A rainy Sunday morning on Stronsay. About 350 people supposedly live on this straggly Northern Isle of Orkney, but I rarely saw them. The ‘all arms and legs’ shape of the island does mean that there are lots of lovely coves and sandy beaches, and it was above one of these (St Catherine’s Bay) that I parked up outside the community centre and waited for the patch of blue sky I could see in the distance to reach me. I sat with a mug of steaming coffee intending to read, but stared out of the windscreen instead at the mesmerising seascape of blues, greens, greys and frothy whites. As always, when I get the time to stare at the sea, or mountains, or any other nice, natural view, my mind started to wander and ideas began to form.
Two nights previously I’d pulled up at public toilets at the end of a track, by a beach, just outside the small village of Evie on the Orkney mainland’s northern coast. I planned to sleep there. Not long after I’d arrived a car pulled up. The lone woman looked at her maps, got out and checked out the beach, wandered round, basically doing all the things I was doing. After a short while of this, I decided to go for a walk along another track that seemed to follow the bay round. At the same time, the other woman also decided to go for a walk along the track, so we joined up.
Turned out Caitlin was also on holiday, travelling round in her car and sleeping in the back of it. Like me, when looking for somewhere to sleep, she hunted out quiet spots with a nice view and convenient loos.
We walked for further than we intended, getting excited when we unexpectedly came across a geological phenomenon of basically what are reformed rocks. Sand is made from either rocks or shells that have been ground down. Here the process has gone step further and shell sand has reformed itself back into rocks. Or not really ‘back’ into rocks as it was never rocks in the first place, but shells, as though it was jealous of the sand that had once been rocks and had wanted its own turn at being a rock. We clambered over the formation which still looked like sand, expecting the grains to move underfoot, but they didn’t; they were all stuck together, solid as a rock. Very weird.
We continued along the track until we reached the far side of the bay and the Broch of Gurness. The broch stands in the middle of the site and has the ruins of a neolithic village around it. The village is made up of a series of one-roomed houses interlinked by corridors which would have been originally been roofed over for protection against the weather. The houses still have the remains of beds and dressers inside them, all made out of stone, Flintstones style. The most well-known example of this type of village is, of course, Skara Brae on the west coast, but this is pretty impressive too and the I think I preferred this one.
The gate had a notice on it giving official opening hours but nothing was closed off so we wandered round having a good nosey and enjoying having the place to ourselves. Well, apart from two very friendly cats and an observant seal that is. I didn’t have my camera with me so went back the following morning to take photos, and although there were several tour groups looking round, there was still no warden.
During our walk we’d chatted about where we’re from, what we do, and so on. Turns out Caitlin, who’s from Angus, lives in Saudi Arabia. She’s just finished a year teaching English as a foreign language at the university in Riyadh and is waiting on her visa being renewed so she can go back for a second year.
My intentions when I became a teacher, were never to do it as a lifelong career choice. Life is far too short to spend it all doing the same thing. I always thought I’d be a teacher for five years – two in the UK getting experience and then three years in the Middle East, earning good money and getting to experience life and culture in a part of the world that really fascinates and interests me. But, the best laid plans and all that …
I’m about to go into my eighth year of teaching and I’m still in Manchester. I have thought about moving elsewhere – I got very tempted by a job in Skerries (in Shetland) a couple of years ago – but the thing that’s held me back has been my parents who are getting older, with all the issues that can entail, and since I moved back to Manchester eleven years ago, they’ve got so used to me being here, it would be quite a wrench for them to have me move away again.
I decided against the Skerries job because it was just too far and time-consuming to get ‘home’ easily and quickly. It would be impossible to pop home for a weekend and I really didn’t fancy spending all my school holidays in Manchester.
Sitting above the beach in Stronsay, thinking in the rain, my thoughts turned to Saudi Arabia and how feasible it would be for me to work there. Many Middle East countries are quite open to tourism and so it’s possible to visit and get an idea of the place. But Saudi Arabia doesn’t really do tourism. Apparently they’re tentatively exploring the idea but it’s really in its embryonic stages and will be a long time, if ever, before it really opens up. So the only way to really get to know and explore this birthplace of Islam and politically important country is to work there.
Caitlin told me that by the time her visa was sorted out last year it was October, and the academic year finishes in June, so that’s really only eight months I’d be away. And if anything serious did happen at home, it would be quicker to fly home from Saudi Arabia than it would be to get home from somewhere like Skerries which involves two ferries (including an overnight one) and a lot of driving. The more I thought about it the more things seemed to slip into place.
I’d like to develop my writing but living in a busy heavily populated UK city limits opportunities – far too many people all doing – or wanting to do- the same thing. Also I really struggle to find the time to keep up my blog, let alone anything else. Saudi, however, could be a completely different kettle of fish. Friends who have lived in expat communities and wanted to write, have tended to find more opportunities than there are here. Also, there isn’t that much written about Saudi Arabia compared to many other places. And if Saudi Arabia is really trying to develop its fledgling tourist industry, now could be the time to become a travel-writer based there. A good chance of write place, write time maybe?
I could also use Riyadh (or Jeddah) as a base to explore other parts of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Caitlin said it’s quite feasible to pop over to Dubai for a weekend. I could have the chance to get to know the various Emirates quite well and squeeze in a couple of visits to my teacher friend, Dawn, in Oman.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about Antarctica and how I really need to do something about getting myself there. I don’t really want to go on a cruise – as well as being expensive I’d feel too much on the outside looking in. What I really want to do is go to live there for a while – at least six months and ideally for a full year. As I’m not a scientist that means applying for support type jobs, for instance, as a cook. But I know my chances would be really limited and as I get older, my age is going to go against me as well (maybe I’m already too old?).
Ideally I’d go as a writer/researcher, writing from an anthropological perspective. I always thought if I did a PhD it would be Middle East based research, but over the past few years I’ve been thinking more about how fascinating it would be to carry out research on an Antarctic base. I’ve even researched universities that are involved in Antarctic research but I’ve not been able to get any leads for anthropological research.
If I started to establish myself as a writer and researcher in Saudi Arabia this may give me a way in to Antarctica. Long shot I know, but stranger things have been known to happen.
I’m feeling that coming across that talk on Antarctica in Lerwick and then running into Caitlin (outside a toilet at the end of a lonely track – really, what are the chances of that?) is all part of a universal nudge to try and get me back on track with my life plans and working towards achieving some of my goals. I could even give learning Arabic a pretty good shot whilst living in Saudi Arabia.
All this from sitting looking at a beach in the rain. I really should do it more often!