SEBASTIAN MODAK gained acclaim as the New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler in 2019, visiting all 52 places on the Times’ Places To Vist List. Currently serving as Editor at Large for Lonely Planet, Sebastian is a seasoned global storyteller with a unique perspective on the impact travel can have not only on the traveler, but on the places they visit. Matador spoke with Sebastian about the 52 Places trip, as well as current travel trends heading into what looks to be a busy summer 2022 travel season.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matador Network: What are you seeing as current travel trends coming into 2022?
Sebastian Modak: Any predictions go out the window immediately in this day and age, right? So I don’t want to be the one saying, ‘It’s coming back full swing!”
I think this year was unlike any other in that we were putting places on the [Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2022] list that it was unclear whether people were going to be able to get on a plane and go as soon as the list came out. It became more of a celebration of travel, and the reasons why we travel. It was more like, “Here’s a reason to celebrate the people of Nepal.”
The past two years have given me a lot of time to reflect on why I travel and what I try to get out of travel, and the values that I place on myself as a traveler. I think a lot of people have done that. Which I think means we’re all going to be traveling a little slower, a little more intentionally, if only because it’s such a pain to do it. Maybe we’ll think a little bit more about it before we do it, and be able to get more out of it, and give back a little bit.
You hear about places like Rome, that have been flogged with tourists for years. In terms of over-tourism, what do you see as the way forward?
The 52 Places trip was an awakening for me in a lot of ways. Because I was going to so many places in so little time, I didn’t have the flexibility to say, “I’m going to go to this place in the best time of year.” I had to be in Senegal at the hottest, most humid, rainiest time of year. I had to be in Canada in the middle of winter.
One of my main takeaways when I came away from all of that was that our idea of high season and low season, and the best time to go, is a load of BS. It’s all marketing. In fact, going to a place when it’s the “wrong time to go” can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have while traveling. Because that’s when you really get to know people. You’re not just one of a horde of tourists. Maybe the weather’s not as great. Just put on a raincoat and go outside and meet some people. We need to reorient how we think about seasons and what that means for travel.
Especially when you’re talking about a country like Italy, a country like France. Why are we all going to the same places? Those countries are full of beautiful, enriching, incredible experiences. We need to spread the love a little bit.
There was a particular Conde Nast article you wrote where you referred to yourself as a Third Culture Kid. Can you explain what you mean by that?
I grew up essentially without roots, in a lot of ways. My mother is from Colombia, my father’s from India, I was born in the States but we left when I was two. Because of my dad’s work, we moved every four years or so. So I was in Hong Kong, and then Australia, and then India, and then I went to high school in Indonesia. I came to the States for college, and that’s mostly where I’ve been ever since.
The term “third culture kid” was a term I learned about while essentially being a “third culture kid.” In an international school, they used to talk about it a lot as a way to give these sort of anchorless kids some sense of identity to grab onto. It’s essentially people who grew up between cultures. The culture of their parents, the culture of the place where they happen to be living at the time, and the third culture of that shared identity that you share with other people that have that same lived experience.
It was an incredibly charmed, privileged existence to live that way, to have that access to cultures that weren’t my own. And to come up at some a young age to put so much value on respecting other cultures and learning from other cultures, and admitting your own ignorance of other cultures and being willing to learn. I think that was instilled from a very young age, as was the joy of travel, and the meaning of travel, that it’s not just an extractive business about you just going to make yourself a better person and leaving. It’s about exchange and about conversations and about connections.
The flip side was that I never had that concept of home, and of going back home.
When reporting the 52 Places trip, where you’re in so many different places, what stood out to you that allowed you to turn around a story on a completely different place on a weekly basis?
I was going to a lot of places where one, I didn’t have time to become even close to an authority. And two, I was going to a lot of places that a lot of people were never going to go to. I had to find reasons for people to read it, even if they weren’t going to go. I was always on the lookout for universals, things that would resonate with the readers.
To do that I had to go in with that open mind, open book mentality. There were definitely circumstances where I’d be hitting day four of six, and I’m sitting there going, “I have no idea what the story is here.” Las Vegas was on the list. I went in there with the wrong mindset, I already was like, “I’ve never been to Las Vegas, I don’t like Las Vegas.”
By day four, I was sitting there like, “I’ve got nothing new to say about this place, it’s all very surface level, there’s nothing to see here.” And then I was in the back of a Lyft, talking to the driver. He was asking what I was doing here and I was explaining my job.
He was like, “I see that I’m taking it to your hotel, but is it cool actually if I take you to meet some of my friends?”
So he takes me to this neighborhood called Paradise Palms where it’s all these people who live in model houses from the 1950s, and they dress like it’s the 1950s and play in rockabilly bands. It’s like this time portal, and I ended up spending the next three days with them and just seeing this whole other side of Vegas that leans so heavily into nostalgia.
It became a story not only about that community, but about being open to experiences. That’s an example of how the reporting often went, where it was two or three days of freaking out, and two or three days of having the time of my life.
How did identity play out during the trip?
[There were things] I was able to do that I think were a lot harder to do for a woman traveling alone.
Identity plays out in other ways, too. When I was traveling I got the question alot, people would message me on Instagram and be like, “It looks like you’re having a great time but, is it safe?” And that would be a question that I’d often get, predictably, in Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, in part of Asia. No one asked me that when I was traveling around the US, or Europe, or Australia.
But the only time I felt really, really unsafe on the whole trip was in Australia, when I was tailed and yelled at by a couple of racist dudes who followed me in their car and started yelling racial slurs at me. It just goes to show that safety is not a blanket term, its so dependent on your outward identity.
You noted several times discussions you had with your partner while gone for a year. What advice do you have for people embarking on a long trip away from their partner to help soften the blow?
It’s gonna hurt at times. I’m a very extroverted person, I’ve never lived alone. It was tough for me, and it hit me really hard in Wyoming, of all places. I was driving on one of those straight Wyoming roads that goes on forever. Snowfields on either side of me as far as the eye can see. This John Prine song comes on, “Summer’s End,” which the chorus is, “Come on home, come on home, you don’t have to be alone.”
I just pulled over. I was overcome, I was crying in the car. I got through it and came out the other side, and I was like, “That felt good, that felt human.” I learned to really lean into the emotions. I could see the loneliness coming, the feelings coming, and I’d just lean into it.
It made me learn the difference between that feeling and the bliss that can come out of solitude, too.
It also made all those instances where I connected with strangers and had these life-affirming experiences with other people, it threw those into relief because I had something to compare it to.
My advice would be to stay in touch as best you can. And my other advice would be to not be afraid of feeling sad once in a while. Explore the good things that can come out of being alone. Instead of loneliness, find solitude.