It was going to be a busy week anyway without having to spend the start of it with my head down the loo. Apparently the nice meal out on Friday wasn’t so nice after all.
By the fourth bout, I was clutching the familiar toilet seat and praying there was a way of making the horrible stuff disappear without it having to come back up again. It was 4am and I was sitting on my friend’s bathroom floor wishing I was seven and my mum was there to hold my hair out of my face while my body expelled the junk and I blew my semi-digested dinner out through my nose. Yuk.
I was supposed to be travelling back to London later that day for a meeting I’d been looking forward to. Then, the following day, I was meant to have a treat of an afternoon tea with mum before going to an event (which I’d been so keen to go to that I’d even got tickets in advance) with a friend who I’d been really looking forward to catching up with. I was not supposed to be miles from home, shivering hot and sweating cold, groaning self-pityingly with stomach cramps and patting my forehead with a cold flannel to make it less clammy.
This is not my plan! I moaned at the ceiling. Not. My. Plan.
For a good few years, ‘this-is-not-my-plan’ was my mantra as I found myself further and further away from the place I’d planned to be. But over the course of the past year I’ve pretty much stopped saying it: i’m so off piste it’s hardly worth comparing my current route to the one I’d marked out for myself.
However, on Saturday night my mantra’s ghost resurfaced and I was back to moaning about the fact that my plan had gone AWOL. Typical, I whined at the basin as I brushed my teeth yet again. I’d actually planned ahead and booked Monday off but now all that day would be good for was sleeping off the remnants of fever and sickness.
The thing is, I hadn’t just been looking forward to those nice social engagements. What I was longing for was the chance to have a lie in, write my journal and get into a good headspace for going to Afghanistan. Because actually, for all my excitement about finally going, I’d started feeling a bit nervous.
You see, the older I get, the less intrepid a traveller I become. Yes, new places excite and energise me and when I’m there I’ll be more than fine. Nevertheless, these days the prospect of the unfamiliar sometimes seems more daunting than it used to, and the costs of going appear that little bit higher.
I felt it last year when I went to Kurdistan. Sitting on the old Iraqi Airways plane, acutely aware of being in both the ethnic and gender minority, I listened to the prayerful Arabic chanting over the tannoy as we taxied along the runway past Easy Jet planes. I was physically still in Gatwick but culturally miles away, and it simply wasn’t as soothingly familiar as a flight to Spain would have been. Even when I flew BA – the height of luxury – to Istanbul for an equally brilliant holiday, I sipped my free G&T and wondered why I was entrusting myself to a crazy-when you-think-about-it flying machine which, according to my unscientific little brain, was surely too heavy to fly.
The unknown is always scary and I’m not sure that flying was ever in our original blueprint, but it’s the security situation in Afghanistan which adds a whole other dynamic. If we’d had a pound for every time someone had responded to the news of our trip with “Afghanistan?! Is it safe?”, we’d have almost covered the cost of our travel insurance. If I wasn’t worried about safety before my security training about ambushes, assaults and bombs etc, I sure was aware of all the potentially unsafe elements by the end of it.
So, is it safe?
Dunno. But, come to think of it, is anything safe anyway? Is Uxbridge Road safe when I walk home at night from Shepherds Bush and have to call the police about the fighting blokes who look set to kill each other? Is it safe to cycle to work? Is it safe to eat in a cheap Indian restaurant round the back of Euston station? My stomach now wonders.
Safety somehow seems relative. We weigh up risk everyday and find ways to mitigate against it, whether through security training for Kabul, or ridiculously luminous cycling gear, or anti-bacterial hand gel, or getting the bus home on nights when my bit of West London seems extra dodgy. Isn’t that just part of life in this world?
Yep, I reckon it is. I don’t want to be flippant and set off to Afghanistan as someone who thinks the worst could never happen to them as if they are immune to all threats. But nor do I go as someone who assumes the worse and sees malign intent all around.
No, I simply go because I’m confident that this is part of the plan. As random and off course as the last few years have felt, I have a deep sense that the work we’re involved in now is deeply significant and that it is a privilege for us to walk into the places that await us this week. In recognising that, I can almost see that my circuitous route has led me to a good place. The way I have followed has been a better one.
The challenge now is to is remember that when the way guides me along unfamiliar paths. When the way requires trust to walk through the valley and fear no evil. When the way calls me to run with perseverance the race marked out for me; my good-news-bringing feet fitted with readiness. To remember and know that surely you are with me always: on the streets of Kabul or Shepherds Bush; in a plane or on my bike; even when I’m throwing up at 4am and feeling miserable. Even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” (C S Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)