Why I Don't Know (Nor Care) About How Many Countries I've Been To

How many countries have you been to? That’s the question I’m most frequently asked. When I lived in the south I was repeatedly asked who my family was (or when I was getting married or having kids). When I moved out to the west coast I was asked what I did for a living. And now when I tell people what I do, I've been increasingly asked how many countries I've been to. All of these questions, however, seem to be a question of status. I live amidst a generation that is the first to have the accessibility it does to travel. A person with the desire and means could travel to every single country if they wanted to. And people have, like author Chris Guillebeau, who recently visited every single country (193) in the world, using frequent flyer miles and RTW tickets to travel to more than 25 countries per year before reaching his goal. And what a milestone. It wasn't long ago that it was simply impossible to visit every country in the world. Now that's possible.

So how many countries have I been to? I have no idea. And that's not because I've lost count. It's not as many as a lot of people. I just went to Asia for the first time a few months ago and I’ve never been to South America, Eastern Europe, the North or South Pole, Antarctica, or West, North, or East Africa. I've actually been to far more U.S. states than countries. I didn’t come from a well-to-do family. My father worked as a school teacher for 40 years. My mom worked in retail for just as long. But my father insisted on visiting every corner of my own country before visiting the rest of the world.

But I haven’t always been so indifferent to visiting every country in the world. From as young as I can remember, I recall wanting to see every part of the world possible. But only once. It seemed like such a waste to see a destination twice when there was still so much of the world to see.

But this summer, for the first time I traveled to destinations abroad that I had previously visited. One of them was to Johannesburg, South Africa, a destination I visited in college 10 years ago, and the trip that really turned me onto a travel lifestyle. That first trip was so impressionable, leaving an indelible mark on me, and this trip was no different, as I walked the streets of Johannesburg so wide-eyed, seeing a destination that had changed so much since my first trip, through the eyes of someone who had changed just as much. And those were feelings that only I could have had, and only I could have had if I revisited it.

But that doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to visit new countries, nor does it mean that I oppose “country counters”. Lee Abbamonte, for example, became the youngest American to travel to every country. That's an incredible feat and I don't want to lessen that accomplishment. If anything, however, this all simply marks a shift in how I travel. Years ago I would often travel to destinations, spending mere days in it, and often writing about it as if I was an expert, and then checking it off my list and moving to the next. Yet it felt so superficial. The destination seemed like the end, rather than being a means to an end. Just because I’ve visited a place doesn’t make me an expert, nor does it mean I’ve experienced it to the fullest extent.

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”--Bill Bryson

I believe that when travel becomes more about quantity than quality, then the lines begin to get blurred, where travel becomes an end, as if it’s a to-do list, rather than a means to an end, affecting one’s life. And I'm certainly not above travel lists. But I believe that the day that travel becomes a "honey-do" list will be the day I stop traveling. Until then, I'll continue to travel, sometimes to new places, and sometimes revisiting old ones, but always traveling at ground-level, so as to see it through the eyes of the people who live there. And if I'm lucky, then the person who I come back as will be different than the person I left as.