Our founder Harry Mitsidis probably needs no introduction. He is the only person we have interviewed more than once, with a discussion of his travels back in 2014 and then a presentation of his book in 2018; today, our interview focuses mainly on NomadMania itself, what the project means for him and how he sees his retirement, the recent NomadMania referendum, as well as his (travel) plans for the future. With the exception of three photos, the rest are all after the start of the pandemic.
Sand dunes in Namibia
Let’s look back to 10 years back, when you founded The Best Travelled, which became NomadMania in 2017. Could you have imagined it would all come to this point? What surprises you the most?
Quite honestly, I am truly surprised at the way NomadMania has changed some people’s lives and their way of travelling, this is entirely unexpected. Some travellers make their choices based on our regions, they organise excursions to see new places based on these, and to be frank that was the aim – to urge travellers to go further. I don’t think I really knew what I was doing 10 years ago, I had no idea what a website of this sort would entail either technically or from a communications perspective.
Things have happened incrementally, and every step follows another logically, but looking back 10 years ago overall I would never have imagined we would have a dedicated team working on this full-time, an annual awards show that would involve many of the world’s biggest travellers, participation in global travel events, or, overall, that NomadMania would be so highly regarded. In that sense, I have absolutely nothing to complain about!
Sun gave way to fog near Sevnica, Slovenia at the bizarre statue of Melania Trump
You recently announced your retirement from NomadMania but many of us just don’t believe you. How do you see this retirement?
I think after 10 years it is wise to step down and let other, younger, people with more ideas take over. This is where NomadMania’s General Manager Milana Bojinovic comes in; she has an excellent knowledge of NomadMania having been with us for more than three years now and is gradually becoming a big traveller too. This is one of the reasons she represented us at the Extraordinary Travel Festival in Yerevan where a who’s who of big travellers met in October – I felt that my presence would leave her sidelined, and it is time people do not equate NomadMania with me.
So yes, I will indeed no longer be involved in aspects of the day-to-day running of the project. I am, however, keeping the administration of our UN Masters List and the M@P (Many Quirky Places) lists, as these are two features that exclusively involved me from the start. And if there are future travel gatherings, I may not be able to resist the temptation, after all, meeting up with international peers is one of the best things!
At the tri-border of Poland, Lithuania and Russia (Kaliningrad) – access from the Polish side
Now let’s discuss the recent developments of NomadMania’s referendum. NomadMania got a lot of criticism for its attitude on the issue of the war in Ukraine and especially for blocking travellers who go to Russia which was seen as endangering travel freedom. What is your stand on this?
I am incredibly proud of NomadMania for taking a clear stand in what may be the most abhorrent war of recent times – sadly, with no end in sight. While some people may have found our position extreme, and we ended up losing around 70 of our members overall, I absolutely think it is worth it in the face of such injustice. What I am shocked at, to be honest, is that for most people the world has just continued as is.
I haven’t really been able to sleep well since February 24th and I believe that any conscientious human being should feel Ukrainian right now and do anything in their power to show full support to a nation that is fighting for its freedom. I find it ironic that the main debate was about freedom of travel – if Ukraine is not free, then the whole planet will fall under a dark shadow of authoritarianism and none of us will be free.
MTP published their take on it all very clearly stating that we need to celebrate travel – all travel. I’m sorry, but I must disagree. A friend of mine was in Auschwitz recently and he told me of two middle-aged women he saw there, jumping in the air to get the perfect selfie. In Auschwitz, where more than a million people perished. Is jumping for a selfie there to be celebrated? I don’t want to seem like the moral police here because I am a very free and fun-loving person, but when someone’s behaviour is an affront to a whole group of people or a nation that suffers, then we need to reconsider ‘celebrating’.
Is it really to be commended when someone chooses to go to Mariupol now and takes ‘celebratory’ selfies at a place where atrocities occurred when the wounds are so raw? So, for me, travelling now to the invader for tourism implies someone is totally apathetic and apolitical – is this really what we want from the big travellers, those who through their content can influence others? What we should really celebrate in travel is not just visiting a region but showing overall respect when we do so – to everyone affected.
I would like to think that the vote of our referendum, where 75% voted against blocking travellers going to Russia now, was not about morality but rather against NomadMania becoming a sort of self-appointed police force. That I can agree with; but still, my personal opinion of anyone going to Russia now will be of an irresponsible person who is incapable or unwilling to understand what a precarious situation the whole planet is in now, arguably the worst in almost 80 years. If you miss the atmosphere in Russia so much and need your dose right now, go to another ex-Soviet republic.
And any comparison with other places in conflict is, to me, untenable. Visiting a place of conflict after a peace agreement has been signed may not be 100% wise, but at least there has been an agreement. If you visit an ugly regime country at least you may be helping the little guy, the shop owner, or the restaurant keeper who has nothing to do with the regime. But in this case, how does a visit to Russia show any help for Ukraine?
The fact that 77% of our Ukrainians voted for blocking visitors to Russia (and note that we count Crimea as Ukraine in our statistics so some of the votes against may have been from Crimea-based travellers) is all I need to justify my position. I feel Ukrainian. We all should, as we all fight for our freedom, no?
‘Slava Ukraini’ mural seen in Granard, Ireland
Don’t you think it would be more useful to engage in positive activities that help those in need rather than punitive ones?
It’s all good and well to be supportive and NomadMania has done that; all donations we are receiving now go straight to Ukraine in our name and help orphanages, sick children and people who are recovering from the occupation; we have also hired two of our six Ukrainian scholarship holders. In fact, the posters for our 10-year celebration were made by 21-year-old Yevhen who managed to escape Donetsk. However, I think just like governments are going further than just support, some punitive action is needed, absolutely. For the record, we had quite a few messages from some Russian travellers to thank us for our stand.
And just a reminder, we never banned any Russians from using NomadMania, and in fact have had more than 800 additional registrations from Russia since the invasion, and our website is still open, entirely free of charge, as long as you fill in your travelled regions, to all. Are we really being punitive?
Coronavirus sign in Domoney on the island of Anjouan, Comoros
How did you personally feel with what happened in the background during the referendum?
Firstly, I must say I am devastated at the war itself, both for Ukraine which is a country very close to my heart but also for Russia, where I have had countless positive experiences in the past. In both countries, partially thanks to speaking (really bad) Russian, I have been met with warmth and curiosity, and everything that is happening now has totally broken my heart. Having studied sociology, I also realise that the consequences of all this will run in the future for many decades – and it won’t make for happy stories.
Concerning what happened in the ‘community’, well, nobody likes to be attacked, especially when the issue is a moral one and it is unclear where the wrong/right divide can be drawn. A lot of really ugly and totally unacceptable things were said about me by some people who are supposed to be respected and so-called pillars of the travel community. It’s funny how the past years were all erased, including my basically saving the world from William Baekeland, and suddenly I became the devil incarnate.
Some people were very supportive in private messages, and I thank them immensely as I ultimately found a new sense of self from this and woke up from 6 months in my own sort of war-induced coma. I am also actually glad that some people’s true selves came to the surface and we don’t need to pretend to be polite. I was badly bullied at school as a teenager but the difference now that I am 50 is that I have the courage of my convictions and can support them.
Ultimately, I feel that both I personally and NomadMania have come out stronger from this experience, and of course, we continue to whole-heartedly support Ukraine in any way we can. Unlike other travel clubs that may find the need to always please their members, I am glad NomadMania dares ask difficult questions and makes people reflect on some important issues and where the boundaries of our responsibilities as travellers really are. NomadMania is not ‘just for fun’ and neither am I.
Before Corona, back in good old 2018 in Merv, in currently closed Turkmenistan
You seem very sensitive to the issue of war even though you haven’t personally experienced one. Where do you think your sensitivity comes from?
This is part of my DNA. I am the only person I know who was born in a different country from both his parents and they were born in a different country from their parents. To make it more specific, I was born in the UK, my mother in South Africa and her parents in Poland (in fact my grandfather, born in 1907, was at birth a citizen of the Russian Empire), while my father was born in Greece and his parents in what is today Turkey.
I am here today as the result of wars, displacement and desperate people seeking refuge elsewhere. Even though I have luckily never experienced war firsthand, I grew up on stories of suffering, fear, uncertainty and ruined lives. Perhaps that’s why I have such sympathy with the Ukrainian nation today, and maybe, in my way, this is why I am attracted to ‘dark tourism’ by wanting to visit devastated places and understand the suffering of the people there – not for curiosity’s sake and certainly not to ‘celebrate’ but more to be in touch with what humanity is really capable of, bad and good.
With my parents at Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
So, where do you see yourself in the travelling community these days?
I have always been somewhat of a loner and an outcast, albeit a sociable one. I am multi-faceted with diverse interests and have found that I can never fully belong in any community because ultimately my attention goes to something else.
I truly admire those who are constantly involved online in forums, and travellers who seemingly comment and ‘like’ everything their peers post – I always wonder where they get the time for this; I’m always rushing to do stuff. In that sense, I am almost totally not present in any online community and I hope people don’t think it’s me being snobby – I’m just quite private and only have social media in the first place to be available if needed.
Some people, much to my disbelief, look up to me as a traveller, which is very flattering and of course, I am thankful for. But when all is said and done, I think others can be community leaders much more effectively than me, I am very introverted and as such totally unsuitable to be a founder of a portal like NomadMania, but have pushed myself to do this.
I don’t really like travelling in a group and in big social settings I get easily exhausted. So I see myself as an occasional participant perhaps; I hope I will still remain respected in the community, but I’d rather be remembered as a kind, generous and conscientious person than as a traveller.
The Pre-ETF group of travellers enjoying the culinary delights of Armenia
What does NomadMania mean to you? Why do you keep on developing it and investing your resources (be it time or finances) into it, even though you wanted to quit so many times?
NomadMania is what has grounded me for the past 10 years. Since I stopped working in 2014, NomadMania has helped keep me sane by giving me a purpose and a direction. It is an exceptionally diverse project which requires a vast amount of different skills – from designing to marketing to understanding computer logic, to developing good communication skills, so in many ways being multi-faceted has helped me not get unfocused when I am not travelling.
Sometimes I have been discouraged but then somebody writes to me ‘I really love NomadMania’ and that is the fuel to always continue. So thanks to those who have been supportive through the years, it means the world! I also think that NomadMania has been the vessel for me to meet so many incredible people, the ones I generally have called my peers for the past 10 years so even though it is not only inanimate but also intangible, in some ways I see it as having a life of its own, far beyond myself or any one individual.
Using the camera bag as a hat under the scorching sun of Shahr-e-Sukhteh, Iran
Do you think that NomadMania has overgrown you – as a traveller, founder and a stakeholder?
Is this a covert way of asking me if I feel like I’m a has-been or if I am too old?! Well, no, I don’t think it has overgrown me. It has surely grown way too big for one person to be able to handle the workload, and it offers so many suggestions in terms of travel that nobody could possibly complete all lists; in that sense, it has overgrown all of us.
But I do think that I will always be its founder, and obviously a permanent stakeholder, and as a traveller it has from the beginning been a very useful source of inspiration both to plan and to educate about the world, and it is just getting bigger and better.
Visiting the M@P region of Odžak in Bosnia and Herzegovina
What are your favourite aspects of NomadMania?
I have always loved the ‘rolling maps’ as I call them; those of us who insert the year we have first visited a region can get a map per year where it shows the regions visited by the end of that year. In a few clicks you can see how you progressed and gradually ‘conquered’ more and more of the world. That’s a feature we’ve had since the very start of it all, and I still find it the coolest. It does mean you need to spend time by filling in years – and as with everything, the more you dedicate, the bigger the reward.
I also really like the ‘Top of the Tops’ List which I would say is our equivalent to the World Heritage Sites, which we consider unmissable across all our Series. This is a project still in progress, but I’m very proud of this as it truly highlights the best of every country without the political and ‘unique’ dimension that limits the WHS somewhat.
And of course the ultimate extreme list – M@P (Many Quirky Places). If you want extreme – you got it. The fact that nobody reaches even 25% of this list tells us just how little travelled we all are!
I also really loved the NomadMania awards last year, even though they are not strictly speaking part of the site, though certainly viewable on our YouTube channel; this was a truly unique event, and we hope to continue this tradition annually as it just brings people from all over together in a positive way.
One of NomadMania’s ‘Top of the Tops’ is this UFO-like structure at Buludzha, Bulgaria
So how many members does NomadMania actually have? Do you consider your membership numbers a success?
We must be the only club in the world which so readily deletes those who register. We truly strive for an active community with people who have filled profiles and no longer look at quantity but rather quality in the sense of members who really are involved somewhat.
While our newest user’s ID number is somewhere around 43,000, currently we have around 18,000 members. I do realise that we are a niche project and that not everyone sees the world as 1301 ‘main’ regions plus another 1301 ‘extremely quirky’ regions; but I’d like to see many more people who are on EPS (Every Passport Stamp) embrace us. Generally, I do think we can still go much further in terms of awareness of the project by more travellers around the world.
Very vocal pelicans on a boat trip around Walvis Bay, Namibia
How do you see NomadMania fit in with the general travel community and other clubs with which it is compared?
We have excellent relationships with the five country-specific travel clubs that are the most active (that we know of): Denmark, Finland, the Philippines, Sweden and Turkey. We have participated in events with four of these over the years (and we hope to join our Finnish friends soon too!) and are very happy to be hosting a panel at the next awards with representatives from these clubs.
I am especially indebted to Club 100 from Sweden and Bengt Hildebrand, especially for inviting me this year to their annual gathering in northern Sweden – the first time a non-Swedish speaking traveller was invited.
I just mentioned EPS (Every Passport Stamp), which is a magnificent resource and has developed into a great community. It’s obviously more about that than about listings like NomadMania, but I do believe we have synergies and I appreciate its existence immensely even if I rarely participate myself.
We are often compared with TCC (Travelers Century Club) and MTP (Most Traveled People) but although on the surface it may seem we are similar, I would say NomadMania is very different. From the very start NomadMania has been open and we offer the other clubs’ lists on our website (in MTPs case with the kind permission of its founder).
Unfortunately, TCC has never officially acknowledged our presence in any of their meetings and it took our member Nicola Coratella’s presentation in Malta this year for a first mention to occur at a TCC meeting – thank you, Nicola!
MTP had also never mentioned us until its manifesto during the recent situation about the Ukraine war and its implications for travellers, where its attitude to NomadMania appeared unnecessarily aggressive to be honest. I find that unfortunate given that we should all see each other as peers rather than competitors and that we are not mutually exclusive – helping each other would make us all stronger. Perhaps this attitude is based on cultural differences that I can’t quite comprehend.
There was an attempt a couple of years ago to see if MTP and NomadMania could somehow align their operations, but we just can’t see eye to eye on most issues, NomadMania is far more community-minded, especially with its scholarships and its aim to develop cooperation with local fixers. Still, I do hope for more cooperation, and thankfully both TCC and MTP were represented last year and should be again this year in our NomadMania Awards ceremony, which demonstrates our continued openness to all.
I was the only non-Swedish speaker at the tri-border of Sweden, Finland and Norway
Now let’s turn to your two previous interviews, starting with the last one, and briefly discuss your book. In 2018 you wrote ‘The Curious Case of William Baekeland.’ How do you see this book four years down the road? Any more books in the future?
I still get asked about William after all these years. People want to know where he is and what he is up to, but how am I supposed to know? The last time I saw him was before I knew of his real identity. I’m still amazed by what he pulled off and wonder about the true reasons behind it. The book itself has been well-received to the best of my understanding and I am glad I committed to writing it, especially since it then inspired the HBO documentary on the case.
In the four years since then, I have realised there must have been much more going on before, during and after that I wasn’t aware of, so the book is truly just one angle of looking at this unusual story.
Given my retirement, perhaps I will try to write another book but don’t expect a travel book, I just don’t know how I would structure that and for me, a logical structure is a must. I do have a thriller in mind, I wrote the first chapter many years ago and maybe sometime in the future, I will revisit it. It’s about a global serial killer. There definitely are elements of travel! During our recent trip to Armenia, as we were climbing on the roof of a monastery, Lucy Hsu and I had an idea for a book that would reflect our community, but let’s see if that will ever get written!
The eerie book cover
Your 2014 interview focused on you as a traveller. We all know that you are one of those eternal ‘wanderlusters’. What is travel to you today, what was it 10 years ago when you founded NomadMania and how did that change over time (especially since 2020 onward)?
Travel has always represented freedom to me. That is why I am obsessed with borders and crossing them, it’s my affirmation of being free and for sure many other travellers will agree with me. I don’t think this has changed in any way through the years, but for certain I have matured in the way I travel and what I look for.
Perhaps earlier on I was somewhat of a ‘ticker’ who just went to a place in order to go there, but I have truly mended my ways, especially in the past 10 years, and can say that I now try to really understand the country I’m visiting and how it differs from others. I will never linger in a place very long, but I’m not a hit-and-run type of traveller either.
Since the pandemic, I have certainly changed my style of travel, though not what travel means to me. Before I would gladly use public transport but since 2020 I have discovered the joy of driving more than ever and that is perhaps one reason I have barely left Europe since then. My happiest ever moment was arriving in Sweden – which was the only European country open – in April 2020, renting a car and going off on my own to explore, once again affirming my freedom while the rest of the world was closed.
This may seem selfish or irresponsible but truly, being closed down I couldn’t breathe and I know I didn’t put anybody in danger as I was never close enough to anybody. Moreover, during this period I set myself a new aim of doing World Heritage Sites, especially since I was confined more to Europe. I have visited more than 250 WHS since the pandemic hit in March 2020 believe it or not.
Now more than ever, I will say I have matured into a totally independent traveller who I like relying on myself or on my car to go around. I have very little tolerance for tourist traps and mass tourism now, so am dreading going to the one iconic sight I have still never been to, Machu Picchu because it’s just not what I want from a trip.
Alone with the car in the middle of nowhere in Sweden – April 2020
Since you mentioned one of your post-pandemic trips, why don’t you get us into a travel mood and tell us a little more about your adventures since your last interview in late 2018.
That seems so long ago now, lights years away. In 2019, I spent quite some time aiming to revisit countries I had only been to once. NomadMania did its last organised trip to date – to Niger, including Agadez – that year in February, when it was still only beginning to be doable.
I then had the last of my ship expeditions, from Easter Island to Papeete, though I would say on the whole that was a failure of a trip; I did visit Pitcairn island for a second time though and got precious time with Valentin Sazhin, one of my oldest friends in the community! I had an exciting overland trip in Guinea, crossing from there to Liberia and that November visited Afghanistan for my third time, getting to Kandahar.
I ended the year with a trip to Latin America and the iconic South Pole and started 2020 with the Galapagos, where I hadn’t been before. Then there was that wild travel meeting in Colombia which took us to Marquetalia, and I flew back to Latin America for a week in Venezuela just as the pandemic was starting to take hold.
I am quite sure I was the last pre–pandemic traveller who entered Eritrea for tourist purposes (and a visa on arrival) on March 16, 2020. I remember walking blissfully in the sublime streets of Asmara and getting horrifying reports over flimsy internet connections about the situation in Europe.
Since the pandemic took hold, I can’t say I have had any very long-haul trips and I haven’t either crossed the Atlantic or gone very far east. I spent 2020 roaming around the countries of Europe I could, and I did a lot of new towns and World Heritage Sites in the process, especially in Hungary, Finland, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland, where one of my most surreal experiences was being the only passenger in the whole carriage of the iconic Bernina Express.
In 2021 I spread my wings a little further, initially in Egypt, which was a true oasis in every sense while Europe was once again in a hard lockdown. I spent two weeks in Albania and North Macedonia which had no covid restrictions, including a number of happy days overlooking a beach in Durres. I then went to the Comoros for my second visit. Skopje to Moroni is one of the weirdest itineraries I have ever had (though Pristina to Suva back in 2018 is also a rather crazy one as well).
I finally let go later in 2021 with a trip to Tajikistan and the fabulous region of Gorno Badakhshan which I would say is an absolute must. Then we held our 3rd NomadMania Conference on the island of Principe and I also joined a great group of Socotra and went to Iraq including Mosul.
I do feel 2022 has been very unadventurous to be honest, apart from the madness of hiring my own plane in DR Congo for a 2-week rollercoaster and also going to lovely Namibia whose interplay of natural, cultural and historical places makes it a uniquely winning destination.
Only now am I truly spreading my wings, I have just arrived in Vietnam and I am really happy to finally be visiting South-East Asia again, one of my favourite regions. Vietnam is especially close to my heart as I did an internship in Hanoi back in 1996 as part of my MBA, which was my first real adventurous trip.
Meeting the locals in Kiri, Mai-Ndombe province, DR Congo
You mentioned focusing a lot of World Heritage Sites. Give us a few of your recent favourites.
I had never paid much attention to World Heritage Sites but given the limitations of the pandemic, they seemed like a sensible aim within Europe, where many of them lie. Hands down the best of the ones I have done in the past 3 years is Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, perhaps because I had zero expectations and was then met with this exceptional Roman villa with incredibly preserved, stunningly beautiful mosaics.
In July this year, I visited the Chauvet cave, which is actually a replica of the original which is sealed off. Again, I thought ‘Well, it’s a replica so it will be terrible’, but what a delight. The guiding and the realization that some of the artefacts are 37,000 years old had me get goose pimples in total disbelief. A truly amazing place to visit.
I saw gorillas for the first time at Kahuzi Biega Park in DR Congo and was incredibly lucky to ‘meet’ a whole family and spend precious moments observing them just as they observed us. Given it was my first encounter with gorillas, this site will stay with me forever. Perhaps unexpectedly for DR Congo, the group leaders there were both very professional and incredibly helpful, I found, adding to the positive experience.
I would like to congratulate Els Slots and her incredible community-based resource worldheritagesite.org which is arguably the most helpful site for those aiming at WHS. Thanks, Els!
Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily
You constantly reject the title of ‘Most Travelled Man’ or ‘biggest traveller’ though in some publications and circles this is what is said about you. Is that false modesty?
No, it’s being an adult. There are at least 10 people out there claiming to be the world’s biggest traveller – that means at least 9 are delusional. I will not join any of these people in such statements. You cannot measure travel and experience.
Yes, I’ve been ranked number 1 on the Masterlist of NomadMania for the past 4 years (but luckily I am not number one on the M@P list of quirky regions!) and that is more a source of embarrassment than anything else. I believe it undermines the credibility of the website – someone please take over that spot from me (but be prepared to be verified!). I certainly don’t feel I am that well-travelled, there is so much I haven’t seen and experienced including some very basic travel ‘musts’.
Seeing the achievements of the travel community in the past year or so, people going to places like Lake Tele in Congo or the Minaret of Jam or the depths of the Amazon leaves me both speechless and conscious of the fact that nowadays I travel very little compared to some others. Maybe to paraphrase Socrates, ‘I know one thing, that I’ve seen nothing’.
Some travellers have a few ‘naughty’ habits. Do you?
No drinking till I drop if that’s what you have in mind. I do like to ‘steal’ the safety instructions from the aeroplane. I know it’s wrong but I can’t help myself. I also take the barf bags if they are colourful. My only other vice is my hobby of taking photos of elderly women in impoverished Eastern European countries, especially Romania. That’s why I have a camera with fantastic zoom. Those grannies never know they are immortalised! I know one should seek consent, but do you? Really, always?
January 2020 – With the first Panamanian UN Master Jaime Aleman in Panama
Given the extent of your travels, what are your specific travel aims for the future, if any?
I hope to keep my balance between a normal home life and a ‘crazy’ adventure. So many of the big travellers are single or divorced and that’s fine if it’s a choice but for me, the art of being a traveller is to successfully keep my foot in both camps, given I want a semblance of a ‘normal life’, silently admiring those who don’t! All this means I will never be in the big league of people who dedicate their entire life to travel, and that is a very conscious choice.
I do plan on visiting every country twice, I have only 7 left and will hopefully visit 3 of those by the end of this year, so this isn’t really that big a challenge. My aim is to have visited 2/3 of the countries at least 5 times – I recently visited Moldova which was my 70th country visited at least 5 times, so I’m very far away but it’s certainly doable. I’d also like to visit half the NomadMania regions at least twice; that is not as easy as it sounds.
But this is all quantitative. And to be honest my main aim is more qualitative. As I get older, I want to have more fun, understand people and cultures more, spend much less time at airports or at sea on ships and much more time on terra firma. Ultimately, I will be travelling slower, dedicating more time to my favourite countries and possibly trying to see as many of our entries in the Bizzarium and the Dark Side Series.
Bizzarium? Tell us something recent that totally surprised you then.
Try going to the supermarket in Opuwo in northern Namibia. It’s a ‘normal’ supermarket with its products on shelves, cash registers and all that you would expect. But what makes this truly unbelievable is the mix of customers. On the one hand, you get what are probably government officials or workers dressed in jeans and ‘Western’ clothes. Then you have the occasional tribal woman, baby fastened to her, breasts uncovered.
Seeing a traditional tribal woman in a ‘modern’ supermarket is totally unbelievable; the true interplay between old and new is right in front of you.
November 2, 2022: With Yousef Al Rashed in the incredibly bizarre must-do Mirror House in Kuwait
The first ever EPS meeting in Kuwait was my first EPS meeting too: incredibly kind of local hosts Lisa Edwards and Tanya Briggs to treat everyone to dinner!
How do you react when you are not able to travel – either in general or to a specific place? Let’s look back to the pandemic lockdowns, but also some specific examples such as being denied a visa to a place you really wanted to go or being denied boarding to an airplane. What feelings does this stir up in you?
I’ve been lucky enough to have never been denied a visa I applied for, though I have been denied boarding (wrongly) at Heathrow once and I was in a state of absolute shock and denial. On that occasion, when I was going to Sao Tome, I just rebooked a new ticket and flew to Lisbon, and from there to Sao Tome, no problem at all. I will forever loathe the clueless, unprofessional and uncaring staff at Heathrow, not to mention IATA, for their ignorance. But these are first-world problems, right?
I think in these situations it is very important to remember what really matters in life. The war in Ukraine puts a lot in perspective and I vow to never behave like a spoiled brat again. Hopefully, the total prohibition on travel that happened with covid is forever behind us. But let’s say if not, I will just be resourceful and find my way to explore something new. You can do that even close to home, you don’t always need to go very far away.
Having said that, it’s easy for me to have this ‘zen’ attitude since I have long completed 193 countries. Those who have a few countries left to visit and can’t get there have every right to be going ballistic, I completely understand this as I was the same trying to get the Equatorial Guinea visa back in 2008, basically breathing, sleeping and existing only with the thought of that elusive country.
Made it to Sao Tome!
Do you have any regrets regarding your travels?
Obviously! I should have started much earlier. Also, I think all of us sometimes kick ourselves for not having gone to some dangerous countries earlier when they were safe. How could one know that Libya and Yemen would turn out so badly? Luckily, I did visit Syria three times before the civil war as I liked it so much. I’m also thankful I did so much of Russia when I did, though I’m devastated at the prospect of maybe never going again.
I deeply regret not having had a celebration when I visited every country in 2008, mainly because everyone I knew then thought I was crazy and I didn’t know any other travellers. I now see so many people having big parties upon completion, which is so cool.
However, my 50th birthday in Baku this year, following an invitation by my friend Mehraj Mahmudov, celebrated with some great travellers, partially took care of that. With a NomadMania birthday cake and local diva Aygün Kazimova singing for us, this was that big send-off that kind of erased all regrets!
Celebrating my 50th birthday with Azeri diva Aygün Kazimova
The whole group celebrates with Aygün
You mentioned some of your other hobbies outside of travel – tell us more about them.
I have always really liked the theatre and the cinema and know a lot about Hollywood up to the 1980s. I especially enjoy rather ‘crappy’ TV movies of the 1970s, maybe they are my way of evoking my childhood, especially dramas and so-called thrillers with entirely forgotten actors, who I know all about.
Related to travel, but still distinct, I really love civil aviation. I have been a subscriber of Airliner World since the very first issue back in June 1999. I am very proud to be number one on the two aviation-related Series because these are really part of my greatest interest.
I also dabble in astrology and tarot, though I don’t actually believe in any of it, I think it’s great fun to try and interpret what some people do through this lens.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the Eurovision Song Contest and though I wouldn’t say I am the biggest fan, some of my friends instantly think of me when they hear about the contest. The second week of May, when it is usually held, is absolutely ‘holy’ and travelling then is out of the question, unless it is to the country where the contest is held.
Finally, people don’t really know I am a qualified counsellor with a diploma in counselling. I don’t really consider this a ‘hobby’, but I do love to learn more about social psychology and the art of understanding people under duress and helping them in crisis situations.
You’ve alternated your profile flags – so are you Greek or British?
I find it unfortunate that often the first question people ask is ‘Where are you from’ as if they are trying to put you in a box and figure out who you are solely based on your country of origin. Wouldn’t it be more correct to ask ‘Tell me five words that speak most about you’ or even just ‘Tell me something about yourself’? I think at this point in my life I am kind of beyond nationality, though for certain I am European.
I switched my flag to Greek as I think, being ranked number one on NomadMania for now, there is greater value in doing so under the far less-travelled Greek flag, and the ancient Greeks were among the very first world travellers of their time, so it has symbolic value too.
Rare photo in the centre of Athens, Greece
You answered our signature question four years ago so let’s restructure it today. Which four travellers who are alive and you have NOT yet met physically would you invite to a dinner and why?
Given that the voting for the 2nd NomadMania Awards is still open, I am making things easy for myself by not mentioning any of the current nominees, even though there are at least two I’m dying to meet.
I’d invite the legend Lily West who, if I do get lucky, I’ll be meeting in less than 3 weeks. She travelled in the early 70s on those hippie trails through Afghanistan – a time long, long gone and has been living in Japan for more than 40 years, casually visiting every country since then. She would have so much to say!
I would then invite our guest to the awards last year, war journalist and writer Rauli Virtanen. Based on our research, he is the first person in the world to have visited every country back in 1988. The things he has seen, starting from Vietnam in 1972 and up to the recent atrocities in Ukraine, must make for an incredible if disconcerting, conversation.
Then there is Artur Anuszewski, who unbelievably I still haven’t met. We cooperated virtually in 2011 to build the first list of regions of The Best Travelled and I have never forgotten his contribution to this. I do hope we get together soon even though we do disagree on what should and what shouldn’t be on this list!
Last but certainly not least, since all the other guests are in their 70s and European, I would invite last year’s NomadMania purposeful traveller award winner, Wode Maya, from Ghana, to tell us more about his travels in Africa and his vision for his often misunderstood continent.
Tajikistan, by the border with Afghanistan
Finally, please predict the future for us (so we can review it later on) – where is NomadMania/Harry/travel/the world going to be in another 10 years?
Despite my interest in astrology, I don’t have a crystal ball, so this is more a wish than a prediction. I would like to believe that the world will still exist in 10 years’ time and that global warming or nuclear war will not have consumed us. I do believe we may be in for major geopolitical shifts, though 10 years is maybe not all that far away.
Travel should certainly be going from strength to strength if this year’s trend is anything to go by. But perhaps inequality will get even worse and so maybe there will be a wider gap between those who are lucky enough to explore and those who can’t.
Hopefully, NomadMania can play a small part in equalizing this and giving some people the opportunity to see the beauty of the world. Hopefully, as well, there won’t be a need to make any more changes to the Masterlist of 1301 regions, though perhaps there may be a new country (Bougainville?!) to take the UN Masters List to 194 or beyond.
As for myself, given my lifestyle I’ll just be happy if I’m still alive and healthy; and if I am, for sure I will still be watching the Eurovision Song Contest every May and I will still be travelling to places both unknown and known – with more emphasis on the latter, choosing to spend more time in those I enjoy most. Because I will be free to make such choices, as will ideally the whole world.
December 2019 – For some, the ultimate goal? South Pole.