It was in a jungle lodge in the middle of Queensland, Australia when my life changed forever. The trickle of electricity allocated for the night had expired, the darkness was impenetrable and there was not much to do except go to sleep or talk to the other backpacker who was sharing my hut. We rambled on about our adventures, although I had few stories to tell, as I soon discovered my roommate had been traveling for well over a year. How was such a thing possible? Surely he must have come from a wealthy family or knocked over a bank. The idea of traveling for so long seemed unfathomable to me. That night he shared his secrets with me. I suppose secrets might not be the right word. He told me how he traveled. It was like nothing I’d ever imagined. He worked while he traveled, stayed in unconventional places, and he just kept going. More importantly, he’d made a commitment to travel. I listened carefully to his words that evening. My itinerary had me traveling for 2 weeks. I put his advice to use, changed my ticket, and ended up being in Australia for six months! I picked grapes for a month, got a job waiting tables in the Sydney Opera House, and I played guitar in various towns while traveling. I stayed with people I met along the way and learned everything I could about this remarkable country. I was hooked and nothing was ever the same.
Somewhere between then and now, I made a crazy promise to myself. I would visit every country in the world. When I first made the decision, I hadn’t really thought about how difficult that might be. At the moment I’m at about 157 countries depending on how you count them. I realize that it’s not just about counting the number of places you’ve been though. It’s about the things that you learn and how travel changes you. That is the difference between being a tourist and traveling. As you travel, you become aware that your country and culture are not the only ones in the universe. You develop patience, you learn how to be flexible and you see history being made. The world is a giant jigsaw puzzle. As you travel, you start putting the pieces in place.
I suppose my nomadic spirit goes back to my childhood. My parents would do epic driving trips from Texas to New York in my formative years often with no plan except a final destination. When I was 16, I bought my first car. It was a 1968 Toyota that cost $150 and was shared by my best friend Phil and I. We had both pitched in a whopping $75 investment and equipped it with a used 8-track tape player. The car was a totaled 3-speed Corona that topped out at 55 mph and could barely make it up a hill. We decided to take it to Matagorda Bay with our friend Mitch for spring break. Through some miracle, we made it. We were on a teen budget, so our supplies consisted of a tarp, some Lipton instant soup mix and whatever we had been able to commandeer from our parent’s pantries. No sooner had we arrived, the weather turned nasty and the tarp that we had counted on for shelter was blowing around like a possessed sail. We packed up our gear and drove the drive of shame back towards Houston when suddenly Mitch produced his parents’ credit card that he’d brought for an emergency. Well, it was an emergency wasn’t it? We took a vote and decided we could live off our cold instant soup and canned beans and use the card to buy gas. 12 hours later we arrived in Destin, Florida. During the next few days we got creative and camped out, “accidentally” fell asleep at a party we’d been invited to and guilted someone into letting us stay at their place for a night. Eventually I had to call my mom and tell her where her 16 year old son was. She was shocked that we had made this crazy trip. That was just the first of hundreds of calls she would get from crazy places around the world.
I learned how to SCUBA dive the next year. I was lucky enough to have a youth counselor at my church who felt that every young man in our congregation needed to learn how to dive. He’ll never know what a difference that made in the life of a boy who could barely swim. I got a job stocking merchandise at Toys R Us, cut lawns and saved my money for a trip to Cozumel from a local dive shop. I bought a bunch of old diving equipment from the Greensheet that would make Jaques Cousteau turn over in his grave, but it worked. To this day I can’t believe that my mother let her 17 year old run off to another country to SCUBA dive with sharks, but I’m glad she did. I got my first taste of international travel. As soon as the plane landed, my friend Phil and I sucked every adventure we could out of that island. We dove the coolest reefs in the Caribbean, rented motorcycles and ate strange things we’d never tried before like octopus and ceviche. We took a plane over to the mainland and hitchhiked to Tulum. It was crazy but we made it. We didn’t speak a word of Spanish but we somehow got by. We had both caught the travel bug and felt like anything was possible. Phil and I did a lot of trips together the next few years with an annual Florida trip, chasing girls in other states and diving in the Caribbean. I had a charmed life when it came to travel. Good luck followed me and things always seemed to work out.
I had always dreamed of going to Australia. The Great Barrier Reef was calling my name. Men at Work was at the top of the charts, Olivia Newton John was getting “Physical”, Crocodile Dundee was doing well and Australia was THE place to go. I couldn’t imagine that I could save up enough money to make it to the other side of the world and I had pretty much talked myself out of it before I seriously looked into it. Enter Sharon Levanen. Sharon had just married Harry, who reminded me of an Australian version of “Sting”. She had been living “Down Under” for bit and assured me it was not impossible. She even had some friends over there that I could visit if I needed connections. I told everyone I knew that I was going to Australia. I set a goal to be there in six months. Once I had shared my lofty dream with all my friends, I knew I would look like a big loser if I didn’t go. Miraculously, everything worked out and the money came. I learned a valuable lesson from that trip. I quit planning trips based on my savings. I started deciding where I wanted to go and then I created a way of getting there.
After my life changing adventures in Australia, I set my sights on Europe. Other travelers I’d met on my previous trip had shared their travels with me and told me stories about using Eurail to get around the continent. I needed to see Stonehenge. I wanted to climb the Eiffel tower. There was no such thing as internet in those days, so any travel knowledge had to be sought from a guide book or from someone who had been there. I visited a couple of travel agencies and got every brochure that I could find about Europe. I picked out all the pictures of places I wanted to go. I got out my scissors and meticulously cut out each photo. Next I glued them onto a medium size box until it was completely covered except for a thin slot on the top. I was working as a waiter and bartender at Bennigan’s while going to college. Each night after my shift, I would drop any extra tip money I didn’t need for bills in the box. Every time I looked at those pictures I’d be inspired to save a little more to make my dream a reality.
I spent three months traveling to Europe once I’d saved enough money and finished my semester. I flew Iceland Air so I could have a free stopover in Reykjavik. I unsuccessfully tried to hitchhike around Iceland. One word of advice. Don’t try to hitchhike around Iceland. It’s cold and there’s no cars. I got a great sweater at least and once I left and landed in London all the places I’d seen pictures of, suddenly came to reality as I hopped around by train to various cities. I visited the Leaning Tower, Big Ben, Venice, The Colosseum, The Acropolis and any other famous place I could find. These landmarks were no longer just pictures in a textbook. I found myself much more interested in European history than I had ever been in college, once I’d seen the real thing. I had a Eurail pass which allows unlimited travel, so on a whim I decided to take the train as far north as I could go. I ended up in Norway above the Arctic Circle. It was summer and the sun never set. I was walking down the streets of Narvik at 3 am and it looked like it was afternoon. It was bizarre being able to go from the Arctic Circle all the way to Greece in a few days by train. I soon checked off all the sites I’d put on my box. Europeans make fun of Americans for doing 10 countries in 10 days and for good reason. We try to cram as much as we possibly can because we’re not sure if we’re ever going to make it back. Better to see everything and then go back to the places that you love on your next trip.
I had a pretty good groove going once I’d figured out how to do Europe on the cheap. I’d meet people along the way, get their addresses, and then go visit them when I was in their country. If I wasn’t staying with anyone, I would sleep on night trains, show up in a city and store my luggage at the train station. A lot of the train stations have showers for Eurail pass holders which make it pretty easy to knock out a city each day and wake up someplace new the next morning. I’d also stay at hostels or pensions in the more interesting cities to take a break from my speedy travel pace.
I was on a train in Greece when I met an American girl who was traveling alone. We hung out in Thessaloniki together and after we had gotten to know each other, she begged me to go to Turkey with her. Turkey? I was sure that Turkey was a place I didn’t want to go! Had she never heard of Midnight Express? She had, which was one reason she was a little nervous about going alone. Couldn’t I just go with her to Istanbul? I didn’t have good thoughts about that part of the world but pretty girls make men do things they won’t normally do and I finally agreed. When we arrived at the border, I saw lots of military personnel standing around with machine guns. There were barbed wire fences. Turkey was spelled “Turkiye” which looked scarier than the way we spell it. For the first time in my travels, I was genuinely nervous. We were corralled into an office and that’s when I noticed these fantastic travel posters on the wall. There were amazing photographs of things that didn’t even look like they could be real. For such a “scary” country, there were some incredible sites. What I learned that day is this: First impressions and stereotypes about other countries are often wrong. Turkish people are some of the most hospitable people in the world. Almost everyone I met invited me to drink chai and talk with them about my country. Turkish food is incredible and much more interesting than you can imagine. The tourist sites are among the best in the world. Instead of turning around like I had intended,I stayed in Turkey for almost two weeks exploring the ancient ruins and resorts on the west coast. I had brought my guitar to make some money street performing and the Turks loved my music. Before I knew it, I was hired to play at a restaurant in Bodrum. A tour operator heard me there and immediately hired me to play on their boat. One day I was street performing and found myself on the front page of the newspaper with an article about me that to this day I have never translated. Turkey was the highlight of my entire trip and the biggest surprise in Europe. These days I use Istanbul as a travel hub all the time. I never tire of that city.
When I returned home from my European jaunt, I made a personal commitment to see all seven continents. I already had four if you count Turkey as Asia, so I was over halfway there! While I was planning my trip to Africa, something strange happened. I got married. I had known Helen for two years and she was a beautiful blonde Barbie doll girl who put up with my shenanigans and didn’t seem to mind being dragged around the globe. We had a quiet no-frills ceremony and used the money that other people use for weddings to go on our honeymoon. It wasn’t a typical honeymoon though. There was nothing normal about it at all really. First, we were traveling for six months. Second, we were going to Africa. We had a tent, sleeping bag, a backpack and a few travel books so we could get around. Third, we didn’t really have a plan. As a matter of fact, we didn’t even have a flight to Africa. We flew into London and had to figure out how to get to Africa once we landed.
We had to be extremely frugal to be able to travel for such a long period of time. Hotels and restaurants could quickly deplete our savings so we needed to get out of Europe as quickly as possible and transportation was expensive without a Eurail pass. We decided to hitchhike from Paris to the south of Spain where we planned on taking a ferry to Morocco and finally begin our African journey. Things started off a little rough. It was very difficult to get cars to stop to pick us up. When they did, we’d get dropped off little towns that we didn’t want to be in and the weather was not good. We finally gave up on hitchhiking somewhere in France and took a night train to Barcelona. Barcelona was a great place to regroup and make a plan. Two days later, we hitchhiked to Madrid. It took forever for us to make it there and it was after 10 pm when we arrived in the heart of the city, Sol.
Our luck had not been particularly good on the trip, but things were about to get worse: much worse. We were carrying our backpacks, a day pack and I also had my guitar case. It was a little late to be looking for a hotel, but we had been dropped in an area that had a lot of pensions, the Spanish equivalent to a B&B, so our chances of finding a place were somewhat reasonable. Most of the pensions had their lights turned off so we were reduced to ringing doorbells at each one and hoping someone would answer that could speak English. As we got to the darker area of the street, suddenly three Arabic men walked up to supposedly ring the same doorbell that we were approaching. They were not looking for a room, however. They were sizing us up. Without warning, one of them grabbed Helen’s day pack and tried to wrestle it from her. She was screaming at the attacker and holding on for dear life. We had been smart enough to secure our money in a money belt, but all of our film and guide books were in the bag that she was carrying. The man was stronger than her and within a few seconds had gotten the pack and was running down the street. Reacting as quickly as I could, I put my bags on the ground and started chasing after our assailants. I followed them through the streets yelling “Policia” as loud as I could. There were a lot of people out, but no one seemed to be interested in doing anything to help. I chased them for 3 or 4 blocks until they turned down a dark street. There was no one around and I knew following them any further could be life threatening.
When I returned, I discovered that another man had rushed over and stolen my day pack as soon as I had set it on the ground. What kind of place was this? We were devastated. We had no film, no maps, no idea of where we were going. Internet and GPS would not be a reality until years in the future. We were in Spain and all the guide books were in Spanish. We went to the police but it was fruitless. They wanted to exaggerate our losses on the paper work in exchange for a bribe. They told us that the insurance company would reimburse us for more than we actually lost. They didn’t really care that we didn’t have insurance. I learned a valuable lesson that night. I have had a few robbery attempts since then but none have ever been successful. Why? I am always aware of my surroundings now. I keep all my important documents, credit cards and travel information on my body or have it stored on the cloud where I can access it anywhere.
We stayed in Spain for a week until our friends mailed us new copies of our lost guidebooks and then started our journey through Africa. It was an incredible six months of adventure. We tracked silver back gorillas in Zaire, went on safaris in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya, visited ancient ruins in Carthage and Egypt and dove in Zanzibar. It was far from glamorous the way that we did it, but it was an experience unmatched by anything else I’ve done. Sleeping in a tent and hearing wild animals walking through your camp is unforgettable. You can’t really be sure if it’s a warthog or a lion. Watching giraffes run across the road is like nothing else. Visiting with a Samburu tribe in a hut made completely out of sticks and dung is a once in a lifetime experience.
In the 25 years since my first visit to Africa, I have taken any opportunity to visit every country I can. I love visiting out of the way places that are not on the tourist radar. I have found countless adventures and surprises in places that others often dismiss. I’ve learned that every place in the world has something that makes it unique and exciting. There is no greater feeling than experiencing the cultures, learning about why people live the way they do, eating strange foods, and trying new things. I’ve dove with the bull sharks in Fiji, eaten reindeer burgers in Scandinavia, watched giant turtles the size of a Volkswagen laying eggs on a beach in Trinidad. I’ve been to the tallest building in the world, ridden the fastest roller coaster, and been to the three biggest waterfalls in the world. Traveling is my drug and there is nothing close to the excitement it brings.
My last continent to check off my list was the most difficult. Antarctica is not easy to get to and there’s really no way to visit it on a budget. It began with a 21 day cruise from Santiago to Rio via the tip of South America and then to the Ross Ice Shelf that makes up part of the coldest continent in the world. Antarctica was freezing cold even in the summer and seeing it felt like being on Mars. It’s so inaccessible and has such bizarre sporadic weather that it really feels otherworldly. While I was taking pictures of my seventh continent I realized that I had crossed that off my bucket list. I had done all the continents! What was left? Then I met her: An elderly woman who was staying next door to my cabin. She was in her nineties and she loved to travel. I asked her how many countries she had visited. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I knew what I needed to do. She claimed to have visited every country in the world. Was such a thing possible? At the time, I wasn’t sure but that was the moment that I decided to do the same. In the same way I had told everyone I was going to Australia all those years ago, I started telling my friends about my new life quest. People are genuinely shocked because there’s very few people who have done it. Some countries are very difficult to visit, but if you really want to go, you’ll find a way; and that’s exactly what I’m doing.
At this moment I’m developing a travel show, writing travel articles and doing some travel coaching. Last year I modified my travel goal to include visiting at least one new country a month. I’m passionate about helping others to discover how to travel more and how to make travel a lifestyle rather than a once-a-year vacation. Follow my adventures and travel advice in Houstonia magazine each week.