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 globetalk.
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 and all the people heading on new adventures. (I conveniently ignored the many DELAYED signs next to these cities). 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 turn 50.
To many this may seem like a “tick something off a list” challenge and it would be mean sacrificing quality time to add countries to a list. So I set myself rules- I must spend at least a full day in the country (and overnight where possible) and spend money. I obviously must leave the airport. I must get some sense of the people and country and learn a few phrases of the local language. I must where possible try the local beer.
When I would explain my goal to people, they would inevitably try and work out how many countries, they to had visited and then ask me- how many countries are there actually.
This depends on how you define a country. There are many ways to do this but being passionate about sports 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 countries such as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could be included individually.
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 prior to 1990 it would have just counted as one- Yugoslavia. Conversely If I had been to both East and West Germany prior to the Berlin Wall coming down they would count as 2, as I visited some time after when it was Germany it is just 1.
With my rules set, I began earnestly on my task. A big trip across Europe as soon as I graduated from university. Joining in very early on with this challenge was Mel McVeigh 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 exited 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 managed to add 1 hour due to my constant getting lost and lack of Italian). I arrived late at night, enjoyed dinner 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 (still adding 30 minutes of getting lost) 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, again getting lost and again vowing never to do such a thing again). After 5 frustrating days in Moscow, I changed my flight home by a day resulting in a 24 hour stopover in Doha, Qatar. (The 2 most notable things to occur in that time, was 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 headless chook. I have spent a total of 8 hours across 2 trips at Santiago Airport, but haven’t had the time to change plans and visit the city, so 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 city or country and 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 Cece, Charlie and Thomas to see the beauty of Cape Town, visit orphanages and then head to Namibia for a self drive safari (yet again I had no GPS- when will I learn). 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 met strangers, slept on their couch or floor but left as friends.
A trip to Palestine which contrasted so much to my expectation and I hung out with very friendly locals s was just as enjoyable as the 3 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. Whether its a trip with a mate, a business trip or with my partner Cece and 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, Mel that I disembarked at Kiev Borspol airport and step 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 the smile when I venture somewhere new. . Maybe Mel we should race to 200?