Lee Abbamonte, age 35, is the youngest American to have travelled to all 193 countries as listed by the UN, but he’s not resting on his laurels. He’s on a mission to make it to all 324 ‘countries’ of the Travel Century Club – and he’s currently at 312.
We met up with Lee at the Omio ITB pre-party event and asked him a few questions about his travels:
What will you do when you get to 324?
I want to go back to the places I really enjoy going to. At that point I’ll have been everywhere, and I’ll know what I like and where I want to go. I’ll use the wisdom that I’ve learned and go from there.
Are there any other projects you could start or another goal to aim for?
Yeah sure, there are the 7 summits, both poles, I’m also considering becoming the only person to go to every country twice.
Would you ever consider going to the moon?
No, outer space is not for me.
I hear you can pay $250,000 to go with Virgin.
Yeah, Virgin Galactic. Another company is launching a hot air balloon to take you to outer space in 2015, I’m thinking about doing that instead.
When you get to a new country for the first time, is there something you always do, like a ritual?
I don’t have a ritual so to speak, but I always walk around the town I’m in, check everything out, I’ve always done a lot of research before I get there so I have a basic idea about what I want to do. I don’t waste much time – I get right into it. And if it’s a place like, for instance, a central African city where there’s no ‘thing’ you have to do, I like to walk around and pop into stores and markets and see what the locals are up to and take some pictures, try the local brew or food.
Which country was the hardest to get into?
There are different definitions of hard. Hardest to get into because of a visa was Angola, and that’s because of the bureaucracy and the crooked government, they don’t want tourists visiting. They only want oil money so they can keep their scam going, but they do have an international airport, so as long as you can get a visa you can go there. On the other hand, there are some islands you have to boat for up to a week to get to, those are obviously arduous and expensive and difficult to get to.
Of the 10 or so countries that you’ve got left, how many are you going to try to get done this year?
I’d like to get 6 of them in December for sure, the other ones I hope to do soon too. Y’know the problem is now with what I’m doing I can’t really afford to give a month – which is what I’ll need to go to some of the places because there are no airports. I have to be considerate to myself because of the time and my schedule. But I aim to do it ASAP.
But you’re still aiming to beat the world record of 37.5 years?
Yeah, 37.75. That is a goal, but it’s a grey area, the guy who did that only did 315 countries and now there are 324. So already on my next trip I will beat that record.
There are only about 20 people who’ve ever done it.
I believe it’s 12 who have done the Travelers’ Century Club list, and 93 who’ve been to every country on the UN list (193 countries).
Do you know any of the ones who’ve done it?
I know all of them.
All of them? Kinda like an elite club.
Yeah that’s exactly what it is, they actually have meetings and events. It’s called the Travelers’ Century Club; they have a branch in Germany now. It’s based in LA and there’s a branch in NY as well, usually they have quarterly or bi-yearly meetings. I try to go them when I’m around – it’s pretty fun and you can talk about things you can’t talk about with normal people.
On your ‘About Me’ page you’ve got a quote: ‘I believe in globalization of everything including people. I believe that I am a citizen of Earth. I believe that people around the world are at their core, basically good and the same. I believe that more people should experience the world and the way traveling can open their eyes and minds to different and exciting things. I believe in just being myself. I believe in life.’ Do you think you have discovered a grand truth about humanity in your travels?
I say there’s the international language of beer; everyone likes to hang out, drink a beer, chitchat with friends/family, and that’s basically it. People around the world are the same.
Are you working in any way to inspire people to see the world?
Absolutely, through my website and social media and speaking gigs, especially to younger people – I love to talk to high school/college kids, to influence them to travel. I wish someone had done that to me when I was a kid. I didn’t even leave America until I was 20 years old, and only on a whim. My study abroad year in London totally changed my life.
If you were going to give advice to kids wanting to travel like you, what would it be?
Save your money, it’s not cheap. Do a ton of research… research research research. Figure out visas: they are a pain in the ass. The great equalisers of travel are time and money, so you need to budget both, plan logistics, and have the wherewithal and knowledge to balance visas with passports in time.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I’ve eaten a lot of bugs and stuff, maggots a few times, various types of bugs in Mexico and China and Asia. Absolutely vile and disgusting things. I couldn’t possibly tell you the names and I hope to never eat them again.
Were there any bugs you did enjoy?
Crickets really aren’t all that bad.
Anything fried is good.
I listened to an interview you did recently, and you talked about taking some bullets?
It was in the last country of the 193 – Libya – in 2011, during the Arab Spring – I tried sneaking in to Libya over the eastern border with Egypt. We ended up getting caught in firefight, I was trapped in the back of a minivan with some guys I didn’t know, they were smuggling me in. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever been involved in.
Do you often get scared? You’ve been to many places most people wouldn’t dare go.
Honestly I’ve dealt with pretty much every situation, there’s not a cop that’s gonna intimidate me. One thing I always do if that happens, if someone tries to scam me or rob me: I tell them I work at the US embassy, pretend to make a call to the embassy for help or to ask them a question. Then I’ll ask the cop for his name or his badge number, or a receipt or something, and that really scares them off. But I don’t get scared.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Lee. You better get back on the road, those countries won’t visit themselves!
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