Counting Countries

Kabul, Afghanistan, 2004. Let’s count: Looking this way I see one–one country here. The USA base at Bagram is 30 miles behind me.

Let’s travel to as many countries as we can! But wait, what does it mean, “country”? Must it be recognized by the United Nations? And what does it mean, “travel”? Are we just tagging borders here? How substantial of a visit is needed to make the trip a real experience?

At age 21 I undertook my first international trip, to Lithuania (not counting a 4-hour Mexican border run at age 18). I was so scared, but I felt like going to the Fatherland was something I had to do. So I went on my own. The plane touched down and I thought “Ok, I did it. Now, no matter what else happens, I can at least feel satisfied that I did it.”

Well, being in Eastern Europe was very fulfilling, not just “doing it.” The trip was two months, and I made many friends, swam in lakes, experienced new culture and old castles and explored in the shadows of history, from the middle ages through the post-Soviet era.

Trakai Castle, Lithuania, on my third trip there in 2007. Back in the occupied Soviet days, Lithuania didn’t officially count as a country. But we were still a nation.

In the following 10 years I’ve made traveling a pastime, an obsession, an obligation. By my count, I have now traveled to 49 different countries in those past ten years. Plus a lot of repeats–I count 77 separate country visits, not including the USA. Doing that math, it’s five new countries a year on average. Some years are bigger than others, but every single year I’ve been to at least two new countries. And I think the streak will continue this year!

This month I will go back for a fourth time to Lithuania; I’ll also go back to other parts of Eastern Europe. Last year was my first year since 2001 NOT traveling in the Soviet bloc. The streak ended and I don’t wanna start a 2-year no-Eastern-Europe streak. During the year in La Jolla I take it easy, but during the breaks I take it East!

This trip will put me over the 50 country mark if I go somewhere new (Hungary and Slovakia is the plan if I can count chickens early). And that will make me a half-century man!

My third trip in East Jerusalem, 2009. Is it Israel? Or Palestine? An amazing place, either way.

There is a traveler’s club, called the Century Club, that allows membership only after a traveler visits 100 countries. However their list of countries is quite bizarre. For instance, Alaska counts as a separate country on the list, as do Kashmir and both Asian Turkey and European Turkey. More than that, most islands are given country status for the purpose of the Century Club, even if they are territories overseas with only a few inhabitants (the British territory Pitcairn, for example, with a population of less than 100). And the Century Club counts it as a visit anytime you are in that country’s space–including airplane stopovers where you don’t get off the plane! By their list and counting their rules for transit visits, I think I have 57 already. (I now keep lists of this stuff so I don’t have to keep recounting as I did for many years.)

But not everyone buys this easy tallying of foreign lands. My good friend PJ! made a book musing about this very topic, 101 countries. He visited many more than 100 by the Century Club’s definition, but imposes stricter rules on his counting and ends up with the number 101. Others he meets along the way similarly use their own rules in what “counts” as a visit: changing money, buying some food, and so on. As far as determining what indeed is a country, it’s really tough to come up with a rubric.

“What is a country” I ponder in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a separatist region in western China, 2004.

I count on my list all UN states, as well as unrecognized states–those claiming (and having) de facto independence. Perhaps not surprisingly, unrecognized states is a topic of some of my academic work– see some of my work recently featured in this article: “Welcome to Somaliland: When Your Nation Does Not Exist.”

For my list, my visits to the unrecognized states North Cyprus (TRNC), Palestine, and Transnistria all count as countries. I also count Puerto Rico. It’s big (4 million people), they compete in the Olympics as their own nation, and the culture there is completely different than mainland America. Even though they use the Dollar it otherwise  feels like a very international experience. Everywhere else I’ve been is a UN member.

My acceptable list of countries is only probably a dozen or so longer than the official UN list (adding Taiwan, Kosovo, Greenland, and the unrecognized states in my research, mostly). For the century club, the list is over 300 long, more than 150 countries longer than the UN number.

A monument to a national hero in the non-nation Transnistria, 2009.

I don’t count airport stopovers at all. In fact, for a visit to count I think you should spend the night in a country if at all possible. If it’s not easy to spend the night (like the Vatican), it’s probably a small country and you can see most of it in 1 or 2 days of visiting anyway. Which brings up an alternative idea, that the time spent there should be proportionate to its size. 1 or 2 days is enough for the Vatican, but then is it really fair to compare that with 1 or 2 days in China or Russia? Should those require a bigger trip to count as a visit? Officially I don’t think so, but I have spent a lot more time in big countries (like India and Mexico) than smaller ones (like Belize and Latvia).

Spending the night is a well-defined standard, but just satisfying this is not the whole spirit of the thing. I also think the visit shouldn’t be in transit (i.e. sleeping on the train). And you should be out and about, learning about the place. In essence, I think a visit is when you learn something new about a culture or history. Then it’s traveling.

This criterion is in the eyes of the beholder, sure. So I try to be careful and not count things too readily. Let’s not count buying a snack at the airport. But I think I had a very Russian experience in a 4-hour airport-only detention on my first visit there in transit.  I counted the Russian experience precisely because I couldn’t buy food, exchange money, or do anything at all except interact fruitlessly with the authorities and other detainees without visas in transit. I think that experience was the only non-“real” visit I have ever counted for my list. I later spend a number of weeks a subsequent trip to Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, so that erased any controversy on my own list. (That Russia trip counted for 3 countries on the Century Club’s list: Asian Russia, European Russia and Kalingrad).

Viewing the Karakoram peaks from a monastery in Ladakh, in disputed Kashmir, 2009.

For posterity, and because I love lists, here is a list, by year, of countries where I have traveled. Every year I’ve gone to at least 2 new countries. The first number is new countries that year, the second is total countries that year. The countries in parenthesis are repeats, i.e. those I’ve traveled to before that year. Now that I have this in Excel, it’s easy to keep it up to date!

Year New Tot. Countries
youth  1    1    USA
1998    1    1    Mexico
2001    5    5    UK    Lithuania    Poland    Estonia    Canada
2002    3    4    Turkey    Kyrgyzstan    Kazakhstan    (Canada)
2003    6    9    Austria    Czechia    Israel    Palestine    Egypt    Jordan    (Kyrgyzstan)    (Poland)    (Lithuania)
2004    7    12    Cyprus    TRNC    Turkmenistan    Tajikistan    China    Afghanistan    Uzbekistan    (Israel)    (Kyrgyzstan)    (Kazakhstan)    (UK)    (Turkey)
2005    2    2    Romania    Bulgaria
2006    2    4    Germany    Ukraine   (Canada)  (Austria)
2007    8    13    Puerto Rico    Mongolia    Russia    Belarus    Latvia    Finland    Guatemala    Belize    (Kazakhstan)    (Kyrgyzstan)    (Lithuania)    (Estonia)    (Mexico)
2008    4    9    Italy    Vatican    Syria    Lebanon    (Mexico)    (Germany)    (Egypt)    (Jordan)    (Israel)
2009    4    9    Moldova    Transnistria    Switzerland    India    (Israel)    (Palestine)    (Egypt)    (Mexico)    (Ukraine)
2010    6    7    Greece    UAE    Botswana    South Africa    Lesotho    France    (Mexico)
2011     0   1    (Mexico) …And soon Eastern Europe!

Ganges River, Varanasi, India, 2009.


About zoomloco

I zoom-zoom loco like the pony express.
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One Response to Counting Countries

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