Last year I met Chris Guillebeau when he was promoting his new book, The Happiness of Pursuit, in Portland. Chris is an entrepreneur at heart who has traveled to all 193 United Nations recognized countries before the age of 35. While I have never set out the goal to see every country in the world, I certainly plan on seeing as much of the world as I can while I’m still here. I’ve always had a strong case of wanderlust. From a young age I would stare aimlessly at maps and globes spinning them around until my finger landed on some far off land. I am a total science nerd, but I have a soft spot in my heart for geography and history.
Like most young people I thought I was invincible and would live forever allowing me enough time to do everything I want to do in life, including traveling the world. And then my mom passed away six years ago and my life turned upside down. I realized that we all have expiration dates and while we might not know the exact date, we need to prioritize what is truly important in our lives. Travel and experiencing new cultures is something that is near and dear to my heart. I want to dive the Great Barrier Reef, see the Big 5 in Africa, explore the ancient ruins in Mexico, and taste the delicacies of Southeast Asia.
During my first night in Athens I met a bunch of people at the rooftop bar at my hostel that were a lot of fun. After we shut down the rooftop bar we headed down the street to a local pub. While at the pub I sat outside with a few guys from the US, Canada, and England enjoying a pint and discussing our travels – where we’ve been and where we want to go. At one point I mentioned a few countries high on my list that is probably not even on most travelers list because they are either deemed too “dangerous” or blacklisted. I ended up getting in a huge debate with one of the American guys, who was probably a few beers too deep to really understand what he was saying, but it was interesting to get his perspective on my “wish list” countries.
It got me thinking about what countries would you want to go to that most people would never travel to because it’s too dangerous or maybe you can’t get a visa. I have a few on my list.
Pakistan has intrigued me ever since reading Three Cups of Tea. Despite whether Greg Mortenson’s story is true or not, I do think his book brought a major issue to the spotlight. I attended an all-girls high school and I am a strong proponent for girls’ education. My dream job is to work for an NGO on girls education or women’s rights across the globe. Despite the fact that women are still viewed as second class citizens and the country is still home to some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world, it is a country that I would love to visit someday. I am drawn to Pakistan mainly because of the Himalayas. As much as I love the water, I’m a mountain girl at heart. Every climbing season I follow the Everest climbers and I hiking to Everest Base Camp and Mount Kilimanjaro are in the top three on my adventure bucket list. I would love to see K2 in person and the surrounding mountains. I’m also draw to the culture. While I have strong opinions about some aspects of their culture, namely women’s rights, I am curious what daily life is like in Pakistan. As travelers and humans in general it is easy to judge others and scrutinize them for being different. But you know what a wise person once said? You can’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
While I have no immediate plans to visit Pakistan, it is certainly a country I would love to visit someday. When I was in Prague in June I met a Pakistani pilot on a tour and we chatted a bit about Pakistan. He was completely surprised when I told him that I’ve always wanted to visit. He told me a bit more about his country and he even said that the north (aka where the mountains are) is relatively safe. Someday I’ll get there. Hopefully when it’s more peaceful and women are viewed as equals.
Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. As someone who has always loved learning about ancient civilizations in high school history classes, Iran is mecca for many history buffs. Like Pakistan above, Iran’s culture is completely different from my own. I believe travel breaks down barriers and discrimination. Often times the media paints a place in a negative light based on tiny truths that explode into inaccurate perceptions of reality. Just look at Greece.
I find the muslim culture to be fascinating. So many Americans are quick to judge Muslims based on a tiny radical group that has wreaked havoc around the globe. In March I attended the Women in Travel Summit conference and listened to a really awesome presentation by Anubha Momim of Finding True North. Anubha lives in the remote Canadian province of Nunavut in a small Inuit town called Iqaluit. Her presentation was about checking our privilege in cyberspace. Anubha often writes about living in her community, but she says that she can never truly write about the Inuit community that she calls home because she is not Inuit. She does not personally know their experiences and struggles. She can only see and hear their experiences, but she will never live their experiences. I left her presentation with a lot of questions. As a travel writer I write about my experiences and perceptions of a place I have visited, whether it’s the next town over or a new country halfway across the world. As someone who desires to work in the international public health and human’s right field, I think Anubha made an important point. We need to be aware of how we write and portray a culture other than our own.
Iran has been portrayed as the enemy for so long in the American media that we often don’t see the country and culture as anything else. I have no doubt that Iran is filled with gorgeous landscapes, historic sites, and welcoming people. With the new potential nuclear arms deal on the table in the US many have predicted that Iran may soon open up to more tourist. I’ve been reading a lot lately on Iran, like this piece by Jennifer Klinec in The Guardian and, of course, the wonderful Silvia of Heart my Backpack who traveled solo last year through Iran, and it has fueled my desire even more to visit Iran. I would love to experience Iran at a slow pace and spend some time with the locals to really learn about their culture and country. While I’ll never be Iranian, I would love the opportunity to share the stories of those who are and write about the beauty of the country and its people who you don’t see in the mainstream media today.
Okay, if you don’t think I’m crazy yet, you might now. Yes, I’m totally interested in traveling to North Korea. Bet you didn’t know you could! North Korea does offer tourist visas, but you can only go through an authorize tour provider and the tours are highly regulated. Basically everything is a bit fake and you only get to see the “nice” parts of the country. Most people probably disagree with my desire to visit North Korea just on morals and principles, but there is a certain curiosity in me that wants to see the country. Perhaps because North Korea is like the red button that you’re not allowed to push? Whatever it may be, North Korea will be always on my list of countries that I would like to visit someday and maybe catch a glimpse of understanding from a country that is extremely radical.
Venezuela is another country of questionable safety, especially for solo female travelers. I love the Latin American culture and would love to someday visit Venezuela as it is a beautiful country. Venezuela is home to the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls, and tepui, or table-top mountains. Venezuela has consistently been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and is dealing with significant drug trafficking. Despite its safety warnings, it’s a country I would still love to visit to see its naturally gorgeous landscape.
I hate the idea of blacklisting countries. I understand that some countries are extremely unsafe for foreigners and I would never willingly travel in a country that is currently in war. However, I believe that the only way to break down barriers and rid the world of discrimination and bigotry is to open our minds, listen to the stories of others, and experience new cultures. While I’ll always be a white, privileged, American girl, travel allows me to step outside my comfort zone and try to gain a new perspective of cultures that are different from my own. However, I’m a stronger believer that even though my culture may be different from the cultures in Pakistan and Iran, we still have commonalities. At the end of the day we are all humans and we should all be treated like humans.