Bill Adams is one of only four people that we know of to have completed the 193 UN countries so far in 2021 – down from 41 in 2019! – by reaching Central African Republic in May. The face behind Bill’s Excellent Adventures, he has been travelling systematically for years in order to finally reach his ultimate goal of visiting every country. We are very happy to host him today – following up on his getting the coveted UN country verification badge from us – and read his impressions.
With samburu guys in northern Kenya
Bill, please tell us something about yourself. Where do you come from and how did you start travelling in the first place?
I grew up on a small farm by a little country town “deep in the heart of Texas.” I was jealous of other kids who bragged about going to distant, exotic places like Louisiana and Oklahoma. So, my first travel ambition was to visit a neighboring state.
An aunt subscribed to a monthly world book club for me when I was nine. Each month we received a booklet with colorful photos of a different country. I still remember opening the one about Ceylon, and today it turns out that Sri Lanka is one of my favorite destinations. I also was crazy about world maps and maybe that helped expand my young mental map beyond the Texas perimeter.
After graduating from Baylor, I backpacked and hitchhiked, along with a Eurail Pass around Europe for the summer. That was my first big international journey, and it was a blast. Yet, working on additional degrees delayed more serious travel, although I confess I did fly down to a few bargain Club Meds of questionable repute in the Caribbean.
Years later, after I had a wonderful position teaching at a university in Washington, DC, I took two transformative trips that reactivated my desire to travel. In 1982, I visited Egypt back when Cairo was like another planet. The radically different culture enthralled me. I soon began to travel a bit more, often to my first real addiction Egypt.
Yet, another diversion kept me home. Along with teaching, I had a successful and expanding consulting business. (I’d published enough not to perish at the university.) Consulting was fun and profitable for over a decade. Then one May, we had two slow weeks, so I took what turned out to be a life-changing hiking trip around Lake Como. What, I ask myself on a sunny mountaintop looking down at Bellagio, am I doing working 80 hours a week with two jobs? Life’s too short, and I’m not paying alimony or putting kids through college. When I returned, I sold my company. One of the best decisions I ever made. I started traveling at least four months a year (all summer and a month over winter break). Some years I took a leave of absence and did nothing but travel.
Foolishness at the Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia
What was it about travelling that made you hooked to the experience?
Love of diverse cultures, politics, history, cuisine, nature, animals — and people! Plus, the thrill of new and often unexpected experiences.
I sometimes get hooked on a country and cannot get enough, going back repeatedly to see more. As I mentioned, Egypt was my first love, but then I fell for Thailand, over and over. Then I became obsessed with Brazil, and, after a couple of dozen long trips there, I’m still not satiated. Sri Lanka has also been calling me to make many repeat visits. I would have hit all 193 UN countries years earlier if it were not for my fixation with these countries.
Workers’ Party Monument, Pyongyang
Though you host your own blog where you share your travel stories, you seem to have very little to no interest in making your travelling accomplishments a public story. Why is that?
First regarding www.billtrips.com: I’m not sure if it is exactly a “blog.” I don’t think I post often enough or extensively enough to qualify as a traditional blog. And I don’t write detailed travelogues.
My posts are usually annotated photo highlights of each country I visit. Occasionally, I may elaborate a little. For example, North Korea required more discussion. Usually, however, each country’s post is fairly short and sweet. I don’t think even hard-core travelers want to read about my every breakfast and bus ride.
“Making it a more public story?” you asked. If you are suggesting going after some press coverage or writing a book now, the answer is “maybe.”
After snorkelling in Aldabra, Seychelles
When did you first start thinking about visiting all the UN countries? How did you get this ambitious idea?
My early travels did not focus at all on country counting. I visited several countries repeatedly (Egypt 16 times so far), but I did slowly turn to new countries. One day, looking at my pin-covered map, I noticed I only needed a few Caribbean countries to wrap up the whole Western Hemisphere. So, I did. Then, only lacking a few in Europe, especially the micro-states, I felt drawn to visit all those delightful places.
As I started to venture off the beaten path in Asia and Africa, I discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring nontraditional destinations. That encouraged me to undertake more unusual journeys to places that pushed me more out of my comfort zone (but were fascinating) such as North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Low and behold, I realized that going to all 193 UN countries might actually be possible, so I forged ahead.
In Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy
You give a nice set of general travel advice on your website that includes various styles of travel, depending on the chosen location. What style of travelling do you prefer if you can pick and choose, and why?
Thank you and I’m glad you had a chance to read my review of a number of travel companies and my thoughts on package tours. That’s at billtrips.com, dear readers.
Personally, I enjoy a variety of modes of travel — except monster cruise ships and huge group tours. (1) I love solo DIY travel; I get to make the decisions. I have nothing but admiration for intrepid adventurers who never use an organized program, unless required to do so in Iran and North Korea. But it’s a big planet and I have not had the time to do everything that way. I’ve enjoyed using other approaches as well.
I have taken (2) some outstanding small group tours that take the hassle out of complicated itineraries and let you relax. (3) On the water, I like small ships. Noble Caledonia, for example, has some superb small “expedition cruises” that include extraordinary excursions.
I should add (4) trains. After the dazzling TransSiberian Express across Russia, I want to travel more by rail.
When traveling for several months on an around the world ticket, I periodically take a week off in a favorite city (often Budapest, Kuala Lumpur, or Cairo) to relax and just soak up the city, catch up on email, update my web site, see old friends, and recharge for the next adventures.
At the Boganda Museum in Bangui, Central African Republic – reaching 193!
What are your biggest travel interests? Are there some things that you try to experience more than others wherever you go?
No niche really. I suppose I’m a travel omnivore. I’m entranced by waterfalls, total solar eclipses, hot air balloons, scenic hikes, live local music, dancing (observing and participating), active volcanoes, pristine beaches, dramatic vistas, unusual geology, classic old towns (restored or not), historical sights, religious venues, distinctive architecture, art galleries, cuisine (from street food to Michelin), animals outside of zoos, safaris, festivals, night markets, farmers’ markets, livestock markets, handicraft markets, unique hotels, flowers in bloom, unusual flora, volunteer work, seeing life in action (weddings, parties, ceremonies) and other serendipitous events (like parades) that you stumble across unplanned — plus, most of all, meeting varied and interesting people, And it is a special treat to be at a destination that is a true gem but has not yet been discovered by hordes of tourists.
What don’t I like besides mobs of tourists and other obvious negatives? One thing I rush past in museums in the endless rows of ancient pots. Thanks, but I’ve seen more than enough old pots already.
Near Chengdu with a panda quickly distracted by an apple
What were some of your biggest surprises on your travels, the positive ones and the negative ones?
The biggest surprise was what a huge delight it has been to explore the world’s many diverse countries and cultures. I always expected it to be fun, but the surprise has been that it almost always surpasses expectations and has been tons of fun.
While I suppose it is a cliché, I have to mention the consistent pleasure at how friendly and helpful most people are, especially working-class people and especially in developing countries.
Except when Obama was President, our US news media convinced us that everybody more or less hates us Yanks. That is why I’ve been astonished by how often people wanted to tell me how much they liked the United States, how much they liked the Americans they had met, and/or what an incredible trip they had to the US. Such unsolicited remarks were often from people not selling anything or hoping for a tip. Their words seemed genuinely heartfelt and bolstered by specifics. A few might add that they disapproved of US foreign policy, but a few would praise it too. I know these individuals self-select and do not add up to a random sample but, nonetheless, this continues to be a surprise. (I can recall only three people over the decades who felt oddly obliged to tell me their low opinion of the US.)
After being asking “Where are you from?,” the follow up question is always “Which state?” Virginia they’ve not heard of, and DC evokes politics. Instead, I say “Texas” where I grew up. And “Texas” never fails to prompt a smile and reaction, usually laughing about cowboys. They love hearing that my dad was a cowboy. His son, not so much.
Negative surprises: I have had so few bad experience that I’m sitting here trying to think of something to write. My rare, minor, negative events were “one off” not patterns.
The last new country that I visited was the only place where the police held me in custody to get some cash. They claimed I’d taken an unauthorized photo of a boring arch and must pay a $300 fine. Long story but I eventually paid $20 so they could save face and I could get my phone/camera back.
While most people behave themselves, I am surprised when I encounter an impatient, cranky, and entitled tourist. In their defense, I understand their horror of not being able to get 2% milk in a caffè latte.
I remember being surprised to find that many over the counter medicines in the US require prescriptions in Europe. And at the other extreme, many high-powered meds that require a doctor’s prescription in the US can be bought over the counter in many countries.
Many things were not such a surprise. Sad but not surprised to see painful poverty sometimes. Not surprised that some sellers would be aggressive. Not surprised that taxi drivers who wait hours by nice hotels often charge many times more than do those on the street.
I was shocked to see the tragic level of litter in some countries, such as the layers of garbage in Tarawa and the masses of plastic bags billowing across Sudan. But I have also been surprised to find Swiss-clean streets in a number of unexpected places.
With my students in Kuala Lumpur
Do you have some special travel stories to share with us?
OK, one from Africa, one from Asia, and one from Europe.
I was riding Cairo’s mostly above-ground metro to the far southern end of the red line at Helwan. The view was interesting, and I walked around a few stations. Returning to the metro at Maadi, I sat across from two Egyptians who were eager to use their few dozen words of English and happy that I knew a little bit of Arabic. They were immensely likeable, upbeat, nice, mid-20s guys. Mohammed Sayed was a security guard and Mohammed worked with an elevator company.
My new friends were on their way to Giza to a wedding celebration, and they insisted I join them. Awesome. Let’s go. In a large square in front of a mosque, the bride and groom were sitting on big chairs elevated a few feet about the crowd which was wild with ululations as pop music played and men danced Egyptian style.
The bride looked unhappy and glanced in our direction from time to time. I kept asking why she was so sad. Finally, Mohammed finally took a deep breath and said, “Because she is in love with me.” He said unconvincingly that it was mutual, but he lacked the funds for a marriage. (However, I later concluded that Mohammed was actually pleased to stay single.)
In the meantime, word had spread that an American was in the crowd. The bridal couple sent word requesting me to do a spotlight dance in their honor! Well, I do love to dance. I said I would dance if Mohammed and Mohammed would join me. They did. And the rest is history – with our trio recorded by the dozens of big old video cameras in the crowd. Ululations and loud applause capped it off, along with that one English word every Egyptian knows: “Welcome!”
After the wedding party, M&M were determined that I try koshari (now a favorite dish) and they treated me at their favorite dive. All in all, it was my best evening ever in Cairo.
In Vietnam one summer, I did some volunteer work. A nonprofit in Auckland that screened and assigned volunteers had placed me in Da Nang. I did not want my heart to break at an orphanage, so I requested to teach English at a junior college and do some tutoring as well. When I arrived, I had been assigned as requested to teach every morning, but my afternoons would have to be at an orphanage.
The building itself was not bad, but it was filled with babies and toddlers who were desperate for some love and attention. That was actually my assigned job. No diapers to change, thank goodness, and no bottles to feed — just hug babies for a couple of hours and then play with some toddlers.
Rows of babies, many holding their arms up as you come near hoping to be hugged. I contrived a way to sit on the floor and hold lots of babies at the same time and, for as many as I could, maximize human contact after they had been lonely in bed by themselves most of the day.
As bittersweet as those afternoons were, I got to see a few glorious events: adoptive parents arriving from the United States, after months and months of paperwork, to bring home their new child. And, wow, these parents and their excited biological kids were the warmest, happiest, most caring families you’ve ever seen. As they embraced their new child, I wanted to go whisper to the toddler, “Congratulations. I think you hit the jackpot!”
One other quick vignette: My widowed sister has three wonderful daughters. When I first took them to Ireland, my nieces were about 12, 14, and 16. That trip went well, and, happily, the Irish lads were not too aggressive. I was concerned because the girls were/are effortlessly stunning. The next year I took them to London and Paris, still watching out for teenage Casanovas.
Of all the beautiful memories of that trip, the one that is most vivid was the last evening in Paris. We had leisurely explored the Eiffel Tower. Luckily, we found a table and chairs on the platform about halfway up the tower. And we sat almost speechless savoring chocolate croissants on the Eiffel Tower watching the sun set over Paris. Perfect.
Picnic during a boat trip on the Mekong river in Laos
How did your general view of the world change with travelling?
For me, that’s a difficult question to answer without singing Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All” and adding a long essay. Let me briefly mention two elements that are somewhat related.
First, the mind-blowing, mind-expanding experiences of travel must require your brain to open up entirely new multi-terabyte wings to store all the educational and incredible memories you gain. I have years of my life that I barely remember, but I’ll never forget my every trip.
Second, traveling the far corners of the world has to change not only how you see the world but how you see yourself. You can come away feeling more confident, flexible, brave, open, nimble, and maybe more empathetic.
Mud mosque in Djenne, Mali
And finally our signature question – if you could invite 4 people from any era to dinner, who would your guests be and why?
OK, then I’m inviting my exhumed friends for a series of diners while we travel around the world.
(1) I would invite Orville Wright (or Wilbur) to hear his amazement at how air travel now sends us across oceans.
(2) After a few stops, I would want to hear Adam Smith reflect on how markets and international trade have transformed the world.
(3) Marco Polo is cooler, but for reactions from an important explorer, I’d probably pick James Cook who covered much more territory.
(4) To join the inventor, the economist, and the explorer, I’d want someone to offer insights on cultural dynamics of places we visit. Margaret Mead would be provocative, but I’m a bigger fan of Alexis de Tocqueville.
Thank you for the honor of this interview and for all the remarkable things that NomadMania does!
Observing the 2006 eclipse in the Libyan desert