Gina Morello: Traveled to Every UN Country Despite COVID-19 Challenges

21 January, 2021 | Blog, Interviews

 

Gina has us really inspired. Undeterred by the covid outbreak, she persevered and on December 9th, 2020 landed in her last UN country, Mozambique. This makes her so far the only traveller to complete 193 UN countries post-pandemic. But there is much more to the face behind the website Adventurous Gina who is also one of NomadMania’s Charity Ministers.

 

Winter wonderland in Skardu, Pakistan

 

Gina, tell us something about your early days and how your interest in travel developed.

 

I grew up in an ordinary middle-class household in a suburb of New Orleans, so there were not any exotic trips in my formative years. We took the occasional typical family vacation in the USA at the time – a road trip in a yellow station wagon to the white beaches of the Florida Panhandle and on occasion we visited Disney . On holidays, we would visit relatives in Dallas and Houston sometimes by car and other times I was sent to visit solo.

One summer in Dallas when I was about 11 years old, my aunt took my cousins and me on a road trip to San Antonio during which we took another road trip to shop in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Nuevo Laredo is a border town along the Rio Grande and the twin city of the same name in Texas. This was my first taste of international travel and for this I am eternally grateful. I have only vague memories of being curious about the bustling markets, strange-looking foods, and friendly people, which is a theme that repeats itself throughout my travel journey.

My next international trip was to Belize with a friend whose parents had a house on Ambergris Caye. I met some expats living there and they took me scuba diving for the first time. I was not scuba certified at the time so I do not recommend this to the readers. I saw my first stingray and shark on that first dive, and I was immediately hooked on scuba.
This trip was the true inspiration for my early travel days in so many ways. From that time, I wanted to scuba dive and took an interest in local food and culture. It also influenced my life to choose a college based on its marine science program in Miami.

Many of my travels initially were scuba trips. When I grew tired of seeing the same old aquatic life in Florida, I began to look further afield to distance places to which I could travel for scuba diving. Later I became a certified Cave Diver in the phreatic caves of Central Florida but dreamed of diving the calm, warm waters and delicately decorated caves of the Riviera Maya.

I would eventually achieve all those dreams and so much more. However, it was not until I landed a job at American Airlines corporate headquarters, more than 20 years ago, did my travels take off. When working at an airline, it is an industry benefit to fly at no cost but also you must fly standby. It was this privilege that enabled my passion (or fueled my addiction) to travel and I traveled almost every weekend and during every bank holiday.

Early on in my days at American Airlines, when I could not find anyone to travel with for scuba, I decided to travel by myself. In fact, my first solo trip was out of this so-called necessity. I was planning for an upcoming holiday week and I wanted to go scuba diving in Los Roques, Venezuela. At the time, I did not know any other scuba divers at work.  I checked the flights from Dallas to Caracas, which were readily available to employee travelers. Therefore, I just went.  Although not as dangerous as today, Venezuela, especially Caracas, was no safe place back then. The experience gave me the confidence to know that I can travel on my own to a country where I did not speak the language and that had some element of potential danger.

This is how my solo travels began. I continue to travel solo, even today 20 years later, sometimes out of “necessity” and sometimes out of desire. I estimate about 1/3 of my travels are solo, 1/3 with one other person and 1/3 with groups. To be sure, each type of travel has its pros and cons.

 

Gerewal Festival in the Sahel, Chad

 

So, you an avid follower of all the major travel communities. What attracts you to the communal aspect of travel?

 

My travel journey began without knowledge of the greater travel community. Other than Flyer Talk, I was completely unaware of the online travel communities until sometime after 2014 when I began to count countries. Basic questions as to “what is a country? “what counts as a visit?” and “which list should follow?” I mulled over alone, without hearing the vast opinions of other travelers who had previously thought this through. I was also blissfully unaware of how potentially divisive these issues can be.

When I was on long-term consulting assignments for my most recent employer Sabre, in UAE, Pakistan, and Italy, I had easier access to parts of the world that were previously distant landsIt an disproportionate amount of time searching the internet for information on traveling to more off-the-beaten path destinations looking for travel ideas, visa information and fixers. I stumbled upon a couple of inspirational and informational blogs, such as Lee Abbamonte, which were immensely helpful with information and who had already tackled some of my previous questions as well. It was not until I found Nomadmania (The Best Traveled at the time) and Most Traveled People that I realized a whole community was out there available for inspiration, information sharing, and support from a group of like-minded people.

A couple of years ago I joined the Travelers Century Club to build my local area network in the travel community also for the same reasons – inspirational, informational, and a sense of community. It is a different set of faces than the online ones and I am grateful for the opportunity to meet fellow travelers who live in Texas.

Lastly, getting involved in the travel clubs provides a chance for me to give back to the travel community in a variety of ways. I try to contribute to information sharing, hosting meet ups, giving presentations, and volunteering.

 

Camping on the Antarctic Peninsula

 

What kind of traveller do you consider yourself to be in general? 

 

For the past 1.5 years, I am on an extended sabbatical from work. My current preference is for long trips – if I can be away from home really. My present trip has been more than 2 months long and counting. Although it seems like the older I get, the more time constrained I am with personal commitments and must head back home after 2 or 3 weeks.

When I was still gainfully employed, which was until July 2019, I did much shorter trips to accommodate a hectic work schedule comprised of roughly 90% international travel. Moreover, the paltry number of vacation days that Americans receive from work do not allow for much travel. A typical American job begins with 2 weeks of vacation plus 8 bank holidays per year. I know the other working American travelers can relate.

My preference is often for luxury travel, if it is available, since many trips I enjoy are off the beaten path with no tourist infrastructure so luxury is not even an option. I was spoiled with luxury working in the airline industry where you can fly for free in first class if a seat is available. After that, I traveled intensely for work over many years clocking in more than 200k miles per year in the couple of years that I tracked it. I stayed in business hotels and flew business class flights for which I accumulated a significant amount of frequent flyer miles and hotel points. Now I am finally burning through the points and miles on my extended sabbatical.

These days I consider myself an adaptable traveler. As I write this, I am on a local bus, a Matatu, from Nairobi to make my way to Lake Turkana to visit the local tribes in the region and I am incredibly happy to be on my way in the bus as a change of pace.

On my last trip before the pandemic, I spent 9 days traveling the road of Bones in the bone chilling Siberian winter where home stay accommodations are minimalistic and sometimes without running water. The toilet is often an outhouse with a drop toilet. Post pandemic I camped in Northwest Nigeria at the villages of the Kamberi and Dukawa people and was entertained in the evenings with traditional drums and horn accompanied by dancing and local beer into the wee hours of the morning.

 

War relics near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan

 

What can you not travel without?

 

My most prized travel possession Yeti brand cup /thermos. It is much more useful than a regular water bottle in that it regulates temperature very well- both cold and hot, in many countries, a takeaway cup of coffee is a foreign concept so I have my Yeti there to fill the void because I cannot start my day without a spot of coffee. It also comes in handy to fill with my other favorite beverages such as water and wine. The Yeti is made of stainless steel, so it is easy to clean by hand.

The most unusual item I travel with is a Lacrosse ball. I started using it to treat soft tissue injuries when I used to run distances. You just roll it around on the affected area to work out the muscle adhesions and it helps immensely with loosening the muscle and the associated pain. Eventually, I realized I could also use the ball on my back and shoulders in lieu of a massage or chiropractor whilst traveling as well as on neck pain from working on the computer, sleeping on planes, and hotel beds. I found a smaller ball that I carry now when I am constrained on space in my luggage.

I never leave home without sleep aids to help me manage through the jet lag. I have a gift for being awake at 0300 no matter what time zone I am in, so it helps to ease the transition to take an over-the-counter sleep aid.

For sun protection I always travel with face moisturizer that contains sunscreen and a hat. The hat is also good for covering up bad hair days. I cannot live without a daily face cream with

In corona times, I travel with masks (both disposable and reusable fashion ones) and hand sanitizer. I look forward to the day these are no longer needed but I am happy to use them nearly constantly since it allows me to travel during these difficult times.

 

Drinking ayran in Sanliurfa, Turkey

 

Relatively few people (as a percentage of population) from the US travel as extensively as you have. Do you feel that you are ‘different’ because of your travels and do you feel this is a plus or a minus in terms of your everyday life in the US?

 

Absolutely, I feel different from many people in the USA for having traveled to so many places of which many Americans have never even heard much less visited. I embrace the thought of being different and unique so it is a positive for me. Without a doubt, I consider my travels it a positive for informing and shaping my world views. There is a quote from Mark Twain which really captures this aspect of the human spirit. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” – Mark Twain

In this way, travel opens the mind and heart and I recommend it to everyone.

 

Himba mother near Opuwo, Namibia

 

So what are the main lessons you have learned from travel?

 

Here are a couple of lessons I learned from my travels:

1. On the surface different cultures may seem foreign but at their core, most people are more alike than they are different.
For me, one of the best parts of travelling is experiencing different cultures.   This includes a culture’s customs, cuisine, history, language, and religions. If you look a bit closer than the specific customs associated with the culture, I find that people are looking for the basic essentials in life- food, safety, family, love, and a sense of higher purpose. These are expressed in an endless variety of ways in different parts of the world but I’ve noticed that we are not so different after all. The similarities among people vastly outweigh the differences.

2. You need much less than you think in life
A common travel rule of thumb is the Golden Rule for packing. The recommendation is to take half the clothes you were planning for the trip and twice the money. This is stellar advice for packing, of course. If we focus on the clothing part for a moment, this is also a great metaphor for life in general.
One of the best lessons you will learn when traveling is that we can often make do with what we have with us. Similarly , we can make do with much less in life I find I need much less material possessions to be happy in life. I have found it is not the latest iPhone or new clothes that make us happiest – it’s our experiences and memories that stay with us for years to come.

Through travel, I have learned to enjoy experiences over things to create lasting memories.

 

Edge of the world in Saudi Arabia

 

Overall, which countries most surprised you, both positively and negatively?

 

On the positive side, I would say Nigeria surprised me the most. I had heard so many negative stories about Nigeria from problems entering the country, moving around the country, forced bribery, police harassment etc. that I had low expectations for my time there.

I enjoyed my recent trip to Nigeria immensely. In fact I had nothing but warm welcomes and smooth sailing along the way (more or less). I did get asked for a “gift “ in Lagos airport customs but I was asked in the nicest possible way. I modeled my responses to requests for gifts ( bribes) after my lovely guide Janine. She just treats the request as a joke so the person gives up eventually and lets you move along. Using this approach, I ended up I taking selfies with some immigration officers at their request when moving to Niger State after I laughed off their request for money. I enjoyed my trip so much that I need to go back to explore more.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have a different philosophy on negative travel experiences. I believe every country has something special and unique to offer and to experience. Sometimes, like an onion, you have to peel back the layers of complexity to get to the good stuff . Other times when you peel back the layers, it makes you cry.

There are a few countries that can be mentally challenging to travel in due to the possibility of negative travel experiences. However, travel is complex and could easily be influenced by one bad experience, a bad hotel, getting detained upon entry or exit, etc. I try not to let one or two small experiences sour me on a whole country. I just keep peeling back those layers.

 

Hiking to the Everest Base Camp

 

Tell us a few of your travel adventures that really stand out.

 

I think we need a spot of good news amidst the darkness of 2020. I would like to start 2021 on a good note. For this reason, I will share an uplifting story now.

On December 9, 2020, I entered Mozambique as my final UN country. Rather than organize a party (because of COVID) or a social media blitz, I decided to take some time in Mozambique alone to process it all and to reflect upon my journey, and to decide what is next in life.

The absolute highlight of my trip to Mozambique was not the fabulous white beaches, old Portuguese architecture, heavenly sweet mangos, or delectable fresh seafood, but my time spent at the GirlMove academy in Nampula.

While visiting, I had the opportunity to speak to the ladies about woman and travel. We decided on a round table, informal discussion via zoom because it is still 2020 after all.
I shared my story with the ladies of GirlMove and asked them to each shared theirs. Perhaps I inspired the girls at the academy with my travels, but I found myself truly inspired by these young ladies who are wise way beyond their years. I was moved to tears a couple of times just listening to their stories and watching them interact.

Here are my big takeaways from listening to this wonderful group of young ladies. They are good lessons for us all to remember no matter what stage of life you are in:

—Dream big! do not put a roof on your dreams.
—-Pursue your passions! no matter what your special interest is (e.g., music, sports, psychology, optometry), you can incorporate it into your life’s work.
—-It is possible! if you believe in yourself, your dreams, and your passions, anything is possible.

To learn more about GirlMove academy please visit https://www.girlmove.org/

 

Masked dance in Dogon country, Mali

 

You were left with 4 UN countries to do when the pandemic hit, and global travel stalled. You then found yourself attempting these difficult destinations – all in Africa – in 2020. Tell us how you went about this, the process and how you felt achieving this.

 

When I quarantined in March, I had four countries to visit before completing my 193- Namibia, Cape Verde, Nigeria, and Mozambique. I had originally planned to finish by May or June 2020, and I focused on the gratitude of being so close to completion and completing 8 months of full-time travel before lockdown. I felt fairly and erroneously confident that the world would reopen before the end of the year and I could finish my 193 journey relatively easily by the end of the year. As the months rolled on my confidence began to wane with the constant barrage of news about COVID illness and death. Most countries remained closed.

A spot of good news arrived in early June when I received an invitation to the Portuguese Travel Club meeting later in June with some travel friends.So, my first travel experience post-pandemic was to Portugal. To prepare for this, I spent quite a bit of time researching the travel requirements and restrictions for the country, the airline, the connection aiports, and the hotels. I collected information on potential travel requirements and pitfalls at every step along my journey to Portugal. There were many complexities to traveling in the COVID era.

With my experience traveling to Portugal  during the pandemic I developed my own process to research countries to identify ever changing entry requirements and border openings/ closings. I gained confidence in the various new procedures in airports, planes and hotels. I checked for changes in my four remaining countries daily. After Portugal I had the confidence to do some additional travels to Mexico, to Turkey and in the USA while I waited for my 4 countries to open.

Cabo Verde was the first country to open its borders in September for essential travel only. I needed to wait until Cape Verde opened to tourists. At least it was a step in the right direction.

In late September, the president of Namibia announced Namibia would open to tourists again on October 1. Of course, I did a little dance around the house to celebrate and then I got to work making my plans by checking entry requirements and other complexities. I decided to wait a week after the official opening to allow the country and airlines to get the processes worked out and ended up spending 2 glorious weeks in Namibia. I could have spent two more weeks easily, but I decided to head back home to make myself keep flexible and ready for the next countries to open for tourists.
By this time Mozambique was open but they had suspended VOA. I would have to obtain a visa before visiting, which is usually time consuming in normal times.My new second passport had arrived in the mail, so I shipped it off to the Mozambique embassy for a tourist visa. It was my last hope and completing my 193, or so I thought.

Nigeria opened shortly after I returned home. Nigerian visas are notoriously onerous to obtain and immigration can be difficult, so the VOA is not usually the recommended option.
To save time I decided to organize a VOA to Nigeria. The company I chose with had a spectacular VOA failure ending in a woman deported from Lagos, so I was nervous about the potential outcomes of this attempt. Fortunately, everything worked out flawlessly upon arrival. No problems or questions at all for the visa.
I arranged for 12 days in Nigeria split between western Nigeria and Lagos area. Despite all the negative stories about Nigeria, I found the people friendly and the country vibrant. It was fantastic experience and I already want to return.

While in Nigeria I received the good news that Cabo Verde has opened for tourists. I made my way to Praia with a dreadfully circuitous routing that in normal times would be unimaginable. During COVID-19 times, flights are scarce, and one must piece together international travel in whatever way one can.
Praia, the capital of Santiago was open to tourists with a COVID test within 72 hours.
I had a trip booked for April 2020 that included the beautiful islands of Sao Anton and Sao Vicente but sadly that trip was canceled due to COVID-19.These islands were now also open to tourists via ferry only and required another negative COVID test in both directions. I decided in the end not to visit the other islands on this trip since I did not want to be several ferry rides, COVID tests, and days away from Praia in case Mozambique opened even though I desperately wanted to visit the rest of the islands. I will visit next time.

While in Cape Verde, I looked at the locations of Mozambique embassies and consulates in Africa and noticed a consulate in Giza, Egypt. I might as well give it the “old college” try as we say in America. After visiting the Mozambique consulate in Giza and getting the same answers as before I decided not to leave my passport there for processing. I had started to lose a bit of hope by now. I decided to take a quick jaunt to Egypt’s famous White Desert and wait for December 1st to see if the Mozambique government would update their policy on resuming VOA.

December 1 arrived with no updates to the Mozambique policy. I started to get comfortable with the thought of not reaching my goal by the desired date.  On December 3rd, I woke up to the news in a Mozambique Facebook travel group that VOA had been reinstated at air and some land borders. I was beyond elated and wondering how fast I can get out of the White Desert and into Mozambique.

It took me a solid week to make my plans for arrival into Maputo and work my way down south. I had several stops along the way (another circuitous routing!) the final one being Joberg. In Joberg I was restless and anxious to board over the VOA.  Once I said “I’m getting my visa on arrival “and the agent printed the boarding pass, I knew I was home free! A sense elation came over me and now I was just giddy.

After a protracted VOA process in the sweltering heat of the Maputo arrivals hall. I finally heard the familiar sound of a stamp of my passport. My eyes began to fill with tears with bittersweet joy of achieving my travel dream amidst the tragedy of the pandemic. I was savoring the moment when a “luggage porter” approached me to try to help me (aka take my bag and demand money). It certainly snapped me out of the moment and was mildly annoying, but it reminded me of many traveler’s favorite phrase “This is Africa”. I just laughed and was happy to have finally arrived in Mozambique and to completion of my goal.

If not for the invite to the Portugal Travel Club to give me knowledge, confidence, and courage to travel, I may have not finished my 193 this year.

 

Feeding the hawks in Harar, Ethiopia

 

So now, after 193, what is left for you in terms of travel?

 

People often ask me what is next on my bucket list once I finish the UN list of countries. My response is that I will never finish; there is always something new to see or experience.  In the near term, I will be focusing on new experiences and ethnography related travels.

 

You are one of NomadMania’s Charity Ministers. Tell us a little about this role and what you do here.

 

When I worked at American Airlines, I had the privilege of support of my employer to serve on a few of non- profit boards for many years. When I took a new job with full time travel, I had to give that up due to time constraints. Consequently, In the last 8 years I was unable to commit to any type of longer term volunteer positions other than a transactional type of volunteer opportunity such as work at the local food bank or take school supplies to an orphanage in Haiti, for example.

When I took a sabbatical from work, I began to look for a long term volunteer opportunity in an area that I am passionate about. Naturally, I had been looking for a project whilst traveling since travel is my favorite hobby but I hadn’t yet found any inspiration along the way. At some point I read about the nomadmania ministry opportunities   in the nomadmania newsletter and the Charity Minister intrigued me the most. I had a chat with Harry about his vision for the role and thought it was a great cause . It was fate !

The goal of the charity minister role is to launch and administer an annual travel scholarship for university students from low income countries.  The scholarship is to be awarded  to young people with demonstrated resilience and academic excellence and the hope is to motivate and inspire them further in studies, travel and life.  The scholarships are funded by member donations.

Initially we planned to launch it in 2020 but we delayed it by one year due to the pandemic. We have launched the program for 2021 with a handful of countries to begin with in order to work the kinks out of the end to end process.  It’s definitely a team effort – there are 2 of us serving as ministers plus Harry is involved as well as a whole committee of people. I am looking forward to reviewing the applications and awarding the scholarships to some deserving students. I can’t wait to watch the students embark on their journeys later in the year and hope to see meaningful life experiences for each student

You can learn more about the program or how to donate at https://nomadmania.com/scholarships.html

 

Leptis Magna ruins in Libya

 

Finally, our signature question – if you could invite any four people from any period of human history to dinner, who would you invite and why?

 

Amelia Earhart for our shared passions of aviation and travel. My understanding is that she was a strong willed y woman as well. I would love to visit the Islands in Kiribati where experts believe she crashed but I hope to have a different ending to that trip than she did.

I would invite Jane Goodall for our shared passion of wildlife. She is best known for her lifetime of the study of wild chimpanzees using ground breaking methods. Women were not accepted in her profession until after she started her field research in Tanzania in 1960. These days the 86 year old devotes virtually all of her time to chimpanzee advocacy and to environmental advocacy.

I would invite Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the former US Supreme Court Justice who broke barriers for herself, other women and Many other people. As a lawyer, she took up many civil rights type cases and successfully advocated for her causes. Later on the US Supreme Court she did much to advocate for women’s rights as well as other disenfranchised groups.   She was well known for her passionate dissents when not writing for the majority earning her the moniker notorious RBG. Like so many people, I was truly saddened when she died in 2020.

Finally, I would invite my mom who died 14.5 years ago from pancreatic cancer. Her life ended too soon from this world at the age of 62 with so many travels still on her bucket list. My mom was an artist and a traveler so at the end of each trip she painted her most memorable scenes from her travels. In her later years. my mom did some solo travels to her big bucket list destinations . She was inspired  to travel solo by my own solo travels. I believe she would be thrilled to see my achievements to date from a travel perspective, as well as my career and personal life.  In her professional life, my mother was an appellate attorney for a good portion of her career and argued in front of the US Supreme Court 3 times winning all three cases. She would never forgive me if I had RBG to my house for dinner and did not invite her too!

 

Post-pandemic travel in the White Desert, Egypt

 

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