and are merging in a kind of simplicity that is hard to define. We spent long hours listening to the voice of Maria Callas singing arias from Madam Butterfly and indeed the aria was played at Richard’s funeral some eight years later. Richard admitted that the trip was one of the happiest that he had ever made to Italy. Just us and the landscape – what a joy!

We returned to Italy every few weeks (flying, of course). Richard didn’t change, and many times he dragged me from the sanctity of the house back into the hire car to various sites of interest such as Florence, Siena, and Assisi where I was expected to drink in the atmosphere in a few hours. Richard proposed after a visit to Bologna to see his sister and he bought me the most beautiful diamond ring and I think I was the happiest I have ever been. We married in Florence just before Christmas eighteen months later on a beautiful frosty, snowy day in the Palace Vecchio. The wedding ceremony was conducted in Italian by candlelight with beautiful frescoes in the background and centuries of history surrounding us.

The years I experienced with this man were years that I will never forget, and he never made life easy, but he did his absolute utmost to make me happy. When he became ill six years after we married, it didn’t slow him down and he didn’t involve me in his treatment. He died two years later, but he gave me something that was beyond money. He introduced me to a different way of living and a life that I had never experienced before. In the last two years of his life, I gave up my job and we spent time in Tenerife because he liked the climate and the small mountain house remained closed. I was with him in the final stages of his life and his last words to me were ‘don’t leave me’ as he sank into a morphine-induced sleep.

I was heartbroken and it was two years before I was able to return to Italy as I couldn’t face returning to the house and life there without him. He left me his share of the small mountain house and I knew it would be hard in practical terms to live there full time and so started to think that selling the house was my only way of keeping afloat. I hadn’t realised the extent of the practical problems that living in Italy inevitably brought until I started to engage with bureaucracy. I spoke only a little Italian and even now it is a work in progress, I learned that Richard’s way of dealing with taxes was to ignore them. This is not so easy for the person left behind. I came to realise that the man whom I loved so deeply had left me his part of the house but not the income to support it. I returned to my job and picked up the threads of my life and paid off all the taxes that were owed. Healing came more slowly and there were relationships post-Richard, but they were not important.

I yearned to spend more time in my Italian home and popped over for brief visits to pay bills but I couldn’t face spending longer without the man I had loved so much by my side. It was the support of a loving therapist that made me see that I could create new memories and that Richard would want me to return and I began to want to give it a try. I cleared the house of memories and had the place revamped and so I started to appreciate once more the peace of the country I had come to see as home. I decided to cash in my pension to give myself some capital and a monthly income, but I also negotiated a few hours of teaching on Zoom and I managed to sustain a level of income that would make living in Italy work. I was faced with loads of practical problems such as driving on the other side of the road in the terrifying mountainous area in which I live, but is something I was able to overcome.

My week is now punctuated with visits to the Wednesday market in the nearest village after navigating the thirteen hairpin bends where I buy locally grown fresh vegetables and fruit often for as little as one euro. I also buy a spit roast chicken from the rotisserie in the marketplace, and I eat this with fresh salad or pasta.  On Saturday, I get on the local train to visit Lucca and enjoy a cappuccino with a friend and perhaps wander around the market to see what bargains are available. I have picked up designer cashmere sweaters for as little as 5 euros. Once a month there is the antique market where people gather to buy the beautifully restored, shabby chic furniture and magnificent chandeliers. I often join friends for lunch and revel in the odd purchase I make such as crystal chandelier droplets for my Christmas tree. Trains are cheap in Italy, and I can travel to other places quite easily to experience a different side of Italian life.

I live in the moment in Italy and appreciate the compensations of my life as I get up to greet the dawn on my terrace and gaze down to the valley below watching as the sun clears away the clouds. I can often be found swaddled in a blanket, sipping my morning tea alone on my terrace engulfed by the silence. I am alone but the airport is not far away and I am only half a day’s travel away from my children and friends.

Single women are drawn to Italian life and there are always people around who will chat and readily express their envy when they realise you are not a tourist but live there. Friends who visit are drawn to choosing their own place, but when they return home; I return to my life of silent contemplation where I read by my fireside in the evening, or I light a candle and enjoy a glass of frizzante wine alone. I don’t often feel lonely because I have found my peace and I have memories from the past and hopes for the future that I am planting as I go. There is no rush even though my memories of Richard remind me that life is brief and that all we have is now. However, I know that I have everything and that is more than enough.

“Deep in the soul, below pain, below all the distraction of life, is a silence vast and grand – an infinite ocean of calm, which nothing can disturb. Nature’s own exceeding peace, which passes understanding. That which we seek with passionate longing, here and there, upward and outward; we find at last within ourselves.”

Richard Maurice Bucke

How I Ended Up Living on a Narrow Boat


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I’m 59 and still not really sure what life’s about, but glad to be part of Advantages of Age – I feel like I may have found my tribe. I haven’t met any of you yet but can feel the positive, slightly naughty vibes leaping off the FB page.

A bit about me. In my Life Part One, which goes from birth to fifty years, I was always fairly rebellious, in my own middle-class middle-England sort of way. I was expelled during my A levels – the local boys public school trialled having girls in the 6th form – and I was culled pretty early on in the experiment. Aged 17 I hitchhiked to the South of France with a friend to try grape picking but we were three months too early so I ended up as crew on a superyacht which lasted four glorious years and taught me that I never want to be stupid rich – that, as it happens, has panned out. I got engaged to the engineer, but my parents felt there was more to life than a cockney grease monkey and I returned to England – since then I vowed never to interfere with my children’s lives.

Various other jobs including working privately for a tax-exiled British couple who wanted to develop an island in the Bahamas a-la Richard Branson’s Necker Island. I used to go out to the island with the developers by tiny seaplane but a proper runway was required so that guests could bring more baggage than they could ever possibly use on a desert island, and the Bahamian Government was opposed to it. Apparently, drug runners use these airstrips unless the island is permanently manned. I did offer to permanently man it and keep a close eye out for drug runners but that didn’t work.

In 1992 at the end of the Gulf war, my husband and I moved with Saatchi’s Advertising to the Middle East. I worked as Brand Marketing Manager for Jack Daniels whiskey – I was responsible for the Middle East and African markets. You don’t automatically imagine working in liquor in the Middle East, but the only dry countries are Kuwait and Saudi. I spent a lot of time in Lebanon even during bombings – such a wonderful little country with delightful people and a big heart. Ditto Jordan, where I navigated as a co-driver in the only female team in the Middle East Rally Championships and received a cup from King Hussein which was pretty weird.

Then in 2012 a strange fifty-year-old took over my mind and body. I didn’t recognise her at all. She took one look at the now plastic fantastic exorbitant overcrowded Dubai and said ‘Let’s get the hell out lady.’ So I did. The new me decided that as Life Part Two was about to start, going it alone would be a more dramatic change. I left my lovely home, great job, very nice husband and the dog – which broke my heart. As my two children had just finished school and my daughter wanted to come to England to study, it was the perfect opportunity to make the break. I reverted to my birth name of Hope and choose it daily.

I started my new life with six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, during Day of the Dead – a fab way to celebrate and gently say goodbye to my first life and commence the rite of passage into my next. I stayed with a super cool 70 year old American lady who encouraged me to write and started my love affair with Frida Kahlo.

I still travel regularly and cheaply, buses and hostels are my happy place and work away is a great way to meet local people and keep the costs down. https://www.workaway.info/en/workawayer/RachelM62

Since returning to England, I have not owned a home. Not only because I was too old for a mortgage but, because after working for 30 years corporately, I wasn’t willing to get the sort of soul-sucking permanent job that I knew would be necessary. My mother suggested working in nearby Milton Keynes, and that’s the last suggestion I will ever let her make. I have rented here and there but mostly travelled or stayed with family and friends, so it was never a problem. Especially as the only single one of four siblings, you tend to get more than your fair share of parent duties.

But then March 2020 arrived, we forgot about Brexit and the pandemic started. Everyone was told to self isolate and I got caught out – like musical chairs – the music stopped and I had nowhere to lay my head. I had previously thought bubble-less meant flat champagne.

There’s always an upside to life though, and I am now the proud owner of a 30-year-old narrowboat and love it.

A boat didn’t immediately spring to mind, I originally wanted to build a cabin but with no land and can’t build for toffee – that was a non-starter. Then one day, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, my favourite TV fix, featured a narrowboat. What’s more, Rosie & Jim and Prue & Tim seemed to be having a blast, so why not me?

At 55ft long and 6ft wide, it’s actually quite spacious, particularly as I don’t have to share it with a ton of coal and a family of eight. I have seven rooms if you count the two front and back indoor/outdoor spaces, nine if you allow for the dining room to double as an office and triple as a spare bed.

The galley kitchen is petite but means I can put on the kettle, wash the dishes and open the fridge all without moving my feet. Aside from having to get down on my knees and roll back the mat to open the oven door – it’s very functional.

The bedroom, bathroom and a sitting room all have doors to separate them and the large rear end – stern deck technically – and small cosy nook in the bow, are full of cushions and plants in the summer, and wellies and coal in the winter. Unless you have some form of central heating, you’re either boiling hot or freezing cold, depending upon your wood burner skills. You are, after all, living in a metal tube that, like trains and container trucks, was designed to move commodities around, and not for your personal creature comforts. As I simply cannot keep my wood burner going all night, I have installed two oil-filled radiators and only light the fire when it’s really freezing or I have enough patience.

The toilet is the compromise. There are two main choices – the Porta Potti or a pump-out tank stored onboard, most often under your bed. Not only do I not want to sleep on top of a load of crap, I do not want to keep moving my boat across to the other side of the marina to pump out. I am a learner driver whose confidence has been shattered by the person opposite who keeps repeatedly shouting ‘Don’t hit my boat, this is not a contact sport’ every time I switch on the engine.

So, Porta Potti it is. It needs emptying pretty frequently and involves splitting the loo in half, lugging the loaded part up the steps to the jetty and onto my sack barrow, that I’d only ever previously used to cart cider across a music festival. You then arrive at the Elsan which is like a giant’s toilet and deposit your goods. One year later and I still hate doing it. Everyone in the marina knows me as the ‘marigold lady’ as I simply refuse to touch it without rubber gloves.

The choice of location for your boat is varied. Canals are colourful and much easier to moor on than rivers, but personally, I like being in a marina. I need to plug into electricity, have a constant water supply and a car nearby. I also am not capable of the gipsy life that requires you to keep moving every two weeks if you don’t want to pay fees or taxes. I am technically and mechanically incompetent and simply would not survive. As soon as anything starts making a weird noise I call the marina manager to come and fix it. We pay £2500 per year for these privileges along with a boathouse and small shop. You then pay approx £1000k per annum for river or canal fees, so it’s a little pricier than some may imagine.

Yes, we live in close proximity. I could hold hands with my neighbour whilst drinking tea in bed, except I don’t think his wife would like it, but, we are right on the river with fields in front of us and a sunset to die for. I hand feed the birds, swim in the river and love the connection to nature. I am mindful – of enough water in the tank before I get in the shower, and minimal – you’re not wasteful as space is precious.

But most of all I get to live alone in my own tiny home within a wonderful community. What more could you ask for.

I’m still work-averse but love my writing. My memoir about muddled midlife is entitled The Dharma Drama – Dharma means purpose and I was rather lacking it when I started my book. This is where I want to put the link to Amazon so you can buy it, but a lot like me, it’s still a work in progress. It seems to have morphed into a journal that will never end. Journaling was a miraculous discovery. As Joan Didion said “I write to know what I think” and that seems to be the case. My pen reveals all sorts of things that I simply did not know.

My other great wonder is the tarot. Halfway through my first course in learning the tarot, my reading partner left me in tears. The teacher consoled me by saying that I really had the knack and uncovered some painful home truths for her. Thankfully this was followed up by a note from her saying that she had faced the issue head-on and all is resolved so thank you very much. Phew. The tarot is unique in that it is a mirror. It reflects back to you and shines a light and what you already know but keep deep inside. The universe then throws up opportunities and some much-needed oomph to set you on an exciting new journey.

I have recently coupled my two passions for journaling and tarot and developed them into a new business, Soul Sisters Community, which hosts retreats for midlife women looking for more. At this point, I am going to unashamedly put a link to Soul Sisters and say please take a look, ladies. And do please come. I would absolutely love to host some of you for a few fab days of self-discovery.

Apologies gents, this one’s just for the gals – but I am looking into running The Best Karma Exotic Funky House of Creation in Sri Lanka next January/February 2022 for all genders to enjoy some spiritual sunshine. If that appeals, please send me a note at: rachelsoulsisters@gmail.com I would love to gather a group who can help me shape it into something wonderful.

Carl Jung says “Life really does begin at forty, up until then you’re just doing research”. Well, at nearly 60,  I am still doing research because the day I stop being curious will be the day I die.

Soul Sisters retreats are happening this July 10th – 13th and July 13th – July 16th. Please check it out, mention AoA and I will gladly give you a super duper discount.

Look forward to meeting you all soon. Namaste!

On the Road Again


5 Minute Read

I am shocked by the extent to which I’ve rationalised what lockdown has made of me.

I’m going, “hmm, I used to think I was an extrovert but do you know, I really think I am more naturally introverted…I’m not sure that I even LIKE my friends…”

Oh yes. And I’ve been joking with those friends for weeks about how I could “quite happily do nothing but sit on my sofa with my iPad for the rest of my life, la di da…”

But it’s a pernicious form of lying to myself, even if it did grow out of an attempt to be courageous. And enough is enough. Never has the phrase ‘Use it or Lose it’ seemed more pertinent.

So, I have, impulsively, bought a very large Ford Transit campervan conversion called Kingsley. And he’s a bit camp! Part of the trend for what is being called “The Gentrification of VanLife” apparently. He’s got a white ceramic countertop sink with curved tap, matching rectangular Subway tiles behind the hob, a mirror with a seagrass fringe that looks like a parasol on a tropical beach, and two sets of dinky little spice jar shelves which have been a joy to fill. (Cumin, coriander, chilli flakes and salt? Or plasters, rubber bands and marijuana?)

I had a glorious few days online shopping for everything else a VanGran like myself might need. I bought a beanie hat with an integral head torch (yay!); a fifteen-metre food-grade hose pipe for the water tank; a lidded salad bowl; a Bivvy Loo (don’t ask) and much, much more.

But here’s the thing: one month on and I’ve only dared to take the van out once. I drove it nervously to a garage where I practised filling up, repeating “diesel, diesel, diesel” under my breath like a madwoman so I didn’t use unleaded by mistake. And now I feel the need for a long and uninterrupted rest. Indoors. What’s happening to me?

It’s not as if I’m new to VanStuff. Once, when I was 21, I drove a ten-ton Ryder rental truck from the East coast of the U.S.A to California. For two years in the seventies, I double d-clutched an old hippy-painted ambulance full of inflatables around London and Europe for the community theatre Action Space. I fell in lust with a very hairy Australian Clown who lived in his Mercedes Fuck Truck in the car park of the Oval House Theatre Club. Oh, that van!

And in 2014, aged 62, I finally got a Vroom Of My Own, an ancient RomaHome called Marjorie. She looked like a biscuit tin on wheels. With old-fashioned-flesh-toned-underwear coloured paintwork and upholstery. No power steering or other modern gizmos. Every time I climbed aboard I felt an ecstatic thrill of freedom, hope, and the promise of adventure.

Not this time. I feel as if I’ve been muffled by a blanket of trepidation. I fret about every detail and threat to equilibrium. I’ve even caught myself wondering how quickly I can sell it on without losing face. I’m feeling OLD – in a trembly, wavery, weedy way that I cannot stand.

I’ve never been scared of getting old. When I was young I knew instinctively I would improve with age and I have. Yes, I am labouring under the delusion that I’m still ‘going from strength to strength’. But if logic decrees this cannot be possible, then I still aspire to be the kind of old woman who retains the fuck-off fearlessness and ‘one of the boys’ machismo of my younger self.

Well, it’s a fact that I can no longer turn the knob of a gas bottle with my arthritic fingers. But I am still capable of squatting in the grass to take a pee and getting up again (I am pathetically proud of this). And I chose to buy the van, too; it wasn’t forced upon me by the government. So maybe it is just a question of busting out of the lockdown mindset.

I’ve also realised that in all my fantasies about VanLife, I’m not exploring picturesque villages and churches or walking miles along the coastal path. I see myself all cosied up under the duvet of my van bed, with a good book, back doors open to the sunshine dappling through the branches of a wildwood, kettle whistling on the hob. I’m really after a form of Outdoor Hygge, in a  ‘second childhood’ Wendy House. It’s comfort-nesting for the empty-nester.

But it’s also a bijou rehab Halfway House; locked safely in a tiny cladded cell, parked parallel but yards apart from other human beings, breathing in your own bubble of fresh air, yet only inches away from the hoots and scrabblings of Nature – simultaneously comforting and threatening, like Real Life. Just what the doctor ordered in fact: the perfect substitute drug for weaning off the opiate of lockdown.

Now it’s over (fingers crossed) I can see there’s one good thing to be said for lockdown: it was very good practice for being house or bedbound in the future. I feel comforted by the prospect of guilt-free days of the internet, and all the films and podcasts that await me in my dotage. But that is definitely for the future.

Now it’s The Now and I’m beginning to feel its power again. I’ve stopped doing Research (or Armchair Campervanning as my best friend calls it). I’ve Snoozed the addictive Women With Campervans group I joined on Facebook. I’ve booked two nights at a campsite on the edge of Exmoor.

No, I haven’t slept in Kingsley yet. But I’m well on the way to refining my ideal Spotify playlist: Baby Driver; Hit the Road, Jack; Baby, you Can Drive My Car; the entire re-mastered soundtrack of Easy Rider… I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for The Summer of VanLove. And quite excited.

May we all feel a sense of hope and freedom and the promise of adventure, now that we are ‘on the road’ again.

Travelling with my Adult Son – me 65, him 32


21 Minute Read

‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.’ Andre Gide

Did we lose sight of the shore? Not quite but we closed our eyes for a few minutes along the way.

Recently, my son Marlon and I went travelling together in Senegal. We were, it turns out, a bewildering combo. One rarely witnessed, if the reactions were anything to go by.

‘Are you his grandmother?’ asked Monique, a flamboyantly dressed stallholder who managed to verbally capture us on the ferry going over to Goree island near Dakar. She was, of course, more interested in our visit to see her wares – wooden masks, omnipresent bracelets and more. We didn’t go. Not because of the question, but because we weren’t interested in this particular strand of touristville.

Rose Rouse

‘Are you his wife?’ asked an array of male hustlers. The latter was in pursuit of a sugar mummy. Particularly at the beach village of Toubab Dialaw, which hovers between a tourist trap, a hubbub of djembe workshops and a relaxed environment for mixed race couples. We were entranced by it, by the way.

‘Are you his mother?’ More often and gratefully received in all sorts of different places from the taxi to the beach.

When I got home, I googled Travelling With Your Adult Children and discovered that it is a burgeoning holiday sub-section especially amongst Baby Boomers. There have been articles in the New York Times on this very subject. However, it’s usually families going on holiday together. Not a mother and grown-up son.

How did it happen? This mother and son adventure. Well, my mother died in summer after six years of Alzheimer’s. She was almost 92 and it felt as though it was her time to go. I felt blessed that she was able to let go then before she didn’t recognize us anymore. And, of course, it was distressing. Three weeks before, that, one of my closest friends, Jayne, chose to end her life at 48 because she couldn’t stand living with the torment – it had been 10 months – of suicidal clinical depression anymore.

It was a shocking, tearful time. And as death does, it prodded me into focusing on being fulsome in the present. Marlon and I had been talking about going away on our own. Having a little voyage without our partners. It’s allowed! A new propulsion arrived. Okay, let’s go to Senegal – somewhere I’ve wanted to go since having a ‘flingette’ with a gentleman from this West African country during my year out in Paris during 1973.

Senegal was a new place for me. And Marlon. It is also safe and relatively politically stable. I knew I’d get to speak lots of French. These were influences. I booked the flights to Dakar in September.

In December, I realized I hadn’t done anything other than that. I researched hotels – eventually found one recommended by the Guardian that seemed to be near to the beach. Hotel du Phare. It looked funky, maybe other travellers would be there with precious information. I booked it for four nights and a taxi from the airport to make our arrival as easy as possible. I’m an oldster traveller!!

On the plane in early January, I still hadn’t read the guidebook. My travelling modus operandi – previously in Cuba, Bali, Rajasthan etc – is to book a few first nights and then travel on the hoof with my book in hand and ears open. It does require an intense reading of the guidebook – and over the years I have honed the knack of hotel-hunting by getting to the know the subtexts of what I want and what is there, sometimes I’ll prioritise the location and others the hotel – to get what you want.

Seriously, I read the Brandt guidebook (which I recommend in this case) and one other book – a Senegalese classic So Long A Letter by Mariama Ba – when we were away and Marlon read five!

But I enjoy it. The ad-hoc planning, that is. Be warned. It isn’t for those who desire complete relaxation and comfort. There are errors and not so much insulation from the rough and tumble. When I was in Cuba with my friend Amanda in 2017, there were so many more tourists than I had imagined – a new diplomatic détente with the US had happened – and finding places to stay was tough. I had to try very hard, with friends of friends of our various hosts and speak Spanish as best I could. It was the sort of challenge I like.

Funnily enough. when we arrived at the aforesaid Lighthouse Hotel in Dakar, we were both ill with British colds and coughs, and there was a disco for 18-20 year olds going on!! Not the ideal. And the hotel had style but not much organization. Towels were difficult to obtain. We were paying £60 a night so I wasn’t impressed.

But the location in Mamelles – which is dusty but leafy too – near the sea was perfect. Yes, mamelles does mean breasts, it refers to the two hills in the area. One of which has the 19th-century French lighthouse – it is still used – on it.

Immediately, we discovered just how French Senegal still is. Baguettes and croissants for breakfast, the currency is tied to the Euro, everyone speaks French as well as their local tribal language and there are gendarmes everywhere too. It became independent in 1960 and the first president, Leopold Senghor, the poet-president as he was called, was all for Negritude – promotion of black arts and culture which still affects Senegal positively today – but also into keeping close links with the colonial power, France. Not everyone agreed with him in the latter respect believing it would hold back its evolution as an independent African country.

But it’s sandy. It is the Sub-Sahara. And Dakarois take the biscuit when it comes to knowing how to sport their often jaunty boubous and hats. With so much grace and attitude. It’s not a strut, just relaxed pride. Even at the bus stop. There would be those attractively clashing stripes for the men plus maybe a trilby, and the architectural headscarves for the women in yellows and oranges. No pastels here.

Big news. We made it to see Yousn’dour. He is the superstar Senegalese singer and musician who did that amazing duet Seven Seconds with Neneh Cherry in the early 80s. It sold millions. Marlon noticed he was playing locally with his band Super Etoile. So we made our way over there, through traffic jams and desert dust and managed to buy tickets.

Rose Rouse

We thought we were arriving reasonably late at 9pm, in other words, he might come on soon. Four hours later, a whole host of Senegalese pop stars had appeared but not the man himself. And we were standing! This was a mistake. As we bought the tickets, it wasn’t obvious that there was a choice. We wondered why the seats were all empty – perhaps he’s not as popular as he used to be, haha – and then three hours later, they began to fill up. Some people knew something. There was a dazzling array of sparkle on display, ‘selfies’ were de rigeur and Nicky Minaj seemed to be the main inspiration for the women.

However at 1am, this outdoor venue, which was now packed – erupted. The atmosphere was one of deep personal love. Everyone knew all the lyrics and sang along. There was much swaying and boogying. Yousn’dour’s voice is plaintiff, electric, devotional. I couldn’t help falling in love myself.

By 2 pm – after five hours of standing, we were both tired out –and decided to wiggle our way out, the band was still playing and Yousn’dour’s incredible voice unified the crowd. In fact, as we departed, groups of young people invited us to dance in their circles. Of course, you know which one of us took up the offer!

‘Well done, mum,’ pronounced Marlon, too grown up to be embarrassed. We finally got to bed at 3pm. Earlier, it has to be said, than the rest of the crowd.

There was also the trip to Goree island – the notable encounter with Monique – which has the UNESCO heritage site, La Maison des Esclaves, visited by world leaders from Obama to Mandala. This is one of the places where thousands of Senegalese people who had been captured as part of the Atlantic slave trade – were deported to the Americas. There were dungeons, places of torture for the recalcitrant, and the final doors where they stepped out to either death at sea or servitude. 33,000 people and children were trafficked from Goree over a 300 year period from the 15th century. This was just from this one port in Senegal. There were at least four more.

Rose Rouse

The information is mostly in French, and I did my best to translate. One of the shocking bits was that a woman ran the place for a long time from 1776. Anne Pepin was a signare and a metis – she was the child of a Senegalese mother and French man, and she herself was in a relationship with a French aristo – and in Senegal it was common for the signares to be the interface between the slaves, the traders and the colonial power. This was a clever move, in their terms.

We learned how Africa was weakened by this trade, how their cultivation was severely affected by all these tribal growers being captured and trafficked. Whole families were taken. It is dark reading matter but essential for understanding the bigger colonial picture and the shame of it. We were moved and reflective afterwards.

*

Toubab Dialaw – about an hour and a half by taxi south – is by the sea and our next destination. I confess that an important part of my travel vocabulary these days – is hire a taxi to get to the next place. In the 80s and 90s, and even ten years ago, I was still getting local transport. I have passed through that stage! The roads are crazy in Senegal, the driving is ‘organic’, and there are a lot of accidents. I have to say my 30something companion didn’t seem to mind this choice either.

Rose Rouse

The guidebook describes TB as bohemian and teaming with artists!! I booked into Sobo Bade, which was designed by Haitian artist and architect, Gerard Chenet. It has turrets and towers, – Gaudi and Dali were on his mind – there are mosaic crescendos. It is a marvel. Turns out that Mons Chenet is 87 and still lives in one of the rooms. I tried to meet him. Unfortunately, he was sleeping every time I enquired. But we did get to stay in a thatched turret overlooking the sea.

The first artist we met, was Picasso. Naturally. On the beach with his paintings. Turned out he was the younger brother of Picasso after all. We were assailed every time we hit the beach – with the Senegalese terranga. In other words, welcome. Which often translates as ‘Come and see my paintings’.

Toubab Dialaw was fascinating. Crafts salesmen but an empty beach, French tourists, super duper contemporary homes, and shacks beside the sea selling Yassa Chicken, one of the most popular local dishes with onion gravy. It is a winsome mishmash.

It is a mixed race couple hot spot. There are the couples that I assume have met, for instance, in France. A Senegalese man with a French woman. And then there is the pervasive boyfriend trade – which comes in different forms. The offer to be a boyfriend for the day with sexual services thrown in. I happened to be reading in one of the hotel’s hammocks when the-younger-than-my-son security guard showed himself eager to visit the Sine-Saloum Delta with me. Expenses paid of course. I didn’t take up the offer.

Later that day – we went off for an afternoon visit the amazing Theatre d’Engouement, a magical location, theatre plus rooms, swimming pool and off the wall sculptures also created by Mons Chenet, for performances and festivals – we found ourselves being consciously lured into a crafty shop. It had some Malian wall hangings that I liked the look off!

Well, Bad Boy was eye-catching at first. With his haphazard, stylish dreadlocked side ponytail. The father of all Sufi neck pieces – we are about to learn that he’s a Baye Fall which means he belongs to the Mouride Sufi Muslim brotherhood that is known for their mostly liberal ways – which features a photo of his spiritual guru on a very thick leather cord. It is a fuck off spiritual accessory, to say the least.

Rose Rouse

We’re offered mint tea and we accept. There is much pouring. To create a decent head of foam. A young Danish woman comes in and is obviously partnering up with one of the Baye Fall brethren because she’s just been to Touba, their holy city and is full of it.

Before I can mention Mali and fabric, Bad Boy has gone all spiritually soppy on me. He gazes into my eyes as though he is seeing a woman for the first time. I have to say they are rivered with red. ‘You must come with me to Touba,’ he announces as though I have no say in the matter. ‘You’re my Yaye Fall.’ There is an absolute nature to his tone. I give Marlon a nudge and we beat a gentle retreat while waving at Tiffany in New Orleans on one of the other guys’ phones. Oh the joy of craft shops.

I must say I hadn’t been expecting this kind of attention. We’re both bemused.

Although less so when a very drunk dreadlocked gentleman leers and lurches up to me in the pitch black later that evening. For a moment, – and it’s the only moment on our entire trip – I’m frightened. We walk rapidly in the other direction.

*

Our next stop is Joal-Fadiouth, which is at the beginning of a new greener landscape around the Sine-Saloum Delta. And so many spiky, remarkably shaped bulbous baobab trees. Regarded as sacred in Senegal, they have many healing properties as well as fruit for juice and oils. They are wonderful as they mark this desert so undeniably.

Hmmm, our auberge is in a great location in that it looks out onto the water and the mangroves. In the morning, we spot several pied kingfishers in black and white, bloody great pelicans, sandpipers, cormorants, elegant herons and whiter than white great egrets. As Marlon remarks. ‘ They all have their different methods for killing, some stay still, others dive, the sandpiper gets hold of a crab and knocks it about until it dies.’ It’s quite a massacre at 7am the next morning.

We loved the location. The room and services less so. The room had strip lighting and basically no running water. We were supposed to tell them when we wanted water and they would turn on the pump. However we had one whole day without any water. Let’s not talk about flushing the toilet. Why didn’t we leave? Because we really liked the river and the staff, and this is an adventure after all.

Leopold Senghor, the first president grew up so we went along to his old house. Lots of fading photos and dense French text on the walls. However, the only employee who was called Stephane – Senegal is 92 % Muslim but those French missionaries did their job well down here and there are Catholics including Stephen and the Senghor family. Now Stephane was a hoot, which is just what was needed.

‘Don’t go in that room,’ he warned, ignoring my post-menopausal status. ‘It is dangerous. It’s a baby factory. Senghor’s father had 43 children with five different wives.’

It turns out that Leopold was child number 21 by the third wife. So often we laughed out loud in our Senegalese encounters. Stephen did a brilliant comedic turn.

Fadiouth is the famous shell island – over hundreds of years, cockle shells were discarded here– and is connected to Joal by a footbridge. You have to take a guide to go over there. We did but in comparison with Stephane, he was so on script we were quickly bored and doing our own thing.

Mostly goats are the ubiquitous animals in Senegal but here it’s pigs and piglets. Catholic, you see. There is also conch meat and stingrays out drying, not to mention a woman chopping the hammer off a hammer head shark and then doing a little dance to show how it moves in the water. More masks and bracelets to be avoided. Marlon did however buy a bag of dried cockle meat for his dad – we’re not together but we’re friends – to cook up one of his spicy stews on our return.

The star visit is to the graveyard. Surreal with shell hills, crosses lie on one side and moons on the other. Muslims and Catholics lie here together. There are even the ashes of a Black-American who discovered her ancestors came from here and wanted to be flown back.

Rose Rouse

Joal is poor. It’s a fishing village with dozens of brightly painted pirogues on the beach amongst the mountains of detritus. It’s a challenge and also needs to be seen. There’s the smell of sewage and the water problem. But there’s also the spirit of community, people sit outside their family compounds cooking fish, drinking mint tea and chatting.

One of the hotels – Hotel de la Plage – is mentioned in my book but looks closed. We wander in.

Giles, the eloquent caretaker, tells us what happened. Climate change is raising the water levels, the sea is coming much further in, it has broken up all the front of the building and the swimming pool looks as though it’s been hit by a tsunami. It’s for sale but no-one is going to buy it. This really is the world changing right in front of us.

There’s also a tourist crisis. We really don’t see many tourists in Senegal and certainly not one British one. Giles explains that the Ebola, increased prices and the financial crisis have deeply affected tourist numbers.

After a big heartfelt send-off – they were really sweet people – from the auberge without water, we are on our way further into the delta.

*

Faoye is a rural community on the north of the Sine-Saloum Delta. When we arrive, we can’t believe our luck.

Oh Lordy, this is an idyllic spot. After the chaos and dirt of Joal, this is a row of thatched cottages on stilts, which looks onto a vast expanse of water with salt plains at the side. It is simply magnificent. We exclaim a lot in disbelief. As usual, we are the only visitors.

Rose Rouse

And there is running water. No electricity but that is part of the treat. Early to bed and early to rise. Keeping to those rhythms of nature. Now we are in dream holiday land. It isn’t an expensive luxury eco-lodge but rather an encampment created by a Spanish NGO, which is run by members of village and the profits go to the community too.

The food is cooked by Khady who often has her third child, eight-month-old Mohammed, strapped to her back. Fish, chicken, beef. Simple tasty fare but it would be tough for a vegetarian, as would most places in Senegal. As the sun goes down, villagers arrive with their goats and horses to wash in the delta. Horses are very much part of the transport system in these parts.

We could easily have stayed a week but we just had two days. The next morning we go out with a local fisherman in his leaky boat. There were some initial difficulties. The engine kept stopping as we ‘phutted’ across this vast delta arm, he also decided to pull alongside his mate’s boat, a fisherman with no engine. And I have to add – we were paying quite a lot of money for this trip. £40.

Aminata had also come along, a young woman who was working at the encampment – to help translate. He spoke Serer (the ethnic group here is Serer) not French. So she speaks French to me. She is wearing a dazzling white dress. I am a little frustrated when she points out the ‘cows’ on the banks. It turns out she’s actually a business student in Dakar but the President, Macky Sall, has cut all funding for the moment – in other words because there is an election which needs funding – and the students have all gone home.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

Finally, after an hour, everything improves. The fisherman sets free his friend’s boat, we find some mini mangroves and pelicans. And there are the inimitable salt-covered flat islands. These strange landscapes. Marlon jumps into the water, the fisherman buys some fish from friends in another boat. We end up on an island, it could be Treasure Island, we could have been stranded there for days. There is nothing but shrubs, fish and driftwood. No shade either. We crouch under a distinctly unleafy shrub while our ‘man’ makes a fire and grills the fish. They are delicious.

In the end, we are out for about six hours without shade, we got back delirious but happy. I even paid him extra.

*

Our final resting place is another city – this is four hours away from the delta by car and north of Dakar – but this time the old capital Saint Louis, which is squeezed onto a thin island. Pinks and yellows, crumbling 18th-century buildings with iron balconies – it reminds us of New Orleans, of Havana. There is an ambling, laidback quality to it. The perfect city to stroll in.

I am delighted because we find a big old room with a balcony that looks over the River Senegal, which has great white cotton sheets and fluffy towels, hot water and a flushing toilet. Plus electricity. I appreciate the rough and tumble of cheap hotels but then I relish the opposite. Totally. This is a room we can luxuriate in.

The wondrous encounters continue. We see what we think is a bicycle shop, we go in and it is a bike jungle instead. There are bits of bicycle hanging plentifully from the walls like a host of strange fruit. Ah ha, there is an artist in the other room. Of course.

Meisse Fall – we find his sculptures everywhere later – is the sort of gentle artist that I long to come across. His words have a lyricism that carries them along. Like a hymn to life. And ordinariness. ‘I was repairing bikes, my family always did that but I did so well that people weren’t coming back. I had nothing to do. I became an artist.’

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

He talks about everyone having a memory from their childhoods about bicycles and how his sculptures evoke that special time. He’s actually wearing a lyric cycling top – he cycles everywhere. There are masks from the saddles and metal animals from spokes. ‘We always say that looks are deceptive but with bikes you get what you see. They are naked. When you see a part in the road, you know it’s from a bike.’

There are contemporary galleries – one near our hotel is opened up by the owner himself, businessman Amadou Diaw who proceeds to show us around his modern creation – local restaurants, old colonial hotels, caleches, and the young fisherman who goes home and records a whole brilliant USB stick of great Senegalese music for us, the PE teacher Joel who we end up going out with. It really goes on just like that…

Senegal – you were extraordinary and have ignited my travelling spirit all over again, – that openness, that trust, that flow to whatever comes along. There’s nothing else like it. The shore is disappearing.

Rose Rouse

TIPS FOR OLDER TRAVELLERS

  • Buy a great guidebook and learn to deep-read it. This takes a little time but reaps enormous benefits as you start to realize what it all means.
  • Allow yourselves spontaneity. If you book everything up, you’ll miss the thrill of the new adventure. This means making a few mistakes and relishing the glory of the exquisite choices.
  • Don’t bother with local transport. Let yourselves book a taxi and driver. It can all be arranged when you get there. We often did ours on the hoof.
  • Pack lightly so you don’t have heavy bags to drag around. Not a backpack necessarily. I just took a small wheelie this time.
  • Buy a post-bite stick. They are brilliant at de-itching mosquito bites.
  • Hone up on the language beforehand. Gosh, it makes all the difference.

One Woman Who Made Her Travel Dreams Come True


7 Minute Read

During my teenage years, growing up Melbourne, Australia during the 1970s, travel was never far from my mind.

With a father who had experienced the romance of ship travel in the Orient and my mother who was immigrant from a Second World War London, wanderlust was in my heart just waiting to blossom.

It was to come many years later – following a fulfilling motherhood to two beautiful daughters and working out of necessity.

With my passion for tarot having its roots in medieval Europe, I had always thought that would draw me first.  But strangely enough, it was Asia, short holidays in Vietnam and India that ignited my yearning for more adventure. To do things differently in the footsteps of many of the ancient wise ones.

A chance meeting with a young Scottish couple travelling in Vietnam planted the seed of change in my heart. They were travelling for a year! So many questions flooded my mind on meeting them. How can you afford that? Where did you start? What a great idea! Imagine that, stepping onto a plane or ship or train and knowing you are not coming back for a whole year! A vision of Paddington Bear with only a tiny suitcase sprang to mind and I knew their dream had to be mine.

So at age 52,  after much shedding – cars, furniture, full-time jobs; my partner and I handed the keys of our tiny apartment to his son. We decided it was cheaper to travel for a year staying in hostels and homestays than to live in Melbourne.

Following the sun was the trick to only needing carry-on luggage. Starting in a Melbourne autumn, we set off for spring in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were also determined to live like locals.

We adhered to only three rules; number one was to stay at least a month in each country to allow the culture to truly seep in. Rule number two was no purchasing of clothes unless one garment was given away to a recipient who needed it. If we bought a coat, we would then leave it for somebody who could use it.  Number three was we would only travel with what we could carry. In 2011, it was just 7kg of luggage.

That year saw us tango dancing in Argentina, climbing the Andes in Peru, discovering caves in Turkey and sailing the waters of Ulysiss. After a month overlooking the fiords of the tiny village Perast in Montenegro, we set off for our final six months. We travelled to the village of Rajbag in Southern India, where I studied reiki and reflexology.

Then, the universe brought us an amazing opportunity and without much hesitation, we accepted an offer to set up and run a small guest house in Vietnam. The connection from years earlier came via email.  Were we still interested in managing a guest house?  Yes yes yes!  Was the resounding reply.

Southern India turned into our planning time for our new venture. Each day as the sun rose, we walked the two kilometres to the beach, past bird wetlands and sari-clad beautiful women on their way to work. With our toes planted in the sand, our days were spent putting our dream onto paper. Drawing plans, writing menus, our vision included becoming a part of a fishing village where we could give back to their community.  Offering homely comfy accommodation with the opportunity for guests to be a part of a real village. Our Vietnamese vision sprang to life as we filled our tummies with curry and mango from the local Rajbag beach vendors.

We had never seen Bai Xep, Quy Nhon, the location for our new home. That first day, we wandered through the tiny village, little smiling faces peeped out around doorways, dogs barking, women mending fishing nets looked up at us shyly. My heart skipped beats and I knew this was going to be an amazing place to be!  For the next three years, our new home became the home-away-from-home for many weary travellers.

Tears, laughter, frustration, lack of language, determination, and much love came together to realise our guesthouse Haven. From our initial kernel, came the passions of many others who made us their family for a short time. Some of them have in turn gone on to run their own guest houses which employ local people and give back to their communities.

Our life in Bai Xep was not without its hardships. Most days presented unforeseen problems. The electricity was constantly being cut. We would wake to no power, which would sometimes take days to return. We cooked with gas or on small charcoal BBQs, but as the sun rises early and sets at 6pm we were often without lighting to cook by! We managed this by wearing miners’ torches strapped to our foreheads and having candlelit dinners. With twelve hungry guests, every night – not cooking was not an option!

Language was our biggest hurdle. Not only was there no English spoken in the village but many people could not read or write. Education that we take for granted is precious to these small villages.We had two large tanks for the water, which was piped from the mountain. The tanks regularly ran dry so we would take bike trips up to the water source. Usually to find our supply had been cut and taken to another business! We put the pipe in – which brought running water to our village; before that, they only had the well. Water was pumped and carried to their humble houses.

 

I had thought I would get around my lack of Vietnamese by writing in Vietnamese from translator apps. To get around this problem, we bought fruit and vegetable posters and had them up on our kitchen walls. Our kitchen looked like a kindergarten, but we got the job done. I could point at what we needed and slowly my Vietnamese vocabulary increased.

As the universe does, it brought us an unexpected twist. We learned sadly that the land we leased was to be sold. We could take the risk that the new owners would lease to us, or try to sell our business. We chose to put the business up for sale. Feeling strongly that if it was meant to be – another opportunity would arise.

Chance played her part again. An English guest told us the story of her parents who lived in rural France. Something just clicked for us and we started to think about the possibility of a different life in a rural Europe.

Just two months later – after a flying visit to family in the UK, we were sitting sipping wine in Montmorillon France.  We had been brought here for lunch having never heard of it. Dining on delicious crepes beside the river, we both felt the magic and knew this would be our next home.

So the wheel turned again, finally, in medieval Europe my passion for the tarot and history could bloom again.

Montmorillon, Cite De L’Ecrit, a town of books is our home now. Our rambling old 17th-century house on the river Gartempe will never be perfect. Its joy comes from living at one with the birds and the river. Our gites providing a comfy immersion in rural France, the world now comes to us!

Moving to France has created another first for me. The publishing of my first novel, Bonne Chance and Butterflies. A novel – it tells the story of woman’s courage as she makes a profound change in her life. Her incredible journey of self-discovery emerges in my magical town Montmorillon.

So, take a chance, move into the unknown, experience other cultures, listen to your heart.

When you open your heart to chance and change – the universe answers.

Rosie’s accommodation in Montmorillon can be accessed here – Riverside Studio and Charming Montmorillon Maison, both are self-catering accommodation.

And to her book Bonne Chance and Butterflies on Amazon.

Wanted: retired travel addict for an expenses-paid ‘senior gap year’ around the world | Lonely Planet


2 Minute Read

If you’re a pensioner who regrets not taking time out to see the world when you were younger, we have the perfect job opportunity for you. UK-based price comparison site, Compare the Market, has just launched a quest to find a lucky retired person to go off on what it is calling a ‘senior gap year’.

Read more here: Wanted: retired travel addict for an expenses-paid ‘senior gap year’ around the world | Lonely Planet

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