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Q&A: Remote Year participant Emily Mitnick on her month in Chiang Mai

Stylus’ New York-based strategic account director talks us through month six of her year-long working adventure around the world, which continued in Thailand’s cultural capital.

What’s it like to change your office and your country – sometimes even your continent – every month? Well, our very own Emily Mitnick knows. In January she completed month six of Remote Year in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a city that may well have the best-tasting coffee in the world.

With the halfway point of her remote-working adventure having passed, Emily talks through climbing mountains on mopeds, where she’s at emotionally, and why she’s dreading saying goodbye to her fellow remotes.

So Emily, how was Chiang Mai?

“Spending January in Thailand was the perfect way to jump into 2018. Chiang Mai is a charming, trendy city made up of generations of tribes and waves of digital entrepreneurs. The locals are always smiling and the smell of lemongrass and Thai spices live on every street corner. The weather’s great in January – sunny days and perfectly cool nights, with mountains as your backdrop.

“I decided not to travel much and instead settle into my new home in Chiang Mai. In doing that, I was able to create a daily routine for myself, which I now realise I needed. I went to the gym every day, cooked meals, worked from my favourite coffee shop, got daily (very cheap) massages, and snacked on fresh mango sticky rice every day – sometimes twice a day.

“It’s been an overwhelming six months of change. I wanted to take some time for myself to really slow down, and Chiang Mai was the perfect place for doing just that.”

What was your office like?

“It was about a 20-minute walk from my apartment, on a little corner next to one of the best noodle shops in town. Because of its location (and the dangerous temptation next door), I instead found myself returning to a local coffee shop right around the corner from my apartment.

“Ristr8to had a funky vibe and was packed with digital nomads. Here I discovered long black coffee – my newest addiction and my fuel for powering through some of the all-nighters.” 

How was Chiang Mai from a traveller’s perspective?

“Like Kyoto, you can find beautiful ancient temples next to local bodegas. With the emerging digital nomad community, you can also find hip coffee shops and trendy barber shops.

“On the weekends, when you aren’t getting lost at the Sunday Night Market, you can hop on a moped and explore mountains, waterfalls and hiking paths. We also spent a beautiful day at the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary, where we bathed the elephants in the river and fed them pounds of bananas. Did you know elephants eat 10% of their body weight in food each day? Me neither.”

January saw you hit Remote Year’s halfway point. With it also being the start of a new year, did the month feel different?

“Six months flies, doesn’t it? It was an emotional month, which started with us arriving in Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve. Thousands of people – tourists, locals, families and Buddhist monks – all gathered down by the river to release lanterns into the sky. When you looked up, all you could see was a blanket of twinkling lights – all of our wishes and hopeful dreams soaring into 2018. It was mesmerising.

“I also felt a little homesick for the first time. Six months is a long time to be away from family and friends. I actually researched where to find Middle Eastern food so I could order hummus and lamb burgers – a simple dish I would typically have on Friday nights with the Mitnicks.

“My mother will still text me ‘Buena suerte mi amor’ [‘Good luck my love’] from NJ when she knows I’m getting on a flight or have a big meeting. This is a quirky mother-daughter tradition we’ve shared – and stuck to – since I was a kid.

“It’s comforting that wherever I am in the world – whether on a long-tail boat in the Indian Ocean, hiking through Balinese jungles, working out of a Japanese office or laying under the stars in the Sahara Desert – I am fortunate to have strong and humble roots that ground me, everywhere I go, wherever I am.

“Both the Europe and Asia legs are now over. The six-month mark reminded me that Remote Year is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and it’s going fast. In just a few months, I will have to say goodbye to 50 new friends and our incredible new life – one that’s filled with adventure, side trips, community dinners, late-night working sessions and all the unexpected moments in between. I will be leaving Remote Year armed with a lifetime of experiences and a new perspective on the world.”

Do you feel like you’re still learning things?

“I’m a curious person by nature – I’m always learning, having new conversations and jumping into new challenges. And I’m starting to get the hang of being a digital nomad. I know I’m most productive with my headphones in, working in a quiet space with good light and setting up blocks of time to power through my work – coffee in hand, always.

“For the first time, however, I’m remembering the importance of face-to-face teamwork. The best work often comes from bouncing ideas off one another while physically in the office.

“Working for Stylus remotely on my own, I’m learning new ways to proactively replicate the office culture. I try to hop on calls with my team more often, Skype into our group chat more or remind them to FaceTime me at any Stylus event.

“At Stylus, we’re obviously tracking the future of remote work. Being part of this mobile community first-hand, I realise how important it is for companies with remote workers to find innovative ways to maintain the office culture.”

How is the group dynamic?

“Ah, my Yugen family – where do I even start? We are a very diverse group from different backgrounds and we each have different goals and personalities. You can imagine it’s beautifully challenging.

“We’re a mixed bunch – marketers, designers, project managers, editors and web developers. As a side project, we’re working on a social impact programme from the ground up called the Yugen Build Project. Our mission is to assist in the fight against poverty by sponsoring and building 58 transitional houses come May for families living in informal settlements in Bogota, Colombia.

“Yugen, by the way, is a Japanese word meaning ‘an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and mysterious for words’. I’ll leave you with that.”   

Emily is spending February in Buenos Aires, from where she’ll travel to Cordoba, Lima, Medellin, Bogota and, finally, Mexico City.