x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Chris Guillebeau: How travel changed my life

New columnist the Practical Traveller explains his extraordinary life in the "get-to" world.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 160.

When you go through life assuming that everyone thinks like you, you tend to be judgmental by default. Meeting people who see the world differently can cause an immediate shift. In my case, I moved with my family from the United States to the Philippines at the age of six. I was not given a choice and I wasn't happy about it at first. Later, though, I came to see this move as a pillar in my lifelong love of travel. Those two years spent in Asia served as an early introduction to the core truth that the world consists of all kinds of people living in all sorts of places - and not all of them believe the same things.

The beginning traveller tends to observe a few patterns that are seemingly universal, falsely assigning greater meaning to them. "People are basically the same everywhere," they'll say, not understanding that just because mothers love their children and everyone wants to be happy doesn't mean that we're all the same.

The more experienced traveller understands that the world is a big place. We're not all the same, and that's the beauty of it. Yes, mothers love their children everywhere, but life in Guatemala is quite different than life in Yemen.

I remember visiting the Islamic world for the first time, touring mosques in Jordan and Syria, learning the history of a faith that began in the same part of the world I had only thought of as the origin of Christianity. I don't think I was highly prejudiced, but I had never heard the call to prayer before. I had never wandered through a souq or visited a madrasa. This is what travel does: whether you like it or not, it forces you to examine your world view.

I felt the same upon my first visit to India. I knew little of Hindu culture before landing in the middle of it, so I was unprepared for a major cultural experience. Someone said to me after I had settled in: "You know it's Holi day tomorrow, right?"

I obviously didn't know much about Holi, because I didn't know that it is celebrated in large part by covering the face of everyone you know with coloured powder and paint. The next day I wandered out of my hostel and onto the street, where I was assaulted by a merry paint-carrying crowd. Oh, that's how it works. The rest of the day I wandered on the metro and into the city, covered in paint, attracting waves and laughter from children. I still wasn't sure what the festival was actually about, but I was glad I had joined in.

You can glance around at any particular airport terminal and find people who are miserable. The look on their face is clear: "Can't I just go home?" They're counting the hours and wishing they were somewhere else.

Look again, and you'll find other sojourners, happy to pass the hours in the cafe or even on the floor. For those of us in love with travel, these interludes are energising. To be delayed is to enjoy the process more. To leave at 2am from Dubai to a mysterious destination is to experience a life shared only with your fellow wanderers.

As I progressed in seeing the world - 50 countries, then 75, then 100 - I came to love travel itself, not just the actual destinations. Give me a bus ride, a ferry crossing or an extended layover and I'll be content. I'll sit in Heathrow and ride the shuttle back and forth between terminals. I'll memorise airline schedules and ask to be switched to the later flight. It wasn't only a love of travel that captured my heart; it was also a love of adventure. Someone told me once that you want to be in the "get-to world", as opposed to the "have-to world". I asked what he meant. It's simple, he said. When you live in the get-to world, every day you spend your time on things that make you happy, and you feel you're doing something that matters.

Most people live in the have-to world, their schedules and priorities dictated by someone else. Travel for me is a get to. Moving from country to country - now in the final group of 30 - I learned to be self-reliant while also trusting other people. I put one foot in front of the other, arranging visas, deploying frequent flyer miles to book free flights, figuring out which countries in Africa bordered each other.

My hub cities, where I'd set off to fly to more faraway destinations, grew farther and farther afield. I started with Dubai, Frankfurt, and Johannesburg. After my first 100 countries were off the list, I added Seoul, Dakar, and Amman as jumping-off points for even farther places.

Driving around Oman in a rental car - and without the necessary travel permit - I was lost. When the security patrol flagged me down, I was worried, but I needn't have been. The officer asked if I needed help. I said, "Well, I'm trying to get back to Sharjah. Which road do I take?" He sent me off in the right direction with a wave and a smile.

Some look at travel through a lens of negativity and concern, fearful of environmental impact and cultural disruption. But travel can also be good, and not just for developing economies. Travel can be a powerful force and a positive impact, a process of self-discovery in the wake of encounters with others.

Jack Kerouac said that the road is life. I've been living life on the road for the past nine years and in 160 countries. I'm excited to continue the journey to my final 30 countries. What comes after that? Naturally, I plan to keep travelling.

Next week: self-reliance and confidence define the modern traveller.?????