Last year, for the first time, we sent one intrepid traveler, Jada Yuan, to all 52 destinations on our Places to Go list. This year, we decided to do it again. Once again, we got applicants from around the world and from a variety of backgrounds (meet some of them here). After weeks of assessing them, we settled on a handful of finalists. From that group, we chose Sebastian Modak, one of our finalists from last year, and a journalist with an impressive background and résumé. Just weeks before he sets off to his first destination — Puerto Rico, which took the No. 1 spot on the list this year — we asked him some questions about himself and the trip ahead.
So, how does it feel to be the 52 Places Traveler for 2019?
In a word: surreal. It’s a lot of emotions at once — gratitude, excitement, anxiety — but mostly I’m still finding it hard to wrap my head around it concretely. I’m starting to think the sheer scope of what I’m doing won’t hit me until I make landfall in the first destination and start reporting. Luckily, data scientists at the travel aggregator Kayak have helped us sketch out an itinerary for the year in advance — as they did last year for Jada — so I have some sense of what the structure of my year looks like. That said, this trip wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if I knew exactly what to expect, right? I’m ready to embrace all the uncertainty that comes with an opportunity like this and see where it takes me.
Have you been following Jada Yuan, our 2018 Traveler? Anything in particular you’ve picked up from her dispatches?
I’ve read every one. It’s been a real pleasure following along and I know I’ve got some big, well-worn shoes to fill. My favorite moments from Jada’s dispatches were the interactions that, on the surface, may seem everyday, but in actuality tell much bigger stories about a place: a night out in Kigali, a meal in La Paz, a haphazardly assembled trip-planning committee in China built out of nothing but the kindness of strangers. Those stories get at the heart of why we travel. I’m hoping to bring the same openness and down-for-anything attitude that led Jada to those moments.
In a couple of ways, you have a background uniquely suited to this gig.
I do feel like I’ve been working toward doing something like this my whole life. I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother and an Indian father, but we left for Hong Kong when I was 2 years old and continued to move every few years. My brothers and I didn’t really grow up with the concept of “home,” because we understood every place was temporary. It made travel the only real constant in our lives. January marks five years in New York City, though, and that puts it in a joint first-place spot for the longest I’ve stayed anywhere — tied with Indonesia and India.
For me, travel is all about immersing yourself in the unfamiliar, and embracing the feeling of humility that comes with that: There’s always something to learn from someone else, from somewhere else. That’s what made me choose a career in multimedia storytelling. I was a Fulbright-mtvU fellow in Botswana, where I spent a year documenting the local hip-hop scene. I was a producer on an MTV series that looked at the role of the arts in protest movements around the world. Most recently, I was an editor and then a staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler, where I was often sent on assignment to find and report stories that resonate with a global and globally curious audience. I think the thread that connects all of these experiences is an insatiable sense of wonder at the world around me.