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Posts Tagged ‘business travel adventures’

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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