As the world comes to a standstill as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we encourage all of you to hunker down right now, too. In the meantime, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to get back out there.
When her Kenya Airways flight touched down on Mahé Island in the Seychelles on October 6, Jessica Nabongo said it finally hit her.
“I’m done,” said the 35-year-old. “I’ve been to every country in the world.”
Surrounded by her family and closest friends, Nabongo was ebullient and humble. She began livestreaming to her 130,000 Instagram followers. People from six continents tuned in to watch, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Finland.
Nabongo, who grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and is the daughter of Ugandan immigrants, estimates that she had already been to 105 countries when she publicly set her goal in April 2018. A dual Ugandan-American citizen, she spent time in East Africa as a child and teen, visiting her parents’ families. She moved abroad to teach English in Japan in her early twenties and then got a master’s degree in international development from the London School of Economics at the age of 26. She moved to Benin, in West Africa, to work for an NGO, then landed a job in Italy as a resource-mobilization consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
There are 193 UN member countries, in addition to the Vatican and Palestine, which are nonmember states. That left 90 places for Nabongo to visit when she set her goal. Over the past two years, she was on the road about three weeks a month, departing from Detroit. She supported herself through her travel business—a tour operator called Jet Black—as well as funding from a Kickstarter campaign and help from select tourism boards for on-the-ground expenses and hotels that comped stays.
I first met Nabongo at a coffee shop in New York City’s East Village in August. She arrived wearing a turquoise and blue shirt from Studio 189, a Ghanian brand. Adorned with rings from Kenya and bracelets from Botswana, she called herself a “walking passport.” Fresh off a weekend at the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, she had a few days in New York before heading back to Detroit for a week of rest.
In the previous three weeks, she had been to Palau, South Korea, Mongolia, India, Bhutan, Oman, and Pakistan. She had four countries left: Venezuela, Algeria, Syria, and the Seychelles. Nabongo kept track of the countries she visited on an app called been, which notes each place on a list and a map. She’d filled up three passports in the past two and a half years with stamps from each country. Additionally, she posted photographic evidence of every country on her blog.
Even as a young child, Nabongo wanted to visit every country in the world. But it wasn’t until she read about Cassie De Pecol’s record-breaking 2017 trip for the Guinness World Records’ fastest visit to all sovereign nations that she learned about country counters and came up with her own goal. A small but avid group of worldwide travelers, the country-counting community is tight-knit and shares information. Nabongo estimates that there are about 150 people who have been to every country. They connect in the Facebook group Every Passport Stamp.
“I am trying to change the narrative about black people in the travel space,” said Nabongo. “When I am traveling in Delta One or domestically flying first class, people are like, ‘Oh, are you an employee?’ I am like, ‘No, but I am Diamond,’” referring to Delta Airlines’ top tier of frequent fliers.
“Some people have been critical and saying, ‘Oh you’re doing it too fast,’” said Nabongo. “I’ve been traveling my whole life. I almost look at this as taste testing.”
Nabongo averaged around four days in each of the last 50 countries she visited. While that might sound like breakneck speed, compared to other country counters who tag some countries in a day, it is downright slow. While Nabongo isn’t averse to solo travel, she journeyed with many longtime friends throughout.
In the country-counting community, Nomad Mania is the de facto gold standard for verification. The organization has 5,000 members and verifies country visits by asking for proof of a random 20 places. Nabongo’s efforts have been confirmed by it. (Other groups, like the Travelers’ Century Club, mainly rely on the honor system.)
“A lot of people ask me which countries are safe for black people to travel,” Nabongo recently wrote on an Instagram post from the Seychelles. “This question typically comes from black Americans. The U.S. has perfected racism in a way that I’ve not seen in other countries, so I would urge you to travel WHEREVER you want to, no matter who you are and what you look like. I did it! And just because you hear one or two negative stories from someone doesn’t mean you should write a country off of your bucket list. We all will have different experiences and you shouldn’t allow your race to hinder you.”
As the celebrations in the Seychelles continued, Nabongo shared some of what she learned along the way to our reporter.
Getting in to North Korea and Syria
North Korea and Syria are tough countries for Americans to enter. While North Korea welcomes Americans, the U.S. government bans its citizens from visiting. This is when Nabongo’s Ugandan passport came in handy.
“North Korea doesn’t care if an American comes,” said Nabongo. “They knew I was an American, because my Ugandan passport shows that I was born in the United States, and because when I was exiting and going to China, I entered China with my U.S. passport, so they had to have both of my passports.”
While in North Korea, Nabongo was astounded by some of the messages she received from her American fan base. She attended the Mass Games, an annual synchronized-gymnastics and dance festival featuring 100,000 performers. After posting some photos of the event on Instagram, some of her followers commented that she shouldn’t have visited the country at all. While Nabongo tries to remain apolitical about her journey, which at times causes issues with her followers, she was shocked by how many Americans were upset. After her trip, Nabongo told Nomad Mania: “I spent six days in North Korea, and aside from some quirky things, I thought it was surprisingly normal. We saw couples sitting in the park, we chatted with some college students, saw people drinking in a local bar, kids on school field trips, and people going to work on the subway. We never really see pictures or ‘normal’ life in North Korea, so this was very surprising.”
Meanwhile, Syria was a holy grail for Nabongo. Although now relatively safe in certain government-controlled areas, the country has restricted access for Americans. (One American country counter was recently released from detainment after entering.)
Nabongo applied for a visa using her Ugandan passport and was denied. She tried again in Pakistan using her Ugandan passport, but her contact at the Syrian embassy in Pakistan wrote down that she was a journalist. She was told that her visa request would take a long time.
In the end, in September, Nabongo visited the occupied Golan Heights—which is recognized as Syria by the Guinness Book of World Records—via Israel.
How to Stay Organized
Calling herself the visa whisperer, Nabongo admits that without her hyperorganizational skills, her accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible. She used Google Docs and Google Sheets to list her remaining countries by continent, so that she could organize flights based on regions.
One tool that Nabongo recommends for travelers is FlightConnections.com. It lists all nonstop flights into every airport in the world. “You can get to Paris from anywhere,” said Nabongo. “But when you’re going to Tuvalu?”
To acquire visa information, Nabongo recommends PassportIndex.org. The website offers an overview of visa requirements for every country based on nationality. As a dual citizen, Nabongo found it particularly beneficial, because it allowed her to compare access to a country for both her passports, noting that knowing geopolitical situations also helps when it comes to getting access to countries.
“I closed the tab today for Passport Index, and I got a little bit sad,” Nabongo told me in August. “That tab has been open on my browser for two years.”
She tried to travel on her Ugandan passport whenever possible to save money on visas—for example, for an American going to Nigeria, the visa is $160, but for Ugandans it’s just $2—and to bring awareness to the idea of Africans as tourists. “I want people to see a Ugandan passport literally just coming for tourism and leaving,” she said. Nabongo visited 42 countries on her Ugandan passport, saving an estimated $1,200.
The Top Adventure Countries
Nabongo found two unexpected adventure destinations: Jordan and Namibia. Nabongo was impressed with Jordan’s efforts to ramp up its outdoor tourism, from camping in the beautiful desert escape of Wadi Rum to exploring Aqaba, a port city on the Red Sea.
Describing Namibia as “phenomenal,” Nabongo saw the Milky Way for the first time while staying in the Namib Desert at Sossusvlei, thanks to the miniscule amount of light pollution. She also climbed the huge nearby sand dunes.
Some of her other favorite nature experiences included swimming with humpback whales in Tonga, the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park in Grenada, whale-watching in the Arctic Circle, surfing in Peru, and hanging out in the Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls in Zambia.
Nabongo tried to maximize her experiences by how she physically traversed countries, from train rides in Uzbekistan and Austria to helicopter rides in Senegal and South Africa.
One of Nabongo’s favorite ways to explore is with a hired driver and guide. Although she’s a proponent of local group tours—she estimates she’s been on about 40 in her time as a globe-trotter—she says that having a private driver allows for independence. On a recent trip to the country of Georgia, the tourism board provided her with a driver and a guide. After a wine tasting, they decided on a whim to stop and buy locally made bread at a local Georgian’s home.
“The way they make the bread was similar to how I saw it made in Yemen,” recounted Nabongo. She showed the Georgian woman a video of a man making bread in Yemen.
The Most Challenging Experience
Most of the trouble Nabongo ran into happened with immigration officers, like in Pakistan in September, where she was searched for drugs as she was trying to leave the country. Although she’s careful to note that she loved her visit to Pakistan, describing it as “pleasant and fun,” the immigration experience at the end left her traumatized. “I have more racist issues occur with immigration than with people [in the countries] themselves,” she says.
The Easiest Place to Be a Woman Traveler
Throughout her travels, Nabongo said that she found Muslim countries the easiest to be a woman tourist. “I felt very comfortable as a woman in Pakistan as compared to India,” Nabongo said.
“Americans don’t realize how conservative Americans are compared to the rest of the world,” she added. “Everybody wants to talk about how Muslim women are oppressed because they have to cover their heads, and I’m like, Look at the gender pay gap in America.”
The Thing She Never Leaves Home Without
Compression socks. Describing them as essential to her self-care, she rarely flies without them. She also loves Allbirds walking shoes and Flight 001 packing cubes.
The Merits of Learning a Few Local Phrases
In Japan, Nabongo prided herself on her basic language skills. She also speaks French, which has proven useful in her travels.
Everywhere she went, she tried to learn at least how to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.
But she wasn’t always able to communicate, especially in places with different alphabets. Still, Nabongo said, “I feel comfortable communicating with people, even if we can’t speak the same language. In Uzbekistan, we had a great time even though we couldn’t speak [the language]. This one woman, we had a conversation. We were not using words either of us understood, but I still understood the meaning of what she was trying to tell me: that I need to get married very soon, because when I get old I will be very ugly, and that I should have children soon. I was like, OK, thank you.”
Her Favorite Airline
After years on the road, Nabongo’s favorite airline is Delta, because she says it has the best frequent-flier program and consistently good customer service. Now that she usually flies out of Detroit, a Delta hub, her allegiance to the airline is even stronger. She has Diamond Medallion status.
How to Extend a Layover
Nabongo has always been a layover hacker. The key, she says, is to plan.
“Long layovers are really great” to get a taste of what a country has to offer, she says. “What if you fly somewhere, you’ve spent all this money, and you don’t love it?”
National airlines often offer free extended layovers. Specifically, she recommends airlines like Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar, as well as Iceland Air.
“During the booking process, call the airline and just ask them for a free stopover,” said Nabongo, explaining that a stopover is usually one to two days. “A lot of airlines allow for it.”
Read the Reviews
“I read reviews, reviews, reviews before I pick anything,” Nabongo said. “You can cross-reference Google Reviews and TripAdvisor.”
Find a Good Meal
“The problem with guides is sometimes they want to take you to ‘the best restaurant’ that tourists love,” Nabongo said. “And I’m like ‘No, I don’t want to eat where other tourists eat. I want to eat where you eat.’”
The Most Difficult Place to Travel
“Oh my God. The South Pacific is a logistical nightmare,” she said. “No one island-hops in the South Pacific, and it is therefore incredibly expensive to fly, and flights are super infrequent. But there are definitely some gems there. Like, Tonga is phenomenal, swimming with the whales. It was a humpback whale and me. It was just right there.”
After seeing so many local marketers around the world flooded with made-in-China goods (a notable exception was in Vanuatu, where the government mandates that all goods sold in the main market must be produced on the island), Nabongo wants to create an online store for select, locally produced goods from around the globe.
Calling it the Catch, she plans on launching it this fall. She also wants to sell sustainable goods, like collapsible cups for airport travel.
Nabongo is also galvanized to tackle the world’s plastic problem, after seeing its effects during her travels. Pointing out that the travel industry is one of the worst culprits, she wants to consult with hotels and airlines to help create solutions to the environmental nightmare.
“This is a single planet. Forget about national borders,” she said. “If you drop a plastic bottle in the water, it can end up anywhere in the world.”