Mistakes? In 3 Months on the Road, I’ve Made a Few

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. He writes this week from Uzbekistan, after a stop in Doha, Qatar.

There’s no way to fully prepare for a trip to 52 places around the world. I predicted as much when I applied for the job and I know it now, three months into my 12-month journey. I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran at this point — talk to my predecessor Jada Yuan for that — but I’m a lot more comfortable with this hyper-peripatetic existence now than I was in the first two weeks, which felt like two months.

These days, time is moving closer to a pace I recognize as minutes, hours and days; I can pack up my belongings, no matter how scattered they are, in 10 minutes flat (I’ve timed it); and I have so many travel apps on my phone I’ve had to separate them into sub-folders like “Flights,” “Hotels,” and “Maps.” These are some of the biggest lessons learned from three months on the road so far.

It started with a pop. In Doha’s new National Museum of Qatar, somewhere between the exhibition on prehistoric fauna and early human inhabitants, came a shooting, electric pain in my upper back. Moving with all the grace of the Tin Man, I took my backpack off, carried it with both hands and continued shuffling through the museum. I finished the day, saw more museums, woke up the next morning and went for several long, albeit rigid, walks around the city. I took a red-eye economy class flight to Uzbekistan. By my second day in Tashkent, I was all but immobile. I spent most of a day horizontal, awake and thinking of nothing but the pain.

I had overdone it, carrying my backpack full of camera gear wherever I went, walking for hours and hours at a time, taking long flights and hitting the streets as soon as I dropped my suitcase off at the hotel. My back was saying, “That’s enough,” but also, “You asked for it.”

After more rest and an emergency massage, I felt better, and I have since changed the way I do things. If I can, I limit what I carry every day to what I can fit in a cross-shoulder camera bag, versus my 45-liter backpack. More important, I’ve started stretching for about 15 minutes twice a day. It’s nothing complicated, a few basic moves I’ve learned from watching other, more flexible people do yoga. I’m now also going a step beyond that, building core strengthening exercises into my routine, so that this doesn’t happen again.

It’s not easy: Back home I basically only exercised when it was nice out. It’s difficult enough bringing routines from home onto the road, but building and creating new ones while uprooting my life and resetting it every week can feel Sisyphian.

Better that though, than being flat on my back because I didn’t listen the first time.

“Go for it. This is what travel is all about.” That is what the voice in my head says whenever I’m traveling. It’s always been that way. Travel has long been the only excuse I needed to eat something I never thought I’d eat, start a conversation with someone I never thought I’d meet. But I’ve come to realize that there’s an amorphous, often shifting line between different types of risk — those worth taking in the spirit of openness and those where the potential reward is outweighed by the potential danger.

Of the former, I’ve found myself taking more of them than at any other point in my life. I’ve gotten into cars with strangers, lured by the promise of a good meal. I’ve given my phone number to more people than I can count. I’ve opted for an after-dinner walk alone, despite my phone battery being alarmingly low, instead of jumping into a cab. These are all risks I feel I personally can handle and ones I recognize I’m comfortable taking because I’m a 6’2”, able-bodied male. I’m helped too, I’ve come to realize, by my ethnic ambiguity: I can blend into the crowd in a lot of places around the world, versus sticking out as an obvious tourist.

And then there are the other risks — like, fresh off a flight, driving 12 hours through a blizzard, from Detroit to the ice caves of Ontario. As night fell, I could feel my hands shaking whenever I pulled over to catch a real breath instead of the panicked shallow gasps I’d fallen into while driving. I saw two cars spin out in the snow and ice. There were moments when I didn’t know if I was even on the road.

It was stupid. I passed many roadside motels that I should have checked into and called it a night, but I kept telling myself, “This is an adventure — it’s all part of traveling the world.” The next day, when Midwesterners and Canadians, far more experienced with winter driving than this tropical boy, were telling me that even they had postponed their trips, I realized how foolish I was. Some risks just aren’t worth taking — no matter how good the story.

The same goes for the 52 Places trip over all. As regular readers will know, Iran was the place on the list I was most looking forward to visiting. That excitement has only increased, as I’ve received daily messages on Instagram from Iranians excited to show me their home and as I’ve met members of the Iranian diaspora everywhere (and I mean every single place on the list) that I go.

But as HQ has looked deeper into trip logistics it looks like going to Iran is next to impossible. With geopolitical tensions high, the likelihood of getting a journalism visa, as an American working for The New York Times, is next to zero. Even if I managed that, in consulting with security experts, the risks of deportation or detention are just too high. It’s a chance I’ve had to accept is just not worth taking right now, even if it pains me to admit it.

This is a job — even if it’s one that I never thought would exist, let alone be my job. With a limited amount of time in each place, I have to be constantly switched on, ready to capture what’s happening around me. I have to be prepared to hit record on my phone when a fruit seller in Puerto Rico starts advertising her wares. It could make great material for an Alexa audio dispatch! I have to be ready to shoot vertical video on my phone, for an Instagram story, or pull up my camera when the light hits a patch of snow in Wyoming just so. At least, that’s how I functioned in the first few stops on this trip. I’d wake up early and be on the go, documenting my surroundings, interviewing people and thinking about stories until I collapsed into a pile of deep sleep at around midnight.

It wasn’t until Doha, stop number 11, that I realized how that approach, even when it is making you zero in on details, can actually take you out of the experience of traveling. I was wandering through Souq Waqif, the city’s old marketplace, taking photos, when I stopped and thought back to the alleyway I had just walked through. I realized I couldn’t recall a single detail of what I had just seen — seconds ago.

I’m enforcing a new policy. I’ll keep documenting as much as I possibly can, but I’m also giving myself at least one afternoon in each place — three to four hours — to wander without any of my gear. I even keep my phone in my pocket and Google Maps closed. This is a reporting trip, but it’s also a once in a lifetime experience. I don’t want to look back on it and find that my only memories are the photos on my hard drive.

For a multi-destination trip, I knew I’d have to pack for a range of climates. So, on my first leg that took me to the scorching beaches of Panama and the icescape of Lake Superior, I went with a 50-50 approach to my luggage. There were t-shirts and shorts on one side and a pair of giant snow boots and layered thermals on the other. I didn’t even end up using the snow boots in Ontario. Appropriate though they might be for winter in New York, the proprietor at the lodge I was staying at took one look at them and handed me a pair of thigh-high waterproof moccasins. I used my own boots for snowy days in Cheyenne, Wyo. — and that was about it.

Space is everything when going for a marathon trip and I made the mistake of wasting a huge chunk of it. I should have found some boots in the one or two very cold places on the early stops of my list and donated them immediately after. It’s an extra expense to be sure, but if it meant having more space for things I’d actually use — and the resulting savings on laundry — it would have been worth it. In Panama, for example, I bought a pair of overpriced flip-flops to tide me over while on the beach and then gave them to another traveler before I left. In Doha, I bought a tie for a formal event (I was still underdressed but gave the perennial “I’m a journalist” excuse). It was small enough to pack away without taking up room, and it might come in handy down the road.

During my stint in New York, I repacked my bag and only included things I could wear everyday, including as much as possible that could be used in multiple climates — either as a T-shirt, for example, or a base layer. I’m finding I have to struggle a lot less to close my suitcase at the end of each place and that, when laundry day comes around, it’s because I’ve used every last stitch I brought with me.

Travelers of Twitter: I was like you once. When I announced on Twitter that I had given up on my efforts to travel with only a carry-on, the reaction was a mix of shock and outrage. People predicted how quickly my checked-in suitcase would disappear. There were GIFs and emojis expressing exasperation. One person simply wrote, with the clear tone of a disappointed parent, “Sebastian.” I second-guessed myself on my first stop, when I arrived in San Juan’s airport and that bag didn’t.

But now, three months in, I stand by my decision. Not everywhere has easy-to-find laundromats and hotel laundry might be the biggest scam in the world of travel. Doing laundry is a chore that always feels like a time suck, even when at home. When traveling, I can’t think of a worse generator of FOMO than being elbow-deep in suds in a hotel room sink when I could be out on a walk. I was able to pack two weeks of clothes into my suitcase (this was also my first foray into packing cubes and — yes!), which means I’ll only have to do laundry 26 times, instead of at every stop. That alone is worth the bubbling anxiety I feel at every baggage claim conveyor belt.