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Midnight Notes from my 100th Country

Midnight Notes from my 100th Country

colombo sri lanka

I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in Colombo, Sri Lanka, listening to the cover band play Lionel Ritchie from the back of a wedding reception where I’m obviously an outside observer. Sipping a 12-ounce Heineken I bought at the gas station across the street, I reflect on the last two weeks.

The final trip of the year.

And also, my 100th country. How did I come this far?

Before I can fully consider the question, we have a brief diversion as the band segues into a toast for the bride and groom — or so I presume, since the bandleader is speaking Sinhala, the local language. I hear the word champagne and everyone stands with a glass in hand. I raise my Heineken can and smile. No one notices me, which I take to be a good sign.

In Which I Sleep Through the Entire Day

The flight to Sri Lanka (from Doha, Qatar) did not go so well. I was told at check-in that the morning flight was totally full, but if I wanted I could switch to the red-eye flight leaving at 12:50 a.m. Since I don’t usually sleep on planes, I’m not a big fan of red-eye flights, but I asked how full the flight was before making a decision. I was told that the midnight flight was fairly empty and I could have a whole row to myself near the front of the Economy section. OK, I said. I’ll take it.

You can guess what happened – the flight was totally packed and I was in the next-to-last row in the back. How does that work? Why did they lie to me?

It’s all about expectations, and in this case I was not prepared to fly 5 hours through the night in the very back of a crowded plane. Thankfully, every bad flight has to end at some point, and at 8:30 a.m. local time, it’s all over.

Upon arrival at the airport in Colombo, I’m tired from not sleeping at all the night before. I negotiate the taxi price down from $25 to $15 (it’s a long way from the city), and ride into town to a local hotel. I’m not especially jet-lagged, since I’ve been traveling incrementally this time (Panama City, Madrid, Cairo, Doha, and now Colombo), but the red-eye flight has definitely taken its toll.

I lie down and sleep for five hours straight, about three hours more than I planned.

I wake up when someone knocks on the door to ask about cleaning. “No thanks,” I say, and go back to bed. I sleep for three more hours, and then three more after that. After 11 hours of sleeping, which I think is a personal record for me, I finally wake up at exactly midnight local time. I can’t believe I’ve slept this long!

I decide there’s not much to do except get up and pretend it’s morning, since there’s no going back to sleep tonight after a day of sleeping 11 hours.

Colombo from Midnight to 7am

I take a shower and sit down at the desk to do some writing. I have been trying to finish the next Unconventional Guide for weeks now, and I finally manage to force myself to work on it for three good hours.

At 3:00 a.m., I decide it’s time to go exploring. Sri Lanka itself is not exactly a safe place (there is an ongoing civil war between government forces and what is considered a rebel army in the north), but ironically this means that the capital of Colombo is actually more safe than it would otherwise be. This is because almost everywhere you go, armed soldiers are standing guard 24 hours a day at intervals of only 100 meters apart. There are security checkpoints throughout the city, and a big section of downtown is blocked off from traffic for most of the day.

I walk along the beach and am stopped at each post along the way by guards who are surprised to see a foreigner out walking in the middle of the night, but they don’t bother me too much. I pass by a group of kids about 7-10 years old who are all out flying a kite on the beach. As to why they are doing this at 3:00 a.m., I have no idea, but they are friendly enough. They all run up to me and start talking, but after we exchange names, there’s not a lot to say.

“Please, tell me what time it is,” one of them says. I tell him the time and he thanks me.

The next one speaks up. “Please, tell me what time it is,” he says. I repeat the same answer and he thanks me. It seems this is as far as the English lessons go in the 4th grade over here, so I wave goodbye and keep walking.

An hour later I’m on my way back to the hotel and it’s close to 4:30 a.m. I know this because I encounter the group of kids on the beach again. They all wave and come over. “Please, tell me what time it is,” one of them says again. “What is your name?” another one asks for the second time.

I give them the answers (again) and they all wave me off. The guards are less anxious now that I’m going back where I came from, and the sun should be up soon. I read until 6:30 a.m. and then go down to breakfast, which effectively also serves as lunch and dinner from the day before. It’s a big meal, thankfully.

100 Countries

A long time ago, I had a dream to visit 100 countries. I was traveling through Eastern Europe for the first time, and I counted up all the places I had been and thought about everywhere else I wanted to go.

This was nearly four years ago.

Dreams only go so far – they have to be turned into goals, or else they tend to remain dreams, like winning the lottery. I did the math and figured out that it would not be terribly difficult to visit 100 countries as long as I was willing to give up some other things. I set the goal and started planning several overseas trips a year.

Along the way I had to make a number of other decisions and very real sacrifices. I had to be away from home a lot, spend most of my disposable income on Round-the-World plane tickets, endure a few stressful and uncomfortable situations, and so on. While I enjoy many aspects of travel and many places around the world, there are certainly others I don’t care for as much. With travel, like anything else, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. It’s just part of the deal.

When it comes down to it, though, when I first started thinking about the goal of 100 countries, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I knew that I would always regret it if I didn’t try, and that knowledge has made all the difference. I think about that often, especially when it gets hard. This summer had some hard times, but now I’m sitting on a small island in South Asia, and I’ve already been to more places than most people will visit in their lifetime.

Back at the Wedding Reception

I’m in Sri Lanka for three more days, and it’s a nice place to hang out for your 100th country. I go to a Buddhist festival, an international book fair, and an Anglican church service. One taxi driver I meet tells me it’s 42° (107° Fahrenheit) the first morning I’m there, and I believe him. My clothes are soaked with sweat after half an hour of walking mostly in the shade, and I’m quickly defeated. I hire a tuk-tuk and go to the civic center for the book fair.

On the day of departure, my flight out to Hong Kong doesn’t leave until the awful hour of 1:45 a.m., so I have a final evening to spend before heading back out to the airport. After walking for a while, I pass the time hanging out at the previously-mentioned wedding.

From a sign at the entrance I see that this wedding is for Mr. Shahib Praseen and his lovely bride Tenga. Thank you, Shahib and Tenga, for letting me sit in the back of the room and write these notes while listening to Stuck On You being performed in traditional Asian hotel band style.

Classic Asian hotel band style, if you didn’t know, consists of five musicians but rarely a drummer – fake drums are provided via MIDI keyboard. There is often a female singer, but all of the musicians are men. You can hear the same synthesizer sounds all over Asia, and usually the same songs too.

I head out to the lobby to buy something to eat, where a competing band is playing Shania Twain.

Looks like we made it
Look how far we’ve come now baby

There’s one thing I like about going to places like Sri Lanka – I can afford to eat at real restaurants, and sometimes stay in nice hotels. In Brussels the $3 sandwich I’m eating would cost $14, and would the band really be playing Shania Twain? Come on. You want to hear Stuck On You or Still the One performed in full MIDI glory, you’d better come to Asia.

As I’m leaving, the band has moved to Carolina in My Mind, but I have no more time or interest. In my mind, I’m going to Colombo airport.

On the ride to the airport we have what I assume will be the final installment of worldwide taxi driver commentary on the U.S. election. In previous installments, we’ve heard from drivers in Pakistan and Egypt, and tonight my driver (in a small tuk-tuk, not a full taxi) tells me that America will not elect Obama because he is Muslim.

“Actually, he is Christian,” I say, feeling a little annoyed. You can like Obama or not like him, but I’m troubled to hear that the lies being spread about him have made it all the way to Sri Lanka.

Alas, my driver is not swayed. “No, he is Muslim. He has a Muslim name. You can not be Christian with that name.”

I briefly consider taking another taxi out of protest, but this is Sri Lanka, after all, and I do need to get to the airport. I guess if Fox News ever decides to broadcast from South Asia, this guy can be a commentator.

***

After waiting at the airport for two hours, I sleep-walk on to the plane at the 1:25 a.m. boarding time. I’m going to NYC before heading home to Seattle, and I don’t even want to think about what time it is in either of those places. The Cathay Pacific flight takes off for Bangkok and then continues to Hong Kong on the same aircraft. This all feels very familiar – the flight back from Karachi last month was almost the same, with a late-night boarding time, then a three hour hop to Bangkok followed by two and a half hours to Hong Kong.

I sleep on the plane out of exhaustion, but it’s all good. I made it. 100 countries down, and I’m on my way home.

The Future

This was my final “big trip” of 2008. I’ll be at home for the next two and a half months before planning my travel for 2009.

As I’ve said a couple of times, the next 100 (or technically, 92+) countries will be far more difficult. I’m rapidly running out of “easy” countries. There are a lot of countries in Africa I haven’t really planned for, and two entire regions (Central Asia and the South Pacific) I haven’t even started in.

But for right now, I’m not ready to think about how hard it will be. It does feel somewhat monumental to have come this far, and that’s where I’m going to leave it for now.

It was totally worth it, and I hope I can say the same at the next few milestones.

Thanks so much for reading and being a big part of it. You guys are awesome.

###

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‘Colombo by Night’ Image by Dimitri

23 Comments

  • Rahsaan says:

    Congrats!!…. that is a lofty goal, achieved…. Hopefully i can visit my “100 countries.”

  • Cheryl says:

    Congrats, Chris. Thanks again for sharing your experiences with us.

    I look forward to following along in 2009 to see where you head off to.

  • Audrey says:

    100 countries – that’s certainly an accomplishment! Congratulations! We decided to skip Sri Lanka earlier in the year when the cease fire collapsed. We knew we wouldn’t be the specific target of an attack, but were concerned about being in the wrong place at the wrong time since public transport got hit a few times. From your report, it sounds like you felt quite safe in Colombo and the checkpoints weren’t too much of a hassle. We’ll need to return.

    The hardest part about Central Asian travel is all the visas. Once you get over that bureaucratic headache, the rest is easy…well, not easy, but worth the occasional discomfort.

  • Betsy says:

    Congratulations, Chris! This post may be an ending, but it struck me as more of a cornerstone. I’ve enjoyed it all and will look forward to more.

  • Chris says:

    Thanks, everyone!

    @Audrey,

    Yes, I felt Sri Lanka was fine, although I didn’t travel to any of the conflict areas. Central Asia – to be honest I’m not necessarily looking forward to some parts of that region, but perhaps in keeping my expectations low it will allow me to enjoy it more. The visa processes for some of those “-stan” countries do like daunting.

  • Kirsti says:

    I have shared your blog in both my good work and intercultural classes – they are learning a lot through your ‘journeys’….. thanks for the inspiration and best of luck with the other countries. The South Pacific is wonderful!

  • Licer says:

    Nice, Chris! Can’t wait to hear about your trips in 2009!

  • Laura says:

    Congratulations on your Countries-Visited Century!

    Amateur radio has an award that a person can earn for talking to people who are from a hundred different countries, called the Long-Distance Transmissions Century Club, or DXCC. But actually visiting that many countries is even cooler!

  • Nathan says:

    Chris, it has been a heck of a ride…and I’m just a reader! I really enjoy your insight and I’m inspired by your patience and perseverance. The century mark is impressive and I look forward to seeing how you navigate the rest of the world. Enjoy your time at home, I’m sure it will feel nice to just relax.

  • mark_hayward says:

    Hey Chris – Congratulations!! Man, it is cool to see people chasing their dreams. :)

    Let me know when you start venturing to the Caribbean, and or, if you need any tips for Papua New Guinea (if you haven’t been there yet).

  • Susan Parker says:

    Well done friend!

  • moom says:

    So what if Obama was a Muslim. You write like people are saying something bad about him. Though prejudiced American voters might be more likely to vote for McCain I can’t see what harm there is in Sri Lankans thinking he is a Muslim.

  • David S. says:

    Even though extensive world travel isn’t my goal you’re a heck of a role model for turning a dream into a goal and then setting forth to achieve it. Terrific stuff. I plan to make big moves in 2009 with my dream/goal, and you’re an ongoing inspiration to help make that happen. Thanks, and enjoy your rest!

  • Congratulations, Chris! I’m really looking forward to the 92+ travel experiences you’ll share with us.

    Thanks for the inspirational writing!

  • Craig says:

    Hey Chris,

    Cash dependent, Linda and I should be seeing some more Pacific Islands in 2009 before South America in 2010. If we can’t catch up in the next two years something’s terribly wrong.

    Congratulations on the big 100! We’re chasing down 50 next year…no rush, just all of them before we drop dead.

  • Toefur says:

    Congrats, Chris, on being able to convert dreams into reality.

  • Saravanan says:

    Congratulations for your visit to 100th Country.

    Glad you have been to India but I don’t think you visited Bangalore. Honestly India is a beautiful place to visit. You can visit many places in India itself. When you are done with every country as per your plan. I would suggest you to consider India once again so that you can visit many places in India.

  • Bruno Vargas says:

    Congratulations Chris.

    I have been reading your posts for more than a month now and I really enjoy doing so. I think that people like you are meant to inspire other people, and help making this world a better place.

    Cheers

  • Joseph says:

    Congrats on 100! Your writing reminds me of all the things I enjoy about traveling. Keep it up.

  • Priyank says:

    Congrats Chris! I have only done seven so far.

    Loved your bit on discovery of the potential Fox news commentator.

  • BEK says:

    Wow great job on 100 countries Chris. I thought I was proud at 8 countries with travel during college in Western Europe and Africa.

    Now you have gven me a new ray of hope and goals. But now I have 2 small boys and my wife to show the world. And I can’t wait. You have helped get me going.

    Cheers, BEK

  • Charis Acey says:

    Thanks for this interesting article. I found it with dmoz and i find it very helpful. i will look for more such interesting new articles at this wordpress blog. (=

  • Angsthase says:

    100 countries? That’s really amazing. I also want to visit many countries in the world. But I dont think that it will be mor than 50 :)

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