Passport: 'What hit me was the sickly sweet smell'

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The Independent Travel
I have just been in Madagascar where I had the best travel experience of my life. A friend works for a charity called Azafady which builds wells and toilets in remote parts of the country. He invited me out to see what he does.

The amazing thing was that Madagascar does not belong to any region. You can't place it. You see black guys coming towards you with dreadlocks and don't think anything of it, then you look again and see that they have got Polynesian features.

There was so much depth and so much difference in Madagascar. I liked that. The music was heavily influenced by South Africa - jingly-jangly, up-beat and with joyous harmonies.

But there is also the most outrageous homelessness. You would see 13 people living on the pavement where in London you might see one.

I met a man called Eric who couldn't afford to go to the dentist and pulled his teeth out when they hurt. He haemorrhaged for four days.

The first time I went abroad was to Guyana at the age of 11. My mother was from there. What immediately hit me was the sickly sweet smell and the wetness.

I got sick as soon as I stepped off the plane. We drove off into the moonlit night to my mother's village, a place called Lovely Lass. Just down the road was another place called Golden Grove.

I was in Guyana for nine years. There were problems; a dictatorial regime, food shortages and all that, so I was glad to leave in the end. I also remember the red-brick roads. When the rain fell they were disgusting. And yet it was very beautiful, there were tamarinds, gooseberries, cherries. Running through cane fields was a really big part of my childhood.

It was also the place where I became a man. I went to a good school and got my O-levels and A-levels. Education was free but really strict - if you did anything wrong you got the cane. Not like in Britain. If I had been to school here, I doubt I would have got any qualifications.

Coming to London at the age of 20, I found it big, fast and grey. It was a totally different way of communicating. At first, if I wanted to find out where somebody lived, my instinct was just to ask the nearest person in the street. I was a real village boy. Where I had come from you stood in the street and shouted: "Inside?" That was our way of knocking on the door.

Since then I have been around a lot. I loved San Francisco. The great thing when you travel is the change of light. San Francisco felt so atmospheric - they told me it was the lost city of Atlantis, resurfaced. I really tuned into that as soon as I arrived.

I have had no really bad travel experiences, except once when I was flying back from France. We had already experienced long delays, then, when we were airborne, the pilot mumbled something in French which I didn't understand.

I found out what he had said only after we landed. As we were entering the terminal building, I thought: "This doesn't look like Heathrow". In fact, we had been diverted to Southampton because of fog in London.

On the way home that evening, I noticed how much I loved London. This has got nothing to do with London being "hip". We had to get a train to London, then a cab up to Hampstead. It was a foggy night just before Christmas. I suddenly realised that I really belonged to this place.

Jeremy Atiyah

David McAlmont's new album, 'A Little Communication', was released by Hut Recordings in October.