Outsider In Ecuador: Living in a farming community

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

As with every Sunday, we squeeze in to the back of the community milk truck with grannies, children, a dog, urns full of hand-drawn fresh milk, and anything/one else needing transporting to the village.  For the locals, Sunday in Cuellaje was The Main Social Event of the week; for us it was a chance to write home.  Hard to believe the place had internet – when we’d first arrived before moving to the even more remote farm that became our home, we were astounded the village even had electricity!

We bump down the hilly mud paths, giggles and shouts as things and people bounce around and nearly out. Despite the moist and muddy setting, everyone looks at their best, defying the six other days of the week where it’s impossible to be anything but filthy, us included – we spend most of our time running, jumping, climbing trees with the kids from the school I’ve been teaching at and of our host family.

The family we live with are a young cattle farming couple and their two daughters, 8 and 10, doing well for themselves compared to neighbouring farming families struggling to get by with up to 9 children.  The six of us – the family, my travel buddy and I – squeeze into their two bedroom bungalow  which sits at the side of the mud road.  It’s made of breeze block with mostly concrete flooring inside, and a kind of shed attached at the back with a mud floor where food is kept for the animals (and us) and a cooking fire occasionally is occasionally lit.  Normally, though, they use the gas burner in the kitchen – cum dining area cum entrance to the house.

There can only be three other farmhouses within 1km but we can’t see them; just beautiful hilly surroundings.  We are in a bubble of our family, the school, and the odd passerby, dog, visitor.  The only gringo we see is when we tramp the kilometre or so up to the farm owned by Ned, the only native English inhabitant who settled as a farmer and then started the volunteer and eco-toursim project here.  Almost total immersion then, and very much a different way and pace of life…

Daily life

That week I had mostly been:

– dirty. Yes.

– wearing wellies – because of the mud, of course, and rain..

– ..getting rained on – being in a cloud forest means that it’s a pretty wet and humid place and we arrived at the tail end of the wet season.

– riding to school in the mornings on the back of a motorbike with the engine switched off to save petrol as it’s all downhill. Other modes of travel have included the milk truck – of course – or a cattle wagon, for long journeys to the village, horse, mule, quad bike, or just our legs.

– getting up at 6am and going to bed before 9pm. As farmers, our host parents get up at 5am to milk the cows, and get all their work in before it gets dark at 6pm-ish. Being on the equator, these hours of light and dark are the same year round.

– sleeping in a fleece, down jacket and socks. Partly because it was a bit cold but mostly to stop the damn ‘no see-ems’ munching my feet and ankles and arms – tiny little bastard flies that bite A LOT but you NEVER catch them in the act!

– trying to keep out the millions of actual visible flying insects that want to get into the bedroom at night, including a moth the size of a sparrow – not a joke.

– spotting tiny bright black grasshoppers. Hundreds of them, everywhere (except in our bedroom – the only insects that aren’t!). They don’t seem to have the common grass or mud-coloured variety here.

– watching animated barbie films over and over and over… Thanks to living with an 8 and a 10 year old. It’s helping our Spanish though, so..

– ..getting a bit better in Spanish – yay!

– doing the washing up with a child’s sock. It being the preferred implement is somewhat representative of the kitchen situation as a whole – not a sterile aesthetic environment, but one that prioritises the storage and preparation of food, a proportion of which comes from the immediate environment. To be blunt, my old food tech teacher would have kittens over the dirt and grime! We won’t dwell on that side of things, rather, let’s talk about…

..Food

Things I’m getting used to:

– Eating shedloads of rice.

– Eating shedloads of rice and potatoes – now a totally normal combination on a plate. Or rice with any of a seemingly infinite variety of tuber/root/potato vegetable they have here. Still can’t get my head round pasta and potatoes though.

– Using corn for feeding everyone and everything in more ways than my imagination had ever previously stretched to: dry and crunched up with hot milk; ground up into a paste and cooked in its own leaves to make a sweet or savoury cake; toasted and salted; rubbed and boiled so it inflates twice the size; boiled and eaten with fresh cheese; used to feed the pigs; used to feed the chickens…  tons and tons of it.

– Eating fruit that we don’t even have names for.

– Drinking hot fresh milk.

– The new, quieter cockerel as we ate the one that used to wake us up! Bit of shocker when the mum told us he was in the soup we had one evening. I think he was getting on a bit, though. And he really was very noisy.

– Drinking boiled water that tastes like the pot we boil it in. As for the water situation, then…

Personal hygiene

There’s no hot water. None. Not a drop. Water to the house is sourced from the nearby river, and there is no system to heat it so it is Mountain Fresh. I might be going on a bit about the dirt thing but we really are chuffing mucky. Because, of course, it’s not fun having cold showers.  I realise that a warm shower is such a pleasurable thing, and being able to have one every day and be clean, such a privilege. Probably, if only cold water existed in the world, we wouldn’t waste so much of it as the bathing rate would dwindle from every day to every other (or three or four!) days.  Going on from this…

I’ve seen that cleanliness and hygiene, do not – of course! -, have a universal standard. When you work outside in the mud or dust and you get dirty just by stepping out of the shower, and when washing clothes is hand-grinding time-consuming work, what’s the point in making yourself clean too often?  Here, walking down the road you get dirty; sitting down, eating, picking up a bag, you get dirty; boiling a pot of water, YOU GET DIRTY. You may as well keep your clothes on for a few days running, including sleeping in them, and have a shower for special occasions, like Sundays, when you go into the village.

So this is where we find ourselves. Everyone trying to up their Sunday best appearance as we cling to the sides of the milk truck, rattling, rolling and windswept past farms and lush, hilly fields

I’m looking forward to having Cuellaje’s concrete under my feet for a little while, a home-made fruit ice cream, and writing home about all this different wonderfulness.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

Outsider In Ecuador: Volunteer teaching at a rural primary school

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

It was a Thursday when I’d been filling an email to the brim with experiences of volunteering as an English teacher in a primary school in a remote Ecuadorian farming community.  I’m sure things have changed immensely in the five years since I was there but, then, slow slow internet was only available in the main village of Cuellaje; its tentacles had not spread to the farms, one of which we were staying in, dotted around the community, miles apart, separated by hills, mud tracks and very little transport.

Usually our only chance to make it to Cuellaje, and so connect with the outside world, was on a Sunday when we’d head down with our local host farming family – along with every other member of the surrounding communities. This was the day for churchgoing, food shopping, playing a variant of volleyball (very high net, no smashes) and generally hobnobbing in the village in one’s Sunday best. With only four dial-up computers available and a lot of teenagers around, it was also the day for fighting over internet.

On this Thursday, though, the teeny San Antonio primary school was closed. This wasn’t the first occasion that the children had been treated to a no lesson day since my arrival a couple of weeks before, but this time it was owing to a serious meeting. With only 17 children in the primary school, the education supervisors of the parish had deemed three teachers to be one too many, and so all had gone to Cuellaje village to decide who would be moved instead to the secondary school there.

While their fate was being determined, my travel buddy and I opportunistically made the 40min trek into the village on the back of the milk truck – the most regular and reliable form of transport around – so I could write home about my exploits… this time, school life, starting with a caviat:

An unsteady stream of volunteers with dodgy English teaching credentials is the only access to the language these children get.  English has relatively recently become part of the national curriculum in Ecuador, but it takes a long while for teachers’ qualifications to catch up, especially in rural areas.  People like me partaking in what I now see as ‘volontourism‘ doesn’t necessarily improve the situation, and potentially dis-incentivises local governments to train up teachers… still, I found myself there, happily ignorant to these ethical qualms whilst I learnt quite a lot but also felt appreciated by the locals.  (You can judge more here.)

I was teaching three groups of children, roughly divided into the 5 and 6 year olds, 8 and 9 year olds, then the 10 and 11 year olds. The school itself was pretty dilapidated but cheery and it soon felt normal, though it certainly wasn’t by western standards: faded painted concrete walls, broken windows, doors that barely locked, outside toilets and sinks, no playgrounds as such, just an uneven grassy field, and pencil-scribed workbooks to be rubbed out and used again.

None of that seemed to matter, though, as the kids made the best of it all. They were pretty up for learning, especially as I tried mostly to do games. It was a million times easier than teaching moody French teenagers which had been my experience up to that point. They could be a pain in the arse sometimes, of course, but mostly they were hugely entertaining, and wanted to play all the time. They were upbeat and adventurous, grubby and fun-loving like kids should be – even the 11 year olds who could have been pre-pubescent horrors but just weren’t. It inspired a child-like feeling in me again.

On the way home from school it could take anywhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours to walk back because of the many kids we’d have in tow. There were often various stops to scramble up mud banks and climb trees in order to scrounge whatever wild-growing fruit was obtainable. I would mainly stand at the bottom, shouting directions, giving a leg up, and catching things on the way down. Always generous, any of their fruity bounty they would share, from their grubby little hands to ours. I would accept with glee, my heart always won through my stomach… unfortunately, this was a surefire way for my stomach to also win out over my bowels…

In other food matters, before the school day even started we were fuelled with two (!) breakfasts: one at home and one at school with the kids. The latter consisted of a thick porridge-like drink tasting vaguely of banana and called colada, with biscuits and granola. We were also once treated to piglet uterus, which was a first. Like the kids, the teachers often insisted on sharing food with us and, on this occasion, wouldn’t divulge what we were eating until after we’d finished. I felt only a little weird about it.

The teachers were nice and pretty laid back. The volunteer ‘programme’ coordinator, an English guy named Ned who’s ‘gone native’ and become a farmer in the community, was of the opinion that they were “bone idle”. I’d rather believe it’s a cultural difference… although, it is true that, by mid-way through my time volunteering, there had already been the inexplicable days of no classes, and on National Children’s Day we just played games, ate corn and cheese and watched Ice Age

Slightly incomprehensible situations were commonplace in my life there, thanks to the giant culture differences and my not-fast-enough-improving level of Spanish. The now semi-anthropologist in me would have seen this all with quite different eyes but, five years ago, I was an English girl amused by the new oddities and contradictions I felt I was witnessing. And school seemed particularly rife with them.

Sometimes there were rules and timetables for things, other times there weren’t. As far as I could tell, it depended on the mood of the teachers.

Sometimes I’d end up taking one of the classes for an entire morning whilst, for example, the teacher put together a flat-pack cupboard so couldn’t possibly teach at the same time.

Break time could last 10 minutes one day and one hour the next.

Once a whole school lesson consisted of putting cut grass into a big hole in the field. I also believed at one point that the teachers were making the kids do gardening labour for them, but apparently it was part of the curriculum…

Monday at school was, inconsistently, the ‘day of patriotism’. The children were supposed to sing the national anthem, flag waving and hands over hearts. Extremely important for patriotism, it appeared, is having clean fingernails and ears, not wearing wellies and having a clean and folded hanky in your pocket. If not, a bunch of squats was doled out as punishment – for lack of patriotic cleanliness, I can only suppose.

Ultimately, propriety and orderliness were fighting a losing battle against a group of farm kids living on the edge of a cloud forest, where boundaries and time seemed loose. For me, this daily picture somewhat encapsulates it all:

The girls would start off the day, puffed up and pleased, with elaborately plaited and immaculately scraped back hair; the boys would have it combed, parted and plastered down to one side with water, all to stay that way for an hour at most. Their once weekly mother’s-hand-scrubbed uniforms – cold water, brush and soap against stone – stood no chance against their daily antics: they were generally ragged and torn, and increasingly dirty as the week wore on. This image was all topped – or bottomed – off by sock-free feet jammed into unmatching wellies…

The teachers reacted alternately with utter dismay, or total indifference.  And the kids, of course, spent 99% of their time not caring a single blooming jot!  And I adored them all the more for that.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

Outsider In a documentary making competition: It’s edit time

This follows on from my last post detailing the first half of our 36h short documentary making challenge.

It’s Sunday morning and I’m at home, all revved up with nowt to do. I’m well aware that when it comes to editing a documentary you can’t have too many cooks. Maximum two, or you’ll spoil the broth big time, entering into a creative and cooperative nightmare. I am not one of the two, unfortunately, owing to my under-developed editing skills (apparently iMovie don’t cut it), and being slow off the mark to proffer my abode as the edit studio.

My mistake, as I’m finding it difficult to be out of control.  I am ITCHING to tell the story – to stitch together the narrative, to create something worthy of the planning and filming work we’ve put in – and of the subject – our night time food delivery king.  Not having assigned clear roles at the outset or made any one person director means that the final choices come down to the editors.  From my end, at least, our ‘egalitarian easy-going set-up’ could prove flawed now we’re at this point.

At 5pm, team non-edit (friend and I) are at his waiting to receive the first cut to then record some appropriate voice-over.  I am nervous and excited to see it.  When we watch it through, I am… confused and disappointed…  Instantly I start pouring questions out to my friend which he can in no way answer: Where was the footage from this cam, that cam? Where were these bits from the interview?  The story isn’t the one I thought we were telling.  Plus, it doesn’t actually look like a documentary yet.

We watch again and I’m making notes all the while my non-edit partner, a videographer by profession, and well-accustomed to this stage of the process, remains calm.  They have just spent an entire day getting to this point, he reminds me, and they’ve made certain calls – and edits – for a reason.  But, but, I think…

I quickly calm down, and strike through my ‘feedback’ notes.  None of this is mine, despite my claim to ownership as initial idea generator.  It’s a collaborative learning process above all, and I have to put my creative and competitive feelings aside.  As such, friend and I just get on with our end of it: we record an intro and an outro and send it over to the edit team.  We then hop on a train to east London as we’d agreed to join forces for the final touches.

It’s 8pm. We’re in a plush modern flat turned temporary edit studio in Dalston.  There are beautiful views, of which our teammate who rents the place made a lovely time-lapse – it makes it into the credit shot of our film.

We sit down to watch the updated edit that the last three hours of hard work by these guys has produced… and it is SO much better than the 5 o’clock version!  There is a whole variety of shots and footage included now; in a restaurant, Soho at night, weaving shots from the bike through traffic, food close-ups, a title – London’s Night Rider.  Of course it was never going to be just the interview – how stupid of me to have worried that might be the case! The cut of the interview and order of narrative are still not how I thought it would be, but, overall, the doc looks good.

We watch it over a couple of times, make suggestions for final editing, and put together the credits.  It’s after nine when we finally press submit to upload the film to the London Documentary Network competition site.  High fives all round.  Despite our potentially chaotic all in and all hands on approach, and my disappointment at not being part of the edit, it was quite a dream team to work with, and a very enjoyable weekend.  I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, and appreciate all the hard work of my comrades.

Nevertheless, I’ve taken a copy of all the footage in order to create my own version.  It’s amazing how you can tell so many stories with the same footage – it really is all in the edit.

This whole process served up lessons and reminders from start to finish. One, of course, is how people interpret things in very different ways – just looking at the same thing for sure doesn’t mean we’re seeing the same thing.  In filming particularly, I learned that it’s best to designate ONE director, and to be that director if you have a strong vision of the story you wish to tell.  Otherwise play your part and then let it go.  As I’m not sure how well I can handle the latter on an idea I’m passionate about, then the other lesson is to up those editing skills – a surefire way of having a say!

Better get on it, then, the next competition‘s only a few weeks away!

Outsider In a documentary making competition: Get team, make plan, go film

We start in a hidden room behind the back bar of the BFI Southbank.  In feeling, a gentleman’s club or small stately home study-cum-library, with book-lined shelves, leather armchairs and a compact bar.  The small group gathered swells as bodies enter the room bit by bit.

A sticker on my chest tells all present my name.  It also indicates that I have no skills.  That is, no overtly relevant skills for the particular adventure we are about to embark on.  But, I have a secret weapon!  I’ve brought along a friend whose sticker is embellished with little coloured dots denoting all the necessary technical skills – and gear – for the undertaking of the next two days: he has a camera, audio kit, editing software and, crucially, the wherewithal to use it all.

I can’t hang on to his coat-tails entirely, though; I’ve got to prove my worth.  Excitable this morning, and impassioned, I have bubbled into the room and, coloured dot-less as I am, I figure that this is what I need to sell – charm, chat, humour, story-telling, ideas… So I amp it up a notch.  It’s 10am on Saturday but what’s wrong with a little light flirting when trying to complete a team to make a documentary in just 36 hours?

When I had first learned about the Doc in a Day competition organised by the London Documentary Network, I was simply keen to learn the process of making a short factual film from start to finish.  Approaching this weekend, though, I find myself anxiously hoping to get together with a good group, have a great idea and story, and the ability to pull it off.  Basically, I want to make a bloody good documentary.  Consequently, I have slept badly and am not sure that, once I’ve charmed my way onto a team, I’ll actually be able to live up to my promises…

***

Once ‘crewed up’ by 11am, we were given an exceedingly broad theme (in compensation for our exceedingly narrow time constraints) and we started knocking around ideas.  Most crucially, we needed to see who would allow us to make a documentary involving them.  Luckily for me, a very interesting and personable friend agreed to be filmed.  Yes!  First justification for my being part of the team.

A lot of planning, planning, note-taking, mind-mapping, questioning, planning and, by 4pm, it’s looking good and we’re feeling confident.  We think we know our story, our angle, our questions, and we’ve worked out what kit, locations and shots we might need. We go our separate ways to get all the bits and bobs required, agreeing to reconvene at 7pm for filming.

Whilst everyone else is getting lenses, radio mics, extra cameras, lighting kit and more jumpers(!) my arduous task is to get my bike into Central London.  The theme for the doc competition being ‘Movement’ and our subject the founder of a late night food delivery service, we’ve determined to do an interview whilst cycling.  I’m up for doing the interview – handy, as I’m also the only one with a bike (justifications two and three for being a doc team member).

New to cycling in London, I have, however, never taken that bike north of the river from where it and I currently live south east.  I am more than a little bit nervous as I set off.  Plus tired.  Plus thinking about all the questions I have to remember to ask come interview time…

… a looong time later and I’m at Goodge Street wondering what on earth possesses someone to want to spend their night-time cycling around crazy-busy Central London trying to get food as quickly as possible to want-it-now customers!  Another question to add to the list for my interviewee.

GoPro attached to one set of handlebars, my mobile phone-turned-camera sticky-tape and hair-band affixed to another, and lapel-mics in place.  We’re ready for a jaunt around some miraculously quiet back streets making our interview look like a chat whilst on a food delivery.

Maybe it’s because I’m tired. Maybe it’s because my interviewee is somewhat of a pro interviewer (as an ex-TV presenter) and keeps telling me what (not) to do.  In any case, I’m wondering what I’m bringing to this documentary making party – apart from my bike.  I tell myself that it’s ok if all my skills are currently soft – as opposed to hard and techy – but that they can’t be squishy – flaccid.  Basically, I’ve got to be really bloody good at my soft skills – ideas, organisation, research, questions, story crafting, narrative, people, directing etc etc – if I’m going to get anywhere doing this type of stuff.  And I have decided that ‘this type of stuff’ would be a wonderful way to make a living.

… alternatively, I could go and get myself some expensive kit, then I’d be invaluable – at least in this documentary making comp.  I’ve learned that ‘all the gear and no idea’ can totally get you picked for a team!

***

It’s midnight and we’re again going our separate ways.  Despite our ambitious set-up of multi-camera filming and sound recording of two people riding bikes (and my insecurities over my own doc making credentials), it all seems to have gone smoothly.  In our surprisingly egalitarian easy-going set-up, each person took their own role and just got on with it, the odd suggestion chipped in from the other members.  No arguments or artistic spats, no director…

This being the case, whoever can and wants to edit will be taking all the footage home and starting the process tomorrow.  I want but I can’t, the mastering of a professional edit suite on my current to do list.  This stage is all a little bit of a mystery to me and, as the footage goes in one direction and I in another, I feel the documentary slipping away, out of my hands.

Nothing I can do then but to get me and the ideas, images, doubts and questions of the day all swimming round my head back home.  And my bloody bike, of course.  I set off with a slight weariness and a small knot in my stomach – although this time it’s not just about navigating London’s streets on my bike.  TBC.

Outsider In an interview at a famous Baker Street address

In my continued hunt for perfect happiness in my working life(!), I am currently testing the route of ‘portfolio career’, that is juggling several jobs at once.  It seems to suit my inability to commit to any one career path (prospective employers, please read “adaptable, multi-skilled and open-minded”).  More appropriately, perhaps, it offers the variety oh so sought after by me.

This quest leads me, this morning, to an unexpected happy ten minutes in a greasy spoon, thanks to beans on toast and a cuppa for an insignificant £2.90! Opposite Marylebone station, in this ‘proper caff’ – run by Italians but as London as it comes – service is fast and friendly, the clientele pleasingly varied, and the food astonishingly cheap.

But my trip to North West London wasn’t just to watch the world go by from Gino’s Coffee Bar.  I was waiting to go to an interview at “the world’s most famous address” – 221b Baker Street, of course.  Not that this is a real address just as its late 19th and early 20th century tenants, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson were, I regret to reveal, entirely fictional.

Nevertheless, there is a deerstalker shaped space in my heart that he snugly fits into and I had thought, upon stumbling across an advert for positions at the one and only Sherlock Holmes Museum set at the made-up address, that it would perfectly break up the monotony of my primary sitting-at-computer activity.  What could be more antithetical than dressing up in a Victorian maid’s outfit and helping shuffle excited tourists around a teensy terraced house, ram-packed with old artefacts and make-believe?  Nothing!, I hear you cry.  Well then, that’s exactly why I’m here.

I could also – just about – kid myself that this could be filed under ‘arts, heritage and education’ in the career world, and so it sort of fits somehow into what my brain and pride can just about justify as ‘worth doing’, rather than merely ‘a bit of a laugh’ or, even, ‘laughable’…

When I make the move from my new favourite caff to Baker Street it is no hard feat finding the museum, thanks to the already large queue of people outside.  At the front is a young spotty man dressed in a Victorian policeman’s outfit (obviously) and he points me past the gift shop to another small shop-front looking entrance.  I step straight into it to find myself in someone else’s interview: arriving early has backfired as there’s nowhere to wait so I’m ushered straight back out.

Two false starts later and a solid blonde German woman is telling me about the job and asking if I have the required skills.  I patiently give her a verbal run through of my CV, as, curiously, she must have missed the fact that I PATENTLY do from the written version she’s obviously never read.  I think her main concern though is how much of my valuable time I’m willing to give over: the requisite three days I tell her.  All good.  But, I add, no two days back to back due to other work commitments…

Uh oh, wrong thing to say, as I find myself suddenly at the ‘do I have any questions’ for her stage of the interview, and calculating that we can’t be even ten minutes in.  I can almost feel a big fat X hanging over me.  Still I reckon I can erase it and win her over on charm, chat and the common ground of our fondness for the consulting detective…

.. or maybe not.  I am exiting the weird Baker Street shop-front office in the knowledge that I’m unlikely to receive even a cursory phone call or email from them: no news equals no job.  Turns out our solid blonde is not that chatty, nor that big of a Sherlock fan.  Well, I actually am, so I take advantage of her offer to visit the museum gratis (doubtful I’d ever part with £15 to get inside). Recompense for my wasted time, I think, queue-hopping and passing the Victorian policeman again.

My overriding memories of the museum are the narrowness of the staircases, slightly stale rooms stuffed to the garters with era appropriate furnishings and curios, the odd creepy wax work, and a small queue of visitors wishing to briefly warm the chamber-pot with their bottoms.  A lengthy video from the museum website shows you pretty much all of it without needing to visit.

I have a brief chat with a sniffly maid who is ushering visitors into different rooms.  Like 90% of the employees there, she is an actor, making ends meet whilst waiting for auditions and other jobs to come along.  Though she is generally positive about the people, flexibility and pay, I can’t help but find it all a little dispiriting, any enthusiasm I previously had now probably wallowing at the bottom of the aforementioned chamber pot.

I consign this experience to the dustbin and feel the wood and the trees closing in once more.  I read an article* recently to inspire those in a rut or transitional stage in their working lives, which persuasively argued that one should answer the inevitable ‘what do you do?’ question with what you aspire to do. My answer, therefore, is that I am an anthropologically grounded social impact arts, education and sustainable development activist, world travelling, multi-lingual writer and documentary maker.  Who says that can’t be a job?  No?

Bugger it, maybe I’ll just apply for the Foreign Office.  At least civil servant, with its sibilance, slithers off the tongue.

So, conclusion in all of this?  I’m sure finding a career shouldn’t be this complicated.  Plus, cheap baked beans and a good cup of tea – that’s one thing I’d go back to Baker Street for.

*annoyingly I can’t find the article now but it came from these guys.

Outsider In Somerset House: Experiencing co-working at Exchange

My first day

I am already excited as I approach Somerset House.  I enter through one of the west wing doors, past a restaurant that evokes continental terrace dining with some tables set in an indoors-imitating-outdoors passage, and out again into the impressive establishment’s equally impressive courtyard.  I  make my way to Seamen’s Hall, the reception in the south wing, one of my only sure points of reference in this vast estate.

As I wait to be taken to security for my pass – my official Somerset House Exchange co-working space aka this is where I work and will now be a member of the community pass! – I scan the exhibitions currently on: these I will be able to take in on a break, or pre- or post-work.  What a privilege, I think, to be able to treat this magnificent Central London arts and cultural centre as an office.

Pass now in hand, I make my way to the uppermost floor of the House’s south wing and into one of the spaces available for co-working.  I am in a peaceful, forest green room, high-ceilinged and dotted with modern sofas, armchairs, and large wooden tables.  Immense windows flank the room up to which one a small set of steps leads and allows a privileged Thames view.  I experience a small frisson of pleasure.

Before I get down to work I need to locate some necessary facilities and, on my way along a corridor I pass several bags stuffed full of what look like cushions covered in African print fabric.  The bags are labelled for the MOBO awards – Music of Black Origin.  Already I feel I am in a place I want to be.

A Wonderland

The second time I choose to work at Somerset House, I decide against the grand courtyard approach (dancing fountains and ice rink sadly absent at this time of year) in favour of taking a route up the west wing, varying the commute to my new favourite forest green ‘office’.

I enter again from the north-west-ish corner and take a right past Spring the inviting continental-feel restaurant .  Down a long corridor I trot, lined with meeting rooms, or some such, and a second fancy restaurant, Pennethorne’s Café.  Savoury smells waft around me but this is not the moment to test out the extent of my Exchange pass benefits in the eateries of the building; I am taking this variant course to see what new I can discover.  I feel I will not be disappointed as I see a woman further ahead taking photos of a sight elusively out of my eye line.

I reach her spot to find myself facing an installation: sculpted trees from delicate wood and cardboard grow and erupt into chairs, waterwheel paddles, ships and bugs, coloured and lit up in pale aquas.  A uniformed security guard sits, incongruous, beneath the shadows cast.  A sign informs me that the installation, Ulmus Londinium, celebrates “the elm’s relationship with London’s historic built environment, crafts and biodiversity”.  The pleasing associated website reveals the significance of the elm to, and where to find them now in, London.

But I am then quite quickly distracted by an exhibition in the room opposite and I peek in to find exposed pianos, lying on their sides!  I plan to re-investigate all later when sitting in front of my laptop starts wearing thin.  My mission now, though, is to find my way in this unfolding Wonderland maze to my third floor spot with giant windows.

I try my access pass on the first set of doors I come across and – success! – I am through.  I assume I will find my way eventually by trial and error: that my my blippy pass will dictate my path and lead me to my desired destination.  This method proves workable but not entirely efficient as I climb floor after floor to only discover that I am cut off again and again by a series of stubbornly firmly shut doors.

Even so, my frustrating ascent of the grand, Napolean staircase is not without its silver lining as I am accompanied by the sounds of a beautifully-played stringed instrument.  I am enticed, like Alice after the smoke rings of the caterpillar, to the innocuous door number 61 from behind which the music emanates.

I linger awhile, enchanted by the proximity in which I am brought to a whole different world of aural beauty.  A modest laminated sign by the door reads Benjamin Hebbert. Consultant for fine violins, violas, cellos and bows.  Captivated, I imagine, behind the door, days spent floating in the lofty and ethereal sphere of exquisite instruments and sounds; above the mundane, frivolous, bottom-feeding antics of the rest of us where callings are less clear and the meaning of it all blurred, buried or lost to sights, sounds, anxieties and constraints… 

I pull myself away.  I’ve enjoyed my diversions and circuitous meander but I am, unfortunately, here to achieve some kind of job-work.

Down down down in to the labyrinthine more industrial-like bowels of the building I go.  A few turns, dead ends and accessible doors later and I’m sure I’m abso-bloody-lutely lost until I come across a lift claiming to give me access to the upper levels of the south wing.  And sure enough I have the sesame to open up the way (erm, i.e. my pass works to operate the lift) and, sure enough, I find my way again to the peaceful forest green room…

Adventures over for now, I regretfully burrow down into my hole of work, where time unfortunately means money rather than an anxious fantastical white rabbit, late for a date.

A palatable perk

Third day working at Somerset House and I am pleased as bloody punch.  Hunger having overcome me, and my normal working from home routine leaving me unaccustomed to sorting out a packed lunch, I have gathered together my things to head off with no destination in mind but an empty tummy to fill.

Should I cross over the river to grab something on Southbank?  Or wander in a little more centrally?  I only make it a few floors, however, as I’m drawn into the little cafe, Tom’s Deli, on the ground floor of Somerset House’s south wing.

I poke my head in to find an agreeable selection of salads, sarnies, cakes and biscuits.  A friendly server approaches me and it turns out that he will be dishing up my meal and, joy oh joy, he confirms when I wave my pass in front of him that I am entitled to a discount!  It doesn’t just open doors – or refuse entry – it gets me up to 20% off virtually every eatery, drinkery and, I’m hoping, shops, exhibitions and events too.

It’s only a few days in, so I’m sure the novelty will wear thin, but I’m truly enjoying my time as a member of Somerset House and all the perks that I’ll get to test out.  For a different type of co-working environment, look no further.

Outsider In a Guardian Masterclass seminar: How to create a successful blog

I am inside the Guardian offices in Kings Place, Kings Cross, picking my way over the free tea and biscuits laid on as a perk of the Masterclass (six choices of tea-type beverage!).  I cannily deduce that I am in the Guardian’s canteen and take my (first round of) refreshments to a seat where I enjoy a pleasant canal view, boats of all colours, sizes and conditions berthed along the water’s edge.  Not a bad spot.  Away from the tea, biscuits and view, I allow a tiny moment of wonder at being in the offices of the journalistic powerhouse that is the Guardian newspaper

My fellow Masterclassees begin to arrive, the first appearing to be at least 20 years my senior.  I am pleasantly surprised, half having expected many a young, vlogger type, and as the influx of people increases, so do the variety of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and shapes and sizes, with an even spread across the sexes.

The mood is friendly.  I suspect that part of creating a successful blog starts with networking and generally being agreeable.  This in mind, and also wishing to exchange stories with people in similar-ish boats, I strike up conversation.

Around me I discover: a charming Catalan cooking blog, with recipes that take me back to my time living in Barcelona; an ‘old granny’ (her words) taking a, so far short, journey back into the past; a consulting site looking partly to help out tech un-savvy buggers like me; and a German expat about to embark on a new life in, and blog on, the South of France.

So all here to learn the secrets behind ‘how to create a successful blog’, we are nonetheless at very varied stages in our blogging lives.  My fledgling Outsider In flaps around somewhere in the middle.

When called for the Masterclass to begin, we file with our tea, biscuits and chatter, into a seminar room where the 50 or so of us take seat facing a small stage, powerpoint already projected.  Pens and notebooks poised, we are ready to take in how our blogs could take off like those of the two professional bloggers here to speak today.

Three hours and another tea session later, my head is awhirl from a friendly and extremely useful barrage of information on how you can make your blog your livelihood.  Whilst all still fresh in the mind, and before I am surely to be ejected from the Guardian HQ glass fortress, I gather myself into a garish vaguely lip-shaped chair in the foyer and put pen to paper…

Professional bloggers and their tips

Our first speaker, Niamh, creator of Eat like a Girl was buoyant with passion and a love of her blog themes.  Sharing her story of miserable employee in the science sector to professional food and travel blogger, she was encouraging and entertaining and impressed upon us the importance of remaining ethical when making mulah from your blog.

Three things that stood out:

  • Humans are storytellers.  And bloggers are just storytellers in an internet age.  Ergo, blogging is not just self-aggrandising, arrogant and egocentric, it’s actually just normal human behaviour.  So there.  (I’m sticking to that.)
  • Be friendly, community-minded and social – even if this takes place primarily in the virtual world.  Reading other blogs, liking, commenting, linking, collaborating, promoting, sharing, responding and USING SOCIAL MEDIA, all get your blog to readers and readers to your blog.
  • Do not compromise content to generate income, and be transparent.  By having sponsored posts that don’t fit your usual style or content, you are not remaining true to you or your blog and you alienate your readers.

Our second speaker, Julie, is an American expat based in London and creator of the travel and lifestyle blog A Lady in London.  Banking professional turned blogging professional, with a seriously dedicated can-do attitude, she gave step by step building block advice crucial to laying the foundations of any successful blog.

Three important bits:

  • Time and consistency.  It may be no surprise but to maintain a blog takes time and it needs to be regular!  Julie used to get up half an hour early each morning before work to fit in blogging, and she now makes sure she blogs on the same two days each week.  Blimey, I better get a shifty on.
  • In the blogging world, 300+ word posts are considered long reads!!  And paragraphs are best kept to 3-4 lines.  Possibly need to work on my editing then…
  • Give your readers somewhere to go: at the end of a post, make commenting or sharing easy; suggest another post to read; have social media buttons for further connecting; have a search box for readers to find content etc.  Oh, how woefully inadequate my blog still is on these fronts!

Finally, two things they both emphasised to never EVER forget if you want to be a successful blogger:

  • Content reigns supreme!  Above and beyond anything else.  Substance over style (social media wizardry and search engine optimisation) every time.
  • Once you’ve got that down, though, Google and social media will be your constant companions, love or loathe ’em.  Bum.

Should I follow these pearls then Outsider In will be a showcase in transformation over the next months – although professional blogging was never the initial intention when I started.  What lead me to this point was an idle moment over the Christmas holidays, and an email alert from Guardian Masterclass, informing me of a discount on their vast array of career-, life- or creativity-boosting seminars.  A few clicks and £37.24 later and here I am.

If, however, I don’t decide that ‘monetising’ my blog is the way for me, then at least I have found myself in an attractive spot in London, on a sunny Sunday lunchtime with an open mind and a fresh experience under my belt.  I’ll have walked away with two (!) free papers and the ability to forever picture where the Guardian comes together.  Oh, and I also have this blog post, which may actually now be read by one or two of my fellow amateur bloggers!

Conclusions?  Impressed by the calibre of the Guardian Masterclass, I’d definitely sign up for another.  Professional blogging itself?  Watch this space.  Literally.