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. 

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