Midweek Interview

Life in the time of COVID-19 with Bench Africa’s Cameron Neill

This week, we chat with Bench Africa’s general manager about spicy food, Cirque de Soleil soundtracks and how to potty train a two-year-old.

What are you reading?

I just finished Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and have started Stormbird by Conn Iggulden. It’s the first in a historical fiction series about the War of the Roses and it’s my second attempt at the four books. The first attempt stopped after the birth of my son.

I also recently sped read Oh Crap!, which is a guide to potty training a toddler. How is your quarantine going?

What are you watching?

I usually have a few on the go. The acclaimed series are always heavy, so I balance it out with something light. I just finished Escape From Dannemora and have balanced it with Brooklyn Nine-Nine (again) and Schitt’s Creek.

I also dip in and out of the Japanese reality show Terrace House. It’s so hard to explain and it sounds so boring, but it’s amazing.

What are you listening to?

Random playlists on Spotify, mainly the Cirque de Soleil playlist as background. My wife and I watched the free specials they’ve been releasing online, so that music has been good for atmosphere. I can’t work or write well when I know the lyrics, so instrumental or new music works for me.

What are you cooking?

For some reason, a lot of spicy food in general (Indian especially) and eggs for breakfast. We’ve been trying to keep it simple purely because of shopping restrictions, and also we can’t be bothered.

How are you staying fit both physically and mentally?

Between taking over as GM of Bench Africa the week before borders starting closing, self-isolation, setting up an entire company to work remotely and toilet training a two-year-old, a few things have gone out the window.

One is work attire. The second is exercise and diet. Luckily, I am growing a quarantine beard to define where my chin should be. For me, mental health is equal parts stimulation/challenge and imagination, both of which are getting a workout at the moment. I’m in great spirits, actually.

What’s the one thing keeping you sane?

I’ve worked remotely for many years and from home with a toddler for over two, so I feel as though I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

The only difference is that the traffic is lighter and the children’s playgrounds are closed. Being able to work on something creative has always kept my brain fresh.

What’s something positive you’ve witnessed or experienced since the coronavirus hit?

I am optimistic and grateful for where I am but feel as though the world is always angling for a negative view or drama. This crisis has seen people take stock in what they actually need and what they have previously taken for granted.

I think despite the idea that we will all turn on each other people have actually pulled together and become more compassionate and community-minded. Something as simple as people leaving teddy bears in windows for children to spot has been so heartwarming in my neighbourhood and has thrilled my son, and I hope that we can retain this sense of community beyond the lockdown.

What have you learned about yourself amid the crisis?

I stopped seeking out extreme sports a few years back when I jumped off one of the world’s highest bungee jumps and wasn’t even mildly scared. I think not being scared of something like that was what actually scared me – maybe I was worried that it was sociopathic rather than brave.

Dealing with a company in an industry of rightly concerned people has made me realise I am extremely emotionally aware, but also able to clearly see the reality of the situation and not just the cloud of fear around it.

The bungee jump didn’t scare me, as I had done similar things before, knew the actual risk and it was of my own doing. Being able to see the actual issues through the swirling maelstrom and action them thoughtfully has been invaluable with this crisis.

What’s your advice for others in the travel industry on coping with the crisis?

It can be easy to be swept up in a storm of negativity and anxiety around us, but by and large, we are in a more privileged position than most. It’s okay to get a little sad and a little lonely and a little worried.

By the same token, we have a roof over our head, and access to food, healthcare, running water and the other facilities to get through it all relatively unscathed compared to other countries. We can video chat and call and text and connect like never before in history. We can handle this.

Life is weird and this industry is forever changed, but when the world settles, then the desire to travel will be greater than ever before. Even better, people won’t see travel as a chore or as a right, but as the incredible privilege it is. When that day comes, what greater industry to be in than this one?

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