The place that changed me

The overwhelming heat, sights and smells of Lagos put the Surrey of the author's childhood into perspective
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The Independent Travel

It was 1979 during the oil boom and I was working on a trade magazine when I got the chance to go to Nigeria. I was 23 and it was my first real business trip.

It was 1979 during the oil boom and I was working on a trade magazine when I got the chance to go to Nigeria. I was 23 and it was my first real business trip.

I'd grown up in Surrey in the stockbroker belt where there wasn't much community spirit. My mother was Swiss and she hated Surrey. There was always a sense that there must be something better somewhere else.

I'd been warned that Lagos would be humid but I couldn't believe how hot it was. And everything around me seemed strange - the way people moved, the way they talked, and the smell in the air. But I immediately felt excited. Being a white person in a black country was an extraordinary sensation.

I was staying at the Mainland Hotel which had been beautiful in the 1950s, with mosaics and tiled fountains. Now it was completely falling to pieces. Rats scampered behind the bar and along the curtain rail and I thought "how dreadful" but at the same time, "how wonderful". When you're young everything seems so amazing and I thought of the stories I could tell everyone at home about the rats.

I immediately got the most awful stomach problems but then seemed to get better. I had planned to visit the Ministry of Agriculture as I thought that I should get some up-to-date statistics for our magazine. I believed, in my naivety, that there were such things.

It took me about three hours to find the building. I remember going in and talking to the deputy minister who couldn't understand why I was there. I told him that I wanted all his figures up to 1978, and he just shrugged and said that he didn't know if they had them.

As I was talking to him I felt my stomach give way again. Clearly alarmed he took me into a room that looked like a storeroom. It was enormous, with a lavatory at one end. He left me there and my stomach let rip. As I looked round I saw that there were piles of statistics stacked on the floor from the early Seventies. They were no good for the magazine but at least I had something to use as toilet paper!

The thing I remember about my first trip was the feeling that the world was upside down and that things were never as you expected: inside the storeroom was a lavatory. I'd come for statistics and ended up with loo paper.

When I got back to England everything seemed so monochrome. I wanted to tell everybody about my experiences but my friends and family just looked at me in disbelief. Africa then, and even now, was a place were you went on safari and the crazy urban Africa that had captivated me and opened my eyes wasn't familiar to people.

Interview by Lucy Gillmore

Fiona Sax Ledger's book 'Mr Bigstuff and the Goddess of Charm: Parties, Cars, Love & Ambition South of the Sahara' has just been published in hardback by Picador (£12.99).