One week in and about 24 to go. Olive is now in Cambodia, having been put on a plane, looking rather younger than usual. At the airport, Anna and I were tense and tearful. Zam, Will and Alfie were shooting. In the run-up to departure, the lists were long: collect malaria pills, talk to bank (again) about sensible way to take money abroad (this results in Olive withdrawing all cash from her account and giving it to Zam, which can’t be right). Talk to bank (again) about being named on Zam’s credit card for emergencies, talk to Post Office (again) about merits of its money card, buy Deet, travel towel, suitable trainers (return, pleased with these, until Will points out that they’re suede and therefore entirely unsuitable), wash all available T-shirts.
Photocopy all documents. Get spare passport photos. Set up Skype. Does she need a travel pillow? Yes, according to those who have been before. No, according to her father. Camera-take the huge one she was given for her 18th birthday? No, much too big and bound to be nicked. Yes, or what’s the point in having it? ‘Shall I take my lucky wallet?’ she asked. ‘Why is it lucky?’ ‘Because I’ve lost it four times and it’s always returned to me.’ I’m not much help, too busy trying to hide the fact that I’m in awe of her courage. I couldn’t at her age, any age, have set off alone.
When my mother asked Olive where she was flying to, she was a little vague: ‘Phnom Penh via Hong Kong.’ It turns out to be via Ho Chi Minh City and my mother looked worried. ‘I really think it would be a good idea if she knew where she was going.’ Or, in fact, if the organisation she’s going with knew where. ‘We look forward to welcoming you in Jamaica’ read the email received the day before departure. When she rang to say that, actually, she thought she was going to Cambodia, there was an airy explanation: ‘Don’t worry-it’s just a clerical error. Probably got the same number of As.’
She’s working for a charity for the first three months and has already rung to say that she’s finding 40 three year olds rather hard work. And-surprise, surprise-nobody speaks English. In fact, she sounds rather low. And very tired. This is Day 3 blues, according to Zam. Anna, who was so teary at Gatwick, declared she was ‘over it’ at 4pm the same day as she happily moved her belongings into the freshly vacated bedroom. Will says that if she wants a future in international aid, she’d better get used to working with people who don’t speak English. Alfie’s concept of six months is unclear. I feel untethered.
I didn’t have a gap year, but went on various trips between jobs. I have the letters I sent home and, having just reread them, am disturbed by how pompous and narrow-minded I must have been. Constant moaning about long bus rides, uncomfortable trains, filthy food. And the locals-
I sound like a Victorian matron. Mosquitoes, fleas and a very, very dim view of all plumbing, I’m not easily impressed.
Even New York is dismissed with ‘my case is very heavy. Moonies on every corner’. Lake Atitlán, often described as ‘the most beautiful lake in the world’ ‘doesn’t seem it. Looks predominantly grey’. I appear to have been quite happy in Rome, which is something, considering I was on honeymoon.
We once received a postcard from Zam’s sister Rose that des-cribed their stay in a ‘heavenly spot on the banks of the Bos-phorus. The hotel is not yet built so we can see the stars at night. Local minstrels serenade the girls on the beach and sell us fish to cook on their fires’. I read this and understood, sadly, that mine would have read: ‘Being pestered, hotel a building site, nowhere to eat.’
When I woke up this morning, the first thing I said was ‘do you think she’s tired because we sent her with glandular fever?’. No, Zam replied, ‘I think it’s called jetlag’. I do hope she finds a Rose to travel with and not a me.