Travel That Counts—or My Passport Is Better-Stamped Than Yours
Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture
05.26.09 | 11:57 AM ET
The other day I was at a Washington dinner party (I know, sounds elitist already) when I found myself engaged in the time-honored, obnoxious pastime indulged in by travelers everywhere: country-counting. How many countries had I been to, inquired my friend and dinner host?
It sounds like a simple question, a matter of straightforward arithmetic, but it’s not. First, we needed to lay some ground rules. Do airport layovers count (no). What about visits that don’t include at least one overnight stay (yes). What about micro-states like Lichtenstein and Andorra? (Yes, or to borrow from Dr. Seuss: “A country is a country no matter how small.”) What about nations that not everyone considers nations, such as Taiwan and the breakaway Moldovan Republic of Transnistria? (No consensus here; we kicked it back to the UN.)
Someone suggested that countries shouldn’t count if you only stayed at a five-star hotel there. She had a point. Like embassies, five-star hotels go to great lengths to isolate, and insulate, themselves from the host country. It is possible to spend many days at a five-star hotel engaged in all sorts of productive activities—holding meetings, eating meals, exercising, getting married, watching movies—without ever stepping foot in the actual country where you allegedly find yourself. This is no accident, of course. The hotel owners want you to stay put and spend money. In the end, though, this motion was shot down. Five-star hotels count.
Someone else suggested a sliding scale, with far-flung destinations (the Comoros Islands) counting more than tamer ones (Canada). This, too, was rejected on the grounds that it’s too difficult to gauge relative tameness and, besides, it seemed somehow undemocratic.
OK, I’m sure the suspense is killing you, so I will reveal all: I’ve been to 58 countries, soundly defeating my dinner host, who has been to “only” 47. Does that mean than I am better-traveled? Presumably, that is what all this silliness is about—numeric justification for claiming, “Look at me, I’m so well-traveled.” Surely, though, being well-traveled is more than simply a matter of tallying the number of countries visited.
But what precisely makes someone well-traveled? Diplomats and international business people are among the most traveled in the world but, as a rule, they are not well-traveled. They travel widely, not deeply. (I realize there are notable exceptions to this rule.)
Luxury, as I said, is often an impediment to traveling well, but the opposite can also hold true. I’ve known backpackers who practice a sort-of reverse travel snobbery. You’re well-traveled if you travel cheaply, the cheaper the better. Extra points for drinking the tap water! I agree that traveling frugally does increase the odds of traveling well, but it’s no guarantee. I once met two British guys traveling in Western India. They took a perverse pride in spending as little money as possible, to the point where they saw and did very little. Why bother leaving home, I wondered.
Traveling well, I think, is all about seeing. Do you see, in the broadest sense of the word, what is around you, what is inside of you? Have you embarked on your journey with open mind and open heart? By this measure, a person who has visited only one country could be said to be very well-traveled indeed.
It boils down, I’m afraid, to that tired old saw about the difference between tourists and travelers. Many have weighed in on this important, if somewhat fuzzy, distinction, but I think Paul Theroux put it best: “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
So, you’ll be glad to hear that I’m enacting an immediate moratorium on country-counting. Better, I think, to travel well than be well-traveled.