Once a year I like to take inventory of where I have been and where I am going. There’s an organization called the Traveler’s Century Club. The only requirement to become a member is that you have to have traveled to at least 100 countries. I don’t necessarily want to join but I really want to be eligible.
As I travel it seems as though the planet shrinks. My northern treks have taken me far above the Arctic Circle. On the south side of the planet, 500 miles from Antarctica, Ushuaia, Argentina was reminiscent of Alaska except the August winter sun skimmed the northern sky instead of the southern horizon. I didn’t notice any change in the swirling of water down the drains but I usually don’t spend a lot of time studying those things while I’m on vacation. The picture in the header of my blog is from our approach to the Ushuaia Airport.
When I was in my teens, I started counting states I had been in. From then on, I always planned trips to get the maximum number of states – not always a direct route but always interesting. One of the things I immediately loved about my husband Mike is that he knew how many states he had been to and which ones he was missing. As a birthday present one year, I gave him a road trip so he could get North Dakota. Selfishly, it didn’t hurt that I got to check off North and South Dakota that weekend too.
When we moved from Denver to San Francisco we drove my car first, and when we sold our house, we drove Mike’s car. At that point, the only states I was missing were Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. During that first drive, I added a tick mark beside Nevada with a stop in Las Vegas. We navigated the second car through Idaho and a corner of Oregon and with that I hit the jackpot! All 50 states complete. For the record, eight years ago I promised Mike Hawaii, his 50th state, and I still haven’t come through. But I have given him Europe, the Middle East and South America so I think he’s okay with that. We’ll pick up Hawaii for him when we go to Asia.
Those practices of planning trips to maximize the accumulation of states has carried over to all vacation planning. I think it’s a bit of a sickness. Last year when I was planning our trip to South America I was giddy when I found flights to Santiago, Chile where we had to change planes in Bogata, Columbia going down and Lima, Peru coming home. Put your feet on the ground and it counts! I was unhappy when I went to book the flights and the Columbia stopover had disappeared. When we arrived in Miami to board our LAN flight to Santiago by way of Lima, the LAN ticket agent offered to put us on a non-stop flight to Santiago. In unison, without consulting each other, we said an emphatic, “NO”! We are both sick.
If we had skipped that stopover in the Lima airport, we would have missed out on a super-fresh dinner of mushroom pasta at midnight and I would not have bought my pair of silver earrings that I wear almost every day. They depict the heron, one of the Nazca Line formations. They are a reminder that I need to find a real Peruvian trip that includes Macchu Picchu, Cuzco and a flight over the Nazca Lines.
When I realized that Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay was mere hour away from Buenos Aires, Argentina by fast ferry I knew we could grab another country with a quick day trip. That was a mistake. We should have spent less time in Buenos Aires and another day or two in Uruguay. Colonia was a charming town with cobblestone streets in its historic center. It’s been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our upcoming Scandinavian trip evolved the same way. Here’s a glimpse into how the Jill brain works. I booked the $89 tickets each way to and from Oslo. My first thought was how many countries are nearby and how can we hit them during the time on the ground. My original plan was to take a train from Oslo (Norway – country #1) down the western coast of Sweden (country #2) and then cross over to Copenhagen (country #3). Not bad for a week.
Then the monster that I created chimes in. Mike asks if we can go to St. Petersburg, Russia. Since it is on my regular to-do list I immediately say no. Too much of a hassle to get visas for such a short trip. We’ll do that another time on a cruise where they grease the bureaucratic wheels for you. But the brain gears start churning. If we dump the Eurail passes and fly, how much can we jam in? How much would it cost? I start doing a train vs. plane cost analysis. And then I start playing with airlines schedules, first on Kayak and then hit paydirt on Skyscanner. Skyscanner has many of the budget airlines in Europe with lots of flights for around $50. I spent hours playing with city combinations to create an itinerary that gives us a final count of 4 countries with at least a full day in each city. The only other city I had to jettison is Tallinn, Estonia. We’ll save that for the cruise too.
On the train, a 6 hour ride was the average. The flights cut that travel time to an hour or two. Yes, we lose the lovely vistas of the Swedish countryside but we get to spend 24 hours in Helsinki and jam country number 4 into a weeklong trip. Friends who travel like us say a day and a half in Stockholm will be just fine. We have a full weekend in Copenhagen where a friend from Germany might meet us and another day and a half in Oslo before we fly home. I have a pretty good idea of the sights we want to see and the ones to skip. We’re happy with the plan.
So back to the count. I printed the current country list and just took inventory again. According to the list, I have 40 coutries today and will have 44 after our next trip. I am always conflicted by this. They count Alaska and Hawaii as separate countries because they are separated from the mainland. On the otherhand, I was 5 miles from the Saudi Arabian border when we stayed in Aquba. I remember looking over the Red Sea and looking west to Israel and the Sinai Peninsula from the hotel. That must have been Saudi Arabia to the south, yet I don’t count it because I didn’t cross the border. While my eyes would shine through, I don’t think a burqua is my style and I like to drive.
A few cruises (great for multi-country stops) and a train trip through Europe helped to jack up my country count. When my friend’s ex-husband left her with his mother in Switzerland for 6 weeks, my cousin Cathi and I met in New York and flew off to Geneva. Leanne’s mother-in-law refused to speak a word of English and was desperate for company. Armed with Eurail passes we set off to the rescue by speaking non-stop English and to try to practice our high school French. We laughed when Leanne demonstrated how much French she had picked up in her six week banishment. She showed off her new found skills in a shop when she pointed to something she was interested in and said, “La”. We all thought it was hysterical.
With sleek Swiss trains beckoning, we kissed Leanne on the cheeks. Cathi and I set off for life on the rails. In about a week and a half we tallied a total of 7 countries including tiny Liechtenstein where Cathi learned the liability of wheeled luggage on cobblestone streets.
On a trip to Spain, Portugal and the Dordogne region of France with good friends, our train stopped a few miles from the tiny country of Andorra. I was tempted to take the entourage off the train but one friend was sick and I wasn’t sure how long the diversion would take and when the next train would arrive so we could continue on to Sarlat. So close and yet so far away.
I’ll take Alaska and Hawaii and give back Saudi Arabia and Andorra. 44 countries ain’t bad. Maybe next year I can plan a trip that hits 6 countries so I can hit the halfway mark! See, this is how the Jill brain works. Today I’m at 40 but I’m coming for you 50!