For many years I had been under the impression that the Eurovision Song Contest was considered by most inhabitants of the Earth — including Europeans — as something rather petty. I stood corrected when my hostel in Berlin showed this year’s competition on a large, pull-down screen that had previously mainly been used for (what felt like) a continuous loop of Rick and Morty. Guests were watching, and cheering, and getting into the nail-biting competition that was taking place in Portugal and which Israel won.
In addition to taking in the permanent Eurovision exhibit at the Abba Museum in Stockholm, I had only ever watched the Eurovision Song Contest once, in 2001, when Estonia prevailed with “Everybody.” This win made it the first former Soviet country to take the prize. That year my family voted for Estonia (although watching the music video it is challenging to see why), marking the first time I remember hearing about this country. I was fascinated and intrigued and got to work memorizing all the capitals of Europe so that another one wouldn’t go unknown in my eight-year-old brain. Last month, at the ripe old age of 25, I made it to Estonia — my 50th country.
When I arrived in Europe in March, I knew the 50 milestone was in my grasp. I was at 47 and saw that the Baltic trio of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia could be a fantastic trip and, if done in that order, would give Estonia the medal. So, while I hadn’t been planning for it to happen this way since 2001, I did somewhat “select” it. The concept of counting countries tends to be met with two resolute reactions. On the one hand, “Wow! That is a lot of countries! How do you afford it?” On the other, “Eyeroll. Traveling shouldn’t be seen as a list to check off. How do you afford it?” I understand (and agree) with both sides. So much so that I have been writing and re-writing this piece for months, hoping to capture how I feel about it accurately.
Let’s go back in time for a moment. A couple of years ago, my Mum found a collection of notes that I had left her and my Dad on a number of evenings that they went out and my sister and I were in the care of a babysitter. Somewhere between six and eight years old, I must have decided that in order to be taken seriously when discussing life matters, I must communicate with my parents through the written word. Here are two examples:
“It really is that I want to go to so many places and do so many things that I know I will not be able to go to or do.”
“I don’t think you should of been happy when you had me because I am going to run away.” (We can ignore the part after!)
“Children need to do there own things once in a while.”
Talk about an angsty child with wanderlust. (The spelling/grammar mistakes are the accurate representations of my seven-year-old self.)
I blame this wanderlust on Enid Blyton, author of several classic English children’s adventure series such as “The Famous Five” and “The Secret Seven”. In these books, kids would get caught up in fabulous adventures on treasure islands, in mystery moors, around caravans, and the like. (In The Secret Seven, the youths were more like detectives.) What I imagine my young, sincerely impressionable brain took from these books was that adventure does not happen at home. Adventure happens out there, in the world, particularly when you least expect it. Those children never said “no,” always ended up okay, and probably had the best stories in the playground. I have never been able to shrug that mindset.
My family is filled with travelers, so I was lucky enough to enjoy lots of lovely international experiences while growing up. But, my solo international travels began when I was 17 and went to India for the summer to conduct a research project. After that, I couldn’t stop.
Upon completing high school, I took a “gap year” before heading to University and traveled extensively around Europe for the first half of the year.
Then (after working for more money), I headed back to Asia for a few months. This time I taught English to Buddhist monks in Nepal, trekked to Everest Base Camp and returned to India to explore further.
Upon completion of my Gap Year, in the fall of 2012, I moved out to California to begin university.
In the summer of 2013, my sister and I did a Europe trip together, visiting Israel, Palestine, Greece, Italy, and Spain.
After that, I flew out to Beijing, where I would live and study for the entirety of my second year of university. During the school term, my friends and I traveled widely in the massive country of China.
Furthermore, I took advantage of my absurdly long winter break to roam around Southeast Asia and Australia.
Upon completion of my time in China, I spent the summer between the USA and Europe.
When I finally returned to California for my final two years of University, I continued to travel every chance possible. From the fall of 2014 to the spring of 2016, I was primarily in California and spent weekends exploring The Golden State and many other places in the USA, as well as Honduras, Mexico, China, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
I graduated from University in May 2016 with a double major in Political Studies and Asian Studies and remained living in my apartment until the beginning of 2017. However, I still managed to squeeze in a southwest USA Road Trip and spent a couple of weeks enjoying the summer in Chicago and Cleveland. Later in the summer, I headed to England to see my family and then went to Copenhagen, Denmark — my first time in Scandinavia! After that, we had a family trip to Mexico City, and I rounded out the year in Cuba.
Eight months after graduation, I packed up all my belongings, attempted to organize them in my storage unit, and finished the lease on my apartment. Then, I set off to be a full-time “digital nomad.” (You can watch my recap video here). I don’t permanently live anywhere, and I fund my travels through my online work. All I need is wifi and Starbucks.
Unlike Eat Pray Love type travel narratives, there wasn’t a specific moment when I “decided” to start traveling. It just, sort of, happened. Over the years, as opportunities presented themselves, I jumped on moving vehicles left, right, and center. There is no part of the world, no country, that I am uninterested in seeing and learning about and from. I want to go everywhere — all 197 countries.
Yes, I can tell you off the top of my head how many countries I have been to. Why? Both because it interests me and because I am working towards a bigger goal. But, I am also not in a massive hurry to cross them off. I don’t see travel as a checklist; spending minimal time in a place just to say you have been there is not my style of travel. Plus, I always end up overstaying my initial idea of how long I will be in a locale. There is always more to do, to see, to experience. In fact, in the past 17 months (since I have been a full-time traveler), I have only visited eight new countries (Sweden, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Portugal, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and been to 14 (I returned to the USA, United Kingdom x4, Greece x2, Germany x2, Scotland, France).
All of my time thus far as a digital nomad has been spent in Europe and the USA. For this period in my life, I have chosen to focus on going to see friends and family, exploring more of countries I love to deepen my understanding of places. While also venturing out to see new areas when it makes sense. If my country count were the sole purpose of my travels, this wouldn’t be the case. In 17 months, you can see a lot more of the world if you choose.
But, as with anything in life, goals give purpose and set intentions. Aiming to experience every country in the world guides many of my life decisions. When travel exhaustion sets in, my goal is there staring back at me. When choosing how and where to spend my money, my goal is there. When I repeatedly say “see you later” to people I love, my goal is there. It pushes me to explore all corners of the globe. Would I have ever visited Moldova otherwise? And it gives me some basis for planning up-coming routes (none of which ever go to plan – but at least there is a general idea). The country count is also a representation of how I have spent the last few years of my life. While others can see their progress in their job promotion, in the new additions in their home, in the length of their relationship, I can see it in the number of places I have visited — mostly solo. It is a representation of my unwavering dedication to learning as much as possible about and from this world and, in turn, myself.
I always say that while traveling, you experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. Everything is more intense while on the road because you are continually in a state of lostness or, as I prefer to think of it, childlike amazement. So much is different, including the most basic routines and necessities. Going to the grocery store becomes a whole new experience, and trying to get a bus can be harder than you ever thought. Plus, you never know if you are going to be presented with the dish that you thought you were ordering. Relationships evolve quicker, and jokes seem funnier. The small moments when you take a step back and feel in your gut how incredible the world is, yeah that occurs more frequently too. The resolve that there is more good than evil people in the world becomes stronger. And, the understanding that you are such a small, yet connected part of an enchanting miracle called life becomes more apparent. It is a rollercoaster, to say the least, which is probably why it is addictive.
Society likes to push the idea that people who live like this are “running away from something” and that it “is a phase,” something I worried about for a very long time. Was I running away from life? Or was I (as I assumed I was) running with open arms toward it? One day I realized that for society’s way of thinking to be accurate, it requires a view that travel is a means of escaping yourself. And this, I can’t agree with.
I spend a lot of time on my own. Of course, I meet people everywhere, and I rarely feel lonely; but, feeling lonely and being alone are two different things. I don’t believe anyone could spend this much time on their own and be successfully able to escape themselves. Even when you create a group of travel buddies, ultimately as a solo traveler, you are going to be back on your own. Once again, back to being solely responsible for making decisions, figuring things out, and then experiencing them.
Through solo travel, I know how much I can do on my own. Anything. I know how much I can handle. Everything. I know precisely what kind of person I am, why I do the things I do, and what I need to be happy. After all, these are the kinds of things you have plenty of time to think about while lying on the floor/sitting in chairs on Indian/Portuguese/Chinese trains. Again and again, I step out into the unknown with merely the inner strength and knowledge that whatever transpires I can handle. Naturally, over time, my confidence has become greater, and my inner workings have become more accustomed to the uncertainty that is lurking around every corner. But, there are always new challenges. Every day I learn something new – without fail.
The aim of this post is not to boast about my country count. I am fully aware of important aspects of my life that give me the privilege (or at least make it easier) for me to do this. My passport, the fact I speak English, my supportive family, a strong education. However, I am proud of myself for continuously pushing my limits and for scheming ways to make travel happen. For learning how to be alone with myself and thoroughly enjoy it (someone in a hostel once remarked that I had found the meaning of life because I say things solely to make myself laugh) and for connecting with the most lovely people all over the world. For loving life no matter what it throws at me and for being open to pretty much anything and everything. For being strong. In other words, the number is a representation of how strong of a young woman I have grown to be.
Most of all, I am proud of having the ability to listen to my wandering soul, for never trying to suppress it and never attempting to try and trick it into living a life that wasn’t authentic to me. For not listening to feelings of anger, jealousy, or worry as it becomes more and more apparent that I am on a different path to everyone else I know. For indulging the six-year-old inside of me with her nose in an Enid Blyton book and her mind in foreign lands with a life of wonder, adventure, and really good fucking stories. For allowing her to live a life on her terms.
While she devoutly believed that “Children need to do there own things once in a while,” I think that adults should also be able to do their own things more often than not. I know that if today were my last day on Earth, I would have been living life exactly how I wanted. The number of places I have been to is merely a testament to that.
Who knows what the next 50 will bring? Or who I will be lucky enough to meet along the way, the stories I will fill my journals with, the dishes that will rock my tastebuds, and the buildings that will give me awe-inspired goosebumps? I can’t envision who I will be when I touchdown in country 100. How much more knowledge and understanding I will have, how many more traditions and ways of living I will have been exposed to, and how many evenings I will have spent with new friends watching the sunrise and discussing life. But, also, how many more times I will have felt scared, unsure, and uncomfortable, endured heartbreak due to my lifestyle, and slept on random kitchen floors, in the back of cars, and airports during long layovers. All I know is that I want to experience it all, deeply, for as long as I am here.
And every high and low of the first 50 was worth it when my Tallinn tour guide noted at the beginning of our walking tour that Estonians are “particularly proud of winning the famed Eurovision Song Contest in 2001”.
To forever being a wanderer! See you on the road!