While Some Collect Postage Stamps, It's Gathering
Passport Stamps that Drives Country Collectors
Gig Gwin sat at a beach-side restaurant in Lampedusa, an obscure Mediterranean isle rising between Tunisia and Malta. Digging his toes into the warm sand, Gwin nibbled pasta, sipped fine Italian wine, and admired the lovely ladies who paraded by in their skimpy outfits.
"Aah," he thought. "This is such a great way to cap 30 years of travel."
The owner of Gwin's Travel in St. Louis had reason to feel proud. He had just reached the ultimate goal of country collectors. With his stop in Lampedusa, Gwin had finally visited every country in the world.
While some people collect postage stamps, travelers like Gwin are more interested in accumulating entry stamps on the pages of their passports. They long to visit unfamiliar places, see unusual sights, meet uncommon people and partake in unconventional experiences. The more out of the way or harder to reach a site is, the more determined they may be to get there.
Although checking lands off a list may be the ultimate motivation, most have a genuine desire to see and experience as much of the world's diversity as they can. In the vernacular of tourism, these are the true travelers.
"They're prepared to go to places where there may be few other foreigners," says Edward Hasbrouck, author of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. "They've had the kinds of experiences that those visiting more touristy places may never enjoy."
Country collectors come from a variety of backgrounds. Some began their journeys in the military. Gwin worked for an incentive promotions company before starting his own travel agency. Others started as students armed with backpacks, sewing on embroidered badges as they vagabonded through Europe.
"Every country you visited, you had to get the patch for your pack," admits travel agent Sue Kasmar of Strictly Vacations in Santa Barbara, California. "I still have the backpack. Now my son looks at all the patches and goes, 'You were really there?'"
Now, instead of boasting badge-plastered backpacks, avid travelers aim for membership in the Travelers' Century Club (TCC), North America's leading group of country collectors. The TCC began over a half century ago before jetliners and frequent flyer miles shrunk the world. Reaching distant destinations required more effort, and a few well-traveled souls wanted to see who had been to the most countries in the world.
"In the '60s, I think we had about 60-70 members," says TCC chairman, Klaus Billep. "It really didn't take off until the '80s when it was easier to travel. Today we have 1,600 members worldwide."
To join, one must have visited at least 100 of the 317 countries on their official list, which some might find a bit strange. For example, Alaska, Hawaii and the contiguous U.S count as three separate "countries" on the TCC tally.
"When the club started, there was less commercial air available," explains Billep. "The original rule said that if an island is separated from the mother nation by at least 200 miles, it's considered a separate country. We still do this today."
The TCC adds new entries as needed. Kosovo (formerly part of Yugoslavia), Srpska (northern Bosnia) and Trans-Dniester (between Moldova and the Ukraine) made the list in 2002, and in 2005 Nakhichevan (near Armenia) and Canada's Prince Edward Island (which qualified as a separately governed state, province or department with a population of 100,000 or more) were added. In 2007, adjustments were made in the Caribbean and Antarctica, Cabinda (an exclave of Angola) was added in Africa and Johnston Island, a 1000-yard-long, 200-yard-wide strip of coral that served as a World War II Pacific airstrip was deleted because it now sports no population.
Since not all entities stamp passports, the club decided that touching ground would constitute a visit. Gwin admits that of the 317 countries, North Korea and Afghanistan were simply toe touches for him.
"I tried to get across the Afghan border when the Taliban were there, but I didn't have a visa and didn't want to get shot. At the crossing, there was a long walkway bisected by a white line. I walked the road very slowly. When I approached the boundary, the Afghan guards stood up, and I was close enough to see their eyes. I stepped over the line, leaned down like I was tying my shoe, then spun around and walked back. Technically, I was in Afghanistan."
Asked why they venture to exotic places, country collectors like Gwin usually say it's because they have a love of adventure and a thirst for knowledge. They often come back with enlightening stories to share.
"I went out into the souk (market) in Marrakech," Sarasota, Florida, resident Bob Keeley says with a chuckle. "At a big, double tent, they were selling expensive ebony and mahogany carved figures. I found a place where the two tents joined and stuck my head in. In the back, there were cases of black- and mahogany-colored shoe polish. Two guys sat there rubbing the stuff in while another guy polished it with an electric buffer. I learned that if you're going to buy wooden objects in Africa, you'd better know what you're doing or you'll be purchasing junk only stained to look like the real thing."
For many, the challenge of reaching isolated destinations like Pitcairn Island in the Pacific or Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic is another draw. To get to Diego Garcia, a group of islands south of India, Gwin had to charter a boat and sail the open sea for five days each way. When he got there, he almost landed in jail.
"We told the authorities we were coming and just wanted to step foot on the island," says Gwin, "but they were convinced we were there to go fishing and diving, which you're not allowed to do. A naval vessel came out and threatened to arrest us, but after we shared about five beers with them, they agreed to let us go. They shadowed us with their huge ship for 27 hours until we got out of the archipelago."
For some, it's not just hitting the country that counts. They have a specific activity they want to do while there. Coloradoan Gerry Roach ascends summits, Californian Alan Glover pumps pedals and Minnesotan Ron Carlson only counts countries he drives in. Carlson has now negotiated roadways in over 60 nations, including Egypt where he rented a car and crossed the country after the Luxor terrorist attack.
"We tried to enter this town and were stopped at a checkpoint. They sidelined us while they rounded up two pickups full of armed soldiers bearing automatic weapons. With one truck in front and one behind, we drove like a bat out of hell to our hotel. They dropped us at the door, escorted us in through the metal detector and past an armed guard. The next morning, a similar caravan drove us out of town to the checkpoint where we were handed off to an armored personnel carrier bristling with guns. They escorted us for an hour through their territory to the next military zone. We did this eight times on our way to Cairo."
For many, a prime way to collect countries is to imitate Magellan and take a trip around the world. For those who have the time and inclination to make their own private journeys, companies like Airtreks in San Francisco specialize in booking globe-circling flights at economical prices. These are ideal for self-reliant travelers.
For those craving a more catered approach to country collecting, there is ship travel, which offers the additional benefit of being able to reach places where planes cannot land. Some globe-girding cruise lines offer similar itineraries every year, while others pride themselves on including new and obscure ports of call on each sailing.
"It's fairly easy to go to the common places around the world," says Simon Douwes of Holland America. "It's the odd, out of the way spots that give our trips the interesting flavor that's so appealing to collectors."
Holland America's 2009 global cruise will touch six continents and include such collectable destinations as Tuvalu, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Oman, the Seychelles, Madagascar, Mayotte, Mozambique, Namibia, St. Helena, Ascension Island and French Guiana.
In addition to providing food, entertainment and the need to only unpack once, cruises offer country collectors another appealing advantage. They can provide a higher degree of safety.
"Cruise lines reserve the right to revise itineraries when they don't feel it's safe for either the passengers or their three-quarters of a billion dollar ships," points out Edward Infanti, a specialist with Cruise Holidays of Vancouver.
While safety is always a concern, most country collectors are not excessively worried. They research destinations in advance and try to stay out of danger zones. Many feel any risks they take in sampling the wealth of human habitats are worth the rewards they gain through exploring and understanding the diversity of mankind.
"There is no better education in the world than traveling around and getting the grand tour of life," says Gwin.