Don’t go chasing passport stamps

By: Matt Flemming

When I meet someone that has travelled to more than a hundred different countries, I can’t help but be in awe of this person. To have travelled that much and that widely is something that I can’t help but be envious of. I can’t even fathom the world perspective gained by people like Gunnar Gafors, who became the youngest person to travel to all 197 countries on earth at the age of 37 in 2013.

If you’re the kind of person for whom the travel bug never really subsides, you’re not jealous of the guy in the Ferrari or the girl with the luxury beachside mansion — but reading about these epic travellers probably makes you sigh and think to yourself, “maybe that’ll be me one day.”

I say this as a guy who once gleefully filled up a passport with stamps a full two years before it expired. For I am a recovering country counter.

With all this said, I am here today to tell you that racking up stamps in your passport is the wrong approach to travel. It leads to conversations about how long you need to have spent in a country to check it off your list. Surely that night at the airport hotel at Narita is not enough to count Japan. But can you count that 8-hour layover in Singapore where you took a bus tour of the city? What if you rode a bus all the way through Belgium, but your only cultural experience there was a waffle and a Royale with Cheese you grabbed during a pit stop?

When you’re a country counter, these are the things you stop to think about. Country counters are extremely aware that the Vatican City is technically its own country and when they tell you how many countries they’ve been to, they are definitely counting it. Country counters have also been known to pad their stats with places like Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, which are not technically countries.

I say this as a guy who once gleefully filled up a passport with stamps a full two years before it expired. For, I am a recovering country counter.

On my first trip around the world, I stopped in 20 countries and all my friends were really impressed. Yes, I counted the Vatican City…and Belgium. I had originally only planned to visit 15 nations on the trip, but added several more in Southeast Asia because flights were cheap. I even squeezed in a day in the Sultanate of Brunei, leaving behind great new friends I’d met in Kota Kinabalu in order to get an even 20 for the trip as a whole.

Don’t go chasing passport stamps

Later, I spent a day and a half in Nairobi because of a cancelled flight. I toured around town and had a meal that included barbecued meats from 13 different types of animals — I deemed this was enough to add Kenya to my list.

It took me a while to realize that I was thinking about it all wrong.

You could spend an entire week in China but even then, with a country so vast and diverse, could you really say that you’ve “been” there? Is a week in Rio enough to say you’ve been to Brazil? The point is, it’s irrelevant. I’ve come to respect well-travelled people who haven’t bothered to count and who would never find a reason to.

Today I still have the tendency to squeeze in an extra city here and there, and I can’t help but look at the map of southeastern Europe and think about how many countries I could hit in a short trip there. But most of the time, I try to focus on gaining a deeper understanding of one place. I’ve also started going back to places I really enjoyed, rather than always pushing to go somewhere new.

I’ve come to learn that it’s better to measure your travels in the perspectives you gain, in the connections you make with people, and perhaps in the different types of delicious food you eat.

These things are all more important that a few extra stamps in your passport.

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