The World is Not Enough
Meet the people for whom visiting all of Earth's 193 UN-recognised countries is just the start.
AFR Sophisticated Traveller, November 24 2022. Read it as it ran here. This is the version I originally filed.
“Travellers often begin with the UN list of 193 recognised countries. That is a great milestone, but it is really a starting point: if you only look at 193, you’re selling yourself short.”
The man on stage in a hotel conference room in Yerevan, Armenia, is Charles Veley, widely considered among most travelled people who have ever lived.
He is by any definition extreme, a man who devoted 72 days to getting to uninhabited Bouvet Island in the Southern Ocean, the world’s most remote piece of land. He tells us how in order to say he’d been to tiny Rockall Island in the North Atlantic Ocean he leapt from a Zodiac into a rolling swell, swam over in a wetsuit and hung on to kelp on the side of the rock until he felt sufficiently connected to it to say he’d been there.
But Veley, while clearly acute in his conviction, is just one example of a curious and surprisingly tight-knit community: those who want to go everywhere.
I am at the Extraordinary Travel Festival, an event that seeks to bring together these wandering and apparently bulletproof souls. It is helmed by Ric Gazarian, both a member of the group (152 counties and counting) and a chronicler of its constituents through his Counting Countries podcast.
“More people have been to outer space than have been to every country in the world,” says Gazarian. Those that have achieved it, he believes, are worth celebrating.
Gazarian’s own voyage began when he was made redundant from a financial services career in the Global Financial Crisis and with his newfound freedom, and decent money saved, he set about seeing the world.
First he did so in piecemeal fashion, working with Excel sheets and atlases, and then became aware of a sort of unofficial protocol for wanderlust, formed in a series of increasingly challenging grades. Extreme travellers start with this idea of the 193, sometimes adding the two observer states of the Vatican and Palestine to make 195; or Taiwan and Kosovo, which are countries in every respect except for recognition by some major dissenting foe, to make 197.
Then they aim for the bigger fish: UN plus, which adds dependencies and satellites to make 266, or the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC), which adds various islands and has 330. And finally you get to the extreme of two web sites: Veley’s Mosttraveledpeople, or MTP; and Nomad Mania, founded by Harry Mitsidis.
These are the sites for people who think like Veley, that going to every country is just the beginning of a more noble and arduous quest. Nomad Mania divides the world into 1,301 regions: every US state, every Chinese province, every Russian oblast. Often it’s more intricate even than that. There are four different places required in order to complete California, three for Sichuan, and seven for Antarctica.
Nobody has been to all of them (founder Mitsidis leads with 1,256) but through the site one can see the people who are closest. Many of them are at this festival, probably the most globe-trotting gathering ever assembled, where the most-travelled Hungarian woman and Jamaican man rub shoulders with the former holder of the Guinness World Record for the youngest person to go everywhere (aged 28; the record has since gone to a 21-year old). Gazarian’s is an attempt to unite them physically instead of just online.
In order to decide where one fits in this compartmentalized and listed world, one must first come to a conclusion about two vexing matters of principle: what constitutes a country (hence that variety of lists), and what constitutes going there. This is argued with vibrant might, so much so that Nomad Mania polled a thousand of its membership to try to reach some conclusions.
The verdict: just changing planes somewhere obviously doesn’t count (you’re airside and haven’t legally entered), and nor does running through passport control and out of the airport to the nearest roundabout and back just to tick a place off (this is considered, if not cheating, then somewhat undignified).
Traversing a country on a train without getting off doesn’t count either – to my chagrin, this costs me Belarus on my own personal list – and there are plenty who believe you must spend a night there, which presents quite the problem in The Vatican where there aren’t any hotels (one presenter shares a picture of himself sleeping rough in St Peter’s Square as evidence of correct etiquette).
Why does it matter, this validation, I ask Milana Bojinovic, general manager of Nomad Mania? “I don’t think it’s about ego,” she says. “It’s about respect.” By this she means respect not so much for the place but for the fellow traveller and the effort they have made.
I half expect this to be a painful crowd of snobby oneupmanship – oh, you’ve only been to the south of Benin! – but that is not at all what I find. The community is remarkably supportive, all whoops and high fives when people are called to the stage to celebrate reaching 150 or 170 countries. The chat is about how to get that notoriously difficult visa for Equatorial Guinea, or the safest way of getting into (and, more pertinently, out of) Mogadishu without dying.
There’s no denying, though, that there is a certain type in abundance here, and that is the list-maker, the completist, the statistician (“I’ve got more maths degrees than ex-girlfriends”, one delegate cheerfully tells me). The worst insult you can level at this community, leaving aside the dark cloud of carbon footprint which goes largely undiscussed, is to call them box-tickers, but clearly there’s something of that in there. “A lot of us are collectors-slash-list-makers,” says Gazarian. “We spreadsheet this entirely useless information: how many nights I spend in a hotel, in a tent, in an aeroplane. You can count anything from Unesco sites to funiculars to museums to windmills.
“Some people say, you’re just checking boxes. But my argument is, counting countries has opened so many doors for me.”
Most of this group, though, want to impress upon you the depth with which they engage in countries, and to some – not all – it is important to believe they are doing something good with their self-indulgence. One woman, a Czech called Sarka, hit a wall of self-doubt one day about her actions and intentions, and so now extends her range of travel by accompanying bone marrow transplants across borders from donor to recipient. Another, Debjeet Sen, gives a presentation wracked with guilt about travel and its purpose, concluding: “Let’s just be honest about our motivations.”
There’s a certain standard here that does invite imposter syndrome. My bags go missing for a day and a half but it seems an anecdote so utterly banal as to be humiliating in a gathering where an entry-level story of travel inconvenience requires you to have been jailed in Togo or stranded in a civil war (or possibly started one). After apologizing for being in the same shirt for two days I follow up by apologizing for how boring a state of affairs this is. I find myself half-wishing Fly Dubai had destroyed my luggage in a controlled explosion so I’d have something more striking to say.
There are a few Australians here: one, Donalito “DonDon” Bales, of Filipino background but now living in Melbourne, is clearly in his element in clothes bearing a badge for every country he’s been to, which, since he’s on 123, take up every inch of his shirt and trousers; he’s either going to need to go up a few sizes or get a massive hat to accommodate any more. Collecting countries is “about really having a sense of achievement, while doing something I love to do,” he says. “You might as well make a game out of it.”
Another, Paul Lau from Canberra, is a smiling introvert (so many introverts here) who doesn’t go out much when he’s at home and yet has gone to 92 countries. “It’s about what you want to get out of it,” he says. “I don’t want to do it for the numbers and I try to prevent myself. My focus is more to take out the magnifying glass.”
There are some remarkable speakers, none more so than Tony Giles, who is blind and has severely impaired hearing. Indestructibly intrepid, he misses the final day of the conference because he’s out exploring a city he cannot see.
Then there’s a presentation by Maryam Abdullah, a sophisticated Kuwaiti who works for the World Bank in operational development and delivers a presentation in an immaculate local robe of gold-braided black. She seems the last person to be at a place like this but turns out to have bungee-jumped into an active volcano and talked her way into a diamond mine in Sierra Leone.
She’s done it all on a Kuwait passport – often she has to go to Egypt just to apply for visas for her next trip, she says – and one is reminded of the tyranny of the good or bad passport. The group has a term for it: passport entitlement. I meet another man, UK-based doctor Raiiq Ridwan, who Is trying to get to the whole world on a Bangladesh passport, which is, he tells me, one of the worst passports in the world to attempt anything of the sort. “I’m asked: where do you stay, what are you doing, what’s your income source? I was once asked why I married my wife, or about my Muslim faith: I have to lay out my life in front of strangers.” Getting his Armenia visa took six months and wouldn’t have happened without the conference. Undeterred, he’s on 98.
I meet Mette Ehlers Mikkelsen, the most-travelled Danish woman, who has her own twist: travelling everywhere with kids. She has three of them, and the middle daughter, aged 19, is already on 115 countries; when we speak, she tells me she’s about to take both daughters to Somaliland the following Wednesday. “It builds identity and it builds self-esteem,” she says. “The best things we can give children.
“The greatest gift I’ve given them, and given myself, is the world. They are world citizens and they can relate to people in pretty much every single corner of the world.” But she adds: “I’ve been quite honest that this is something I do for me.”
A career diplomat with strident world views who was involved in the negotiation of Estonia’s entry into NATO, she’s something else again, a geopolitician in pursuit of a world whose government-level policies she often deplores. “I absolutely love the fact that the world is not black and white.” A feminist too, she has concluded that of about 300 people known to have gone to every country in the world, 10% are women, and only 10% of those women are mothers.
This crowd would be invincible in a pub quiz. At one point in his presentation, the Norwegian travel author Gunnar Garfors momentarily misplaces the name of the capital of Mauritania. “Noukachott,” says the entire room, instantly, in unison. They’ve nearly all been there.
But how do they do it? The money, the time, the marriages? Many are single, several divorced, but also plenty not. The most travelled Portuguese, who has been literally everywhere and spends months at a time in Africa, says the most important thing in his life is his wife and six children, but when can he possibly see them? On a video-link we meet Thor Pedersen, who has been couch-surfing his way around the world for eight years on a mission to go everywhere without ever catching a plane, a stoic rubric that marooned him in Hong Kong for two entire years through the pandemic. To widespread astonishment, it turns out he got married along the way.
Thor is at one end of the wealth spectrum – basically living off the generosity of others who want to help him achieve something remarkable – and at the other, it’s common to find people who have sold businesses and retired young and have turned to the world as the next challenge, something to do with the rewards of their work.
And what of Armenia? Gazarian, American-raised from family who fled the genocide a century ago, considers himself “100% Armenian” and has assembled this gathering with enormous pride. Also, it’s a perfect country for a conference like this: just a bit frontier-spirited, with that former Soviet state allure, but not so inaccessible as to put people off (though frankly you could host it in Tristan de Cunha and most of this crowd wouldn’t be put off).
After days in conference halls the group is unleashed and we head to a tour of astronomy facilities and disused Soviet paraphernalia: a vast and rusting radar dish on the side of a mountain, a cosmic ray detection facility on top of another, at which we are given a rare tour of the tunnels beneath the facility in total darkness into a cavern where the world’s largest magnet sits abandoned by a weird sea of pyramid-shaped sensors. Something I have learned over the years is that truly extreme travellers never seem happier than when looking at faded Cyrillic on some 1960s metal console at an abandoned Soviet-era facility. These people love a dystopian landscape.
Armenia is also a place of surprising beauty, mountainous, peppered with monasteries in stunning settings, and anchored by a sophisticated food and drink scene in Yerevan. This yields a further discovery: this crowd parties hard, rarely falling out of the bars until two in the morning and occasionally into one another’s beds.
And me? For a moment I think Armenia is my 100th country, before a bracing interrogation under the Nomad Mania standards requires me to revise this down to 96.
Finding myself with an unexpected extra day in Armenia, I hire a car, and can’t help but make sure my voyage goes through all three of the Nomad Mania territories in the country. So I came here cynical, but it’s time to own it, with all its planet-wrecking guilt: here, among the completists and oddballs who go to sleep dreaming of Tuvalu and Gabon, I’m among my tribe.