On New Year’s Eve 2019, American Sam Goodwin completed his quest of traveling to every country in the world earning him a verified position on Nomad Mania’s UN Masters List. Sam has lived and worked in Singapore, France and the United Arab Emirates and has led humanitarian efforts across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Goodwin grew up playing competitive ice hockey and continues to use the game as a mode of sports diplomacy around the world. Sam speaks about his experiences and has presented to groups of elite athletes, faith organizations, at corporate conventions and to the US Military.
Sam, tell us something about your early life and how your passion for travel developed.
My earliest travel memories primarily consist of crisscrossing the United States and Canada playing ice hockey as a kid. Although I have four younger siblings, my parents also managed to take our whole crew to Europe a few times and I later studied abroad in Lille, France and taught English in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. After finishing undergrad, I took my first job in Singapore working for a tech startup business and regional NGO.
I planned to only be in Singapore for three months but ended up staying six years. It was during this time that I was able to jet off frequently and economically. Being based in the heart of Southeast Asia and having the world’s best airport in my backyard was an unrivaled travel formula. I later lived in Dubai for a year, which was another ideal launching pad. The more I traveled the longer my bucket list got, which is a bit counterintuitive but something that I know many of us here can relate to well.
Sao Tome – the equator monument at Ilhao das Rolas
How has being American impacted your travels and life overseas?
As an expat, I found it fascinating to develop a foreigner’s impression of my home country. When living outside your country of origin long enough to be able to view it through this type of lens, it results in an unusual and compelling frame of reference. From a specifically travel standpoint, I recognize the benefits of having an American passport. Being able to enter so many countries visa-free (or on arrival) was a game changer for my journey, and a luxury that I realize many don’t have.
That said, it was also a drawback in some cases and, for entry requirement purposes, I remember occasionally thinking that dual citizenship with, say, an EU country, would have been convenient. I’m happy to report that, in the overwhelming majority of instances, I was well-received as an American traveler. In remote areas, I was often the only American that some locals had ever met, which I found came with a responsibility to well-represent my country. I’ve enjoyed embracing this and look forward to having the chance to continue doing so.
What motivated you to want to visit every country of the world? And how does it feel to have succeeded?
I originally began and continued traveling simply because it was fun, I enjoyed it and, most importantly, I learned from it. From the beginning, however, I didn’t like to repeat destinations. Even if I went somewhere and had a fantastic experience, on the next weekend or next opportunity I had away from work, I would go somewhere new. This was just a personal travel style and preference.
After putting this formula into play for several years, I reached a point in early 2018 when I realized that I had been to 120 countries. It was at this moment that I remember thinking – “Sooo, how many countries are there?” A new goal of traveling to all of them was soon born and I began working toward it. I was never trying to do it until I started trying to do it, and the competitive athlete in me likes accomplishing goals.
Still today, I enjoy reflecting on the journey and all of the people who have come into my life as a result of it. Similarly, I appreciate finding ways to use my experiences to help or potentially inspire others who are aiming to chase their own travel aspirations.
How would you define your travel style?
As I’m sure is the case with many of us here, I have done and appreciate a wide range of travel styles. I particularly like road trips, whether it be on a motorbike or in a vehicle. A few of my favorites include Morocco, the Balkans, New Zealand, Iceland and Australia’s Great Ocean Road. When possible, I always prefer to enter a country by land instead of air.
I’ve had similarly memorable experiences staying at a five-star resort as I have paying $3/night for a 16-bunk hostel in Vietnam, the same goes for flying in Singapore Airlines’ flight class suites vs. Ceiba Air in Equatorial Guinea where the plane had duct tape on the wing. Travel means something different to everyone, which I think is the beauty of these different styles.
Do you feel that travelling has changed you in any way and if so, how?
Travel has been the best education I’ve ever had. It’s taught me to become comfortable being uncomfortable and about the power of perspective. Travel has routinely forced me to trust strangers, sometimes even putting my life in their hands. It’s taught me how to let expectations take a back seat and replace stereotypes with real experiences.
I’ve learned that every person’s WHY is the same – we all eat, sleep, breath, want to be happy and are chasing some kind of goal – it’s only the HOW that changes. I’ve learned that people who have the least often give the most, a recurring theme in all corners of the world, and to never judge people by the actions of their government. The more I traveled, the more I realized the partiality of knowledge.
I’m still processing many elements of my experiences and by no means claim to be an expert or to have the answers to all of our problems. However, I do think that a desire to discover and better understand the world is part of the solution, and we can all play a role in that. Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.
Through chasing 193, I discovered that when you have the humility to know you mean nothing but the ambition to mean everything – that’s when things start to get really interesting.
So give us some of your travel highlights, some memories that will really stay with you.
After finishing the 193, I wrote a blog about my top 100 travel experiences. Among my favorites are numerous African safaris, coaching North Korea’s national ice hockey team and ringing in New Year’s Eve twice in the same year. These types of experiences have been formative and I feel fortunate to say that I could list many more.
But what I’ve found to be more important are the people who have come into my life as a result of them. I remember eating four meals in my first hour in Tajikistan (I think central Asia is home to some of world’s best hospitality), and relying on the kindness of complete strangers while hitchhiking from Freetown to Conakry. Friendship is among the most indisputably valuable things in life and I wouldn’t trade the relationships I built while traveling for anything.
Have you ever been in a dangerous situation while travelling?
In 2019, I was wrongfully detained on false charges of espionage in Syria. Thank God and thanks to a long list of people who worked tirelessly, I was peacefully released via Lebanese intervention after nine weeks in detention. I hope to one day tell this story in longer-form so will resist expanding any further here. But, no doubt, that experience put a lot into perspective and being safely freed brought an unprecedented new meaning to gratitude.
A year earlier, in July 2018, my trip to Port-au-Prince unfortunately coincided with the Haitian government sanctioning a nationwide spike in fuel prices (in order to remain compliant with an IMF restructuring demand). There were riots and large fires set in the streets and I stayed locked inside my hotel for several days. I documented much of the experience here.
Thankfully the unrest eventually eased enough for me to fly out to Miami, but it was a somewhat troubling few days. Aside from this, I was a bit uncomfortable being a block from a motorcycle bomb in Kabul and seeing Somali military officials patrolling the streets of Mogadishu with bazookas.
Despite these incidents, in my experience and opinion, places that are “negatively-perceived” or that western media says “you’re not supposed to like” – that’s where I frequently found the best hospitality and where my perspectives were most meaningfully impacted. No doubt, there’s instability in many places, but there are also a lot of other things happening too. More often than not, it’s well-worth the effort to explore them.
Now that you have done all 193, what else remains for you on your bucket list?
I’m not sure that travel will ever be as central to my life as it was when I was chasing 193, however the world always will be, and I’m humbled to be able to forever lean on the lessons that travel has taught me. That said, I’ve never been to Antarctica and would love to go – I would consider that to be at the top of my “maybe I’ll get to it someday” bucket list. I’ve lived in France, Singapore and the UAE and consider each of them to be home.
I envision my future travel plans gravitating toward those spots in order to visit friends and former colleagues. There are also lots of countries I would like to return to and, of course, many places within countries that I have not been. I sometimes find myself reminding people that there is a massive difference between having been to every country in the world and having been “everywhere.”
What do you like most about NomadMania?
There’s no way I could have reached 193 without the help and support of the “extreme travel” community, including NomadMania. How else would I have known that I could get a Republic of Congo visa in just a few hours at their Embassy in Bangui, or that there’s one direct flight a week from Kiribati to Tuvalu on Wednesday’s? I’ll take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to everyone who helped me along my journey, and if anyone reading this believes I can help them with their plans, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I have a lot of giving back to do.
How has the pandemic influenced your travel plans? And what are your plans for the next few months?
I visited friends in Toronto in late January 2019 and then didn’t leave the US again until going to Turkey in July 2021 (I spent Christmas 2020 with my family in Puerto Rico, which, at the time, pretty much felt like an international trip). If Singapore opens up I would like to get back to visit, but they’ve been locked down tighter than most places and traveling there right now doesn’t make logistical sense.
My younger brother plays professional ice hockey in Belfast, so I hope to visit him soon. Overall though, I don’ t have many travels plans right now. Maybe that will change!
And finally our signature question – if you could invite 4 people from any era to dinner, who would your guests be and why?
Jesus, Neil Young, Herb Brooks and Bashar al-Assad. I’m not sure that much eating would get done given how much I have to say and how many questions I have for each of them. The entire dinner might be like that kitchen table scene from Uncle Buck.