Twists, turns and tales of 2020
It's not every day I get asked to tell a personal story. My friend Jim Guttau recently invited me to share my "Tales of 2020" as part of a series on his blog highlighting how people have been navigating this strange year, and I was thrilled and honoured to be invited to contribute. I met Jim in New York some years back when we were both stranded due to Hurricane Sandy, spending days and nights locked inside a building (albeit a very nice one), unable to go outside. Thinking back on it now, it was fairly good practice for what was to come in 2020. Aside from the all-encompassing pandemic horrors, my 2020 took some unexpected twists and turns, and I'm far from being unusual in that respect. Some of you may know my story, others not, but it led to one big "pivot" (definitely in the running for 2020 Word of the Year), the creation of this blog, and the launch of a new business. And through it all, I've learnt a thing or two. I'm including the interview here, but go and check out Jim's blog for more in the series, as well as plenty of other good reads.
In Riyadh, December 2018, organising one of the first ever influencer visits to Saudi Arabia
Jim: Where were you when the pandemic hit? Tell me about those early weeks. What was it like where you were?
Nicola: When the pandemic hit, I was on remote Easter Island, about as far away from Dubai as it was possible to be. I was on a trip to South America with my parents celebrating my Mum’s 70th birthday. As the days went on and cases started to increase globally, it became obvious that we needed to get home before borders closed. And that’s how I found myself on the last flight off Easter Island (you can read about that adventure here) and subsequently the last Emirates flight out of South America.
I arrived back in Dubai just hours before the borders closed completely. And what did I arrive to? 14 days of quarantine followed by a period of very strict lockdown. At its peak we were only allowed out of the house once every three days and only to go to the hospital, the pharmacy or the supermarket for necessary groceries. Each trip was limited to two hours, and you had to register for permission online. Nightly curfews remained in place for a longer period of time, and our phones would emit a nerve-jangling alarm to tell us when we needed to be home each evening. We’ve had to wear masks at all times outdoors since March – the fine for not doing so is AED3,000 (USD 816) which is a good deterrent for any anti-maskers out there! And the strict measures worked – we have a good deal of freedom here right now. We can go to the beach, the mall, the gym. Restaurants are open with limited numbers of people per table and social distancing in place. It feels as if this could be the “new normal” that we hear so much about but that remains largely undefined – lots of mask-wearing, lots of hand-sanitizing, lots of social distancing, but everyone working respectfully together to get through this, together.
Defying gravity at Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island, March 2020
Jim: During the “lockdown” what did you to keep yourself busy? Pick up any new hobbies? Cook anything delightful?
Nicola: I started off with a big pile of travel books about remote and exciting places, thinking that by the end of the year I’d be able to go on another epic adventure. Little did we know how things would pan out. I also started cooking every day – Japanese, Thai, Greek - but my good intentions ran out of steam at some point. It was all a bit of an emotional roller coaster, and I found myself being very distracted by the thought of not being allowed outside.
I missed my daily sunrise walks, missed human interactions, and felt a constant level of anxiety about not knowing when all of this would end. It’s incredible how, as humans, we learn to adapt to these situations and just get on with things in the end.
My big achievement of lockdown was launching my blog – nicolachilton.com – and yes, I saw the irony in launching a travel blog at a time when we couldn’t travel! Looking back on it, I’m quite amazed that I actually managed to do it. I had no idea how to create a website, how to register a domain name, how to link it all together and make it go live. But I learnt as I went, and on May 4 it launched, and I’ve been adding regular stories since then. My original aim was to inspire people to think about future travel plans, and since then I’ve added local recommendations for people living in Dubai that will also be good to bookmark for anyone planning to visit us here in future. And I’ve even had business opportunities arise from links I’ve shared on Instagram (@nicolachilton) to new blog posts – I’m really seeing how impactful social media can be for a small business.
A reflective moment at Kulture House Café, Dubai, September 2020
Jim: Your “Pivot”: You had a shift in your career this year. Tell me about that, and what’s next?
Nicola: They say 2020 is the year for reinvention, and in my case that’s definitely been true. In mid-April I became a “Covid Career Casualty” when my role as Regional Head of PR and Content for a luxury hotel brand was made redundant. To be completely frank, it was as if my entire world fell apart at that moment. I’d identified myself with the company and the role for so many years, and I suddenly found myself no longer being “Nicola from XX company” which gave me a bit of an identity crisis.
I learnt many things from the experience, one of which is that you should never entirely identify yourself with a job. And I also learnt the importance of being kind to yourself when you go through something like this. There were bad days, really bad days, and days when I started to see a bit of light.
About a week into my redundancy, I finally had the clarity of mind to realize that one thing I’d always loved was writing about travel, and that’s when I decided to launch my blog. And from there, I started owning my own message. I was no longer “Nicola from XX company”, I was Nicola Chilton, Travel Writer, Storyteller, Photographer, basically whatever I wanted to be. And when I finally had that realization, everything became much easier.
I launched my own company, Untold Stories, in August. I’ve worked in education, travel and hospitality for my whole career so far, and I’ve seen how it’s often difficult for people to tell their own stories. So that’s what I set out to do – to help brands, hotels and destinations tell the stories that differentiate them from their competitors. I’ve also been doing some travel writing for a number of publications around the world, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. Amazingly a global pandemic when we’re all stuck at home has somehow presented me with the opportunity to do this. Here’s my latest from Condé Nast Traveller Middle East – bookmark it for when you plan your next trip to Dubai!
In Folegandros, my first Greek Island, August 2017
I’ve always had a good nose for sniffing out a story, and I think it’s largely due to being an only child. When I was little I would spend hours coming up with stories, putting on performances of the plays I’d written for my long-suffering parents and their dinner party guests. I had pen pals in Kenya and Peru, and even sent a very early email back in the 1980s to students at a school in Japan.
As I got older, I think it was having the opportunity to travel that made me want to share the stories of what I’d seen, where I’d been, etc. with people back home. I used to write pages and pages of letters on see-through blue airmail paper. Then photography gave me a way to tell stories in a visual way. And then Instagram came along, followed by my blog, and the opportunity to help brands tell their own Untold Stories that will have a tangible impact on their businesses.
I guess where I am today is an evolution of that seven-year-old girl who used to lie on her belly on the living room floor with a pad of paper and a pencil.
Jim: What did you learn about yourself during this time?
Nicola: Plenty! I learnt that I’m much better at focusing in the early morning, so I get up before sunrise every day to go for a long walk and then dive straight into writing and working. I also learnt that I have more self-discipline than I thought. People had often told me that I should start my own business, and it was never something that I wanted to do. I liked the office environment, liked the energy of being with other people, and thought that without the structure I wouldn’t thrive. But lockdown forced me to learn how to work from home, and in the end I found myself liking the freedom of scheduling my own day, working at the times when I’m most creative rather than having to fit into a typical office environment. I also learnt that as an entrepreneur, you have to deal with a lot of things that you don’t have to as an employee – not all of them pleasant.
In Dubai, October 2019
Jim: You’re a globetrotter like no other. I just love watching your travels. What two places are you dying to return to? If you could magically transport yourself there right now…
Nicola: That’s a tough one… there are so many places, but with the current travel restrictions it’s hard to know when we’ll be able to go where. I’ve been doing lots of day trips around the country I currently live in, the United Arab Emirates, and have discovered so many fascinating places I never knew existed. I find a one-day road trip almost as energizing as a trip away – seeing things I’ve never seen before and visiting places I’ve never been really inspires me, whether it’s a 15-minute drive away or a 15-hour flight.
I dream of going back to India soon – I spent last Christmas in Jaisalmer for a dear friend’s birthday, and was planning on going back to different parts of the country this year, but obviously that hasn’t happened yet. India is a place that fills me with wonder, with energy, with inspiration, and I just can’t get enough of it. The other place I’ve been eyeing for the past few years is Bolivia, and I’d love to do a longer trip through South America since this year’s trip was cut short by the pandemic.
With my parents in the back of a taxi in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, October 2018
Jim: What will travel look like in 2021? What will this “new traveler” desire and where might they want to go?
Nicola: Knowing first-hand how the pandemic has hit people’s spending power, whether it’s through redundancy, furlough, salary cuts or just a greater focus on saving rather than spending, I believe that the “new traveler” will be thinking very carefully about where and how they want to spend their money. They will be looking for destinations and brands that act responsibly, and that share their own ways of thinking, beliefs and principles. No longer will consumers tolerate messaging that they feel is inauthentic or contrived, and if they suspect brands of “greenwashing” rather than showing a true commitment to sustainable practices, they will walk away from them.
I remain optimistic that people will travel again. I see it here in Dubai already with the number of people choosing to do staycations and daytrips. People feel safe to do so with the strict health and safety measures we have in place, and I also see tourists from overseas starting to come back. With 10% of the global population working in the tourism industry and an estimated 100 million jobs at risk in the sector due to the pandemic, it’s vital that governments work together find ways to get us moving again.
Thank you so much for the opportunity, Jim!
At Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, April 2018