Well-travelled: a numbers game or something more?

When recently renewing my new passport – replacing my five-year New Zealand passport with a longer-term 10-year one as it was due to expire while I was on the road – I got the often-asked question: how many countries have you been to?


It is a question I don’t know the answer too. I quick scan of my old passport showed I’d filled up 33 pages with entry and exit stamps from over a dozen countries in 40 months. But I don’t keep count, and I’m not on a mission to tick off as many nations as I can. 


On the internet, I saw one challenge – go to 100 countries before you turn 30 – but for me, it is quality rather than quantity. Sure, those people who manage to visit the most countries, or break some kind of record, make the news. 


Norwegian Garfors went to every country by the age of 37, while still holding down a full-time job in broadcasting. His book is ‘How I Ran Out of Countries’. 


American Chris Guillebeau did the job in 11 years at a cost of US$150,000, and has a blog about how much it cost to visit each country. 


Making the Guinness Book of Records for the first person to visit all countries, and also for doing it in the shortest possible period (at the time) is Indian Kashi Samaddar, who spent over half a million dollars and accomplished his mission in just under seven years. 


How many countries are there to visit? Currently there are 194 which are member states of the United Nations, plus two observer states, the Holy See in the Vatican, and the State of Palestine. Less than two dozen people so far have set foot in all 196 sovereign nations. And, according to the Traveler’s Century Club, there are actually 325 countries to visit, including remote territories. One estimate reckons that the average person has visited about 7% of the countries of the world – that equates to about 14. 

These days you can buy boards with maps of the world, where you colour in or scratch off the countries, creating your own personal conquering map. There are even online sites where you scroll down ticking off the checkboxes for each country you have set foot in, and it creates a map of your life and wanderings. Or sites which tell you how adventurous you are based on how many countries you tick off the list (https://www.buzzfeed.com/cassiesmyth/tick-off-the-countries-youve-visited-and-well-tell-you-how)


Having the passport stamps and visas to prove you have visited many countries does give you social status and credibility. While not quite the same league as having climbed Mt Everest, or getting to the North Pole, being able to say you have visited X number of countries gives you kudos. It indicates you are well-travelled. But it isn’t just a numbers game. In my opinion, being well-travelled is about your own mindset, your attitude, your worldview – not necessarily about saying you’ve ‘done’ a place and ticked it off the list. 


Turning it into some kind of competitive event seems to be unhealthy. We all have our own styles of travel, and these preferences might change over time. The list of ‘countries to visit’ changes each year, as new destinations wax and wane on the ultimate list. 


When we look back in history, today we enjoy way more freedom of movement and travel than ever before. We can live and work in so many nations across the planet. We can visit vast nations as well as tiny, remote islands. For just a few hundred dollars we can roam more widely than most kings, queens, emperors and rules have been able to do throughout the ages. For example from my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I could fly to the UK or Europe (and back) for less than US$700 return. I could hop on a flight this morning, and this evening be on the other side of the world. 


These days, however, collecting passport stamps isn’t so appealing. Not only because the freedom of movement, for example within Europe, means you don’t get stamps every time you arrive or depart a country, but also because the notion of ‘more is better’ doesn’t apply. Seeing more places, visiting more countries, clocking up more nations doesn’t make you happier, nor does it make you a better person. 


While we can benefit from the ‘geographical cure’ by going to a new place, there is truth in the adage that ‘your smelly feet go with you’. Going to another country, even though it is an exotic, alien and strange place, may also bring up the realisation that you carry some baggage, and that the real you is always there. Sometimes, in travel, the real you is more exaggerated, emerging under the stress of travel.


There’s also another paradox about travelling abroad. Sometimes it is not so much about the weird foreign place, but how you are in it. And sometimes while travelling you learn more about yourself, or you see how your fellow countrymen and women are, and reflect if you are also like them, with that same annoying/cute accent or easy-going/serious attitude. 


Even if we don’t learn much about the place we visit, we may come back ‘home’ with new eyes, a new perspective, a new appreciation or occasionally, a new loathing. 


For me, the more I travel the more I like to stay ‘home’, or to be in one place for more than a few days. Call me narrow-minded or lacking in a sense of adventure, but I don’t have a burning desire to visit Africa, or South America. I won’t feel a failure if I don’t make it to Central America, or the Middle East. Perhaps this is one of things about travel, or getting older, but I am more selective about where I go, and I abhor the idea of a 10-day ‘see-all-of-Europe’ kind of holiday. 


There’s another of my pet hates. The bucket list. The places you must visit before you die. It seems to me that the professional country-counters have bought into this mentality in their quest to tick off every country. But because that goal is already achieved, and so much easier with the era of cheap, modern aviation, now new questers have to aim for new goals, such as being the youngest, or not flying, or carrying a small refrigerator. 

So we now have a new generation of travel bloggers and social influencers who are ‘killing it’ and ‘crushing it’ on Instagram with their envy-inducing set-up selfies vanity shots, sporting advertising promoting various over-priced brand products, and with slick websites selling that dream with sticky sales funnels. 


One of the most recent to accomplish the feat of visiting all countries was a 27 year old American, Cassandra De Pecol, who Instagrammed her two year jaunt around the globe, becoming the fastest, and using her social media status to get free flights and hotel rooms. The Millennial was also acting as an Ambassador for Peace on behalf of the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism. 


Impressive? Yes. An achievement? YesExhausting? YesNarcissistic? Yes. 
What kind of trip is it when you only spend long enough to get the stamp and the selfie to prove it? Are you really seeing the world? Sure, it is travelling, but not really what travel is supposed to be about. 


For me, travel is about having memorable experiences, getting to know the people and how they live, understanding about the variety of cultures, connecting with the wonders of this world of ours. It isn’t about ticking sites off a list, it is more about connecting at a deeper level. I travel because I want to be moved. And sometimes I find that in stillness, in being silent, in sitting, and just ‘being’ in that place. It is about the journey, the transformative journey as much as the getting from A to B. I want more immersive, in-depth experiences and discoveries. I want more authentic engagement with a place and its people. I like surprises, serendipitous moments and being spontaneous. 


There’s another thing happening too, in how we talk about our travel experiences. It isn’t so much about what you did or saw, it is more on whom you met. Some of my most cherished memories from my travels come from the people I met on the road. They were not planned. Those encounters weren’t on the itinerary. They just happened, by being open to the experiences, and not being in any rush to reach a final destination. 

What are you packing? by Keith Lyons

You can tell a lot about a person when they travel.

I am not sure if it is because we are all in a strange, new environment where we are more observant of difference, or because of the boredom of travel induced by long, slow-moving airport check-in queues. Our exposure to throngs of people from places far and wide, coupled with the annoyances and frustrations of long-haul travel make it an ideal place for watching, comparing and categorising people.

One of the most telling features is what people travel with. The luggage and baggage they carry. Over last three decades, there seems to be two major trends in packing and carrying.

The first is the move away from backpacks to suitcases with wheels. Now, most people don’t haul their belongings strapped to their back. They wheel it. And while in the 1970s people explored the world with canvas hiking packs, sometimes carrying tents, sleeping bags and sleeping mats, today more travellers seem to travel for leisure with wheeled-suitcases packed with clothes, technological devices and souvenirs.

The wheeled suitcase was invented more than four decades ago by an American Bernard Sadow after he saw an airport worker using a wheeled skid to move a heavy machine, and wondered if he could create the same to make his two heavy suitcases glide. He took casters off a wardrobe trunk and added a strap to create the prototype of the modern wheeled suitcase. Airline hostesses became the early adopters of this ergonomic solution.

Personally, I can see the advantages of using such rolling suitcases, but having lived in an old town in China for a decade, the sound of those tiny wheels over uneven cobblestone ranks just as annoying as the guttural sounds of folk clearing their throats with two-part spits.

The second trend, bucking the first shift, is minimalism. For every tourist pushing around a metallic suitcase loaded with 30 kilograms of Hawaiian beach shirts, fluffy white towels stolen from resort hotels and complimentary bottles of hair conditioner, there is a traveller who has reduced his or her baggage down to carry-on.

Two factors have driven this trend towards less. The most obvious is economics. Many airlines have started to charge for checking-in bags. It started with the budget no-frills airlines, and has extended to the main carriers, many who sell just a seat and require additional payment for anything that will be stored in the plane’s hold. Typically, you can pay anything from $10-30 extra to have a 20kg bag checked-in, sometimes more for longer-flights. Other transport providers have followed the trend, charging additional costs for sporting items, a second bag, or more than a check-in sized bag.

This cost-cutting and penny-pinching has led to other behaviours. In a recent survey, one quarter of leisure travellers indicated they travelled with just a carry-on bag that could be stored in the overhead locker or in front of them under the seat.

Travellers who don’t want to pay for check-in baggage have had to find ways of getting on board with bags and items which are over the 7 or 8 kilogram limit. There is even some shrewd inventors who have come up with clothing to carry additional items to go under the radar of the airline weight limit Nazis. Andrew Gaule came up with the Rufusoo (www.rufusroo.com) to best the budget airlines, essentially a light jacket with large, strong pockets sturdy enough to store laptops and other items. Some airlines have become so stringent that staff patrol boarding gate lines, hauling out those suspected of carrying more than the weight or size limit allows.

But if economic reasons have meant travellers are penalised financially for taking more than a small bag and laptop, there’s the other factor which has contributed to the ‘less’ trend. That factor is more personal. It is linked with downsizing, minimalizing, and the mantra that ‘less is best’.

In the last decade or so, more people have realised that more is not better. More belongings, more material possessions, more baggage does not equate to happiness, success status, or satisfaction.

For many travellers, the minimalizing comes from life experience. In my case, when I first set off on my first trip to Europe, I did what I thought I should do. I purchased the latest Macpac Gemini backpack. The Gemini was the status symbol of the serious world traveller. In the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of the multi-purpose backpack ventured around the world on the backs and shoulders of intrepid Kiwis and Aussies.

The Gemini combined a hiking pack with a suitcase. You could swing it on your back, its tramping pack harness and padded adjustable shoulder straps meaning that huge weights could – and were – traipsed all across Europe and South America. The Gemini has a capacity of 85 litres, meaning you could theoretically carry more than one-third of your body weight. A handy, detachable 15-litre day pack zipped off for day use. There was more to this iconic bag. It you turned your beloved Macpac on its side, you could stow away the hip harness with a zipped cover which turned your backpack into a soft suitcase which could be carried (with some difficulty) by its handles or attachable shoulder strap. Gemini. Genius.

The Gemini weighed just over 3 kilograms, and it had all the bells and whistles. Every few years Macpac would bring out a new model with more compartments, organisers, and features. Not only did it have the utility of a waterproof backpack and suitcase in one, plus the convenience of a day bag, it also had zips. Lots of zips. Zips which could be locked for safe storage. Zips to open up the bottom compartment where you had your sleeping bag so you didn’t need to rummage down from the top. Zips which bulged when you crammed another jacket in, or added a folk textile from a Polish village to your collection.

The Gemini was adjustable and could be tinkered with to suit. My mother sewed on an embroidered New Zealand flag, and I was good to go on my first foray into Europe.

But something happened on the first day of my trip from the UK into Europe proper. I’d taken the ferry across the channel, and then a train to Paris, but I foresaw problems ahead on my month-long railpass tour. I simply couldn’t carry the whole Gemini with me. It was too heavy. It was too bulky. It was too much hassle. Even just the carrying of it from airport to bus station to train station to hostel to train station had exhausted me. It wasn’t because I was weak or feeble either. I was fit and healthy, and had regularly hiked with a heavy backpack carrying my supplies for weeks. But urban travel with a heavy backpack was different.

My shoulders ached. My arms felt like they would fall off my torso if I carried the beast again. I dreaded the maneuver to get the Gemini from the ground up onto my back.

Outside the Gare du Nord train station I sat down and pondered my predicament. I took out every item I had squeezed into the Gemini and laid it around me. I sorted out the things I really needed, and the things I could do without. I ditched clothes. I put my sleeping bag in the pile of items I would store. I tore off parts of my guidebook that I wouldn’t use on this trip. I unzipped the Gemini day bag, and made this the bag I would carry. After an hour or so, I walked back into the train station, put my main Gemini into storage for about the price of a week’s dormitory accommodation, and I walked out, feeling lighter. Literally, a load had been lifted from my shoulders.

I no longer had the unwieldy backpack attached to my back. I no longer had to plod along city streets or up and down stairs with the monstrosity weighing me down. I no longer had to be careful not to bump pedestrians when I turned around trying to get my bearings.

With my newly acquired status freed from 20 kilograms of burden, I felt a new freedom. I could explore the place more easily, less hindered. I could go to accommodation further away from train stations or bus lines. I didn’t have to check in my bag when visiting attractions or waste time trying to find suitable storage.

This change also changed my identity. I saw other travellers – from Australasia, North America and Scandinavia – encumbered by big packs. None looked happy. By leaving behind my big bag, I realised that my mission was not to courier around Europe a bag of mainly useless items. I figured, if I really needed something, I could probably get it in that place.

It was a decision I didn’t regret. Over the years, I’ve retained that wisdom, and endeavoured to pack and travel light. Central to my travel ethos is the idea that having less is more. It is not just about avoiding baggage fees or the risk of lost luggage, or even about the struggle to carry heavy bags. For me, it is more about a mindset of being frugal, non-materialist and free. With just a small bag, I have been able to run to catch a departing bus, squeeze onto a packed subway carriage, hitch a ride on a pickup truck loaded with pilgrims, and fulfil one of the dreams of travel fantasy, to be able to jump onto a moving train.

There’s something else that happens when you adopt this attitude. It makes and creates room in your life and your travel for other things. More engaging experiences. Meeting, and interacting with, new people.

How does that happen? It is more than the advantage of not having to wait around for your bag to finally arrive on the luggage carousel. I think by traveling light it makes you less of a tourist, less of a self-centred hedonist, less of a status seeker. Admittedly, you are still an outsider, but when you are not so overloaded with things, you have more time to be in the place.

These intangible rewards are not so easy to define as extra frequent flier points. But I think traveling light gives a convenience that makes travel less about travail, and more about simple pleasures and the freedom that comes from greater mobility. There is less to worry about. You are less likely to lose items, or your bag. With your bag with you on your lap or under the seat in front of you, you are more mobile, and less encumbered. You are more in control, and less likely to have anything broken or stolen because it is always with you.

Which is why often the Number #1 piece of advice for travellers is to pack light. As travel guru Rick Steves maintains ‘ you can’t travel heavy, happy, and cheap. Pick two’. He says you will never meet a traveller who will want to pack heavier.

When I am met at the airport, train or bus station by my host, the first thing they will do is look at my bag, and ask ‘is that all?’, and then say ‘you travel light’.

So how do you reduce the weight and size of what you are carrying? That’s for next time.