Jada Yuan’s Guide to Traveling, Journalism

SXSW Recap: Always In Motion: 1 Woman, 12 Months, 52 Places

A couple years ago, a friend urged me to apply to The New York Times job posting for a travel writer to visit 52 destinations in one year. I didn’t apply, but Jada Yuan – previously a contributing editor and culture features writer for New York magazine – did.

Mark Olsen (l) and Jada Yuan, the New York Times' Inaugural 52 Places Traveler (Photo by Sarah Marloff)

Though she was one of over 13,000 applicants (the posting received 3,000 applications in the first day), Yuan was offered the job on Dec. 28, 2017. Three weeks later, she departed from her life in Brooklyn to spend the next year documenting the Times’ 52 places to go in 2018.

Yuan, who was interviewed by Los Angeles Times' Mark Olsen Tuesday, March 12, at SXSW, was the NYT’s guinea pig. The decision to send a reporter on a whirlwind tour of the globe stemmed from a desire to offer “counter-programing to the dire news happening in rest of paper,” explained Yuan. Armed with a light itinerary and few parameters (she was told to stay in “modestly priced” hotel rooms), Yuan traveled mostly west to east, taking buses and trains when she could to cut down travel prices. “I wanted people to feel like they could do some leg of this trip themselves,” she told Olsen.

Considered a dream job, Yuan said she received a lot of “blowback” for writing early on about the hardship of whirlwind, solo travel – spending four to seven days at each stop – compounded by the lack of guidance. There was no template for this type of writing, she said. Elaborating, she told Olsen, the part people didn’t realize was it was an “extended work trip with brutal deadlines.” But people accused her of being ungrateful – at least until Anthony Bourdain’s death in June. His tragic passing, she said, “opened up a place to talk about loneliness in travel.”

Of course, there were great moments, she added, listing sunsets and hanging out with giraffes among the most memorable, but Yuan spoke most passionately about the people she met along the way and the desire to tell the stories of those whose paths she crossed. “It’s the people who you meet that make a place,” she emphasized. Yet she avoided hostels to ensure she didn’t end up in an “echo chamber” of experiences. She also stopped staying at AirBnbs for the duration of the trip as a safety precaution, specifically “entering and exiting them,” which made her less comfortable than checking in and out at hotels.

As a solo woman traveler and a writer, Yuan made history – even if she’s far too polite to say as much during a SX panel. But as she noted, most mainstream travel writing is written by men (though women travel writers abound on blogs and social media, Yuan added). And here she was documenting what it’s like to be alone at night as a woman in an unknown and often foreign city and dealing with her period on top of it all. One reader – a sixtysomething man – wrote her to say he’d never considered what women travelers face when they get their period.

Yuan also told Olsen with only three weeks to prepare she overpacked a Vera Bradley duffel bag because it was the “only bag I had that fit enough stuff.” She added (to laughter): “I don’t know if you know what that bag is, but it’s what you take if you’re a sorority girl going to the Hamptons for the weekend.” By the time she reached Florida, her fourth stop, the Vera bag was sent home along with a leather skirt, a bomber jacket, and most of her makeup. Even toiletries she’d forgo if she did it again. “I was really worried about face creams” for dry skin, she said. But now, she insisted, “don’t even pack toiletries. You’ll find what you need.”

Really, “you’ll find what you need” is, perhaps, Yuan’s biggest takeaway from her year of travel, but also to the bigger questions in her life. Before she was offered this job, Yuan admitted she was planning to take a sabbatical from writing after nearly two decades. While traveling, she also questioned quitting the craft, but somewhere along the way, she said, “I rediscovered my love of journalism.” Now, as a freelance writer, she’s deciding what’s next. Her dream: do the same type of travel in 2020 throughout America, but “no one has that job offer so it might just be me doing it.” To which we say: We’d read it.

Always In Motion: 1 Woman, 12 Months, 52 Places

Tuesday, March 12, JW Marriott Salon E

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