2020 and all that
Everyone has a 2020 story to tell. Perhaps one day they'll all be put into a time capsule and blasted off into outer space so we never have to think about them again. Back in May, just a couple of weeks after being made redundant, I participated in an online career counselling seminar during which the icebreaker was "tell us about a silver lining of the pandemic". I thought that this was frankly the most idiotic question to ask a group of people who were still reeling from having just lost their jobs as a result of Covid. Responses ranged from mumblings of "I now have more time on my hands" to "What is a silver lining please?" When it was my turn I muttered something about having started a blog and quickly put myself on mute again. Fast forward seven months to December 2020 and I have a somewhat different answer to that question, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Back in early March, I flew to South America to meet my parents for my Mum's 70th birthday. At the time, Covid was largely confined to China and Italy, there were a handful of cases in Brazil, and the rest of Latin America was untouched. We discussed the possibility of cancelling, but the intrepid Chiltons decided that there was no need and anyway, how many times do you turn 70? So off we went. A few days into our trip it was clear that the world was rapidly collapsing around us, and I made the decision that I needed to leave early (my parents valiantly stayed on, largely because their return flight was not changeable).
With my parents in Viña del Mar, Chile, early March 2020
After a couple of days of scrambling and changing flights, I managed to leave Easter Island on the last - and rather fraught - flight (you can read about that here), returned to Dubai on the final Emirates flight out of South America, and landed by the skin of my teeth six hours before the UAE's borders closed to everyone, including residents. I immediately went into 14 days of self-quarantine.
Meanwhile, my parents were informed that their flight home had been cancelled with no indication of alternative arrangements. They now faced the prospect of being stuck indefinitely in Santiago, a city battered by violent protests and showered in tear gas that wasn't really where you would choose to sit out the pandemic. They went to the British Embassy. It was closed. They tried to call their airline. No response. They looked into AirBnBs. They eventually managed to get home a few days later, but not without some panic.
And then the world really did collapse.
Nothing will ever be the same again after 2020. We'll all completely reassess our ways of living. We will travel differently. We'll be more responsible consumers. We'll eat less meat, take fewer holidays, donate regularly to worthy causes, perfect our banana bread. Or will we? Human beings are notorious creatures of habit, and I suspect the majority will quietly slip back into our old ways, with perhaps a few tweaks here and there. I’ve seen how mandatory mask use here in Dubai has allowed us to live a fairly normal life over the past few months after a very strict initial period of lockdown, and my New Year’s wish is that with the vaccine, more of us around the world will be able to return to some degree of normality before long.
If you were to ask me today what the silver lining of the pandemic has been for me, I'd still roll my eyes at what I believe is an over-simplified question, but amidst the doom and gloom there have been some positive outcomes of 2020 for me, and in the spirit of celebrating the good and moving into 2021 with optimism, here they are.
1. I started a blog
Standing on a shipwreck in Moynaq in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan, on what used to be the Aral Sea, October 2018
You, dear reader, obviously know this already if you are reading this very missive. I don't actually know quite how I did it, but in the post-redundancy fog I managed to sign up to Wix, navigate how to use a Mac for the first time (including lots of Google searches for "how to cut and paste", “how to screen grab”, etc.), create a semi-decent looking site, buy a domain name, write some stories, select some photos, and launch nicolachilton.com. It was a great distraction at a time when I really needed one. It allowed me to write whatever I wanted to for the first time in years, it let me relive travel memories and create new ones, and it let me share pictures and stories with people who might be vaguely interested in my wanderings and ramblings. And it’s still going. My recent content has tended to focus more on UAE-based themes as that’s what I’ve been able to get out and see first-hand, but I have a long list of stories from far-flung places to add in the coming weeks. Thank you so much for indulging me and for coming along for the ride!
2. I got to know the United Arab Emirates inside out
Wakesurfing with mask in Ghantoot, UAE, May 2020
After our strict period of lockdown ended here in Dubai, things slowly started to open up again. I remember how thrilled I was the first time I was able to go out for a walk, as long as I stuck to the rules and stayed within my neighbourhood. The colours seemed brighter, the flowers more luxuriant, the palms more majestic, the acid green plumage of the bee-eaters more vivid. I tucked frangipani blooms into my mask. And then we were allowed to go further afield, beyond the pharmacy and the supermarket, even. I was allowed to go wakesurfing again, and surfed wearing a mask (not strictly required, but it did make for a uniquely 2020 photo). On the first day that a number of cultural attractions reopened, I went straight to the Dubai Frame and was the only person there. I ventured out to Sharjah Art Foundation, to Fujairah for my birthday where I swam for hours with a very relaxed turtle, to the Al Buhais Geological Park with its extraordinary architecture, to the Al Madam Ghost Village being consumed by the Sharjah desert, to the Al Suwaidi pearl farm in the far north in Ras Al Khaimah, to Jebel Jais, the highest peak in the country. I took a mandatory PCR test and went to Abu Dhabi to visit the beautiful Al Jubail Mangroves, ate locally made chocolate gelato next to the city’s oldest building, and spent an evening wandering with friends through some of the best modernist architecture in the country. And I was even invited by Dubai Tourism to share my Dubai Love Story through video. Those who knew me when I initially moved here will recall that it was far from love at first sight, but things changed and I really fell for the place (which surprised me more than anyone). My discovery of so much of the lesser known aspects of the country has paved the way to the next positive of the year.
3. I started writing professionally
Cover of the September 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East featuring my Road Trip Around the UAE story
Social media is often described as being the root of all evil, but I feel that it can also be an enormous force for good. In my case, it's certainly presented some great opportunities to me this year. I shifted the focus of my content to tell real stories about real travel experiences that would hopefully inspire at a time when travel was at a standstill for most of the world. I placed a lot of focus on content about the UAE since I made so many great discoveries that I wanted to share. And it appears that this content has resonated. I've been very fortunate to be able to write pieces about the UAE for Condé Nast Traveller India, Condé Nast Traveller Middle East, Departures International, The Times, The Sun, and there's more on the way. It’s a bit of a dream come true, to be honest. In my role in PR for a luxury hotel brand my job was to encourage other people to write things about our properties and restaurants, but now I’m getting to tell my own stories and I love it. I’m also doing copywriting, everything from web copy to press releases, presentations, brand positioning, brochures, destination content, and more. The ten-year-old me who always asked for pads of paper and a pen on a string for Christmas so she could write stories is finally getting to do what I think she probably always wanted to.
4. I launched my own business
The homepage of Untold Stories, my new business
Launching my own business wasn’t something I ever wanted to do. People had long told me I should, but I just felt so much more comfortable in an office environment with a corporate structure around me. Or at least I thought I did until that all came crashing down and I was left on my own. So I had the choice of struggling to find a job during the pandemic, or to try and create opportunities for myself. And I took the latter path. Similarly to the blog, once I’d made the decision, the process took on something of a life of its own and looking back at it all now, I’m amazed at how simple it was to get set up and running. Within days I had all of the paperwork I needed, a trade license, a visa, and an enormous sense of achievement when I saw my name on all of these things as the owner of my very own business. I’ve been able to work on some great projects with some lovely people so far. And the business name? Untold Stories, because I believe everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone knows how to tell it.
5. I learnt the importance of being kind to others, and to yourself
Treating myself to a day at a beach club in Dubai
I’m not always at my best on the phone. I find it intrusive, and would usually prefer to respond to an email or a Whatsapp than have to respond to a device just because it’s making a noise. My dear friend Divia, however, answers the phone whenever it rings, regardless of who it may be, with the sweetest, kindest tone and the utmost politeness. After a few times hearing her do this with random cold-callers, people trying to make her buy something she didn’t want and other unnecessary intrusions at various times of day, I asked her why she was always so nice. She told me that early on in her career she had been that person making the cold calls, and encountered so many rude people that she vowed never to be that way to anyone else. It’s something that stayed with me, and while I can’t say I manage to stick to it 100% of the time, I’m certainly trying to be a lot kinder when I answer the phone.
It’s very, very easy to be kind, it costs nothing and it’s an innate part of being human. But when we’re busy and distracted and tired and stressed it’s also very easy not to be. Throughout this year, especially through the darkest times, it was the kindness of family and friends, and the kindness of people I least expected to hear from or didn’t know very well, that really kept me afloat. I’ve tried to extend that kindness to others who are going through dark times as I realise I haven’t always been as present as I should have been. Until this year, I never truly understood the impact that a simple message saying “I’m thinking of you” could have.
I also realised that it’s OK to spend an entire day on the sofa doing nothing, to eat ice cream for breakfast, to treat yourself to a day at a beach club and spend too much money because it makes you feel better, to forgive yourself if you haven’t learnt a new skill in lockdown or lost 10kg or applied for that job on LinkedIn or started a new fitness programme or perfected that banana bread recipe. It's OK because we need to go easy on ourselves. We need to be kind to ourselves. Because if we're not kind to ourselves, how can we possibly be kind to anyone else?
And so onwards and upwards, into 2021 we head. So many people have suffered unimaginable loss this year, and collectively we're all a bit worse off mentally, emotionally and economically than we were at the beginning of the year. So in the spirit of kindness, I wish you all a much happier New Year full of health, love, comfort, and whatever else you may wish for. And if you want to have that extra glass of champagne or leftover mince pie or go to bed before midnight on New Year's Eve, why the hell not?
Just a normal bus ride in London