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On the desert track to Timbuktu. (Photo: Albert Podell)
Who: Albert Podell, author of Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth (Thomas Dunne Books).
Why: I began my serious foreign travels in 1965, and it took me until the middle of 2014 to visit every country in the world, by which time I was 77 years old. I ended up doing what only three or four people have ever legitimately done, coming back with some amazing stories and, one hopes, a bit of travel wisdom.
Albert Podell in Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Albert Podell)
How It all Started: In 1965, I joined with travel writer Harold Stephens to form — and to obtain corporate sponsors for — the Trans World Record Expedition, a five-man group that set out to make the longest non-repetitive automobile drive ever made around the world. Steve and I did succeed, but it took 581 days because of wars, breakdowns, revolutions, and political problems. We lost one guy to the Vietcong and two to diseases.
For the following 20 years, my goal was to be the first person to ever go around the world in a longitudinal direction by land. My plan was to drive from New York to the tip of South America, then somehow manage to motor across Antarctica, head north from the Cape of Good Hope through the length of Africa, continue on to the northern edge of Europe, fly over the Arctic (which was not land, and therefore did not have to be driven across) to the northernmost shore of Alaska, and conclude with an easy ride back to The Big Apple.
I’d carefully studied the route, noted the most favorable departure date, prepared a detailed budget, and began to preliminarily assemble a crew. For more than 25 years that was my dream, my ambition — and my obsession.
Podell’s Trans World Record Expedition takes the obligatory tourist photos at the Great Pyramids of Giza. (Photo: Albert Podell)
My Biggest Challenge: My plan to drive around the world was thwarted by two big problems, and eventually defeated by one of them. First, the way was not clear. The Western Hemisphere route was blocked by wars and sustained guerilla fighting in Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Europe presented the barrier of the Iron Curtain. Africa was aflame with wars, civil war, and revolutions in about 20 countries at various times. The land route would have to wait at least until most of the conflicts were resolved, which did not happen until well into the Millennium.
Wherever the expedition stopped, curious crowds gathered quickly — like in India in 1965. (Photo: Albert Podell)
Crossing Antarctica: It was the crossing of Antarctica by automobile that proved insurmountable. My dreams die hard, but I did finally conclude — and I hope someone will someday prove me wrong — that such a crossing could not be achieved. I read. I researched. I tested. I studied. And I consulted experts. But I could not conceive a reasonably secure way of traversing Antarctica’s many wide glacial crevasses and barrier mountains by car, or of keeping the vehicle intact in Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures.
I tested 4x4s in northern Canada in the dead of winter: the tires froze and shattered and the engine had to run continuously to keep the battery charged, the parts from disintegrating, and the essential fluids liquid, a feat not easily accomplished on a barren continent where there are no filling-stations.
I created gas-consumption tables, worked out plans to parachute in fuel caches every 10 miles across the Antarctic snowcap, estimated likely daily mileage to determine if the trans-polar journey could be completed during the five-month window offered by the southern summer — and eventually gave up. (Well, maybe I didn’t completely give up, but it was, and remains, a dream deferred.)
My New Goal, My Even Bigger Goal: The idea of going to every country sort of sneaked in about a dozen years ago to occupy that recently vacated spot in my mind and heart where lodged the quixotic hope of doing something glorious and original, an adventure no one had ever — as far as my research revealed — achieved at that time, of not going gently into that good night, of going out with a bang rather than a whimper. My new quest, after I had plucked the low-hanging fruit of relatively safe countries, was beset with the ones I had kept postponing because of wars and civil unrest, which I called the Terrible Twenty, then down to the Nasty Nine, then to the final danger-filled push through the Savage Seven (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi).
Eating at an open-air stand in Gabon. (Photo: Albert Podell)
The Highlights: During my travels, I endured eerie encounters with the spread of militant Islam; witnessed my voodoo guide-priest sacrifice two roosters in Benin; and dodged Ebola.
I ate barbecued rats in Ghana, roadkilled anteaters in Panama, elephant dung beetles in Kenya, and (reluctantly) the brain of a live monkey at a banquet in Hong Kong, where I could not cause my host to lose face.
I was exposed to a terrifying attack by flying crabs in Algeria and came within one minute of being lynched in Pakistan when mistaken for an Indian spy.
I had an accident with a wild boar that wrecked my car in Botswana; was attacked by a tiger shark in the South Pacific while snorkeling; and almost drowned in a Costa Rican whitewater rafting flipout.
I was thrown into jail in Baghdad; detained and interrogated by Cuban secret police; and visited Mogadishu, the most dangerous city in the world.
My Main Takeaway: It is a very dangerous world out in the hinterlands.
Climbing the fixed rope up Juana Picchu. (Photo: Albert Podell)
How I Did It: Step by step, just slogging it out. They key qualities were dedication, determination, and perseverance. It also did not hurt if you were willing to die trying.
My Standards: They were rigorous, and I was meticulous. I did not want to be one of these corner-cutting blowhards who boast about going to every country and peddle their videos to the naive, but have not really walked the walk because they were unwilling to take the risk of going to Somalia and instead went to Somaliland, which had not been part of Somalia for 20 years, or because they were too lazy or casual to take the trouble to walk the five miles to the Chadian border post from Lake Chad to get stamped in.
I only counted a country if I entered it legally, with a visa. If a country that I had visited, like the USSR, later broke apart, I went back and visited every new country that emerged from it. I tried to always visit the capital city, to stay at least 24 hours in a country (and often a month for larger ones), to cross it in at least one direction, and to get a stamp in my passport as proof. If someone tells you that he has been to every country, ask him where he stayed in Mogadishu, and you will expose the lie.
A young Podell in a cargo carrier that he rented for a week-long voyage down the Amazon. (Photo: Albert Podell)
How Much it Cost: More that it should have because I had not planned it from the start and had already visited about half the countries before I made this my goal, which meant it was a bit of a patchwork. I also had to return frequently to the U.S. to work at my job as an attorney. It cost about $300,000, most of it for 102 separate international flights. If you carefully plan it from the start, you could probably do it for less than $200,000, but, unfortunately, you can’t easily do it today because of the violence in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and parts of Africa, and the refusal of Saudi Arabia to grant visas to tourists.
What I Learned: The most important lesson I learned is to be less judgmental of practices and customs at odds with our own. We have to shed the assumption that those of us who live in the enlightened West always know what is right for those we regard as less fortunate. This is a form of cultural imperialism that should have no place in travel. We should learn to be open to “strange” things and try to understand the reason for them and how they fit into other societies. Just because we wear black at funerals does not mean that it is wrong for people in other countries to wear white. And just because we do not generally eat dogs for dinner, or grubs, or grasshoppers, or fruit bats, or drink fermented mare’s milk, does not automatically mean it is inhumane or disgusting for others to do so.
How I Changed: I have become less judgmental of other nations and less ethnocentric, but, at the same time, I have come to more fully understand and appreciate all the benefits and beauties of life in America. We are truly fortunate here.
My Advice to Others Who Want to Do This: I believe the best service I can render is to share which countries to avoid — if you want to stay healthy, happy, and alive. Here’s my list, which is based on a combination of local crime rates, poverty, poor sanitation, rampant corruption, utter boredom, ruined infrastructure, unfriendly locals, hard-to-get visas, awful food, repressive political conditions, and open or incipient warfare: Yemen, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, northern Colombia, Nauru, Kosovo, Sudan, South Susan, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, Turkmenistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Burundi, Comoros, Niger, Burkina-Faso, Sierra Leone, northern Mali, northern Nigeria, and Pakistan. On the other hand, almost all these countries are inexpensive to visit and filled with thrills and dangers, so if that is your thing, go for it. (And read my e-book The Survival Guide for the Adventurous International Traveler.)
With gun-toting Yemeni insurgents. (Photo: Albert Podell)
What Do I Do Now? I live in New York and continue to be an all-around outdoorsman — skier, boarder, mountaineer, climber (but lower and slower at my age), camper, hiker, biker, archer, angler, surfer, kayaker, canoer, scuba diver, windsurfer, long-distance swimmer, and adventurous vegetable gardener. I am almost finished writing a new book, about my sexual misadventures and those of the United States from the 1950s to today, which is a lot less terrifying, in most ways, than Around the World in 50 Years, and very funny.
Where I Plan to Go Next: Now that I have completed my mission to visit every country, I want to relax and head toward the most interesting non-countries, such as Easter Island; Baja and the Sea of Cortez, with its friendly whales; Tahiti and the Society Islands; Bonaire and its fabulous snorkeling; the polar bears in Hudson Bay; western China, which is a gap in my travels along the ancient Silk Route; Iran, to see how it has changed in the 50 years since I was last there; Antarctica, which I have avoided because — shameful for this alleged adventurer to admit — I get very easily seasick; North Dakota, the one state I have missed; and, above all, the very next place to officially become a country.
Albert Podell has been an editor at Playboy and three national outdoor magazines. He is also the co-author of Who Needs A Road?, an adventure classic still in print after nearly five decades.
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