Around the world in 14 days

In my previous post, I described the process of preparing to go to Malaysia and India for an Intel project. I’ve traveled internationally a lot, but I’ve never traveled abroad for work. Traveling internationally for work is very different than traveling for pleasure. For example, the rooms and meals during business travel are generally nicer than the hostels and food carts of my solo adventures, but there’s increased pressure to be certain places at specific times and to understand a different set of cultural interactions unique to the business world. It’s a challenging environment — feeling tired most of the time, not being able to understand a fair bit of what’s being said around you, and so on — but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The trip was valuable for the project, and it was a very cool experience.

Here are a few shots that highlight the Intel project (click to enlarge).

One story that will stick with me is the first evening of work in Kuala Lumpur. I got to the hotel at 2am, and I found out that the place I was supposed to meet people (a mall that was hosting a large retail activation) was about 45 minutes away. So I went to sleep, got up early, and took a cab out there — no problems. After a few hours on site, I went back to the hotel to continue working, eat, and take a nap before heading back to the mall that evening. I left the hotel at 7pm, planning to be there by 8pm, and I confirmed with the driver that he knew where he was going. This was important because it was pretty far from the city center in the middle of a relatively new suburban development. The taxi driver assured me that he could get there and his phone had GPS as a backup.

It was light when we left the hotel, but as the light faded and the taxi driver struggled to get the GPS working on his phone (after turning back and forth a few times), it became clear that we probably weren’t going to be on time. Fortunately my cell phone had text and data service, so I was able to alert my contact that I might be late. I had GPS on my phone, but the roads in Kuala Lumpur aren’t direct, and I had no idea whether there was construction or what traffic patterns were, so I was reluctant to give advice about how to get there… that would change.

The driver called multiple people and communicated mostly by yelling “Setia Alam! Setia Alam!” — the name of the development where the mall was located — over and over into his phone. It didn’t seem to get him very far, at least not in the right direction. At one point I was so jet-lagged that I fell asleep for about ten minutes, and when I woke up, we were by the old airport, which meant we were way off track. I texted my contact that I was going to be a bit late.

We got back on the right road, and we were just a few turns away from the last stretch of highway to the mall, when all of a sudden the driver took a wrong turn, which came a surprise because at that point it seemed like we were in the clear, and we ended up stuck in traffic near a huge mosque. Malaysia is a heavily Islamic country, and it was Ramadan, and it was just after dark, and the streets around the mosque were packed and policemen were directing traffic. The driver asked a policeman how to get to Setia Alam, but the officer had no time for us.

My phone was dying, but with the last few minutes of battery life, I was able to get us on the right road and tell my contact that the driver was lost but I thought we would get there before the mall closed. We finally arrived just before 9pm, and I felt a mixture of anger and chagrin about the whole charade. On one hand, I know the driver wasn’t trying to jilt us by driving around in circles, but on the other, the fare was nearly twice what it should have been, and he shouldn’t have told us he knew where he was going if he didn’t. I was sort of embarrassed for him, yet I knew that I could easily afford to pay the extra $10-15 that the detours cost. Ultimately, I told the driver I would split the difference and exited the van with more relief than anything else. It was outrageous and infuriating and exhausting and hilarious and yet somehow completely normal, all rolled into one.

The mall was closing, but fortunately my business colleague had spoken with mall security to let us stay for a bit. An hour and a half later, when we wrapped up our work, there were no taxies anywhere. Luckily, my contact was very generous and gave me a ride to a hotel with a taxi stand, and I was able to make my way back to my hotel room a little after 11pm.

So if you ever hear me yell “Setia Alam!” when I’m lost or confused, you’ll understand why. Anyway, now that I’m back, I’m starting to wonder: where to next?

– Written by: Alex Head

Give to Get

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