The travel press is awash with articles criticising travellers for counting countries. Such actions fly in the face of the spirit of adventure and exploration, they say, and authentic travel experiences cannot be had if all you’re about is notching up another nation. There’s an element of truth in such arguments, of course. There’s surely little value to be had in crossing a border for an afternoon or a making a quick outing from an airport just to claim another scalp. But I’d argue that such a black and white viewpoint is unfair and here’s why.
In the beginning, when I started travelling, I liked to boast about how many countries I’d visited. I’m OK admitting that. I’m flawed – no one’s perfect. Having spent my childhood happily confined to Europe, there was something thrilling about reaching the Americas and beyond. I wanted to share that excitement and when friends and colleagues asked how many countries I’d visited, they were impressed, which only fuelled the desire to impress some more.
I worked with a teacher in the mid 1990s who’d been to at least ten more countries than I had. He wasn’t even a Geographer, I inwardly complained. What business had a Physics specialist in beating my total? The fact that he was double my age didn’t matter. I resolved to out-country him and booked a couple of half term Ryanair flights that would help redress the balance. It mattered, back then.
At some point, things changed. It wasn’t an overnight awakening, more a gradual realisation that I’d been booking trips to countries I’d already visited rather than somewhere new for the sake of boosting my ever-growing total. And as I took those trips, I saw the value in reacquainting myself with an old friend, just as I had when I was a kid. There was something special about rediscovering a former haunt or learning more about a place I thought I knew. Even better, what if I could explore a region of a country I’d already been to but that most would still class as off the beaten track. Peru, thank you: you delivered Kuelap and Cajamarca and the promise that one day I could return to your snow-capped cordilleras.
But the desire to find new places never went away. As places I once loved became busier, I sought to replicate those early experiences in different locales. It’s the age old problem with tourism, isn’t it? We seek unspoilt destinations, but by going and sharing our experience, others want to go too. So when we return, it’s not the same as we remembered and we look elsewhere. I’m naturally a loner, content for the most part with my own company, and happiest when no one else is around. So that unspoilt beach, empty hiking trail or even a cruise port after the ship’s departed all tick my very particular boxes.
It’s also a kind of addiction that I need to feed. That thrill of “conquering” a new city, learning what makes it tick, discovering its best corners – I still can’t get enough of that. Will this country become a new favourite? It doesn’t even matter if it doesn’t. I love the fact that I know one way or the other. And if I’m brutally honest, I like being one of that clique who “found” a place before it became fashionable. (Yeah, I told you I was flawed.)
But why do I record a tally? As I get older, there’s a very practical reason – I like to remember where I’ve been and when. To that end, I keep a very special book, which lists the places I have visited on every trip abroad I’ve ever made. Can it really be so many years since I went to that country, I ask myself each time I open its well-thumbed pages? And yet it is. As I run my eyes down the list, it brings back what I saw and what I did in those places. I’m grateful for those memories but I’ve got no memory for dates.
I have a deep respect for those who settle on one place and make it their business to know it inside out. That ‘s not for me, however. I’m soon going to be adding Moldova, Barbados and Uganda to my list. They’ll take my total to 117, if that’s of any interest to you. It doesn’t matter to me if it does or does not. But even so, it’s not simply about adding a country. I want to participate in Moldova’s National Wine Day, discover disused sugar mills in Barbados and spot tree-climbing lions in Uganda. Adding a country and creating a meaningful memory aren’t mutually exclusive.
Ethiopia, Mali and Yemen are waiting in the wings. On TV, I’ve watched spectacular natural landscapes in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, I saw pictures in a magazine that made me want to dance with the Dogon in Mali and via the internet I marvelled at the engineering that makes Yemen’s mud skyscrapers possible. Should I be apologetic that seeing those for myself adds three entries to my book? Of course not.
There’s always going to be somewhere. And while there is, I’m going to want to add it to my list. I make no apologies for that.