The 52 Places Traveler
A little behind-the-scenes peek into his strange, but wonderful, day-to-day.
Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. With a visit to Golfo Paradiso in Italy, where he ate divinely with new friends, he officially passed the halfway mark of the trip.
Some mornings when I wake up, it takes me a few minutes to remember where I am. I look around my hotel room, piecing together how I ended up here. Then, once I’ve calibrated my internal GPS (coffee helps), it’s time to start exploring.
Days of the week and even what month it is matter less when your routine is one of perpetual movement. So, the halfway point — stop number 26 — sneaked up on me. It came and went without any fanfare, and before I knew it I was on another plane to place number 27.
But milestones lend themselves to reflection, so we took the opportunity to slow down for a second and tap you, fellow travelers, for questions you might have about my journey. Here are my answers to a selection of the many great questions we received, ones that we thought would be most helpful and offer a little behind-the-scenes peek into my strange, but wonderful, day-to-day. (You can also join me on Reddit at noon on Aug. 21 for a live A.M.A.)
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?
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.
Planning (or lack thereof)
How much planning do you do before you get to a place?
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.
Updates on Iran
Are you still going to Iran? Could you please share the details about getting a visa — or deciding not to go?
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?
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.
Climate change and carbon footprints
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?
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.)
Have you gained weight or lost any weight? How do you stay healthy?
Considering the amount of food I consume on a daily basis, I was surprised to find that I’ve actually lost quite a bit of weight. It comes from being on my feet and on the move most of the day, instead of sitting at a desk. I try to eat healthy, though sometimes that sixth serving of cheese focaccia just looks too good to pass up.
After I threw out my back and was bedridden for a day in Uzbekistan, I’m stretching and doing strengthening exercises most days. I still haven’t figured out how to get enough sleep. But that’s what 2020 is for, I guess.
Coping with loneliness
I’ve found that loneliness can be a challenge on extended travels. What advice do you have for making friends and meeting people in unfamiliar surroundings, especially when language may be a barrier?
I still get nervous meeting people all the time. But the potential rewards — new friends, a local’s perspective on a place — always outweigh the initial feeling of discomfort. So just go for it, even if you don’t speak the language. You’ll be surprised how far pointing and translation apps can go. Of course, putting yourself out there is a lot easier as a straight, ethnically ambiguous man, and I fully acknowledge that privilege. Sadly, not everyone can — or even should — take down those barriers.
Loneliness happens. I’ve felt it many times. There was that time on a highway in Wyoming when a John Prine song came on the radio and punched me right in the gut. Or when I was sitting under the most beautiful night sky I’ve ever seen in Chile’s Elqui Valley and I just wanted my partner to be there, to share it with me. But it’s feelings that make us human, and I’ve learned to lean into loneliness when it comes. It makes the moments you’re surrounded by people you could never even imagine that much more special.
What gear and clothes have you found essential?
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.
You take a lot of risks that I would/should not take as a solo/single female traveler. For example: I would meet new friends for dinner, but I probably wouldn’t get into a car with them. Have you gotten into any situations on this trip that made you nervous? What safety tips do you have for solo travelers?
I have tried during the first half of this trip to emphasize that the decisions I make and the things I do should never be a boilerplate “how to travel” manual for everyone. The risks worth taking are going to be different for every person. I’m fine with getting blind drunk with a bunch of Georgians in the middle of the woods, because that’s what I am personally comfortable with, but I wouldn’t necessarily advise that for everyone.
Travelers need to take the precautions that make sense given their particular circumstances and the situation they find themselves in. When people ask me if a certain place would be safe for a solo woman traveler, I don’t give a yes or no answer. That’s a calculation that comes down to the individual.
There are some common sense things you can do to minimize any risks you do take, though. I always know the emergency number for every country I’m in. I’ve shared my location on my phone with a few people back home so that if they haven’t heard from me for a couple of days they can make sure I’m where I’m supposed to be. If I’m going into a potentially risky situation — barhopping in Slovakia with some dude I’ve just met, say, or going on a full-day solo hike in Norway — I’ll tell someone back home about it first.
But it really comes down to your own comfort level. You can have a perfectly pleasant and highly rewarding trip without taking the kinds of risks that I do.
Have you visited any places that you felt you could settle down and live in?
Many! I’m a weird case: I grew up in five different countries and have always had a pretty fluid sense of home. So it’s not unusual for me to imagine myself living somewhere far from New York City.
Specifically though, so far I’ve fantasized about moving into a 19th-century apartment in Plovdiv, Bulgaria; buying a beach shack and a surfboard in Santa Catalina, Panama; and trading the M.T.A. for Tashkent’s masterpiece of a subway system — just to name a few.
Impromptu tour guides
Where and how do you meet the people featured in your articles who show you around or act as impromptu tour guides? Do you know them in advance or are you just super friendly?
Most of the time it’s by pure chance — a run-in at a bar or cafe, or a smile that turns into a conversation. Or they’re friends of friends, sometimes three or four times removed. I also get messages on social media that lead to in-person encounters with locals.
The people who really deserve the “superfriendly” designation, though, are the ones who let me into their worlds.
Got a question for Sebastian that wasn’t asked here? Join him on Reddit at noon on Aug. 21 for a live A.M.A.