Q: Helmut Lent is one of the few travellers who has made it to all 193 UN members. So, this mild-mannered traveller from Berlin is one of the best travelled Germans… Helmut, tell us something about yourself.
I am sixty years of age. I was born in Hanover, have a degree in mathematics, worked for many years in industry and live in Berlin now, which I love. Last year, I decided to stop working. I opted for early retirement because I want to have more time to travel more intensely. I haven’t yet decided what that exactly means. I don’t have a standard way of travelling or how to tick off every region or every corner of the world.
Q: When did you start being a traveller?
It came in stages. I still remember that when I was less than 10 years old, my parents took me to Austria for summer holidays. I found it exciting to go abroad. My normal summer holidays were usually boring, but a foreign country was really something. And it was the first time to escape the Northern German plains and see the ´rocky mountains´ of the European Alps.
I was brought up to stay normal, there was no way that I would have had support from my parents to travel or do anything outstanding. Then I remember something bizarre happening when I was at the age of 18. My father took me to the US – for a somehow self-contradictory reason. He was trying to impress me in doing something I would really be enthusiastic about, so that I would not escape from the social background that he wanted me to preserve. But, of course, that didn’t work! Across the Atlantic we had two weeks to spend. In New York we had a rental car waiting for us. As I was eager to do so, we drove all the way to San Francisco and back. That was the first ´great´ trip!
Q: And did you then start travelling a lot?
Initially not really. I did some trips by car across Europe, such as to Istanbul across the communist Balkans or to the Norwegian North Cape. It took me a while to break away from my background, get my university degree, and I also had some years of work in-between. Otherwise there was not much going on, apart from a wild time with the opposite sex. Probably this was a long phase of breaking free from and making up for those years of too strict education.
Then I started a serious job in industry and could afford trips to Australia, Alaska, South America more than once a year. I really enjoyed it, even though it had to happen on a more restricted time scale due to my job.
In the 1990s I heard about a vacancy in a completely different part of the company I was working for. It was about quality in sales and would imply global travelling. I applied and, unlikely enough, got the job. Of course I did not mention that the opportunity to travel was my main motivation. From then on I was lucky to see large parts of the world on business trips. And it was definitely not about standard destinations, but included e.g. all GCC states and good parts of Black Africa, the Caribbean, Central Asia and the Far East.
Q: Since you were travelling for work internationally, you must have learned a lot!
Yes of course. I always tried to be open to new experiences. I realised that none of what I had learned might necessarily apply in the next situation. Never assume or behave like you know the solution beforehand. Take negotiation patterns. The Chinese, for example, never really stop negotiating. At a certain point they might be ready to sign some agreement on paper, but afterwards they are likely to come up with another idea and pick up the negotiation again. From their point of view this is not necessarily a violation of the signed contract. They have a different way of looking at it, which might be hard to swallow for us Westerners.
Q: When did you start ‘country collecting’?
In 2000, my company sent me to Italy for two years. Although my global business travel was interrupted for that period, I had a fantastic time, appreciating deep insights into Italian culture and the opportunity of getting paid to learn Italian. During my stay, country collecting was restricted to a visit to San Marino. Out of curiosity I asked myself how many countries I might had visited so far. And it happened that San Marino was precisely number 100. Consequently, that raised the question: “How many are there?” I learned that there is more than one answer, but the common denominator of all lists is the UN membership. Well, and there are less than 200 of those. So I said to myself: “I have done more than half. How about finishing off the rest?” That was the ignition to do country collection. In October 2014 Afghanistan was my last UN country.
Q: So is your aim to keep ticking off places?
From San Marino to Afghanistan, i.e. going from 100 to 193, that was ticking off indeed. On purpose I designed trips to get as many stamps as possible into my passport. I consider that done. I don’t want to complete another list. Yes, I am a member of TCC, I am listed on MTP and now of course on TBT. I do believe I will update my lists and follow them up somehow, but I will use those clubs more to get suggestions and as a platform to find people to travel with, as well as to find out how people are travelling and what drives them. And the further off the beaten track a destination is, the more likely you are to run into a fellow member of these clubs anyway.
Q: Can you name a ‘favourite’?
I couldn’t say about a favourite country to travel to. I love to live in Berlin, which may not be very beautiful, but it certainly is cosmopolitan. It would be hard for me to live in a more provincial setting. However, living in a place is completely different from travelling it. In terms of ‘favourite’ travel experiences, I could give you two examples:
I was standing on the top of Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador at dawn. This was an outstanding experience to me. I felt like I was in outer space. I wasn’t sure if it was imagination or real, but I felt I could see the curvature of the earth. I very well know that it was probably due to lack of oxygen supply, but this does not diminish the experience.
Also, first time looking into the eyes of that silverback mountain gorilla in Rwanda I will never forget. I didn´t feel he was an animal but rather an intelligent being. The way he was observing me and what I was doing with my camera convinced me he was thinking.
Q: How do you like to travel?
Generally speaking, I prefer public transport over private arrangements and individual over group travel. I would rather travel a country using long distance buses or rental cars than signing up for an organised tour. As far as travelling on a shoestring is concerned – some people find it strenuous, others do it only to save money. Like the old saying ´been there, done it, paid less!´ That’s not on my mind. But I would rather enjoy talking to interesting people in a cheap hotel than meeting the black-tied in a 5-star. I would rather be stranded in a weird place and meet, observe, talk to people, find out about others and myself than wait for my chauffeur to get me to that cutting-edge resort. It is about how you get to know yourself. So I would do things to broaden my experience and have a more relevant yardstick for my own cultural understanding. And, equally important, I also want to have fun while moving around.
Q: Have you had any strange experiences while travelling?
In the 2000s, I met a business partner in Taiwan who greeted me with a loud Heil Hitler while saluting that specific way. And he was not at all a stupid guy, meaning to pay special honour to his German guest, but obviously lacking information. So we had a conversation about this and he understood.
Q: If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
To speak all the languages in the world!
Q: So, what are your next travel plans?
In December I will be joining the trip to Wake Island. In early 2016, I plan to go to French Antarctica from Tasmania, on a cruise that also visits Macquarie and some other Sub-Antarctic islands. For next summer I have a trip booked which gets me to Svalbard via Jan Mayen. These trips require bookings well in advance! There will be more spontaneous travel, too.
The photos in this article are taken from the private collection of Helmut Lent.