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Buffalo goes from a 'shrug' to something special: Our Q&A with New York Times super-traveler Jada Yuan

Jada Yuan is a pioneer in a grand travel-writing experiment.

She's visiting – and writing about – the New York Times' 52 Places to Go in 2018.

One of those places was Buffalo, and her article about her visit was published – and very warmly received – last week.

When she had her first look at the list of the 52 places she would be traveling, which includes locations all around the world, she admits her reaction to Buffalo was "kind of a shrug." But after her visit, she wrote that "Buffalo went from a place I didn't think about, ever, to somewhere I would considering moving."

The New Mexico native and longtime New York City writer was chosen from a group of 13,000 applicants to earn her whirlwind assignment.

Yuan has traveled from North America to South America and back, and she is currently in Europe.

She recently found time to talk to The News about Buffalo, including Western New York's strong social media reaction to her column, her meet-ups with a prominent family and a singing college basketball team, and how a one-time vegetarian became a stalker of our city's best chicken wings.

When you looked at that list of 52 places when it first came out, what was your initial honest reaction to seeing Buffalo on the list?

It was kind of a shrug, I think. I was like OK, I guess I'm going to go see that.

But then it stood out, because I ran into the UB women's basketball team the week before the trip started, and it bumped it up a lot on my personal list.

I get asked that – "What didn't you want go to? – it's mostly American places, because in my normal life I would have a chance to go to those places, whereas a lot of these other places I'm going to, it would require a lot more effort and a lot more money to see them on your own. Literally the only reason I would be like, "Oh, whatever" about a place is because I could do it another time.

Branson, Mo., I wasn't thinking about at all, and it was one of the most fun places I've been in my life. Branson probably was the place that I was shrugging at the most, but that place was nuts.

I haven't had a place that I disliked yet. The experience that wasn't great was Florida – Disney Springs. We had too little time, and I was about to hit the Caribbean and go international and we weren't ready for it. I tried to go to Disney World ... and failed.

One of the things I'm learning about this trip is if something is really on your list, you just have to make it the first thing you do, because if it's pushed off it will get pushed off and other things will get in the way.

What the New York Times thought of its visit to Buffalo

I saw the your editors put in a sentence explaining that you knew who Howard Zemsky was back into your column – how did you and Kayla Zemsky (his daughter) find each other on Instagram?

It was just a number of messages, she said some nice things – and we had a lot in common – she had lived in New York, she worked in the arts scene, so we just started writing back and forth. She gave a couple of nice tips about Buffalo, but she wasn't necessarily trying to meet up.

I just felt like complaining to someone that I couldn't rent a car [laughing]. It was gray out but the weather wasn't too bad, but there was some crazy storm in New York City so all flights had been canceled on the Eastern seaboard, and there was a rush on rental cars in Buffalo. I had reserved one, but at the desk they said they'd have to clean one and I'd have to wait there for three hours.

I mentioned that [that she was aware of who the Zemskys were] on Twitter just because I heard a couple of people say I hadn't acknowledged it, and maybe they had ulterior motives. I just think they are really nice people – incredibly, really great people, and everything I saw that they were involved in was thoughtfully designed and also giving back to the community. Kayla and Michael [Kayla's husband] are just the nicest people, I just like them so much.

Any more thoughts on UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack? It would be tough to find a better spokesperson for Buffalo, and you just happened to have bumped into her beforehand.

I was really looking forward to Buffalo, because in some weird cosmic way that city had been my welcoming/bon voyage crew.

I found out I got this job on Dec. 28, and I had sort of planned my life as if I wasn't going to get job. I had a vacation for New Year's in France, and I had a friend who had a 40th birthday party in New Orleans. I didn't know the list of the Times' places when I planned these trips, so it turned out that I was headed to New Orleans to see my friends about a week before I'd be going to New Orleans for the job.

But things got crazy. I took this flight, and there was a giant blizzard, and I got stuck in Detroit.

Then I heard the singing.

And I followed it, and there are all these women, really cool women, and it turned out to be the Buffalo basketball team.

Coach Jack and I exchanged numbers. It turns out the piano player in the airport, he plays with the Temptations sometimes, and he and coach Jack also exchanged numbers. He went to Buffalo, and I think he invited coach to a casino to see the Temptations.

She's just so warm and great, and the team was great. I met with her, two players – Cierra Dillard and Ayoleka Sodade  – and two assistant coaches, Khyreed Carter and Kristen Sharkey.

They really emphasized to me the things that I love about Buffalo – how they all sort of showed up. When Cierra showed up and she went to a hockey game and they won and she thought the whole place was awesome. And they were each very strong.

You visited some big-time wing places (Anchor Bar, Gabriel's Gate, Gene McCarthy's) but you also name-dropped a few more very good ones you couldn't make it to (Duff's, Elmo's, Bar-Bill Tavern). How did you research that?

Michael Myers, Kayla's husband, he was the key wings expert. Her brother Harry, he tried to get me to go to Bar-Bill [in East Aurora], but there wasn't enough time. He even brought back wings from Bar-Bill, but Kayla decided I wasn't going to have them, that leftover wings would not do them justice.

Everyone knows the Anchor Bar, but I have a friend in New York who is part of the family: Linda Adamson. Frank [Bellissimo] is her great uncle. I actually had been a vegetarian for a very long time in New York, and I never ate chicken. Then I went to a party Linda was having on a rooftop, and everyone in their family owns a good fryer, so she made wings, and I had maybe 20. I went from not eating chicken to eating 20 of Linda's wings.

So we went to Anchor Bar because I had the personal connection. Gabriel's Gate was Kayla and Michael's favorite. Chris Hawley, the urban planner who showed me around, he was the one that mentioned Gene McCarthy's multiple times, and we went there because we were next door at the silos [Silo City]. The UB women and coaches were definitely into Duff's, and Elmo's they liked for their special, different flavors.

You end your column with a reference to how driving a borrowed car makes for a lot of questions at the border. What happened?

I hadn't really thought about it [laughing] ... but I didn't know what Kayla had in her car, and I borrowed the car and hadn't looked at her name, so I didn't remember her last name at the moment that the agent was asking me [more laughing].

So he asks, "Is is a rental?" I say that I borrowed it from a friend. "What friend?" And I said Kayla. He asked for her last name, and I didn't remember it. Then he wanted to know what was in the back seat, and I hadn't looked at it. He just kept asking a lot of lot of questions, and then inspected certain parts of the car.

Traveling around, I get a little used to ... I don't totally go incognito, I'm sort of a little cagey, I try to keep it low profile. Because he asks me if I'm going to Canada for work or recreation, and I generally say I'm just going for recreation. Eventually I started telling him that I'm a travel writer for the New York Times.

He says, next time you are in someone else's car and going to cross the border for a couple of hours, just say you're a travel writer. I guess I was sort of highly suspicious.

Any questions coming back to the American side?

Zero questions.

Do you have a short list of Buffalo places you wanted to visit but couldn't?

Definitely the wing places that we missed. I'm sad that we couldn’t kayak through the silos, but the weather was pretty bad. We literally went to 13 different places. There were definitely some restaurants that we didn't make it to, and architecture that I wanted to go back and shoot. Canalside we didn't get to see. The Guaranty Building I wanted to shoot a little more.

Honestly, I think I got a pretty thorough tour. I keep getting messages from Buffalonians, saying come back and do this or that, but we did a lot.

Linda, my friend from New York, gave me numbers for a bunch of people, but I ended up running out of energy – it was easier to go around with Kayla. Having a reunion with the UB team was just a really nice full-circle moment, and going to the West Side Bazaar was just really moving, so we covered a lot.

You did a great job packing all that in your column, but is there any cutting-room-floor stuff that you want to mention?

My editor would really like it if less stuff made it into the column [laughing]. One thing I would have said would be a shout-out to Chris Hawley for giving us a bunch of history while I was there. I really enjoyed Porchfest.

My friend Aileen, who I worked with at New York Magazine and is a professor at Syracuse University, she came and saw the silos with me and we definitely thought that was the coolest part of our trip. I sent her a video of the performance art that was happening in the silo, and she was really happy about that, because she was having trouble explaining it to anyone.

How much time did you have in Buffalo? And how many days do you typically have in each city?

I was in Buffalo from the 15th through 20th of May. I try to do four to five days – right now we're kind of compressing a lot. The plan was that there were going to be all individual articles, but Europe is going to be more compressed. It's just because I didn't know what I was doing, and the Times had never done this before ... so the writing schedule started off a little later than planned, and in order to catch up in real life, we need to do some things to make that work.

Is there a rhythm/pattern to the project – do you visit a place, and then write, and then off to the next place?

It's constant. I started Jan. 22 in New Orleans – and we didn't publish until two weeks after that, which meant, I was writing New Orleans at the end of Chattanooga, and it's never been like that [having one done before experiencing the next place].

I've had to come up with a lot of strategies really recently for how to make this work. I'll arrive in a place, and I'm not really there. I might not actually be there for two days.

I basically have not left my hotel all day today. I have two pieces that I have to submit, one today and one tomorrow morning. And then, I'll be in Estonia.

You're traveling, which most people would consider leisure time, but this is obviously different. But are there any days "off?"

There's sort of like hours off. Travel days can sometimes be days off, but it's hard to get a lot done in a writing sense if you are going to wake up, somehow get to an airport, be on a plane for not incredibly long, get off that plane, and figure out how to get from the airport to your hotel. It's a space that I'm happy to take – I try to do small things, like transcribe a tape, or look at notes, or write Instagram responses, or cut video.

I was thinking about this, because I wrote a packing article today, thinking about all the things I'm carrying with me. As a solo traveler and woman by myself, I have to have a kit I can carry on and keep track of all by myself. But I do not mind at all checking my bag. I don't mind waiting. It's free time for me. When you are traveling for a year, that rush to get to a place is eliminated. And there isn't a rush to see things, because you are truncating actual sightseeing and you have two full writing days somewhere in there.

You are in Tallinn right now – what number place out of the 52 is that for you?

I'm writing Baltimore now [checking her notes and counting out loud] ... Baltimore, Iceland, Bristol (England), Glasgow, Oslo ... Tallin is 24. The Iceland one is going to be really fun. It was four days and I met up with a Times video team – there is going to be a really lavish 360 video.

How has your journey been planned out? 

Early on, before I they even knew I was going to be doing it, The Times partnered with Kayak.com. Kayak mapped out a logistically feasible version of the list. We've been following that … it's been in the same order that Kayak put it in. None of the dates were set, so we had to plan that on our own, and it's gotten more organized over course of the trip.

At some points in the early parts of the trip ... like when I arrived in San Juan, I was still trying to find a place to stay when I got on the plane. Puerto Rico was hit really hard, and this was three months after the hurricane. A lot of the hotel stock was totally depleted, because hotels had been damaged, or running on generators, or filled with relief workers. So I scrambled. I landed in San Juan at 1 a.m. and didn't have a room confirmed until I turned on my phone after we landed.

How crazy is it when your stories are published and you're in a different place? Like today, you're in Europe, and suddenly its Buffalo day when the story is released and everyone comes at you on social media and wants to talk Buffalo. 

The harder thing for me is definitely having to put my mindset to back to where I haven't been in in a month when I write – and we're trying to close that gap. It might just be easier if it comes out like a blog, at least the writing portions of it.

When the Buffalo article came out, it was like I was just back in Buffalo for a couple of days in my mind [writing], so it doesn't feel that big of a disconnect for me. I've been writing for 17 years, so I think I'm just really used to ... once a piece is out of me, it being its own thing. People can react to it and I have an emotional connection to it; I get upset when people call me out on mistakes, upset at myself and things like that. But it's really not been disorientating.

The Buffalo response has been very, very good. This is probably the most social media response I've seen since New Orleans – which was not a good social media response, so that's really fun. People seem to really love Buffalo. I got a note from a Buffalonian who is living in Milan right now, and I just talked to Kayla on the phone. Kayla said that not only did her mom cry when she read the column, but two non-relatives cried.

How much pressure do you feel about trying to portray a city as best you can, in such little time, knowing how much weight people will give it, because you are the New York Times, after all?

On some level I just have to get over it. Because I'll get messages from people – I can't wait to read what you are going to write about Baltimore – and all I'm thinking is "when is my deadline?" There's a certain amount of pressure, but I'm also trying to ... I think I've learned to stay as positive as possible. Because I have liked all of these places, I don't need to highlight certain things if I don't like it. I don't need to say bad things about it. The job is to inspire wanderlust and want to get people to go to places – and be honest if there are safety concerns or something happens or it is really difficult.

The articles that were less liked by Times readers – but liked more by my friends – were Disney Springs, Florida, and Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, the place that we highlighted was for the rich, hyper-exclusive, and we didn't have budget to stay in the extremely expensive place. It was as much as I pay rent in New York City to have a night at the Four Seasons. There was no way to enter the peninsula unless you had a Four Seasons reservation, so I had a lot of trouble covering this place because I couldn't get into it, and I was staying on a boat in the marina. I think that there were some negative responses, but a lot of people remembered it.

People who love Disney are really going to stand for Disney no matter what. There were some misconceptions about me skipping a line – it did not happen [laughing].

Have you had any more moments like the incredible Chile downpour/volcano climb (detailed at the end of this Santa Fe New Mexican article) that will stick with you?

Iceland was the place since then that was really visceral – the place that I was before Chile that stuck with me was San Juan. From what I hear, the recovery is incredibly not done, and it's been glossed over a lot.

When we were there, we got out of the city and started driving into the country, and within half hour – no traffic lights were working. It's like what happens when it gets dark, trying to negotiate who gets the right of way in an intersection? But everyone was no nice, and I ended up going to a several-thousand person party on the countryside ... where it was still all ravaged by the hurricane.

Chile was different because I was on my own, and it was different because I made a friend on a volcano. I need to write him back; he's in Europe now.

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