Midway Through His Year, Our 52 Places Traveler Answers Readers’ Questions


Sebastian Modak


The most profound travel experiences often seem to come about by chance. How do you manage to make meaningful connections with people and places when you’re only in each spot for a few days?

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I feel extra pressure to make connections, considering I’m looking for stories, not just things to see and eat. Still, I’ve been constantly surprised how easy it is to meet good people when traveling alone.

You get from the universe what you put into it — not in some quasi-mystical way, but in terms of attitude. I find that if I walk into a bar, or a town square, hoping to meet someone, I often do.

We are naturally curious animals, and more often than not, someone is going to step in if I’m looking lost (which I often am) or if I’m not staring into the void of my phone. Usually, I’m not even the one who initiates conversation. At least once per place, I’m blown away by the generosity of complete strangers.

How much planning do you do before you get to a place?

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Close to none. With the frenetic pace of this trip, it doesn’t leave me much time to plan. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a travel strategy, but it sure is fun.

I’m lucky to have a great team back in New York City who helps me with some of the booking and research, but when I get off the plane, I’m usually stepping into a five- or six-day stretch with no concrete plans. It’s changed the way I travel. I’m less concerned with checking sights off a list, and far more interested in going for long walks and seeing what happens.

You’re not going to find serendipity — that Golden Ticket of solo travel — if you don’t give it the space to happen.


Are you still going to Iran? Could you please share the details about getting a visa — or deciding not to go?

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It looks, for now, like going to Iran will be impossible. Americans can still visit the country as part of an organized tour group, but it gets a lot more complicated when you’re a journalist. I have to be transparent about my work, and in talking to those at The New York Times with more experience in the region, it became clear that it would be next to impossible to get a journalist visa right now.

I still get regular messages from Iranians welcoming me to their country and offering to take me around. I hope I get there some time, but unfortunately 2019 isn’t going to be it.


You seem to be in go-mode constantly. How do you balance seeing things and reporting with your well-being — and being Zen?

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I don’t — but I’m trying to get better at it.

It baffles me that (knock on wood) I haven’t gotten sick yet, and that I’m still going strong. I’m tired. Like, very tired. I try to get enough sleep, but often don’t; and I try to eat well, but mostly just eat too much.

There’s something that happens when I arrive in each place, where adrenaline takes over and I immediately hit the ground running. I’ve been trying to give myself days off, but I can count the number I’ve successfully taken on one hand. Travel is just too exciting; I’m constantly weighing the cost of doing just one more thing, and “doing” always wins.

That said, in each place, I’ll give myself at least one afternoon when I leave the camera at the hotel and take my proverbial reporter’s hat off, and just be in a place for real, with no agenda other than to soak it in.


In what ways, if any, have you witnessed the impact of climate change thus far? And how have your travels affected your sense of our planet’s future? Do you feel optimistic? How do you reconcile the carbon footprint you’re creating with all your travels?

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A few places are on the list this year expressly because they might disappear because of climate change. Seeing these phenomena — like the ephemeral ice caves of Lake Superior — puts a lump in your throat that doesn’t go away. It’s one thing to think abstractly about a problem as big as climate change, but it’s another to see it up close and hear how it’s affecting real places.

There’s an obvious contradiction that comes out of this, of course: How can I talk about climate change when my flights are causing so much damage to the environment? I recognize the paradox, and I’m not encouraging everyone to go to 52 places in 52 weeks. Nor am I saying everyone should descend on Ontario’s Ice Caves next winter.

I hope that by reporting what I’m seeing, I’m helping bring more attention to the threats of climate change, beyond, for example, weather patterns or food systems. The beauty of our planet — what inspires us to get off our couches and see it with our own eyes — is at risk of extinction, too. Little things, like traveling with reusable bags, water bottles and cutlery, and buying carbon offsets for the thousands of miles I’m flying this year, do make a difference, even if it’s a small one.

None of it is a panacea, not even close, but it helps. I’ve also encountered a lot of places around the world that are doing a much better job with environmental conversation than we are. (Good luck finding a plastic bag in Chile.)



What gear and clothes have you found essential?

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Those who follow this column are going to roll their eyes, but merino wool is still my biggest travel revelation. I hate doing laundry, especially on the road, and so anything that increases the number of times I can wear something without washing it is a godsend.

In terms of tech, I couldn’t imagine this trip without my noise-canceling headphones. They’re obviously bulkier than earbuds, but I love the full immersion I can have while on flights, which is some of the only time I have to really relax, catching up on music and creating my own little cocoon of peace.




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