The traveling tech rep is a ubiquitous enigma in the world of travel. These are the people who are cranking the gears, repairing the parts, and teaching the systems which keep the entire technological “same-paging” of the world on track.
The traveling tech rep was a job that was perhaps made most famous in James Michener’s The Drifters, a novel about the coming together of various types of people who had made lives out of travel. In this story, the tech rep was named Harvey Holt, and he bounced around the world setting up intercom systems for airports or something. It was a rather accurate portrayal of a job that few outside the profession seem to know exists, but is never the less probably one of the most common traveling professions there are.
The tech rep is basically someone with a background in mechanical engineering/ electronics/ robotics/ manufacturing methods/ communications technology, etc who visits clients of the manufacturer they work for to either set up new products or maintain them.
I met Steve Davis at his home in Dhaka. Seriously, he could be described as a real life iteration of Harvey Holt. He’s spent a couple huge chunks of his life traveling to a plethora of countries through Africa and Asia as a tech rep. Generators are his business. When his company’s clients have a problem with their generators he’s flown in to see if they’re covered by the warranty or not. If he can repair them, he does so on the spot. Sometimes he sets up the logistics to ship them back to the factory. This guy has been at it for over twenty years, being lured from country to country, continent to continent by faulty generators.
Many of the tech reps that I’ve met seem to have just fallen into travel — it wasn’t necessarily the lifestyle they envisioned for themselves as an undergrad in their mechanical engineering program. Then they graduate and get a job in their home country, and one day their boss walks up and asks if they’d like to go abroad. They say why not. They are then given a list of foreboding locales like Lagos, Karachi, or Dhaka for them to choose to be based out. They then put their finger down on the page and are gone.
Many seem to initially go into this foray abroad as something temporary that they would do for a little while for the adventure, but then something happens: they get stuck out there. They get into the motion of the traveling life – the momentum of which is virtually impossible to break. Years turn to decades and decades turn into a life. The only fear many of these guys have is the order to return home. It’s relatively easy to get people to go out to the farthest fringes of the planet, it’s reeling them back in that’s the hard part.
As I continue traveling it’s becoming more and more clear that the “perpetual travelers,” backpackers, and other rec travelers generally hardly even scratch the surface of the planet. We sit around in bars and restaurants watching people walk by. We are voyeurs, strangers, unaffiliated biological entities who float from place to place like dandelion fuzz. We are inconsequential.
The people prying open the hatches and getting into the depths of this world are the workers — those who arrive with an identity in-tact, who immediately have a local network of contacts, who need to know the lay of the land and culture because their business depends on it, who are going out to the places where the proverbial it is going on. They are the tech reps, the smoke stack testers, the journeymen hockey players, the salesmen, the inconspicuous passengers wearing button up shirts and carrying brief cases who are clogging up the background of world’s airports that we never really notice.
There are many ways to make a life traveling the world, make money, live well, and the Atypical Travel series on Vagabond Journey aims to take a look into many of them.