Ernestine Chan has recently made it to our UN Masters List, making history by becoming the first Canadian and the first Hong Kongese woman to visit every country in the world. In this exclusive interview with NomadMania, Ernestine takes us on a journey from being a late bloomer in travelling to becoming a world explorer. She shares her unique experiences, challenges, her love for the outdoors and the profound impact of extensive travels on her worldview proving how visiting every country in the world can benefit your life.
Ernestine Chan is the first Canadian and the first Hong Kongese woman to visit every country in the world. She has also been to Antarctica and the Arctic.
This interview is available in video form on our Youtube channel.
Ernestine, congratulations on your recent beautiful achievement. How was Libya? That was your last country, right?
It’s a good feeling and it’s unbelievable, this journey. It’s been a unique experience as a woman, being part of a small minority who has completed this feat. Sorry, airport announcement. I’m at the Madrid airport airport.
So you’re not done with travelling, I guess? 😉
No, I’m actually flying to Western Sahara now. Just finished my first place to go after Libya, it was the Canary Islands, so did some island hopping, hiking, and a cruise. And now I’m flying to Western Sahara.
But back to that, I’m honoured to be amongst the small minority of women. Right? 15% of women finished travelling the world, and I hope to see this number increase.
Ernestine with her Porky Pig, her travel buddy and the first pig to travel the world 🙂
Amazing! What inspired you to visit every country in the world? When did you realize that this achievement was actually within your reach?
Well, unlike many other travellers in this group who dreamt of travelling the world or started travelling at a young age, I’m a late bloomer to this. So other than those annual holidays, which my family took during Christmas and summers to neighbouring southeast Asian countries, I didn’t take my first independent trip until I turned 37, and that was a spontaneous ski trip to Chile in 2008. I’m an avid skier.
Over the years, I travelled more, but only to places that interested me. I didn’t even know how many countries there are in the world until I reached number 100!
When I reached about 140 or 150 countries, then I realized visiting them all might be doable. But I wanted to finish Africa first because it was so difficult and so challenging with all the visas.
The last couple of years was filling a big gap I had in the South Pacific. The cost and the logistics of flying to all the Pacific Islands was a lot. I wasn’t sure if I would or if I wanted to travel so extensively. Meeting other travellers in the community inspired me though, and I decided to take one step at a time.
Ernestine‘s NomadMania profile
You’re proving that travel has no limits! It doesn’t matter when you start and everything is within your reach when you really want something!
Being from Hong Kong and then moving to Canada, how has your multicultural background influenced your travel experiences?
It made me very aware of cultural differences, and I’m very appreciative of the opportunities my family had in Canada. Canada embraces multi-culturalism and diversity in race, religion and political views. I try to respect and observe different cultural differences. While travelling, I like to interact with locals as much as possible, for example, I take local transportation where I can speak with locals during bus rides.
Ernestine being number one in NomadMania Master Ranking for Hong Kong
Can you share a few unforgettable moments from your travels?
Sure! My top three experiences involve nature. I am an outdoorsy, very active person. My number one would be hiking the two tallest mountains in Africa, Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, both within a span of two weeks. It’s the hardest that I’ve pushed myself mentally and physically, and I will be forever proud of that. That said, I’ve been to the highest and lowest point (Lake Assal in Djibouti) in Africa.
And my number two also involves being in nature. I loved my polar expeditions. I’ve been to both Antarctica and the Arctic. I love snowscapes, mountains, icebergs, tranquillity away from civilization, snow hiking, and polar plunges! Being surrounded by penguin colonies, especially the young chics running around to chase their parents for food just blew me away!
Ernestine is an avid hiker. Climbing KIlimanjaro was one of her favourite travel experiences.
That’s incredible. I hope you’ll have a chance to go back and do more of a polar expedition soon!
Maybe I should be a guide there! But my number three is a little bit of a contrast. It was my first camel ride in the Moroccan Sahara desert, which was just magical. It was fun to see the curvy shapes of the sand dunes and the long shadows of our camels. The complete experience of being away from civilization, camping in Berber tents, bonfire with traditional music and dance, walking in pitch dark and star gazing.
So we’re talking about the most beautiful moments, but then of course, travelling comes with challenges as well. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on this journey?
Common challenges include flight interruptions and visa issues, especially in Africa. I also had to learn to adapt and be flexible, especially when things didn’t go as planned.
The most stressful one was my three-month South Pacific trip last year. I went with Luisa Yu, your famous mama who finished her UN 193 in November at the age of 79. We got stuck on a few islands due to the typhoon flight cancellations. What I learned from Louisa was that staying calm and looking for plan B or C is crucial.
Another challenge we all face is applying for visas, especially in Africa where almost all countries need visas from embassies in your home country. My most recent experience was going to my last country, Libya. Early last year Libya started a visa on arrival, just to cancel it after two months. In August I asked the Ottawa embassy and was told it would take about 5 business days.
When I phoned them again in November, to my shock and horror, Ottawa said they ran out of visa stickers and had no idea when they would get them. So my guide had to re-submit my application to be processed at Washington DC. I had made over 100 phone calls to inquire and follow up on my visa status. Thankfully a good samaritan who lives in DC by the name of Sony (shout out to her!), helped deliver my application to the embassy and it was processed the same day.
So the lesson is just don’t give up, just be persistent and push.
Reflecting on your travel experiences, how do you feel they have contributed to your personal growth?
I’ve become a more effective and light packer, a better researcher, and a trip planner. The first time the airline lost my check luggage, it was a three-month trip to Central South America and Antarctica. Now I can travel for three months in a 40-liter backpack from hot to cold countries.
Travelling has also made me braver.
Last year, Lucy invited us to skydiving and Luisa was the first one to put up her hand. And at that time, she was 76 or 77, and she needed a doctor’s approval. The doctor wouldn’t approve, right? So she went every day to beg for the medical clearance, and finally, they gave it to her. I was so scared and wouldn’t have done it alone, but then I thought if Louisa could do it in her 70s, I had no excuses! So she inspired me to skydive.
And most importantly, I’ve become more accepting and respectful of different cultures. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the types of trips that suit me best. I feel that I’ve grown a lot personally.
Ernestine skydiving in Dubai, inspired by our other UN Master, Luisa Yu
We’ve talked about your personal growth. How has all this extensive travel influenced how you see the world?
I’ve always been a student of history and interested in geopolitical events. It saddens me to see history repeat itself, for example: corruption, wars, and genocides. Travel has shown me that, despite those challenges in the world, people are generally warm-hearted and giving. The human race is collectively great, it’s the impact of political and religious leaders on societies.
Now that you’ve visited every country, what is next for you? As we are speaking, you’re at the airport, so I’m pretty sure you’re not done with travelling. Do you have new travel goals or projects in mind?
Ernestine: I plan to go back to my favourite countries and explore new regions at a slower pace, focusing on activities like hiking, skiing, and cycling. I also aim to improve my language skills and possibly volunteer, especially to help girls get an education.
Ernestine’s plans after finishing UN193 include re-visiting her favourite regions in a slower pace. She wants to do more polar expeditions.
Do you have any advice for those dreaming of visiting every country?
Right. Nowadays, what is important, the internet, social media, and travel groups like Nomad Mania are great resources. Expect the unexpected and be flexible. Adaptability and planning are key, especially for challenging destinations. Make a plan B, rather than getting mad just stay calm, and reframe it as it’s an adventure. It’s a learning opportunity rather than getting all flustered.
Ernestine, thank you for sharing your inspiring journey with us. We wish you more amazing travels and look forward to hearing about your future adventures.
It’s been a pleasure, and I’m excited to meet more members of the NomadMania community at the Aland Islands tour in June!