Samer, you were hit by the travel bug at a young age. How would you describe the symptoms of this ‘bug’?
That’s right, I was ‘infected’ at just 3 years old when I began traveling to and from Jordan and Syria to visit family. As soon as I realized that my traveling across the world was not necessarily ‘normal’ for a kid – that was when I was 11 – the symptoms started to appear. Back then, they included being fascinated with and constantly staring at world maps (well, I still do that), memorizing the capitals of every county in the world, scanning through our home encyclopedia volumes for articles about different places (back when we didn’t have Google, and actually had to use books for information!). I even sent out letters by mail to every embassy in Washington, D.C.– every single one – asking for information about their countries. It’s amazing how many responded back by mail with packages filled with various items from glossy travel brochures to country profiles, historical information, and other reading material.I was obsessed, and I wasn’t even a teenager yet!
These days, my entire life is consumed by travel. If I’m not actually traveling, I’m either going through pictures from my last trip, writing travel articles, updating my travel website, helping others with their travel plans, and most importantly of all — I’m always planning the next trip. I live and breathe travel every day. It’s what drives me. It’s my ultimate drug. The minute I get home from a trip, I’ve been unplugged, and my battery begins to drain. It lasts a maximum of six months – past that, my soul is pretty dead and I need the recharge that only a trip to a new destination can offer.
You were born in the US to a Middle Eastern background and learned both French and Arabic. How has your background helped or hindered your travels?
Really good question – it has both helped and hindered my travels in so many ways! Being of Middle Eastern origin, I’ve had plenty of experiences which could amount to ‘racial profiling’ upon entering some foreign countries, and those I’ve always just brushed off as part of the experience traveling the world. But one instance in particular was especially unexpected.
It was 2007, and I was on my way back home to the U.S. from one of my crazy ‘extended weekend’ trips – this one was to Belize and Guatemala – and I had to clear customs first in Miami. I live in San Francisco, but I was catching a flight from Miami directly to San Diego where I had an interview the next morning for a new school project that my Firm was going after (I’m an architect). After any international trip, I always look forward to the U.S. Customs agents greeting me with a “welcome home”. It’s always nice to hear that, but this time was much different.
The officer flipped through my passport, and then asked me some strange questions, including where my parents were born. As soon I answered that my mother was from ‘Syria’, he immediately told me to wait and left the booth, only to come back five minutes later to say he couldn’t process me there. I caused a scene, yelling “I am a U.S. citizen! I was born here!” and then was reluctantly taken to a detainment room where I waited hours before being interviewed by another agent. This agent asks me all kinds of even stranger questions about personal details of my life and my family. I tell him that it’s obvious I’m being discriminated against, and he disagrees, saying that my ‘passport looked suspicious’ given its many stamps.I asked (sarcastically) if I should get a new one before every trip to avoid being detained by U.S. Customs again. He unbelievably responded, “No, you should be proud of your travels!”
They eventually let me go, and I was put on the next flight to San Diego – the next morning, meaning I missed my original flight, had to pay for my own hotel night in Miami, and even missed the interview in San Diego. Calling my boss that night from my hotel room in Miami was not a fun experience. To top it off, I had no reason anymore to go to San Diego, but they wouldn’t change my flight to take me directly back home to San Francisco. What a mess!
One good way my background has helped my travels? Aside from the obvious helpfulness of speaking Arabic, I also have a Jordanian passport – so while it costs tourists 50 Jordanian Dinars (about $70 U.S. dollars) to visit Petra for the day, it costs me just 1 JD ($1.40).
You mentioned that you’re an architect – how does your architectural background influence your travels?
In my opinion, architecture and travel are perfectly complimentary. My love for architecture drives my passion to see the world. Every country, every culture, has a distinct architectural style, and it is fascinating to see them and explore their differences in person. No matter how packed my travel schedule is, I always make time to stop and sketch a building or scene that catches my attention. It forces me to study every detail and leaves me with a deeper appreciation of the effort that went into building it. The side effects are great too – I often meet curious locals and other travelers who stop to see what I am doing. It’s a different and very rewarding way to interact with the world around me, and when I’m done, I end up with a free, meaningful, and one-of-a-kind souvenir!
You are now 37 and are methodically trying to do all ‘Travelers Century Club’ points until the age of 50, while completing all UN countries until you are 45. How do you plan travels to achieve these goals? What are some obstacles you have encountered?
I actually have a master plan to go ‘everywhere’, which I admit is ambitious.This is one of the (many) things I obsess over in between trips.I currently have tentative itineraries planned out for all my travels from now until I turn 50, and I’m now hoping to complete the UN countries by 43 (in six years). It’s fun for me to plan these itineraries out, and they are usually just a general ‘skeleton’ of a possible trip through a region. The biggest obstacle throughout my life has been getting the time off approved from work. As the proposed travel dates come closer, I’m faced with the constraints of reconciling the trip ‘idea’ with reality (both budget and work schedule). Once those details are worked out and all is approved, the actual trip is born, and I start booking my flights, usually that same evening! For me, aside from actually traveling, getting approval for a trip is one of the best feelings in the world!
Tell us a little bit about your website ‘Wanderluster’.
I started WANDERLUSTER many years ago as a way to document my travels for my friends and family who would always ask to see my pictures, sketches and videos after returning from a trip. More than anything, it’s a medium for me to access my experiences wherever I am, so that I can either reminisce on my own, or share with anyone on the spot – from a laptop or a cell phone. That is and always has been the main purpose. As it evolved over the years, I began also making it a resource for other travelers, with travel tips, travel writing, and other information. It will likely never become a ‘live’ travel blog, as my trips are way too packed with activities to find time to ‘blog on the road’. I did attempt this in 2015, when I wrote a post about Esfahan, and one about Karachi – and decided after that, that I’d never do it again. I spent too much time writing and realized I could have been out experiencing something new. I write about my experiences when I return, when I have time, and I’m okay with that. What I do now is post photos to my Instagram account while traveling, which also appear on the main page of my website in real time, for easy access to friends and family following me around.
What do your friends and family think about all your travelling? Do you have many friends who are also travellers like you, or do you often travel with other people? Have you often made friends on the road?
Honestly, they all think I’m crazy. It took my family several years of nagging me to save money instead of traveling before they realized that it wasn’t going to change, and now they’re more supportive of my addiction. I don’t have too many friends like me, and the ones I do have are people I have met while traveling – either locals or fellow travelers – and we have stayed in touch, and often meet every few years or so in different locations. I often travel solo, as I think it’s the best way to meet people and fully immerse yourself in a destination on your own terms – without having to worry about another person’s needs and desires, which can often be very different from your own. When I do travel with others, it has to be with a like-minded person or someone who can at least handle my crazy itineraries and hectic schedules – and very few people can!
What have you had to sacrifice in order to travel so far and wide?
I have had to sacrifice a lot – but I feel the word ‘sacrifice’ is too strong, because what I’ve had to sacrifice pales in comparison to what I’ve gained in priceless travel experiences instead. So, for me, relatively speaking, the sacrifices are easy. When I first started traveling, saving money for trips was tough – to compensate, I never spent my money on things most people my age were saving money to buy, like stereo systems, new cars, game consoles, expensive sunglasses or clothes, etc. I have always tried to live simply, and when I think about buying something new, I ask myself, is this worth it? If I don’t buy this, where could I fly to instead? I am always comparing prices to flights!“ No, I don’t need this new watch, I could fly to Hong Kong instead”.
Another sacrifice is that I am rarely home to spend Thanksgiving with my family, since I instead use the two extra days off (Thursday and Friday) and the following weekend to travel – that’s four more days and countless more experiences!
Which country has been a big surprise (positive or negative) compared to what you were expecting before visiting it?
I rarely talk about negative experiences, because for me, each place I visit is what it is – it isn’t necessarily negative if it wasn’t as interesting as a different place. I travel to experience whatever it is, and I love that. (Of course, if I am robbed or mugged or something like that, it is negative – but I wouldn’t base my feelings about the whole country on that single experience).
For me, one of the biggest surprises was Myanmar. I knew it was going to be a fascinating place, and was so excited to visit, but I had grouped it on a trip through Southeast Asia which included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and northern Thailand. The surprise was how much more in common Myanmar seemed to have with its eastern neighbors (like India, Bangladesh or Bhutan) opposed to its Southeast Asian ones. I didn’t realize it until I was there. And of course, Bagan – even if you know about it, it is still an incredible surprise; no amount of research or knowledge could prepare you for experiencing the wonders of Bagan in person!
Given your Middle Eastern background, how do you view the recent developments in that region? To what extent do you feel travel in that area is possible or safe?
Of course, what’s going on in Syria is horrific. I have close family there on my mother’s side who are still living in their historic courtyard-style house amidst the winding alleys of Old Damascus. They are going about their lives, as Damascus itself has been relatively calm, but it has been difficult for them in many ways, and the uncertainty for the future is the scariest part. I’ve been to Syria many times and am lucky that I had the opportunity to visit all the most important sights and cities in the country, including Aleppo, Palmyra, Homs and Hama, thanks to my uncle who allowed me to tag along on his domestic business trips when I would visit. But I miss it, and I miss my family and pray for their safety, and I can’t wait for peace to come so I can go back there again. It is definitely not safe to visit Syria now. Jordan, on the other hand, where my father’s side of the family lives, is still a bastion of stability in the region, and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit there again even now.
What are your travel plans for the next few months?
I’m very excited for this next one – I’m heading to West Africa over the holidays. My family isn’t too pleased that I’ll be missing Christmas for the first time ever, but it’s the only window of time I can go anywhere in the next several months due to work commitments – but I was at home for Thanksgiving this year! I’ll be spending Christmas Eve in Sofia, Bulgaria on a stopover, then Christmas Day in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, followed by visits to Burkina Faso, Ghana (where I’ll be in Accra to ring in 2017), Togo, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Nigeria. From Lagos, I’ll have another quick stopover in one of my favorite cities, Istanbul, before heading back home and back to work!
And finally, a question we like to ask many people – if you could invite four people from any period of human history to an imaginary dinner, who would they be and why?
Ibn Battuta – would love to chat with this interesting guy who traveled around the medieval world for 30 years! He’s especially famous to me because in Arab culture, ‘Ibn Battuta’ is what you call someone who is addicted to traveling, and it has been my family’s nickname for me for decades!
Marco Polo – hearing about his travels and adventures through the Silk Road firsthand would be amazing!
Anton Debbas – this is a personal one for me, as my maternal grandfather passed away before I was even born. Would be nice to meet him and for him to learn about his ‘Ibn Battuta’ grandson!
Jesus Christ – saved the best for last. I don’t know if just dinner is enough time, because I have a LOT of questions lined up to ask this guest!!!
The photos in this article are from Samer’s personal collection. They show him at the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia), in Karapakalstan, his sketch of the Azadi Tower, in Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan) followed by Nagorno-Karabakh, Tibet, Suriname, Bagan in Myanmar, Umm al Quwain in UAE and Pakistan.