Nuts to be Normal

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.


Trial Run…

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! 

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57 comments

  • Wow would have loved the Tanzania trip have always wanted to drive to Burundi , from Zim ,on an English passport would be expensive. We had Lesotho passport when in South Africa had some amazing cheap trips. Carry red wriggler worms , easy to keep them alive. and swallow if you have tummy upset, they are pro biotic so perfectly safe.
    Go for the book, it’s not really about you ,it’s about God’s creation and plenty will be encouraged to go see it, and not take the package holiday way , where you see nothing and meet no locals.

  • go for it, write the story!

  • Oh please please finish this book! It already has me hooked and I am anxious to read about (and vicariously live) your adventures!

  • I will buy the first copy, provided it’s autographed by the whole family!

  • Yes, please do it. If your other books are anything to go by it will be amazing. As long as the family are up for it!

  • Simon….Sorry but you cannot stop now! You don’t build a fire then not roast marshmellows. Your chronicles will allow us to experience secondhand what we won’t get to first hand.

  • I agree with the other comments! Please write this! It has the feel of some of my favorite books by Thomas Hale (Don’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees). I, too, am already hooked and want to read more.
    Perhaps in the back you could have a chapter of brilliant, useful things you packed, found or did that made the trip easier. How you chose what clothing to bring, things you’d never do again, etc.
    I cannot wait to read this!

  • Definitely write the book!

  • I encourage you to carry on.

  • You are role models with a huge public audience. . Go for it +++. (If you have time . )It would be an inspiring book. You have much to teach in a quite different field from your usual one.

    See you at New Wine, second week perhaps, in which case I’ll say hi.. Hope it goes well.

  • Hi

    Yes…we follow your adventures anyway and THIS makes great reading! It also engenders an honest feeling of regret that in all our homeschooling years we’ve never ventured anything close to a Safari…so, enjoying your adventure ( should you have time and motivation to write it) would be awesome.

  • This has drawn me in – please finish the book .

  • I was brought up in a family where everything had to be done ‘properly’ and ‘conforming’ was required. I did manage to reshape the mould but if I’d read a book like this promises to be, it would have stretched my mind even more, so I say “go for it”

  • I would love to read about your travels. But the only thing that matters, in my opinion, is what your wife thinks. If she’s happy for you to share about your family life then go for it. If not, think again

  • Carry on with the book and stories. It only makes you, your works and Burundi all the more interesting and accessible to more of the world! On a side note – do try and zip up from time to time!

  • Please, proceed. Really encouraging and insightful.

  • You write well, Simon. Your articles and books are motivating, honest and humorous. i have learnt and benefitted from reading them. Not sure how far you are on your world travel, but the “trial run!” above is good! I look forward to reading more -(please) !!

  • I would love to read about your year adventure! It already sounds amazing. God bless!

  • Even if it’s just so you process what you’ve just been through! It also sounds like a good project to keep you busy while the kids are in school! Or when they have homework, they can see you do too! It sounds like a great adventure book and it’s real. I like to read fact more than fiction. I just know it’s a huge project…. but it certainly sounds like there’s an audience to read it when you’re done!
    We have trouble just planning a short break! I’m still in awe that you all did this and survived! Awesome!

  • Yes, Simon! Please finish this book.
    I’m deep into your story already and I’d love to read the rest!
    God bless you all.
    K x

  • I’m not an avid reader but this is captivating. I want to read more. Write the book please. Interested in more comments from Jos.

  • Definitely write the book! Your stories are so unique and you are able to use the pen ( or computer! ) to share the uniqueness! Do please write the book!

  • Takes me back 40 years and more, a revisit long overdue (and booked), but less game, more people – cheaper! Lively, honest narrative will take this book a long way!
    Plan to see you – and maybe pick up a few tips – at Lee Abbey in August.

  • If Lizzie and the kids do not mind being exposed in a book then definitely write it as I just wanted to carry on reading.

  • Great idea to share your adventure and what YOU experienced. I would be careful about sharing your wife’s and children’s experience – don’t make your lives too publicly! It can have side effect or consequences one isn’t always aware off at the moment of writing. God bless you all.

  • Yes, please! Do write the book, Simon. You’re an excellent speaker and writer, and I’m already hooked.

    I think it’s important to keep a record of your many adventures, especially this one, for you and your family to re-live in future years. Just think how glad your children and their future families will be that you took the time to write such a book.

    So looking forward to reading the rest of your story 🙂

  • I agree wholeheartedily with the previous comments to write a book.It would be great for the children to reflect on when they are older.Take care and enjoy the experiences.Love to you all from Stornoway,Scotland.

  • Simon, I loved it. That is real life, nuts to normal. Go for the book. We need to hear real life these days. Bless you and your family. Come back to Holy Cross soon.

  • Yes, Simon……you’re a gifted communicator and you’re writing engages immediately!!
    Plus a great way to chronicle your year for your children forever plus bringing us all along for the adventure!! Love you guys!!

  • I have just finished reading “For what it’s Worth” for the second time and it will stay on my bookshelf for a third round, I’m sure. So, as far as you and books go, it is a definite ‘yes’ from me.
    Having said that, I think there would be such value to having insight into your continued spiritual journey and how you deal with the challenges of a different kind. It has to be said that your experience in Burundi was credible evidence of our miracle-working Lord. As such, it was a solid challenge to my faith and each time I read it, I was left uncomfortable but stretched and exercised to take stock of my life. It stirred from a spiritual coma, induced by the comforts of life. That comfot zone seems to be a more wily foe than direct adversity.
    So, more than just a travelogue but a book that brings your continued walk with Christ into the fore is something I would add to your other book on my shelf.

  • As a mum of two girls, 11 and 12, I would love to hear more of this family adventure. Both in awe and disbelief at your ambitious mission.

  • Write it – please

  • Of course Simon! Write the book! Your life is a witness with your humour and honesty and this book will make people read the others. Go for it!

  • I’d love to read more (with Lizzies’s permission) Viv x

  • I was genuinely disappointed when I got to the end! I echo the other comments, if your family are happy with you recording family life so honestly… Go for it! I would definitely buy and buy to give away.

  • A great idea It could be a best-seller! People love stories about a family – just make sure that Lizzie and the children are happy with what you write about them.

  • Please finish the book Simon !, we have read your other books, and all have challenged, humbled and entertained us. Your family are awesome! And by the way , we love the title, I’m just embarking on my own first book, and joked to my family it should be called ‘the adventures of the purple sheep’, . . so can see confirmation there! 🙂

  • Brilliant. Go for it.

  • Keep going! Yes to a book

  • Yes, you should write this book. Jot important notes along the way, so you can be present and then flesh it out at the end of the trip. 🙂

  • If you use maps.me (hurrah!) and eat with the workers for $1 then this is the sort of story I can identify with and I want to read the book…

  • Hi Simon, I would read your book!

  • Don’t write this book, at least not in this way with so many personal family details. Some things should be kept private, especially for the children.

  • I think you already have the answer in the comments already made – I agree that the family have to be happy for you to do it, but – otherwise – please please please write it!!!

  • Just yesterday I was thinking, wow, I haven’t heard from Simon in a while I wonder what happened and then here you are among my emails. Dude, it’s a no brainer. You are gifted and will reach more people via writing than any other way. You have a way of capturing the mundane and the exquisite events of life with humor and insight and when you add a slice of eternity to them the spiritual impact is golden. What other family has realized an opportunity to observe the globe in a year as you have? But it’s not just about the experience as much as that you’ve taken it in with those inquisitive eyes of yours, processed with your critical mind and connected with your passionate heart that only come from living dangerously. I’ve considered writing a book myself, but wouldn’t know where to begin. I’m not sure I would have the adequate content or if I could deliver it properly. You have both. A writer must write what readers want to read if they are to be read. You do. But when all is said and done, with all the giftedness, skill and candidness you bring to the table, you have to have a message. So the real question is, do you have something to say? I think you do! So I hope my comments nudge you to get on with it. Chop, Chop, daylight is burning! Can’t wait to read it.

  • Totally hooked in! Can’t wait for the complete book. Please keep writing.

  • Please please do continue to write your book, Simon! You have tantalised us all with the first chapter now!

  • Hi Simon
    I am surprised you took others advice to drop your travels book, because it was something you wanted to do and now you want others to tell you to go for it….so yes go for it….BUT
    Write your book Simon for you and your family. Write it as if it’s taking place right now. Don’t write it as a memory. It deserves to be alive today as if it is happening right now, so that your readers walk with you. Bring the reader in, like a personal member of the family. Don’t tell us your wife is wonderful, let the reader discover her personality and come to know her strengths and weaknesses. Some people will find faith in your book by simply walking with you if it’s written so that the reader is carried along with your journey.
    People may come to faith by walking with you and your family in the book. Your story will show God’s provision and He will lighten others hearts on fire. The gospels are written so we can experience God. Write your accounts so others can experience God.
    But start again and get a good editor…
    Praying for you as you resettle. (I am in transition resettling too.)

  • I agree with the other comments. Defo write the book but don’t let it distract you from living in the moment and hanging with the fam. Rx

  • Great read so far, discuss thoroughly with your wife and kids – it may have ramifications you’ve not thought of – but if they’re keen it would stretch the horizons of those of us who can’t (and don’t want to!) travel like that and is a very accessible way for people to read about faith worked out in “normal” life.

  • I really enjoyed reading this. If you would enjoy writing the book, go for it. But I recommend that you only publish what Lizzie and the children consent to. I have written books about my family and I have let them read the manuscript and have the power of veto before anything was published. In future years your children are likely to be very glad to have the book to remind them of the big adventure (whether you publish it or keep it private for the family). Blessings, Debbie

  • Andika, but agree with the family on content.

  • Yes write the book let the family join in it is their adventure as well.

    • I’m another of those hooked by what i have read so far and longing to hear more. It would be wonderful if Lizzie felt able to add some comments, reflections as well…
      Go for it.

  • Keep going! I have already thought of people who I would like to give the book to….it’s nuts but normal to follow Jesus!

  • Please write the book. I was really disappointed when I got to the end of this bit and remembered that the rest hadn’t been written!! As others have said, unless the rest of the family have good grounds for objection, then please just leave out anything too personal, and tell us the rest. It’s so exciting to read stories of people who dare to be different and become normal in the process… you are a leader and a light and we want to hear because we want to be encouraged to dare to do it ourselves. Thanks for all you have shared so far……

  • I’m also intrigued and echo all of the other Yes’s! Looking forward to taking this trip around the world with your family!

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