Follow your heart

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

Some trips are about much more than R&R. Three writers describe their emotional journeys

Issue 3 · Winter 2015/16

Some trips are about much more than R&R. Three writers describe their emotional journeys

Tina Gaudoin; colourful street drawing during the festival of Pongal; keeping cool in the shady streets of Pondicherry; Temple of the Mother at Auroville
       

The search for roots
Pondicherry, India

 

Tina Gaudoin has edited magazines in New York and London, and is writing a book about her Anglo-Burmese heritage. Here she goes looking for clues and spiritual answers in India

 

Ever since I can remember I have been fitting together the pieces of my family jigsaw. In some cases, it’s taken decades to find a scattered fragment or to mend a broken piece of the puzzle.

My journey began around the age of five, in the playground of my Norfolk primary school, with an innocent question from a group of friends: “Why does your dad always have a suntan?” I went home and asked. The reply, admirably and evenly handled by my blonde half-American mother, still informs my view of race relations today.

In the intervening years I have set off on pilgrimages across the globe to make sense of my family story, to discover how my Burmese grandfather ended up raising his family in rural north Norfolk. To try to figure out what it meant for my father, and for me and for my siblings.

I embarked on the latest leg of this marathon quest last year in Pondicherry, a city perched somewhat precariously on the southeastern edge of the Indian coastline. First recorded as a Roman trading port, it was controlled from the 17th century onwards by the French, the Dutch, the English, and then the French (in that order), before being returned to India in 1956. My visit was a leap of faith.

According to Commonwealth records my relative, Anthony Gaudoin (an auctioneer), arrived in India from France with his sons Joseph and Charles in 1797 on the ship Royal Charlotte. In reality nobody knows exactly where they arrived in India, how they lived, why they ended up in Yangon. But as French immigrants, it’s likely that Pondi, as locals call it, would have played its part. If they didn’t actually live here, they must surely have visited?

Family history is only one part of my motivation for visiting this exquisite mix of lush vegetation, sea breezes and crumbling colonial buildings in the pretty French quarter, which exist cheek by jowl with the “new India” of coffee shops, mopeds and mobile phone kiosks. I confess that I have spent a good part of the last 20 years stumbling along the road less travelled. At the end of all this, I find myself fifty-ish, divorced-ish and with a dawning awareness that I might be holding my own spiritual roadmap upside down. Which brings me to Pondicherry, home to one of the world’s biggest and most established ashrams, Sri Aurobindo, and the alternative community of Auroville – located 15 minutes from the city – both of which I have long wanted to visit.

I confess that I have spent a good part of the last 20 years stumbling along the road less travelled

So did I find any answers in this, one of the gentlest, kindest of Indian towns I have ever visited? The answer is yes and no. It’s hard not to feel peaceful, contemplative and ultimately positive at the ashram. Seated in the courtyard, I watch tourists and seekers alike pay homage by filing silently through a white marble cloister strewn with flowers. Here are the tombs of both founders, Aurobindo Ghose and Frenchwoman Mirra Richard (later known as “the Mother”) – an example of the fusion of Gallic and Indian culture of which I too am a part.

Conversely at Auroville, also founded by Mirra Richard, a kind of panic invades my senses, making me realise that while I like the idea of casting myself away in a remote outpost and living “alternatively” for the rest of my life, it might just not be the resolution I’m seeking (and my children, siblings and dogs might have something to say about it, too).

Later in my trip I head to Chennai, a two-hour drive from Pondi, and visit St. Mary’s Church, the oldest British building in India. Here I discover that on the May 8, 1802, Charles Gaudoin married Miss Georgina Campbell. As the tropical rain beats down on the tin roof of the building next door and steam rises from the church gardens, I hope that as they began their journey together they felt what I was feeling at that moment – a very real sense of possibility, at the beginning of a new chapter in my life.


Call 020 8682 5075 to talk to a Scott Dunn expert about holidays to India
Images: Corbis, Alamy

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The gap year revisited
Nicaragua

 

Fiona Neill is a journalist and novelist, currently working on a screenplay and new book. For us she returns with her family to the Central America of her youthful adventures

 

It’s 25 years since I lived in Nicaragua, but some things haven’t changed. The buses are still Russian, former guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega is still president, and the capital, Managua, still resembles a sprawling village.

I first came here in the late 1980s with my then boyfriend as part of my year out from the Spanish Department at Bristol University. The boyfriend has since evolved into my husband, Ed, and a quarter of a century later we have returned for a holiday with our three children (15,13 and 11).

So what brought me back? Uppermost was sheer curiosity to see how this place, which so defined my early adulthood, has changed. More importantly, I wanted to share Nicaragua with our children, for them to understand a little of what we loved about the country. It was a pilgrimage into our own history, a chance to share a slice of our experience with our brood, but also a chance to reassess a country I love from a new perspective.

The children are satisfyingly enthusiastic to discover their parents have a past, which makes us a little more interesting in their eyes. And, with their excitement at the exoticism of the place, they prove an excellent antidote to the nostalgia that threatens to spill over at times. When we find the house where we lived in Managua in 1987 for example, it’s difficult not to succumb.

The Nicaragua that we lived in was not somewhere you would take three children – even adventurous ones – for a family holiday. The Sandinista Revolution that ended almost half a century of dictatorship by the Somoza family was in its eighth year, and the country was caught in the midst of terrifying conflict. Most foreigners who headed to the country found themselves working, rather than visiting, and we were no different. I found myself painting handicrafts with Salvadorian refugees and my husband built chicken sheds on a co-operative in the north, against a backdrop of high inflation, frequent electricity blackouts and scarce running water.

In those days, getting around was so challenging that we saw little of the country. It is only on this trip that I manage to finally appreciate the “earthly paradise” described by Mark Twain. It is astonishing. Nicaragua is a place of exquisite natural beauty and the tourist route is lightly trodden but growing in popularity. Along with Costa Rica, it is now one of the safest countries to visit in Latin America, and a fabulous place to take intrepid teenagers.

We teeter on just the right side of thrill – our eldest son sits on a baby boa constrictor and our daughter has a narrow brush with a crocodile – but the exoticism and remote wild beauty make it a remarkable bonding experience for us all.

One of the most significant changes is the ease with which you can now travel the length and breadth of the country. I remember once taking a day to reach León, a bewitching colonial city, nestled among seven of Nicaragua’s 28 major volcanoes. The same journey now takes less than two hours, and on the same day we manage to climb at dusk to the edge of Telica to see the lava bubbling below. The following day – and this is where our children become seriously impressed – we hike up Cerro Negro and board down the black volcanic sand on the other side.

The rainforest that covers a fifth of southern Nicaragua along the San Juan River was a war zone last time we were here, off limits to tourists, but also poachers and loggers, which means it is remarkably well-preserved. We see howler monkeys, giant sloths, toucans, lizards, iguanas, and opossums during our three-day trip here, and countless caimans and crocodiles on a night tour of the river. But it’s the resilience and sense of fun of its people that impress our children, just as they impressed us a quarter of a century ago. Some things really don’t change.


Call 020 8682 5030 to talk to a Scott Dunn expert about holidays to Central America
Images: Corbis, Alamy

View of the harbour on Lake Nicaragua; Fiona Neill and family; street scene in Granada; a black volcanic sand beach; the market at San Juan del Sur
       

Tim and E on the beach; fresh local prawns; Sao Paolo church; elegantly decaying doors; the sands of Ilha de Tavira; on the banks of the River Gilao
 
 
 
 

The first holiday
Algarve, Portugal

 

Tim Pozzi is a writer and editor, specialising in travel and food. For us he describes that all-important first holiday with a new love, to the enchanting Portuguese coast

 

Last summer, at a party in a back garden in South London, a woman with curly blonde hair and green eyes offered me a piece of chocolate cake.

“No thanks,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I’ve had a piece already.”

“Are you sure? It’s really amazing cake!”

Nine months later I am sitting in a café on Praça da República in Tavira, with its tiny open-air theatre and broad arcades, a few yards from the squat Moorish bridge that spans the sedate River Gilão. “Do you want some of my cake?” asks that same green-eyed temptress. “It’s made from carob and tastes like chocolate!”

Somewhere in between these two points in time and space, E and I have fallen in love. We have tasted each other’s cooking. We have met one another’s friends and family. We have got lost on tramps through the countryside and survived outbreaks of bickering and crankiness.

But, this, our first proper holiday, is our biggest test to date. As anyone who ever embarked on a first holiday with a new love knows, it can be a make-or-break affair. And I am anxious because it was my idea for us to visit this sleepy fishing port on the eastern Algarve.

The southern coast of Portugal has a bad rep, and it’s true that parts of it have been overdeveloped. But you don’t have to look far to find ancient charms beyond the new hotels that have appeared in recent decades. In spring and autumn, when tourists are few, the brilliant light – it rains rarely here – the briny air from the marshy lagoons and the gentle pace of life are an instant tonic.
I wonder, though, whether E will agree. If so, we will have a magical time. If not, everything will be… ruined.

The newly arrived swallows, dancing over the Gilão at dusk, do me a favour. Sitting on the bank of the river with a tangerine sky reflected in the water, a glass of vinho verde in hand and a bowl of olives to nibble on, how could we not be enchanted?

Part of this bit of the Algarve’s allure is its soundtrack. When the swallows are not screeching the sparrows are chattering in its palm trees and squares. And above that, there is a layer of conversation – gossip, greetings, and consultations over menus and in front of shop windows – while the few cars move as cautiously as elephants.

It is a joy – and a relief – to me that E is delighted by a shock of bougainvillea spilling over a whitewashed wall; storks that build nests the size of truck tires on tall chimneys; tiny shops that sell local honey and olive oil; tuna baked with lemon and garlic, brought to our table alongside blue and green-painted fishing boats, their nets and buoys spread out on the wharf.

What we both like best, though, is Ilha de Tavira, a spit of sand reached by a 10-minute ferry journey. A walk through scrubby pine trees brings us to an empty café whose amiable proprietor recommends a plate of fresh clams, which arrive in a garlicky sauce, and are gorgeous washed down with a Sagres beer. At this time of year, May, the seemingly never-ending beach is virtually deserted, and we walk along it, hand-in-hand, towards a horizon that contains only sand, sea and sky. We have come to a good place, and the future stretching out before us is exhilarating.


Call 020 8682 5080 to talk to a Scott Dunn expert about holidays to Portugal
Images: Corbis, Alamy, Gallery Stock, Getty Images

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