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April 27, 2015 Comments (8) Connecting with People, ONE Proj blog, Travel Philosophies

Why I Don’t Count Countries

Uighur men in Xinjiang, China

Bet you can’t guess what country this is.

Whether it’s salaries, sports, or social media, people love to keep score. And travelling is no different.

When I began exploring the world I’d count countries visited as a way to show myself and my peers how worldly I was. Now however, I don’t know how many countries I’ve been to.

You might be thinking, “Oh look at you Mr Travelpants, you’ve been to SO many countries you can’t even count them all. Well la-de-da, aren’t you worldly?”

But hold on a second! That’s not the reason. I don’t know my country count because I have chosen not to count them. Why not?

A few years ago in Thailand a young traveller asked me the country-count question, and maybe it was his tone, but I suddenly felt uncomfortable. Was he trying to start a pissing contest?

More questions entered my mind, and the whole idea began to seem absurd. Does a train ride through a country count? What about an overnight layover?

Is a month in India somehow ‘worth’ the same as a weekend in Italy?

What does your country-count really tell others about you anyways, except that you possess elementary math skills?

I didn’t answer his question (well, I gave him the indirect Indonesian answer: “Many”) and ever since, I’ve been thinking about a better way to talk about this. Now I think I’ve figured one out.

My proposed approach to asking about countries visited

I suggest we rephrase the country-count question thusly:

How many countries have you visited which fundamentally changed your perspective on the world?

There’s 4 reasons why I think this is a better question:

  1. It only counts the countries that count. (in my humble opinion)
  2. It tells you much more about who someone is and how they experience the world – which should spark a really interesting conversation.
  3. It spurs people to consider why they travel.  And what I think is the most important reason to travel: to ditch your cultural baggage – your concept of ‘normal’ – and empathise with cultural perspectives vastly different than yours. Because each culture is a unique answer to the fundamental question of what it means to be human. 1 
  4. It’s really hard to have a qualitative pissing contest.

So next time you’re getting all worldly and someone pops the question, answer by asking them which countries have fundamentally changed their worldview.

I wish you many deep and meaningful conversations.


p.s. Dear readers, how would you answer my question? Please let me know in the comments below! I’ve added mine already :)

  1. Paraphrasing Wade Davis 

8 Responses to Why I Don’t Count Countries

  1. mike says:

    If you asked me this question I’d tell you about one such country: China. After uni I spent 2 months traveling all over the ‘Middle Kingdom’: learning some mandarin, speaking to random people in lower-class trains, and reading lots about the nation’s culture (which sits atop a fundamentally different foundation than our pervasive western one).

    What did I learn? That one single country has a billion people’s worth of stories, art, culture, philosophy and history. *mind blown* Unless someone’s been to India or China, that’s probably more history than all the nations they’ve visited combined. *mind blown* And what’s more than the breadth of China is the depth: the nation is essentially over 3000 years old. *mind blown*.

    These realisations ballooned my sense of our world’s scale. I started to see the world from outside our western biases. And clearly, it blew my mind.

  2. Josh says:

    Ah yes,

    The 21st century struggle of gloat, privilege and courage. I’ve come across many travelers who have expressed their (un)Unique experiences within the spectrum of these three words. Traveling the world today is easier than it has ever been historically. We compete for place amongst our peers solely to define ourselves and choices. Many people feel the need to call out the ‘braggers’ and separate themselves from others who might seem too proud of their adventures. We’re all on this banana pancake trail together. My two cents is that it’s important to remember that even the gloaters are right in their justification to experience the world. I really do think it takes a lot of courage to walk out the door and away from the familiar. Regardless of weather or not one is articulate enough to explain what truly drives them to the far reaches of the globe. Cheers to the poor immigrants who climb aboard the leaky boat with no compass. I’m out there on the horizon with you.

    • mike says:

      Not sure how much you were directing this at me but I’m guilty at times of calling out the braggers. Because I want people to reflect on the intrinsically rewarding reasons for travel.

      I agree that Getting Out There for whatever reason is truly worthwhile (for more motivation read Josh’s blog!), and I’m stoked with people who are proud of themselves for overcoming challenges and new experiences (think of Malou in my Indonesia #5). Especially people who can do this without starting a pissing contest!

      • Blair says:

        I would contest Josh whether these travellers are actually experiencing the world. I think there is a world of difference in experiential value of tourism (moving from one hotel to the next and seeing the sights) and travelling (immersion in the culture and lands). It is possible now to travel the world and not experience the unfamiliar. A ski holiday to Italy would “count” in most peoples books. The difference in the snow between countries would be their travel story.

        I like your rephrasing of the question Mike. It does tease out the distinction. For me, Chile, when I was 17, was the mind blowing travel experience that burst my narrow view of the world. It was a student exchange though so I was well immersed. A holiday to Thailand a couple of years ago was the reverse experience. Everything was designed as a tourist trap. A very disheartening experience. The relationship couldn’t get past their need for my money.

        • mike says:

          Blair, thanks for your input! I like your point about immersion, that’s an important thing I didn’t explicitly mention. Reminds me of a great description of author Robert Kaplan I’ve been waiting to share:

          Kaplan is successful in part because of HOW he travels – slowly, by land or sea, mainly. As he puts it “the essence of travel was to slow the passage of time. One could fly, but “flying from place to place encourages abstractions, whereas land travel brings one face-to-face with basic, sometimes unpleasant truths. I preferred to travel by second-class car and stay in cheap hotels because it allowed me to go on learning.”

          What was it about Chile that blew your mind?

  3. Josh says:

    I most definitely used the wrong weather*. Regardless of whether or not you noticed. :)

  4. Samantha says:

    Well, my answer to your question is Vietnam, but it comes with a complex answer as to why it was so significant to me. I’ve decided it’s way too wordy for this little space (mainly because I’ve not managed to understand my thoughts on it exactly). However, I have two questions which relates to it; can you describe the difference between being a traveller and tourist? And why do we dislike being called the latter but happily describe others as it?
    Just a thought.

    • mike says:

      Hi Sam! I’ve thought a lot about the difference, and there is much written about this (even an eHow article!). But my definition differs slightly from others, and is far more simpler:
      I think a tourist is someone who brings a lot of cultural baggage with them, whereas travellers want and expect to adapt to local culture.
      Tourists expect their comforts and habits to be catered to: Be it language, food, or transport. They want and expect pizza in Thailand, cleanliness in India, english in Peru, beer in Indonesia, and schedules adhered to in Tanzania.

      Tourists dislike being called tourists? I’ve never experienced that. I think travellers dislike the title, but if they’re guilty of touristic behaviour they should expect it. Some days in some countries, I can be a tourist. But others are always tourists, and I don’t think they consider the title negative.

      I’m curious about your Vietnam experience…

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