International Travel

One of my wonderful friends (love ya Vicky) asked me to list how many countries I’ve been to, and it was fun to sit down and write it all out.

I had calculated that the number was close to 40 countries, or less than 20% of the world, but I hadn’t saved a full list for my own reference. After all, the beauty of making a travel list is watching it grow and looking forward to the day when you can say, “See? Grandma was pretty cool!” to your not-so-easily impressed teenage grandchildren.

I started making a travel list when I was 17 years old and was getting ready to go on my first international trip, a tour of Europe with Baylor University.  As I grew older, and traveled more, the list grew longer and longer.  When I lived in London and later in Seoul, I carved out time to cross off most of the places on my list.  I did, however, save a few, with the hopes of sharing new travel experiences with a husband and/or kids one day.

Which places did I leave on my list, you ask?  I plan on revealing those at a later time.  For now, I present my travel list as of June 2011, at the age of 28 and 11 years after my first trip.  The grand total comes to 36 (40 if you count Caribbean territories and Gibraltar),with hopefully more to be added in time.  I’ve counted a couple of countries from when I was actually heading somewhere else, but had a long layover to do a little shopping. The list also includes countries of the UK listed out separately–yes, I know that the UK is technically considered one country, but anyone who has been to the different areas will, I think, agree with me that they should be counted as separate experiences.  (If you have a death wish, for instance, ask a Scot if he tells everyone that he’s British).

My travel list, ladies and gentlemen:

  1. The United States (obviously)
  2. Canada
  3. Mexico
  4. Chile
  5. Argentina
  6. Brazil
  7. Italy
  8. Vatican City (Holy See)
  9. France
  10. Spain
  11. Portugal
  12. Monaco
  13. Ireland
  14. England
  15. Northern Ireland
  16. Scotland
  17. Wales
  18. Germany
  19. Poland
  20. Norway
  21. Greece
  22. Austria
  23. Turkey
  24. Russia
  25. Morocco
  26. Egypt
  27. South Korea
  28. North Korea (South Korean guards allowed me to stand in North Korean territory at the DMZ—Demilitarized Zone, a.k.a. the tensest place I’ve ever been to)
  29. Taiwan (flight layover)
  30. Vietnam (two flight layovers)
  31. Japan
  32. China
  33. Thailand
  34. Cambodia
  35. Indonesia
  36. India
Places that aren’t technically countries, but sure were fun to explore:
  1. Grand Cayman Islands
  2. St. Croix
  3. St. Thomas
  4. Gibraltar
Let me stress, however, that whether you’ve been to one country other than your own, or all of them, the important thing is that you learned something from each place you’ve been to.  The purpose of traveling should never be to cross something off of a “To Do” list–it should be to get out of your comfort zone, explore something new, and possibly discover something about yourself along the way.

Last April, I submitted an op-ed to the Daily Caller website that was not explicitly linked to politics, but in my mind was both relevant and important:  fighting the nasty stereotype that my fellow Americans and I have overseas.

I wasn’t saying that we should obsess about what others think about us, but after years of traveling I had seen firsthand how deeply ingrained the ‘ugly American’ stereotype was in the general psyche of the global populace.  It made me sad (and a little frustrated at times), because I love the U.S. and my fellow Americans, and overall I think our country is amazing and we’re pretty cool.

I also told the editor of the website that my op-ed topic was relevant to politics because, as a graduate student in London, I had studied the link between political ties between countries and the undercurrents of public diplomacy conducted between those countries.  I specialized in cultural diplomacy, or how countries export and promote their cultures around the world in the hopes of fostering greater understanding and cooperation.

With this in mind, when Americans travel overseas, they aren’t just tourists.  They are full-fledged diplomats (minus the immunity).  I’ve had several conversations with locals in Cairo, London, Seoul, Buenos Aires, and so forth, where they regurgitated typical stereotypes about Americans and I tried to listen patiently.  By tried to listen patiently, I mean I sometimes had to grit my teeth a little.  But, it was fascinating that sometimes after just venting, the people would look at me and say, “Oh, but you’re American, and I like you. Hm.”  I tried to tell them that their perceptions of Americans were not necessarily correct, or even close to being accurate.

So, while traveling, there is a degree of responsibility that travelers have to represent their countries well.  In little ways, they’re contributing to the political/social/economic success of their homelands, even if they don’t realize it.  The op-ed I wrote was just a short, simple compilation of suggestions for how my fellow Americans and I can travel with the intention of enjoying ourselves and showing others how great our country is, because it is, and it deserves to have traveling ambassadors who do it justice.

The op-ed I wrote is below:

I realized recently that, after years of being in love with travel, I had no idea how many countries I’d been to.  I sat down and had a lot of fun making the list, which of course brought back a flood of memories (most of them positive).

I finished writing down the last country’s name (Canada) and sat back.  My grand total came to about 40 countries.  Not bad for 28 years old, I thought, but was it even a good chunk of the “small” world we live in?  I did some research for official numbers.

Of course, politics and other complications play a role in the official number of countries.  The United Nations, for instance, has 192 members, so that number is often quoted as the number of countries in the world.  The UN, however, doesn’t include Vatican City, Kosovo, or Taiwan (which, interestingly, was a member of the UN and the Security Council until 1971, when it was replaced by mainland China and started its struggle for recognition as an official country).  The U.S. State Department recognizes 194 countries but, like the UN, does not include Taiwan.

Amidst different reports/political posturing, it looks like the best answer is that there are actually 195 countries in the world.  This number is of course fluid, as maps have changed and will continue to change over time.  Change might come sooner rather than later, as we’re going to see if South Sudan issues its declaration of independence on the targeted date of July 9, 2011.

So, after hopping on countless airplanes, trying different foods on five continents, getting deathly ill twice, and spending hours exploring foreign lands, I had managed to see a little more than 20% of the countries in the world.  Again, not bad, but that means that 80% of the countries out there are still left to be experienced.

I wondered if anyone had ever visited all of the countries in the world, and a quick Google search gave me that answer.  In November 2009, the British press reported that Kashi Samaddar, an middle-aged Indian businessman, had traveled to 194 countries in about six years.  My first thought was, I guess he didn’t stop that often for coffee or shopping.

I guess that’s the beauty of travel; even though the world is figuratively small, it’s also full of places to see.  I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to all 195 (or 196 depending on South Sudan), but if I do it will certainly take me longer than six years–I need my coffee and shopping breaks.

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