Fifty-two countries, 88 flights, 45 train trips, and 48 boat rides and Sebastian Modak managed to miss only one plane and lose just two items: a pair of sunglasses and swim trunks. Pretty impressive.
Even more impressive? Modak, 31, just wrapped up his gig as “The 52 Places Traveler,” for which he visited all 52 places on The New York Times’ annual “52 Places to Travel” list in the span of a year. That’s a new place every single week.
Modak has been back home in New York City for just a few weeks, but when the 2020 list dropped the day of our interview he told Insider “there are definitely a few places that I wish I could get to. I mean, I might still get to this year.”
Despite having flown 119,772 miles over the last year, Modak has still got the travel bug
He has been traveling since he was a child, after all, though on a less intense schedule.
Born in New Jersey to a Colombian mother and Indian father, he moved from one country to the next every few years as a result of his father’s work in telecommunications, and previously told Insider that he always viewed his childhood homes as temporary.
As an adult, he’s lived in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Botswana, to name a few, and has worked as a traveling musician, an MTV producer, and an editor and writer at Condé Nast Traveler, thus making him a natural fit for the role of The New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler.
Naturally, traveling to 52 destinations hand-selected by experts on someone else’s dime sounds like a dream – and it is – but it’s also a job
Modak spent an average of six days in every destination, going from one to the next, to the next, without breaks to go home.
“I didn’t have a day off for a full year. No weekends, no day off. There was always something to do every day,” Modak said, adding that he slept an average of five or six hours that whole year.
“It was like the ultimate FOMO. It’s not just that you fear you’re going to miss out on having an experience that you can have as a traveler, in a vacation area, I also wanted to get up early and hit the road because I had to, because I needed to take more photos and find a story, interview more people. So I had that pressure throughout the whole year,” he explained.
“Yeah it was a dream job. It was also the hardest job I’ve ever had. I think probably the hardest job I ever will have.”
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Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy
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Skopelos Island, Greece
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Turtle Bay Resort, Oahu island, Hawaii, US
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New York City, New York, US
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’: New York City, New York, US
Hobbiton Movie Set, Matamata, New Zealand
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’: Matamata, New Zealand
Al-Khazneh, Petra, Jordan
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Wadi Rum, Jordan
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Varda Viaduct, Turkey
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Lake Palace, Udaipur, India
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Khao Phing Kan, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
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Fox Plaza, Los Angeles, California, US
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Schloss Hellbrunn, Salzburg, Austria
‘The Sound Of Music’: Schloss Hellbrunn, Salzburg, Austria
However, he also says that being on the clock made for more rewarding experiences than traveling for pleasure might have
“I was going into each place looking for a story, wanting to meet people. That led to so many experiences that I would never have if I was just on vacation,” he explained.
Modak took 88 one-way flights to get to all 52 places, booking each leg only around two weeks in advance to avoid any sort of domino effect that could happen from one thing going wrong
While he did have someone helping him with bookings and research, he said he preferred not to plan too much.
“You can’t be a planner. I usually didn’t know anything beyond where I was staying when I got on a plane to the next place. Sometimes I didn’t necessarily even know that. I think having that openness really led to some of my best experiences because I just kind of went in, down for anything, flying by the seat of my pants,” he said.
“For the most part, it really worked out. I think if I had planned everything down to the minute I would have had a very, very different experience, and not nearly as rewarding,” he said.
Modak thinks everyone should go into new places with the curiosity of a journalist: ‘It’s just going to open them up so much more to you.’
The only real structure Modak adhered to was spending the very first day in every new place writing, as he had to file a story every week.
“I just didn’t want to get the momentum going in a new place and then have to put the brakes on to spend a day writing and organizing photos, and everything else. So I tried to get it out of the way at first.”
Generally, he liked to knock out famous sights and attractions in a day, when possible, and then spend the rest of his time talking to locals, taking long walks, and just “exploring and seeing what happens.” Information that was readily available online was of no interest to Modak, as “someone already told those stories.”
“I’ve just kind of put myself into the hands of total strangers and it’s basically always paid off,” he said.
He feels that the way people travel is changing, and that they are becoming more interested in unique experiences
While he says he hates the word “authentic,” Modak believes that travel is slowly shifting to become that way, and that people want to experience more “than nice hotels and a piña colada at the beach.”
He believes that people want to experience places as locals, rather than tourists, which is why he thinks Airbnb is so popular.
“I think it leads to more interaction, more cultural exchange, more empathy,” he said.
Traveling solo for a year got lonely occasionally, but Modak also learned to ‘find bliss in solitude’
“I think I learned a lot about myself. I spent a lot of time with my own thoughts. Since I’ve been back up I’ve found myself craving alone time, which wasn’t a thing that I really craved before,” he said. “I’m definitely more of an extroverted person. I think it taught me to be comfortable with being alone, and even enjoy it.”
Of course, he also admits to having moments of “soul-crushing loneliness,” like when he saw an incredible sunset in the Netherlands, turned around to be faced with a rainbow, and had no one to share it with.
Meeting people wasn’t an issue, though.
“I always knew that around the corner there was something that was going to snap me out of it, or I was going to meet someone and, you know, suddenly have a new best friend,” Modak said.
He wants anyone scared of solo travel to understand that there is such a thing as bliss in solitude.
Modak’s year on the road also taught him to downsize and be more organized
“Traveling like this made me realize how little I actually need,” he said. “I came back to New York and the second day here I took a trip to Goodwill and donated three-quarters of my clothes because I was like, ‘I clearly don’t need this stuff. I lived off these 10 shirts for a whole year.'”
He also learned to be more organized, getting packing down to an eight-minute exercise. He said that packing cubes were a game-changer that “streamlined everything,” and credits them with the fact that he only lost two things all year.
“I knew where everything lived and I knew where it lived in my bag, so I knew if something was missing,” he said. “So that’s how I got [packing] down to a science and it changed everything. I’m never going back now. I am packing cubes and pouches all the way.”
While he couldn’t pick a favorite place out of the 52 he visited in 2019, Modak says that Siberia surprised him the most
“In terms of places that really blew my mind that I didn’t know they would, Siberia is definitely up there,” he said, remembering a visit to Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake.
“It was just like I had entered some other, ethereal plane of existence. Like the light was different. The air was different, the people were incredible,” he said. “The nature was unbelievable.”
However, he says that every place has the potential to be incredible
“Something that I’ve been saying a lot since I’ve got back is that I think everywhere, and I mean everywhere, has something that is going to blow you away if you look hard enough,” he said.
“I think if you go in without expectations – or at least the only expectation you have is that you’re going to find something to love – you’re going to find something to love.”