Should this become a book? That is the question I’m wrestling with. Maybe your honest feedback will help me make my decision.
During our year of travel, I started with writing a book as my intention, and below is what I’d begun with. But then a few months in, a few key folks said I should drop it and live in the present, rather than sharing our lives too publicly. So I dropped it. But the kids thought it was a good idea. And then a number of folks have written asking me to. So, what to do? I don’t know, but here’s the introduction, for your perusal. Feel free to share any thoughts you have…
If it ever came to fruition, the title might be
Nuts to be Normal
Subtitle – A Normal Family’s Nutty Adventures Around The World
It’s the eve of our departure. Lizzie, my remarkable lady, has whittled down our luggage to 45kg/99lbs for the whole of the coming year between five of us – hand luggage only. Josiah, our youngest, has just expressed yet again his displeasure at this adventure we are about to undertake. I’m feeling daunted, excited, and impatient to get cracking. Many questions and feelings assault my over-active mind. Are we nuts to be doing this? Will we only last a few weeks and come back with our tails between our legs? Is our marriage strong enough to endure what will undeniably be plenty of stressful situations in multiple different scenarios across the continents?
Well, in these coming pages you’ll find out how long we lasted, how our marriage fared, and much more. I’ve always placed a high value on authenticity, so I won’t sugarcoat, photoshop, or airbrush my/our deficiencies, idiosyncrasies, or plain cock-ups. And there are plenty of them.
I’ve written a number of ‘spiritual’ books, but this one is very different. It’s more of a humorous travelogue for you to enjoy as you wince, sigh, guffaw etc. at our collective highs and lows. If you’re a parent, maybe you’ll sympathise with us as we struggled to get things right. If you haven’t had kids yet, it might put you off ever doing so! As a human, there’ll be plenty you’ll relate to, I’m sure. Whatever your own life situation, maybe in some way hearing of our escapades will stir a desire in you to do something a little ‘outside the box’.
As I snuggled up with my darling daughter Grace at bedtime a few weeks into our adventure, I whispered in her ear: “Do you think we’re nuts doing this round-the-world trip?” Quick as a flash, she replied: “No Daddy, it’s nuts to be normal!”
It’s nuts to be normal. I thought that could make a good title for this book.
So meet the crew:
I’m 45-years-old. I’ve just completed 20 years of living in Burundi, Central Africa. It was the most dangerous country in the world when I first arrived there, and I genuinely thought I’d die before the age of thirty. Well, I didn’t die, although others I cared about did, and people tried to kill me. I ended up starting an organization called Great Lakes Outreach. That story is told in another book called Dangerously Alive – African Adventures of Faith under Fire. Wonderfully I found a fabulous lady to share the journey with, and in due time three children came along. For their educational needs, and having found a truly exceptional local leader to take on the running of GLO in Burundi, the time seemed right to leave the country and transition back to the UK. Our kids have experienced gunfire and such like, but are thankfully not traumatised. This year on the road is a dream for us, and their ages make it the perfect time as they are old enough to remember, engage with and appreciate what we will do, but young enough that it won’t mess up their long-term schooling. I’m a terrible sleeper, which means that often before the others even wake up, I can be working on the laptop, as I continue in my role as International Director. So essentially this year I’ll be juggling work around travel, and doing plenty of speaking, networking, and fundraising along the way. That doesn’t make for very interesting reading, so I won’t refer to that side much, unless something particularly noteworthy happens.
Lizzie is my wonderful wife. I don’t think many women would have been willing to raise their children in a conflict-zone, and likewise not many would be willing to undertake this coming challenge. She’s feisty and fun. She’s gentle and firm.
She’s chalk to my cheese.
Whereas I’m all about the big picture, she’s about the detail. Whereas I love speaking to crowds, she hates being up front. Whereas I’m happy to leave an AirBnB rental the following morning, knowing we’ve paid the cleaning fee, she’s intent on getting the hoover out and leaving it cleaner than we found it. Whereas I stuff everything hickledy pickledy into my travel bag, she has bought everyone else colour-coded packing cubes for their rucksacks – I kid you not! In fact, before agreeing to my proposition of this crazy year, she laid down three non-negotiable stipulations:
1. Zip up bags (it’s a weird dysfunction of mine that I always leave things unzipped, apart from my flies on most days)
2. No bungee-jumping (I’ve done ten in my life and was keen on A.J.Hackett’s one in New Zealand, but have ‘sacrificed’ that desire now)
3. Walk with us, not a mile ahead of us (this has caused a fair amount of tension in the past, striding through airports or out on a date and losing her or the kids in the process)
I often quote the African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’ Well, I entirely agree, it’s great wisdom. Sadly, I simply can’t not do ‘fast’, and as you’ll see, it only took a few weeks before I lost her for the first time, presuming she’d kept up with me! But I really do hope we go far, and go together.
Lizzie is an absolute trooper. We were both awarded MBEs a few months ago for services to Burundi, and she wanted to decline hers, saying she didn’t deserve it. In the end she agreed to accept it, and hopefully not just because it meant three more family members could attend the fancy ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Without her, my life would look very different. She was the hostess with the mostess to gazillions of guests in Burundi. She was an encourager and a confidant, and loves being part of a team. She has shaped me and released me. She’ll admit to being a tad tetchy one or two days per month, but in general is rock-solid and level-headed. I have usually described ours as a great marriage, whilst she would call it good, so generally she sees things in less bright colours than I do. I definitely wind her up sometimes, and I know we’ll blow a few gaskets over the coming months, but that’ll all be part of the richness of family life on the road.
Zac will become a teenager during the trip. He’s spent most of his life in Africa, away from pop culture, screens and sarcasm. This makes him beautifully devoid of cynicism and negativity. He still sticks out his hand to hold mine as we walk down the street – which surely won’t last much longer, but I love it every time he does so. Like me at his age, he’s very small, and will mature late probably, but it will hopefully mean we don’t have a grumpy teenager with mercurial moodswings to navigate throughout the year. He’s fiercely competitive, and hates losing to the point of tears. He’s earnest and yet playful, loving kicking a ball around at any opportunity. He’s intelligent but doesn’t like the idea of us home-schooling this coming year. Like his sister, he wants to be with people the whole time.
Grace turns eleven in a few months. She’s got bags of energy, a strong sense of justice, and is very sociable. She’s got a lot of love to give, and I’m sure will end up doing something impactful with her life. She’s conscientious and thorough. She’s up for any challenge, and loves scoring goals against boys when they’ve discounted her on the basis of her gender. Her danger is bossing the boys around, and sometimes they can exclude and gang up on her, which we’ll need to watch out for.
Josiah is nine-years-old. He will do anything to get out of working, so we anticipate home-schooling being a challenge with him. He’s got bags of emotional intelligence so reads the room very well in terms of detecting if someone is stressed or angry, and diffusing the situation with a cuddle or a joke. As you will see, he comes out with the most hilarious comments, and is an entertainer with a winsome cheekiness that we have no doubt will get him far in life. Unlike Zac and Grace, Josiah is happy to play by himself. He’s also the one we are most concerned about. Last Christmas, we spent two weeks in South Africa, and when we returned to Burundi, he walked along the corridor of our home, kissing the walls and exclaiming: “I’m so glad to be home!”
Jos is most similar to me, whilst Zac and Grace take after their Mum. Jos and I are natural rule-breakers, opting to ask for forgiveness rather than permission before doing something, whereas the other three are rule-keepers. That can cause tension at times.
So that sets the scene a little. Anyway, the fact is, if he (or any of us) hate the experience, we’ll quit, because life’s too short and we don’t want to mess up our family. But I really hope we can make it.
Before deciding definitively that we would go for it, we wanted to see how the family coped with a challenging road trip. So we decided to drive to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. We would stay in cheap accommodation anywhere along the way, without booking ahead, and eat local food, and see how it went. I love the freedom of the road, and not knowing what a day will hold. Lizzie was amused by my saying each day: “I love it that we don’t know where we’re staying tonight, and that nobody in the world knows where we are right now!”
Once we’d left Burundian territory and entered Tanzania, the roads became horrific. The worst kind of road is one where there has been tarmac in the past, but now there are two-foot deep potholes, so if you hit them unsuspectingly, the whole vehicle slams into them mercilessly and bounces up and over. We didn’t have a local Sim card, so were relying on Maps.me, which is an offline downloadable map that uses the phone’s GPS. It works well, except that it doesn’t differentiate between a hamlet and a town. Thankfully that first night, we asked and were completely re-directed away from any number of hamlets that wouldn’t have any lodging to a town where there was a hotel. Maybe not so thankfully, it was Saturday night, and shortly after we went to bed, the hotel’s nightclub music started pounding through our walls and kept most of us awake for a long bleak night of non-sleep.
The following day, we continued on our way. My favorite memory of that journey was looking across at one stage, in the middle of nowhere, and seeing that Lizzie was waxing her legs! It seemed so totally incongruous. And then half an hour later, I looked again and there she was, acting out and memorizing her Bollywood dance routine from her iPhone for a performance she was due to take part in a few weeks later! We made it to friends of friends in Mwanza, who kindly hosted us for two nights. Then we blasted eastwards and entered the Serengeti. We were grateful to have our Burundi passports with us, so that instead of paying $60/person/day, it was $6, so we were literally saving over a thousand dollars over the few days. What with the boom in Chinese and Russian tourists, prices for accommodation had soared, and choices were very limited. The usual cost was $400- 800/night, with a few much higher. There was one place in the whole park for $30/night. That’s what we went for! And you get what you pay for, so it was extremely basic, but totally adequate. We went around the corner to eat some sketchy-looking rice and beans with the workers for $1 (instead of $20/head), and prayed that our guts would nuke any unhelpful germs. Thankfully they did.
The Ngorongoro Crater was another further day’s drive eastwards, but was a must-see, as it is a World Heritage Site, and the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera (crater). On the way, we saw the unparalleled wildebeest migration, in which as far as the eye can see stretches out a long undulating line of wildebeest making an annual loop as they gauge the best place to be for munching tasty grass. They estimate that a staggering 1.5 million of them travel together – mind-blowing.
The Ngorongoro crater itself is 610m (2,000feet) deep, and covers 260 square kilometres (100 square miles). Its name is Maasai language for ‘Mountain of God’. Instead of $295/day, our vehicle cost a delicious $30 with our Burundi number plates. We hired a guide and spent the maximum allowed three hours in this area of lush and densely-populated flora and fauna. Windows wound down, we watched lions lapping water out of muddy puddles just six feet away (they don’t attack cars). We saw hundreds of zebra, gazelles, and flamingos, dozens of hippos and elephants, plenty of giraffes, a rhino, and only missed out on elusive cheetahs and leopards. It was stunning.
Then came the long drive back to Burundi. It took three days. I always had an underlying tension wondering if our trusty 4×4 Prado would break down because of the hammering it was getting on the diabolical roads. What on earth would we do, without knowing anyone within ten hours’ drive, in the thick bush, if something went seriously wrong? As it happened, it was just as we made it across the border back into Burundi that a huge clanking noise started up in the engine. We made our way gingerly back a further four hours to our home in the capital, and the next day the mechanics at the Toyota dealership handed me a painful $1,200 bill for repairs, so our dirt-cheap holiday instantly became a lot more expensive.
But we had made it! Due to the nature of a safari holiday, even the holiday part had been spent in the car. So during that week away, we had spent a total of fifty hours in the car, and – wait for it – the kids hadn’t complained once! That blew my mind. They had passed the test with flying colours. We’d stayed in cheap places, eaten cheap food, remained healthy, driven looooong daily journeys, and everyone had loved it. So yes, the trial run had been successful, and it was all systems go for me to start planning our around-the-world adventure!