Ismo, tell us something about your early years in Finland and how you became interested in travel.
I was born on Sunday 3rd September 1944 and the cease-fire of the Continuation War between Finland and Soviet Union started next morning and led to the final peace. I consider myself as a peace lover and I respect humanity and solidarity to all oppressed nations and people. My first experience of foreign territory is from 1955 when I went by train through “the Porkkala tunnel, the longest railway tunnel of the world”, all windows covered and closed by Russian soldiers. Porkkala was a Finnish area occupied by Soviet Union because of the Paris Peace Pact 1947 until 1956.
My first trip abroad took place in 1960 to Sweden and Denmark and since then I have felt an interest in travelling and foreign countries and their people and culture. I decided to start to visit all the independent countries of the world seriously on Rhodes island in Greece in 1977 after a bet with a Finnish writer and theatre director. At that time, I had visited 19 countries of 158 countries, which was the figure in 1977. I worked from 1975 onwards until 2003 in a national public central organisation and I was involved in several Unesco and development projects in Europe, Africa, Asia and Central America. In 2003 I retired and established my one man’s company Kultismo Production.
You have a travel ‘career’ spanning more than 60 years. What are some of the memories that stand out in all that?
There have been so many memories from my world Odyssey and you can read it from my website in English under the title Ismondia 1955-2015. www.ismondiatravels.fi. The worst memory is malaria in 2010 in Sierra Leone – due to the volcanic explosion in Iceland, I had to stay there 10 extra days there and that nearly killed me. In Vietnam I was in a boat accident but just survived. Among the many interesting visits, very special were the Kokoda trail in Papua New Guinea on my 50 years’ anniversary trip and North Korea in 2004 on my 60 years’ anniversary trip. The best and deepest experiences I have got from my project countries like Vietnam and Namibia. Mainly my memories are good and enjoyable.
How has the world and travel changed from your early days until now? Would you say travelling now is better or worse, in your opinion, than it used to be?
The world has changed radically. In 1960s, 1970s and 1980s there were a lot of tensions everywhere and travelling was not so easy, especially in Asia and Africa. At that time, you had to use more travel agencies to organize your individual or group trips, because they were quicker and reliable. In 1988, I visited my last country in Europe, the communist and closed Albania. Only five years later there were 14 new countries in Europe due to the collapses of USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. From late 1990s onwards due to the internet it has become much easier, quicker and even cheaper to plan your trips, buy tickets, make reservations etc. Now individual and group travelling is easy. You only need courage, time and money. Now it’s even safer to travel except in the countries in war.
Finns seem to really love to travel far. How do you explain this? And how do people abroad react to you when they discover you are from Finland?
We are a small nation of about five million people and located on the edge of the world in the north. But we don’t like to be remote and that’s why very many of us have gone to meet the world, where ever it has been or still is. In Europe, everybody knows Finland, the further you go, the more you have to tell people where we come from and who we are. We have always been a bit exotic Nordic nation in between the East and the West, coming from the east but belonging to the West. In the 1990s and early 2000s if I said that I’m coming from Finland, the country of Nokia mobile phones, some people were astonished and said that I didn’t look very Japanese! I have collected a special group of all the present ten Finns who have so far visited all the UN countries. We have already met each other several times since 2014.
You have been to every country in the world. How did it feel when you did the last one? And what remains for you now that you have done them all?
I was really relaxed in October 2011 in Juba, South Sudan, which was my last country of course, because it is the youngest one. The last few countries before the final one had been very difficult to reach, like Equatorial Guinea and Saudi Arabia due to visa problems. It took more than 50 years to reach this goal and I was proud of myself and happy. I have visited all the 193 UN countries plus Vatican, Taiwan and Kosovo, which I consider independent or independent de facto. I managed to visit four former and not any more existing countries: USSR 1967, Czechoslovakia 1969. GDR 1972 and Yugoslavia 1973. So, my entire amount of countries is 200. I have also visited with my present lady friend Antarctica Peninsula in 2008. I decided to continue visiting all the eight so called non-sovereign or frozen countries like Palestine 1989, Somaliland 2007, Western Sahara 2012, Transnistria 2013, Northern Cyprus 2013, Abkhazia and Nagorno Karabakh in 2014. I’m missing only South Ossetia. Right now, I have more of less settled down in my travelling but not entirely given up. The world has gone with my trips but remained with my memories.
You have published a book about your travels which is also available in English. Tell us something about it and what makes it unique.
In October 2011 after the last country, South Sudan I decided not to travel anywhere for a year. I started to write down my long travel history and in November 2012 I had finished my specials colour printed file of 640 pages. I made 30 copies of it and gave it to my children and friends. Next year I started to develop it into a printed book and I added also some historical descriptions of each countries’ independence process. The Ismondia book came out in Finnish in 2015 by Books on Demand publisher and the English version in 2016 on my website. I think it is unique due to its chronological order during 60 years on 7 decades consisting of 100 trips to 200 countries. I hope to find an international publisher to print and publish it.
You also have an internet page called Ismondiatravels.fi. How important is this to you and what do you hope to achieve with this page?
I have my travel book Ismondia 1955-2015 there in Finnish and in English. I also have two very rare and famous collections of mine: All the Asterix translations (123 languages or dialects) and publishers (170), and Tintin translations (languages and dialects). I hope the travelling people read my book, especially the younger travelling generation.
What message would you like to convey to younger travellers who may want to see a lot of the world?
Keep your eyes and mind open, meet local people as much as possible, respect the countries with its history, people and nature. Don’t ever give up, but don’t make your travelling a night mare. Don’t be afraid, but don’t make too desperate risks. Enjoy travelling with your body and soul!
Do you feel at home in Finland after so many years of travel? What are some gems in your country that are little known and a traveller should explore?
Yes of course I feel at home in my own country. I have been about 10% of my travelling life abroad, but never been out longer that two months and that happened already in 1963 in England. Finland has become a multi-cultural and international nation despite of some active racist resistant movements.
If you like winter, come to Lapland during February-April, if you like long days, lakes, archipelagos and forests come in June-August and if you like natural colours come in September-October. We have pure nature to offer and mainly friendly people. Helsinki is really a nice and active city throughout the year. You’ll also find me there and whenever you reach Helsinki, you are heartily welcome! In 2017, Finland is celebrating its 100 years’ anniversary, which means an endless chain of activities in the whole country. Come and join and enjoy with us!
Do you still travel a lot? What are your plans for 2017?
Now I have retired from active and regular travelling due to my lady friend’s present health condition and due to my personal financial situation. Anyway, my lady friend is celebrating her 80th birthday in November 2017 and I’d like to take her if possible to Ascension and St. Helena islands in the South Atlantic Ocean and Cape Town in South Africa. And I’m still dreaming of the South Ossetia travel permit If there will be new independent countries, I’ll for sure be there asap!
Finally, if you could invite four people from any period in human history to a dinner, who would they be and why?
My five children and six grandchildren, and why not!
The photographs accompanying this interview are from Ismo’s private collection.