An Unsettled Experience: My Month in Medellin

View from my Unsettled apartment in the Poblado neighborhood of Medellin.

It all proceeded naturally: the initial meetings, a honeymoon stage with drunken bonding and a party bus, followed by a precipitous dose of reality, with drama and disappointment, followed by a reset and new status quo, and finally a departure. Much like any intense group experience, really.

Though I could sense a familiarity to the group dynamics, my month in Medellín was unlike any other travel experience I’ve ever pursued, in that it was an attempt to port over my regular life into some far off foreign city, everything including my work and regular daily routines. I traveled with Unsettled, which is on the vanguard of a burgeoning crop of startups all catering to remote workers, and with lofty ambitions of changing the nature of work and travel (and just maybe the world). In addition to a flat-rate apartment and co-work space, going with Unsettled held the hopeful promise of an intense period of self-discovery with like-minded people.

The company has on staff a Head of Experience Design, one Lala Franklin-Apted, whose job it presumably is to design the experience for the rest of us, and though we never met her in person, her influence was certainly felt, as was that of Unsettled’s earnest co-founders, Jonathan Kalan and Michael Youngblood. The two started the company after graduating from TED’s (of TED talks fame) inaugural residency program. Unsettled is packed full of activities, goal-setting, intention-setting, group bonding, periodic “check ins” with ourselves and each other, weekend getaways, participant-led workshops, touristy trips, non-touristy tours, orientation breakfasts, lunch and learns, dinner parties, and on and on it goes.

On our third night, at the height of the honeymoon stage, the twenty-five of us met in the gorgeous, shade-covered patio of the Frankfurt restaurant. Throughout most of Poblado, the wealthy center of Medellín’s touristy nightlife, drinks are cheap by American standards: $2 for a local beer, or $5 for a cocktail. But here at the Frankfurt everything was full-on American prices. You pay for the ambiance. It was easy to feel spoiled, privileged, as if our group of youngish, mostly 30-something travelers from around the world, but mostly, let’s be honest, from former British crown colonies, were all quite special. We sat at the picnic benches in the patio and drank exotic juices made from fruit we’d never heard of, or beers, or meticulously prepared cocktails that took ten minutes to order and twenty to arrive. We played an ice-breaker game, which involved a list of traits that belonged to members of the group. Our job was to interview each other, matching the people to their traits, and the first one to fill in a name for each one got the bragging rights for the night. The official prize was getting to wear a Mexican-style victory poncho. Far from a fashion statement, its winner immediately created a new game of seeing how quickly she could find of a compelling reason to pass it off to someone else for the night.

The group does intention setting at Frankfurt Restaurant in Poblado.

Then came the intention-setting, which in less able hands would’ve come across as hokey. But our Experience Leader was Liza Schmidt, and Liza was nothing if not skilled at walking that fine line between hokey and meaningful. Originally from the U.S., now 28, Liza had lived in Medellín for several years years. Later, I came to know Liza as an incredibly empathetic and conscientious leader, prone to deep and serious conversations, like me, and of the type that thrived in making connections with the people in her groups she was tasked with leading, even if those connections were fated by design to eventually expire. In the opening days of the trip, Liza often asked us to close our eyes as a group as she led us through some version of an exercise in intentional mindfulness. These kinds of requests are difficult for me, critical as I am of all things smacking even remotely of shallow, new-agey hucksterism, but in Liza’s hands at least I could breathe through them without my mind wandering toward judgement. The truth is, I wanted to listen to her. I wanted to buy in to the whole thing, the whole intentionality of at all. I am an intentional person, damn it.

During the intention-setting, she asked us to write a letter to our future selves, the ones who would be leaving Medellín in a month’s time. The last time someone had asked me to write a letter to my future self I was 17 and a counselor in training at Camp Leelanau in northern Michigan. Writing letters to ourselves was an annual Summer ritual there, one I’d been doing each year since I was 12. We’d put the letters into a stamped envelop, addressed to each of our homes, wherever they were around the country, and the camp would mail them to us six months later. It was a beautiful tradition, although it served mostly to highlight, right in the middle of the school year, the extraordinary gap between the person I was at camp: brave, tough, loving, curious, and the person I was at home and at school, which was a pale version of the same, distracted by the upper middle-class preoccupations with wealth, status, achievement, and the rest of it.

I was in no mood to write myself any letter of that sort, so instead I took the paper and pen, put my head down, and wrote out three words: One True Sentence. One true sentence is what Ernest Hemingway exhorted himself toward every time he faced a block in his writing. The exhortation has become for me a mile marker of sorts for what I should be striving toward. I don’t know if I’ve ever written one true sentence, at least true in the sense that Hemingway’s are true. But I knew I wanted to be able to write one, and hopefully many. I looked down at the three words, and wondered whether this goal was too tough for one month in Medellín. I didn’t know if I could pull it off, so, underneath the three words, I gave myself an out, and I wrote: OR 10,000 words. If I couldn’t write anything that was really True, at least I would make up for it in volume.

After we’d all turned in our envelopes, Liza directed us down the street and around the bend, where we could hear a thumping salsa track filling the streets with rhythm and base. We’d been promised dinner this evening on Unsettled, but we weren’t prepared for this: a party bus. It was like an old school bus, but wider, shorter, and maybe a little taller than the long, narrow U.S. versions. This was not unlike the shuttles at ski slops that carry people from the parking lots to the slopes. On the outside it was bedazzled in all sorts of bells and whistles protruding from rails and corners, and it had a big, splotchy, colorful paint job, like so many street murals you can find throughout the city. On the inside of the bus, the seats had been taken out, replaced by a bench that ringed the walls and back, so everyone could sit facing inward. In the middle, there were several stripper polls, with more polls running along the top. The idea was to dance while the bus drove, and hang on to the polls as you went (At 35 this was my first such party bus). And, dance we did. Liza handed out beers for the road, gave the driver a hand-picked playlist of salsa music, and up we went, up into the mountains, curving around the switchbacks, music blasting. It was embarrassing at first, a bunch of foreign tourists, making a ridiculous scene in a graffiti-bedazzled bus, honking and singing and dancing as it drove us around the city. But we got used to it, then we owned it.

Medellín is in the mountains, but also in a valley, making its climate exceptionally stable throughout the year, and earning it the nick name, The City of Eternal Spring. The pollution from 4 million people gets trapped down in the valley, though, so that the smog can be noticeably thick, the haze obscuring both the mountains and the city’s tall apartment buildings. But driving up the hillsides the air is cleaner, and the whole view becomes quite stunning. That’s what we did, as dusk fell, then night, drinking and dancing, then eating dinner at a gorgeous spot up on the mountainside, and then driving back down again in the party bus, pouring each other shots of Aguardiente, the local liquor. It was precisely what the honeymoon stage of a big group experience should look like.

That weekend the festivities continued. It was our first weekend there and it happened to be the biggest Medellín party of the year: Feria de Las Flores, the Festival of Flowers. Colombia exports more than $1 billion worth of flowers each year, with 75% of that going to the U.S. Medellín is one of the leading centers of the industry, and the festival has become the city’s defining annual party, with activities night and day, and fairs and showcases for flowers throughout the city. Capping it all off is a parade of flowers, for which it seems the entire city turns out. The parade terminated not far from our apartments in Poblado, so on a Sunday afternoon I walked down the hill with a few others from the group to try to find a spot. What looked like a state-run grocery along the way was handing out plastic sun hats, bottles of water, and beer – one of each, for everyone, for free. On we continued down the hill, the crowd thickening, along with the vendors hawking everything you’d need: food, water, little $4 plastic stools to stand or sit on, umbrellas for the sun, and ice cream to cool off. We eventually found a spot on an overpass overlooking the parade route, though even three hours before the parade was to start, the best spots right next to the rail were already taken. The problem, it became clear, was the umbrellas. The people in front of us were using them to shield themselves from the sun, but they also blocked the view for anyone behind them. The correct strategy, and the polite thing to do, was to offer to hold their umbrellas for them, raising them up high enough so we could see past, but still overhead to block the sun.

Parades like that one, in my humble opinion, are too much effort for too little reward. I was there mostly out of a sense of obligation. If I was going to visit a foreign city during the city’s biggest festival of the year, I had to put in some token attendance. Crowds like that utterly exhausted my introverted inner self. So it was that I watched enough of the pre-parade to feel good about having been there and seen some flowers, and then I turned to walk back to the apartment. Despite having the plastic sun hat on, when I got back to take a shower and wash the sweat off I had a nice, bright red v on my neck where my shirt opened up and the sun had been pounding down.

The orientation brunches and bonding dinners out of the way, the festivities behind us, I attempted to get into the rhythm of a normal workweek. Monday I woke up, made some coffee, mixed some granola into a bowl of yogurt, and then walked to Global Express, the co-work space provided by Unsettled.

Just your average morning at Global Express, the co-work space in Poblado, Medellin.

Despite its lofty, international name, Global Express is a Medellín company with a single location in Poblado. This is not a place with exposed brick and ductwork hosting hipsters in beards and tight pants. There are no bean bags or fussball tables, though perhaps there should be. Global’s logo looks uncannily like the old Microsoft Office logo, which is not exactly a brand affiliation that appeals to people like me. The lights are bright, the desks are white, and the chairs are high-end. As Liza later explained, there were more “hip” co-work spaces to choose from just in Poblado, but the tradeoffs would have been in space and comfort. The other options may have had some exposed brick and cooler decor, in other words, but their chairs were hard and plastic, their internet not as reliable, and their conference rooms not as big. With Global, we traded some of the cool factor for a fully-developed office infrastructure.

Global had another benefit for Unsettled, which is that it did double duty as a provider of corporate housing. The two- and three-bedroom apartments scattered around Poblado that housed our group were maintained by Global, and in fact we all signed a separate rental contract with them when we arrived. Combined with the co-work space, Global was shouldering a lot of the logistical burden for Unsettled, which no doubt allowed it to focus more on the experience design and less on the hassle of finding us all a place to live.

The partnership with Global has undoubtedly helped Unsettled to scale up in Medellín, but there are drawbacks to the arrangement, notably that Unsettled ultimately had less control over our living situations than some of us would have preferred. During the course of the month, one apartment hosting three of the girls in our group developed a water leak in one of the bathroom ceilings. Within a few days there was a full-blown hole, allowing one to see through to the apartment above, not to mention spreading a musty smell into the bathroom. Soon afterward another leak formed in the next-door bathroom. It took several days and several moves to find another location to move the three girls to, forcing one of them to spend the night on a friend’s sofa in a different building. Meanwhile in another apartment, three of our group kept waking up with mysterious bites across their body, which turned out to be the result of a pretty serious bed bug infestation. They fumigated that day, but it was touch and go whether they’d be able to return. Then the bugs came back two weeks later, and they too were forced to move apartments. In both cases Unsettled was on it, but they could only do so much working through Global Express. They were essentially one-step removed from being able to exercise direct supervision over quality control.

An Unsettled dinner party, hosted in one of the nicer apartments.

My own 2-bedroom apartment, which I shared with an Italian, 38-year-old lawyer named Luigi, was fairly bare bones. Our accommodations had all been advertised on the Unsettled website as “beautiful” and “well-designed,” but in fact there was huge variability between them, as became evident as soon as we all started hosting each other for dinner parties. Some were gorgeously adorned with marble and stone, gigantic balconies with comfortable furniture and superb views of the mountains, with well-stocked kitchens and modern appliances and fixtures. Others, not so much. Our own apartment was somewhere in the middle. We had an old faux-leather sofa that was shedding little bits of black fabric all over the floor, which we had to sweep up every few days and brush off when it stuck to our clothes. We didn’t have any dining table, despite a big open space where one was clearly designed to go. A third of our light bulbs didn’t work, and sitting over in the corner was a broken office chair on the floor, which only got replaced two weeks into the trip. I hardly noticed much of this, and in fact am used to getting by with much less while traveling. But Luigi noticed all of it. At one point he walked around our living room pointing out little details I had missed: the fake flowers in the cheap vase, the wood fruit in a bowl, the sofa shavings on the floor. We could both laugh about it, but it was all a little sub-par kitsch, now that he mentioned it.

At least we had the balcony. Many evenings, before going out for a late dinner, or after getting back from a later drinks, Luigi and I would sit on the balcony and smoke a cigarette, and talk about the trip, our lives, things we wanted to do in the future, ways we thought about the world, our families, the other group members, our work, our hobbies. We were on the tenth floor, and the balcony had a beautiful view of the mountains on one side of the valley. They were especially gorgeous at sunset, or after a rain storm when the water had cleansed some of the smog from the valley and the air was clear. Those balcony conversations with Luigi are no doubt a part of the whole experience that I will remember most fondly.

As was the overnight we all spent in Jardín, a small town a few hours from Medellín, in the middle of one of the prime coffee growing regions in the country. This was the one planned excursion that Unsettled led outside the city, and here I can offer universal praise. Jardín itself is a picturesque colonial grid surrounded by hillsides, walking trails dotted by waterfalls, and rambling creeks which serve as the local kids’ playground. It’s not an obvious tourist destination, though it is becoming more so. There is only one large hotel in the downtown plaza, and another one on the hillside. We stayed on the hillside, the only place that could reliably accommodate a group our size, in a series of villas overlooking the city. We left Medellín in the morning, early enough to stop at a coffee plantation for lunch and a tour along the way.

The cable car garden shed looking down on Jardín.

When we arrived at the villas in Jardín, it was late afternoon, and the sun was beginning to get low, as it does the entire year around that time. Medellín and surrounds are not far from the equator, so it’s 12 hours of sunlight, 12 hours of darkness, pretty much all year round. There was a bar next to the villas where we were staying, more of a shack, really, combined with a covered garden area with plastic tables and chairs. Next to the bar was a cable car, or, as Liza described it, a garden shed attached to a cable. The wooden box had two benches on either side, and could support four people, maybe five if they were thin enough. The operator in charge would eye the passengers waiting in line, one by one, guesstimating their weights, and with such precise methods he would decide whether only four of you could go, or five. This was a life or death decision, or so it appeared, since the rackety old thing took three minutes to traverse a deep chasm on its way down the hillside toward town, and a drop at the wrong moment would surely kill everyone inside. This was the only method of transportation to get down, though, other than a 20-minute winding ride down the dirt road. Amazing how so many of us were willing to risk life and limb to shave 17 minutes off the journey. The first time I took the cable car slash garden shed-on-a-rope it was night, which was for the best as I couldn’t see at just how far down our drop would be should the whole thing collapse under our weight. The next morning though I would see the full weight of the risk in broad daylight.

Hotel Jardín off the main plaza.

What made our trip to Jardín wonderful, I think, was a particular combination of serendipity and planning at just the right moment in our group’s journey. We were deposited at the villas, but with no plan that night for what to do next. Many of us sat drinking beer, admiring the view over the town and the sunset and the music. For once they were playing some bachata, which I hadn’t been able to find in the salsa clubs in Medellín. When we got hungry we made our way down to the town, via the cable car, with no plan for dinner. Most of us gravitated toward the street food vendors were grilling in the central square, which, on a Saturday night in a small town, was the one place to go hang out and people watch anywhere, and so the entire life of this one community was packed into that plaza. At night, again with no particular plan, our group migrated one by one back up the hill, where an impromptu dance party formed on one of the villa balconies. Somehow the word had gotten out to bring wine and beer, and we managed to keep the party going until around 2am, the playlist morphing from salsa and bachata to 80s dance, to 90s pop, back to 70s soul and funk, and cycling back through everything all over again. Liza had brought her portable speaker, but the real coup was refilling her data plan at a convenience store in town just before coming up the hill, which enabled us to stream whatever our hearts desired off of YouTube. An excellent trip-leader, that Liza.

In the morning, half the group left for a horseback ride around the mountains, from which I heard nothing but glowing reports. The rest of us went back into town for a leisurely breakfast, and for a walk in the woods up a trail to a stream, where we relaxed before heading back for more coffee and lunch. It was just as a weekend getaway should be.

Back in Poblado, my mornings and afternoons were spent working, but finding a routine was proving difficult, and the attempt to port over my normal life into a foreign city turned out to be more fraught with obstacles than I’d anticipated. About half the group were like me, there to work and to experience normal life in a different city. But the other half of the group were more like classic tourists using Unsettled to provide some additional structure and support. They had no problem spending their days doing hours-long walking tours and seeing the sights. But I was there to focus, and it was proving difficult.

By two weeks in, the problem was pretty clear: Slack. If you take a visit over to Slack’s website, you’ll see the software as service claims to be where work happens. The reality is that Slack was a terrible distraction. It wasn’t just the tool itself, of course, it was the people using it. Slack is group chat software that organizes conversations into “Channels” organized by subject. At the beginning of the trip, Unsettled set up a shared Slack space with half a dozen channels, including a general conversation channel, one for events, one for recommendations on restaurants and cafes, one to organize salsa outings (I take responsibility there), one to share videos and photos, and so on.

I’d never used Slack before, so in some ways I was simply unprepared for the deluge of notifications, which immediately prompted a heavy dose of FOMO. Just friendly notifications that two or three of the group were headed out to lunch or for coffee, or for a Pablo Escobar tour, and that everyone is invited, prompted waves of additional invitations and their attendant notifications. The trips prompted photo sharing, and events prompted more events. A “useful contacts” channel was set up so everyone could share their Whatsapp numbers, Instagram handles, and other relevant info, which extended the conversation out to other social media platforms. One member of the group became interested in soccer games and renting out fields to do scrimmages, and thus a soccer channel was born. In order to coordinate weekend getaways, a weekend getaway channel was created. It seemed that the proliferation of Slack channels was never-ending. I was used to tamping down or eliminating notifications from other apps all together, and I’d long since deleted Facebook off my phone, but the pervasiveness of Slack, the way it inserted itself into all spare and open space of a travel experience, caught me off guard. Liza would defend Slack as a dramatic improvement over the previous system, which was relying on gigantic, unwieldy Whatsapp groups to coordinate everything. And I’m sure it is is an improvement. The flip side is that the presence of Slack all but removed what for me is one of the core joys of travel: the empty time and space to find your next meal, to plan your next excursion, to accidentally stumble upon a great bar, and to generally let a degree of randomness and chance encounters take over your life, at least for a while. With Slack, there was always someone out to dinner that I could join, always an evening outing to crash, always a weekend plan to attach myself to. If I didn’t ever want to think about what to do next, I didn’t have to. Everyone makes plans when they go travel, some more than others, but to be constantly surrounded by and notified of everyone’s plans was, for me, to remove much of the pleasure in experiencing a new place.

So it was, that after the end of the second full week, having been in Medellín for 16 days (minus the two in Jardín) I silenced all my Slack notifications and took myself on a solo trip to Cartagena. There were two other smaller groups already going that weekend, but I did not coordinate with them, except to meet up for a drink one night. Aside from that, this was travel as I knew I enjoyed: completely on my own, left to my own devices, my time 100 percent determined exactly as I saw fit, with no one to suggest otherwise. I’m not blaming the other people for being friendly and open with their invitations, or Slack, for its endlessly proliferating channels (ok, maybe I am blaming Slack a little), but that friendliness and those invitations and the channels were all one, big, fat crutch, a way for me to avoid soaking in exactly what I wanted, or a way to avoid even figuring out which parts I did want to soak in.

In Cartagena that all changed. When I first flew in to Medellín, Unsettled had been there with a sign and a van to pick me up. But after landing in Cartagena, I gave wrong directions to the airport taxi, thinking the hostel at which I’d booked a private room was in the historic “El Centro” neighborhood, when in fact it was in the neighborhood directly adjacent. The taxi was fixed price for that neighborhood only, so he refused to drop me off anywhere else, and thus I ultimately had to walk 20 minutes at night through a new city, and do my own direction-finding to get to the hostel. That is the kind of travel experience I had wanted, and found.

A plaza in Cartagena’s central old town.

In the morning, I wandered the streets looking for coffee, adjusting to the stifling humidity, then wandered them some more. I found a nice café to write in and spent four hours there typing away. The center of Cartagena is gorgeous, all narrow colonial streets, bright colors, and old architecture. Many of the buildings are gigantic urban villas formerly owned by Cartagena’s nobility, or some-long forgotten corsair, now converted into boutique hotels and quaint-beyond belief restaurants. One day, I ate lunch at a Crepes and Waffles, which is a gigantic Colombian chain, only the Cartagena location was inside a beautifully restored mansion. I was seated in a shaded courtyard with a fountain, where I could look up four stories of plant and flower-adorned wrought iron balconies. Cartagena is one of those historic cities where the main activity recommended for tourists is literally, wander the streets. In the late afternoon I would nap, then step across the narrow one-way lane to a group of plastic chairs to have a beer and smoke a cigarette and chat with whomever from the hostel was there at the moment, usually the owner or the manager, or an occasional tourist. The neighborhood I was staying in was called Getsemani. It too was historic, but Getsemani was where all the poor people used to live, way back when, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine. The buildings were all smaller, mostly one- or two-story, their hallways narrow, their roofs low. The streets were narrower, the sidewalks more uneven. My room in the hostel was a tiny little brick-enclosed space wedged between the hallway and reception.

The Plaza Santisima Trinidad in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena

And yet all of this only added to the charm. My first night I had a beer just down the street from the hostel in a bar called Demente, housed in what looked like the side room of an ancient brick church with no roof. Outside was the Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad, which must go down as having the most life and energy packed into one little urban space that I have ever seen. It was crowded with locals sitting on every spare church step, lining every bench-sized wall. The street food vendors grilled kebabs and fried gigantic piles of noodles and meat and vegetables and poured mysterious sauces over them. The price was less than $4 for the meal. A convenience store on the corner sold beer, and opened them and poured them into plastic cups for you to walk out into the plaza with and enjoy, price: $1.25. At nights, a trampoline was set up for kids to play in, and at 10pm kids were still bouncing. Several restaurants lining the plaza had chairs and tables out on the sidewalk, serving pizzas and pastas and fresh fish. Occasionally, there were music and dancing and street performances. It had a life to it, the kind seldom found in any city, anywhere.

I returned to Medellín somewhat refreshed and determined to carve out more time for myself. Rather than go to the co-work space every morning, I stayed in the apartment and set up shop on the desk in the corner. By then we had a new office chair (the old one taken away), and the setup resembled more closely the home office I was used to. Occasionally I would still go out to my favorite cafe in the morning, Pergamino. Their coffee was outstanding, but what kept me coming back were the almond croissants, which, quite simply, are the best I’ve ever had. All warm fluff and powdered sugar, perfectly sweet but not too much, and just the right mix of textures on the inside. Cost for a latte and the croissant together: $3.50, which was on the expensive side even for Poblado.

My joys for the rest of the trip primarily consisted of group dinners and intimate conversations with the other group members. As I’d hoped, many of the people here were searching for the same things I was: a way to meaningfully exist in the world, some combination of wealth, purpose, and freedom, a desire to be adventurous, to see new things and to meet new people. I believe I found friends for life in Luigi and Liza, both of whom I shared many long and meaningful times with. And there were many others who I found to be incredibly interesting, and with whom I would have loved to spend more time. Perhaps that was also part of the issue: there were simply too many people to get to know all of them with the depth I would have liked. There was the couple that started a company to employ Syrian and Iraqi refugees as translators and language instructors; an Iranian-born restauranteur who’d been raised in Norway, always the life of any evening; the friendly Texan, with the George W. accent, who was searching for a way to leave Trump’s America, just in case he felt he really had to; the American-Israeli sisters who had so much to say about religion and family and relationships; the motion graphics designer from L.A. who seemed to so settled and satisfied in her work; the Swiss branding expert who’d lived in Dubai for the past many years; and many more. I wish I’d had time to get to know all of them better than I did. And now, who knows. Perhaps they will pass into my personal history just like all the others I’ve met in my travels, wandering souls with whom you spend a short and intense time, but never see again. These brief relationships are the double-edged sword of travel. They enrich you, but only for a short time, and then they most often disappear.

If the goal of Unsettled was to see if I could port my life over to another city, if only for a temporary amount of time, the answer is a qualified yes, but. Yes, but not in such a large group. Yes, but not with so many planned activities. Yes, but there is no need of a co-work space. A fine apartment with a good internet connection will do. Yes, but it would be wrong to think that the connections I make in one place don’t come at the cost of relationships back home. During the time I was away, I didn’t see my partner of five years, though I missed her terribly, and of course nor did I see any of my close friends in DC. Now there is a period of catching up to do with everyone I left behind. Washington DC is already a transient town where it is difficult to maintain friendships, and leaving the city for a month didn’t make that maintenance any easier.

I often wonder about those who travel indefinitely, the true digital nomads. I’ve met many of them during the course of my travels, and the question I always have, the question they always get, is: what about relationships? Aren’t you lonely? A girl I met kitesurfing in Belize (her job was in marketing for a tech startup, which she did 100% remotely) told me she wasn’t at all lonely, that she has always been able to meet people along the way and develop meaningful relationships that way. I could only wonder, perhaps unfairly, what degree of cognitive dissonance she was maintaining in order to believe that. In Colombia, I met three Israelis all just finished from their army tour, who had started out traveling alone but had all met up in Guatemala and were now traveling with each other. Israelis have a way of finding each other all over the world, that way. Others I’ve met have acknowledged, yes, traveling that way is a lonely business, but that was their personality, and in any case one day they would settle down.

In the end, Unsettled did not turn out to be the peaceful, exotic work retreat I’d hoped for. It didn’t provide that kind of untrammeled time for reflection and focus that I desperately needed, which I’d found on so many other trips. When people ask me how was Medellín, or how was any travel experience, I feel a tangible cultural pressure to say, “Amazing… so amazing,” and not stray too far from that line. I was struck, on this trip more than any, just how carefully we are able to curate even a subpar travel experience for those who are following us online. There were some members of our group who I swear to all that is holy had come purely to gather content for their Instagram feeds. All experience became something to be photographed or filmed, rather than felt. I don’t know if they had a truly good time or not, but I know that it appears that they had an amazing time. This appearing to be something is the way of the world now, and I do not like it one bit. This has been the trend for years, something I first really noticed years ago walking around old Quebec and watching hoards of Asian tourists all with their selfie sticks. The selfie stick was a new thing back then. They would all walk down the old cobblestone streets looking into their smartphones the whole time, narrating what was in the corner of their eyes for their social media followings back home.

I didn’t take a hoard of photos on this trip. What you see here in this post covers a lot of what I did photograph. There will be no Facebook photo album of this trip. Perhaps this is just my way of zigging when everyone else is zagging: they all filled their Instgram feeds to the brim; I wrote 6,000+ words. Hopefully, some of them True.





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  1. Tom Simon


    Great read Russ. Especially about living the experience rather than attempting to document it for friends back home.

  2. Pingback: Confessions of a Travel Blogger – Russell Max Simon

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