Journeys: Country Collectors
Jeff Shea has been lost in the highlands of New Guinea, and in Hawaii he saw a man die after falling into molten lava. He caught malaria in Africa, hepatitis A in India, and malaria again in the Phoenix Islands in the Pacific Ocean. (It could have been a relapse of the African malaria, but he believes he contracted a different strain of the disease.) He has been jailed for a weekend in Jordan for not carrying a passport and terrified by the sight of frozen corpses during a descent of Mount Everest. “Coming down the mountain in daylight and seeing where the bodies of other mountaineers fell will put the fear of God into you,” he says.
Shea experienced these adventures before he became a husband and a father. Now he travels the world with his family, and while he has had to make concessions for his wife, Novita, and their 4-year-old daughter, Lani—no more hiking across Transylvania equipped with only a compass and a backpack—he would rather do that than continue to travel solo. “Traveling as a family is a total blast,” says the 49-year-old entrepreneur from Richmond, Calif. “The loneliness that can come with travel does not exist at all, and I can be with my child. How many fathers can be with their children 24 hours a day?” He also gave Lani a gift that few parents can provide: her own Guinness World Record. The 4-year-old is the youngest person to have visited all seven continents, a feat that she achieved a few months before her third birthday.
As an adventurer, a restless spirit, a globe-trotting fool, or some blend of these, Shea is not alone in his hobby. The Travelers’ Century Club (TCC), a Santa Monica, Calif., organization that admits people who have visited 100 or more countries and other geographical entities that it recognizes, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Its members number about 2,000, of which a handful have been to every place on the club’s master list of countries, which currently includes 315 entries.
The list is longer than that of the United Nations, which recognizes 191 countries, because it counts territories, autonomous regions, and certain other areas as individual entries. For example, Alaska and Hawaii count separately from the continental United States because they are reasonably distant from the mainland, and Hong Kong is recognized despite becoming part of China in 1997 because its history as a British colony renders it culturally distinct from its mother country.
Shea, who believes that he is the most-traveled person also to have scaled the highest peaks on all seven continents, is not among the TCC members who have completed the list; Wake Island continues to elude him. The Pacific Ocean island is occupied by U.S. armed forces and closed to visitors. Shea claims that he is not troubled by his failure to check Wake Island off his list, but his contention is not convincing.
Shea and similarly driven TCC members, who realize that their peers are keeping score, view travel as a competition. John Bougen, a 47-year-old entrepreneur from New Zealand, packed his bags after discovering in 2001 that he was not as well traveled as he had assumed. “I thought I had been to many countries, but I had only been to 28,” he says. “It was dispiriting, and inspiring. I was incensed that I had been to so few.”
Bougen remedied this situation in 2002 by launching the All Nations Quest, a 150-day trek that took him and his travel agent cousin, James Irving, to all of the 191 U.N. member countries to benefit the Save the Children charity. The pair set three Guinness Book records along the way: for the most countries visited in six months, the most airlines used in a single trip (104), and the most airports visited in a single trip (191). “It’s a blur, but it’s amazing how much geographic knowledge I retained,” Bougen says. “I could win Trivial Pursuit if I could answer the blue questions only.”
No one, though, is as single-minded in his quest to go everywhere as Charles Veley, a 39-year-old married father of a 1-year-old daughter who lives near San Francisco. He is determined to become the world’s most traveled person, and since collecting a fortune in the 1990s by cashing out of a software company, he has made traveling his full-time job.
In April 2003, at age 37, Veley reached his 317th TCC-validated destination, which at the time completed the club’s list. He became the youngest man to do so, but because he has been traveling for only five years, compared to Shea’s 30, his stock of road stories is not as expansive. Still, he did endure a tense taxi ride in Kabul, Afghanistan, last year. “It was past midnight of my first night in town, and my taxi driver didn’t know how to get to my hotel,” recalls Veley. “We spoke no common languages, and he was randomly driving through the bombed-out streets for about two hours.”
Veley also has suffered his share of illnesses, the most serious of which was an allergic reaction that struck after he had dined at a safari lodge in South Africa with his wife, Kimberly. “During the middle of the night, my lymph nodes started swelling up, and my face became so puffy that I was unrecognizable,” he says. “This was our first trip to Africa, and the image of Africa to someone who hasn’t traveled there before is very powerful and dangerous. I didn’t know whether this could be Ebola or hantavirus or some other intense African malady.” Veley’s wife summoned the lodge manager, who drove his ailing guest to the nearest clinic, where he was treated with a cortisone shot and antihistamines.
Kimberly stopped accompanying her husband on his journeys in the summer of 2003, when her pregnancy was well into the second trimester. Later that year, weeks before Kimberly gave birth to a daughter, Catherine, Veley embarked alone on one of his most harrowing adventures, plying choppy seas in a 37-foot boat to Kingman Reef, an island that lies near the Equator, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. “I was bunked as far forward as was possible in the nose of this bobbing, churning, E-ticket ride,” he wrote in a November 2003 e-mail chronicling his adventure. “As I attempted to cling to my bed, it would repeatedly drop away a good five to 10 feet, leaving me, as well, to fall …. This chaos tried my patience as few things had. I was ready to go home.”
He did go home, but he has not remained there. In February, he was finalizing arrangements to sail to Peter I, an island off the coast of Antarctica. Recently, Veley compiled a master list of 570 countries, territories, states, autonomous regions, and other significant places and published it on his web site, www.mosttraveledman.com. So far, he has been to 485 of these destinations, and despite his insistence that he plans to slow down soon and enjoy family life, it seems unlikely that he will rest until he has reached every one. “I’m goal-oriented,” he says. “Without a travel goal, I am easily capable of lingering endlessly at the first beautiful beach I come across, and I might never see the next one. Having this goal keeps me motivated to travel to new places and push the boundaries of what it means to be well-traveled.”
Country collecting can be as expensive as it is challenging. Bougen and Shea estimate that they have devoted roughly half a million dollars each to pursuing their respective quests, while Veley places his total at $1 million. They agree that the money has been well spent. “I’d do it all over again tomorrow. I’d take my time, though,” says Bougen.
Shea believes the skills he learned in his travels—sensing when to be patient and when to act swiftly, coordinating schedules, and making definitive decisions—have made him a better businessman. He also feels that the globe-trotting has shaped his daughter’s personality. “Travel has helped her develop in a different way,” he says. “She’s very outgoing and not afraid of people, which is very different from the way I was as a kid.”
Far from satisfying their wanderlust, each trip seems to leave these travelers hungry for more. “There is nothing like the feeling of settling into an airplane, train, or bus seat, or striding up the gangplank onto a ship, knowing that at the other end is terra incognita,” Veley says. “It forces your antennae up, and when your senses are heightened, even the most mundane experience is memorable.”
Travelers’ Century Club, 310.458.3454, www.travelerscenturyclub.org
These companies can assist with gaining admission to the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC) by providing trips with itineraries that include multiple far-flung destinations.
Abercrombie & Kent
The India/Sikkam/Bhutan itinerary can be paired with the Golden Lotus trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar to form a grand 30-day trip through Asia.
Adventure Network International
According to TCC rules, walking in a small circle around the South Pole is a valid, though not sporting, means of visiting the seven Antarctic regions recognized by the club. ANI offers flights to the South Pole from late November through early January.
The QE2’s 2006 World Cruise, a 109-day itinerary, provides passage to 30 countries recognized by the TCC in three months.
The new Gambia River itinerary includes Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Morocco, and other West African nations.
The 20-day Mediterranean Odyssey stops in Sardinia, Menorca, Corsica, Sicily, Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia.
The 25-day Islands of the Pacific Theater cruise visits Midway Island, the Marshall Islands, Papua/New Guinea, and Guam.
The July 2005 Tuscany and the Riviera cruise from Rome to Monte Carlo aboard the Silver Shadow includes an optional shore excursion to Vatican City, the world’s smallest country.
Dominica, St. Kitts, Monserrat, Antigua, and 23 other Caribbean islands count as distinct entities on the TCC list. A typical Star Clippers itinerary includes visits to several such ports of call.
The 2005 Connoisseur’s Eastern Europe itinerary includes the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Hungary, and Russia.
Those living aboard this residential cruising ship will visit Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Tasmania, French Polynesia, and Easter Island in 2006.