DUBAI // It took a major travel snag, that left him stranded at an airport for two nights, for Kashi Samaddar to embark on an epic series of trips that have seen him visit almost 200 countries and earn recognition in Guinness World Records. Last year the Dubai-based Indian businessman was recognised as being the first person to visit all 194 UN-recognised countries and their territories. Not content with that, he went back to some of the countries to shorten the established time it took to do the tour, in effect breaking his own speed record.
The upshot is that he is recognised by Guinness not only as being the first (and presumably only) person to set foot in all countries, in 2008, but also as having done so in record time, in 2009. Mr Samaddar undertook his 13-year odyssey to highlight how difficult it can be, especially for people from the developing world, to obtain visas to visit many countries. The idea came to him in 2003 after a bad experience in South Africa. In the time it took Mr Samaddar to fly from Dubai to Johannesburg, the rules regarding visas had changed. The policy of being granted a "visa on arrival" had been replaced, mid-flight, with a new one. It meant he had to have his visa before arriving in South Africa. He was also travelling on an Indian passport, which added to his troubles. As a result he spent two nights sleeping at the airport. He was unable to enter the country and missed the important business meeting he was there for.
"People have told me, 'Why don't you change your nationality'," Mr Samaddar said. "But I refused to change my passport to another citizenship. That is one way of running away from the problem. I was determined to do it on my Indian passport and prove to the world that countries should look at genuine travellers and grant them visas. Even if they are from the developing world, and from a country such as India. Genuine travellers suffer because of visa restrictions."
Mr Samaddar made it his mission to highlight the problem by earning a spot in Guinness World Records for his international travels. He spent a lot of time and money visiting almost 200 countries and territories between September 1995 and May last year. In 2002, he decided he could also create a record for the time taken to visit them. So he revisited the countries and territories he had already been to, and travelled to those he had missed. And he has done it in just over six years.
Before he undertook his quest, he already had some experience in moving around. The son of a farmer from Champahati, a village about 50km from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state, he was forced to move to Mumbai in 1980 to work. Two years later, he transferred back to the firm's branch in Kolkata. "I was a little homesick," he said. Soon afterwards, his parents arranged his marriage to Barnali. They had a son, who is now 22.
As Mr Samaddar rose through the company, where he oversaw the IT division, he was moved around India several times, including to its headquarters in Delhi. He travelled to the US in 1995, his first foreign trip. Two years later he decided to make his home in Dubai and joined a new company. As part of his record-breaking efforts, Mr Samaddar, now the regional director of a Dubai-based electronics company, took breaks from work totalling three-and-a-half years to focus on travel. His wife was a major factor in his achieving his dream.
"In our culture, first you do for others, then for yourself," he said. "After the Johannesburg incident, we checked and realised that this is a real problem. So she did not object. She supported our cause." Mr Samaddar estimates that his wife has accompanied him on visits to at least half the countries. In addition to some of the visa problems, some countries would not let him in without Barnali. Their son was at boarding school in India in those periods.
The time it takes for some nationals to have visa applications processed was another problem. To visit some countries, including Macedonia, Moldova, Libya, and Algeria, he had to wait for up to three years. Over the years, Mr Samaddar has travelled to places across the globe, including the island of Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean, the fourth smallest country in terms of land area. He usually spends between three days and two weeks travelling through a country, depending on its size. "A country like Tonga, you don't need more than four days," he said. "But if it is Canada, I had to visit it twice and spent 20 days because it is a big country. You cannot see everything in a week."
To help finance his dream, Mr Samaddar and his wife have used up much of their savings. They sold their four-bedroom apartment in Dubai earlier this year and now live in rented accommodation there. "A lot of savings went," he said. "I could not stop. You have to understand that. Anyway, now it is done." firstname.lastname@example.org