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Graham Hughes: Visiting every Country on Earth without Flying

Graham Hughes is the first person to visit every country in the world without flying. He has some great advice on how to travel the world on a shoestring.

“When asked how can I afford to travel so much, I feel like retorting with: how can you afford your rent? To keep a dog? To have children? To smoke? When I travel, I have no rent to pay, no dog to feed, no kids to look after or cigarette companies to support, so 100% of the money I have can go on travel. Keeping to a budget of $15 a day is fairly easy if you’re CouchSurfing (free), eating street food ($2 a meal) and travelling on the chicken bus ($10 per 100 miles). That’s just $5500 a year — less than a typical British cigarette smoker will spend on ciggies over the same period and much, much less than the rent on a flat in London or the cost of bringing up children.

The toughest part of travel is deciding to go.

Travel isn’t a question of being loaded, it’s a question of priorities. Obviously if you want comfort and security, stay at home, work hard and maybe go on a cruise when you’re 67 years old. If you’re lucky enough to live that long. But if you want to see the world NOW, while you’re young, rush headlong into the thrill and vigour of the unknown, wake up every day in a new place with new challenges and new friends, then the world is your dancefloor — all you have to do is make the decision to GET OUT THERE and strut your funky stuff.”

I chatted to Graham, now living on a small island in Panama, via Skype…

Alastair: I’m sure you’ve got like a 20-second resume of your trip you can blurt out.

Graham: I am the first person to visit every single country in the world without flying.

Alastair: Does that include South Sudan? [smug comment!]

Graham: That does include South Sudan even though it wasn’t a country when I started my journey but became a country by the end of it.

Alastair: Have there been any more new countries since then that I can throw at you?

Graham: Well… Maybe Scotland soon? Greenland is having an independence referendum in 2017. I haven’t been to Greenland, but I’m hoping to go there next year on a ship.

Alastair: Greenland’s awesome. I find it really fascinating how the grand total of countries is slightly fluid and it’s not as concrete as you’d imagine it to be.

Graham: Yeah, not at all. There’s a great song by Yakko Warner off the Animaniacs which I used when I was traveling because I spoke at a lot of youth events and schools and Cub Scouts as I was travelling and I played them this video of Yakko Warner singing about all the countries of the world and he only does about 167…

Alastair: Huh.

Graham: Because it was made in the early nineties and since then there’s been another twenty-odd countries created. The last few have been East Timor, Kosovo and South Sudan, although Kosovo is not a member of the UN yet, but it will be.

Alastair: One of my side projects is trying to show that you can get a lot of the enjoyment and experience of travel without necessarily having to travel and the way of I’m doing that is I’m trying to eat an A to Z of the world’s foods of London.

Graham: Oh, wow.

Alastair: …because there’s so many different cultures in London, so Afghanistan, Bolivia, Cambodia. I’ve got through to Vietnam now, to ‘V’.

Graham: What are you doing for X?

Alastair: I don’t know. The best I can think of is Xinjiang, which wants to become independent.

Graham: I think they should become independent just for the reason that we’d have a country that began with X.

Alastair: I cycled around the world, it also took me four years to do, though through far fewer countries than you. One thing I really struggled with on my trip was this balance between having this goal of trying to get around the world versus just relaxing, going with the flow, and just following the sort of serendipitous things that happen on travel. Did you struggle with that?

Graham: Yeah. I did, in the first year I was making a TV show for Lonely Planet, I had a very limited budget for it. I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t really have the money or the resources to be doing this for so long. So in the first year I went to 133 countries and in the second year I went to about 50.

Alastair: Wow.

Graham: A lot of the reason for that is because of what you’re saying, I just kicked back a little bit. I went to see the Great Wall of China, I went to Persepolis in Iran. I took time out to smell the flowers, you know? I didn’t just rattle around like I had been.
Because at that point I thought, “well, I’ve got my first Guinness world record which is the most countries visited in one year without flying. Even if I don’t finish this whole journey I still have that.”

Alastair: For people planning their own adventures, and I deliberately leave the word “adventure” massively loose because it can mean so many different things, do you have any advice for people getting too hung up having an objective and becoming blinkered by it, or, the flip side, not having any objective and therefore just sitting on a beach doing absolutely nothing?

Graham: I believe that you should have an objective. Look, if you want to go on holiday because you work all year round and you just want to chill out and read a book on the beach for two weeks that’s great and sometimes I want to do that, but if you are going to have a mission, I think it’s worth it to make something that’s doable and enjoyable but with a goal worth working towards at the end of it. The goal can be anything, you know? I love the fact that so many people do the Tube Challenge every year, or whatever. Little goals like that, they’re important.

Alastair: One thing that’s common amongst people who’ve travelled a lot is that you tend to have come up against your preconceptions about some places. So rather than asking you what your favourite country is, because that’s a boring question, I was going to ask you which country were you most wrong about, in terms of your preconceptions?

Graham: Iran.

Alastair: Everyone says that!

Graham: Well we’re just fed that it’s this horrible theocracy that’s just full of brainwashed people who you imagine wouldn’t be that fun. I’ve been to Saudi, I’ve been to Jordan, Yemen, the people there are alright but they’re not particularly friendly and welcoming and warm to you. But Iran, it just blew me away.
I always tell the story about being on this overnight bus in Iran and this little Persian grandmother sitting in front of me, she must have been in her eighties, she was talking on her mobile phone and then she gave me her mobile phone. She didn’t speak any English.
So I put it to my ear and the guy on the other end said “Hi, my name is Syed Hussain and you’re sitting behind my grandmother. She’s called me because she’s concerned about you.”
I said, “Why?”
“Because”, she says, “the bus gets in very early tomorrow morning at 5 a.m.and she’s worried that you’ll have nowhere to go and no one to make you breakfast. So if it’s OK with you, she’ll take you home with her and make you breakfast.

Alastair: Wow!.

Graham: I think my journey, if anything, altered the preconception that I might have had overall about humanity. We’re not as bad as you would think if you just got your information from the internet.

Alastair: I felt exactly the same. My conclusion from cycling round the world was that the world really is a good place. Did you feel safe, generally, in the world?

Graham: There was nowhere where I felt “Shit, I’m totally gonna die here,” it just didn’t happen. No. Afghanistan, Iraq… The worst thing that happened to me in Iraq is that I got into a snowball fight.
I think most of the people that want to disrupt the world are just mean selfish bastards who just take, take, take. I think they are in the minority, it’s just a very notable minority. I think it’s a human trait, we notice dickheads more because it’s a defense mechanism to make us not like them.

Alastair: In terms of me trying to persuade people to try to go off and have adventures, safety is one of the big issues. But I think even more than safety fears is the difficulty of just getting momentum, going from being someone with a normal office job who doesn’t really like it to actually being the person who gets out the front door and goes! I was reading on your website about you trying to get the TV thing off the ground. And the sentence that stuck out was you said you were “Betting everything I own on making it a success.” What’s your advice for people who really want to go do an adventure to make it happen?

Graham: Well, look, when I say “Betting everything I own,” that’s true, but I don’t own a house, I don’t have a family, I don’t have kids, so I’m cheating the system a little bit there. The worst thing that will happen to me if I go bankrupt or whatever is that I’ll end up back at my parent’s place in Liverpool, I’ve got a bunch of mates who will still hang out with me, and I’ll still have access to the internet. I’m not going to end up on the streets.
I think a lot of people have to consider that, especially when they’re in their twenties. Yeah, go traveling, yeah it’s going to cost money, you can do TEFL as you travel, or you can do fruit picking just to make ends meet. You can work in these places. What’s the worst that can happen? You can get ill. If you have travel insurance you should be able to get flown home. You can get mugged. I didn’t get mugged in the whole bloody four years that I was on the road.

Alastair: You could get mugged if you stayed in Liverpool for four years.

Graham: Yes.

Alastair: No offense, Liverpool.

Graham: I’ve never been mugged in Liverpool, either.

Alastair: Have you ever been mugged?

Graham: No.

Alastair: I’ve been mugged once in Russia, but the guy who mugged me then helped me with my map, helped me navigate to the place I was trying to go, so he was a nice mugger.

Graham: Friendly folk!

Alastair: At the end of your travels you’ll have an experience that not only do few people have, but few people can ever have, because most people on this planet can’t travel. They can’t leave their country and a lot of people can’t even leave their village. To be able to see the world for yourself is a gift, it really is a gift. I see a European passport as Willy Wonka’s Golden ticket, it’s an access-all-areas pass to every country in the world.

Alastair: We’re so privileged to have the money to do it, the passport to do it, and the knowledge that the worst thing that will probably happen is you end up a bit broke and then you go get a job in a cafe and that’s not really that bad anyway.

Graham: Which is what will happen if you go to university these days because it’s £9000 a year. For £9000 you could travel like a king. I mean, that’s a lot of money to travel with.

Alastair: And make yourself more employable, too.

Graham: Yes. More than doing a degree. I mean, look, if you’re doing law, or medicine you need to go to university to do that. But if you’re contemplating doing drama or philosophy, just go travel. Because an employer’s going to look at it and go “Drama, philosophy, so what.” To be able to say you single-handedly went to every country in Africa, that’s something that’s pretty impressive to anyone, I think.
I mean, that shows initiative, leadership, logistical skills, bravery, I mean what else could you really want from an employee? Then again you might piss off on another adventure halfway through your tenure, but…

Alastair: That’s the risk you take! If you were going to do all of this again, with all the knowledge you have now, what would you do differently, if anything?

Graham: A lot of things. I’d go a lot faster.  I wouldn’t get on boats that were just completely unsafe. I would have someone who employed in the UK to get me around, and that means making phone calls and sending emails and things like that. If I had had someone working as my secretary, my travel secretary if you like, that could have made all the difference in negotiation with shipping companies to get on their ships, with cruise ship companies to get on their cruises. Also it would have given me the heads up about visas and things like that.

Alastair: So was the logistics of travelling the hardest part of what you did? In other words, for someone who’s planning an adventure, should the main thing they worry about be to spend time planning?

Graham: I think the real trick, and the reason I finished the trip, is I didn’t just have a plan A. I had a plan B, and a plan C, and a plan D, and sometimes it ran to the like the seventh plan I had in order to get to this frickin’ island or wherever I needed to get to. I think that’s the main thing.

Alastair: One question I’ve asked everyone who I’ve been interviewing is if I were to give you £1000 to go do an adventure, anything at all, what could you do for £1000?

Graham: Well, I know what I could certainly do for a thousand pounds. You could fly to Egypt, break into the pyramid complex in the middle of the night and climb up the Great Pyramid. You’d have enough money to pay the fine if you got caught, too!

Alastair: OK! Thank you. Then my very final question, out of self interest because of my own food project, which country in the world has got the best food?

Graham: Oh God, that’s too hard, that’s like asking me my favourite band or my favourite film. I can tell you where I had my best meal.

Alastair: Go on then.

Graham: It was in West Papua, Indonesia. A simple street stall of fresh-cooked fish… Magic!

My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.

I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!

I would also be really thankful if you could share this link on social media with all your friends – http://goo.gl/rIyPHA. It honestly would help me far more than you realise.

Thank you so much!

Grand Adventures Cover

 

You can watch the BBC documentary about Graham’s travels here (UK Only).
Follow Graham’s latest adventure here.
And here are Graham’s tips for how to travel cheap.

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Comments

  1. Alastair,
    Iran is a wonderful place, spent some time there too far back that I care to mention but the people do make it. I arrived in a small village one night with my mate (we were cycling) and knocked on a door to try and find out if there was a hotel nearby. We made sleeping gestures with our hands to the lady who opened the door which she mistook for a request to sleep there.
    Never the less, that’s exactly what we did after they invited us in, gave us the use of the shower, turned on the stove, fed us admirably and invited what seemed like half the town around to talk to us. Wonderful country.
    Great reading, nice interview.
    ~ Fozzie

    Reply
  2. Robert Bough Posted

    I think what Graham Hughes has done is the total opposite of what travelling and exploring are about.
    133 countries in a year, what a wasted opportunity to see and explore countries, instead he treats it all as one big ticklist, dashing from one country to another and seeing nothing.
    I read elsewhere that in some countries, eg Pakistan, he simply crossed the border to get his passport stamped and then returned without going any further! Pointless!
    I look forward to you going back to interviewing proper travellers and adventurers, try Dervla Murphy or Karen Darke people who inspire instead of some bloke who is just on a big ego trip.

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Hi Robert,
      Thanks for your thoughts. Whilst his style of travel may not to be everyone’s taste, I admire his spirit of finding an idea that excited him and then being tenacious enough to make it happen.

      Reply
  3. While I find the spirit of this adventure admirable and it must have been an amazing experience seeing so many places around the world, I find it a bit of a shame when people present the choice as “have this amazing adventure or take a cruise when you’re 67.” I myself am someone who prefers to embark on semi-long term adventures but I think it’s a mischaracterization and a false fallacy to present it as either one or the other. He mentions in the quote at the beginning that it’s about priorities, but I feel it’s almost set up as a value judgement on different priorities. I’ve met people who worked for 20 straight years without taking a single vacation so that she could save up the holiday time to hike the entire Appalachian Trail with her son for 6 months when he turned 18 (in her 60s, it was hardly a cruise!), others who make drastic life changes, decide to drop everything and travel, and others still who take breaks every couple of years to do something different. But then even aside from these choices there is the adventure of life, work, family, children, etc. In many ways I find these challenges the most daunting of all, even more so than say disappearing into the wilderness for a year. Personally, I just find it completely unfair to compare one person’s adventure to another’s, even if you yourself might not consider what that person is doing an adventure.

    Obviously, Alastair, this isn’t a representation of your own personal views given your efforts with #microadventures and #adventure1000 but I thought I’d put in my 2 cents on this particular topic/post!

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Much appreciated, and I agree with much of what you say.
      I totally agree about not judging the way others may choose to live adventurously.
      But one tale of caution:
      in the village I grew up in was a professional man who worked and worked and worked. No holidays. Just saving. When he retired he and his wife were going to disappear into the sunset. It would have been wonderful. The wife died shortly before he retired…
      Tempus fugit.

      Reply
  4. Man, it all comes back to the first few paragraphs, for me.

    People may say that they want to travel, but they don’t have the money. But yet they have their dog, their kids, their car, their food, their insurance, their education, their new clothes, etc…

    The reality is, if we take almost all of that out of the equation, travel is quite simple.

    It is unfortunate that I have just recently learned of this. To decide I was going to do it, in 5 months to shut my life down, which I am still currently doing.

    I don’t think I will travel to all of the countries, so I think that is super awesome! I see myself slowly moving around and soaking up as much of the culture and people as possible.

    Reply
    • Yes.I agree with you. I start my travel almost one year ago but because I would like go see ax much as I can I travel slow. Im walking. Best wishes.

      Reply
  5. I have put my life on hold many times, to the point where all of my money could be solely used for travel. Ive subleted my apartment many times. Ive been on 3 month trips to Australia, Mediterranean Europe, and another 2 months through Central Europe and Scandanavia. I recently took buses and trains all the way across Canada. I have always taken a cheap flight to get to a starting point and taken trains and buses all the way through the trip, until the last stop, then fly home. Ive been all over the US on many shorter trips. Ive also taught for a summer in South Korea. But I want to see Eastern Europe, and since I never been to Russia or China and I would like to see Japan again, and I have never made a cross country train trip across US, I figure this makes too much sense to make the all the way around the world trip to see all of these places. Ive never taken a “vacation”. When I travel, its like a job, but a very fun job. I put more effort into it than I do my job back home. I love seeing as much as I can at each place, and soaking up the culture, so I try to plan to stay at each country at least a week, if not more. I am looking forward to planning this trip all the way around the world with no planes.

    Reply

 
 

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