Before I started traveling nearly full-time, the measure of my travel experiences was always summed up by the number of countries I had crossed off.
Lately, I’ve begun realizing how meaningless that number actually is. Let me clarify that this isn’t a stab at knowing how many countries you’ve been to, but the mindset of “the more countries, the better.”
My friend told me about a guy she met who was attempting to do every Central American country in his 10 days of vacation time. I can’t think of any country larger than the Vatican that can be adequately done in 10 days, let alone an entire freakin’ subcontinent.
I understand not everybody has time to travel for months on end like those young, free-spirited, and smelly backpackers gallivanting across the world. However, given ten days, I would personally much rather immerse myself in one or two countries than spend most of it in airports and planes. I mean, every country in Central America? I was there for over two months and only hit five countries, and my time in each felt way too short.
I love traveling and while I’ll often internally laugh at aloof tourists, I’ll never discourage anyone from experiencing the world outside of their home. We were all aloof tourists once. I just can’t imagine what you can accomplish in a day or two in a country.
I’ll admit I was the same way after graduating college. I was 21 and had hit around 25 countries but I was finally free to travel with no restrictions. I talked to other travel bloggers a few years older than me who had blitzed their way through over a hundred countries. Seeing those numbers was a bit inspiring at first but once I actually got started traveling full-time, I realized I much preferred going with the flow, taking my time, and experiencing a country as fully as I can.
I met one of these travel bloggers in Vietnam. She was someone I had thought was awesome, followed on Instagram forever, and even blogged about in adulation once. Her Instagram bio says “~8,037 countries and counting~” or something along those lines. I had just gotten started on my Vietnam trip and so had she, and we met up in Hanoi by accident.
“So how long are you in Vietnam for?”
“Oh, 3 days.”
I spent most of our time together watching her try to sneakily take pictures or act natural as her photo was being taken while she donned a traditional Vietnamese rice hat using it as proof of her immersion in Vietnamese culture on Instagram.
She went off to Ha Long Bay to cross off some other part of her checklist and we split ways. Almost a month later, I finally left Vietnam, already planning a trip back after feeling like I had barely even scratched the surface of what this country had to offer. I’d crashed mopeds, trekked rice terraces, got my first tattoo, explored enormous caves, cried at the Vietnam War Museum, and more. Yet when you resort to country-counting, her 3 days and my month add up to the same.
I didn’t mean for this to kind of become a passive-aggressive rant, but it did and I have a bad habit of not backing down. Too many Insta-celebs front so hard online about how much they travel, but in real life they’ve done all that while taking all the actual fun out of traveling. Revolving it around checklists, social media, and strict itineraries takes away the freedom you should feel while traveling.
This isn’t a jab at people who know how many countries they’ve been to, but more so towards the mindset that the number of countries you’ve been to directly correlates to anything meaningful. Since graduating college a year and a half ago, I’ve been traveling almost that entire time. If I asked recent-college-graduate-me how many countries I think I could hit in a year and a half, I would have said over a hundred. In 18 months, I’ve hit about 20 countries, with just 15 of those being new ones that I’d never set foot in before.
A travel blogger I used to follow would always post a map of their upcoming itineraries on Instagram. It’d always be something like 15 countries in a month or something ridiculous like that. 5 or so of them would be stops on a cruise ship. A few days later he’ll post a video or a guide telling you everything you need to know about a country he had spent maybe two days in.
Side note, the reason I haven’t been posting travel guides as frequently is because honestly, the more I traveled, the more I realize how little I actually know about anything. My first few days in Bangkok, I wrote guide after guide about all the basic stuff. Four weeks in Bangkok later, I realized just how little I knew about Bangkok and how silly it was for me to act like an expert based on my measly time in such a unique and diverse place. That was just one city. Seeing “travel experts” post “everything you need to know” guides based on a few days of a trip entirely sponsored by some posh tour agency makes my eyes roll back in my head further than physically possible.
Each country I’ve been to has been incredibly unique and rich in culture and history. Treating them simply as items to check off is not a good mindset, and you’ll end up on the losing end. Spending a day or two in a country just to say you’ve been there is the travel equivalent of a one night stand. It’s meaningless and forgettable. I can think of dozens of better ways to quantify your travel experiences, but my whole point is that you shouldn’t be trying to quantify your travel experiences.
As cliched and corny as it sounds, traveling does change you, and if you aren’t experiencing some sort of learning or growth every damn day of your journey, then you’re wasting it. I haven’t been to a country yet where I didn’t wish I could have stay longer. I used to think that going to every country in the world was a goal of mine, but what’s the point of a destination if you don’t enjoy the journey?