This summer, I packed a bag and my passport. I boarded a train, then checked into a hotel. When I'd finished sprawling across the squishy bed, checking out the bathtub and playing around with the TV, I was ready to head out and explore this new place I'd travelled to. Soon I was in a car, leaving the square-cut lines of the hotel behind, and heading into a dusty wilderness. Under the late afternoon sun, I was driven down a hot dirt track. There were people everywhere, meandering slowly along with buckets of water, or petering along bikes. A few were reclined in rusty chairs by the hedges, smoking as they watched passers by. Everyone seemed calm.
I had to keep blinking, to remind myself I wasn't in the roadside slums of Delhi, or on the raw Kenyan tracks that I'd seen as a child in Kenya. The reality was in fact quite the opposite. I'd accompanied a team of journalists into the refugee/migrant/people camp in Calais. Political debate aside, these are my observations of what life is actually like in a place that's been imagined as so many things, by so many headlines, and so many politicians.
I was struck by the fact that many of those in 'the Jungle', referred to as such by the residents themselves, were of a similar age to me. Lots are students. They have university degrees, and speak a good level of English. But while I had spent my summer interning in Brussels and enjoying my EU Erasmus grants, they had been negotiating overcrowded boats on rough seas, and walking hundreds of miles through the same continent on blistering feet. I realised how lucky - and that's the only word applicable - I was to have been born inside European borders.
I kept noticing signs of improvised civilisation, such as a corner shop on the side of the road, assembled from a jumbled mix of scraps of wood, steel and tarpaulin. Bottles of water lined the counter, and onions hung from the roof. The words 'special offer' were scribbled on some paper pinned to the front. We passed a mosque and a church, and poked our heads inside a school tent where a few children had their heads down.
Some people have taken care to create a beautiful home for themselves. I visited a mud hut with an impressive thatched roof, built lovingly by Alpha from Sudan. Huge letters outside his little courtyard spell out the world 'HOME', and his numerous colourful paintings are on display all around. Alpha, just like the shopkeeper, has given up on meeting David Beckham in England. Having fled his war-torn country, this is both his home and artist's studio now.
Most of the furniture, schoolbooks and paintbrushes come from local charity deliveries. We saw a van at the entrance of the camp, with a cluster of people queuing behind to claim whatever old mattresses, tables and other random items they could lay their hands on. Some local people are clearly embracing the new townsfolk. The school's principal is a French volunteer; in a camp in nearby Téteghem, the mayor has installed warm accommodation made from recycled shipping containers, complete with electricity. But whilst there are some welcoming French locals, others demonstrate animosity: some camp residents told us of people shouting and throwing things at them from cars.
And despite how a few residents have managed to start a business or improve their surroundings, that is all - a few. Most of the 5,000 people inside the Calais camp live in squalor. They sleep in tents made from plastic sheets, and flies pester them as they eat. Many are worried for the winter, when the dust will turn to mud and the nights will become bitingly cold.
Yet they say that the poorest are the most willing to share. Of the people in Calais, this is definitely true. Most returned our waves; everyone smiled as they walked past. A group of young Sudanese guys invited me into their hut for a cup of tea. As they boiled the water on a wood-burning stove fashioned from a steel barrel, they talked about their new lives.
"Life in the Jungle is no good," said one man. They had all been here for on average a couple of months, and told me that they have little to do in the daytimes other than sit around. Boredom and frustration seemed to be brewing. But the nights, on the other hand, are spent trying to penetrate the borders. One of the men had sustained a broken leg trying to climb 'the fence'. They knew some who'd tried jumping from bridges onto lorries passing through on motorways underneath; at least one person had mortally failed. Newly erected barbed fencing on bridges acted as horrifying evidence of this trend.
We talked about the Eritrean man who walked the entire 31 miles of the Channel Tunnel, in pitch black with trains racing past him and damp rats at his feet. Surely that shows desperation. Would they do the same as him? Absolutely, yes, they answered, if it meant getting to England.
Some are reportedly profiting from other people's ardent desire to get to 'the land of hope and glory'. Whilst the camp in Calais seems relaxed and friendly (although not at night, when journalists are advised not to enter), in nearby Téteghem, it's a different story. The English 'mafia' runs the camp there, according to the town's mayor. The residents live in fear of them, having paid thousands to be smuggled over.
After 700 words to describe my observations, if I had to pick just one, it would be 'surreal'. In the negative sense. The sooner the UN can negotiate a united Libyan government, the better, because whilst Libya is lawless, the smugglers can continue their work. The quicker the EU can agree on mandatory resettlement quotas, the better, to avoid people living in limbo upon arrival. But whilst there are no empirically correct political solutions, there is one truth that nobody can deny. People are people. And no person should be living like the people in these camps just miles away from us. As a signed pinned to a pretty mud cottage reminded me, the people of Calais are not dangerous, they are in danger.