When it comes to being a “World Traveler” very few (if any), beat Lee Abbamonte. Lee holds the world record for being the youngest American to visit every sovereign country in the world, and he’s got a 6-inch-thick passport to prove it. Cuba? Been there. North Korea? Yep, he was one of the first Americans to visit that Communist stronghold.
And Lee is also on track to become the youngest person anywhere to visit every country and unique destination in the world. Just how many is that? The Travelers Century Club list contains 321. And Abbamonte has already set foot in 306 of them. (See the list here.) At just 33 years old, he’s got about 4 years left to visit the other 15 and break the record, and he doesn’t plan on failing.
But it’s not as easy as calling a travel agent and booking a ticket. Some of those destinations are downright impossible to get into. Like the Paracel Islands. Controlled by the Chinese government, very, very few humans have ever set foot on them. And after years of letter writing, Lee will be on the first boat authorized to visit the untouched islands.
I spent a week on a trip to Panama with Lee, and got to ask him about his experiences in places from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Here are 7 of those questions, and for more, you can head over to LeeAbbamonte.com where he chronicles his adventures.
There is no real formula, there is no typical. Some places I stay a day or two, and some places I spend a month or two. It really depends on what there is to see and do within a country and what I want to accomplish while I am there. But I always leave time for the unexpected things that come up.
You never know if you will fall in love with a place or have a bad experience. That said, I rarely plan my trip out past the basic “skeleton” flights into one place and out of another. The rest I figure out as I go along.
One other factor you must take into consideration when traveling around small islands is the flight and/or boat schedules. You may not want to wait a week or two for the next boat or plane, so your time may be cut short to a day or so. Delays and cancellations in the developing world are another major issue that can cause you to spend more or less time in a place.
Basically it all depends. In India or Brazil, it is easy to spend a month or six. In Kuwait or South Sudan, a day or two is plenty…trust me.
For me, the hardest country to get into was Angola. Angola is known to be the most difficult visa in the world to obtain. It is even harder than Saudi Arabia, North Korea or Turkmenistan.
The bureaucracy of Angola is legendary. They don’t want tourists and don’t easily give out tourist visas. They want business people to visit to invest money in the country. The government is a disaster in Angola and they have a lot of money but most of the people are starving. It is very sad but sadly, very typical in that region of Africa.
Same thing goes in some of their neighbors like Equatorial Guinea or Nigeria. In order to actually get a tourist visa you have to book an organized tour through a recognized Angolan tour company and pay exorbitant fees and daily costs. Even then you are still not guaranteed the visa and often it is denied or delayed for indefinite periods of time. It is very frustrating and I likely won’t return because of the hassle of getting the visa and the costs involved.
It’s hard to pick one country that I go back to more than any other because there are certain countries I find myself in a few times a year, for a few days at a time, regardless of whether I want to be there or not, because they are transit hubs.
Places like Thailand, Ethiopia, Turkey, United Arab Emerates and the UK. The UK I probably go back to the most because one of my best friends lives in London, and I also used to study and live in London. It has a very special place in my heart and I really love being there. I also love soccer (or football), and love to go to games at Arsenal or any other club as well. I just love to be at games. I love the energy and excitement, much like I love baseball and the Yankees. The UK also has so many cool places and islands to explore from England and Wales up to Scotland and Northern Ireland. I love the Brits!
My worst travel experience was a boat trip I took from Samoa to a place called Tokelau. Tokelau is a very small atoll about 300 or so nautical miles away from Samoa, and I had booked a trip on a small yacht with 7 people and 3 crew.
Needless to say, the boat was filthy, disgusting, unsanitary, slow and it continually broke down. Three of the people originally slated to be on the boat took one look at it and didn’t even get on. Then we found out that the route and stop that was advertised was false. We had been lied to by the owner of the expedition company.
To top it off, there were bad storms and everybody on board got really seasick, and when we finally did get to Tokelau we were greeted with anger and disdain from the locals that met our boat ashore.
They only allowed us to stay on that island for an hour or so, and it was a constant battle. It was complete and utter misery. It was the worst trip and worst mode of transport I have ever been on.
Cost is always a tough question to answer. If you talk to many old timers in the Travelers Century Club they’ll tell you $1000 a country is the average cost. I find that to be wrong and a gross generalization, because no two people travel the same or on the same budget.
For me, I can travel budget, middle or luxury, and I enjoy all three and everywhere in between. However, there is no getting around the fact that travel isn’t cheap.
You don’t have to be rich but if you take an average over several continents and different types of countries, then I would say it likely comes out to about $500 a country. Some places it’s just plain expensive. Some places you’ll stay in a nice hotel or do an expensive tour or the visa was expensive or the flight. It all depends and there is no way to really quantify.
Even backpacker types will spend money that will average out to around that $500 because of what they spend their money on. Bottom line is always have access to money because things are always more expensive than you think they’ll be. And remember that cash is king in the developing world-so make sure you have some on you at all times.
This is such a difficult question because there are so many amazing places that people must see. However, to generalize I will say Africa.
Africa has so much to offer people. It is so raw, so exciting and you never know what each day will bring. I love that personally. Africa has some 50 countries in it, and each region of the continent has such different people, landscapes, religions, language, climate. You need to really see the different regions to experience what Africa has to offer—and believe me you could spend a lifetime on the dark continent.
I have been to Africa I believe 18 times now, and each time I cannot wait until the next time I go. I feel so alive in Africa. It is a place of stark contrasts and vast poverty, but it also has the world’s greatest landscapes and the nicest, most genuine people you’ll ever see.
I have never been treated better by anyone in my life than I was by the people of Libya. That may surprise a lot of people, but from the time I was about to cross the border into Eastern Libya, I met the most amazing Libyans and they treated me like a brother and a part of their family.
I was so taken aback by their kindness and generosity that it was almost embarrassing how nice they were to me. I cannot stress it enough.
It is so hard to answer a question like the least friendly people because it is always a generalization. However, I wasn’t treated well by the people of Nigeria that I met and came into contact with. Nobody helped me. I was repeatedly insulted even though I never did anything to warrant it. I was also the target for scams, bribes, and even the ATM’s gave me the wrong amount of money…twice!
Having a really thick passport with a ton of crazy visas and stamps always delays me going through customs. In fact, often times I am delayed a while or even taken in for further questions.
The sad thing is it usually happens when I return home to the US, but it can go either way. A border official can say something like “Wow you’ve got a lot of stamps, very cool” or he could be a jerk and start asking annoying, probing questions and start arguing with me about the answers. This is when I try to just shut my mouth and agree with whatever he says as to avoid any conflict or delay.
Sometimes the customs officials can be so bad that you can’t help yourself and say something back, but that’s when they send you to the back room for further interrogation. This doesn’t happen often, but it has happened to me a few times in the US, Canada, Israel and the UK.
Obviously most young, white, non-military American guys don’t have a Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran visa in their passport, so it arouses interest. I understand that but I always carry a business card and say check out my website, this is what I do for a living. Again, it depends on the official’s mood if he gives you trouble or not. However, having that many visas and stamps definitely slows me down through customs.
For more on Lee Abbamonte’s travels, visit his site, LeeAbbamonte.com. No visas necessary.
All photos courtesy of Lee Abbamonte
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