IT NEVER pays to dwell on what you might be missing out on. This is particularly true for travel, as no matter where you go, there’ll always be some adventurous swine who’s been there before you.
There was a time when that swine’s name was Michael Palin. But today, there are thousands of Palins out there — people who long ago decided to devote huge amounts of time and money to seeing the world and whose achievements you can’t possibly hope to emulate.
In fact, many of these pseudo-Palins make the man himself look like a travel-shy hermit. The internet is awash with smart arses who claim to have visited every country on Earth — that’s all 192 members of the UN, plus all those fiddly states that no one can agree about. Somehow, these people have managed to see the whole lot — not just Scotland, Spain and Cyprus but all those war-torn places too, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
What’s more, for many of these swashbucklers, visiting every country of Earth is merely the starting point. US adventurer Charles Veley has founded a website called MostTraveledPeople.com. Its members have divided the world up into 872 constituent parts — not just the sovereign nations, but all their outposts, oblasts, enclaves and islands as well. Only those who have visited all 872 can truly claim to have been everywhere. Pleasingly, no one has yet managed the full set, although Veley himself is pretty close with a staggering 822 boxes ticked.
Imagine what it must feel like to have seen this much of the world — to have observed all the subtle changes offered up by each creeping degree of latitude and longitude. Of course, it’s foolish to seek comparison with people like this, many of whom are wealthy and obsessed. But it’s hard not to feel envious; for while I don’t share their wealth, I understand their obsession.
Looking at a globe often makes me acutely conscious of the many places I’ve failed to visit. I suppose I’m reasonably well-travelled — let’s just say I’ve seen more countries than my gran and fewer than Alan Whicker — and I should be satisfied. But instead, I’m tortured by the thought that I might never see Guam or Chad or Tajikistan or the Christmas Islands. I look at my sorry passport, and that barren stretch of unstamped pages near the back fills me with disgust.
One thing’s for certain: if I’m to make it onto Most Traveled People, I’ve got some catching up to do. And in recent years, I’ve started to make some progress. When planning a holiday, I’ve often found myself looking at a map and wondering: How many border crossings can I shoehorn in? What spurious excursions can I take to get my total up? And what qualifies as a bonafide visit anyway? Can I include that stopover at Doha airport? Does it count that I’ve dangled my legs over a mountain ledge into Slovakia?
Perhaps it’s an irrational approach. It can certainly lead to some odd decisions when booking holidays — after all, if you’re obsessed with new destinations, it’s all too easy to overlook perfectly good places that you’ve been to before. Spain? No chance, I went there on a stag do. France? Forget it, I saw Paris as a two-year-old. Italy? Why bother, when I could cram Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Andorra into a three-day rail odyssey?
And thus it may well have continued; except, the other day I had an epiphany. Watching Sean Connery pad around the casinos of Las Vegas in Diamonds are Forever, I recalled the way that, as a child, Bond films used to make me yearn to see the world. It wasn’t the glamour and the girls, it was more the way 007 knew pockets of foreign soil so well — the best hotels in Monte Carlo, the top ski runs in the Alps, where to find the best fish in the Caribbean, etc. (And I’m guessing he didn’t pick all this up from poring over a map of Liechtenstein). I realised that if I’m ever to fulfil my childhood dream and become a true citizen of the world — as at home in Hanoi and Hamburg as in Hackney — then I’m going to have to stop playing the numbers game and start revisiting some of the places that so charmed me the first time around.
So that’s exactly what I’m going to do. As soon as I’ve ticked off Guam. And Chad. And Tajikistan.
And, of course, the Christmas Islands.