Dear “World Travelers,” stop counting countries

There’s no good way to quantify travel. I wish folks would stop trying.

International travel has been part of my life and my career for the past 13 years. I started traveling right out of college. I did the 6-month backpacking thing through Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Nepal, and zipped through Europe. The next year I went to New Zealand on the last leg of an around-the-world ticket I had purchased in Australia. There were other trips to Eastern Europe, Central America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Western Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and beyond.

I’ve written two books about my travels. One to meet the folks who made my favorite items of clothing, and one to meet the farmers and fishermen responsible for much of the food imported into the United States.

I’ve shared my stories from stages around the United States, and I’m often introduced as a “world traveler.” After my talk in which I share stories of things like near death snake experiences, slavery, and the global connection we have with factory workers and farmers, one question always pops up in the Q&A:

How many countries have you been to?

I don’t like this question. Partly because I don’t have an answer. I’ve probably been to more countries than you, but that doesn’t make me more worldly or more of a savvy traveler than you. That probably just means I’ve been lost more than you. At my core, I will always be a touron (a well-meaning moron + tourist).

I have never counted how many countries I’ve been to, and I never will.

Do I count Germany? I arrived in Frankfurt late at night by train. At least I think it was Frankfurt. Because of train delays I had to wait to catch another train onward to Switzerland. I was traveling on a budget, and it didn’t make sense to get a hotel for a few hours, so I spent the night in the subway with the homeless and a few fellow travelers in a similar situation to my own.

Do I count Japan? I’ve been through the airport in Tokyo a few times.

Do I count Morrocco? I had a 12-hour layover on my way to West Africa. I caught a cab from the airport and spent most of my layover seeing the sites and eating the food in Casablanca. (Look! I misspelled Morocco! If you can’t spell the country, I definitely don’t think you should count it!)

I spent more than a month in Bangladesh where I went undercover as an underwear buyer and met the people who work in garment factories. I spent three weeks in Ivory Coast visiting cocoa farmers.

So if we’re just counting countries, my travels in Bangladesh and Ivory Coast each count as one country, as do my few hours in Casablanca. That doesn’t seem right.

Some go by how many stamps they have in their passport, as if a passport is a scoresheet or a merit badge sash (I’m a former Eagle scout). But traveling in Europe from one country to another doesn’t even earn you a stamp. What about that time I traveled from Serbia to the then “semi-autonomous nation” of Kosovo? Kosovo was sort of a country then and there was sort of a border, but I don’t think they even stamped my passport.

To me, counting countries is like a basketball player being measured only by how many games they played, ignoring how many minutes they played, how many points, rebounds, assists, and steals they had.

I just don’t see the point. Country counting simply measures one’s capability to afford transportation to a foreign land and one’s ability to sit on his or her ass for extended periods of time on that transportation. Neither one of these things is worth bragging about.

You could tally up a visit to every country in the world by flying first class and staying a single night in the local Hilton. If that’s your goal, fine, but you wouldn’t have experienced any of the magic of travel: the cultural exchanges, getting lost, haggling with a street vendor, practicing the local language with school children, celebrating a wedding or a holiday, eating a home cooked meal, trying your best to separate politics from people,  and learning about a different worldview that changes your own.

Country counting ignores all the qualities that make travel meaningful. It assigns a meaningless number and a hierarchy to travel and travelers.

If you have traveled to a country and want to say “I’ve been there,” but you can’t name one person in that country other than someone who is a cab driver or works at a hotel, you are doing it wrong.

I’m not in favor of any metric to measure travel, but maybe that’s it. If you really must quantify your travels you can only count a country if you can name someone you met in that country.

As travel writer Tim Cahill wrote: “A journey is best measured in friends, not miles.”

Wherever you are traveling to next, I hope it is filled with too many meaningful experiences to count.

Cynthia says:

This caught my eye on Outbounding because I wrote a similar post last year:
Totally agree!

Bogdan says:

Hey Kelsey!

This is an interesting article. It moved something in me and to be honest after I read the title on a facebook share, I was prepared to come here and slash you and pour anger all over and show you how arrogant you are and how you’ve forgot where you’ve started, etc. (it’s funny how fast we jump to conclusions….)

Probably this(that I had the anger impulse) means a good thing, it moved/poked something in me or my ego, and that made me think. Thanks for this! 😉

After I read it all I agree with you with just a small “but”. Probably this “but” is just personal. I agree with the fact that counting countries or stamps is useless and also with the fact that you should count countries if you know someone from there, but counting them is nice. Maybe that’s how it is for me, being on my first-ever long trip and outside of my country.
When I look back and realize how many countries I crossed and visited in just one year and 3 months I am stunned and I almost burst into tears of joy. Maybe I will get to a point in a few years, as you, when I will stop doing this, but for the moment it boosts my spirit and makes me realize what a good decision I made when I’ve quit my job and made that very first step.
It was a nice read!

All the best,

Kelsey says:

Bogdan, Thanks for keeping an open mind and I’m glad I got you thinking and feeling. We have such a need to quantify our world and our lives. Sometimes when people push me for an answer to how many countries I’ve been to I’ll throw out a made up number. Often that’s easier than going into all of the thoughts I shared here. I think I’ve even been guilty of using this made-up number a time or two in short intros. Saying that “I’ve reported from X countries” is about the easiest way to give folks a scope of what I’ve done. I just don’t see any other value in the number. It’s kind of like the pecking order that gets established at hostels based on how long someone has been on the road.

Peggy says:

Great article, and I totally agree! Travel sometimes seem like a competition, especially if you’ve ever engaged in the one-upmanship that happens in hostels all around the world while on the road. It can manifest in many ways – the country count, yes, but also the how-little-money-did-you-spend competition, and the snobbery of snubbing well known tourists places for “unknown, untouristed spots.” Travel snobbery comes in many guises, shapes and forms – when really, as long as travel takes one out of his or her comfort zone, it has done what it is meant to do.

Jimmy Batts says:

Good article! Just came across it. I love counting countries. It’s fun! But it’s a personal thing. I don’t go bragging to people about all the cool places ice been. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m just living my dream as much as I possibility can. My journeys and adventures mean everything to me. I’m sure you guys get that.

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