Sunday, June 26, 2011

Connecting the dots looking back

Or, struggling to managing myself (part 2)

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite games was 'Job Agency' ('Uitzendbureautje' in Dutch). At the age of seven, I would help poor (imaginary) jobseekers find their perfect employment. I dragged all my friends along with me (try to imagine what their moms must have thought). I must have been inspired by a family friend who was actually paying for his philosophy studies by doing this - at a real job agency with real jobseekers though. I liked the idea of making someone happy by just linking them to a great job. Easy does it.
Sometimes I feel like am playing Uitzendbureautje all over again...

Later, together with a girlfriend, I expanded the scope of the agency to also include travel. She was crazy about the US and we would spend days speaking English (sort of). Yes, even at that age, the world was already luring. How come? Maybe it was because our house was always filled with guests. Alexandra, a friend of my mother, would come over and tell me about the journeys she made to make documentaries. An aunt from Italy visited and brought me il libero delle parole, a great book showing illustrations and its meanings in four languages. The American neighbors upstairs invited me for their parties, where I practiced my English (and learned about god. Hmm). A guy from Mali, whom my mom taught Dutch, came over to cook his local dish (which I recall not liking very much. Ha! Maybe that's why I haven't been to Africa yet!). For my (twelfth?) birthday I got a subscription to a beautiful glossy magazine about Indonesia (Archipel magazine). This was it! The rest is history (in short: I went to Indonesia when I was 14, studied Indonesian and just spent a year and a half in Jakarta).

An issue of Archipel magazine

Now that I am self-employed (or voluntarily unemployed) I take a lot of time to reflect. As Steve Jobs says, you can only connect the dots looking back. Now that I do, it all makes sense. I've always wanted to travel, write and help others. This now gives me the confidence to take a step into the unknown. In a way, I have always been a self-made woman: in primary school I was involved in the 'Montessori Democrats' (we didn't get a lot done though), wrote for the school paper and took part in a game show on TV. Also, I interviewed my favorite writer and wrote an article that was published in Primeur, a newspaper for kids. Somehow as a grownup we think we cannot just pick up the phone and ask our favorite writer for an interview. Isn't that a pity?

When I was a kid I hardly needed anyone to tell me what to do to stay busy, now I often wish for a manager. I now send reports to my friend Miriam, so she can check up on my progress. Most of all, I should trust that in ten years, I can again connect the dots. How about you, does your path makes sense when you look back? And how does that help you to move forward?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Laundry magic: how my undies were lost and found

Have you ever left a bag of dirty laundry at a hotel and wondered how they managed to bring you back exactly your clothes the next day? How do they organize that? How do they remember which clothes belong to whom? If you know, please do share!

Honestly, I had never really thought about all of this. Maybe because it had always gone right. Until my last three months in Jakarta that is. From February, I lived at a place where they could not get it right. The laundry kept on getting mixed up! Several times the landlady came up to me with a piece of underwear, holding it up to ask me if it was mine. Once I was flattered (it was a tiny little undie), but mostly I was embarrassed - as was she. One morning I ran into a neighbor who was writing a note to go with a stack of my underpants ("Hey, those are mine!"). The note said: 'Sorry, but these are really not mine'. She told me she had already given them back before, but somehow, they kept on coming back to her.

The poor landlady (whose maids kept on running off without notice or falling ill) realized something had to be done. She got a big notebook, sat down with the (loyal but not all too bright) maid  and wrote down every piece of clothing someone wanted to have washed. When my boyfriend lost a shirt, I actually went through the notebook. It was fantastic! They had described every item including as much detail as possible: 'Ami - black T-shirt, size M, blue butterfly'. Since too many of us were apparently wearing undistinguishable black underwear, they had to abandon this method though. Instead, they decided to sow a colored thread to every piece of clothing. Every person had their own color.

They day I left, I realized my laundry had not been delivered to me yet. As the maid insisted there was no clean laundry for me, I started going through all the clean clothes myself. And guess what? I found my clothes, with several different colored threads (mostly brown, blue and black) in them!

So how DO guesthouses, hotels and laundry services keep track of which undie belongs to whom?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The misery of free time

Or, struggling to manage myself (Part 1)

Since my contract ended as advisor on Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation at KontraS on the 1st of May, I have had time off. I knew from the beginning my posting (by Togetthere) would only be for 18 months and had come up with the idea to write a novel about my family. I was inspired by Eat, Pray, Love, I guess, and envisioned a little house between Balinese rice fields where I would write for 3 months. After doing some initial research (interviewing some family members), I decided not to write the book. At least, not now. It's a great story, but too much to handle (believe me!). Jokingly I told my nephew, who had been helping me, that only he would be able to tell the story of how his aunt went insane, if I'd continue.

Sorry grandma, no 'Wild Swans' about you

No book then. But the idea of taking 3 months for myself still sounded very good. As my boyfriend was planning to start an online business, I figured we could do what Tim Ferriss advises us all to do: work remotely and take a mini retirement. That is, in short, how we ended up in Hanoi. After enjoying a holiday by the beach, writing out my notes and reports for Togetthere and going around Vietnam with my dad, I have now been behind my computer for a week and a half. You're probably wishing you could take a break from it all and take a few months to do anything you like. Well, I can tell you: this freedom is a pain!

All set to work!

Every day I have a new idea of what I could do or a different approach to what my life should look like. Do I want to do something meaningful or make buckets of cash? Or should I just try to find a niche to make some passive income on? This way, I'd have enough money to live from and could use all my time helping other people. Or should I start a social enterprise? Maybe I should just be a consultant in monitoring and evaluation, or a writer of blogs on coffee, or a remote English teacher for Indonesians. The web provides loads of inspirational material, but it's overwhelming too. Can I be as good as Salman Khan? Am I really the first female lifestyle designer? "Neh, don't be silly", my Dutch calvinist brain says (constantly), "Just act normal, that's crazy enough". Then another hour of browsing for a safe 9-5 job begins. For all my life, I've been trained to do what other people wanted me to do: homework at school, tasks at work. Now that I choose to be my own manager, I just cannot decide on what to do. 

Activists in Jakarta - they know what to fight for

Yes, I know: I have to not be too critical about my own ideas and set small goals for myself (I have read every single blog about this topic!). But the lizard brain is at work. As Seth Godin tells us, we all have a part of our brain that will resist to anything scary. In this case, I can tell you: I am scared shitless. I want to contribute to something bigger and I want everybody in the world to like it. Just the thought of you thinking "What is this girl doing?!" makes me want to hide my head under a pillow for the rest of the day. Instead of doing that, I have decided to drag you along with me. With this post I am starting a new series keeping you updated on my progress. Stay tuned for my next post! 

Any advise? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Prepare to puke!

The joys of traveling on Asian buses

Last October, when traveling in Laos, I got a small yellow plastic bag after getting on a local bus. All the other passengers also got one - some even two. Did I just get a private trash bag?! Usually Asians traveling on public buses are not so tidy (they often throw their trash on the floor and during a stop the driver gets a broom and shoves everything out through the door. Works like a charm!), so I was pretty impressed. Soon enough I realized that the bags were not for keeping trash though. They were for puke! Not like the sturdy bags on airplanes, these were fluffy and more importantly, transparent! Was I glad to have taken my anti carsickness pills! The idea of people around me vomiting made me wonder if my stomach would survive the trip calmly.

Laotian bus

Please don't show me your bag!
So, during the trip I tried not to look around in case someone was in the process of filling their plastic bag. Despite this and the entertainment my iPod brought (on its highest volume), I couldn't help noticing that my neighbor across the aisle was having an encounter with her breakfast. Other women and a little boy were also vomiting now (while I was going "Lalaaaalaaa" in my head as hard as I could). The woman on my row then tied her full bag into a little knot and hung it on the handle on the chair in front of her. It hung there the whole way (three hours!) even though we made several stops. She enthusiastically ate lunch during one of these stops, but somehow did not feel the need to get rid of her puke bag. Yuck!

Vietnamese woman holding a plastic bag, which (fortunately) she only used for spitting. After a short stop, she had exchanged the bag for a transparent yellow one though.

And I won't show you mine...
Now, whenever I see these bags being handed out, or people bringing their own (?!), I feel like marketing my great Dutch herbal pills. Or any other car sickness pill, for that matter. The only time on my Laos trip that I ran out of my pills (panic attack!), I did indeed make use of a plastic bag (yes, a yellow one). The road was going up and down and the driver was not particularly subtle. Wow, that was not a very happy day... Since I did not want to be confronted with the content of the bag afterwards (nor confront my loved one nor the other passengers) I (*blush*) threw the bag out the window (to my loved one's discontent, I should add). I do apologize to any possible motorbike driver behind our bus (sorry!). And a free warning to the rest of you: in case you plan to travel on a bumpy bus, be prepared and take some pills in advance!