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I don’t want a holiday in the sun

August 11, 2014

I don’t want a holiday in the sun, a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. I echo John Lydon’s philosophy when thinking about my annual break, as once more the Munchausen-by-proxy version of Carly Simon Syndrome of those vanity-fuelled sun-worshipping folks slotted by the swimming pool from 8am to 6pm and do-not-move fills my head.

Where to go? I fancied Mexico, simply from the colour of their shirts and the players’ names in the World Cup – Jose de Jesus Corona, the goalkeeper, why weren’t my parents more imaginative? The town of Oaxaca caught my attention, but it was out of season. Were we in Oaxaca on Christmas Eve, it would be the great Noche de Rábanos, or Night of the Radishes celebration. Got to be there.

The radish is not a vegetable that has figured large in my life at any time, yet historically it is a much-celebrated foodstuff. The Greeks thought them so splendid that they used to make gold replicas. The Oaxacans, however, sculpt them into great tableaux and compete for prizes.

These are not the miniature salad radishes that grace the occasional picnic, but great efforts weighing five to ten pounds that are transformed into entire Nacimientos (nativity scenes), conquistadors, or even historical heroes like Emiliano Zapata. Hand carved root vegetable gifts, nice idea.

There are plenty of people who think they’ve seen baby Jesus in a root vegetable, but not many who can be bothered to carve one. I love a hand-made gift. One of my most prized possessions is a rock coloured all over with crayon that my then five-year-old daughter gave me one summer. To this day it remains the finest paperweight that money can buy.

I also have a pine-handled bottle opener nurtured over 13 weeks in a CDT class by my son James, the highest value item in my Will. Grinling Gibbons, eat your heart out. Doesn’t quite match Salvador Dalí’s surrealist gift in 1936 to Harpo Marx – a harp with barbed wire strings, but it’s a nice piece.

But back to holidays. I like to go somewhere with time to sit and think and, occasionally, just to sit and not think at all. Apart from that, I’m easily pleased. I’ve passed through The Inbetweeners type holidays some 30 years ago, the everyday horror of being stranded between childhood and adulthood, a hundred feet out in social no man’s land – a gig that becomes impossible as soon as it starts, adolescence comes with obsolescence built in. There’s rawness in holidays of that age group, teenage hubris and humiliations, whether they’re scatological or something subtler.

Thailand beckoned, but then I read a piece warning travellers not to take a copy of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The warning is to be found inside the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines (a bit late if you’re on the final approach to Bangkok airport) and has been circulated on Twitter. Passengers are told that ‘Thailand is very safe for tourists’ but are offered five tips to help ‘blend in’: You don’t want to be mistaken for an anti-coup protestor.

I have to say that I’ve never really been that interested in getting a tan. Partly this is because I find sunbathing to be one of the most tedious activities on Earth and partly this is because I’m not in the least bit bothered by the way it looks. Oh, and apparently it’s also extremely bad for you. Tanned skin is damaged skin, you know.

Not surprisingly then, I find the whole trend for tanning a little bit baffling. It’s incredibly narcissistic, isn’t it? I’ve never really understood why, in their quest for the all-year tan, people will willingly go to a salon and submit themselves to damaging ultra-violet light, or why they will sit for hours slow roasting on a beach.

For me, pale is interesting. I’m 100% Anglo Saxon as in Thomas Huxley’s division of humanity, although to be fair, I have a skin tone that could optimistically be called ‘North-of-England olive’ after my two weeks away, but would more accurately be described as ‘Lancashire white’ – not to be confused with the potato of the same name.

Rightly or wrongly, there is a part of me that sees someone with a tan and thinks that they are preeningly vain. I’m sure there must be some exceptions, but in my head, I always reckon that a man with a glowing tan is also likely to have overly plucked eyebrows and probably dries his feet in the gym changing room with a hair dryer. There’s so much that is wrong with that, although I see more blokes doing it.

Until recently, I knew very little about the mechanics of how you go about getting a serious tan, and I cared even less, and then I overheard a conversation on a train between Claire and Hannah. Claire likes a bit of sun, had just got back from a week in Portugal and was as brown as a walnut and keen to stay that way.

The conversation started harmlessly enough. They had a bit of a chat about her holiday, but then, before I could blink, we seemed to be talking about sunbathing and how it is important to make sure you get ‘an all over tan’. What this means – I know this now – is that you have to a) get naked and b) make sure that you frequently change the position of your body so that everywhere catches the sun.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Everywhere. Between the toes? Yes. Apparently that’s important when you wear open-toed shoes. Under the arms? Very, very important in a season with so many sleeveless tops. Don’t forget the backs of your arms either. Underneath the breasts? Obviously. This may entail a bit of strategic lifting and shifting. I tell you. Every day is a school day, isn’t it?

Anyway, still searching for a suitable holiday destination, I then came to the killer social media feeds. ‘Looking for that special place for your Caribbean getaway? The last word in luxury ocean front views, a refreshing dip maybe, we are an art hotel, and each room features it own paintings, and you’ll love our body hugging posteurpedic beds, and our showers feature the latest in alpine massage technology, and each room is fitted with a cooling device that defies gravity, and..’

I know, I know. At that point I gave up and defaulted to my wife and daughter’s relentless search and we were off. So having unpacked and decluttered my mind, and having no access to the Internet, I arrived at the chosen destination. Here are my ‘thinking outloud’ takeaway reflections from my break, a stream of random consciousness and musings that I hope give you some insight into my three weeks in the sun.

The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is where you place your time. If you say your priorities are your partner or your kids or your health or learning, that statement will only be true if your calendar reflects it. The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.

To know what you think, write it down Not having technology and having to write things down myself in a notebook, to let it see light, is the best way for me to clarify what I actually think about something. ‘Writing is the painting of the voice’ said Voltaire, for me, I realise that writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.

Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity You can’t artificially generate curiosity, so you have to follow where yours actually leads. Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge. ‘Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why’ said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did.

Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some air and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. Being on holiday gives you freedom from the usual routine, to breathe the air without interference and to just do stuff. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, everyone else is taken, so give yourself some space.

Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, or looking, or talking, when the house is empty, when the afternoon is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders in the shower. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.

Self-control is a finite resource I’m good company for me, I like the idea of solitude, being alone and being content with myself, but I fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, and I’ve never been lonely, an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day, you’ll snap or warp or splinter if you ask too much. You have a limited capacity to direct yourself a certain way. I now realise there are boundaries to being independent.

You end up being the average of the people you spend your life with You become a reflection of your environment, particularly your social one. Choose people wisely, don’t hesitate to move or change if you know things aren’t right. Equally, everything defaults to mediocre. Most jobs are mediocre, most people’s work is mediocre, most products and experiences are mediocre. Most lives drift in an inertia of mediocrity. Rise above the mediocrity, the mundane, the ordinary. We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. As Steve Jobs said, make a dent in the universe.

Put yourself in places that make you nervous Nerves are really the only way to know that you’re being stretched. If there hasn’t been a moment of nerves in your life for a month, it might be worthwhile asking if you’re pushing hard enough. Step outside your comfort zone into the learning zone. If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. Great people did not achieve great things by staying in their comfort zone.

Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I picked up Laura Vanderkam’s book, ‘168 hours: you have more time than you think’ from the bookcase in the hotel reception. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that tells you I do have time for what is important to me.

You never know where you are on the big wheel You never know what’s coming, you have to have some faith that your moment is coming, but you don’t need to be Speedy Gonzalez all the time. Travel has many joys, luggage is not one of them. Live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we need more awareness and clarity.

I’ve become influenced in the last year by Tim Ferris, look him up here http://fourhourworkweek.com/blog/. He’s a big believer and doer of lifestyle design, work and life balance and has redefined success. His blogs are quirky and thoughtful, and you may get some clues on what to add to or subtract from your own mix as you search to find what works for you.

We all know that holidays are good for us, but if you are in doubt, Google the health benefits of taking a holiday. However, many of us do not take time off. We are constantly on solving problems, putting out fires, thinking of ways to grow faster, bigger, better, We cannot imagine how our businesses can function without us. And then there’s the guilt: How can I leave my team? They need me.

But more importantly, a holiday provides a great opportunity for personal growth in an accelerated way. Yes you rest, you catch up on sleep, you read a book or two, you may be even be lucky enough to fill up on vitamin D and get a tan (!) But above all, you constantly absorb, morph, learn. Serendipity will make it that you will always find people to quench your thirst for knowledge, your curiosity for idiosyncrasies, your craving for new experiences.

We all have a tendency to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. A holiday brings that back and more. I feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and that’s not been the case for a while.

So now with new things learned and others unlearned I’ve already begun to create and continue a healthier, more authentic life rhythm that’s best for me, and the thing is, in doing that, what I give to those close to me and try to contribute to the rest of the world will be so much better.

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