I really wish I had written down the exact moment a decision was made to visit every country in the world. You would think the date (or even year) of such a major decision and milestone in my life would’ve been somehow recalled, recorded, noted, or even scribbled down on a napkin at very least. But it wasn’t. The truth is, I don’t think it was ever one specific “decision,” but rather a few key events, that, all put together, culminated to inspire this crazy mission.
There is no doubt that my 2016 trip to Tripoli, Libya had a major impact in my decision to see every country. What was I thinking? Taking a go at such an unstable region with such little travel experience under my belt—it was my first trip to Africa and I just started routing a handful of countries that had direct flights, and somehow Libya made it into the equation. The trip was booked and it was too late to turn back. Specifically, this was one of the big “a-ha” moments: the realization that one can actu- ally travel to places like Libya, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, etc. Up until that point, like most casual travelers, I figured that there are just countries you simply cannot visit. Once the realization set in that I could indeed actually go everywhere, no matter how crazy the destination, that changed everything.
I started traveling decades before that first trip to Africa, but this love for exploring the world did not blossom overnight. In fact, some of my earliest trips may have even put me off of world travel—actually stunting my passion’s growth. While I was grateful my mom was kind enough to take me along on a handful of cruises, this was all I knew world travel to be: getting off a big ship, into a big bus and drive into the center of town for a two-hour tour with dozens of other Americans—all of whom wore socks with sandals. Repeating this five or six times, while eating mediocre buffets on the Lido deck every night simply did not inspire me. Luckily, Brazil would be the country to push the reset button on my brain and have me thinking differently about travel.
I’d always had an interest in the Latin culture growing up, many times not even realizing it. Being raised in high-density Hispanic areas like Los Angeles, Tucson, Arizona and Orlando, Florida, I couldn’t escape it. My boyhood crushes and girl- friends were all Latina. I adored authentic Mexican food (especially the real stuff from the streets of South Tucson and Nogales), and I loved the music. One of my first jobs at 18 was working on the air at a Spanish radio station.
One year, I found myself furiously studying Spanish in community college to impress (and communicate with) a woman I had met from Hermosillo. I thought I was in love, and I needed to speak the language if I was going to marry this girl. It was one of my profesoras, Mrs. Houston, who would come to class and tell us all wonderful stories of her glorious travels to Latin America. She sure had a knack for storytelling. For some reason, her tales of Brazil stuck. All it took was one Google search once I got home to fall in love with this place I had never been to: It was that first panoramic photo of Copacabana Beach that did me in: Sugarloaf Mountain, Cristo Redentor, the bay, and once I looked at it closer, the curvy, mosaic, black and white sidewalks. That one image blew the lid off Pandora’s Box and would alter the course of my life forever.
I had to see Brazil for myself and made a plan to go with my best friend, Kody, the following year. But when it came time to purchase our plane tickets, Kody couldn’t pull the trigger. Something about work, or money—but he couldn’t do it and promised me next year he would. Next year came, and it was the same story. At 26, I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and reluctantly bought a ticket to Rio De Janeiro for myself. The $670 ticket was a huge purchase at that stage in my life, but now there was no turning back. I was scared. Would I hate going by myself? I worried this would be like visiting Disneyland alone … would I be completely lonely and miserable and want to come home after the first day, like the unpopular kid at summer camp? I would soon find out.
That first trip to Brazil changed my life in ways I’ll never be able to put into words. After 12 days I found myself in absolute tears boarding my flight home through Atlanta. Brazil had affected every single part of me, both emotionally and physically. It was like a drug that had given me the most intense and incredible high of my life, and now it was all over. The music, food, landscape, and language! Everything about Brazil was just magic to me and so new.The people were the country’s best part. Life- long friendships were made on that first trip to Brazil. In fact, I’m still good friends with a woman I met that very first night. I’ve yet to experience the warmth of Brazilians anywhere else in my travels. To date, this would be the best trip of my life and the one that all others would be judged upon. In fact, I’ve had to make it a point to not judge other countries based on that virgin voyage to Rio De Janeiro, because then I’d never be happy.
Like a drug, I’d suffered some serious Brazil withdrawals. So two years later, I’d come running back, this time with my newly acquired Portuguese skills. On my third trip to Brazil I stayed — the car is sold, my house is rented out and I kissed my mom goodbye to take up residency in the northeastern city of Recife. Visiting was no longer enough. I wanted to be Brazilian.
Everyone should take up residency in a foreign country at least once in their life if they can. I grew so much, and at the same time learned a new appreciation for the U.S. I eventually moved back to the States, where I now live, but I still own an apartment in Brazil which will forever own a piece of my heart.
I’ve also been attracted to the “bizarreness” of so many faraway and less-traveled places. Sure, I enjoyed climbing the Eiffel Tower and trekking along The Great Wall of China, but for me, the real enjoy- ment comes from exploring places that my friends and colleagues have never heard of and wandering the streets and sidewalks of places where I’m the only tourist in sight. I love being asked by the locals, “Why the heck did you come here?!”
While I lived in Brazil, I came up with my first “counting countries” challenge: A goal was set to see every nation in Central and South America before I turned 40. It was my first experience (besides Brazil) traveling solo. I loved all of it, especially Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, but it was The Guyanas that would be my first experience into the “bizarre.”
They speak Dutch in South America (Suriname)? And they spend euros and drive around with EU license plates in the Amazon (French Guiana)? I found myself spending New Year’s Eve in a place none of my friends could ever even locate on the map (Guyana)! It was then that I realized traveling the world didn’t have to mean sticking to seeing the popular tourist destinations everyone knows about. It was then I’d realize true excitement for me wouldn’t come from lining up to take a photo of the Leaning tower of Pisa, or watching ladies dance in grass skirts at a luau in Honolulu, but rather staying in a water village in Bandar Seri Begawan, drinking orange soda out of a big glass bottle while watching a sappeaurs’ show in Brazzaville, and tip-toeing around Saddam Hussein’s old house in Al Najaf. Those are the experiences that have and continue to shape my life.
At 162 (UN) and 190 (TCC) countries in, I’m so honored to be a part of the Travelers’ Century Club. It’s a blessing to be able to share my stories with others who don’t just appreciate them, but have experienced many of them for themselves; and to learn from others who have blazed trails that I have only so far dreamt about.
And we ramble on!