“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list” – Susan Sontag
No one has been everywhere. A lifetime is nowhere near long enough to see every city, every town, every village, every cattle station, every desert camp in the world.
For all their international summits, official visits, personal planes and unlimited funds, world leaders only ever see a fraction of the whole. President Obama has visited 53 of the 195 countries which the US State Department recognises. David Cameron has been to 47, François Hollande to 69. The Queen has managed 117 countries in 63 years; Pope John Paul II kissed the tarmac in 129.
Michael Palin has apparently been to 96 countries; ‘Nomadic’ Matt Kepnes has been to 80-odd. I know travellers who have been to upwards of 70.
But somewhere around 300 people in the world are known to have visited every sovereign state. Mike Spencer Bown is probably the most famous. He set off travelling at the traditional age of 21 and went home at the markedly un-traditional age of 44. In 23 years of hitch-hiking across war zones, living with bushmen, being frequently arrested, and funding himself by buying and selling everything from furniture to gemstones, he spent time – seemingly months and years at a stretch – in each of the 195 countries.
Spencer Bown is like a real-life version of the fictional character which so many travellers become in their stories. Few, in truth, have the balls, the single-mindedness, or the entrepreneurial nous to travel the way he did. I would not even daydream about spending the best part of a quarter of a century on the road.
It need not take that long, but it is far from a gap year project. A 24 year-old British guy named James Asquith travelled to 196 countries (the State Department’s list + Taiwan) over the course of five years, at the eye-watering cost of £125,000 (US$190,000) – more than, say, a school teacher would earn in the same timeframe, and far more than most 24 year-olds have seen in their lifetime.
Even if I had it, I would find it hard to justify spending that sort of money and that sort of time. But then, everywhere is not on my list.
Unless you have decades to spare, like Spencer Bown, the more places you choose to go, the less you can see of each. There is always a risk of spreading yourself too thinly.
Professor Yili Liu of Michigan University holds the record for visiting every sovereign state in the fastest time, 3 years, 6 months and 6 days. That might sound a long time, but it averages out at around six days for each nation. It would be punishing to keep up that sort of pace and – I imagine – extremely frustrating to get a tantalising glimpse of each country then hurry off to the next one.
I was in Australia for six weeks, but by the time I had worked my way up the East Coast to Cairns, I only had time to squeeze in a visit to Melbourne by taking internal flights. I had a month in each of Japan and New Zealand but it was not long enough to get right from top to bottom. You need at least a couple of months to do justice to countries as big and diverse as China and the United States.
But if you spend a month at a time in a dozen countries, a year will have gone already with 184 states still to see. Budget just a week for each of the others and you will have another three and a half years of constant travel ahead of you, and yet miss out on a lot of the day-long bus journeys through ramshackle villages, the share-taxis between towns, and the trains through epic landscapes which, for me, are half the fun of long-term travel.
When I looked at the list of nation states, I counted over eighty which hold no interest for me. The only persuasive reason to go to around half of those, it seems to me, is to be able to say that you have. I do not care about bragging rights and lack the gene which impels some people to collect. Some of the others are just too far away, too much of a hassle to get into, or too similar to places I have been already to make it seem worthwhile going. A few are too dangerous. Travellers like Spencer Bown prove that it is possible to travel through even the most lawless of failed states; but I would not get much out of it if I were constantly terrified of being murdered, caught in crossfire, or kidnapped and beheaded for a propaganda film.
There are perhaps another thirty countries which I have heard nothing but good about and which often appear on lists of places to see before you die, but just do not inspire me enough to get on a plane and go.
My travel list constantly evolves. It is an abstract list, not written down anywhere on a piece of paper, still less entered into a spreadsheet. The shortlist of countries I feel I must visit changes often but always numbers somewhere between 50 and 60. I have been to a lot of them now. There are another 10 or 20 which I hope to get to one day, but will not feel cheated if I never do.
It is a diverse list, which takes in just about every region, and includes the biggest and most populous nations and some of the smallest and least populated, island nations and city states, the very progressive and the very conservative, some of the richest and some of the poorest, countries with rainforests and countries with deserts, the peaceable and the belligerent, countries with well-preserved heritage and countries which are aggressively modern, secular countries, religious countries, most of the remaining Communist countries, flat countries and mountainous countries, hot countries and cold, the liberal and the authoritarian, agrarian countries and industrial countries.
But everywhere is not on my list.
© Richard Senior 2015
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