Jessica Nabongo: What traveling to every country in the world taught me

(CNN) – As her plane began to descend in the Seychelles on October 6, 2019, Ugandan-American travel influencer Jessica Nabongo looked out the window, preparing for the momentous occasion that lay ahead.

Not only was she about to become a member of a prestigious club of very few people who have traveled to every country in the world, she would be the first black woman to document such a thing.

Nabongo was accompanied by 28 of her friends and family who had flown to travel on the last flight with her.

She had taken more than 450 flights and over a million air miles, but she had reached all 195 UN-recognized countries on the globe.

The experience was grueling — Nabongo made more than 170 flights in one year and says she almost passed out on several occasions.

“There were a few times when the panic set in and I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this going to result in public failure?'” she told CNN Travel.

Epic challenge

In 2019, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to document the journey to any country in the world.

Wintta Woldemariam

Nabongo has since written a book, The Catch Me If You Can, detailing her experiences moving from place to place during the epic challenge.

Named after her popular blog, it chronicles her record-breaking journey, focusing on 100 of the 195 countries she visited.

“I’m a geography nerd,” Nabongo says of her decision to take on the challenge, explaining that it was something she had wanted to do for at least a decade before trying it.

“In 2017, I kind of made a decision that I wanted to make it by my 35th birthday,” she tells CNN Travel.

So was she able to meet her deadline?

“I exceeded my birthday by five months,” explains Nabongo. “But I ended up on my dad’s birthday, he passed [away] just two days after my 19th birthday, so it was nice to be able to get him into the group that way.”

According to Nabongo, who was born in Detroit, one of the main reasons she felt compelled to write “The Catch Me If You Can” was the fact that very few blacks are among the approximately 400 travelers who are believed to have visited every country in the world.

“We are used to seeing the world through the lens of white men,” says Nabongo, who used her photos in the book. “And this is different. There is clearly something unique about the experiences we have, as we exist in the world, as very different people.

“But also, just in terms of how I see humanity. My respect for humanity. I see a huge difference.”

Nabongo touches on her experiences traveling as a black woman in the book released on June 14, noting that such representation is extremely important.

Creating space

The travel influencer has released a book,

The travel influencer has released a book, The Catch Me If You Can, featuring 100 of the places she visited.

Wes Walker

“It’s about normalizing our existence because, yes, even in 2022, I’m often the only black person on a 300 plane,” she writes.

“I can travel for days and not see someone on the same end of the color spectrum. My mission is to create space. Shake the s**t up. I’m telling you, we’re here and we belong.”

She feels a responsibility to represent destinations that are not necessarily tourist hotspots as sensitively as possible to challenge prejudices.

“That’s really important to me,” she admits. “To tell stories about places most people never get to travel to and really use my platform to put these places in a more positive light than we usually see.

“I found a lot of beauty in a lot of places that people probably wouldn’t expect.”

These places include Afghanistan, where she was mesmerized by the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Pakistan, where she couldn’t get enough of the street food, and Iran, where she visited the ancient city of Yazd.

While social media was certainly around when Nabongo started traveling widely, it wasn’t as influential as it is today.

The former UN employee notes that having a successful blog and over 200,000 Instagram followers has given her a lot of privileges, especially when it comes to travel, but she is very careful about the content she shares, acknowledged that the impact of social media has not been complete. positive when it comes to vulnerable locations.

“When I was in Maui [Hawaii]I found this forest really amazing,” she says. “I haven’t done a geotag [add the geographic coordinates of the location] because I know what he could have done to that forest.”

“Being an influencer or someone of influence, you have to be extremely careful with how you share. For me, it’s really important to ensure the preservation of the places I’m visiting.”

Impact of impact

Nabongo during a trip to Bali, Indonesia in 2017.

Nabongo during a trip to Bali, Indonesia in 2017.

Elton Anderson

Nabongo worries about the notion of “traveling blind”, noting that this has become almost impossible in the modern world.

“It’s definitely something I miss in particular,” Nabongo admits, citing Peru as one of the destinations she felt a little underwhelmed by simply because she’d seen so many images of its historical sights beforehand.

“When I got to Machu Picchu, I was like, ‘Oh, it looks like the pictures,'” she admits. “So it was disappointing.

“You think about places like Bali and Morocco, everyone goes to the same destinations and does the same things. And that’s just not interesting to me.

“But there is Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan. There are so many places that people think are not worth it in terms of tourism, where I had an absolutely wonderful time.

“I really hope that through my story, there will be a reduction in prejudice about black and brown countries in particular.”

During some of her most difficult moments on the road, Nabongo began to question whether she would make it to the Seychelles, the last country on her list.

But the trip had done much more than just achieve her goal by then—she knew it was showing places her followers would never have thought to visit.

When she reached her breaking point during a visit to Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, it was the words of some locals that convinced her to continue.

“One of the guys said, ‘It’s not for you, it’s for us,'” she says. “That was really a huge turning point. Because as my audience was growing and people were emailing and DMing me, I was realizing that the journey was becoming much bigger than me. Those men really helped me reach at the finish line.”

While Nabongo notes that the American passport gives her privileges not afforded to travelers of other nationalities, she explains that she was able to travel to over 40 countries with her Ugandan passport.

Secret weapon

Nabongo was able to obtain a visa on arrival to visit Iran thanks to her dual citizenship.

Nabongo was able to obtain a visa on arrival to visit Iran thanks to her dual citizenship.

Ali Shebani

“Having an American and a Ugandan passport really worked in my favor,” she admits. “Because it is very difficult for Americans to go to Iran.

“And the US government bans Americans from going to North Korea [exceptions are granted “in very limited circumstances”, but I had a Ugandan passport so I could go.

“That was my secret weapon. If I only had an American passport, I probably wouldn’t have finished when I did.”

Her success, along with that of other travelers like her, will no doubt have inspired others to attempt to travel to every country in the world, but she’s keen to point out that this particular goal isn’t for everyone.

Before jetting off on such a quest, Nabongo stresses that travelers should really question why they want to embark on this challenge, “because that’s the motivation that’s going to get you to the finish line.”

She hopes her story will encourage others to go after their dreams, whatever they might be.

“I don’t think everyone is interested in going to every country in the world,” she says. “But what I do want people to know is that they have everything inside of them to do whatever it is that they want to do in life.

“And if I could go to every country in the world, which is wild, I feel like everyone’s dream is attainable.”

Worldwide network

Nabongo's thirst for adventure has remained strong since ticking all the countries in the world off her bucket list.

Nabongo’s thirst for adventure has remained strong since ticking all the countries in the world off her bucket list.

Elton Anderson

In “The Catch Me If You Can,” Nabongo shares various tales of strangers who’ve been particularly kind to her during her travels, including a tour guide named Maha in Jordan who gave her a dress as a symbol of their friendship.

“I definitely have friends from all over the world,” she says, before expressing her delight at how writing the book has helped to put her back in touch with many of those she’s met on the road.

“It’s been really great,” she adds. “At any given time on my WhatsApp, there’s probably conversations going across 20 countries.

“People, of course, will always start out as strangers. But if you’re open to it, you can quickly make friends and in some cases, even family.

“For me, home isn’t about people. I think that’s why I feel so closely connected to people when I travel. Because it’s like I’m building little houses all over the world, if you will.”

While she found the process of visiting every country in the world grueling, Nabongo confesses that writing “The Catch Me If You Can” has been harder “hands down.”

But she hopes the book will inspire more kindness in the world, explaining that she’s noticed a shift in the behavior of others, particularly while traveling, since the early days of the pandemic.

“It was all love and kindness, and then it became madness,” she says. “Now you’re seeing people fighting on planes and being just really mean.

“So, I think unfortunately, that initial bump of love and humanity that we got in the first four to six months has dissipated.”

Nabongo admits that this has left her feeling rather disheartened at times.

However, she remains encouraged by her own experiences of human kindness and continues to look for beauty in the world wherever she goes.

And now that she’s visited every country, Nabongo’s passion for travel has only grown stronger.

At the time of writing, she’s about to take another trip to Senegal, which she describes as her “happy place,” and eventually plans to tick off another goal. visiting every state in the US.

“I have six left,” she explains, before stressing that she’s in no rush, and will complete this particular task, “when I get to it.”

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