Our Iceberg is Melting

This story seems heart-warming on the surface, but it has an undercurrent that left me feeling quite chilled.

By John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber

Book coverI’ve been picking motivational books up in charity shops again.

This one’s a fable along the lines of ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ only instead of mice this stars penguins. Continue reading “Our Iceberg is Melting”

My Purpose

Defining my purpose in life

A couple of weeks ago I determined my unique combination of skills and experiences and came up with 5 bullet points to highlight this combination. I then took it a step further and identified 5 key descriptors which give a very condensed overview of who I am and what I do.

Brand You cover pageThis was taken from one of the exercises in a book I stumbled across in Oxfam and have been finding really useful. The book, ‘Brand You’ by John Purkiss and David Royston-Lee, is a step-by-step guide to determining your own unique skills and experiences and developing these into a coherent and easily identifiable personal brand.

I read through the book pretty quickly, but over the last few weeks I’ve been going back through it more slowly, completing the exercises as I go.

I’ve already identified my talents, values and unique combination and feel like I’m gaining clarity with where I want to go with my blog, website and life as a whole. I already had a pretty good idea about this, but the book is helping me articulate it and give me a clearer focus.

This week I’ve been thinking about my purpose. As the authors say,

‘A sense of purpose helps you focus your efforts, making your life meaningful and enjoyable’.

I can’t argue with that!

If I’m clear on my purpose it will be easier to communicate who I am and what I do to others. If others understand what I’m about right from the beginning, those that don’t like what I do or the way that I do it will weed themselves out, leaving me with the people who will support and encourage me.

The book stresses the importance of differentiating between goals and purpose. Your goals are not your purpose.

Goals are short-term motivators; once they are achieved you need to make new ones. Your purpose, on the other hand, is limitless; it’s the way you want to live your life. Goals are still good, but as a means of working towards your purpose rather than as an end in themselves.

Purpose pyramidThe authors use a diagram of a pyramid to illustrate how your aim, goals, plans and tasks cascade down from your purpose. Always start with the purpose at the top as it’s only once you know this that you can start to identify aims, set goals, make plans and complete tasks. And it’s always in this order.

The example given in the book is of someone whose purpose is to improve people’s health. As a way of working towards this purpose they aim to cure sick people. Ways of doing this include qualifying as a doctor and writing a book; these are the goals. Plans to achieve these goals could be going to medical school and gaining writing experience. Tasks could be passing exams, carrying out research, making notes, washing hands between patients and applying for student loans.

Following this example, I put together my own version of the purpose pyramid.

Personal purpose pyramid

The wording may need some tweaking, but on the whole I’m quite happy with it. And the path I’m on is becoming a lot clearer.

What’s your purpose in life? Do you think infographics like this are useful?

My Unique Combination

Identifying my unique combination and determining 5 key descriptors which would look good on a business card.

Brand You cover pageI’ve been reading more of ‘Brand You‘ by John Purkiss and David Royston-Lee. In the first part I completed the exercises and identified my ‘talents’ and ‘values’.

If I want to be successful with my blog and have it lead to bigger things, I need a ‘brand’ – this might sound like I’m turning myself into a box of cornflakes or a particular type of phone that may or may not be named after a fruit, but really it just means that there will be certain things people automatically associate with me. I have to ensure that these are the right things as well as making sure the association happens in the first place.

My talents and values alone won’t provide me with a ready-made brand. Lots of people will share particular skills and beliefs with me; what makes me different is the combination of these. It’s very unlikely anyone else will have exactly the same combination making my combination unique.

It’s from this unique combination that I can build my brand.

Each of my areas of skill and experience can be developed in many different ways. The way I develop these and inter-link them is something that should be unique to me.

For example, I listed ‘budgeting’ as one of my talents. My skill with budgets could lead me to careers in accountancy, book-keeping or even debt advice. Instead I use this skill to plan expeditions and adventures in life whether they be a year wandering through Africa or a decade spent renovating an old house.

This use of my skill serves me well when it comes to feeding my wanderlust habit and working towards my desire to live a life less boring.

My unique combination may seem obvious to me and serve me well, but if I want to develop a lifestyle where I can help other people achieve the same, I need to do more than just understand my abilities. I have to clearly understand how I can use them to benefit others.

The exercise relevant to this in the book instructed me to think of 4-6 ways other people might describe me and then to condense these into bullet point soundbites.

Each bullet point needs to be quantifiable, measurable and objective. It’s no good saying I’ve travelled a lot – a lot of travel to some people could be a 2 week package holiday each year, whereas others might not consider anything less than visiting over half the countries in the world and spending a least a month in each to be well-travelled.

Here are the 5 bullet points I came up with:

  • Travelled and worked globally for over 30 years across 5 continents.
  • Outdoor enthusiast and long-distance walker covering terrains as diverse as the central African rainforest and the Swedish Arctic.
  • Social Anthropologist with MA from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies).
  • Qualified teacher with in-depth knowledge of how people learn developed through having taught a wide range of academic and vocational subjects to students of all ages from early years to university level.
  • Blogger for 5 years across several platforms.

When I see my life condensed into five bullet points like this, I can immediately see how my skills and experiences can feed into the lifestyle I want to develop for myself in the future. This leads me to my next lesson from the book: My Purpose. But that can be a whole post in itself.

Reflecting on my bullet points, five key descriptors jump to mind and I think they describe me pretty well.


What descriptors would you use to describe yourself?


Defining my Values

My first steps towards developing my personal brand.

Brand You cover pageDuring a visit to my local Oxfam recently, one book in particular called me to it. A quick flick through the pages and I knew it was a book I needed to buy.

Brand You by John Purkiss and David Royston-Lee is an easy read interspersed with exercises to get you thinking about how to brand yourself.

Everyone and everything seems to have a brand these days and if I’m planning to be even half serious with my website then I need one too.

The book got me thinking about the nitty-gritty of developing a brand.

A brand has to be authentic – it’ll be hard to pull off and maintain if it’s not. I don’t want to get part way down the line and be revealed as a fraud, so staying true to myself and my beliefs is important.

But how do I really know what is the authentic me?

To start thinking about what is authentic you first have to identify your talents and values. Talents are things you are good at, skills you were born with, the sorts of things others might say ‘you are a natural’ at. Your values are the things you believe in and stand for.

If your brand is authentic it will be easy for people to know what you do and what you stand for. The authors point out that not everyone will like what you do or what you stand for, but others will. If your brand is clearly defined then it will be easy for people to decide if they like you or not. Making it easy means you can quickly forge better relationships with those who are favourable to you and your brand whilst not wasting time with those who don’t like what you do and never will.

Once you have a brand you have to think of it in two dimensions – reputation and reach.

To be successful you need a good reputation. This seems obvious, but won’t do you much good if hardly anyone knows about it. So hand-in-hand with your good reputation you need to be reaching an awful lot of people.

Ultimately your brand should turn you into a commodity so you stand out from the crowd and people want to work with you. They may even pay a premium just because it’s you.

My talents

For the first exercise I had to think about seven high points in my life and identify the talents I was using at these times. I then had to think about which talents I enjoy using the most and in which kinds of situation and with which kinds of people.

When I boiled everything down I came out with a list of talents I employ most frequently, feel successful when I use and gain the most energy from.

The talents I identified are:

  • planning
  • learning
  • writing/blogging
  • goal setting/achieving
  • confidence
  • adapting/being flexible
  • budgeting

I also felt that determination and perseverance have been important factors in my past achievements and high points, but didn’t think these really counted as ‘talents’.

My values

Next I moved on to my values and started by making list of 20 people I admire. The list could include people I know personally as well as people who are well-known. Next to their names I wrote what it was that I admired about them.

By analysing what it is I admire in others I could begin to see what values are most important to me.

I realised that my values can be classed under three key words: caring, achieving and doing.


I care about others. I’m a socialist and believe deeply in fairness and justice for all. I also care about the world around me; the natural and cultural environments, animals and wildlife. I care about myself too; I aim to live a lifestyle that is healthy for both my mind and body. I care about my beliefs and think it is important to cast aside fears and stand up and speak out for what you believe in. I don’t always live up to own beliefs, but on the whole I think I do pretty well.


I constantly set myself goals and targets. These are always for things that are important to me, that interest me and that I want to achieve. I don’t see the point otherwise. Achieving goals, dreams, ambitions or whatever you want to call them, takes passion, confidence, determination, perseverance and self-belief. I’m constantly working towards them, planning, adapting when necessary and never giving up. Aiming to achieve, aiming for the best I can be is important enough to me for me to consider it a key value.


I hate feeling like I’m stuck in a rut. If I find myself getting bogged down in one, I quickly start going stir-crazy and behaving quite irrationally. I only have one life and it’s far too precious to waste trying to live inside a predetermined box, particularly one someone else has designed the parameters for. I want to live a life full of variety and I want to live it on my own terms. Hence it’s important to me to be constantly learning and experiencing new things, visiting new places, trying new foods, meeting new people. A life of ‘doing’ is a life I’m involved with rather than a life I’m watching pass me by.

So, there it is. My talents and values identified and the first steps taken towards developing my brand.

And I’ve still got a lot more of the book to read.

Dealing with Change Resiliently

Resilience, rather than resistance, to change leads to a happier, healthier and more interesting life.

The school I’m currently working at recently hosted a workshop on ‘Resilience’ as part of a training day. This particular workshop was run by a lady called Pauline from a company called ‘Sticky Change’.

The idea was to get us thinking about change and how we react to it and deal with it.

Are we excited by change or do we feel threatened by it? Or excited and intimidated by it at the same time?

Change is inevitable and of course can be good for us – ever heard the saying ‘a change is as good as a rest’?

Of course change can have a huge impact on our life and wellbeing no matter what type of change it is. What is important though is to realise that the change itself doesn’t affect us nearly so much as the way we react to it and deal with it.

Pauline got us to think about a scenario in which we approach the coffee machine and two colleagues who are standing by it in deep conversation, go quiet as we approach. What is the story we make up in our head to go with this scenario?

Some people suggested it may have been a private conversation about something too personal to share. They would shrug and carry on and think no more about it.

Others thought the two colleagues must be talking about them and out of these some thought they must obviously be discussing something bad and so they would immediately feel uncomfortable, defensive, concerned and upset.

The remaining few assumed they must be planning something nice like a surprise party and so would feel happy and appreciated.

Our reactions to change are the same. Do we find out about a change, say ‘whatever’ and go with the flow? Or do we immediately assume the worst case scenario, fight against it and let it fill us with negative emotions?

Or then again, do we see it as something we can use our advantage? Something that will have a positive impact on our lives?

Obviously having a positive mindset and looking for the pros rather than the cons is the healthy approach. We will feel happier and more in control and thus our our mental health and overall wellbeing will get a boost rather than a kicking.

Thinking this through, I can see that even if you really don’t like the changes that are happening, there can still be a positive side because you might need that kicking to get out of a rut and go find something better whether that be a new job, a whole new career, returning to study, taking a gap year to travel the world or something else entirely.

Some of the best things I’ve done in life have only happened because something else changed in a way I didn’t like.

When we get anxious about something our bodies experience a chemical reaction that gears us up to fight or flight. Successful and calm people are aware of this happening when they first feel that rush of adrenaline and say ‘Stop!’ Ensuring you’re in control of yourself like this puts you in control of the situation.

If you’re going to run away or pretend it isn’t happening (flight) or get all angry and worked up about it (fight), you probably aren’t going to achieve much and will just set yourself off on a downward spiral.

Staying in control means you can think the situation through and identify which is the most advantageous path for you take.

I wasn’t happy with changes that were made to the part-time job I had when I was a student. I worked out my finances and realised that rather than looking for another job, I could afford to give up work and focus more fully on the final half year of my degree.

It also meant I had to time to do a computer course I’d been wanting to do, but couldn’t because I couldn’t afford the time and it clashed with my working hours anyway. That computer course led to a temporary teaching job at the college a few hours a week. I ended up working again, but a lot less hours and for more money, whilst getting a free qualification and some really good teaching experience.

So that change, which had seemed so bad it had me evaluating everything, was actually a really good thing for me. It kicked me off the path of a dead-end job and onto one that was much more beneficial in many ways. I earned more money, had more time to focus on my degree, gained additional qualifications and got relevant work experience.

During the latter part of the workshop, Pauline referred to Stephen Covey’s book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘. In his book he talks about how the things we can control sit at the centre of a metaphorical circle. This is our circle of control. A ring around the outside of this central circle is our circle of influence and an outer ring is our circle or concern.

Our circle of control contains all the things within our control – we can make decisions about them and act on them.

Our circle of influence contains things we can’t control, but might be able to influence in some way, e.g. by giving an opinion – by engaging in discussion we might influence the person with the control so much that they change to our way of thinking.

Finally, our circle of concern includes all the things we have no control or influence over whatsoever. Like an apple falling from a tree or the sun shining these are things that are going to happen.

Unfortunately, the circle of concern is often where we spend the most time – worrying about things that we have no control over. Staying here wastes our own time and that of others and never gets us anywhere anyway.

If we jump back to the circles of control and influence we can think of solutions that may make the situation in the circle of concern less important or go some way to resolving it. If it is raining, we can’t stop it, but we can take an umbrella or switch activities around so we don’t have to go out in it.

So, my lessons learned from this workshop are:

  • Change is going to happen no matter what – what’s important isn’t the change, but how we deal with it.
  • Having a positive mindset and looking for the pros rather than the cons will help us deal with change whilst boosting out mental wellbeing.
  • Don’t waste time focussing on the things we have no control or influence over – instead look for solutions by focussing on what you can control or influence.
  • Building resilience to change by learning how to deal with it positively leads to less wasted time, less stress and a happier, healthier and more interesting life.



Who Moved My Cheese?

What would you do, if you weren’t afraid?

By Dr Spencer Johnson

book coverI put this on my Amazon wishlist recently as I’d read good reviews of it. Lo and behold, the very next time I went into a charity shop, there it was sitting on the shelf. Of course I had to buy it.

I was quite surprised by how thin it is. And it has quite a big font size. And a lot of the pages are simple illustrations (of a piece of a cheese with a slogan written on it). And some of the pages are taken up with the foreword, reviews, an ‘about the author’ page … you get the picture.

The actual Who Moved My Cheese? part of the book only runs for just over 70 pages and just over 50 if you don’t count the pages that are illustrations rather than text. The pro sides to this are that I read it in about an hour and it’ll be easy to go back to for a top-up of motivation.

Who Moved My Cheese? is a modern day fable. The story is split into three parts: the first part has a group of school friends meeting for a reunion years after leaving school and getting into a discussion about the changes in their lives and how they have dealt with them; the second part consists of the fable itself – one of the friends tells it to the others; the third part returns to the group and reveals their reactions to the fable.

The fable has four characters, each of whom are meant to represent one part of ourselves and the way we react to change.

Sniff and Scurry are mice – Sniff sniffs out change early and Scurry scurries into action to react to change.

Hem and Haw are the ‘little people’ – Hem is afraid of change and lives in denial, whereas Haw takes his time, but eventually realises that change can be good and reacts accordingly.

The four characters live in a maze in which they one day discover a cheese mountain. There is so much cheese they know they are set up for life and move their families and homes to be close by; they build their lives around the cheese knowing the cheese will always be there for them.

Of course, the inevitable happens and one day the cheese mountain is depleted.

Sniff and Scurry react best. Sniff has realised for a while that change is in the air and has already been exploring new possibilities in the maze. Scurry is not far behind him; once the cheese is gone, he doesn’t waste time and gets his running shoes on and is off back into the maze to seek out new opportunities.

The little people don’t adapt to change so well. Although Haw eventually realises the cheese is gone for good and goes back into the maze, it does take him a while. One he starts looking for new opportunities he realises that although it may be difficult he finds enough cheese to sustain him until it all becomes worthwhile and he finds a new and even better cheese mountain.

Hem, on the other hand, doesn’t adapt at all and continues to live in denial, watching his life fall apart around him. He can’t understand why it has happened to him – he’s always been loyal to the cheese; always worked hard spending all day, every day eating the cheese, why should it suddenly abandon him like this?

Of course, the fable relates to modern lives and corporate culture. There’s no such thing as a job for life anymore (and frankly, why would you want to do the same job for your entire working life anyway?) and good things come to those who can adapt. They come even more quickly to those who keep one eye on the future and don’t become too complacent; those who are prepared to leap long before they are pushed.

To be successful in life we need to be like Sniff and Scurry, though for most people it’s far too easy to end up like Hem and Haw. Even if we don’t intend it, it’s all too easy to find ourselves becoming enmeshed in the safety net of our jobs and salaries and of the familiarity of the routine. That safety net becomes more restrictive as we settle deeper into it and pull it ever more tightly around us.

When the safety net is pulled away we are left floundering.

I didn’t learn anything new from Who Moved My Cheese? I’ve always felt restricted by safety nets. Although the security can provide a nice warm feeling to start with, it’s never long before I start feeling shackled rather than safe. I’ve always felt safer standing on my own two feet than relying on someone else for my cheese.

Even so, I know how sneaky those safety nets can be. One minute you’re thinking, ‘I’ll do this job for x months until I achieve y and then I’ll be gone’ and before you know it you’re worried about pensions, annual reviews, targets, promotions, benefits … the spider has well and truly spun its web and it’s too daunting to even think about extricating yourself.

I might not have learnt anything new from Who Moved My Cheese? but I enjoyed the way a belief that has always rumbled around the back of my mind has been worded so succinctly and in such a regaling way. I felt the clarity flooding my mind with light as I read it and finished the book feeling my path of ditching my job and wanting to do things my way has been affirmed.

When people doubt me in future, I’ll direct them to read Who Moved My Cheese? as Spencer Johnson has articulated my philosophy on life better than I ever could myself.

If you don’t have time to spare an hour to read the book, here’s a 15 minute animated version I found on YouTube.

Goalless Walking

My time in the wilderness has taught me that the goal of not having a goal can be the best goal to have.

I mentioned previously that my long walk in Sweden had given me a new mindset on walking. So, what would that be then?

In the past I’ve always seen a walk as a kind of challenge: a list of places to be ticked off; a certain time to get somewhere; a set-in-stone quota of miles to be covered. This hasn’t been something I’ve done consciously as my main reason for walking has always been that it’s something I enjoy. But because I do enjoy my walks, I’ve always found it easy to get distracted. I’ll sit and gaze at an idyllic view for twenty minutes, then spend another ten minutes trying to take a perfect photograph of a leaf. Add in distractions like tea-rooms, old churches or obscure little museums and my walk can easily take twice as long as it’s ‘supposed’ to. Although I finish my walk happy, I’ll have a little niggle at the back of my mind telling me that I haven’t done well enough. On the other hand, when I have to rush to finish the walk to make sure I’m in time for the last bus or that the gates on the car park aren’t locked, then I don’t feel so happy. I feel like I’ve missed out.

It should be obvious really shouldn’t it? That I should walk with the intention of doing what I want, when I want and enjoying myself rather than trying to achieve some self-imposed target. However, it took a long walk in the Arctic with plenty of thinking time for me to figure this out. 

At first I was concerned that I wasn’t putting enough miles in each day; that I was starting too late in the morning; that I was taking too many gorgeous-view breaks. I justified it by telling myself I’d never be here again. If I don’t absorb the view fully, or camp at that amazing spot by the waterfall and enjoy pottering around in the sun the next morning, I’ll never get another chance. In the Peak District, I can always nip back for another look. In Swedish Lapland? Not so easy. Not when I have to take a plane, then a very long train journey, then a bus ride of several hours to the end of the nearest road, and then walk for a few days to get there. It’s easier to come back and walk a part of the trail I haven’t touched on, than it is to go back to the sections I’ve already walked just to see a bit here and a bit there because I rushed it first time round.

Once these thoughts started to sink in I began to relax and enjoy myself a lot more. I was learning to stop feeling guilty about something that there was no reason to feel guilty about anyway. I met lots of Swedish people, including some quite young ones. Although some were rushing along with only a few days to complete a long section of the trail, others were enjoying moving slowly and making the most of their time spent in the wilderness. Rather than rushing from target to target, their goal was to find a nice campsite, cook some good food and chill.

Swedes seem to have a different attitude to the great outdoors. From an early age, it’s quite normal to spend time walking, carrying a pack, wild camping and jumping in rivers for a wash. Have you ever tried walking with a five-year-old? If so, you’ll know how long it can take to even get a few hundred metres down the road. Everything is fascinating to them. They have to turn every stone, pick up every stick and sometimes sample every worm. Give them a backpack to carry and the chance of finding bits of reindeer antler in the stream beds and you’ve no chance of getting very far. This is fine. The point of the trip isn’t to walk a long way, but to enjoy being in the wilderness.

Once they hit their teens they’re chomping at the bit to get out there with their mates. No grown-ups allowed. And you know what? The grown-ups are fine with this. They walk a bit further than when they were younger, but still seem to get far more out of ‘just being there’ than they do for breaking records of distance or speed walked.

As adults, the annual trip to the wilderness is a time to de-stress away from busy lives in Stockholm or other cities. It’s quality time with family and friends, or time to be perfectly alone with no-one else to worry about. Yes they have targets; goals they want to achieve, but the targets are not the main reason for being there. 

So why do I always have this feeling of needing to achieve a goal? Is it a general British attitude to walking? There’s no point doing it unless you’re going to achieve something? I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. Is it because we don’t have any ‘real’ wilderness to spend days alone in? Even the remotest parts of Scotland are not that far from civilisation. I could have driven to the Highlands three times in the time it took just for the train journey from Stockholm to Lapland. Does this mean we never really shed our city feelings of targets, goals and everything at a specific time? Is it because walking is an ‘adult’ pastime and so we never have the opportunity to learn lessons from five-year-olds about the joy of going slowly? I know some Brits will take their children on short walks, but I don’t know any who wouldn’t shudder at the thought of taking them into the wilderness for two weeks at a time.

My time in the wilderness has taught me that the goal of not having a goal can be the best goal to have. Of course sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself; to keep yourself on your toes rather than sat on your bum taking yet another gorgeous-view break. And sometimes there is no choice in the matter. Why do so many last buses depart at 5pm even in the long, light summer evenings?

So how am I going to apply these lessons now I’m home? I’ll still walk according to other people’s criteria, whether that’s people I meet (it only took us three hours) or what the guide-book says. Or, more importantly, what the bus timetable says. But I also want to walk without a plan or goal. To just wander wherever I think looks interesting. To stop when I want and where I want for however long I want. Will I achieve this goal? Or am I just setting myself another target that I’ll feel guilty about not achieving? Is it even possible to have a target of not having a target? Watch this space …

When your campsite looks like this, why would you be in a hurry to leave?

I’ve returned … what next?

After a summer spent walking in the Arctic wilderness I’ve come home to no job, but lots of ideas.

I’ve been home for about 10 days now and I’m slowly getting myself sorted out. As planned, I’ve spent the summer on a long walk in a long country. I aimed to walk the Kungsleden trail in the far north of Sweden and managed to complete just under half of it before my knees gave out. Although it’s disappointing not to have finished the whole thing, I really enjoyed what I did and developed a whole new mindset towards walking. I’ll write more about that in another post. I’ve also got an excuse to go back next year.

Before I went to Sweden, I left my job. Drastic but sometimes these things have to be done. I was getting less and less time to do the things I want to do with my life and to spend time with the people I want to spend time with. Work was, quite literally, taking over my life. I feel a lot calmer and more in control of my life since finishing work. Unfortunately, as I’m not a rich heiress or lottery winner, and I don’t have a sugar-daddy to hand, I’ll have to find some other means of earning a living. But this time I want it to be on my terms. In the meantime I want to spend some time focussing on things I want to achieve personally.

One of the items on my list is to write a book. I’ve had ideas roaming around inside my head for years, but they’ve never seemed quite right when I’ve come to put them down on paper. My time walking in the wilderness gave me lots of thinking time and I now feel I have the right ideas for a book. I had thought about writing up the walk even when I was at the planning stages. There is very little written on it in English so I’d hope it would be helpful to others wanting to do something similar. This would be one of my USPs. Yes, I’ve been reading up on what helps a piece of writing to sell and found out all about the need for a USP (Unique Selling Point). I have two USPs. Is that a good thing? The first, as mentioned, concerns the lack of writing about this trail that is currently available in English. The second goes something along the lines of ‘stressed, middle-aged woman gives up job and goes off alone for a wander round the Arctic’.

I kept quite detailed diaries whilst I was away and I’m now in the process of writing them up and adding to them. As I read back over them and think about fleshing them out, the book is almost writing itself in my mind. I have so many ideas. I think I’m almost glad I only completed half the walk as I definitely have enough material for one book already!

Should I move to Saudi Arabia?

A chance meeting by a public toilet and a few days later my grey cells whirring.


A rainy Sunday morning on Stronsay. About 350 people supposedly live on this straggly Northern Isle of Orkney, but I rarely saw them. The ‘all arms and legs’ shape of the island does mean that there are lots of lovely coves and sandy beaches, and it was above one of these (St Catherine’s Bay) that I parked up outside the community centre and waited for the patch of blue sky I could see in the distance to reach me. I sat with a mug of steaming coffee intending to read, but stared out of the windscreen instead at the mesmerising seascape of blues, greens, greys and frothy whites. As always, when I get the time to stare at the sea, or mountains, or any other nice, natural view, my mind started to wander and ideas began to form.

Two nights previously I’d pulled up at public toilets at the end of a track, by a beach, just outside the small village of Evie on the Orkney mainland’s northern coast. I planned to sleep there. Not long after I’d arrived a car pulled up. The lone woman looked at her maps, got out and checked out the beach, wandered round, basically doing all the things I was doing. After a short while of this, I decided to go for a walk along another track that seemed to follow the bay round. At the same time, the other woman also decided to go for a walk along the track, so we joined up.

Turned out Caitlin was also on holiday, travelling round in her car and sleeping in the back of it. Like me, when looking for somewhere to sleep, she hunted out quiet spots with a nice view and convenient loos.

We walked for further than we intended, getting excited when we unexpectedly came across a geological phenomenon of basically what are reformed rocks. Sand is made from either rocks or shells that have been ground down. Here the process has gone step further and shell sand has reformed itself back into rocks. Or not really ‘back’ into rocks as it was never rocks in the first place, but shells, as though it was jealous of the sand that had once been rocks and had wanted its own turn at being a rock. We clambered over the formation which still looked like sand, expecting the grains to move underfoot, but they didn’t; they were all stuck together, solid as a rock. Very weird.

sand turned to rock
Rock formed from shell sand

We continued along the track until we reached the far side of the bay and the Broch of Gurness. The broch stands in the middle of the site and has the ruins of a neolithic village around it. The village is made up of a series of one-roomed houses interlinked by corridors which would have been originally been roofed over for protection against the weather. The houses still have the remains of beds and dressers inside them, all made out of stone, Flintstones style. The most well-known example of this type of village is, of course, Skara Brae on the west coast, but this is pretty impressive too and the I think I preferred this one.

Broch of Gurness
Neolithic village at the Broch of Gurness
The seal was still there next morning

The gate had a notice on it giving official opening hours but nothing was closed off so we wandered round having a good nosey and enjoying having the place to ourselves. Well, apart from two very friendly cats and an observant seal that is. I didn’t have my camera with me so went back the following morning to take photos, and although there were several tour groups looking round, there was still no warden.

Broch of Gurness
Broch of Gurness

During our walk we’d chatted about where we’re from, what we do, and so on. Turns out Caitlin, who’s from Angus, lives in Saudi Arabia. She’s just finished a year teaching English as a foreign language at the university in Riyadh and is waiting on her visa being renewed so she can go back for a second year.

My intentions when I became a teacher, were never to do it as a lifelong career choice. Life is far too short to spend it all doing the same thing. I always thought I’d be a teacher for five years – two in the UK getting experience and then three years in the Middle East, earning good money and getting to experience life and culture in a part of the world that really fascinates and interests me. But, the best laid plans and all that …

I’m about to go into my eighth year of teaching and I’m still in Manchester. I have thought about moving elsewhere – I got very tempted by a job in Skerries (in Shetland) a couple of years ago – but the thing that’s held me back has been my parents who are getting older, with all the issues that can entail, and since I moved back to Manchester eleven years ago, they’ve got so used to me being here, it would be quite a wrench for them to have me move away again.

I decided against the Skerries job because it was just too far and time-consuming to get ‘home’ easily and quickly. It would be impossible to pop home for a weekend and I really didn’t fancy spending all my school holidays in Manchester.

Sitting above the beach in Stronsay, thinking in the rain, my thoughts turned to Saudi Arabia and how feasible it would be for me to work there. Many Middle East countries are quite open to tourism and so it’s possible to visit and get an idea of the place. But Saudi Arabia doesn’t really do tourism. Apparently they’re tentatively exploring the idea but it’s really in its embryonic stages and will be a long time, if ever, before it really opens up. So the only way to really get to know and explore this birthplace of Islam and politically important country is to work there.

Caitlin told me that by the time her visa was sorted out last year it was October, and the academic year finishes in June, so that’s really only eight months I’d be away. And if anything serious did happen at home, it would be quicker to fly home from Saudi Arabia than it would be to get home from somewhere like Skerries which involves two ferries (including an overnight one) and a lot of driving. The more I thought about it the more things seemed to slip into place.

I’d like to develop my writing but living in a busy heavily populated UK city limits opportunities – far too many people all doing – or wanting to do- the same thing. Also I really struggle to find the time to keep up my blog, let alone anything else. Saudi, however, could be a completely different kettle of fish. Friends who have lived in expat communities and wanted to write, have tended to find more opportunities than there are here. Also, there isn’t that much written about Saudi Arabia compared to many other places. And if Saudi Arabia is really trying to develop its fledgling tourist industry, now could be the time to become a travel-writer based there. A good chance of write place, write time maybe?

I could also use Riyadh (or Jeddah) as a base to explore other parts of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Caitlin said it’s quite feasible to pop over to Dubai for a weekend. I could have the chance to get to know the various Emirates quite well and squeeze in a couple of visits to my teacher friend, Dawn, in Oman.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Antarctica and how I really need to do something about getting myself there. I don’t really want to go on a cruise – as well as being expensive I’d feel too much on the outside looking in. What I really want to do is go to live there for a while – at least six months and ideally for a full year. As I’m not a scientist that means applying for support type jobs, for instance, as a cook. But I know my chances would be really limited and as I get older, my age is going to go against me as well (maybe I’m already too old?).

Ideally I’d go as a writer/researcher, writing from an anthropological perspective. I always thought if I did a PhD it would be Middle East based research, but over the past few years I’ve been thinking more about how fascinating it would be to carry out research on an Antarctic base.  I’ve even researched universities that are involved in Antarctic research but I’ve not been able to get any leads for anthropological research.

If I started to establish myself as a writer and researcher in Saudi Arabia this may give me a way in to Antarctica. Long shot I know, but stranger things have been known to happen.

I’m feeling that coming across that talk on Antarctica in Lerwick and then running into Caitlin (outside a toilet at the end of a lonely track – really, what are the chances of that?) is all part of a universal nudge to try and get me back on track with my life plans and working towards achieving some of my goals. I could even give learning Arabic a pretty good shot whilst living in Saudi Arabia.

All this from sitting looking at a beach in the rain. I really should do it more often!