The negative impact of mass tourism

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In my experience, some of the most difficult things about travel have been facing the realities of mass cultural exchange, swallowing my pride, and recognizing my part in it. Don’t get me wrong, there are incredible benefits to cultural exchange and connecting with people across cultural boundaries is the number one reason I travel. But when lots of people from one culture start invading the space of another, funny things start happening. Mix in heightened demands for creature comforts that the visiting group is accustomed to and things can start to get ugly. Perhaps the easiest place to see this play out is at mass sporting events.

In 2010, I spent a monsoon season in India. I spent months walking between rural villages and tandas, asking questions about education, and questioning everything I thought I knew about human rights agencies. After months spent sweltering and questioning (mostly myself), I found myself in New Delhi, sipping a “mocktail” in a gloriously air conditioned restaurant. I felt as though I had reached the end of a marathon. Air conditioning was literally the only thing on my mind. Well, that and a shower that was actually hot and didn’t require a bucket. I fell into a chair by the window and sat, motionless, thinking about the previous few months.

Down below me, on the street, a few dozen people were working furiously to erect a building. I noticed them after a few minutes and watched their fierce determination. I counted the number of kids I saw. 10…11…12…13…. They littlest among them were sliding in and out of impossibly small nooks and crannies and I quickly found myself hoping none of the bricks that were being thrown around would accidentally wall them into forgotten spaces or, worse, collapse around them.

I asked someone what those people were building and, without a glance, he told me they were getting ready for the Commonwealth Games. Having spent several months wandering dirt paths and not being a sports fan in the least, I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained and told me, with a laugh, not to worry. They’d certainly be done in time! At least, he claimed, things were looking nicer around the city.

After paying, I drifted out on to the street and noticed things I had been unaware of on my way in. The kids laying bricks to fix the holes in the sidewalks, the men scrambling as fast as they could, bent under impossibly heavy loads, desperate not to lose their pay by falling behind. I went back to my hotel to pour over news reports and learn what I could about the games. India was already facing criticism for not being “ready” for the games and many were saying they never should have been given the responsibility of hosting. In the weeks and months to come, reports of human rights abuses (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11218833) would finally begin to gain mass attention. I say finally because, from what little I saw, it should have been the first thing anyone had concerns about.

At the time, the media enjoyed making India seem like the worst games host in history. With many outlets reporting that New Delhi was far from ready to host, some countries even delayed the arrival of their teams at the games. The biggest story of those Commonwealth Games seemed to be India’s struggle to make them happen.

But India isn’t the only country to face harsh criticism for their handling of large scale sporting affairs. Brazil’s World Cup in 2014 and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are just two other events where the host country also received backlash for human rights violations. But does all of the criticism lie with the host countries? Shouldn’t we be considering why the host countries work citizens to the bone to produce “world class” venues? One Toronto journalist raised a legitimate question- during those Sochi Olympics was all the complaining justified or were some of the visitors just accustomed to being little more pampered than is possible in developing nations?

Hosting large scale events has an undeniable draw for developing nations. Tourists are sure to stream into the country and bring their tourist dollars with them. There is a very real human desire to be a part of the “in” crowd and to prove you have power and ability. That human desire translates to governments who bid for the right to host these events. Once they win that bid and the reality of having tens of thousands of foreigners with high comfort expectations descend upon their country hits them , they get to work making sure they do everything they can to avoid being plastered all over the media as inept and poor. Everyone knows these countries are struggling when they put their bids in. Every single person who votes knows the very real challenges of getting a city ready for such events. But we still give them the bid. We still celebrate their win and then shame them when they struggle to get things together in time. Why is that?

It seems most people see the benefits of mass tourism on an economy without difficulty. But we struggle to see the very real strain that same tourism puts on developing nations. We mock them when they fall short of Western standards and roast them for human rights abuses that we pretend we didn’t know would be the outcome of intense international pressure to measure up. It’s not very often that we turn the mirror on ourselves and wonder if we had a hand in the turmoil. There is a very real pressure that is inflicted on a host country to keep everyone visiting from abroad safe and comfortable. When the expectations are higher than what the host country can provide, we laugh at them instead of wondering if we are getting lost in our own biases on what “comfort” looks like. When the host country uses labor barely making slave wages to erect stadiums, we chastise them and pretend we didn’t se the reality of their work conditions before they even won the bid. When they clear entire slums to make way for parking lots, we pretend we never wondered how an over-crowded city was going to make room for those lots.

I’m not suggesting any of these games stop happening, nor am I suggesting that developing nations don’t have the right to put bids in to host. But we do need to take a fair look at the negative impact of mass tourism on developing nations and these large scale sporting events are a great place to start having the conversation.

It’s a difficult balance and one I recognized with new clarity after that particular trip to India. I want to see these places, to experience new cultures. But in order to do that responsibly, I need to temper my expectations and biases of what “comfort” is and what being a “good host” looks like. I also need to remind myself not to get as lost as I did that day in my own thoughts and to make sure my eyes are open to what is going on around me. After all, I can’t even begin to look at mass tourism’s impact if I am not wiling to acknowledge that individuals, like myself, make up those masses and individuals are the ones who will make choices that create a sea change.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | April 9, 2015
Category: Ethics

“The Tramps,” by Robert W. Service (1907)

Can you recall, dear comrade, when we tramped God’s land together,
And we sang the old, old Earth-song, for our youth was very sweet;
When we drank and fought and lusted, as we mocked at tie and tether,
Along the road to Anywhere, the wide world at our feet.

Along the road to Anywhere, when each day had its story;
When time was yet our vassal, and life’s jest was still unstale;
When peace unfathomed filled our hearts as, bathed in amber glory,
Along the road to Anywhere we watched the sunsets pale.

Alas! the road to Anywhere is pitfalled with disaster;
There’s hunger, want, and weariness, yet O we loved it so!
As on we tramped exultantly, and no man was our master,
And no man guessed what dreams were ours, as swinging heel and toe,
We tramped the road to Anywhere, the magic road to Anywhere,
The tragic road to Anywhere, such dear, dim years ago.

Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 6, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

Le Musee du Fumeur: Paris

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Wander through the 11th arrondissement of Paris toward the dead celebrities of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and there’s a decent chance you’ll stumble across a small gallery called “Le Musée du

Fumeur.” Unlike the hallowed halls of the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay, there is no tyranny of expectation in this tiny, smoking-themed museum. No smiling Mona Lisa or reclining Olympia dictates where the random tourist should focus his attention. Thus left to meander, the drop-in visitor may well overlook the more earnest exhibits here — such as Egyptian sheeshas or Chinese opium pipes — and note the small, red-circle-and-slash signs reminding guests that, in no uncertain terms, smoking is strictly forbidden in the Museum of Smoking.

In spite of this startling contradiction, there is a notable lack of irony in Le Musée du Fumeur, which crams an eclectic array of international smoking-culture relics into a 650-square-foot storefront near Rue de la Roquette. Inside the glass display cases, hemp-fiber clothing competes for space with 17th-century smoking paraphernalia and sepia photos of American Indian chiefs posing with peace pipes. Around the corner, a looped video about Cuba’s cigar industry flickers above 1920s-era etchings of cigarette-toting debutantes and scientific drawings of tobacco plants. Out front, the gift shop hawks highbrow cigar magazines alongside glass bongs and rolling papers; DVDs produced by High Times perch on the same shelf as pamphlets on how to quit smoking. A curious-looking machine, the “Vapormatic Deluxe,” which apparently allows one to inhale plant essences without creating secondhand smoke, retails for 299 euros.

In a more provincial part of the world — rural Moldavia, say, or a Nebraska interstate exit — such an unfocused array of smoking esoterica might well be relegated to some dank basement, advertised by fading billboards and listed in guidebooks alongside Stalinist monuments or concrete dinosaurs. But this is Paris, and the displays here are sleek, self-serious, tastefully illuminated and studiously clean; soft jazz mood-music alternates with piano and harpsichord compositions as you move from display to display. The closest thing to pure whimsy is a psychedelic mural painted in the back room — an oddly smoke-free scene, wherin cats strum guitars, flying robots clutch cans of beer, and busty women hitch rides from VW camper vans.

The ostensible purpose of Le Musée du Fumeur is to demonstrate how global attitudes toward smoking have developed and transformed over the years. Yet its cluttered formality can leave visitors with the impression that smoking is in fact an archaic practice, long-since vanished from mainstream society. And given current trends, it might not be long before cigarette smoking indeed does become extinct — at least in the public spaces of progressive, First World cities like Paris.

Not too long ago, public smoking bans were regarded as a uniquely American phenomenon — a puritanical gesture, held in ridicule by any self-respecting, Gauloise-puffing Frenchman. Over time, however, the public health burden of smoking-related illnesses has spurred a number of industrialized nations to follow the American example. When the initial steps of a public smoking ban took effect in Paris this February, French opinion polls reported that 70 percent of Parisians were in favor of the prohibition.

With the rites of public smoking thus endangered, it’s tempting to conclude that a smoking-themed museum is a great way to preserve an increasingly marginalized social ritual. In truth, the opposite is probably more accurate: To paraphrase what sociologist Dean MacCannell said a generation ago about folk museums, the best indicator of smoking-culture’s demise is not its disappearance from public areas, but its artificial preservation in a place like Le Musée du Fumeur.

Moreover, it may well be that a museum is not the truest medium in which to commemorate something so habitual and prosaic. Social critic Lucy R. Lippard observed that museums are inherently alien to the artifacts they contain. Lippard noted that many people are “far more at home in curio shops, which slowly become populist museums,” home to relics and life-ways that are “displayed in a relaxed and random fashion…in ways far more attuned to how we experience life itself.”

As of now, the populist, curio-shop equivalent of musées du fumeur can be still found in the smoky confines of cafés, restaurants, and nightclubs in Paris — but only until January 1, when the smoking ban takes full effect, and anyone caught lighting up in such places is subject to a 75-euro fine. After that day, a million populist museum curators will be forced to puff their cigarettes on the street corners of Paris, and the Musée du Fumeur will become a slightly more potent curiosity.

 

Originally published by The Smart Set, August 6, 2007

Photo Credit: °]° via Compfight cc

Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 4, 2015
Category: General

Vagabonding Field Report: Hanoi, Vietnam

In northern Vietnam lies this gem of a city where French food and fashion meet Vietnamese culture and vermicelli. Sometimes overlooked as it’s not as big of a hub as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi offers a taste of authentic street food and genuinely good prices.

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Cost per day:

Hanoi has a huge range of hotels on offer from $4 a night for a shared dorm to much, much more at some of the fancier establishments in the French quarter. We’re at a solid $14 USD a night which has a western bathroom/shower and includes breakfast. With only a few minutes walk to the old quarter, we’re at the heart of the city and don’t need to rent scooters or bicycles. For lunch we eat street food, sitting on tiny child-sized plastic stools along the sidewalk: maybe a bowl of phở or a sweet and savory bun cha, each costing somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 dong. A bowl of fruit salad mixed with coconut cream, tapioca balls, and jelly cubes with crushed ice will only run you about 20,000 dong as a sweet snack to tide you over until dinner. Dinner may set you back you a bit more but can still be done affordably. We often eat phở on the street for 50,000 dong, but there are many restaurants serving western fare as well as Vietnamese and French for a bit more. Household items can be bought from corner shops (we bought electrical tape for 5,000 dong, the equivalent of about $0.25 USD) and shopping for clothing and handicrafts is plentiful but requires a lot of hard bargaining. Beer is the cheapest I’ve ever seen at 20,000 dong or less.

(more…)

Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 1, 2015
Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

Foreign news should offer us a means by which to humanize the Other

“At a much deeper, more metaphysical level, foreign news should offer us a means by which to humanize the Other — that is, the outsider from over the mountains or beyond the seas who instinctively repels, bores or frightens us and with whom we can’t, without help, imagine having anything in common. Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in one another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow feeling might develop across chasms. Many a high-minded news organization has inveighed bitterly against those who resent the influx of immigrants from other countries. But this view proceeds from the assumption that a reflexive suspicion towards foreigners is a mark of Satan rather than a common, almost natural result of ignorance — a fault which news organizations have an explicit ability to reduce through a more imaginative kind of reporting (as opposed to ineffective, guilt-inducing denunciations of bigotry).”
–Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual (2014)

Posted by | Comments (0)  | March 30, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

Lessons learned on the road vs. lessons learned in school

What happens when the education you receive on the road starts to make you question the lessons you learned before you left?

History is one of those subjects that never fails to look a whole lot different once I’m in a different country. Despite the tragedies that occurred in the region during my lifetime, I don’t remember learning much about Central America. I knew the region officially spoke Spanish. I knew that much of our fruit was shipped in from various countries in the area. I heard whispers about those fruit companies but I was too nervous to admit ignorance so, I never really understood what the whispers meant. In my textbook, there was a paragraph about Reagan’s  “failed policies” in the region. I memorized the words, regurgitated them on tests and never really understood what was behind the big hulking bush everyone seemed to be beating around. I am embarrassed to say that I never even really put two and two together as a kid to realize that the ancient Mayan civilization that conjured up mysteries in my head were from Central America.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. Was I?

As an adult, I learned more about American policy in Central America and was confused as to why I had never learned about it in school. I formed conspiracy theories on a government hiding facts from the masses to hide their awful mistakes and stay in power. When I finally touched Central American soil, I realized that the reality of why I had never learned about things like the genocide in Guatemala and the Contras in Nicaragua was far more devastating. A very quick exploration into the reality of what was left behind in these areas makes it clear that the people affected were simply not considered people. They were enemies; the other; a symbol of a greater monster the US thought it was fighting. The people who lost limbs, dignity, and lives were nothing more than obstacles to be removed in the pursuit of certain international goals. The truth stung as it became clear. It made me question a lot about the “education” I received. You can’t put that in a 9th grade history book.

Similarly, I was thrown completely off guard when I visited Kolkata for the first time and found that Mother Theresa was not as revered in the region as she was claimed to be. Christian or not, every kid in the US knows who Mother Theresa was and knows that everything she did was saintly. Right? Apparently, not so much. Refusing to give medicines or medical care to the poor and ill, rough treatment of wards, babies whose wrists were tied to their sides, physical punishment for infants in her care, and a complete separation of any child with a known disability were not my idea of what this “saint on earth” had been doing. I currently hold a more balanced, if complex, understanding of Mother Theresa, the human, and her work. At the time, however, I found it unsettling and frustrating that no one wanted to talk about the complexities of being a human being who is seen as a walking icon of perfection, help, and love. It seems humans have a hard time worshiping their heroes if they show signs of being human. That  is a conversation I could have really learned something from as a young person.

Yes, history has a way of looking a little less absolute once you are standing on different soil, surrounded by different vantage points. Similarly, science, medicine, human rights, and art are all areas of study where I have found myself thrown off kilter once I left the confines of the US borders.

At some point, I started wondering- does everyone question their schooling, just a little, when they travel to new countries? Does everyone see gaps, inconsistancies, or lies in the textbooks they remember?

It seems the answer is, yes.

I have met travelers who were embarrassed to admit that they truly thought Indians worshipped cows in the street before the went to India themselves; travelers who thought antibiotics were where it was at for every medical professional in the world before discovering ancient holistic practices on their journeys; travelers who couldn’t believe the difference in opinions over how to speak English “correctly”; travelers angry at language teachers who had promised them they were fluent based on textbook quizzes and state exams drafted by non-native speakers; travelers who cried when they visited memorials to genocide victims they never knew about. It seems that everyone I have met along the way has had at least one moment of questioning the education they received before they left their home countries.

And how could they not? Every educational system must ultimately pick and choose what to share with students. Even if, in an ideal world, the very human hand that guides the education of the masses had every desire to share as much information as possible with students, choices would still need to be made. The amount of knowledge available to any human being on earth today is staggering. One only need consider the constant flow of information that is available, literally at our fingertips, to become aware of just how much one person could take in in a lifetime. At some point, a conflict, hero, or medical option will get left out of the textbooks.

And this is precisely why travel is so incredibly important.

Those moments of confusion over the lessons learned before, the ones that no longer jive with your current world experience, are incredibly valuable. More valuable than most people realize. Understanding that educational systems are limited, that making one educational choice means not making another, that the facts we learn are filtered long before they get to us, is the first step to understanding what an education truly is. That understanding opens the door wide to an entire world of learning and, hopefully, keeps us aware that education is never really “complete”.

Questioning those lessons that came before is usually a struggle. There is confusion, then wonder, then possibly anger or frustration, and then once again… wonder. Wonder that the world is actually that complex, that ‘bad guys” and “good guys” don’t exist simplistically, that between the black and white pages of a textbook is whole lot of gray, that there really is that much to learn.

In my experience, travel is the catalyst for an insatiable thirst to know. That knowing takes time but, thankfully, so does travel.

Posted by | Comments (3)  | March 26, 2015
Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics, Youth Travel

Must-have smart phone travel apps

The day that smart phones became available, travel changed forever. Immediately, my smart phone became my watch, my alarm clock, calendar, address book, notebook, mirror, and even my flashlight, lessening the number of devices and the weight I needed to carry. As more and more travel apps became available, my smart phone quickly became my most valuable travel accessory. But with literally thousands of apps related to travel, figuring out which are truly useful can be daunting, so I put together the following list of my favorite and most beneficial apps:

Maps With Me:

Maps with me travel apps

Maps with me

Maps With Me allows iOS and Android users to download detailed maps of countries on their phones, so no wifi or cell connection is needed to use them. Once downloaded, users can zoom in on any city or area of the country, right down to the smallest street or attraction. The quality of their maps is so good that I am able to follow along as I ride trains through remote areas, to make sure I don’t miss my stop in countries where I don’t speak the language.

 

XE Currency Converter:

XE Currency Converter

XE Currency

One of the most confusing issues that travelers deal with is currency conversions, but with XE Currency Converter, the process is simple. This app provides live exchange rates and historical charts with wifi access, and the most recent rates are stored for offline use. The app is available for iOS and Android. The free version allows tracking 10 currencies simultaneously, while the pro version ($1.99) allows  for 20 currencies, though both versions show the conversions for 180+ different currencies.

 

Mobile Passport:

Mobile Passport app

MobilePassport

First launched for Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and now operational for Miami International Airport, this free app lets you lets you skip the Custom and Border Protection line. Simply set up your profile in the app, then upon returning to the U.S., launch the app and answer CBP’s questions and go straight to the “Mobile Passport Control” express lane at the airport – no need to fill out the customs and immigration forms! CBP intends to expand the app for other U.S. airports.

 

Google Translate:

Google Translate app

GoogleTranslate

Gone are the days of struggling with languages you don’t speak in foreign countries. Now the free Google Translate facilitates translations in 90 languages. The app uses computer programs to perform the translations, so they are not always perfect, but in my experience they are good enough to be understood. Select the language and either key in or use your finger to write the words for which you wish a translation. Pressing the speaker button will speak the translation aloud. The newest feature of the app allows taking a photo of a sign written in a foreign language, which is then translated on the screen.

 

Skype:

Skype app

Skype

An oldie but still a goodie! The free Skype app allows phone calls to be made over any wifi network, using smart phones, tablets, and computers. Calls between people who have Skype accounts are always free, no matter where in the world they are located. Calls to a person who does not have a Skype account are extremely affordable, costing just a few cents per minute (charges vary according to country). I maximize Skype by purchasing a subscription that provides me unlimited free calls to any landline or mobile in the U.S. or Canada, and by purchasing a Skype U.S. phone number that allows friends and family to call me no matter where in the world I am for the cost of a local phone call.

WhatsApp:

WhatsApp

WhatsApp

The only communication problem that Skype does not solve for me is texting, so for this function I turn to WhatsApp, a free chat/texting app that sends free texts worldwide whenever the user is connected to a cellular or wifi network. In addition to basic messaging WhatsApp users can create groups, send each other unlimited images, video and audio media messages. The first year is free, with a charge of 99 cents per year thereafter.

 

 

1Password:

1Password

1Password

To ensure security, it’s advisable to use different passwords for every site, but doing so presents another problem – how to remember all those passwords. My preferred app for password storage on my phone is 1Password, which creates strong, unique passwords for every site, remembers them all for you, and logs you in with a single tap. Everything in your 1Password vault is protected by a Master Password that only you know. The free app encrypts all your data using authenticated AES 256-bit encryption and auto-locks to protect your vault even if your device is lost or stolen.

 

SignEasy:

Sign Easy app

SignEasy

When traveling, life doesn’t stop, and occasionally I have needed to sign a document. It has always been challenging to find a way to print out the document, sign it, and then fax it off, especially when in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. SignEasy allows me to access and sign documents on my phone with my actual signature, wherever I am in the world. The free app works with 15 different file formats and works with popular cloud storage services such as Dropbox and Google documents. You can fill up your paperwork on a iOS, Android or Kindle device and seamlessly switch between devices to carry forward your paperwork. All your files remain safe even if you lose your device or even if it’s stolen.

TunnelBear:

TunnelBear app

TunnelBear

Whenever I perform sensitive activities on my phone, such as Internet banking, I take extra measures to ensure my IP address is hidden and my data is not visible to hackers by using the free TunnelBear app, which connects my phone to a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN). It also has the added advantage of getting me around censorship in countries like China, where sites like Google and Facebook are blocked sites.

 

 

Kindle:

Kindle app

Kindle

Last but not least is my Kindle app, which I use to read the 10,000 or so books I have stored on my phone. Though it is commonly believed that the Kindle app can be used only to read books purchased through Kindle, this is not true! It is easy to load any book on Kindle. Simply connect your phone to a laptop or computer where your books are stored, launch iTunes, and when your device appears, click on the app tab. Scroll down until you see the Kindle icon and drag and drop any mobi formatted books onto the icon.

 

These are my favorite ten smart phone travel apps, but I’d love to hear about any others that you’ve found particularly helpful when traveling.

When Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside – she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Read first-hand accounts of the places she visits and the people she meets on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. Follow her on Facebook or on Twitter (@holeinthedonut).

Posted by | Comments (5)  | March 24, 2015
Category: Female Travelers, Senior Travel

People from cultures that prize individualism tend to misapprehend cultures that don’t

“We were leaving not just a place but a consciousness — one in which the “I” was different for the Asmat than for me. It was group, tribe, family, tied together in ways difficult to grasp. For me, as an American, “I” is the biggest, most important unit. For us, freedom is everything. The right to do as we please, unbound by clan or village or parents — to move two thousand miles at will, to make a call home or send an email or say hi via Skype. We can reinvent ourselves, changes churches or religions, divorce, remarry, decide to celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa or both. But these men in Otsanjep are bound to each other. To their village and its surrounding jungle, to the river and the sea. Most people will never see anything else, know anything else. I kept wondering if I was as guilty as Michael [Rockefeller], also filled with a Western conceit that I could just walk into a place and not only get it but also dominate it. Could I make the Asmat spill their secrets? Would they ever? Should they?”
–Carl Hoffman, Savage Harvest (2014)

Posted by | Comments (0)  | March 23, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

Mister Universe

World

In the remote southwestern Ethiopian town of Jinka, Charles Veley and I were drinking araki sorghum whiskey in the bar of a dirt-lane guesthouse full of Mursi tribesmen and their families. Mursi women are usually recognizable by the clay disks that stretch their severed lower lips, but on this night, in an informal setting (where families had paid the equivalent of 20 cents a person to sleep on the packed-dirt floor), most of the women had removed their ocher-painted plates. Their lower lips sagged around their chins as they nursed babies in the dim light; the Mursi men, who had checked their fighting staves at the door, silently watched television and sipped araki.

For most of the Mursi, this town of 22,500 people, a minimum two-day walk from their villages, is the biggest metropolis they’ll ever know. The next day they would trade their butter and grains for manufactured goods at the Jinka market, but on that night, as they watched Ethiopian music videos on a flickering black-and-white TV, they seemed as giddy and disoriented as I felt in this peculiar setting. We were all travelers here, it seemed, each of us far from home in our own way. In fact, the only person who looked completely at ease was Veley, who worked the room like a V.I.P., casually flattering and flirting as he bought Mursi women drinks. Dressed in quick-dry trekking pants, Hi-Tec boots and a crisp white button-down shirt, he acted as if he were walking through a climate-controlled R.E.I. store instead of a smoky, lamp-lit room with grimy turquoise walls and the rich, rotten aroma of fermented sorghum and hand-cured goat leather. “This is why I travel,” he told me at one point in the evening. “For moments like this.”

For Veley, a 43-year-old San Franciscan, travel is no part-time endeavor: over the past nine years — ever since he resigned as a vice president at the software company MicroStrategy, which he co-founded — he’s logged almost three million miles and spent nearly $2 million in an effort, as he puts it, “to go everywhere in the world.” This seemingly quixotic project has won him a fair amount of notoriety in travel circles. I first met him in a television studio, where we were both serving as experts for a Travel Channel special on classic world destinations.

Despite my own passion for travel, my fascination with Veley’s project isn’t exactly a matter of common interest. My first book is an extended argument for the merits of slow travel and downplays the notion of counting countries as an arbitrary exercise. When Veley invited me to join him on a journey to East Africa, I accepted out of sheer curiosity about what drives such an endeavor, and about what a Charles Veley journey might actually look like.

In just eight days of travel, I watched Veley negotiate a series of buses and hire cars from Kampala up to the isolated Ugandan province of Arua, which shares a porous border with Congo. I accompanied him on a bone-jarring, daylong Land Cruiser journey across the semi-autonomous southern region of Sudan, along roads that were cleared of land mines less than a year ago. I waited as he climbed into an air-traffic control tower in the flyblown Sudanese city of Juba and negotiated our way onto a chartered aid flight to the Kenyan frontier town of Lokichokio. I followed along as he raced to meet a chartered boat to cross Kenya’s Lake Turkana into the Omo River valley in Ethiopia. Veley tackled all of these challenges with uncanny skill and obvious relish, but I have yet to divine exactly what motivates him. Whenever I asked him why he feels called to travel in such an exhaustive manner, his answers were frustratingly vague — “I travel so much because I can,” he told me once.

At a certain level, Veley’s project has been an effort to set world records and distinguish himself as a sort of extreme traveler, a far-ranging geographical trophy hunter. In 2003, at age 37, he became the youngest person to visit all 317 countries and provinces recognized by the Travelers’ Century Club, an organization of globe-trotters who’ve visited at least 100 countries or territories. A year later he approached the Guinness World Records to certify his status as the world’s most traveled person, only to discover that the Guinness authorities had discontinued the category, because, he said, they could no longer agree on an objective standard. “It was like finishing a marathon to discover that all the officials had gone home,” he told me. “It was very frustrating.” Unable to find an organization to verify his “most traveled” claim, Veley created his own arbitrating organization in 2005, a community-driven Web site called Mosttraveledpeople.com that has more than 4,800 members. Veley hopes to make the site the final word on the topic.

Our journey into East Africa, however, was not making Veley any more traveled than he was before — at least not by the standards of Mosttraveledpeople.com, which makes no geographical distinction between the isolated tribal corner of Ethiopia we went to and the rest of the country. In fact, while Ethiopia was the sixth African country Veley visited in just over two weeks (he’d spent time in Rwanda and Burundi the week before I joined him), none of those countries constituted a new visit, according to his site’s ever expanding master list of “countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups and major states and provinces.” Instead, this African journey was what he called a “go back,” a return to places he had seen only briefly before. Such is the paradox of racking up so many countries in such a short span of time: once you’ve collected enough geographical entities to declare yourself the most traveled person in the world, the next step is to go back and actually experience those places for more than a day.

Veley made no excuses for the expensive whirlwind nature of his initial visits. “One way to look at this is to think of the world as a giant buffet table,” he said. “I wanted to go everywhere, to taste everything first so I’d know where I wanted to come back to for seconds and thirds. I’m doing that now — coming back for more — and it’s really enjoyable.”

Attempting to sample every dish from any buffet table might seem compulsive, but other Mosttraveledpeople.com members I talked to noted that this was not unusual for people who collected countries. “There is a degree of compulsion to this kind of travel, but I think any collection is by its nature compulsive,” noted Alan Hogenauer, who at 568 regions visited is tied for No. 5 on the Mosttraveledpeople.com list. “I think it’s the dogged pursuit of something valuable as opposed to some irrational pursuit.” Lee Abbamonte, a 30-year-old New Yorker who is trying to break Veley’s record of becoming the youngest traveler to reach all the countries on the Travelers’ Century Club list, added that list-driven travel tended to create its own unique worldview. “I don’t consider myself obsessive or compulsive, but sometimes you have to be both when it comes to traveling,” he said. “Most people look at my itineraries and think I’m nuts, but for me that’s the only way to go.”

Since Veley has a wife and three children under the age of 6 back in San Francisco, he covers a lot of ground fast and rarely lingers in places. “Maybe if I was single I could take my time,” he said. “But with a family back home, I’m always on the clock.” Indeed, Veley on the road didn’t resemble Livingstone or Magellan so much as a multitasking American office manager. At one point, when he and I visited the headwaters of the Nile near Jinja, Uganda, he called home on his iPhone to discover that his oldest daughter had just won a ribbon for learning how to swim.

In a way, Veley’s continuing quest to visit each corner of the world is intriguing not because it represents something extraordinary, but because it symbolizes an increasingly quaint notion: a world that might be somehow added up into something knowable, quantifiable and coherent. Once Veley had finished hobnobbing with the Mursi tribesman in this dim little Ethiopian inn, he told me about his plans to return to Iran and Tunisia and his desire to one day sell Mosttraveledpeople.com to a neutral administrator. “It’s not just about the list,” he said. “The more places I go, the richer my regional understanding and the more data points I can bring to bear on relating to people in that next new place. I find a great thrill in imagining a trip in the abstract, then turning it into reality.”

The spreadsheet mentality of Veley’s mission is seductive, but it also struck me as ironic. In an era when ease of transportation and ubiquity of information makes mere arrival at a place less of an accomplishment than it was a generation ago, experiencing one place in depth would seem to be as much a challenge as chasing an ambitious, list-driven itinerary.

After our time together, Veley was scheduled to make his way north to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he would embark on 24 hours of connecting flights to the central Pacific. There, he planned to spend three weeks on a boat traveling 2,500 miles from Samoa to Tuvalu, hitting a number of islands along the way, including three new outposts (Swains Island, the Phoenix Islands and Baker and Howland Islands) that would bring him a little bit closer to completing his master list.

“The list is just a tool that helps me set priorities and stay motivated to see new places,” he said. “It’s not about declaring yourself the winner and being done. For me, there is no done.”

 

Originally published by the NY Times, November 16, 2008

Posted by | Comments (0)  | March 21, 2015
Category: Adventure Travel