The backward glance when you're packed and ready to go

I put my son to bed and waited outside for the car. I needed to be moving; to get a grip on my emotion
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The Independent Culture
IT ONLY really begins to kick in during the last three days. It may be a trip you have known about for weeks but because thinking about it involves all kinds of unpleasant possibilities, you tend to push reality away. And then the exigencies of travel make further evasion impossible. The phone calls from the office multiply. Queries about air tickets, money and tips, and advice from others who have travelled the route before you. There are crackly phone calls from fixers with exotic names in faraway places promising to meet you at the airport or haggling over their daily rate. It could be a mere Amir in Afghanistan, Kumiai in Colombo, V in Johannesburg, or a hundred other names familiar to the people of the road.

I love travel but I hate the leaving; the sense of instability and insecurity it creates in the atmosphere. That is why I try to pack my bag when there is nobody else in the house, always at the last minute. And once packed I try to hide it away. Who am I fooling? Of course my loved ones know I am going but somehow I feel that bag sitting in the hall way is too empty a sight for all of us.

There was a time when I derided those of my colleagues who were superstitious. Martin Bell's white suit was not for me. Too theatrical by half, I thought. But something has been happening because these days I too carry charms. There is a Khmer staff I picked up in Cambodia; a small wooden icon of the Madonna and Child; and my beloved Claddagh ring. The Claddagh is a gold ring with two hands intertwined around a heart and above them a crown. Love, honour and friendship is the general idea. I never travel without it.

Why the superstition after all those years of sneering disbelief? I think it has something to do with age. I am lurching towards the big 40 and I am looking forward to my 70th birthday. Anything I can possibly do to ward off bad luck, I will do. When I am heading off to one of the world's bad lands, I do my best to avoid thinking about the possible dangers. I assess the risks as best as possible, and with that done, I try to push the darker thoughts to one side.

When colleagues of your own generation have died in war zones, there is naturally a much greater awareness of mortality. Suddenly death is no longer only something that happens to the people you are reporting on: the high-velocity round; the shell fragment, the machete blow - they all smash through the illusion of invulnerability. Brief yourself well but do not dwell on the fearful possibilities. That way madness lies.

I like to leave early in the morning when everybody is asleep. No time then for sad goodbyes. I move around the silent house gathering my bits and pieces, gulp down a black coffee and wait for the growl of the taxi in the street outside. But on this latest trip to Africa it didn't quite work out like that. I was shaving in the bathroom when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and saw my three-year-old son standing their sleepy-eyed.

"My name is Daniel Patrick Alexander," he said, as if answering the question of an invisible stranger. The poor child was half asleep. Something had woken him. A dream perhaps, or was it my presence moving around the house?

I picked him up and he fell asleep again within seconds. Feeling him close to me, sleepy and warm, I wanted to pick up the telephone and cancel the trip. But I couldn't and so I carried him to our bedroom and settled him in beside his mother. And then I crept out and down the stairs onto the street. I needed the car to come; I needed to be moving; I needed to get a grip on my emotion.

And so I left for another early morning rendezvous at the airport. Oh Heathrow, Oh Heathrow - that forlorn temple of the foreign correspondent. The sight of my travelling colleagues Kevin and Nigel greatly cheered me up. In this business, you tend to choose your fellow travellers with as much care as possible. If you are going to dangerous or unstable places, you need people who don't panic, who are not gung-ho merchants, and who have a strong sense of humour. Kevin and Nigel are too such gents specialists in the black humour of the road.

There is one vital ritual to complete before leaving Heathrow: the purchase of whisky and cigarettes. These are not for our own consumption - honestly - but our gifts for potentially useful and co-operative people at the other end. Believe me, many an army colonel has been charmed by the introduction of a bottle of Johnny Walker into the conversation. The cigarette has been the passport to co-operation at many a dodgy road block.

First the handshake (never let go of a man's hand in such a situation - he is much less likely to blow you away if he can feel your hand in his) and then the offer of a smoke. For the really uncooperative road block, I offer a packet of cigarettes; for the psychotic, a whole carton. The whisky, of course, must never ever be produced at a road block. The men blocking your way may already be drunk. The last thing they need is fire water that will rev them up even more.

The road can be a very lonely place. Where there are telephones it is possible to mitigate the loneliness. Nothing is sweeter than the voice of a loved one over the distant miles. You long to hear the most banal of domestic detail. What is the latest on the tiling job in the kitchen? Has the boy's cold gone yet? After what can sometimes be days of horror and fear, you live for the soft, reassuring voice of the normal. At night, when the beers come out and we are all congregated in someone's hotel room (it is the luckless Kevin, the youngest of us on this trip), we start out with other stories of places we have been.

There is almost an element of besting one another: "You think that was bad. Wait until I tell you about Kisangani." But sooner or later we end up talking about home and those we miss. Kevin is talking about football a lot on this trip, but then he always does. He is a Queens Park Rangers fan, a devoted one despite some cruel mockery from the rest of us. Kevin's great strength is his calm. I have yet to see him lose his temper, which travelling in Africa is some testament to his forbearance. Big Nigel is a prince of the road: the man who for several years in Bosnia was cameraman to Martin Bell. You feel safe around big Nigel. He has a lucky aura.

We have a lot of work to do here. Long days among some very strange people. But home is just a week away. And on the road that is what you live for: homecoming. It is that indescribable feeling when the taxi slows to a halt outside your front door and your child's face appears at the window, laughing. And then you promise yourself you will not go to such places again. And this time you really do mean it.

Fergal Keane is a BBC News Special Correspondent

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