Now this is truly a modern day nomad. Introducing Vulcanus Africanus

Once upon a time, not even 48 hours having returned from a trip state side then getting on a plane again, after wandering around in the sweltering summer heat at the Acropolis, fighting fatigue, I was waiting with a bunch of others attending a Kokkalis Foundation summer school at Athens airport for a bus to take us to Olympia, ancient birth place of the Olympics.

The usual meet and greets were happening when behind me I hear this happy, excited, curious voice say ‘I’m from Turkey.’ Inquisitive Esra pries. We turn out to be living in the same city, attending the same university, our departments next door to one another. Introducing Volkan, aka Volky.

Volky doesn’t look like your Turkish stereotype. He’s tall, auburn hair, fair skin, freckles, speaks English, French, Russian, with enough Arabic to get by. Volky, like us has the urge to move. He just returned from 6.5 months in Morocco, where he was to conduct original research for his Phd, on a topic never covered in Turkey. So Volky, in some ways is a pioneer. He’s a diplomat in some ways too. He’s well informed, well traveled and represents Turkey – its history, culture, political knowledge as well as many foreign service folks I know. We met recently to exchange stories from the past half year. Volky speaks of different worlds. When we get together and compare notes,  all we can do is shake our heads at how easy life is compared to some of our travels, and how simple life is, but most of us, or most of those around us make it unnecessarily complicated, painful even. We are both students of International Relations/Political Science, and despite being good students, good practitioners, all the international efforts, investments and so on, there are large corners of the world untouched. They are far from treaties, far from conventions, projects and indeed progress. Has the world forgotten about them? Do they want the world to stay away? Should they stay the way they are? Here are few glances into that world.

  • On a side trip to Senegal and Gambia through Mauritania, there is a water crossing. One disembarks and crosses a wooden bridge to shore. The bridge is always slippery. Beneath the bridge, crocodiles. Now, one isn’t attacked immediately. Crocodiles close in in about 5 minutes. In that time, crocodile trainers from the other side get into the water to calm the crocodiles down, giving the hapless victim enough time to swim to safety, upon which $100 is paid for the duty. The bridge is purposely kept wet. The trainers thus have an income.
  • In Mauritania Volky decides to wander around town while waiting to pick up his visa to enter Senegal/Gambia. He enters a mosque to find 30-4o Al Qaeda people (yes, seriously) asleep, clutching weapons, holding hand grenades. Volky’s thinking  – ‘you, you guys, you’re the ones we read about right, you guys are the ones behind 9/11 right?’ Then, Murphy’s Law, one wakes up, wakes up all the others. Take a deep breath? Run? Beg? Volky shows his passport, bearing the Crescent Moon, a symbol not just of the Turkish Republic, but Islam also and somehow leaves without interrogation, then runs…

    Understand, then judge if you must

  • There are driving curfews in Mauritania between 6pm-8am because of bandits on the roads. Travelers pull over and tents are set up where they spend the night. With a man he’s befriended, they’re in a tent, with tens of others, eating before sleeping. In Mauritania, you scoop food with your hand, toss it lightly into the air 3 times then lift to drop into your mouth. While chatting, Volky spots a tarantula the size of his hand, right behind his buddy. His buddy has a weak heart and Volky fears, if he should tell him, his buddy wont be able to handle it. Finally, as the spider moves towards his friends head, Volky tells him. His friend turns around, turns pale, swallows hard, nervously, ‘we…we’re used to this.’ Volky is thinking, ‘I have to sleep in this tent tonight and where there’s one, there’s more.’
  • Volky has a scar on his scalp. He tried to take photos in Mauritania and had rocks thrown at him. Taking pictures is banned.
  • He heads to a butcher to buy meat and the meat shown hanging to him is black. Volky argues that the meat must be pink. The vendor counters that the meat Volky wants is the meat he’s being shown. This goes back and forth a few rounds. Finally the butcher approaches the meat and starts swatting around with his hands. The meat is covered with flies and is indeed pink underneath. Volky decides not to have meat that evening.

    We all want the same things in life, really

The next trip for him is South Africa, where he’ll be working in the VIP office for the World Cup. Volky is one of those rare travelers who doesn’t wander to take pictures of every landmark or bright light, to buy the cheap souvenir, to brag or to see how many miles he can clock up. He goes to learn, to accumulate knowledge then to contribute to something better. All he needs is a pat on the back. His intent is honourable. How lamentable it is then, to hear of all the hundreds, maybe thousands of people in his life, a handful appreciate the same values.


First quarter inventory

It’s almost the end of Q1 2010, so in lieu of a New Year’s resolution list, here’s what this nomad has been up to:

I started New Years day flying to Istanbul, then the first work day of the year with a Vespa Ride across one of the Istanbul bridges and running around the city with a bunch of happy, curious Finns. I’m not missing organization meetings at all.

  • Ran 241km+ in less than 3 months over 30 sessions. Not bad considering my physiology was built to be a cyclist. In the process I dropped 3.5kgs. Not bad. This is for the Berlin Half Marathon. I’ve never run one before but was planning to go visit Berlin and this seemed like a nice avenue
  • 3 countries in 3 months – 2 of them new. Iraq called, Australia calls, Brazil calls, Portugal calls, South Africa calls, Spain calls, UK calls…you get the picture…
  • Started this bloggy with contributions from an amazing group of global ladies
  • Learnt how to make tahini (which is 1 cup of toasted sesame seeds to about 1/3 cup of olive oil). Sandwiches are happier.
  • Started studying German. The last time I looked at German was 19 years ago, but thanks to a very good high school education, all the frameworks for learning languages are still there, just needing a good dust-off
  • Discovered the magic of Chopin and Liszt

and of course I met some special fellow nomads. Check ’em out: from India we have Surya, from Finland, Minna and Marlon from South Africa.

Muxlim was kind enough to bring me over to dear Helsinki for a week and here’s what I learnt there:

  • Meetings can actually be productive! They are spaces where decisions are made, ideas are shared and not bogged down in details. Details part are hashed out in workshops or face-to-face so that no-ones time is wasted. Since the NY-UN days, I’d given up that productive meetings could be had (I was with Security there, and that Department was pretty good at moving things along. Perhaps it was because we had an efficient German at the helm, ‘eins zwei eins zwei, build an empire…’etc)
  • The importance of skill set complementarity. Everyone is good at something but there is no use trying to push something forward if the only people telling you you’re good are those who think the same as you do. We all have something to learn from one another and for me it took bringing business savvy folks/web developers/tech dudes/marketing magicians and so on to really appreciate this.
  • Finland is on the top of a lot of social indexes and rightly so. Open office floor plan versus cubicles = more collaboration, better concentration (less distractions) and a pool table thrown in reminds everyone to take time out, and not take themselves too seriously. A huge kitchen table makes lunch what it should be: social, engaging and a restful pause in the day. More on what we can learn from Finland in a later post.
  • The private sector ain’t so bad after all! My political science genes impounded evil corporations but over the last 3 years or so, I’m meeting more and more folks from the private side of the fence who a) care about making a difference versus the bottom line and b) who are making it happen.
  • How fun it is to work in small teams without having to go through pages and months of processes and bureaucracy. Ah so refreshing!

Building business: on the train. Mobile office anyone?

So what next?

  • Well if this half marathon goes well, then why let that all that running go to waste? Eddie Izzard has got me thinking about SportRelief and such. They focus on the UK, but seriously even little actions like running can contribute to a better community, a better world in some way.  Its just about bringing those beams of light together…
  • My partner in excellence, nomadic’ing and taking regular ‘dance’ breaks during the work day Lojo and I are finishing off our bizplan, our website/identity is in the hands of my good, longtime buddy Trevor and we are getting ready to make some big waves. Is it normal for business partners to dream about their inaugural TED talk? Note to self: when Lojo hasn’t drunk coffee for 10 years, its not the best idea to restart with Turkish Coffee. Unless of course you’re ready for literally jumping off the walls, flying off shelf energy…which is fun 😉

and, as always, more to come!

My Nomad is Calling Again…

We often forget that humanity had to be nomad for a very long period before arriving to the present times; we often forget because it’s hard to imagine leaving everything behind again, and again, and yet once more. But deep inside we unconsciously drive for that extra mile, we always want things to be a bit better, to move forward as much as we can…I guess we humans have never stopped being nomads; at least mentally.

But what about those literally modern nomads? Those who seek new sensations, new landscapes, new ways to experience life? Is there space for people like this in a western civilization that continually tells us how to love the things we have? A civilization with so many rooted milestones (studies, job, house, marriage, children… a cute little dog), that as soon as someone decides to leave that path people ask “why?”

Many people have asked me that question: what is it that makes you go? To be honest with you: I have no answer. There is no rational explanation; but I can describe the feeling. A sudden inner pressure that once there keeps growing, and growing, until one day nothing else matters than the next adventure, and you find yourself looking for jobs “anywhere in the world” as long as they are not “here.” Then, without further explanation, one might trade a very well paid job, a wonderful spouse and a brand new TV set for a filthy back pack and a map. Routine becomes a deep grave, and I bet you can find many nomads under medication because they think something is wrong with them.

But I must say that the above is the superficial level. Deep down every erratic being knows what the final motivation of an endless path is: continuous discovery. But the nomad road is not about discovering other places; it’s about discovering your limits. To push you full speed towards your fears; face your true strength and your humanity every single day of your trip. When one feels totally exposed to a world where nobody knows you and is able to survive, It’s hard to feel more alive than that. The downside is that once you try that kind of life there is no turning back…

So here I am, a little person, hearing that inner nomad calling again. Preparing myself to be painfully uprooted once more from people I dearly love in order to continue my journey. Saying bye is never easy, – I’d even say it’s harder every time – although a true nomad knows that there are no goodbyes, in reality they are just shorter or longer “see you later”s. Next stop? Who knows; the call has not been answered yet.

I have no idea where I’ll end up, but of one thing I’m certain: I’m grateful every step of the way, because thanks to my nomad life I have found an amazing “alternative family” on the way that I love very much. That translates into a huge mortgage of gratitude to be paid daily. You see? At the end we are not that different you and me 😉

Taking the Horse to Water

Nomadic is a particularly good way to describe my lifestyle, and if I may presume to be part of a larger demographic, other young urban upwardly-mobile (here we go with the cliches) people worldwide.

We are born in a certain place because that’ s where our parents are ‘from’ – I’ll explain the quotation marks later. We grow up in another place, ‘cos that’s where they get jobs. However, even in that other place, we inhabit yet another world – that of the expatriate. This generally involves a gated community of some sort, some variation on the theme of an American/British/Continental ‘International’ education, usually delivered along Western lines. We then proceed to either spend our childhoods in this kind of community before proceeding for the next logical destination – university in the West; or, we spend a short stint at ‘home’ while our parents emotionally regroup, build a house/buy a property, and make up for the time they ‘lost’ as expats in early parenthood.

Eventually, we graduate from college and head out again – most often to look for work in yet another highly-mobile influx to yet another urban center. Youth, jobs, relationships, promotions, higher education and often marriage and babies follow as automatic milestones. In planning for all of these life-events, we value above all else our mobility – the ability to have the best of all worlds, for ourselves and perhaps even for the children we’re planning on one day having.

Before long we realise we are nomads – or rather, beings in pursuit of greener pastures, horses in pursuit of water. Question is, once we get there, in what ways do we make ourselves drink? This is the central premise of this blog. Join us as we navigate the musings of modern-day nomads such as ourselves.