In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.
Name: Nico Parco
Job: Communications Manager in Development Aid
1) What do you do?
You could call it a number of things. Simply, “aid worker.” Or if you want to get more specific, I am a communications manager in the development aid sector. I often say I am an NGO writer.
2) How did you get into the development aid sector?
I moved to Ethiopia on a whim, thinking I would continue the same work I was doing in the tourism sector in Santiago, Chile.
In Ethiopia, I discovered the aid sector, and began volunteering on an HIV/Urban Gardens project as a technical writer. Everything took off from there.
I have been in the sector now for nearly 10 years, and I absolutely love it.
3) Why did you decide to start living in a van?
The @riding.a.rainbow project is only for 10 months (May 2019 – April 2020).
A campervan road trip is something that both my wife and I have been wanting for a while, and since we realized we shared this dream, it would be foolish not to act. When I landed a full time contract in Bogota, Colombia, we knew it was our chance to cover South America.
With two kids, I do not plan to live in a campervan full time. In fact, our plan is to move back to Moab, Utah in 2020 (I was born and raised in Ogden).
4) What are some of the perks of this job?
Working in the development aid sector allows you to travel on two levels: Short-term and long-term contracts.
I do both, and have been sent to various countries (Somalia, Uganda, Zambia, Lebanon, Botswana) and lived in three countries long-term (Ethiopia, Liberia, Colombia).
Living in a country is different from just traveling. It allows you full immersion in the culture, language, and customs, and also affords you more time to properly explore the country. Being in these unusual places also lets you check out rock climbing in a different light.
For example, while living in Ethiopia, I led a crag development project with a bunch of climbers from around the world (US, German, Israeli, etc.). We bolted a beautiful face right outside of Addis Ababa, the first and still the only real crag in the country.
Or my favorite, the time I was sent to Lebanon to create content for an economic strengthening project funded by USAID (US taxpayer money). The program was promoting rock climbing in the village of Tannourine, a paradise of Mediterranean-style limestone. This is probably the first and hopefully not the last time that the US govt put money into rock climbing for “nation-building.”
“Happiness has less to do the amount of possessions one acquires and more to do with the ability to be with friends, family, and practice your culture (religion, language, customs) freely.”
5) What are some of the challenges?
Life as a contractor can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes you have to wait weeks or months for a contract. On the other hand it’s really nice to have down time between jobs, [which allows you] to travel, to be with your family, and of course, to climb.
There are the usual challenges as well, of getting used to a new place, finding friends, learning the language, getting over the homesickness of the last place you left… typical immigrant lifestyle stuff.
6) What motivated you to pursue this career path?
I started my “career” as a journalist in Spanish language, and worked for 6 years (Spain, Texas, Chile). Once I discovered the aid sector, everything changed.
The hours, the pay, the joy of the job. I have nothing against journalism, but the conditions are horrible.
Still, journalists perform one of the most important functions in today’s society, and we should be thankful there are people willing to sacrifice so much for so little. I have only the utmost respect for them.
People like Trump, the powerful men who say reporters are the enemy of the people, are really saying, “I hate reporters because they expose all my wrongdoings to the people.”
7) What does a “typical” week or month look like?
If I am long-term, I am typically working in an office. I am the one responsible for reporting back to the US govt what the program has been doing with its money. It’s a key position that combines research, writing, and marketing.
I would travel once a month, visiting the program’s activity sites, interviewing beneficiaries, and taking photography or video. I curate the program’s blog such as at usaidlrdp.exposure.co.
When I am doing short-term consultancies, I am at a home base (either in Utah or Chile) and traveling for 2 – 3 weeks at a time. Sometimes I work remotely but the real value I bring is being in the field gathering stories, content and creating attention grabbing pieces that shine light on the programs.
8) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?
I was lucky that I got in through the back door. Typically, an aid worker will go through the hoops of Washington, D.C. and work for several NGOs and implementers before getting the chance to live abroad. I did it differently, which may or may not work for others.
9) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?
A few things:
1) Development aid is an industry of soft diplomacy, especially from a USAID perspective. It is also important in its role to improve health and education around the world.
My first job was in the HIV world, and if it weren’t for large international donors, millions of Africans would be either dead or in way worse conditions. In some regards, development money is really all they have to rely on. I believe Western countries have a historic “debt” with Africa and other parts of the world.
Aid is one small step to repair the damage caused by colonialism, neo-liberalism, hyper-capitalism or whatever you want to call it. The US annual budget allocates less than one half of one percent to humanitarian and development aid. Trump tried to axe the budget, but USAID is a diplomacy tool that is bipartisan.
2) I have learned that happiness has less to do the amount of possessions one acquires and more to do with the ability to be with friends, family, and practice your culture (religion, language, customs) freely without interruption.
You can follow Nico and his van traveling family on instagram, @riding.a.rainbow. You can read more about Nico’s thoughts on life, the development aid sector, and climbing in general on his website, nicoparco.com.
Feature photo courtesy of Nico Parco