Interview with Melanie Smith

INCREDIBLE WOMEN TRAVELLERS SERIES

For Melanie,  2019 is the year she completed her quest to visit every UN country with a successful visit to Yemen. She tells us a little bit about her take on travel; you can find out more in her blog Only My Footprints.

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

I grew up in New Zealand in a family where we couldn't afford to travel a lot, certainly we never went abroad.  My first overseas trip was when I was 14 to neighbouring Australia to play soccer.  Like a lot of kiwis, I went on an OE (‘overseas experience’) when I was 21 to Europe, and that was it, I was hooked.  Long trips around Asia, India and even the Middle East followed swiftly after (I even made it to Syria back in 1997 thankfully while Palmyra still looked amazing).

How has being from New Zealand influenced who you are and your outlook?

Kiwis are fairly low key, we like to spend a lot of time outdoors, and we are apparently very friendly.  That has absolutely shaped who I am and how I live my life.  I have now lived in central London for 20 years, but I am still a quintessential kiwi.  I talk to strangers in the tube (a social sin). I own a beat-up panel van with a mattress in the back that I take to the hills and sleep in when I go running.  I still hitchhike when I am in the countryside, and have never had any trouble.  And I feel utterly comfortable talking to anyone from any social background.  That is the joy of being a kiwi. 

I love NZ and am looking forward to moving home at some point. But I am very grateful to have become citizens of two other amazing countries in the past 10 years - so I am now French (thanks to my husband) and British, and feel very honoured to have extra ‘homes’.
This year you completed all 193 UN countries. How did that feel?
I was simultaneously ecstatic and exhausted.  My last trip to Yemen followed four nights with very little sleep (including two overnight flights).  If I was honest, it was weirdly deflating for a moment, as I had been so focused on it for so long.  Fortunately I am quite goal-oriented, so I just found myself another goal to focus on (I have a new job running an amazing business, and now all my energy is going into figuring out how to make us the biggest in the market versus spending lots of time trying to optimise flight schedules around the Pacific).

When I look back at my travels, the one thing I am most thankful for is how resilient and grateful travelling has made me.   When I see the lives of most women in the world, I am immensely grateful I was born where I was born, and afforded the opportunities that decent nutrition and education give you.  
So what motivated you to do them every country?
I have no idea, though I do recall someone years ago telling me I would never achieve it, and I suspect my stubborn contrariness helped to spur me to finish!  About 8 years ago I realised I had been to about 80 countries, and I had just semi-retired from a serious corporate job.  So I decided to use all my newfound free time to travel more.  I thought it would be nice to be the first kiwi to visit every country in the world, but I wasn’t in much of a hurry, and I kept revisiting countries, so Tudor Clee (eds note: interviewed in January 2018) did beat me to the goal.   I think I am the first NZ woman (and French woman) to visit every country in the world, and probably the first Maori.
What kind of traveller do you consider yourself?
I am very much a solo traveller, I hate travelling at someone else’s pace.   My husband is pretty well trained, so he comes along from time to time.   I am a kiwi, so obviously a backpacker not a glampacker  Occasionally we go five star (hubby likes a nice hotel), but I like to keep it low key.  Partly this is because it is cheaper, but mostly it is because you meet more interesting locals in a bush taxi than in a limousine.  

My favourite way to travel is actually on foot - walking 30km a day through the Dogon valley in Mali, traversing the French alps, or hiking the arctic circle trail in Greenland, carrying my food and tent on my back.  I am most happy when totally alone in the wilderness.  I like to travel see as much of a place as I can, but I do it at pace, and will happily walk for hours every day to see everything there is in a city.   I also like to run around places, and was inspired to copy Gunnar Garfors and run around Nauru (easier than it sounds as it is only 16km to circumnavigate the whole country), and I also knocked off running from one end of Funafuti to the other in Tuvalu.  


I don’t want to judge how other people travel, but I don’t understand how someone can call an airport visit, a country visit.  With few exceptions (like day trips to Yemen and the Vatican), I tried to spend a week or more in most places.    Lots of places I have returned to 3 or more times, as I wanted to see more (Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Rwanda have all had four or more visits).

I am amazed by how many questions I get about how dangerous it must be to travel by yourself as a woman solo.  Apart from being held up at gun point once (Colombia), I have never had any problems.  Most humans are genuinely decent, and I have always been very well looked after.  In sketchy countries, I occasionally used a fixer (e.g in Tripoli or in Juba), but in most places I just wander around by myself (e.g Freetown, Bangui, N’djamena).   I have learnt how to do a school teacher voice and tell off young men who are being cheeky…. I ask them in a loud voice “ would you want someone treating your mother or sisters the way you are treating me???” and that typically sorts out any bad behaviour.
Tell us a few travel stories which have really made a difference to you.
Well my best travel story is about meeting a hot French guy on a bus in Peru in 1999.  We got talking, we travelled together for a while, and then we had a long-distance relationship between Paris and Chicago for a few years while I was studying for an MBA.  We have now been together for 20 years and married for 11.  
Which country most surprised you and why?
Every country surprises me!  There is something amazing about every place I go.  

The countries in Africa beguiled me the most.  I loved Mali, amazing architecture, stunning light and incredibly friendly people.  I slept on grubby mattresses on sweltering rooftops, had to filter all my well water, and ate a lot of gritty couscous.  But I loved it.  I suspect much of my adoration was due to the dearth of tourists, I am not sure I would have liked Mali in peak tourist times with bus loads of French tourists.  Eritrea, Ethiopia, Botswana, Namibia, and so many more African countries also stole my heart.  There is something about the light in Africa, and the friendliness of the people that keeps me coming back.

Afghanistan was probably the country that surprised me the most.  The local men were wonderfully friendly, the food amazing, and the architecture incredible.  I did find it hard to reconcile the friendliness of the men with the horrendous way women are treated in that country.  I only managed to speak to about three women the whole time I was there.  It was weird, as if women were not present in society at all except to scurry around and look after men.  Even in a full burqa with my face covered the locals could tell I wasn’t Afghan, I stride around, with all the confidence you get when you were raised in a country where you have rights.  In a headscarf, it is totally obvious I am foreign, as I smile at everyone, and look people in the eyes.  I don’t really do subservient and timid.  But in spite of my anger and resentment at the treatment of Afghan women, I still loved visiting the country and look forward to going back. 

Btw - my top country tips are on my blog, here http://www.onlymyfootprints.com/2018/02/25/which-are-the-best-countries-in-the-world/

Do you feel you have had to sacrifice much in order to travel so far?

I never feel like I sacrifice anything.  Life is about prioritisation.  So many people tell me they don’t have enough time or money to do things.  I don’t watch television, don’t really drink alcohol, and have no kids.  As a result, I have a lot more free time and money than most people, and have always managed to find time in my life to do everything I wanted to do.   I think if you don’t find time for something, you probably don’t really want to do it.
So, what next in terms of travel now that you've done the world?
I have just taken a job as the CEO of a very cool business, so I will be having a few less holidays for the next few years.  But my plans for the next two years are:
  • A few epic holidays with the husband to Kamchatka (bears and Geysers) and Israel and Jordan (he hasn’t been before)
  • A few fast and light backpacking trips over long weekends (e.g am planning on doing the 5-day Lauvegar trail in Iceland in a day one weekend, and hiking the Transvulcania in the Canaries), 
  • Visiting some new territories (Western Sahara, Gibraltar, Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands) 
When I retire, I would like to spend more time doing epic long distance hikes like the Continental Divide trail in the US, which takes about 3 months, and do a lot more hiking in the Alps.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Be able to sleep anywhere, especially in an economy seat or a bus.   I love sleep, and I don’t get enough of it.

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?

My absolute dream dinner would be with these four extraordinary humans!
  • Dame Whina Cooper - a very famous wahine Maori who  was the pioneer of the land rights movement in New Zealand to return land to the indigenous people https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-dame-whina-cooper-1432167.html
  • Kate Sheppard - the leader of the suffragettes movement in NZ, where the first women in the world to get an equal vote in 1893
  • Jacinda Ardern - prime minister of New Zealand, a warm and wonderful human being, and I was so proud of her response to the Christchurch terror attack, galvanising kiwis in support of our muslim whanau/family
  • Greta Thunberg - I just admire her relentless tenacity, and she confirms my long held view that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.
The photos in this interview are from Melanie's personal collection and we thank her for sharing her images with us here at NomadMania