Victoria Coach Station, London
Another twenty minutes and I will be Gatwick-bound. I have been up since seven thirty (it is now 3pm) although I actually woke up at six and couldn’t get back to sleep; such was the all-consuming excitement and fear I had on me when I realised that this; this is the day that I finally fly out to Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone - the mere name strikes fear into many people's souls. I got the London Midland train down to London from Nuneaton at lunchtime and then jumped on a tube to Holburn where I picked up my passport and three-month Sierra Leone visa from the High Commission on Eagle Street. As is often the case, before a journey to a country I have never visited before, none of this seems very real at the moment; especially given that I am flying out to work rather than backpack somewhere. Things seem particularly surreal stumbling around Holburn Sainsbury's with my backpack, desperately trying to avoid knocking into shoppers, as I pick up a few provisions ahead of my coach to Gatwick. Truthfully, right up until yesterday I thought I might have to cancel this trip as we were in the midst of a family health scare. Thank God, things are not as bad as they initially seemed and first thing this morning I was able to do my final packing, book my airport bus for March and my flight to Latvia later that same month.
I first discussed the ‘tiny possibility’ of doing this voluntary placement back in mid-summer with a friend of a friend called Ben Bomford. Funny how a flash of an idea comes into your head for a split second (I think it happened while I was on the beach in Jurmala with my French friend Laurent and Swiss mate Hannes) and a few months later that single brainwave can potentially change your life. Yes, tonight I find myself on my way to west Africa to work and I am not entirely sure why or how this has happened. (I would add a double smiley face at this point if this were a text message and not a blog).
There is free Wi-Fi in Victoria coach station these days so I skip the next two Gatwick South National Express buses and use the time and free internet to purchase fully comp travel insurance for my time in Sierra Leone. It is another £80 hit I need to take on top of the £50 for my visa. Volunteering overseas certainly isn't a cheap business but, fortunately for me, it was my birthday two weeks ago and cash was requested rather than presents. It is money well spent as far as I am concerned.
Because I had to be at the High Commission for 2.30 to pick up my passport, I am checking in at Gatwick South a full five hours ahead of my flight. Gatwick South isn't the world's most exciting airport terminal but it is usually relatively calm and uncrowded in the departures terminal. I buy a couple of novels, which are buy-one-get-one-half-price in WH Smith and then set up camp in the Weatherspoon's, where English Ale passes my lips for the last time for a couple of months. A pint of bitter is one of the things I most miss about my homeland when I am away.
My mate Michael, whom I first met in New Zealand, phones me not long before my flight is called. I met Michael at a time when I was going through emotional turmoil (suffering from depression might be a more apt description) after my breakup from a long-term girlfriend and he was always willing to listen to what I had to say; I just needed somebody to talk to at that time and a mate to go out drinking with. One and a half years later it is Michael that is struggling with some personal stuff and, during the past month or so, I have tried to be on the other end of the phone to help him with my dubious words of wisdom whenever he has needed them. Michael bigs me up for having the balls to go out to Sierra Leone and tells me he is 'bloody envious' of me. I tell him that at this precise moment in time 'I am not entirely sure what the hell I am doing'. I am not scared but I am, it is fair to say, more than a little anxious. Michael is keen to hear what happens during my time in Africa because, if my trip is a success, he might be inclined to do something similar himself in a year's time. And so, it is fitting that Michael should be the last person I speak to on the phone before I leave England. This is because I know that if by me volunteering, it encourages Michael to do the same thing in 12 months' time, then my placement with the Collective will have been a success.