Lessons learned from travelling to 217 countries

Emine Saner
06 November 2015

It’s the ultimate travel ambition: visiting every country on Earth. After 1,426 days and four passports, Graham Hughes ticked off the final country on his itinerary, South Sudan — which didn’t even exist when he started the trip. He tells Emine Saner what seeing the world taught him

As a child, Graham Hughes remembers his father driving the family up to the East German border during one holiday and asking if they could go inside and have a look. The border guard said no, but his father, as much of a chancer as his son would turn out to be, turned the car around in such a wide circle that they ended up (briefly) behind the Iron Curtain, to much excitement from the young Graham in the back. And so East Germany was ticked off. ‘My parents really put the travel bug in me,’ says Hughes, who grew up in Liverpool and spent his childhood poring over world maps.

But what if he could tick off every country in the world? Budding adventurer Hughes, 36, decided it could be done. He had already travelled extensively — before returning to Liverpool, where he made short films and music videos — but he was ready for a new adventure. ‘Having a European passport, or a US, Canadian or Australian passport, is kind of like having an access-all-areas pass to the world,’ he says. ‘That is something to be cherished.’ In 2013, he became the first person to travel overland around the world, eventually visiting 217 countries and territories, comprising all 193 UN member states, plus Kosovo, Vatican City and others. He now lives on a tropical island off the coast of Panama which he won in a competition (yes, really) and spoke to me from his hammock.

What were your rules for what constitutes ‘visiting’ a country?
I had to cross the border at an official border post and get a shot of myself saying the name of the country in the country. So, for example, I ran into St Peter’s Square, shouted ‘Vatican City!’ at my camera and ran out again. One more off the list.

Were there some days when you ticked off more than one country?
Yes, in Europe. The countries are close together and I didn’t need visas. People say ‘you didn’t really see those countries’, but I’ve been to lots of places before — I’d already been to the Taj Mahal, Uluru (Ayers Rock), the Inca Trail. This trip was more about the journey and the challenge of getting from one place to another. I don’t think there’s a wrong way of travelling.

Which place surprised you the most?
Iran. I was expecting it to be extremely conservative, but the people were the friendliest in the world and always wanted to help me out. I’ve never experienced that level of hospitality. People would cross the road to shake my hand and ask where I was from and they were genuinely interested in people who had come to Iran. It was a very beautiful country, filled with incredibly charming people.

What else did it teach you?
Lots of people in the Middle East have a saying, something like ‘always be good to strangers because one day you will be the stranger’. I love that attitude.

Of the people you met, who sticks in your mind?
I was on an overnight bus in Iran, from Shiraz to Khorramshahr. I was sitting behind this elderly woman and she was speaking on her phone in Farsi. She turned around and passed me her phone. It was her grandson, who spoke perfect English and he said ‘You’re sitting behind my grandmother and she’s asked me to tell you she’s worried about you. The bus gets in very early and she’s concerned that you won’t have anyone to make you breakfast, so she’s asking if you will go to her home and she will feed you’. Did I go? Of course. She laid out a thick tablecloth on the floor, we sat on cushions. Breakfast consisted of flatbread, eggs, jam and spices.

What was your scariest moment?
Taking a little wooden canoe from Dakar in Senegal to Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, with ten Senegalese fishermen. It was a four-day journey with no radio, no satellite phone, no flares or life jackets. If the small outboard motor had packed up, or we had been hit by a freak wave or it had rained too much, that would have been it. And then on my arrival in Cape Verde, they thought I was trying to traffick the fishermen in and I was arrested and ended up spending six days in a cell. Which was quite scary as well.

Where can you eat the best food in the world?
I loved the food in Ethiopia — the spiced slow-cooked lamb is to die for. Also they have the best coffee in the world. They should do — they invented it. But my best meal was in West Papua in Indonesia. People will cook fresh fish, caught by the local fishermen, on little propane stoves by the sea. I had squid — it wasn’t chewy like the squid you get in the UK, it just melted in the mouth. Food is one of the things I love most about travelling, although there were some things I’ll never eat again. 
In the Philippines they have a dish called balut, which is a fertilised duck egg. 
I managed to eat half of it.

Which country was the most beautiful?
Madagascar, because of the flora and fauna. It was like nowhere else. But I also loved being in the Sahara — it was amazing to see that many stars at night. I had to traverse it twice as I got turned away at the Mauritanian border and told to go to Rabat, in Morocco, and get a visa — 2,000km away back through the Sahara. Then when I got back to the border a few days later they were selling visas on the border again. And they cost $5 less than the one I got in Rabat.

One of the most beautiful places I went to was Palau in the Pacific islands. There are all these rocks which are like little tiny islands sticking out of the sea, and they’re covered in trees and are so green. You’ve got the turquoise blue of the Pacific waters and these green domes coming out of the water. There’s a freshwater lake on one of the bigger islands and there are these freshwater jellyfish that have lost their sting because they don’t have predators. You can swim with them and that was surreal.

What is public transport like around the world?
South America has awesome buses, with amazing reclining seats. In China, some buses have flat beds on them. The worst were the buses in the US; some of the drivers were so rude. In Kenya, I had to sit on the floor of a bus, but the people were nice. The most uncomfortable journey I had was on a bus-taxi going through West Africa to Guinea, which was designed to take seven passengers, but had 16 in it. I was sharing the front seat and had to sit on the handbrake, bouncing down these tracks. It was supposed to take 12 hours, but took three days. And when I got to Guinea I was woken up by the police, who wanted to give me a fine for sharing the front seat.

You went to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Was 2013 a safer time to be there?
It was safer, but I wasn’t stupid and I didn’t go to any active warzones. The area I went to in Iraq was a Kurdish autonomous region. I spent three days there and didn’t feel threatened. When I went over the border, the guard sat me down in his office and went over a map with me, showing me where I shouldn’t go.

Did you pick up any local customs?
I loved the way they put their left hand on their heart in Central Asia and bow slightly forward when they shake hands. I try to remember to do that now.

Did you look for anything when you were travelling as a shorthand way of telling you about a place?
What I found telling is how I was treated at the border. Australia and the US are notorious for giving tourists the least welcome ‘welcome’ imaginable. Places like India, Uzbekistan and Egypt are meticulously bureaucratic upon arrival, which is reflected when you try to go anywhere or get anything done. The incredibly warm welcomes I received crossing the borders of Iran, Rwanda, Guyana and especially Sierra Leone — I got a hug! — were certainly a good indicator of how people in those countries treated me.

Having been to every country, how do you feel about people who always go to the same place?
It’s a joy to go back to a place to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. My favourite country is Egypt — I love the history — and every time I go it’s different. The last time I went, I managed to fulfil a childhood dream and climb the Great Pyramid. It was a little bit illegal, but three local guys and I did it in the middle of the night. Being at the top and hearing the calls to prayer starting in the morning was magical – hundreds of voices coming up from the city.

How did your trip change your view of the world?
I’ve become more tolerant, patient and relaxed. Mostly, though, it renewed my faith in humanity. When you watch news reports, it’s easy to think we’re all going to hell in a handcart, but for every bad thing that happens in the news, there are a million lovely things that don’t get reported. I feel more connected to the world now.

Follow Emine on Twitter @eminesaner; and Graham @EveryCountry