January 26, 2009

That Doesn't Count!

As the world becomes smaller and smaller; as airplanes zip us across the globe's dizzying distances; as we keep track of our countries like golf scores or savings account balances; as we compare and contrast our life's maps with others; as places all become more similar and international airports in Africa and China and the Caribbean all use the same floor cleaning fluid and/or German architecture firm, it all reopens the question of where we've actually 'been.' In the very male contest of "I've been to more countries than you" I'm presented with countless variable standards of what counts (spent a night there, got your passport stamped, set foot in the country, ate a meal) and what doesn't count (passed through the airport, saw it from the sky, had a nice dream about it, went there as an incognizant child). Until country counting becomes an Olympic event, I assume the rules and regulations are up for negotiation.

Personally, I reject the whole concept of contest. Counting countries carries very little meaning as it only represents the one-dimensional physical relationship between person and place. I know people who've traveled to over a hundred countries but confuse Guinea, Conakry and French Guyana. Their modus operandi is the travel equivalent of sleeping around--playing passport Cassanova whilst never finding true love.

Wow, listen to me preach and pontificate! Ah, but I know I'm right on this one. I see some fundamental problems with country-counting:

First off is that most of the real country counters are outrageously wealthy men (always men) who turn travel into an unhealthy compulsion of going further, longer, and more remote, thereby reverting the concept of adventure and voyage to its Victorian concentration camp from which we liberated it long ago with the invention of budget airlines. For such, travel becomes a lifelong shopping trip and they win because they can always shop more. Plagiarizing the Sermon on the Mount, "They Have Their Reward."

Secondly, how exactly does one begin to count countries when they are such a man-made construct? Apparently, there are 757 "places" in the world (countries, territories, itty bitty islands, etc.), while the "official authority" on the subject, the (ahem) Travelers' Century Club counts 319 countries with the explanation that "THIS LIST IS RECOGNIZED BY THE WORLD AS THE STANDARD OF COUNTRIES AND DESTINATIONS THAT ARE POLITICALLY, ETHNOLOGICALLY OR GEOGRAPHICALLY DIFFERENT." Oh, really? I didn't see Brooklyn's Flatbush or the 20th Arrondissement of Paris on that list. And by that definition one might say that you can only count countries that don't have the same chain restaurants as your home nation. Borders also pose a tricky counting issue and all kinds of irregularities. My Facebook "Where I've Been" application claims I've covered some 30% of the globe. And yet had I never been to Moscow or St. Petersburg (two cities that you could easily squeeze into Belgium) then the number drops significantly.

Thirdly, what counts as "being in a country"? Consensus is that airtime and airports don't count, and I get it, but still. Last week I flew to and from Asia on Korean Air. All together I spent some 41 hours on a Korean airplane, with about 80% Korean passengers, eating Bibim Bap for breakfast and lunch, watching Korean subtitled-movies, and tracking my journey on the SkyMap in Hangul. I watched from the window as we passed the never-ending gray mountains and rocky Korean coastline. I circled over the city of Seoul for 15 minutes and watched Koreans commuting to work on long bridges. I spent 4 hours in Seoul's Incheon airport and watched Korea outside the gigantic windows. Have I been to Korea? My passport says no, but from now on, whenever I hear the word "Korea", I have a fairly rich well of memory from which to draw (for the record, the very same Travelers' Century Club DOES count airport stops as having been in a place).

My response to all of this is to focus on memories. Don't tell me how many places you've been. Tell me what it was like; what you remember. Every place holds meaning, and some of the worlds most well-traveled people miss that meaning again and again. Even national tourist boards often miss out on the meaning of the very destination they are trying to sell to others.

Ok, I think I'm done preaching, but watch out. I could talk about this forever. Lucky for you, I need to go pack for my next trip.


William Thirteen said...

Hi Andrew,

as i travel often for work here in Germany I'm often faced with the same question. Have I really been to a city if I just arrive at the airport, grab a taxi to the customer site, then spend the day deep in a basement data center, identical to one in Boston or Beijing, before cabbing it back just in time to loiter around the departure gate? My solution has been to schedule a bit of time on one or both ends of the workday, so that i can wander the streets and take in some of the local flavor - whether its in a gallery or a greasy spoon. I also try to travel by train instead of plane when possible, send hurtling along at ground level allows me to feel a bit more of the distance between one city and another...

AE said...

Thanks William, I feel affirmed. It's a frequent argument I have with other avid travelers. Amen to trains over planes, I prefer the former if I can.

Camels & Chocolate said...

My single most despised question I get from people when they find out my career: "oh, where have you been?" And no, I don't know exactly how many countries I've been to but at one point I did count a couple years ago and I would estimate it being somewhere around 60 now. But what about all the places I've been to many and many and many times? Or countries I've lived in? Or places where I've only visited a tourist area comprising all Americans and didn't really get a taste for the country at all (like Punta Cana)?

Personally, I don't count places (like El Salvador, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, etc.) where I've only had a long layover and didn't even venture into a city at all.

As for US states? That I totally count...but that's simply because my sister and I are racing to 50, and she's at 49 (and just 20 years old), while I'm merely at 44. Bitch.

Laurence said...

Hi Andrew,

I used to add up all the countries I had ever visited when I could not get to sleep - a sort of geographical alternative to jumping sheep.

Part of me thinks it is all a bit silly, but another part of me is an inveterate 'lister' and so I have gone as far as putting one of those 'Countries I Have Visited' maps on my website. Trouble is, these do not include cheery outposts of the apocalypse like Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh in their make-up.

I certainly do not include airport stopovers in my list - nor US states (what about UK counties or Swiss cantonments?). These days, I am more drawn to ideas of symmetry, like visiting all the world's landlocked countries - I am about halfway there - or unofficial territories like those mentioned above.