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Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

Week Four of Blogging with Friends

As someone who has always wanted to travel, it had never occurred to me that I could do it in my career until after my student exchange when I was 18. On starting university after my return to New Zealand, I ditched all my plans to study music, and turned to political science (with an international relations focus) and history, with a bit of Japanese thrown in to the mix.

My first year working saw me making a business trip, with NZ’s first woman trade commissioner, to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. It was the 1980s, and my aforementioned boss was asked to be interviewed on PNG TV, and was asked why New Zealand had “only” sent women. She replied without rolling her eyes, which I think was commendable, simply by saying that it just happened that women were in the relevant positions. (On the same trip, she was puzzled to find out that I had not changed my name when I married, and asked me if it was legal to have my passport in my “maiden” name!) PNG was wild and a little dangerous, the hot, remote, Solomon Islands were fascinating to me as my aunt and her family had lived there for several years, and we snorkelled over WWII wrecks in Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal, and Vanuatu was beautiful, sophisticated (in comparison with the others), and with a French influence. I ate my first ever lobster there, in a grass hut with my feet in soft white sand, overlooking a stunning beach and lagoon. One morning, we swam in the hotel pool as a warm, gentle rain fell, and a lively local band serenaded us with happy music.

A few years later, and ten years almost to the day after arriving in Thailand as an exchange student, I arrived in Thailand to live and work as a (very junior) diplomat. It was a brilliant job. The scope and range of duties were extensive, and I was thrown in at the deep end within just a few weeks, writing and delivering NZ’s statement at an international meeting in Vietnam. At the time, Vietnam was still secluded, isolated by the US embargo, and the only foreigners they were used to seeing were from the Soviet Union. We had the meeting in the Presidential Palace, only 15 years after the famous photos of tanks bursting through the front gate, when the Americans and others were fleeing via helicopters from rooftops.

Being part of a small embassy is a real advantage for a young diplomat. I was exposed to many situations my counterparts in other embassies could only dream of, although they could go into issues in a depth that was not possible for me. There were only seven NZ-based staff in our Embassy, compared with the Australians 70, and the US Embassy’s 700!

I used to attend ESCAP (the east Asia version of the UN) meetings too, and New Zealand always sat between the Netherlands (the tall and handsome and kind Ron) and Norway (my funny Viking Knut). Knut’s embassy was even smaller than ours. I remember that within days of his arrival, he had been made acting Ambassador! These two, along with an Australian or two, were my buddies whenever we had these international meetings.

At the time, the NZ Embassy in Bangkok also covered Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. I never got to go to Myanmar (though my husband did, whilst I was working), but I travelled back to Vietnam several times, including with business groups, and Cabinet Ministers. We were served strong, astringent tea at every meeting – I could barely begin to sip on my first visit, but by my last had grown to like – and I rode through Saigon on the back of a motorbike of a local businessman.

I travelled to sleepy Luang Prabang on the banks of the Mekong in Laos for the same meeting the following year. I remember a drinks function the night before the meeting, when they had some Bulgarian red wine, on ice, and the waiter carefully put the cork back in after every pour. Knut, Ron, and I made friends with the UN translators, and laughed together on a field trip when the French representative turned up with a camera around his neck and wearing a safari suit. Had no-one told him their colonial days were over, we wondered?

I was responsible for New Zealand’s development assistance programme in Thailand, meeting officials, visiting projects in the poor northeast or the poppy growing hill-tribes of the north, and giving small grants to (for example) provide the first taps or wells to grateful villages. Travelling out of Bangkok was always a treat, and – apart from the Police Attache who got business trips to Bali – I got to do it more frequently than anyone else there.

Whilst the Ambassador’s chief responsibility was the relationship with Thailand and reporting on Thai politics, I was his understudy. I predicted a coup before it happened, and wept when protesters and innocents were killed. I attended a funeral at the Supreme Patriarch’s temple, and spoke to arrested New Zealanders through cell bars at a police station. I flew in the Prime Minister’s luxury helicopter with our Minister of Foreign Affairs, and pointed out the house I’d lived in as a student when we flew over, and a much rougher army helicopter with a NZ defence official who was a wannabe army paratrooper insisting on keeping the door open so he could dream he had guns and pretend he’d been in the Vietnam War. I attended many meetings and lunches and cocktail parties, and became good friends with my Thai staff and counterparts. With them all, we laughed a lot.

When the peace process finally began in Cambodia in 1991, due to diplomatic protocol (which meant the Ambassador couldn’t go) I took the lead for NZ. I got to know several of the Cambodian princes on a first-name basis, rode in UN trucks in the provinces with a couple of army guys who happened to be from my home town, flew in military aircraft, checked out landmines our troops had cleared, and became friendly with key members of the UN administration. Once I checked in at the hotel, a guy I used regularly as my driver would turn up, even though I had no way to contact him. He was an engineer, trained in the USSR, and couldn’t drive very well, but he was reliable. I experienced an amazing haka by the NZ troops (for the Ambassador) who were part of the UN forces, drank champagne with Prince Sihanouk (who once again became King), and sat in meetings with some of the horrific members of the Khmer Rouge and those who fought against them. And as an aside, I learned the value of being a woman in business. Prince Ranariddh couldn’t recognise or remember my Ambassador’s name, another white man in a suit, but he  (and the Palace guards, and the people at the hotel, and the UN etc) always knew me.

After that, coming back to NZ was a shock, but my work always focused on NZ’s foreign relations or trade, and it was a rare year for me not to have at least one international business trip. I subsequently made business trips to Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, spent six weeks working in Taiwan, and over six years made about 20 trips to the Philippines (on one trip there I caught dengue fever), regular visits to Washington DC, a trip to Canada (where I took a couple of weeks’ leave with my husband to explore), multiple visits to Australia, and single trips to India (where I had an adventure or two), and Bahrain.

I didn’t always appreciate having to travel when I did, or to the places I did, or having to fly on economy class. It interrupted my life at home, and made it hard to plan. But I got to visit friends and family on stopovers in Singapore and mornings in Sydney on the way to other places, and once I got to my destinations, even though it might have been lonely, or hard, or frustrating (or all of those together), there were always people who entertained me, things that made me smile, or laugh, or gasp in surprise, and made me realise how lucky I was. I miss it now.

 

Note: The links above all take you to my previous travel writings about many of these destinations.

 

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I’m going to drip-feed a few travel stories from my trip, but I need more than eight sentences, so won’t be doing it on Mondays. I wrote a first story on the weekend here (The Great Puffin Hunt), and may continue writing on a new travel blog.

Yes, I know I have been procrastinating about restarting a travel blog for a long time, but the thing is, it is all bound up with procrastination over relaunching a travel business (designing custom-made itineraries for travellers) that I started many years ago. Back then, at the same time that I was starting to get clients, I also began getting a lot more (and better paid) consulting work that took all my time and energy. Consequently, my fledgling little business was sadly neglected and has effectively been put on hold for the last decade or so.

Times have changed, and whilst there is much more information available on the internet now to assist travellers, it can also be overwhelming and extremely time-consuming, so I still believe there is a market out there. I’m almost ready to relaunch it now, but I am still figuring a few things out, at the same time trying to boost my confidence. So at this stage, all I can say is watch this space.

 

Microblog_Mondays

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Thank God it's Monday

I have been self-employed for over a decade, and as such, I often have Fridays (or any other day of the week) off. But still, there’s something about a Friday afternoon that makes me feel freer and more relaxed, and I look forward to the weekend.

I give myself extra leeway on weekends – I can lie around reading or watching TV or movies when I feel guilty for doing that during the week, I sleep in without feeling lazy, and there’s the extra treat that my husband brings me a cup of tea in bed most Saturdays and Sundays. If we’re ever going to have pancakes or waffles for brunch, it happens on a weekend.

Mondays though, don’t bother me now. I like them – they’re the day I can get back into a routine, exercise, go places free of crowds. And it’s even better today, because the kids are finally back at school. The malls and non-CBD cafes and movie theatres and beaches will revert to their usual, non-crowded spaces – tranquil, even.

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As most of my readers know, Mali is not my real name. When I began blogging, I found that most of the blogs I was reading, and the bloggers who were reading me, used a pseudonym. I felt that I was in good company. There is a certain protection to anonymity that enables you to be honest – sometimes to a fault, perhaps, but usually I find this honesty has worked well for me.  (Honesty about me, that is, my flaws and issues, rather than honesty about others.)

Now though, I’m much more open about this blog. I publicise posts on Facebook, and know that many of my family and friends read it. A friend jokes that she doesn’t need to call or text to find out what I’ve been up to, she just checks the blog.

But I feel constrained here too, for precisely that reason. I’m job-hunting. I have been looking for work – directorships, contracting, consulting or full-time – since we returned from our overseas self-described sabbatical (though I did take about six months out earlier this year). It isn’t easy looking for jobs at my age. Assumptions are made, especially (don’t ask me why) about women my age, despite the fact that any organisation would be lucky to have me. Assumptions too, are made about people who have had time out, as my husband and I have had. Yet as a result of that and some other changes in my life, I feel refreshed, healthier, and more capable than I have for a number of years. I figure I have at least another 10-15 years (economy-dependent) of working left in me, so commitment isn’t an issue. Assumptions are also made about people who haven’t worked full-time, people who have dabbled in a number of areas, as I have. Over the last twelve years I’ve been a consultant, a trainer, a writer, a company director and the Chair of a Board, and a volunteer. All of these activities have given me valuable experience that mean I am more capable and valuable than I was when I was working full-time. Yet recruiters or potential employers may look at this with suspicion. I wonder about their lack of imagination, their own limited life experiences, that prevent them from seeing this. What is it about being older, more experienced and responsible and skilful, that is so negative to recruiters, so threatening to future employers?

I know that recruiters now may well look on-line for information on job candidates. Other than international travels, I don’t think I live a very exciting life. No-one is going to find any salacious photographs of me on-line, or get access to my FB pages (where sadly there are still no salacious photographs of me) to see how inappropriate I can be. But if they are determined, they may be able to find their way here, where I share opinions on a number of subjects. And another site where I am (or want to be) even more honest. Knowing this, I’m quite careful about what I say.  Maybe that shows discretion. Maybe it shows that there’s really nothing that controversial about me. Or maybe it means I can’t show you the real Mali (though you get about 90% of her).

So should I be so careful?

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Normal programming

I’ve been self-employed, working from home, for over ten years now. (I’m closer to unemployed than self-employed since our long trip to Europe last year, but I’m working on that!)

Since I left work full-time, I’ve stuck to routines, and little rules:

  • I don’t sleep in during the week, unless I’m sick, no matter how much I want to.
  • I don’t read books during the day. (Very rarely, anyway).
  • I go to the gym first thing in the morning.
  • I don’t drink until after 5 pm (except on a Friday), even if the wine cellar is calling to me earlier.
  • I keep a weekend, allowing myself special treats during the weekend (watching a programme during the day, reading, sleeping, etc) that I don’t indulge in during the week.
  • I try to achieve something every day.
  • I go to bed at a semi-reasonable time during the week.

But since we’ve got home from Europe, with my husband at home too, it has been harder to stick to this routine. Every day feels like the weekend. And of course, we have had the Christmas and New Year break, which in New Zealand extends for several weeks beyond 1 January as our summer break.

Today is the first day that the country really “gets back to work.” Even the husband has started talking about job hunting, and I’ve felt inspired to get some work done. And so when I read on Facebook that a few hours ago, a friend had been relaxing on her Sunday morning in the US, I felt envious, commenting that of course here it was Monday.  I didn’t even register that it is a public holiday in our city today. Clearly, my routine is completely out of whack.  What day is it? Who cares!

Hopefully, tomorrow, normal programming will resume. I plan on heading off to the gym first thing.

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We are not independently wealthy. A Lotto win continues to elude us, instead going to people who seem needy. We haven’t made career decisions that have seen us stay in the same company for 25 years, coming out of it with either a generous redundancy package or a healthy retirement plan. Companies or organisations with those are few and far between these days in New Zealand. Of course, there was always the government. We live and work worked in a government town, but neither of us have government pensions. I haven’t worked for the government since 1996. I suspect if I had stayed there, I’d have either gone mad, or committed a serious, violent offence. The husband didn’t have the option to stay in the government either. Restructuring and privatisation of his industry meant that he has moved around and had an interesting career, but one which hasn’t offered long term stability. I quit my directorship (once I resigned as Chair, I really was only getting coffee money) to go overseas this year, and consulting work has dried up. So here we are. – two well-travelled unemployed folks.

We’ve been home a month now. We’re procrastinating a bit on the job hunt, both of us as bad as each other. I found something that didn’t appall me, so I’ve thrown my hat in the ring. He is still procrastinating. There’s not that much about. I figure we have till after Christmas before it starts to get urgent. Maybe by the New Year we’ll actually feel like working again?  I live in hope.

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As a consultant, I’ve designed and taught several courses about marketing, in particular, about marketing your services. After all, there’s not much more personal in sales than selling yourself, your thoughts and abilities and personality and style. It’s not easy. You may be a brilliant consultant because you understand your clients, they trust you, you develop insight, and you tailor your approach to each individual client and their specific needs. You may be a brilliant consultant because you are an expert at what you do – leading your city, country, or even the world. But unless you’re able to

a) explain your value in terms your client understands and values, or

b) actually put yourself out there in front of potential clients, put yourself out to be seen (and yes, judged), then you won’t get the work.

I’m terrible at the above.   Well, no, let me qualify that. I am skilled at knowing how to do it, and I can teach it really well (those who can’t teach, huh?).  But when it comes to doing it for myself, for my own business, point b) gets me every time. Call it fear, call it a lack of self-belief, call me shy, or call me a coward. I wish I was better at self-promotion, at acknowledging what I’m good at (and I’m very good at that), and at convincing others.  I wish I was braver.

So yes, I know I should practice what I preach.  And you should too.  Or you’ll be stuck at home, writing blog posts.

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