Leaving on a jet plane

A couple of months ago, waiting at a ground floor gate at Schiphol airport for my flight to London, the man next to me turned and said “it really is a miracle, isn’t it?”. As he said this, we were watching our plane taxi towards the glass we were standing behind and come to a perfect stop.

To me, the miracle isn’t that this huge, very heavy metal box manages to stop exactly where it should, but rather that that airplane manages to stay in the sky for hours to take hundreds of people to their destination.

I was reminded of that conversation this morning staring out of the window of a bus on my way to Haarlem, passing by Dutch polders and large parts of the Schiphol territory. Looking outside I see a fleet of KLM planes, planes coming in to land over our heads, planes taxi-ing across the highway to get to their gates. Most people on the bus stared with amazement and maybe some with travel envy to the planes taking off or landing in front of our eyes.

Travel hasn’t lost its appeal or its wonder for me. Being on a plane, well, that part is not my favourite but the idea of travelling to somewhere far away, waking up after a long flight – or preferably, an overnight train – in a new destination is still one of my favourite things.  And I can’t wait for some of the exciting travel coming up in the next few months. Business ánd pleasure.


Changing perspectives

Have you ever thought about how travelling abroad and living abroad has influenced you? Maybe only by becoming more open and curious about the world but it could be much more radical: maybe meeting the love of your life or deciding on a radical career change.

When I was 16, I spent a year in Hobart, Australia. Looking back, that year changed everything. Of course, none of those changes happened immediately after but my life would have been so different if I hadn’t left a small rural village at age 16 to go to the other side of the world, living with a family I didn’t know, going to a completely unfamiliar high school and meeting other exchange students from the rest of the world. Doing this definitely ranks at the top of my best decisions made so far.

During my years at university, I studied and worked abroad again a few times. And of course, I travelled – in Europe, in Asia. I’ve always thought that some time abroad is so good for anyone to experience.

Last Sunday this idea was confirmed again. During Sunday afternoon drinks with my parents’ neighbours, I started talking to one of the neighbour’s daughters: she had recently been to China on a high school exchange.

She had participated in an exchange programme via her high school facilitated by Jialei & Co. I had heard about this organisation before and it was interesting to hear the experiences of a high school student who had participated.

But what I also loved about talking to her was not just to hear about how she perceived China but how her curiosity had increased, and how she now seems more open to try new things. She had only been away for 10 days but had tried things in China she would’ve just refused at home. Sometimes the reason wasn’t only curiosity to try things, but also respect for her hosts: because you don’t refuse to eat something you’ve never tried before but which your host has spent more than an hour preparing in the kitchen.

The result is the same though: discovery. Of new things, new food, new ways of looking at the world. A perspective of the world that doesn’t automatically assume that the way life is where you are at, is the way things are everywhere – or the way they should be. And that’s a lesson no one can take away from you anymore.

The motto that my exchange organisation sent me off to Australia with way back in the ’90s was

It’s not right, it’s not wrong: it’s different.

I can’t tell you how many times since this sentence has popped into my head, wherever I am in the world.

A recipe for a successful work trip

Whenever I travel for work, I try to fit in as many meetings with people or organizations I don’t know in that place, of course focusing on CSR, sustainability and/or business in Asia. This may vary a little with related topics: so in Shanghai I also spoke about social entrepreneurship or when I was in Tokyo I spoke about sustainable urban planning.

It’s a way to find out quickly what topics are relevant in that location or market: after just a few coffee’s the same things start popping up, the same names. Or when they don’t: clearly it’s a broad and diverse topic that I’m exploring.

But one question that comes up when I’m back home is always:

“But, who do you talk to?”

Since another trip is close – even if it’s only two days to London – let me take you along in how I do this.

The reason for next week’s trip is the Global Supply Chains Summit for which I happily received a delegate’s place. The summit focuses especially on how business can deal with trafficking and forced labour in their supply chain. Topics which are complicated, but also tie in nicely to some other things I’ve been doing over the last few weeks such as the SER conference on due diligence and a training on the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business.

London is also a city where there seem to be more things happening when it comes to CSR and sustainability in Asia, so I’m taking the opportunity to spend a little bit longer and fit in a few meetings on these topics.

But how do I find people to talk to, with a limited local network?

The recipe for putting together an interesting work trip consists of various ingredients, such as:

  • social media
    I let people know I’m there via Twitter or LinkedIn:

    Sometimes this works, this time I didn’t really. But social media can be very powerful so I always use it.

  • sensitivity to related news
    Once I know a trip like this is coming up, I automatically become more aware of any news or things that pop that connect to it. So, when a China-related post pops up on the CSR Chicks mailinglist that I’m on (which is very UK-centric and I don’t keep track closely) it gets bookmarked to follow up on when I have time.
  • network
    Of course, I use my existing network: so I contact the agency I met with in Guangzhou that also has a London office, I check with people I know whether they may have suggestions.
  • local events
    I have a look at events that are organized worldwide: Green Drinks, CSR MeetUp – chances are there’s something going on, or this gives leads into further contacts. Turns out: there’s a CSR MeetUp London the night I arrive. Unfortunately, I arrive too late to attend but next time this will definitely be part of my itinerary!
  • coincidence & luck
    Some things are just luck: remember the above UN Guiding Principles training? Two of the participants were from the UK and are based in London.

And really, whether I go to London or somewhere more exotic such as Bangkok, Shanghai or Tokyo: the recipe of pulling together an interesting schedule is always the same.

Added benefit in almost all of these places: being able to mix business and pleasure. I’m looking forward to dinner with a Japanese friend next week as well, of course!

Shanghai favourites

In between my meetings in Shanghai, I managed to find some time to explore the city a bit more. And head back to my favourite shop (in the world, I think). Here are some of my favourites.

shanghai 236 Firstly, Spin Ceramics. I was tipped about this shop last year, and spend over an hour trying to make up my mind what to choose from all the beautiful ceramics they sell here. Bowls or some sort of ceramics is what I usually buy from wherever I travel to as a souvenir, but the things in this shop are just stunning. Beautifully designed, and made in Jingdezhen, a historically famous production site in China for ceramics.

There are of course loads of restaurants in the city, but one that I liked and thought was a bit different was Noodle Bull. This place served homemade noodles, with interesting combinations of flavours (or at least, different from what I know) and …. served in Spin bowls. No surprises why I liked it!

shanghai 226 In my Hong Kong post I mentioned the K11 shopping mall: turns out there is also one in Shanghai! Unfortunately, this one is part of a bigger mall and skyscraper which makes the set-up very confusing. But, the underground floors are very interesting, with some galleries showing contemporary art from Asia and Europe. Very nicely done.

And of course, aside from restaurants and shopping there is no shortage of hotels either in Shanghai. I decided to splurge for my last few nights, as I had become very curious about the URBN Hotel. The hotel opened a few years ago, is carbon-neutral and the interior design consists of all recycled and sustainable materials. It is definitely the best designed hotel I’ve ever stayed in, with spacious rooms designed to be able to relax after a long day. I liked the ‘coziness’ of the hotel: it’s quite small, but with a lovely and quiet courtyard to have breakfast or coffee.

P.S. The picture at the top is taken at the Rockbund Art Museum, and is Li Liao’s installation Consumption.

Destination #3: Guangzhou

Guangzhou. A city I had been to before, but – as mentioned in yesterday’s post – which I hadn’t really seen anything of. This is one of the reasons why I put this city on my itinerary: I was curious to see a bit more of the city which is the capital of the province where so much of the products we use in daily life are manufactured – and which surely brings with it some responsible business issues. And on a practical note, from Hong Kong this makes for an easy entry point to the mainland, as it’s a short and easy 2-hour train ride from Kowloon.

Typhoon Usagi managed to get a little in the way of my plans, though the fact that I mostly got rain on Sunday and an appointment got moved meant that Guangzhou – and my stay – had a lucky escape, considering the news of 25 dead in the coastal regions of Guangdong province.

Despite the rain on Sunday, I managed to get a better idea of the city on Monday. And I have to admit I don’t really quite know what to think yet. The parts I saw were all so different that it is hard to see it all as part of one city: Shamian Island, the CBD, the (quite deserted) area around the Canton Tower, and the area I was staying in which was in between the Canton Tower and a more local area. I don’t see the connections yet, I think.

My hotel was located in the middle of the T.I.T. Creative Industry Zone, which made it a very nice and different place to stay: surrounded by lots of green, in a low-rise building, and in a nice area where the old buildings of a previous textile factory are being renovated into hip fashion shops, design studios, cafe’s etc. Lovely area, but there’s still a lot of work being done and it was fairly quiet (maybe because of the weather). And when I looked online to find out more, I found that this is only one of several creative zones that Guangzhou has established, so clearly the city is trying to bring a strong focus on the creative sector (as many other Chinese cities actually).

My meeting with Impactt was moved to this morning, very interesting to hear their experiences of working for Europeand clients in realising improvements on social issues in local factories (such as wages, overtime, etc). This was just before my flight to Shanghai: my last destination for now, so that makes me feel as if I’m almost done. Except that this is where I will have what promises to be some very interesting meetings, including factory visits, discussion on sustainability with a Dutch MNC and more.

Hong Kong discoveries

Without turning this into a travel blog, I can’t resist sharing some of my discoveries in Hong Kong this past weekend.

I’m not a big shopping fan, and on top of that I’m not a big brands type of shopper: finding those big brands is very easy Hong Kong. It still surprises me that a city can sustain this scale of luxury retail.

hong kong 064

But of course, there are other places as well. One shopping mall that I really enjoyed is K11, a smaller mall that combines art with shopping: there are several art installations set up inside which makes it a fun place to walk around. The shops inside are a combination of well-known brands (lots of sports gear, but also shoes and bags of course). But part of the first floor is devoted to designers with some smaller shops selling really creative and funky clothing, accessories etc. And, don’t miss the amazing book shop on the top floor which has great stationery, office material and – of course – books on design, fashion, photography and an extensive kids section.

Qips is a stationery shop in the Miramar Shopping Centre on Nathan Road (and also on Hoi Ting Road, according to the website): a place to browse all their really smart things to use for paper and more. Of course, they sell many things you never thought you could need at all as great stationery seems to be very hard to find in the Netherlands. Much of the stuff sold here was Japanese, which isn’t surprising. So, if you are looking for quirky post-its, markers or clips, this is a great place to go (also makes for some unusual small give-aways).

Eating and drinking
Apart from shopping, eating & drinking are very easily done in Hong Kong: there’s an abundance of restaurants, cafés, etc. Which also makes it difficult to choose and find some nice places in the midst of all those on offer. My Saturday night was spent at the following places which I all really enjoyed – though be warned that none of these get you into any local Hong Kongese places: the clientele is mostly expat.

Start off your evening with a few glasses of wine, and some people watching, at Staunton’s Wine Bar, nice place just off the escalators on Staunton Street. They serve a pretty wide range of wines.

For dinner, and especially if you are looking for some meat-less options (which I always find difficult in Asia), Life just below Staunton’s Wine Bar is great: an organic and vegetarian café and restaurant, which also does take-out. The restaurant has a roof terrace upstairs, and unusual food options on the menu. I loved the spicy tempeh burger.

And to close off an evening in Hong Kong in style, head to the other side of the river for a cocktail at Ozone, the top floor bar at the Ritz Carlton in the ICC. The view from the 118th floor is simply stunning, from where you look across all of Hong Kong Island.

hong kong 090

Hong Kong is a very easy city to get around, which makes a stay here very comfortable. Some quick tips:
> use the airport express to get in to the city: you can buy a ticket (for around $100) at the counter as soon as you get out of the luggage claim area to avoid the queue at the counter in the main arrivals hall. Trains run every 10 minutes, and reach Kowloon and Hong Kong in about 25 minutes.
> get an octopus card: a travel pass that is charged with money so you swipe your way on to the metro, tram, ferry, bus etc. Supereasy.
> use the tram to travel up and down HK Island and to see a bit of the city at the same time (most trams only travel from East to West so you can’t really go wrong with any of them) and take the Star ferry to cross between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon which is a really nice 15 minute way of travelling (except when you’re in a rush: then the metro beats both of these modes of transportation).

Destination #1: Bangkok

The smell of food on every corner you turn to.

That, for me, is mostly what Bangkok is about. Admittedly, I am not well-travelled across Southeast Asia but you just don’t get quite as many food stalls in Japan or China (but at least more common in China than in Japan). It makes a city feel completely different, with so many more people out on the streets.

Bangkok is my first stop on a bit of a whirlwind trip across Asia. I’ve come to realize that I’m a very very different business traveller than holiday traveller. In the latter, I’m happy staying somewhere cheap, figuring out everything myself, etc. But now, I feel my focus for the next two weeks is the work that I’ve come here to do: making the most of attending the CSR Asia Summit, and building my local networks in China stronger alongside gaining much more knowledge on CSR developments. And I don’t want the distraction of having to find a hotel, or realizing that I’m in a very crappy hotel, or lugging around a suitcase in search of a metro.

Another difference is that if I’d be travelling for a holiday, I’d never cross these distances and spend so little time in each place. At the same time, it also feels good to be doing this as I think I’ll get a much clearer idea of each city and be able to compare each of these four much better. This is, of course, slightly helped by the fact that I’ve been to all of these cities before (though ranging from 14 to 1 year ago) so that means I’m not totally lost in a new place.

It’s been good getting used a little to Bangkok again – which was, in fact, 14 years ago since my last visit. Finally meeting one of my LinkedIn contacts in person for drinks and dinner led to plenty of interesting CSR & Asia topics to talk about. And we tried out a pretty good example of I guess a social enterprise in Bangkok (though it seems to be doing quite well): Cabbages & Condoms. Good food, for a good cause: the man behind these projects is Mechai Viravaidya, a former minister and founder of the Population & Community Development Association (PDA). The association aims to promote family planning through innovative programs and approaches to make the use of contraceptive a less sensitive matter in Thailand. The restaurant is only one way of raising awareness, with proceeds from the restaurant going to PDA’s social projects. Daphne has some more extensive information about the man and his work.