Last of the Headhunters

[First published in the Tweed Valley Weekly on 3rd May 2018]

“It’s such a surreal feeling walking into a room knowing everyone in there has cut someone’s head off.”

It was one of the possibilities on my recent Northeast India Unplanned ‘wing-it’ trip. Running a trip like that with nothing planned – you never know what is going to happen. Of all the things we did though – the rhino safaris, exploring the world’s second largest river island and visiting one of the beautiful tea estates of Assam – the time we spent with the headhunters was the highlight.

Once notorious for their headhunting and famous for their facial tattoos, the Konyak tribe live in a remote corner of northeast India. The largest of the 17 tribes in the state of Nagaland, they once fought for control over the land, instilling fear into their enemies by taking their heads and proudly displaying them on the walls and doorways of their homes as a reminder of their strength and power. Today though, as a group of men in their 80s and 90s and with only about 30 remaining, they’re part of a disappearing world.

Ducking under the doorway, we stepped into the dark, smoke filled morung, a village hall of sorts and we were instantly transported back in time. On the wall were the various tribal weapons used long ago. In the middle of the room was a small fire around which 4 figures sat, each with traditional headdress, over-sized ear lobes and the famous tattooed face.

They greeted us warmly, offered small stools and invited us to join them by the fire. After the small talk was out of the way, with our guide translating, they asked us if we had any questions. I asked them about their faces.

One of the men then described how he had to lay on his back for an entire day with the queen of the tribe using a thorn from a local tree and a blue pigment to adorn his face. He spoke of the excruciating pain he suffered during the tattooing process – a ritual reserved for those warriors after they returned with their first head.

All too soon, we were on our way again with a long drive in front of us to reach Majuli – the river island. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. Next time we’ll stay for the tea and biscuits!

For those who are interested, I’m off there again in January. Please contact me on journeys@somespacetobreathe.com for details.

Life Is Not A Menu

What if I don’t know what I want from life?
What if all the options around me are totally unappealing? What if I know I don’t want to be a manager, I don’t want a new job and I don’t want to change career?
What if I’m over what I’m doing and I’m just telling myself I’ll only do it till I decide what I really want?

Life is not a menu. You don’t have to pick from the options – you just have to ask the right question.

How to have a mid life crisis

I knew I didn’t want a sports car or to have an affair with a younger woman. I wanted to travel.

At the age of 36, I felt dejected and disengaged and constantly ask myself, ‘Is this all there is?’ I could never quite put my finger on it, I mean, life was great – I had a great career, I was in a loving relationship and earned a decent income. To the outsider, I had nothing to whinge about. It was something that I could never put my finger on – there was just something missing.

I’d always wanted to travel. We did trips every year but I wanted to go away for longer. I’m not sure why, it was just a longing I had. I wanted to simply book a one way flight and go, roll the dice, take a chance and see where the wind took me. To travel the world for a year was what I really wanted to do.

So we did. We spent 6 months in South America, 3 months in Europe and 3 months in Asia. We walked on glaciers in Patagonia, hitch hiked in Argentina and explored a nuclear silo from the Soviet era in Lithuania. It wasn’t all roses though – we narrowly avoid being express kidnaped in Bolivia and almost came face to face with a rat the size of a dog in India.

My point is I followed my call to adventure and that’s how I believe I overcame my midlife crisis. A call to adventure is also something I believe everyone has. It can be a feeling you have, an intuition or a curiosity big or small. Filling that unfillable, intangible void means learning to listen to the call and follow it. I did and it changed my life.

What’s your call to adventure? Are you answering the call?

What I’ve learned from starting a travel company

It’s been over 6 years since lI eft the corporate world and almost 4 years since I started my own business. There are many valuable (and I’d say priceless) lessons I’ve learned along the way which can be applied to business as well as life. Here are four…

Decide why you’re doing it…

About a month after I started my business, I attended a workshop. The presenter offered me some advice how to get my travel company up and running. He said “Engage a local company in each country to organise everything and you’ll be able to run a trip in South America while two other trips are running in Africa and Asia.”

He touted figures of $500-600k in turnover within 12-18 months easily. He went on to say it would make me rich and I could sell the company for a massive profit. And he was probably right. Trouble was, that didn’t align with why I was doing it. He was focussed solely on making money then selling the business and I wasn’t.

I wanted something with a bit more meaning and a lot more heart. I’d turned up at a job that I wasn’t that fussed about for long enough. I wanted something I was passionate about. Yes – there is the practical side of things and money does come into it but it wasn’t the reason I was starting a travel company.

Companies (as well as dreams) come in all shapes and sizes…

Some travel companies scale their trips. They get a trip that sells well then run a departure every two days year round, getting rid of the trips that don’t make maximum profit. That’s not how it has to be.

In episode 4 “Appealing to customers” of his podcast Startup School, Seth Godin talks about what he does and says “Almost every day I do a once in a lifetime thing. There are other people who keep doing the same thing every single day cause that’s who they are…“ He tells the people at the workshop that he will never do a workshop like this again.

That summed it up beautifully for me. I don’t want to do the same trip day after day, month after month or even year after year and there is no rule that says I have to. Sure you could say that I am going to be killing my word of mouth referrals – because people will come back and say to their friends “that was fantastic – you should go next year. Oh wait – he is not running it again.” I’m ok with that. It’s more about the types of experiences I want to offer people rather than repeating a set of pre-canned activities or simply offering ‘ticking the box’ travel.

Focus on the essentials…

I had grand plans when I first started my company. One of the things I put quite a bit of time into was having an online booking system. I went to extraordinary lengths to get this up and running. I figured that with my IT background and using one of the online booking websites, I could have a booking system up and running in a couple of weeks. But that’s not the way it turned out.

While I burnt a lot of time doing that and I never got the online system working, it taught me a very valuable lesson – focus on the essentials. There was no need at all for an online booking system – I was planning to run one trip in the first year with a maximum of 8 people. The essentials in this case turned out to be anything that directly went towards organising the trip and inspiring people to join. Said another way, my aim was to simply run an incredible adventure to India that year. With that as my aim, it is pretty obvious that an online booking system is just a distraction and a hinderance rather than a help. It would have made more sense to spend time making sure everything was booked and producing marketing material to let people know about the trip.

Perhaps if I was running 3 tours a week with 20 people per tour, then an online booking system would have made sense. In the end, I ended up drawing up a booking form in a spreadsheet and printing it for people to fill out manually!

The secret sauce… Emotion

I remember doing a workaway in Chile back in 2012 on a gap year and helping a tourism business with some IT support. One day, as I was testing an excel issue, I opened a cost spreadsheet. In it, it had the breakdown with all the different costs to running one of their tours, along with a table outlining the cost / profit of the tour in one row and the number of people in the other. At that point, I remember thinking “Surely business couldn’t be that simple. What takes it from being a collection of costs and activities on a spreadsheet to something people really want to book?” Well to a large extent it is marketing but there’s something else I’ve discovered.

I hear people bang on about business plans and ‘points of difference’ – why would I want to travel with you instead of one of the big companies? And yes – it is a fair question. My first approach was to have a list of reasons why and rattle them off one after the other like some dodgy politician grovelling for votes while the person stood in front of me thoroughly unconvinced and quite obviously bored.

When I mention Apple to you, what do you think of? Whatever it is, it evokes a series of feelings, reasons and words about why you love or hate them I’m guessing. It evokes an emotion within you. Well – that same emotion is what I believe Apple uses to run its business and it is reflected in everything they do.

I’ve discovered this on my latest trip. Everything I have written about my trip and every time I have talked about it with someone, I have felt the emotion and energy well up inside – an excitement. What I’ve found by doing this is that people don’t ask why they should go with me or even what is planned for the trip – they seem to be engaged and inspired by that emotion and excitement for what I’m doing. You could almost say it is contagious. It’s almost like it wouldn’t matter what I said – it is more so how I said it. And I think that is the secret to doing anything successfully in life – do it with emotion, passion and excitement.

Have you started a business? What lessons have you learned in doing so?