Meanderings in Malaysia by Maya Yette

All of the Remote Year cities on the Southeast Asia leg of my itinerary were repeats of cities I had previously visited on my post-Bar trip a few years ago when I graduated law school. I was excited to return to many of them and see what changed and see how I might appreciate them more with the benefit of thirty, rather than three, days in a place.

Our first stop was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There wasn’t much sightseeing I wanted to do in KL, but there was a lot of food to eat (Jalan Alor for street food, Oribe for sushi and Din Tai Fung for dim sum were a few of my favorites). The speakeasy scene in KL was unexpected but pretty good – check out PS150, Omakase & Appreciate and 61 Monarchy if you find yourself in Malaysia’s capital city.

The sightseeing that I did do consisted of visits to Kuala Lumpur Tower for one view of the city and the Petronas Twin Towers for another. I also made stops at Central Market, Merdeka Square and the Islamic Arts Museum.

The Batu Caves are one of Malaysia’s holiest Hindu shrines and are located a little outside of the city, but worth the Uber ride to see the large golden statue of a Hindu god and the impressive limestone caves (just beware of all the monkeys).

The highlight of my time in Kuala Lumpur was definitely stumbling into an underground dance party when trying to find one of the aforementioned speakeasies. We walked into an office building and down a stairway filled with graffiti into what turned out to be a club called U9. For most of the night my friend and I seemed to be the only non-locals in the place and it was incredible to watch what seemed like a break dancing scene from “The Get Down” – not to mention everyone had on Kangol hats and Adidas track suits!

My only trip outside of Kuala Lumpur was to Penang Island, right off the coast of Malaysia. On my previous visit to the island’s main city, George Town, I had what was the best samosa of my life and fell in love with the region. This trip was different not just because of who I was traveling with, but because we tried different food (this time I had the best char kway teow of my life) and explored a little further from downtown, but George Town is still as charming as I remember.

We visited Penang Hill at dusk, strolled the streets of George Town, had drinks at sunset overlooking the water, visited the Green Mansion and Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Southeast Asia, and walked through the Chinese Clan Jetties. It was a quick trip to Penang, but a great visit; ditto for my entire month in Malaysia!

A Short stint in Split by Maya Yette

I was only in Split, Croatia for about a week and a half before heading to Bali for a work trip last year. I had been to Croatia before – Dubrovnik and Zagreb, to be specific – but not to Split. All I really knew about the city before my visit is that it is the jumping off point for the original “Yacht Week” and serves as a set location for some episodes of “Game of Thrones”. While both of those things are true, the city, the second largest in Croatia after the capital, Zagreb, is also a perfect blend of modern and historic. It is full of both natural beauty due to its position right on the Adriatic Sea and historic, manmade beauty because of all the ancient Roman architecture.

My first full day in Split, I oriented myself with a walking tour of the Old Town and Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main areas of the “palace” (which is actually a town inside of what was originally built as a fortress and residence by the Roman Emperor Diocletian), were built in 305 AD and much of it is still original, which was mind blowing. Diocletian built the Palace using imported marble from Italy and Greece and columns and sphinxes from Egypt. Walking on the smooth stones and viewing the sphinxes up close was pretty cool.

On one of my last mornings in Split I got up early and was the first person to climb the bell tower at the Cathedral of St. Domnius, inside Diocletian's Palace, which offered beautiful views of the city waking below me. 

The Old Town is fairly compact and easy to wander around in a day, getting lost in its labyrinth. The farther away you get from the main square, the more authentic it feels and the more removed you’ll feel from the hordes of tourists that visit Split from their cruise ships each day.  

I spent a few mornings wandering around getting lost and stumbling upon cute shops and restaurants. I didn’t get to explore too much of Split’s food scene, but did have some good meals at Restaurant Dvor, Uje Olive Bar and Bokeria.

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Remote Year opened its first workspace in Split, WIP, which was one of my favorites of the year. I could go to the workspace in the morning, walk across the street to the beach at lunch, and then return to work for a few hours in the afternoon. Because I was only in Split for a week, I tried to do some exploring most mornings, whether it was a run to one of Split’s beaches or a visit to an art gallery. Galerija Meštrović is a bit outside of the city center but worth the trek for the art (Ivan Meštrović is Croatia’s most famous sculptor) and the views overlooking the city. The Gallery of Fine Arts is also worth a visit and right outside of the gates to Old Town.

The highlight of my time in Croatia was a Labor Day boat ride to Hvar and overnight on the island.  We watched a beautiful sunset at Hula Hula and then after dinner did what everyone does when they go to Hvar: party.  On the way to Hvar, we stopped for lunch on another small island, Vis, that I really wish we had more time to explore. Ditto for the rest of Croatia! 

An Interlude by Maya Yette

Remote Year's Lisbon workspace, "WIP" (aka Work In Progress), which applies to this blog as well.

Remote Year's Lisbon workspace, "WIP" (aka Work In Progress), which applies to this blog as well.

Hello from Lisbon, Portugal! I’m writing this from Remote Year’s new workspace in Lisbon, Portugal, which seems appropriate considering I want to (finally) finish sharing all the experiences and places I visited during my Remote Year.

Remote Year officially ended at the end of January. Since then, I went to Bali for a second time to close out my time in Southeast Asia, moved back home and caught up with friends and family in the DMV, New York, North Carolina and California (one of my resolutions for 2017 is to spend more time traveling domestically after a year abroad) and spent a long weekend in Barbados celebrating a friend’s 30th birthday. Which brings me to Lisbon. From here I’ll be visiting a few more places in Portugal, spending another friend’s 30th birthday in Cuba and then heading back to Spain to explore a few cities I haven’t yet visited.

In the meantime, let’s pick up where we left off…

Hangin' in Hungary by Maya Yette

Budapest, Hungary is an uncomfortable and sketchy 9-hour overnight train ride from Belgrade. I left the train station in Serbia late one Thursday night with three of my friends from Remote Year to visit Budapest for the weekend. We didn't splurge on the 4-person cabin, so it was a roll of the dice who our other two cabin mates would be. We got lucky with a nice Irish couple who spent the evening playing cards and sharing their wine with us. The cabin was tiny and barely fit the six of us, let alone our bags. I hadn’t thought to bring my sleep sack (which I hadn’t needed since nights spent sleeping in South American hostels), so spent the night curled up under my scarf on the middle bunk, trying not to freeze or touch anything, especially the blanket provided on the train. Every few hours our sleep was interrupted by the border police coming through, banging on the cabin doors (which, thankfully locked from the inside) to check our passports and tickets. 

We finally rolled into the Budapest train station, bleary eyed and hungry, around 6 am on Friday. At the train station, we left our bags in lockers for the day since we couldn’t check into our Airbnb yet and set out to find a café that was open early. Friday afternoon we settled into our Airbnb and finished up the day’s work before heading out to dinner. We ate al fresco at a restaurant in the square surrounding St. Stephen’s Basilica and then spent the evening checking out the “Ruin Bars” that abound in Budapest. These bars are abandoned buildings that have been converted into local watering holes, each with its own unique vibe. I hadn’t heard of this phenomenon before arriving in the city, but similar to Prague and Belgrade, Budapest is a city that wears its history on its sleeve.

On Saturday, we explored the city, or cities, rather; the Danube River divides Budapest into Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank. We stayed in Pest, where the ruin bars and many of the restaurants and cafes are. We began our morning with coffee at a cute café and then walked across the Chain Bridge from Pest into Buda and up the aptly named Castle Hill. There, we wandered around the Buda Castle complex, home to the Royal Palace, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers great views of Pest across the river below.

Since it was summertime in Europe, the weather was extremely hot and after our morning walk we were ready for some air conditioning. After lunch, we stopped to visit the Museum of Applied Arts, which ended up being one of my favorite stops in Budapest. The building was built in the art nouveau style between 1893 and 1896 and is beautiful both inside and out. We had some fun playing on the bikes on display at the temporary “Bikeology” exhibit and then explored the permanent collections upstairs. Another temporary exhibit, “In the Mood for Colours”, arranged all of the objects according to their dominant color and was really cool to see. We capped off our day of exploring with a fireworks show in front of the Parliament building to celebrate St. Stephen's Day, which happens every year to mark the day of Hungary's foundation under the reign of St. Stephen, the nation's first king.

Even on the road, Sundays are best spent resting and relaxing. Before we had to endure the horrors of the night train again, we treated ourselves to a day at the Gellért Baths. Bathhouses are a major attraction in Budapest because the city sits atop a number of natural thermal baths. We chose the Gellért Baths because they’re a little less crowded than the popular Széchenyi Baths and with their art noveau style are supposed to have the most beautiful indoor swimming pools in the city. The baths are a weird experience – sitting in hot water with a bunch of strangers and not actually swimming around isn't my idea of fun – and probably something that I won’t do again, but I’m glad to have experienced it. We also got a nice massage while we were there and finished the evening with dinner at The Four Seasons Hotel before heading to the train.

This time, we weren’t so lucky with our cabin mates: one surly looking backpacker of undetermined nationality who barely said a word and an awkward Danish girl who kept staring at me while I tried to sleep. Budapest was totally worth it, and I enjoyed the city more than Belgrade, but next time I think I’ll fly!

 

Best (and worst) of Belgrade by Maya Yette

Whenever anyone asked me what cities I’d be visiting over the course of Remote Year, when I mentioned Belgrade, Serbia, there was always a pause. I didn’t know what to say about it, having heard very little about Serbia and Belgrade generally. It turned out not to be so bad, but was probably among my least favorite stops of the year.

Belgrade is super gritty and many parts of it are not traditionally beautiful in the way you think of other European cities like Paris and Prague. In fact, there are still a few buildings throughout the city that were bombed during the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War in 1999. These buildings sit largely untouched since the bombings, gutted insides exposed, serving as a reminder the city’s rough history.

These buildings stand in stark contrast to the beautiful open areas that dot the city like the Kalemegdan Citadel, a fortress overlooking the Danube and Sava Rivers, which offers beautiful sunset views.

The first weekend I was in Belgrade, one of my good friends from college, Matt, came to visit. He was going to be in London visiting another friend and thought I was going to be in Prague during that first week of August. When I told him I’d actually be in Belgrade, but he was welcome to come there, I was pleasantly surprised when he said yes. Following a tourist map he got in the airport, we created our own walking tour and crisscrossed the city. We started at St. Sava Temple, the world’s second largest Orthodox church. It is beautiful on the outside, its silhouette dominating Belgrade’s skyline, but after 80 years remains unfinished on the inside.

From St. Sava we walked to the other side of town, stopping at the Belgrade Palace, the Presidential Palace and St. Mark’s Church along the way until we wound up at Republic Square, back in the heart of the city. To close out the day, we took a stroll through Skadarlija, the Bohemian Quarter, which is all cobblestone and filled with cute bars, restaurants and stores.

Overall, Belgrade was a big adjustment for me because of the language, which sounds like nothing I’ve heard before and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, so it’s impossible to even sound out words. However, hands down my least favorite thing about living in Belgrade was the fact that smoking indoors is still very much acceptable and there were many meals that I couldn’t properly enjoy because I was waving away the smoke from someone at the table next to me. I kept thinking I’d get used to it, but to no avail. Add that to the fact that the food in Belgrade isn’t great to begin with (lots of meat and little finger sausages), and it was not pleasant. (The few exceptions to the bad food were Homa, Manufaktura and Marukoshi; check them out if for whatever reason you find yourself in Belgrade.)

The saving grace for our time in Belgrade was that we were there during the summer. I’ve heard from other Remote Year programs who went this fall that when it’s cold and rainy, it is even harder to enjoy the city and escape the smoke. Belgrade is heavy on the party culture and since we were there during the warmer months of the year, we were able to take advantage of the many club boats that line the Sava River at this time of year. The crowd favorite was the aptly named “Hot Mess” where Remote Year hosted our welcome party to Belgrade. Another crowd favorite was "Shake 'n' Shake", which boasted hammocks jutting out over the water.

The street art throughout the city was also pretty cool; a fact I'd forgotten until looking through my pictures from so many months ago. While I’m not itching to get back to Serbia like I am to a few other places I’ve been this year, it was certainly an experience to remember!

Prague (with Poppa)* by Maya Yette

* My dad suggested this title and probably didn’t think I would use it. He also didn’t think I’d be writing this post until at least 2017.

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Prague was my first visit to a city in Eastern Europe and a great introduction to the region. Like many European cities, Prague is oozing with charm and all of the streets and buildings are just waiting to have their pictures taken. It also has a complicated history that is still seen when you walk the streets of this beautiful city.

I spent about two weeks in Prague in July (the other two weeks I spent in Sayulita, Mexico for a company team retreat) and the weather was great, especially after less than ideal weather during our month in London. I was based in a neighborhood called, Žižkov, which was extremely livable and removed from the craziness of all the tourists in Prague’s Old Town Square, but still pretty central.  There were a number of cute cafes and restaurants nearby, and we were a short 20-minute walk to our co-working space, K10, which is housed in the old Danish embassy and one of my favorite workspaces of the year. I also lived right across the street from the infamous Žižkov TV Tower, known as the second ugliest building in the world and which has ten giant babies designed by a famous Czech artist crawling up and down its sides. This tower, the tallest building in the Czech Republic, served as our guiding light home for the month.

I found Prague easy to navigate using a combination of Uber, train and my own two feet to get around. I usually try to do a walking tour of each city we visit to get my bearings early on. In Prague, the tour of the Old City took us from the Old Town Square to see the famous Astronomical Clock, through the Old Jewish Quarter to Wenceslas Square and ended with a visit to the Powder Tower.

My dad came to visit for a few days shortly before we left Prague and I had saved up the rest of my exploring for his visit. Our first stop was the famous Prague Castle, which is featured on many of the iconic images of Prague. I was surprised to learn that it’s not a castle in the traditional sense, but a complex of churches and an old palace, which has served as the seat of Czech princes and kings, as well as the Prague bishop. We also walked across the Charles Bridge to visit the John Lennon Wall for some obligatory photo ops.

Over the weekend, we tried to avoid the traditional tourist attractions and visited a couple of underrated destinations, which turned out to be some of my favorites. We started with a visit to the Vyšehrad Fortress, which offers great views of the city below and has some pretty cool architecture within the park grounds. After wandering around Vyšehrad we walked down to the Náplavka Farmer’s Market for lunch, which made me a bit nostalgic for Sundays at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market.

During my month in Prague I was also surprised to learn that it’s home to a mini Eiffel Tower, built in 1891 as part of the Jubilee Exhibition, sitting atop Petrín Hill overlooking the entire city.

Within the Old Town, the Klementium, a complex of baroque and rococo halls is also home to, arguably, one of the most beautiful libraries in the world (no pictures allowed, sadly, so check out the link), in addition to the Czech National Library. These are the kind of attractions that I probably wouldn’t have visited if I were in Prague for a few days, but that I had the luxury of discovering because of my slow travel style this year.

Prague also has some pretty good food and, of course, beer that’s cheaper than water. Some of my favorites were Field, Čestr and the Letna Beer Garden (go at sunset for the best views). There’s a food tour that I didn’t have a chance to participate in, but which gets rave reviews if you’re ever in Prague. The owners also rent out a very cute apartment, so maybe that will be my next home base when I make my way back to Prague one day.

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Escapades in España by Maya Yette

I’d never really thought about it this way until now, but Spain is the country outside of the United States where I’ve spent the most time. It was the country I visited in middle school on an exchange program, staying with a host family in Madrid and taking a side trip to the university town of Salamanca, where I’d return years later for a semester studying abroad. I went back to Salamanca the following semester during spring break and I’ve been back to Spain on a few family vacations since then.

So, naturally, while I was in Europe this summer I made not one, but two, trips to the land of jamón, tapas, sangria and siestas. On my first visit, I spent a week with a friend traveling to cities both new and old to me. We started with a quick 36 hours in Madrid. To be honest, Madrid was not at the top of my list among Spanish cities based on my previous visits and I much preferred Barcelona (still do), but I was excited to give it another chance.

I woke up and got breakfast while I waited for the Vodafone store to open so I could get a Spanish SIM card (I can never go anywhere longer than a day without getting a local SIM card anymore and it is a game changer!). Armed with a data plan so I could navigate the city using Google Maps, I set out towards El Prado, the Spanish national art museum, where I planned to see a temporary exhibit featuring the works of the painter Jheronimus Bosch. I had not planned ahead and purchased tickets online, so when I arrived and saw the line that stretched around the corner of the building, I decided not to waste the precious few hours I had to explore waiting to get inside.

Instead, I settled for a couple of pictures outside the museum and then spent some time meandering through the Royal Botanic Gardens, which are located directly behind the museum.

After admiring the flowers I decided I wanted a museum fix after all. Lucky for me, one of Madrid’s other famous museums, La Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of modern art, is right around the corner from El Prado. I spent most of my time there at the Wifredo Lam exhibit and in the museum’s interior courtyard.  After the museum, I took a quick detour to Parque del Retiro, home to the Palacio de Velazquez and Palacio de Cristal, which are both operated by La Reina Sofia Museum, before heading to get some work done.

The next morning, it was time for a road trip to the city I was most looking forward to on this visit: San Sebastián! I never made it to San Sebastián while I studied abroad in Spain, so I was very much looking forward to visiting this city in the Basque country that sits in the northwest region of Spain. The New York Times recently came out with a “36 Hours in San Sebastián” piece that would’ve been helpful a couple months ago, but I think we still did a pretty good job exploring the city.  

The drive from Madrid took only about five hours, after a quick stop in Segovia to see the Roman aqueducts there that date back to the 1st century.

Once in San Sebastián, when we weren’t working, we spent our time sampling the variety of pintxos (small tapas-like dishes) that the city is famous for, wandering around the cobbled streets of the old town, and admiring the views of the city and its famous La Concha Beach from the Igeldo Hill lookout point.  

I could’ve stayed in San Sebastián much longer than two days, but it was soon time to move on and make our way to Barcelona for the flight back to London. We drove from San Sebastián to Barcelona in a whirlwind day, stopping off in numerous cities along the way. First, a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, where we visited an Andy Warhol exhibit and admired the building’s beautiful exterior.

Next up, stops in Pamplona, Zaragoza and, finally, Montseratt, right outside of Barcelona.

My week in Spain was capped off with one night and day in Barcelona. I went with my friends to Park Güell, the famous park designed by Antoni Gaudí that overlooks the city, before dinner. The next day, rather than rush around trying to see all the tourist attractions I’ve already visited on prior trips, I found a great café in the Gothic Quarter, had a leisurely breakfast and sat in a nearby park to spend some time journaling before meeting back up with my friends for lunch at La Boqueria. I’m glad I didn’t rush around Barcelona, because about a month and a half later, I was back in the city for a weekend to celebrate another friend’s birthday. We ate and drank our way through town and I explored some neighborhoods I hadn’t gotten a chance to see before.

I’ll surely be back one day soon!

 

London Livin' (better late than never) by Maya Yette

I began my European Summer with Remote Year in London after four amazing months in South America. To be honest, everyone in the program was a little skeptical about how the month would play out after we found out that we wouldn’t be spending June in Istanbul (for obvious safety concerns), due to the extremely high cost of living in London. As a result, Remote Year housed us on the outskirts of the city, where we lived in a co-work/co-living space that was only partially completed (i.e., no actual workspace, no gym, no restaurant or café for half the month). Despite these challenges, I really did enjoy London and, aside from a very touristy weekend spent with my sister and friend Courtney, who were in town visiting, got to enjoy areas of London that I otherwise would not have seen on a quick weekend visit.

My favorite of these areas is Shoreditch. My first weekend in London, we spent time hanging out at Spitafields Market and the BOXPARK Shoreditch. It was sort of like reverse culture shock after being in South America for so long – both for the general diversity and for the fact that I was not the only black person around, attracting attention for my skin color, curly hair, or both. It also took a little while to get used to speaking in English again when we went out to restaurants or got in an Uber – my natural inclination was to say “Hola” or “Gracias” during my first few days in London.

I took a midweek trip to Oxford with a couple of friends and it is every bit as charming and picturesque as you’d think it is from reading or watching Harry Potter. We rented a car and drove the hour and a half out of London and spent the morning touring around campus before parking ourselves at a café to work in the afternoon.

The next day, we visited Blenheim Palace, built in the early 18th Century to celebrate the English victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. It was also the birthplace of Winston Churchill in 1874. I could have spent all day lounging in the beautiful green spaces around the palace, and touring its many rooms, but we had to get back to London to start working in the afternoon. The beauty of the last few months in Europe is that I don’t start working until my afternoon (early morning East Coast hours) and can spend my mornings exploring each new city I visit.

I had three weekends in London: one that I spent in the French countryside with my friend Roxie, another that I spent in Spain during a weeklong visit there (more on that in my next blog post), and the aforementioned touristy weekend spent riding around London on a double decker hop-on, hop-off bus.

My sister, Laila, had never been to London before, so this was the quickest and easiest way for us to cover all the highlights in a short period of time. We rented an Airbnb in the Fitzrovia neighborhood (no way was I wasting time commuting back and forth from my digs in Willesden Junction) and hit the ground running. We made stops at Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, and more.

For plenty of (obvious) reasons, London offered the greatest taste of home I’ve had since January. Despite my initial hesitations, it provided a great jumping off point to explore some other areas in Europe and even though the weather was grey and gloomy half the time, I’m glad I was able to spend more than a weekend there!