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100 Countries or an S.U.V.?

100 Countries or an S.U.V.?

Traveling between Budapest and Prague in the summer of 2004, I suddenly realized how comfortable I felt with the process of moving from place to place. I was 26 years old and beginning to travel independently. It no longer felt strange to fly between continents or change currencies three times in a week.

Adding up my adventures up to that point, I found that I had been to about 35 countries. Nearly a third of them were in Africa, and I knew I’d be going to at least 5 more over the next year.

That same summer I began writing out my life goals for the first time. As part of the list, I decided to set a goal of visiting 100 countries sometime before I died. At the time I thought that was a fairly ambitious goal, which is funny considering what I decided to do later.

When I set goals, I like to map out what they will cost in terms of time, money, and other resources. I did the math for my 100 countries goal while riding through Slovakia. Considering I had already visited about 35 countries, and factoring in flights, lodging, visas, and incidentals, I tried to set a budget for what the rest of the adventure would cost.

This kind of travel goal can be hard to budget, because some countries are relatively cheap and others are expensive. For example, it cost me only $25 to get to Luxembourg when I was already in Belgium. Done. The same is true of lots of small border countries—once you’re in Denmark, Sweden is easy. From Singapore you can visit Malaysia in a day.

But other countries, of course, are a lot more difficult to get to, and therefore expensive. If I hadn’t been working in Liberia, it would cost me nearly $2,000 to fly there. To go back and forth across oceans usually costs at least $700 just for a ticket to one city.

Considering the various factors, I finally worked out a rough estimate of about $500 per country. At 65 countries to go, I realized that my financial cost to visit 100 countries would be approximately $32,500.

After thinking it over, I decided that $32,500 was a small price to pay compared to the experiences I would gain from visiting 100 countries.

I’m not naïve about the cost. I lived in the poorest countries in the world for four years, where people often make less than $1 a day. I also understand that there are poor people in America, although not in any way comparable to Liberia or Pakistan.

But by Western standards, $32,500 is less than the average individual income of about $39,000 in the U.S. Less than one year’s income to visit 100 countries? To a person who values international travel, that seems almost too good to be true.

I then started thinking about what else $32,500 can buy. In America, a high number of people think nothing of spending that much on a car. Not me personally – the most I’ve ever spent on a car was $6,000. But a lot of people think nothing of going into debt for their Expeditions and Navigators and all the other large vehicles that inspire off-road adventures to Target.

I live in Seattle now, and don’t own a car. Sometimes the public transport here isn’t the greatest, but I don’t think about it much when I’m in Bangkok, Johannesburg, Vienna, and all the other fun places I regularly visit.

It comes down to a choice of values. In other words, what do I value? What about you? Lots of people obviously value their S.U.V. Hey, I don’t blame them – it’s a choice they’ve made.

But for me, I feel much more comfortable valuing life experiences. I value meeting people all over the world. I value stamps in my passport and real-life adventures I would have missed if I would have stayed home.

I have no car, no sub-prime mortgage, no debt, and nothing preventing me from seeing the world. I do have a plane ticket to India for March 13, where I’ll spend about 10 days taking local transport throughout the country and over to Bangladesh. I have a return ticket to Bucharest (Romania) sometime later in the summer. I have half a million Frequent Flyer miles that I can use to help me get around the world and back.

In short, I realized back on that train to the Czech Republic that I can have an S.U.V. or I can have the world. For me, it was an easy choice.

Part II of the Vision

When you set big goals, they tend to get bigger.

In September 2007 I had been living in Seattle for two months after returning from four years in Africa. It was the longest time I had spent in the U.S. since 2001, and I needed an adventure before I began a new graduate school program at the University of Washington.

I bought a Circle Pacific ticket to Asia that allowed me to visit four places for the price of one. I chose Hong Kong, Vietnam, Burma, and Singapore.

My first stop was Hong Kong, a beautiful city that I had been dreaming about visiting since I was a teenager. I walked around the city for six hours every day for three days in a row. I took the metro line as far as it would go in each direction, got off, and walked back to the city center. I absolutely loved it.

Before I went back to the airport on my last day to head for Vietnam, I took the ferry over to Macau, another Chinese colony that is still nominally independent from Beijing. On the ferry I sat thinking about my goal of visiting 100 countries. It’s really going to happen, I thought.

And then, I realized the next part of the goal—which was seemingly logical but I had never considered before:

Why not go to every country in the world?

An hour later, 12 songs on my iPod had gone by, and I had filled two pages of journaling in my Moleskine with thoughts about this challenge. I’ll be writing about the adventure on this site throughout the rest of 2008. You are invited to follow along the journey as I travel to 20+ countries in pursuit of the goal this year.

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24 Comments

  • Kat says:

    I just wanted to comment how much I love your blog. I am all about doing things my way, its a little scary once you realize how easy it is not to follow the rules. I am graduating from college in May and heading off to Vietnam for the next year or two, after that who knows…My goal was all seven continents…(and the most I have ever or ever intend to spend on a car 0$)

  • Chris says:

    @Kat –

    That sounds great! I really liked Saigon, except for the part about the game of pedestrian Frogger that you have to play when walking anywhere. Good luck with your travels and thanks for leaving a comment.

  • Two Crabs says:

    Hi there. I just found your blog by accident. It’s absolutely fantastic! I’m about to hit country #50 on my list and quite excited about someday hitting #100! Cheers.

  • Marshall says:

    Great comparison. This is one of the most inspiring posts on this site.

  • Trevor Mauch says:

    Wow… man your story is inspiring… and totally reflects my own beliefs. I haven’t been traveling as much as I want to… but a few weeks ago my wife and I started dreaming up an extended trip once she graduates from graduate school in August.

    Hey, when you come down to Portland I’d love to chat w/ ya over a drink or two… I always love meeting new and interesting people!

    Chat soon,

    – Trevor

  • Jeff says:

    Hi Chris,

    I stumbled upon your blog and was very inspired by your stories. Being a young engineer after grad school just 3 years ago certainly limits my mobility a bit due to the limited days of vacations… but I know sometimes it’s the “very stability” of income that comes from doing engineering that stifles my courage and determination to go out there and try what you’re doing… I may not embark on adventure of your caliber anytime soon, but i’ll certainly keep your manifesto in mind – enjoy life at the fullest extent and travel whenever i can!

    Jeff

  • Taylor says:

    Hi,
    I too stumbled onto your blog by shear LUCK!! it is truely amazing that even in this day and age people are still able to embark on such grand adventures. From when i was young my mother insisted on travel where near or far with my brother and I! it truely broadens you view on people and cultures!! something everyone should experiance!!
    quick question, how are you able to fund these great trips ( aka the 32 grand or so?) as I am always looking and setting goals of travel, however i find myself stuck behind the barrier of incefiecent funds?
    Have FUN!!

    Taylor
    New Hampshire

  • William says:

    When I look at a new car, I see three months in Europe for two people–and I buy a used car (for at most $6,000). (With today’s gasoline prices, I’m contemplating driving it around Seattle even less than the 7,000 mile per year I’m currently driving, too.) I suspect we could spend less money abroad and stay longer. I haven’t made the number of countries my goal, though, so I’ve only visited 9 countries (Canada, China–including beautiful Hong Kong–, England, France, Germany, Honduras, Kenya, Mexico, Tanzania) besides 39 US states. After I visit every continent except Antarctica, though, I hope to go back to regions I’ve missed.

  • Alex says:

    I literally found this blog by typing words in to Google (3am does that to you). I’m glad I did, because you’ve inspired me. Of course, finding the means to travel at 15 years of age is somewhat difficult, but I’ll be sure to keep the concept in the front of my mind. Plus, if you manage to navigate the various public transport systems with relative ease, I’ll try to do the same.

    Hm. I’ve been to six countries so far, so…

  • Sam says:

    You have an incredible dream, and one that would make Marco Polo proud. Found your blog through the recommendation of a friend while doing research for a speech about why man must push his boundaries.
    Best of luck to ya.

  • Eugene says:

    Wow, what an amazing journey you’ve profiled.

    I absolutely agree with you: happiness in life comes from experiences, not from materialistic possessions. I applaud your efforts. And while I don’t have the dream of visiting every country in the world, I do want to travel to more countries than I have visited in my life (about twenty-five).

  • Brian says:

    When I read it first I thought the blog was “100 countries ON an SUV” Now that’s an awesome challenge in itself ! I’m getting a picture of a bruised and mud-splattered Land Rover in the twilight halfway across Asia or Africa with the Roof-Tent deployed and a small group of weather-beaten travellers around a campfire…

    hummm…

  • “I have no car, no sub-prime mortgage, no debt, and nothing preventing me from seeing the world…”

    You remind me to start putting my time and my money where my passion and priorities are. It seems unauthentic all of a sudden to claim to be a passionate world traveler and aspiring travel writer, when I have tied myself down with all of these convential trappings. Unfortunately, there’s still that house and that credit card bill…

  • Loved this post! In 1997 we had the choice of buying a new van for the family (boy 11, girl 9) or taking an 8 week trip around the world. We all voted for the trip. If we had purchased the car, it would almost be a rust-bucket by now. Instead, we have memories of thrilling adventures and wonderful people.

  • Kate says:

    Wow okay I’m inspired. All I need to do is get out of debt you are incredibly lucky not to have debt when you started, but I’ll get there. Life seems to be denying me a conventional life or job anyway so I should probably just listen to it. I haven’t had a car since 2005 and I live in LA now so it’s such a pain not to have one, but it makes life here a little more interesting. This year is the first year I have lived in one place for more than a year. College kind of screwed me over, but when I think about it I’m happy because, even though debt is frustrating, I’m not 9-5 and I’m alive and I get to answer to myself and clients I work with.
    I’m not meant for the “normal” lifestyle to whatever it is. You made me realize that when I see things like this it can be done. I use to watch the travel channel and say I want Samantha Brown’s job so why not take the job by doing this myself?

  • Ryan Errol Armstrong says:

    I am on country # 36 and have been to all 7 continents.
    I totally agree with what is posted here. Quit your job and go.

    -R-

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