This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: ‘Travel mini-series: Jessica Nabongo visits every country’

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Lilah Raptopoulos
Hi, FT Weekend listeners. Welcome to the second episode of our special mini-series on travel. Today I’m joined by writer and photographer Jessica Nabongo. Jessica has done what seems impossible. She’s travelled to every country in the world. It’s estimated that less than 500 people have done it. And Jessica, who’s Ugandan-American, is also the first black woman on record to have done it. Jessica wrote a book about her experiences called The Catch Me If You Can. It was published by National Geographic. And she’s come on to tell us what she’s learned about human beings. She’ll give us tips on travelling alone and travelling for long stretches. And she’s got an excellent list of places that will inspire you for your next trip. This is FT Weekend, the podcast, special travel edition. I’m Lilah Raptopoulos. Let’s get into it.

Jessica, welcome to the show. It’s such a pleasure to have you here.

Jessica Nabongo
Thank you so much for having me.

Lilah Raptopoulos
So you have travelled the world. You’ve seen every country at least once. That’s 195 countries. That’s right, right?

Jessica Nabongo
Yeah. Like around 50 of them, more than once, so . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Wild. OK, so, Jessica, what made you wanna do this, like, decide to travel to every country in the world? It sounds so daunting to me.

Jessica Nabongo
You know, I think the thing is, because travel was such a regular part of my life, it was something that was just happening along the way. So by the time I decided to set a deadline, I had been to 60 countries. But I’m a geography nerd, and since my early twenties, I had been blogging and I had been saying I wanted to visit every country in the world. So every year I would like recount how many new countries I visited and I would fill in my map. But in 2017 and country 60, I was like, all right, I wanna do this by the time I’m 35.

Lilah Raptopoulos
So what did you do?

Jessica Nabongo
I travelled to 135 new countries in two and a half years. (laughter)

Lilah Raptopoulos
(laughter) And what were the things that you saw in those places that went against maybe what people hear in the news about them or what the general consensus is? Like, when I hear every country in the world, my mind immediately goes, OK, what are the most dangerous ones? Was she OK even there?

Jessica Nabongo
You know, I think it’s so much about the lens through which you’re looking through. If you go somewhere and you want to find poverty and misery, you can find that anywhere. You can find it in the United States, anywhere. But if you go somewhere and you’re looking to discover culture, you’re looking to see how people live in that country, then everything to me becomes quite beautiful.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Can you give me an example of that?

Jessica Nabongo
Yeah. Let’s do Iraq. When I landed in Iraq, I went to Erbil and I was exhausted. And I had a driver, we had a whole plan to go out into the countryside. And I was like, “Look, I’m tired. Just please take me to my hotel”. And he’s like, “No, I can’t do that. Like, at least, can I bring you to my home? And my wife can cook you lunch and then you can go to your hotel.”

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s really nice.

Jessica Nabongo
Right. I know! And so he brings me into his home and his wife was there cooking and I got to eat with him, his wife and his son. And it was just such a beautiful moment of, like, human connection. And so, you know, not only in Iraq, but in so many places in the world, I just was met by the kindness of strangers.

Lilah Raptopoulos
So your book was published by National Geographic, and it strikes me that there’s something meaningful about National Geographic specifically publishing a book about a black woman travelling to every country in the world. Did you feel that way?

Jessica Nabongo
Yeah. I mean, I think that National Geographic holds the canon of travel, right? Like, when you really look at who are the owners of our understanding of the world, National Geographic is absolutely at the top of that list. And so to be able to have my book as a part of the canon, I think it’s so important for so many reasons. I think, number one, for people, not only black women, but for everyone to understand how I, as an African-appearing woman, move through the world and what those experiences are.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.

Jessica Nabongo
But beyond that, the way that I see people, right? So through my photography, like, there’s pictures in the book of, like, people sitting in markets. But it doesn’t feel like poverty porn.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Jessica Nabongo
It feels beautiful because it’s always about how the photographer is looking at the subject. I look at all my subjects with dignity. I ask them their permission. So a lot of the portraits in the book, you’ll see they’re looking direct to camera because I’ve asked them their permission to take their picture, which hasn’t always been the case.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.

Jessica Nabongo
I think it’s hugely important to be a part of their canon.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. Jessica, I’m curious about travelling alone, how your experience of a place changes when you’re there alone.

Jessica Nabongo
I travelled to 89 countries solo. I think for me I got a deeper understanding of culture when I’m alone, because when you’re travelling with other people, you spend so much time talking to your friend, your family member, whatever. When you’re travelling alone, you’re spending that same amount of time talking to local people. So it really, I think a lot of my adventures became more beautiful when I was doing solo travel because I really got that deep understanding of the countries that I was visiting.

Lilah Raptopoulos
I think a lot of people who haven’t travelled alone but are sort of curious about it would imagine, like, that it’s quite lonely that you book a trip and you get a hotel and then you’re just like in the city and you know no one and you know nothing. And you’re just kind of walking around going to the museums alone and eating alone. And is there a way to make it a more enriching experience to, like, feel like you’re there? I mean, how should people do it?

Jessica Nabongo
I like having a guide. And if I don’t hire a guide, I’ll talk to the concierge. I’ll talk to a waiter, I’ll talk to a bartender. I always think travelling alone is great because it gives you the opportunity to be someone new so, you know, be able to step outside of yourself, create a little character in your head that will help you have the confidence to talk to strangers. And the other thing is, like, we don’t need to be afraid of strangers.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Jessica Nabongo
I think the biggest lesson that I learned from visiting every country in the world is that most people are good.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Jessica Nabongo
You know, we go into so many places and we’re so afraid. We’re locking up our things in the hotel safe and we’re, you know, we have all these theft-proof bags and all this stuff.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Strapped to our bodies and yeah. (laughter)

Jessica Nabongo
Exactly! Like, under your shirt. When I tell you I’ve never done any of that and I’ve never had anything stolen from me. A lot of letting that fear go is understanding that most people are good. Sometimes something bad might happen, but it’s actually a really rare occurrence. But if you’re so focused on it, you’re actually bringing it to you.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Part of why it’s so nice to have you on is because I think it lets us consider the question of why we travel, not just how to travel, and not just sort of like tips to get the best deal, but like big picture, why we do it and why we should do it.

Jessica Nabongo
I love that.

Lilah Raptopoulos
And I’m curious, for you, you know, what do you think we should know? Like, why should we travel?

Jessica Nabongo
Yeah, I think the value of travel is to learn about the world around you. I think it’s about building human connection. I think it’s about understanding how other people live because at the end of the day, the life you live is your only version of reality, right? So if you hear, oh, people are living in a refugee camp, it’s really hard for you to understand what that is if you don’t physically go there and see it, right?

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Jessica Nabongo
You don’t feel connected to it. It feels unreal because that’s not your existence. So you can’t even connect with that person. It’s very difficult. So I think when you travel and you see how different people live, it really works to expand your mind of the possibilities. And I think it also in many ways increases your gratitude for what you have.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mm-hmm. I’m wondering if you have five minutes for me to just throw some quick questions at you.

Jessica Nabongo
I love rapid fire. (Laughter)

Lilah Raptopoulos
Because even though I speak about wanting to hear why we travel, which I do, but I also kind of wanna know how to, how to do it.

Jessica Nabongo
OK. I love, I love it. Let’s do it.

Lilah Raptopoulos
OK, great. OK. Number one is packing. How the hell do you pack? Like the prospect of packing makes me not wanna travel. How do you make it easy?

Jessica Nabongo
I always start with a piece of paper and I literally write down the number of days and I write down the weather.

Lilah Raptopoulos
OK.

Jessica Nabongo
And then I try to, like, kind of list out outfits. But then I also have check boxes like underwear, toiletries, passport, camera, just to make sure that I have everything. And I use packing cubes.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Jessica Nabongo
So, like, all of my workout clothes, swimsuits and underwear are in one, then all of my tops are in another one, the bottoms, and then I have my shoes. And so that way it’s so easy to, like, ensure that everything I have is there. I’m a checked bag girl, so it is rare that I don’t have a checked bag. I used to be a carry-on only, but I left that life behind. (Laughter)

Lilah Raptopoulos
OK. So another question is, you know, I think Instagram has encouraged us all to go to the same places. And so those places are getting overrun. (Laughter) Yeah, I see, you’re making a face. But there are so many places in the world to go. So I’m wondering if you could give me a few places that we might not think to travel or be encouraged to travel to but, like, really are amazing.

Jessica Nabongo
I would recommend the African continent. You have Zanzibar. Madagascar is incredible, especially if you love the outdoors. Zanzibar for the beaches. I love Senegal, it’s so peaceful. I love the food there and it’s on the coast, so you can have like a relaxing beach holiday. Uganda, tons of outdoor stuff, but also beautiful culture. Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania — I really would encourage people if they’ve not yet explored the African continent . . . Namibia! Oh my god, so amazing. To really just start to dig in. There’s 54 countries. Definitely not all of them are for novice travellers. (laughter) I’m not going to just say, “Go anywhere,” but I would say there’s at least 20 countries that I think are easily accessible for a novice traveller for sure.

Lilah Raptopoulos
A country whose food you dream about.

Jessica Nabongo
OK, I’m gonna give you three. (Laughter) One is always so hard. Japan — I lived there for a year. And then Georgia, country of Georgia.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Georgia, yeah.

Jessica Nabongo
Amazingly delicious food. And then Senegal. I love Senegalese food like Yassa au poisson, which is this fish dish with, like, onions. Just lots of fresh seafood and yes, it’s so good. So those would be my three.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Jessica, this was so inspiring and really fun. Thank you so much for being here.

Jessica Nabongo
Thank you for having me.

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Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s the show. Thank you for listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times. I’ve dropped links for where to find Jessica and her book in the show notes, as well as a special discount to a subscription to the FT. Come back next Wednesday for the third episode of our travel mini-series. We have the FT’s travel editor Tom Robbins on. Tom is great. He’s a fount of knowledge. He knows everything about the tourism industry, and he gives us an honest account of what’s happening, how certain destinations get super popular, and how the internet has changed the way we travel. This show is produced by Zach St. Louis, executive produced by Topher Forhecz and Cheryl Brumley, and sound engineered by Tommy Bazarian, with original music by Metaphor Music.

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