February 21, 2008

A Short Narration of My Travels So Far

Long Journey

In September 2006 I first considered the idea of trying to visit every country in the world, and I decided to write a short essay about everywhere I’ve been so far. Over the next year I’ll be posting one of the essays each week until I catch up.

The compilation below is a short summary that is meant to be used as a reference for more detailed trip reports. As I complete the reports and post them on the site, countries I’ve reported on thus far will be linked in blue.

In case you’re interested in the short version of my travel life, I lived in Asia for two years as a child, but didn’t start traveling seriously until 2002, when my wife and I moved to West Africa to spend four years volunteering for a medical charity. We lived in Sierra Leone for one year, in Liberia for one year, and in various places throughout the region for two more years. Part of that time was also spent in Europe and South Africa, and the whole experience taught me a lot about travel and cross-cultural living.

We left Africa in 2006 and moved to Seattle, where I now begin most of my adventures. Since 2005, I’ve visited more than 20 countries each year, and my goal is to visit every country in the world before my 35th birthday in April 2013.

Africa

Sierra Leone was the first African country I visited and lived in. I arrived in Freetown by ship and spent four months learning the ways of West Africa. Togo was next, and I learned French by studying in Lomé and driving all over the southern part of the country. Benin, next door to Togo, was a place I came to know well through more than six visits over the next few years. One time I took an overland journey to Lagos, Nigeria, where I experienced the most interesting border crossing of my travels thus far. In Guinea I was followed by the Secret Service and warned not to talk about anything political with anyone. At night I stayed in a Catholic guesthouse, and when the electricity went out for three days I learned the French words for candle and lighter.

I made two trips to The Gambia, where I had good Indian food while meeting with government leaders every day for a week. The Gambia is a tiny country almost completely surrounded by Senegal, where I was mostly in transit several times, but I remember thinking of the capital Dakar as the New York City of West Africa because everything was so fast-paced. Côte d’Ivoire was another transit stop, but I went to Abidjan so many times (at least six) that I decided to count it as a country. One time I was stuck in the airport for 18 hours as a connecting flight to Benin was continually delayed.

Liberia was the country where I spent the most time, living there for a year and taking four other trips there. When I think about West Africa, I usually think about Liberia. My Ghanaian friends told me that Ghana was the promised land, and they were right: after spending months in Liberia and flying to war-torn countries around the region, my first visit to Ghana was amazing. Later on I lived there for my last four months in Africa, and I used to take long runs on Saturday afternoon out along the beach in Tema.

If forced to choose one country to live in for the rest of my life, I would probably choose New Zealand, but South Africa would be a close second. I ran so much in East London that I acquired my first running injury and then couldn’t run much in Cape Town a few weeks later. I went to the mountain kingdom Lesotho on my leaving-from-Africa exit tour. It was the ultimate sleepy capital and as anti-climactic as you could imagine. Then I went to Zambia, which I liked, and to Zimbabwe, where the country was falling apart due to the policies of Robert Mugabe. I paid $1 million Zimbabwean dollars for a Diet Coke, and people approached me on the street constantly trying to get U.S. dollars instead of their own worthless currency. I haven’t seen Botswana properly yet, but I did go over for a day tour while staying in Zimbabwe.

In the summer of 2007 I took a ten day overland trip through East Africa, beginning in Uganda where I saw the world’s largest taxi park. I continued on to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, passing through Kenya on a 36-hour bus ride. I went to Zanzibar afterwards to recover and was more exhausted than I remembered being on any other trip. I hadn’t eaten in two days, but I found a great vegetarian Indian restaurant my first night and ordered enough food for three people even though I was by myself.


Asia

In China I was amazed: it was truly another planet. The country was everything I had read about and more. I spent four weeks in Harbin, a northern city located twelve hours from Beijing. After three weeks in Thailand I finally figured out how to order something in Thai other than fried rice. A few years later I started using Thai Airways to travel throughout the region, and in 2006 I was in Bangkok two days before a major coup that ousted the president and put the army in power. As I watched the news from my New Zealand hotel room I was disappointed about missing the fun.

I went to Burma, also known as Myanmar, for several days from Thailand. Monks frequently came up to me in the streets and said hello. I saw the sights and tried to talk to the people as much as is possible there. In Vietnam I learned to walk through the streets with thousands of motorcycle drivers. I visited a temple, ate vegetable pho, and stayed at a nice hotel for $25 a night. In Singapore I stayed at the YMCA and walked around the streets for hours, just like I did in Hong Kong. In both places I took the metro as far as it would go in each direction and then walked back to the center. From Hong Kong I took the ferry to Macau, where I first had the idea of visiting every country in the world. From Singapore I took the ferry to Bantam Island in Indonesia, which was a bit of a strange place. I also took a night bus up to Malaysia, where I walked around for a while and decided against traveling six more hours up to Kuala Lumpur.

I lived in the Philippines for two years when I was a kid. It was my first extended cross-cultural experience, and I learned how to take jeepneys (big public taxis) in search of donuts and video games. South Korea was disappointing because I had hoped to visit the demilitarized zone that separates the country from its northern neighbor, but it was closed to visitors during the short time I was there. I plan to go back there soon and see it properly. I usually begin my Round-the-World tickets from Japan, and I always enjoy the East-West culture conflict of cities like Tokyo and Osaka.


Europe

When I first went to Spain I thought it was amazing that you could get cerveza with your combo meal at Burger King, and it was actually cheaper than Diet Coke. I spent a month in Malaga and a month in Cadiz, where I trained for my first half-marathon in 90-degree temperatures. In Switzerland I tried not to buy anything because it was all so expensive, but the mountains were pretty. I took a combination of trains and buses to Liechtenstein from Zurich, where I wandered for a while but mostly tried to avoid groups of tourists.

After several trips to France, including trips to Paris and a weeklong stay just outside western Switzerland, I still feel like I haven’t seen much of the country. I spent two months in Germany without ever going to a real city. Then I went to Munich and saw how different it was from the countryside. I went back and back and back to Belgium at least twelve times while traveling to Africa, where I often thought about how tiring it must be to make every public announcement in three languages. No wonder the country is falling apart. One time I used a day in transit during my Brussels stopover to take the train down to Luxembourg. I drank some chocolate milk, walked around the small city, and went back up to Brussels. The Netherlands is one of my favorite European countries. I spent more time in Rotterdam than anywhere else, but I loved the whole country.

My first stop in the United Kingdom was three weeks in Sunderland, which is in the northeast and far away from everything except Scotland. My British friends were horrified that this would be my first impression of their country—apparently it’s like the Mississippi of England—but I really liked it. My family came over to visit in Liverpool a couple of years later, and we went to Ireland on a tour that we called “10 minutes of everything Irish.” It was an ambitious itinerary for a weekend, but we had fun.

The only Delta awards ticket I could get out of Europe on a trip one summer was from Bucharest, so I went to Romania for a while after three days in Austria. I flew back to New York with a cellist who had an extra BusinessElite seat just for her cello. This fact made a good impression on me. I went to Hungary from West Africa just before the 2006 riots that brought the government to a standstill. I was disappointed because I seem to always miss exciting events involving political conflict by just a few days (see Thailand above). I wandered through the city and slowly got used to being back in Europe after a few months’ absence. After getting acclimated again, I took the train through Slovakia and on to Prague in the Czech Republic. Prague was as cool as everyone says it is. I stayed at the Marriott with my loyalty points and then checked out to go to a $20 hostel far outside the city. Around this time I began to appreciate the deliberate contrast between environments.

I flew on Olympic Airlines from Brussels to Tel Aviv with an 8-hour stopover in Athens. So that I could properly count Greece as a country visit, I went into the city for the whole time even though I was thoroughly jet-lagged from not sleeping on my red-eye flight from Seattle over to Europe. I went down to the main public square, where I once again discovered I had missed a huge public protest by only one day. My flight to Tel Aviv left at 3:00 a.m. back at the airport, and I tried to sleep for a couple of hours on a park bench before taking the airport bus. Overall, it was a very sleepy day.

In Croatia I went to Dubrovnik and felt bad that I didn’t go to Split or the outer islands, which I think might have been better. I went over to Montenegro from Croatia and was frustrated by a long walk from the bus station until I came to Prcanj and saw the most amazing view of Kotor across the water. I took a 12-hour overnight bus ride through Albania and it was exactly as I expected: bottles of cheap vodka being passed around on the bus, requests for bribes at the border, etc. I enjoyed it. My friend told me that Ohrid, Macedonia was the nicest place to visit in all of Southeast Europe. I went there and decided she was right. After a few days I went to Skopje and took the overnight train to Serbia, which was three hours late arriving from Greece and then five hours late getting to Belgrade. Once I was in Belgrade I walked around the city, asking people about the war and looking at the bombed-out buildings. Then I felt bad because I met someone who told me that everyone who comes to Belgrade asks only about the war.


Middle East

In Israel I arrived before dawn in Jerusalem from the airport in Tel Aviv. At first I was sleepy and frustrated, but when I saw the incredible sunrise over the old city and heard the Islamic call to prayer, I was wide awake and wide-eyed. In Jordan the bus driver at the border crossing promised to take me to Amman, inshallah. I traveled through the country for a week and ended up outside Petra in the south. In Bahrain I was just in transit, so I bought a Cinnabon and walked outside to sit on the ground and eat it. I thought it was strange that you could buy Cinnabons and Papa John’s pizza at the airport terminal in Bahrain. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) I rented a car and drove through every emirate. There are seven of them, and they are at least as independent as the states in the U.S. On my second day, I got lost through a brief section that passes through Oman. I kept driving and driving for hours and realized that I was actually going further into Oman instead of out to the other side of the UAE. The mountains were all around me as it was getting dark, and I felt incredibly peaceful even though I didn’t know the right way to go.


Islands

I was rescued at sea in the Grenadines after my kayak capsized, but it was more embarrassing than scary. On Barbados my taxi driver made me laugh when he said I should “put my brain in park” and let him worry about getting to the hotel. On Dominica I learned all the important facts about the island from another shuttle driver: a new KFC had just arrived in Roseau, there were three cell phone carriers on the island, and potholes can be repaired with a combination of asphalt and concrete. From the divided island of St. Maarten I went over to St. Martin and hung out with some Nigerian migrants who had come to open an African curios shop. I also took the ferry to Anguilla and thought all about what had happened in my life during 2006. I wasn’t feeling well in the Turks and Caicos, but trying to find ibuprofen anywhere in the capital city was a futile search.

On Grenada I went to visit the family of a friend I knew from England. They were surprised to see me but then took me around the island, which reminded me of Sierra Leone except much better off, even after a recent hurricane had displaced many people. On Aruba I ran five miles along the beach and then went to Dunkin Donuts to celebrate. I’m not usually a beach person, but in the Bahamas I sat on the beach and didn’t do anything special. I did more kayaking in Tobago and was glad that I didn’t capsize there.

I went to the Canary Islands seven or eight times between 2002-2006. Most of the time I was on Tenerife, but one time I went over to La Gomera with friends for a three-day break from our work. We drove on every single road on the island and had a picnic on top of a volcano.

Most places look the same to me when flying in, but the Faroe Islands are the ultimate exceptions. You fly straight in through the highest, greenest mountains, and just before you crash into one of them you crash land on the runway. It was a magical place where I spent six days. I came to the Faroes from Iceland, where I made a classic travel mistake: I didn’t pay attention to airport codes. My flight from London on Iceland Air arrived at Reykjavík, but my flight to the Faroes left an hour later from an airport that was 45 minutes away. It was one of only two flights a week, and I just barely made it.


Miscellaneous

I’ve been to Canada many times. I especially remember spending ten days in Montreal more than ten years ago, and a weekend trip to Vancouver in 2007. I also remember a trip to Toronto at the end of 2006, where I walked in the streets for hours one Sunday morning after seeing snow for the first time in five years. I had been to 49 of the 50 United States by the time I was 16, but 14 years later I still haven’t made it to Maine. I haven’t seen most of Latin America yet, but I spent three weeks in Paraguay and one week in Brazil a long time ago.


All the Places that Remain

The clichéd expression is completely true: the more you travel, the more you realize how much more you have to see. I feel like a beginner and I have learned so much from others who have inspired me.

While I’m waging a war against conformity, this site will also chronicle my goal of visiting every country in the world before my 35th birthday in 2013. As I eliminate a lot of “easy” countries and move on to regions like Central Africa, Central Asia, and the South Pacific that are more challenging, I’m not 100% sure that I will meet this goal. However, I also believe that nothing worth doing is ever easy, so I decided a while back that I should set my standards high.

Thanks for reading this far. Most of my essays won’t cover this many topics (65 countries so far), but I hope they will all be meaningful to you.

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