Nabil Kazi caught the travel bug early on. Helped by his own background moving to many places as a child and by international work postings, he has conquered quite a lot of the world. The face behind the blog Vagabond Tales with an active Instagram page as well, he talks to us today about his extensive travels and his fascination with the Far East.
At the grand opening of Hong Kong Disneyland
Nabil, please tell us something about your early days and your first trips.
I’ve been traveling since I was one. I was born in Kuwait where my father was on assignment. My parents were born in India but since we were living in Kuwait, my parents gave me an arabic name. We moved to Beirut, Lebanon when I was two. We stayed there until the civil war broke out in 1974 and moved to the United States. I don’t remember much except for planes flying low near our apartment building in Beirut.
When I was young, my father took the family to Europe to visit Germany, Switzerland and a few other countries. London was always our longest stop. We always spent a lot of time in London. Even now, myself and my family have many friends and will always stay in London for a few days. I spent 4 months in London in 2019. Outside of the tourist spots, it truly is a magical city.
How did you start travelling and when was the first time you felt that you were hooked on the experience?
I took traveling seriously right after I graduated from high school. My sister was living in London and so I spent the summer with her. It was my first time traveling alone and I was hooked. From there, I started taking trips on my own and when I moved to Hong Kong after college, I had the opportunity to visit almost all the Asian countries on my own and with friends.
The best part was making new friends in a new land and expanding my education on how beautiful every country in the world is and how a simple life can be so much more happy than one where we try to please everyone to be included.
Your family is originally from India, but you have spent most of your life in the US. How did your heritage influence your love for travel?
Traveling has always been a big part of my family growing up. We lived in Orange County, CA, 15 minutes away from Disneyland so every summer our house was filled with guests from around the world. My parents would also take us somewhere on vacation and they would travel. I grew up watching Bollywood films and music my mom would put on.
She cooked Indian food most of the time and we had big parties with first generation Indian/Pakistani’s in Orange County. In fact, I grew up with 10 other brown kids. I had my school friends who were primarily white and then I had my brown friends I would see on the weekends at parties and hang out during summer vacations. I always felt the heritage was a reason for traveling and learning about new cultures.
When did you first get the idea about visiting all the UN countries and why?
My dad has been a huge influence. He loved to travel. He went to 80 countries. I remember whenever he would come home from somewhere, he would bring us postcards and tell us something special about that location. I’ve always wanted to travel more and so when my father passed away, I made the decision to travel to every country in the world and climb the seven summits in his honor. He always told me to get out there and see the world.
Do you have a plan for visiting all UN countries? How does this look like in your head (for now)?
I have a map pinned with a strategy which is aligned with a schedule to climb the seven summits but traveling during covid and airlines cancelling flights, having to get a pcr test for every country and having to change plans within hours has me thinking a bit differently on how I will navigate at least until the world stabilizes.
I was supposed to climb Mount Elbrus in 2020 but cancelled due to Covid and then again this year because Russia is still closed to visitors. I would’ve visited countries around Russia but that is now on hold until next summer.
So my climbing the seven summits schedule has changed and I’m climbing Mount Aconcagua this December and will be in South America November and December from climbing the three volcanoes in Ecuador, followed by hiking Machu Picchu in Peru, then Bolivia, Uruguay and work my way to Medoza, Argentina where we start the climb on Dec 14th.
I also plan by the back stories I’m chasing and that’s how I start in one country and then see if I can visit the countries around it. I’ll be creating content and a podcast in Kenya soon to continue the news cycle on the last two white rhinos and the research currently in play to create embryo’s so we can scientifically create more white rhinos. I like to stay in a country for a minimum of three days and extend it if I can.
I came back from visiting 5 countries in the summer. I was in Morocco and going to travel to Tunisia when the airlines cancelled the flight 12 hours before and refused to provide refunds. I then decided to visit Egypt but even that got complicated as they wouldn’t accept my vaccination card unless it had a QR code so I had to delay my trip a day to get a pcr test which with the delay cost an additional $500 for ticket change, hotel room, taxi’s, etc in Morocco.
Brazil Iron man!
What style of travelling do you prefer and why?
I have a mixed style of traveling. I try to fly into a country but then will take trains and buses to get around the country. I don’t stay in luxury hotels and resorts just to stay on a budget but if I have a partnership with a tourism group or hotel, I’ll stay at that location.
I prefer hotels to airbnb’s although I will stay in an airbnb for extended stays or with friends. I travel solo most of the time but open to traveling with someone who travels light and can move quickly. I try to never check in baggage and I don’t stay at hostels.
When you travel, what are your biggest interests?
My biggest interests are to meet locals, learn their culture and back stories and do adventurous things. I recently visited Porto, Portugal and instead of watching their beautiful sunsets from the bridge, I decided to kayak in the river and watch it from my kayak. It was amazing.
A different perspective to the same sunset everyone is enjoying. As I travel more, you understand that no matter where you are, the human customs are similar. You wake up, have breakfast, go to work, come home to family and on the weekends, you do special things.
If I can, I stay away from tourist areas. There are times where you need to do that if you’re visiting the Pyramids or Taj Mahal but usually, eating where the locals eat and shop and getting lost and finding interesting cafes to hang out at and talk to people is where my interest is the most. I also climb mountains so I find mountain life in other countries to be fascinating.
Where do you feel at home the most, out of all of the so far visited countries?
I really feel at home in Asia. Maybe because I lived in Hong Kong for three years and had the opportunity to see most of Asia while living there. Places like Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore and Bali are second homes for me for the number of times I have visited them and the friends I’ve made. The culture, the people, the food all are wonderful and it’s easy to live in any of these places.
Phi Phi islands back in 1996
Could you share some special travel stories with us?
One of my favorite stories to tell is when I first moved to Hong Kong in 1993 to work for The Walt Disney Company. I was a young executive and was provided the opportunity to work on a special project. There were good signs that the embargo on Vietnam would be lifted by then President Clinton in early 1994. The senior executives at Disney wanted to make sure Disney’s presence would be felt first in what we knew would be a good market to enter based on their love for Disney characters.
I had to find someone in Vietnam to be Mickey Mouse. We were doing a photo shoot months before the embargo was to be lifted so that we would have a press release prepared and ready with photos on the ground. I went to Hanoi from Hong Kong carrying Mickey Mouse. I had to purchase two seats, one for me and one for his head.
We had identified a local team to help us and translate. To this date, I still don’t know how no one in customs asked me to open his head but just let me through without any questions. I stayed at the beautiful Metropole Hotel before its expansion and when it was a small boutique hotel that served journalists during the war. It is still one of my favorite hotels in the world.
I trained a young Vietmanse ballerina dancer to be Mickey. She watched video tapes I brought to learn the behaviors of Mickey Mouse. We then did two photo shoots – one at a school and one at the opera house. The logistics to do this quietly without the press knowing was difficult but somehow we achieved it.
We had amazing photos of Mickey at both locations and with street vendors and local life. None of those photos ever made it out because the night before the embargo was lifted, we received a call from then President Frank Wells to call off the stunt. He felt he was reading bad press of other big brands like Coca Cola entering in the wrong way. I was disappointed but it was the right decision. He said, let’s think of something we can do for the children and do it right.
A few months later a group of executives including myself traveled to Hanoi and delivered a Mickey Mouse comic to 15,000 children. I’ve had a number of incredible moments in my life and this still stands out as one of the top 5 experiences. The children were adorable, trying to speak English, creating beautiful dances for us and we blended into the community versus showcasing the power of a big brand. I share some photos and talk about more in a vlog I made on Vietnam on my YouTube channel.
It was my first trip to Vietnam and my first impressions was it was a magical place filled with history and potential. They had been closed off from the world for so long. I was grateful to see it before the build up. I had just visited Hanoi again in Dec 2017 and I couldn’t recognize parts of it. There is something special about seeing a place in the world before it becomes popular. The raw beauty of what feels like a town to yourself.
With Mickey and locals in Vietnam
We have one question that we ask all of our guests, our signature question: if you could invite 4 people from any era to dinner, who would your guests be and why?
1. Mahatma Gandhi because he believed in equal rights for every human and treated everyone with the same respect and dignity. I believe his quote “be the change you wish to be in the world” to be powerful and inspiring.
2. John Lennon because of his message of love, peace and harmony in the world.
3. Nelson Mandela because of his strength and not giving up on what he believed in for South Africa.
4. Muhammad Ali because in everything you do, you have to put in the hard work and effort. He became the greatest from doing that. For anyone wanting to visit every country in the world, we have to do the same hard work and he’s always been an inspiration. I actually met him twice at my mosque in Los Angeles.
Way back, just arrived as an immigrant to the US…