After 36 trips to Latin America – here is what I learned

This is it.. my last business trip for Google. Most importantly, my last trip to Latin America. The region that I’ve come to call my home. Actually... not true. I should rather call it my playground. Yeah, that does it more justice.

It all started 3.5 years ago when I got the offer to move to the States to build out our partner ecosystem throughout the region. At that time, my former colleague, friend and mentor, Carlos G, had launched this new team for Latin America out of the US for which he was recruiting Spanish-speakers (talk about the importance of networking). 

Living in the States? Working our of our headquarters? Dedicated to the Latin American region? That sounded like a dream. And yes, looking back, the last few years certainly felt like a dream. But more so, they were an incredible blessing. As I’m reviewing the stamps in my passport which is now filled with the exception of one single page (oh, dang!), I count 36 entries to various countries in the region. I still haven’t visited them all, but the ones I have, I know inside out.

The funniest reactions I get are the ones when people find out that I’m a German-born Iranian living in the US, but working for Latin America. Exemplary reaction (to be read in your surprise-voice): "Wait, what? Latin America? How did that happen? And you speak Spanish and Portuguese?” 

I never really knew what attracted me to this region until I was sitting over my Stanford application essays. People always say that even if you don’t get accepted, at least you wrote those essays. The reason they say that is simply because the essays are known to be very profound and an revealing self-finding process. The main essay topic “What matters most to you and why?” is often considered one of the most difficult business school essay questions. And it was exactly that essay topic which kicked-in a very profound self-finding process for me. 

The very essence was that my exchange semester in Argentina, which was my first-ever experience with Latin America, was an important moment in my life when I realized how close I felt to the Latin American culture. Much closer than I felt to the German culture in which I was raised. In Germany I was often considered a “well-integrated foreigner” where I felt pressure to “fit in.” In Latin America, however, I felt I could just be me and that I was propelled (and not inhibited) by my differences. That exchange semester was like a seed that was planted in my mind and which I nurtured going forward (learning Spanish, then Portuguese, networking with people in the region, reading about it, visiting it, etc.). 

36 trips later, an amazing chapter of my life is coming to an end. But it’s one that is filled with incredible memories: paragliding in Rio (thanks Humberto), surfing at the coast of Chile (thanks Pablo), a date at Bogotá airport in between my connection flights that was followed by a spontaneous “I-hardly-know-you-but-I’m-gonna-buy-a-ticket-and-visit-you-in-San-Francisco" (you know who you are!), my self-finding trip to Machu Picchu (where I never felt so close to human history), 3 visits to Cartagena in less than a year (Carlos R – you are the man!), a $300K wedding in Mexico (aka the Mexican version of Kim & Kanye). The list of experiences I was able to gather knows has no ending. 

Anywhere I went, people welcomed me with an incredibly open heart. The only (negative) experience I had was a cloned credit bard in Brazil. And Salvador airport … uggh! I just can’t stand Salvador airport. Apart from that, I never felt or was exposed to danger during the last years frequenting the region. Not a single thing was stolen or went missing. I can’t recall a single flight that was delayed, yet I do remember how I got to Lima and then realized that I had booked my separate connection flight to Cusco wrong by an entire month (clearly my bad). Almost all over Latin America, I have someone to call and ask for help next time I get there. 

While these experiences look like the effortless perks of a travel-heavy tech job, they did come with a hefty price tag on my personal life. My constant trips to the region oftentimes kept me from living a proper life in San Francisco – anything from taking classes that required continuous participation to many important events that I would miss due to travels. And yes, being gone every other week also made it hard to date. One of my friends, Jessica, actually – and seriously – thought for the first 6 months of our friendship that I was living in Latin America and that she was only seeing me on my business trips to the US (you can’t imagine what an incredibly awkward yet hilarious moment it was when she figured that out). 

Yet no matter how high that price tag was, I always pushed myself to go on every single trip. Sometimes I dreaded them, but I always knew that with each trip I would be investing in my experience and knowledge – two investments with a life-long ROI. 

I learned that São Paulo is the city with the largest number of Japanese immigrants (next to Lima in Peru), I saw how Argentinians managed to live their lives under strict economic regulations (on product imports and trading USD), I experienced first-hand the "respect for authority" that people show in Colombia (which is also cited among the reasons why Avianca flight 52 crashed over New York – Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers" has an entire chapter on this). Every cultural insight that I learned, I tried to share through my practice of World Culture Storytelling on Instagram

As this chapter is coming to an end, I’m delighted for what the future holds. Each ending is the beginning of something else, and as one of three co-organizers of the unofficial Stanford trip to Colombia, I can’t wait to return to the region – with ±250 fellow classmates!