[Remote Year] Cambodia Writing Retreat

December 2016 is the 11th month of Remote Year for RY2 Battuta and the 7th month for RY4 Magellan, and we are sharing the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia — the first time two RY groups are in the same place for a month.

A week before we arrived, the Remote Nation staff made a Slack channel for our two groups to share and communicate with each other. Someone from Magellan posted an offer to our group:

Hi Battuta!
Looking forward to meeting you all in a few days!
Would like to extend an invite to you to attend our Writer’s Retreat in Cambodia. We spend a weekend buried in an Instagram-worthy Airbnb, heads in notebooks and laptops to take time to write, read, and collaborate. Blogs, journals, memoirs, novels, short stories, poetry — all are welcome! This is specifically for folks serious about working on their writing (through reflection and critique) with wine and whiskey on hand.
Dates: Dec 9-Dec 11
Cost: TBD, typically under $150 for accommodations, transport, food, and drink

I direct-messaged immediately and said, I’m in.

A major goal of mine on Remote Year has been to develop my daily writing practice, publish more frequently (exhibit A: my Medium posts), and get closer to writing a book (exhibit B: WIP coming soon!).

I was excited to spend a weekend writing, meet some Magellans with similar interests in a smaller group setting, and experience what another RY group organizes.

The Magellans had assigned themselves tasks to organize the weekend: airbnb reservation + transportation, grocery shopping for the shared meals and snacks, and the weekend’s schedule.

We received a google doc outlining the daily schedule: meals, 2–3 hour writing blocks, 2–3 hour reading and discussion sessions, and evening “toasts”.

The Retreat

On Friday morning, I got in a van with 3 Battutas and 5 Magellans, and (after 2 hours in traffic) we headed out of town for Kep, a small, former French colonial beach resort town known for its crab.

Four hours later, we turned off the main road to a bumpy dirt path in our 12-seater van, ascending up into the jungle to our airbnb.

We piled out of the vehicle, moaning and stretching, and then explored the house — 3 bedrooms + a bunk room, an airy kitchen with cooking appliances and utensils (thankfully), a porch with a dining table and couches, and a pool.

We’d spend 2–3 hours on writing blocks and then meet around the table to read someone’s piece and discuss it for 30–45 minutes (with me taking my signature diligent, outline-bulleted notes in each person’s google doc).

Unlike a college course or a book club, this was a new experience for me to sit down with peers in a self-organized setting to discuss such varied pieces of writing (including memoir, fiction novel, blog post, podcast pitch).

It was a bonding and learning experience with people I had only recently met as well as a way to get to know deeper and different sides of a couple friends from my RY group.

I really appreciate activities that allow for concentrated focus on one person’s ideas or experience. It’s one of the reasons I started my new podcast project — the framework focuses the conversation and dynamic on digging into one aspect of one person’s story.

From what I heard, we all felt like the feedback and input was incredibly helpful — a few people made edits on work that weekend, and I think we will all use it moving forward as it helped clarify how our piece came across to a real audience and raised questions to resolve in one way or another.

One exercise we did the second day was to pretend we were at a cocktail party and ask each other the following questions:

  • What do you do? [all answers had to be: I am a writer]
  • What do you write?
  • Why do you write it?

After this, I requested a few minutes to sit down and make notes for myself based on what answers I came up with given the in-the-moment nature of the conversation and also how my answers evolved with conversation after answering it to three different people in fairly quick succession.

  • My instinct is to be curious and want to learn, and to then immediately share with others
  • I see myself as a storyteller because that’s all about taking information + stories + people + places and finding ways of sharing that with others
  • RY gives me some constraint / framework to work within so that I have an audience and a theme and a topic
  • What is the point of travel? Am I the main protagonist of the story or is it about others / bearing witness / being a chameleon / observing / sharing their stories?
  • What connections can I draw / threads can I connect between the stories and people and experiences I’ve met / had around the world and through the years?
  • I am both lucky and have made the effort to have many experiences and travel a lot and therefore can draw these connections and see the patterns that aren’t easily accessible to everyone or immediately obvious

When we weren’t writing, reading, discussing, or swimming, we were eating and drinking.

A couple of the Magellans took the reins on making delicious meals for us all weekend — vegetable curry with shrimp, fresh crab curry, breakfast veggie scramble, avocado toast, coconut rice with mango.

Note: I was entertained that other RY programs have also developed the same obsession with Pringles — Battuta indulges heavily on travel days + trips of any kind, mostly because they have been available in every country and even the smallest towns on our travels around the world, and because they are a reliable flavor and don’t induce stomach problems.

“Toasts” were the last event of the day: one person would share a theme for the round, we’d go around so each person would answer, and we’d toast each answer.

Our toast themes from the weekend were as follows, and the responses ranged dramatically to each one, so that in the same round, one person might cry (yeah, me) while another caused the group to laugh.

  • someone we wanted to hear their reflection on 2016
  • someone who gives us hope for the future
  • something that really scared us this year on Remote Year
  • someone who inspired us that we had met somehow on/via Remote Year
  • what person / event / situation challenged us the most (since we’ve been on Remote Year)

The meals and evening toasts were an added bonus that filled out the experience nicely to be engaging and enjoyable on many levels.

The last chapter of the weekend was supposed to be a hike up Bokor Mountain, but thanks to miscommunications / misunderstandings with our driver, we ended up on a 90-minute each way drive up the windy mountain road to the top, where we briefly got out to walk around an abandoned hotel casino. Adventures in traveling abroad!

Joining the writing retreat this past weekend and spending this month with Magellan has already been a great opportunity to get an insight into what future programs will experience.

It’s also shown me that the RY Alumni program has the potential to be very successful and valuable: we can meet & integrate quickly with an existing group, participate in activities together, learn from each other, and form new friendships.

Perhaps the end of this year isn’t such a sad prospect after all. 
(Just kidding! Battutas are having all the feelings about our now 45-day countdown to the end of our Remote Year.)

Katherine is a digital nomad, working remotely while she travels the world — on the road since June 2014. She’s a member of Remote Year 2 Battuta, living around the world with 75 other digital nomads from February 2016 to January 2017.

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