Please Don’t Make Me Answer This Question
What was your favorite place?
I’ve been back from Remote Year for almost two months now, and this is by far the most popular question, which means it’s also the question I’m most bored of answering. It got to the point that when a friend of a friend asked that question, my response was, “Nope, you can’t ask that question. Try again.” #SorryNotSorry. You know, though, I get it. People who ask this question understand that the year packed a lot of experiences, and they figure that I’ll be most excited to talk about my most favorite place. The challenge is that answering this question is like responding to, “Who’s your favorite kid?”
It’s impossible to pick one favorite. When I try, I find myself giving one of two answers: Either naming a place I know will surprise them (usually Bulgaria, because who seriously says that Bulgaria is their favorite place?), or saying whatever country I’m feeling the most feelings for at that moment, which is usually a place that is either making news at the time, or somewhere I’ve had a random personal event that reminds me of a memory there. (I’ve been thinking a lot of Mexico City and Barcelona lately.)
Each city I called home for a month had it’s pros and cons, and my experience of the city itself was always framed by a host of variables: the quality of my accommodations, my relationship with my flatmates (if I had any), new friends I made (within the group or locals), the weather, how work was going (impacting both how I spent my time and how my budget was holding up), our coworking space, the kinds of side trips I took, where I had just come from, the local cuisine, etc.
Here’s a brief run-down of each city I called home for the year. As you can see by the length of this post, once I start talking about a place, I can go on and on, because it’s not just about the place, it’s also about the experiences I had with the people who made up my Remote Year Ikigai family, my Ikifam. FYI, most of the links below will open up a new tab on your browser and show you Google Image results of the places and things discussed in case you want more info or inspiration for your own travel dreams.
AUGUST 2016. Lisbon felt like a typical European city with a lot of culture and history to offer. Although I enjoyed it, I never felt like I really connected with the place. That’s fine, though, because I was focusing on connecting with my fellow Remotes. Our group of 74 were divided up across two different student dorms (university class was not in session). We each had our own room and en suite bathrooms, and shared common cooking areas. This setup was perfect for getting to know each other and bond over a lot of potluck meals (which was good, because I wasn’t in love with Portuguese cuisine…except the exquisite custard tart called pastel de nata). The coworking space, Beta-i, was my least favorite of the year because it lacked character. I went on two side trips: Porto with 40+ other Ikigais (loved it, but learned I need to balance my big-group outings with some me-time) and Peniche (where I thought I’d try surfing but chickened out and ended up mostly just learning new drinking games with my new friends. Ask me about Zero to 99…or maybe don’t…).
WOULD I GO BACK? Yeah, probably. While I don’t feel a need to return to Lisbon, I glimpsed other areas of Portugal that I’d love to check out someday. Now that RY has built their own coworking space, WIP Lisboa, which I hear is awesome, and which I could access as a Remote Year Citizen (aka: alum, someone who has completed an entire Remote Year program), I’d be down to give the city a second chance to win my heart. For now, we’re good acquaintances.
SEPTEMBER 2016 Confession: Before RY, I had never heard of Rabat, which turns out is the capital of Morocco. Insert embarrassed-face emoji. Rabat was a challenge, which I was so ready for. I think part of the reason I didn’t connect with Lisbon was because it felt like just about any other old world European city I’d visited before, and I wanted something different. Rabat delivered. Just walking down the street was a cultural experience, and in less than a week, our group proved how close we had become when discussing our bowel movements because a normal part of conversation. The apartment I shared with Janet was sufficient, though wifi wasn’t very strong or reliable. Our coworking space, 7AY (pronounced “hay” because of the way it’s written in Arabic) was amazing, though internet could be spotty there, too, and the Moroccan government’s restriction of VOIP calls required jumping through extra hoops just to be able to make work calls. It was also far away from everything, including food, which meant simply trying to figure out dinner took planning and coordination with other Remotes. The locals we got to know there were amazingly friendly. During the month, I went on a desert safari, riding a camel through the Sahara. I visited Marrakech, Fes and Casablanca. I got lost in multiple medinas (marketplaces), sometimes even on purpose while wandering and looking at the beautiful handicrafts. I fell in love with inanimate objects like doors and tiles and serving dishes. While most of my fellow Remotes complained about having to eat tagine all the time, I actually really liked the Moroccan cuisine, though by week 5, I was really ready for some fresh vegetables that wouldn’t wreck havoc on my digestive system.
WOULD I GO BACK? While I enjoyed my time in Morocco immensely, I feel satisfied by what I did and saw there and don’t feel compelled to return. That being said, completely fell for the Moorish style of art and architecture and I would most definitely travel to other similar destinations across north Africa and southern Europe.
OCTOBER 2016 After the challenges of Morocco, Sofia felt like a vacation. Suddenly, basic daily routines like walking to work, drinking water and going to the bathroom were simple again. That month I lived with Gina and Mike in an apartment that coming from Morocco at firs looked like Western luxury, but once the rose-colored glasses came off, was obviously a post-Soviet attempt at a modern renovation (just about anything we touched fell apart). Our coworking space, SOHO, was a little small, but very comfortable and friendly. A couple of fabulous coffee shops were a two-minute walk in either direction and became regular haunts. Sofia was the first city where I got into a routine and became a “regular” at a local establishment. Everything was so cheap that we joked that you could get anything you needed for $3 or less. I believe that Sofia is was Prague was about 15 years ago. No one in our group had ever been to Bulgaria, and for most of us, the country wasn’t anywhere on our travel wish list. I’m pretty sure every one of us are now enthusiastic advocates for Bulgarian travel. YOU SHOULD GO. In addition to soaking up Sofia, I took two epic side trips: The first to Istanbul, which had been at the top of my bucket list and had once been a Remote Year city, but in the wake of bombings I was a little nervous about going. Spending a weekend there with two of my best guy friends, Ben and Sami, was hands-down one of the best decisions I made all year. The space between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia immediately became one of my most favorite spots in the entire world (it’s the lead photo of this post). The second epic side trip was to celebrate Halloween in “Dracula’s Castle” in Transylvania (a region of Romania, which we discovered was lovely in fall). I also went on a daytrip-turned-overnight trip to hike the Seven Rila Lakes with Ben, Sami and Jenna, which was my first lesson in planned sponteneity.
WOULD I GO BACK? Most definitely. And you should go, too.
NOVEMBER 2016 Croatia had also been high on my bucket list for a couple of years, so I was really excited to spend a month in Split. My apartment was an amazing newly constructed vacation rental property with a peek-a-boo view of the beach from the porch and modern luxuries like heated floors in the bathroom. My roommate, Shruti, was traveling for most of the month, so it felt like I got it mostly to myself. Our coworking space, Work in Progress (aka WIP), was also newly constructed, completely designed and operated by Remote Year. It was across the street from the beach, and while the fall air was too chilly to be conducive for swimming, the early evening sunsets over the water provided the perfect break during the work day (many of us were keeping US business hours, so sunset in Split would’ve been late morning in the States). My side trips for the month included a one-night excursion to Dubrovnik with about 30 Remotes (where I randomly ran into my friends Audra and Tracie from Phoenix), a 5-day road trip to Zagreb, Lake Bled (Slovenia), and Trieste, Italy with my besties Ben and Betsy and an overnight visit to the deserted (in winter) Brač island with Lucy and Hilary. Audra and Tracie visited Split for an afternoon, and I got to show them around the old town. Our Ikifam celebrated Thanksgiving with the biggest potluck dinner I’ve ever attended.
WOULD I GO BACK? Yup, but next time I’ll go in the spring or summer when I can rent a yacht and go island-hopping. I would also spend time in places I didn’t get to visit, like Sarajevo, Montenegro, Belgrade, and Ljubljana.
Prague, Czech Republic
DECEMBER 2016 Prague was the first destination on our itinerary that I’d been to before. That meant I didn’t feel the need to try to see and do everything, which made me feel a little less rushed. Being there at Christmastime definitely made it a different experience than when I’d backpacked there in August 2007. I lived in a modern student housing apartment with Janese, Jenna and Lucy. There were two other apartments with eight more Remotes. It was a fun setup. Our coworking space, K10, was a former Danish embassy, which was really cool. Weather was the coldest we had all year, which meant I spent my side trip budget on tall boots, leggings, sweaters, a coat and gloves. I did manage to get to Berlin with Kim, Lauren and Lucy, though (loved it, definitely want to go back), stopped in Dresden for the day (and ran into nearly a dozen other Remotes…because that’s what happens when everyone wants to visit the same places), and Becca and I rented a Smart Car for a day trip to do a hike in the confusingly named Bohemian Switzerland National Park (in the Czech Republic, not Switzerland), and then hopped across the German border to check out the Bastei Bridge. It was miserably cold, and our phones kept dying, but the scenery was breath-taking. In Prague, we kept warm by drinking lots of mulled wine in the Christmas markets. You guys, America needs Christmas markets. I celebrated Christmas by buying a traditional Christmas carp from a street vendor and cooking Christmas Eve dinner with Jenna and Mark, and attending Christmas Day mass with the two of them. Later on Christmas Day, we celebrated as an Ikifam at an estate where we had a white elephant gift exchange, played music, movies and games and indulged in lots of tasty food and drinks. I had my first Michelin star dinner and was wowed by the craft cocktail bars all over the city. Food in general seemed to be more varied and dynamic than when I was there 9 years prior.
WOULD I GO BACK? For sure. I don’t feel a need to plan a trip just to go to Prague, but I’d definitely tack on some extra days if I’m in the region.
JANUARY 2017 I left Prague a couple days early to meet my dear friend Kendra in Madrid. After a couple says in the capital, we joined the rest of my RY crew in Valencia in time for New Years Eve. I had an apartment to myself that month, because in addition to Kendra, my high school pal Cecilia visited. The apartment, though livable, was weird and flawed. The shower flooded the hallway unless you held the shower head by hand. The washing machine’s spin function was broken. Any time I tried to use the stove and keep the fridge running, the power would go out. (I learned to simply unplug the fridge before turning on a burner.) I didn’t love it. Valencia itself was fine, but I really loved exploring Spain. In addition to Madrid, I visited Barcelona (for the second time), Seville (where I reveled in Moorish art and architecture again), the Rioja wine region, San Sebastian, and a brief day trip to Biarritz, France (because why not hop a border when it’s only a 50-min drive away. I loved the tapas and the wine and gave paella a shot (it’s ok, but I’ll take multiple little tapas over a bowl of rice with chicken, snails and rabbit). We had two coworking spaces that month, and they were fine. Neither fabulous or horrible. Each was forgettable enough that I can’t remember their names right now. Whoops. It’s totally my fault, because I only went 5 times the entire month.
WOULD I GO BACK? I really want to go back to Spain in general, but feel like I saw enough of Valencia. I’d definitely spend more time on both the northern and southern coasts of Spain. Northern Spain for the food, southern Spain for the Moorish architecture. Both for the beaches.
Mexico City, Mexico
FEBRUARY 2017 I left Spain a couple days early to spend a week back in Phoenix. By the time I made it to Mexico City, I could tell that it was going to be a good month, based on how enthusiastic my fellow Remotes were. Weather in Mexico was warmer without being scorching. The city was bustling and full of life and craziness, but in a fun, quirky way, rather than an overwhelming way as I’d been afraid it might be. Food was fantastic. Having spent more than a decade in Phoenix, I knew I liked Phoenix Mexican food (in Kansas, I’d only really known Tex-Mex), but Mexican Mexican food was even better…and cheaper. I lived with Betsy, Jenna and Hilary in an apartment on the friendly and green Avenida Amsterdam, where I went running most mornings. I found Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) in general to be greener than I’d expected, which made me happy. Our coworking space, Publico, was modern and comfortable. We started a weekly series of talks called Wisdom Wednesday, during which 2 members of our group would give a talk about something they were interested in. This was when our group really seemed to gel because we got to know each other’s passions. Talks ranged from how to be better at small talk to what it’s like to work at a nudist camp (where mastering small talk is probably pretty helpful). I took a festive side trip to Mazatlan for Carnaval with a dozen friends, some of whom I was already close with, others whom I got to know even better. Becca, Jacob and I took a day trip to see the monarch butterflies in migration, and I took another day trip with a group to the Teotihuacan pyramids.
WOULD I GO BACK? Tomorrow. Since CDMX is a short, cheap flight from PHX, I expect I’ll back there over and over again. I can see myself going to work from there for several weeks at a time, and perhaps I could even convince some friends to meet me there for a long holiday weekend (hint hint, friends.)
MARCH 2017 Bogota felt a little like what I expected Mexico City to feel like. Mostly gray, big, dirty, a little dangerous (many of us had our phones stolen out of pockets or purses that month). But it was also friendly and super fun. The nightlife was fabulous, and the neighborhoods where we lived (Zona Rosa and Parque 93) were safe and comfortable. It rained constantly, which made it hard to get out to explore the city, but when I did, I liked it. We had two sister coworking spaces, Work and Go Zona T and Work and Go Calle 95. They were both very comfortable, and since I lived about halfway between them, I enjoyed being able to vary my work location daily. Speaking of where I lived, my apartment was second only to Split. It was modern, spacious enough for both me and Lauren to feel comfortable, and our kitchen was very well-appointed. Lauren and I did a lot of cooking that month. Colombian food was tasty, but I missed my Mexican tacos and chilaquiles. The only side trip I took that month was back to the Bay Area for my grandmother’s memorial service. Other than that, I mostly stayed put and tried to stay dry. I spent a weekend at a major music festival called Estero Picnic, which kinda felt like a side trip of its own.
WOULD I GO BACK? Nah. Nothing against Bogota, but I feel like I’ve checked that box.
APRIL 2017 The City of Eternal Spring was green, modern and welcoming. I lived with Anu; our apartment was nice enough, but what made it better than sufficient was the view looking out over the city. I had wall-to-wall windows for a third of my room and loved waking up to the natural light and that view. We lived in the Poblado neighborhood, which was really comfortable, modern and trendy, and started to feel a little touristy after a while, though I didn’t mind so much. We had two coworking spaces again, one was another Work and Go; the other was Atom House. I liked Atom House ok, didn’t like the Medellin WAG much, but LOVED all the coffee shops around town. I celebrated my birthday in Cartagena with more than a dozen fellow Remotes, then continued on to Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park with Becca and Jenna, then back again to Santa Marta. I visited a small coffee plantation on a rainy day trip outing, which made me really want to do a longer trip to the coffee region someday. I did two adventure day trips to different parts of Guatape. There was so much to do in and around Medellin.
WOULD I GO BACK? Most definitely. I would spend a couple days in Medellin, and then explore the countryside even more.
MAY 2017 This was my third time to Lima. I thought about opting out for the month and going somewhere I hadn’t been before, but I’m so glad I stayed with the group. I ended up exploring new parts of Lima I’d never checked out, and I enjoyed it more than I’d expected to. I loved the food, and reconnecting with an acquaintance, Antonio, who grew up in Lima and had since moved back. I lived with Ben, Betsy and Marko in a building with about a dozen other Remotes. I always enjoyed being close to the group. I spent most mornings either running stairs with friends training for Machu Picchu, or running along the Malecon, the park that runs along the coastal cliffs of Lima. I cooked at home a lot, too, partially because I was trying to be healthy, but mostly because I was trying to save money so I could eat the most expensive meal of my life at Maido, the eighth best restaurant in the world. All those PB&Js were worth it. I loved our coworking space, Comunal, a lot. It ranked up there with the Split coworking space as one of my favorites. My mom came for a visit, and we took a trip to Arequipa and Colca Canyon to see the condors fly, which was more magnificent than I expected. Mom went on to Machu Picchu, and I headed to La Paz.
WOULD I GO BACK? I feel like I’ve been so many times now that I would rather explore someplace new, but if that someplace new is in Peru, I would definitely plan to spend more time in Lima than I may have planned before.
Between Lima and Cordoba, a group of 35 of us met up in La Paz, Bolivia, and spent 5 days traveling around the country, including the highlight of visiting the Uyuni Salt Flats. Bolivia was amazing and tough. Sometimes we felt like we were back in Morocco, but roughing it even more. Most of us spent three days in the exact same clothes. But the nature we witnessed was amazing, and doing it together was so much fun.
WOULD I GO BACK? I’d never say never, but I don’t think I’ll return.
JUNE 2017 After several intense months of non-stop adventuring in Medellin, Lima/all over Peru, and Bolivia, Cordoba gave us a chance to slow down and rest. People commented over and over again that it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. We slept a lot. I think our bodies were collectively feeling exhausted after 10 months of go-go-going. Cordoba itself didn’t have much going on, but we kinda liked that. It was a great month to chill. I didn’t do any side trips. I spent most of my time working and just hanging out. The food scene was a little lacking, but the craft beer scene was burgeoning. One neighborhood had several “galerias” which were kinda like small outdoor shopping malls/restaurants/bars. Our coworking space, La Maquinita (aka La Maq), was another one of my favorites, with lots of space, bright light and a cool view of a church and a fountain that gave a show every evening at 6pm. I lived with B, Gina and Lucy. Our apartment was quirky, but comfortable enough. The biggest letdown all year, though, happened when our apartment was broken into the afternoon before we left Cordoba and each of us had stuff stolen out of our room. I lost my DSLR camera and all the accessories, a portable speaker, a nice North Face stocking hat, a nice duffel bag, and some makeup items. Such a random selections. I get the electronics and bag to stash it all, but the hat and eyeliner? Sigh.
WOULD I GO BACK? Probably not. I enjoyed it, but I don’t feel the need to come back.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
JULY 2017 I spent about three days in Buenos Aires a few years ago during a 2-week trip around Argentina. This time, we stayed in a neighborhood I didn’t visit before, (Palermo Soho) so it felt like a completely different city. We all lived in an extended stay hotel where we each had our own private studio with bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom. The shared space was the lobby and the rooftop patio/gym. We had two coworking spaces. One, the BA version of La Maq, left a lot to be desired; the other, Area Tres, had very limited seating but was my preferred place to work from. That was good motivation to get up and out the door early so I could grab one of the available seats. Since it was our last month together, very few people planned any side trips. Instead, we spent a lot of time together. Our going away party was the weekend before we left, which meant the last week felt like one long goodbye. This time, the city didn’t really matter. We could’ve been anywhere, as long as we were together. BA offered a lot of fun distractions, though, and the food scene was better than Cordoba. Buenos Aires was the perfect place to make lasting memories with the tribe of people I had grown to love.
WOULD I GO BACK? Not unless something compelling drew me to Argentina again. Between the two months I spent in the country this year, and my previous travel, hitting Mendoza, Iguazu Falls and the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, I feel like I’ve spent sufficient time in Argentina. I’d rather check out Chile or Brazil in that neck of the woods instead. However, whenever I get around to visiting Antarctica (it’ll happen eventually!), I’d be down for a stopover in BA.
So, there it is. That’s why I can’t answer the question, “What was your favorite place?” There are places I loved because of the art, others I loved because of the food, others because of the nature and others because of what the city meant as part of my Ikigai story. Just because I’d go back to Mexico City tomorrow doesn’t mean that it was my favorite spot of the entire year. Just because life in Rabat was tough doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. Just because I didn’t connect with Lisbon doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go back again.
When it comes down to it, I think that many people ask that question because they want to know which place I would recommend they visit. The answer is that each place has something amazing to offer. And the cool thing about travel is that now, each of those places has a little bit of me there, too.
Also published on Medium.