x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Life is the journey for Chris Guillebeau

The 35-year-old has just finished a journey of visiting every country in the world, but he is not going to sit still for long.

Photo courtesy Chris Guillebeau
Photo courtesy Chris Guillebeau

Chris Guillebeau has just returned from another business trip to his home in Portland, Oregon, on the US west coast. But the self-confessed travel junkie isn't ready to spend his time on the couch just yet.

"I like to stay busy," he says wryly. "I'm not too good at relaxing."

Just a short chat over the telephone with him, listening to his past itineraries and his future plans, makes this all too apparent. The 35-year-old, in amongst a very busy and varied business life, just recently finished his goal of visiting every single country in the world - his final column documenting his last destination, Norway, appeared in last week's Weekend section.

"In the months leading up to the finale, I worried I would be sad or withdrawn once it was over. But actually, I was glad when I landed in Norway. It's been a wonderful experience and I'm very grateful I pursued it. No regrets.

"It was an 11-year project with lots of challenges, and I found myself changed for the better along the way. I'm still sorting out what it all means and how I can communicate these lessons in a relatable way."

Guillebeau normally spends about half a year at home in Portland with his wife - who, fortunately, is quite understanding about his travel itch - and half in transit around the globe, much of it recently in support of his latest book, The $100 Startup. He's also been busy with a coffee importing business, search engine development, advertising, writing and business consulting. To say he is well-rounded and energetic would be an understatement.

World travel became an obsession for him ever since he moved to Africa in 2002 to become an aid worker. It was around that time that the idea of travelling to all 193 countries on the United Nations list of member states slowly came to him.

"I didn't think about it when I hadn't gone anywhere. It's part of because I love travel; I travelled throughout the African region, I did some travelling into Europe and I just loved it.

"I've also been very achievement-oriented all my life, setting goals and then working towards them. So it was after I had been to about 50 countries, and I thought I would love to go to 100 countries. So I set that goal, and as I got closer to the 100, I realised it was going faster than I thought. It didn't feel super challenging, either, because I was picking easy countries to travel to. So that's when I thought, 'Let's step it up.' I think that was when I was around 70 countries."

Many of the countries he spent just a few days in, often piggybacking them onto work trips. But amazingly, much of his travel was paid for by the many travel points offered by airlines and other companies.

"Probably about a third of the whole project was subsidised by Air Miles, which is what travel hacking is all about. I've earned about 1 million miles a year; about a third of those are from travelling, and the others are all from different promotions, such as credit cards and other offers. I've become fairly proficient in working the system and using it to my benefit." (So proficient, in fact, that Guillebeau also runs an online commercial service, Travel Hacking Cartel [www.travelhacking.org] which helps people with just that.)

Among the countries he has touched down in, South Africa and Lithuania are two places he would like to go back for a longer stay. But as enjoyable as those were, other countries proved more problematic.

"The most challenging countries weren't about safety so much us as logistics and visas. Eritria, more than any other African country, was difficult; Pakistan was difficult, Saudi Arabia was difficult - I think those were the top three in terms of visa issues. As far as safety is concerned, I think Somalia. Also, with Somalia, I couldn't figure out how to buy a ticket, as you can't buy one online."

During the course of his journeys, Guillebeau travelled to a few countries that have changed dramatically since his stays. He was able to visit Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia before the violence and fallout of the Arab Spring uprisings.

"With Libya in particular, I was there about a week before everything happened," he says. "When I went to Damascus, I had a really great experience, I really liked the city. But if you read the news now it's quite sad.

"It's difficult; in Libya, it's definitely for the better that the regime has fallen, but there are still short-term consequences. Under the dictatorship, the people lived in fear but, at the same time, they had relative safety and security. And then when that goes away, there is instability and chaos. I have readers in all these different countries, and they've emailed me with different stories."

It's these readers, throughout all of his travels, that have made the largest impression on Guillebeau. Halfway through his list of countries, he began to blog and write columns about his travels. At his End of the World party in Norway, celebrating the conclusion of the journey, many of the 120 people there were readers who followed his blog and travelled to meet him in person.

"When I started, I was always that independent traveller. I'm very introverted, I didn't need to have Meetups or Couch Surfing. But then I started writing about it and people started engaging, and it changed everything. When I went to Kuwait, a few Kuwati readers took me out and I learned much more about the culture.

"I've met a lot of people with a lot of interesting projects, and I'm just trying to find out how do I describe what they're doing more, instead of just writing about myself."

Of course, the end of this journey is only the beginning of the next one for someone as entrepreneurial as Guillebeau. He is already formulating plans based on travel but very different from what he has experienced himself, plans that he is hesitant to share fully until next year.

"I guess all I will say is that it's not going to be a travel quest, per se. People are saying, 'You should go to the moon', or 'Go into space like Richard Branson', or 'You should go to the bottom of the ocean', but it's not going to be like that.

"I was ready for this to be over; not in a bad way, but I've spent a lot of time flying to random places, but after years and years of doing this I want to do something different.

"I really enjoy meeting my readers, and I want to do more of that and be able to tell their stories. I can't say much more, except that it will be more oriented around community than my first one was."

nvorano@thenational.ae

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