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Interview with Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor)

Torbjorn Pedersen

Tor is truly a unique and dedicated traveller. He has not been back to his native Denmark since he left his home country with the aim of visiting every country without flying...

Tor, tell us something about your background and your early years.

I was born in Denmark of Scandinavian parents and soon after I was lifted up and carried to North America before returning home to Denmark years later. In Denmark I did my school and then my military service before finding my feet within shipping and logistics in the private sector. In the end of 2009 I became an independent businessman and after years of working on other peoples projects I have been able to create my own. As a child I developed a habit of running away from home. However I would mostly regret and be back for supper. I do however remember one time when my father had to start up the car and come to get me some 20k away when a family called my parents. I don't know if it was the adventurer within me or some sort of fire that was burning at an early age? Achievement has always been a great motivator for me. Before I was old enough to drive a car, various friends and I had embarked on mad canoe adventures on some of Denmark's tiny creeks, which over days lead us to lakes and larger water ways which were open to the ocean. Pretty sure nobody has been crazy enough to do that before or since. Also a childhood friend and I once rode our bikes across Denmark, camping on golf courses and living like kings. At that point I must have been 14. As I got older I was able to join a friend in climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I kayaked a solo trip around a Danish island (300k/8days), I went on a 4 month MC journey from Chennai in India to Istanbul in Turkey, I did a solo MC journey from California in USA to Panama City and I did my first backpacking adventure in Thailand/Cambodia. I like to see the world with my own eyes, engage with locals and make up my own mind. My competitive side has also spun off a few other crazy ideas as I once managed to try every single attraction in Disney World (Orlando) in 2.5 days. And every single attraction in Disney Land (Hong Kong) in a single day. I've worked in 20 different countries and I see the world as my home. So I guess sometimes it's a passion for travel while in other cases it's simply ambition and competitiveness.

You are from Denmark. Do you believe your origin influences how you see the world and if so, how?

Yeah, I know it's a little ridiculous but I do identify with my inner Viking. My mother is from Finland and my father is from Denmark. I did a DNA test last year and the results came out pretty supportive of a Viking heritage with most of my genes pointing towards the Nordic countries while the rest indicated some relation to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Baltic and the Balkans. DNA is responsible for how we develop as people – so why not? I might just have some explorative Viking pushing me forward :) But if you meant how I view the world as a human being then I think I'm less Danish than my class mates were. I was born in Denmark but lived my first 6-7 years in Canada and the USA. My mother is Finnish so many school holidays were spent in Finland. My mother was on the welcoming committee when our small town in Denmark received 500 refugees from the Balkans in the 90s. So I've always been open to foreign nationalities and foreign culture. Most Danes are less so in my opinion.
 

You are travelling to every country in the world without flying and without returning home. Tell us a little about the specific challenges that this entails, some of the delays you have encountered and how you have faced adversity.

MAN! IF I KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE THIS HARD THEN I WOULD NEVER HAVE LEFT HOME!! :) The real challenges are nearly always tied to either logistics or bureaucracy. And it is for the same reasons infinitely more complicated to go to every country without flying then with the convenience of flight. I'm fortunate to have a Danish passport but because I'm not flying I need to apply for many visas I otherwise would get in airports. Here are a few stories. The first one takes place in Liberia which had just been declared free of Ebola. It was still raging in Sierra Leone and Guinea. I was heading towards the Ivory Coast with everything in order: valid passport, valid visa, valid vaccination card etc. At a tiny forest border between the two countries I was turned away. "The border was closed" they said. There was no cellular reception in the village and I had to travel 40 minutes on the back of a MC to reach internet (which required that we started a generator). The days went on with negotiations at the border on a military metal bridge across a narrow river. The armed personnel would not let me cross. After several days of negotiations on the middle of the bridge, as if I was in a cold war movie, we finally reached agreement. I could cross if I supplied the guards with four signed documents from the Ivory Coast: a signed document from the Ebola Commission, one from the defense ministry, one from the health ministry and one signed by the President himself. I was in Liberia at a simple border town. I had all four documents signed after eight days. Another story is from Madagascar. I needed to reach either the Seychelles or Mauritius by sea. I had been to all six shipping companies which operate in the Indian Ocean and call Madagascar. They all said no for reasons such as: it's against company policy, it's against the law, we can't do it for insurance reasons, there is no space onboard for a passenger etc. So with all six operatives in the region I had no options left to traverse the ocean. A week later I boarded a containership from Madagascar to the Seychelles. A week after that I boarded a containership from the Seychelles to Mauritius. And ten days after that I boarded a containership back to continental Africa. My final story is recent. I was in Lebanon and needed to reach Jordan. The border was closed between Syria and Jordan so I was banking on going through Egypt. I had lined up a deal with a containership which was calling Beirut and continuing to Alexandria. But a few days before the ship was calling Beirut the General Security denied me access as passengers do not travel on commercial vessels. I quickly learned that nobody negotiates with the General Security of Lebanon. I was even speaking with a minister who might have helped if he wasn't deterred by the obvious result of failure. I border the ship from Beirut Port two ours before it departed and was given my passport with an exit visa five minutes before we left Lebanon. On top of those three stories I'm quite proud of having visited every country in Africa without bribing anyone, without returning home, without flying and by getting all visas on the continent. People who have traveled the continent will understand why...

What has motivated you to do this? Tell us some of the highs and lows of your quest.
Well, what an opportunity this is!! How could I not do this once I first got the idea that I could pull it off? But oh – how naïve I was. In 2013 I discovered that nobody in history has been able to reach every country in the world completely without flying. Some people point towards Graham Hughes who is often credited as the first man to reach every country without flying. My father sent me an email in early 2013 with a link to a story about Mr. Hughes. That was an immediate inspiration. I have often felt like I was born to late in a world where everything had already been done and often also said. Especially in a geographical sense. In 1953 the highest mountain was successfully summited and we have long ago discovered all the continents. I couldn't believe that nobody had reached every country without flying and I didn't know about it until Mr Hughes did it! When I discovered that Mr Hughes had flown on several occasions and even had visas done while home, I immediately saw the feat as unaccomplished and that the "game" was still open. At that point I just needed to make up my mind. Who wouldn't want the opportunity to see their name amongst great explorers from the past. After ten months of planning I left home. I started out with a country project which quickly developed into a people project. I was only a few weeks into the project when I saw how worthless a visit to a country felt without the interaction with its people. People are really what make a country and that became the focus of Once Upon A Saga. Then I also began to notice how surprised I was about many countries compared to what I thought about them prior to visiting. I wondered why and came to the conclusion that I had been mislead by media and ignorant conversations. At that point I decided to promote every country in the world as if it was the best in the world. I feel that as a guest in a country it is my responsibility to look for the best it has to offer and share that with those I can. After all every country in the world is the best country by somebody's standard and they wouldn't want to live anywhere else. My greatest highs are nearly always in connection to people. I especially enjoy when people write me that the Saga has encouraged them to see the world in a different light. I love proving people wrong when they tell me there is something which can't be done and I then finally go ahead and do it. But most of the greatest highs are from much more humble experiences with strangers who became friends. My lowest point was the day I gave up and decided to go home. I had been denied entry to Gabon from Cameroon several times although I had a valid visa. I was recovering from cerebral malaria, my long distance relationship to my fiancée was almost coming to an end, I had recently lost my financial sponsorship, I had started to experience violent migraines and anyone in a uniform treated me as a criminal merely for being the wrong skin color. I reached a point where I couldn't take it anymore. A region which was supposed to take seven weeks was nearing seven months and I just saw no pleasure in any of it anymore. I was tired, weak, sleep deprived and hungry. I decided to go home. As I reached that point Abdul Karimou, a local MC taxi driver showed up. We had some history and had become friends in spite of the language barrier. He somehow managed to cheer me up enough to decide not to quit the Saga. Somehow that is also one of the Saga's highs. Just imagine if I had gone home? But a simple man from the border town of Kye-Ossi in Cameroon might have saved this project because we had a human connection. It warms my heart to think about it.     
What have you had to sacrifice to be a big traveller?

At this point nearly all my friends have several children. I can probably still start a family but I haven't been home for nearly five years of my friends lives. Those children have grown to be six or seven years older from I last saw them until I return home. My grandmother passed away and she was the last of my grandparents. I couldn't return home for the funeral because of the project. After I lost financial sponsorship I have completely depleted my personal funds and even taken several loans. I've also had to sell some personal belongings. I've lost friendships but have also gained new ones so that's perhaps just life. I didn't loose my fiancée and she has now been out to visit me 16 times during this project. But I do feel like I have sacrificed several years of a close relationship and waking up together. Also I will kick myself if this project means I've lost my chance to start my own family.

So, where is home? Are you looking forward to your return to Denmark? What do you miss the most from there?

Home is where I hang my hat. However mainly Denmark where I belong. Recent calculations point towards that I will not reach the last country until 2020 soooo... I still own a great apartment in Copenhagen and it will be wonderful to return to it and start a life there with the woman that I love. I miss Danish milk!! I have found much great milk around the world but have also developed a theory that milk needs to taste like the milk we grew up with. And it never tastes like Danish milk anywhere. I miss not living out of a bag. I miss not always wearing the same clothes. I miss speaking my own language and not having all these misunderstandings. I miss calling a friend and meeting up opposed to meeting on skype. I miss going for a run in the nature near my apartment, coming back and turning on the radio while I drink a glass of milk and stretch. Then having a shower in MY bathroom and afterwards picking out what I want to wear by looking into the closet. And naturally I miss waking up next to my fiancée and spending time with her. Yeah...I'm looking forward to my return.

Recount a couple of travel vignettes which have had a lasting impact on you.
It has certainly had an impact on me to see how ordinary life is all over the world. Most people are simply invested in their lives, their children, sports, music, work, education etc. So many people spend so much time standing in line, traveling to and from places and watching some tv they don't care about. I've never climbed onboard a bus which was full of terrorists or crossed a country full of strange deceases. Life on the grand scale is almost boringly ordinary and normal for most people in spite of various degrees of income. People take selfies, update social media, talk about Trump, watch Game of Thrones, play football and complain about politics and the weather. Also I believe that in most cases if people they can help then they will help when facing the opportunity. I remember reaching Guiria in the east of Venezuela. I was looking for a boat and had no clue where to begin? I was on my back in a cheap hotel room when I heard a knock on the door. A short man was on the other side and asked me in broken English if I needed a boat to reach Trinidad. Apparently the taxi driver who brought me to Guiria had spread the word. This encounter lead me to crossing the Gulf of Paria on a highly doubtful decision to trust two men that could easily have pushed me overboard and kept my belongings. But as we reached Trinidad the first thing that the short man did was hand me some local currency so I could buy some breakfast. I'm not naïve but I do at this point have an enormous amount of faith in people based on thousands of encounters. A favorite encounter took place in 2013 in Suwalki, which is a Polish town near Lithuania. It was cold and dark as I stood there on a desolated street corner trying to find out which direction to walk in. I had a piece of paper in my hand with an address but no one to ask. It was nearly midnight and I hadn't seen a living sole since I left the train. Suddenly a door opens at a nearby house and I rush over to ask whoever might be there? It was a woman who was curious to know what I was doing there? I answered I was on my way to Lithuania and I was looking for the address in my hand. She replied that she knew the address but asked if it wasn't easier for me to spend the night in her house? I didn't know what to think in the middle of the night but I finally accepted. As we entered the house the woman asked if I was hungry? I said no but she said nonsense and began cooking a light meal for me. I introduced myself and she replied that her name was Maria. We talked into late at night before she set me up in on a guest bed in the basement. The next morning her daughter had made coffee for me and Maria had made breakfast. I was offered to have a shower before Maria drove me to the bus terminal. That's the short version of the "Maria Story". I always wonder what would have happened if I was standing on a different street corner? If Maria hadn't opened the door? If I had known where the address I was looking for was? If Maria had opened the door five minutes later? We cannot know. But I know that I would never have invited a stranger into my house in the middle of the night and I would certainly not have cooked a meal...but maybe now I will... 
Do you think you will still be travelling like this in 20 years?

Hopefully not! I hope to finish this madness in 2020 :) But I do hope to continue traveling. This project is on a USD 20/day budget which covers transport, accommodation, meals and visas. I hope I'll never need to travel on such a budget again. While I've been to many countries and many places within my life I have far from been everywhere. I would love to visit Alaska, Galapagos Islands, Easter Islands, Antarctica and several other places which this project will not bring me. Hopefully I will be traveling with my family as I value sharing my experiences.

You have a well-known website, Once Upon a Saga. How do you successfully update this while travelling? And what specific audience are you trying to reach through your blog?

So far I have reached 147 countries and they all had WIFI. WIFI is my friend. Most of my blogs have been written on a smartphone but I have recently reached Kuwait and bought a laptop. Before I was working off smartphones and iPad's which has been frustrating. Sometimes I end up in an apartment with peace and quiet to sit and focus on updating the website. Other times I'm crouched down at some hostel full of noise and interruptions. I don't know that I aim for a specific audience? I aim big and just want to draw in everyone. The Saga aims to inspire, educate and entertain. The entertainment comes from following a nutcase trying to reach every country without flying. It's entertaining to see who I meet, which problems I encounter, how I move forward, what I eat, how I feel etc. The education comes from photos I post and the bits and pieces of information I'm able to share. Inspiration is divided into two. First regular travel inspiration for new and interesting destinations which people wouldn't normally think of visiting. But inspiration within this project has also taken a different form: as I have for years proven to be completely unwilling to give up and have always managed to find solutions for even the most dark and difficult situations people feel inspired. On and off I get messages describing how my tenacity has helped them continue the search for a job, complete an education, move forward through a difficult time in their life and many other situations. Also people feel inspired by seeing the world in a different light than portrayed in the media. 

So what are your travel plans for the rest of 2018? And given you have about 45 countries to finish them all, do you have any idea when you will finish your trip?

I'm done with four continents now: Europe, Africa and the Americas. I'm currently making my way through the Middle East and hope to have that completed around August/September. Then I will move on to the Caspian region and that's probably as far as I'll reach this year. Following the Caspian I will push on through the Stans and deeper into Asia before taking on the Pacific. The Pacific will take me down to New Zealand and up to Australia. From there I have a few more countries left on my way to Sri Lanka before ending in the Maldives. I have already covered more than 194,000km across 147 countries in 4 years and 7 months. So my country average is roughly 11.3 days/country while my overall speed is about 5.2 kph. Projecting that forward I should finish in the Maldives on January 22nd 2020. We will see.

Finally, our signature question - if you could invite four people to dinner from any period in history, who would you invite and why?

I'd love to meet Captain Lawrence Edward Grace "Titus" Oates from the failed Terra Nova Expedition. I have for years been taken by his legendary self sacrifice. I would also like to meet George Herbert Leigh Mallory who died on Mt. Everest in 1924. His determination to conquer Everest in the obvious bewilderment of many observers interests me. It would certainly be interesting to meet Ernest Miller Hemmingway as conversation would be flowing and I might just be swept away on a mad adventure. And it would be amazing to meet Carl Edward Sagan on the off chance that I could learn something from his brilliant mind because I have hopes that I might just be able to understand him as he explains the world for me. Will you book the table?

Morocco.
The photos in this interview are from Tor's personal collection and we thank him for sharing them with us at NomadMania!