It already feels an age ago that I was back in my homeland and despite the intense heat and humidity, I’m rapidly relaxing back into African life. I was gone for quite a stretch and am not sure when I’ll next get back. Here are some images and highlights from my trip back.
First off, I arrived into Barcelona where I’d purposely given myself a few hours transit time to head into the city and check out the Gaudi cathedral, which was still as crazy and fantastical as when I first visited this city aged 14.
I wandered the city, sampled some tapas and soon was on my way.
I was told to the weather was going to be hot in England, but of course these things are relative. As everybody around me wore short sleeves enjoying the sun, I was wrapped up in thermal coat thinking how fresh it felt. But of course within a few weeks I’d acclimatised. I stayed at my brothers and then at my parents near Oxford. I joined my father and uncle for their weekly walk, this time around Boars hill where I used to play as a child. Here is the city of dreaming spires (and cranes):
I’d barely been back a week when I was invited to a party at a friends on an island in the river near Hampton Court. The house overlooked Pink Floyds floating recording studio and seemed a far cry from Africa.
The next weekend and another party, this time in Yorkshire. Lucy was a visitor to the Little Baobab a couple of years ago and we’ve subsequently become good friends. She’s now working for this social enterprise in Uganda (someone could set up a similar organisation in our region I reckon) and it was lucky that our trips back coincided. Wisely, rather than dash all over the country, the country came to her.
There was a bouncy castle in the garden (complete with bluetooth for music and flashing lights – essential for any party), lots of friendly people and unbelievably generous and hospitable parents who subsequently came to my book launch in London. We all ate, drank and made merry and I left feeling slightly larger than before.
The next leg of the journey was a trip across the dales by train, skirting passed the lake district and to Carlisle, where I changed for a train to Edinburgh. Lucy’s father had told me it’s the most spectacular train journey in the country and he wasn’t wrong. Here’s the view:
I spent a very pleasant few days with Ian, Gill and their lovely kids, Stuart and Eleanor. One day, I strolled down an old abandoned train track, across fields and straight into the Glenkinchie whisky distillery where I made a tour and spent a while in the tasting room.
Next stop was to meet more friends, Simon and Claudette and their two beautiful young daughters.
Most of my friends are called Simon – we were all born around the time Bridge over troubled water was released. I’d met him in Uganda about 15 years earlier, whilst trekking to see the mountain gorillas, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. After a day strolling around Edinburgh town centre, I took a train out to Linlothgow, half hour or so to the west where Simon met me and took me back to their gorgeous house that backs onto a picturesque canal. There ensued another few days of eating and socialising. At the weekend we visited the Jupiter sculpture park.
I bet you can’t tell what the image below is….there’s an explanation at the bottom of the page:
The next day we headed north to climb a couple of Munro’s – a Scottish mountain more than 3000 feet tall. It was spitting with rain, but held off from drenching us and we enjoyed superb views across the Cairngorms.
Whilst there, I took the opportunity to catch up with Peter, a visitor to the Little Baobab earlier this year and his Gambian wife, Anna, and their son. Despite being in Scotland less than a year, she’d picked up the accent.
Another city, another Simon. I took the megabus down to Manchester. When I told people I was travelling on megabus, they looked appalled – how could I submit myself to such torture. Clearly they’ve never travelled in Senegal. When a brand new bus with functioning wifi, an electrical socket and onboard toilet turned up, I was pretty surprised. Sure, it wasn’t the fastest and stopped in each city, but I had the time. And at £8 versus £150 on the train, I didn’t have much choice.
“No, I’m shocked that someone walked up behind and whacked me.”
“It’s cuz I is black, innit.”
This went on rather tediously for a few minutes after which he asked for some money, which was hardly likely after the way he spoke to me.
Simon, an old school friend who has visited us in Senegal, lives with his soon to be bride, Emily, in Sale, Manchester. As seems to be the norm, we caught up in the pub before heading home. One evening, Simon took me to the Trafford centre – or Tragic centre as he calls is. A huge extravagent temple to the cult of consumerism. The toilets were carved like Egyptian temples, the entrance surrounded with fake palm trees and I was a little overwhelmed by it all. A far cry from Abene market with it’s few stalls of women swatting flies off the fish.
Earlier in the day, Manchesters finest young men also apeared to be showing off normal cultural norms – a guy decided to punch out a window of a tram, leaving us to walk the last few hundred metres. I never experience such anti-social behaviour in Senegal. Next stop was my brother’s again and to a brewery night. Rebellion Breweries in Marlow opens it’s gates to members once a month and you are given a pint glass upon entry and then help yourself to as much real ale as you can manage in an evening. Afterwards, as is traditional, my brother Jeremy, his friends and myself headed to a curry house for a last pint of cobra and a feast.
I spent the next day working with Dan at Eye books and by now it was getting quite warm, even for me. We were busy trying to whip up media interest in Chasing Hornbills. I was amused when one newspaper (rhymes with Waily Fail) asked “is he a celebrity, will there be a film of his life starring Brad Pitt or is he with one of the big publishing houses? If not we probably won’t be interested.” At least they were honest – most don’t respond. Incidentally, Dan told me that Squirting Milk is in fact well on it’s way to being a bestseller. These days, one must only sell 3000 copies to technically be a best seller. Most books barely sell 100.
Next stop was a special one, to meet two of my very first guests. Julia and Peter visited back in 2013 when visiting their daughter who worked for the International Red Cross in Ziguinchor.
I helped them out of a pickle whilst trying to sort their visas and we’ve been friends ever since, regularly exchanging books. They alternate between two homes – a hotel in Granada, the Carribean and a 16th century thatched farmhouse deep in the New Forest.
Peter picked me up in Southampton and soon we were eating salmon in their gorgeous garden, swimming in their pool surrounded by palm trees and tucking into real ale at a small pub in the middle of nowhere, frequented by foresters.
After an idyllic picnic in the woods the next day, I left. Hopefully one day I can visit their Granadan home.
After more time at my parents I headed up once more to Yorkshire, starting to feel like a yo-yo. This time it was Simon and Emily’s wedding.
It was a beautiful day with lovely people and even some Senegal connections. Sens Sagna owns a compound in Abene and used to perform with Khady, but now lives in Manchester. He led the couple down the aisle, playing his djembe with a Gambian friend. Later, Holly Marland played the kora, singing this gorgeous rendition of Fields of Gold:
Several years ago, Holly visited the Little Baobab with my friend Jali Hammy. She’d played and sang a song to Gulliver, who was about one at the time, on the verandah of the small house we lived in, in those early days. And now we met again after Simon and Emily had found her via the internet, unaware of the connection. Later, after dinner, although not asked, I got up and spoke some words – I’m usually far too shy, but felt compelled to honour Simon, someone who’s example and approach to life has always inspired me. As I said in the speech, when confronted with many issues, my first thought is “what would Simon do?”
Another day, another megabus and then I was in London with Shaun and his girlfriend as well as meeting another Little Baobab alumni, Becki.
One of the great things about publishing and putting my name out there a bit is that every now and again, I get a message from an old friend or work colleague who’s come across and read the book. Fiona did this a few weeks earlier and we’d reestablished contact. She’d been a friend from the year below me in 6th form and we’d lost touch for the past 20 years or so. Fiona and another old friend, Anji, arranged to meet me for lunch on the day of my book launch.
These things can occasionally be awkward, but despite the passage of time, we got on like a house on fire and had a good old catch up over a margharita and Mexican food. Given I was so shy and retiring at school, they admitted they were surprised to see me in action that night at Stanfords.
I caught up with yet another old friend, Owen (he’s an actor and we’d also lost touch for 28 years until I saw his rather distinctive name in the credits of a Ray Winstone drama), and then headed down to Brighton.
Over my final weekend, I caught up with Dr Daz, hula-hoop Amanda, Village people look-alike Nick, techno-whizz Richard and the literary guitar god Pete, all whilst wandering around the city that always feels like my British home.
As I walked out of the door to get a train to Gatwick and home, there was a distinct chill in the air and it felt like winter was coming.
A good time to get moving.
Wondering what that white thing was?