One Hundred Countries
I was a late starter.
21 long years passed before I finally got the most precious item you can receive- a passport. (Sorry kids). For many years I had dreams of going overseas. Through going through those magic double doors guarded by airport security to see what lay beyond. A whole world to travel. To explore. Once I finally made my first overseas trip at the age of 21, I was like a dog off a leash, free to roam, free to meet people of different cultures.
Free to travel.
I fell in love at once. Airports- the cause of delays and queues to me were a place of wonder and delight- the launching place for the next journey. I loved seeing the Departure Boards listing so many foreign destinations and imagining what they would be like. Once I started travelling, I had the bug and I knew I couldn’t stop and soon I set myself a goal. To visit 100 countries before I turned 50.
To many, this may seem like a “tick something off a list” challenge and sacrificing quality time to add countries to a list. So I set myself rules to classify a visit to a country
- spend at least one full day in the country
- spend the local currency
- learn at least a few basic phrases of the local language
- try the local beer.
Whenever I spoke about my 100 Club goal people would inevitably try and work out how many countries they had visited and this would always involve a great conversation. Just talking about travel was exciting to me.
Admit it — you’re now counting how many you have visited.
Before they started counting their first question would always be:
“What is a country?”
This depends on how you define a country. There are many ways to do this. Membership of the United Nations is one. There are Wikipedia pages listing countries. But being a passionate sports fan, I decided to use a sports body as my guide. Any country eligible to play in the FIFA World Cup became a country. This ruled out some places but meant that I could include Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as countries.
I also determined a country as its status when I visited.
For example — Serbia, Slovenia and the rest of the Former Yugoslav states were counted separately as they were independent when I visited, however, if I had been there before 1990 it would have just counted as one- Yugoslavia. Conversely, if I had been to both East and West Germany before the Berlin Wall coming down they would count as two countries, however as I visited well after, I count Germany as just one.
With my rules set, I began earnestly on my task.
A big trip across Europe as soon as I graduated from university. Joining me in this challenge was a friend from university and we decided to make a competition of it- the first to 100 would enjoy the spoils. The prize fluctuated over the ensuing 20 + years but it was always pride at stake. Often we would just send a text to each other with a number- indicating we had entered a new country and our tally had increased by one. Over time, others joined the competition and left and so it became a race in two.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go out of my way in this pursuit. Often spending too much money and time to get to see another place. San Marino comes to mind- the micro country within Italy.
I was in Albania and had to get to Dublin for a conference but had 2 days to spare. So I found a flight to Milan, hired a car at the airport and sadly without thinking of getting a GPS or the craziness of Italian drivers drove 5 ½ hours to San Marino. I arrived late at night, enjoyed dinner — and a beer — in what was probably San Marino’s 27th best restaurant (out of 28) and rose early to spend a day exploring by foot. Just after lunch the next day I drove 5 hours back to the airport and flew to Dublin, utterly exhausted, shaken up by many near-death driving experiences but having had the pleasure of spending time in San Marino. Memories — and photos that will last longer than the tiredness.
A similar experience ensued 2 years later when I went to South Africa and detoured for 2 nights to the Kingdom of Swaziland — again hiring a car without GPS, getting lost and again vowing never to do such a thing.
After five frustrating days in Moscow, I changed my flight home by a day resulting in a 24-hour stopover in Doha, Qatar. The two most notable things to occur in my time in Qatar, were they confiscated my just purchased Russian vodka and I had the most enthusiastic massage by a male masseur that I could imagine.)
Not all my travel involves rushing around like a madman. I have spent a total of eight hours across two trips at Santiago Airport, but haven’t had the time to visit the city, sadly to this day, Chile is not on my list. There are some countries I choose to return to and spend more time, getting off the beaten path or delving deeper in my travels when I could have diverted to a new country.
Often I get asked what is my favourite country. Like a parent being asked to choose their favourite child, this is too difficult a question. It could be the trip to South Africa with my wife and children to see the beauty of Cape Town, visit orphanages and then head to Namibia for a self-drive safari.
How do I compare the absurdity of travelling through the Stans in the early 2000s (and in particular Turkmenistan) with the modern, clean and efficient Switzerland? Can I compare the friendliness of strangers I have met in places like Estonia and Colombia where I relied on their kindness to sleep on their couch? Arriving as a stranger but leaving as friends?
A trip to Palestine celebrating Ramadan with people I just met, was as enjoyable as the times I have visited Israel and been hosted by family.
There is one common thing that unites my love of a place and that is the locals I meet. Often the poorest people have been the friendliest. I have met so many people that I have struck up conversations with and spent time with. Walking, exploring, eating, drinking.
Singing. Yes, a lot of singing.
And I remained connected to them via Facebook- perhaps the greatest addition to travel. I see people I met once at a dingy bar in St Petersburg. Each time they post it takes me back to that time.
Whether its a trip with a friend, a business trip or with my partner and children my kids- every journey offers a new experience.
And so it was with pleasure and a huge grin that accompanied by my “competitor” and amiga in travel passion, that I recently disembarked at Kyiv Borspol airport and stepped foot in Ukraine- my 100th country.
I look back at my 21-year-old self- about to head overseas for the first time with such excitement and what laid ahead and think- I still feel that way. I still get a smile when I venture somewhere new. I still get excited when I meet a stranger. I even still enjoy sleeping on a couch.
Travel has made me the person I am.
Now to visit the next 100.