Ten years ago, almost to the month, I was sitting in my school assembly daydreaming about my current crush – the boy with the cute smile in my music class, when something the teacher said caught my attention. “We have a guest in today to talk to you about a very exciting opportunity, please welcome…”.
I can’t remember if the new face before me was male or female let alone their name, because what I cared about was the PowerPoint presentation behind them. Images of warm orange plains, wild animals and teenagers smiling. I stayed behind with a few of my friends after the crowd of gangling teens left the hall. “I want to go!” I told the presenter. And a year and a bit later I did.
Now almost 16, having cut off those long locks into the newly fashionable ‘pob’ hairstyle and figuring out that the cute boy in my music class was a massive douche… I packed up a rucksack of Asda t-shirts and the most flattering pair of linen trousers I could find and tearfully waved goodbye to my Mum and little sister aboard a coach to the airport. 18 months of organising adult proms, car boot sales and charging a pound for a rice crispy cake had brought me to this moment. I was leaving my pink cupcake themed bedroom for a whole month. I was going to Kenya.
All I remember from the journey is arriving in Nairobi very tired and very jet-lagged before being driven for what felt like forever in a small minibus that made me feel so nauseous I couldn’t even stomach a sip of my fresh coconut water upon arrival. Travel sickness aside I was overcome with fascination. My surroundings were like nothing I’d ever seen before; a city without skyscrapers, huts for houses and wide open plains dotted with dry bushes and skeletal trees.
I spent the next 30 days with my friends, classmates and a trio of teachers experiencing a world so different to mine. Apart from my first long haul flight to Orlando, I’d only ever experienced resort holidays, city break school trips and a spot of UK camping. But now I was far from home in an entirely different continent. It was a culture shock and I was captivated. I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to take it all in.
Our month long adventure started with a week next to the beach. My now ageing mind is fuzzy to the details, but I remember feeling completely and utterly relaxed. I would sneak out my bed at 5am with my friend to try and glimpse at the sunrise. We’d all laugh around a fire under the stars, so bright and unclouded by city smoke. I’d never known the night sky could look that way. That week was one of the most prominent in my teenage years. I stopped being the shy girl with glasses and became a sassy (nearly) sweet 16 year old with the world at her feet, quite literally.
After nights of trying to sneak a beer, avoiding deadly snakes and becoming a little ‘Kenya family’, we drove to Makongeni where we set up camp close by to a local school. For the next two weeks I would be challenged physically and mentally as I worked in the African sunshine to lay the foundations for a classroom whilst connecting with the children who would use it. Confident with intrigue, the kids would surround us every day, asking inquisitive questions about where we came from in their impressive English. We would take breaks to sit in on their lessons, even teaching some ourselves, humbled by their constant enthusiasm for learning.
I continued to grow; inspired by the children’s simple happiness and joy they brought us. I also discovered that peanut butter spread onto chocolate Hobnobs is all you need when you are craving a dessert in the desert.
The last portion of my 30 days in Kenya was what turned me from a holiday goer to a wanderlust sufferer. A long bumpy journey took us to Tsavo National Park. Here I slept in a bunk bed in a wicker hut, rising at 4am for safari drives. For the first time in my teenage years I stopped wearing makeup or caring about my un-straightened hair. I was (mentally) jumping out of bed, happy from within.