What It's Really Like To Visit 52 Places In One Year

Jada Yuan had your dream job. And not just yours — pretty much everyone's. She beat out over 13,000 applicants to become the New York Times' first 52 places traveller, venturing to each of the cities on the paper's "52 Places to Go in 2018" list over the course of a single year. She also chronicled the experience, revealing all the ways that travel can be stressful, bizarre, beautiful and life-affirming.
We caught up with her via phone from Bangkok to learn what it's like to travel the globe for a whole year. We asked about specific locations she loved, but what we really wanted to know was: What's it like to be a single woman alone in a series of strange cities? As solo travel continues to grow as a trend among young women — one we love and deeply admire — Yuan has some valuable thoughts on how to stay safe, be confident and experience the world.
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First of all, what was it like to find out you got this job that no fewer than 13,000 people applied for?
They filmed it and I don’t think my reaction was what they were expecting. I didn’t jump up and down. They called me — during the interview process, I was told I would find out on a Thursday, maybe a Friday — and one of the initial editors on the project sent me a text, like, "hey can we call you soon?" or something like that. I wrote down all my talking points, and thought okay, I’m going to fight for this as much as I can. I’m totally prepped, I was just in battle mode. And he called me, and Monica Drake, who is the mastermind behind this whole thing, was also on Google Hangouts. I thought it was still another interview and then they told me I got the job, and I was just in total shock. I wasn’t ready for that phone call.
What was it like realising that you’d be going to all the places, all over the world, by yourself as a young woman?
Well, so I’m not so young, I’m 40. I really do think there is a difference — I’m sort of on the cusp of being at an age where I don’t get harassed as much. I still get harassed. But I think younger women face it more. The longest stint I ever did anywhere was in Italy when I was 19, and that was just… a lot. Solo travel is hard. I know that I get a different reaction going around by myself than I think a man would. I was going through the south of the US and every single woman that I talked to would be like, "okay, be safe!" at the end of it. It’s something that people say. It was just sort of a thing, but it’s a thing that people say to women, especially in the south.
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There's a kind of vulnerability that you have as a woman travelling on your own, especially with, you know, not knowing where you're going. And I didn't know where I was going for, like, 100% of the trip. It was always sort of landing in a strange place and not being able to figure things out. I really didn't actually have moments where I sort of felt like there was a human presence around me that I was worried; I started getting that feeling when I just landed in new city and I didn't have my plan for how I was getting from the airport or the train station to my hotel. There came a point when my phone stopped working really well and so to not be able to have maps or the ability to call a service or any of that stuff started getting on my nerves. I started paying a lot of money to do whatever I could to get that problem to go away.

What I’ve found is that 99% of the time, if you talk to a stranger in another place, that stranger is pretty willing to help you. You just have to choose your strangers, right? Grandmothers are always good. Start with a grandmother and go from there.

Do you think there’s a way to balance encouraging women to be safe and realistic about dangers while travelling, while also not dissuading us from having experiences and seeing the world?
I mean, I think just living in New York City is the same level [of danger as travelling abroad]. Sometimes, New York might be even worse. Just because you're going to another country doesn't mean that people are more dangerous there. What I’ve found is that 99% of the time, if you talk to a stranger in another place, that stranger is pretty willing to help you. You just have to [choose] your strangers, right? Grandmothers are always good. Maybe start with a grandmother and go from there.
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I'm lucky that I have had a chance to hone my instincts about strangers on the street in New York City, because I walk everywhere and I just know my way around; I know what I can handle and what I can’t. I think that for young women, what I would say is just know that safety is a factor and then keep it in the back of your mind and then just stay as open as you possibly can. Just go out and try hard to find the balance.
Safety is on my mind all the time, as I think it is for pretty much any woman. I talk about it a lot because, as many great women bloggers as we have right now, travel writing has traditionally been dominated by men who don't know what it's like to have to be on high alert as soon as you walk out the door. (I'd also love to see perspectives from writers of colour and from the LGBTQ community, too.)
Do you think there’s a misconception that more touristy cities like parts of New York, for example are safer than more rural or off-the-beaten-path places, when in fact that’s often not the case?
Yeah, I do think that I'm actually more wary when I'm in touristy areas, because of pickpockets. Touristy areas and train stations are where known thieves go. So you just know that, and you watch your shit.
I'd developed this paranoia in New York, a way of instinctively crossing the street if a guy walked behind me. And I didn't realise until this trip how much of that was affecting my dating life. I was wary of online dates and I think I was treating men as adversaries, which is just not a good attitude to have if you also want to make out with them. But as I kept travelling and meeting strangers who were so much nicer and more helpful than I'd expected, I could feel my wall around men start to crumble, too. One lesson of this trip is that there are great guys EVERYWHERE. I met like seven I'd want to date immediately if we lived in the same city. So I'm excited to see what happens on that front now that I've learned to be a little more trusting overall.
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How did you look after your skin and hair and stay feeling healthy while constantly on the go?
Well, I think it’s different for long-term and short-term travel. I started out with a bunch of face masks that people had given me and used them all up in the first month because I didn’t want to carry them. And I do nothing with my skin now except wash my face when I take a shower. I also stopped using body lotion because it was in short supply and my skin has adjusted on all fronts. Maybe your skin just starts producing what you're not providing to it artificially? I've had maybe two zits all year. On a shorter trip, when your skin doesn't have time to get used to constant change, I'd use Bioderma face wipes and Embryolisse face lotion.
Hair is a different story. I've had problems with an itchy scalp and my hair coming out more than usual ever since month four. Nothing has really helped on that front, including vitamins and special shampoos, so I'm going to present it to my friend who's a hairdresser and try to get her assessment.
One tip for a long trip like this... I relied on hotel shampoos most of the time because I didn't have time to keep replenishing tiny bottles with my favourite products. But many hotels don't provide conditioner. So I carry a big bottle in my checked luggage. If you're doing carry-on only, I'd suggest doubling up your conditioner supply.
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Are there specific places you went that you felt were unusually welcoming to solo female travellers?
Rwanda. Rwanda is a country that went through a huge genocide, and it’s really interesting, because that comes up in every conversation now. It has a government that is not the most into freedom, but it does mean that there’s a lot of security. It’s very safe. And women are in the majority in the parliament. There are laws about hurting women. I met a huge host of incredible women who were international defence women, lawyers, women running their own businesses. It was cool to see how much female empowerment was happening there, even though they still have a long way to go. I walked around at night all the time, I took motorcycle taxis. I’ve also been taking them here in Bangkok. They’re not the safest form of travel, but they’re very convenient. I felt totally fine going around southeast Asia.
I haven't felt weird as a woman travelling anywhere except for Morocco. But I didn’t really go out and do nightlife. I did go out to a club once with my Uber driver, who was young and cute, and that was fun, but nightlife didn’t seem like something that was open to me while I was on my own travelling. I think maybe if I had been living in a place for a little longer and had a friend to go with, I would have done it. I went when I was in Belgrade because I had hired a friend to be my translator there. She was showing me around as my guide, but she was also my buddy.
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