A lot of the previous updates have, I know, been very factual and, quite possibly, highly dull for those who don't know the people and places involved (erm.. so that would be all of you, then) so I'm going to try and re-dress the balance briefly. Given some of the conversations I've had with many people recently, I can't help feeling that some discussion of what it is to be fresh out of university and living in a third-world country would be just the ticket.
When I first planned to come to Swaziland, I had no idea that I would be sat here, listening to Jacaranda FM (like a terrible, terrible mix of a Southern FM playlist and all the most unfortunate Radio 2 presenters, only without the personalities) in a house with no running water, a possibly rabid dog (more of that later) and a Merc parked outside. The one thing I did anticipate was the Duo 230 sat on my lap, taking a good keyboardal thrashing.. which is perhaps the least likely.
It was a dark year leading up to my exit from the UK. In many ways, of course, a sociable boy like myself would have been hard pressed to have a particularly lonely time at university but it wasn't a huge leap from quiet dissatisfaction to white-hot frustration at the aimless hoop-jumping of a first-degree study regime. This, of course, is not one's entire life but it is more than enough to encroach negatively on the rest of your waking time. For somebody who once went for counselling at school over recurrent fantasies about paying a mortgage and having children, the condescending assertion from outside that I was enjoying the "best days of my life" served only to fuel my irritation with sitting through seminars in which I was given essay tips like "check your spelling". The flaw in rationalising this, of course, is that at the time I was involved in quite major goings-on involving the rowing and photographic clubs; I was helping people organise big events and taking responsibility for minibuses and 20 foot trailers in central London for the former and learning all about keeping receipts and, effectively, running a small service business, in the name of the latter. In fact, the amount of stress should have been enough to slake even the greatest thirst for "real life experience" but somehow, and you'll have to bear with me here, it just wasn't ringing all the right bells.
Somehow, this fitted in very nicely with a lot of the reading I had been doing, mostly of an anti-consumerism nature; if the problem was the low esteem in which my studies were held, perhaps it was also rooted in a more deeply-underlying problem of living in a soft and cuddly world where nothing was ever really dangerous or fatal. People don't value their studies in the UK because even without one you'll still have running water and electricity for the rest of your life. I don't take painkillers, I try not to use anything I can't do without, yet it bothers me that in ten years' time I might have people relying on me when I don't know how to survive without a car, a fridge or - to be brutally honest - a telephone.
Well, there was only one answer, really. A round-the-coast cycle trip from Cape Town to Swaziland. After all, if I could do that, I'd be unstrandable, right? My planning was meticulous; I had an itinerary that took in friends and places I'd always wanted to visit, with flexible rest time. I had a fine-tuned equipment list and I knew my bike so well I hadn't fallen off it in months (no idle boast; I've taken so many spills that my left arm doesn't extend fully and my right has a beautiful scar on the tricep). I purchased a laptop with a modem and spent two months tracking down a digital camera that worked with it, so that I might run a website tracking my progress. I learned enough Python to write the site you are now looking at. I was busted on several occasions poring over atlases in the library, drawing diagrammatic trees labelled with lists of Afrikaans place names. I even discussed using any publicity to promote a charity called "re-cycle" (.org if you're interested) who import second-hand bikes to Africa and train locals to repair them for their communities.
Then came the fatal email, from my friend Lizzie, whose backpacker hostel I was planning to take over in September, at the end of the trip. She was leaving for Hong Kong; would I take over her job at the Times of Swaziland?
Now, there are life-changing trips and there are cushy opportunities. Partly as a favour, partly as a chicken-out, I grabbed the chance and ditched everything at the last minute. I even cancelled a ticket I had booked from JNB to CT (still less than the difference between LHR-CT and LHR-JNB). I arrived on Friday morning and by Saturday afternoon, I was burning up the pavement to Swaziland.
Talk about your all-time U-turns. I was supposed to be in Cape Town organising a bike and preparing for the healthiest three months of my life, but instead I was back on Allister Miller Street, buying beers to take to Desmond.
The following few months are somewhat better expressed by the chapter names on this site than by several rambling paragraphs. The more I settled, the deeper I looked into my surroundings and the more fun I had. It helped no end that I'd managed to clear my debts and cash in on a few gifts; the cash I had saved up for the cycle trip was flowing plentifully (and lasting a lot less than three months, I can tell you) and life was exceptionally good. I was meeting some wonderful people, taking a few interesting paths and seeing some beautiful places. I was living partly in the moment, and partly more carefully than ever before, at times looking after an entire household and a business while Desmond made plans to tie up his loose ends and leave to join Lizzie. Although there were stresses and set-backs, they all seemed to be part of the greater picture, that no satisfaction exists that is so great as a problem dealt with. I built a website for Desmond, and won a contract to write a new back-end for the Times online. The Chillage began to wind down but the money was still flowing in and I was having a joll taking green backpackers from the UK out for massive blow-out nights and sniggering to myself as they discussed the previous evening's debauchery in hushed whispers the following morning. Master of the Universe, maybe not, but I was certainly master of my immediate surroundings, enough to be having fun. Sherman McCoy wasn't even close.
Once Desmond left, it all went a bit funny; a debt owed to him defaulted and, as a result, money due to me got lost in the wash. Although I was a trifle narked at the loss, it turns out that a lot more people got stung a lot harder, so I won't dwell on it here. The Times, too, became a big stress because their ISP were so slow and incompetent implementing things that take my hosting company hours to do. Then I organised moving house. I had expected to be rolling in cash at this point, but with no money forthcoming from the Times, no money from Desmond and outgoings at a peak (well, hopefully - a peak implies a drop coming soon) I was scrabbling around not to tap into my overdraft. I notice the Economist is moaning on about deflation again - you try owing in a currency stronger than your own!
However, it was a peak and soon enough things were back on an even keel. I couldn't really afford the Mercedes I'd agreed to buy, but considered reneging on the deal to be Desmondite in the lowest possible sense. I stumped up the cash and went back to being quite tight. However (hang on, I'm getting bogged down in facts again) I'm sure you can appreciate that being poor behind the wheel of a beaten-up Merc is a lot better than being somewhat wealthy and punting around on a one-gear bicycle.
I have never owned a car outright before and it is a good feeling, especially when it's so damn big. Being a tall kind of chap, I appreciate large internal spaces, and this specimen has gallons of it. Apart from anything else I don't have to move the seat forward to give lifts, which makes life a lot friendlier for all concerned, especially my kneecaps, which are no longer shaved off by the underside of my dashboard on sloped corners. Indeed, I now make a point of stretching out at all possible opportunities, leaning forward very deliberately to tune the radio and resting my left foot somewhere up near the gearstick on long straights.
The offer from Real Image could not have been better timed. Having treated (mentally) the Times job as more of a pastime than genuine employment, I was a bit shocked by the vehemence of my employer's demand that I give him 30 days' notice, but I rather feel this excitement will be mollified by my finding an 11th hour replacement (pattern? no). The new job is not only what I want to be doing, where I want to be doing it, it is a genuinely useful thing for me to be doing right now. Even if I can't hack it and return to the UK in a few years, I'll have some outrageous experience behind me, that I quite possibly wouldn't have had if I'd waddled into a standard "just to pay the bills" graduate timewaster, as so many of my friends did. I'll resist the opportunity to say, "I told you so" to those who warned me against putting my career on hold for SD, but only on grounds that I didn't expect anything like this to come up when I first arrived.
So, with a car, a wage, a house (although borrowed) and a dog, things are looking remarkably middle-aged. I only go out for serious fun once every two weeks now, rather than every two days, and I'm very content on it.
Oh, yes. Bob and the rabies. Apparently a friend of mine in town received a call from Germany from a girl who was bitten by Bob six weeks ago and is now gravely ill in hospital. Bob is going to the vet.. I'll keep you posted.
Carl's recipe for life success: don't lend money, do buy Apple laptops (twenty quid and still going strong even after a few good bakings in the car), definitely buy a Mercedes and watch your dog's water consumption.
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