Tediously, I have to visit a Bulgarian embassy to complete a business deal. My options were Ghana or a return to UK. Excitedly, I imagined a trip through Mali, Burkino Faso and onto Ghana, with perhaps a return through Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Then I found out the embassy in Accra has closed. So I’m going back to my home land. I mean no offence to my wonderful friends and family, but the thought of this filled me with the opposite of joy. It’ll be cold and quite frankly I find England expensive, cold, grey and full of people busy being really busy. And my son is about to take his first steps – I need to get back quickly.
I booked a ticket yesterday and am now sat in a beach side Gambian cafe before I take a taxi to the airport for my overnight flight. This morning, Khady thrust some fresh eggs into my pocket (she’d cooked them first), poured some water across our threshold to bring me luck and gave me a new gris-gris to bring me back safely. She seriously thinks I may not come back and that broke my heart, but I promised I would be. Gulliver giggled and played with me.
Then I was off, hurtling down an orange dust track sandwiched between a man with no nose and a beautiful woman with tribal scars on each cheek giving her a unique exoticness I doubt I’ll notice in Brighton’s tattooed masses. It was just me with a lap top, a tooth brush, a great big smile and a fire inside my soul.
When I think back to my childhood, I wonder what I’d think if I could see the future and where I am now. One of my first foreign experiences, alone, was aged 14 when I went on a French exchange. A coach load of of us drove down through Kent, across the channel on a ferry and on to Les Mureaux, a small town just outside of Paris. It was getting dark as we arrived at the school, where a crowd of exchange students waited with their parents. I found it quite daunting as I descended, met my family and was packed off in their small car. It was a Friday night and we weren’t due to join up with our fellow English students until the following Tuesday. I can still remember feeling sad, lonely and homesick, being in such unfamiliar surroundings where I barely spoke the language. Unlike in northern Europe, where everyone seems to speak perfect English, the British education system seems to spend inordinate amounts of time teaching verbs and obscure grammar, without telling you how to have a conversation.
When I did finally meet up with my class mates, they all had great tales of eating amazing French food, being served wine, going to student parties all weekend and meeting suave and sophisticated French girls. My exchange, Christophe, went to bed at 8pm every night, played with Star Wars figures and had two 7” singles that he played over and over. And over, and over…Nik Kershaws “the Riddle” and the soundtrack single of the Gremlins movie. I occasionally wake from a nightmare with those tunes in my head. Oh, and his mum was a really bad cook. One day we had a big bone, from which everyone sucked the marrow. I had to wait a couple more years before I tried French wine.
For more than ten years I was a cub, a scout and finally a venture scout. I was there for the outdoor activities rather than the dib dib dib – we climbed, canoed, set up death slides in forests and went hiking. My troop bought and developed an old farm in the Black Mountains of Wales. For a year or two, I went the on a regular basis to both work and enjoy the outdoor life in the hills. One time we arrived late on a friday night to find a shepherd lodging in the farm house. It was remote and dark (no electricity). I remember chatting to this guy who was probably only about 21, but to me he was a proper grown up. He told me he was an agricultural student and spending three months as a shepherd, living remotely in the Welsh hills, on his own. This blew my little mind – how could someone lead such an existence? Yet, just over ten years later I was the sole European managing a remote farm, six hours drive from Hanoi.
When I did finally go travelling, I was incredibly naive. My best mate and neighbour Matthew Garraway (brother of TV’s Kate Garraway – lets see if that name drives up my blog traffic) and myself went inter-railing for a month. We took about £100 spending money each, thinking that was a huge amount. Quite how we’d get by on £3/day didn’t occur to us. Bread, cheese and sleeping rough was the answer. And we took no map, no phrasebook, no guide book. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
And I still didn’t a couple of years later when I went off to travel the world. I didn’t know anyone who’d travelled anywhere outside of your typical British holiday destinations. If young people were taking gap years, I hadn’t heard about it – people at my school left at 16 for apprenticeships or the YTS. I had images of myself hitching across Europe, buying a camel to cross the middle east and perhaps getting a job as a cabin boy to cross an ocean somewhere. I even went into a bookshop asking for a book on how to travel the world (there wasn’t one). They pointed me to the lonely planets, I thought ooh, where shall I go.