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

Actualizado: 11 ago 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.

Has there ever been a time where you considered abandoning your travel goals? Never. Travel defines my nature. It is one of the most profound beliefs in me and raison d Être, my earliest driving force in life. Not being able to travel again would be just like putting me to solitary confinement for life. It is my way to compensate for the troubles of daily life. I have a closet full of catalogs, maps, and dreamed-of itineraries waiting for their right moment to come. Never in my life can I recall not having a travel plan.

What do you consider to be your two favorite travel experiences, and why? To me, road trips make the cut because they are intense. Driving hundreds of kilometers per day make you a witness to how landscape changes little by little, or dramatically, like upon crossing a border — Morphology, scenery, culture, politics, religions, traditions, ethnicities. These trips allow you to imagine how to “paintbrush” through the map, while you get a better understanding of humanity, and how geography and history explain one another. I imagine placing pins on the places visited and try to connect the dots as I sink in the cultures and places visited before moving on to the next one. Plus, these trips give you a greater chance to interact with locals or come across fellow travelers and exchange experiences. Highlights include camping in Mauritania, driving from Kathmandu to Lhasa, two road trips in Russia (an 8,000 km loop south of Moscow down the Volga to the Caspian, across the Caucasus and Black Sea and back along the Ukrainian border, and then a 13,000 km loop around western Siberia from the Urals to the Arctic Circle and down to the Altai and Tuva and as far east as the Yenisei), and various trips in Midwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast of the USA, where 1,000 kms per day are easily achievable and extremely diverse.

But there are two others that stand out. First was western Mongolia in the summer of 2004, right after my divorce, a moment when I needed to find peace of mind. With two friends (Natalie and her boyfriend — I had met her once upon a time in Timbuktu and then bumped into her a year later in Luang Prabang), we flew from Ulaanbaatar to Hovd where we were met our guide, who incidentally had helped write the first Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia. He brought with him another driver, a cook and a mechanic, a crew of four for the three of us. We drove down along the Altai Mountains, often camping literally in the middle of nowhere, or spending the nights in random nomad´s yurts enjoying their unique throat singing. We then crossed the Gobi Desert, driving along the Chinese border toward the Singing Dunes and finally returned two weeks later to the capital in time for the unique Naadam Festival. The intense beauty and diversity of the barren landscape were enhanced by fact that, at least then, Mongolia had no fences, no paved roads (and hardly any dirt roads!), no trees to offer shade, hardly any landscape obstacles to provide you with bathroom privacy, and a proud nomadic population. The most beautiful of desert sceneries is adorned by a few tranquil streams, hordes of small Mongolian horses or fury Bactrian camels, white tents and thousands of popping prairie dogs. The sun and a compass were our guides as no good maps existed, and often we would had to “detour” when going from point A to B because we would discover major canyons, gorges, craters, or sand banks that would make the trip impossible. A first ever — we saw just one group of tourists in 15 days.

The other one was Eastern Europe: A week with family in Budapest and then solo from the Baltics to Balkans — 12 countries, 3 autonomous republics or places that don´t exist. A part of the world of unrivaled intense history, shtetls, death camps, Chernobyl, crazy Balkans, ethnic cleansing, outstanding guides, diverse cultures, long hours, plenty of exciting border crossings, good music, and soulful walks along city promenades. A trip I started with my dearest people and brought me closer to my roots, in deep contact with world affairs, and a great sense of self-assurance. A trip that from beginning to end was simply perfect to the soul, mind and camera.

What are the main things you seek to experience when you travel (culture, cities, nature, animals, adventure activities, etc.)? First and foremost, I look for adventure, a good story, a unique destination, and an unusual itinerary. I look forward to detaching myself from mundane reality. I love meeting locals or fellow travelers. In my trips, I love to connect the dots on the map and come back with a greater knowledge and with thousands of good pictures. I still print them out and assemble them into an album together with maps, tickets, stickers, bills, stamps and brochures. In essence, I look for moments of awe. “How does Buddhism explain the creation of the world?” I asked this question to Tientzin, our guide, while visiting one of the rooms of the Lamaist monastery in Gyantse, Tibet. Each person, each human group, will formulate its own answer to every question and circumstance of life. More so, questions that could be fundamental for me end up being not so vexing for others. His surprising answer explained much and nothing at the same time, but it was assertive enough to help broaden my horizons. In those brief moments that Tientzin took to begin his answer, I was able to capture the greatness of humanity’s immense pluralism, the fascinating feat of being able to explain one same fact in so many different ways. “I don’t know how Buddhism explains the creation of the world, but I can gladly explain the creation of Tibet”. That was all I allowed him to say. I opted to smile, and with great interior peace, decided to continue my way down the temple without worrying about more answers.

Possibly, Tientzin never understood my reaction nor how much he had said without even answering. I had learned more by staying in a place of ignorance than by inquiring for more details. Those are the priceless moments of traveling. That is why I love to travel. For my guide, even though he had lived under communist occupation for over fifty years, his reason for living was to find nirvana. His raison d’être is in un-attaching himself from the human condition, avoid questions and desires, even if his road becomes difficult (a contradiction, for my taste). In synthesis, there we were, the two of us, living in the same time and space, both happy, both spending time together, both seeing this world in different ways. Everything is relative. To me, traveling is the best way to learn about history, geography, philosophy and religions, politics and conflicts; it is the funniest way to spend our free time. I can hardly understand a beach holiday, and it is difficult for me to repeat destinations even if the trip was great. The adventure is in the destination itself and in getting there, in the lack of comfort, in the sensation of isolation and remoteness, and in each of the anecdotes with which I come back. Each trip opens new horizons and raises new challenges; the world never ends.

My goal began wanting to know each and every country in the world, but later became a quest for regions and roads, a desire to set foot in every time zone, travel down Route 66 or the roads traveled by Marco Polo or Livingstone, and be able to place a pin on the map to many UNESCO monuments. We, extreme travelers, can be weird, petulant, and incomprehensible for many. Imprisonment, Malaria, shipwrecks and other scares make part of the emotions that motivate us to continue traveling and are not reasons to stop doing it. Lastly, I believe that we, extreme travelers, celebrate the greatness of humanity in each adventure, we celebrate the capacity to colonize jungles and snow peaks, to adapt to deserts and tundras, to combat and not give up before the unforgiving nature. I always marvel at the colors, flavors and scents, be they pleasant or repulsive. We appreciate the good and the bad of each culture, religion and society, and do not deny any destination. Trips open our senses, makes us more critical of our circumstances, redesign our lives, and teach us to share with the stranger, the friend and the enemy, and learn to see the heads and tails of each coin. It is traveling that defines me and dictates the way forward.

Looking back from when you started traveling to where you are now, in what ways, if any, has travel changed you? It has had a dramatic effect on me. I am now more open, adventurous, liberal, skeptic yet opinionated. I am spiritually richer. I have learned about religions and politics and enjoy very much when I can compare cultures and situations, draw parallels, explain and relate. I celebrate humanity and its accomplishments without falling prey to parochial preconceptions. But I also got to value my heritage and culture with more solid arguments. I have seen and experienced world conflicts from both sides of the spectrum and learned to look for balance. To me there is no bad trip. Einstein once said that the more man expands his circle of knowledge, the more he expands the boundaries of what he does not know.

Traveling for me has that fascination: a well formulated question, more than expecting a certain answer, leads to more questions. The desire to know a country, a culture, a language or answer, leads to more questions. The desire to know a country, a culture, a language or a way to interpret a fact, or life itself, fills my yearning to visit another country, more cultures and languages, and to compare in order to better understand. The formulation of the questions is the real motor for knowledge, of the desire to become better, to find the road to follow and to obtain that what validates our existence. Traveling has been and will continue being the carousel of fun that has taught and shaped my vision of the world. I am immersed in a cycle that takes me on a search for answers I know I will never find, because in the journey I keep on formulating more questions and I will keep on changing my mind. The circumstances and the traditions I grew up with, the education I received, my successes and failures, loves and broken hearts, have also strengthened my way of seeing things and interacting with my world. Traveling allows me to give a universal context to so many things that concern and happen to me. I do not think about failing in the attempt to learn. I live with intensity and try doing things ‘well’ and enjoy immensely while doing it. For me, this is what life is about, at least my life. I am happily fulfilled knowing I have walked the path I chose when I was young, and I have gone beyond those earlier childhood expectations. So, in a nutshell, it has made me happier.

Do you speak any foreign languages, and if so, which have been the most useful for you besides English? To start, I am a native Spanish speaker. English, by far the most useful language to travel, came much later in life. Hungarian was my first foreign language. I started learning it at age three listening to my mom and grandparents speak. It is a good language to learn if you find yourself in Hungary or in need to communicate a secret to my mom. It serves as a good mental exercise as its grammar rules are very different than most other languages. Otherwise, it is of no use even if you believe it is close to Finnish, Estonian, Khanti or Mordovian. Then came Hebrew, which I learned in school and improved it while spending a semester of high school in Israel. Certainly, it is much more useful for business and travel as many backpackers are Israeli. It serves me well in order to connect with my history and my tribesmen anywhere in the world. English came fourth, in late elementary school, and eventually became my second language. On and off, I have lived for many years in the USA, and it is also where I finished college. To a lesser degree, I speak some Yiddish, which I learned while at U. Penn, simply because I wanted to surprise my father who grew up with Yiddish (not Polish) and just like most in his generation, did nothing to pass on the language. Although with a “funny accent” Yiddish has been good to me mostly to read menus while in Germany. I took perhaps five classes in French, so when I have had the need to communicate, I have mixed it with Spanish, rolled my tongue and twisted my lips in an elegant manner, and thus have been able to overcome more than one situation in various places in West Africa, although never in France. I can also read Cyrillic and would love to make Russian my next language. But until then, the only way to safely travel the remainder of Russian is to do it with my good friend, Misha Rybotchkin, the quintessential guide to road trips across Russia. Finally, if I could do it all over again, I would learn a bit of Russian, Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, French, Portuguese, Hindi, Farsi, Swahili, just enough to be able to converse with the people in every place I visit.

What was the longest continuous trip you have ever taken, when was it and where all did you go? I have yet to allow myself a sabbatical and take off for a long, long time. Perhaps one day Sandy and I will be able to look the other way and hop on a cruise around the world. I look forward to the day when time and money will not be an issue and we could go away for two months at a time, three times a year. Until then, and to date, and other then the summer holidays in Hungary during my childhood, the longest trip for me was 30 days across Eastern Europe, from the Baltics to the Balkans, in the summer of 2011. I had been numerous times before in that part of the world and it is part of my family´s history, my mentality and sensibilities. It´s an area riddled with drama and horror, very dense and passionate history, a myriad or peoples and traditions yearning to write a new chapter in their futures.

That summer, with my mother, sister and her husband, we took Ethan and Tamara (my nephew and niece) to visit Budapest and show them that very meaningful part of our past and our souls. We needed to share with them the places, flavors and people that mean so much to us. After a great week with them, I packed and went my way. First, I flew to Riga, Latvia to enjoy its medieval and Art Nouveau districts. Then it was on to Lithuania where I visited, among others, the Hill of Crosses, Trakai and its peculiar Karaite community and, of course, the very baroque Vilnius, which will remain dear to me. Then came Poland, a day and a half visiting mostly Jewish sites: the neighborhood where my dad was born, the towns of my grandparents, even getting to see their original house. I got to do genealogical research in more than one place and ended up in Treblinka, where most of the Goldstein’s saw their last days alive, all extremely emotional moments for me. From there, I flew across the twilight zone and landed a century before in bizarre Belarus, where totalitarianism remains alive and kicking. Next jump was Ukraine, which seemed futuristic compared to its northern neighbor. Kiev was superb and will also remain dear to me, with special visits to see Stalin´s secret tunnels and Chernobyl´s disaster zone. Backward Moldova was the next stop showcasing the most spectacular cave wine cellars, and side trips to the unrecognized communist republic of Transnistria and the time forgotten autonomous republic of Gagauzia. Going south, I reached legendary Transylvania and very impressive Bucharest. Then it was turn for a short stop in Sofia, Bulgaria, where the highlight was treating myself on my birthday to a day at the Kempinski, relaxing, sipping whiskey non-stop and chatting online with friends. From there, I drove via Rila Monastery into Macedonia to visit the northern part of the country which I had missed out on once before due a horrible snowstorm where the visit to Skopje will remain memorable. I continued to Kosovo where I had firsthand impression of ethnic cleansing, vibrant hatred and KFOR presence. Then it was across into the operatic Republic of Montenegro and the beautiful Adriatic coastline. From Tivat, I flew to Belgrade, arguably one of the nicest surprises — a vibrant, happy city, with trendy people and a complex recent past. The last leg of the trip was to drive across Vojvodina and back again into Hungary. I could not have asked for better guides. Each one of them was unique, superb, and full of life. I was always in the company of someone with deep knowledge of history, passionate about his or her country. I visited the best and the worst in Jewish history, in my family’s history and world history. I saw armies pointing at each other, cultures clashing and mixing; I delved in centuries of art and war and shed many tears of joy and sorrow, and I had with me at all times my iPod. To date, whenever I use it, I go back in time and remember the feelings I had in each of the places I visited then, as I was listening to my music.

What two countries have exceeded your expectations and which ones left you feeling underwhelmed, and why? Very tough to narrow it down. Overwhelmed, clearly with the people of Myanmar and Japan. The first are, by and far, the nicest, most amicable people, always smiling and eager to help, going beyond their ways to show the beauty of their culture and country — something that would seem impossible under a military dictatorship. The latter, because they are the ultimate society: polite, advanced beyond imagination, peaceful, clean and extremely professional. As far as places that have exceeded my expectations, I will go out on a limb and say the USA for its wide diversity and vast territory. It is so much more than just the two coasts, making it a highly underrated tourist destination. Others on my list would include Abkhazia, Malta and Slovakia Underwhelmed? That is a hard one to answer because my approach to travel makes me savor the ugly, the dirty, and the chaotic just as much as the beautiful. But if I ever felt shortchanged, it was in Greece. The cradle of western civilization back in 1982 was far from being tourist friendly. A never-ending collection of rude and unprepared guides, crazy drivers, badly kept archaeological treasures and terrible restaurants.

When you travel, do you prefer to go with others or solo, and why? There is a type of trip for every moment in life just as there is a proper type of company depending on the destination or the moment in life. My first of many trips were with the immediate family. Later in life I traveled with close friends, Juan and Andres, and their families. Not to sound like an Arab sheik, but there was also a time when I traveled with my two wives (each separated by legal divorces, of course.) There have been magical moments in solo trips which happened simply because I either had no one to travel with or because I needed the brake from life’s headaches. Going forward, I also look to the day I take my nephew on a grand tour upon his high school graduation. What I do not plan for is group tours, especially those that make you follow a guide with an umbrella and stick to a tight schedule. However, in some places this was the only way to go about it, like when we drove from Kathmandu to Lhasa, which turned out to be a great experience with a group of very nice people, some of whom I still remain in contact with. But now my future is with Sandy, my perfect companion, my soul mate, a travel agent and TV travel show producer; a person with an endless desire to travel and no holds barred. I have now found the best companion to travel the rest of the world and for the rest of my life.

What has been your most uncomfortable mode of transportation? That would have to be a small boat along the Orinoco River for ten continuous days in July of 1994. After an embarrassingly early exit from the World Cup of Colombia´s national team, and having concluded the worst, most stressful work experience ever (successfully defending my case against the US Department of Commerce on charges of dumping roses in the U.S. market), I needed to go far away. The answer was to escape for 10 days with a group of 10 college friends, and travel along the Colombian-Venezuelan border on a camping-river “cruise”, and hour and a half by plane from home, but eons away. I contacted a guide who eventually turned out not to know the terrain. We had hired a cook, a weird Spanish guide who´d been living in the jungle for a while, and a motorist. We took with us camping gear, hammocks, gasoline cans and some food. A big surprise came when on the day of our trip our guide showed up completely drunk and with a dozen inflatable live savers. Only then did we understand the type of boat we would have — a rustic pirogue with two overboard engines and wooden benches hammered across to allow the 15 of us to sit. The motorist was a heavy-built Puinave Indian who took two weeks off from work from one of the local cocaine producing labs. Luckily, the boat was mostly fully covered with a tin roof that protected us from the tropical sun and gave just enough space in the front for only two people to be standing at any given time. “Bathroom breaks” were for the most part exercises in un-rhythmic gymnastics while the boat kept on sailing down river. One evening, and running late to our destination, a big thunderstorm caught us. Big waves were rocking the boat. Adding to the drama, our motorist started to recite out loud the Holy Father in a combination of holy and very unholy words. Eventually, we saw a providential light in the distance and approached it in order to find refuge for the night. While helping to tie the boat to a tree, the engine got flooded and broke down. One in the group panicked and shouted, “the engine is broken!” And so, in the middle of the night and with the waves rocking our boat, the people still on board jumped off and we had to help them get ashore. The following day, after a long hike along the gorgeous Tuparro park, we came back to see that one of the engines was “missing”. That was the day we were scheduled to return and go upstream 12 hours straight, but not before I broke my ribs playing football (soccer) against the local team of barefoot Indians. Twelve hours of pain, going at half speed in our little raft. Still, and precisely because of the boat, that trip ranks as one of the most remarkable, exotic and off the beaten path excursions ever.

What is the strangest thing you’ve seen/experienced while traveling? That would be a piss-stop plus coffee at a mountain-top restaurant in Montenegro, just after crossing the Kosovo border. Montenegro is arguably one of the most ridiculous countries in the world, and the perfect setting for the weirdest moment I can remember. It hardly has a population to sustain itself and has an economy based on Adriatic tourism and Russian mafia. It is an EU-NATO country with more Russian spies and big shots per square inch than Moscow, and a clown-for-president more likely to rule in Central Africa, himself a relic from the late 1980s Communist bloc. The national motto claims to make it the first “ecologic” country in the world granting it the chutzpah to charge a €5 “eco-fee” to enter this “amusement park” of a country, which ironically happens to be the dirtiest place in Europe together with neighboring Kosovo and Albania. It boasts to have two capital cities and an empty high-rise residential building claiming to be the second home of Pamela Anderson. Simply put, Montenegro is a big joke. So, with my guide, we sat on the terrace and ordered two cups of coffee. Shortly after, a

So, with my guide, we sat on the terrace and ordered two cups of coffee. Shortly after, a police car with its sirens flashing parked next to our car. Two officers stepped out and proceeded to open the backseat door. Out came a thug in handcuffs, straight out of a Russian mafia movie. The policemen then took the handcuffs off and allowed this capo to walk in and go to the bathroom while they waited outside. After the bathroom break, this scarred criminal proceeded to sit by the table next to ours and order his coffee. He drank calmly and without haste. After a half hour or so, he walked down the stairs and toward the policemen who were smoking and idling by the car. They put his handcuffs back on, sat him in the back and drove off into eco-friendly mountain range. But I must mention two other instances of feeling strange, places where ironically, I turned out to be the strange thing. In 1993 I went to the Amazon and camped two hours upstream from Leticia. Before going to bed on the first night, I asked the camp manager what had been the strangest thing he had witnessed in the jungle, hoping to hear stories of jaguars and anacondas. But the joke was on me as after a few seconds, he replied that once he hosted a group of people that would only eat certain heavenly ordained foods that were prepared in very particular ways, and who would pray in the mornings with strange leather things wrapped around their arms and heads. All I could do was laugh at the irony, as our bags where filled with kosher food and tfilins (the Jewish prayer phylacteries).

The other one was in a small village, a few kilometers from Comrat, the capital of the autonomous republic of Gagauzia, in southern Moldova, shortly before having shared pizza with the President himself. There is a small ethnological museum, in typical soviet style, with an old collection of misplaced pictures, yellowish newspaper clippings, dusty costumes and explanations in unfriendly languages. Before I was able to ask for permission to take pictures, both the local museum guide and the always present fat lady director guided me inside the Administration office and took pictures of the two of them with me. They then asked me to sign the guest book. It was July and I was the first non-Moldovan to visit that year. Two instances that show life’s relativity: when you go out to find the exotic and realize the exotic is actually you.

What are the best and worst meals you have ever eaten while traveling, and where was it? This is one where I ca not truly contribute as I maintain a certain degree of Kashrut (adherence to kosher dietary laws) so I never expose myself to eating creepy, crawling animals. Cans of tuna or dry and vacuum sealed kosher beef jerkys are often found in my bags. Having said that, and precisely because of the above, one of my favorite places is India, with its abundance of vegetarian dishes and spices. A close second would be Peru with its superb variety of ceviches and a fusion of Creole and oriental flavors. But if I am to choose a specific dish it would be Arctic Char in Iceland. And then there are the boring places for me simply because they offer a lot of meat-based cuisine. For vegetarians, places like Morocco, Mongolia, and even Germany can be hellish. Eating injera with bare hands in Ethiopia was not my cup of tea, but the worst two have to be yak butter tea in Tibet and a full week of wild bitter cassava bread and smoked fish along the Orinoco River.

Out of the thousands of places you have stayed around the world, what have been your best and worst accommodations? As far as the best is concerned, well, I am not into luxury and resorts, but places that stand out would be Dresden´s Kempinski, Rajasthan’s Mogul castle hotels, and the Okura in Tokyo. On the other hand, worst accommodations need a disclaimer: they can also be a lot of fun. Runner-ups include: Camping in Guyana´s Karanambu which was quite good but the sight of two dozen bats walking on the net over your bed was quite spooky. Vienna´s fancy Bristol hotel without A/C in the peak of summer is the worse given the price paid. Then there is the unmarked trucker´s cottage somewhere in the mountains in Khakasia, with the single light bulb to carry between bedroom and bathroom, its messy decor and those lovely half-naked drunk intruders looking for vodka. And finally, the many unfinished hotels in Mali built with leftovers from Chinese factories, where nothing would match. But the Gold medal to the worst has to go to Miramar. Not the one in Florida but that “big, ample house, built on a rock and overlooking the mighty Orinoco”, as our guide described it. Indeed, Miramar was big, was built on a rock and the river was right there. Having said that, it was an odd-looking wood structure, with a very ample living/dining area showcasing a pool table and indoor “tejo” courts (typical Colombian game where you aim to hit a powder with a cement weight), and to top it all, about a dozen suspicious-looking cabins. The filth was out of this world, and way too many pigs, hogs, dogs, chicken and cats were roaming around and feeding themselves in the most disgusting way possible. The place was run by a small and obnoxious gentleman wearing only his shorts and showing enough proof he had not showered in a long time. When night came, we proceeded to hang our hammocks, two to a cabin. The length was not enough to tighten the ropes, so we slept in awkward positions and woke up one over the other and in pain. Turns out, Miramar was a brothel ran by the Cali Cartel and for the pleasure of their cocaine lab employees. It was such a godforsaken place, the prostitutes fled from there.

What is your favorite "off the beaten path" destination, and why? To the not-so crazy traveler, off-the-beaten-path (OFTB) may mean something else. It could be Cuba, Burma, or Ethiopia. But I believe we have different standards. Personally, I am not into remote islands or isolated rocks which could certainly classify as such. To me, OTBP means that getting there is an adventure, and once there, there is hardly a tourist to be found. Under this definition I would have to include road trips across the many Russian provinces, and places I mentioned before like the Orinoco and western Mongolia, and the places that don´t exist, like Transnistria or Abkhazia. My favorite moment would in Banc d´Arguin, Mauritania, while on a solo trip. It is a place where the dunes of the Sahara meet the turquoise, quiet and tepid waters of the Atlantic, near a flat rocky plateau that serves as a magical viewpoint. This place has thick green vegetation, multitude of birds, fish jumping from the ocean and the occasional dolphin. To add to its beauty, a few tents and fishing boats Maldives-style enhance the landscape. Getting there was the final ledge of a six-day loop that took me deep into the Sahara to see holy Muslim sites, rock paintings, craters, old Portuguese ruins and the flat beaches where the Paris-Dakar rally once went. The night before, I was lucky enough to find a tent with a satellite dish to watch the Africa Cup final. Initially, my luggage had not arrived from Madrid where I was attending FITUR, a tourism trade show. I arrived in Nouakchott at 2:00am and the plan was to sleep a few hours and take off for the desert at 8:00am. And that we did. That meant that all I had with me was a suit and tie straight from the trade show, and shiny black leather shoes. That and my small carry-on with a laptop, a DVD player, a cell phone and a toothbrush. Along the way I bought a scarf and a change of clothes and that is how I went on my trip. It was so OTBP that nowhere in those many days on the road did I find a place to recharge my electronics. My lack of knowledge of Arabic or Hassaniya meant that I could only communicate with the hundred words I know in French, which were not necessarily the same my guide knew. So that night, I found myself in the most spectacular of places, truly away from everything, not having seen a tourist in days, and practically all by myself. No phones, no laptop, no DVD player, no iPod, no flashlight to read. Nothing to remind me of the 21st century. The sun went down early, around 6:00pm, so before falling asleep, I had about six hours, all to myself, in the desert, under the stars and the occasional shooting star, surrounded by dunes and the ocean. A magical, almost religious moment that shed light into how big religions once must have started.

What were your most challenging countries to visit, and why? Visas make Central Asia tough and expensive, and reclusive Turkmenistan is in a league of its own. My dear friend Guillermo was not allowed in because all he had was a Colombian passport and had only applied for the visa three months before. Russia outside of the main cities, Golden Ring or Trans-Siberian, would be impossible if it were not for Misha, the king of Russian roads. Language is a huge barrier, and there is hardly a chance to rent cars, road maps don´t always make sense, and hotels, motels or cottages are not necessarily obvious to find. Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia and its lack of bridges was a major frustration. But the biggest frustration is that there are still many wonderful places in my native Colombia I have not had the courage to visit. But the day will come. Of which travel accomplishments are you most proud? I would say being a part of this book is a great accomplishment, although not a trip in itself. I have not aimed for isolated rocks in the ocean nor climbed the highest peaks. I may have been to places where, other than my travel companions, I have not met any other people that have been there. Certainly, I should not be the one to boast top rankings in any list. So, my accomplishments are perhaps best rated by the degree of personal fulfillment they brought me. These would be the trips to trace family origins, in part because of the work done prior to the trip, the level of difficulty in finding the exact places, and mostly because of the deep emotions they stirred in me: finding my grandfather´s wooden house in Siennica, Poland, and my mom´s extended family´s turf in the Carpathians and Ukrainian Galicia. A long list of streets, houses, lands, documents, and even people that connected me to my family´s origins.

Do you remember encountering particular people that left a lasting impression with you? Arguably, people contribute with some of the greatest moments in a trip. Some people you meet along the way become friends-for-life. Some remain dear in your memories, and some unnamed characters can leave you with the greatest moments of awe. Many are fellow travelers with whom I crossed paths at some point, like Natalie Grabczak whom I met in Timbuktu and bumped into again in Laos and then traveled together to Ethiopia and Mongolia; Ed Gingrass with whom I traveled through Central Asia; John Burke in Southern Russia and Abkhazia; and Karel and Barb Noordover in Tibet and Nepal. There is also Larry Leventhal who I have not yet met but having corresponded so much and shared so many travel tips he is by now a good friend. And of course, Leon Hochman, somebody I know since childhood but only 40 years later we found out we had the same passion for travel and have been on some trips together. Some remarkable people were among my stand-out guides like Ilan Dellagi in Greenland, Daniel Vanderpuye and Doris Holmes in Ghana, Aljona Shukhina in Kiev, Tientzin in Tibet and Mikhayl Rybotchkin through half of Russia. And then there are those unique “aha!” moments in life with the locals, that happen unexpectedly and leave a mark in your heart and mind, like the one in Tibet with Tientzin I shared before. Among those spectacular moments, I would mention being woken up to the most soulful Christmas Carols by village kids in Mole Park in northern Ghana, 2000; joining a Javanese wedding celebration in a village in Surinam, 2013; sharing a day of history and traditions in Ladino with Ranko Jajcanin (a.k.a Eliezer Papo) in Sarajevo, 1988; drinking beer with park rangers in Masai Mara, Kenya in 1998; bumping into a lively Don Cossack village fair near Rostov, 2012; chatting the night away about Balkan politics with the hotel receptionist in Skopje, 2010; discussing Middle East politics with a former Syrian rebel in Petra, 2015; sharing a flight with two dozen Algerian guerrillas in-route to do military training behind the iron curtain, Hungary 1985; celebrating the Passover Sedder together with 1,000 israeli backpackers in Katmandu, 2000; celebrating the end of Passover in the most spectacular of jungle huts in Karanambu, Guyana, 2013; sharing kosher South African biltong with the only tourists we found in the Gobi, and enjoying throat singing inside a random yurt near Hovd, Mongolia, 2004; watching the Africa Cup final inside a tent with the entire Hausa tribe somewhere near Atar, Mauritania, 2010; joining various families for picnic at the Yangon Zoo, 2002; helping a 12 year old girl calculate the cubic root of various four-digit figures (sans calculator) under a palm tree in the jungle beaches of remote Capurganá, Colombia, 1995; listening to the Cuban lady in Trinidad explain why she was not happy that her daughter wanted to study medicine, 2010; drinking coffee in Merv with the gentleman on a bicycle trip from Paris to Beijing, Turkmenistan, 2008; and listening to the Sandinista guerrilla commander tell stories about the revolution, Leon, 2009. They are all people I bow to as they all have had an indelible mark in me and will forever remain dear as they have left me with wonderful, lifelong memories.

If you could travel back in time, to which era and place would you go, and why? I would be a Radhanite and travel back and forth the various routes along the Silk Road. It must have been magical to reach walled cities, meet the local chief or King, trade spices and gems, go on caravans, use translators and messengers. Every place would have been truly, truly legendary and unbelievable.

Can you describe any specific situation where you felt completely out of your comfort zone? Borders are often troublesome. I was detained by a drunken policeman in Livingstone, Zambia on charges of spying for the Apartheid government of South Africa. I was also detained by the FSB (formerly known as KGB) at Gal border between Abkhazia and Georgia during Abkhaz Independence Day and brought before the chief guerrilla commander. Crossing from Ukraine into Poland was a chaotic nightmare worsened when we were almost forced to smuggle out people in our car. Back and forth between Guyana and Suriname was another uncomfortable rip-off, malaria in Ghana was a treat, meeting Guatemalan guerrillas was a thrill, but the title goes to getting stranded in Laguna Colorada in Bolivia. In December of 1999 I was with my sister in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile and decided to go for the day to Bolivia´s Laguna Colorada, one of the nicest places on earth. At the border we were transferred together with a Spanish lady to a 4x4 driven by coca-chewing moron. It was a most wonderful trip until we got stuck in a sand dune near the lake. Obviously, we expected the driver to take his tools and get us out. But he had no tools and no radio and against our advice, he kept on stepping on the gas and sinking us deeper in the sand. We tried digging the car out, but to no avail. Time was slowly passing and not a soul was in sight. All I could do was think that in a few hours, night would fall and at close to 15,000 feet above the sea temperature would surely drop to a cool -20F. We were without food and proper clothes, so our worries became existential. Eventually, I decided to leave my sister behind with the Spanish lady and the never-ending, coca-chewing idiot and venture into the desert with only a baseball cap and two bottles of water. I figured that perhaps another car would come along the same path we came from, passing by the side of a volcano. After two long hours, I finally saw in the distance a column of sand raise into the sky. A car I thought! I started to run desperately towards it and blessed the heavens the moment I saw that the car was also driving toward me. But the car came and went and did not stop even as I was frantically waving at him and yelling for help in good Spanish. I cursed at him, but soon realized I had seen something strange in that car: side view mirrors at the front of the hood, steering wheel on the right side, and prices written on the front window. I figured it had to be a smuggled Japanese car brought in from Antofagasta and taken to reassemble and sold in the black market in La Paz or Santa Cruz. I also figured that if there was one car, there could be more up ahead. So, this time, I pull out a $20 and some minutes later I saw another column of sand in the distance. I started running toward it, now with my two hands firmly holding the $20 bill. This time around the car stopped, picked me up and the driver told me about the smugglers route. For $20 he graciously took me on yet another spectacular trip to the nearest mining town where I was able to buy enough wood and road equipment and for another $10, he took me back to find my sister and our car. It is incredible how difficult it was to find them even with so many clues in the landscape. Shortly before nightfall we were able to dig ourselves out and drive back.

What are your three favorite cities in the world, and why? I would classify them in two groups based on size. Among large cities I would rank Berlin, New York and Rome. The first, because I had a great guide, Yeshay Jakubowski, who had a story for every window and brick and taught me to like everything I saw. It is full of history and culture and the people are particularly nice for a city that size. New York is Manhattan, the quintessential city. Rome, because it was my dad´s passion and my first intense introduction to world history. Among the smaller size cities, I would choose the very charming and idyllic La Valetta, the ever passionate and multicultural Jerusalem, and the extremely ridiculous Skopje.

What is the ideal amount of time you prefer to travel on each trip before you are ready to go home and take a break? Three weeks if I am on a demanding trip, covering long distances and exposed to heavy culture shocks. It is the right amount of time once I pass the moment when I cannot remember which day of the week or date in the calendar is and passed the moment when I start feeling disconnected from reality.

In your opinion, where are the most beautiful places on Earth? In no particular order, the Altai of Western Mongolia, the deserts of the US South West, The Atacama and Salar deserts, the Gran Sabana in Venezuela, Greenland, Central Iceland, the road from Kathmandu to Lhasa, flying over the Amazon jungle or San Blas Islands in Panama, Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, the Irish countryside, Parc du Banc d´Arguin in Mauritania, Bagan in Myanmar, the coastline of Cape Province, Angkor Wat, Wadi Rum in Jordan, Dogon/Timbuktu areas in Mali, the eastern Adriatic coastline, little towns in Italy, and the colors of India.

If you had an unlimited budget and space and time were no object, what would your perfect travel day look like (for example: start your morning in Bora Bora; afternoon on a safari in Kenya; night in Australia, etc.)? I would imagine a trip to places I have not yet been to, and a combination of the type of places that trigger in me the deepest feelings. Therefore, it would entail going to a desert, a jungle river, a mountain range, a political place and a faraway destination, somewhere where I can truly disconnect. I would thus wake up in Antarctica and stare at the ice changing colors and the penguins go about their lives. I would then have brunch while sailing up the Congo river, and later enjoy tea under a tent with nomads further north in the Tibesti desert somewhere in T’chad. Dinner would be while enjoying the mountain views and village life in Kashmir and then end the day attending Arirang Ceremonies in Pyongyang.

Which three countries would you recommend for adventurous travelers to visit, and why?Colombia, the new shining star for tourism in the Americas, a country with mountains, jungles, deserts, beautiful people, two oceans, archeology, flowers, coffee, and quaint colonial towns, still very untapped to the adventurous. Russia´s collection of oblasts, okrugs, republics, krais and autonomies, simply because they are unreported, unexplored, distant, extreme, full of unique cultures, ethnicities and religions in a country that is both third world and superpower. And at best, they are all in Russian. They cover a vast chunk of the earth´s surface and people hardly ever visit and hardly see any documentaries about them. And finally, Western Mongolia, simply because few people go there, and it is inspirational. No roads, no trees, no shade, no fences, beautiful pastel colors, unique animals, nomads. It is as unique and picturesque as a place can get.

If you had just one travel story to share with someone, what would it be? Oh yes! There is one story. I was tired, bored and working late one evening when I decided to take a break and Google up new adventures and trips. I thought about the Arctic and tried to look for balloon expeditions offering BBQ´s at the North Pole or weird cruises sailing through bizarre passages. For over an hour I was looking at pictures of Inuit people, seals, polar bears, icebreakers and icebergs when suddenly I received a friend´s request on Facebook. There she was: this gorgeous blonde, with the most fascinating smile, pictured in a sunny Antarctic day, surrounded by thousands of penguins, a cruise ship in the background, and a lot of ice. Plus, she had a microphone in her hands so I figured she had to be a professional doing her work, of all places, in Antarctica! What a happy coincidence. Immediately, I clicked back and started chatting with her. There was so much we had in common and the conversation could not have livelier. Turns out, she owns a travel agency in Panama, Columbia Tours, and produces Bon Voyage, her own Cable TV Travel show. She shared with me links to various documentaries she not only produced, but also hosted. I watched her climb snow covered mountains in my native Colombia and walk the streets of my dearest Budapest as we continued to chat for a good two hours. It was simply magical. She was new to Facebook and was looking at profiles of friends and family. On one hand, I am friend´s with a cousin of hers so we only had two degrees of separation. And on the other hand, once-upon-a-time when I registered my account, I decided that the only thing I would write about my interests was “travel, travel, and then more travel”. Six years later, that description caught her eye and thus I became one lucky dude. We continued chatting for hours every day and eventually moved on to Skype. Things were flowing just beautifully. We engaged in all types of conversations and would find more and more things in common, likes and dislikes. Of course, from time to time I would ask random questions in order to get relevant and “useful” information to then be able to charm her little by little. Flowers, chocolates, all the good stuff, delivered from across cyberspace. Even though she was in Panama and I was only an hour away in Bogotá, we were not able to find the opportunity to meet. It was, however, the perfect long-distance relationship. But one day I popped the question (no, not that one, at least not yet.) “And where would you like to travel next?” She said Africa. I remained cool and did not blink. I had to surprise her later and avoid the tacky and pushy “Guess what?!”

As luck would have it, a month later I was scheduled to fly to Berlin in order to attend ITB, arguably the best Travel Trade show in the world. And as I often do, I planned to take 10 days off just before the show, and booked a solo road trip through to Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea Bissau with a jump over the waters to a couple of the Cape Verde Islands. That night, before I went to bed, and after I knew she would be sound asleep, I sent her a short and sweet email. It only read “just in case” and along I attached my itinerary and waited for her to open her inbox the following morning. With the adrenaline flying high on both sides, she gave me a yes, and immediately we started sorting out the ordeals of getting in Panama last minute visas to those countries. Long story short, a few weeks later, we had our first blind date at the airport in Dakar. The rest is just the most beautiful love story ever. We enjoyed hiking up the volcano in Fogo, crossing the mighty Gambia River at midnight, taking the boat to Gore island and visiting the voodoo village in Bissau. The adventure of meeting Guinea Bissau´s Prime Minister´s nephew who mistook me for a Colombian drug kingpin and proposed to do “good business” remains one of the scariest moments of any of my trips. And everything was great, and everything worked out beautifully and we fell in love and since then, all our trips are together, and they are the best trips. So yes, this is the trip that stands out as my favorite travel story.

Do you ever feel you have missed out on certain aspects of life while away from home as you travel so much? Not at all. I am sure that had I been a father, perhaps I would not have traveled so much. But that is a different proposition.

What advice would you give to others who would like to travel to every country? I would say “You can do it!” Take advantage of every business trip and take a few days off, jump over to the nearest weird place that otherwise you would not have planned a specific trip to. Every place is worth a visit but not necessarily worth a specific planned trip, so stretch your schedule and go the extra mile. I would advise not to look at political maps so much and not be focused so much with individual countries. Roads can be drawn differently than political borders and (visas aside) one can cover more countries this way. I would advise to look at what is next door to where you want to go. If I were too concerned with just Russia, I would not have visited Abkhazia. Now that I am going to the Canary Islands I will jump across to Western Sahara.

For someone who has been almost everywhere, what still gets you excited about packing your bags again? The thrill of a new adventure. The knowledge that I will broaden my views of humanity’s greatness. The delicious feeling of placing new pins on my map and updating my lists on MTP and The fact that I will come back with new ideas of itineraries and destinations. There is also a sense of rush that motivates future trips, as many of the most exotic places are precisely the ones that are changing more rapidly, whether due to climate change, technology, demography or wars.

Looking ahead, what travel plans and goals are you still pursuing, and what is on your “Bucket List”? In the process of going everywhere I am aware that the more I know and visit the more I feel I have places yet to visit. The list will never deplete. I need to get fast to the places that will change the most in the future. I am leaving Australia for when I am old, but I can´t put off that easily a trip to remote places in Africa. The rush is only accentuated when I realize the sadness I feel to know I did not get to see Bamiyan in its glory, and perhaps will not get to visit Palmyra, Aleppo, or Nineveh. However, in the immediate future I would like to be able to say I can connect the dots between Lisbon and Vladivostok and in the process, cover all the Russian oblasts of which I have visited almost half. Get to Alaska, my one remaining US state, and to 4 Caribbean islands, as well as San Marino and (strangely enough), Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland in order to check off the lists on those and, as my good friend Leon would say, eradicate those problems. As far as stats go, I would love to reach and remain to be within the Top 100 on the MTP and lists. Random destinations topping my list and with no list-related “urgencies”, are Antarctica, Kashmir, Northern and Southern Caucasus, certain road trips across France and southern Italy, Madagascar with my nephew, and if ever peace comes back, a great trans-Saharan journey. And finally, I would love to make Sandy happy and take her to her dream destinations to see big game in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda. After all, she is the best possible companion. Vol. II Vol. I

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