Four tips for the mobile consultant

Pearl seller in Dhaka’s DIT2 market

In the 1980s and 1990s I had a lot of opportunities to travel. I worked in Bangladesh for three years and then, based in Brisbane, I did international health consultancies through Southeast Asia and the Pacific.  I still regularly visit Bangladesh as a board member for the outstanding public health research institute icddr,b but those are quick trips for which my every need is catered.  In the last 12 months I have increased my international travel.  I have been in Ghana and Bangladesh for more extended periods, Phenom Penh and several trips to Washington DC.

I loved travel in the 1990s and I love it now.  Instead of technology and rising affluence created a homogenised experience, I believe that it allows even the short term visitor to be more a part of their temporary home.

In the 1990s travel meant entering a cone of silence. Contacting ‘home’ was nearly impossible.  Remembering booking international calls days in advanced?  Contacting people locally was just about as difficult.  Phone numbers didn’t work or would be answered by people with whom you couldn’t communicate.  Work schedules did not permit time to learn how to use public transport so one was constantly borrowing cars and drivers from offices, inconveniencing everyone else.  Printers didn’t connect, word processing programs were not compatible and too many nights spent in lonely hotel rooms consuming instant noodles packed for just those times.

Welcome to a brand new world.  Here are four tips on travel that help you to work and enjoy someplace very wonderful and very different to what you are used to.

Tip One: Travel with an unlocked mobile and don’t leave the airport without buying a local SIM card.  Check on the internet before you go for the latest advice on the best phone companies, but if you are staying in the main cities it probably doesn’t matter.  Be ready to show your passport and have passport photos ready just in case.  Ask for a data pack or make sure the phone account will enable you to access your email on your smartphone.  Having a local number is now an essential part of travel.  The people you work with will expect to be able to reach you easily – not have to leave messages for you at a hotel.  Know your phone number and give it to everyone.  I always take an old phone for my home SIM so I can see if I have received messages.  Even with crippling roaming charges, checking voicemail and and text messages is not expensive and you can respond using email and SKYPE.  In some countries (like Cambodia) international calls from your new phone plan are VERY cheap.

If you travel between US, UK and/or Australia get a truphone SIM card.  These are amazing devices.  One SIM card gives me an Australian and a US number.  When I am in the US Australian can call my Australian number and talk to me for the cost of a local mobile call.  When I am in Australia, American can call me and I can call them for a reasonable price.

Tip Two: Hire a car and driver.  I am convinced that this is a new form of business that did not exist for readily for the independent consultant 5-10 years ago.  Certainly my excellent driver in Dhaka believes that it is ‘unexploited’ and he has great plans to grow his business.  Entrepreneurs are advertising themselves on the web and you can do all of the arrangements before you arrive in-country.  I love local drivers because they give me an insight into local life that I never get from my government and NGO contacts.  They pride themselves in getting you to the right place at the right time and are absolutely wonderful, if you are so inclined, to stop off at the corner shop that sells great soup, or a particularly beautiful wat – or if you a guy you might want to see salvage shops or shipyards.

And that leads me to Tip Three. In the countries I have been in recently (including Washington DC as I think about it) a growing middle class and educated elite has created an explosion of really nice places to eat and shop which are fully local and yet modern – as distinct from an imitation of Western / European styles.  Much more than 20 years ago, your local colleagues can recommend restaurants, stores, tailors, bookstores that they use which you would also enjoy.  Some of these cater to a tourist market but in lots of places, such as Dhaka and Accra (to a lesser extent), tourism has yet to take off. The infrastructure that is growing is for this new affluent class  – not the filthy rich.  It is comfortable, authentic and fun.  Make the most of it.  If you cannot love being some place you cannot do a good job on that review, planning exercise or audit that someone is paying you to do.

Tip Four: Back to technology.  Although many magical things can happen on travels so can mundane things.  My hard drive packed it in on an assignment in Melbourne last year.  Laptops get stolen or, in my case more often left behind in a jet lagged blur.  Even if you are meticulous in backing up at your home base, chances are that discipline isn’t maintained when you are travelling.  Furthermore, you need to keep up with work on other projects and team members in other parts of the world.  I swear by dropbox although I am sure there are other services.  Transferring essential travel information, my CV and contract, and the key documents for my current reports to dropbox folders makes me feel invulnerable.  For someone as forgetful as me, that is a nice feeling.


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