Traveling for work: International Trade

I had such positive feedback from my first post about traveling for work that I decided I would try to feature a different career path each month in an effort to highlight the many options available to people who yearn to see the world.

For this month’s feature My Travel Stamps spoke with Matthew Wilson, frequent flyer and world explorer extraordinaire.

Addressing the Bali addresses Bali Trade and Development Symposium
ITC Chief Adviser Matthew Wilson addressing the Bali Trade and Development Symposium

Matthew, what do you do for a living?

I am the chief adviser and chef de cabinet to the head of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a development agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. ITC helps countries and private sector businesses to develop through international trade and improved competitiveness. We assist them to build the capacity they need to operate effectively by equipping them with the tools, knowledge and market intelligence they need to succeed.

What tasks are involved and do you enjoy what you do?

I support the Executive Director in implementing her corporate vision and helping to chart the strategic course for the organization. I love what I do because of the innovation and dynamism involved. My job can range from meeting presidents and Nobel prize winners to attending fashion shows that showcase local designers, visiting coffee projects, facilitating the implementation of trade agreements and visiting underprivileged communities to see how trade works on the ground. It’s fascinating.

Sintra, Portugal -  at the Quinta da Regaleira Gardens
Sintra, Portugal – at the Quinta da Regaleira Gardens

Do you have to travel for work? If so, how often?

Yes, I do. The frequency varies but in one month I can travel at least two to three times for business. Flying for work has become second nature to me because I’ve been doing it for a long time. Before this position, I represented Barbados as part of the Foreign Service for more than a decade and then served in the Cabinet of the Director General of the World Trade Organization.

Wow, that’s impressive. What sort of academic and/or professional background is needed to land those kinds of jobs?

There are many pathways. I have a varied academic background that includes law, economics and history at ‘A’ levels’; psychology and sociology at the undergraduate level; and two post graduate degrees, one in international relations and the other in development studies.

Matthew in Neuchatel,  Switzerland
Matthew in Neuchatel, Switzerland

But surprisingly it is my knowledge of psychology that has really helped me most. It allows me to read and understand people quickly – an extremely useful skill in interpersonal relations and by extension, business and diplomatic negotiations.

I also have to give credit to a series of generous mentors who allowed me to ‘learn at their feet’. I am from a small Caribbean country but I had to operate in a truly global environment, so there was always the added pressure to deliver more at a higher standard.

The term “bleisure”, which means mixing business with leisure, is hot now. Do you get to do any of that when you travel?

Absolutely! Some people differentiate between business and pleasure travel; generally speaking, I don’t. Whether I am visiting some place new for one day or staying longer in a country I’ve been to 10 times, it’s all an adventure. I will find something to explore.

Alfama,  Lisbon (Portugal)
Alfama, Lisbon (Portugal)

Don’t get me wrong; when I travel for business, I work hard. My schedule is often tight and intense because I ensure I make full use of the resources being invested in me. But when the meetings and official events are over, you will find me outside meeting people, hearing their stories, eating exotic foods and listening to local music.

Smiling Samoan faces
Smiling Samoan faces

On more than one occasion, I’ve been out roaming the streets until two o’clock in the morning and I have gotten up at five to explore the area before work begins. Who needs eight hours of sleep when there are interesting sights, food and customs to learn about? Not me, I can catch up on sleep when I get home.

How do you decide what to do in your free time?

I do tons of web research. If you look in my history tab on my computer right now you will see a bunch of searches that begin with ‘off the beaten track’. Blogs are a huge resource for me as well because they give you the true personal experience – the good, the bad and the ugly. For local eats, I tend to check with the concierge.

What is your favorite country to date?

Sua Ocean trench in Samoa
Sua Ocean trench in Samoa

I can’t pick just one. For pleasure, I fell in love with Cuba: the people, the music and the buildings make it a truly special place.

For work, I would have to say Cape Verde, Cambodia and Samoa. I went to Samoa for a United Nations Summit on Small Island Developing States and that ended up being very special for me. The country is beautiful and the people are amazing. Also, the first time I ever spoke in public on trade issues was at a small island states youth meeting in Barbados twenty years before so that moment felt like I had come full circle.

What is your favorite iconic landmark or World Heritage Site? Please say why.

Massive carvings of faces at the world heritage site: Angok Wat in Cambodia
Massive carvings of faces at the world heritage site: Angok Wat in Cambodia

Without a doubt, the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

I first visited it for pleasure five years ago and again for work just last month. It is a cultural and otherworldly experience. Seeing the sun rise over the temple and watching it set on the side of the ‘mountain’ is awe-inspiring. Beyond that, the beauty of the carvings and stone work of the temples are simply incredible sights.

What are your favorite airports?

The ones with the most welcoming people in the countries that do more with less. You will find some of the greatest airport lounges and splashy retail outlets in terminals in Dubai and Bangkok but the people interactions in airports in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Nepal were some of my most memorable. They also stood out because the people were wholly invested in doing their best despite limited resources.

What is the one thing you never leave home without?

My headphones and my MP3 player. In school I was known as ‘the guy from Barbados with the headphones’ and all these years later those two earplugs are still an important part of my life.


You can follow Matthew on Twitter at: @matthewbarbados

Havana, Cuba: A lesson in authenticity

Ever since the 1961 US embargo, Cuba has held a hint of mystique for the Western traveler. Call me silly but I always likened its allure to the attraction that a girl next door feels for the brooding and mysterious “bad boy” who drives her a little lust crazy.

All my female readers past puberty will understand the magnetism of which I speak.  You know that slightly cocky, risk-taking, cigar smoking and motorcycle riding James Dean lookalike who, at some point in our lives, was maddeningly close yet still out of reach.

Boy meets girl
Boy meets girl

Then finally, one day the unexpected happens. You meet him and the two of you get to spend a little time together. And reality trumps perception. In fact, it turns all your preconceived notions upside down.

That is how I felt when I visited Havana. Next to the sense of stepping into a 1950s time machine, the second biggest impression I got was how devoid it was of swagger. By the end of my stay, I realized it was truly one of the most unpretentious and authentic destinations that I had ever been to.

While walking through the streets I saw families sitting at their dining tables talking and eating with doors wide open. On a bus tour, I passed kids who probably never heard of PlayStations and tablets playing contentedly with very rudimentary hand-made toys. Plus, some women even walked to the store with their hair still in rollers. There were no touristy costumes or hustles.

Boys at play
Boys at play

The very lack of pretense displayed also highlighted the country’s resilience. Architecturally stunning buildings that told of former glory days stood majestically tall despite being in dire need of paint and restoration.

Locals drove brightly painted Oldsmobile Rockets, Chevrolet Bel Airs and other classic American cars that were buffed to perfection and ran like well-oiled machines. The condition of those vehicles served as further evidence of the resourcefulness and skill level of Cuban electricians and tradesmen. They had to adapt engines and keep up with repairs without access to factory-made spare parts.

Classic Car
Classic Car

So if I were to sum up my 36 hour Cuban experience in one word, it would be “real”.  Real people, real stories, real struggles, real need, real strength in the face of adversity, real beauty, and abundant warmth and hospitality.

If you go for a short visit, here are five suggestions for things to do.

1. Take a leisurely walk through the old town

Like Venice, Old Havana is a walking city. Our cab driver couldn’t take us all the way to the hotel front door because of the narrow streets and pedestrian only zones, so we had to pull our carry-ons part of the way.

Street in Old Havana
Street in Old Havana

Built in the early 1500s, this part of the town showcases buildings from the colonial era. Many border either the Plaza Viaja, the Plaza de la Catedral or the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. (Click here to see panoramic view of the Plaza Viaja) The level of detail on the buildings is incredible and they form the perfect backdrop for memorable photographs. When you get tired, you can stop to have coffee or grab a meal in any of the local eateries along the cobblestone-lined streets.

If you are free, return in the evening to enjoy some of the Cuban nightlife. Beautiful melodies are always in the air!

2. Stock up on local music and art

If you enjoy listening to Latin jazz, salsa and mambo, or collecting inexpensive originals from local artisans around the world, you can’t leave Cuba without stocking up on some of its distinctive music and art.

Street vendors
Street vendor

Ask your hotel concierge for the location of the nearest street market where you can buy compact discs, oil paintings, watercolors, wood carvings, basket work and hand-made jewelry. Warning: be prepared to negotiate for that extra special item.

3. Visit the Museum of the Revolution

If you are interested in Cuban history, a visit to the Museum of the Revolution is a must. Located on Calle Refugio 1, this museum’s artifacts are housed in the former Presidential Palace once used by ousted leader Fulgencio Batista.

Museum of the Revolution
Museum of the Revolution

The displays are on different levels, ranging from the country’s pre-Colombian culture to its current communist regime. Many exhibits pay homage to the Cuban Revolution and the War of Independence that the country waged with Spain. Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto “Che” Guevara are all prominently featured, and you will see everything from blood stained military uniforms to downright silly and satirical commentary on former US presidents.

Statue depictiing a scene from the Revolution
Statue depictiing scenes from the Revolution

Across the street, you also can find open air exhibits such as tanks and vehicles, a part of an alleged American spy plane, and the yacht Fidel and Che sailed on from Mexico.  Go at the right time, and you might catch the changing of the guards.

4. Book a day trip to the Viñales Valley

About a 3-hour drive out of Havana, a ride through the hills and into the Viñales Valley offers you a breathtaking view of one of the most popular areas for tobacco production and farming.

View from Look Out Point
View from Look Out Point

On the way there, you can stop and have lunch at the Mural de La Historia, a 120m-long painting on the side of Mogote Dos Hermanos.

I was told that Cuban painter Leovigildo González Morillo designed the mural in 1961 and it was painted by local farmers. The dinosaurs, sea monsters, snail and humans in the painting symbolize the theory of evolution.

Naughty girl! lol
Naughty girl! lol

On my trip, I also visited a rum factory, a small limestone cave called Cuevo del indio, and we stopped at La Casa del Veguero. The latter is a restaurant with a secadero (traditional tobacco drying house) and a live demonstration of how to hand roll Cuban cigars. (Click here for video)

5. Sip afternoon cocktails on the lawns of the Hotel Nacional

No trip to Havana is complete without a visit to the Hotel Nacional, one of the oldest properties in Cuba. Reportedly, it was the host hotel for a notorious mob summit – The Havana Conference of 1946 –attended by leaders of the United States and Sicilian Mafia who converged on the island to discuss transnational mob policies, rules, and other notable “business  interests”.   It is likely that the resolutions and agreements made in that pivotal meeting were implemented and observed by crime families for many decades.

Lawns of the Hotel Nacional

The hotel’s lawns overlook the waterfront area and you get a peaceful and relaxing view of the locals’ evening activity. If you wish, you also can check their event listing and go to see their lively cabaret show.


Now that Cuba’s doors are more open to US travel – albeit within specified categories – I expect a rush to the border. So book early! If you plan to participate in athletic, cultural, religious, educational or humanitarian activities, it should be easy to get a license to travel.

Editor’s Notes:

1. Take Canadian or European currencies as foreign exchange transactions involving the US dollar attract a surcharge. (Aug 2015 update: Due to the devaluation of the Canadian currency, I’ve heard that it is not being as widely accepted as before)

2. I saw far more billboards and iconography of Che than I did of Fidel Castro. Given that he was an Argentine transplant and second-in-command, I was completely taken aback by the degree of his popularity.

3. Order a pork dish somewhere… especially one prepared for the non-tourist palate.  The “cerdo” I had in the countryside was one of the best tasting meals ever.