Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Evolution of the EA - published Executive PA magazine June 2010

This is a partial clipping only, for a copy of the full piece please mail sadhbh at gmail dot com.

In 1500 the PA role was for men only. In the 1950s it was dominated by women and in the 1990s people thought it would soon be obsolete. But today’s PA is a valued resource and PR powerhouse, more likely to be working on a document management system than carbon-copying memos says Sadhbh Warren.

The PA role has changed in recent times - today’s office support professionals are barely recognisable from the original secretary. While the profession today is highly regarded and dominated by women, historically it’s always been about a trusted right-hand man. The term secretary was first used during the Renaissance and comes from the Latin secretum, ‘a secret’ and referred to the men – and only men - who dealt with confidential correspondence and acted as advisors to the mighty.

Women were not initially seen as candidates for this influential position. When Sir Isaac Pitman founded the first secretarial school in 1870, it was solely for male students. But as typewriters became more common in the 1880s women began to enter the field, and by the end of World War 2 - when unprecedented numbers of women entered the workplace - the role of secretary had become primarily associated with women.

The role was being re-defined and it wasn’t always appreciated. When Joan Harris, typing pool queen bee from the TV show Mad Men (set in the 1960s) summates her view, there‘s no mention of the professional; "He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they're looking for something between a mother and a waitress." ...

- clip ends, to read more please email me at sadhbh at gmail dot com -

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Big Trip Part 5 - Insane but beautiful in Belize

I have been in Belize for 6 hours and, as yet, no one has answered the most pressing question I have about the place.

To whit, why is there a fucking tarantula in the box next to the coffee machine?

Most people would assume that a box next to the coffee machine would contain beverage related items.  They’d imagine the mesh lid would be to keep flies off the things within. Perhaps some sugar and tea bags. Maybe, if we get really lucky, a few packets of biscuits. These would be the things that normally I would expect to find in a box on a table next to the coffee machine.

But no. There is a fecking tarantula. Approximately 5 inches of sulking black arachnid, hunched in readiness next to the spot where the box flips open. Perhaps he wants out. Perhaps he wants a coffee. Perhaps Belizeans sprinkle spiders on the foam of cappuccinos, like squirmy furious chocolate flakes. Who knows?

Belize is insane.

First off, Belize appears to be in the wrong place. With a small population who speak mainly English or Creole, its political and social stability, and its very Caribbean feel, Belize is an anomaly in the Spanish-speaking  politically-treacherous  Central America.

It makes up for this apparent stability by being completely barking. We discover this at border control where we, being the diligent and boring Anglos that we are, are overtaken in the immigration queue by two cowboys, a Caribbean woman who shouts “where else do I look like I am from” when asked to produce her passport, two young men intent chat up the immigration lady in her booth and who stare over her shoulder with interest at the passports of everyone coming through, and a Beauty Queen, complete with tiara, sash and retinue of eight giggling staff.

Once in the country, it gets a little more chaotic. Caving in San Ignacio we discover that when Belizeans say “abseiling” they mean “skidding down a sheer mud slope with no harness, while holding a sodden rope and peeing yourself in terror” and when they say “guided” they mean “eight hours of us screaming “be careful not to die”’ and when they say “fun” they think this means making the activities as dangerous as possible.

Three hours under the mountain they show us a burial cave, complete with a human skull. They say this is where the Mayans came to offer sacrifices to their Gods, but I suspect it may be someone from their last tour who failed to grip the rope right.

Away from the mountains and out on the island of Caye Caulker it is stunning, but not that much saner.  Lobster is so abundant here they put it on everything, with a lobster omelette costing the same as ham and cheese. Bars serve beers you can take straight into the crystal clear water, and watch as the locals persuade swooping frigates to take chips from between their lips. Stunning dreadlocked men flash their dazzling smiles at you, even more so if you are a white woman with no partner about.

(Incidentally, if you are looking for the white woman’s version of Thailand, where you can be smothered with attention by a hot-bodied Adonis half your age, try Belize, the Caribbean or Kusadasi in Turkey. The locals are stunning and not after payment, just a shag and maybe a nice meal out. As an added bonus you don‘t need to watch out for boy-ladies. Jus‘ sayin‘.)

Boats offer to take you snorkelling off the reef, the second biggest in the world, where you can see manatees and green turtles.  Our boat, which was billed as snorkelling and beer, decides that it would be fun to hurl large quantities of food over the side to attract nurse sharks BEFORE we jump in. I can hear the voices of my ancestors bitching. “Millions of years we spent AVOIDING these things - we left the ocean to get away from them - and now you go straight back IN. Fine. Go extinct then.” Twenty minutes later, our snorkelling guide hauls a huge and gurning eel from its hole in a rock and waves it at us. Do we want to touch it? I look at the baleful eyeballs and strong jaws and decide I am not yet that crazy, thanks.

That night, mercifully unbitten, we eat barbecued lobster on the beach. Belize, for all that it is insane, is beautiful. The enthusiasm and laid-back friendliness of the people is irresistible, even as they try to persuade you to throw caution to the wind and do something really bloody stupid. The landscape varies from lush mountain jungles to Caribbean blues seas and reefs, with no boring bits in the middle. It brings out the adventurer in the quietest of individuals, and rewards a leap of faith with amazing experiences, if you are brave enough to try them.

Belize, like many of my friend’s ex-girlfriends, is beautiful but insane. And I can see why people like it that way. I’m just not sure about the tarantula coffee.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Big Trip stop 4 - Guatemalan chicken bus charm

A friend of mine once married the girl he hadn’t wanted, and that’s kinda how I feel about Guatemala.

He was in the pub and very attracted to a bubbly blonde who was capturing the party‘s attention with her jokes, so he had a good try at chatting her up. She wasn’t keen. But he did end up talking to her friend, a brunette, and he realised she was funny and pretty and sweet and intelligent. And he asked her out and in the fullness of time they ended up getting married. And - apart from a few awkward “how did you meet” questions the wedding - it all worked out just fine.

When I was anticipating my 30 day overland epic trip through Central America, I wasn’t really thinking about Guatemala. Sultry Caribbean Belize, with its huge reef and soft creole, was occupying most of my attention, with bouncy, beery Mexico running close second. But it turned out to be Guatemala that gave me a lot of my best memories of the trip, although not where I had expected to find them.

Antigua is an artificial Disneyland of a town. Its name is not the town‘s original moniker and translates as “the old Guatemala“. It is thoroughly preserved by UNESCO decree and the influx of tourists who like the stalled-around-1700-with the-earthquake effect (because the past is cute provided you aren't the poor bastard who has to put up with living in it) but it is very charming. Cafes with courtyards (and oh, how Guatemala is deservedly known for coffee and chocolate) and sprawling ruins and ornate and morbid churches. It is a bit twee, but if you really feel the urge to sample something authentically modern, you can head just down the road to Guatemala City where you be shot by the drug crazed criminal of their choice. It’s up to you.

I would instead recommend heading to green-mountain ringed Lake Atilan where the roads are lined with stalls selling crafts and water taxis skip you across the lake in the sun. You can hang out with hippies in San Pedro or see Maximon, the “evil saint” of Santiago, who is worshipped by the offering of vices - alcohol and cigarettes being the popular ones. He lives in a different house each year and devotees visit Maximón in his chosen residence, where his shrine is usually attended by two people who drink to the Saint and - very drunkenly - explain to visitors where to put their offerings. The paper mache figure of Maximon is festooned with ties, maybe a 100, and has a lit cigarette or cigar in its mouth, and a hole in its mouth to allow it to drink the spirits.

Not feeling sacrilegious? You can climb the Maya ruins at Tikal where whatever Gods were there have long since abandoned the temples to the jungle. The views from the top are amazing, although not the ideal place to get food poisoning. Take in the town’s ornate churches, and their decidedly macabre statues. (Zombie Jesus is big here.) Or swim in the sulphurous and warm hot springs of Rio Dulce. Or ride through the rubber plantations in the jungle and take in the amazing views that Guatemala seems to hide around every corner.

If you are wondering how to get around, you’ll be on the chicken bus. So called for the Guatemalan habit of occasionally transporting livestock on them, they are adapted school buses, painted brightly and festooned with as much religious paraphernalia can be fitted. The reason for the religion is probably the driving. Buses are stuffed to the limit with passengers (and, trust me, the Guatemalans always think there is space for a few more, even when there is four of you squeezed into a two-seat and the woman standing is balancing her baby on her back and her three year old on your head) and then hard-driven to their destinations at top speed along rough roads. At stops another 40 people climb on, all over-laden with various forms of food and drink, and clamber over you screaming at you to buy their stuff.

Guatemala does not have a “thing”. It has Mayan ruins, but so does everywhere in the region. It has lakes and mountains and jungle, but so does everywhere in Central America. Belize does beaches better, and even it’s wonderful coffee and chocolate is apparently surpassed from other country’s. It doesn’t have one “thing“. And perhaps that is it’s charm. Freed from being known for one thing, it does them all well with the trademark Guatemalan smile and sense of humour. It might not be the pretty girl from the party that first catches your eye instantly. But give it a chance and take the time to sample its charms and, I can assure you, it won't be long before you fall for Guatemala.

* * * * *

This alarmingly late blog is brought to you courtesy of the Mexican Death Flu. It’s annoying. Everyone else is drinking margueritas and salsa dancing and generally enjoying the Mexican hell out of themselves, I am getting really familiar with the bathroom furniture. Everyone wants to see photos of the Mayan pyramids, no one wants to see Mexican bathrooms.

If you want to see them, I have plenty of info. Unfortunately I don’t have a shot of the one on the border between Oaxaca and Peublo, where there is an armed guard on the roof of the toilets. Clearly they take washing your hands very seriously here.