The man on the train platform who spoke only Hindi looked at my ticket and chuckled. This had been one of those days when mistakes piled up faster than I could track them.
I had tarried too long in Chandigarh, India, and the four-hour taxi ride back to New Delhi now promised to be a six-hour slog in traffic. No problem, I could take a train instead, I thought, only to run out of money on my cellphone SIM card just as I was booking a last-minute ticket. I hopped in a tuk-tuk and raced to the station, and got there five minutes after the last fast train had left for the night.
When I started this experiment in January, to visit and report on The New York Times’ entire 52 Places to Go in 2018 list, I thought that by stop No. 48, for sure, I’d be the Wonder Woman of travel: blocking mishaps with a flick of my wrist. Instead I was staring down a 2 a.m. arrival in New Delhi before having to force myself awake for a morning plane to Bhutan.
But there was the man on the platform — a waiter for the railway, whose job it is to pass out dinners — flashing a gesture that seemed to mean, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” I had bought an “unreserved” ticket, which I thought was for people who had had trouble purchasing online, but which really meant I would most likely have to stand for five hours.
But when the train pulled in, the man talked to the conductor and ushered me into a sleeper car. English-speakers all around jumped in to interpret. Seven dollars in fines and upgrade fees later, I was sitting in a cluster of bunks with four boisterous 20-something women from New Delhi.
The words “dream job” come up whenever I tell people about the 52 Places project. Like the thousands of others who answered that fateful job listing — travel the world for The Times! — I had a vision of winning a journalism lottery, of getting to leave behind my routine to swim in waterfalls in Australia, paraglide off mountaintops in Switzerland and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants in France. And I got to do all of those things, for which I am incredibly grateful.
I have also had to face reality: that constant travel — alone — on an illogical route no sane human would plan, might take a toll on my physical and mental well-being. That The Times, quite reasonably, expected me to do work and file stories, which meant spending a lot of time in beautiful destinations in front of a computer. That I would make gaffes along the way and have to weather the sting of valid criticism. That I would meet new friends only to have to say goodbye a few days later. And that I would be mostly celibate, miss the births of four close friends’ babies, forget to call my parents. That I would reach the end, and all I would want is to do it over again.
I started out, arms laden with recommendations and highlights, determined to do every one of them: Eat all the food in New Orleans, hike to the sea cave everyone goes to in Tasmania, visit every mountain temple in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Yet what I remember most are the small wins and human connections. The kind people and delicious salchipapas (deconstructed hot dogs with french fries) at a Peruvian food truck on the highway outside Disney Springs, Florida. The man in Lucerne, Switzerland, who returned my laptop when I left it on a bridge in the rain. That army of concerned citizens in Chandigarh.
Trust has been the through-line that has emerged from it all. Trust in myself, trust in the fundamental goodness of people, trust that as a solo female traveler, I could watch my back without walling myself off from experiences.
You see, it was a dream job. It’s just that my idea of what made this dream job dreamy has changed so much.
Lesson No. 1: A year is short
I was going on 40, feeling sad about being single and contemplating a sabbatical from New York magazine, where I had worked for 17 years, when I clicked on The Times’ home page and saw something curious: a job listing in the most-read articles list. Did I want to travel around the world and document it? it asked. Sure I did! So did pretty much everyone. By the time I saw the listing, 3,500 people had already applied. The final number, they tell me, was 13,000.
The odds were so impossible and the selection process so mysterious that I couldn’t allow myself to get too excited. And then I got the incredible phone call telling me I had three weeks to pack up my apartment, say goodbye to everyone I knew, quit a workplace that felt like family and set out for a year on the road.
All through my 20s and 30s, I had watched friends move to London or West Africa or quit their jobs and travel, and wondered how they possibly had the confidence to do it. I had made the huge, scary leap from New Mexico to New York City after college because it was the one big city I knew, and I had family there. And then I stayed at the same workplace, building a career I loved while living in a series of closet-size walk-ups and earning barely enough money to go home for the holidays.
“Why do you think they picked you?” interviewers often asked me, and I didn’t know the answer. I suspected it was because I hadn’t done anything like this before. I had never been brave enough. And maybe I could be a representative for those who didn’t think they were brave enough, either.
Getting on that first plane to New Orleans, I felt as if I were stepping into an unknowable void from which there was no return. The first few months were tough. Five stops in, and behind on my writing, I wound up in Bogota, Colombia, still needing to file my articles on Montgomery, Ala. (stop No. 3), and Disney Springs, Fla. (stop No. 4). I spent three straight days in my Bogota hotel, losing precious time to report on and photograph the city. The one day I got outside, I took a taxi 30 minutes to the museum I wanted to see and realized I’d left my wallet back at the hotel.
And I just lost it.
I called a dear friend of mine who works for The Wall Street Journal and has made many a global move, and sobbed.
“I know this feels daunting right now,” she said, “but you have to remember that a year is short.”
I argued that this was the longest year of my life, and it was only February, and she didn’t know what she was talking about. But the saying stuck in my head and acquired new meaning whenever I’d hear myself complain about this wondrous opportunity.
Freezing down to your bones and sleeping in a by-the-hour motel where you shower while sitting on the toilet? Suck it up! You’re about to see the rainbow hills of Zhangye, China! A year is short.
Freezing again and dinner is bar nuts because you waited past 8 p.m., when all the restaurants close? You just rode a horse in Iceland! A year is short.
Car got towed in Auckland, New Zealand, while on your third trip to the Chinese consulate trying to get a visa? But you’re in New Zealand! And you’re going to China! A year is short.
A year is short and a year is not enough.
A year is short, and I was strong, and the risk had always been worth it.
Lesson No. 2: Know thy logical self
My 27-hour travel time from Kanazawa, Japan, to India, was one of the trickiest of the year, and I had gamed it out to the minute: A 4 a.m. taxi to the Kanazawa station, where I would pick up luggage I had left in a locker; a six-hour train ride with two transfers, arriving at the Osaka airport with a generous 2-1/2 hours to check in for my flight. I’d filled out the longest form in the world to get my India eVisa and paid to get it expedited. And I had a ticket for onward travel to Bhutan, having anticipating that India would require me to show I had booked travel to exit the country before I could get on the plane in Japan.
Then the AirAsia ticket counter woman asked if I had a paper copy of my eVisa. I hadn’t thought to print it out. Nowhere else in the world, in 47 stops, had I needed to show anything but my phone at a check-in counter.
She couldn’t let me on the flight without it, she said. Check-in was closing in 20 minutes. After a mad scramble, I ended up in line at a Family Mart convenience store behind a woman printing out what looked like a 40-page dissertation, watching as the clock ticked down. The complicated printer setup required downloading an app to my phone, and by the time I had printed it out, I’d missed the deadline by 15 minutes.
I raced up two flights of escalators and down several long corridors, carrying the bags I hadn’t been allowed to check, prepared to beg the ticket agent for leniency. By some miracle the line was still open. I handed everything over, smiling with relief, and then looked up to see my plane was on a two-hour delay.
So like any reasonable person, I went back to the Family Mart and bought a basket full of sushi snacks and tea-flavored Kit Kats, plus a beer to take the edge off.
I would estimate that at least 60 percent of this job was dealing with logistics. And I even had a helper back in New York, who would research hotels and flights for me.
Every country is different, with different currencies and different languages, a different pace and different cultural customs. An unreserved train ticket means one thing in India and another in Spain. Had I done cursory research on the dual-island African nation of Sao Tome and Principe, I would have known to show up with a wad of euros, because the society is completely cash-based and there are no ATMs foreigners can use.
At first, I tried following travel conventions that had worked for me on one-off trips: booking planes and hotels in advance, picking the absolute cheapest fares, guarding against delays by taking 6 a.m. flights, which are the least likely to be canceled. Then four 6 a.m. flights in a row, with the necessary 3 a.m. wake-up calls, turned me into a zombie.
I started listening to my rhythms. I am a night owl, for one, happy to wake up for sunrises but usually not for planes. Inflexible travel plans give me anxiety, particularly when coupled with work deadlines.
The trip had been planned to go from west to east, minimizing jet lag, but some time zone changes knocked me out. The 24-hour travel day from Zambia to Darwin, Australia, knocked me out for days.
I have become far calmer from having to deal with mishap after mishap, and realizing that nothing dire usually happens. There would be another plane, and more trains if I missed that one, too. Maybe I would lose a day. But when you’re on the road this long, time becomes malleable, too.
Lesson No. 3: Develop your superpower
“So what countries are you going to?” asked Tina Phillips, a nurse at Passport Health in Orlando, Fla., which issues vaccinations and prescriptions for travelers who might encounter infectious diseases like malaria, rabies or Japanese encephalitis.
I started listing off my 52 Places destinations. Phillips typed the country names into the computer, her eyes widening as she laughed at the absurdity. She sent me home with several needle sticks in my arm, $1,100 in preventive medicine, a video message telling my mother not to worry, and a spiral-bound printout of all my health vulnerabilities.
One of my biggest fears going into this project was getting sick, or injured, and having to come home early — or worse, having something happen while I was in a remote location without access to adequate medical care. Getting sick is painful, and often gross, but what worried me more was the potential time suck on a trip so tightly scheduled that it would go off the rails if I spent days groaning on a hotel bathroom floor.
My waistline has expanded and diminished throughout this trip, but the medical kits I built so meticulously before I left the United States have remained largely untouched in my suitcase. It’s a stash so extensive that a customs officer at the ferry entrance to Tangier, Morocco, spent an hour threatening, in Arabic, to confiscate it and accusing me of being a drug dealer.
Instead, I discovered I have a superpower, which may be the sole reason I have stayed relatively healthy: the ability to sleep anywhere, under any conditions. Give me a window seat on an airplane and I’ll be lights out before takeoff, no earplugs, eye mask or neck pillow.
I would fall asleep in hotels on noisy streets as dogs barked all night, and in 20-minute chunks, regulated by an alarm, between writing paragraphs of articles on an all-nighter. In Tangier, two friends who joined me started looking like death because of hourlong prayer calls outside our windows every morning at 4 a.m. I didn’t even notice them.
But the only times I’ve gotten really sick were the colds I caught in Seville, Spain, and Chandigarh after extensive sleep deprivation. I warded them off with a lot of naps.
Lesson No. 4: Try it
The rain in Chilean Patagonia never really seemed to stop. Every article of clothing I owned was soaked. Soppy socks, soppy shoes. The weather matched my mood. Earlier that week, I had called my friend crying yet again and told her I wanted to quit — I was so far behind in writing it felt as if I was drowning in obligations I couldn’t meet.
What do people do when it rains like this? I asked the hotel manager in the national park, Parque Pumalin. “We do what we always do,” he said. “If we stopped for rain, nothing would ever get done.”
So, in a small break in the rain, I went out to do what I always do: take pictures, talk to people, get to know the place.
I was in the tiny town of Chaiten, which had been leveled by a volcanic eruption 10 years earlier. Residents had come back, but the buildings closest to the slope were still abandoned. I went to examine the ghost town. A few friendly construction workers were rebuilding a house, a school. I wandered farther, to an industrial building that had been overtaken by jungle growth straight out of “Jurassic Park.”
The rain started up again while I was inside exploring the concrete corridors and coming to the realization that I was inside an abandoned prison.
And now I was trapped by torrential rain.
For two hours I watched the rain flood the dirt streets before me, and the inside of this prison. I tweeted out my location, just in case. Then my phone’s battery died, and it was just me and the torrent, alone in the wilds of Patagonia, with the sun going down.
I had to make a decision, and the decision was to run, through the rain. And in that rain, soaked and running, I looked around, at the blue-tinged mountains around me, and the jungle shrubs on all sides, and the kind people laughing at this silly foreigner who had gotten caught in an abandoned prison in the rain, and realized that all the rest was superfluous. This was why I was here.
Something crystallized for me in that moment, of how singular this trip was. I started trying things: I jumped off a 30-foot cliff into freezing river water while “canyoning” in Megeve, France; scuba dived and surfed for the first time in Fiji; and, maybe scariest of all, tried a taco with a crispy-fried ant at Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia.
My friend Ben saw a dish on the menu of a barbecue joint in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, he thought I should try to commemorate making it to my 52nd place.
“Come on,” he said. “After this you can tell everyone you tried Fried Spicy Cow Penis.”
The whole table agreed to join me. We ordered it and the kitchen brought out Fried Spicy Beef instead. “We changed it for you!” they said, cheerily.
“Awesome,” Ben said. “We also want this one.”
The dish came out. It looked exactly as you would imagine. Ben ate a piece. Then it was my turn. We have video evidence. I know I said, “try it,” but you don’t need to try that one. I did it for you. You’re welcome.
Lesson No. 5: Learn what safe means to you
Eurydice Dixon, 22, Melbourne, Australia; June 13.
Mollie Tibbetts, 20, Brooklyn, Iowa; July 18.
Wendy Karina Marina, 35, Washington; Sept. 18.
Carla Stefaniak, 36, San Jose, Costa Rica; Nov. 28.
Grace Millane, 22, Auckland, New Zealand; Dec 1.
Maren Ueland, 28, and Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, Imlil, Morocco; Dec. 21.
Those are the names, ages, places and dates of death of seven women who were murdered while walking home, jogging, hiking or taking a birthday trip last year.
Of all the news that has filtered across my phone screen while I have been bouncing around the world, none had the potential to throw me into a paralytic spiral more than reading about a woman killed simply because she was alone.
“Was there ever a time you felt unsafe?” a friend asked me recently. The answer was no — not like I have been in the past, when I escaped attackers in my Brooklyn neighborhood or on a trip to France — and always.
Caution as a solo female traveler is healthy; blind fear is not. I find that for me the best system is to always remember that I am a tourist. It’s good to know what people who live in a place have to say about safety but also realize that the rules that apply to them, who know where they are going and can blend in, don’t apply to me.
I’ve had to sacrifice areas of coverage I might otherwise enjoy, like night life, because I didn’t feel safe going out alone. For the one destination that was all about going out, in Belgrade, Serbia, I hired a translator-guide to keep me company, who became a fast friend. In Bogota, I met a young female professor through Instagram who took me out with her friends for a night.
There’s a literal extra cost to being a woman traveling on your own. In cities where safety seemed it might be an issue, I took cabs and Ubers rather than cheaper public transport. Climbing up certain mountains or going around certain cities, I opted for a guide, and often paid extra because most private tours have a two-person minimum.
At one point, I got delayed arriving at an Airbnb I had booked in Glasgow and had to retrieve the key, after midnight, from a lockbox attached to a fence on a dark side street. A man, clearly on something, swayed back and forth about 20 feet away, as I fumbled with the combination while also trying to keep an eye on my bags. When I got inside, the apartment was lovely, but the building looked as if it had been through a bombing and never recovered. Certain landings, including mine, had no lights, and glass covered the floor from broken windows. I was hanging out with a local travel writer who usually walked me home at night, but if he hadn’t been there, no one would have known my whereabouts.
After that, I vowed to stay only in hotels with 24-hour front desks rather than rental apartments.
The idea of dating in a strange land quickly went out the window — I didn’t have time and it didn’t seem safe. But I didn’t swear off romantic leanings entirely. All told I had four make-out sessions all year, all in public or under what felt like very safe circumstances. Those seem like little miracles.
Lesson No. 6: Still, talk to strangers
Oh, the stories of strangers that I could tell.
In Montgomery, there was Marcus, an Uber driver who had grown up in what he described as “abject poverty,” who gave me an inspired lecture on his city’s complicated racial history. We picked up his neighbor, a nurse, from work, as he does every night, and finished with a feast at Applebee’s.
In Puerto Rico, there was Blandine, a travel agent who had greeted me dancing and singing by the baggage carousel, a few months after Hurricane Maria, when much of the country was without power. A farmer, Rafael, mentioned a party to me and my friend, and we showed up to find at least 400 people dancing to musicians playing by the light of a generator.
In Ypres, Belgium, there were the countless people attending the Last Post Ceremony, to honor the missing fallen Commonwealth soldiers of World War I, who told me the stories of their valiant, dead relatives and ripped my heart in two.
In Matera, Italy, there were Cosimo, Angelica, Mariangela, Alessandro and Marcello, who introduced me to possibly the world’s most delicious food, panzerotto (fried dough with cheese and tomato sauce), and made me feel like I was family, even with my rusty Italian.
In Kigali, Rwanda, there was M.A., now a surrogate sister, and her entire family, who hosted me at a birthday gathering two days after I met them, while also sharing their stories of surviving genocide.
What’s the biggest lesson you have learned? is a question I often get. I always answer, “That people are fundamentally good around the world.”
Lesson No. 7: Alone doesn’t mean lonely
Solo travel is an experience I would urge every human, and particularly every woman, to try at least once. You’ll find that while you might physically be without people you know, you’re rarely alone. I had a device in my pocket that allowed me to call home and to post a picture on an app that opened up conversations with strangers who just seemed to want to wish me well.
While in Patagonia, I spent four hours climbing a volcano in the rain by myself, to reach a desolate summit with nothing but burned trees and ashen pebbles. Out of the freezing cold mist came a hooded figure. “Hablas espanol o ingles?” I asked. English, he told me. He was a vegan punk-rock drummer from Berlin who liked to laugh a lot and pet stray dogs, and we ended up traveling together for the next five days.
Certain friends became lifelines. There was Heidi Vogt, with her endless logistical know-how; Jean Lee, an expert on Korea and also on how to pack for any eventuality; Chiwan Choi, a poet friend who kept me clearheaded on writing; Marie Ternes, who talked me through story ideas even two days before having her first child.
For the past week, I have stayed put in my 52nd place, the small town of Kep on the Cambodian coast. The plan was to spend the holidays alone in this tranquil piece of heaven on the beach, banging out my final articles.
Then I got an Instagram DM from an acquaintance from Los Angeles. She had seen a photo I had posted from Kep, and it was a strange coincidence, but she and a girlfriend would be there the next day. Then I got another message from Ben, who lives in Bangkok. He and his girlfriend, Zoe, were trying to figure out one last vacation to take before they moved to New York. Would I recommend Kep? Within 10 minutes he sent me his hotel booking and flight information.
The next morning, I befriended a British family at my hotel and we got along so well we went on a sunset cruise together.
The posse grew with each new arrival. We would feast on crabs and then head to a bar to play cards until the owner kicked us out. It was a magical holiday, and in it I could see glimpses of the future, of being surrounded by found family, content in each other’s company, of traveling solo but never being, or desiring to be, truly alone.
What’s next? I don’t know. I might be physically going back to the apartment I left behind in Brooklyn 12 months ago, but the center of my life isn’t there for me anymore. It’s with me and it’s mobile.
Total distance traveled: Approximately 74,900 miles, or one-third of the way to the moon
Highest point: 13,600 feet above sea level; La Paz, Bolivia
Lowest point: About 30 feet below sea level; scuba diving in Fiji
Longestjourney: 6,881 miles; Zambia to Top End, Australia
Longest stay: 12 days; Route of Parks, Chile