160 countries and still counting

(Reprinted from Houstonia magazine August 2015-)


160 countries

I AM 16. My mother has decided to take her three kids on a road trip to Utah, sans Dad, to visit some friends south of Provo. It is the 1970s, somehow we all fit in a VW Beetle, and miraculously the tiny car makes it through the Montana mountains, Idaho, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park, which is surprising because none of those are really on the way back home from Provo. I am seeing things in real life that I have only ever seen in a Viewmaster, and I am mesmerized.

I AM 54 NOW and I can’t help wonder how I became the person I am today. When I was a kid picking blackberries and riding my bicycle at my home near Hobby Airport, did I secretly dream that I might see the world? What about the other students who went to Dobie High School with me, or my friends from church? Did any of them aspire to take safaris, dive with whales, or pick mangoes on a tropical island? I suspect that maybe a few ventured out of the States a few times, or made their way to the other side of the globe for business or pleasure. But the majority of them stayed home or close to it, content with discovering the country they were born in. Why am I so obsessed with seeing the world?

I AM 23, staying in a jungle lodge in northern Queensland, Australia. The trickle of electricity we’ve been allocated for the night has expired, the darkness impenetrable, and there’s nothing to do except sleep or talk to a stranger, another backpacker sharing my hut. He is a young guy from Europe and from out of the darkness he mentions that he’s been traveling nonstop for well over a year.

I am incredulous. How has he managed it? It’s his lifestyle, he tells me—to work wherever he finds himself, stay in unconventional places, and simply keep going. Suddenly, I have an epiphany. If he can do it, so can I. The trip I’m on is supposed to last two weeks, but I cancel my return. I pick grapes for a month to earn money, wait tables at the Sydney Opera House, play my guitar for tips, hitchhike around the country and stay with people I meet along the way. I spend a month in New Zealand and spend a little time roughing it in Tahiti before I return home. By the time I make it back to Houston, over seven months have passed. My parents are amazed by how I’ve changed from the little boy whose biggest fear was getting lost, into a world traveler.
I AM 16 AGAIN. Phil, my best pal from Dobie, goes in with me to buy a car, a 1968 Toyota Corona. It is a wreck, but it runs. It costs $150 and tops off at 55 mph, but it’s ours and it has an 8-track tape player. It’s spring break and we take off for Matagorda Bay with our buddy Mitch and only the barest provisions: some Lipton instant soup mix, canned spaghetti and a tarp.

The weather turns nasty shortly after our arrival, and the tarp blows around like a possessed sail. We head for home, driving the drive of shame, feeling depressed, until Mitch suddenly produces his parents’ credit card intended for emergencies. An impromptu poll determines that this is definitely an emergency. Twelve hours later, we arrive in Destin, Florida. Eventually I call my mom and tell her where I am. She’s shocked, but surprisingly lenient. In the years to come, I will start my own party- and event-planning business, which allows me freedom to travel, and Mom will get dozens more calls from weird places around the world.

The year is 1986, I am 25 and have a three-month EuroRail pass. On a train in Greece, I meet an American girl traveling solo. We become friends and decide to get off in Thessaloniki and explore the town together. After a great evening, she begs me to travel to Turkey with her. Having seen Midnight Express, I am pretty sure that Turkey is not on my bucket list. But pretty girls sometimes can get guys to go to places against their better judgment. When we reach the border I see machine guns, barbed-wire fences and scary military personnel. Once we get past all that, I meet some of the most hospitable people in the world. I play my guitar on the street, the Turks love my music, and before I know it I’m entertaining at a restaurant in Bodrum on the Aegean Coast. At some point, someone takes my photo, and the next day I end up on the front page of a Turkish newspaper with an article about me that I never had translated. All of this happens during the two weeks I spend in a place I never wanted to go, a place that I’ve never stopped loving since.

BY 1987, I have already decided to visit every continent in the world, but something unexpected happens. I get married to a beautiful blonde named Helen who seems not to mind being dragged around the globe. We have a quiet, no-frills ceremony so we can splurge on the honeymoon: a six-month trip to Africa.

We are in love. Carefree. We fly to London without a clear idea of how we’re going to get to Africa. We decide to hitchhike to Spain and cross over into Morocco. In Madrid, things go south. We arrive in town late at night and are immediately approached by three men, one of whom steals Helen’s daypack. I give chase but to no avail. When I return, my bag is gone too. My first robbery.

Somehow we still make it to Africa, though, spending an incredible six months tracking silverback gorillas in Zaire, going on safaris in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya, visiting ancient ruins in Carthage and Egypt, and diving in Zanzibar.

YEARS LATER I am sailing to Antarctica, the last continent on my list, taking a 21-day cruise out of Santiago to the Ross Ice Shelf. Antarctica is freezing cold even in the summer, and the landscape is bizarre, otherworldly, like a visit to Mars; a frozen Mars. And with that, I have done it. At age 44, I have checked off the seventh and final item on my bucket list. I am…done?

No, because during the cruise I meet an elderly woman in the stateroom next to mine. She is in her nineties and claims to have traveled to every single country on earth. For some reason, not until that moment does the thought occur to me that I might do the same. A woman I have never met and will never see again sets me on the ultimate journey.

So now, here I am, with just 39 countries or so to go, depending on how you count them. Things will be harder from here on in, as some are the dangerous places, the ones in the midst of revolutions, the ones with nearly impossible visa requirements. Still, I’ve knocked quite a few more off my list already this year, including Cuba, Haiti and Iran.

Iran? Maybe that country should have an asterisk by it. I didn’t get to Tehran or into the heart of Iran, because visas are not easy. However, there’s the Iranian island of Kish, a tiny speck in the Persian Gulf. The story goes that the Iranians wanted this island to be the next Dubai, but when that proved too ambitious, they settled for making it a free-trade zone, no visa required. And while Kish might be Iran lite, it’s still Iran. In the two days I am there, I meet people who are as terrified of visiting Texas as most Texans are of visiting Iran. We think they all burn American flags in the streets, they think we’re all gun-toting cowboys.

IT IS TODAY and I am at my Pearland home thinking that everyone should go somewhere far away, experience the world, feel the freedom and get the education that you can only get from visiting out of the way places. After all, that’s part of how I became me, for better or worse. I love the knowledge I’ve collected, but I don’t wander the globe on some mission of self-improvement. I think the main reason I travel so much is because I get bored easily. No sooner have I experienced one place than I’m ready to discover another. Sometimes the destination is great, other times not as beautiful as the pictures in the brochure, but there’s always another place to go next, another place to escape the familiar, the humdrum, the—expected.

I’m reminded of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indiana is sitting in his office with a line of students waiting to speak with him about their grades. He’s just returned from saving an ancient relic on the other side of the planet. Back at the university, he doesn’t have to worry about giant boulders, snakes or being shot by a Nazi. He’s got a great job, he’s a famous professor, and everybody loves him. So what does Indy do? He crawls out the window and finds happiness on the other side of the world. I totally understand that.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine.

Leave a reply