Originally published on elephant journal.
Nowhere on my website will you find a tally of countries I’ve visited. Not on my Instagram either.
Several times, I’ve debated changing my policy about this. It appears to be de rigueur for writers and bloggers in my niche of adventure travel and digital nomadism. And, I am proud of the ground I’ve managed to cover in relatively few years.
However, I’m much prouder of how I’ve covered it.
Hitchhiking thousands of kilometers through Europe, learning (basic) Swahili in Zanzibar, building community in Costa Rica—these are the stories I want to tell about my years on the road, which numbers can never do justice.
Numbers may tell you how many kilometers I walked, how many years I lived out of a backpack, or—yes—how many stamps I have in my passport. But numbers won’t tell you what the Phnom Penh pavement felt like under my bare feet, how my shoulders ached after carrying my life with me across Spain, or the many amusing (stressful) ways I crossed all those borders.
I think you get my point. The number of countries I have visited is, like any other tally, just a number. It is not, in my opinion, very interesting information.
Furthermore, it is already an exceptional privilege to travel as I have done. I am deeply grateful to sustainably maintain the nomadic lifestyle I find so exhilarating. It seems unnecessary to proceed to flaunt that privilege in such a one-dimensional way.
I also dislike the rhetoric, only too common in the travel blogosphere, that “more countries = more happy.” There is no happiness equation. A fuller passport does not equate to a higher happiness index—though travel can certainly lead us down many paths to fulfillment. I am wary of contributing to this superficial conversation in any way.
All that said, I would hate to raise objections without offering solutions. I wouldn’t waste your time with criticisms of displaying the “travel number” if I didn’t have some alternatives in mind.
When I tell new friends about my vagabondish lifestyle, more often than not their first question is, “So, how many countries have you been to?” I’ve come up with a lot of ways to avoid (or transform) that one. Here are my favorites:
1. “Let me tell you about my most recent trip to X.” Stays on topic, but narrows the conversation down to a specific, less superficial angle that I actually want to explore.
2. “A lot… I’ve been living nomadically for quite a few years.” Vague, but hopefully avoids anything that might come off as boasting.
3. “Honestly, I’d rather answer a different question.” The most direct answer, and usually goes over well when delivered with a genuine smile.
4. “I actually don’t think it’s that interesting. Let me tell you a story instead.” Also direct, and opens space for the exchange to move toward a subject of mutual interest.
5. Just tell them the number…once in a while, it’s easier to go with the flow and answer the damn question.
I like these answers because most of them are rather versatile. The same tactics can help us to gracefully evade personal questions we don’t want to answer, small talk we don’t want to engage in, and norms of conversation we don’t want to support.
I hope travelers with similar misgivings to my own may take away a helpful solution or two.
May your backpack be light and your feet happy—no matter how many borders they’ve crossed!
I also don’t really like “Where do you come from?” Stay tuned for some thoughts on that.