Late one night in autumn 2017 my husband, Insomnia, and I lay in bed scrolling through Instagram, wistfully dreaming about traveling. The sentient algorithm on the app immediately sensed my fernweh. 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 Remote Year (RY) and start taking your meetings on the beach.”
Clicking on the travel company’s sponsored post I hungrily devoured all the photos of exotic places on the profile. There were photos of many places I’d already been, but what drew me in were the photos of places I hadn’t even heard about. I browsed the link in their bio, reading the FAQs, and completed the questionnaire, praying that my answers would make me a good fit for the program. What I didn’t realize is that those answers didn’t matter. They’re only used to determine whether you can pay the down payment and monthly program fees.
The answers you provide on the interest survey are neither used to recommend an itinerary, match you with the best-suited group, nor to recommend excursions during your travels. No, that would be too logical, and from what I gather, too expensive for this budding startup. (In my later conversations with RY management, I suggested all of these uses for the data. I wouldn’t be surprised if future participants see these improvements. More free ideas and labor from me, yay!)
Still there was no question about my desire to join RY. I have been and remain determined to start #ChasingCalatrava since quitting my corporate job in April 2017. My only hesitation came from my mother’s then precarious health status. She was on dialysis, 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 was just out of reach. The Universe knew my heart, however, and heard my pleas. On December 21, 2017, I got the call that my years of campaigning for a kidney donor on social media had 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. I was so overcome that 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; I could confidently go traipsing off to places unknown, and not be worried about her. The coming 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, with 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, realizing that he didn’t have to do much work. 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 co-working 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, online blogs, and videos. I didn’t pay it much mind because I’m accustomed to working and living in majority-white spaces. I also took into consideration that international travel is a privilege not accessible to most of the population. In subsequent conversations with RY leadership, I did stress how disheartening it was to see so little visibility of LGBTQIA and POC people in their social media and marketing materials. To their credit, it appears that they listened. There are now multiple pics featuring people with brown skin in their recent images.
Before fully committing to Remote Year, I inquired about speaking to Black women who had participated. I chatted with one Black woman who was working for RY as a Program Leader at the time, and a 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 those who were being paid by RY. My first mistake.
After chatting with those two Black employees, I quickly committed to the program, making a $5,000 down payment and becoming 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 on other programs and people in my immediate group. It was on one such webinar that I learned one of my program leaders was a Black woman from Philly. I was OVER THE MOON when I found out and 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. It was for me another sign that this trip was meant to be!
As I met the rest of my colleagues online, it appeared that our Atlas group was somewhat racially diverse. Out of forty people, there were three men and one woman of Asian descent, four Latinas, and three Black women, including one of the program leaders. The other members were primarily a mix of cisgender, heterosexual, millennial white people from North America and Europe, an Israeli man and an Australian man, adding to the geographical diversity. Our ages ranged from 24 to 54; our professions running the gamut from graphic designer to architect. Four of us identified as non-binary, however, 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. The expression, “All skinfolk ain’t your kinfolk,” applies here. 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. This was a very big missed opportunity on the part of Remote Year.
Even so, since this journey began, I have met some incredible people, several of whom 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 to scuba dive, and hiked more in the last nine months than I have in all of my 39 years on this planet. I chased waterfalls and walked with elephants. I’m getting emotional as I type this, because it has been a whirlwind of firsts with so many emotional highs and lows. There have been many peaks, but the valleys are profound. I am sad and disappointed with how much money I have spent on this once-in-a-lifetime experience only 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, recommending it to strangers and familiars, often. I loved the idea of group travel, but regret not doing more research. 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. [End of Part 1]