Interning in Colombia for a Film Production and Marketing Company
I have never heard of a job where the worst part is leaving the office at the end of the day...that is until I landed in Bogotá June 18th.
My name is Dar Sleeper from Seattle, Washington. I am a student at the University of Michigan and the summer marketing intern here at WhereNext and this is my, "Interning for a Colombian Film Production and Creative Agency," story:
The moment I turned away from my family's goodbyes, curbside at Seatac airport, it really sank in, I am going to Bogotá. Being a nineteen-year-old kid, who generally fails to plan in advance, it was also at this very moment I began to wish I would have done some research on the city I'm about to fly across the country to live in. My only knowledge of Bogotá was the one episode of Narcos I watched the night before leaving and something is telling me that isn’t the best source of information about Colombia. My backpack was loaded with gear that would suggest I was going to live in tent in the mountains for two months; equipped with rock climbing gear, iodine, jungle knifes, etc… I was ready for, well honestly I didn’t know what I was ready for. Regardless, me, my sandals (the only shoe I packed for a two-month trip) and my backpack were ready to rock.
After seven hours of travel time, between leaving Seattle and a layover in Dallas I had finally arrived at the El Dorado International airport of Bogotá, Colombia. The only instruction I had was to WhatsApp message a guy named Julian when I landed and the rest was supposedly going to fall into place. I really had no other choice but to trust it, but one small problem was everyone everywhere else on earth communicates through WhatsApp and being from the US I had no idea what that was. After aimlessly clicking around in the app, I was approached by a man wearing what seemed to be a poncho, flip flops, a headband that was more of a tube sock for his long curly hair and pants similar to those Aladdin wore on his magic carpet— at this moment I thought just maybe I packed appropriately. “Hey! think I am here to pick you up,” said Julian, lacking every bit of certainty in his voice you would hope for while getting in a car with a stranger in a foreign country. With that said I didn’t have many other options and he seemed like a good dude.
On my ride to, WhereNext Creative Director, Gregg’s apartment (which apparently was going to be my home for the next two months), Julian gave me the lay of land which was basically a briefing on how not to get robbed being a gringo in Colombia. However he assured me Colombia was nothing like it how it is portrayed in the media… but walking with your phone out at night was still not the best idea.
After getting in the elevator at the apartment complex and watching Julian use a key to gain access to the top floor where the elevator opens up into the living room of the apartment, I quickly realized I would not be living in a tent.
First Day Out
After waking up in my king sized bed (not a tent) I stepped out onto the balcony to take a look at the city. I was surrounded by beautiful Latin American architecture, with the overwhelming presence of the Andes mountains just blocks away lining the eastern edge of the city. After strapping up my sandals, throwing on my hiking pants, I took to the streets.
It didn’t take much time after hitting the street for me to realize I had to go find some normal clothes. The people on the streets of Bogota were well dressed and on top of that one in every two women I saw were gorgeous. So I quickly grabbed a coffee and then picked up some clothes that wouldn’t make me stick out like a sore thumb.
After getting back to the apartment it was still fairly early in the morning and having a week until I even started work and Gregg being out of town I had to find something to do. In hopes to get acclimatized and get a feel for the city I decided going for a run was a good place to start. Once I got to street level (looking normal now), I started to jog in the direction of the Andes to use the mountain range as a landmark to keep me from getting lost. I ran along the mountainside for a while until I came across a stair case that looked like it just went up in to mountain… Without really thinking twice I took off up the stair case and found myself In a neighborhood comprised of houses made-up of bricks, steel sheets and slabs of wood (pictured below). Standing on a cliffs edge in the mountains with the neighborhood to my back, in front of me was a panoramic aerial view of the city and to my left a beautiful water fall. But something didn’t feel right. Shortly after arriving in this neighborhood a beautiful short Colombian girl, who looked nearly the same age as me, grabbed me by the arm and started yelling at me in Spanish… Unfortunately I do not understand Spanish, but the concerned look on her face mixed with the feeling I got from being in the neighborhood lead me to believe letting her pull me away from this place was probably a good choice.
I followed her to a nearby bus stop where I tried my best to communicate that I wanted to get out of the mountains and go back to the city. She then lead me onto a bus where she pulled out her phone so she could communicate with me through google translate. The first thing she typed was “What were you doing up there, that is one of the most unsafe neighborhoods in Bogota, Especially for a gringo!” After thanking her for helping me out, she then asked if I would I would like to eat with her on her lunch break before she showed me the way back to my neighborhood. Once we got off the bus she led me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near the City Center of Bogotá. We enjoyed an amazing traditional Colombian lunch of potato soup (ajiaco), a plate of refried beans, rice, chicken, plantains and a bowl of fresh fruit (Colombia has the best fruit in the world, if you don’t believe me look it up). The lunch was unreal and we spoke entirely through google translate for the duration of it (it was as awkward and funny as it sounds) and when the bill came I was floored, I just ate a three (four if you count the cookie at the end) course meal for what was the equivalent to $2.50 USD. Not everyday you go out to eat with someone, speak through a translator and pay nothing for one of the best meals of your life.
After lunch she pointed me in the direction of the north side of town, where I was living as well as where the office was and we parted ways. On my way back to Gregg’s apartment I decided to stop by the office to meet the rest of the crew. I called Julian and he met me on the main road next to the office and lead me into a big White House (Casa Blanca). He then introduced me to the crew. Gabo the money guy, Julio the editor (along with Julian), Dan Mura the audio engineer, his assistant Andreas, Lies the executive producer aka a voice of reason in an office full of creatives, George who I honestly couldn’t tell you what he does, Nikolay the animator and Sandra the producer. The energy in the office was amazing and all the people were awesome. I was getting pretty excited to get after it with everyone the following week.
A Day In The Office
Interning at WhereNext beat the hell out of anything else I could have done for work experience. My everyday life has been something out of a movie and that’s including the part where you go to work.
This next bit is basically a normal day in the life of a WhereNext intern.
The alarm goes off around 5:30 am. I get out of bed and Gregg is bumping Beats One radio station in the living room in attempts to stay in the loop with American pop (which gets pretty tough living in a place like Bogotá) while making some espresso from the beans he gathered from his coffee farm in Choachi (a town near the city of Bogotá). At about 7:30, after relaxing and listening to Richard Mccolls podcast, Colombia Calling (Podcast about expats in Colombia), I head down to the community park outside the apartment with Gregg to workout with his Tiger Woods look-a-like trainer. After the workout we head over to the bakery across the street and grab a Pan De Yuca, caliente, para llevar (Yuca Bread warmed up to go, which might I add is the best bread I’ve had in my life) and then grab a orange/carrot juice. Now being about 8:30 we get back to the apartment where Gregg’s house lady, Erika Poosh, has made us a breakfast of eggs, spinach, sausage and fresh squeezed pineapple juice.
Usually around 9:00 am I hop on “Piece of Shit,” which is the extremely warranted name of WhereNext office bike that gets dished off and breaks numerous times on the interns that come to the office bikeless (biking is a big deal in Colombia, more on that later) and bike roughly 10 minutes to the office. When I arrive I get started on my projects, which generally pertain to WhereNext marketing efforts and the day begins.
After an hour or so at work the office house lady brings me and whoever else a cup of coffee to keep the train rolling and then around 11 everyone shows in 10 mil (about $3 USD) for lunch. At 1:00 pm we all gather in the outdoor space in the back of the office where we eat an amazing three course meal on a old door that was broken down and converted into a table. Once lunch is over I usually head over to Cafe Colo, one of the few locally owned (as opposed to owned by foreigners) coffee shops in the area. Being an avid coffee drinker who’s had a cup in some of the best places to drink coffee in the world, I still can confidently say the coffee in Colombia beats the hell out of any other coffee I have tasted. On the way back to the office some of the guys grab an ice cream bar and then we get back to work.
At the beginning of this blog I state that the worst part of the work day is going home at the end of the day… and I guess that phrasing was a bit off because sometimes we don’t go home at the end of the day. Around five, when every body should go home, we all gather in the back and play soccer for anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour. Once it gets to dark to play anymore around 6:30 (it gets dark at the same time every-night in Colombia as it is on the equator) we head inside and keep the ball rolling with a game of FIFA on the 100 inch projector setup in the lounge space. Now normally (at least from what I am used to) a game of FIFA consist of two individuals playing a match head to head and the winner keeps playing, sort of like a tournament. But at WhereNext, teamwork is everything. Instead of the traditional format of FIFA gameplay, four players play on the same team in World Cup mode to try and fight their way to victory. Once your team loses the tournament then and only then is it time to head home.
Around 7:30 pm I roll into Greggs apartment where my room is freshly cleaned by Erika Poosh, who might I add makes everything she touches look immaculate. Gregg and I watch some videos of dogs catching frisbees (which is his real passion in life, Creative Director for a film production company is merely cover), while I wait for my chicken burger from Rappi (Grubhub of Colombia) delivery (wish I could spell the restaurants name because it is the best chicken sandwich on earth and they deserve credit). Around 9:00 pm I hit the hay and the cycle repeats again the next day.
While this is the general premise of what my days look like, everyday is a little different. Office parties are also a big theme at WhereNext. The crew at the office loves to have fun, that goes without question. Any and every reason to come together as a team and eat, drink, laugh and sometimes even dance is capitalized upon. Between our morning World Cup parties for Colombias historic run, Sandras “temporary going away” party and celebrating new deals, WhereNext finds every excuse to create an unparalleled office community.
Climbing along with cycling are the two most practiced hobbies/sports amongst the community I was thrown into while at WhereNext. Usually a couple times a week Julio, Julian, Julian's wife, Atenea and I would make an after work trip to the bouldering or climbing gym just blocks away from the office. The WhereNext crew, for a lack of a better way to put it, were legends at the local climbing gym. The second we walked in we were swarmed with friends from the climbing gym. “Holaaaa WhereNext,” the girls would harmonize in the direction of Julio and Julian… understandable for Julian although he has a wife, but Julio has the outward appearance similar to a Jack Russel Terrier (if you can visualize that) so these hollers were a true testament to how much of a rockstar you were in Bogotá if you worked for WhereNext (sorry Julio if you’re reading this). However the climbing gym was the least cool part of my Colombian climbing experience.
My first weekend in town Julio, Julian and Atenea took me to their friend Juan’s glamping (luxury camping) spot Kamp Nattivo (check them out on Instagram @kamp_nattivo to see what I am talking about). After driving through incredible Colombian landscapes to get their, Juan showed us around the camp and then gave us some bouldering crash pads and showed us the way to some boulders. After doing the limbo through a few electrical fence wires we started hiking up the mountain to some amazing boulders.
About halfway up the mountainside we came across a house, with a panoramic view of the valley between the two (of three) Andes mountains ranges we were nestled between, where one of the crew's friends was staying, who ended up joining us on our expedition. We continued up the mountain to the fist of three boulders. Coming into this trip, despite my two torn labrum in my shoulders, I was fairly confident in my climbing abilities… However the first rock was the easiest and I couldn’t clear a single route. The routes were truly unreal in comparison to what I have climbed back in the states.
After climbing routes on the next two boulders we bird watched a bit (the WhereNext team has a weird birding obsession because of their most recent project with the Colombian government), saw some cows (which was wildly fascinating for me although very normal for the rest), then began to make our way home. Before getting back to Gregg’s we stopped for empanadas to cap off a solid day of climbing.
For me, going to Bogotá was quite the adventure in and of itself. However Gregg insisted that I make my way down to Medellin for the weekend. All I really knew about Medellin was that it was the old stomping grounds of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar but Gregg assured me it was one of the best places to party on earth… after hearing this I was sold.
At 4:00 am on June I hopped in an Uber for the El Dorado Airport to make my way to Medellin. After a quick 50 minute flight it was wheels down in the land of eternal spring (Medellin earned this named because it is essentially 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit year round due to its elevation and position on the equator). A quick cab ride from the airport landed me at the hostel, Paisa City. This particular hostel had a reputation for being the party hostel, sleep wasn’t much of an option, loud music and games all night and even the neighboring hostels would come to Paisa City to party just to head back to theirs for a good night sleep (this might of been the better play, but Im all in for an experience). After grabbing a bite to eat I walked into the hostel and started meeting people from all over the world who then continued to tell me all the crazy stories they have from one single night in Medellin.
Two of the guys I met Chris and James, from Los Angeles, asked me if I wanted to go on a “Pablo Escobar Tour” with them. I had the whole day ahead of me with zero plans so I accepted the invitation and hopped in a van driven by a tour guide named Wilson. As we took off in the direction of Escobar's grave, Wilson began to tell us stories. It turns out that Wilson was a trafficker for Escobar and operated in Miami. After getting caught by the DEA he spent 15-years in American prison. After he was released, Escobar's entire operation was in ashes due to his death and he had a revelation that maybe this new beginning was a blessing. He started a family in the states but was soon deported back to Colombia. Wilson had more stories to tell than he had time, pictures of him and Escobar's family members, sentiments from his time trafficking… to say the least he was pretty authentic and while this all should have been a bit frightening he was truly one of the nicest, coolest dudes I’ve met. He took us to Escobar's grave (pictured below), his childhood home, introduced us to one of Escobar's Sicarios (paid assassins) Freddy Galeano, and brought us to his vacation home (also pictured below). From his vacation home we made our way to Guatape a famous rock in Medellin where you climb roughly 800 stairs to a panoramic view of the many surrounding lakes (where the Escobar's owned A LOT of property). Chris didn’t do so well on the stairs, in fact he nearly passed out.
After climbing Guatape we ate a traditional meal of Bandeja Paisa (beans, grains of some sort, chicharrones [friend for fat], plantains, ground beef, avocado, sausage, etc.) in a nearby city. While we waited for Wilson to pull his car around I met a group of girls from London who happened to be staying in El Poblado, the main party neighborhood in Medellin. After making some plans to go dancing with our new friends from London we made our way back to the city.
Paisa City Hostel was already a full blown club scene by the time we arrived (about 5:00 pm). Having been up since four I was hoping to squeeze a nap in but that clearly wasn’t an option. After partying at Paisa City until about midnight, James and I made our way to El Poblado and partied and danced to Raggaeton (popular Colombian dance music) until 4:00 am.
Day two in Medellin had a lot to live up to given the fun had day one. After getting about three hours of sleep, Chris, James and I made our way up to some cliffs to jump off with a parachute. While parachuting in a developing world country may not sound like the best call… again, I went to Medellin for the experience. After dangling my feet thousands of feet over the city of Medellin (pictured below) we made our way back to Paisa City to relax before yet another incredible night of partying and dancing.
For the past 24 hours Chris and James had been telling me about a friend they met the night before from Australia, Jed. While I won’t go into to detail, judging by the stories Jed was a pretty gnarly dude. After falling asleep on a hammock for a short nap I woke up to “wake up you ___________ (insert a plethora of curse words) it’s time to party,” in an Australian accent. For the next hour or so I got to know this Jed character and as it turns out I've known him for nearly a decade as he used to work at my favorite Bar and Restaurant, Dusty's, at the base of Whistler Mountain, Canada. The night went on and the crew went for round two in El Poblado, this time learning to salsa with some local Paisa girls (what women from Medellin are called).
After saying some goodbyes the next morning I hopped on a plane back to Bogotá. Glad I took Gregg’s advice.
Biking is undoubtably the most important hobby in the life of a WhereNext employee. The company was started by a cyclist (Gregg) during his two year cycling trip from Alaska to Argentina, built on a foundation of bikers and many clients… also cycling brands and tour operators. Coincidentally Colombia happens to be one of the gnarliest places to bike on earth. With some of the toughest climbs at high altitudes, Colombia cranks out world class cyclists. To be an average biker here is to be in the top percentile elsewhere due to the steep climbs and forced altitude training. With all of that said the most biking I’ve done is the level ride I take to my gym everyday… never even really biked up a hill. Regardless I was quickly thrown into the biking lifestyle.
My bike career started out with some easier stuff. Patios and Guadalupe… these two bike climbs are the ones the guys in the office do multiple times a week in the morning before work (around 4:00 am). Patios is a larger climb than any in the US and it is considered “the small climb” here in Bogotá. For me, these climbs were like running a marathon. Julian on the other hand, didn’t even break a sweat.
After successfully summiting Guadalupe (pictured above), which ends in a 12% incline (not sure if you can picture this but imagine trying to bike up a wall), Julian dubbed me worthy of joining his crew on their bike trip to Gregg’s farm near Choachi (a small town over the Páramo’s of Colombia). While extremely honored to receive an invite, I thought I peaked in my bike career at the top of Guadalupe and the climbs we’d be doing for the Choachi trip would equal four maybe five Guadalupe's. But again, I am here for the experience and this was cultural immersion at it’s finest.
Next thing I knew I was waking up at 4:00 am on Julian’s couch to embark upon, what I was sure was going to be, the bike journey to top all other bike journeys. Day one was a breeze, 14 or so kilometers up to the Paramo’s of Colombia (one-of-a-kind ecosystem existing at roughly 12,000 feet altitude) and then down 33 kilometers to Gregg’s farm. The time at Gregg’s farm (pictured below) was amazing, good food, good company, beautiful land etc. But it wasn’t until after lunch that it hit me… That 33 kilometer descent, that’s the way home.
After a fun night in the tropics, minus one of Julian’s friends getting shish-kabobed by a scorpion we made our way back to Bogotá. After quickly being left in the dust by Julian and company, I slowly made my way up this ridiculous climb and nearly an hour after the rest summited the mountain (gaining about 6,000 feet of altitude over two hours) I arrived on the Páramo. Having just completed, what I was sure was, the most intense physical pursuit of my entire life (I played D1 sports, this is saying a lot), Julian gave me what he thought to be incredible news. “Bro! I am so proud of you! Now you are ready for the real challenge, Letras. We are going in two weeks, get ready!” Said Julian.
Later learning from Gregg, Letras is the world's longest ascent and arguably one of the world's hardest cycle routes, I nearly threw up thinking about it. With that said I was too deep to turn back now.
July 20th came around (Colombian Independence Day) and a crew of 20 including myself were waking up at 4:00 am to do it all over again… But much worse. This ride earned the name “Tour de la Indepedencia” and you are probably wondering why they didn’t just call it Letras given that was already the name of the longest climb in the world. Well it got this name because they decided to put an extra 250 kilometers on the front and back end of the 80 kilometer climb, making it the longest climb and some (500 kilometers).
After nearly passing out multiple times on the way to the base of Letras, given most of day one was at sea level where it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humid, we made it to base camp (Maraquita). Although I was too beat up and tired to enjoy any of it, we stayed in a beautiful hotel with a pool (which was all organized by Atenea).
Day two we woke up around 4:00 am and started the longest climb in the world. Quickly being separated from the pack I took the first half slow and steady. I needed to preserve my energy, I was going to be climbing nearly 13,000 feet up a mountain… that shits not easy. After making it past the first half a rainstorm hit. Being a Seattle native this rainstorm gave me a bit of an extra boost and rocketed up the next fourth of the climb. However when the storm broke it got extremely hot briefly. It was at this moment I started to get dizzy and lose balance. After trying to tough it out, I collapsed. This occurrence in the biking community is called “bonking” Bonking is what happens when your body runs out of necessary ATP for you to burn and keep going. After waking up in the back of Atenea’s support car, my dreams of summiting the world's longest climb came to an end.
Although I didn’t make it to the top I was close and now I’ve got a future goal in line so while it probably won’t be recorded on this blog. I promise one day you’ll see me at the top. But for now here is a picture of me bonked!
While my biking journeys sound like torcher, they were some seriously life changing experiences and if you don’t believe me, I already bought a bike for back home. All of these adventures were made possible by Julian and Atenea’s incredible knowledge regarding Colombia bike adventures. If you want to experience some of the best cycling this world has to offer check out their new company Hidden Journeys (link at end of blog as well). They will make a (much less intense) itinerary for you, hotels, routes, time tables and provide you with top of the line guide services and bikes. They also do straight up bike rentals if you aren’t into the whole tour thing. 10/10 recommend, they are pros in the bike game and Colombia is a bucket list cycling destination.
That's A Wrap
With my trip coming to an end, I feel it's appropriate to reflect a bit on what I have taken away from this experience.
If I had to choose only one thing to take from this culture and hold on to for the rest of time it would be to live in the moment. This concept seems so simple but it is so far from it. In the society I grew up in everyone is always worried about what is next. Everyone I have been surrounded by all of my life has always been worried about what tomorrow holds-- how will I pay the bills, how will i get rich, how will I plan this week so I can accomplish everything that needs to be done in my life, etc. Planning ahead is good to an extent, but it has gotten to the point where we are so consumed by what is next (WhereNext? sorry this felt like the right time for a horrible pun), we forget about what is going on right in front of us. The people here in Colombia know how to be present in any given moment. As my tour guide in Medellin, Wilson, put it "if your birthday is on a Monday, we are celebrating on a Monday and we're sure as shit not celebrating on a Saturday." I became extremely admirable of this trait and tried my best to let it rub off.
Gracias Colombia & WhereNext, I'll be back.
Hidden Journeys: https://www.hiddenjourneys.co