It is 2009. It all started with a suspicious email.
“Hello Ramon, we are inviting you to come to the World Blogging Forum in Bucharest in two weeks. Let us know your details and we arrange the flights.”
Me: “This is a scam, right?”
“Not at all. Have a look at our website. We have a full program with many bloggers from all over the world and are backed up by the Romanian government and all. Oh, and it will all take place at The Palace of the Parliament [only the second biggest building in the world]. We need you to be there too.”
We were not “bloggers” like how they are known nowadays. All participants were mostly the first ever people publishing on the internet. Some participants had no rights or freedom of expression in their own country. Some could not come because they were afraid. Others were arrested and detained when they returned to their home country after this event.
It was one of the highest honors to be present and discuss along with people with such caliber.
This was in times when we were still figuring out what this Twitter thing could mean. The world was modernizing really fast and phones lost buttons and became smarter. Don’t even think about uploading a video from your phone onto Youtube yet, though. Instagram did not even exist for another 3 years.
This ended up to be one my most dearest experiences ever. The people. The ideas. The care by all the English University students. Tours. The parks. The enthusiasm. (The after parties). Bucharest.
My mother was born in 1939 and survived through the World War II in Rotterdam with her entire family. At times when the country is remembering the dead and fallen on May 4 and celebrating liberation and freedom on May 5, she will always have problems with these times from the past. For the newspaper the Old Rotterdammer she wrote her story “Hope to never experience it again”.
Here some excerpts:
“I can remember that we had to leave our house on the advice of the municipality, to the air-raid shelter on the East Square in Rotterdam. I don’t remember how long we’ve been there. At one moment we we were taken out of the shelter and loaded on a cart to the town of Bergschenhoek. We were brought to a farm for a few days and returned back to Rotterdam when it was safe again. The shelter had been bombed. According to my parents, our house had been emptied out nicely too.”
“One day, all men between 20 and 40 years old, had to report for the Arbeitseinsatz, to work in Germany. My mother and me brought my father to the Beursgebouw on the Coolsingel in Rotterdan. He was transferred to Germany where he had to work in a bakery. With the help of his German boss there, he managed to escape and he walked all the way back to Rotterdam. The Red Cross came to the house to tell my mum that my dad had probably died. But a few weeks later he was suddenly standing at the door.”
“I have experienced the liberation of the country more or less consciously and saw the airplanes flying over our heads, they were that big and close. My parents were cheering happily, I remember. My dad got his hands on a parachute. Years later I had made a dress from it.”
“Too bad I asked very little about the war from my parents. We didn’t talk much about that at home, or we were at an age that we were probably not interested in that either.”
Since the beginning of the year, I have been receiving confirmations of energy contracts for a certain Tiarra Washington, for various houses/addresses in Houston, Texas. The tally is now at 44 different contracts. From different companies too. There is Reliant (an NRG company, ha!), 4Change Energy, Pulse Power, TriEagle Energy, Just Energy, Good Value and even The Greenest Choice.
So, this Tiarra might be a landlord who signs these contracts for energy suppliers to connect with at these addresses, nobody knows.
How do I know? She used my email address at Gmail. Every. Time. I have received various such confirmations in the last year, mostly for somebody reserving a car to rent in New Mexico or a confirmation of theater tickets in Buenos Aires. My first name is Spanish and my email address could be accidentally entered instead of one Ramon’s actual email address.
But it this case it got out of hand.
Not only I received confirmations of registration, I received the policies that came with the registration and in most cased, I could log on as this Tiarra, by simply using my email address and the given account number on the mail and see “her” energy usage and the current billing on a company’s website.
Reaching out to the energy supplying companies involved, ended up mostly fruitless. They either don’t accept replies to emails and the few times they did, they asked me to identify myself with a passport copy, address details (like on a bank receipt) and to provide recent bills.
One night I had a fun call with one helpdesk, where I actually called the number of the company on Skype. After a 15 minutes wait (I had all the time) I was connected to a person with an Indian accent who would try anything to help me and my email address removed from their entire system. Rashid was his name and he was working at a call center in Mumbai, India. I told him I live in Cambodia and he was excited. “I am only a few hours ahead of you!”.
He also told me he personally answers all kinds of calls from many energy companies in Texas. Most of them are resellers, they don’t have much more than a logo and a website with a signup form and they might have dumped a paper flyer in people’s mailboxes, promising the cheapest or greenest energy.”
The company call center guy is actually telling me this? “I think it is all a big scam, but hey – I only have to answer the phone and process all the complaints. It pays my bills and my 11-year-old daughter can go to school. I am saving hard for her upcoming private high school.”
While socializing with Rashid in India I thought about these people in Texas and all the electricity (and heating) issues they had experienced in the last few months. All because of a highly inept system where anybody can start an electricity supplying company, take your money, but can’t be responsible for the things that company actually provides.
“I know, this is not even allowed in India! If you do this in India, you go to jail. They are all scammers.”
Last week I have been receiving electricity bills on my email address. Tiarra has to pay about $587 per month by average at every address she had signed up. “We only send you the bill by email and you can log in to your account to process the payment.”
Tiarra will never get these emails, because I get them (I have tried to find this person, but any effort was fruitless). “If you fail to pay within X days, we will have to terminate your electricity supply immediately.”
I think about the people living in these houses. Because it won’t be Tiarra, who probably only made huge commissions by connecting these people on the reseller’s electricity network. They will be out of power when the bills are not paid very soon.
One company replied to my email to contact this Tiarra Washington and let her know she’s been using the wrong email address (mine!) – and that email address should actually be confirmed to join a list, service or subscription.
I was told that if I cannot identify myself as Tiarra Washington, I will be considered a hacker of her email account, her energy account and can therefore receive legal actions by their legal department for breaking US federal laws.
“Please do so. Go ahead. I can’t wait.”
“Could you please specify where in Texas is Phnom Penh, Cambodia, sir? Is it a neighborhood or county? We can’t find it.”
From 2001 to 2003 I traveled the world for free, thanks to my own social network www.letmestayforaday.com and the thousands of people from all over the world who invited me over through that website. In return, my compensation for free accommodation for one night, I published a daily travel diary on the website. The entire diary of over two years of traveling is still online and was published as a Dutch travel book in 2004. Below is an English translation from a chapter in this book, which became relevant after the release of the movie The Grizzlies, filmed in Kugluktuk one year after my visit in 2003.
First, some background on the location. Yellowknife is situated at the North end of the Great Slave Lake and came to being after the gold rush of 1934. Yellowknife consists of the Old Town, built on a small island, and New Town, spread out over the bare, frozen tundra’s of the North. During the long and dark winter days, the Great Slave Lake becomes a ring road for Yellowknife and people drive over the vast ice pack. After the slow decline of the gold findings, pure diamonds were found decades ago and the city quickly developed into one of the most important diamond supplier worldwide. Read More
I did not expect that a country as Sri Lanka would take me by surprise THAT much! I had been here before as a little kid in 1989, but so much has changed that it wasn’t really a reunion, but a re-connection with a truly paradise island.
Because that was technically what it was. After living in Cambodia for over 7 years now, I had never left the country for the Christmas holidays.
I had escaped to beaches, or just hide out, while pretty much everybody else leaves the country to “go back home” for a few weeks. And I would be jealous. And all the social media channels would show photos of these friends with families and friend back home, mostly involving lots of food and, of course, snow.
It was in September last year that I got an invite to come to France this winter.
The invite had come from the French mademoiselle Mathilde, who I had met on Otres Beach in Sihanoukville (Cambodia) last summer. Add a bit of financial luck on my side and I had simply booked the tickets. I told my family I would spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with them in The Netherlands and then spend another 10 days in France.
After training hard for the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon (Dec 3) and the Chiang Mai Throwdown in Thailand (Dec 9-10) and working (perhaps a bit too) hard on a short literary story.
And what a beautiful escape that was.
And as I want to add: COLD. I had forgotten how coldcould be.
I went shopping in Rotterdam with my dad and after parking the car we just had a 1km walk and my toes had become numb. I had him figure out which speaker system he had to buy for his personal computer as I was still crawling up the stairs of the MediaMarkt in agony and with the anxious desperation of getting a sense of feeling back in my feet. The escape from Cambodia to Europe for the Christmas holidays was a necessary one, too.
Once in a while you have to leave home (Phnom Penh for me) to empty the head, defragment certain damaged brain cells, get loose, let things go and experience something else before returning back and gain a way fresher start.
And loose I got and went in France!
On New Year’s day I arrived by train from Rotterdam in the small city of Valenciennes, in the northern departments of France, where I was welcomed by the lovely Mathilde in the warm and historic castle of her mum’s. And Mathilde had all her lovely friends still-left-over from the previous day New Year’s Eve party. A house full of fun and welcoming people, added with plates of cheese and Belgian Kasteel Rouge beer (what a joy) followed.
In Valanciennes we spent the days walking around (strangely zhe French love walking and I seriously wondered why they don’t have bicycles to get around faster – or even tuktuks!?) and even climbing up a nearby terril, a man-made stone mountain from the region’s former glory coal mining days. And did I add already that it was cold? My Cambodian body was slowly getting used to below 10 degrees Celsius temperatures.
Then followed a week in Paris, where I lived with Mathilde in her small student studio near the Université Paris Nanterre, just west of the city of lights (and cheese). Thanks to a mocked-up student pass with my pass photo on it for the regional train, Paris was within 10 minutes of public transport distance at all time.
Start the accordion music by Yann Tiersen now– and see us wandering the streets of Montmartre and up the Sacre Coeur, see me go selfie crazy at the Arc de Triomphe, The Louvre museum, the Notre Dame and of course the Eiffel Tower (which gets lit up like crazy for 5 minutes every hour after sunset!), walk down the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, crossing the Seine and get lost in the most existing book store on earth: Shakespeare & Company.
We ate French raclette (think lots of melted cheese!), stick bread, cheeses, Italian pasta and pizza, Mexican burritos, at Burger King or at Amélie’s Les Deux Moulins and croissants. Lots of croissants – however I learned it’s a crime in France to have croissants at anytime after breakfast! We had the best hot chocolate ever (in my life!) at Angelina’s, a super fancy lunch room where we simply jumped the 30-minutes queue outside.
If you think I returned to Cambodia quite fattened up, these were the reasons. I also thought I needed some fat to warm up a bit more.
Trying out one CrossFit class at the Reebok CrossFit Louvre was a great excessive workout that included a 4x 400m run through the streets of Paris. Yes, cold, but I can’t complain about that, I was trying hard to get sweaty!
In the evening we went to the movies and I utterly enjoyed Le Brio (with English subtitles at the French cinema night for expatriates in town!) and we went to see what the fuss was all about with the upcoming-awards-winner All The Money in the World.
My digital step counter on my watch went crazy these days and even recorded an all-time record over 24,000 steps made on the last day in Paris. As a late birthday gift to me the lovely Mathilde treated me on a day at the Disneyland Park and the Walt Disney Studios of Paris!
What an utter joy that was. Had I already mentioned anything about the cold? So with extra layers of clothing we took the train and fought the weather at these amazing theme parks.
It was fun, thrilling and pretty exciting (my latest visit to a Disney park dates back to 1980 if I remember well) and I thoroughly enjoyed The Twilight Zone’s Hotel Tower of Terror and the various indoor and massive roller coasters, but melted with the attractions of Ratatouille and Pirates of the Caribbean.
As in every Disney park there was a big fluffy parade through Main Street – but the light show at the end of the day, every day at 7pm, was where Disney gave all of itself. The stunning Chateau de la Belle au Bois Domant (Sleeping Beauty’s Castle) became fully illuminated with a spectacular 20-minutes light show that blew me (and a few thousand other spectators) away, including the fire works show that came with it.
This video is just an impression of that…
Talk about a closing act! Now this all became a birthday present not to forget very easy!
The only downside to the theme park business is that I don’t see much value in waiting in 45 minutes queues for a less than 4 minutes attraction, but –hey– I must be getting old. It also had to do something with the cold – which I might have mentioned before. It was cold outside!
And then it was January 10 and it was time to head back home again.
My escape from Cambodia worked pretty well for me.
I am thankful for the volunteers that stayed behind at The Flicks in Phnom Penh for keeping the business running in my absence (and not burning the place down) and feed the five cats that were dearly missed.
But I am most thankful for Mathilde Rémy for inviting me over and taking me in after meeting up only shortly in Cambodia!
Thanks for surviving me that long so far and perhaps our paths might cross again in the future! <3
Now let’s get back to the ordinary hassle in the city, back to eating healthy food (I need to get rid of that extra built-up layer of fat now) and a sportive regime in life.
I can say that 2018 started pretty good and I want to keep it that way. Just keep the cold, it’s all yours.
Many people want it more than anything else. And they’ll sacrifice everything to have it – which is often the cost of admission.
I know sport coaches who consider themselves the ultimate beast and they want to beat anybody in the region. They ask me if I will participate in the CrossFit Open (The CrossFit Games Open is the world’s premier test of fitness. Since 2011, the five-week five-workout online competition has accurately ranked the fitness of millions of competitors), and I’ll answer that I will participate at my local gym, but I don’t really care about my ranking with the world. I do CrossFit to keep my General Physical Preparedness “for anything in life”, not to become stronger, fitter, badasser – all the time. It’s Training, not a Sport. It keeps me fit, strong and happy in life.
I know business owners here in Phnom Penh who are having a daily struggle to come out as the best with their business, trying to beat the competition wherever they can. Seriously, every day!
I know local athletic runners, who love doing marathons (seriously, the full 42 km) every few months. They need to run three times a week and they need to “make better times” every time. Anything less than last week’s time on the track field is seen as a failure.
And then you are the beast. And then you are the most profitable business man. And you win all marathons.
You don’t have to.
I made that big, bold and italic and larger for a reason.
There is the problem. Sustaining success, and going beyond success is nearly impossible for most people. Hence Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, questions, “Why don’t successful people and organizations automatically become very successful?”
McKeown’s answer is succinct: Success is a catalyst for failure.
Being invisible is easy. When you make mistakes, you’re the only one who notices. Even being the underdog is easy. If you fail, you’re justified in doing so.
But when the spotlight is on you, everyone is waiting for you to fail. The external pressure often becomes too overpowering, smothering the values and vision it took to become successful in the first place.
Which is why success is often a short-lived experience. People come and go. Very few remain on top for long.
It is true in all domains of life. If you succeed in business, life doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.
This is where I throw in achievement.
The difference between success and achievement is subtle but crucial. Success is a subjective feeling about how you’re doing relative to why you’re doing it. Achievement is an objective measure about what you’ve actually done.
Yet, success is far more important than achievement. Indeed, you could have all the achievements in the world and not be successful.
You see this all the time, people who have many external indicators of success, yet inwardly, they are a wreck. They’ve lost their why, and thus, no longer remember the reason they are pursuing their goals in the first place.
What once was a genuine passion has now become a need for more external validation. An endless need to acquire and achieve more. Thus, rather than focusing on why, the focus becomes on what will work, and doing as much of that as possible, most likely at the expense of your values.
Interestingly, many successful entrepreneurs admit to being happier before they were “successful,” back when their motivations were congruent with their values. Achievement poisoned them, and their motivation changed.
If “success” is your primary objective, you probably won’t get it. Chasing success is like chasing happiness. You can’t pursue it directly. Both success and happiness ensue from something far more fundamental — who you are.
Don’t let your ego inflate and forget who you really are. This happened to me in the past year when I pursued dreams that didn’t come out in the end. I had to be better, faster and more successful – no matter what. If I had abandoned all my own values I would also loose the most important people in my life. And I almost lost them all.
With whatever you do in life. Don’t forget your “why.” That may be the hardest thing you do as you seek to improve your life.
I realized I am most happy when I do what I do because I enjoy it. I am compelled to create, experiment and improve, because that’s who I am.
My name is Ramon Stoppelenburg.
I break mold.
After a workout.
And before dinner.