In January I calculated my way to Colombia. In March, my friends asked me if I want to join their trip to the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador. My immediate response was “no”, because
- I need to work, I don’t have time for leisure travelling
- Galápagos Islands must be super remote
- I’ve heard staying there is expensive
I have been overly Darwinian ever since I learned about evolutionary algorithms. At the time, realizing that you can write programs that solve problems far beyond your own abilities through a simple iterative process of evolution almost felt like gaining a super-power. The beauty, simplicity and power of these algorithms were so convincing that I became almost obsessed with the idea of evolution.
My fascination only grew as I discovered the implications of evolution into our very own behaviour. After reading Richard Dawkins’s “The Selfish Gene” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” it was pretty much impossible for me to ignore the pull of the source of the inspiration for Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”.
And as if though that all wasn’t enough, I kept hearing Sir David Attenborough narrating interesting facts about “Galápagos” in my head.
I had doubts about being able to work remotely from the islands, but because we're not getting any younger and since Sir David’s voice persisted in my head, I decided to book a one week trip.
Fast forward a few weeks and I’m landing onto a minimally forested lava rock covered island with a single runway and no taxiing lanes. The plane literally had to turn around on the main runway after landing to head back to the airport building. I kept pondering how many days it would take for a replacement part for the plane to arrive on a boat from mainland if the need were to arise.
You’re greeted with a $100 bill straight at the airport (ecotourism) and you can only pay it in cash. The ATM at the airport was out of order so I had to borrow money from a stranger to get out of the initial mess.
The first hotel we crashed at had dodgy wifi and no air-conditioning. It soon became obvious that I would not be able to do much work from there. Since we had the weekend ahead of us, I decided to crash there anyway and join our group for a trip to the San Cristobal island and figure out the work setup on Sunday when we return.
I started walking from hotel to hotel early Sunday to make sure I land to a good place for the upcoming week. Frustration really kicked in after the fourth hotel turned down my simple request to measure their network speed. They all know the network is crap, and in order to reduce the risk of me turning down their business they kept telling me that measuring was not allowed.
One of the hotels had good wifi and network speed seemed fine, but as soon as we had checked in, the network just died. Luckily, the host was willing to cut us some slack and returned the money when we agreed to pack up and leave in 15 minutes.
Since the rest of the gang did not care much about network speeds and the ability to work, then I had to continue my search alone as they settled for a random hotel. It took me a few more hotels until I found one that had AC and the network seemed fine. After a quick Skype test call I was all set for my week.
What you need to know about Internet on the Galápagos is that there is no fiber optics coming from the mainland, so the network connection actually goes over satellite connections! Everything I said online during the time I spent on Galápagos has been to space! Think about it for a bit, in fact – take half a second to think about it, because that’s pretty much the time light needs to travel over a geosynchronous orbit twice (return packet).
This sort of latency seriously affects your ability to communicate in real-time. At Skype we usually considered 200ms to be the maximum that still avoids colliding with the other speaker too often.
And that’s where being Estonian comes in handy and being Italian would probably suck! :)
You see, speaker turn frequencies vary through cultures and the more often the speaker switches, the more you’ll feel the pain of low latency. Fortunately, Estonians tend to take longer turns and probably think too long between speaking so Skype audio calls were quite alright.
In fact, they were alright enough for me and Sten to record a Teleport podcast session over a Skype call while I was sitting in Galápagos and Sten was at our Stanford StartX desk in California. We did of course use local recording on both sides to get a good quality track, but the conversation happened over Skype.
I found this quite inspiring, given the remoteness of the place along with my experience of meeting a struggling street musician who sang in Finnish despite not being able to speak the language. He had just heard a few songs on the internet and remembered the lyrics. The islands are obviously connected to the global economy without many of the locals realizing this.
There are quite a few amusing side effects to working remotely from the Galápagos Islands. Firstly, you start hating folk who use Dropbox or Google Drive. The island’s network connection comes to a freezing halt every evening as the tourists return from their guided tours and can not wait a second longer to upload their sunburned iguana inspired faces to the internets.
Secondly, you slowly start despising your friends who send around Youtube links. Every one of those entertaining 20 second clips turn into a tab that you’ll promise you’ll get around to watching when you get back to the “real” internet. This all continues until you have so many tabs in Chrome (with their names collapsed) that picking them without hitting the x that closes them becomes impossible (of course there are plugins to fix it, but you only start looking into this when you’ve already been hurt).
In some ways all of this can actually make you more productive as you'll have less distractions. The network is more than good enough for your git pulls and pushes and if you’ve set up a local development environment that uses locally cached data, you’ll do just fine.
All in all, the first week convinced me that remote working in Galápagos is actually possible. In the light of that I started seriously questioning my plan of heading back to Colombia. It seemed to me that there’s not much in terms of weekend activities big cities can offer that could possibly compete with retracing Darwin’s footsteps. The internet was “good enough”, so why was I even considering leaving?
Well, I didn’t! While my friends were packing away to return to their vagabond lives (travelling in South America), I decided to pay an additional fee to move my return ticket more than a month out.
As I kept working away on that dodgy internet connection, I found myself contemplating how the lack of resources and challenging environments exercises your brain. I wrote more about this in “Good luck being born tomorrow” to illustrate how the developing world actually benefits more from tech (no legacy, not enough money to choose anything but the latest and most efficient tech to solve problems). It was actually hard not to think about how to solve some of those internet connection annoyances on Galápagos.
---- warning: geek on! ------
Given that UDP based calls worked well, I kept thinking if something interesting could be done to improve regular TCP traffic (the lifeline of internet). My intuition told me that TCP protocol is maybe not optimized for a specific case of extraterrestrial delays (though there is window scale option), so at least theoretically there could be room for optimizations. Regardless of the cost or feasibility of such optimizations I felt inspired enough to learn more about protocols and I can only imagine how inspired someone local could be who is feeling that pain every day.
----- geek off -------
Another thing I found frustrating on Galápagos was how the state got in the way of locals doing business. I spent a week on an island called Isabela where there are no ATMs. It’s the most lovely little paradise island in the middle of the ocean where I was literally snorkeling in a school of fish together with the Galápagos penguins. I would have loved to spend more time on this island, but I ran out of cash and although internet was readily available in every little hotel and many restaurants accepted credit card payments – no one, and I mean no one was willing to do a cash back (which I needed to pay for accommodation). Technically all it takes is anyone with a mobile phone, a Square Reader and some cash and the problem could be solved for thousands of tourists. The only excuse I heard from the locals was that the state doesn’t allow them. Yes, the state doesn’t allow them to provide a service that would generate taxable income for the state.
All in all, the internet on Galápagos islands is good enough to work with code and static media. If you mostly write code that you do not need to push live every 5 minutes, but maybe once a day, I think you won’t feel much of a difference in your day to day work.
If however you work as a member of a bigger team (or with huge files) and communication is a big part of your daily cycle, then there is a crucial aspect of remote work that Galápagos just can not deliver (yet). It would be unfair to deny just how dependent we are on our so called lizard brains and how much information we extract from everything visual. By cutting out this sense (ie. by not being able to do high quality real time video calls) it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to keep the level of connectivity required for a fast paced startup life.
Aside from the lousy network, I loved every bit of my time on Galápagos, especially the weekends. I think it took me a month to realize that I’m actually on the friggin’ Galápagos Islands, working away as usual, but spending my weekends swimming with stingrays or hanging out with tortoises that are easily twice my weight. It’s kind of unbelievable that this is possible!
Weekend activities in Galápagos surpassed all my expectations. Snorkeling together with turtles and sea lions feels pretty magical. The latter were actually so numerous in Galápagos that in certain places it was hard to find a place to sit and I once almost got bitten by a sea lion when trying to enter a public restroom (hence the title).
One thing I learned on Galápagos was that hanging your clothing about a meter high from the water when going snorkeling doesn’t cover for the progress a tide can make that close to the equator. You could easily find a pier where you blissfully left your gear just 2 hours ago now under water.
Another thing I learned the hard way (by bleeding) was the immense Venturi effect the surf can have when pulling you back to the ocean over sharp rocks as it speeds up when making its way through a tighter opening. I was unexpectedly pulled to the ocean from a little pond where I was blissfully snorkeling next to local kids who were just playing around. After I struggled back to the beach I just sat there, bleeding from multiple surface wounds, coughing water, trying to regain composure, looking at the kids still playing two meters from that very same opening that just pulled me to the ocean over sharp rocks and kept mumbling to myself “What the FUCK just happened?”
The speed at which that situation escalated did not seem to bother any of the parents standing around on the beach. I would have expected them to at least turn this theater into an educational framing for their kids. Something like “Did you see that idiot? That’s what happens if you step one more meter closer to the opening where you’re playing at”, but no, nothing. This was a lesson only for me – a confused man from the lightly salted and steady waters of the Baltic sea.
All in all, I spent six weeks on the Galápagos Islands. You know who else spent about that much time on the Galápagos? Charles friggin’ Darwin! That’s right! And THAT changed everything for the rest of us. Now, I’m not gonna lie to you, there’s not going to be a groundbreaking theory coming from me any time soon (surprising, right?), but I’ll tell you this – most kids who learn programming or any other creative craft with bits will have the freedom to roam the planet and get inspired anywhere they please. They'll be able to contribute their bits to the global economy from anywhere. If we can do our part with Teleport to make it easy to move to the most inspiring places (and perhaps inspire the next Darwin), then I think we’ve done well!
So go ahead, start looking into this!
What is the best place for you? Teleport for Startup Cities
How does it look in terms of stats? Teleport City Profiles
Schedule a call with your remote friends there! Teleport Sundial
Decide where to meet up with your team? Teleport Flock
or just get help to get there Teleport Scouts
p.s. I would like to thank Allan, Helen and Kristi for inviting me to join their Galápagos trip!