My Favorite Cities Part 3: Asia

Here we go, the finale of my answer to the question “Which city was your favorite?”

In case you’re still catching up, check out Part 1: South America and Part 2: Europe, where I recap pros and cons of each of the cities I lived in last year.

As you can probably tell by how long this blog series has gotten, picking just one favorite city has been impossible. There are so many things I loved about each place—and some things that were difficult about each one too.

In this final installment, I’m covering the pros and cons of the Asian cities we lived in. Here we go:

PROS AND CONS OF SOME CITIES IN ASIA

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Pros:

  • Nominated for Best Street Food in the World by everyone who has ever been here ever

    these are all malls

  • Speakeasy-style bars are also a big trend here (like they were in Buenos Aires), and I’m still a fan, except for that one time our friend went into a brothel by accident because the speakeasy was a little too hidden
  • Buddhist temples in Chinatown a couple blocks from a huge Hindu temple, and mosques everywhere, playing the call to prayer over loudspeakers through a rainstorm and it is shockingly beautiful, I might have cried
  • The best coconut ice cream in the world
  • Basically the super-affordable version of Singapore
  • It’s a modern city so you can find all the weird drug store stuff you didn’t realize you needed and which Europe doesn’t carry for some reason (look I love Europe but sometimes looking for recognizable skincare/healthcare/grocery store brands there feels as futile as asking your 90-year-old grandma how to work your iPad)
  • INFINITY POOLS

Cons:

  • Durian, otherwise known as The Devil’s Fruit (I’d describe my first time trying durian as “like eating a cup of vanilla yogurt while sitting on a port-o-potty in which a body is decomposing”)
  • Durian stench, which permeates the streets at night, as corpselike rivulets of The Devil’s Fruit flow downstream from the nearest ice-cream stand
  • Heat + humidity = sweat in uncomfortable places
  • Alcohol is crazy expensive and mostly crap
  • You live in a mall
  • Your office is in a mall
  • All the tourist attractions are in malls
  • The best restaurants in town are in mall food courts
  • There is no real world any longer, there is only mall
  • Mall.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Pros:

  • ELEPHANT SANCTUARIES (THEY’RE JUST LIKE PEOPLE OMG. They have best friends and hold grudges and push their punk-ass kids into the nearest stream when they’re acting up)
  • Cooking schools (but you’ll never be able to recreate this dish anywhere else because you will never find produce like you get in Thailand ever again, holy shit it’s amazing here)
  • Coffee shops (mostly in the digital nomad-y area we lived in, but there were so many great ones!)
  • Weird workspaces (in a treehouse! in a pool! yes, literally in it!)
  • Some of the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming people we met anywhere, and the locals who kindly put up with us being completely unable to communicate in any meaningful way
  • BEAUTIFUL TEMPLES EVERYWHERE
  • Gorgeous mountain drives through rice patties
  • Night bazaars that make it feel like you just stepped straight into a YA fantasy novel
  • Khao soi, otherwise known as the Nectar of the Gods. The best curry on the planet (is it a curry? I don’t even know. Whatever it is I ate it every single day we were in Thailand)

do not attempt this lantern thing yourself. seriously.

Cons:

  • Elephant riding—DON’T DO THIS. DON’T RIDE THEM. THEY’RE SUCH BEAUTIFUL INTELLIGENT CREATURES AND RIDING THEM HURTS THEIR BACKS IRREPARABLY ok I’m done
  • But really
  • Scooters/motorbikes will definitely hit you at least 10x
  • Traffic is nuts
  • Pollution is similar, so good luck breathing while you idle in said traffic
  • But don’t even think about walking, the sidewalks are even worse than Mexico City. This time not only are they made of holes, but most of them are rented out as billboard ad space, so there’s giant signs in your way all the time! (True story) (And don’t get me started on the telephone lines you have to duck, while climbing over said billboards)
  • Sex trafficking is a thing, and there are a lot of ways tourists support this industry, whether knowingly or not, and you definitely need to educate yourself at the very least on how not to accidentally buy into it before you go
  • So much plastic waste. So. Much.

Kyoto, Japan

Pros:

  • SO CLEAN. I once spilled ketchup on the street and tried to mop it up with my napkin because I felt so guilty, true story (also, there’s a rule against eating on the streets for exactly this reason, I apologize Japan)
  • The best train system I’ve ever seen (they issued a nationwide apology one time when a train left the station 20 seconds early)
  • I was right. Peeing here is a magical experience.
  • Kobe beef is the best thing I have ever put in my mouth, yes I know exactly how that sounds, no I do not care, IT’S ALL TRUE (also whatever tf crap we have in the states labeled “kobe” is just not, I promise you)
  • Fire ramen. ‘Nuff said.
  • Sake.
  • Strong Zero (think Four Locos, but available in a vending machine on street corners)
  • Michelin starred box ramen from 7-11, and 7-11 food in general (another area in which the US seriously needs to up our game)
  • Free beer happy hour in our workspace, which was a lifesaver because we sure could not afford Japan-life after, well, everywhere-else-life
  • Extremely well-organized tiny-house-like apartments (a con for some, but I loved my weird shipping container solo pad!)
  • Beautiful historic temples and the old geisha district to walk around
  • Basically a country built by and for introverts
  • Tiny little bars that look like hoarders’ living rooms nestled beside the lit-up river, offering cozy warm havens against the December chill in the air

    average walk to work

Cons:

  • Trying to cram 56 clingy foreigners upset about the approaching year’s end into those tiny hoarder living room bars
  • There are A LOT of rules. Which is great, but also terrifying, so study up before you go unless you want strangers to cross their arms at you in a big X all the time (yes, that’s where that emoji comes from, and yes, being X-ed makes any social anxiety you may already have peak instantly)
  • Expensive. Like, more so than NYC in many respects.
  • Not enough time to see everything (but then, an entire lifetime in Japan probably wouldn’t be enough!)

That last con applies to everywhere we went, actually. After a month in each city, I feel like I know them just well enough to know exactly what I want to do when I get back there. And I will definitely be back. Soon.

In the meantime, one last BONUS MONTH. When our year ended in Japan, most of our Remote Year cohort couldn’t quite say goodbye yet. A lot of us headed over to Bali for month 13, and I couldn’t leave it off this list, because as it transpires, between a side-trip we took there from Kuala Lumpur that lasted longer than intended (we all skipped our flights home), and this post-RY visit, I wound up spending more time in Bali than any of our official RY cities.

So, just to be thorough, the pros and cons of:

Bali, Indonesia (Ubud & Canggu mostly)

Pros:

  • So. Chill. Granted, we showed up during rainy season with monthlong hangovers from our final farewell in Japan, and pretty much all of us decided the minute we set foot in Bali that we were doing Drynuary (or in my case, Drynuary+Drybruary+Dryarch—ok I see why only Dry January gets abbreviated now…), but still. There’s just something in the air from the second you step off the plane in Bali that urges you to relax
  • Super friendly, welcoming locals. Everyone we met couldn’t have been nicer, like the lady who ran the homestay where I lived and checked on me in genuine concern when I slept for 14 hours one day (see above re: Japan hangover)

    normal office views

  • The beaches, the jungles, the temples, the infinity pools overlooking rice patties and mountainsides, it all looked Instagram-perfect
  • The rain—people told us not to visit in rainy season, but I loved the torrential jungle thunderstorms. It’s the kind of rain that leaves you unable to step half a foot outside your house without getting as drenched as if you’d jumped into a pool. It’s also the perfect excuse (“sorry I stood you up, but it was pouring, I’m going to go take a 12-hour nap instead, did I mention the monthlong hangover?”)
  • Cacao ceremonies
  • New moon volcano parties
  • Cults (join rival ones and feud with your friends!)
  • Booching (it’s like Icing, but instead of hiding a Smirnoff Ice in your friend’s stuff, you hide a kombucha)
  • Best. Vegan food. Anywhere.
  • Jackfruit (funnily enough a relative of Durian The Devil Fruit)—it’s my new favorite fake-meat, and jackfruit poutine is everything I never knew I needed in life
  • Yoga Barn—50 acres of yoga classes, vegan buffets and juice cleanses
  • Ecstatic dance parties (all the insanity of a rave, all the sobriety of church)
  • Lazy poolside workdays followed by lazy late night tarot card readings
  • More surfing
  • Basically just turning into a hippie stereotype
  • One last chance to catch up with all the awesome people you spent a year with, which was just enough time to realize you’ll never have enough time with them

Cons:

  • Scooters. They’re pretty much the only way to get around. But every single time you climb onto one you are DEFYING DEATH (or in my case, speeding straight toward it while I crash into all the other bikes in the parking lot)
  • Bali belly (let’s just say, I never wanted to know exactly where an individual piece of food I just swallowed is in my digestive system for its entire rushed trip through my small and large intestines, but now I do)
  • Juice cleanses (your liver already “cleanses” your digestive system for youuuu also, I assume I contracted Bali belly twice as punishment for my making fun of our friends who did try juice cleanses)
  • Living in a bubble again (Ubud in particular felt almost as “digital nomad”-bubble-y as Medellín, and Canggu and Seminyak are chock full of Australian bachelor parties. It creates a weird divide between real Bali and the image of Bali that gets shared on Instagram/social media)
  • All the plastic waste, which is a huge problem for little islands like Bali that don’t have the infrastructure to clean it up yet (there are some groups and local businesses working on alleviating this! But it’s going to be a long hard road toward a fix…)
  • Saying goodbye. To the year, to my new travel-family, to that chapter of my life. It was really damn hard.

But you can’t open new doors without closing old ones first. And as amazing as our year was, it worked because Remote Year was a finite period of time, a moment when we could all hold our breaths and postpone the more tedious, difficult aspects of life for one year.

Now we’re done holding our breaths. Now it’s back to reality. But somehow, after a year of hitting hard-reset on my brain, I feel readier than ever to tackle the difficult things, the things I put off last year—personal-growth things, work things, fighting the US government things, or even just boring tasks like getting my taxes in order.

Maybe it’s because after a year (and a couple months) of solid adventure, I’m ready for the adventure of real life.

My Favorite Cities Part 2: Europe

As you might have seen in part 1 of this post, I’ve been getting asked one question in particular a lot since my return: Which city was your favorite?

After last year, I think I have as many favorite cities as foodies do favorite bougie restaurants, so I’ve just given up on ranking them and made pro/con lists instead. Part 1 covered my favorite South American cities. Part 2, this post, details my favorite European spots. And next time, part 3 will cover the Asian cities we visited.

So here goes part 2.

PROS AND CONS OF SOME EUROPEAN CITIES

Prague, Czech Republic

Pros:

  • IT’S SO DAMN PRETTY
  • Seriously, it’s like living in a postcard of medieval Europe but without all the disease and hygiene problems
  • It’s very walkable (or so I hear, I was on crutches the whole time sooo)
  • On a related note, paying out-of-pocket for unexpected healthcare services was surprisingly cheap, easy, and reliable (here’s side-eying you, USA)

    the Vltava river

  • The beer (and I don’t even LIKE beer)
  • Honey (beekeeping is a huge thing and I love it??)
  • Affordability (after Buenos Aires this was a HUGE RELIEF—and also surprising for such a big European city and popular tourist spot)
  • Did I mention how pretty it is? Our workspace was literally a castle. Even the weird dorm-like housing we lived in was clean and shiny and a weird mix of modern and Communist-block-style that somehow felt homey

Cons:

  • I could not communicate at all. But if you know some Czech or even Russian, this will be less of a problem
  • People in general seem less overtly friendly than in South America. For me, this was actually a relief (I don’t always want to have a 20-minute chat just because we’re sitting next to one another on the subway, sorryyyy), but others were put off by it at first
  • Touristy (yes, I know it’s ironic to complain about this as a tourist, but more so than anywhere else we lived, the tourist zones felt very fabricated)

Belgrade, Serbia

Pros:

  • Super affordable (on the local Uber knockoff, CarGo, which sounded like it was probably named by the designer’s toddler, it cost about ~$5 USD max to get from one side of town to the other. I had to use this a lot since, still on crutches)
  • Giant hippie fairy bar on top of a fortress
  • Outdoor raves in said fortress, which led to a lot of hungover mornings-after at said hippie fairy bar (their beanbag chairs were great for lying on the floor while dying of a hangover and pitifully sipping ciders)
  • Riverfront pools/beaches/bars
  • Inexplicably great sushi restaurants

    morning-after in said bar

  • “The nightlife in Belgrade is basically Berlin in the 90s” – my friend who is 1000% cooler than me and whose judgement I trust implicitly
  • Cool as hell old architecture
  • Super cool locals who adopted us and took us to all the best bars

Cons:

  • World’s most depressing zoo
  • Heatwaves
  • Lack of air conditioning in many old houses
  • Lack of elevators and prevalence of hills made crutching around very difficult (but this was a very specific me-problem)
  • Not a ton of stuff to do outside of partying and poolside lounging (which is, I realize, the most non-complaints of complaints)

Valencia, Spain

Pros:

  • Looks like Antoni Gaudí and Art Nouveau had a lovechild, and its name is Santiago Calatrava (if you’re a NYer, he’s the guy who designed the Oculus at One World Trade)
  • Perfect weather, especially when we were there in September
  • Gorgeous Mediterranean beaches
  • Parks for days

    Calatrava buildings: pretty but leaky

  • Museums for days
  • Like all of Spain, the $2 wine in the grocery store is phenomenal. The $6 bottle will blow your mind
  • I could understand Spanish again (again, me-specific, because I learned European Spanish, but it was SUCH A RELIEF especially after 2 months in countries where I knew exactly none of the local language)
  • The produce oh my god
  • The fresh fish oh my god
  • So many cute coffee shops and cafes
  • So many weird bars with creepy baby doll heads as decoration—wait, no, just one of them, but still

Cons:

  • Ate at a restaurant where all the dishes were made from canned seafood and it basically tasted like cat food, and this was not not par for the course in the Valencian restaurant scene (shut up I know I am a snob now I’M SORRY REMOTE YEAR DID THIS TO ME)
  • Price-wise we were definitely in Western Europe again (although Valencia wasn’t as costly as somewhere like Barcelona or Florence, I did have to start penny-pinching more than in Eastern Europe)
  • Healthcare was pricier than in Prague (but still RIDICULOUSLY AFFORDABLE, EVEN PAYING OUT OF POCKET I am looking at you again USA, with increasing disbelief. Like… this is a rant for another time but WHY DOES BASIC MEDICAL TREATMENT COST LITERALLY 20 TIMES MORE IN AMERICA THAN ANYWHERE ELSE AUGH*)
    * I know why sorry that was rhetorical fuck our healthcare system the end

look when you have to be on crutches you might as well glam it up

There’s part 2 of our year, our three months in Europe. Stay tuned for part 3, pros and cons of the cities we visited in Asia!

My Favorite Cities Part 1: South America

Ever since finishing Remote Year, I’ve been asked the same question over and over: Which city was your favorite?

This is akin to asking an author what her favorite book is. I can’t answer it without at least 1 hour of your time and a PowerPoint presentation.

So, in lieu of owning a working copy of PowerPoint, I made a pros and cons list for each of the cities I lived in last year, to answer this question in a more succinct way than the hours-long rambles I’ve been delivering to my poor beleaguered friends. And since this list turned out to be not THAT succinct actually, I’ve broken it into 3 parts: South America, Europe, and Asia.

So, here goes part 1.

PROS AND CONS OF SOME SOUTH AMERICAN CITIES

Mexico City, Mexico

Sup Teotihuacan?

Pros: 

  • THE FOOD (everything from the 15 cent street tacos up to the 19-course tasting menu at one of the top 10 restaurants in the world was incredible)
  • Affordability
  • Mezcal is the best alcohol since whiskey
  • So much history, between the pyramids, the anthropology museum, the walking tours through DF…
  • DID I MENTION THE FOOD (TACOS AL PASTOR. TAMALES. ELOTES. CHILAQUILES. TORTAS. MORE CHILAQUILES. DID I MENTION TACOS YET. TACOS.)
  • Micheladas and clamatos (where have these been all my hungover life??)

Cons:

  • Pollution/air quality (if I thought Pittsburgh in the 90s was bad, I had no idea…)
  • Sidewalks are more hole than sidewalk
  • The water isn’t potable, which makes staying hydrated difficult (though that might also be the mezcal’s fault TBH)
  • That’s it end of cons

Bogotá, Colombia

Pros:

  • The nightlife is truly unbeatable (it helped that Despacito was blowing up the month we lived here – no not the Justin Bieber version GTFO)
  • Weird shit to do (for example, tejo, the popular lawn game where you drink cases of beer while throwing rocks at explosives buried in mud; or chivas, which are party buses that drive around blasting music while you drink aguardiente – did I mention the nightlife?)
  • Weird shit to see (for example, the salt cathedral, a giant cathedral carved out of salt; salt Jesus, a big statue of Jesus carved out of salt; the salt mines… you get the picture)
  • Hiking (close to the city too!)
  • Gorgeous countryside
  • Views from Monserrate over the city that are truly unbeatable

View from Monserrate

Cons:

  • The food (arepas are disgusting, sorry not sorry, and if I never eat trucha again it will still be too soon)
  • Aguardiente (a type of liquor I would describe as the jaeger bomb’s less classy cousin)
  • Hangovers from aguardiente
  • Air quality/pollution (I thought it was better than Mexico City, but other friends disagreed—it depended how close you lived to any of Bogotá’s city parks)
  • Pickpockets (especially when out enjoying the aforementioned nightlife)

Medellín, Colombia

Pros:

  • Even weirder shit to see (for example, Pope John Paul II Airport, now a waterpark in downtown Medellín; or Pablo Escobar’s old bombed-out mansion, now a paintball park)
  • Bougie cafes (in the very digital-nomad-bubble-y neighborhood of El Poblado)
  • Street art (arguably some of the best in the world)

    The artist & his work

  • Aguardiente (yes I know this was a con in Bogotá but by this point you’ve been brainwashed and it tastes like nostalgia rather than regret and tin cans)
  • Living in a jungle (HOW COOL IS THAT)
  • Watching firsthand as a city with a very recent, very difficult past reinvents itself using a combination of brilliant city infrastructure planning and sheer compassion is truly awe-inspiring
  • The beer (microbrewing is up-and-coming in the city and it’s AMAZING also some of it has secret weed in it fair warning)

Cons:

  • The safer neighborhoods feel like a bubble. I’d walk around for an hour and hear only English, French or German
  • Living in a jungle (your clothing will NEVER BE DRY AGAIN)
  • The coffee (sadly, all the best Colombian coffee gets exported – though there are some local shops trying to change this!)
  • The food/drinks (WHY IS EVERYTHING SO SWEET. WHYYYY)

Lima, Peru

Pros:

  • Ceviche (eat it alllll)
  • Pisco (don’t drink it alllll because it will murder you after 1 cocktail)
  • Fine dining (Central & Maido were two of the best meals I’ve ever had, for a quarter of the price of what that caliber restaurant in NYC costs)
  • Sunsets to die for
  • SURFING, my new addiction
  • Sleeping (seriously, I don’t know if it’s the sea breeze, LA-esque weather or the relaxed pace of the town, but even the biggest insomniacs in our group slept great here)
  • Ecosystem diversity (from the beaches around Lima to the desert oasis town a mile away where you can sand-surf dunes; from the Peruvian side of the Amazon rainforest to the cloud forests of the Andes, you’ll never run out of new terrain to explore)

Lima sunsets

Cons:

  • You’ll want to spend so much time exploring Cusco (and the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu), Huacachina (aforementioned oasis town with dune buggies and sand-surfing) and Iquitos (the Amazon), you’ll miss out on Lima
  • Nightlife (maybe we were just burned-out after 2 months in Colombia, but things seemed more chill this month—and the going-out spots we did find weren’t in the best neighborhoods to visit late at night)
  • The sidewalks (this is definitely a me-problem but THEY WERE SO SLIPPERY I COULD BARELY WALK. probably fine if you’re a normal human with functioning balance, though)

Córdoba, Argentina

Pros:

  • Hot people (literally everyone in Argentina is gorgeous)
  • Gauchos (Argentinian hotness with all the sometimes-problematic masculinity of USian cowboys

    Playing cowboy in the Sierras

  • Everything around Córdoba (horseback riding through the Sierras, camping in the Sierras, visiting a cool German-style village in the middle of Argentina, renting an Airbnb in the distant suburbs, basically any way we could leave Córdoba…)
  • Nightlife if you are a 21-year-old college student, I guess
  • Feeling like you’ve stepped through a time portal into mid-1990s Europe (PLATFORM SHOES ARE BACK. PAY PHONES ARE A THING. CASH-ONLY ECONOMY. NO FUNCTIONING ELEVATORS wait ok maybe some of this is farther back than the 90s…)
  • Creepy decaying park that is probably the setting for a post-nuclear-apocalypse video game (some people might call this a con, but I genuinely enjoyed wandering around it at night envisioning dystopian near-futures. You know. Good preparation.)
  • You’ll learn how to cook because there are no good restaurants
  • You’ll start exercising out of sheer boredom
  • Really good produce actually, and tons of farmer’s markets!
  • Fernet and coke (if you like bitter liquor and buckets full of a drink guaranteed to make you forget where you are, this will be your jam)

Cons:

  • Nightlife if you are not a 21-year-old college student. Córdoba is 90% bars, and of those, 90% are grungy clubs that open at 1am, close at 7am, and only serve flavored vodka shots and Angostura bitters they poured into an empty whiskey bottle in order to pretend they still had whiskey, probably
  • Random shouting parades in the middle of the street at 4am on a Tuesday
  • No sound-proofing whatsoever on any windows
  • The only food anywhere within the city limits is pizza. But that pizza has been made by someone who has only ever heard vague rumors of this mystery dish, never seen one in person. It consists of a Chicago deep-dish style crust, no sauce, more cheese than even I (a consummate dairy-addict) can handle, and a single green olive. Every time.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Pros:

  • More hot people
  • Oh thank god, good restaurants again, so I can stop living off of farmer’s market vegetables and get back to ruining my body
  • Asado, Argentina’s answer to Southern BBQ (FYI American South, Argentina is winning)
  • Speakeasy-style cocktail bars are enjoying A Moment in BA, and it’s The Best Moment
  • Fernet (seriously, I just don’t hate it—it’s like jaeger but without the gross licorice aftertaste)
  • Sexy accents (Argentinian is to Spanish as Scottish is to English; aka, THE BEST but also I could not communicate with anyone besides close friends who spoke slowly for the gringa)
  • Nightlife (all the action, excitement, and 7am closing times of Córdoba, but now with sound-proofing on our windows and residential neighborhoods where you can escape said excitement)
  • Theatrical shows (the nickname “Paris of South America” was floated a few times, and I can see it. BA reminds me of NYC, or London, or Paris—it’s a big, vibrant, cosmopolitan city, and it shows)

not a NYC subway stop, but a BA speakeasy

Cons:

  • Cash-only economy (for such a big city, this is hard to adjust to. It also means that every time the ATMs are restocked you have to wait in a blocks-long line at whichever one has any cash left, and then take out as much as you possibly can at once)
  • The weather (learn from our mistakes, don’t go in June. It feels like NYC in November but without any of the excitement or decor leading up to Christmas. … So maybe more like NYC in January or mid-Feb)
  • The price tag (this was the most expensive city we visited in South America, and second only to Japan in price all year. Our wallets definitely felt the pain)

Phew. So that’s the first half of our year. Check out part 2 for pros and cons of the European cities we visited!

Top 5 Places to Pee Around the World

Scene of the Struggle

Look, we all need to go sometime. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that a great spot to pee can make or break a vacation. That, and there are many different peeing habits in every country. As you travel, you’ll learn all the tips and tricks. For example, in South America, you can’t flush your toilet paper. In Malaysia, most toilets come equipped with a hose for rinsing down the seat, walls, and floor (as far as I can tell by the amount of puddles I step into). In Southeast Asian airports, about half the public restrooms are squat-potties (which, interestingly, I find way easier than hovering over a regular toilet seat). In Europe, your apartment will often have a bidet (which is handy if you, say, get food poisoning and need to utilize two side-by-side toilets at once).

But in all the peeing I’ve done this year, some pees have really stood out from the crowd. So, for the adventurous and well-hydrated traveler, here are my top recommendations for scenic locations around the globe in which to relieve yourself:

  1. Inca Trail

I’m not gonna sugar-coat it—this pee isn’t fun. This will be the most challenging pee of your life. But that’s what makes it so rewarding. Like the hike itself, peeing along the Inca Trail pushes your endurance to new limits.

It all starts at the trailhead, where you discover most toilets here are just holes in the ground. It gets better after the aptly-named Dead Woman’s Pass, when you discover the port-a-potty version of those holes in the ground—also a hole, but with no running water and plastic walls. The smell is, in a word, dire.

Post-Worst Pee of My Life selfie

But the true test comes in between toilets. Drinking 2+ liters a day in order to not die while hiking leads to a lot of peeing-in-the-wild. Sometimes you can find bushes to crouch behind, or side trails to sneak off along for a private wee. But inevitably, at some point, you will find yourself up against A Struggle. Perhaps the oldest Struggle in the world: the Untimely Call of Nature.

My Struggle arrived just as we approached Phuyupatamarca, or The City Above the Clouds. This particular Incan ruin is enormous, beautiful, and when we arrived, deserted save for us. I couldn’t wait to climb all over it. Just one problem—cloud town is located about 2 hours after our last bathroom break, and 1 hour away from our next. I could not bring myself to pee on such beautiful ruins. And the trail up to cloud town wound up a very steep, narrow path, with a mountain on one side and a cliff on the other. No bushes to sneak into.

Just one single alcove, right before the ruins, behind a small tree that provided the bare minimum of privacy. To judge by the depth and breadth of the, shall we say, remnants, in that alcove, everyone who has ever hiked the Inca Trail ever, had also encountered the same Struggle as me.

Love this ruin. It was near a bathroom.

But there, as I hiked up into the piss and shit, in order to squat in the least pissy and shitty spot I could find, then pee as fast as possible while shuffling to keep my shoes from sinking into mud made entirely of urine—I ascended to a higher level of being. I am now The Type of Person Who Can Pee Anywhere. Really, anywhere. Peeing can never be that horrible again.

It is freeing, in a way. And it makes you appreciate every other pee in your life that much more. So, despite the Struggle, I recommend this experience.

  1. This beach in Ibiza

There are a lot of beaches in Ibiza. This one is the best. A pile of dirty cloth that turned out to be a voluntarily homeless man cocooned in a fitted sheet told us so. As he went through his sunrise yoga routine, he explained—with no prompting whatsoever, I might add—that he’d slept on every beach in Ibiza. This one was quiet, scenic, and a great hookup spot (apparently Cocoon Man does quite well for himself, despite the whole “I literally live on a beach” thing).

At least one of us is probably peeing in this photo

Having experienced 0 other beaches in Ibiza, since we just went back to this one over and over, I am inclined to agree with Cocoon Man. But I would go one step farther. Not only is this beach ideal for cocooning, yoga, and sunset-watching (though, I hasten to add, it is not quite as great for sunrise viewing. Pro tip: sunrises don’t happen on the same side of the island as sunsets. Who knew?! We definitely should have), but it is also a great

Friends who wee together stay together

spot to pee.

 

For one, there’s the ocean. Always good for a sea-wee. But, if you are on this beach and don’t feel inclined to get half your body wet, there is also a handy rock outcropping just beside the shoreline, which conceals you from almost every viewpoint on the beach. Perfect for popping a squat!

  1. Gili Air

Gili Air is gorgeous. It takes anywhere from 5-16+ hours to get from there back to some semblance of civilization, which makes it the antisocial introvert’s dream destination and prime real estate for Italian grandmothers on the run for tax evasion.

It’s also just freaking beautiful. No photos we took were able to completely capture the view—white sand beaches lead down to a coral reef. Beyond the reef, the deep turquoise of the ocean against the backdrop of Lombok Island across the inlet and a volcano in the distant background make the whole scene look like a painting.

There’s even swings for post-pee celebrations!

Wading into the shallow water to relieve our bladders (with some minor wincing because, pretty as it is, coral is not super fun to walk on barefoot) felt like peeing inside an Andrew Wyeth landscape. Move over Christina’s World, the next big thing in magical realist painting is Clare Peeing (named for the friend who peed the most frequently, though truthfully, this masterpiece could be named after any of us).

Anyway, I highly recommend this experience, even if the water can get a bit chilly in high tide.

 

  1. Melt Festival, Ferropolis, Germany

Fun AND hygienic!

Let me set the scene: it is day 4 of a 20,000-person music festival. You’ve been camping here all weekend, in the middle of nowhere, dancing sweatily to bands. It’s 5am. The last act is still playing. You venture to the on-site toilets.

Not only are they clean as a whistle, but there is plenty of toilet paper, a cleaner sweeping up after you leave, and there is soap left.

 

Germany is the ideal location for a music festival. All music festivals should take place in Germany. In fact, all large crowded events where you may at some point need to use a toilet should be run by Germans. Times Square for New Year’s Eve planners, take note.

  1. Japan

Yes, I’ve reserved my number one pee-of-the-year spot for a place I haven’t been yet. Perhaps this is naively optimistic of me, always believing that the best is yet to come. But come on, the toilets in Japan are legendary. For years, I have heard tell of self-cleaning seats and toilets with speakers installed so that when you sit down, music plays just loud enough to cover up the sound of whatever you might be doing to that poor bathroom. Recently, I learned that some toilet stalls even have lovely paintings inside!

Regardless of whether the music will be to my taste or whether some of the stall paintings will be lackluster, I still believe it’s safe to look forward to peeing in Japan. More on this come December, when I can confirm the toilet sitch for myself.

In the meantime, happy peeing!

Naming the Fear

From the minute I read about Remote Year, I knew I needed to do it. In typical me fashion, I pretended to debate for a while, batted around pros and cons with my friends and family. I am secretly a very decisive person about huge life changes, but I like to disguise that by venting my fears at every given opportunity, almost like a superstition, an anti-jinx. As long as I name the fear, I might be able to avoid it coming to pass. And since I am blessed with a creative (and overly active) mind, I could imagine a lot of fears. A million ways this trip could go wrong.

But I never voiced the real one.

I told my coworkers I was worried about going freelance, possibly running out of money halfway through this trip. (I wasn’t.) I told my family I worried that I wouldn’t get along with anyone in my randomly-assigned travel group. (I was actually pretty sure that out of 80 people, I’d at least like a couple.) I told my friends that I worried I’d hate some of the cities or countries we visited. (But really, most were on my to-see list anyway.)

I made up all these fears to try and exorcise the one that was really eating at me.

I was afraid this trip would go right.

Fortunately (unfortunately?), it has.

We’re approaching the 6-month mark of this trip. That has made me look deep in the mirror and face what comes next. Because I already know in my bones that this will not be enough for me. One year is not enough.

People talk about getting the travel bug out of your system. People talk about “the trip of a lifetime” and “the last hurrah,” like a honeymoon or a babymoon, those trips people take before they settle into “real life” (as if any other iteration of life is not real, as if anything but the house and the spouse and the 2.5 kids is pure fantasy).

That’s not what this trip is for me. I knew that going into it, and it scared (it still scares) the shit out of me.

This is the start. This is tearing up my roots and growing the wings that have been itching to sprout since I was a kid. This is what I have always wanted to do, where I have always wanted to be. I cannot imagine ever being ready to give this up.

Sure, I can picture a future where I want to stay in one spot for longer than a month at a time. I can envision a few months here, even a year or two there. But I cannot see myself settling down in the traditional sense. I cannot imagine one house in one location ever being enough. I understand how it could be for some people, I understand why that’s what most people want.

But that just isn’t me.

Part of me has known that all along, but it took this trip being what it is to really force me to see it. I would never be happy with normal. I cannot settle for it anymore.

Which leaves me with a lot of questions to work out. What does an unsettled life mean? What the hell does a future without an anchor look like?

It’s not a life most people would sign up for. It’s not a life you can share with someone, except maybe for brief periods at a time. It looks lonely as hell, to be frank.

Is that okay? Is that doable?

I’ve always made my home more in experiences and people than in places or possessions. But if I’m chasing new experiences, how do I make a home with people? Am I doomed to a constantly rotating stream of surface acquaintances, a lifetime of goodbyes?

I’ve always considered myself lucky because I grew up with friends scattered around the globe (the magic of the internet). But any blessing turned on its head can become a curse. My heart has never really been whole because there are pieces of it scattered around the planet, and they’ll never all be in one place at one time. Some days that’s fine and some days it hurts like hell, when someone I care about is in pain and I can’t be there because they’re literally a thousand miles away.

I’m only setting myself up for more of that now.

Remote Year looked perfect because it was a stepping-stone. A way to dip my toe into the deeper waters of solo travel without getting immediately drenched in loneliness on the way down. It has been all of that and more.

But eventually it’s going to end. My new friends are going to go home, or move on to new lives, or keep traveling to other places, but probably not the same ones as me, and definitely never again as a group this big, an actual community that feels like a mobile home, the perfect balance between change and constant, the chance to chase new experiences with the same people, people you can actually get to know on a deeper level, people who have become friends faster than I imagined possible. And once we all go our separate ways, I’m going to have to figure out how to keep moving without them—how to swim in the deep end without a life vest.

I’m going to have to figure out what a future on the drift looks like. How to strike a balance between wings and roots, between constant flights and enough of a layover to keep me grounded.

I have to learn to be lonely.

In a way, I knew that’s what I was signing up for when I dove headfirst into this trip. I jumped anyway. This is just me naming the fear—and perhaps still superstitiously hoping that will allay it somehow.

The Ultimate Remote Year Packing List

There are a lot of articles out there about what and how to pack for the insanity that is Remote Year. Some have good tips—advice on how to keep your luggage weight low and yet still bring enough clothes that you won’t be wearing the same 4 outfits on rotation for an entire year.

But to be honest, none of these lists quite cover it all. Key items are left off the lists, items that no self-respecting world-traveler should leave home without. So, for anyone else who might be embarking on their own Remote Year (either with this program or one of the many competitors now springing up), or just for anyone who’s planning to travel for an extended period of time, I offer up these tips. The advice I wish someone had given me when I sat down to plan for this year:

The Ultimate Remote Year Packing List

Part I: Most Often Forgotten Items
(There’s a lot to decide in the lead-up to Remote Year, and in the hustle and bustle, some key items to pack can be lost or forgotten. I’m here to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes I did.)

  1. Inflatable Pool. I cannot emphasize enough how big a game changer adding a kiddie pool (AKA “paddling pool” for any Brits out there) to my suitcase has been. Month after month, my fellow travelers have been disappointed by apartments without rooftop or garden pools available. But no matter where I wind up living, whether the apartment has no external windows, a cramped kitchen, or just a set of plastic deck chairs in place of a living room, I know I will always have this one key amenity at my disposal: a pool.
    When buying your pool, however, make sure to get one with LED lights embedded. This not only makes for cooler Instagram videos, but it also enables you to find the pool and avoid tripping over it in the middle of the night as you stumble through your narrow clown-hallway apartment.
    Pro-Tip—Your inflatable pool can also be used as a ball pit, a Jello wrestling stage, or to hold a foam party.
  2. Neon Wig. I did not anticipate the number of costume, fancy dress and themed events I would be attending this year. Luckily, rather than packing the entirety of your dress-up trunk, you can turn pretty much any normal outfit into a festival-ready one by adding one accessory: a crazily-colored wig. Doesn’t really matter what color (although personally I recommend purple—it goes with everything!), only that it must be outrageously neon enough that it can be used as a flag in the event of an emergency where you get separated from your group of friends at a 30,000 person concert.
    The best place I’ve found to buy such wigs is Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, where you can score one for the bargain basement price of $2 USD.
    Pro-Tip—Do not put your wig in the washing machine.
  3. Cape. Much like the wig, this will come in handy in an untold number of situations. Just to give you a few examples, it enhances your life when: jumping off a bridge, doing backflips on a pyramid, attending a concert, taking a plane ride where you forget to pack a shirt, napping on an average Tuesday, and in case you need to intimidate anyone in a dark alley.
  4. Festival/Body Paint. I know, I know, this is an obvious one. When would you not have approximately 1,000 uses to put this to? But you would be surprised by a) the number of people who forgot to pack this everyday essential, and b) how difficult it was to locate in Colombia. Luckily, Colombian regulations are pretty lax, so in a pinch, supposedly “kid-safe edible” regular paint will work in lieu of body/face paint.
  5. Corkscrew. Especially if you are traveling anywhere in South America, because these cannot be found anywhere for love or money. Occasionally you might luck out and borrow one from a neighbor with a heart of gold, or you may stumble on one in scavenger hunt (try checking the vases and light fixtures of your Airbnb as potential hiding spots). If you do, do not let it out of your sight at any time. The moment you do, it will be spirited away by another thirsty wino who is sick of opening wine bottles via the shoe method (spoiler alert: the shoe method does not work).
    And before you ask, no, screw-top wine bottles are not a thing. And no, wine stores do not sell wine openers. Don’t ask, they will look at you like a crazy person and suggest maybe you check a hardware store.
    (Hardware stores do not carry them either).
  6. Witch’s Cauldron. Look, the only way to make enough ajiaco soup to feed a small army is by using a cast iron pot the size of one. And trust me, if you pass through Colombia at any point, you’re going to want to make ajiaco soup. Or really any kind of soup. Soup is the best food anyway, and you’ll be making a lot of new friends on your travels. What better way to endear them to you than by feeding them a mountain of stew?
    It’s also worth noting that your witch’s cauldron can be used in any spells you may need to cast on your travels. For example, if you break a mirror and doom yourself to several years of breaking everything else around you, and you need to perform a cleansing spell under a full moon with a human heart.
    Pro-Tip—Only put your cauldron on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Glass shelves are not strong enough to support the weight of a full cast iron pot. … Or so I’ve heard.
  7. Drones. Trust me, the amount you’ll pay in baggage overage fees will more than make up for itself in the insane Instagram photos you’ll achieve. Leverage those pics for a few company sponsorships (I’d recommend aiming for Doritos or Aguardiente), and you’ll be set!
    Pro-Tip—You will need at least 4-5 drones per person, for when the first 2-3 blow into trees, bushes, power lines, or fall victim to drunk friends.
  8. Poster Board. Preferably with slightly rude signs written on it that indicate how your group of co-travelers are superior to all other groups of travelers.
    Pro-Tip—Try to actually color in all of the letters, or your sign will not turn out well in photos.
  9. 3-4 Person Tent. You never know when you’ll suddenly be bitten by the urge to go camping, even though it’s been about 10-15 years since the last time you went, and you’ve forgotten how to make a fire, and all your food will be stolen by stray dogs before you can eat it anyway. Plus they’re cheaper to buy than rent, so YOLO.
  10. Yoga Mats. Approximately 10 per person.
  11. Inflatable Llama. Again, this will make for some priceless Instagramming. But be sure not to leave your inflatable llama lying around—these have been stolen with more frequency than phones this year! Cuidado.
  12. Hip Flask. A water bottle can work in a pinch, but you’re better off with the real deal. The larger the better, as long as it still fits in your purse. Speaking of which, another one to not forget:
  13. Purse Tacos and Pocket Burritos. Because you never know when you’ll need a snack.
  14. Hammock. Because who doesn’t bring these on every trip they take? Honestly. There are trees you can rope these to everywhere, people.
  15. Poncho. Not the rain-proof kind. I mean the alpaca-wool knit kind. Not only does it work as a jacket, but in case you go camping and accidentally wind up with a Colombian-human-size sleeping bag instead of a normal-human-size one, it doubles as an extra blanket!
  16. Bicycle. I know this sounds like a lot of work to disassemble and pack into a box every month to transport, and it is.
  17. Lunch Box. I recommend buying one that looks like a creepy version of an emoji, so that it doubles as a dummy in case you need to build yourself a pretend friend at any point, or indicate that a particular bus seat is already occupied.

Part II: What To Leave Behind
(Suitcases can only hold so much! When push comes to shove, you’ll need to decide what things you need to leave at home. Some of these are things I previously considered impossible to live without, but take it from me: you do not need them! Save yourself the hassle, and in a few months, you’ll be glad you aren’t lugging these around.)

  1. Dignity. Look, I know that it sounds nice. But when push comes to shove, nobody really needs this. Even if you do insist on bringing it, you’ll wind up losing it within a couple of months anyway. Personally, I lost mine on day 2 of the Inca Trail, halfway up a mountain with no toilets (not even holes in the ground) in sight. I haven’t missed it once since.
  2. Standards. Again, this one can sound appealing. High standards are a good thing to maintain, right? Well, not always. Especially when it comes to things like potable tap water and food that doesn’t taste like a dry arepa covered in sugar. Look, you’re traveling around the world. Things are going to be weird and sometimes unpleasant. Lower your standards—or better yet, get rid of them entirely—and the whole experience just gets that much more entertaining.
    That, or you just slowly start going mad. One or the other.
  3. Expectations. Same with standards, really. The more you can avoid having these, the more pleasantly surprised you’ll be by the quirky new apartment you’ve got, where the oven could pass for the final step in a particularly challenging Escape Room game and you’re sleeping in servants’ quarters attached to the kitchen with its own toilet shower (that would be a toilet with a shower directly above it, yes).

Disclaimer: I realize those last couple leave-behinds sound like I might be complaining. I’m honestly not—but only because I left those pesky things behind! You will enjoy this year so much more without them.

Additional Disclaimer: For the sake of transparency, I’ve only included items that people on our trip have actually packed and brought with them to various countries. There are several other Remote Year groups around (though none of them are Meraki #merakiogfy), however, and they may have some good tips as well. For example, apparently one of the new groups, Kaizen, is traveling with a life-size cardboard cutout of Jonathan Lipnicki, a move that has already gotten them a shout-out from the man himself. I do not have any direct feedback on how much this item has benefited them in daily life, but I can only assume that the answer is “immensely.”

So there you have it, kids. You are now ready for a year of life on the road. Make the most of it! And seriously: Don’t take it all so seriously. <3

Trabajando: Working in Bogotá

I realize it’s starting to sound like all I do is adventure. That’s about 50% true (okay, maybe 60%). But I’m still working on this trip, and week 4 in Bogotá I really had to buckle down and get some things accomplished (exciting news there, actually—but I will post more about that when I can talk about it publicly!).

Luckily, we had plenty of good working options throughout the city. Remote Year booked two different Work & Go offices for us, since we were too large a group to fit into a single office here. We had spaces at their larger office up in Chico Norte, a cute neighborhood with lots of cafes and restaurants nearby, as well as a smaller office located right in Zona T, the heart of the bar-hopping and shopping district of northern Bogotá. The smaller one also featured an amazing rooftop view, as an added bonus.

But pretty often, we moved beyond our work spaces this month, discovering more than a few adorable cafes with delicious food and workable Wi-Fi connections.

Canasto Picnic Bistro was my personal favorite, a charming white-awning-ed restaurant just off of Park Virrey, which definitely lived up to its name in its picnic-esque vibes. After missing New York’s plethora of brunch options, it was refreshing to be able to hole up at Canasto and devour their variety of quinoa/egg dishes while getting some real writing done. (Their bruschetta was also to-die-for level delicious.) Not to mention, this was the first place in South America where I was served real tea—whole leaf green tea! With a sieve and enough hot water for multiple brews!

Masa, a bit further south in Zona T, also proved to be a great workspace. The service left a little something to be desired (no matter what you ordered, there was always at least one thing wrong with the dish—though it tasted delicious all the same, so I can’t complain too much), but the atmosphere and tasty fresh salads couldn’t be beat.

Another exciting find, for me at least, was Taller de Té. This one was a bit farther afield—I had to take an Uber about 30 minutes south to reach it, down near Chapinero. But it was definitely worth the trip. If I’d been excited by Canasto’s tea offerings, just imagine how much more thrilled I was to find a whole selection of teas, from oolongs to green and white varietals, some mixed with fruits or herbs (sorry Shunan), and others just pure tea.

My last week in Bogotá wasn’t all business—we made some time one night to play an escape room at Trap in Palermo. We escaped with time to spare, though not without having to call for a clue, alas. Still, I had a lot of fun solving puzzles with my new friends!

I also volunteered at Fundación Jeymar, an elderly care center, one day that week. Our group makes an effort to organize volunteer efforts in each city we visit, something I appreciate (though of course, when you are traveling and volunteering, you have to be very careful to avoid just falling into the “poverty tourism” trap—winding up in situations where you aren’t helping and may even be doing more harm than good to the local economy).

This particular volunteer day really did feel like a good choice. We went early to set up a “store” created from clothing, home goods and hygiene supplies that had been donated to the care center—laying out the items in a coherent, easy-to-browse way that meant people wouldn’t need to dig through garbage bags or heaped bins of donated items to find what they needed.

But the best part came when we got to interact with the elderly folks who attended the day center. We brought birthday cakes to help them celebrate the February birthdays, sang Happy Birthday in Spanish together (and taught them the English version), played tejo (the old people kicked my ass), a local ring-toss game, and a backyard version of bowling.

None of them seemed to mind that only half of us spoke Spanish, and that brokenly. I had a great conversation with one woman, who told me all about her four daughters (and her ex-husband, who left her because he wanted a son, remarried, and wound up with three more daughters—we agreed she was better off without him now).

Another woman gave me plenty of unsolicited dating advice (“Get married and have babies already,” she said, which was only mildly terrifying, though at least she followed it up with a caveat: “But make sure you marry someone at your level. Otherwise you’ll either feel left behind, or like you’re dragging him through life all the time.”).

Not to mention, most of the women enjoyed shouting flirty remarks at the few guys in our volunteer group…

It felt like a fitting end to our month in Bogotá—a way to get to know another generation of locals. Everyone we met there was proud of their country, their city, and the advances that both have made in recent years.

By the end of the week, though, as much as I enjoyed my time in Bogotá, I was ready to move on to Medellin and start exploring another facet of this fascinating, surprising country.

I didn’t know much about Colombia coming into this trip, but somehow it finds a way to surprise me every day with the diversity of experiences, cities, nature and ways of life here.

On to the next stop!

 

Real tea at Canasto!

Working lunch with quinoa

Chocolate and tea selection at Taller de Té

Also, Taller de Té was just adorbs in general

Barranquilla Carnival and Taganga Scuba: A Surprisingly Great Combo

One of the best things about traveling with a huge group of experienced travelers is that there’s always someone planning the next side-trip. I’d gone on a few so far—camping in Neusa and visiting Havana. So when a few people started to talk about visiting carnival in Barranquilla (the second-largest carnival in South America after Rio’s), I jumped on board. I’d never done Mardi Gras (despite being in New Orleans for work the week just before and the week just after it, two years in a row). It seemed like one of those things you need to try at some point in your life, which is what this year is all about for me.

In actual practice, however, I could have given the carnival itself a miss.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed partying with the great crew of people who went. And a couple of other Remote Year groups wound up there as well, so it was interesting to meet members of those other Remote “tribes” and hear about their experiences this year. Their two groups were on months 7 and 9 respectively, so they had plenty of advice to offer us newbies just finishing up our second month.

But the parade itself was a slow, staggered affair. The stands were a mob scene, a press of humans that would rival Times Square at midnight on New Years’ Eve. Passersby felt free to throw flour in our faces and spray foam into our eyes, our hair, everywhere. Several of our friends had their phones stolen that way, slipped from their pockets while they were doubled over trying to wipe soap from their eyes. Personally, I was lucky that the guy who shoved a fistful of flour into my eyeball (literally, his finger went in my eye) didn’t have any malicious intent (unless you count flour-eye attacks as malicious, I guess). Because I was definitely doubled over pouring bottled water over my contact lens for long enough that someone could’ve nicked my phone, my wallet, half my possessions…

Catching some much-needed rest en route to the dive…

I’m glad to have experienced it, but by one in the morning on Saturday night, I was feeling ready to go.

That’s where having those crazy planner friends comes in handy yet again.

One of my friends booked a diving excursion for a few of us certified scuba divers on the trip. When she initially planned it for Sunday morning, leaving at 6am the day after the biggest party in South America, I thought she was crazy.

When I actually rolled out of bed at 5:30am, having lain away since 1am listening to the pounding bass of a street party just outside our building all night, I changed my mind.

Well, okay, not immediately. But the moment our cab rolled up to the beach in Taganga, two hours north of Barranquilla, I knew she had made the right decision. The beach itself looked like a scene straight off the Amalfi Coast—turquoise water, white sand, green mountains surrounding it.

At the dive shop, we met the British guy training for his Dive Master who would escort us. We also met Guillermo, a 70-something year old Colombian man who started diving in the Long Island Sound in the 1960s with a tank he bought for $12 at a pawn shop in New York City. Needless to say, he had some great stories about diving along the docks there, earning extra money cleaning barnacles off of oil tankers and skiffs in the Sound.

The dive itself was the best I’ve ever been on (though granted, I only have a handful of dives off the Florida Keys and a couple in the rock quarries of Pennsylvania to compare it to).

We started by circling a reef in the center of the bay, near Santa Marta. Thanks to my dad the marine biologist’s training early in life, I recognized a lot of the fish we saw—parrot fish, red snappers, butterflyfish, tons of tangs and damselfish, even an eel and a couple of leopard sharks. Me and an enormous angelfish had a fun moment, swimming alongside each other, her completely unbothered by my presence while she nommed some algae along the reef.

But the real treat was the second dive.

After a quick lunch on a beach nearby, whipped up by our intrepid dive masters, we loaded ourselves back into the motorboat to head to our second destination. I didn’t know until we were about to drop anchor and the dive masters casually mentioned: oh, this one is a wreck dive.

Wreck diving has been on my bucket list since I first earned my certification at age 17. Needless to say, I was pretty hyped to finally get to explore a shipwreck underwater.

I wasn’t disappointed. Visibility wasn’t the best, but even so, you could see enough detail through the silty water to make out the brightly colored coral and varied species of algae that made their home on the wreck, a fishing boat cracked neatly in half, its hull making an easy scoop to swim through. I could have spent all day circling that wreck, poking my head into little side caverns and watching baby blowfish and sand gobies go about their business on its surfaces.

When we made it back to shore, divested ourselves of our dive gear, and settled down for a fresh-caught fish dinner and some beers in a tiny wooden hut on the beach, we all agreed: early-morning wakeup and hangovers be damned. We made the right choice coming up there to dive.

I might have given Barranquilla a miss, but diving Taganga made it all worth it. Definitely my best side trip in Remote Year so far—and if you ever do head up that way, Oceano Dive Shop did a fantastic job.

Plus, it only cost $66 for a two-tank dive, including all of our rental gear. Probably the cheapest dive I’ve ever done!

Though it definitely won’t be my last one this year, so stay tuned…

Meraki Dive Crew! (That’s me second from the left)

Oh, and we also saw a TON of lionfish…

Also saw this mystery fish… Boxfish of some kind? Tang? IDK!

Me and my dive buddy!

I see you hiding there…

Peacing out next to the other half of this wreck!

Sunset on the beach after our dive…

Encontrando Normal: Finding Normal in Bogotá

My first month on this adventure was a whirlwind. Trips, tours, parties, excursions every day (and most nights, too). Month two was where the need for normalcy started to set in. The desire for at least some semblance of a routine, even if it’s a routine that will change frequently.

It probably helped that, due to scheduling, we were in Bogotá a little longer than Mexico City. Long enough to feel settled, albeit temporarily.

By week 3, I didn’t feel pressure to run around the city trying to experience absolutely every inch of the place. Some of my friends were off doing cool things, and some of them were working their butts off, and some of them were taking it easy at home. If Mexico made me feel like I had to be on 24/7, constantly in the middle of the action, Bogotá had the opposite effect.

Instead of going out on the town bar-hopping or clubbing or just trying to keep up with the hectic pace of life, one night I went to my friend’s rooftop for a pizza party. Another, a group of us had a girls’ night and saw 50 Shades Darker (yes, it’s as awful as you’d expect—but somehow enjoyable with enough smuggled tequila and a theater full of Colombians also laughing at the terrible dialogue).

One Friday, a huge group of us ventured over to a friend’s house for a homemade Italian dinner, cooking tons of different pasta dishes, fish, and gnocchi. The gnocchi turned out to be tricky without a food processor, but we had tons of fun tasting all the dishes, singing along to 90s music and just enjoying the company of the other travelers on this adventure with us.

Later in the week, I had a friend over to watch TV—but we failed to make the TV work, and wound up playing Rummy 500 with a deck of cards we smuggled into a bar instead. The next night, we had more friends over (some of whom had actual technological skills) and managed to work the TV for a sci-fi night (re-watching favorite episodes from Firefly and Next Gen, obviously).

Another night, we watched Devil Wears Prada with some people who had never seen it before, then started Narcos. It was a little trippy, but a lot more powerful, to watch the scenes play out in neighborhoods of the city that we’d already explored. Neighborhoods that until relatively recently still looked like that show. I’m still only part of the way through season 1, but I need to binge it at some point and catch up, if only to better understand one aspect of the history of the country we’ve been living in.

At some point, the altitude hit me—Bogotá is ~8,600 feet above sea level, the highest place I’ve ever lived. Mexico City, at only 7,300 feet, didn’t bother me. But I felt it here. Even just walking down the street to work made me feel as though I’d just run a mile. At night especially, I struggled to take deep, even breaths—which made it pretty difficult to fall asleep. Suddenly I understood why in medieval times, people talked about the “hag on the chest” sensation. Some nights it really did feel as though someone were sitting on my chest, weighing me down.

Coca tea saved my ass. I tried over-the-counter and prescription medications for altitude sickness, none of which seemed to make a noticeable difference. But the moment I finished drinking a cup of coca tea in La Candelaria, my lungs seemed to expand to twice their size, oxygen flooding my brain. Maybe it was psychosomatic, but either way, I’ll take it. Slowing down in this city probably also helped my recovery a bit, too.

All in all, Bogotá was a good follow-up from Mexico City. A break from the hectic pace of Remote Year thus far, and a return to “normal” life—if you can call our nomadic lifestyle normal. For this month, at least, it felt that way.

But even on chill weeks, we still have some fun. Just like this baby on a llama in a park.

And ordering a basket full of bread and cake for breakfast

Also, we did some art therapy with my Bogotá roommate’s mom!

Camping (Mis)Adventures in Neusa

I don’t have a lot of practical survival-in-the-wilderness skills, a fact that was never more obvious than on the weekend side-trip a few of us took from Bogotá up to Embalse del Neusa, a beautiful state park nearby.

One of the other Remotes on our trip is actually from Colombia, and she’d been camping here a number of times, so she planned the excursion. It was a great idea—Neusa is beautiful, and a weekend away from the hustle of city life sounded amazing.

After stopping for groceries in Zipaquirá, we squished 12 people (plus all of our camping gear, food, and wood) into a van built for 9, and ventured up into the park. Thanks to a combination of a late start, our grocery run, and a bit of confusion at the park entrance about where we could buy wristbands for camping permits, we didn’t arrive until after sunset. That meant pitching tents in the dark—but luckily, a few of my fellow travelers came prepared with headlamps and lanterns, so we did a pretty good job of it.

Our first meal, likewise, went well. Mostly thanks again to my fellow Remotes—between their food-pairing skills and cooking-on-campfire-coals experience, we wound up with delicious fish filets on veggie beds for dinner, with a side of rice that turned out surprisingly well considering it was boiled on an open fire.

Unfortunately, that was the end of our well-planned meals, since while we were all enjoying that dinner, packs of stray dogs ate most of the other food we brought… We managed to salvage a package of hot dogs and some eggs, but that was about it.

Still, we enjoyed ourselves passing rum around the campfire and joking late into the (increasingly chilly) night.

The next morning, we woke up (grumbling) in time to watch the sunrise over the lake next to our campsite. Even with the clouds and mountains between us and the sun, it was a fantastic view.

After that, our morning got a bit more chaotic. It all started with the firewood. We didn’t have much to start with, and what we did have was damp from a late-night rainstorm. Combine that with some equally damp firestarters and tricky lighters, and let’s just say it took a while to get a breakfast fire going.

Once we had one roaring, we made do with our remaining food—hot dogs and eggs for everyone! Unfortunately, we didn’t realize until after we’d already cooked and eaten most of the hot dogs that they were still tightly seran-wrapped in plastic… So much for a healthy breakfast?

To be honest, though, burnt-plastic covered hot dogs still taste exactly like regular hot dogs. Which was in and of itself a bit concerning…

Fortunately, when half of us campers left for a long morning hike, we discovered that there was actually a restaurant right next to the entrance of the campsite (a restaurant that sells firewood, no less!). We were saved by the home-grilled arepas and the fresh-caught trucha (straight from the lake on which we were camping).

All in all, it was a great weekend, despite the rain, the cold, the dogs stealing all of our food, and the accidental ingestion of burnt plastic. This trip was the first time I really came to appreciate the diversity of experiences and life skills we all bring to this adventure—whatever we needed to figure out, whether it was fire-building or cooking or just the logistics of renting out a campsite, we had people who stepped up to the plate. Plus it’s good to know that our group can still have fun (and a lot of laughs) even when the elements are against us.

But I’m definitely going to brush up on my fire-building and tent-pitching skills before I venture into the Colombian wilderness again…

We were totally disconnected for the weekend, we swear…

Cows spotted on our morning hike

The van on the way home – now imagine this same size van with 5 more people and 100% more groceries packed into it…

Our adopted camp dog. Yeah, she probably ate all of our food in the middle of the night. But look at those puppy-dog eyes…