Localized Thoughts

Mobile Diaries: A Six Part Series

Mobile Diaries Part 6: Making the Planet Small

Having returned from the 4-month remote work program for about two weeks, I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience. 

After all the travel, group interaction, and mixing with locals all while maintaining work obligations, my largest takeaway is that (as cliche as it sounds), the world now genuinely feels smaller. When I think of the countries we visited, I don’t regard them as far-off, exotic vacation destinations. Rather, I think of them as extensions of my day-to-day life. 

Living there in somewhat of a bubble doesn’t equate to actually settling and living in the city, but my memory of Chile is as much remembering to weigh fruit at the grocery store before checking out as it is the breathtaking Patagonia mountain landscapes.

Pictured above: Rainbow Mountain, Cusco, Peru.

Early in the itinerary, someone in our travel group called her previous vacationing “fake life.” I like to think of it more as “compressed life” where depending on how much you’ve planned, you’ve packed a ton of experiences that supercharge your adrenaline for that short period of time. 

In an extended program, that euphoria only lasts so long, and it forces you to balance thoughts of “back home” vs. “this new cool place you’re in” in a more substantive way. I think the net effect is that the changes or learnings you may feel in yourself could potentially have a more significant, if not permanent impact.

The experience could only flow so seamlessly (or even be possible at all) in a large part due to the technological advancements made globally, as well as in the various cities we lived in. Santiago had one of the most vibrant startup cultures I’ve seen, which the country is actively pursuing. 

Medellin was also a prime example of a city transformed at least in part through technological innovation and growth. Mobile Applications like Uber or Rappi (a general delivery service app for groceries, food, or any other random supply need) made the mundane parts of getting around and settling into a new city tremendously easier. 

After going through this “re-settling” process four times, I had a greater appreciation for those like my parents who emigrated to a new country for the long term, without any of these technological boosts. Although this was something I already knew, my experience clarified it in a unique and undeniable way.

Another surprising and unexpected technical observation occurred when traveling to Machu Picchu, where I noticed some gold colored plates buried into the ground. It turns out they are “geodesic” points, monitorable by satellite! They’re used for data collection and servicing of “natural protection” zones. 

It was things like this, the many other surprises along the way, and connecting with the travel group and locals both professionally and personally, that all contributed to this feeling of seeing the planet as smaller. Ultimately, it was all part of my Small Planet experience.

Mobile Diaries Part 1: Our developer Teju Prasad starts his journey working remotely from Latin America.

Ok, so, how did I just end up in Santiago, Chile?

During my college days, I was very keen on studying abroad, but I was never able to. It wasn’t from a lack of trying. Engineering programs didn’t exactly encourage study abroad, and my repeated attempts to find a suitable program was met with many blank expressions and questions akin to, “You’re going to learn about the Fourier Transform where?”

Fast forward some years, and I come across a company called Remote Year, which facilitates travel + work, by providing the necessary logistics and infrastructure for staying digitally-connected while traveling to far off destinations.

So, I’ve just embarked on their four-month Latin American itinerary, which will take me to Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico. While I’m on the road I’m going to share stories and observations about technology, business, and culture. After flying a direct LATAM flight, I just arrived a few days ago in Santiago to begin the experience.

One of the big lessons thus far is seeing Santiago’s vibrant co-working/tech entrepreneur community in action. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m looking at the farewell party for the twentieth cycle of StartUp Chile, an incubator that shares our coworking space.

Another (hard) lesson learned early on: I had heard a few stories of people having phones snatched from their hands when just checking directions or texting on the street.

Unfortunately, this has already happened to someone in our travel group! While checking his phone outside, a fellow traveler nearly had his phone stolen by a biker whizzing by, but our friend held on tight. In any event, I’m looking at the bright side and using it as a motivator to check my phone less frequently.

*In regards to the photo up top: after working on a project for Fujifilm, I couldn’t help snap this photo (right) on the way to the San Cristobal Hill (left) in Santiago. 

Mobile Diaries Part 2: Teju gets past “vacation mode” and back to the gym.

Entering week two and it’s been an exotic, mystical journey into… taking out the trash, getting groceries, and doing laundry.

Not earth-shattering stuff, but it’s an important part of the experience nonetheless. Choosing to live abroad for multiple months means living “as a local” to some extent, learning and observing people in their day-to-day living.

It also means “playing the long game” in a sense. By that I mean, taking the time to set up routines and schedules for some sense of “normalcy,” the same way I would do back in New York.

Part of that is establishing a regimented exercise routine, which meant signing up for a local gym, which unfortunately turned out to be more complicated than I had imagined. This particular gym was very strict in that they only gave out memberships to those with established Chilean bank accounts.

In order for extranjeros (foreigners) to sign up, one of our local experience managers had to accompany us, with our passports, and enroll us in memberships collectively, where we had to sign and fingerprint each page. I don’t recall this much fingerprinting when applying for a DOD government clearance to work on classified projects!

Before leaving for South America I would regularly do boxing workout classes, with other Small Planet employees. Wanting to keep the habit going, one of the first items on my list was to seek out a similar class here in Santiago (pictured below). That process of signing up, in contrast, was seamless. Thank you Knockout Sport Club!

Also, health and safety seem to be taken quite seriously here. It feels like there’s a pharmacy on every corner, which means either people get sick a whole lot, or they are very meticulous about their preventative care.

On the bright side, it’s a good motivator to actually hit the gym, and not let all the effort signing up go to waste.

Mobile Diaries Part 3: At the End of the World (With Full Bars)

This past week, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Patagonia region (ironically, wearing mostly North Face gear) of Chile, which is situated near the southern tip. The area is sometimes referred to as ‘Fin Del Mundo,’ or end of the world.

The excursion was set up by the Remote Year program, and our trip included a hike into the Milodon Cave, visits to the famous Torres Del Paine, a trip to view the Balmaceda and Serrano glacier, and a hike in Laguna Sofia, to the top of Cerro Benitez.

Patagonia gave us one of the most erratic weather environments I’ve ever experienced. We got used to sweating from an hour-long hike, tying jackets around our waist, then rushing to put the hat and jackets back into combat the 60 mph gusts of winds. On the bright side, the erratic and constant start-stop of light drizzles gives rise to multiple rainbows during the day.

While there’s definitely no shortage of scenery and grand views (and condors!) to photograph, my personal travel style is to experience as much as I can and photograph as little as I can.

So, my phone/camera was mostly in my pocket (this also made sure it wouldn’t get whisked away by the wind). When I do take pictures, I like to keep myself in the distance, silhouetted in the background. For me, it reinforces a perspective of not focusing on myself or my own worries, even just for a moment.

As expected, part of the Patagonian experience is to digitally disconnect, and signal strength being either low or non-existent made that very easy. However, one of our fellow travelers had an unexpected digital experience.

The Patagonia region is very close to Argentina, and on some days we hiked close to the border. On one such day, her phone unexpectedly synchronized with Argentinian telecom. For better or worse, even at the end of the world, the exotic birds aren’t the only ones that can tweet.

Mobile Diaries Part 4: New York State of Mind (and do I mind?)

It’s funny, dropping you’re from New York while traveling often leads people to describe their own travels to the Big Apple, if they’ve been. Never fails. But, I’ve been surprised by how many symbols of NYC end up finding me here.

I meet more and more people who’ve actually been near Small Planet’s office in Dumbo, Brooklyn. On any given spring day, Dumbo has way more international visitors than locals (perhaps thousands?) all shuffling down to take the Instagram-ready picture of themselves airborne with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building in the background.

Given the reputation of some New Yorkers abroad, while traveling I make a point to not constantly compare things in Santiago to New York, or to “size up” the city vis-a-vis New York.

This of course lasted all of 4.3 seconds… Upon entering my Remote Year provided accommodation in Santiago I was greeted by a big stretched canvas of the Empire State Building. The canvas also included the U.S. Capitol just for good measure.

On top of that, a strategically-placed mirror would reflect the picture to me while standing in the kitchen. Yes, I had traveled 5,000 miles to be instantly reminded the place I just left.

Then I noticed the number of “New York style” pizza places around, and right by my apartment is Santiago’s version of Citi-bikes as well, then on top of that, there are a number of businesses labeling themselves as “New York” and a number of pigeons hanging around waiting for the occasional bread crumb.

I’ve also seen a significant amount of NY labeled shirts and Yankee hats (worn by people thinking it’s an official “NY” hat, most likely). Even the strongest-willed effort to “forget” NY while being here is seemingly futile. When our group shifts to Medellin this weekend, I’ll see if it’s an aberration or not.

Of course, the kicker is when I saw cabbies honking and cutting each other off near the bus terminal, and then I heard someone randomly yelling out into the crowd, indiscriminately. Then I could finally say, “This really does feel more like home.”

Mobile Diaries Part 5: Hitting Refresh in Medellin

Say the city “Medellin” to someone who’s never been there, or never considered going, and it’s fairly certain who or what would come to their mind.

I had the luxury of knowing some people who had traveled to the “City of Eternal Spring” (another name for Medellin), so I came here with a bit more of a varied perspective.

However, I’ll admit I was at least curious about how the awful legacy of Pablo Escobar and the narco-traffickers has affected the people and the town at large.

The best I can describe it is, a town that’s decided to “hit refresh.” For me, this was most evident in a tour I took through Remote Year, to Comuna Trece (or Comuna 13) A barrio that was hugely affected by the cartel activities.

Our tour guide, who grew up in Comuna 13 and who was directly and visceral affected by the violence common to the region, started our tour by saying, “Pablo Escobar is a *@&$, but without that *@&$ the world wouldn’t know Medellin.”

Now, with a set of escalators to help ascend the steep hills common to Medellin, Comuna 13 is an epicenter of street art and a draw for tourist groups (when our tour arrived at around 10 am, three others were already in progress)

Technology is a big part of the town’s rebirth as well, creating an environment that encourages communication both digital and physical. One of our other tour guides described how a cable car system and publicly available wifi in the parks was a large part of bringing about transformation to Medellin.

These weren’t simply “nice-to-haves” that acted as window dressing, rather they were essential in making the people feel a sense of normalcy and connectedness, and in the case of the cable cars, actually a mode of transportation for people that live in the hills to travel to different parts of town.

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