Pipe Dream sat down with Gunnar Garfors, a Norwegian media professional and one of the only people to have visited all 198 countries across the globe. His TEDxBinghamtonUniversity talk, “World’s Least-Visited Countries Revisited,” focused on the countries most people have never heard of and what he has learned from his travels. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pipe Dream: Why did you choose to speak at TEDx at Binghamton University?
Gunnar Garfors: I was honored to be invited to speak — they gave me the freedom to speak about anything. I’m really into traveling, I’ve visited every country in the world and I figured there’s a lot of interest in the least-visited countries, countries off the beaten path. So I’m going to be speaking about some of the least-visited countries in the world. It goes without saying that most people haven’t been there, but they may be curious about them.
PD: How long did it take you to visit every country in the world?
GG: I spent 13 years doing it, I finished in 2013. The country that it has been the longest since I’ve visited is Tanzania. I haven’t been there since 2000, so I’m going back this year.
PD: Where did the desire to travel to every single country come from?
GG: It really started in 1979; I was only 4. Back then, I had one brother and he was 2 [years old]. Our father worked as a medical doctor on a cruise ship, and we couldn’t read, obviously, but he recorded audio tapes of these incredible stories about various countries and I just remember being like, ‘I want to be like my dad, I want to see the world.’ I think that’s when it started, and of course I didn’t travel when I was 4, but then I started traveling when I was 17, 18 [years old]. And the more I saw, the more I wanted to see.
I decided that I wanted to go to all the ‘stan’ countries — there’s seven of them, ending with ‘stan’ — and when I finished that in 2009, I decided I needed another goal, and that turned into every country in the world. I guess you need to be a little crazy to do this; I took every holiday, most weekends — I spent all my money on this. I don’t have a car, I don’t have a dog, I don’t have a wife and I don’t have expensive paintings on the wall. I have spent all my money on traveling and these experiences, which I value much above physical things.
PD: Does one country, or experience while traveling, stand out above the rest?
GG: There are loads of them. Turkmenistan for instance, a former Soviet Union republic, is a really strange country. It was led by a dictator for many, many years, he’s dead now. But he had ultimate power, and lots of money from gas exports. He built these towers, with gold statues of himself that always turn around so he is always looking at the sun. I was there with three friends, and it is one of three countries in the world where you need a guide. He goes, ‘Hello, welcome to Turkmenistan, are you here for girls or for drinks?’ And I said, ‘Well I’m sure we’re going to have some drinks, but we have girlfriends at home.’ He said, ‘So?’ I tried to be a little bit diplomatic, so I said, ‘Do you not believe in love?’ He replied, ‘Love was invented by the French! They were too cheap to pay for prostitutes.’ It left us speechless.
PD: In all your travels, what has been the most eye-opening experience?
GG: The best bit is to meet other people, to meet local people. I never travel with guidebooks, I think that’s almost an insult, to sit on a bus and read ‘Lonely Planet’ when there are 10 or 20 locals around you who you can ask. You really learn a lot about the world, but about yourself as well. Maybe the most eye-opening thing about traveling to all these countries is to realize that what you think is the center of the universe is not. Everybody has a different center of the universe. We’re from the Western world, and we sort of look at this bubble of the Western world. We have democracy, we have infrastructure, we have a lot of money, we have houses and electricity. And we take that for granted. And then suddenly you are outside of this bubble.
PD: Your talk today is about countries that people have never heard of. Why is that important to speak about?
GG: I think that people are traveling more and more these days, people have more money to spend on traveling, and I think that is great. It’s amazing that people can travel and see different parts of the world, but there’s also this culture of following everyone else. It’s great to visit France, Mexico, Canada and the Dominican Republic, but maybe venture a little bit outside our comfort zone, outside of this bubble I was talking about. I hope this can inspire people to travel to places they might not even have heard about and step outside of this bubble. With social media now, traveling is like a new status symbol. It’s all about staying at the best hotel or drinking at the coolest bars. But this doesn’t necessarily give you bragging rights. Traveling shouldn’t be about bragging about it, it should be about the experiences.