As I sat there on the train, watching the world go by, I wondered whether I had made the right decision. I was on my way to a small seaside town in Norfolk where I would be living and volunteering at a youth hostel for a few weeks. I hadn’t really given it much thought before arranging it with the hostel manager. I’d just quit my job and I needed some time away to think and I figured that volunteering at a hostel by the coast would be a good a means as any to get away. I’d have enough time to think, but not so much time that I’d drive myself crazy with my thoughts.
The few people I spoke to in London about it, didn’t really understand. They suggested that I go on holiday instead. When I told them that I wasn’t taking my phone or my laptop they were even more confused. I tried to explain that I simply needed some time out, but I don’t think I did a very good job – somethings are quite difficult to communicate- the need to be alone being one of them.
I wanted to disconnect, to reflect and to spend time with my Creator. Again, this isn’t something that’s easy to explain especially to another Muslim. Surely you can spend time with Allah wherever you are, you don’t have to travel to rural England and walk a hundred miles. It’s true, you don’t, but for me it’s always helped.
Since my late teens, I developed a habit of travelling to remote parts of the country. I’d stay a few nights at a youth hostel and spend the days embarking on long solo walks. My wanderings would always bring me a sense of peace, a sense of internal quietude and joy that can only be felt alone in the wild. Nature beckoned, I answered.
My first full day in Norfolk was difficult. I woke up at 6am, prayed fajr, dressed quickly in my catering uniform and went downstairs to start my shift. I served breakfast to over 50 teenagers that morning. I felt like a dinner lady, which wasn’t so bad. After I mopped the kitchen floors, I had breakfast with the other staff members and changed into the housekeeping uniform. That morning I must’ve cleaned over 20 toilets and showers. It was a pretty grim, but very humbling experience. Aside from helping maintain my friends Airbnb in South Korea for a few months, I hadn’t done any housekeeping in my life, not on the scale I was expected to do at the hostel. It was hard work and it wasn’t very pleasant.
Once I had gotten through my first shift, I went to room and began to plot how I could get out of this awful predicament I had gotten myself into. I wasn’t sure I could hack two weeks of this. I needed to go for a walk so I headed to the hills. I spent the next few hours wandering by the coast. The North Sea stretched as far as the eye could see, the sound of the waves were so calming and a few hours into my walk, I’d forgotten all about the unpleasantness of the morning and all my anxieties dissipated. I felt present and connected to the natural world. I remembered Allah. I settled on a deserted beach. I resolved to myself I would stick it out, I’d made a commitment and I would see it through. I would do it for the sake of Allah, as a means of getting close to Him. After all, this was one of the reasons I came.
The next week, I got into a routine. I would work at the hostel from 6am to 12pm, and then I would embark on very long walks, sometimes I’d get the bus to other places. I traversed pine forests and beaches, I’d watch the sunset. It was liberating to be anonymous and alone, to be present in absence. I relished in the fact that I didn’t have social media, that I didn’t have to take photos or post updates on where I was, or what I was doing. That I could be free for a short while. I could live. Some days I’d walk for hours and not come across another human being.
There were times I felt lonely- but the freedom and peace over rid those feelings. With each day that passed, I found it easier to be without. In fact, I was surprised at how easy it was- to disconnect. There were so many benefits to living this way. I found that I was sleeping better. I felt better than I had in a long time. I felt clearer and healthier- physically, spiritually and mentally.
A few weeks on from when I arrived, I found myself back at Liverpool street station, my hiking boots caked in mud, suitcase with scriptures at my side. It was evening rush hour – it was a shock to the system. Pushing through hordes of suits at the station and on the sidewalks, I felt a sense of an unease and dread. Already the clarity and peace I had attained with difficulty felt like it was eroding. Back to London, back to un-reality. I sighed.
There are many things I learnt and relearnt whilst away- I learnt the value of time, the need to be quiet, to be alone. I learnt lessons in humility, in gratitude and grace. For a short time, I gained Taqwa. God consciousness. It felt glorious.
I hope to take heed of the lessons I learnt, and to live better in London- to find ways to retain a sense of peace and connection- whether by embarking a sunrise wandering after fajr in the local park or switching my phone off after working hours. Often, we have a lot more control over the way we live than we think we do. Not only can we survive, but we can thrive by disengaging with the modern world- if not always, then at least sometimes.
By Saira Niazi
You can follow Saira on @livinglon (on twitter and instagram)