Remote Year Is The Most Expensive Mistake I’ve Ever Made

Naoshima, Japan. Art Pavilion https://www.instagram.com/lenubienne/

Late one night in autumn 2017, my husband Insomnia and I laid in bed scrolling through Instagram, wistfully dreaming about traveling. The sentient algorithm on the app immediately sensed my fernweh, and two thumb flicks later, I was looking at a high-res photo of a laptop, sitting by itself on a wooden table, overlooking a palm tree- lined beach. “Make anywhere your office. Be a digital nomad with #RemoteYear (RY) and start taking your meetings on the beach.” I immediately clicked on the travel company’s sponsored post, and hungrily devoured all the photos of exotic places on the profile. There were photos of many places I’d already been, but what me drew me in where the photos of places I hadn’t even heard about. I browsed the link in their bio, read the FAQs, and completed the questionnaire, praying that my answers would make me a good fit for the program. Remote Year offered everything I wanted, with no hassle. I could travel the world while working from my laptop, and they handle all the arrangements! For a $2,000 USD monthly fee, my flights, co-working space, three excursions per month and my lodging accommodations would be arranged for me. I’d been spending that amount on just rent in Brooklyn, so this felt like a steal. What I didn’t realize is that the answers in the questionnaire I completed didn’t matter, because they were only used to determine whether you can pay the initial down payment and monthly program fees, or not. The answers I provided on the interest survey were not used to recommend an itinerary, nor match me with the best-suited group, nor are they used to recommend excursions based on my interests. No, that would be too logical, and from what I gather, too expensive for this budding start up. In my later conversations with RY management, I suggested all of these uses for the data, and I wouldn’t be surprised if future participants see these improvements. More free ideas and labor from me, yay!

Ciutat de Artes y Ciencias. Architect: Santiago Calatrava. Photo taken by author.

There was no question about my desire join RY, I have been determined to start #ChasingCalatrava since I quit my corporate job in April 2017. My only hesitation came from my mother’s then-precarious health status. She was on dialysis and waiting for a kidney donor, and I didn’t want to be a world away from her. It pained me so much to know that this seemingly-tailor made opportunity existed, but it was just out of reach.

The Universe knew my heart and heard my pleas, and on December 21, 2017, I got the call that my years of campaigning for a kidney donor on social media paid off. Mommy had a match. It is a day I’ll never forget- I was in BedStuy, Brooklyn, sitting in the back of a cab heading eastbound on Broadway with one of my bookends on our way to another girlfriend’s house, and was so overcome, I forgot how to make words with my mouth. I just started hyperventilating and sobbing tears of joy. It was two holiday presents in one: my mother was given a second lease on life, and I could confidently go traipsing off to places unknown and not be worried about her. 2018 was going to be my best year, yet.

The Remote Year sales cycle for me was very short. I was the perfect customer: well-traveled, has disposable income, already familiar with working from home, accustomed to video and conference calls, no partner, no kids. In my first phone call with a very motivated young man from their recruiting/sales department I asked, “who do I send the money to, and when do I leave?” He laughed, realized he didn’t have to do much work, and the rest of the call was mostly me asking questions about a “day in the life” of a Remote (the name given to current participants in the program). There was no need to convince me to join, and there was no boss for me to beg to work remotely. I am my own boss, and before any of my conversations with people from RY, I’d already reviewed the FAQs a million times and watched countless Remote-created YouTube videos about the coworking spaces and different apartments in each country. I even started a wishlist on Amazon based on the recommendations from other Citizens (people who have completed a Remote Year program). It looked like the perfect way to spread my freelancer wings while exploring the globe. What better way to see if I could hack it as a freelancer than to recruit my clients from a time zone 12 hours ahead? My only dilemma was which fantastic itinerary to choose. Ultimately, I chose the Atlas program because it spanned four continents and we would be chasing summer. The word “Atlas” resonates with me on a lot of personal levels, so I believed this to be kismet.

One thing that stood out in my RY research, and that I should have paid more attention to, was the near-absence of People of Color (POC) in any of the RY social media photos and online blogs and videos. I didn’t pay it much mind because I’m accustomed to working and living in majority-white spaces, and I took into consideration that international travel is a privilege not accessible to most of the population. In my subsequent conversations with RY leadership, I have stressed how disheartening it is to see so little visibility of LGBTQIA and POC people in their social media and marketing materials, and it appears that they listened, because there are now multiple pics of brown skin in their recent images. Before I fully committed to Remote Year, I inquired about speaking to Black women who had participated. I chatted with one Black woman who working for RY as a Program Leader at the time, and another Black man who worked for RY in an operations capacity. In hindsight, I should have pressed on and asked to speak to Black people who were paying to be in the program, or who had successfully completed it, not people who were being paid by RY. That was mistake number one.

After chatting with those two Black employees, I quickly committed to the program with a $5,000 down payment and became a Premote (the designation you are given after you’ve paid to play, but before you depart). Access was granted to proprietary websites and a Slack workspace shared by the whole Remote Year Nation. Premotes are also assigned an onboarding specialist who answers questions, hosts webinars so that you can “meet” the other people in your cohort, and holds you accountable for deadlines related to things like buying travel insurance, applying for visas, etc. My onboarding specialist was very helpful, as were all the other RY staff I met with. When I discovered that each person was in a different international city, it became even more clear that this program really was built for a location independent lifestyle. Having staff that works remotely in different countries gave them lots of credibility, and I was confident that I was in good hands. I was very wrong.

In the months before I left, I attended at least a dozen webinars and live workshops to get to know Remotes in other programs and people in my immediate group. It was on one such webinar that I learned one of my program leaders is a Black woman from Philly. I was OVER THE MOON. I immediately jumped into a group chat with my friends to tell them all about it. “#RepresentationMatters!! There’s more than one of me!” I cried real tears of joy and relief as soon as the webinar ended. Yet another sign that this trip was meant to be! As I met the rest of my colleagues online, it appeared that our group is somewhat racially diverse. Out of forty people, there are three men and two women of Asian descent, four Latinas, and three Black women, including one of the program leaders. The other members of Atlas are primarily a mix of cisgender, heterosexual, Millennial white people from North America and Europe, with an Israeli man and an Australian man adding to the geographical diversity. Our ages range from 24 to 54, and our professions run the gamut from graphic design to finance to architectural design. Four of us identify as non-binary, but it would be months before I learned that. My preference would have been for even more diversity, but I was not completely alone, and I felt good about that. Mistake number two. All skinfolk ain’t your kinfolk, and many would rather remain silent than to stand up and speak out in the face of adversity. In all the webinars I attended, race, ethnicity and general diversity topics were never discussed. A very big missed opportunity on the part of Remote Year.

Since this journey began, I have met some incredible people, several of who I am honored to call my friends, and who I hope will remain in my life in perpetuity. I’ve had opportunities to develop personally and professionally. I have volunteered with women who have escaped sex trafficking, I have learned how to decrease my carbon footprint and my environmental impact, I learned how to scuba dive, and I have hiked more in the last 9 months than I have in all of my 39 years on this planet. I chased waterfalls and I walked with elephants. I’m getting emotional as I type this because it has been a whirlwind of firsts and of so many emotional highs and lows. There have been many peaks, but the valleys were profound. I am sad and disappointed with how much money I spent on this once-in-a-lifetime experience to perform endless emotional labor while being mistreated by my fellow travelers. For much of the last year, I was a huge advocate of Remote Year, and I recommended it to strangers and familiars, often. I loved the idea of group travel, but I regret not doing more research, and I regret traveling with a company that has no real concept of representation and inclusion. If I’d had fewer stars in my eyes, I might have learned that other Black men and women had left their programs early because of negative experiences similar to mine. Mistake number three. Are there POC (specifically Black women) who successfully participate in Remote Year and have a good time? Sure. But, I will never recommend that someone spend $2k per month on a crap shoot in the hopes that their travel companions aren’t awful, and then hope they don’t get gaslighted when they call out issues like misogyny and racism.

We began in Cape Town, and it was incredibly exciting. We met each other in person for the first time in the airport, and then learned about each other in a long orientation session. Each of us prepared one slide with photos, fun phrases, anything we wanted people to know about us. As I listened, I grew more curious to learn about each of these strangers from around the world. I have always traveled alone, or in groups of less than 10, so the idea of living, working and discovering the globe with this many new people felt like a great way to grow, personally. What I forgot was that just as society at large isn’t an inclusive, politically correct, polished Instagram feed, neither is a subset of 40 people who come from it. Mistake number four. No matter how many times you are told that you are part of a “community,” you are not, unless you choose to be, and unless you truly understand what “community” means. Communities are groups of self-selected people who work towards a common goal, and who work together for the good of the group, as well as for the good of its individuals. Community is NOT automatic, and it is certainly not a group of people who look the other way when its members do and say racist, homophobic, sexist shit.

My first week in South Africa was everything I wanted, and more. I snapped at least a hundred photos a day, as I was mesmerized by Cape Town’s people, the food, the wildlife, and her breathtaking scenery. The Western Cape is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in person or in pictures. South Africa is also one of the most racially segregated and painful places I’ve ever been to. While apartheid has been outlawed since 1994, you can still feel it, everywhere. Most of the Black and Cape Colored people I encountered during that month were behind a counter, or wearing an apron, or waiting on tables in restaurants. They worked in the service industry, or sold crafts in market stalls…ending their days making the long journey home to the townships at the end of their shifts. They weren’t the business owners, tourists, nor residents in the posh, upper-middle class area where we lived. I visited Robben Island, the Slave Museum, and Parliament. I learned as much as I could about South Africa’s painful recent history. My first week in Cape Town was also when I learned about the casual racism that exists within my travel group. One night after dinner, the Israeli member of our group and I got into a heated discussion about how difficult it is to be marginalized. I could not convince him that despite my personal, lived experience (and the anthropological studies to prove it), Black women are treated the worst out of everyone else on the planet. He insisted that Jewish men are even more marginalized, and that “Black women don’t own the monopoly on oppression.” I was floored. How anyone truly believes that, let alone say it to a Black woman, defies all logic. Never, in the history of everdom, is a man more oppressed than a woman. Moreover, a man who appears to be white will never be systematically treated more poorly than a Black woman. I was (and still am) beside myself. Since it was apparent that there was no changing his mind, I simply replied, “okay, you’re right,” to everything he said after that. I soon left the room and that conversation, but I have been plagued by that comment ever since. In the weeks that followed, I shared what happened with a few people within the group, but I never escalated my concerns. Mistake number five. I should have immediately brought it up to my program leaders and requested a group-wide discussion on diversity, inclusion, and how to talk to/about, people from different backgrounds and belief systems. I firmly believe that if we’d had an open discussion in the very beginning of the year to set expectations and open dialogue early, I wouldn’t have spent the last 9 months exhausted from calling out racism and shaking my head at rampant misogyny and sexism. I am not naïve enough to think that having town hall discussions would have changed anyone’s beliefs, but I do think it would have made them think twice about being so forward in their outward behavior. At no point in any of the Remote Year participant orientations, onboarding webinars nor ongoing monthly group meetings and trainings are issues of diversity and inclusion explicitly addressed. There is a Code of Conduct that all participants are required to read and sign, but after acknowledging that you received it, there is no follow up. The closest we get to having conversations about diversity happen upon arrival in a new city. The local city team hosts a two hour City Welcome which provides highlights of some of the local food, traditions and tourist attractions. There aren’t any in-depth discussions about difficult social issues, only travel-brochure style presentations.

As we move from country to country, Remotes get more comfortable and start shedding facades like snakeskin. I quickly realized just how many people reinvented themselves on this trip, but it is only a matter of time before ignorance and biases reveal themselves. Trump supporters eventually come out of hiding, apartheid sympathizers slip up and say things like, “reparations shouldn’t be rushed simply because apartheid is over” and comments to the effect of “we’re too big a group to be expected to adjust to every countries’ customs,” and “all the men here are short, it’s dirty, and it always smells funny,” start to become common. Instead of the cultures we were immersed in being appreciated, they were appropriated and ridiculed. Halloween costumes included a sumo fat suit and a Native American headdress complete with “angry Indian eyes” sunglasses. In addition to the casual racism, there is constant sexism humming in the background. A Slack channel created by the ladies in our group to share tips and recommendations on where to buy tampons, or to find nail polish remover was duplicated by the men in our group, as a joke. Their chat quickly became offensive when they started sharing porn, chatting shit about the women in our group, and posting a bell emoji anytime one of them got laid. This included when they slept with one of the ladies in our group. Several men left the channel when it got gross, which immediately created a rift, and the word “snitch” started floating around when the ladies found out about what was going on the men’s channel. Many of us were offended, and lots of feelings got hurt. It is not my job to educate others on how not to be misogynist pricks, or to be a mediator, but I did. I bore the burden of being an intermediary, an educator, a teacher, an auntie, and a shoulder to cry on. In retrospect, I should have escalated my concerns to leadership each time I learned there was fuckery afoot, instead of taking on those roles. Mistake number six.

Remote Year staff and management were made aware of the salacious channel, and a few offline conversations took place with a few of the participants. However, there was never any public acknowledgement by RY staff that it existed (and that its contents were not sanctioned by the organization). The Slack channel eventually died, but the sentiments and misogynistic attitudes prevail- they’re just not posted in Slack, anymore. Remote Year dropped the ball and lost a huge opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about patriarchy, misogyny, and how to not be a dick when traveling in a group that is 50% women and femmes.

Constant microaggressions wore me down like a constant drip wears down stone, but the straw that broke the camel’s back and ultimately convinced me that this experience was no longer safe for my emotional well-being and mental health was a series of incidents that occurred in November 2018, during what was supposed to be the celebration of my birthday in Bali. I traveled to Indonesia with a smaller group of people instead of spending the month in Malaysia with all of Atlas. Bali has long been in my Top 5 travel destinations, and I was elated that one of my dearest friends was flying from Chicago to meet me. What should have been a happy, life-affirming side trip became a nightmare. The first week in Bali, one of my white male travel partners revealed that one of his favorite words is “nigger,” (hard R) and that he sees nothing wrong with greeting his white friends with the term. He even says it out loud when he hears it in songs. I was shocked, but I was more hurt and surprised. He looked me in the face and genuinely questioned why he wasn’t allowed say it even though Black people do. I could barely form the response, “BECAUSE YOU HAVEN’T BEEN, AND NEVER WILL BE, SUBJECTED TO THE TRAUMA THAT COMES WITH THAT WORD.” Another travel companion (also a white male) was with us and tried to explain how disgusting the word was, and why he shouldn’t say it, and even now, I hope what he said stuck. Right then and there, I was finally done being the resident benevolent educator.

It is peak white privilege to ask me to make your life easier pro bono while simultaneously occupying my time and requiring my emotional labor.

Three days before my birthday, I was skinny-dipping in the pool at our rented villa when a lighthearted after-bar conversation quickly became heated. Another white male colleague began antagonizing me with statements that implied that First Nations people should be happy that they are mascots for professional sports teams, and that they “benefit” from the exposure. He went on to say that there really isn’t anything wrong with a team named the Indians, or Redskins, because those names pay homage to the people who are victims of genocide at the hands of settler colonizers. I became visibly upset and cussed at him, and his response was to laugh at me and say, “I love how passionate you get about topics like these!” I’m sorry, what? “Passionate?” about racism? Nah. I get LIVID. Keep in mind that I was standing there, naked and vulnerable, as this was happening. I was shocked that no one but my girlfriend (a white woman) who was visiting dared challenge him and speak up for me. In that moment, every person who was silent and watched this happen became complicit in his overt racism. I was DONE. Not just done with performing free emotional and educational labor, I was done with Remote Year, completely. I threw my drink, stormed off, and cried on the floor in the bathroom for 15 minutes before I got up, showered, and left the villa, for good. On my way out, I walked past the people still in the pool and hanging around the garden, and I heard them speaking about me in hushed tones and they got quiet when they saw me. No apologies were made, and there was no attempt to find out how to fix the situation. I left the property and walked around Canggu in the dark for four hours to blow off steam and to plan my escape from the plantation. I returned the next day to get my things and to rescue my friend. After checking into a hotel, I contacted my program leaders to formally exit the program. The hardest pill to swallow was learning that I am still contractually obligated to pay a $1k/month Opt Out Fee despite the racist behaviors of my travel partners (which goes against the Code of Conduct) being the reason I no longer felt safe in the program. That night, I was very blatantly disrespected, and I was betrayed. People I considered to be friends sat idly by as he mocked me. They claim to have been in shock and confused, and some say they discussed his behavior with him later, but apparently their conversations didn’t matter. The person from the pool incident has not apologized, and they all still spend time and socialize with him as if nothing happened. The person from the pool approached me after a group orientation in Lima a few weeks ago with a half-assed Christian side hug and a “we should talk,” but it felt disingenuous and manipulative. The N bomb lover sheepishly hugged me in the airport on a travel day and vowed to try to stop saying the N word. I was completely put off by both encounters. Why didn’t they reach out to me away from the gaze of the rest of the group with meaningful apologies? I expect nothing less than a full on, “what I did was wrong, I know that because _____, and this is how I will atone for my actions.” What I will not accept is anything remotely close to “it was a misunderstanding” or “misinterpretation” of the antagonizing, rude and racist behavior, because that is the exact messaging I’ve already received from several people in the group. There has been no shortage of semi-apologetic, gaslighting memos about how my feeling are valid, but that my tone and tenor when I talk about controversial topics turns people off. If I want people to listen to me, *I* must be gentle, and *I* need to address the issues from place of education and understanding. I almost threw my phone the first time I read those patronizing and condescending words. An excerpt of one of the messages I received:

It is NEVER the responsibility of the oppressed to educate their oppressor. This open letter published by Blavity perfectly encapsulates how I feel about educating white people on their racism.

“For hundreds of years, black people have been burdened with the task of educating white people. We have served as the gatekeepers for your ignorance, dangerous lack of racial awareness, and covert and overt acts of racism far too long. There have been numerous times in my life when I have called attention to prejudice and implicit bias only to hear “Wow, I didn’t know that.” or “That was not my intention.” Following their come to Jesus revelation, the white person in question often agrees to change their actions and commits to being more “inclusive” … at least until the opportunity presents itself for them to once again say or do something they ‘didn’t know was racist.’”

It is not my job to educate (my travel companions) about issues of racism or sexism, or any other societal ill. It is THEIR job to educate themselves. I have previously done so because I had to, not because I wanted to. It is peak white privilege to ask me to make your life easier pro bono while simultaneously occupying my time and requiring my emotional labor.

At multiple points during this Atlas journey, I have had soul-crushing experiences with little to no emotional support from my colleagues, so after a while, I just stopped sharing my experiences with people, altogether. It is rare for anyone to reach out to me unless they need something from me, anyway. I can count on one hand how many times I heard from someone who just wanted to hang out. I cannot count how many requests for emotional labor I’ve had. Have a problem? Go talk to Fernanda. Need relationship advice? Fernanda has awesome insights. Sad? Depressed? Need life coaching? I’m your girl. There have been many highs, but the lows have nearly sent me home on more than one occasion. I’ve been robbed three times while traveling on Remote Year, but the fear and sadness that resulted from being violated in that manner pale in comparison to the disappointment of realizing that I had emotionally and financially invested in people who don’t give a buttery fuck about me as a whole human being.

I haven’t spoken much about any of this with anyone except my therapist and a few close friends. Any time I bring up how I feel with people in the group, I receive temporary sympathy then everyone immediately resumes their daily lives. Or worse, returns to spending time with the offenders then coming back to me to ask for advice. It’s selfish as hell… much easier for them to keep the status quo and not rock the boat. Burying one’s head in the proverbial sand in the name of self-preservation is preferred over speaking up for what is ethically and morally just. Meanwhile, I am being emotionally and financially punished. I am now the outcast who occasionally makes appearances at the birthday celebrations of the people who have been kind to me, but only after I’ve asked multiple people “who all gon’ be there?” multiple times, to make sure that I don’t encounter people I’m not comfortable with. If they do show up, I have to steel my nerves and pretend they aren’t in the room, or I leave, to avoid making it uncomfortable for the rest of the group. I’ve been branded as the Angry Black Lady Social Justice Warrior who “always brings up race.” That label no longer bothers me because I am exactly that. I’m the person who speaks up for marginalized people when no one else does. I recognize the privileges I have, and I use them to advocate for others at every opportunity. A lesson for those who fancy themselves “allies”: if you don’t advocate out loud, you are not an ally- you are an accomplice. I refuse to be an accomplice to oppressors AND pay $2,000 month for it. When I made RY leadership aware of what happened in Bali, the responses I got were all copy-pasta, legalese jargon, and I was sent a link to file a complaint with a 3rd party HR organization the company partners with. There have been no public acknowledgments nor apologies about what happened from the offenders, and I don’t expect there to be. That would be too much like right. Their lives haven’t been affected by their actions, and they aren’t paying the emotional toll that I am. They continue to lead carefree, instagrammable travel lives together while I deal with my disappointments and regrets, alone.

My only hope is that anyone considering Remote Year does their due diligence and finds this essay before they make the mistake of spending $27,000 American dollars on a trip that cost me much more than that, spiritually. I am a fighter, and a horrible quitter, so instead following my initial instinct to just pack it in and go home, I will spend the next few months reminiscing about the positive aspects of my journey while I travel solo and take advantage of the flights I’ve already paid for, as I salvage what’s left of my dream trip around the world.