Author: Fredrik Haren - The Island Man

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The island of Manhattan, New York, USA. Island number 10 (out of 100), country number 9 (out of 25), months number 5 (out of 100.)

“When I first arrived to New York I did not like it. The first semester was hell, and I just wanted to go back home to Vilnius.”

The words belong to Ruta Kruliauskaite, a Lithuanian woman studying New Media at the prestigious Tisch School on Manhattan.

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Her statement surprised me, especially since I knew how much she had wanted to go to New York to study, even leaving a successful career as a event organiser in Lithuania to pursue her dream in the City of Dreams. It also surprised me since I knew that she really liked the course.

But it was not the school that had made her unhappy. It was New York.

I asked her: “Imagine that you somehow were able to fly over all the teachers you have here at Tisch to Vilnius, would the course still be as good?”

She thought for a while and then replied: “No. Part of what makes the school so great is because it takes place here on Manhattan.”

She went on to explain that what had put her off in the beginning was the sheer size of New York. The city is just too big and energetic for anyone to wrap their heads around it.

That is what the people of New York have understood. So New Yorkers tend to specialise, cut out a smaller, more manageable piece of the Big Apple so to not choke by biting off too much.

Every city has different areas that have different characteristics, but I think it could be argued that nowhere is these “cities within a city” more distinct than in New York

China Town, Harlem, Chelsea, SoHo etc.

Same with the creative aspect of the city. If you are into advertising New York i Madison Avenue, if you are into finance it’s Wall Street, if you are into theater it’s Broadway. Or off Broadway.

If you are going to make it there (as the song goes) you have to focus.

This is the magic of New York. All those very nisch things happening here. How you can be invited into a room behind a door to discover magic.

Like when Ruta today took me past the security guard at the Tisch School of the Arts at 721 Broadway.

When I was standing outside the school waiting for her to meet up with me the building looked just like any other building. On the sidewalk was the usual unique mix of New Yorkers with men in suits, homeless people pushing carts, tourists with cameras and young students rushing to class. Fashionable, rich women trying to catch a taxi next to a conservative jew walking slowly next to a FedEx delivery man double parking to deliver a parcel. Noise, stress, hustle and bustle. Human randomness.

And then we step into Tisch and take the elevator up a few floors and step into a different world.

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Hundreds of students sitting hunched over computer screens developing the future. I see someone building a arcade game in the workshop, someone else is trying on a dress filled with some kind of electronics. A series of 3D-printers are spitting out some creations.

In the elevator we meet a guy with a VR-helmet and it looks like the most natural thing in the world.

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In this small, tiny space high above the streets of New York some of the world’s leading minds in how to creatively use technology are developing our tomorrow.

I tell Ruta about how I had watched a Ted Talk on the plane to New York about a color blind man who have had a camera operated into his head to translate color to sounds that his brain can interpret. (you can watch the speech here.) Ruta replies: “Yes we had him here as a speaker last semester.” It’s that kind of school.

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A micro cosmos for a specific area of interest. (In this case new media and new technology)

Walk one block, or one street, in any direction from 721 Broadway and a totally different micro cosmos is hiding behind a different door.

As it happens I also watched another video on my flight to New York which turned out to be about the city I was traveling to. (It’s a 21 hour flight, so I had a lot of time to watch film…)

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The movie was “Homme Less” – a documentary about a man who is projecting a life of being a successful photographer in New York, working at the New York Fashion week, for example, but who is reality a home less man, squatting at night in a corner of a roof top, sleeping in a sleeping bag under a tarp and having to use a bottle as a toilet. A fascinating film about how the glittering promise of New York lures people with dreams like a sirens singing to the sea men. A sad reminder of how these extreme silos of New York can create parallell worlds where people fall behind the cracks.

As I leave New York I reflect over the need we humans have to craft out a small part of the world for ourselves in order to stay sane.
How we need to feel that we are part of a puzzle, and how that puzzle can not be so big that we can not see the whole picture.

But at the same time they are all “New Yorkers”.

Ruta might not have loved New York when she came here – because she had not been able to get to know her “sub-tribe” in this city of tribes. But after almost a year here she likes it more and more.

For me the lesson from spending a few days walking through the different parts of New York and talking to everything from bankers to fire fighters is the need to create our own little “me-cosmos”.

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Done right you can look at the world using many different perspectives, just like you can use the one camera and get very different pictures using different lenses from fish eye to telescopic.We view the world based in the perspective of our personal preferences, our family, our neighbourhood, our city, our state, our country – and the world. From our culture, our interests and our backgrounds.

We need to carve out our own little nisch, and then – when we have made it there – “we can make it everywhere…

Fredrik Haren, aka “The Island Man”, plans to visit 100 islands, in at least 25 countries, on at least 6 continents – in less than 100 months. The purpose of this “World Tour of Islands” is to get a better understanding of the world, a deeper understanding of the people who live here and a broader understanding of life. The island of Manhattan was island number 10, country number 9 and months number 5.
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The island of Bali, Indonesia, Island number 9 (out of 100), country number 8 (out of 25), months number 4 (out of 100.)

What do you believe people should be allowed to believe?

I am writing this from the spiritual island of Bali, Indonesia. It is hard to visit this magical island without getting affected by the spirituality that oozes out from it. Everywhere you go you see temples, statues of gods, black-and-white checkered cloth symbolising yin-and-yang and so on.

During this visit I decide to dig deeper into this spirit of spirituality and sign up for a tour called “Local Shamans, Healers & Fortune Tellers”.

Now let me clarify one thing: I am not religious and I do not belong to any religion.

I am an agnostic, which means that I neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of God.

I do not have proof of any god’s existence, but I am so amazed about the sheer magic of the universe I can not rule out that it was more than just random chance that created it all.

The purpose for signing up was not for me to find “clarity about my life” by visiting a shaman – but to get an understanding about what some people in Bali believe.

My guide Nyoman took me to visit the son of Ketut Liyer – the Balinese medicine man, artist and palmist who was featured in Elizabeth Glibert’s “Eat Pray Love”.

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We also got to visit Cokorda Rai, an 80 year old healer with royal Balinese blood, and go the Pura Ulun Danu Batur Water temple (which is on the Unesco Heritage list.).

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One thing that strikes you when you visit Bali is the extreme friendliness of the balinese. They just seem happy, content and good. You feel safe, welcomed and calm when you are in Bali – and I think that is a reason why the island has been such a magnet for tourism. (the island of 4 million people see an additional 4 million tourists visit every year.) People like Bali. I think they even like how Bali changes them ever so little to be better people.

So has spirituality anything to do with this spirit of the Balinese?

I ask my guide.

He smiled (they do that a lot in Bali) and said: “Our soul should be as a bowl of clear water. Then it’s easy to see the moon in the reflection. If the water it’s dirty it’s more difficult to see the truth.”

I ask him to clarify this philosophical message about clarity.

He continued: “We believe we have to attract the positive energy from mother earth. Balancing is very important for us in Bali. Balance between human and human. Between Human and God. Between Human and nature.”

The spirituality in Bali is a mix of Indian Hinduism and Chinese influences with messages of yin-and-yang and so on. My guide explained how they both believe in heaven and hell as well as reincarnation.

“We believe in karma. Do something bad and something bad is going to happen to you. Steal and someone will steal from you.’

Learning about the spirituality of the people of the island of Bali got me thinking about faith in general.

I might not be a believer, nor am I a non-believer,  but I do believe in the right for people to believe, and that is what this post is about.

With a lot of attention being given to horrifying actions being done “in the name of religion” recently I would like to stand up for the right of people to believe.

Many people are implying that if people of a specific faith do not publicly denounce the monstrous acts done in the “name of religion” then they are somehow supporting the terrorists.

Some want to go further and ban some – or all – religions all together implying that “religion is bad”.

I think that is, frankly, unfair.

All major faiths are based on love and compassion.

Love – like faith – is a powerful, positive and magical force, but like all powerful forces they can be miss-used with disastrous results.

A lot of horrifying and monstrous acts are being done in the name of love as well – committed by sick or troubled souls. (Like, so called, “crimes of passion” where, for example, a jealous ex-husband kills his ex-wife because he cannot stand seeing her with another man). Terrible crimes committed in the name of passion and love – but clearly done as something directly opposite to what those words truly mean.

I do not hear anyone calling for all the people in love to publicly take a stand against crimes of passion, or people calling for love to be abolished as it brings so much sorrow to the world.

Love – and faith – are strong emotional powers that in some instances go terrible wrong. But in most cases are all about compassion, care and empathy.

Criminals should be punished, sick people need help. The root causes of terrorism, and all kinds of destructive extremism should be fought.

But blaming faith doesn’t do anything good, just like blaming love will not stop things like domestic violence. If anything it might direct our focus and energy away from the real issues that are causing these horrendous acts of violence.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of “religion” as institutions. But I am a huge believer of letting people believe in things that they feel is making the world better.

And today – perhaps more than ever – we need people who believe in the positive powers of love and compassion, regardless if that is done in the name of any god or not.

We just need more love in this world.
And we need less hate.
That I believe.

 

ps. So did the palm reading and healer work?

The very first thing that Cokorda Rai, that 80 year old healer with royal Balinese blood, said to me when I sat down in front of him for my session was: “I awaken your passion for creativity.” Then he patted his finger on my head.

Considering that my passion for creativity has been my center point for the last 15+ years I must admit that was pretty much straight on target. Not bad not knowing anything about me… (Or did he? Or had my guide googled my name after receiving my online application and forwarded some information about me to Kokarda Rai ahead of my meeting with him…? We will never know.)

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Fredrik Haren, aka “The Island Man”, plans to visit 100 islands, in at least 25 countries, on at least 6 continents – in less than 100 months. The purpose of this “World Tour of Islands” is to get a better understanding of the world, a deeper understanding of the people who live here and a broader understanding of life. The island of Bali was island number 9, country number 8 and months number 4.

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Rhoda island, Cairo, Egypt, Island number 8 (out of 100), country number 7 (out of 25), months number 4 (out of 100.)

“There are islands in Cairo?”

I got that question earlier this week when I answered “Cairo” to the question “Which is the next island you are going to visit in your island world tour?”

And yes, there is. In the Nile. (Which means, I guess we can call them “Nileands”… :)

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To access map and read more about the Nilometer click here.

I am in Cairo for work but find time to visit Rhoda Island to go and visit the historic “Nilometer”.

A Nilometer was a “structure for measuring the Nile River’s clarity and water level during the annual flood season. It was a step-like structure that measured how high the flood would be. If it was low, there would be famine. If it was too high, it would be destructive. There was a specific mark that indicated how high the flood should be if the fields were to get good soil.” (Source Wikipedia.)

The Nilometer on Rhoda island is beautiful.

It was build way back in AD 861 and you can just see how important it was at the time. (Today the Nile is not flooding so uncontrollable anymore since Egypt has build damms to tame the mighty river.)

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When I see the workmanship, the effort and the attention to detail that went into the building of this amazing structure I am reminded of the greatness of the Egypt of the past. (Like you are over and over again when you visit the pyramids, the temples and the museums of Cairo and the rest of Egypt.)

But at the same time I can not but think about how a country that used to be so great can be so dysfunctional today.

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It is almost like if there is a curse on some countries where their once-greatness is stopping them from realising their full potential today.

You would think that someone growing up in a country that has a history such as Egypt would be inspired to want to build his or her country up to glory again. That the parents of these children would work hard to make it happen.

But time and time again when I come to Egypt I get the feeling of the opposite.

It’s like their history is holding them back, instead of pushing them forward.

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While here in Cairo I take time to listen to a powerful TED-talk by Wael Ghonim of Google Egypt who was instrumental in creating the “Arab Spring” in Egypt. Wael created a Facebook page that got more than 1 000 000 (!) followers and which got more than 100 000 people to go out and demonstrate to create a new and democratic Egypt in an event that escalated to a country wide uprising towards the regime. At the end Wael got thrown in jail and put in 11 days of total isolation and darkness until his colleagues in Google and Facebook friends got him released just days before Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.

In his speech Wael talks about how disappointed he was over how the Internet and social media – which had started of as a tool to create positive change – had turned into an instrument that tended to create polarisation.

At the end of his speech he says: “(We have to) make it socially acceptable that we change our minds. Or probably even reward that.”

And then he asks about post in social media: “What if we had a metric about how many people changed their minds?”

I think he is on to something. But I think his insight is much bigger than just social media.

I think that the success of societies, the success of civilisations, is based on their ability to change their minds.

And it is definitely true when it comes to personal success. Realising that what we thought was right is wrong and having the courage to admit it and recalibrate our thinking is what makes us grow.

Regardless if it is something small (like realising that there are islands in Cairo) to something big (chancing your world view or religious belief for example) having the ability to reboot our brains to upgrade our worldview is perhaps the most powerful ability we can have.

To change our minds is not to admit that we were wrong: It’s to show that we know how to be a little bit more right.

Or in the words of the brilliant Winston Churchill: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”.

When I see the kids playing in the Nile next to the Nilometer I hope someone is going to send that message to them. Egypt deserves to be great again.

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Fredrik Haren, aka “The Island Man”, plans to visit 100 islands, in at least 25 countries, on at least 6 continents – in less than 100 months. The purpose of this “World Tour of Islands” is to get a better understanding of the world, a deeper understanding of the people who live here and a broader understanding of life. Rhoda Island was island number 8, country number 7 and months number 4.

 

 

 

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Cam Kim island, Hoi An, Vietnam, Island number 7 (out of 100), country number 6 (out of 25), months number 4 (out of 100.)

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“Your hobby is islands?”

My guide, Lucy, is looking at me with a mix of amazement and doubt, like I am a little bit weird.

Which is funny since she just encouraged me to eat a duck fetus (!) – as if eating a semi-developed duckling would be something totally normal. (More about the duck fetus later.)

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Lucy is confused about my request to take a detour from the scheduled food tour that she is taking me on and to skip walking though the old town of Hoi An, and instead take a trip around the island of Cam Kim.

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(Click here to see island on Google Maps.)

Her reaction is understandable. The old town of Hoi An is on the “Unesco World Heritage List” because it is so unique.

On the Unesco’s website it reads: “Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.”

And it is lovely. (As hundreds, and hundreds, of tourists walking around the city can confirm.)

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So you would be forgiven if you thought that I wanted to see more of the city too, but I am a “off-the-beaten-track” kind of guy, who happens to have a soft spot for islands, so I ask to shorten the city tour so that we instead have time to go see an island as part of my tour.

Luckily for me Lucy is very open for new ideas and happily improvises a unique food tour, inclusive of island visit, just for me that takes me to Cam Kim island in the middle of Thu Bon River.

She tells me that the island is mainly known for three things: growing corn, growing rice – and the making of bed mats. (They grow the white version of corn, not just the normal yellow one and they just had their annual Corn Festival.)

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Life on the island has recently changed after a bridge (though only open for two-wheelers like motorcycles and bikes) has connected the island to the city. Before you had to take a ferry to the island, which tended to isolate the island a bit, but now you just speed over on a bike and the islands is suddenly just two minutes away from the Unesco Heritage site. Lucy is telling me this and much more while driving me around on the back of her motorbike.

I did the Hoi An Food Tour because of Lucy.

The day before Lucy had held a passionate speech about why the company she works for, www.hoianfoodtour.com, is involved in a social enterprise in Hoi an.

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Every last Sunday all the tour guides in the company (20 of them) go and help cook food for a shelter for the unprivileged. The center has +110 orphans, mentally ill and handicapped people living there.
I heard Lucy speak at a conference where I also had been invited to speak, and her passion for the center made me cry. On the spot i decided to give some money to the center and to sign up for a food tour with Lucy to support her and the company.

As a bonus I got to know Lucy, Hoi An and Vietnam through the food of the country.

This is (some of) what I learned.

Let’s start with that duck embryo.

It’s called “Balut” and is a semi-developed duckling where you can start to see the beak, bones, and in some instances feathers of the duck begin to develop. It’s served with papaya sallad, greens and chili. In Vietnam it’s eaten as comfort food when you are sick and the “hot” chili and ginger is said to be a good complement to the “cold” duck. Yin and Yang in harmony.

For tourists eating the Balut is less about getting well and more about not getting sick by the thought of eating the early-bird-egg-bone-and-feather-mixture staring at you from the egg.

Lucy, or Linh which is her vietnamese name, told me that only 20% of the people on her tour are brave enough to try it.

After I had eaten mine (it is quite tasty actually) I asked her if she had thought I would be one of the 20%? She was honest enough to say “No.” She then explained: “Normally the people who try are the young ones, not the old ones.”

Ouch.

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Another thing she introduced me to was “the husband and wife cake”.

Legend has it that by baking this cake a woman was able to get her husband back again after he had left her for life in the city.

Nowadays it’s a tradition that the wife to be needs to bake 100 pieces of the “husband and wife cake” to give to the family of her future husband (together with, if I understood it correctly, 100 different pieces of fruit and a pigs head.)

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In Vietnam it was traditionally considered “better” to have a son than a daughter (and Vietnam has the same problem as China with more boys than girls being born after ultra sound technology made it possible for “human selection” to replace “natural selection” for which gender should be born. In Vietnam 112.4 boys are born for every 100 girls born (up from 106.2/100 in 2000). The reason you wanted a boy was that when a daughter is married off she becomes the “daughter” of the new family.

But there is an anti trend happening with more and more families starting to appreciate having a girl.

Lucy is a 23 year old, single and strong woman, and she told me that her father, who had three daughters, is now happy he got girls.

“In todays Vietnam it is better to be a woman”, she told me. “Women can make better careers, have better jobs.”

When Lucy gets her own kid she wants a girl.

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Some traditions change, some remain. Some evolve.

Lucy takes me to the Bong Hong Trang dumpling restaurant.

The name means “white rose” and the same family has been making dumplings for three generations. It was started by their great grandfather who brought the recipe from China. But over the years the dish evolved and it is now “Chinese dumplings” served with “Vietnamese fish sauce” (instead of soy sauce) and “Vietnamese dried onions.”

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They make 5000-6000 dumplings per day – by hand – and it was some of the best dumplings I have ever had, and I have lived in China.

Another “mix of traditions” Lucy took me to was a vietnamese baguette shop serving a“french baguette” filled with the local pork and vegetables.

 

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What I especially liked with the baugett stand was the small “extra stand” outside the restaurant where poor people could go and get a baguette for free.

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When my tour was done I had snacked on Water Fern Cake (Banh Beo) in a hole-in-the-wall, eaten everything from noodles dipped in ash to home cooked – and home served – spring rolls in the private home of a Hoi An family and much more.

I have gotten to know Vietnam a little bit better via my taste buds and my stomach.

 

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But more importantly I had gotten a better understanding of the heart, spirit and mind of the Vietnamese people by having Linh show me her country.

I loved all aspects of what I learnt, but there was one thing which stuck with me a little bit more: It was with what ease the Vietnamese seemed to adopt the concept of helping a fellow human in need regardless if it was a small tour company cooking food for the disabled, a restaurant making it easy for the poor to pick up a free meal, or how the Hoi An food tour offers free city tours hosted by students who want to improve their English.

Caring for the less fortunate is of course not just a Vietnamese trait, but a human one – perhaps even the trait which makes us humans?

But during my short stop in Hoi An I got reminded by the friendly and caring Vietnamese people I met how simple it can be to care a little bit more.

For that I thank Lucy.

Now imagine if we as humans all became a little bit better at being a little bit more humane.
That’s food for thought.

Fredrik Haren, aka “The Island Man”, plans to visit 100 islands, in at least 25 countries, on at least 6 continents – in less than 100 months. The purpose of this “World Tour of Islands” is to get a better understanding of the world, a deeper understanding of the people who live here and a broader understanding of life. Cam Kim island was island number 7, country number 6 and months number 4.

 

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Victoria Island and Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria. Island number 6 (out of 100), country number 5 (out of 25), months number 3 (out of 100.)

Let’s call him Friday. (Apparently it’s not uncommon to name boys in Nigeria after the day the boy is born, and since this happened on a Friday let’s give that name to him.)

Friday is running after a car who’s driver just bought some cookies from him.

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The Lagos traffic is jammed, and it feels like we are moving at snail-pace, but looking at Friday sprinting as fast as he can to catch up with his customer to get his money it becomes clear to me that “slow” in a car on the highway is still a considerable speed for someone on two feet.

It doesn’t help him that he is carrying a huge load of cookies as he is running.

I will never know his real name because I am observing him from the comfort of my car which is just behind his customers car. All I can do is to just watch him run to try to catch up to get paid.

He will become a symbol of our goal as humans on this trip to Nigeria for me.

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(Link to where I am on google maps.)

I am in the country to deliver a speech for the managers of Olam, a food and commodities company with a big presence in Nigeria.

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The conference is held in a big hall just next to Radisson Blue hotel on Victoria Island in the commercial capital of Nigeria: Lagos.

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(View of the marina and bay from the Radisson Blu Hotel on Victoria Island.)

I ask one of the hostesses who is taking care of me to tell me something about this island.

She says: “This is where the ones with money live.”

I also ask my driver to tell me something about this island. He says: “This is where the money live.”

It’s becoming clear that we are in the posh part of town.

They could have fooled me.

 Everywhere I look I see cars so old and wrecked that they look like they will die any second.
I see men and women selling soft drinks from icebuckets balancing on their heads.
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I see roads with pot holes, broken fences and mountains of trash, especially empty plastics bottles. Everywhere empty plastic bottles.

It reminds me more of a slum than of an African Beverly Hills.

But when I look a bit closer and I see a dusty Bentley hiding under a metal roof. I see Louis Vuitton bags on the women in the bar of the Radisson.

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It is posh and dust at the same time.

I am back in the car watching Friday as I my driver is trying to get me to the airport in time for my flight.

Friday has kicked off his flip flops in the middle of the road to make it possible for him to run faster. He is sprinting barefoot on the highway desperate to get his money for the cookies that the customer already received thorugh the car window. He is still carrying all his left over merchendise and he is trying to balance it while running. It’s perhaps 30-40 packages of cookies. They look bulky and heavy.

He probably has been running for 500-600 meters all ready.

I think back to the conference I had been speaking at.

Olam is a very impressive company. A company dedicated to feeding Nigeria by producing staples like flour and rice in a more effective way.

The people of Nigeria (and the rest of us) should be thankful that they do what they do, because Nigeria needs nothing short of a food revolution to be able to handle its next few decades.

The country of 173 million of course has a lot of good land to grow food, and a climate that is great for farming.

But the statistics for how Nigeria will grow in the future are staggering.

Some say that Nigeria will have so many kids in the next few years that it will be bigger than the USA in 2050.  Extra amazing if you consider the size of Nigeria compared to the USA.

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(Source: Waitbutwhy.com)

And the way Nigeria grows, harvests and produces its food are just too old fashioned.

Olam is trying to change that.

By introducing modern farming techniques and the latest management techniques that have been able to improve the quality and quantaty of the food they produces in a very impressive way.

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Down time in their flour mills for example went from 17% to 3% in just a few years.
Their factories are producing at 105% of capacity (!) (They have been able to tweak the machines to bring out more from the machines than the makes of the machines thought possible.
And so on and so on.

It is when I hear stories like this that I get so optimistic for the world. How companies dedicated to excellence just decide to make things so much better – in this case in order to feed more people in Africa.

Friday has dropped his merchendise on the side of the road.

It looks like he has realised that he will never catch up to the car unless he lets go of his products for a few minutes in order to be able to run faster.
The money he will be able to collect is worth taking the risk that someone steals all his products while he is running after the car.

He has probably now been running after the car for 1 km or more

And suddenly he reaches the car!

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The driver sticks out his hand and hands Friday the few Naira that he owed for his snack.

Friday puts the money into his pocket, slows down, and just before catching his breath he does a little dance ; as to celebrate the money that he just was able collect.

As he disappears in the background of passing cars I see him slowly walking back to collect his remaining products – and later his flip flops – so that he can start over again selling cookies and snacks to the drivers on the highway.

There are so many people like him on Victoria Island. In Lagos. In Nigeria. In the world.

People hustling, running, and sweating just to make a few bucks so that they can buy some food and survive.

It’s when I visit places like Nigeria and see people like Friday that I get overwhelmed by the task that humanity still faces before we can relax and tell ourselves that we are done.

 

Fredrik Haren, aka “The Island Man”, plans to visit 100 islands, in at least 25 countries, on at least 6 continents – in less than 100 months. The purpose of this “World Tour of Islands” is to get a better understanding of the world, a deeper understanding of the people who live here and a broader understanding of life. Victoria and Lagos Island was island number 6country number 5 and months number 3.
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