Travel writing

Interviews with fellow travellers

I have had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing a few exceptional travellers who are also trying to visit every country on the planet – or who have already done so.


Travel world record: 24-year-old Vietnamese-American becomes youngest person to visit every country.

By Jakob Øster, Tuesday May 16th, 2017

At 03.10 am this morning when Egypt Air flight MS833 touched down in the Eritrean capital Asmara, Vietnamese-American Eric Thanh Nam Nguyen fulfilled his dream. As of then Eric was the youngest person on the planet to have visited every country.

On his way he has narrowly escaped being kidnapped by armed militia in Libya, been in a motorcycle accident in Guinea, had a gun pointed to his head in Liberia, been robbed four times, couchsurfed in around 150 countries, slept on roofs of trucks and taxis and contracted malaria.

Today Eric is exactly 24 years and 175 days old meaning that he has just cut 17 days of the former World record held by British James Asquith. The new record is presently awaiting formal approval by Guinness World Records.

Boarding in Cairo for last country Eritrea

According to GWR there are 196 sovereign countries in the World. As of this morning Eric has visited every single one of them – plus Palestine and Western Sahara – bringing Eric’s total to 198.

By the age of 18 Eric together with his parents had visited around 20 countries. The last 178 countries have taken a further 6 years at an estimated cost of USD 70.000.

 

Final country: Eritrea

Having myself travelled to 173 of the Worlds 196 countries I know Eric from the Facebook group Every Passport Stamp. This interview is conducted over a five days’ period via Messenger and is based on more than 700 messages. The final of which was sent last night at 10.48 pm with a photo of Eric in Cairo boarding his final plane for Asmara, Eritrea. (Updated with photo to the left sent today)

“I’m doing a short trip to Mogadishu first though”, Eric tells me five days earlier in one of his first messages. Having previously only visited the province of Somaliland Eric wants to visit ‘real Somalia’ on his way to Eritrea in order to ensure the record is formally okay.

In Somalia

At the exact same time Eric boards for Mogadishu I am myself boarding with my girlfriend and two kids for a 4-day holiday to the Faroe Islands. Between photographing puffins, drinking coffee and ‘snaps’ with locals and driving our rental car all around the remarkable islands at 62°N Eric and I rapidly throw messages back and forth to do this interview and to clarify his background:

Eric’s parents were both Vietnamese refugees. His father was rescued by a US oil boat after escaping the Vietnam War. He was smuggled on board a small overcrowded local boat and spent many days at sea. His mother escaped on a US Air Force helicopter available to her only because her brother, Eric’s uncle, worked for the CIA. Eric’s parents where then granted refugee status in the US. His father took an education and went on to have a successful career as a civil engineer. The prosperity of the family has enabled Eric to obtain a loan for the estimated cost of his project.

Arriving in Copenhagen

I ask Eric what his sponsors and parents think about him going to dangerous places. “They can’t wait until it’s over and I settle somewhere safe. All those 4am calls back to California, ‘hey mom, so I’m kind of stuck. Some government arrested me’”, he says and adds: “My mom always advises my little sister: ‘don’t be crazy like your brother’”.

I then ask him what his mother thinks about almost being kidnapped by armed militia in Yemen:

“She told me to quit my journey and go home and if I get kidnapped, she’s not going to bail me out because she advised ‘my stupid ass’ (said in Vietnamese) to not go to Libya and these dangerous countries in the first place, but I still did”.

So how did Eric how he become a person who wanted to travel to every country on the planet?

“Three key people inspired me” Eric tells, “The person who inspired me the most was Norwegian globetrotter Gunnar Garfors”, he says. Garfors is himself a Guinness World Record holder and the worlds youngest hobby traveller to visit every country (at age 37). Later on Eric read about James Asquith who visited every country at the age of 24: “I thought it could be cool to try to break the record”, he says.

However, Eric’s parents wanted him to stay home and finish his education to become a doctor. “I was 21 years old and I only had three years to break the record. It was the hardest decision of my life” Eric tells me.

In Copenhagen

Eric finally made the decision to pursue his dreams after talking to one of his professors. “He told how overworked he was and how much he regretted that he did not travel himself when he was younger. That was it. I decided I had to go”.

At our Airbnb apartment in Torshavn, the Faroe Islands capital, I receive the following message from Eric, that shows that he is clearly a fast paced man with a mission:

“My flight is from Mogadishu to Milan via Istanbul tomorrow. From Milan I’m headed to San Marino for a day and then to Rome to pick up my backpack and all my stuff in Rome. Then I have to fly to Cairo for an overnight flight to Asmara.”

In Somalia

When we check in at Torshavn airport a couple of days later Eric writes me again. Again we are boarding at the approximate same time. He is in the airport in Rome. His plane is one hour late. He is bound for Cairo to catch a connecting flight onwards to his final country Eritrea.  He only has an hour and a half to connect in Cairo and is nervous he will miss the most important flight of his life.

Fortunately, he makes it in time. In time to catch his record. The rest as they say is history.


24-year-old about to become the youngest person to visit every country in the world: – “I am not out for a record”

By Jakob Øster, May 10th, 2017

William S. Baekeland at Palmyra Atoll, US Minor and outlying islands

He is 24 years old and this summer he will – if all goes according to plan – be the youngest person ever to have visited every country on the planet.

And how unlikely this may sound: he is just getting started.

On his way he has visited some of the world’s most remote regions and narrowly escaped deathly chaos in South Sudan (see full story below).

It would be safe to say that William S. Baekeland from County Kildare in Ireland leads a remarkable life.

Having myself travelled to the majority of the countries in the world I know William from the closed Facebook group for world travellers named Every Passport Stamp.

Mogadishu, Somalia

We make this interview over a two-day period via messenger. The second day Will is communicating from 40.000 feet in his private plane somewhere en route from his home in Ireland to Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast.

The present record for youngest person for visiting every country is held by James Asquith. According to Guinness Book of Records he was 24 years and 192 days old when he completed visiting every sovereign country (Guinness counts 196 countries in total – the 193 sovereign UN countries plus 3 extra).

According to a recent article by Norwegian globetrotter Gunnar Garfors American Eric T Nguyen is days away from cutting about a month of this record.

However, both these records are about to get beaten.

“I have a random mix of around 20 countries left: El Salvador, Algeria, Bangladesh, Tuvalu for example.” William tells me, adding: “I’ll be finished this summer”.

Tilicho Lake, Nepal – highest lake in the world

If he succeeds he will cut a further couple of months off the world record. And the better I get to know Will the more convinced I get that he will pull it off.

Why do I think that? – First of all he has already visited many of the difficult countries. And through family connections to important people the paperwork for the remaining hard ones allegedly has already been done. Second – Because he says so: “completely certain” he just states when I ask him how sure he is about finishing this summer. Third – William has the means to travel wherever he desires

Like other wealthy people William does not like to speak about his money. Money that he obviously must be in possession of since he – as we communicate – is travelling on a private jet with a working internet connection from which he almost instantly replies to all my questions.

“My family and I are independently wealthy” he finally simply replies after I have repeatedly asked about the funding. But since the family company has received some bad press over the years he prefers that I keep the company name out of this interview.

“Growing up, I had already travelled across the whole world and visited perhaps about 90 countries”, he tells me. “I then decided I would just continue this and visit more countries, territories and remote islands.”

When not travelling William spends his time doing oil paintings, helping galleries get funding, writing and doing photography. He also plays three instruments and collect cameras.

The final country – Montenegro – William plans to visit with his mother. A mother who how amazing this may sound – and through a different era where travel was not always as easy as today – has already visited more countries than her son!

Scott’s Hut, Cape Evans, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica

That also means that William and his mother will be the first ever parent and child to have both visited every country on the planet. (Various professional travel websites estimate that around 200 people in total have visited every country).

“It is not for the competition and I am not out for a record,” William surprisingly tells me. “I don’t have the time to be chasing records and I think some of The Guinness World Record requirements make no sense, so I won’t be approaching them about this.”

Officially recognized by GWR or not William will if everything goes according to plan within the next couple of months still be the youngest person to have set foot in every country.

Trapped in the deathly chaos of South Sudan – Williams personal account:

I have been in several dangerous situations. One which sticks out is in South Sudan. I visited that hellish country three times. I had chartered a small airplane and travelled from Juba to a town called Wau, in Bahr El Ghazel province in the North-West of the country. I had a very nice time there and stayed for the night. The next morning my pilot told me to be at the airport with him in 15 minutes or else he will take off without me. Shooting and violence had erupted in the streets. One tribe was seeking revenge against another tribe. They were shooting people randomly and burning down houses. They were completely savage. I got to the airport ok with my driver, and then at the last barrier, I got held up by a really unpleasant security guy. I watched my plane take off, leaving me trapped in the deathly chaos. I saw a gate open onto the runway and had noticed an NGO aircraft with its door open still, but waiting to depart. I ran out to it and boarded. They closed the door and we took off moments after. It was surreal and I grateful for them waiting for me. Fortunately, the plane was going to where I wanted to be – Juba – but I’d have gone anywhere in it, as long as I was out of Wau.

Facts:

Next Project after completion of every country: Travelling to a list of 12.000 places of which William has presently visited ‘only about 2.000’

Clipperton Island, Pacific Ocean

William has flown about 3,000 times including 16 Concorde trips. He has made 20 transatlantic crossings by sea and made 8 crossings of the USA by train. He has been 6 times to Syria and 4 times to Iraq and has visited the city of Herat in Afghanistan.

Among the extremely difficult remote islands William has visited are: Bouvet Island, Tristan da Cunha, Peter I island, Clipperton Island, Novaya Zemyla, Wrangel island.

You can follow William on Instagram here: @williambaekeland


Every Country in the World without flight – in one continuous journey

Website: www.onceuponasaga.dk

Traveller: Torbjørn C. Pedersen.

Link to interview with photos (all in danish): BT, Berlingske Tidende, Berlingske Tidende (print)

Portrait of Torbjørn in Brazzaville ROC – copyright Jakob Øster

English summary:

I know “Thor” from the travel club: “Travellers Guild of Denmark”. I met him in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo in February 2016. We spent 3 days drinking beer, smoking shisha and doing this interview.

Torbjørn (sometimes called “Thor”) left Denmark in late 2013. He first visited all the countries in Europe. Then spent 5 cold winter months crossing the Atlantic Ocean with various detours and strange boats. He then visited all the countries in North America, The Caribbean and South America and took a Mærsk Cargo Ship to Africa.

Only one other traveller (to my knowledge) has visited all the countries in the World without flight. According to Guinness Book of Records Graham Hughes a video documentarist from Liverpool holds the record. However Mr Hughes has openly stated that he only set foot temporarily in some countries and flew home for various reasons to break up the trip and then flew back to continue overland.

Torbjørn on the other hand never flies, never goes back, spends 24 hours in each countries and fixes all the visas on the go.

Torbjørn and Graham Hughes actually met – on Mr Hughes private island (that he won the right to use in a quizz show) during Torbjørns journey. Exchanging travellers stories, drinking beer and – as it turned out – disagreeing on how to set records.


The million dollar travel blogger

Johhny Ward at the Marker Hotel – copyright Jakob Øster

Website: www.onestep4ward.com

Traveller: Johnny Ward

Link to interview  (not yet published).

English summary:

Dream big. Travel far. Live full. That is Johnny’s slogan.

I meet Johnny on Misery Hill. He lives in Thailand but has flown home to Ireland – his birth country – because he has just been the keynote speaker at a Dublin based Blogger Conference. I meet him at the Marker Hotel along the river Liffey in the Dublin Docklands area.

A fancy Dublin neighborhood with shining new hotels. In a street where corpses of criminals were left publicly to rot in the 18th century. Ironically, everything is now posh and flashy and the next door neighbor is the European headquarter of facebook.

Johnny – who’s real name is actually not Johnny – grew up with a violent father. His mother, Maura, fled to Kilkeel, Northern Ireland with Johnny and his sister when he was only one year old – changing their identities. With an unemployed mother Johnny grew up in poverty. Later Maura got a job and was able to save up enough to send Johnny to university.

Johnny wanted to travel. But had no money. He signed up for medical research in a Belfast Hospital. “No visitors, no leaving, no exceptions,” Johnny says “Every day they gave me new medicine and took a ton of blood samples”.

Johnny made enough money to travel. He taught English along the way. He worked in an Australian contact center.  He saved every penny. He googled “how to travel with no money”. And  “how to start a travel blow with no money”. He paid a Filipino a hundred dollars to build his first blog and took of to Africa on a yearlong trip. Slowly he started to build up followers.

One day an email came from somebody named “Baba Bojang”. He asked the price of publishing an article on Johnnys blog. “Fuck off” wrote Johnny assuming it was his friends trying to be funny using a hoax address. “Excuse me?” Mr Bojang wrote back. “I am sorry – it will be 100 USD” Johnny replied. “We’ll give 65” Baba replied.

“That moment changed my life” Johnny says sipping his Guinness.

The rest as they say is history. More websites followed. Affiliate agreements. Sponsors. Advertisers. From 2011 to 2013 he went from a monthly income of 1.000 USD pr month to 50.000 USD the very best month. “Suddenly, and at a time where I no longer needed it, I was given free accommodation if I just posted to my followers where I was”.

According to himself Johnny is presently the worlds second most profitable travel blogger.

After a few pints Johnny is fiddling with his phone trying to call an Uber taxi. Before he goes I ask the poor Irish lad who against all odds grew up to become a travel blogging miilionaire, an adventurer who has visited almost every country in the world and a semi-celebrity if he has a favorite quote. Johnny raises his glass and says:

“We’re only as young as we are tonight”.


27-year old dane to visit every country in the world

Henrik Jeppesen som cykelkommentator på DR1

Website: www.henriktravel.com

Traveller: Henrik Jeppesen

Link to interview (in danish) : Berlingske Tidende

English summary:

Been almost everywhere. Done almost everything. This might be what Henrik’s tombstone one day will say. One day hopefully very far away. Because Henrik was only 27 when he on April 1st 2016 visited the last of the 193 UN-countries. According to the website besttravelled.com that makes Henrik the youngest person in the world with public presentation who have visited all the countries on the planet (record, since beaten, red.). An achievement accomplished even though Henrik had no money and never in his life has he held a job.

Henrik has been held back by soldiers in the Central African Republic. Has traversed Syria under the civil war. Has pressed the hand of the Libyan Prime Minister. He has eaten for free at Michelin restaurants and has flown with more different airline companies than any other man on the planet.He has stayed without paying at some of the worlds most exclusive resorts.

Where did you grow up?

In Thy, Northern Jutland, Denmark. I spent a lot of my youth on sport. When I was only 12 I was on national danish television DR1 commenting on Tour de France.

What is your education?

None. Other than elementary school. Travelling has been my education.

Why did you want to go everywhere?

It is a proces. First I went for 50 countries. Then 100. And then I thought I might as well go for all. My next projet is to visit every Territory in the world.

What did your family and friends say?

A lot were sceptical. My uncle said “I won’t pay to get you home”. He thought I would be kidnapped along the way.

How can you afford it?

I follow a set of rules for cheap accommodation (often sponsored), transport and food.

Fair enough everything is cheap but you still need an income or a loan?

Yes, Sparekassen Thy (Danish Bank, red) has kindly given me a loan. I hope to earn the money via books and travel lectures.

You spent 10 year visiting every country – how much did it cost?

I know the approximate figure – but I can only tell you than it is no more than I would be able to pay back after one years work.

How do you find the time?

I have no girlfriend, children or job. Nothing that binds me.

What was the worst experience?

My passport was stolen in Gambia. I screamed out loud to the big crowd. I had some very important visas for onward African travel. Fortunately someone stopped the thief and I got my passport back – a huge relief.

How about love – I suppose it is not easy to have a girlfriend when always moving on?

Close to impossible. I miss settling down somewhat, but first I have to find the right one and finish of my travel projects.

What visas are the hardest?

Saudi Arabia since it requires a local sponsor or a business invitation. Radisson Blu helped me. Equatorial Guinea was also tough. I wasted a lot of time and ended up getting it in Lagos. At more than 200 USD it was my most expensive visa.

Which country was the most dangerous?

Syria during the war. But danish television war reporter Rasmus Tantholdt helped me and I got in and everything went fine.

Meeting Henrik in a suite at Copenhagen’s exclusive Hotel D’angleterre.

What is the closest you have come to dying?

Back home in Thy. On a bicycle when I was 10 or 11 I was looking at my cycle computer and went in front of a car. Incredibly stupid. On my travels I have not been in great danger.

Do you have an advise to someone else trying to do what you have done?

Do not set yourself such an ambition target to start of with. Go for less. Start of with a trip around the world or maybe 50 countries and see how it goes. Maybe around 100 people have visited every country on earth. There is a reason for that – it requires an extraordinary amount of work.

What will you do when you have finished?

If i manage to visit every country and territory I would like to settle down and find a girl. I have no idea where I would end up settling – Denmark, New Zealand or South Africa maybe.

You are missing all 7 territories in Antarctica – do you have any idea how you will get there?

Palmer Peninsula that covers 3 out of 7 territories is easy. I will try to work with a travel company for the other 4 – maybe signing up to find other travellers to the trip and the being able to go cheaper myself.

Wake Island og British Indian Ocean Territory are known among globetrotters to be the two hardest territories to visit – how do you plan to get there?

Last year I had signed up for one of the very rare organized trips from Guam in the Pacific to Wake Island. Unfortunately it was cancelled but I hope a new trip will be arranged. British Indian Ocean Territory can hopefully be visited in transit for instance between Maldives and Mauritius. It is not easy – but I hope I will manage.