The year that was and the year that may be . . .

2013 was one of the most difficult professional years I’ve ever had and perhaps the most rewarding personally but no doubt was a year for growing. After the post that started this year I thought it proper to sum up the year that was 2013.

It’s funny, my eldest brother, in talking about our business was comparing growth to his children and how when you are a child, when you grow, you get growing pains. Growing is hard, whether it be in a business, as a person, or in a relationship. It’s not easy to grow, it doesn’t just happen and it certainly isn’t our default way of being.

So why do we grow?

We grow because we need to, we grow because we must evolve and I guess we grow because we just can’t allow ourselves to stay the same. We have a great quote that is on one of our corporate videos that says ‘And the day came when the risk to remain in a tight bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”. For me, at least this year, I fundamentally believe this is true. Not because of any kind of duckling to swan crap, but the thought of staying still or staying the same seems more painful than the idea of being able to grow, to evolve and to become what you believe you can become.

This year hurt, it was frustrating and I haven’t felt so bi-polar in my work environment ever before. I had highs so high that I sensed I was starting to create something on an international scale, something I’ve always dreamt I was capable of. Then I had times and periods where I felt like even getting out of bed in the morning was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do.

But I grew, I grew a lot as a person, in my relationship, with new friends, and in the understanding of Chinese people, their language and their culture. I grew in stature, in self-confidence and my ability to be comfortable with who I am and in my own skin in any situation, whether that’s a product of being out here or whether it’s just perspective that comes with age (at 31 I suppose there’s a long way to go) but I think it’s something that if you know me, you would certainly think I don’t struggle with. Funny the layers and defenses you build to compensate for what you believe to be weaknesses.

2013 was a fantastic year of travel. I am fortunate that I have the opportunity to see amazing places both with work and personally, I’m lucky that I have the greatest partner to share these travel times with and I think it’s important to take these opportunities. As I write this I’m sitting in a tiny wooden old house, in a village in Yunnan China called Shuhe, not a word of English around and the warm homegrown oolong tea nursing my ailing hangover as I listen to the Chinese version of The Eagles Hotel California. This is just one of a million of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in the last year.

I started the year lighting a Thai lantern with my wife (and one or two others) and thinking about the year to come on a beach party in Patong which has been my middle brother’s home for the last few years (he wins at life).

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We went to The Racha to relax for a few days. Braai on our porch, swim overlooking the beach and recharged completely!

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Then the idea of Chinese travel became important and we started with Harbin Ice Festival, and so began the things that blew my mind this year! None though managed to freeze me quite as much! I saw sculptures and cities built out of ice, snow and lights which just blew me away. I got to see a tiger for the first time albeit in a sanctuary. If you want a taste of how incredibly interesting and majestic this time is in this northern city of China, read this!

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Feb was home for a magnificent bachelor’s party and wedding! To go back to the farm to see my family for a little bit of time and to have a very quick catch-up with friends in JHB. Seems like every time I get to go home now, I dont have enough time to give.

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March was back to Thailand for STREAM or what is known as WPPs anti conference and to hang out with my brother for a day!

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I learnt that Chinese New Year dinners are not to be fucked with and when you have to do one with each sales team around the country (in SA that means 5 or 8) in China that means as many as your schedule allows and how long your body can hold out!

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I realized what living in a big city means with my first ever Grand Prix shared with the only F1 expert I know who flew in from SA, and motor show, both of which left me salivating. Then there were a multitude of bits and pieces during this chaotic month that can barely be squeezed in here!

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After April things started to kick into high gear, first to Naked Retreats, the lodge type experience developed by a South African entrepreneur in rural Zhejiang.

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Another bucket list check was Japan for Cherry blossoms. I got to take my wife to stay at two, over 100 year old Ryokans that I’ve been wanting to do for years, being fed traditional 20 course Japanese breakfasts and dinners and walking these magical blossom lined streets and canals. The food, the people, the places just absolutely blew me away. I have to say Japan is one of my favorite places on earth and at this time of year it is something so surreal that you constantly feel like you are walking through a painting of sorts. These few pics cannot begin to explain it, go have a look at all of them!

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Then to Chengdu & to see my first Panda, cuddle the hell out of it for literally a minute (realize that my wife enjoyed that minute with the Panda more than anything I’ve ever seen her enjoy before EVER!) and a Buddha that was a man’s life’s work to carve it out of the side of a mountain! Then a hike and climb up a mountain, literally above the clouds, to see one of the oldest Taoist temples on earth. You cannot truly appreciate the size of this Buddha unless you see it from all sides, here are all the Chengdu pics!

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Cruising down the ancient Yangzi river with two of our best friends was an incredible mid-point of the year, seeing these ancient villages along the bank that have used this river for generations, intermingled with mythical massive modern cities built out of nowhere using new found Chinese riches! There are so many pictures of this story you have to see!

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July was my first time in India to have a bit of exploration time outside of Mumbai. A week or so through the legendary Rajasthan was one of the most rewarding experiences. To see the decadence of kings of the silk road and how the polar opposite of the poorest of the poor survive in tandem, leaving India always fills me with a sense of hope. This trip though hit me with a different meaning and feeling, one that reminded me and scared me about home.

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I decided this year that as I travel so much for work that we are going to mix as much play with it as possible, and the year got a little busy. A pitch in Vietnam was the perfect excuse to sneak up to the Nam Hai in Hoi An for a few days to see what Vietnam was like, the taste got us hooked and with good cause. A lot was was jammed into a very few days – have a look!

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August was again one of those experiences you remember forever, friends flying into China to head to the Qingdao beer festival. Imagine October fest with less alcohol tolerance, the same amount of people but only Chinese, far more arb-ness, less civility and all around absolute fucking mayhem. It was brilliant! To see the full extent of the chaos go here!

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This followed rapidly with the visit of some more great friends and what seemed like the most perfect day in Beijing history to head out of the city and up the wall. The wall is something that impacted me as a kid and I was eager to see if I felt the same. To stand there with my wife and four of my best friends made me feel invincible.

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Staying in an Aman resort that is made from the thousand year old ‘waiting houses’ for people wanting to go see the Empress was magnificent, and a sneak into the Summer Palace before anyone else is allowed in was also incredible, but running around the lake with my (VERY GRUMPY) wife at dawn when the air and lake were perfectly still was a stand out too! It prompted me to write a post about travel and experiencing travel!

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The great thing about China is small breaks all over the place. That, combined with the need to go home for sibling important birthdays, is the cause for interesting holiday locations. The Emirates is not one I would have ever have thought to explored but, in true style, these places were some of the most magnificent I’ve seen. A desert resort in the middle of nowhere in crystal blue water bay!

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Then a tented style Bedouin camp inclusive of camel rides, champagne in the desert and running in the early morning with the falcons being trained overhead, a world away from this world (the post has been sitting waiting to be published for ages)

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I found out what all the fuss is about with Sanya which is considered the Chinese Hawaii, it’s a picture perfect end of the Chinese countryside that makes for pretty good pool villa living!

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Oh yes, after this decadence there was time to sneak home for a birthday bash with the entire fam flying in from all over the place and a few days to head down to Leopard Creek to play golf and chill with some of the family which was the most special few days!

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DSC05905Lastly to get to go to the bush, I’ve written about this place a few times but I literally crave being here. I miss it dearly when I’m away and when you land and go directly to Wild Dog puppies you know you’re in a special place! To spend a few days at Inyati with the entire family is truly priceless!

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Finally in November I got to visit the home of the greatest Chinese food invention ever, and there have been some seriously good ones (and seriously horrific ones) the Xiao long bao, in a tiny water town called Nanxiang.

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Also I got to finally see the Terracotta warriors in Xi’an which I’ve been waiting to see my whole life. Strangely enough the highlight was not the warriors but riding a tandem bike along the 20km ancient city wall and just talking while riding was, for me, my highlight of the trip.

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Lastly a trip to the main Panda base in early December to go work for a day as a volunteer to feed, play with and experience the magnificent Giant Pandas again. That combined with some tiny towns and a 20 course tasting menu in the city that is considered the Gastronomic center of China.

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Well there was one final trip home that started perhaps the hardest stretch of the year. I know I put my body through some tough periods of drinking but pretty much 23 days of travel, year end dinners & sleepless nights took its toll but it was serious fun! Here was the full frightening schedule of those few precious SA days!

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Finally onto this trip we are on now, but I’ll push that into the 2014 folder :)

So just as importantly, what did I learn this year?

I learnt that being away is hard, there are times when you just want to sit in a ball and cry because everything and everyone around you is unfamiliar. I learnt that there is comfort in unfamiliarity and that as time goes by even the most foreign can become most dear.

I learnt that friends can be found anywhere and be of any age if you are open to it and some of the most unlikely friendships can end up being some of the most rewarding.

I learnt that the Chinese will literally drink until they fall over and the old adage of them getting red is very much true, its starts at their faces and when it hits there feet they die! Also after many a dinner I realize they NEVER get hung over, EVER!

I learnt that when you are the head of a business you have to drink with everyone in the room, one by one at a celebratory dinner, this means literally EVERYONE, ONE BY ONE regardless of if you can or cannot and when three women arrive with quarts of beer at the end of the night and you need to down them one at a time, that’s when you realize how tough you need to be.

I learnt that the games that get played at Chinese dinners are the most juvenile, strangest reality show type games but if you are slightly drunk (which you will be) you realize just how into it they get and how much fun they can be but when the game is for one person standing on a chair to drop a piece of bread and the two others standing below need to catch it with their faces, that’s when you start looking around for the TV crew to see if you are being punk’d!

I learnt that when you are hangover and walking through an ancient village getting to meet the 100 year old locals that the best decision you will make is to try their home made wine from their backyard vines.

I learnt I love dumplings in general more than anything on earth and that making them is easier than you would think!

I learnt that living in a 100 year old Chinese lane house in a fairly local neighborhood is an amazing part of life, that braaing in the tiny backyard is as rewarding as anything and that working at my Chinese style desk with the air blowing through the room listening to one of my neighbor’s playing classical piano is beautiful.

I learnt that stay-cations in great hotels are seriously fun and that tasting menus may be my downfall.

I learnt that if you train hard, expect more of your body and try and pace the quantity of decadent food and wine you eat, you will be amazed by the results. Similarly if you fuck around and eat like a piglet you will lose them!

I learnt that great people, both newly acquainted and known forever, make great memories and the place, feeling, and moments merely add to these!

I learnt that every year I’m away I lose a year with my parents and they certainly won’t be around forever. I learnt that while they come visit and I go back, that missing out chunks of being together makes each time leaving my family that much harder.

I learnt that buildings can literally be built to look like Xmas trees!

I learnt that you never stop learning about yourself. That your fears and hopes change continually and if you listen to them, try embracing them, you will be amazed what you can achieve.

I learnt that generally as humans we take the easy way out and we keep within our comfort zones at all costs. We expand to a point and then unless we consciously continue to grow we shrink and our lives and our worlds become smaller and smaller. I learnt that the world has too much to offer and too many things to experience for this ever to be an option.

I learn that when you are apart from people you were close to, some will make the effort to continue the relationship and some wont. These are the times you wonder what relationships really are built to last no matter what the distance and which merely run their course as so many before them do.

What will the year ahead be?

I hate resolutions, I think they are fucking stupid ways of once a year confessing that we are too fat, too unhealthy, to cowardly to quit, break up, express and change, they are a way of, for a split second imagining, that we could change all the things in our life we actually are too scared or too weak to actually change.

I like things that are specific, measurable and therefore achievable. Call me OCD but I like to be able to cross things off a list or learn from why I didn’t achieve them.

So what do I want to do this year?

  1. I want to be in contact with my family more. I mean, we speak a lot, my brothers and I talk at least weekly and my parents maybe every two weeks or so but I want to be the one to call more, too often I’m the one receiving the call.
  2. I want to be more comfortable with myself. I know this is a bit fluffy but it’s one I will be able to feel whether I’m achieving or not. I want to be able to be who I am, in meetings, in social settings without feeling the need to prove or fit in, I want to feel like this ALL THE TIME.
  3. I want to be out of my comfort zone more, I want to make choices that are more difficult than defaulting to staying at home or eating in the hotel. I want to explore more, learn more, travel more and see more! I want to soak up as much as I can as often as I can and even as I write this I know every time I’m faced with a decision where I  know the outcome will leave me in a an anxious place I want to choose it anyway.
  4. I want to be more expressive when I feel emotions about others, when I miss people or think of people or experience something that reminds me of people, I want to tell them as often as possible
  5. I want to be stronger, fitter, leaner and faster. I realized this year that you can push your body a long way but unless you are totally committed you will lose those results. This year I touched the state I want myself to be in a few times but with work, social and in general some poor decisions I slip often. I want to be able to build this into my life without changing who I am or what I love which is to eat and drink! A lot!
  6. I want to live in the moment more. I often find myself feeling guilty for really enjoying something or try planning for the next day, next meal, and next trip without fully appreciating who I’m with or what I’m doing right now.
  7. I want to build a business in China that has roots, that has depth and that has a lasting impression of our culture on the people who work in it. I want my strategy to be implemented over 18 months that will create talent, excellence in our service and develop a brand that has been battling to get traction for years.

When I think of 2013 I think almost of a hippy tie died blanket, a mix of chaos and color, of mess and perfection and general experience. I guess all we can do in the end is live in this moment, enjoy or don’t, but learn from it and that isn’t always easy.

I realize if you have made it to the end of this post you will be wondering why all the rambling was necessary but there are certain times in life and at the end of a year and the precipice of the new one, I think it’s important to reflect on the past and look forward to the future and while I love each and every one of you who read this I am writing it for me, to explain me at age 31 on 1 January 2014 so, forgive me a little.

I wish you all out there a 2014 that is filled with big dreams, big hopes and big wishes. I hope that you achieve some of them and fail at others and enjoy each and every endeavor. I hope that you find someone special to share your life and your days with and if you have that you tell them every day how you feel about them. I hope that you find a passion to explore and a job that challenges you, frustrates you and rewards you. I wish you all a magical 2014!

STM out from Shuhe old town Lijiang, Yunnan, China!