Sebastian Modak (IG: @sebmodak) is currently traveling around the world as the New York Times 52 Places Traveler, covering the New York Times Travel List of 52 Places to Go in 2019. Sebastian has lived in numerous countries, is a very talented journalist and skilled photographer.
First things first - where did you grow up?
I was born in the U.S. — in New Jersey — to a Colombian mother and an Indian father. We packed up and moved when I was 2 years old, and then kept moving every four years or so. I spent time in Hong Kong, Sydney, Delhi, and Jakarta, where I graduated from high school. I came back to the States for college and have mostly been here since, with the exception of Botswana, where I lived for about a year back in 2013.
Following up to this - you have written: What happens, then, when you’re raised in a shifting environment in which travel is home? When “home,” as we know it, is but one of many, always temporary, stops on a rootless journey around the world? Being a child of expats, you grew up traveling throughout the world after being born in the U.S. How has this upbringing influenced your world-view and perspectives?
That's a big question, because I really do think it's defined who I am, not just influenced my perspective. Living between, and never quite in, worlds like that means you can't really be an authority on any of them. I think that's bred an openness in how I confront the world — I try to just go into anything new assuming I'm wrong about it, that there's someone out there that knows more about it than I do. And hey, I'm basically always right about that. That's what unlocks the best travel experiences in my opinion. You need that sense of helplessness and humility to really be immersed in a place. My constant state of not-quite-belonging means I like to think I've had this sense of wonder and openness instilled in me from a young age (thanks, parents!). It wasn't until I was older though that I realized that — and I've tried my damnedest to really lean into it.
You also have written about being a "third culture kid" - what exactly is this? What is it like meeting people with similar backgrounds to yours?
It's a desperate attempt for people like me to find some semblance of belonging. I'm only half-joking. It's a term that a sociologist/psychologist came up with back in the day to describe kids of expats — at the time, mostly Americans. It's since expanded to include essentially anyone who was raised in a society different from the one they are technically "from" — and oftentimes that place is constantly changing. So, you've got the culture of your parents, the culture of the place you're in, and this amorphous third culture, shared by all the culturally confused kids like you. And there's a bond that comes from that. I can meet someone who grew up in a completely different set of international schools around the world and it's like we're members of the same pack — I can immediately relate and, more often than not, we'll have friends in common.
I fully recognize the privilege I've been granted through that upbringing, and I can see readers rolling their eyes at the apparent elitism of this nomadic club. But I think those are all things that third culture kids have to reckon with too — with great rootlessness and a kind of ever-present state of alienation comes the need for great introspection and self-awareness... I think we also need to recognize that immigrants — even if they've lived in the same place for their whole lives (and that may be what differentiates them from classic "TCKs") — bring a similar perspective to things, one that's super valuable in the times we're living in.
You recently had the honor of being named the New York Times Traveler for 52 places for 2019 out of hundreds of applications - your background seems like a perfect fit for this role - what do you hope to accomplish this year?
52 deadlines met, each one right on time? No, in all seriousness, I want to learn. I want to put myself out there like I never have before, because that's when the strangest, most wonderful, and most beneficial things happen while traveling. I want to tell stories that make people want to travel, but also offer a glimpse into a place for people who might not be able to travel. I want to turn my own preconceptions and expectations upside down and do the same for my readers. I want to make a lot of friends. I want to eat all the things.
What have the past few months been like? Any highlights you'd like to chat about?
The first two months definitely felt like a trial by fire in many ways. There's only so much prep you can do for something this crazy. Eventually, you've just gotta dive in and go for it. I've been packing in as much as possible into every day and as a result two months have felt like six — in a good way. Some highlights? Diving with a whale shark in Coiba National Park in Panama, after not having gone scuba diving for ten years; all the things I ate and the people I ate them with in Houston; snowshoeing on Lake Superior in search of ice caves... There are so many and the trip has hardly even begun.
Do you like being a "stranger" in these new places? What do you like so much being on the road?
I love the fact that I'm a stranger, that I'm starting with a blank slate with everyone I meet.
I really do like it. Traveling alone really elevates that stranger status. But I've found it makes meeting people, breaking down barriers, and indulging in the unfamiliar even easier. I need to say first that unfortunately all of this is a lot easier being a man on the road alone than a woman. I can more easily let my guard down—and I often do. If I look out of place, alone at a bar, someone's gonna talk to me. And in my experience that can open up a whole other place than the one you've been experiencing until then. I love the fact that I'm a stranger, that I'm starting with a blank slate with everyone I meet. It's one of the greatest thrills of travel, if you ask me.
What kind of people have you met on your 52 trips so far? How have the ever-changing meals been?
Once, when I was traveling in Southern Africa with an old college friend she said, kind of absent-mindedly, "The people you can't imagine..." That was around 10 years ago and it still is a constant refrain in my head when I'm traveling, especially on this trip. The people I've met have been amazing and there's nothing like a trip like this to just reaffirm your faith in humanity. Rockabilly musicians in Vegas have invited me into their homes; I was up until 2:30 in the morning at a bar in Columbus with a bunch of people I didn't know at 5 p.m.; more than one person in Puerto Rico canceled their plans because they just really wanted to show me something on their island.
And obviously the meals have been amazing...
I'm not a picky eater - in fact, I'm just the opposite - so I'm down to go elbow deep into whatever plate happens to wind up in front of me. It's an approach that hasn't really failed me yet...
What are some places you are most excited to visit of the 52 places - why?
There's nowhere I'm not excited about. There's always a new story to tell even in a place where you might think there are none, or a place you already know pretty well (and there are a couple on the list that I do). But, in general, I'm most excited about the places that are hardest to get to for whatever reason. That includes Iran, which has long been off-limits because of geo-political machinations and not any actual people-to-people interactions. Also, Lake Baikal in Siberia just because it's logistically hard to get to. Senegal and the Gambia are up there on my list too — I'm a drummer and percussionist and have long been a fan of the music that comes out of that region. Hopefully, I'll be able to get back behind a djembe while I'm there. The list really does go on and on though... So many exciting spots on the list.
If you could bring along any three people (living or dead) on the road with you, to the top place you want to visit this year, who would it be and why?
The first would for sure be my partner, Maggie. We've had some incredible trips in the past together - and we have a similar approach to travel in that we really like embracing serendipity and going with the flow. Travel is best shared and there's no one I'd rather share it with.
I miss Anthony Bourdain and wish I would have had the opportunity to travel with him before he was gone. He's a big reason I even got interested in travel storytelling, and he's shaped the way I find, interpret, and tell stories in a big way. I know there's so much more I could have learned from him.
There are so many people to choose from, but I think I'm going to go with David Attenborough for number three. I just want him to point at things and explain them to me everywhere we go. It would be educational and it would keep me calm in even the most stressful situations.
(cover photo credit: Bob Thissen)