In a way, it does feel a bit like I’ve been in outer space for the past year – communicating with ground control in London via the digital ether; living in the close-quartered RY bubble as we travelled from place to place; definite loss of muscle mass. And so it felt right to end my orbit round the planet in a series of stages designed to avoid burn-up on re-entry – in the past month I’ve been based in Buenos Aires, Bolivia, Bedford and now Bethnal Green. Nothing like a bit of alliteration to aid a smooth landing, after all.
On the face of it, Bolivia isn’t exactly the most obvious staging post between RY and home – in fact it couldn’t be less like Argentina or the UK if it tried, and has to be one of the most extreme places I’ve visited all year. But, I figured, how better to deal with the ending of one big adventure, then to immerse yourself in something entirely new? And Bolivia certainly knows how to keep your attention. The famous salt flats are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg – as if to prove the point, after we did the obligatory perspective-fooling photoshoot against that dramatic pure white backdrop right at the start of the trip, each day thereafter only seemed to get more unexpected than the last.
For instance, slap bang in the middle of the salt flats is an island of giant cacti, which with their spine-covered arms held aloft, look almost as surprised to be there as I did. It also turns out that the inhospitable, freezing and largely barren Altiplano on which the salt flats lie is home to huge flocks of flamingos, of all things. Watching these funny pink birds strut their stuff against the big, beige landscape behind them, you can’t help but think that they were dropped in as an afterthought to provide a splash of colour. Or as a joke.
Moving on to Potosi – the highest city in the world – I got to indulge the currency geek in me by visiting one of the oldest coin mints still in existence. Back in the 16th century, Potosi was also one of the richest cities in the world, due to the discovery of one of the largest silver deposits ever found, in the mountain on which it sits – the aptly named Cerro Rico (“Rich Hill”). The Spanish conquistadors had not been slow to recognise that there was money to be made – literally – and conscripted thousands of indigenous people to mine the silver and turn it into coins. Rumour has it that this may be where the ubiquitous dollar sign ($) came from – coins from the Potosi were stamped with a maker’s mark formed of the letters “P”, “T”, “S” and “I” all superimposed, with the “P” and “T” being dropped over time leaving the symbol we know today. Who knows if this is true, but it makes a good story! As does our visit into the mines the next day, which are still operational. Suffice to say, I never expected to find myself deep inside a silver mine, metres away from workers blowing up a rock face with dynamite! But this is Bolivia for you.
The surprises continued in Sucre, which must have known we were coming as they laid on a huge party. Thousands of dancers and musicians – not to mention Miss Bolivia 2017 herself – flew in from all over the region to take part in an all-day, all-night parade – parts of which did look uncannily like an Elvis convention. With bells on. And as if that wasn’t enough, the next day I bumped into an old friend in the form of another section of the Inca Trail – fortunately this bit was downhill though. We finished up sitting in actual, half-metre wide dinosaur prints! As you do.
Sitting in a Hackney café now, surrounded by buggies, beards and brunch, it’s hard to believe that all of that happened only a fortnight ago. In many ways, the whole year away already feels like a different lifetime – especially when I’m back in my own office, where the only difference from before is that it is (currently) a lot tidier. Fortunately I am frequently reassured that I didn’t imagine the whole thing by everyone asking me how RY was – I just wish I had a more adequate answer up my sleeve. The problem is it’s impossible to sum up a whole year in a soundbite, and to be honest it’s all still a blur – albeit a good one. I do however need to get a T-shirt printed which reads “I was not on holiday”. Clearly I needed to blog more about times spent sitting in the frequently non-descript workspaces, doing battle with the EPO, rather than the photogenic days.
So, is digital nomading the future of work, as many headlines on LinkedIn would have you believe? Well, in my humble opinion, it’s definitely a future of work – and one that companies may be doing themselves a disservice if they do not consider as an option – but it’s not the only one. By that I mean that I can’t see it entirely replacing the physical office, but there are so many types of work that can be done (and are being done) remotely, to an equally high standard, efficiently and with lower overheads that I can easily imagine even the most traditional of companies having a remote department or two in the future almost as a matter of course. And of course, the lifestyle won’t appeal to everyone (as glamorous as I hope I made it look!) but to those for whom it does, the opportunity to work remotely will be a big draw. It’s not necessarily the answer to the age-old problem of work/life balance (work/explore balance is just as tricky), but the flexibility it gives you does go a long way as there is more opportunity to make work fit around you, rather than you having to fit around work.
I suspect it is going to take me a while to adjust back. At the moment, computer monitors seem like cinema screens, and the office unnaturally quiet (hence this café). I am enjoying the speed of typing without a VPN in the way, the non-UHT milk and of course the paper though. I’m sure before long it will be like I was never away from the office, which is probably how it should be.
However, it’s really only my job that has remained constant – everything else is still changing around me, much as it has the last year in fact. It’s easy to forget that’s the case when work is such a big part of our lives. But I think that’s a lesson I’ve learned from RY – work is only part of our lives and it is entirely possible to do a million and one other things too (travelling round the world is an extreme example) and still do your job well. Hardly rocket science, I know, but I need reminding sometimes. So, I’m treating re-entry not as a return to my ways of old, but as if it’s RY month 13 – new eyes, new city. Which means walking tours, museums, theatre… heck, I’m even going kayaking next weekend. And yes, my friends do find this hilarious but that’s OK. I’m sure I will travel again, hopefully in the not too distant future. But for the time being at least, this phoenix has landed.