Whenever I meet or am introduced to new people, there are five common questions I seem to get over and over again. I figured I’d to a post about them and give people a chance to ask any others or add their thoughts. Total top of the head rambling based on what comes to mind, and I’ll try and list them with the frequency I get them.
1) You’ve been to every country? Even North Korea? (close second: Even Greenland?)
Yes, I went to North Korea for the first time in 2005 as part of only the second or third group since the Korean War. The New York Times wrote an article about the trip, which I literally booked four days before. I’d seen an article on CNN talking about it, and having recently decided that I wanted to go to every country this was one I would knew would be hard. Thinking this might be my only chance, I dropped by far the most I’ve ever dropped on one country to do what ended up being a fascinating trip.
…and Greenland? No, it’s not a country. It’s an autonomous constituent of the Kingdom of Denmark. But I do still really want to go!
2) What was your favourite country?
I’ve been trying to come up with a good answer to this one for years, and still really can’t settle on one favourite. What I have managed to do is narrow it down to a few – and without exception they’re places I’ve gone back to multiple times and really got in depth. That is to say: if I spent more time in a lot of places they might get added to this list. However, there are some that, well, idk…see question 3 below. So, what makes the short list?
Canada. From the forests of British Columbia to the Okanagan Valley. Vibrant cities like Toronto and Montreal. The natural beauty and distinct cultures of the maritimes, I think what gets me most about Canada is its diversity – both its people and its nature. It’s a country I could spend years exploring and still have hundreds of totally different and unique experiences.
Argentina. It feels terrible to say this as I’ve never really gotten out of Buenos Aires, but something about the city is absolutely electric. The wines, the beef, the tango, the mix of latin, italian, and other immigrant cultures that creates an amazing tapestry. Next step is really to dig more in depth more…but I don’t know where to start!
Senegal. I’ve spent months there in probably a dozen trips now, and from Rosso in the north to Dakar, St. Louis, and Zinguinchor, it’s an absolutely amazing place with amazing people. A little bit French, a lot bit Africa, the place just has an energy and warmth that keep drawing me back.
Russia. The Soviet Union was the third country I ever visited on a student exchange back in high school, and it keeps drawing me back. I’ve been lucky enough to work in Russia (along with all the Central Asian countries) and again it’s the diversity of the country that gets me. I hear from so many people how they didn’t like Russia (or the Russians) but once you get to know them they’re some of the most fascinating people you’ll meet anywhere. I can’t wait to do the Trans-Siberian soon and spend a work or more sharing stories…
South Africa. Another place I’ve gone to dozens of times now, and keeps drawing me back. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but maybe writing this article has made me realize something: it’s countries with huge diversity of people, nature, and experiences that draw me back. South Africa has an amazingly complex history and a lot of challenges in front of it, but it’s definitely a place with a vision for the future and people who want to help it get there.
3) What was your LEAST favourite country?
I think I might actually get this question more than which is my favourite, and in the same vein I haven’t been able to answer it. There really wasn’t any country that I hated. It sounds cliché, but I really do believe most places have some redeeming feature that makes them worth visiting. Now, that doesn’t mean that I want to go back to every country, far from it. Some of the bigger challenges:
Bangladesh. I loved the country, but when I went in 2006 it was a really tough place to do as a solo tourist. Lots of people desperate to make a buck trying to scam you. Grinding, in your face poverty that wore away at the spirit, and an urban chaos in Dhaka that made it very difficult to navigate when you were only there for three days. That said, I really want to go back now, but with someone who either lives there or knows the place well. I know there’s a million things to explore, and the warmth and kindness I was shown by several people on my first trip make me want to go back.
Niger. I loved my four days there, but you know, it was just enough. As far as tourist sites go, I feel like I pretty much saw them all, and any extra time invested would be diminishing returns. I don’t do patience well, so going to a place and chilling for a couple weeks while hoping to having fascinating experiences is hard for me.
Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu. Again, island time, and there’s just not enough to “do” for my tastes. Yeah, I could spend days or weeks trying to get a boat to the outer islands, but hey…more islands. I think I crave more culture and activities, and these are definitely places that move at their own pace. Some of the most beautiful nature (and OH the sunsets!) I’ve seen, but I like a little more activity.
4) Have you ever been robbed / arrested / afraid for your life?
Knock on wood, I’ve been to every country on the planet without ever being robbed. Closest I came was a taxi driver in Prague back in 2002 slipping me some old worthless Bulgarian currency as change. I lost like $3. As far as being robbed goes, I’ll take it!
Arrested? Not formally, although I’ve been detained several times by police and immigration officers and ironically the longest detention was in my home town of Washington, D.C. when Customs and Border Protection decided they didn’t like my shady trip to Egypt. Fortunately, after around four-five hours they gave up on it and let me go.
Afraid for my life? Not really. No real civil unrest, war zones or the like, but three incidents stand out. Terrorists blowing up a police car about 1 km in front of us on a road out of Karachi, Pakistan. When we tried to turn around and hightail it back to Karachi? Smoke ahead on that highway too. Thanks to a great driver he knew some side roads through a village and things were just fine. I also had a flight with Uzbekistan Airlines where the pilot landed in Amritsar, India in the middle of a monsoon. I’ve never felt such horrible turbulence. Final story? An overpacked ferry on rough seas in Sierra Leone with no way to the exit and multiple people vomiting everywhere. I was convinced my life was over.
5) What was the hardest visa to get?
Far and away, it was Angola. I made over two dozen visits to the embassy before I got it. Supposedly there’s now a visa on arrival and while the rules and such aren’t completely clear, it’s much much easier than when I did it about five years ago. Honourable mentions go to:
Yemen. I had the visa, and canceled my trip two days before due to rebels overrunning Sana’a. I visited later, actually without a visa, but my understanding is this is still a very very difficult visa to get.
Saudi Arabia. Easy to get a business visa if you have a good reason, but as a tourist? You can shell out several thousand dollars to one of the very few companies permitted to run tours, or you’re out of options. How did I visit then? Six hour airport transit, where thanks to a friend I pulled off a story worth of an “authentic local experience.” Given my criteria for counting a country is an amazing story and interaction with locals…I count it for now…but look to improve upon this one!
What was your hardest visa? It definitely can depend on passport and timing!
So with all that said, what questions do YOU get asked a lot about your travels? …or what else should I answer?