International travel has been a huge part of my life for many years and I’m often introduced as a “world traveller.” More often than not the first question following the introduction is, “Soooo, how many countries have you been to?” followed by, “who takes all your photos on Instagram?”
Spoiler alert: I won’t be answering either of those questions below. But, here’s some food for thought that I think you’d find even more interesting and why I think you shouldn’t be too bothered with how many countries you, I or anyone has been to.
How many countries have I been to? Let me tell you why you shouldn’t keep count.
I’m all for people who have a number of destinations they want to experience.
Hell, I was like this. Once
Go out there and see the w-h-o-l-e world
But over time, with experience travelling, I’ve learned that going to destinations just to tick off some list is superficial and amateur and not just a big injustice to the destination, but more importantly to yourself.
How many countries are there in the world
Let’s start with the number of countries in the world….
Although there is great debate as to the number of countries in the world, the most agreed number is that of United Nations member states, of which there are 193.
The Travelers’ Century Club, whose membership is restricted to those who have visited one hundred or more territories of the world has its own list of countries and territories of the world and this number stands at 327.
What constitutes a country visit
Are there even rules, or agreements, in place as to what counts as having been to a country?
- Do airport layovers count?
- Do visits without an overnight stay count?
- How about a night on a boat through another country?
Do I count Kenya? On my journey to Kilimanjaro, we stopped over at Nairobi International for a couple hours.
Do I count Paraguay? We went to see the Triple Frontier — a tri-border area where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet at the confluence of the Iguazú and Paraná rivers.
Do I count Qatar? I had a long layover with Qatar Airways and the airline provided a hotel in the centre of the capital for the night.
Do I count Kosovo? I stopped over and walked around for a couple hours during a bus journey in the Balkans from Macedonia to Bulgaria.
Some travellers go by how many stamps they have in their passport, as if a passport is a score sheet. If this is the case, I guess I should include The Republic of Užupis (Say whaaaat? You haven’t heard of this country?)
But often traveling in Europe Union from one country to another doesn’t earn you a stamp with there being no border controls within the zone.
There are no official criteria of what constitutes a visit and I guess each person has to come to his/her own decision. There’s no good way to quantify travel. I wish people would stop trying.
The number of countries you’ve been to just doesn’t matter
Maybe you want bragging rights and the ability to say you’ve been to a multitude of countries.
But, I’ve come to the realisation that the number just doesn’t matter, especially in the grand scheme of things.
The number of cities you’ve been to.
The number of miles you’ve flown.
The number of countries you’ve been to.
The number of exotic foods you’ve tried.
The number of travel songs you’ve jammed to.
The number of tropical island destinations you’ve chilled on.
The number of countries you or I have visited is like any other score — just a number.
Counting countries totally disregards all the qualities that make travel meaningful reducing the experience to a mere one-dimensional activity. It assigns an insincere number and a hierarchy to travel and travellers. I’ve probably been to more countries than you, but that doesn’t make me worldlier, more international or more of a better traveller than you. It probably just means I’ve been lost more than you.
There are also many places to see within a country that many deserve repeat visits.
Travelling for quantity over quality means we are not able to savour each moment as we rush from one city to the next.
There’s always the next high.
The next move.
The blur of check-the-box tourist sites and transportation hubs.
And we never have the time or ability to slow down and just be present.
Numbers may tell you how many miles I’ve flown, the number of steps I’ve walked, the number of photos I’ve taken, or the number of months I’ve lived out of a suitcase. But what numbers won’t —or can’t— tell you is how walking the plains of Giza felt like under my bare feet, or how a surfing accident in Bali left me unable to walk, the indescribable feeling of seeing the sunrise over the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal or seeing the smiling faces of Tanzanian children pumping a waterwheel.
Slow travel vs. ticking a box
Someone that has only been to a handful of countries but really experienced the places they’ve visited.
so much better, in my eyes, than someone that’s been to 50+ countries but seen nothing but rush from the airport through the attractions and back again.
Someone whose passport stamps fill only a few pages but really immersed themselves in the cultural exchanges, history, mystery and magic of a place
so much better than someone with a full passport who doesn’t know anything more about the country and its people after they’ve left than before.
Someone that’s only visited a few places but practiced the local language with school children, interacted with the locals, looked into their eyes, heard their story, seen how they live, and acknowledged their humanity
so much better than someone whose main conversation consisted of greeting the taxi driver or ordering food at a restaurant.
That is a big reason why I’m not a fan of so-called bucket lists and fast travel. Sure you’ve added another one to the list, sure you’ve got your IG photos so that people can like and feed your ego. But c’mon, who are you trying to fool?
Just another tick on your list of items like you’re shopping for grocery items. The joy comes from numbers and ticks on a list. And hardly from the actual experience itself.
More countries = more happiness
Uhm, how about, no. We know that money can’t buy happiness. Neither does the number of countries one has visited. Yes, it can lead you down many a path towards self-growth and fulfilment.
Travel snobbery comes in many pretences, shapes and forms. People add the number of countries that they’ve been to their IG bios like it’s some kind of badge of honour. And in special cases, it sure is.
But have you really travelled to a country if you’ve just rushed through the experience, not ever having seen more than your hotel room, not ever trying the local food or the transport or spoken to someone who’s never been out of their country and is fascinated by your world so you have a conversation that lasts hours.
Similarly in life, quality over quantity.
Will I stop travelling now that the number doesn’t matter?
No. I hope to continue with more enthusiasm, curiosity and passion than ever.
But, out of a place of the insatiable need to explore and discover more about the world (within) in connecting with that which is bigger than myself.
The numbers will simply be signposts along the way.
Travel is not a competitive sport and you don’t have to keep score. Forget the country counting and enjoy.
So don’t get too caught up in the number.
There’ll always be someone who’s been to [x + 1] more countries than you have. Let them be…
For you, real traveller, it’s the experiences that are more important.
The self-growth you gather on the journey.
The moments that make you question the meaning of life.
The people you encounter along the way.
The discomfort you actively seek along the way.
The struggles that make you a better, more compassionate, empathic person.
The lessons you learn through it all.
The blissful moments that make it all worth it.
And the actual journey that you are blessed to be on…
Remember quality > quantity my friends. Wherever you are traveling to next, I hope it is filled with far tooooooo many amazing experiences to even keep count.
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