Answering the second hardest question for a traveller
26.06.2009 - 29.06.2009 22 °C
I am an obsessive counter. Those of you who only know me through my blog might think me a right brain, creative type because I write. In reality though, I am probably more left brain, drawn to logic and maths, despite my inability to do simple sums in my head. This left brain logically streak combined with a touch of anal retentiveness leads me to want to count and categorize all that I see and do.
Combine this counting obsession with a love of travel, and you might not be surprised to learn that I have spreadsheets that track all manner of facts and figures about my various travels. I have spreadsheets that track and summarize where I worked and vacationed back to 2000, a list of dates of validity for the US work visas I have had, a spreadsheet and graph that tracks my time in the UK, dates and costs of hotel stays at a number of major chains, spreadsheets of dates and distances flown on all airlines and a recently created spreadsheet of every train trip I have taken since January 1, 2009 (88 trips totalling more than 127 hours and counting).
The majority of these spreadsheets and lists started out for practical purposes. The tracking of where I was working was for tax purposes, tracking how much I worked in each country and what that meant to the amount of income tax owed to various governments. The airline and hotel spreadsheets were to track my progress in their various rewards programs towards elite status and ensure I was being credited all the points I was due. The graph of time spent in the UK is to understand if I am going to meet the requirements to apply for “indefinite leave to remain” in the United Kingdom come 2013 when my current visa expires. The train trips… well, that one has no practical purpose except for my own pleasure.
Over time I have continued to track and maintain all these various lists even though I don’t require most of them any more. Again, I blame my anal-retentive streak for this, plus the fact that I actually consider it fun to play with Microsoft Excel. Despite owning a Macbook, this love of the spreadsheet most likely makes me the suited PC in those “I’m a Mac… and I’m a PC” ads.
With all this obsessive counting, you would think it would be easy for me to answer a question oft posed when one finds out I like to travel.
“How many countries have you been to?”
The answer is between 25 and 35 depending on what you mean by “been to.”
What does it mean to have “been to” a country? I’ve spent time in airports in Brazil and Belize, but never cleared customs or saw the outside of the airport, so do those count? Similarly, I spent an hour in a plane as it sat on the tarmac in Venezuela. I took the train across Poland and Belarus, saw the countryside passing by through my window, but I didn’t get off at a station in either of those countries. Can I really say I’ve been to Poland or Belarus? I have a stamp in my passport for Poland and a transit visa from Belarus, but other than the customs officials who boarded the train to give me that stamp, I haven’t met a Polish person in Poland or a Belarusian in Belarus yet.
Some frequent travellers have come up with definitions that they use when determining if they have “been” to a country. Some say you have to have slept in a place or at least done a number two in the local toilets. That would leave me striking Monaco off my list, as I spent a day there watching the Grand Prix, but neither spent the night nor sat on the porcelain throne while there.
Personally, I only count those countries where I have cleared customs (if they have such a thing), exited the train station, bus depot or airport and have either spent the night or done something of note. So Monaco counts because I watched the Grand Prix, which is of note, but Poland, Belarus, Brazil, Venezuela and Belize don’t count.
Right, so now we have a definition (or at least I have a definition) for having been to a country, what’s the answer to the question of how many countries I’ve been to?
Ummm… The answer is between 25 and 30, depending on what you mean by “country.”
My recent visit to Wales highlights this problem with counting. What is a country? It seems a simple answer, but its not. Wales is part of the United Kingdom, one of four component countries in the union, the others being England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. So, in having been to England and Wales, have I visited one country called the United Kingdom or two countries called England and Wales? The more nationalistic of the Welsh would no doubt tell you they are a separate country. Wales does have their own parliament now, but most major decisions are still made by the UK Parliament back in Westminster, London.
Also on my potential list of countries visited are also Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia and Zanzibar, all places that are part of a larger country (China for the first two, Tanzania for the last) but that practice some manner of self-government.
There are even explorer clubs (like the Travellers Century Club, as an example) that one can join once you have visited enough countries. Some of these clubs will define places like Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland in Canada or Hawaii in the USA as being separate countries for the purposes of counting even though they are in no way self-governed. They are considered countries simply because they are islands and thus harder to get to. Some places even consider Trinidad and Tobago as two separate countries for the purposes of counting.
The government of Canada has recognized Quebec as a “nation within Canada,” so I could probably throw that on my list as well. There is also a website I found where the owner counted his visit to the United Nations building in Geneva as a separate country, as the UN issues stamps, have ambassadors to it and officially the property isn’t Switzerland but is “International Territory.” I’ve been in the UN in New York, similarly a patch of international territory in the USA.
So, what do I personally count? I’ll include Hong Kong because it is very separate and distinct from China, but won’t include Inner Mongolia and Zanzibar as individual countries. Trinidad and Tobago are one on my list, and Newfoundland is part of Canada, as is Quebec (for now). Wales and England I’ll count as separate countries, but my visit to the United Nations in New York City, I’ll just count that as a trip to America.
Some of these distinctions are kind of fuzzy, I will admit. I’m not even sure I’m really comfortable in calling Wales a separate country from the UK. But what the heck, this is just a blog and I am only really counting for fun, so let’s call it so. Cymru is on my list.
So, how many countries have I been to?
With all those caveats, 27…
Though that number includes Canada and England, both of which I have lived in. Some country counters claim you can’t count the country you live in on your list of countries to which you’ve travelled. Then again, I visited England when I lived in Canada, and have visited Canada since moving to England, so perhaps I am safe in counting both.
Whew, this counting is harder than those math problems that start with “Bob boarded a train in Pennsylvania at 4:45 PM heading for New York at 103 mph. Jan boarded a train in New York headed for Pennsylvania at 5:03 PM, travelling at 125 mph.”
Oh, there is one more wrinkle that I haven’t personally come across yet, though if Quebec decides to leave Canada I would face. How do you count the countries you’ve been to if that country splits, merges or otherwise changes form after you’ve been there? For example, people who visited Czechoslovakia back when it exists, do they count 1 country from Czechoslovakia or 2 for the Czech Republic and Solvakia?
Now my brain is hurting.
Ah, sod it. Next time I hear the question…
“So, you like to travel. How many countries have you been to?”
…I think I will deflect the question, paraphrase Churchill and reply with, “Did you know it is improper to end a sentence with a proposition. That is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Me in a place I haven't really been. Minsk.