When I was young I caught a bug

Elephant in Amboseli National Park, Kenya

A love affair; an obsession; an addiction. Whatever you want to call it you may, but most of us know it as the “travel bug”. Here’s how I got mine…

When I was young, maybe seven or eight years old, I’d spend lazy Sunday mornings in bed with my parents. The sun would shine through the south-facing window to warm our tangle of bodies under the thick feather duvet and sweet smell of coffee would hang in the still air. I remember staring at a photograph, taken by my father, which I’m sure he let me examine on more than one humid Sunday morning.

It was an old photo, taken with an film camera and printed on round-cornered non-glossy photo paper, with a handwritten date written on the back (in the 80s, I imagine). It was a photograph of a single elephant, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

The picture was taken in a Kenyan national park near Mombasa (probably Tsavo East), where he was staying on their merchant navy ship for a few days waiting to leave port. The long grass was a healthy bright green and little else fit in the frame. I feel like I pored over the image for hours, until it was ingrained so hard into my head – as it is now – that I could draw it near-perfectly with my eyes closed.

The fact that my father had been there, in Africa, standing near enough to this enormous grey beast with its long trunk and thick legs, near enough to have taken this photograph with his own hands? That was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.

How big was it? Was he scared? Did he hear it yell through its foghorn nostrils? The thought thrilled me. And I remember thinking: one day, I’m going to see that for myself. Then one day, in 2012, I did:

Elephant in Amboseli National Park, KenyaCopyright © Lottie Gross 2012

I also remember his currency collection – another merchant navy legacy. It was my hidden treasure in the bottom drawer of a cabinet behind the door in our lounge. I’d sit on the faded-red carpet for hours, sifting through the jangle of coins and notes with my fingers, examining each one, learning the names of the currencies and where they came from. They fascinated me, these valueless pieces of metal and paper were worth something to  someone – somewhere else.

I’d ask my father about his time in the navy, when he travelled in all these different and exotic places, and I’d listen intently. But the notes themselves told stories of their own. Some had ragged, ripped edges and were stained from years of trading. And many of the coins had chips in their sides or what looked like bite marks on their faces. I wondered which thousand journeys these pieces had made before they ended up inside a bottom drawer in a family home in south Oxfordshire in England.

But it wasn’t just the mystery that captivated me. From its currency you can gather information about a place. From examining the shapes and words on each note and coin, I could decipher the most common crops one country grew, or what products were proudly manufactured there. In my small, clammy palms I met important people – from Ghandi on the Indian rupee to Queen Elizabeth’s familiar profile on the coins of Commonwealth countries – and I learned of the national symbols for each place in turn.

These, I believe, were the points at which I contracted this unshakeable, incurable and extremely demanding bug. It was in these moments that, with thanks to my father, I began to understand the world – not in detail, but as a concept. I began to realise that it’s big, brilliant and begs to be explored.