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Interview with Sal Lavallo

INTERVIEW WITH A NOMAD

Sal Lavallo

Sal at the DMZ on the North Korean side.

Sal, tell us about your early years and how your interest in travel developed.

I think of it as an interest in the world rather than an interest in travel. I’ve always been obsessed with learning about the people, economies, struggles, and beliefs around the world. That’s why I wanted to see it all first hand, to study and learn. I wanted to build connections with others and I also wanted to understand myself. 

The world never felt large, unattainable, or scary.  I grew up in a globally-minded household, with a father born in Italy, a German mother, and lots of family in Argentina. Being in somewhat homogenous Indiana, this difference was magnified.  While we were young we took big road trips and visited 44 states in the US.  This definitely led me to love long trips by car, bus, or train – and I’ve since entered 110+ countries by land!  At one point each child was asked to pick an international trip, I decided to go as far away and as new of a culture as possible and picked Japan and China. I went with my father in 2004, it was my first trip abroad.

When I was 16 I was accepted to the United World College, a boarding school with 200 students from 90+ different countries.  This made the world feel absolutely accessible and our differences seem minor.  I then began traveling to visit friends from school on all summer holidays, winter recesses, and spring breaks.  This continued all throughout high school and my time at university. 

While at university, I studied abroad a semester each in Israel and Abu Dhabi, and took trips for research to Brazil, East Africa, and Oman.  I also founded a small NGO, Trail of Seeds, which did Culturally Inclusive Development work in agricultural communities in Tanzania, Venezuela/Brazil, and St. Kitts.  While in school I worked for the German government (in New York and Abu Dhabi), and took internships in India and Berlin. 

When I graduated, I moved to Abu Dhabi for work.  I had projects in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and New Zealand. My last six months of work I relocated to Nairobi, Kenya. Since Abu Dhabi is so well located and the population is so excited by travel, I would take long-weekend trips to new countries quite often with friends. When I left work in Jan 2016, my first time not being either full-time employed or full-time studying, I had already been to 115 countries.  In the two years since, I’ve hit the remaining!

You just finished 193! How do you feel? Is it the feeling your expected?

Gratitude is the absolute overwhelming feeling.  This was not something I did alone.  From staying in the homes of over 75 former classmates and colleagues, to the countless strangers who assisted me along the way, and with the global institutions I worked for that enabled the travel.  I am so thankful to everyone for enjoying this journey with me, especially my supportive family.  Most importantly, I am thankful every moment to god.  It’s been such an indescribably positive experience to learn from and understand the world in this holistic way. I cannot think of a better way to have spent my 20s!

Tuvalu.
You left Malta last. Any reason for this choice? How was your time in Malta?

Malta was phenomenal. I was greeted by my parents who flew in from the United States, a few friends came in from Italy, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and New York, and I was hosted by Marriott/SPG at the Le Meridien.  They had big balloons spelling out 193, a cake with a chocolate globe (that I crushed as my final act of conquering), and welcomed me with an ovation from the entire staff. It was a big party, and really until the second day there, I just thought of it as the finale, not as a place in and of itself.  I was blown away once I realized, “hey this isn’t just a place to finish, it’s a place to learn about!”  There is so much history and beauty on this small island country. We tried to take in a lot: the ancient capital city of Mdina, the megalithic temples like Hagar Qim, and the three walled cities across from Valletta.  It was the most perfect spot I could have thought for my finish.

I had made the decision to end there about a year ago.  I looked at the list of what I had left and knew Malta would be ideal.  It is somewhere that my parents and friends would love to visit.  It has the infrastructure to make a really fun party to celebrate. Also, it’s a spot that didn’t make much sense to combine with any of the other countries I had remaining.

Iraq.

Of all the places you visited, which ones surprised you most in a positive way? And why?

I never know when I’m going to fall in love with a country – but when it happens it can truly take my breath away.

I remember when I first entered the UAE, via the Sharjah airport in September 2011.  It was the first time (after 6 continents and 30+countries) that I felt like I was in another world. I had just gotten done with a big research trip in East Africa and so I was in full analysis mode.  I was blown away by how important this country is to studies of development and identity. A few months later I decided to move there and have used it as my base ever since.  It is my absolute favorite country.

Something similar happened right before in Tanzania.  I was doing the first project of Trail of Seeds, a small NGO that I founded.  We worked in a subsistence farming town for 6-weeks, and I just could not get enough.  The language, the people, the food, everything excited me and I wanted to understand it all.  I go back there every year, now speak Swahili quite well, and even own a small farm where we grow cassava, rice, bananas, and mahogany.

Most recently this happened in Algeria. I already loved the country after a week in Algiers and Constantine, but then I randomly met this group of people my age while in the small city of Annaba.  They were all from there but studied around the world – Paris, Montreal, London, even Romania, and were back for the summer.  We hung out a couple days and then I was supposed to leave to Libya, but my visa got delayed.  I remained 3 more weeks and I ended up becoming a part of their crew.  We hung out every single day, sleeping late, going to the beach, driving up into the mountains for sunset, smoking shisha and dancing at night. I left the nice hotel and started staying at their homes, each day their mothers would argue over who got to cook for me. It was such a special time.

Otherwise, this year I was really positively surprised in some of the “danger zones” like Libya, South Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan.  In each case, I was warned endlessly before arriving, and then impressed at the normalcy.  Now it seems obvious: Of course, life still exists! I was lucky to be hosted by the family of friends in each of these locations. Thus, I got exposed to life as they live it.  That was eye opening and these visits have been some of my favorite experiences to share.

Finally, I remember being shocked when I arrived in Burundi and Rwanda. I kept thinking, “why has no one told me that these are the most beautiful countries on earth!” The bright blue sky, the red dirt earth with lush green rolling hills, the smell of charcoal burning brochettes, and the sound of happy children, all culminated in this holistic joy that I instantly felt and then remained the entire time I was there and upon each and every return visit.

Clearly, I can go on and on, there are so many places I love. I haven’t even gone yet into my bias for the places I’m from: Germany, Italy, and the USA!

Haiti.
And were they any you feel more negative towards?

99% of my experiences have been positive.  Even if hard while occurring, looking back I can see all that I gained from each and every thing that has happened.  There is no country that I would not give a second chance too.  Especially because I love to see places as they develop over time.  For example, I was in China in 2004 and again (twice) in 2016, and the growth in those 12 years was almost unbelievable.  God willing, I’d love to revisit some places twenty or even fifty years after my first visit and really examine the change.

Turkmenistan.

What makes or breaks a place for you? Gives us a few stories that are memorable 'makes' or 'breaks'.

A few things definitely ‘make’ a trip:

-      Friends: I’m lucky to often be hosted by friends on my trips.  Because I attended the United World College and always worked for global institutions, I have friends all over the world. Being with a friend, having that local perspective, always ‘makes’ a trip.  Specifically, when I think of my time in Timor Leste, Kazakhstan, Haiti, Congo, Gambia, Nepal, and more – it wouldn’t be the same without my friends.

-      Shows: I love being in a stadium or theater crowd, and that always stands out as a fantastic experience.  From football matches in Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan, Colombia, and New Zealand, to ballet in Azerbaijan and Melbourne, and even with acrobats in Shanghai, Nicaragua, and Pyongyang – I always love being a spectator.

-      Walkability: I love just meandering around cities.  I usually do not travel with a set plan or itinerary, and almost always my first day in a new place is spent walking hours and hours to see the city from the ground.  If it’s hard to walk around I get sad very quickly.

However, it’s difficult to think of something that can completely ‘break’ a trip.  I try to keep a happy attitude throughout anything, and always go with the flow.  Things like struggling to book a flight while in Sudan, being delayed for 3 weeks in Algeria, or encountering a blizzard in Romania, tend to lead to interesting experiences that I learned from! 

Arriving in Malta, country 193!
You are an avid social media user. Tell us how this has shaped your travels, if at all, and what you have gained from the experience of using social media for travel.

On Instagram @sallavallo, I post a new photo almost every day.  My goal there is to promote the positivity and beauty of little known or negatively perceived places. I like to not only show interesting images from these types of locations, but to also pair them with captions about how my experience on the ground went against my preconceived notions of the country. Through this approach, I’ve found how special it is to connect with people from those locations. They are genuinely grateful for their homes to be presented in positive light.  It is also meaningful to me when my followers mention how their ideas of the world have been shifted and opened by my posts. 

To get the most from using social media I do a few things:  Firstly, I always post delayed- often many months after the trip.  This allows me to take photos not looking for a “good instagram shot” but to capture what I find beautiful and to be present. It also makes it pleasurable for me to relive the trip later.  Secondly, I try to be very aware that what I show on social media is my travels and not my life. This prevents me from engaging in the potentially harmful degradation of self via the curation of an “ideal”. Lastly, I interact with everyone – I answer all questions and comments – and that has created a handful of real friendships. It has also allowed me to learn more about each place!

Overall, I find it important to share. It is an unbelievable privilege to see the world and learn from it.  It would be an absolute injustice to not share what I’ve gained from it.

You're only 27 and yet have done every country. What is next on your travel CV? And what are your travel plans for 2018?

I’m really not sure what’s next on any kind of CV.  I always try and plan 10 amazing things simultaneously.  Then, even if only one manifests into reality, I’m still doing something amazing! The world will absolutely continue to be a part of my life, as learning about the issues in it, connecting with people all across it, and working hard to improve it- are my passions.  How exactly I’ll go about that…. We’ll all just have to wait and see.

Finally the question we always ask - if you could invite four people to dinner from any time in human history, who would you invite and why?

This is a tough question, First, I'm going to want to extend my imaginary dinner to a full night out with some fun games, a big 8-course dinner, at least an hour of dancing at the club, and then some late-night junk food.

I would invite HRH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed – the Crown Prince of my adopted home, Abu Dhabi.  He is a visionary leader who cares so deeply about the UAE and its people and has spearheaded incredibly groundbreaking projects.  I endlessly admire him.

Next, I would invite the mother of performance art - Marina Abramovic.  I was lucky enough to briefly meet and perform with her in Oslo, Norway, and her presence is unlike anything I've ever known.  Her perspective and creative insight would be amazing to see in action with the other invitees. 

To keep the night going with the older ones, I would need the help of Rihanna. I think she would be anyone's choice for top party companion, but also has depth and artistry that would be great for the dinner conversation.

My only non-living choice would have to be: G. K. Chesterton.  His wit and humor and overall happy attitude is engaging even 100 years later.  I would love to listen to his thoughts on today's world!

I think it would be an epic and enlightening evening! I’m sure that Miranda July, Clarice Lispector, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Kurt Hahn would be disappointed not to be invited, but we’ll get them next time around.

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