Albert Podell, a former editor of Playboy magazine, did what all of us fantasize about but very few achieve: He traveled to all 196 countries on Earth.
It took him 50 years. On the way he was chased by water buffalo, broke a few bones, ate weird foods, and was arrested, robbed, and almost lynched. But he lived to tell the tale in a new book, Around the World in Fifty Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth.
Talking from his home in New York, he addresses the thorny issue of what constitutes a country, pinpoints the best place to eat barbecued mice, explains why smartphones are making young people less adventurous, and tells us why his favorite place is still the United States. (Take a quiz created by Podell to see how well you know our world.)
Frank Zappa famously said, “You can’t be a country till you have a beer and an airline.” It’s not that simple, is it?
Frank Zappa’s quote also added that it helps to have a nuclear weapon, but the beer is the main thing. [Laughs]
So what is a country? The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States lists five criteria for being a country. But what it really comes down to these days is what the five superpowers agree is a country. Everybody acknowledges that all members of the UN, all 193 of them, are countries.
Most people will also acknowledge that Taiwan is a country, but unfortunately it is not a UN member because it’s been blocked by China. Kosovo is also a country, but again it’s not a UN member, because it’s been blocked by Russia. Vatican City, despite its small size and population, is a recognized country. However, the Holy See has decided that it can operate better diplomatically if it maintains its observer status at the UN, rather than full membership. So those are the 196.
Are you the only person mad enough to have done this? Or is there a 196 Club?
Good question. There is no club. There is a group that calls themselves the “World’s Most Traveled People.” These are usually a bunch of rich guys with yachts; they’ll go to the Philippine archipelago or Indonesia, where there are about 10,000 islands, and each time they stop at an island, they put another notch on their belt.
There are other people who count as a country everything that has ever been a country. But I only count as countries entities that are countries today. For that reason I took the U.S.S.R. off my list, East Germany, and South Vietnam.
There is no international body to organize this, so it’s very hard to tell who has been to every country. I’ve been trying to find a colleague, a soul mate, for several years. My friend, Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, says he has found three people who say they have been to every country. I have checked out two other people who made the claim. I don’t want to use the word “cheated,” but they copped out. They didn’t go to Somalia. They went to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, but Somaliland is not a recognized country.
You came from a family in Brooklyn who never traveled farther than Boston. What went wrong?
[Laughs] I just felt there had to be a more interesting way to live than never traveling. I started collecting stamps at age six. I was fascinated by these bits of colored paper, and early on decided I wanted one from every country. I was fascinated by where these artifacts came from and all these different animals and cultures.
Then, around age eight, I started reading, guess what? National Geographic. And I got hooked on foreign countries. I said, “I have to go and see all these places.”
Your life in travel started with a different world record. Tell us about your marathon car journey.
I had been an editor of a magazine called Argosy, a men’s adventure, hunting, and fishing magazine. I had sent writers on all sorts of assignments: by dogsled across Greenland, by bicycle from Cairo to Capetown.
After three or four years I said, “Enough of this vicarious stuff. I’ve got to get out there and do it myself.” So I joined forces with one of our writers. We recruited three other people and formed what I called the Trans World Record Expedition. The idea was to set a record for the longest uninterrupted automobile journey around the world.
Other trips, mostly made by Brits, took a route from Paris to Peking. But the Earth bulges more at the Equator, so we believed if we drove closer to the Equator, we could set a new record for the distance.
We shipped to Cherbourg, in France, went south to Morocco, and drove across North Africa. We stayed as close to the Equator as we reasonably could despite the wars and various incidents that interfered.
It took us a lot longer than I thought. I had estimated six to eight months. But it took us 581 days, and only two of us finished—my co-leader, Steve, and I. One chap was killed by the Vietcong in Cambodia, and two people succumbed to tropical diseases and dropped out.
I’ve been to 72 countries, but my wife always says I cheat because I add places where I have just changed planes. What’s your criterion for having “visited” a country?
I hate to say that you cheated, but I think, by my standards, you probably did. My standards are these:
1. It has to be a recognized country at the time you go there.
2. You must have a visa or enter legitimately.
3. You must get a passport stamp.
4. and 5. They can be a little flexible, but my feeling is you should at least go to the capital, stay at least 24 hours, and if possible cross the country in one direction.
You need to make it a real visit. When you change planes, you don’t normally go through customs, so I do think your wife is right. You picked a smart woman. [Laughs]
What was the single scariest moment you had during your travels?
No question. When I came within one minute of being hung in East Pakistan. My expedition had crossed into East Pakistan several hours before the war with India started in 1965. We got to Dhaka, the capital of what was then East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—and heard there was going to be a march by the Pakistanis against the the U.S. Information Agency because we had supplied a lot of military equipment to India.
I wanted to take some photographs. There was this wonderful building situated catty-corner across the street with wide balconies and a balustrade I could hide behind to take photos. So I ran across the street, up four floors, got out on the balcony, and was about to start taking pictures when I was grabbed by two soldiers. It turned out the building was the Pakistani Ministry of Defense. [Laughs]
They dragged me into a room where there were about 40 civil defense workers chanting, “Indian spy! Indian spy! Hang him! Hang him!” Then the janitor went out. He came back with a stout rope, threw it over a rafter, fashioned a noose, and put the noose around my neck. That looked like it was going to be the end.
You have a unique system for rating countries. Tell us about PPPR.
PPPR is the Podell Potty Paper Rating System. You can spend hours looking at these studies that are issued by the World Bank and the IMF. But I found the surest way to know where a country ranks economically and socially is to go to a public bathroom and check the toilet paper.
I have seven rankings, starting with the best, which is soft white. From soft white it goes down to hard white; hard brown; purple, green, and other colors; to torn-up newspaper; to no paper at all, just a little bucket of water.
The lowest ranking, which is a seven, is when there are no public toilets. The only place I have tentatively given a number seven ranking to is my hometown of New York City. [Laughs] In the entire city, I’m only aware of three public toilets.
You ate some pretty outlandish fare on your journeys. Go on, horrify me.
I’ll eat almost anything except endangered species. I ate the brain of a live monkey in Hong Kong. I ate old camel meat, which just slithers around in your mouth and coats it with grease.
One of my two biggest challenges was to eat a mouse. In Malawi, they eat mice. But no one in Malawi would tell me where I could find grilled mice because they regard it as a vestige of colonial times when people were so poor they had to dig them out of their holes and eat them.
Finally, on my last day, I found an old chap who, for $10 [U.S.], agreed to take me out to the country to a barbeque where they served whole mice. We got there at 4:00 p.m. The guy doing the barbecue was cleaning up. “I don’t know about your American eating habits,” he scolded me. “But in Malawi, we only eat mice for lunch. And we’re closed now.” [Laughs uproariously]
My son’s generation—he’s 28—isn’t drawn to adventure as we were. Why do you think that is? And what are they missing?
Very good question. First, they get a lot of their adventure vicariously from video games. They’re also used to having the world literally at their fingertips with the Internet. If they want to see what Paris looks like, there are 20 or 30 webcams around Paris they can look at.
I think another reason they’re not so adventurous is that there is so much turmoil in the world. I’m not a sociologist, but I think it would be a fascinating study to see why they are so cautious. This pertains particularly to American kids. The young travelers I encountered came from countries like New Zealand, Australia, Germany, France, Canada, or Great Britain. Americans are nervous about going out into the world and laying it on the line.
What are the biggest changes you observed in 50 years of travel?
The biggest changes I’ve observed are that it’s gotten much more difficult for this kind of travel. When we made our trip around the world in 1965-66, we commented that it was more difficult for us than it had been for Marco Polo to get all the way across to China, despite the improved road conditions and the fact that we had a 4 x 4.
In the ensuing 50 years, it’s gotten really worse. Let’s assume you want to go in my tire tracks. I don’t think you’d survive in Syria or Iraq today, with ISIS. I don’t think you’d get through Afghanistan. Forget about Yemen; the Houthis have taken over Yemen. South Sudan, which is the most recent country in the world to become independent and I had high hopes for, is going to hell in a handbasket. Somalia is still touch and go. It’s a hairy place out there.
The other big change I’ve noticed is the attitude of foreigners toward the U.S. When I first went abroad in the ’60s, it was almost unadulterated adulation. They really appreciated that we had helped to rebuild Europe and other countries after WWII, and that we were the bulwark of democracy, opposing the “evil” Soviet Union. Now that the “evil empire” is no longer with us, and instead there are a multitude of smaller evils, we are the big kid on the block. And a lot of countries resent us.
One major positive change I noted is in Africa, where they still feel ecstatic about the election and reelection of President Obama. They are enthralled with the idea that the rich and powerful U.S. can elect a black man as President. It means that if they were to emigrate here and have children, their children could become President. It also shows that we really believe in democracy.
It’s a question I’m sure everyone asks: What is your favorite country?
If you really push me, my favorite country is the U.S. We have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world: the redwoods, Glacier National Park, Mount Rainier, the foliage trails of New England. We are a heterogeneous society. In New York, you can see people of every race, creed, and color in the world, all getting along.
But if I had to pick countries, I’d go with Nepal and Switzerland for scenery. For food, I would go with Vietnam, Thailand, and France. For culture I would go with France, England, Spain, and Egypt.