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Meet Sebastian Modak, the 2019 New York Times 52 Places traveler

INSIDER logoINSIDER 4/24/2019 Amanda Krause
a man riding a snowboard down a snow covered slope © Ellen Van Laar

In 2019, there are tons of dream jobs on the market for people who love to travel. Some companies offer free flights to people who delete Instagram, while others pay people to live in remote Italian villages for three months at a time.

Still, there's arguably no job more coveted among travelers than becoming The New York Times' 52 Places Traveler. Each year, the publication releases a list of 52 must-see travel destinations for the year, and then selects a lucky - and very qualified - person to visit each location.

This year's traveler is journalist Sebastian Modak, 30, who has an impressive travel and reporting background.

Sebastian Modak has been traveling since he was a child

Modak was born in New Jersey to a Colombian mother and Indian father. He moved to Hong Kong with his family at the age of 2, and continued to move every few years as a result of his father working in telecommunications, and later as a consultant. Modak has since lived in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Botswana, to name a few. 

Speaking to INSIDER, Modak said he always viewed his childhood homes as temporary.

"Nowhere was home, and everywhere was new," Modak said.

colorful graffiti on the side of the road © Pooja Salhotra

Modak turned his nomadic childhood into a career, and applied to be The New York Times' 52 Places Traveler

"I always knew I wanted to travel, and that took many forms over the years," Modak said.

He first worked as an academic writer, and then began a Fulbright-mtvU fellowship in Botswana where he reported on local hip-hop music. A musician himself, Modak later took on a producer role at MTV in New York City, and eventually worked as a traveling musician. Before becoming The New York Times' 52 Places Traveler, he worked as an editor and writer at Condé Nast Traveler.

a group of people standing on a sidewalk © Loreana González Lazzarini

By 2018, The New York Times had posted its first job listing for a 52 Places Traveler, and Modak became a finalist among more than 13,000 hopeful travelers. But, despite his efforts, Modak didn't get the job, and instead journalist Jada Yuan was chosen for the role.

"It was tough, because I'd felt like I'd put my best foot forward last year," Modak said. "But when this year's application came around, I was like, 'let's give this a shot.'"

Modak received another email from The New York Times while at a holiday party in 2019, and initially thought it was a rejection notice. But once he realized that he'd gotten the job, Modak said he was "in pure shock." Nearly two months later, when speaking to INSIDER, Modak said he still feels "incredulous" and "grateful for the opportunity."

The New York Times and Kayak worked together to plan Modak's trip

According to Modak, he "wasn't too involved in the nitty gritty" of travel planning. Instead, a team of people at The New York Times worked alongside the travel-search site Kayak to figure out how he would get from one destination to the next.

"Luckily, there are people at The New York Times who helped with the logistics," Modak said. "And Kayak has been amazing with routing. Crisscrossing over countries is inevitable, but Kayak limited that and figured it out." 

At the time of writing, Modak has traveled to 10 destinations out of the 52 on his list: Puerto Rico, Panama, Texas, Ontario, Las Vegas, Wyoming, Ohio, Alabama, Virginia, and New York.

The traveler had to be practical when packing for his long journey

To prepare for his trip, Modak said he "favored practicality over fashion," packing clothes that he knew he could "spend a lot of time in." He also divided his year "into segments," and planned to restock on essentials when he revisited New York, his home and the 31st destination on the list, in March.

Still, Modak knew that he'd face a variety of different climates within a short time frame. For example, he visited both the beaches of Panama, and the ice caves of Ontario, Canada, within the first three weeks of his trip, so he made sure to pack essentials like snow boots and jackets first.

a sunset over a beach © Sebastian Modak/New York Times

Over the years, Modak has learned that there are two garments people should never travel without

While visiting Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the middle of February, Modak found himself staying at what he described as a "crappy" hotel. But to his surprise, he found that it had a beautiful hot tub.

"You always need a bathing suit, even when you least expect it," Modak said.

The traveler also credits Smartwool products, a brand of socks and other apparel made from the wool of Merino sheep, with being convenient and practical.

"Smartwool is great for very different temperatures, and you don't need to wash it," Modak said. "That stuff is amazing."

a person that is standing in the snow © Ellen Van Laar

When traveling to a new destination, it's mostly up to Modak to figure out what he'll do once he arrives

"I try to have some idea of what I'll do, and I know why each place is on the list," Modak said. "But social media is amazing to figure everything out."

At the time of INSIDER's interview with the traveler, Modak had just arrived in Virginia and hadn't yet embarked on any adventures in the state. Still, he didn't seem too worried about not having any set plans. Modak recounted a similar situation he faced after arriving in Huntsville, Alabama, earlier in his trip.

"I didn't know anyone in Huntsville, but someone hit me up on Instagram and offered to show me around," Modak said.

"We ended up spending quite a bit of time together, as she showed me her favorite spots and introduced me to some fascinating people, including a former rocket scientist who now builds guitars out of a shop in Lowe Mill, the largest privately-held arts facility in the country," he continued.

And when INSIDER reconnected with Modak a few weeks later, the traveler said he ended up having "a great time" in Virginia.

"I kind of found that a lot of Americans - especially people who grew up in the Northeast - are a little disillusioned with Colonial Williamsburg and the Historic Triangle, because they were 'forced' to go on school field trips," Modak said. "I didn't grow up here, so I was all in."

"I loved it and ate up all the reenactments and cheesiness that comes with it," he continued. "But Williamsburg is also at a bit of a pivotal moment, reconciling with the less rosy parts of its history, like the fact that, at one point, around half the population of Williamsburg were slaves."

Today, Williamsburg pays homage to that population through a program called Nation Builders, in which actors portray black historic figures who originally helped found the city. Through the program, visitors can "meet" people like Edith Cumbo, a free black woman who lived there in the 1770s, and Gowan Pamphlet, the only ordained black preacher in 1772.

"I met a lot of people who are working hard to tell those stories and show that our 'nation builders' aren't just white dudes with powdered wigs," he said.

Modak said that it's generally 'easy' to connect with locals when traveling

"You have to take some risks," Modak said. "But in my experience, it's easy to do that. People have a lot of pride in where they're from."

However, Modak says that connecting with strangers over social media isn't always feasible, and acknowledges that it's easier taking risks like this as a man.

"I constantly think about the privilege of traveling as a solo man, versus a solo female traveler," Modak said. "I take risks constantly - getting into strangers' cars, giving out my phone number, meeting up with people who reach out to me online - that I think would be harder to do if I was a woman."

He also said that while a lot of his experiences "start out like the beginning of a horror movie," he's "had nothing but good experiences" as a result.

"I wrote about it in my most recent column, but you have to know your own individual risk threshold," Modak said. "Where do you drawn the line? I, as a tall cis dude, have the privilege of being able to draw the line a little farther than what I think some other solo travelers would."

Taking certain risks and trusting strangers has led to some of the best experiences on Modak's yearlong assignment.

"I've been able to drink beer on an isolated beach in Puerto Rico with people I just met, spend an afternoon playing pool with total strangers at a dive bar in Las Vegas, dig in to plates of Nepalese food in Qatar, and more," he said. "All of them because I took an initial risk to get there."

Still, Modak feels that it's most important to know what you're personally comfortable with "before diving into the unknown."

a person swimming in the water © Sebastian Modak

And when in doubt, the traveler recalls a quote from last year's New York Times 52 Places traveler, Jada Yuan.

"Jada said that the vast majority of people are good, and just as curious as you are," Modak said. "That leads to experiences that travel is all about. You have to decide what you want to get out of a trip, and be open to serendipity."

With 42 destinations left on his list, Modak still has a lot of traveling to do 

He's set to visit Slovakia, Vietnam, and Croatia, among other places, in the coming months. But the seasoned traveler is most intrigued by a place on his list that he says has been "inaccessible" to him in the past: Siberia.

While he doesn't know exactly what he'll do once he arrives there late this year, he's OK with that. Modak is instead focused on enjoying his time in the country of Georgia, where he is currently.

"The thrill of this job - and what I hope leads to interesting reporting - is the fact that I don't really have time to be super prepared in each place," he continued. "I hit the ground running and figure it out as I go. I'm learning that can be a really wonderful way to travel."

To view the full list of 52 Places to Go in 2019 and follow Sebastian Modak's journey, visit The New York Times

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