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From Trusting a Stranger in Uzbekistan to Challenging your Preconceptions – Sebastian Modak

By Chizoba

TravSolo aims to inspire through authentic storytelling, by sharing real travel experiences

Tell me a little bit about yourself: What do you do for a living?

I’m a travel writer and multimedia journalist based in New York. In 2019, I was the 52 Places Traveler for the New York Times, which had me traveling to and reporting from all the places on the Times’ “52 Places to Go” list. Before that, I spent some time as an editor and staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler. Even before I was writing about travel full-time, I was always most interested in being on the move and telling stories that connect people with the world around them. I think a lot of that has to do with how I was raised: my mom is from Colombia, my dad is from India and we moved every 4 years or so. “Home” is a complicated subject for me.

Solo Travel: What do these two words mean to you?

It means taking a risk, but also creating the space and silence you don’t get when traveling with friends or loved ones (which is also great). It means not being bound to anyone else’s schedule and allowing more space for the serendipity and chance encounters that I think lead to the most rewarding travel experiences.

What inspired you to take your first solo trip?

I did a lot of traveling with my family as a kid, but I think — like many — my first true “solo traveling” experience came in the form of choosing to study abroad in college. In my case, I chose to spend a semester in Botswana, largely because I knew there wouldn’t be that many other American students there that I could rely on for company. And, fortunately, I was right! While I was technically “living” in Gaborone, it felt like an extended solo trip because every day was a little different and it was entirely up to me how I spent my free time. And it was also up to me to step out of my comfort zone and put myself out there if I wanted to make any meaningful connections. The same is true on any solo trip.

Favorite International Meal?

A hot bowl of noodle soup — phở, mì quảng or bún bò Huế, depending what city I’m in — while sitting on a plastic stool on a Vietnamese street corner. Glass of beer (with ice) compulsory.

What was the most memorable and/or let down travel experience you have while traveling?

I don’t really believe in “let down” travel experiences. Of course there are things that can go *really* wrong – like life-threatening stuff – but that’s a bit more dire than just a “let down.” In terms of the minor inconveniences or the stuff that doesn’t measure up to big expectations, in the long-run I think those are still valuable experiences and opportunities to ask important questions. What can you learn from the experience? What does it tell you about your potentially misplaced expectations? What preconceptions were you coming into a trip with that you can (and should) throw out the window?

What is the most memorable moment you had with a traveler or local?

In terms of most memorable moments… Whew.. There are too many to name. Focusing on last year, where I traveled for the whole year (a memorable experience on its own, to say the least), I highlighted some of my most life-changing encounters for the New York Times here. One that always comes to mind is the time I trusted a stranger in Uzbekistan; I got in his car, not knowing exactly where we were headed, and ended up witness to a game of kopkari. It’s a sport in which horseback riders compete over the carcass of a goat in an intense game of keepaway. I felt so lucky to be seeing the tradition at play and so lucky to have made a new friend, who I’m still in regular touch with today, in the process.

“It was also up to me to step out of my comfort zone and put myself out there if I wanted to make any meaningful connections. The same is true on any solo trip.

What is biggest risk you have ever taken on a trip?

Traveling alone is, on its own, a risk. Even having done it for a full year, getting on a different flight every week, I would still get a bit of the jitters every now and then. It’s intimidating, and that’s because of the little risks you take along the way. What an “appropriate risk” is comes down to the individual traveler though. It’s important to find your own threshold for risk. For me, some of the biggest risks I’ve taken have involved solo road trips; like driving for 12 hours through a blizzard in Michigan and Ontario. Or getting off a 40+-hour plane journey and then driving through the night in Chile, on no sleep, just because I was in a rush to get to my destination. Both those decisions were beyond my risk threshold — stupid impulse moves I made that taught me valuable lessons about what I am and am not comfortable risking.

What inspires you to travel more alone?

It’s the people. I love sightseeing and hiking and eating and drinking around the world. But at the end of the day, I travel for the people I meet along the way. And when you’re traveling alone it’s so much easier to meet people. If you put yourself out there a little bit, I think you’d be surprised how much people will open up to you — and how excited they’ll be to show you a little slice of what makes their home special.

What advice might you give people afraid of being on their own or thinking of taking their first solo trip?

If you’re nervous, start closer to home. Not to mention, the current Covid-19 crisis makes that basically the only responsible option. You don’t have to be going to Siberia to justify a solo journey (though I do recommend it). But why not try a city nearby that you’ve never been to? Or even just a day hike or long solo bike ride? By starting small, you’ll understand yourself better. You’ll figure out what you like about traveling alone; and the parts that you maybe don’t like as much. From those starting points, you’ll be better equipped to design a bigger trip that is tailor-made for you. You don’t know what resonates with you until you at least dip your toe in it.

If you were writing a book about personal solo travel story, what three words would you use for the title? (Similar to Eat. Pray. Love)

“Learn, Learn, Learn.” A rewarding travel experience starts with you admitting and embracing your own ignorance. There’s so much to learn about the rest of the world and it starts with realizing that, in comparison to someone who has lived in a place their whole life, you know nothing about that place. Ask questions, and be prepared for the answers to counter whatever preconceptions you might have once had.

You can check out Sebastians’s many solo travel trips on Instagram @sebmodak.

Thanks for reading!

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By Chizoba Anyaoha


What travel type are you? Tag us on IG @travsolo on your solo adventure.

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