Saturday, 26 May 2012

Meet my little niece, Anahì

 After The Maldives and the unexpected return trip to France for Keanu's funeral, I was unfortunately pretty broke so I asked my brother Morgan if I could come and stay at his place the time for me to get back to work, back on my feet financially and I also wanted to spend more time with the family and see my baby niece again. Morgan, his partner Virginie and their daughter Anahì live in Vientiane, Laos, where I also spent time last year, so I hopped on a flight to Sri Lanka from Male, stayed a night (sadly, I really want to experience it properly but I'll leave it for another time), flew to Bangkok in the morning and then straight on to the overnight train to Laos - where it was great to meet and hang out with random fellow travelers over drinks in the bar car. Back in backpacker land!

It was really great to hang out with my little niece who changed so much over the past year, she's 2 1/2 years old and lots of talking going on now. She's also in her 'Terrible Two' phase, saying no a lot and I turned out to be the aim of a lot of it. She would take quite a few opportunities to remind me of the things that I wasn't allowed to do according to her: "Willem, you no! You can't go to the nursery school!" or "Willem you can't go to the restaurant with us, no!" All the while waggling her finger at me and looking all serious. I'd just smile and tell her that's ok, I'm working on my computer and wasn't thinking of going to the nursery school anyways.

There were a couple of things in particular that I thought were amazing. One, I had her play with my iPod Touch and she loved taking videos - actually what she really really loved was watching herself afterwards. Over and over again, of course. It might partly given she's at the phase developing self-awareness - She knows she's her and she's Anahì but still talking about herself at the 3rd person; there is no "I" just yet. It might also be partly because she's a girl and enjoys looking at herself (Did I just say that? Must've been someone else) which she'd maybe take after my sister Saskia who looooves her own reflection. Anyways it's really fascinating to see a kid at that particular stage of development - I don't have children as you may know so it's not something I experience very often.

The second point was with of all this digital technology and in particular photos everywhere, how does it have an influence on the development of memory for children (and everyone else, actually)? So for example, I'd be working on my laptop and Anahì comes to me:
"You working..?"
"Yes" *smiling*
"Writing email?"
"Well, yeah I guess that's what it can be summed up to..."
"Photos..?" *cutey begging voice*
So I'd stop working for a bit and we'd go through photos on my laptop, Facebook mostly. I don't know about you, but I don't remember a single thing from when I was her age. I certainly couldn't name and identify on photos pretty much every single member of close family, extended family and close family friends like she could, every time, without fail. Even people she'd only met once. I think it's incredible. At her age, I also didn't have near as many photos all over the place to look at, so I'm wondering if all our digital content is having a particular impact on memories, perhaps re-enforcing them given we have so many more mementos of past moments than we had before. Or is it the opposite and we'll be forgetting more because there is not need to remember, like with phone numbers?
This is my bro Morgan. Just to prove how much life goes on and on, down and up, and again; the day after Keanu's funeral he learned his partner Virginie is pregnant - so massive congrats, he's going to be a daddy again! Life is mental. They are also moving back to France and he's planning a very exciting new business, starting up a food truck - I've started helping on the plan, more on that some other time.

He had another excellent story  happen while I was there. He teaches at a nursery school and tutors a few kids from the French school (where Virginie teaches).  Anyways, he was with this 9 year old and going over his history lesson. A sentence said that very little precise information about the Gauls was found because it was undecipherable, so most of the records of their culture come from the Romans. The kid didn't understand and asks Morgan about what the word "undecipherable" means. Morgan explains, but the kids looks even more confused. He says "But I don't understand how we wouldn't find their records, why don't they just look it up on Wikipedia or something?" Morgan explained how the Internet was really not old, that wasn't even around when he was a kid so it certainly wasn't when the Romans were. The kid just couldn't believe it, or fathom it, it's taken a stretch of imagination on his part to think about a world without the Internet.

We kind of know intellectually that whole new generations are born with this tech around and it's natural to them but really when you have kind of experience you only get the faintest glimpse of how it actually is for them and it's pretty crazy to try and comprehend. On top of that, I think the education system and curriculums need to change and adapt fast, or else may well have a lot more confused kids like that!

All in all I spent 6 weeks in Vientiane. No sightseeing, just working and enjoying the family, reading, tropical heat and all that. The experience of freelancing, working remotely and not having work when you need it is pretty damn tough, it takes a lot to keep going - certainly a lot of confidence verging on considerable stubbornness and belief that it's possible. And then I also had a moment with my bro and Anahì, sitting on steps looking at the Mekong, enjoying the sunshine while sipping on a banana and mango fruit shake. And those magical moments make it all a worthwhile hundreds of time over. Thanks again for everything bro, love you!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Luxury couchsurfing in the Maldives

I've been thinking of what to write about this trip in the past few days, it was a bit strange given the circumstances. Still, it was pretty damn amazing to visit my brother and spend time with him and his friends / colleagues in the Maldives and have the chance of staying in a luxury resort so rather than trying to find something profoundly meaningful to say about it, I'll just be showing off instead.

It was the first time I landed in an archipelago country and it's a pretty weird feeling to see nothing but the sea around as the plane lands on a landing strip in the middle of the water, with only a few other tiny islands around. The Maldives as a country is made of about 1,190 coral islands grouped in a double chain 26 atolls and spread over 90,000 km2. Most of those islands are only one or two km2 in surface and lie about 1 meter above the sea level. It's pretty crazy to see, and really beautiful if you like the sea.
My brother Björn is the Executif Chef for the Soneva group of resorts and Soneva Fushi is his main base. The island is about 1.2 km long by 800 meters wide or so. It seems small but it's done in such a way that when cycling in the jungle inside it feels much larger. It was my first time in a luxury resort of this level and it was pretty incredible. The place is also special in that it's not the usual luxury (I'm taking their word for it, I don't really know what 'usual' luxury is) in that the island is kept to its natural state as much as possible, it's all sand and dirt, there are chickens and rabbits roaming around, the building are made of reclaimed natural products like old wooden telegraph poles, and everyone walks around bare feet. Their motto is 'No news, no shoes'. I'm always happy to take off my shoes but I kept up with the news.

I loved being able to see both sides of the picture, what the guests see as well as hanging out with the staff , I always like the behind of the scenes.

I slept on my brother's couch for the first week and then had the chance of trying out two different villas for my second week. The bathroom in the first one was bigger than any room I've ever slept in. As you can see, this is a shallow water feature, there's a outdoor shower as well in the back of the bathroom:

The second villa was of the 'Crusoe' style of design on the sunrise side of the island. I had some unexpected work to do, helping a client for a website redesign and social media strategy pitch so it was good to have the office space:

 They strive to be as sustainable as possible and have vegetable patches on the island, growing about 35% of the fruits, herbs and vegetables for the restaurants.

Aside from that pitch work for a few days, I didn't do that much which is part of the whole point of being there, I just enjoyed being on paradise island and that was amazing. I was looking forward to scuba diving though only went once in the end, I wasn't so much in the mood for it. That said, snorkeling on the reef around the island was great enough and saw a bunch of stuff: the usual colourful tropical suspects (clown, angel, butterfly fishies, etc), big moray eels, big sea turtles, lion fish, puffer fish, black tip sharks, titan triggerfish (beware!) and many other types of triggers (Clown, Picasso). I was also lucky to have a dinner at one of the three main restaurants: Fresh in the Garden, which specialises in Maldivian food cooked with vegetables from their gardens and other locally sourced produce. It was absolutely delicious, though sorry I don't have photos of that.

So, if you want to try a luxury resort in The Maldives, having [not] tried most of them I definitely recommend this one - tell me and I'll make sure they take good care of you!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Creating stories (or How I survived the Red Dog Saloon's Hot Wing Challenge)

I love stories and it's a highly discussed theme in the advertising and communication industries these days. Stories are at the heart of how all human beings communicate, learn, and entertain ourselves. Stories and narrative in general are perhaps even more present as social and digital types of media offer even more new ways to tell and publish all kinds of stories (like there weren't enough before). Some brands strive for more people to be talking about them and sharing its stories so they are trying out telling stories longer and/or differently than via a 30 second TV ad, with varying degrees of success.

I've been thinking about stories lately (or more accurately I've been telling stories, practicing) and you basically have two essential ingredients to a great one:

In other words I'd say 'What' and 'How', of course 'who' and other such questions are important but let's keep them aside for now. If we're creating stories, the content is the foundation of a story and it's indissociable from the delivery, how we're going to take that stuff and share it or bring it to the attention of another. The blend of content and delivery is what makes a story great.

Stories are also interesting in that memorable experiences can make great stories and in turn a great story can become a memorable experience of its own. Memorable experiences can also be created and given I prefer practice to theory, here is a story for you:

I was in London a few months ago in February and spent an evening with Adam, one of my best friends at the Red Dog Saloon. It was a Monday night, there was no particular occasion aside from the fact that I was going to leave soon and probably not be back in town for a long time. I learned with interest that the restaurant offers a Hot Wing Challenge: Eat 6 big chicken wings doused in a sauce made with the hottest chili in the world in 10 minutes or less, then wait 5 minutes 'burn time' with no food or drink. If you succeed, you get your photo on the Wall of Fame.

Given I am a fan of Adam Richman of Man v. Food, I had never tried something like that, and most importantly I thought that would make the evening memorable and had the potential to be a great story to tell. Sure a bit of sufferance might have to be paid but what's the price of a good story? Or at least that's the kind of sensible rationalising that went on in my head about it. It could be I'm just a bit crazy. There was not much else going on that quiet Monday evening so I created the entertainment by taking on the challenge.
After consideration and discussing the challenge difficulty level with Adam and the waitress (very difficult apparently, that one time a woman completed the challenge and then immediately ran outside to be sick on the pavement) I decided to go ahead. I was given a responsibility waiver form to sign before the challenge began. The restaurant also wanted to make clear that they were not responsible if all hot wings after these would seem bland and tasteless.
Following Adam Richman's example, I had mentally prepared to try and eat the wings as fast as possible, before the chili burn hit too hard and stop me from eating more. The only sense of flavour I had was for a split second when I had my first bite of wing. After that, it was just burning and my focus on eating as fast as possible.
The heat was so intense I was immediately crying my eyes out,  sweating, and my nose was running. Eating fast also meant I had more sauce smeared all over my face and fingers, meaning more burn surface. My face was a pretty contrasted white and red apparently. Meanwhile Adam was laughing at me, live tweeting the event and taking photos. 'It's hot, it's really really hot' is the only thing I think I said.
My strategy paid off and here you can clearly see the satisfied face of victory. The burning face of a man who ate six hot wings in under three minutes and thus survived the Naga Viper Chili. The waitress was very impressed. She was cute, so that mattered. I, on the other hand, wasn't that cute.
 The five minutes 'burn time' were the longest of my life. My whole face inside and out was burning and  I was just agonising on my seat. Pure mind over matter. I was given a glass of milk when the five minutes were up and never a beverage had tasted so sweet. It felt good and here is my photo on the Wall of Fame for all future challengers to see. About 20 minutes later I was fine, had a milk shake and was having fun with two other friends who had joined while I was doing the challenge. I thought I was sorted and done. Big mistake.
I like spicy food and I never had a hard time digesting chili so the fact that it was possible hadn't occured to me. About 2 hours after the challenge as we were getting ready to leave, I started feeling queezy, quickly paled and suddenly started having cold sweats. Big stomach ache. I talked to the chef who was finishing his shift and he tells me it's normal, it's so strong that it's really tough to digest and it's just going to be extremely painful for most of the night (I later learned that the fresh Naga Viper Chili is strong enough to pull paint off a wall). I've never experienced so much pain in my life, I had trouble walking back to the tube. Obviously Adam was laughing at me all the way. I would've done the same in his place.

I felt much better the morning after. Since then I've been perfecting the telling of the story and I told it to great success to several groups of friends and family. Practice and experience are important parts of the delivery. This blog post is also different way of delivering the content. I have loads more stories for you whenever we meet up, and I've been practicing my own storytelling as well.

And you know what? I don't regret doing it whatsoever. You may not want to try the Red Dog Saloon Hot Wing Challenge, but you will come across other opportunities to create memorable experiences and potentially great stories. Take them, you won't regret it and you might just start developing a different perspective on what good content and delivery are if that's a part of your line of work.