Is it possible to visit every country on earth without once taking an airplane? Graham Hughes, a 31-year-old globetrotter from England, has done so and holds a Guinness World Record to prove it. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with him from Liverpool about his adventures.
RFE/RL: You hold the world record for visiting every UN member state plus eight other countries -- 201 places -- all within four years and without flying. The last place you visited was the new state of South Sudan in November. All the time, you were on a shoestring budget, using local buses, hitching rides, and "couch surfing," which means sleeping overnight in strangers' homes when you got the chance. That's no easy way to travel. Was the journey worth it?
Graham Hughes: Ninety-nine percent of the time I was having a great time. I was meeting new people and having these new experiences and going to see the animals: the lemurs of Madagascar, the Komodo dragons, the jelly fish at Pulau, the orangutans in Borneo, I got to climb the Great Pyramid at Giza, I got to watch one of the last space shuttles take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, so there are so many things that I got to do on this journey that I wouldn't take away a second of it, I really wouldn't.
RFE/RL: It sounds wonderful -- to see the world in all its spectacular diversity. But to travel the way you did, at the mercy of the road, you have to really believe in the kindness of your fellow man, that you won't be robbed or worse. Is the world, beneath all its problems, a pretty friendly place?
Hughes: Yeah, it's not like people just wait at the side of the road for an odd backpacker to come along so they can con them. The only problem I really had was with African policemen, actual African people were just really, really kind and generous and would share their food with me and show me which bus to get on and let me stay at their houses. And even places that you would think of as quite conservative, somewhere like Iran, where the government is very autocratic, even somewhere like that the people were just so hospitable and so friendly. And, look at me, I've spent four years traveling around the world and I didn't get mugged, didn't get into a fight, I didn't have anything stolen, and I haven't even been ill.
RFE/RL: You did manage to get arrested multiple times, including being imprisoned in the Republic of the Congo, getting caught sneaking into Russia, and running the blockade into Cuba. Why did authorities keep throwing you in jail?
Hughes: Well, I only got put in jail twice, though I got arrested a few times and then managed to talk my way out of it. The first time I was arrested they thought I was people smuggling -- they thought the Senegalese fishermen I had paid to take me on a ship from Senegal to Cape Verde, they thought that I was smuggling them into Cape Verde. They kept us for six days in a little cell and that wasn't very pleasant. But we got out in the end.
And then a couple of months later, lightning struck again when I was in the Congo and they pulled me over to the side of the road. I was in a truck at the time that was taking passengers, and they wanted to look through my tapes to make sure I hadn't filmed anything I wasn't supposed to film. And then they threw me in jail and kind of left me there for six days and it was torture for me because I am such an outgoing person. I always like to be doing something, whether it is reading or writing or talking to people, just doing something, and to be just stuck in a room for days on end with absolutely nothing to do except to sit there and say "why are you guys doing this to me?" that was for me the worst sort of punishment.
RFE/RL: When you started, did you think you could complete your quest in four years? And were there any other people trying to set the same record?
Hughes: First of all, I should point out that I thought this could be done in about 12 to 18 months. Obviously, it took a little bit longer than that. So, when I started out it wasn't going to be such a huge chunk of my life but then I sort of passed the point of no return. At the end of the second year, I had been to 184 countries, I only had 17 left to visit, and although that didn't seem like that many, because they were all so difficult to get to, it took me two years just to get to 17 countries. It was places like Nauru, and places like Seychelles, and Kiribati islands that only had a supply ship going once every month or so.
[I had] no archrivals as such but there is a guy, Kashi Samaddar, who is an Indian guy who has already set the Guinness World Record for visiting every country in the world and he did it flying in the least amount of time, and it took him six and-a-half years to do it flying. Now, I've done it in four years, a little under four years, and I did it without flying so I have kind of blown his record out of the water. And I have met other people on the road who are traveling around the world without flying as part of the challenge to get to Australia or to circumnavigate the world, or whatever, but no one, as far as I am aware, has even attempted to visit every country of the world without flying.
RFE/RL: As I understand, there are some rules you have to follow when you compete for a Guinness World Record like this, no. 1 being you can't just race from one country to the next in a private car, since that could set off dangerous road races between contestants. But how does a Guinness World Record get verified? What evidence did you have to show to prove you did what you did?
Hughes: I did a lot of preparation before setting out, working out exactly how I was going to get from A to B to C and also checking with the Guinness World Record people that, first, this hadn't been done before and, second, what they would want in terms of not just setting the rules but also the proof that they would need that I'd been to these places. So, they want to see passport stamps, but they also want to see my GPS logger that logged my position every 15 seconds while I was traveling and also my video footage, and camera stills, to say that I have been to all these countries and they can actually verify that.
RFE/RL: While on your journey you presented the television program “Graham's World” on the National Geographic Adventure channel, which was a weekly look into your odyssey and you also have raised money for the charity Water Aid, which helps poor communities get clean drinking water. All these were good reasons to do what you did. But what, ultimately, was your motivation for devoting four years of your life to seeing just about every corner of the globe?
Hughes: There were many reasons, but I think the main one was that I wanted to do something in my life where I could raise money for charity, the charity Water Aid, and encourage people who followed my journey, inspire them, to go traveling themselves, because I am a firm believer that travel is one of the best educations you can get in life and that people who travel and people who leave their comfort zone and go out to see these wonderful places around the world, I think they come back [maybe] not better people, but they have a better view of the world. They say travel broadens the mind and I firmly believe that.
RFE/RL: Finally, what will you do if the list of countries in the world keeps growing? Will you have to keep updating your record in the years ahead?
Hughes: My record would stand anyway, because I am the first person to do it as things stand with the countries in the world at the moment. But as a personal thing for the rest of my life now, whenever a [place] like South Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia gets recognition from the United Nations then, boom, I am off to there. The most likely over the next few years might be Greenland, which might become independent from Denmark, and [the islands of] Bougainville, which might become independent from Papua New Guinea. And either way, I'll get on a ship, I'll get on a train, I'll get on a bus and head over there.