Interview with Ildiko Szabo

INCREDIBLE WOMEN TRAVELLERS SERIES

What is amazing in today's interview is the fact that it is Ildi's first ever interview - considering the incredible places she has visited, and that she is the first person from her country to have done every country, we are incredibly honoured to have been given this exclusivity!

Daydreaming in New Zealand

Ildi, tell us something about your early years and how your love of travel developed.

Looking back at my childhood memories as a kid I was naturally extremely curious about our wonderful globe and what is out there. I have always been fascinated to watch documentaries by Sir David Attenborough, Maya culture inspired cartoons or simply browsing through various history and geography books to learn about the mesmerising secrets of the pyramids in Egypt. And my favourite book was after all, the World Atlas. 

I was born and raised in northeastern Hungary, Nyiregyhaza-Oros towards the end of the communist era, when traveling abroad was limited from the Eastern Bloc to the so called 'West'. Although my parents never had the desire to explore far away places, it was such a liberating feeling to jump into our old Skoda car and hit the road within the country! Our family trips would usually involve going to cities in our region such as Debrecen, Tokaj. Inevitably the best childhood memories came from those summer camps with my primary school at Lake Balaton. 

I was 18 when I first left my home country, the very first trip lead me to Italy to attend the World Youth Day, Catholic Youth Festival in Rome. In university I happened to get two scholarships to Germany and Finland and travelled around the neighbouring countries in my free time such as Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Czechia, Poland, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Estonia, Russia. Then I continued my studies and worked in the UK, which allowed me to finance my first trip outside of Europe at age 24, went on my first solo backpacking trip to China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, UAE. That was it, when my love affair with travel all began. 

A year later I found myself backpacking on my own in Southeast Asia and Australia. I was simply longing for far-off places I have never been to see, feel, explore and taste with a sense of wonder. The next thing I know after having visited around 80 countries, that on one sleepless night started to contemplate whether it is feasible to visit every country on Earth. And here we go after visiting 216 UN+ countries, still on the go!

At one of the many Turkmenbashi statues in Ashgabat

You are the first Hungarian to complete the UN country list. How does that make you feel? Are you 'famous' in your home country?

In November 2018, after so many failed attempts receiving the last entry stamp in my passport from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia put me through a comprehensive layers of emotions from euphoric, hysterical screaming to breaking down into tears of joy. Words cannot describe the feeling. I, who was born and raised in a suburban area of a small city in Hungary with the mindset that travelling the world extensively is only for the affluent societies of the ‘western world’ and solo female travellers are not everywhere welcomed in the world...

 

Being the first Hungarian and also one of the youngest women to complete the UN country list makes me feel fortunate and privileged at the same time. All I can tell it has been an extremely tiring but definitely an endless journey of full of unexpected surprises. On the same note I feel enormously grateful for the people who were on this road together with me. My supportive family, amazing friends and all those wonderful strangers who hosted me, showed me around in places or simply pointed out the right direction when I got lost.

As I am traveling from the very beginning for my own educational benefit and not for seeking any sort of media attention I kept my travels pretty low profile, neither I blog or vlog about my adventures, nor I have a big Facebook/Instagram audience. Consequently, not many people came across my extensive travels in general. 

But what it really means being famous? When I registered on Nomad Mania few months ago, I created a profile with my name only and left the whole world map absolutely blank - it takes quite a bit of time to fill the map, so saved it for later. My jaw almost dropped in amazement  when a couple of days later I received a congratulations email from the Nomad Mania Team for completing the UN list as the first Hungarian. That means to me being known. At least in our travel circles.

Exploring Nauru
And once we are on Hungary, what are some gems of your country that you think travellers may not know but they should explore?
When it comes to Hungary people often associate it with Goulash communism in the past,  summers spent at the 'Hungarian Sea', Lake Balaton, or recreational holidays at one of the thermal spas. Nowadays it is more about the ruin pub culture, historic coffee houses in Budapest, from wine festivals, international music festivals to authentic folklore extravaganzas. And that's exactly where the tourist crowd is.

What I personally enjoy and not that popular among foreign travellers is the less hectic, turn-back-time places with rich folklore and cultural history such as the Lake Tisza and the UNESCO World Heritage listed Hortobagyi National Park, Europe’s largest semi-natural grassland with the Nine-arched Bridge. It is famous for the almost extinct long horned Hungarian grey cattle with the horsemen in traditional costume and Lake Tisza, the second largest lake in Hungary which also happens to be one of the best places for bird watching.

Another off-the-beaten-path place is the Preacher's Pulpit, located in the scenic Visegrad Mountains halfway between Visegrad and Esztergom. A great hike to the lookout provides a simply breath-taking panoramic view of the River Danube and Visegrad.

Hungary has so many remote medieval castles as well which are often neglected by the foreign tourist crowd such as the charming Csesznek Castle in the Bakony Mountains, the scenic Szigliget Castle and hilltop Sumeg Castle at Lake Balaton, the robust Kinizsi Castle in Veszprem county or the picturesque Lillafured Castle and the list goes on.

Rocking the party and the National Kenu and Kundu Festival, Alotau, Papua New Guinea
Turning to travel, what were the greatest challenges and rewards of travelling to every country?
 

Traveling sometimes feels so surreal, like playing a part in a video game. After ticking off all tourist hotspots on the map, the real game starts! I would stay after having visited around 150 countries, one will face the greatest challenges which come down to the inaccessibility of certain countries; logistics, current political climate (war-torn countries, kidnapping hot spots) and in relation to difficulties of obtaining a visa. 

I personally faced it all, besides traveling solo as a female raises other safety concerns too. When somebody tells me a place cannot be visited at the moment because of governmental warnings or visa issues etc., that is  when I get more excited about the project. This is how I ended up visiting Libya and Syria in 2016, when not many tourists ventured out there or the incredibly beautiful island of Yemen, Socotra in 2017 by hitching a cement delivery cargo boat -  there were literally no commercial flights to  the Yemen mainland or Socotra at the time of my travel.

It is definitely worth all the hard work, as all these unforgettable memories contributed to be the person who I am today. Reckless, restless, boundlessly curious. Traveling to the unknown really built up my patience level and tolerance for uncertainty, broadened my horizons and I certainly became more self-reliant and independent. Traveling solo is a great self-confidence booster too. There is no greater experience than discovering new cultures, human and natural wonders, fascinating monuments and witnessing magical, natural phenomena of our wonderful globe with an open heart and open mind.  

At the mesmerising ruins of Leptis Magna, Libya
What would you say is your style of travelling?

I generally travel solo without any companion, purely because I do engage more with my surroundings and enjoy more of the cultural perspective of my adventures by exposing myself to new encounters with the people in the particular country I visit or on the road if I travel by myself. 

As I did most of my travels with a full-time job, due to the nature of my job I spent anything from 3-4 days up to a week in each country depending on the safety situation and major attractions, trying to maximise my time accordingly on a shoestring budget. I sacrificed most of my life savings to visit every country in the world, therefore I often used couchsurfing, stayed in Airbnb or inexpensive family-owned guesthouses. Taking public transportation, local buses, eating street food, visiting the museums and markets, meeting the locals are the key elements in my travels. 

 

The best lifetime memories always come from stories like sleeping in a beduin cave in Petra, in a yurt just outskirts of Ulaanbaatar with my Mongolian host family or spending a few nights in a hut in Rwanda or Gambia without running water and electricity. We are very spoiled nowadays, all these experiences are invaluable and incomparable and will make you understand more about the people and the world we live in.

Of the places you visited, which ones surprised you (positively or negatively) the most and why?

I always travel with an open mind without any expectations, consequently I don't really get negatively surprised. Most of my travel experiences are positive for various reasons, even if any unpleasant surprises occurred, looking back I always gained from them.

Travelling through West and Central Africa bureaucracy, corruption, the lack of transportation, the unbearable heat with dust can be frustrating, on the other hand I must admit that Africa is my favourite continent in the world too! 

My first solo trip to the African continent stole my heart forever, getting to know the daily routine of the Hammer tribe while traveling through the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. It really made me feel like walking on the cover page of National Geographic Magazine. Cruising around the swamp wonderland of the Okavango delta in Botswana on a mokoro and spotting the big five or simply enjoying the little show of a silverback family in the vast rainforest of Rwanda, travelling on the terracotta coloured dirt roads of the iconic West African terrain and visiting the world's largest mud mosque in Djenne, Mali - just to mention some of the highlights, really had a wow effect on me. Mother Africa, the cradle of civilisation, astonished me always in the most unexpected way during my travels.  

Hanging out with the kids on the avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar

Give us a few travel experiences which have stuck in your mind and you believe really make a difference to you as a person.

Usually what impresses me when I travel apart from the natural wonders is the people and their stories, and​ how it affects me as a traveller.

One story is especially close to my heart. In 2012 I was invited by another travel-obsessed friend to the Comoros Islands where I had the privilege of meeting Ingo - Ingjaldur Hannibalsson - the late first Icelandic UN master, a university professor from Iceland. He was also on a mission to visit every country in the world and I was going through a phase of my life of almost giving up my travels due to constant travel fatigue and also the lack of support from some friends and close family members who found my quest to visit every country complete and utter nonsense... This encounter was definitely a turning point for me, he inspired me through his magical travel tales to travel more or rather endlessly. I always think what if I hadn't bumped into Ingo on that trip.... (He accomplished his goal of visiting every country in August 2014, only to leave this world unexpectedly a few months later, but I will always keep him in my thoughts as I walk in his footsteps sharing the same journey.)

During my visit to Sudan I booked a trip to the Meroe Pyramids. The Sudanese travel agent, Midhat was passionately showing me his travel photos which included summer holidays to Italy, Switzerland, Germany and to my big surprise - Hungary. One of the pictures looked familiar so I looked closer. At first I thought no, it cannot be.... then all of a sudden a photo appeared on the main square of my small non-touristy city, Nyiregyhaza covered with snow! I cannot express how random it was and how blessed I felt. Particularly if I take into consideration that Midhat was from Wadi Halfa, from the Magyarab tribe. A tribe between the Sudanese and Egyptian border dating back to the 16th century with Hungarian ancestors. And he was in my city in a search of an other Magyarab who apparently lived there! 

In Kinshasa when visiting the former Congolese president, Laurent Kabila’s, Mausoleum which has several layers of security leading to the gigantic monument of Kabila and his tomb, I encountered one of the security personnel’s eyes landing on my colourful, expensive-looking watch. The highest ‘entrance fee’ to the compound I was asked for my watch, although I really surprised the security guards when I displayed my bargaining skills and confidently asked for his AK-47 in return. Needless to say, I get into the mausoleum without any unnecessary donation of my travel watch.

My second to last country was Yemen, more precisely the astonishingly beautiful island of Socotra. It is arguably one of the most stunning places on Earth, such a unique, otherworldly hidden gem, almost unreal! As there was no scheduled flight to the country at the time of my visit - neither to the mainland or the island of Socotra - I decided to take the only option available to reach this otherworldly, unique, unspoilt island - a cement delivery cargo boat. What might seem a bit scary at first but it was a kind of once-in-a-lifetime trip, now or never. I ended up waiting 8 days for the first available boat to depart from Salalah. The epic trip took a gruelling 48 hours there and back across the Arabian sea with a lack of basic facilities onboard, sleeping on the deck under the stars. Definitely well worth all the hassle though! Especially because onboard, there was an overly friendly goat which followed me everywhere I went, we gladly adopted each other to the point that he became my ultimate travel buddy for the entire journey, I named him Abdulaziz.

Getting lost in Socotra

You finished all the UN countries. Where have you been since? What's next?

 

Since I completed my secret childhood dream journey to visit every sovereign nation in the world, I visited some of the unrecognised or partially recognised countries, disputed areas and 'sovereign states' such as Western Sahara, Transnistria, Abkhazia, Northern Ireland, Northern Cyprus, Niue and the Cook Islands. I also explored Faroe Islands and Svalbard. I am currently on a mission to visit UN+ territories and I found Nomad Mania a great guideline for this.

Will I ever limit my travelling? As long as I have my two legs and air in my lungs to carry me on my endless adventures I will keep going on the road. I have been dreaming yet to spot some penguins in Antarctica, to explore the tropical volcanic island of Saint Helena or wander around the mysterious stone statues of Easter Island... and I know this could perhaps be a bold statement but I really wish one day I could get on a spaceship and see our wonderful globe from the stratosphere...

Looking for polar bears en route to Pyramiden, Svalbard
Apart from Ingo, have you met many other travellers on the road? Do you believe there is something that links us all?

One of the greatest things about travelling is the people you meet along the way. The more unexplored and less touristy a place you visit, the more chances you meet like-minded travellers. I have countless stories of encounters with other travellers from hiking around Machu Picchu and bumping into somebody who happened to be the best childhood friend of a friend of mine to my plane neighbour on a Bangkok flight who studied at the same university in Germany from the same professor. 

 

I met other 'country collector' travellers in the most unexpected or rather expected places because only the serious travel freaks go to places like Hargeisa, Mogadishu, Kiribati or Tuvalu and also had the pleasure to meet a few of the UN masters in person.

I believe what links us all the travellers is the unquenchable curiosity and passion to explore the unknown and also to experience where our limits are by stepping out of our comfort zone. I would say we are all obsessed in a certain way with our travels - and this passion is really contagious when you share travel tales in between each other...

I often feel like the world is a small oyster, the more you have seen of it the smaller it gets. I strongly believe we are all connected. My travel mantra says it all: One world, One life and We are all One! 

We are all one - at the Mogadishu cathedral, Somalia
What can you not travel without?
When it comes to travelling I am trying to be minimalist these days. I gave up carrying around checked-in luggage long ago, unless I am going on a longer trip which requires packing for multiple climates. Ideally I opt for a small handy backpack and the first thing I would pack is, along with my passport, my phone and a small compact camera, chargers and adapters. I stopped carrying around my DSLR camera too for practical reasons but I always make sure I create some wonderful images on each and every trip. 

Other necessities will include a couple of organic muesli bars, photocopies of passport and visas, printouts of the destination/downloads on my phone, a basic first aid kit, a little pouch with my cosmetics, all in miniatures, a microfiber, quick-drying towel and my silk pillow case... after all I am a woman.

In North Korea
Is there anything you regret in terms of your travel experiences?
Lost flight connections, lost backpack, stolen bag or being questioned and followed by the secret police in Libya, broken camera, broken smartphone, broken foot and the list goes on... yet my spirit is one unbroken, solid concrete. No regrets at all. I would do it all over again. I always said to myself no matter how sleep deprived and fatigue I was, no matter what happened in my travels, I cannot calmly look into the mirror in the morning if I haven't done anything to complete my vision and mission: visiting every country in the world. What I honestly think I should have done differently is keep a travel journal as some of my travel memories became very distant as time passed and also perhaps share more of my travel pics with my loved ones.
At the Martyr's Monument, Baghdad, Iraq

So what are your travel plans for the rest of 2019?

I recently just got back from Iraq, a childhood dream came true by visiting the ancient capital of the Mesopotamian world, Babylon and also was fascinated to visit one of the former palaces of Saddam Hussein and strolling around the streets of Baghdad for such a long time. Given the fact that only few months left from 2019 I truly hope I can visit some of the UN+ territories as planning a trip through the Caucasus region to the unrecognised republics of South Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.

The picturesque Komodo Island would also be on the radar as I haven't been yet. And if for some magical reason I still have some spare time than I wouldn't mind a short getaway to explore the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh.

Hugging my 'Mamma Mauritania' at the Nouakchott Fish Market

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

Marco Polo - Venetian born merchant, writer and explorer - one of the first travellers to Asia along the Silk Road in the Middle Ages. This would be a travellers get together meeting, so many questions rumbling through my head about his travels such as: Why did he decide to sail through the Mediterranean and onwards travel to Asia? Why he wanted to go to East? What were his greatest challenges at the time? 

Robert Capa - Hungarian war photographer and journalist who is considered as one of the greatest combat and adventure photographers captured five wars in his lifetime with his famous saying 'if your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough’. I would like to know where his passion and bravery towards war photography came from and would not mind to learn from him some of his street photography tips. 

Amelia Earhart - the first woman who flew across solo the Atlantic ocean and set up so many other flying records such as flying from the Red Sea to India as the first person in history. The mystery of her disappearance on her last flight still remained unsolved until now, I really like to find out from her what actually happened.

Leonardo da Vinci - he was one of the greatest influential artists in history, a universal genius, an inventor, architect, painter, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, a brilliant mind well ahead of his time with all future technological predictions which eventually came true. Considering all mystery and conspiracy theories around his two well known paintings: Mona Lisa and The Last Supper I would like to engage him in a conversation about the truth what is behind these two paintings. Who really Mona Lisa was to him behind her mysterious smile and I would watch with him the Da Vinci Code, the movie adaptation of Dan Brown bestseller and ask about the conspiracy theory in relation to his The Last Supper painting. The dinner that might shock the world...

Chilling with the boys in Kabul, Afghanistan
The photos in this interview are from Ildi's personal collection and we thank her for sharing her images with us here at NomadMania