Desert Island Discs: Find the River

After three years in Jordan, we moved back to Dar es Salaam, where we stayed for five more years before I left home for university. Returning somewhere is a strange experience. Nothing is quite as you left it. The student body of international schools is constantly shifting, so that the people you left behind will often have moved on themselves. New faces take their place. Most of all though, is the change that takes place in you, and the shift from age ten to thirteen is a dramatic one.

Still, though all the buildings had shrunk and the number of familiar faces dwindled, there were widening horizons to explore. No longer content to hang out on the school campus, time was spent at friends’ houses or at the beach or, when I was a little older, at the Yacht Club (which sounds far posher than it was). Nonetheless, I did have a little sailing dinghy – a secondhand Laser – and we spent most weekends messing about on the water, racing each other, crewing for friends’ parents on their Wayfarers or catamarans, and eating junk food in the bar. We sailed through great swarms of white, plate-like jellyfish, and occasionally alongside dolphins. For a time, our favourite thing to do was to put a sandwich and bottle of water in the little watertight cubbies at the front of our boats and sail out to Bongoyo Island for a day of lazing in the sun. We had tropical beaches and reefs on our doorstep, and I quite naturally transferred my love of horses to the sea.

Of course school was school, as it is wherever you grow up, but life around the edges was rich with new experiences. There were family safaris and then, as I got older, safaris with friends. Although I never had a car, several of my friends had use of their parents 4x4s and I will never forget our trip to camp in the Usambara mountains, which were then almost totally cut off from the world we knew. We lit a fire, stored our food carefully to avoid attracting unwanted animals and spent the evening diving into plunge pools of icy mountain water. The following morning I ventured upstream, picking my way over boulders, only to look up and find myself completely surrounded by a troop of baboons. They looked at me for a while and, thankfully, went on their way. It took some time for my pulse to return to normal.

Then there were school trips. The most exciting was the Kilimanjaro climb, for which we took long practice walks along the coastline. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, but scaling most of its 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) is nothing more technical than a very long walk. You do, however, ascend extremely quickly and the altitude sickness can be quite a challenge. In the end, I never made Uhuru peak – I was just too ill. I did make it all the way to the last of the huts, but I just missed out on the final dawn ascent. One of my very favourite things about that climb though, was the chameleons. They were absolutely everywhere on the lower slopes, with their roving eyes and grippy opposing toes, and I must admit that we did test their colour-changing abilities on our waterproofs…

If I had to choose just one album to sum up those teenage years, it would have to be R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. I heard it first in a friend’s bedroom and still have it, downloaded from CD onto iTunes, and it is still a favourite. I could have chosen so many tracks for this part of my life – Nightswimming would have been quite obvious – but Find the River sums up my impatience and wonder and longing to find my own path through the world.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone who knows Tanzania, and he commented that he couldn’t think of a nicer country in which to grow up. It is so gentle, so serene, so relaxed and conflict free. Of course, as a kid you never appreciate how lucky you are. I can remember my last few weeks so vividly – exams over we would gather at Coco’s beach bar for late-night bouts of monopoly punctuated by dips in the moonlit sea. I had a vague sense that something was coming to an end, but more than that I was impatient to be moving on, beginning something new. Within a year I would so have been so happy to have gone back and sat on that terrace in front of a dukah, sipping beer and worrying about nothing more pressing than the next roll of the dice. But then, I was so busy waiting for life to begin that I didn’t realise how much of it was coming to an end.

Madeleine

PS That’s me, in the white hat with the blue brim. We were in one of the huts, partway up Kili. Do you have a photo or song that takes you right back to your teenage years?

4 thoughts on “Desert Island Discs: Find the River”

  1. I feel the same about Automatic For The People, actually. Virtually every song on that album has some meaning for me. I have similar feelings about the Counting Crows’ album August and Everything After. I happened to hear “Mr. Jones” on the radio the other day and it took me back to a very precise place and time, as it always does. I wonder if that ever goes away, or if you can be a very old person and it still happens every single time.

    1. Oh yes, I agree with you about August and Everything After – another album that I associate strongly with those years and one summer in particular. They play it quite a lot in my local supermarket and it takes me right back every time. I hope that it still happens if I’m ever very old, even if it takes me by surprise sometimes, because I like to suddenly feel 15 again. I suspect it does, judging by how old people’s faces light up when you play the music of their youth.

  2. I like your D-I-D posts because they evoke the familiar (the same music, the beach, horses, etc.) with the exotic (locales I know little about, activities I’ve never tried, and animals I’ve never encountered). I have to laugh, because there is a family photo that my mother loves, but my siblings and I all hate. It was taken in Hawaii on a hot night. We all look sweaty, and the camera managed to pick up all our flaws. On the other hand, we are all tanned, fit, and celebrating a lovely event. My mother framed it because it reminds her of a time and place that she loves. For that reason, I smile when I look at it because it evokes both the beauty and awkwardness of my teenage years.

    1. ‘Beauty and awkwardness’ is an excellent description for those years! I used to hate lots of our family photos for much the same reason – hot and humid places lead to frizzy hair and sweaty faces! Now, though, I quite like them (well, some of them…) Isn’t it funny how framing a photo and having it on display makes it almost iconic, within a family? It almost becomes a memory in itself.

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