I Finished Remote Year: What The Hell Do I Do Now?

August 9, 2019

I didn’t give a shit about the song, and I couldn’t help but dance.

It was Week 2 of Remote Year, and four of our new friends had turned a lie about having a pool into a 5-hour extravaganza drinking and dancing around kiddie pools. But when the cops came, it was over. We had won, we were happy, we were ready for 11 months of trying to top it.

The cops left, and our resident DJ Danko refused to stop.

I was sitting down. I had czeched out — like the majority of the group. It’s over! Stop pushing it.

Then he put on the song. The song without words, the song that was not our type of music, the song that nobody knew except for our then-unfamiliar DJ from Amsterdam.

One person got up to join the four people lazily dancing. And another. And another. And maybe it was the pilsner, but I felt this magnetism, being pulled by this beat I didn’t know, and all of a sudden, everyone was jumping their metatarsals off to this song they previously hadn’t given any shits about.

That feeling of being magnetically sucked into dancing against my will — but never regretting it — was exactly what I learned from a year of traveling the world, while working remotely, with 70 strangers.

Halfway through our year adventure, we were sitting on swings by a table at a hipster restaurant in Mexico City, alternating chip-dips into green, red, other green, other red salsas. Heaven.

A friend mentioned the hedonic treadmill. We’ll soon have seen 12+ cities in 12+ countries in 12+ months with 70+ new friends … plus endless sidetrips … from the Sahara desert to the Pyramids of Giza to the Prague Castle to Teotihuacan to London museums and Mendoza wineries and a floating hostel and Macchu Picchu and Ranibow Mountain and, seriously, I haven’t even gotten 10% through the list.

The point was: How the hell could we possibly top this?

Isn’t this just a year of craziness, then right back to the crushing banality of reality?

A year of sprinting 20 miles per hour, uphill, on the treadmill. Until someone pulls the plug, and we fall face-first into the belt — group concussion, blood on the walls.

As we sit on our parents’ couches in suburban NY, post-Remote Year, scrolling through our parents’ recent DVRed shows — 75% of which are the same as when we left — wondering what the hell just happened.

Travel was ruined for me when I learned Slovenia was a place.

You have to go — said the cool-ass South African who was five years older and 40 countries deeper than me. He showed pictures. There were lakes and caves and forests and food and people and, he was right, I had to go.

I also had to go to Cartagena, Santa Marta, Seychelles, Galapagos, Oaxaca, Vancouver, Sydney, Auckland, Edinburgh, Azores. And did you know he was from Zimbabwe? He had been everywhere, but I had to go to Zimbabwe.

Oh, the Snapchats I’d send!

Once you realize Slovenia is gorgeous, you realize you’ll never hit the other 14,672 cities and towns and islands you simply have to see. Half of which you haven’t heard of.

I threw out the checklist. I don’t care about 40 countries before 40, or whichever artificial benchmark would never be enough. You can’t win, you can’t go everywhere; your forehead is crashing into that treadmill.

Life isn’t a game of accumulation. You don’t get to keep your country-themed shot glasses when you die.

That was what I had learned before Remote Year. I had spent a year living in Prague, gallivanting around Europe, plus a 6-week solo jaunt around China, South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Travel slow, travel when you can, then retreat to “real life.” So I “settled down” in Boston.

And yet — a year of working remotely in Boston, alone, begging friends to go out just one friggin’ night a week — grated on me. I had the itch; I had to get moving.

I wanted community and travel and productivity. So I joined Remote Year, and had the best year of my life.

Now, about half of our crew has gone home to their old routines. About half think they want to travel forever.

And I’m stuck in limbo, knowing I love travel, but need to slow down — and that I’m a lucky, whiny bitch for having the freedom to pontificate about such assholeish problems.

Everyone asks the same question now that I’m home. What was your favorite country? I never have an answer.

Wanna visit for a week? Lima and Cusco.

Wanna live cheaply and happily? Prague, Lisbon or Mexico City.

Want something beautiful and different? Go all around Morocco. But don’t stay in Rabat.

Best side trip? Egypt.

Funnest month? Medellin.

And yet, it might have been my least favorite city.

We had the most events — Pool Party 2.0, tejo league, multiple visitors, etc. — and yet, we lived in the most gentrified, Gringo-ized neighborhood (El Poblado), that I had ever seen. Malls on every corner, plastic surgery abound, hipster cafes and brunch spots and English everywhere. It felt more Gringo than Westchester, NY.

My inner experience each month had nothing to do with the place. It had everything to do with the people, events, and literally everything else.

Sometimes, I wondered if we were actually learning about new cultures, or just finding the best American-style brunch spot in each city.

Most months, we lived in the Williamsburg of the country. Typically a half-hour Uber away from downtown.

Vinohrady in Prague, Ruzafa in Valencia, Roma/Condesa in Mexico, Zona Tin Bogota, Miraflores in Lima, Palermo in Buenos Aires, Whatever The Fuck That Place Was Called in Rabat.

Most months, I left Billyburg about once a week.

In Mexico City, I remember the same walk past the same seven taco vendors, to my same hipster café. It was like that in every city — with different scenery, of course.

In Rabat, all I remember is my Careem (Arab Uber) ride, observing the stark contrast between the New City (KFCs, sidewalks, fancy clothes) and the Old City (hijabs, sand, dirty cafes with only men).

As I watched from a distance, in a comfy European car.

Remote Year has to put us in the nice neighborhoods; they’re doing it right. It’s a high-end service — providing a comfortable working environment for professionals. We need good wi-fi, good coffee, extreme safety.

It’s on us to venture out and explore and immerse.

If we want to rough it, we should travel on our own.

I’m not upset about it, but the reality is: Out of 70 people, about five are conversationally fluent in Spanish after seven months of “immersion.”

We were sitting at a speakeasy in Buenos Aires — well, it wasn’t actually a speakeasy. We approached a host holding a clipboard and asked if we could get in. He blocked a semi-concealed door.

Do you have a reservation? No, sorry. He rolled his eyes. I’ll have to check. There was no chance we’d get in. He waited a few beats, opened the door, came back with that same frustrated look.

We think we can squeeze you in. And then we walked into this majestic speakeasy with the world’s coolest clock — and it was completely empty. There were at least 25 open tables.

TripAdvisor is responsible for Speakeasy Genocide.

And that’s what most international travel is like. Exotic visions of grandeur … and then it’s just calm and nice inside.

It was our second-to-last week, so we were reflective and anxious. A friend asked, “What’s your biggest takeaway from this year?”

One of those questions that you can’t ignore, yet can’t answer. I didn’t know. I joined Remote Year seeking community. So that’s what came to mind.

But what do you when the community separates after a year?

My other friend answered. At home, like me, like most people — he had a routine. He went out a bit, with the same friends, to the same bars, restaurants. This year, he went out more, with more variety.

When you have a month in a city, you explore. When you live somewhere indefinitely, you seek grooves to stay within.

He wanted to bring that attitude home with him. I wanted to bring my newfound sense of community. Plus what he said.

Which, again, had absolutely nothing to do with the places we had been.

I’ve tried to get comfortable with not knowing what’s next. Comfort with the unknown is beautiful.

Yet as I sat in Bed 11, in Córdoba, Argentina, I got anxious. I had to know what was next. I didn’t want to end up on Mom and Dad’s couch indefinitely.

Prague was comfortable; Prague felt like home. I have friends there and Remote Year groups shuffling through. So I booked a flight. I’d stay there for the maximum tourist visa period (90 days), while I figured life out.

Of course, I won’t figure it out in three months. But now, a 3-month plan gives me as much comfort as a life plan used to.

I don’t need to travel. But I sure as hell still like to.

How often do you or your friends say you should do something, then never follow through? We should go on a trip, quit our jobs, go to dinner, eat healthier, make those funny videos we’ve always wanted.

Remote Year was the opposite of that.

Every day, someone would throw out an idea. A tiny thread.

Ranging from let’s go to lunch, to let’s make a laughter club where we stand on a roof and laugh at nothing in particular, to let’s remake a charity’s website in one day, to let’s disrupt the airline industry on Startup Weekend, to let’s roast the two people who are leaving, to let’s visit orphans, to let’s buy our program leaders a room at the Four Seasons, let’s go to Egypt to let’s throw a pool party and do lots of drugs.

And hundreds more.

Plenty were dumb. Plenty were simple plans for immediate fun. Plenty were life-changing.

It didn’t matter if the ideas were good, bad, small, big, deep, shallow. We always followed the thread. No ideas died.

Remote Year was a place where no idea was too stupid, vulgar, grand or benevolent. Let’s get drunk on a Tuesday got the same credence as Sober October in Rabat.

We developed a reflex of yes. For everything. Which led to an incredible, creative year.

Every day, someone turned on that metaphorical Pool Party Song. And every day, we all were sucked into the dance floor.

It was less about who came up with the idea, and more about the 20 people that immediately bought in.

It was like one of our leaders, Aline, showed us Month 2 with this video. It’s about the second follower … and in our case, the next 68 (well, 48 after dropouts).

It created a community of people inspired to quit their jobs, start something new, question their assumptions about life.

And, of course, too many hangovers, and leaving as functioning alcoholics.

A friend asked me what my toughest moment was, and I couldn’t answer. Not because it was all sunsets and Instagram likes, but I honestly think life on the road is no harder than life at home, once you’ve adjusted to the quirks.

It’s the core tenet of stoicism. Human beings can never control life, but they can always control their response.

Travel gets your stoic muscles ripped. Your bed isn’t ready. Your flight is delayed. You know that sketchy Russian airline you booked from NY-Beijing? It’s not listed on the departure board. The friendly airport employee hasn’t heard of them. Google tells you they disbanded two months ago and never emailed you.

Objectively, your best option is first to laugh.

Then buy another ticket and enjoy your trip.

Yes, people had to deal with shit. There were dozens of stolen phones and wallets, and in Rabat, a friend got robbed with a machete and females were constantly harassed.

Those things are awful and I can’t speak to them.

But that was one otherwise-great country, and a small percentage of experiences.

An outlier in a year where 90% of the time, 90% of us felt we could wander home alone at 3am, stumbling drunk, because the world is often safer than our backyards.

50% of our waking hours were spent in modern co-working spaces and cafes, writing emails and bullshitting through “calls.”

Really, it was a lot like “real life” most of the time.

My optimistic friend got drunk our final week and then all dark and sad. I’d never seen him like that.

I can’t treat my body like this anymore. I feel like shit. It’s disgusting.

We all felt like that. It was a year of too much partying, drinking, instant-gratification experiences. We were living on fast-forward, too much going on, too much fun — it was amazing, but unsustainable.

Going on Remote Year is like being given lifetime-access to an all-you-can eat International buffet.

You like seeing new places every month? Help yourself.

You like being around inspiring, open-minded people? Help yourself.

You like being productive from anywhere? Help yourself.

You like going out every night? Help yourself.

You never knew the buffet existed, so you gorge yourself on General Tso’s chicken until MSG bursts out your armpits.

Everything is delicious. But now you know you can go whenever you want. Sometimes, you should sit in the corner, alone, grazing on a salad.

That’s what I’ll leave Remote Year with. Excitement for infinite possibilities, and awareness that sometimes going away is running away.

It’s not about constant activity, constant moving. It’s not about structure or having things planned for you. That’s just running away from real life.

Constant activity is just running away from real life.

And constant sitting is just running away from discomfort.

Somewhere in the middle, there’s a place where you can be surrounded by a community of magnets — getting sucked in by a Pool Party Song — while also having the control to pull away when you feel the hangover coming.

It’s about being comfortable with the brand of discomfort that is with you, right now. Whether it’s the chaos of your first night wandering Cairo’s center — or the banality of your parents’ couch in Suburban NY.

I saw my parents and sister and friends and family. It’s been refreshing. There’s beauty everywhere, even in the most-boring-sounding places.

When you’re looking in front of you — not at the next bullet on the list.

My yes reflex still works. That’s Remote Year’s gift.

The second you call Cairo better than Mommy’s couch is the second you’re back on that treadmill — forehead crashing down, bleeding.

I’m trying to hop off so I can enjoy whatever solid ground is currently at my feet.

If you want to chat about Remote Year (or life), email me at rud@plat.pub.

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