The last time I spoke to Sebastian Modak (The New York Times‘ 2019 52 Places Traveler) was back at the beginning of March; we were discussing how he’d landed the ultimate dream job, and he reflected and reminisced on his experiences around the world. While the pandemic was on both our radars then, it hadn’t yet sunk in just how serious the fallout would be. Fast-forward to the present day, when US passports are more or less worthless, and most of us aren’t going anywhere (at least internationally) for a long while. Although he seemed content to take a breather from traveling for a minute when we spoke a few months ago, I wanted to find out what it’s been like for Sebastian to reckon with the fact that globe trotting is off the table for the foreseeable future. Yesterday he was kind enough to speak with me from his apartment in Harlem to talk about his outlook, and how he’s making the best of the situation:
So how are things in your neck of the woods?
There are more people out, and people are eating [outside] at restaurants now. Everyone seems to be pretty responsible with masks and keeping distance. Still strange, though. The days still bleed into each other; it’s hard to tell what a weekday is and a weekend is and what the difference is. (Basically what everyone else is feeling, I think.)
Totally. And obviously travel (in the traditional sense) is off the table for the foreseeable future. It’s making me feel extra claustrophobic, but what about you?
I feel the same way. It makes me feel a little claustrophobic, very antsy. I’ve always had “itchy feet”, as they say, but it’s definitely heightened now. I think it’s a little different in that I overdid it last year, so maybe I feel a little better? I’m very grateful that I was able to do what I did last year, right before this all happened. I find myself falling back on those memories pretty often as a way to get through this. I hope I’ll be able to do it again sometime.
I also went on a 65-mile bike ride yesterday to Bay Ridge, which is as far away from Harlem as you can get. It felt like I was journeying somewhere, so I think I’m trying to channel that wanderlust into some productive ways, exploring the city more, spending as much time outdoors as I possibly can while being safe. My partner and I also took what felt like a huge trip down to the Jersey Shore for two nights. We went on a Sunday and Monday night so there wouldn’t be big crowds. That felt good, for sure, to be at the beach and feel something new, but it also felt like we were breaking the rules. But I think the fact that we put so much gravitas behind it made us take all the precautions very seriously, and made us as socially distant as possible while traveling somewhere.
I guess the short answer is that I’m taking what I can get, within the confines of the current situation, to channel some of the feeling of exploration and escape and everything else.
Right. And have you been staying in touch with some of the friends you made during the 52 Places experience? I know I’ve been speaking to some of my friends who live internationally, and I feel like, terrible saying this, because obviously I wouldn’t wish our situation on anybody, but I feel weirdly jealous, because we’re so far behind everybody else.
100%. Friends of mine in places like Uzbekistan, for example, are way ahead of us. To see on Instagram my friends in Europe out at the park with their friends, or at a bar outside having their spritz in the evening…it’s hard to watch, for sure, but with that, I also have a lot of friends coming to me and asking, “What the hell is going on over there?!” And I’m not able to answer, because what is going on over here? It’s discouraging, for sure. You know, I have friends in Vietnam where they’ve had zero deaths, and something like 400 cases total. It really puts a big question mark behind American exceptionalism. But I think it’s helpful, because at the beginning of the pandemic it felt like there was this theory going around about how our interconnectedness is what led us to this, it’s why it spread so easily around the world because of how much people travel around the world and how porous borders are. While there’s truth to that, I think it’s that interconnectedness and cooperation that’s going to get us out of this. I think we’re seeing that now, because any decisions in policy-making over here, we need to be looking overseas to see what other places are doing right. I think that has, historically, been a hard thing for the US to do; the US has always thought they’re the ones doing the right thing. But I think now more than ever, it’s showing the US that they’ve got a lot to learn right now from Vietnam and Germany and…honestly, you name it. So I do think it is our connection to the rest of the world that will get us out of this eventually if we start looking around and listening.
It’s honestly embarrassing. Argentina is an example that comes to mind for me; I’ve spent a good bit of time there, and to see that even they’re doing better than us in terms of response is mind-boggling. I’ve been joking around that I might just buy a ticket to anywhere the day after the election to have a backup plan if things go to shit, but I know I can’t jump ship even if that does happen, first of all, but second of all, even if I wanted to, I don’t think I physically would be allowed.
Right, the countries that we can go to are less and less every day. It’s a humbling time to be in the US right now. I think I’m more grateful than ever for the experiences I’ve had overseas and what I’ve learned from other parts of the world, because there’s clearly a lot to learn.
Exactly. Now, what (besides the big bike ride and beach trip) have you been up to? Anything in particular you’re doing to stay positive? And are you freelancing at all?
I’ve been freelancing a bit here and there. I’ve expanded beyond travel, too, because there’s only so much to say about travel right now; there’s a lot of speculation, because no one has any idea what this new normal is going to look like, and it’s kind of a game of trial and error. It’s interesting to follow along and see, for example, airlines make new regulations and then take them away. No one has any idea what the hell they’re doing, clearly. So it’s interesting to follow that, but also, I just filed a piece for The Washington Post about Dungeons & Dragons.
It’s really expanded my repertoire, so to speak, which has been fun, you know? It’s been fun to branch out and think about things besides traveling. So yeah, I’ve been doing a little bit of freelancing, I’ve taken on some new pastimes, like biking (with the weather being nice), I’ve got my weekly Dungeons & Dragons games, I’ve been going on a lot of walks, and in terms of travel, I’ve been planning a lot of trips that I don’t think I’d do otherwise. Like my partner and I found this little cabin on Airbnb, and we talked to the owner, and they were very clear about how they build in time between guests and do a deep-clean every time. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the woods in New Jersey, and we don’t have a car since we’re New Yorkers, but we looked it up and said, “Okay, it’s 45 miles away. What if we bought some panniers for our bikes, loaded them up and rode our bikes up there to spend a couple of days hiking and cycling in the wilderness of New Jersey?” It’s not something I’d probably do a year ago; if we were doing that we’d have rented or borrowed a car, something like that, so it’s been fun to challenge ourselves and think about travel in new ways. But yeah, it’s honestly been an interesting flipside to this time stuck at home, is doing things I normally wouldn’t.
Well yeah, and you even touched on that sort of shift in perspective when we last spoke (before either of us I think had any idea of the massive impact all of this would have); you were talking about how there are always things to discover right in your own backyard that don’t necessarily require jet-setting. I’ve been trying to employ that during this time, too.
Absolutely. I also think (and it might just be me grasping at straws for some sort of positivity) there’s been an opportunity to press the reset button in a lot of ways, and that includes travel. I think there are multiple reckonings going on in the travel space; there’s obviously coronavirus and the public health emergency, but also, I think Black Lives Matter has made the travel industry take a long, hard look at itself (which was much needed and much overdue) about how it’s such a white dominated and white facing industry. And for years we’ve been talking about the environmental impacts of travel as well. This gives us an opportunity to rethink how we want to build this thing when things return to normal, or when there’s a new normal. So I’ve been trying to be encouraged by that; maybe this is a break in history that’s going to lead to some positive changes. Maybe we’ll travel with more intention. And I think part of developing that, traveling more intentionally, is doing stuff like I’m doing in a couple of weeks; what can I do within these constraints, instead of just booking a flight to Rome on a whim? You have to kind of get creative, and I think that’s a good thing.
Totally. And lastly, what’s your attitude moving forward?
Overall, I think my outlook right now is that I’m not putting a ton of pressure on myself productivity-wise. I understand and would be the first to recognize that it comes from a position of privilege, and that I’m healthy, I don’t need to be commuting to the grocery store every day for my job or whatever else, but I’m sort of channeling that into the fact that these are unprecedented times; it’s okay to feel weird at least once a day, it’s okay to feel like you’re not going to crank out the next great American novel in this free time you may have, and it’s okay to resist all the pressures of our ultra-capitalist society, to just take a minute and reexamine where you’re at and what you can do within these parameters and this situation we’re in. That’s kind of the approach I’m taking.