Thursday, February 12, 2009

Changing Jobs After 15 Years: Moving from Sydney to Bangkok

Well, after 15 years I have up and done it. I am changing jobs in midlife at the old age of 47. It was an incredibly scary move on many levels, and also quite sad because I was leaving my colleagues who had become like my family for so many years. But as I know many of you are changing jobs out of want or necessity, I thought I would write about the experience in case it resonates with any other persons out there is these uncertain times of change.

I originally left the USA in 1989 after finishing law school at the U of O in Eugene Oregon (go the mighty Ducks) and winning a Fulbright Scholarship to work with the Ministry of the Environment in Papua New Guinea (PNG). I was then 28. I worked in PNG from 1989-1991, and then went to Tasmania to work with the Australian Green Party who had just for the first time won the balance of control in the Tasmanian Legislature. When in the subsequent election, the Greens lost the balance of power, I went up to Sydney to do post-doc work at Macquarie University.

Crested Bird of Paradise from Mt Hagen PNG

While at Macquarie in April 1994, I got a phone call from an old mate of mine from PNG days who was working as the Program Manager at a development and environment NGO in Sydney called AFAP (the Australian Foundation for the Peoples of Asia and the Pacific). The Executive Director was quite ill and my friend asked me if I could volunteer some of my time. Of course, I tried to wiggle out of it, but then he convinced me to come in a Fridays for a few hours to help out with program work.

Well to cut a long story short the the old Executive Director died in November 1994, and through a series of odd twists and turns, the AFAP Board asked if I would serve as Acting Executive Director for AFAP for a few months. I was a tender 33. I again tried to wiggle out, but then finally relented. Well that turned into a 15 year job. It was a great job. We were working with the poor and dispossessed across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. We had wonderful programs in health, education, environment, agriculture, disaster relief and governance and other sectors.

The ability to be able to work at the coalface and empower wonderful communities around the globe was a great experience. I got to see places that I would have never seen, meet people who I would otherwise never meet who always taught me so much and enriched my life to no end and really got to see the challenges of life through the eyes of others. To see people who struggle on the land everyday to eek out the most meager of livelihoods for them and their families, yet who always held their heads high and always had a smile and a laugh. My life is in every way so much richer because of my experiences with all these great people and their communities.

Working with the Masai in Kenya

It was an exceptional way to spend the so-called "best years of my life"between 33-47. In 1994 was also the time I met my life-partner, Wojciech. We met over the internet planning an expedition to South America on my leave. He was a Polish national doing his MA in Vermont at the time. He came out for a visit to Sydney in 1997, and we have been together ever since. When Canada passed the marriage equality law in 2005, we rushed over with my mother in toe and were duly married on the banks of the St Lawrence just outside of Cornwall, Ontario.

Kevin and Wojciech

So after 15 years at AFAP, the staff and Board were like family for Wojciech and me. It was really a great working experience.

But change always come and all great things must come to an end.

You see the ultimate life passion for Wojciech and me is wildlife and wildlife photography. During our time with AFAP, we would spend all of our leave working with the animals and birds in the national parks where we had our programs as we did lots of bufferzone and livelihood projects in National Parks. For you long-term Kossacks, you may have seen our photos in some of our diaries or on the always fabulous Cheers and Jeers.

Pair of Egyptian Geese from the Jade Sea (Lake Turkana)

In 2005, we registered our own Wildlife Photography NGO, Bird Explorers. We have since supplied thousands of free wildlife and nature photos to museums, libraries, websites, conservation groups and other concerns throughout the developing world.

Green Peacock from Cat Tien National Park, Viet Nam

As our wildlife photography work expanded, we began talking more and more about working with animals and wildlife fulltime either through Bird Explorers or through another animal-focused NGO. Well as Providence would again have it, a new, exciting job prospect came my way in late 2008.

Some of you may have heard of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). They are a major animal welfare group working with wildlife, companion animals, farm animals and animal rescue during disasters. I was offered the position as Southeast Asia Regional Director based in Bangkok. It was a fantastic opportunity but after 15 years with AFAP, would I leave? Could I leave? How could I leave 15 years of work, colleagues, family, friends behind and pull up all the Australian roots and tent stakes bound for Thailand?

Wojciech and I had to think long and hard, and we had endless discussions over the matter, but in the end we finally decided. Thailand and WSPA it was.

WSPA Assists Bos Orangutan Sanctuary, Kalimantan

The process of telling everybody at AFAP was difficult. Our Board Chair figured it out before I was even in a position to tell him. He knows me well as we had worked together since 2000, and he could tell something was up. He was very gracious when I gave him the news, and I will be eternally thankful for that. I was worried that perhaps my decision to leave would anger or disappoint some people. In truth I really did not know what to expect.

But to my everlasting gratitude, everybody at AFAP was really wonderful. The staff gave me a great farewell dinner with all the kids and partners coming. The gave me an original antique Australian bird painting by the Danish ornithologist, Henrik Grønvold. In a way their supportive reaction made me even more sentimental about leaving. It was definitely a very sad and reflective time, but overall good for the soul. I will always love those colleagues at AFAP, and will have a spare room in our flat in Bangkok for what I hope will be frequent visits.

We used the time between to two jobs to go for 4 weeks PNG where my Asia-Pacific life adventure began in 1989 so long ago. We hiked across the high, rugged Bismarck Ranges and climbed PNG's highest peak, Mt Wilhelm. We got to spend time with our PNG Director and his family and staff with whom we have worked all these. If was a great break with no phones and no emails!!!

Lake below Mt Wilhelm

Sooty Honeyeater in Alpine Scrub

Upon returning from PNG in late January, we cleaned out the office where I had sat since 1994 on the Friday night before we left (way too much fossilised stuff in the corners). It was really weird knowing that this was the last time I would be there. That afternoon while waiting for the Thai Visas, I walked down to the Opera House through the Botanical Gardens, saying a bit of a personal, quiet goodbye to Sydney. Although I am sure I will be back to visit, it is hard to say if life's twists and turns will ever bring me back to live there again. It is a great city and a wonderful place to have used as a base camp for so many years.

So we arrived in Bangkok on 30 January, and started work with WSPA on the 2 February. My office is now on the 19th floor of the Olympia Thai Towers with a great view to both the north and west and even with my own executive dunny (seems to be an Asian thing). I must say it is all very nice and much more opulent than I am used to, but in some ways I still miss my little batcave of an office at AFAP. We all had to share one dunny there ;-)

We want to take a few months to look for a nice house with a bit of a garden and maybe a koi pond. I always promised myself a koi pond if I ever lived in Asia. I like the calmining effect. There are a lot of compounds with gardens and traditional Thai-style houses, but it is hard to find ones that are available.

In the meantime, it looks like we will set ourselves in a bit of unaccustomed luxury in a highrise, topfloor, penthouse flat. The penthouse we found is huge, great views in all directions, fully furnished very smartly and get this, $USD 410/ month. That would not buy you a lowly cubicle in Sydney or New York City. I can really get used to these Thai prices. We can get beautiful all you can eat, all-organic Chinese, Thai and Japanese buffets for $5.00. Although the all-you-can-eat Texmex-Cajun buffet in the American Restaurant area downtown will run you $USD 7.50. We are in hog heaven!!

We know Thailand well as we have been doing some projects here and have spent much time in the national parks photographing the nation's amazing wildlife. So Bangkok will give us a great base for exploring the forests of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Spectacled Langur from Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand

Asian Pied Hornbill from Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand
Asian Pied Hornbill

WSPA works on 4 main programs here, wildlife (bears, orangutans and elephants), companion animals (dogs, cats), farm animals (cows, buffalo, horses, pigs, chickens etc) and animal rescue following natural disasters like Cyclone Nargis last year in Burma. We are so excited about being involved in these programs to hep improve the lot for animals.

Save our Bears!!

You see for both of us, animals have given so much happiness, beauty and joy during our lives. As wildlife photographers we are never ceased to be amazed by the wonder of animals that makes up so much of our lives. So it is important to us to give something back to them. They suffer so much and nowhere worse than in Southeast Asia. So this is our way to give something back for all the great and wonderful meaning they have given to us. And perhaps in the end, this was the motivating factor for giving up my work with AFAP in Sydney after all these years and moving on to WSPA.

So Wojciech and I are stepping out on a new adventure. Wish us luck. God knows we will need it as we struggle to help out all these great animals.