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The New York Times’ ’52 Places Traveler’ speaks on her experience

Jada Yuan in Jiayuguan City, China (Photo courtesy of Jada Yuan)

Every year, The New York Times releases a new “52 Places to Go,” a list of cities and countries around the world they deem relevant and vacation worthy. When they released “52 Places To Go in 2018” they did something they’ve never done before; they posted an ad for a job.

The position was for a traveler/writer hybrid, essentially someone who would spend 2018 traveling to all 52 destinations and write about them for The Times.

Out of 13,000 applicants, they chose Jada Yuan, a 39-year-old writer for New York Magazine. Yuan left last January, and just wrapped up her trip around the world. She visited exotic locations like Tasmania and the Ganwon Province in South Korea and unexpected, not-so-exotic cities like Cincinnati, Onio and Branson, Missouri. Seattle also made the list.

I Skyped with Yuan last week after she woke up in Bangkok, Thailand. She said it was a dream job and a privilege, but also the hardest work year of her life. Think about how much time it takes to plan a two week vacation to Paris. Now multiply that by 52 destinations.

Yuan got to make her own itinerary in each of the 52 locations, but that required a lot of planning and logistics. She only had one person back in New York helping her book tickets and research her destinations.

“The hard part was traveling at that pace,” said Yuan. “I was moving every four to seven days. Not just moving onto the next place on a train, but very often getting on a plane and going to another country — changing languages, changing currencies, changing cultural customs. Still having to find a place to stay, still having to find out what to do when I got there and also having to write about the places I’d been previously. I started out and I was already behind.”

Yuan said there wasn’t really a budget, but she had to pay for the trip out of pocket and get reimbursed.

“I traveled modestly,” she noted. “And that was as much by The Times’ directive as I wanted to travel modestly. I wanted to travel how I would travel if I was spending my own money, and I was until I got reimbursed. I wanted this to be a trip that could maybe seem accessible to a normal traveler…and it’s not because it costs too much money to jump through that many countries. No sane person would every travel this way. You don’t go to all of South America in two months.”

The Times sent her to at least one place she couldn’t actually afford to go to.

“In Costa Rica they sent me to this place called Peninsula Papagayo. It’s a tiny sliver of land in Guanacaste which is on the western coast. It’s basically just a Four Seasons and a bunch of luxury resort properties. You can’t enter it unless you have a reservation, it has a gate. The Four Seasons there costs $1400 a night. That’s what I pay for rent in New York for a month! To go there I actually stayed at an Airbnb yacht and then I got a lunch reservation at the Four Seasons. I kind of wormed my way in.”

Yuan shares her favorite destinations of the year.

“I loved going to Patagonian Chile which has tropical foliage and mountains and ocean. It just had everything you could want out of a nature destination. Beautiful hiking and wonderful people. Bhutan was just one of the most spectacular landscapes I’d ever seen. They very tightly regulate their tourism so you’re seeing a lot of this nature in its pristine state. Bhutan is carbon negative. It’s the only country in the world that’s carbon negative and 70% forest. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, it was so beautiful.”

Yuan traveled solo, with the exception of a couple visits from friends, and highly recommends the experience.

“Being solo makes you vulnerable. It’s scary, but that vulnerability also opens you up to people wanting to help you. By being on my own I was able to form all these really great connections with people I might not have talked to if I’d had a friend with me and we were able to figure out the directions on our own. I continually had to go up to strangers and say, ‘So how do you get to this place?’ or ‘What restaurant do you like?’ Working that muscle made me more trusting because over and over and over again it was proven that people are just nice. And are willing to take huge amounts of time out of their lives to help a stranger who’s got a few bags and needs to get somewhere.”

Seattle was on the 2018 list, and while she was here she explored the glass scene, ate a bowl of pho and saw the tulips blooming in the Skagit Valley.

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