There are some lessons you can only learn the hard way. After nearly an entire year on the road Sebastian Modak has had his fair share of travel disasters.

He has been tear gassed, missed countless flights and been refused entry to entire countries. Still he keeps catching plane after plane, having been set the challenge of visiting 52 places around the world in as many weeks.

"I'm on the final stretch. New Zealand is number 47," Sebastian Modak says with barely concealed relief as he arrives on the wet and windy West Coast. "I'm tired but I'd be an ass to complain."

Almost a year ago, Modak was chosen by the New York Times to be their 52 places blogger.


"I was actually at a Christmas party last year when I got the call that I would be this year's traveller."

Modak had been made redundant by a previous publication and was looking for a challenge. When he saw that the New York Times was advertising for a writer to visit the destinations in their 52 Places list, it seemed like a job he was destined to do.

The thirty-year-old travel writer from New York has led a nomadic life. Half Indian and half Colombian, he spent his childhood flying between different cities and cultures.
However, even for him the 52 Places challenge has been a change of pace.

Since receiving the call last December his feet have barely touched the ground.

"I've never booked so many one way flights in my life. It's literally a unique situation," he says.

"The paper has been writing a 52 Places list for a while now, but it's only the second time they've ever sent a writer to visit all of them."

While there were a number of skills a potential 52 Places blogger had to demonstrate the most important of all was stamina, said Modak.

"It wasn't just reporting skills they were after. Most of all they were looking for someone who wouldn't burn out."


It's this relentless energy and enthusiasm that has carried him through a web-like travel itinerary and a new place a week.

The constant excitement and of being somewhere new is enough to keep him going in an experience that he describes as an "adventure rush."

"I've been living off adrenaline for a year," he says arriving in New Zealand in time for the opening of the Paparoa Track.

New Zealand's Great Walk number 10 and the first multi-day track to be built in a quarter century earned a place on the New York Times' must see list for 2019.

The last time Modak was in New Zealand all he saw was dingy dive bars, a drum kit and the back of agent Mulder's head. As a band member for X-files star turned musician David Duchovny the New Yorker did plenty of travelling but didn't get much chance to take in the country.

This time he would have a chance to see a wilder side of New Zealand as one of the first international guests to get a preview of the track.

"The track has had some difficulties with only two sections open after some washouts. I couldn't do the whole thing," he explained, but what he did see was well worth the journey.

"I walked around five, six hours so less than 10 per cent of the whole track. But the sheer range of landscapes you pass through is spectacular."

After a year in which Modak has visited the acclaimed natural beauty spots of Norway, Switzerland and the Azores – this hike through New Zealand was in a league of its own.
"My biggest impression was just the amount of work that's gone into making it."

With less than a week to go there were still plenty of workers still on the track.

"It could have been that they were glad to see a fresh face – but they were clearly proud of what they were working on," said Modak.

And rightly so.

Having spent the year visiting the top tourist attractions in the world, Modak had not come across such an ambitious outdoor project anywhere else.

"It's unique that a country like New Zealand puts tax payers' dollars towards something like this."

With the opportunity to visit so many places for the first time and see others anew, there are plenty of things Modak says has learned as the 52 Places traveller. Some of which every traveller could benefit from.

Biggest surprise from a year on the road

Modak went on the journey not quite knowing what to expect from many places, or not knowing that some even existed.

"I don't believe in favourites" he says. "I've had such a short amount of time in each of these places.

"If you spend long enough anywhere you will wind something to blow your mind.
"Uzbekistan was one of the most surprising. It was just the serendipity of meeting people who went out of their way to show me the country.

"Norway again was spectacular. It's got the same quality that I've experienced driving out to the West Coast here. Every so often you have to pull over because your jaw has hit the floor.

"There's a reason why it's called Fiordland.

"Siberia too. I didn't know what to expect, beyond white. I met some of the warmest people and most unusual nature.

"However Hampi in India was something that really surprised me.

"I'm half Indian. Growing up I used to live in Delhi and I thought I knew all there was to see in the country, and felt reasonably well versed on the history.

"I was a history major in college. Then to find this place in South India it floored me and made me feel so ignorant. In a really good way.

"This is why we travel I guess, to be blown away.

The Toughest Place to report from

It turns out the hardest place to report from is the one you know best.

"New York was one of the stops this year," he explained, and though it was a welcome opportunity to come home it was also one he was most dreading.

"Writing about New York for a New York Times audience was intimidating."

"If there's a city where there's always something new to see, it's New York.

"But it's doubly difficult writing for an audience that knows a place. Or worse, thinks they know a place."

However, to show a new side to the city he decided to a visit on a - very literal - street level . To do this he walked the city, block by block.

"My girlfriend and I walked from the southern tip of Manhattan to the northern limit.
Although he admits: "We didn't quite make it. We did end up catching a subway for two stops in the end."

Racing the sun in South America

"South America was a travel nightmare," says Modak. " Just missed flights and complications everywhere."

"I missed the once a week chartered flight to the Falklands [from where I was in Brazil]. So instead of sitting around in Brazil for a week, I decided to bring my other travel plans forward.

"I booked the Mexico part of the trip that night. From there I had to get down to Chile and it took 50, (five-oh!), hours to fly. And I didn't even end up in the right place.
"Unfortunately I was travelling to see a total solar eclipse, so that put a little more pressure on me.

"I hired a rental car and drove overnight – windows down in a t-shirt – just to make it.
"There are lots of examples where things are just out of your hands.

Getting teargassed in the street and the one that got away

For all his perseverance, there will be one place on the list that Modak won't go to.
"At the end of the day I'm only going to 51 places."

"Iran has had to be dropped from the list. At the beginning of the year it seemed like things were opening up. But geopolitics are so that things can change so quickly. And as an American journalist I can't go.

"I still get messages from Iranians on Instagram asking me to come. It just shows that it's nothing personal."

There were other places where Modak was determined to visit, even if demonstrations and unrest had unsettled other travellers.

"Hong Kong was another place where the reality really changed from the beginning of the year.

"This was difficult because Hong Kong was a city I used to live in and still love. I didn't want to miss up an opportunity to show it in a different light. Particularly given the current coverage."

Although at times he admitted it was impossible not to have it affect his travelogue.
"I got teargassed on the street," he explains.

"It's hard to have a conversation without it swaying into politics."

"I'd hesitate to tell tourists to visit at the moment. It's a city I want to champion and encourage people to go but it's a decision I'm not willing to make for tourists, one way or another."

Lessons from the 52

If there are two pieces of advice for travellers Modak would share from his year on the road it would be to find a routine, and the other is to go with the flow.

"My advice to travellers is 'find your Zen'," he says.

"I have previously travelled a lot, and there were so many things that feed anxiety or get frustrated about."

"There's something about being a solo traveller doing the 52 that puts things into perspective."

A big part of that is realising that there are "things that are out of your control."
"Even mid-flight to Chile, when we were told that we diverting hours away from our destination - while families about me were crying, I was surprised by my own reaction, which was 'Yes, OK'."

The other trick is routine.

"I can now pack up my entire hotel room in 10 minutes. This is all down to packing light, and packing with a routine. I've got a system of packing pouches and squares and know exactly where everything goes. Nothing's loose.

"When I go through screening, a good tip is to keep all the plastic toiletry bags for storing cables and things together. It's all about keeping yourself organised.

His last piece of advice to visitors coming to New Zealand is "you have to be a confident driver.

"The same thing that makes it so spectacular make it really difficult to pass through and there's no other way to get to some of the parts of the landscape."

Although he has found one way of getting through the Southern Alps, without the use of a rental car.

After hiking the Paparoa Track Modak says he is looking forward to putting his feet up after the hike on the scenic TranzAlpine train back to Christchurch.

Then it's yet another plane. Just five places to go!