It honestly feels like it’s been a decade since I interviewed Sebastian Modak (who was selected as The New York Times‘ 2019 52 Places Traveler, and who was kind enough to speak to me about it), but our phone call was actually just twelve days ago. Obviously an incredible amount has changed since we spoke; travel restrictions are piling up, and many of us are confined to our homes in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. With that in mind, at first I felt a little weird about publishing this piece, because clearly travel is off the table for most of us for the foreseeable future. But I had such a nice time following Sebastian’s adventures all last year that I thought it actually was a perfect moment to celebrate his arsenal of stories, which often highlight human generosity and connection, something we desperately need right now. Read our chat below for some context, but most definitely check out all of Sebastian’s 52 Places contributions here. (Because while we can’t necessarily leave the living room, we can, at the very least, live vicariously through a a year’s worth of excellent travel journalism.)
First of all, how relieved do you feel that you were the 2019 52 Places Traveler? Because I imagine things are far more complicated this year.
Yeah, they actually decided not to do it this year before coronavirus had really become a thing. And that was probably a good decision; I think I would’ve been brought back home by now. I was lucky in terms of timing.
And it wasn’t because of coronavirus, but Iran was one of the places from the list that got canceled for you last year, right? Was that the only place that got nixed for political or other reasons?
Yeah, just the one. So I will forever be the 52 Places Traveler with an asterisk, because I only went to 51. We decided in March or April to cancel my Iran visit; it was partially for safety reasons, but also because of the likelihood that they wouldn’t give me a journalist visa as an American. Again, it was clearly the right move, because of course later that year everything that happened, happened. It was a bummer, though. I was super excited to go there, and I got messages literally every day from Iranians who thought I was coming, welcoming me and saying, “You can stay at my house, meet my family, I’d love to show you around!” I think that just goes to show the disconnect between the people on the ground and geopolitics, you know?
And did you notice that across the board in terms of the places you were able to go? Did you notice any political tension at all just being an American under the current administration and interacting with people?
Not really. I think if there was, it was a two second conversation; they’d be like, “What’s going on in your country?” and I’d be like, “Man, I don’t know…” and they’d be like, “Cool, wanna get a drink?” And that was about it. That was a theme throughout; those kinds of things just went out the window. You’re making real, people-to-people connections. I think I had one very long, semi-drunken conversation with like a 75-year-old Georgian man who couldn’t speak a word of English, and he was trying to speak Russian with me, and I was speaking English and using Google Translate. But somehow we communicated a whole conversation about politics, and he was a super pro-Russian, pro-Putin kind of guy, just like a lot of the older generation is. While that’s not exactly my politics, it didn’t really matter, you know? It was interesting for me to get that perspective, to learn about where he was coming from, and then next thing you know we’re talking about his kids. So that stuff just becomes unimportant when you’re trying to make real connections with people.
Absolutely. Alright, now take me back to how you even got this gig in the first place; I know your career background, and you made a very solid candidate, but did you have to apply for the position? Did they reach out to you?
Yeah, I had to apply for it. In fact, it was the second time I’d applied for the position, because I applied the year before, and that was the first time they’d done 52 Places. I made it through multiple rounds until basically the final one, but I didn’t make the cut. Then a year passed, and I got laid off (as one does in media) from the job I was in, and two months later this job opened up, so I thought, “You know what? Why not give it another shot?” And this time it worked. It was multiple rounds – an initial application where they filtered out some people, and then I had to do a video, an Instagram story, answer some other questions, do a couple of different phone interviews, and then for the final round it was an in-person interview at The NY Times with a bunch of the different people involved from different departments. And then almost to the day, I got an email that was the exact same wording as the one I had the year before, like, “Hey, do you have a second to talk?” So I was like, “Here we go again…” But this time they told me I did get it. It was very surreal.
That’s incredible! God, I can’t even imagine. Alright, and so I know they pick the places, but how much leeway do you have in terms of improvisation if opportunities arise that aren’t 100% on target?
It was pretty much up to me. I mean, I had to make it about the places on the list as much as possible, and oftentimes I had a little bit of framework going into it, because each place was on the list for a very specific reason. For example, there was a region of Chile that was on the list because a total solar eclipse was passing over it in June or July. So it was important for me to be there then, for that reason. But other times, you know, I couldn’t always be in every single place at the exact right time to be there; there were times where I’d get somewhere and the museum or something hadn’t opened yet, and the museum was the reason it was on the list, so I’d have to figure out some other story.
So I was given a lot of leeway to do my own thing, and I kind of took 52 Places as a framework, but then it was up to me to find whatever story I thought was worth telling. As an example, I was in Israel, and the place that was on the list was Eilat, which is this beach town that’s really nice, great for scuba diving and stuff like that. But I was there smack in the middle of Passover, so basically all of Israel had gone to this beach town, which ended up making it kind of miserable since it was so packed. So in the end, my piece was a lot more about my journey to the destination; going through the desert, meeting a family who kind of took me around, that sort of thing. And my editors were very open to the idea of me doing whatever I wanted with the framework, which was great.
And so yeah, I had a lot of leeway to take my own path, and there wasn’t really any planning beyond the order of destinations. We’d book things a couple of weeks out, and once I hit the ground it was completely up to me to find a story to tell, which was great.
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Today I put the map apps away and walked for an hour. It took me to mausoleums, down quiet alleyways, and to scenes like this: stacks of freshly baked “non” being pulled out of the trunk of a Soviet-era Lada to be sold at the foot of a 15th-century observatory. #52places2019 #uzbekistan #samarkand #bread
Which is so cool! And I can’t remember where exactly you were for one of the stories that I thought was especially crazy-sounding (in a good way), but you were being driven up a snowy mountain to drink vodka or something?
[Laughs] Yeah, that was Georgia. It wasn’t vodka, but just as lethal.
So yeah, I know you’ve said you have sort of a higher threshold for risk than others might, but were there any moments that you did feel scared? Or anything you said no to because you felt it was too risky?
Yeah, there were definitely a few moments. Like being out at a bar in Slovakia or something, where a group of punk rock dudes were just laying on shots pretty thick, and there had to just be a moment where I was like, “Okay, I should probably go back to my Airbnb. I don’t know where this is going.” But in terms of safety, that’s probably the question I got most throughout the year from people. And I think my takeaway is partially what you said, right? That it really depends on the individual and what your own threshold for risk is.
I’m saying that also understanding that as a 6’2” straight dude, I was able to take a lot of risks that I think would be much harder for other people, including women and LGBT folks. I completely acknowledge that. But I think it also does come down to the individual in terms of identity and what you put out there. I know when I got questions about risk or safety, it was often in places where there are stereotypes. So when I was in Tunisia, or Uzbekistan, or basically any Muslim country I was in, I’d get so many questions from people saying like, “Looks amazing, but is it safe? Are you worried about terrorism?” And it was clear that these preconceptions were coming through in the way that people were thinking about it.
Of course, I’m not blaming individuals, because I think these are pretty widespread preconceptions. But I felt completely safe in those areas. In fact, as an ethnically ambiguous brown dude, I felt safest in a lot of those places. In Tunisia, everyone thought I was Tunisian, and I could really blend in and not stand out as a tourist. The one time I really felt threatened, and I think this surprises a lot of people, was in Australia. That just goes to show that you kind of have to take your expectations and flip them around. I was in Australia on this beautiful country road and started getting followed by some guys in a car who then overtook me and started yelling racial slurs at me.
So I think it just goes to show that everyone’s experience might be a little different, and oftentimes our preconceptions about what is safe and what isn’t depends on so many different variables. It’s really not a one size fits all thing.
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Today in life-changing moments: On our second of three dives, as if out of nowhere, a male whale shark appeared above us and then stuck around for a full 15 minutes chasing (and eating) the bubbles we were creating. Still pinching myself. #52places2019 #panama #santacatalina #diving
Right. And how do you feel that this experience has changed the way that you travel? Do you feel it’s permanently shifted your lens or focus when you’re in a new place? Because I imagine there’s a lot of pressure, in a way, to find a story in such a condensed chunk of time. Do you think that will stick with you?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve been telling people that my experience was very different from the average traveler for obvious reasons, even just in terms of the pace of it. Would I recommend that people try to go 52 places in 52 weeks? Probably not. It’s grueling. It’s a dream job, but also the most exhausting and hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I do think there are lessons to be taken away from approaching a place almost like a journalist or like a storyteller. Looking for stories to tell. I think in the past when I wasn’t on assignment somewhere, I’d probably approach it like any vacation, so looking for good food and good things to do.
I think one of the biggest ways that that shifted for me this year was the role of the people you meet, and I think being a solo traveler really opens up those possibilities. When I think back now to some of the places I went to, like a small city in Denmark, for example, I’m not necessarily remembering the beautiful monastery that I went to or the Cold War bunker I explored. Those were all really cool things, and I do remember them, but the first thing that comes to mind are the people. Literally, the first image in my mind when I think about a place is faces of new friends I made and people I talked to. I think that’s probably the biggest way it’s changed me as a traveler, and that’s why I’ll be traveling in the future, is to meet people and gain new perspectives, share stories and create new connections. I think it’s more important than ever in a time when people are trying to build up more barriers, rather than take them down.
Totally. Now, I personally prefer to travel solo, because I find there’s less bickering and less struggle in terms of finding a happy medium. Since you kind of had to travel solo for a lot of this assignment, do you feel more inclined to travel solo in the future?
Yes and no. I think when you’re doing something like this for a year, there can be some really tough moments emotionally. I missed my partner back home, my friends, my routine, and also, sometimes there are moments where you’re just seeing this ridiculous sunset in Siberia where you want to have someone to turn to and say, “Are you seeing this shit?! It’s insane!” But I think it goes both ways, because there were times where something like that would happen and I’d be like, “This is amazing; this is my memory and my memory only, and I’m going to have this forever.” So it went both ways. My partner came and visited me in like three places, my brother came out to one place to join me on my travels, and I welcomed that company.
But I think I’m still going to want to have that occasional solo trip, because it really does change the way you travel. It forces you to meet people. If you’re traveling with your significant other, or friends, you’re going to bars or restaurants or cafes and you just end up talking to them. When you’re by yourself, if I posted up at a bar and wasn’t just staring at my phone, which is the usual crutch, then within minutes someone would talk to me, because they’d just be curious about what the hell I was doing there. And the next thing you know they’re giving you local tips, inviting you to their house for dinner, inviting you along to events.
The generosity of people is really mind-blowing, and I think the only way you really see that sometimes is by being in the position of being in the moment as a solo traveler. I think this year was a big revelation that way. Of course, I’ve done solo traveling before, mainly on assignment for other publications, but this was the first time I’d done it for such a protracted period of time. And it was honestly one of the things I was most worried about going into the year, because I consider myself a pretty extroverted person, I love my friends, I love my partner, and I definitely recharge by hanging out with friends. It was tough at times, but by the end of it, I really enjoyed it. Even the moments that were low, where I did feel lonely, I think they made me a more emotionally in touch person in the long run.
And what’s the comedown been like? I imagine it’s gotta be similar to an Olympic athlete who’s trained for this thing forever, and then you do it, and then it’s all of a sudden over.
Yeah, it’s been hard, honestly. It’s been two months, and the first month I think I was pretty useless, because I literally hadn’t had a day off for 365 days. No weekends, no days off. When people see it on the surface level, they just think, “Wow, he’s traveling the world for a year!” And yes, it is amazing, but I was also filing 2500 words a week, organizing and filing 86,000 photos over the course of 2019, doing videos, social media…so it was really intense, the pace of it, and the end felt super abrupt. It’s like driving 100MPH and the person sitting next to you pulls the emergency brake. So it’s been hard. The first few weeks I’d wake up and it’d still take me a second to be like, “Wait, where am I? What flight am I catching today?” because that had become so routine. I think it’s only been in the last couple of weeks that I’m starting to actually feel like a real person again and think about what’s next, what to do with the rest of this year. And I honestly still have no idea. [Laughs] I’m just taking it slow and not rushing into anything. I’ve missed slowness a little bit.
Oh my god I bet! And for people who are raring to go, and who want to travel more, do you have any tips? Personally I feel like it can be manageable; I know there are some barriers and constraints depending on finances and free time and etc., but I think there are ways around these things.
Yeah, I think what’s preventing people from traveling isn’t only the financial barrier; I know a lot of the questions I got were things like, “I want to go to Tunisia but I don’t speak any Arabic or French!” I was like, “Yeah, me neither!” I now have like eight different people that I met in Tunisia that I regularly message on WhatsApp. So the language barrier, for example, is much less of an obstacle than I think people make it out to be. You figure it out, you know? You figure it out from context clues, Google Translate, pointing at things, finding one person who maybe does speak a little English who’ll help you out. When you’re thrown in these situations, you figure it out. I think telling yourself you can’t go someplace because of that is just giving yourself an excuse not to take a risk.
And kind of connected to that is like, yeah, if you’re trying to go to France in the height of summer, it’s going to be expensive, because that’s when everyone else is trying to go. This year, because of my crazy schedule, I wasn’t able to see each place when it was “the right time to be there”, and that really taught me to embrace the low season; you’re going to find that things are cheaper, and it’s gonna be easier to meet people because the place isn’t swarmed with other tourists.
And connected to that is this idea that everyone is going to the same places, because we have these bucket lists that probably look pretty similar side-by-side. One of my big takeaways there was to just get rid of that. Everywhere (and I really do think, basically everywhere) has something that is gonna blow you away if you look hard enough. Some of my best experiences were in places I didn’t expect to have them, because I had these preconceived notions. Look in your own backyard, look for the cheapest flight to anywhere…I think there are a lot of ways to travel without breaking the bank by just getting rid of some of those preconceived notions.
Totally. And what’s left on your bucket list in spite of this incredible year you had? Anyplace you’re itching to see in the near future?
I’m always going to want to get to Iran now, just because I got so close but couldn’t make it happen. I’ve had tons of people messaging me on Instagram offering up their homes, so that’s going to be in my hopes for a long time. And I thought the list was great, a great variety of destinations; some were super well-known, and I tried to get a different angle on them, and then there were some remote places like the Falkland Islands and Siberia, but some parts of the world (in my opinion) were a little underrepresented, like Sub-Saharan Africa. I went to Senegal and to Gambia, and in Northern Africa I went to Tunisia, but I wish there was more there. I’ve spent time in Southern Africa in the past, and I’d love to get back there and explore more. But I don’t think I have a “list” because I’ve kind’ve stopped believing in those. I’m down to go anywhere.
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The overwhelming smell of fish. The rapid fire conversations in Wolof, Mandingo, Jola and more between people from every country in West Africa. Barracuda sold by the wheelbarrow. The Tanji Fishing Port at dusk is pure energy unleashed – a city within a city with its own systems that only look like chaos. #52places2019 #gambia #tanjifishing #tanji #fishing #travel
And ending on a home note, now that you’re back in NYC, do you have a renewed appreciation for the Big Apple?
It’s been nice to get comfortable with the idea of being at home again, taking my clothes out of a chest of drawers instead of a suitcase every day for a year. Little things like that. Even being back in my neighborhood again has been nice; I went to the bodega and the guy was like, “Where the hell have you been? I thought you were dead!” That was a nice feeling. I grew up moving around all the time, too, so I’ve never really had a strong sense of “home”, just little tastes of it. But I’m also trying to approach the city in a different way as well, because there’s so much that I haven’t seen; you get into your routines and go to the same bars, and it’s been nice to approach it as a travel journalist, even if I’m not writing anything.
All photos by Sebastian Modak
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