I’ve decided to create a digital home for all my thoughts on books, movies, theatre, places and experiences, so I’ve created a review blog: Exercising My Opinions. Feel free to visit. I’ve just published my first review, which is about the Cirque du Soleil Dralion show.
I’d love you to leave a comment if you’ve seen the show and let me know what you thought.
TAMARA OBERHOLSTER and her husband chose Thailand as a holiday destination for a good first taste of Asia. And because it’s cheap.
We’d plotted our journey to include Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, but Chiang Mai, which offers Thai culture, Myanmar-influenced food and a range of activities, was my favourite, by far.
With three and a half days in the city, we packed in as much as we could. We started exploring some of the Old City’s temples, lingering outside Wat Pra Singh to enjoy street food and fresh coconut water from the shell. A short walk away is the Wat Chedi Luang, the giant 1400AD Lanna-style chedi, partially ruined during a 16th century earthquake. Originally the home of the Emerald Buddha, which now resides in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, a pulley system allows devout visitors to send up water to bathe the Buddha relics.
In one of the adjacent buildings, an embalmed monk in a glass box terrified me. I thought he was performing some sort of holy act until I realised he hadn’t blinked in the five minutes I’d been staring at him. After Googling “monk in a glass box Wat Chedi Luang” I was relieved to discover I wasn’t the only one. For a livelier monk experience, there’s the “Monk Chat” programme next to Wat Chedi Luang where you can chat to the monks and give them a chance to practice their English. As in the temples, visitors are expected to dress modestly. A woman must never touch a monk.
Slightly cooler evenings in Chiang Mai are the perfect time to shop.
The Night Bazaar on Thanon Chang Khlan offers everything from fake brands to exquisite Thai handicrafts, an abundance of food options, and a myriad massage spots, some outside among the stalls, others inside (with aircon).
I gawked at the hand-carved soap flowers and bartered for clothing while my husband tried the local beer. At the Anusarn food market, an offshoot of the main market, we ate our fill of khao soi (a Burmese-influenced Thai curry noodle dish) and tried out the flavours of Fanta not available in South Africa (blueberry, strawberry and “green”). Then it was back to the market for more haggling.
A foot massage at Le Best Massage after hours of pavement pounding was sweet relief. At 180THB (about R54) for an hour-long foot, head and shoulder massage, it was the best buy of the day.
We spent the next day at Elephant Nature Park. Founded by Khun Lek, the place has been featured on Animal Planet and won awards for rehabilitating abused elephants and providing a happy place for pachyderms to live out their retirement.
Our chirpy guide, Zaa, introduced us to some of the 34 residents and we fed and washed the elephants, watched them swim and learnt about their plight in Thailand. Elephants employed in the logging industry were abandoned when logging became illegal in the 1980s, and, with their mahouts they had to beg on city streets. Aside from some trying questions from people in our tour group – “Do elephants accept dogs into their herds?” Seriously? – it was a lovely outing.
The next day we attended a cooking course with the Thai Farm Cooking School, stopping first at a local Thai market to be educated on rice, spices and other ingredients. Then it was on to the organic farm, 17km outside Chiang Mai, where we picked fresh makheau phuang, a pea-sized bitter eggplant, and ka prao, holy basil. We spent the day cooking and eating. Between us, my husband and I made eight dishes and took half the food home with us for dinner. The instructor, Tsurian, kept us chuckling with her jokes about how many chillies to use for the “sexy lips” effect. I learnt how to cook sticky rice with mango – the quintessential Thai dessert – and plan to impress guests with it at home.
Our last night in Chiang Mai was a Sunday, which meant we could enjoy the popular Sunday Walking Street market that starts at the Tha Phae Gate in the Old City and extends for a kilometre down Ratchadamnoen Road. We did our gift shopping here but it gets crowded so it’s best to arrive early. Open from 4pm until midnight, the Sunday Walking Street is a great place to try out Thai street food, like som tam (green papaya salad), omelettes cooked in banana leaves, sai ua – a Chiang Mai speciality (spicy pork sausage), or kanom krok (a sweet fried coconut custard snack). Other foods on offer include cheap sushi starting at 5THB a piece (about R1.50), to Indian and Chinese offerings.
The drinks are worth trying too. Aside from the delicious fresh fruit shakes (and beer, of course), you can top your beverage with chao kuai a translucent black jelly thought to have cooling properties) although I must admit it didn’t go with my cold Milo.
On Tuesday my hard drive crashed. It gave very little warning. One minute it was working, the next it was throwing up obscure error messages and refusing to communicate with me. After a morning of trying to sort things out myself, trying safe modes, last known good configurations and myriad other solutions suggested by the many web forums I browsed (using my old desktop), I came to the conclusion that I was in deep trouble.
My IT guy confirmed that my hard drive was very sick and needed to be admitted to computer ICU. As he whisked the machine away to try to save its life, I took stock. It struck me once again how dependant on technology we have become, particularly in the media industry. Without a computer, internet and my trusty digital voice recorder, there is pretty much nothing I can do in terms of work.
Thankfully, having had two laptops stolen and experiencing the pain of data loss before, I have become much better at backing up my data. Between my external hard drives and the various online tools I use, I have about 90% of the data that was on my laptop’s hard drive. The 10% I haven’t backed up includes my recent Namibia photos and my Photoshop edits of some of my older images, which took me hours to create. The IT guy is trying to recover these.
As I was sighing over the possibility of losing my precious images and cursing technology for letting me down, I realised that technology is also what has saved my skin in this situation. The main problem is not the technology – it’s the humans behind it. We know that there’s a possibility that our computers, flash drives and gadgets will fail at some point, but we each tend to think we’re somehow immune. We listen to people’s stories of data loss, whether through catastrophic hard drive failure, stolen equipment or sheer stupidity (like dropping your laptop in the bath, which has happened to someone I know), and we nod sympathetically, pity them and vaguely resolve to be better at backing up, but most of us are not at good at backing up our data as we should be. And while it will cost a few hundred Rands to replace a hard drive, you may never be able to recover your data. I experienced this when my first laptop was stolen with all my honeymoon photos on it, which I had not backed up.
I thought I’d learnt my lesson. After replacing the laptop, I started saving my important work to flash drives. When the second laptop was stolen, I found out that this method was not fool proof – the thieves stole the flash drives too, which were in the same room as the computer.
In the years since, the tools available have improved greatly. I use Dropbox, a free file hosting service that allows me to store data “in the cloud”. Dropbox allows me to access my data from any computer, anywhere, and also provides a handy means of sharing data with others. Google Docs is another useful tool that allows me to work online, save my documents and access them from wherever I want to. It’s linked to my Gmail account, which acts as another back-up mechanism. I run all my email through Gmail, even my email account registered under my company domain, which has an auto-forward function set on it. This means that I can keep every important email I send or receive, along with the attachments, and access them from any computer, or my cell phone. It has a search function similar to the Google search engine so that I can easily locate what I’m looking for among the thousands of emails.
External hard drives have also come a long way. My first one was 125GB and required an external power source. It was four times the size of the newer 2TB hard drives, which are USB-powered, quieter, faster and pocket-sized. I have two external hard drives to back up my data and I keep them separately from my laptop and each other.
Maybe I sound paranoid, but as a writer, many of my clients entrust their data to me. I have the various versions of their press releases, brochures, web text and even book chapters. I need to keep that data safe. Of course, I want to keep my personal photos and creative writing safe too. And as always, losing my data this time, even if it was only 10%, has reminded me of the importance of backing up. And it’s proved to me again that all the gadgets in the world are useless if the human operating them is not doing his or her bit.
So when my new hard drive is installed, I will become even more paranoid. And hopefully next time something happens to my technology – and there will be a next time – I will have 100% of my data backed up.
Often I’m sent a brief to write a brochure or website copy for clients that want to talk to themselves. The marketing director or CEO has dreams of telling the company story, designing fancy charts or organograms, profiling every employee or plastering every piece of information he / she can find into the smallest space possible to save on costs. While some of these things may be relevant and good ideas (the exception being the last), clients need to ask themselves two big questions before starting a marketing project: who is my target audience? and what is the function of this communication?
It’s useless putting together a beautiful, glossy and expensive corporate brochure if your target audience will be bored to tears by it. Yet so often, companies get caught up in what they want to say and forget that it’s all about what their target audience wants to know. For example, if the aim of your website is to attract new customers but the content is predominantly tailored for your own employees and shareholders, you have a problem.
When you forget who your audience is, you may neglect to include vital information that your readers need, or include irrelevant information that they don’t need or want to read. Identifying your audience means you’re able to figure out the sort of questions they want answered. Generally, these are the same questions that drive journalism – the five W’s and H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
Think about why your audience would read your marketing material. Put yourself in your user’s shoes. For instance, if I were the customer of a shoe retailer, I might visit the website looking for an online catalogue, pricing and stockists in my area. If I were an executive of a company looking to rent office space, I might browse through office development brochures seeking information on location, size, services available, pricing and parking facilities. One of the best ways to find out what users want is to ask them. Find out what they’re looking for, what they like and don’t like and what they would change. Make sure you get regular feedback.
Remember also that user-centricity is not just about copy. Every aspect of your communications needs to be user-centric, from your design to the navigation, features and content. If you have multiple types of users, make sure you cater to all of them and not just one category. For example, a multinational telecommunications company might produce brochures for each of its specialist services, or have different landing pages on its website to cater to customers from different regions. Check out Gloria Wadzinski’s great post on How to Create User Centric Web Design for Better SEO for more on this concept.
Remember also that communication is a two-way street. Making it easy for your customers to talk to you is just as important as getting your message across to them, and listening to what they have to say is even more important.
One of the best stops on our Namibian adventure was lunch at Canon Roadhouse near the Fish River Canyon. This delightful motorcar-themed establishment is an unexpected gem in the middle of the harsh Namibian landscape. As a bit of a petrol-head, the old automobiles and road signs appealed to me, but I must admit that the ice cold Coke in a 300ml bottle (the only way to drink the stuff) appealed even more, as did the delicious chicken mayo sandwiches made with thick-cut homemade bread.
We enjoyed browsing through the signs and the cars, and a visit to the loo revealed even more entertainment. Movie posters covered the wall in the women’s restroom, except for one giant space, taken up by this:
I thought it was hilarious and snapped a photo, hoping that nobody would notice my camera flash going off.
I’m not sure if I’m a bit slow or whether I just have a pure heart (I choose to believe the latter), but it didn’t even occur to me to open Tjongololo’s box.
My husband, it seems, is not quite as innocent. He discovered a similarly sexy picture in the men’s restroom, but of a woman rather than a man. Her hands covered her breasts and a box covered her other bits and was labelled “Pandora’s box”. Hubby had no qualms peeking into the box, but discovered with a shock that when he opened the box, an alarm went off in the restaurant!
Yes, when you tamper with that box, everyone knows where you’ve just been looking. And what was inside? You’ll have to visit yourself to find out.
Here are a few more photos from Namibia:
After struggling with a very green site for too long that screamed “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” (that’s a Hulk reference, FYI), I turned to Snappy Blogs to sort out my theme. Seeing I am technologically challenged, I needed a little hand-holding and guidance. Thankfully, star designer Tanya was willing to put up with my myriad questions and within a few short days had come up with this serene theme, which I adore.
Hopefully this will be the motivation I need to start spending a lot more time here. Next up, a blog post on what good content means, with a few tips for structuring copy, whether it’s your own blog post, a brochure, a newspaper article or a book. Yes, there are ground rules that apply to all.
Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts my new-look site! Leave me a comment below this post or on Twitter (@Tamara0h).
PS: If you need a blog design overhaul, check out Snappy Blogs for friendly, efficient and professional help. And tell them I sent you!
There are many great benefits to being a freelancer, whether you’re a writer, editor, proof-reader, designer or photographer. The advantages include the wide variety of work, the opportunity to work from home (or any location you choose), being able to set your own office hours and being your own boss.
Of course, there are also many challenges, ranging from friends and family who think your job is ‘not a real job’ to managing your time and having to do your own admin and accounting. Freelancing can be incredibly stressful sometimes. The very fact that you’re independent means that you don’t have the same support structures in place as those employed by a company.
Through my experiences, I’ve put together this list of five behaviours that I try to cultivate to keep some semblance of sanity:
While people who work normal office hours have a routine (and possibly security staff who kick them out of the building if they turn up at 2am), freelancers may find that they get into the habit of working through the night because they’re on deadline.
Obviously, there are cases where you will have to work outside of office hours and where jobs really are urgent. But for the most part, I find that having office hours helps me to avoid burn-out.
This means that I generally don’t take work phone-calls before 8am or after 6pm; I don’t check my emails after 8pm (otherwise I lie awake all night thinking about work) and I try to keep public holidays and weekends as free as possible too.
One must note that a client’s definition of ‘urgent’ often differs from the dictionary definition. The same goes for ‘life and death’.
Yes, there are urgent jobs, especially if you’re a news, sports or investigative journalist. But generally, delivering a piece of writing is not a life or death situation in the same way that, say, delivering medical attention, is.
Freelancers who enjoy their sanity need to learn to manage client expectations by not agreeing to take on totally ridiculous deadlines and by not letting the client’s stress and sense of urgency take over their lives.
When I first started freelancing from home, one of the things I missed most that nobody had warned me about was the day to day office banter. Suddenly I had no-one to tell about the big story I’d landed, and nobody to distract me from my bad mood. My poor husband would arrive home after a long day of dealing with people, just looking for five minutes’ peace, and I would be waiting for him, after a long day of no company but my own, just looking for conversation (and not just five minutes’ of it).
I’ve since learnt the importance of getting out of the house and out of my head. I ensure that I schedule face to face meetings instead of always opting for a telephonic interview; I go to gym and do group classes where I can interact with people; I attend Safrea (Southern African Freelancers’ Association) networking functions and I’ve joined the local residents’ association.
My husband is very grateful for this, I can tell.
Freelancing can be incredibly lonely if you lack support. I find that becoming a member of Safrea has been helpful in connecting me to a group of people facing similar challenges to those I’m facing, who have experience and empathy in dealing with them.
It’s also beneficial to call on friends and family who have experience in running their own businesses outside of the industry you work in. An objective perspective on things you struggle with is sometimes all you need. Asking Google is very useful, but nothing compares to support from another human being.
Join a professional network, surround yourself with supportive people and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
We all live in the real world where we sometimes have to do things we don’t want to do, whether it’s eating our broccoli, paying our tax or writing a brochure on herpes. In all likelihood, some of the more boring work may pay better than the exciting jobs do.
The trick is to find a balance – to take on enough dull but high-paying work to allow you to do the jobs you really want to do, even if they pay peanuts, or don’t pay at all.
It’s taken awhile to get here. I’ve been so busy writing web copy for other people that I’ve never taken the time to sit down and focus on my own.
Hopefully this is the start of fixing that! I have lots of ideas for this site and I can’t wait to get started. If you have any suggestions, please leave me a comment and let me know – I’m always open to new ideas.