I had planned on writing this article about my friend Michelle over a year ago when she and her husband were in the midst of an around-the-world honeymoon. I avidly followed the colorful and insightful blog of her trip. Even before she went on this epic adventure, Michelle was the most well-traveled person I had ever met. She regaled me with tales of being kidnaped in Central America, witnessing the chilly authoritarianism of North Korea, as well as the wonders of Nepal and Cambodia.
Michelle and I worked together in Japan for a few years before she returned to London, her home. With her perfectly enunciated RP/Queen’s English and polished demeanor it was hard to imagine her roughing it on the muddy banks of the Mekong, or riding for hours in a crowded bumpy bus in India. But she had a profound curiosity about people and I’d often see her deeply absorbed in conversation with someone she had just met.
So how many countries have you visited? Or have you lost count.
My last count showed that I have visited 89 countries and territories so far, including Taiwan and Tibet, which I count as separate entities although they are not recognised by the UN. I will reach 90 in December (2010) when I visit the UAE for the first time.
Save the rest of us the trouble. Which one was the best?
This is indeed a tough question. For me there is no ‘best’ country, but I can say that one of the most beautiful countries I have visited is New Zealand, it also seems to be doing a good job of protecting its’ natural environment.
Namibia is also spectacularly beautiful, but you really need your own transport or to book a tour to see it. Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is another place which I would highly recommend.
What particular sites stand out?
In terms of historical sites, I would rate Hampi in India as one of the most magical destinations I have ever visited because you really can have this UNESCO site to yourself. I also found Moscow and St. Petersburg fascinating as I love Russian history. Berlin is like one huge open-air museum.
Which countries surprised you the most?
The biggest positive surprises have been Albania – it has so much culture to offer and I am absolutely sure that in the next decade this will become a popular European destination.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is amazing – a place of contrasts where you can sip turkish coffee, smoke shisha and eat Italian food outside a church as the muzzein issues the call to prayer and watch people walk past bombed ruins along repaired cobbled streets.
Bangladesh and Ethiopia are also places which break stereotypes: if you visit, you will see that their populations are frustrated by the negative perception which the international media has created by exclusively reporting on poverty and natural disasters.
The strangest place I have visited is North Korea, it is also a place which has left a deep impression on me.
Is there a worst country you’ve ever visited?
I would have to describe Chad as a place which I would not be in a hurry to return to. Primarily the preserve of international aid workers, 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. Chad is vast – it took two weeks to cross because there are almost no roads! There is not really anything for tourists to see there.
An around-the-world honeymoon seems pretty romantic on the surface, but traveling for months with just one person sounds like it could just as easily lead to a quick end to the marriage. So did you have any big blow-ups?
Never! Yes there were one or two arguments, but they were minor. We are very lucky to enjoy each other’s company as much as we do, however we are also able to do things individually, for example, my husband went into the Potosi mines in Bolivia by himself as this did not interest me and I went to the Ngorongoro Crater for two days without him.
What’s your advice for traveling couples?
The most important thing is honesty. If you don’t want to do something, be honest. This is much better than complaining or doing it grudgingly, as it will only create a bad atmosphere between you which will probably result in an argument. Talk about what you want to do and where you want or don’t want to go before you leave and decide what you would be willing to compromise on. Finally, check that your partner is happy with the pace of travel, because doing too much in too little time can be tiring and stressful and will ultimately take its toll.
Your husband is Polish and you are a very Tiger Woodsian mix of Jamaican, English and Mauritian. Did you experience any discrimination on your honeymoon as an interracial couple?
I was not aware of any overt discrimination arising from the fact that we are an interracial couple, however given the recent history of South Africa, I was acutely aware that 25 years ago we would not have been able to travel South Africa together. I also found myself taking mental note of every interracial couple we encountered in South Africa, because they are still not as common as they are in London.
I appreciate that you’re not really a resort traveler. You really do get knee-deep in the places you visit. But 90 countries and counting is kind of crazy. What’s driving this passion/obsession for travel?
My wunderlust is driven by a desire to see the world for myself and to make my own assessment of the planet’s cultures, history, politics and cultures. I am not satisfied with simply consuming what I am fed by the mass media, I want to see each place for myself.
When I visit states which belong to the so-called ‘axis of evil’ I am reminded that the people who live in these countries are just that: people. They are like you and me, they live and die, experience joy and pain, celebration and suffering.
Intercultural exchange is more important than ever in this era of massive geopolitical shifts. When I travel, I want to get beyond the stereotypes. I also hope that when local people come into contact with me they have the chance to see that Westerners are also people.
When I travel, the main criticism I get from my friends is the huge carbon footprint of air travel, and rightly so. But you seem to have to deal with another kind of controversy.
The main source of criticism has resulted from visiting ‘pariah’ states such as Myanmar, North Korea, Serbia and Sudan and as well as going to Tibet. Many people argue that isolation of these countries is the best way to promote political change. I do not agree.
I remember the first time that I visited Myanmar in 2000, Burmese people told me that they were so happy that outsiders were visiting their country and complained about how international sanctions were crushing them.
When I returned to Myanmar this year, I found a very different country. In a decade, Myanmar has acquired highways, new buses and more consumer goods as a result of its trade with China. Young people wear jeans rather than lunggis and the elections which have just been held hint at a possible change of course for the country.
Engagement with China has had a greater effect on the political elite than any number of sanctions. Isolation of pariah states just doesn’t seem to work, it only causes the average person to suffer while the elite prosper from trade with countries like China which are far less likely to encourage environmental or ethical codes of conduct.
I have been berated for visiting Myanmar and North Korea, however I have never been criticised for visiting America, China, Russia, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Guatemala, Mexico or Croatia although these countries are grappling with issues of social injustice, discrimination, human trafficking, inequality, suppression of political dissent, torture and belligerence. I am sure that a visit to Israel, would elicit fewer criticisms than a visit to Iran, Zimbabwe or North Korea. Why is this?