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