Graham Hughes, a gregarious thirty-four-year-old ginger from Liverpool, recently became the first person to travel to every country on earth without taking a plane. It took him four years. He recently commemorated his accomplishment with aYouTube video—nearing one million views and counting—featuring short clips of him in each of his 201 destinations. (“BURKINA FASO!”) His first passport stamp came in Uruguay on January 1, 2009. That seemed like a good place to start our conversation, too.
Why would you start in Uruguay?
Because it’s the most southerly country that’s still attached to other countries.
Oh, right. You’d actually have to be a bit strategic about this.
I was strategic. It was like a board game, like Snakes & Ladders except with visas and shipping. I did all of South America in two weeks, got around the Caribbean in a month or two. It was quite easy. Got over to Europe on a cargo ship from Canada, did all fifty states of Europe in two or three weeks. I was doing, like, seven countries a day. And then I hit Africa. I thought it might take me two or three months. By the end of the year I was still in Africa. It was a lot trickier than I thought it was going to be.
Is that just because the ground transportation isn’t very good?
No, the ground transportation is fine. It’s bureaucracy. It’s visas. I got held up going to the Cape Verde Islands because I got put in jail for six days. [Ed. note: More on this later.] I got held up getting to Sao Tome. The islands were the nightmare. I tried to get to the Seychelles from Madagascar and failed miserably. I had to leave the Seychelles until later.
Wait. How did you finally get to the Seychelles?
There was one cruise ship that left Europe, bound for Australia, and it hit the Seychelles. It also went to the Maldives, which I needed to get to. The trouble was—the Seychelles are smack in the middle of the high-risk area for Somali pirates. So cargo ships couldn’t take me, because of their insurance. I just got really lucky that it was Costa cruises that was going, and after the Concordia I got in touch with them to see if they wanted a good news story. They agreed to help me out and picked me up in India. This year, that same cruise ship, going down to Australia for the winter season, is going all the way around Africa to avoid that area. That was my one shot.
I wouldn’t have guessed the Seychelles would have been the hardest.
People ask about Iraq and Afghanistan, but they were easy—I didn’t even need a visa. Iraq, I just turned up from Turkey. The guy sat me down with a map and some tea—he was very polite and friendly—and he said, “This is the area you can travel in. Just don’t go south of here. If we catch you, we’ll arrest you. If they catch you, you’ll be on YouTube getting your head chopped off.” I was like, Okay, won’t be going there. Some border guards were happy just to have something to do, I think.
You must have been the first tourist some of these guys have ever seen.
I have Visa No. 0085 for Afghanistan. I did learn quite quickly that your best defense when you’re traveling on your own is just having a smile and a good sense of humor and taking it all in your stride. If it takes a day for someone to stamp your passport, it takes a day for someone to stamp your passport. Getting upset won’t change that. What happened to me when I arrived in Brazzaville, Congo, I’d just been on this horrific journey—literally on the back of his meat truck with hundreds of people. My feet were on this rotting carcass of a goat or something, flies all over it… We got stopped at a police checkpoint, and at the time, I was tired, I was frustrated, I had two hellish days of travel. I wasn’t in a good mood, I was angry with the police, and as a reflection of that I spent six days in jail.
Smile. Got it. Any other lessons from your journey?
My main lesson from all of this: You can’t judge a people by the actions of their government. The friendliest country I went to, by a mile, was Iran. I just wasn’t expecting that. I was on this overnight bus, and this little old Persian grandmother was sitting in front of me, nattering away on a mobile phone. She turned around and waved at me and gave me her phone. I didn’t know what she wanted me to do with it. I said “Hello,” and there was a guy on the other end, perfect English. He said that his grandmother was concerned about me—the bus gets in very early in the morning, and she’s worried that you won’t have anywhere to go or anything to eat, so she wants to know if she can take you home with her so she can cook you breakfast. Faith in humanity, restored. That’s the lesson: People are good. The spirit of common decency is everywhere you go. Maybe I’m just the luckiest motherfucker in the world, but I went to every country, and I didn’t get robbed, I didn’t get beaten up—I didn’t even get ill.
Seriously? That might be the most amazing part of all of this. I would have gotten sick after standing on that dead goat for two days. I would have caught something through my feet.
That’s years of going to European music festivals and eating dodgy kebabs.
When you take a flight now, it must seem like a miracle—you’re crossing an ocean in six hours.
It’s incredible. People moan about long-haul flights. Try taking a meat truck for two days.
How did this all end? From Uruguay to—
Well, I had to make my way back from the South Pacific to South Sudan—the country that wasn’t a country when I started this. On the way back, it almost felt like a victory lap. Everywhere I went, I met up with an old friend of mine, someone I had stayed with or had met traveling. When I went to South Sudan, I met a guy I’d hung out with in Kenya three years before. He had champagne for me. Then I went up to Egypt and met up with a friend of mine, Kendra, from Boston. On the Saturday night, we got together with three local lads she knew, all named Mohammed, and we climbed over the fence into the Pyramid complex. No one was guarding it. We got to the Great Pyramid and we climbed up it. We got to the top, and that for me was the pinnacle of the journey. Below was the city of Cairo, and at about five a.m., the call to prayer started, with one ghostly murmur, and then there was another one and another one, all across the city, just rising up to us. The three Mohammeds got down to pray on top of the Great Pyramid, and that’s something I’ll take with me until the day I die.
Culled from Esquire