Last year, for the first time, we sent one intrepid traveler, Jada Yuan, to all 52 destinations on our Places to Go list. This year, we decided to do it again. Once again, we got applicants from around the world and from a variety of backgrounds (meet some of them here). After weeks of assessing them, we settled on a handful of finalists. From that group, we chose Sebastian Modak, one of our finalists from last year, and a journalist with an impressive background and résumé. Just weeks before he sets off to his first destination — Puerto Rico, which took the No. 1 spot on the list this year — we asked him some questions about himself and the trip ahead.
So, how does it feel to be the 52 Places Traveler for 2019?
In a word: surreal. It’s a lot of emotions at once — gratitude, excitement, anxiety — but mostly I’m still finding it hard to wrap my head around it concretely. I’m starting to think the sheer scope of what I’m doing won’t hit me until I make landfall in the first destination and start reporting. Luckily, data scientists at the travel aggregator Kayak have helped us sketch out an itinerary for the year in advance — as they did last year for Jada — so I have some sense of what the structure of my year looks like. That said, this trip wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if I knew exactly what to expect, right? I’m ready to embrace all the uncertainty that comes with an opportunity like this and see where it takes me.
Have you been following Jada Yuan, our 2018 Traveler? Anything in particular you’ve picked up from her dispatches?
I’ve read every one. It’s been a real pleasure following along and I know I’ve got some big, well-worn shoes to fill. My favorite moments from Jada’s dispatches were the interactions that, on the surface, may seem everyday, but in actuality tell much bigger stories about a place: a night out in Kigali, a meal in La Paz, a haphazardly assembled trip-planning committee in China built out of nothing but the kindness of strangers. Those stories get at the heart of why we travel. I’m hoping to bring the same openness and down-for-anything attitude that led Jada to those moments.
In a couple of ways, you have a background uniquely suited to this gig.
I do feel like I’ve been working toward doing something like this my whole life. I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother and an Indian father, but we left for Hong Kong when I was 2 years old and continued to move every few years. My brothers and I didn’t really grow up with the concept of “home,” because we understood every place was temporary. It made travel the only real constant in our lives. January marks five years in New York City, though, and that puts it in a joint first-place spot for the longest I’ve stayed anywhere — tied with Indonesia and India.
For me, travel is all about immersing yourself in the unfamiliar, and embracing the feeling of humility that comes with that: There’s always something to learn from someone else, from somewhere else. That’s what made me choose a career in multimedia storytelling. I was a Fulbright-mtvU fellow in Botswana, where I spent a year documenting the local hip-hop scene. I was a producer on an MTV series that looked at the role of the arts in protest movements around the world. Most recently, I was an editor and then a staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler, where I was often sent on assignment to find and report stories that resonate with a global and globally curious audience. I think the thread that connects all of these experiences is an insatiable sense of wonder at the world around me.
You’ll be starting your journey in Puerto Rico, which took the No. 1 spot on the list. Have you been?
I haven’t been, but I’ve wanted to — in part thanks to some of the island’s cultural exports that show up in New York, where I live: heaping portions of arroz con gandules and the sounds of hip-hop duo Calle 13, for example. I can’t think of a better time to finally make the trip. Working in travel journalism, I’ve seen and reported on how natural disasters can devastate economies, not just in their immediate aftermaths, but for months or years.
As has been the case in the wake of Hurricane Maria, tourism is often one of the hardest hit sectors. But I’ve heard about how resilient the people of Puerto Rico have been in the face of not only hurricanes, but economic and political crises as well. I can’t wait to try the island’s coffee at its source and follow the sound of rolling bomba drums to a countryside dance party. But, most of all, I’m looking forward to meeting the people whose perseverance has made Puerto Rico the No. 1 slot this year, just a year and a half after tragedy.
Is there a destination on the list you are most looking forward to?
There’s nothing I’m not excited about, but I think Iran takes the top spot. More than any other place on the list, or even in the world, Iran is somewhere that I’ve only ever been able to look at from afar, through the lens of scary newspaper headlines. I’ve found that there’s often a huge gap between the everyday lived experience of people on the ground and the country as we understand it through geopolitics. I’m ready for any preconceptions I have to be totally shattered, and I’m excited to share my experience with New York Times readers.
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for this job?
I know the hardest part of this trip is going to be the abrupt end to any stability or normalcy I’ve created over the past few years. To say “see you in a year” to my (unconscionably supportive) partner, my friends and the routines I’ve developed here in New York is going to hurt. I also know I have to recognize the immense privilege I’ve been given and channel that sense of unmooring and the inevitable loneliness that will set in from time to time into motivation to keep going, keep learning, and keep telling stories. If past travels are anything to go by, you often find on-the-go support networks in the most unlikely of places.
How are you preparing for the trip, practically and emotionally?
I’ve found myself zeroing in on really small, likely inconsequential things. Do I finally give up on my sentimentality around physical books and buy a Kindle? (Probably.) Will I even have time to read books? (Probably not.) I get that a versatile pair of shoes is going to be important and I should probably start researching that, but “how many pairs of socks do I bring?” I think it’s in part a way for me to avoid the larger existential questions, but I also think it’s a good approach. I’m starting small and then gradually working my way up, because I know “where am I?” is going to be the question I end up asking the most.
Follow Sebastian Modak on Twitter @sebmodak and on Instagram.
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