Archives mensuelles : octobre 2014

Hidden talents

One of the world’s most under-rated talents, particularly in this game, is the ability to sleep anywhere. I’m typing this from the lobby of a hotel, which given what the receptionist is wearing may well be a brothel. It’s where we spent the night up country – me to a full night’s sleep, my colleague barely getting 40 winks. It’s true that there’s no toilet seats, or air-con, and a 4 inch gap between the door and floor letting in all manner of insects, but the fan did the trick for me, and I was out for the count until dawn (or just before – we went out to the airport in a rainstorm at 6am to meet a cargo plane).

I’ve never read or heard anyone praising the ability to be ‘bed tolerant’, but it’s a skill I often count myself lucky to have. In the summer in the Central African Republic, we took a memorable 4 day road trip up country, staying in very basic Catholic missions where all we got at night was a patch of concrete floor and a sheet. I slept well.

I remember touring the US by Greyhound bus for a month in September 2000 with a friend, who couldn’t sleep on the buses. We often spent the nights on buses to save money on hotels, particularly towards the end of the trip. The last two nights we travelled first from Washington to New York (north-east) via Richmond (south) (to extend the bus time) and then on the last night we took a trip to Washington and back from New York, and I got a good four hours sleep each way.

A wider point, both in Sierra Leone and CAR, is that it’s good to be able to live without too much. If you need your cappuccinos and trips to the theatre, you’re seriously limiting where you can live in the world. If you can survive on sardines and bread, and sleep with at best a fan, then your options are wide open. Steve Jobs (whose biography I just finished) used to get his cook to make ten meals on an evening, and then declare every single one ‘inedible’. I’ll eat almost anything. The descriptor ‘easily pleased’ often seems to have a negative edge meaning ‘can’t appreciate the finer things in life’. That may well be true, but it makes life straight-forward, even if it leaves friends confused that you really don’t mind where you eat out. The downside is, perhaps I settle for far less than I could have.

Leaving Dubai

Exactly two weeks after leaving Dubai, how does it seem looking back? For a start there’s the rather odd sensation that I don’t really miss it, and it wasn’t really that hard to leave the city. I had amazing friends, a beautiful apartment, and an easy life, but I think there was something about me that never attached itself to the place. It quickly felt small, familiar, and a place for a limited range of experiences. I can’t say I plunged into it, but if I’d stayed on a few more years I’m not sure what more I would have learned or experienced. Perhaps five years of the same thing and I could have bought a Porsche and had a rippling six pack, but there’s not so much appeal in that. For me, West Africa is exhilarating and exciting in a way that I never found in Dubai.

Part of me thinks that Dubai never fitted into my long-term objectives. There wasn’t a click. Even the experiences I had were always related to West Africa – comparing and contrasting it with the former place. I don’t regret going, and yes I was happy, really happy. I grew personally and professionally, becoming a better writer and editor.

For all the hype and glamour, the best thing about Dubai was the people I got to know there. Wonderful families with caring parents, grandparents, and work colleagues. I saw more role models there that will help guide my thinking about being a father than I’ve met for a long time. People who had an influence on me, and I hope will continue to be part of my life. I found more people ‘like me’ than I have for years.

After graduating from university in 2001 I moved city every year until 2008 (Abidjan). I learned techniques to get settled quickly, get involved, and then pull-out. What you’re left with is a trail of friends around the world. In some ways, you’ve betrayed people by leaving – you were a wandering soul, someone who preferred to move for work than stay for the people. Of course in some places that’s easier than others – among ex-pats on Africa, no-one’s there to stay so people aren’t so hurt when you leave. Things are a little different in a regular UK city.

Sometimes, especially with the deep friendship I experienced in Dubai, it feels like a tearing of the soul. You wonder if it’s worth investing again. I’ve been in Freetown less than two weeks, but in four years I probably won’t be here (or will just be packing my bags). What friends will I be waving goodbye to then?

But I tend to be more of an optimist. Returning to West Africa I realise I have a lot of connections in this region – relationships that I’ve invested in and which are still there. Some friends in Abidjan say it’s like I never left, because of exchanges on social media. We can call and SMS, share life experiences. There’s a magic about now in being able to be in the remotest part of Africa and call anyone you’ve ever known who’s still alive. Whatsapp is incredibly popular here in Sierra Leone, something unthinkable five year ago.

Do the wanderers ever settle? And perhaps more importantly, do our children ever have a concrete concept of home? The virtual world really does bridge geographic divides, and almost every day I chat with my wife, and two step-daughters – each in a different country, and spread over three continents. And then every now and again will come the meet-up – that moment in another foreign city where you embrace and say ‘how amazing to see you?’ And travel becomes less about seeing tourist sites, and more about visiting long-lost companions. I think that’s a rich life.

New arrivals

The first few weeks in a new country are weird; the same experiences in Bangui are being worked out again in Freetown. You have to start life again at zero – no friends, no experience at work, no knowledge of your new organisation, no house, no car, no internet, no phone, no bank account, no local money, at one point no toilet paper… It can be a gruelling experience, and the key thing that keeps you going is the acceptance that in a few months’ all will be well. Each day you lay a few more bricks in your new life, gradually getting that little bit more comfortable.

It’s a process that breaks old routines and habits; something that can be frustrating if you want to be doing a lot more with your life. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity to establish the new habits that can help carry you through. It’s amazing starting a weekend when you have no routines and just the wide open space of two free days. The temptation is to fill your time with work – and that’s not necessarily a bad idea, as you need to get up and running and a little extra investment pays dividends. But at the same time you feel the huge potential. When we’re well established it can be a struggle to find the time for things, but now all your non-work time is empty so you can fill it as you see fit.

Unattainable goals

I read an interesting blog post recently on the Lie of Busy, addressing issues of productivity and work-life balance. Much of the advice I’d read before (the danger of email processing etc), but i still think it’s a good summary. If you’re ‘busy’ just skip down and read the five lies halfway down and then there are nine practical tips on productivity.

I was particularly struck by the first one – the lie of temporary. That’s the idea that we’re working hard for something in the short-term for that ‘one day’ in the future when we can relax. Sort of like the person who works so hard for retirement, and then dies a month later. Much busyness has no goal or finish point – the goalposts move. I’ve been thinking particularly of my targets in fitness and reading. On the fitness, I can work really hard, every day, and even if I sculpt the perfect torso and an amazing level of fitness, it’ll start fading the moment I stop training, and stopping the intensity is inevitable. On reading – I try to read around 30 books a year. But in the US around a million different books are published each year. if I read 30 or 50 books a year makes very little difference. By the end of my life, I’ll have barely made a dent in the world’s canon of great books. We haven’t even begun to talk about the amazing plays and films out there.

So, honestly what’s the point? A key idea in the article is to enjoy the journey, because there’s no destination at the end, so don’t expect the pleasure to come then. If you’re not enjoying getting fit, then forget it. If you’re not enjoying the reading, don’t bother, put the book down. is there a point working for that six pack? Especially if you’re no longer a teenager dreaming of attracting girls? Probably not, or at least be realistic that you can have a nicer body – something your wife might appreciate for a few years, and then let it go when you hit forty. You’ll never be fit enough or well-read enough. And if we got political, the consumer society wants you to keep running on the treadmill until you drop.