Why I Don’t Count Countries or Care How Many You’ve Been To

Have you heard of the Travelers’ Century Club? Only people who have been to 100 or more countries and territories can become members. According to the club’s criteria, as of July 2016, I’ve been to 29 such places. (You can check my ‘Where I’ve Been’ page for the updated list) There’s a long way to go if I want to get a special pin and join their meetings.

It’s a big ‘IF’, though. Joining the club isn’t on my bucket list. Now, I’m aware that I’ve been privileged enough to be able to leave Singapore’s shores a few times a year, but I must share this: It’s nice to count countries and keep score, but my total, or anyone’s total for that matter, is no big deal. It actually ruins the things that make travel enjoyable, beneficial and meaningful.

Why it’s important not to count countries

Travel is not a competition

If you’ve been to 50 countries, good for you! Did it before you turned 30? Give yourself a pat on the back!

While milestones are worth celebrating when they’re achieved, I personally think they’re overhyped. Anyone who has worked with people who only care about figures knows that although numbers don’t lie, they don’t say a lot either. How long were you there for? What did you do in the country? Who did you meet? Numbers can’t tell those stories, which leads us to my next point.

(Also, are China, Hong Kong and Taiwan one country or three? Depending on whom you ask, the answer might be something rather rude.)

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Going to more countries doesn’t make me a better traveller

A narrow and unhealthy focus on visiting as many countries as possible often results in journeys that only scratch the surface. To achieve that goal, the traveller would need to make a short visit to one city in each state, and it’s usually the one that is the most convenient.

For instance, it would be ridiculous to say one has seen all of Indonesia when he or she has only set foot in Bali. I know it’s tempting to scratch the entire country off a Scratch Map, and it looks pretty impressive. All it really says is that the owner has been somewhere in that territory; anything else is just a delusion, especially in a country that geographically and culturally diverse. How much can one learn about it by sticking to Bogan Central the only region with a Hindu majority?

Don't count countries
They’d be missing sights like Borobudur, for instance.

By slowing down and taking in more cities on my travels, I’ve been able to appreciate more of what each country has to offer and the differences among its regions. It’s made it easier for me to forge connections with people who live far from capitals and major cities. I can’t take in many countries at once, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

I love revisiting places

‘Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before,’ writes H. Jackson Brown Jr. Sure, but I must say it’s also wonderful to revisit cities that you’ve already been to.

One thing you’ll never have on your first visit is a set of reference points and memories in your head with which to navigate the city. For me, there’s nothing quite like going back to Helsinki and not having to walk around with my nose buried in Google Maps. I don’t lose time figuring out where my friends and special events are because I remember the landmarks and how to get to them.

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As a return visitor, you find some things where you’d expect them; getting from point-to-point and ordering food in the local language becomes second nature. When you’ve already seen most of the major attractions, you can turn your attention to places that few visitors know about.

As for the changes, they have far more impact than if you were to read about them in the news or heard about them from a friend. Post-earthquake Christchurch was probably the most extreme example of this change that I’ve experienced. I was sad when I read the news and scrolled through the photographs in 2011, but it didn’t prepare me for the moments I stood in empty plots that familiar shops once occupied. My memories provided a context that others on their maiden visits didn’t have.

The person who collects countries like badges misses these in the mistaken belief that he or she is better off seeing a new place instead.

Why I Don't Count Countries or Care How Many You've Been To 1
Colombo Street, Christchurch 2014

I’m not as privileged as you are

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Let’s face it. My spending power isn’t as strong as an American’s. I haven’t as many days of vacation to spend as my European counterparts. I worked my way through university to earn what I spent on holiday. We have different backgrounds and that’s what makes meeting other people interesting. Some people, like my friend Intan, go to new countries on business as often as the rest of us take a bus, but it takes a toll on the body and on relationships.

Envy is unavoidable when I scroll through my social media feed, but it’s more productive to focus on making the best of what I have. I’m fortunate to have always been able to look forward to my overseas trips. Each has been meaningful and not done merely for its own sake, and I intend to keep it that way. Unless I’m dying to see something, I won’t put up ridiculous sums of money for it or jump through hoops to get there.

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Speaking of dying…

I know I won’t be able to visit every country, and that’s alright

If I did my homework, I could come up with at least one thing to see or experience in every country, but it wouldn’t be possible to check out all of them in this lifetime. I will lament not visiting Syria before the war destroyed its ancient cities, and large parts of Afghanistan will remain off-limits for the time being (thanks, Dubya). I’m certain I would’ve been as pleasantly surprised as I was in Iran, but that’s life. The reason I travel is to foster understanding in my life, not to lose it for the sake of bragging rights.

The Ali ibn Hamzeh shrine in Shiraz

My travels do not define who I am

My globetrotting ways may have helped to shape my worldview, but that’s not the only way to get there. One doesn’t have to travel to be an awesome person. As I’ve said elsewhere, travellers do not have a monopoly on virtues like open-mindedness, empathy and compassion. People have lots of opportunities to do good without leaving home, so it is unfair to judge their worth by the number of countries they’ve been to.

Let’s focus on what really matters instead – doing no harm to the places we visit while we broaden our minds and the minds of the people we share our experiences with.