I interviewed Tarek Kholoussy for my documentary The Rise of Medellín as a Creative City, which you can watch for free on YouTube. You can also watch the interview with Tarek on its own. He is the founder of the social enterprise Nomads Giving Back!, which inspires digital nomads and travelers to give back to local communities around the world. Here is the slightly edited transcript of the interview:
Julian Power: Right now I’m in the meeting room of my coworking space, La Casa Redonda, with Tarek. I interviewed Tarek one year ago for my master’s thesis in economic geography, which was about the locational choices of digital nomads. And I think you were here at that time, right?
Tarek Kholoussy: Yeah, I was here a year ago.
Julian Power: And since then you have been moving around a lot. What made you come back to Medellin?
Tarek Kholoussy: First of all, thanks for inviting me to chat with you.
Julian Power: Thanks for coming.
Tarek Kholoussy: I was really excited to finally get to meet you in person. I’m glad that you’re here. I chose Medellin for a few reasons. I just love, first and foremost, the people. The Colombians are amazing. They’re so full of life, very friendly, very smiling type of people. They really feel like they seem to enjoy life. And I feel like their energy is contagious. So I’m in a lucky situation where I can choose where I want to live. And I chose here, and I keep coming back to here because it makes me feel more alive.
Julian Power: The same for me. The love of life of Colombians is remarkable.
Tarek Kholoussy: And also if I can add to that, in addition to the people, I love the overall atmosphere. You can feel the energy of not just Medellin, the city life with all the opportunities to go to cool restaurants and cafés, but they have a really strong fitness culture as well. I love going to a big gym and going to a class that they have. There are also amazing retreats around the country. Speaking of the country, if you step outside the city, you have such diversity in opportunities to go to the farmland, the mountains, the sun bay. You can go of course to the beaches. So in a relatively small country, there’s a lot of diversity.
Julian Power: That’s true. Do you see any downsides of living here?
Tarek Kholoussy: Yeah. I think there’s probably one downside that I come into almost daily that is 100% self-imposed. I don’t speak Spanish yet, so I know that I’m limiting my potential of benefiting from being in such an amazing, dynamic place by not being able to connect at another level. And that’s why I admire that you’re learning Spanish. It’s the right way to do it. If I find myself committing to a place for long enough, I promised myself that I’m going to invest the time and energy, because I think that’s the best thing to do. That’s the downside is that I’m not taking full advantage of immersing as much as I could.
Julian Power: And you have also been living in a lot of other cities which are very popular with digital nomads, for example Chiang Mai and Ubud. What’s the main difference in living here instead of one of those two cities?
Tarek Kholoussy: It’s a great question. I do have a lot of love and respect for Ubud, Changgu, Bali and Chiang Mai. I’m in a situation where I travel around the world and I see it as a buffet. And I keep going back for seconds and thirds, but only to the places that I love. And Medellin is right up there near the top. I think one of the key differences, they’re all amazing, but one of the key differences in Medellin is that the local people are more engaged and out there, living Westernized. Not Westernized, but having fun, dancing, they’re all in that element. Of course, you have that in Bali, of course, you have that in Chiang Mai, but probably not to the same level. That sort of like energetic dancing crowd, that’s always out, looks like they’re full of life.
There are pros and cons of every choice, of every place you want to be, but I think Medellin, I think there’s a higher level of engagement between locals and foreigners. At least in the social circles I’ve been involved in than say in Thailand. And I definitely love and have met a lot of great Thai people and of course Balinese people, but it takes a little more effort I think.
Julian Power: Yeah. It seems the cultural gap is bigger from the culture between America or Europe to Asian cultures. And also the language gap is bigger.
Tarek Kholoussy: Right. I think the language gap is a huge aspect. Even though I may not speak Thai or Balinese, you can connect more with Spanish. You can’t go wrong with any of these places.
Julian Power: That’s true. What I also find interesting is that you’re turning 40 soon and you have three life goals. Can you tell more of the reasoning behind it?
Tarek Kholoussy: Sure. Where do I start? My background, I’m American. I grew up in the States, worked in the States. I did almost all my career in New York City and London. But I found myself realizing that the corporate world wasn’t for me anymore at a certain point. And I decided to go off and travel and to get into running. I also got into social impact projects like volunteering, things like that. And then about a year into this self-discovery journey, I found myself with so many options and so much flexibility. But to a point where I had option paralysis. I wasn’t sure which way to go. I know these are great problems to have, but they were still a challenge.
So I thought long and hard about what are my life goals and how do I keep myself on track? I decided to set three long-term goals. This was about two years ago. And I found that I was almost 1000 days away from turning the big 4-0. So I said “Okay, let me do mind, body and soul goals. Let me do these three goals in the next 1000 days before I turn 40.” And here I am. I find myself with about 200 and some days, 220 days left. And those three goals are for my soul I feel like I learn a lot for my soul growth with travel because I get to explore the world and in exploring the world I explore myself. So I said: “Let me try to explore 100 countries before I turn 40.”
For my body, in the last say five or six years I got into running long distance. And I love to run in marathons. I think it’s a great way to engage in the local country you’re traveling in. And also to force myself to stay healthy, because to stay in marathon shape you got to be reasonably healthy. And so I set a 25 marathon goal. And I’m pleased to share that two weeks ago exactly I ran my 25th marathon right here in Medellin.
That’s the first and only of the three I’ve hit. But I’m still optimistic.
And the final goal is for my mind. I want to apply my business skills and experience in a positive way because I would love to, I’ve done several social impact projects in the past from volunteering in places like Kenya and Zambia and China and Sri Lanka and Bali. I love to get involved in fundraisers or do volunteer work or at least raise awareness of these causes. So I think I’m ready now to focus and build my own, create a social enterprise. So I said: “Okay, before I turn 40 I will launch some sort of social enterprise.”
Julian Power: Let us talk a little more about the last point. What are you working on right now?
Tarek Kholoussy: I checked off the marathons. I have only two countries left to hit 100. So I’m pretty confident, as long as nothing surprising happens, I can do that. And so now I’m starting to turn my focus to the social enterprise, the socially conscious business. And I think where I’m at now is that I have the vision clear. I’m feeling compelled to try to find a way to inspire travelers and nomads and expats to give back more to the local communities that we’re living in, the places that we’re calling home away from home. And I feel like this is where at least in the next few years what I’m meant to do. I want to share the insights that I have learned myself and build it into this concept where I find some way of letting people know how much giving back has helped me in many ways. I feel like it’s almost a responsibility to give back to places that we are in some fashion benefiting from because otherwise, we wouldn’t choose to be in those places.
I feel like it’s a win-win thing. I’m very early on in the stage, but I’m quite excited in the next few months to get ready to launch it and meet my goal, but also really feel more committed towards longer-term progress. I’m ready for it.
Julian Power: That sounds really good. And let me know when you’ve launched. Thank you for being part of this documentary.
Tarek Kholoussy: Thanks so much. I really appreciate it. I wish you all the best. I’m excited about all the recent stuff you’re doing, the writing you’re doing. I think this and your book are going to be very valuable to a lot of people out there.