[Photo credit: Todd Heisler / New York Times]
It’s easy to assume that being a travel writer is a dream job. Jada Yuan was selected out of 13,000 applicants to travel the New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2018—lucky, right? Well, what most people don’t know, is that only two months into the role, she questioned whether she could keep going.
“Chile was in March, and I started in late January,” said Yuan in our recent conversation, while she was about to hike the mountains in Switzerland. “That was when I had one of my biggest breakdowns...I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to write anymore. I hate this.’”
Yuan found the mental strength to carry on; she has about 16 destinations left. She attributes phone calls with friends, regular sessions with her therapist, and seeing the bigger picture, as helpful to get her work done and enjoy the travel. Yuan shares what life is really like on the road, how she focuses her day to get work done, and what new skills she’ll be returning to New York with:
YouInc: Given what you know now, would you have taken the job?
Jada Yuan: Oh yeah, for sure. I was pretty comfortable and risk-averse. I worked at New York Magazine for 17 years. When you’re a magazine writer, it’s easy to feel fulfilled with what you’re doing, because you keep moving on to different projects. I was comfortable in my apartment; I was comfortable in my job. I had enough savings and vacation time that I could travel in short stints, or go up to the mountains every weekend. I don’t know what kind of kick in the butt I would have needed to do something, where I completely left behind my job, my apartment, my life and stuck everything in two bags and set off. I wouldn’t have done it, and this job has given me the opportunity to do it.
I don’t know what kind of kick in the butt I would have needed to do something, where I completely left behind my job. I wouldn’t have done it, and this job has given me the opportunity to do it.
YI: How have you managed to travel and work? Sounds exhausting.
JY: That was the hardest part. Chile was in March. I started in late January. That was when I had one of my biggest breakdowns—not knowing whether I could keep doing it. I was like, I don’t know if I want to write anymore. I hate this. Then, I met people; I became good friends with a guy, who was backpacking around the world, and I saw how he could start his day—the biggest thing he had to deal with was whether he could find the bus ticket for where he needed to go next and whether he got to the grocery store before it closed [laughs].
I take my own photos, and I need to do Instagram. I was working three jobs, two of which I was pretty unfamiliar with. It took a lot of doing to figure out a rhythm that I could work with and prioritize the work days, because every day is a work day [laughs].
YI: What stopped you from heading home?
JY: I talked to my friend; she had been a foreign correspondent and knew me really well. Every time I felt I was going to fall apart, I called her and she’d sort of say something along the lines of, “well, you can make that decision a little later. Just do this thing now and see if you feel that way in a little bit—if you don’t do this, you’re not going to be a national disgrace; no one is going to care. But you took the job for a reason because you wanted this opportunity so don’t squander it away.”
. . .
Chile was a really unspecial time, where I went through Northern Patagonia, and I drove around by myself a lot. I was in this really beautiful place; it was raining, and it was elemental. I had this moment that sticks with me the most: I was wandering around and taking photos, and I wandered into an abandoned prison in a town; a volcano had erupted next to it, so all these buildings were standing, but they hadn't been refurbished. I went into this crazy, abandoned jungle prison—it rained so hard that I couldn’t get back to my car. I finally made a run for the car, and I was running and it was raining, and I thought, wow, I’m doing this. This is amazing. Stop crying about all of this, and start enjoying yourself.
. . .
My friend kept saying, “a year is short, a year is short.” I kept not believing it, but a year is short. And, now it’s going to be almost over, and I’m going to be sad when it happens. I wish I had gotten over it sooner; I could have chilled sooner into the process.
YI: You’ve had to learn to prioritize your day. What have you changed?
JY: I didn't actually get it right until June [laughs].
YI: It’s hard doing what you’re doing.
JY: It was realizing that I had deadline days, and they had to be fixed. I needed to clear the slate, usually on Sundays and Mondays to get something in by Tuesday. I was recently in Tangier. We went to this crazy, beautiful, super expensive resort for less than 24 hours [laughs]. I was with a friend, and I was on deadline—I had to sit inside most of the time and write, and she went off and did a spa treatment.
Do fewer things is the main takeaway. Pare down the schedule and be okay with the idea that I’m experiencing this: I used to get angry that I wasn’t experiencing places the way a tourist might. A lot of times, I’d walk into a restaurant and have an idea of what it is and then leave. I don’t sit down and have a leisurely drink. I’ll go to the beach, take some photos, look around and then leave the beach [laughs).
I don’t know if I’d be able to do the job, if I didn’t have a check-in every week to take care of myself mentally.
The more satisfying part that keeps me sane, is doing the job. Knowing that I’m doing this job, and I’m on top of it, is a better feeling than having a spa break for me. I have a therapist, so therapy time is built into the schedule; it’s sacred.
YI: Tell me more about therapy.
JY: It's important to know your mind and understand how you react to things. The better I know how to handle my moods, the better I’m going to be able to do this job.
There are certain things that will happen, that will start my mind spiraling. I’ll start being angry. Something will set me off, and if I don’t know how to manage it, it will take over my day. I don’t even have the luxury of having a massage, so I don’t have the luxury for my mind to be spinning. I don’t know if I’d be able to do the job, if I didn’t have a check-in every week to take care of myself mentally.
YI: Do you have techniques you use until the next appointment?
JY: It’s being able to give yourself a little reality check: ‘here’s what I’m feeling: what's the actual reality of what’s happening right now? Is someone really doing me wrong by making me turn something in by deadline? No.’ [laughs]. I’m doing a job.
I also have to be really strategic about how I use my time. I had a few friends visit in Europe, and it was wonderful to see them. It’s knowing reality: as fun as it is to see your friends, they’re on vacation and I’m not. I was in Prague a week ago, and that was going to be the last person to visit me, who isn't a journalist. To say no to people is really hard [laughs]. On some level I want to do it by myself. I don’t know when I’m going to do this kind of travel again.
Keeping my guard up, while letting it down is a difficult skill to master. I try to be as open as I can, while paying attention.
YI: What new skills have made you a better person or a better writer?
JY: The big lesson I’ve learned is that most people around the world are good: they’re fundamentally nice, and they want to be helpful. I think living in New York for as long as I have...New York is a really generous and open city, but there were many years where it wasn’t; I’ve been followed home. You have to be really weary when you’re walking the street at night, and you still have to do that when you’re traveling. But keeping my guard up, while letting it down is a difficult skill to master. I try to be as open as I can, while paying attention. I hope that will lead to being a little more open in my life after this is done.
YI: It sounds like you have a great mindset about the experience.
JY: I thought that Anthony Bourdain’s suicide really put the toll of travel in a little more perspective for people: I could see a shift that there was more sympathy for it. I wrote a piece about him, and I think that it’s hard: you’re by yourself a lot, and you're having to deal with your head a lot.
In a lot of ways, being a writer helps with the coping. Writing is a really lonely profession. For me to write, I have to focus for one-to-two days straight, with little breaks. You learn to start managing: ‘I need to get this done, and then I’ll walk around and get an ice cream.’ A lot of it involves walking outside, or turning on a trashy TV show to get your mind out of it.
YI: What did you want to get out of this experience?
JY: My three goals were to make the people who live in a place I’m visiting feel that I got something about their place; make people feel they wanted to go to the place and they were along for the ride, and then hopefully tell a different perspective than what comes out in other travel writing—maybe focus on minority communities or focus on the story of meeting a woman traveling, because there’s a dearth of women in travel writing. I wanted to tell that story, as well as I could.
As we publish this story, Yuan is in her last destination in Italy, before she travels Africa, Asia, and Australia.