Back in the land of the blog

Apologies to the 5 of you who take the trouble to read this stuff.  I know that it’s been a little while since I last posted anything.  It’s a funny thing: you start taking a project just a little bit seriously and KABOOM! All of a sudden you’re onto a second whiteboard.  One for daily tasks.  The other for strategising.

Yup.  I’m afraid to say that in the time that I’ve been away from this blog, I have become someone who not only strategises (and believes that this is an acceptable word), but someone who can fill an entire 600 x 900mm whiteboard with the results.

Not only that, but I find myself saying awful things and meaning them.  Terrible things, like:

– what is our “why message”?*

– how can we make the user journey more engaging?

Forgive me

There’s not a lot I can say in my defence. It’s a pretty clear cut case of me becoming a total cringemeister.

You see, working on a start-up is a bit like living in a parallel universe.  Given that something like 4 out of 5 start-ups fail, the only way to protect yourself from the cruel, cruel world of reality is to stay cocooned inside the cosy little bubble of your “vision”.

You have to be able to survive in a near-permanent state of suspended disbelief about the actual merits of what you’re doing. There’s no room for self-doubt.  If you let your guard drop for a second, you risk opening the floodgates to a tsunami of ridicule and utter snivelling contempt. From yourself. And that’s no good when you’re not much of a swimmer. Or climber.  So you have to saddle up your whiteboards, stick your fingers in your ears and, shouting la-la-la-la-la to ward off the spectre of imminent defeat, you ride into battle once more.

First world problems; young person’s game

In our bubble, quite often obstacles can seem Herculean. Overwhelming and insurmountable.  There’s only two of us, after all. Trying to start up a whole online community business on our own. Having never done this before. It’s really hard.  No-one really understands what it’s like…

Absolute hogwash.

We’ve (um, I’ve) totally bought in to how hard it is and it’s a pile of nonsense.  The stuff we’re doing (marketing, sales, talking to people, drawing bees) is not difficult.  The worst we can really say is that some of our tasks are a bit time-consuming and tedious.  Occasionally they require a bit of thinking, perhaps a whole hour’s worth at a stretch. Sometimes our computers don’t save stuff and then we get really mad.  And we have to rub really hard to get the red ink off the whiteboard or use a wet cloth.  That’s a bit annoying.

I can almost see you playing the world’s smallest violin as you read this…

Still, I can see why start-ups are a young person thing. By the time you hit your mid 30s you’re already starting to have that generally tired feeling. You know you’ve got it when you see other people’s pictures of full-on party times on Facebook and your instinct is to put the kettle on.  And also if you use the expression “full-on party times”.

Youngsters benefit from the confidence that comes from zero sum knowledge of the law which dictates that most stuff doesn’t work out.  They’ve got time to burn and plump, youthful skin, which deflects the death-rays of failure.

Good for them and their unwavering enthusiasm.  I may not have their energy, or drive, or untested belief in their own greatness. And I sure don’t have their carefree attitude to money or access to parental subsidies.  But I have the twin-turbo motivators of absolute bloody necessity and can’t possibly ever show my face around town if this thing fails.

Plus, my rubber-skin syndrome (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, if you’re interested, or want to wiki some quite freaky photos) is really starting to come into its own, as the years roll on and the collagen leeches from my skin. It won’t be long till I’m having to tuck folds of it into my pockets, or up my sleeves, like I do with hankies. And I’m sure there’ll be someone, somewhere, willing to pay me to demonstrate just how far I can stretch my jowls. So, my Plan B is sorted.

Judging progress

Inside the bubble, it’s difficult to judge progress. Obviously, we know that time is passing. But beyond that, it gets a bit fuzzy. We’re doing the stuff you’re supposed to do: checking Google Analytics for how many people register versus how many people visit the site; how frequently people visit the site and how long they spend on it.  We track how many people open our newsletters, how many click on the links we provide.  We test different subject lines and different content in our newsletters.  And we’ve been able to draw some conclusions:

– it doesn’t matter what the subject matter says

– it doesn’t matter what time we send the email (within daylight hours, I haven’t tried a 3am one)

– it doesn’t matter if I spend hours designing the template or if I just cobble something together

– it doesn’t matter which bits from the site I pick for the newsletter

In fact, nothing seems to radically influence people’s behaviour when it comes to the newsletters.  Except:

BIG BUTTONS.  People love to click on big buttons.  Particularly if they are a red/orange colour. If you have a whacking great big button that says “Click Here”, then it seems people just can’t resist hitting the big button. About 30% more people click on a big ol’ button than on a standard link.

So this week’s newsletter is just a selection of giant buttons. Make’s it a whole lot quicker to create. I doubt that it makes any difference what the buttons say. “Click here for unicorns”.  “Click here if you love Alabama”.  “Click here if you’re a Godfrey Bloom fan”.

If that goes well, I’ll probably move to just one huge button, filling the whole screen.  “Click here for everything”.

And then I can probably retire.

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how to launch a successful start-up

BeNeighbourlyLogo

Fanfare please.  We’ve launched BeNeighbourly.com, our neighbourhood community site.  Whoop whoop!  The good people of SW17 and SW19 do not know how lucky they are to be our pilot subjects.

It’s funny – with my corporate background, I’ve done my share of mega-ton deals.  I’ve met with a load of powerful people, controlling a lot of money.  Didn’t really faze me.  Just got on with it.

And yet, the time comes for me to send an email to a few dozen people (the ones that had filled out the Be Neighbourly survey back in March) to unveil the site, and anxiety has basically liquefied my insides.

What would they think of it?  Would it live up to their expectations?  Do they like the colour scheme?  The bee logo?

Turns out I needn’t have worried.  Most of them were on holiday…

what a difference two weeks makes

That was two weeks ago.  We’ve had over 70 people sign up since then and we’re starting to see a little bit of user-generated life on the site, which is really encouraging.  Although our numbers are modest, our conversion rates are high – a good chunk of people who visit the site register, so we’re doing something right.  I think it’s the bees…

Our whiteboard is now earning its keep.  We have a war map, charting our target areas for flyering (highlighter-boundaried and numbered “zones”; little crosses to denote sign-ups).  We have our daily tasks written in big letters to shame us into doing at least some of them.  And we have our weekly sign-up figures – which we update on a Friday in a scene reminiscent of the number round on Countdown, but with The Mack as Carol Vorderman.

The launch anxiety has been superseded by the reality of trying to get things off the ground.  I already feel very differently towards Be Neighbourly than I did just two weeks ago.  I’m less scared, more focused.  I’m now thinking about 3 versions ahead, whilst trying to build traction for version 1.  I’m much more comfortable talking about it as an actual business, now that there is something tangible I can point to.  I feel more gung-ho American about it, less mortified British.

And I’ve learned a heck of a lot about start-up life in these past two weeks.  So I’m going to share my new-found wisdom in the hope it helps others in a similar position.

things to remember when you’re launching a start-up

Right now, the only person who cares is you:  The fact that you’ve been living your start-up for several months and spending all of your spare time working on the concept, the workflow, the design of little bees and miniature hams etc., does not mean that anyone else has, or will, give it a second thought.  It is your business to care about your start-up.  And it is your business to make other people care about your start-up. “Their” job, generally, is to ignore it until it becomes commonplace.  For examples, see everything, ever.

This is just the beginning:  Launch is just the end of the idea phase and the beginning of the gruntwork phase.  It doesn’t matter how much audience testing you’ve done till now.  The fact is, you don’t know what people really want until you put it in front of them and see their reactions.  Now is the time to muster all your courage and your energy.  Because getting to the bottom of what people want takes time, patience and the hide of a rhino.  My friend Tes has a great web app helping school PTAs to spread the organisational burden amongst more parents and letting time-poor parents get involved in their child’s PTA without having to over-commit themselves (www.PTAsocial.com).  It’s taken her a year of hard work, but she just secured her first sale and she’s much closer to knowing what her customers want.

Always be closing.  You may think that your start-up concept is a no brainer.  Local happiness?  Friendly neighbours?  A fulfilling life supported by a loving, sociable community?  I mean, it’s even written in the bible.  Surely everyone gets it?  Dream on, dreamer.  Truth is, you’re in sales now and the same rules apply to selling social connection as to selling widgets.  You’d better get comfortable hawking your product, because this is your only job now.  And don’t expect anyone to get it first time – we reckon that for most people, around 3 – 4 “touches” (i.e. the number of times they come into contact with us or beneighbourly.com) is what it takes to convert a registration.

Get used to a million mini fails.  Like trying to hand out flyers outside Colliers Wood tube station on a Monday night.  Sure, it may be sunny.  You may be offering haribo and gingerbread men as sweeteners.  But this is still London.  And these people are still miserable.  You stand between them and home.  Your chances of survival are not good.  Move on (preferably at a run).

Advert6-HiveSW17

Don’t obsess over the data.  When you launch, the temptation is there to check your google analytic stats and user sign ups every 18 seconds.  STOP.  Take it from a master, it’s a monumentally distracting procrastination habit.  Pick a day of the week and make it stats day.  Buy some rosettes and streamers if you must and really go to town.  The only things I check on a daily basis are new registrations (because I send them a personal welcome email) and bounce rate (to check that there isn’t a major technical issue with the site).

Laser beam focus on the positives.  It doesn’t matter what they are. At Be Neighbourly HQ (aka our lounge), we daddy splash if we’re up and at ’em before 10am.  Forget your old measures of success.  These don’t have any place in start-up world.  In our world, the small, first wins are everything, because they are usually the hardest to get.  70 registrations in two weeks for us is phenomenal and surpasses our best expectations.  Now all we have to do is get them fully engaged…

Don’t be tempted to skip steps.  We’re have a strategy for each of our start-ups and we’re super-gluing ourselves to it.  Sure, we add to it as we go along, as we figure out what works (more cryptic marketing messages, evening flyering, contacting local organisations) and what doesn’t work (flyering outside of a tube, or a supermarket, or with The Mack handing out sweets to young children…).  But we don’t jump ahead of ourselves.  Our only job at this point in time is to get new users into the top of our funnel (ooh er), get ’em registered and get ’em interacting on the site.  This doesn’t mean I don’t have grand plans to take over the world with Be Neighbourly ***strokes large fluffy white cat.***  But I’m not an idiot.  We’re nowhere near anywhere yet.  So we’re sticking to the plan and absolutely no wandering off.

That’ll do pig.  Done is better than perfect.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Don’t overthink it.  Don’t anticipate problems.  Fuck it.  All of these are the right attitude towards building a start-up.  Mine (inherent perfectionism combined with a lawyer’s attention to detail) is not.  Last night I screeched that Be Neighbourly was an absolute sack of shit and it was utterly pointless continuing with it, because I realised that the way the developers had programmed the site doesn’t allow us to link to individual listings.  This morning I’ve taken a long, hard, look at myself and got over it.  For today at least.

Try to enjoy it.  Hahahahahahaha.  LOLZ.  ROFL.  etc.  Not really possible, but we’ll give it a go anyway.  I’ll admit it’s a very weird thing to be doing (and most people assume that it’s a hobby rather than a business – and in fairness, it is a hobby until it starts generating some revenue), but It still beats working for a living. See also: Positives; That’ll do Pig.

what every start-up business needs…

When you’re trying to start your own business (or in our case, trying to start four businesses pretty much simultaneously, on a shoestring and without physically coming to blows), it is very important that you surround yourselves with things that will increase your chance of success.

We’ve had the post-its for a long time now.  I now class those as essentials.  We’ve had a few recent issues with some dropping off the walls due to our desperate open balcony door – floor fan – open bedroom window breeze inducing triangulation.  But we’re taking it all in our stride.

I keep getting The Mack to put new bulbs in all of the ceiling spots.  As if, somehow, the extra wattage will illuminate my ideas and stop them being so bloody dim.  It mainly just shows up all the dust.  And gives The Mack eye strain.

I’ve bought some plants.  For that all-important 4pm oxygen hit.  And for the seed-nurture-growth symbolism.  And finally, for sustenance – if all the projects should fail, we will be able to live off two different types of basil.  The mint plant has contracted some sort of blight.  It’s essentially dead from the roots up.  I’m choosing not to see that as symbolic.

But now that the launch of Be Neighbourly is imminent, I felt we needed something more.  Something that would make us feel importantly business-like, but that wouldn’t break the bank.  Something that we could, quite literally, pin our dreams on.

So I invested twenty-five quid and bought us a whiteboard.  It was delivered yesterday.  And it is magnificent.

Already, I can see how it’s helping.  Just looking at it makes me think of all the graphs I could be plotting, the targets we can set (Q3 and Q4), the inspirational Steve Jobs or Katie Price quotes I can write every morning.

The pens were missing from the delivery, but that’s just a minor setback.

I feel certain that the whiteboard, in all its splendid 1200mm x 900mm oversized impracticality, will give us that competitive edge.  The reverse side is magnetic.  So we can multi-task – conceptual mind-maps on front, securely fastened important documents on the back.

The magnets were missing from the delivery, too, but, again, no biggie.

It is the size of our dining table.  We don’t really have anywhere to put it (maybe we could get rid of the dining table?), and it is so cheaply constructed that the whiteboard surface has a definite ripple effect when viewed from the side.  But I don’t care.  It has a flip out tray for the missing marker pens.  It has an eraser.  And it makes me feel so goddamn businesslike, I want to air punch every time I look at it.

behold its splendour

behold its splendour

Dear Empower Network – Blog Off!

Recently, I’ve picked up a whole legion of new fans of my blog.

Now, I know that neither my writing nor my life has got any more interesting, so I was puzzled over how I’d suddenly doubled my audience. Call me cynical, but my first thought was SPAM or scam.

So I had a little peek at my new followers’ profiles. And I found that they all had something in common. Not only were they now part of my flock, but they were also followers of A.W.O.L.

AWOL stands for Another Way of Life. It is part of the Empower Network, which claims to give people the tools and insider knowledge to be able to make money from blogging.

According to the blog of one of my new follower, Anna Linnehan’s, under the heading:

How To Create An Income Online ANYWHERE!

Most people don’t realize it. But there are an abundance of opportunities to create an income online ANYWHERE. An income that can completely pay for whatever lifestyle you choose, …

That all sounds very lovely. And very “empowering”. But c’mon people.  Let’s get something straight here.

Online income vs an online business

Anyone (in theory) can create an online income.  Whack up a basic website, scrape some generic, attention-grabbing, utter dross content (Lose 5lb of belly fat in 5 minutes with Amazing New Hollywood Diet), stick on some affiliate marketing buttons and a load of Google AdSense adverts…

And hey presto.  Watch those pennies roll in.  Very slowly.  If you’re lucky, you might make a few quid a month.  That’s an online income.  Not sure what lifestyle it is that you’ll be choosing off the back of this income, but I guess your buddies at AWOL will help you figure it out.

An online business, however, requires a bit more than that.  Trust me.  I’m on it like a car bonnet, but it’s a tough one to crack.

So what’s the deal?

I did a quick Google search under “Empower Network Scam” (lucky guess) and learned that it’s run by a couple of Dave’s, who, allegedly, have taken their own advice and gone totally AWOL – living in the kind of jurisdiction that Edward Snowdon’s looking for.

Ancient Egypt has nothing on these guys.  For anyone who hasn’t sussed it yet.  This is a Ponzi.  With a capital Ponz.

It’s actually pretty clever.  You see, what they claim to be selling is access to a blogging platform and combined internet marketing clout.  Higher rankings in search engines.  Increased traffic to your blog.  Easy ways to monetize. Em-Po-Wer.

money for nothing…

What they are actually selling is nothing.  Well, nearly nothing.  For upwards of $25/month ($100/month for the “Inner Circle”), you get your very own EN affiliated blog, hosted on their platform.  It’s called empower-network-something-or-other.  The significance of this will become clearer.

What’s less clear is why anyone would pay $25/month for a blog when the rest of the world is blogging for free on WordPress or Tumblr or the like.  But each to their own.

Now here’s the clever bit.  Pay attention.  When you join Empower Network, you are let into the secret that the way to make money from the internet is by…wait for it…promoting and reselling Empower Network.  Hold the fanfare.

If you look at the content of member blogs, you’ll notice a couple of things.  Firstly, there’s very little in the way of content.  A few pages.  All with titles like “Make Money Online!”, “Flog Your Blog!” and “Just Give Me Some Money!”.

Secondly, all of the content is about A.W.O.L. and Empower Network.  All links are effectively affiliate buttons.  They take you to the EN sign-up page.  And if you, too, become Empowered, the owner of the blog that referred you gets paid a commission.

So, as a newly Empowered blogger, if you want to make money, you need to sign up as many wannabe empowerees as you can.  And the way to do that?  By visiting as many blogs as you can, “following” and “liking” and spreading the EN gospel.  So it’s an endless viral blogging go-round.  Work, work, work.  Sell, sell, sell.  Because, remember, you’re paying a minimum of $25/month for this, so you’d better be recruiting new followers to cover your subs.

This is also the “secret” behind the claims that EN can get your blog higher up the search engine rankings.  Not quite true.  What happens is that all this recycled content, the constant pingbacks to A.W.O.L. or EN, confuse the searchbots.  It means that Empower Network, the brand, ranks top in Google.  If you’re searching for “Empower Network”, that is.

But since EN is all you have to sell, ain’t it grand that it ranks so highly on Google?

There is something quite beautiful about its simplicity.  You buy into a scheme to make money online.  Turns out that the product you need to sell to make that money is the scheme itself.  You’re paying money to a company to promote their brand, which makes them a lot of money.  If you do enough promotion and make enough sales, you might make a little bit of money.  Maybe I’ve missed something, but it looks awfully to me like the only ones making real money from this are sitting high and dry atop their pyramid.

The best bit about it?  By writing about EN, I’ve probably pushed them even higher up the search rankings and helped them peddle their snake oil to some poor schmuck.

Do me a favour will you?  Don’t Google them, don’t click on any comments, follows or likes that they send you, and definitely do not fall for their scamming ways.

Just like naughty children or dogs, the best thing we can all do is just ignore them till they go away.

start-up snakes and ladders

Confession time.

I’ve been working on one of my projects since Autumn last year and it still isn’t ready.

I started it with enthusiasm.  I was free from the shackles of employment.  This was my chance to create something for myself.  Put it out there.  Show what I’m made of.

I attended lots of start-up events, went to pitch evenings, watched live-streams that educated me on “how to work with developers”, “UX journeys for the uninitiated”, “AWS and the Elastic Beanstalk”.  Yes, really.

I followed the rules of first business projects (keep it small; base it on something you know about; don’t spend too much money).  I designed the layout of my website whilst I was away in India before Christmas.  Every evening after sunset, I’d work on it a little more, figuring out the work-flow, the right colour combinations, how many pages my site would need, what features were essential.  My mock-ups were beautifully simple.  I was ready to take on the world.

And then it turned 2013 and my enthusiasm fell off a cliff.

can’t I just go back to bed?

There’s a reason why so many successful entrepreneurs all seem to have boundless energy and the sort of pep that repels me at twenty paces.

It’s because keeping up any degree on motivation on a project is really, really hard.  And it becomes a vicious circle.

circle of despair

spiral of despair

Helpfully, the Mack has taken away all of my shoelaces, belts, etc.  And I’m no longer allowed out on the balcony unsupervised.

a real product development cycle

You see all these articles about product development with fancy graphics and jargon about the key stages of the development cycle.  They make out that there’s a sign-posted, well-lit cycle path, shielded from oncoming traffic, leading you to your dream destination.  Not in my experience.  It’s closer to a cruel game of snakes and ladders…

game of life

game of life

tantalisingly close

My project, which is a website where creatives (designers, photographers, film-makers, copy writers), can buy customised contracts for their businesses – so they don’t have to waste time and money on lawyers – is so very close to being ready.

But it feels like my bastard child.  I’m struggling to give it any love and attention.  I’m favouring other projects.  And, as a result, it keeps throwing tantrums and breaking things.

Every time I go to test that it works, the entire site crashes and comes up with a MySQL error message that sends shivers down my spine.  I have developers on standby to complete the last tidying up bits, but I can’t tell them what needs doing because I can’t get past a certain point before it boots me out.

I try to purchase a contract through the site and my Paypal account is blocked.  They need to verify my home address by calling my land line.  What is this, 1992?  Who the hell still has a land line?  I try to call customer services (from my mobile, not my non-existent land line).  The number they give doesn’t connect.  I’ve emailed them, but who knows if they’ll ever get back to me.  I’m stuck in a Paypal freeze-out.

I can’t help but have that feeling that the closer I get to completion, the further away it recedes.  Taunting me from just out of reach.  Probably sipping on pina coladas in some tropical oasis.

If I’ve learned one thing from this process it’s that you have to do some work on your project every single day to stay on top of it and keep momentum going.  Even if it’s only a small thing.  EVERY SINGLE DAY.  No excuses.  No let up.  No quitting.  Projects fail because people give up on them.  I don’t care if my projects fail because people (ungrateful morons) don’t want my product.  I do care if they fail because I couldn’t be bothered to see them through.

Woo Hoo.  Feeling pumped.  Dear Paypal….. I’m not sure you noticed, but it’s not 1992….

creating limboland

These past few days, I’ve discovered that the thing I like most about my Be Neighbourly business project is being able to design miniature villages and bees.  I spent several hours on Saturday creating a teeny weeny butchers’ shop complete with ham on hooks and I was deliriously happy.  Then I designed many, many bees.  A whole hive in fact.  And I went to bed feeling fulfilled and at one with the world.

BNneighbourhood2

This tells me two things:

1.  That I missed my calling and, instead of wasting all that time being a lawyer, I should have been working on Sim City or LEGOLAND; and

2.  I am avoiding doing the real work on the projects.

I know this to be true, because the post-its tell me so.  They are always there, surrounding me, with their accusatory neon hues.  Always pointing out what I haven’t done.

The Mack has a new post-it system (he is nothing if not progressive when it comes to post-its).  He adapted it from a project management seminar that he went to recently (one which overran and didn’t cover half of the promised material… hmmmm).

We used to have a 3 tiered system, with the most urgent tasks on the top line.  But this has radically changed.  Now we have a 3 tiered system, with the most urgent tasks on the top line.  But these tiers now have names: Work In Progress, To Do and Backlog.  And there are rules for the number of post-its that can go on each line.  You must not have more than 2 post-its on your Work In Progress line (in fact, it’s labelled Work In Progress (2), so you are in no doubt).  And there are a maximum of 6 tasks for To Do (6).  Backlog is more relaxed.  You can fill a whole wall if you so choose.

It has revolutionised my working life.  Because now I look at my two priority tasks and they’re on a line that says Work in Progress.  And I think: Great!  Someone is progressing these tasks.  So I can kick back and concentrate on designing some more pastel-coloured town houses…

Limbo, limbo ah-hah

We’re in a bit of limbo, the Mack and I.  Our projects are in the hands of developers, busily trying to turn my rudimentary powerpoint mock-ups into working websites.  We’re passed the design stage, so there isn’t much for us to see.  Occasionally, my developers Skype me when they’re having some “doubts” about my requirements (I choose to see this as a language issue – I’m pretty sure they’re not feeling that negative towards my entire concept).  But really we’re just waiting for them to finish programming, so that we can test the sites.

I’m not very good at waiting.  I get twitchy.  I’m a humungous control freak and leaving things to others to complete goes against everything I stand for.  I like to be able to watch over people when they’re doing a task for me, so that I can snatch it out of their hands the very moment that they make the slightest error.

Bit tricky when your developers are in Jaipur…

If I were a different (better?) person, I would be using this time to get ahead of the curve.  Drawing up my checklist for testing the website; pulling together all of the content sources that I need to get the first info up onto the site; identifying the local businesses that I want to partner with to attract users in the first few months post-launch.

Alas.  It seems that my time is already taken up with designing tiny meat products.

Still, I’ve got as far as putting those tasks on post-its on the “To Do” tier, so I’m bound to get round to them soon.

Praise Be to Boipeba

I don’t care what anyone says.  I defy you not to feel cool arriving somewhere by speedboat.  Sure, your face may be wind-whipped and salt-encrusted.  And, sure, you might have spent most of the hour-long journey from Valenca clenching your jaw due to the many last-second, high-speed turns to avoid the sandbanks.  But cool.  Definitely cool.

Ilha da Boipeba.  A little Bahian island paradise, a few hours south of Salvador.  Described in the guidebooks as “like Morro de Sao Paulo was 20 years ago”.  That appealed to me, because I’m basically like I was 20 years ago.  Immature.  Broke.  Trying to avoid doing any work…

My final beach break.  Last chance to soak up some sun and relax before the long flight home.  Fairly achievable goals, I thought.

And yet…

divino spirito santo

As a (very) lapsed Catholic, my knowledge of holy days is a little sketchy.  So, I didn’t know that they would be celebrating Pentecost, the feast of the holy spirit, during my stay.  I arrived on Friday afternoon to find the town square festooned with multi-coloured streamers, fluttering prettily in the breeze.  On closer inspection I realised they were made of strips of plastic, but the effect was very beautiful.  (As an aside, Brazilians love plastic bags.  Nothing makes them happier in shops than to put only one item in a plastic bag, or preferably, in a bag inside a bag.  Largesse with plastic bags is a point of national pride, I think).

20130518_114721

When I went in search of food that evening, I was accosted by a guy with dreadlocks, who insisted on being my companion for the evening.  Our first stop was the church, where they were just getting to the good part of the service.  I stood aside to let the young actors playing the fishermen pass, with their traditional hats, oars and nets.  They rowed and cast their way up the aisle in a way that was wholly in keeping with the island’s traditional fishing past.

Then came the word of the Lord, played by a young actor in priest’s robes, flanked by two other boys who were playing the part of the church, carrying an arch draped in cloth.  The fishermen fell to their knees and cast off their nets, before following the pretend church out of the doors of the actual church, followed by the actual priest and the congregation, who were singing beautiful, moving, but uplifting hymns to a slight samba beat.

I retired, with my companion, “Jackson”, to a nearby restaurant.  Jackson told me he’d been married to a French woman, but that she’d ultimately been too possessive and wouldn’t let him express himself through his passion, capoeira.  He then pointed out a Dutch girl that he’d been in a relationship with and spoke of an Argentinian he’d been involved with a couple of months back.  I was beginning to form a picture of the ecosystem of this island and feel a little bit like conspicuous foreign fish, small pond…

He turned out to be a nice guy, if a little intense.  I’m not sure that my laughter was the correct response to his pronouncement, eyes flickering and hands constantly tugging at his dreads, that he was living a simple, holistic life now.  No more drugs.  No alcohol.  No cigarettes.  Only marijuana…

He explained that I’d picked a great time to visit.  The feast of the holy spirit was a bank holiday, so the whole island would be celebrating, with music in the town square.  I’d already noticed that they pumped music through a PA system attached to electricity poles (like a cool version of the musak rocks that you get in crap theme parks), so I was looking forward to getting a little more musica brasileira in my life.

holy moly

I spent Saturday on the beach, snoozing and watching a hippy dad play a very authentic game of ‘sea monster’ with his young kids.  They seemed to be laughing, but they may have delayed PTSD.

My pousada was only 50m from the main square, so I heard the first band start early evening.  It was a bit louder than I expected, but it was exciting, having this just next door.  I decided to give it till 8, get some food and see what it was all about.  I stepped outside and, naturally, bumped into Jackson.  He took me to a tapioca stand run by friends of his and sat with me whilst I ate (chicken and fried banana – my new staple).  His sister and her kids came passed and he introduced me to them.  I didn’t know the Portuguese for, “I’m just being polite, I’m really not in the slightest bit interested in your brother/uncle”, so I just smiled and said hello.

Jackson was going to a house party and invited me along.  As much as I would typically love to go somewhere with a load of people I don’t know and can’t understand, on this occasion I declined.  I said I was staying for the music.  Which he told me didn’t get going again till 10pm.  So I slunk back to my room and waited.  At 10.01, I ventured out again.  I stood in the field to the right of the stage and tried to look inconspicuous.  I slurped the heck out a caipirinha (gotta keep busy) and watched the townsfolk having fun.

Ultimately, though, there’s only so much fixed-smile swaying you can do.  I was in bed by 11pm.

I think the music stopped sometime around 4.30am…

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on the seventh day

Right, so basically “religious festival” in Brazil is synonymous with “all night rave”.  Now, I’m not sure if this is a Vatican-endorsed initiative (South American pope, after all).  But if my formative experience of Catholicism had been like this, I think it’s safe to say I would still be a believer.

The Sabbath.  A day of much needed rest after a sleepless night.  The double-couple retirees staying in my pousada had invited me on a jaunt to Morro de Sao Paulo, a couple of islands away.  But instead it rained all day and all night.  Fat, heavy, curtains of rain.  Non-stop.  Typical bloody bank holiday weekend weather.

typical bank holiday weather

raindrops keep falling…

So I was stuck in my room for the best part of 36 hours.  I braved the deluge only when I got so hungry that I was close to passing out (at least I was horizontal, should that have happened).  And I discovered two things: (1) the music, which was loud outside, was amplified about tenfold inside my room, as the bass reverberated around the walls, and the stage PA competed with the local bars’ soundsystems; and (2) the same four songs were being played over and over again.  And one of them was Gangnam Style.

I couldn’t understand it.  It was clearly different bands, playing different styles of music.  Some samba, some bossanova, some a bit more pop.  This great tradition of Bahian music. But they played the same four songs.  Even sometimes within the same set.  It became a form of torture and I found myself developing Pavlovian responses to certain tunes, particularly the “jiggy jiggy boom” song.

Now, God moves in mysterious ways, but I don’t think even He could be bothered to have come up with such an elaborate plan to show me the error of my ways and get me to repent.  Also, I suspect He was pretty preoccupied with the mortal souls of the grinding girls who were putting the ‘carnal’ into carnaval up on stage.

I was very grateful when rain finally stopped play at 1.30 in the morning and I could fall asleep.  Well, except that I couldn’t quite fall asleep.  Because, for a reason known only to themselves, the owners of my pousada had clad my windows with aluminium foil, inside and out.  And every time the wind blew (which was all night), the tin foil rustled loudly…

older, no wiser

Monday, I was determined to hit the beach, whatever the weather.  Praia de Morere was voted 4th most beautiful beach in Brazil by an influential guide, so that was my destination.  All I knew about getting there was that you have to cross a river, so you need to check the tides.  Check.  There aren’t much in the way of maps of Boipeba.  A few curvy lines on a bit of paper and that’s it.  So I just picked a path and followed it.  10 mins down a deserted track and I hit some monster puddles.  I’m just about to turn back when an old man appears coming from the opposite direction.

I ask him if I’m going the right way and whether it’s navigable.  He smiles a three-toothed grin and says that he’ll personally accompany me to the beach, so that I don’t get stuck.  We talk and walk.  He is very complimentary about my (broken) Portuguese and about English people in general (bad judge of character).  After a further 10 mins, we hit the beautiful Praia de Cueira, all sweeping sand and palm trees.

My friend says he’s enjoying my company so much that he’ll walk me to the next beach.  He’s very pleased that our paths crossed today.  He says this whilst putting his skinny arm around my back to pat my shoulder.

We reached the river crossing, but I decided it was too deep for me to cross easily with my bag.  I said I was going to stay on the beach till the tide went out a little.  My friend said he had to go back into town, where he was heading before he met me.  I smiled and started to thank him for his help.  He took me by the shoulders in a surprisingly strong grip and I turned my cheek towards him.  And before I know what’s what, he’s kissing me full on the mouth and planting gummy smackers all over my face.

I managed to pull away, still muttering “thank you, thank you” as I beat a hasty retreat.  I took my chances with the river crossing, holding my bag high above my head with water up to my chin, and just about avoiding being swept out to sea with the current that was stronger than I expected.

I recounted the story to The Mack that evening.  When he finally stopped laughing, all he said was, “I think it’s time for you to come home now”.  He’s got a point.

Morere - worth being molested by an old man

Morere – worth being molested by an old man

Costa do Cacau: Ilheus and Itacare

I spent a night in Ilheus mainly because I couldn’t face another hour on the bus. But I told myself it was a culture stop to break up the beachfest.  This time, you’ll be pleased to hear, not only did I arrive after 8pm in the dark, but I hadn’t been certain of getting a seat on the bus from Porto Seguro, so I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay.

Things did not look promising in the bus terminal.  D.E.A.D.  I did a quick tour and found a cranky man behind a counter in the little café and, mercifully, he had some computers.  I don’t think my overwrought gratitude did anything to lift his mood, but I at least managed to find somewhere to sleep.  Of course, it was way across the other side of town and cost more in a cab than my 6 hour bus ride, but given that the alternative was playing hobo in the bus station, I wasn’t about to complain.

Naturally, I hadn’t researched much about Ilheus, other than that it was the capital of the cocoa trade, historically.  But I was game for seeing its sights.  The girl on reception laughed uproariously at my suggestion of walking to the town centre, but I made it part way via Praia dos milionares (millionaires’ beach).  Another day, another empty beach…  My only compadres were a pretty dead crab (as in: all dead, but nice to look at) and some shells that just called out for me to turn them into a crap miniature owl sand drawing.

Ilheus is a proper, bustling little city, but I’d tentatively suggest that it only really warrants a couple of hours’ exploring.  The historic town centre is really small and the important buildings (cathedral, presidential palace, theatre etc.) are within 2 minutes’ walk of one another.

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To up my culture credentials, I visited the home of the famous Brazilian writer, Jorge Amado, which is now a museum.  It’s a really lovely old colonial townhouse, with wonderful interiors (jacaranda inlaid floors and windows and Portuguese leaded lights).  There were two very friendly and enthusiastic girls giving the guided tours, taking visitors around each room and explaining the significance of them to the writer.  A crying shame then that I barely understood a word they were saying.  And it didn’t help that I’d never even heard of Jorge Amado or read any of his books.  Yep.  Philistine.

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Still, I thought I’d made a pretty good show of it, all told.  Nodding sagely and hmmm-ing in all the right places.  Didn’t embarrass myself too much, I thought.

And then I blundered into a downstairs room where a TV crew was filming.  ::Cut::

Bad enough.  And then worse.  Because the TV presenter, a girl so highly polished that it hurt my eyes to look directly at her, pointed her microphone at me and started asking me questions.  Where was I from?  Was I a big fan of Amado’s work?  What did I think of the house?

Well folks, I’d love to tell you that, under pressure, I suddenly discovered a fluency in Portuguese that had previously eluded me…

Ha!  As if.  Nope.  Instead, I stuttered, flushed and mumbled something about it being very interesting.  The presenter nodded encouragingly.  So I repeated that 3 more times.  And when I realised that the cameraman was following me round the room, I found myself adopting studious “how very interesting” poses as I looked at the various objects.

And that’s a wrap.

Itacaré

Itacaré surprised me.  It’s a real little beachy/surfer town and even in off season it has a bit of life to it.  And it’s more touristy than I was expecting.  It has a strip of restaurants and bars (and, randomly, falafel to rival North London’s finest) and shops selling handicrafts and beachwear.  It’s not tacky, just seems more geared up for gringos than other places I’ve visited.  If you’re young and travelling around Brazil, then Itacaré should definitely be on your itinerary – it feels fun and sociable.

It’s got several beaches, all walkable from the town.  To get from one to the next, you just hop over the rocks.  Often, there’s no-one around, so you can have a little bay all to yourself.  My first day there, that’s what I did.  I hopped from Resende to Tiririca to Costa beach.  Costa was empty, so I made myself at home.  Just me, the sea and a rather excellent summer playlist (classic Prince, a bit of Roachford and Maxi Priest).

After a while, I went for a little paddle.  Out of nowhere, a lifeguard appeared.  He explained that the current in Costa was crazy strong, so I shouldn’t swim there.  I promised to stay in the shallows.  He told me his name was Jesús.  Very apt for a lifeguard, I thought.  We chatted a bit.  He spoke reasonable English and I’d already displayed my Portuguese prowess with my knowledge of “sea” and “dangerous”, so conversation was easy.

He told me about a beach a couple along, Sirioco, which was amazing and great for swimming.  He offered to show me if I wanted, since there was no-one on Costa that needed guarding.

As we hiked up a little forest trail behind Recife beach, climbing over a 7ft high locked gate onto a swing bridge high in the trees, I inwardly praised myself for my spirit of adventure.  This is the reason for travelling, I told myself: to be spontaneous and open-minded and meet friendly people.  I felt pumped.

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Although I was pretty knackered by the time we descended to the beach, I had to admit:  Sirioco was spectacular.  A little cove with a tangled wild forest backdrop.  It was pretty special, alright.

It was also totally deserted, but for the two of us…

I wasn’t worried.  I was an adventurer.  And besides, I’d been brought here by a lifeguard called Jesus.  When he said that he’d keep an eye on me whilst I swam, I was delighted he took his job so seriously.  My own private beach and my own private lifeguard.  I could get used to this.

He was right.  It was a great place to swim.  Big waves but no drag.  If I went out too far, Jesus whistled me closer to shore.  A real pro.

I came back in to dry off.  Laid out my sarong on the sand, shut my eyes and zoned out.  And it was wonderful.

Until I suddenly felt Jesus’ hands massaging my shoulders…

It was one of those moments where it dawned on me that I might have massively misread the situation.

This is a common enough occurrence for me.  But not normally in such extreme circumstances.

As Jesus was working away at the knots in my shoulders and telling me that he’d spent 18 months in Sao Paulo learning various massage techniques.  I was calculating my chances of survival if I ran for it and wondering if he was even a real lifeguard.  I mean, he was definitely wearing a red and yellow vest.  But I realised I hadn’t noticed what it said on it.  Oh no. Maybe this was some incredibly elaborate ruse to prey on naïve, 35 year old tourists.

Fortunately, Jesus was behind me, so he couldn’t tell that I was frantically scanning for objects to use as weapons.  He must have sensed something though.  “You’re very tense”, he said.  No kidding, strange man who’s touching me.  I took that as my cue.  “Erm, thanks very much, Jesus.  You’re really good at massage, but I’m just not feeling very comfortable”.

Basic positive rejection psychology.  Praise followed by a reasonable, non-specific let down.

Jesus stopped massaging me and didn’t look at all put out.  So then I wondered if I’d got it wrong?  Maybe massage is just like shaking hands in Brazil?  Oh, why was adventuring so hard…?  I decided that I’d over-reacted and that it was just a friendly gesture.

We walked back via a different route.  We reached a waterfall and Jesus said “let’s go for a shower” and started stripping off.  Friendly?  Maybe.  But I think my Great British reserve just kicked in…