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Q&A: Remote Year’s Emily Mitnick on her three months in Peru and Colombia

Stylus’ New York-based strategic account director talks us through the penultimate months of her year-long working adventure around the world, which is concluding in South and Central America.

Emily Mitnick has been living the (professional) dream for the last 11 months. With her time on Remote Year is coming to end, she made the conscious decision to pack in as much as possible during months nine, 10 and 11. And, as Emily explains below, she managed to change a few people’s lives – and, indeed, her own – along the way. Before she says “see you later” to her travelling crew, she took some time to talk about the last quarter of her once-in-a-lifetime lap around the sun and the world.

It probably seems like ages ago now, but you spent April in Lima. How was it?

“Admittedly, I was a bit underwhelmed when I first dropped my bags down in Lima. Perhaps it was the grey skies, aggressive taxi drivers or the realisation that we were more than halfway through our year-long journey. There was a stark difference from the prior two months and the colourful pulse of Argentina, which I loved so much. But I was quickly proven wrong, which is what I love so much about travel: when we release our judgement, are patient and keep an open mind, we can find beauty in people and places.  You just have to give them a chance.

“Lima is a city to turn to for inspiration. She’s funky and artistic, filled with live music and art festivals tucked away in hidden venues. She offers sprawling seaside views and spectacular sunsets. And the Peruvian people – they’re so kind. Many locals might have minimal material belongings, but they’re always laughing over a beer and ceviche at noon. They are simply happy – and it’s beautiful to witness.

“Peru is also an incredibly active place, bringing to life our Active Lives Macro trend. Consumers want to put down their cell phones, get outside, take more risks and feel alive again – and I did just that. I tried paratriking for the first time – an extreme sport where you sit in a little go-kart attached to a motor, and take flight into the clouds, over the sea. It was exhilarating, to say the least. We surfed in the mornings before the work day. Everyone in our group took trips to Machu Picchu throughout the month, and I personally completed a gruelling four-day trek with three friends. It proved to be one of the most emotionally and physically challenging hikes of my life – followed by the most fulfilling appreciation for this beautiful planet, and beautiful Remote Year.  

“Peru truly left a spiritual mark on me. I had a lot of quiet time to myself to reflect on my personal and professional experience this year. It was when I thought, ‘I’ve really gotten a hang of this remote work/life balance thing.’”

In May you moved to Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city. What was it like?

“Medellin is an edgy, cultural city that, not so long ago, Time called ‘the most dangerous on Earth’. Today it’s safe, as long as you keep your city smarts about you. While we were there, a gang outbreak in Comuna 13, Colombia’s most notorious neighbourhood, kept us from a graffiti tour, but the incident was quickly cleared up and we were soon touring the vibrant, colourful streets. You can tell the Colombians are excited, and more than ready, to tell you about their country and its shift from a darker past. Similar to Chiang Mai, Medellin has a huge expat scene and is filled with digital-nomad friendly shared workspaces and lovely cafes. And coffee.”

Ah, of course. Presumably it tastes better in its true home?

“It’s like fuel. I don’t know what they put in their coffee, but it has a unique kick. Forget all this brain food we’ve been tracking at Stylus – just seek out authentic Colombian coffee. Trust me, you’ll kill every deadline, goal and meeting.”

Was the vibe in Medellin different to elsewhere in South America?

“Netflix’s award-winning Narcos – and arguably the media more generally – has painted a negative picture of Medellin by highlighting its corruption and glorifying Pablo Escobar. In reality, Medellin is much calmer. The younger generation is really trying to shift perceptions, and you’re reminded of this through the politically charged graffiti splashed on every street corner. We were in Medellin during Colombia’s presidential elections and the World Cup. It was fascinating to feel the dichotomy between the nation’s political divide and its athletic patriotism, which wildly brought the nation back together.”

How did Bogota, where you spent the whole of June, compare?

“Unlike Medellin’s rainforest landscape and balmy weather, Bogota is cold, grey and rather rainy all year round, which meant I had to layer all of my limited travel clothes – even inside my apartment! The temperature shift was a bit of a shock to us all, as we’ve been spoiled this year chasing the summer (apart from Japan, of course). 

“That said, the New Yorker in me felt great to be back in a big, bustling city. Bogota houses many corporations and it’s fuelled by passionate hard workers. The tone of the workspace in Bogota was more professional than in Medellin, which was more of a funky, hybrid hostel-meets-office space. In Bogota, we worked out of a WeWork, which looked and felt exactly like our Stylus WeWork office in Manhattan.

“I lived next to a charming park that reminded me of my old neighbourhood in Brooklyn, so it felt surprisingly normal – which served as preparation, perhaps, for going back to New York. I also met up with my very first boss from more than 10 years ago, and a dear friend I hadn’t seen since my study-abroad semester in college. In many ways, June was a taste of home for me.”

You had a pretty big side project on the go in Colombia, right? 

“That’s correct. Back in month six, while living in Thailand, one of my very close Remote Year friends pitched what would become a thread of a charity for the remainder of the year. Yugen Build set out to build 58 homes at $2,000 a unit, which represents the cost we pay each month for Remote Year, and the number of Yugens who started our journey.

“While we’re a group of professionals who chose to not have a home base for a year, there are thousands of displaced families in Bogota that need a home, but don’t have the resources to make it happen. That’s where we knew we could make a difference – and we did. Fast forward to June, just five months later, and collectively, our very talented Yugen family had built the most successful social impact programme Remote Year has seen.

“After months of hard work, over what would have been an ordinary weekend in June, our Yugen group had raised more than $86,000. Alongside the Bogota community, we all joined hammers, paint brushes and kind hearts to change the lives of three very grateful families. By the end of the year, our funds will have built 42 more homes.”

How’s the group vibe with the end of Remote Year in sight?

“There is no word to describe what we’re all feeling. It’s a wild mix of emotions. This has been one of the most transformational years of all of our lives, both professionally and personally. Our Yugen tribe is not just a friendship. We’re family now – or, what we call it here on Remote Year, ‘tramily’ – our travel family.”

Emily is spending July – her 12th and final month of Remote Year – in Mexico City.