Corporate retreats are not common in Colombia. Before I experienced one, I imagined they were all about employees compelled to travel to idyllic locations just to be locked up in dark conference rooms where they had to listen to motivational speakers non-stop, drink unrestrained alcohol (to abide the motivational speakers) and participate in silly trust games like falling backwards into the arms of a coworker (while the co-worker secretly contemplates the possibility of letting him fall); a series of images that were thoroughly replaced last week.
After traveling on a flat highway surrounded by green rectangular paddy fields, headless palm trees and roofless houses (abandoned half-finished due to the high ocean tides) we reached the hospitable Flor de Cabrera, a luxury villa located three and a half hours away from Santo Domingo, where the Mobility Labs team would be staying for a week.
Sean, Vivi, Mandy and I departed very early in the morning from Medellín, Colombia, hoping to arrive with enough daylight to enjoy some of the villa’s attractions. We were welcomed with colorful cocktails made with local rum before we jumped directly into the pool (since a member of the villa staff had taken us straight from Las Américas International Airport to a local restaurant near a gas station to eat yuca and ribs and wild boar, hunger was not an issue). The villa staff, always thoughtful, handed us water guns and floats. We sipped on the cocktails, our bodies floating on clear, dark blue water while we waited for the other members of the team to arrive. Candy, Christina, Rick and Sumeet, who were traveling from New York and DC, were not only greeted with rum cocktails but also with a delicious dinner in the company of the whole crew. We enjoyed a night of fun in the pool and hot tub under the starry Dominican sky.
We met early in the morning at the dining room. After having a cup of coffee (a ritual that plays a big part in Mobility Labs culture) we chose among the diverse breakfast options and shared in-jokes from the Medellín, New York and DC offices. We entered the villa’s media room after breakfast for Sean’s review of the company’s progress and new members since last retreat (Medellín, November of 2014). Sean suggested an activity he learned at SXSWedu: a coworker would listen closely to another coworker’s life story so he can tell it back to the audience in a first-person point of view. The activity evoked a sense of empathy and helped us learn more about each other.
We spent the afternoon practicing watersports at a nearby beach. The instructors greeted us with coconut water (served in real coconuts) at the entrance of a shack. They handed us floats, kayaks, paddles, and taught us basic rowing techniques. We kayaked from the wavy seawater of the ocean to the calm freshwater of the river, mesmerized by the intricate aerial roots of the mangrove and the wide diversity of birds and aquatic animals. We kayaked back to the shack for a break and coconut water hydration before moving on to the next activity: standup paddleboarding. Despite the team’s great effort to go from a prone position to knees to standing up on the board, it was hard to maintain the equilibrium and everyone fell in the water more than once, except Christina, whose remarkable standup paddleboarding skills earned her a ritual ceremony performed by her coworkers.
When we got back to the villa, we played Rocket League, a physics-based multiplayer-focused videogame where soccer meets driving. It’s very fast and sparkly and I couldn’t hit the ball, but Candy, Rick, Sumeet and Sean persisted until midnight and accomplished victory.
Tuesday we had the Quadcopter 101 workshop. Sumeet talked about how to build this type of drone from the ground up: the components, frames, transmitters, receptors, flight controller, motors, battery, props (aka propellers), and other hardware elements. We had the opportunity to fly Sumeet’s unmanned aircraft at the green space near the pool. It was hard to keep it up, though, and we arguably got the hang of it after multiple crashes and prop replacements. We realized later the transmitter was accidentally set in ACRO mode, which is the most difficult flight mode to master.
After lunch, Jason arrived from Denver, just in time to join Mandy and Sumeet for Rick’s Front-End session. Sean, Candy, Vivi and I participated in the business and strategy session, guided by Christina. These productive sessions tackled both technical and business development topics.
At night we went to Hotel La Catalina for dinner. They advertised an astounding view but it was really hard to beat the one from the villa. We played a few rounds of Rocket League that night to end the day.
Wednesday morning we met two scuba instructors who walked us through the equipment we’d use in the scuba diving session (mask, scuba tank, buoyancy compensator, weight system, regulator, swimfins). After training on the basics at the villa’s pool, we boarded a small motorboat in Río San Juan and went to a place known as “la piscina”, located near Cueva de las Golondrinas. Vivi, Candy, Christina, Jason and I enjoyed part of the scuba diving experience (I remember seeing the seabed and a school of fish) before climbing back into the boat. We took off the gear and jumped in the ocean for a swimming session before the others came back. Sean and Mandy, both certified scuba divers, remained submerged for over half an hour along with Sumeet, Rick, and the instructors.
We didn’t have a work session that day. Sumeet and I shot pool. Christina, Rick and Sean played a game called Sequence and later they played Dominoes, to get back to Christina’s latina roots. At night we watched “The Entire History of You”, an episode of Black Mirror, a British TV anthology series that explores the dark side of technology.
In the afternoon we got back to Río San Juan, this time we boarded a catamaran. We sailed over crystal clear water and passed by uncrowded beaches. We were startled to find dozens of white heads lined up on a coral cliff, several white bodies climbing up coral mountains, and others ready to jump off the cliffs–we learned these were sculptures from a local artist representing the region’s natives, martyrs, and abused.
We had dinner at the beach organized by Flor de Cabrera staff. Under a natural foliage ceiling, the always friendly Arturo and John offered us a delicious buffet of local food. It was a sublime setting: a clothed table with candles, the soothing sound of the ocean, and the best food Dominican Republic had to offer. There was a halo of sadness, though: it was the last dinner the whole team would share on the retreat. That night, we said goodbye to Christina and Rick who had to travel earlier to the US due to personal commitments.
Even though their absence was notable at Friday’s breakfast, the visit to the Faro de Cabrera school energized us. Marta and Felicita, school volunteers, told us about the efforts they make to provide a quality educational and cultural offerings to the kids. I noticed a house built with recycled plastic bottles, the result of a previous activity. Sumeet and Jason used their skills to repair the school computers while the rest of us wore surgeon’s gloves (donated by a hospital) and did volunteer work, helping the Summer Camp kids to pick up garbage. The original intention was to help the kids paint a mural, but they had everything under control, and our contribution boiled down to a couple of brushstrokes. Sean taught a group of kids how to play Battleship. Candy and I played hoops against kids with better shooting skills. We finished with a Dominican game where you could only pass the ball to other players when your feet are not touching the ground.
Back to the villa we split into sessions: the tech team had a Back-End session guided by Jason and the business team had a session guided by Sean, focused on the SXSWedu 2016 participation and business development for Colombia. But it was our last day at the Dominican Republic: the sun was calling us to go out, the refreshing pool was just a few steps away. When the tech session ended, Sumeet got into the pool, followed by Vivi, followed by everyone, an improvised water-gun war against Sean began. But really, it was more of a gratitude war – gratitude for turning a corporate retreat into an unforgettable adventure with Mobility Labs friends.