Chasing 193. The quest to visit every country in the world. Vol II

Actualizado: 12 de ago de 2020

El reto de conocer todos los países del mundo (texto en inglés): La siguiente es una transcripción del capítulo correspondiente a la entrevista que me hicieron en el libro abajo citado y que fue publicado hace cinco años. Hace parte del segundo volumen de un libro con una misma entrevista a 30 viajes extremos, y es el segundo volumen de la colección que comenzó con una entrevista similar a otro grupo de 20 viajeros. Los textos completos los pueden conseguir por pocos pesos en Amazon para Kindle, y por unos pocos pesos más, en versión impresa.

El texto que copio acá no es un artículo corto; son unas 16 páginas para entretenerse este fin de semana.

Where did you grow up, and what was your early life like? I was born in 1969 in Bogotá, Colombia to a traditionalist and highly cultured family of Eastern European immigrant Jewish parents. As such, I was brought up under a heavy influence of World and Jewish history — a family tree where no two generations were born in the same place and with a very dramatic recent past. I lived sheltered within a small community and with a strong feeling of being part of a minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic, third world country, still backward, where FARC guerrillas and Pablo Escobar´s war on society were the norm and the mentality of people was not yet open to the wider world. But even so, life was great and happy.

The sense of being different was always important. Since very young, I grew up with a strong inclination toward world affairs, politics, cultures and with sufficient exposure to world travel, especially at a time and place where it was not the norm. It was very clear to me from the beginning that there was a lot more outside my small world, and I had to see it. I distinctly remember sitting on my dad's lap and reading maps, skimming through the Encyclopedia Britannica, and learning from him about world history every night before going to bed. To him I owe a huge head start in life. Consequently, I was also a top student, always seduced by maps and stats, showing early on a great desire to explore, ask, and accept challenges. I always disliked being part of the norm. I chose not to root for the same football teams as my peers. I had to be different even within a minority. The obvious path was to go out and conquer the world, count the places, the days, and the distance traveled. In my childhood I grew up reading Jules Verne and imagined navigating miles underwater, going around the world in eighty days, traveling to places and cultures that were inaccessible. Television fed images of exotic animals in documentaries, newscasts would report wars in distant lands, and only the Football World Cup would allow me to feel it was feasible to unite the world. Growing up in Colombia, TV shows like Naturalia or the travel documentaries of Hector Mora got me near hidden places of the world, although arriving there was beyond my earliest imagination.

When did you go from traveling casually to making this a full-time goal, and what motivated you to travel to every country? I was always a traveler and my friends always saw me as such. I had the fortune of entering the world of traveling at a very early age. Every summer I would visit my maternal grandparents in Budapest. We would spend two months together with the family and always, before the start of the school year, we would go to some other place in Europe. Maybe this marked me from an early age as different; Hungarian, rather than English, was my second language. Life behind the Iron Curtain was the first ‘other world’ that I knew, and not the beaches of Cartagena or the parks in Orlando. I got accustomed to watching the news of the Vietnam and Angola wars under the Soviet prism and not the American. Getting to Hungary over 40 years ago was a long journey, one that implied changing planes many times in different countries — the weather, the way people would dress, and the languages would change at every stopover. In each destiny I learned one more history, heard a different language; tasted new flavors, learned about a new hero or anti-hero, about a new God. And everything, absolutely everything, would become a new adventure. I read maps and drew dreamed-of itineraries. I was not yet 10 when I realized through the Guinness Book of World Records that there were people truly dedicated to see the entire world and that it was indeed achievable. I remember reading about a Bengali fellow who had been to about 154 countries. When I turned 15 and had been to 15 countries, I realized that life was not long enough to continue at such a slow pace. Today, I owe the Bengali gentleman a big “thank you” for his unsolicited encouragement, but I can happily say he is no longer the bar I measure myself against. When I finished high school I had already traveled around many European countries and some places in the Americas. For my high school graduation, my father allowed me to choose the destination I wanted to go on vacation. His surprise could not have been greater when I told him we would go to South Africa. It was with that whimsical moment followed by that trip that I opened a new page in my travels, now to remote and exotic destinations.

What have you done over your life to gain the freedom and finances to pursue as much travel as you have?I grew up in a middle-upper class family so, admittedly, that served as a good starting point. I have always been self-employed, running my own businesses (first as a flower grower and exporter and then as a hotel manager, the Lancaster House, which in a sense is a way of feeling on the road even when I am not traveling). Given my adventurous nature, I have often been able to arrange affordable alternatives to exotic and bizarre destinations. I am not much into grand resorts or pricey packaged tours, so I feel I get more miles for my bucks then many travelers. These reasons, plus the fact that for most of my adult life I have been single, have provided me the flexibility and ease to travel at will.

What was the first international trip you took, and what do you remember most about it? Before my 4th birthday, in 1973, I traveled with my mom and sister during the two-month summer holidays to Hungary to visit our grandparents. On our way back, we met dad in Madrid and spent about a week traveling in Spain. This would become the norm for the first years of my life: Two months courtesy of my grandparents, followed by a different European country or countries for a couple of weeks. From ´73 I remember how my mother would prepare us for the trip and tell us stories about Budapest, the country-house outside the city with the little clay elf by a tree that would give us candy. She told us about family history and how Hungary was so different from Colombia. And I remember how expectant I was of the trip. At the time, the flight meant stopping in Caracas, San Juan and Madrid for another change of planes and on to Zurich and then again to Budapest. I can remember meeting friends of the family at the airport in Caracas and the snacks they gave us, the wait at the airport in Madrid, climbing the ladder on the final ledge. From Hungary I vividly remember the elf, and my birthday party, my first military parade and understanding that those were communist troops. I remember watching Hungarian TV with Russian coverage about the wars in Vietnam and Angola. And I remember how surprised I was to see the small size of my grandparents´ apartment and the explanation of why post War Communist Hungary had made it that way. I remember meeting my dad in Madrid for the last week of the trip, and the Casa Sueca hotel where we stayed, and how I could find Sweden on the map because my dad taught me the map of the world before I could read and write. And I remember Toledo and Avila, and just about everything on that trip. And since then, I remember how I always felt the best reward after an academic year was to be able to travel in the summer. Thus, my first love become travel and I knew then it held the keys to understanding the world and relate to all the stories my dad would tell me every night before going to bed. Without a doubt, when people ask me what the appropriate time to start traveling is, I say the younger the better.