My time in Malaysia

Where to start… Have you ever had a feeling that life is going better than you ever expected and that to balance it out maybe you’ll get hit by a truck, or break your legs by falling down a pothole or be robbed and kidnapped out the blue? No? Well, that’s kind of how I’m feeling at the moment. I feel like all of this, in my two weeks in Asia, is way too good to be true. It’s not like winning the lottery or scoring that book writing contract, but a simple unadulterated sense that I’m on the right track. I’m, perhaps for the first time in my life, in ‘flow’. And it feels bloody fantastic.

So what’s with this sudden elation you may wonder? It hit me somewhere mid-stride in Malaysia, as I was hiking down an urban street; skin burning, lungs aching from the merciless exhaust fumes, head pounding from a resonating hangover, my hair a salty, sweaty mess; I probably smelled. But I didn’t care because I was completely content knowing I am free and doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to be doing: travelling, meeting interesting people, learning new stories, gaining contacts and inspiration to take my professional life to that new, fulfilling level, actively working towards socially and environmentally responsible projects [insert big soul encompassing sigh here].

Smog streets and graffiti by the river

My time in Malaysia can be broken down into three parts:

  1. The Rock Your Eco Business event
  2. My not so solo travels
  3. Meeting the Green Man

Part 1)

Rock Your Eco Business is one of those things you just have to experience in order to ‘get it’. As the name suggests, it just rocked. Hosted by the most energetic Dave Rogers, who along with the contributing ‘sages’ managed to combine an unlikely alchemy of personal development, spirituality and entrepreneurship into an intensive three day, let’s say, extravaganza. Described as an experience between American Idol and Harvard University, how could I not be intrigued?

We were split into teams, and were encouraged in a positive environment to share very personal experiences while pitching and developing business plans. The event resulted in me partnering with two “china men” (as they dubbed themselves) and a sweet little lady to create an eco venture business – essentially a kids and corporate camp that provides outdoor leadership and survival training as well as green technology education. The idea is that it’s built in an interactive environment which supports local tribes and incorporates a sustainable infrastructure.

Yes, it is amazing, and yes, I can’t believe I get to work on such a cool project either. You have permission to feel jealous. In fact, I’d be offended if you wasn’t. But here’s the thing. We’re always looking to collaborate, so if you’re really interested contact me at amanda.blum@ymail.com.

We have already identified two potential corporate sponsors. I am currently developing the systems/logistics/operations and working with the trio who will produce the brand, website, education content etc. I have such a very good feeling about it and it’s all because of the magic of Dave and the magnificent sages.  And for the record. it was indeed a mixture of Harvard leanings, seeing a shrink, followed by a hug from grandma and an episode of Dragon’s Den (a British entrepreneurial TV series); a welcomed business-oriented therapy of sorts.

How adorable are we?

I learned so many things over the weekend, some of them practical, others more innocuously psychological. One of my more simple revelations was unravelling my relationship with business. I’ve always had a cold, often negative response to the words ‘business’ and ‘profit’. (Does that sound familiar? Please tell me I’m not the only one). These words have always felt manufactured and selfish. It’s a self-destructive and ironic mindset because I have no issues with the terms occupation and money. But somewhere within the three days of positive coaching, identifying behavioural patterns and recognising limiting perceptions, I realised, it’s not the words and what they represent that’s negative, it’s purely how I’ve chose to interpret them. By changing my association with them, I can liberate myself to be a profitable business person in the best way possible (is that some NLP hocus pocus or what?!): a profitable business person who fights to achieve social and environmental responsibility. How badass is that. Not a question but a statement. It is indeed, totally, irrefutably bad-fucking-ass.

Another hang-up was equating ‘business’ to a sterile environment where most interactions are driven by self-serving interests. However, over the three days of sharing motivations, passions and aspirations, I saw there are people out there wanting to be a positive force in the world using business as a mechanism to bring about change. I call these people the Doers. The Go-getters. The Optimists.

It was refreshing, exciting and it enticed my commitment. So I am now part of a team that I believe in, with people who although I haven’t know for a long time, I trust implicitly to drive our values forward. (Are you nauseated from how totally unbelievably feel-good this all is?) THIS IS POWERFUL STUFF. The stuff THAT ROCKS WORLDS and SHAKES UNIVERSES, don’t you get it?

I feel compelled to get all on my tall, self-righteous step and say, there’s a calling out there for each of us. And it’s not for a Lamborghini, a mansion and glittery possessions that will eventually crumble leaving a toxic mess somewhere for the planet to absorb. That shit wont fill your soul. You can try to feed it, but it will spit it back up as a bulimic reminder that your spirit is undernourished.

Let’s create a positive legacy for future generations. For our children, nieces or nephews. Or somebody else’s children, nieces and nephews. Because that’s the only thing that will last forever. And life is too short for the bullshit of chasing material dreams. If you’ve ever felt this way but not known what to do about it, join a Rock Your Business event; meet like-minded individuals and find a way to combine skills to develop a Green profitable business. It may very well change your life. Or at least give you a nudge in the right direction to helping you change your life. Get control. Tell your life who’s boss. Just bloody go for it. Live with no regrets!

{My time in Malaysia Part 2 – My not so solo travels – coming up in the next blog installment. To include a tip for two for the solo traveler.}

Malay train station architecture

Did I mention my team won eco biz most likely to go international?

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Week one in Singapore

It’s officially my one week anniversary in Singapore. That’s one week of pulsating heat, networking, process mapping (a case study I’m working on) and wandering through this concrete jungle of a city.

This morning I tagged along to Gina’s meeting with Newton Circus, a sustainable business innovation company. As I sat in the meeting I fell silently in love, trying not to burst into a round of applause and blubber my excitement as they talked about finding innovative solutions for world issues such as climate change, poverty and women’s inequality. If my professional interests had a soul mate, Newton Circus would be it.  Expect an update on how I plan to seduce them in the not so distant future.

Speaking of seduction and sexiness, last night I featured as a film extra involving a lesbian speed dating scene. Hot, I know. It was tardy, disorganised as one might expect from a room full of underground artists.

I went because it was bound to be full of characters; characters I would more than likely want to be friends with. It didn’t disappoint. After miming a number of colourful scenes (amid floating designs of rainbow multi-textured vaginas which tangled in my hair) I ended up spending the late evening sitting on the curb drinking scotch out a plastic bottle talking about second and third generation Singaporeans, the 1980s Speak Mandarin Campaign, gay bars and the punk rock scene in Indonesia and Malaysia. I was invited to a spoken arts night, which I’m sure will rekindle my desire to be the dark, mysterious poet I’ve always fancied myself to be. I will be preparing a few lines for the occasion. I can’t wait – and now I’m completely sure I will love it here – now that I have found a bizarre, eclectic group of people to counter balance the people in suits.

In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve been trying to glean a deeper understanding of this place with an anthropological eye. I’ve been asking people, with reporter like interest, how they feel about Singapore. From locals to expats, artists to entrepreneurs, students to professionals, conformists to homosexuals, the answers are always distinct – because Singapore, of all the places I’ve ever visited, inspires strong opinions.  A lot of time it’s a love or hate proposition. But why? What is it about Singapore that makes people tick? Is it the extreme free market economy? The stringent government regulation? The melting pot of cultures and expertise? I need to dig beyond the surface and find out.

First thoughts on Singapore

I love it here, but maybe for all the wrong reasons. Singapore in five words is (5) pure unrelenting organisation and efficiency. Everything is set up for convenience and commerce; there’s no corruption, litter, crime, graffiti or drugs but instead a high quality pace of life for business execs and professionals on an island with no natural resources. There’s no unemployment here, no welfare. Everyone and everything has it’s place.

As I sit here, in my new outdoor office, among the palm trees in the thick, moist heat with the condo maintenance men grooming the shrubs, perfecting the already perfect lawns and Anna, my cousin’s live-in help, hanging my freshly laundered lavender scented cloths in the hot breeze, I know I’m in middle-upper class utopia. I can see why my cousin is never going to leave this place.

I love that across the street (that you may only cross once the flashing light as indicated so) there’s a convenience store that sells sushi and international groceries. There’s a massage parlor, video store and hairdressers. A couple hundred meters down there’s an oriental food court that sells freshly squeezed sour-sop juice and some of the best noodles in Singapore. Parrots and exotic birds squawk across the rainforest terrain.

My nephew showed me the multimedia presentation he put together for the parents teacher day at school. To teach them critical and advanced thinking, they give students responsibility over their learning and deductive reasoning. My nephew is ten. Occasionally we read the same books. This is the type of caliber that is prevalent in Singapore.

At Changi airport there were no queues and the currency exchange was placed exactly where it should be – within immediate sight and walking distance, where the teller offered me a Sim card, something that was first on my list of things to get, and she set it up for me. It was her job to make it as easy as possible and make sure Singapore visitors are connected and prepared for their high-tech stay. I received free merchandise for my purchase (a cloths organiser and neck pillow).

There was a designated line for taxis (however, there was no line of patrons, only a patient row of waiting drivers) and someone to collect my trolly once I was finished with it. It was if they new I would be there, at that exact spot at that exact point in time, like clockwork. It was flawless and the whole thing felt like an obvious flashing light saying, “this is Singapore, were are an elaborate powerhouse and we are the future”.

Next week I’m heading to Malaysia for an eco-projects start up event after Gina introduced me to a like-minded chap at Business Rocks, her fun, informal beer networking event. I am excited for myself. I’m excited about trying out all the different food, meeting the people, understanding the other side of the culture and to be emerging into my new adult high-flying life as an awkward bohemian aspiring writer.

Favouritest spot in London

If I had to subscribe to part of London, having lived here a good part of my life, I would say I’m a Camden girl through and through. It’s the one place that I continually come back to – from my youth, to my twenties and probably well into adulthood and old age and it will always have a place in my heart.

In a snap shot, here are nine things (not ten, but nine) that I love about Camden:

  1. No matter what you wear, what you say (or scream, or shout), how drunk or eccentric you are, you will never be the weirdest person in Camden. Never. There will always be someone more screwed up, more bizarre, more high. That’s just the way it goes.
  2. The music. Camden is home to a number of music venues, many of which are responsible for hosting badass bands- the likes of The Doors and Pink Floyd, not to mention it was the home of the late Amy Winehouse.
  3. The movement. Camden is one of those places where the feeling of controlled rebellion and anarchy caresses the streets. There are vegan cafes, locally owned coffee shops, punk rockers, hippies and hipsters on every corner. There’s perhaps an over indulgence of drug use among people who inhibit the area, but it’s non-threatening for those going about their way.
  4. The colour. In a city that’s significantly grey, with areas full of corporate execs in black suits, Camden is a spectrum of shades, textures with vibrant banners, flags and signs – a real feast for the eyes.
  5. Good walking. Camden is a pedestrian’s playground. You can walk, talk and enjoy the eclectic scene and not worry about getting run over.
  6. It’s one of the few places (maybe only) in London where I can overlook the onslaught of crowds. I’m not a fan of overly populated places, and Camden is absolutely ransacked – allegedly the most visited part of London on the weekends. But for some reason, perhaps down to the opiate affect of the rockabilly, indie environment, I fail to get riled by it.
  7. The shops. Camden, just like everywhere else, has a commercial element, but in the guise of foreign imports, vintage clothes, obscure trinkets, tattoo parlours and club thumping fluorescent gear. Want something random or just plain out-there? Camden’s the spot.
  8. The food. From stool vendors to the upscale, there’s a culinary choice for everyone bouncing from every continent. There’s the Blues Kitchen for music and fare, Gilgamesh if you want opulence, the likes of CoCo Bamboo for pure South American succulence and creamy cocktails, or the Cuban bar if you want to salsa dance for dessert, the list goes on.
  9. The people. At the end of it all the people make the place. If you have a high threshold for the strange and occasionally offensive, or even better, you’re a little turned on by it, then you’ll appreciate the grime and edge of Camden Town. Camden is where the peculiar feel at home and the mad come to rest.

Tunisia, North Africa… the country of Arabs, deserts and hustling market places

If you read the ‘about me and this blog’ section you will know I recently quit my job to move to Singapore in six weeks to take up traveling. But in the interim, I booked a short stint to Tunisia, North Africa.

For a flight that’s less than 3 hours from London, Tunisia feels like a world away from England. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew I was in foreign territory. The first thing that hit me was the cloudy scent of stale cigarettes intermingled with the humidity. Somehow the smell manages to stick to the stone and palm trees.

Walking out of the airport, a chatty porter grabs my bag. I was uncomfortable because I don’t know this guy from Adam, and he’s walking ahead of me with all the possessions I brought to North Africa. He walks, telling me it costs 15 Dinar for a sandwich in Tunisia “which is very expensive for the Tunis but not for you English”. It was bullshit of course, because as a tourist I could get one for 3 Dinar, so as Tunisian you’d get it for a lot cheaper. After walking literally ten meters he tells my male companion to “come into the light” and demands 20 Dinar which is equivalent to about £10. “No way, mate,” he tells him “you’re having a laugh.” But the porter is persistent and easily agitated. After five minutes of explaining we have no money to give him, he is very pissed off and my companion is flustered. This is typical we would find out. Everyone in Tunisia has a hustle for trying to squeeze as much money out of you as possible.

Even in the darkness, I could tell our hotel was lot fancier than what we paid for. We were greeted by high arches, marble and chandelier reception. Sousse, our host city, is not a poor location. Again cigarette smoke saturated the air; everyone smoked indoors. It was a non-smokers nightmare. I wished someone warned me; I could feel my throat closing on me. My athlete travel partner and I woke up congested; it was all too much for us two health freaks.
Inside Tej Marhaba

On our first day in Tunisia, we hiked the local area. All the men have greased, slicked back and well groomed hair. Nearly everyone we passed had something to say and sell. They have pick up lines to make you stop and pay attention to whatever they’re pushing. “Hey brother, how much did you buy those shoes? Really, that much? We have those for 10 Dinar, come, you will see” or to quote the boy selling the prayer rugs “hey! what team do you support? Oh they’re fucking bullocks man! Manchester united! Where you staying? Oh that place is big shit hole! I mean it nothing but slut whores there, you will see!” or “hi lady, take a flower, it’s Jasmine, free souvenir. Seriously it’s free. Please now, one Dinar.”
Most of the time it was friendly and harmless banter, but it could get overwhelming. If you showed interest, it was difficult to untangle yourself from their grasp without a fight. After talking with visitors, it was clear many people couldn’t handle the Tunisian approach and were not enjoying their visit. But once we learned the ways of the region, we fell in sync with it and learned the Tunis are very accommodating people. Even when the streets are narrow and crowded, no one bumps into you. Not like London where you get shoved and hissed at. Now, when anyone moves to let me pass or opens a door for me I assume their an Arab.
The city is westernised while still remaining dominantly Islamic. Everyone it seemed spoke English, French, Dutch and Spanish. It was impressive. There were night clubs, restaurants, hooker bars (of course) and even a steakhouse  in the design of a wild west Saloon. It was ironic. There in the midst Islamic verse the west upheaval, stood a cultural depiction of the American Frontier, like a dine-in monument to conquest, snuff and gun-swinging Americana.
After wandering around for a couple of days, enjoying the pool, beach, and getting stung by a jelly fish that puts Florida’s sea stingers to shame (seriously, I thought I was going to suffer an exotic side effect that I could brag to my friends about) we decided to venture out to see more of Tunisia, so we signed up for a two-day Sahara trip.One of the first places we visited was El Djem the Roman amphitheatre (part of the Sahara trip – bloody good deal). Imagine, setting foot in a place built by the infamous Romans! At one point I was dragging my hand along the stone work, completely in awe of the people who gave us Latin (so I don’t know any Latin, but I know it’s the foundation of western beauties such as Italian and Española), the Senate (again, not always in to politics, but com’on, it’s the backbone of democracy) and gladiator fights to the death (plain violent but cool in an unsettling way). Exploring under the arena where the slaves and animals were kept, it was hard to imagine that architecture with that much finesse was designed for brutal entertainment. But I suppose it’s fitting – robust sandstone walls (you could see the shells embedded in them), deep, hard worn and created out of sweat, blood and ingenuity.
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After El Djem it was back to winding through the dusty back roads of North Africa. During one of the pit stops, I found myself in a queue with a fellow Brit discussing the merits of a travel size kettle with equipped with PG tips. I felt slightly disgusted that I needed the luxury of English tea on the road (does that make me a lame traveller even if it’s a mild form of drug withdrawal? Caffeine addiction is real, people). Driving through the small villages we arrived in the desert area of Matamata, home of the oldest settlers of North Africa, the Berber. Or simply, cave dwellers. Seeing where the Berber live was a mixture of awe and contemplation. They live so simply in the caves, no TV (as least not in the one we visited) no neighbour for half a mile. Yet one of the young inhabitants had a football shirt on, and some of the caves were equipped with cars and there was a small Berber town located near by that the government set up for the poorest of the Berber. Truly an odd mix of ancient and modern.
   
A bus journey from there we arrive at Douz, on the fringes of the Sahara to ride camels through the desert. I half expected a cringe worthy tourist trap like the time I was in Morocco and people (like myself) boarded a camel so you could snap a pic, flats and condos in the background and everything. In this instance we donned on tunics and head clothes and caravanned the desert over humpback in the beating sun. We were led by a group of men fully covered to their eyes, deep into the beautiful and lonely desert where each grain of sand conspired to make a magnificent three thousand mile mass of shear golden landscape. The Sahara is one of those places, like the grand canyon, whose beauty and vastness can not be conveyed with words. It’s no wonder it’s the place some of the best stories and adventures are derived from.At one point we stopped to rest. Then a bit of a huddle and aggression broke out and I panicked for one ignorant moment, thinking we were going to get robbed or hijacked in the middle of the Sahara by these cloaked men. Turned out they were arguing with one of the tourists who refused to pay for the cola shoved into to their kid’s hands, something like “you hand drinks to a couple children in the middle of the fucking desert, what do you think’s gonna happen? They don’t know any better. I don’t have any damned money! You can take my knickers, but I got no money!” Which was an amusing thing to hear among such traditional men, with nothing but sand dunes around us. After too much sun and the unforgettable trek, we checked into a four star hotel built into the tour package. It had a hot spring pool that honestly smelt like shit and sulphur, and looked even worse. We swam in it. It was lovely and hot enough to melt away the action of the day. And at night we watched a sand storm from our window.

 

Leaving ridiculously early the next morning (around 3.30am) we crossed Chott El Djerid, a colossal salt lake where we saw a the sunrise and, with my very own eyes, a mirage. The salt crystals in the sand glisten in the sun light to create the illusion of water. Apparently a million years or so ago, there was an ocean there which eventually retracted and left an expanse of salty land. When it rains and the water evaporates, salt is left on the surface. It was like watching an ocean that no longer exists. It reminded me of the stars – how many of the stars we see are just left over light rays making their way to earth even though the stars disappeared years ago

 

As if this wasn’t enough amazement, we jumped in a 4×4 and rode to the desert of Onk Jemel to… wait for it… visit the film set city built for ‘Star Wars: The phantom Menace.’ I almost pissed myself like a five year old filled with glee. I must have took a hundred cheesy shots next to every building.

 

I did say it was cheesy
But it was a pilgrimage

To end the tour (by which point I was complete with contentment) we took a horse and carriage through Chebika, a real deal Oasis at the foot of the Atlas mountains. We had a nutter of a (can you call him driver?) who insisted on racing the horse through every path (overtaking everything  in it’s site), almost tipping us over a few times, all the more encouraged by my screams. Needless to say we tipped him well and hugged him at the end. A mad and very cool dude.

   

Overall the Sahara excursion surpassed my expectations and our tour guide, Amri, was very knowledgeable and managed to satisfy even the likes of my curiosity with his explanations of the area. (Did you know olive oil is their number one export set up by Rome 2000 years ago? They still trade via Sicily which is only 84K away). I saw so much of Tunisia and completely fell in love with the architecture, people and land.

Back at the hotel we wasted no time mingling with the locals and tourists. We visited the local Medina (aka, crazy bloody market place filled with exotic wares), haggled with the shop owners, pet and fed random animals, joked and shared dinner with all sorts of people, and partied with a young couple from Newcastle in a nightclub full of Russians. There were a number of magical moments in between, too much to capture all here, but just know Tunisia captured my heart and imagination. It’s a place worth visiting.

 

 

 

Self proclaimed traveler

It seems as if anyone and their Ibiza buddy can call themselves a traveler as long as they’ve boarded a plane. I’m no road scholar (I have not seen nearly enough desolation or drank enough contaminated water to claim that) but I do wonder if there is some implicit code of conduct or rights of passage people need to pass before they can be dubbed a traveler. Do self-respecting adventures have to meet a minimum quota of countries before they can call themselves travelers? Do they have to know the best places within a mile radius? Know the history? Visited the most prominent of locations? Be more of a backpacker rather than a hotel hopper? A nomad, a drifter or a good old traditional tourist? Or is it a simple case of credibility? If that’s the case, what constitutes credibility?

I suppose the matter is as subjective as the magazine you chose to read (architecture, entertainment, culinary?) but for me, a traveler is someone who seeks to understand the nuances of the landscape they’re visiting – to seek with an open mind the history, plights, celebrations, the overall hum of culture that surrounds an area to internalise the fabric of the people who reside there; a sort of wistful combination of sociological, anthropologica, geographical and philosophical questioning that’s sought through the exchange of humour, stories, food and tour of the land. Traveling is very personal. There’s no right or wrong way, so long as you do it and chase that element of discovery.

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