Forty Countries

When I was growing up in Canada, our family home was less than a mile from the US border. It was very common for us to cross the line. The town in Washington State was actually closer to us than the nearest town in British Columbia. We had a post office box in the US and we frequently bought our groceries there. We also went south on many of our vacations. We were used to international travel, in a simple way. However, only in my dreams did I ever imagine crossing as many borders as I eventually would.

Earlier this year, I went to Ireland for the first time. It happened to be the fortieth country I’ve had the privilege of visiting. I spent a week there with my wife and kids, touring the island by car. It was an exceptional holiday, a trip that we will not soon forget.

Of course, many people in the world today have visited many more countries than that. Not too surprising, there is a website called,, which catalogues the places you have visited and ranks you among the world’s “most traveled.” Needless to say, I’m not on their lists. I have met an American man named Loren Cunningham who has now visited every country in the world, and I have other friends who are not that far behind him. Though I am also well aware of the fact that the vast majority of people in the world today have never crossed a border – not even one. They have never been outside of their homeland. I remember Clarence, an old man in Honolulu that I often visited with. He lived next door to me for a number of years. He had never been off the island of Oahu – he never even dreamed of it. In the end, there is not such a great difference between Loren and Clarence. Some people travel, some don’t.

For me, it was my destiny. The privilege of international travel began even before my earliest memory. My mother, who grew up in North London, took me to England when I was only two years old, to visit her family. Actually, all three of my older siblings were born in the UK before my parents moved to Canada, which happened to be the third country that they had called home in the first eight years of their marriage. I suppose traveling was in our blood.

It wasn’t until 1986, when I was eighteen years old, that I crossed the border into my fourth country – Mexico. It was also the first time that I was adding to my list on my own, without parental supervision.

I spent the next few years with an international organization called Youth With A Mission. With them, both as a student and as a volunteer, I was based in the Hawaiian Islands and travelled extensively in the Pacific and Asia. I visited Singapore and Malaysia and then also the island nations of Tonga and both American and Western Samoa. Later, on staff assignments, I also spent time in Hong Kong, India and New Zealand, with shorter trips into China, Thailand and Laos, pushing the country count to fifteen.

During those years, my parents had moved to Moscow to work with a relief and development organization. So, in the summer of 1992, my younger sister and I planned a trip to visit them and also to take the opportunity to tour Western Europe. After Russia, we travelled through Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France and Spain. The list of countries now totaled 27.

After a few sedentary years in Canada while I finished grad school and got married, my new wife and I planned a four-month trip to Central America in the fall of 1998. We drove our car to Los Angeles and took a one-way flight to Panama City. From there, we traveled overland through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, pushing my new total to 33.

After that trip, we began contemplating a move overseas and we ended up in India, where we have lived in the capital, New Delhi, since 2005. Though I have travelled widely within India (visiting 17 out of the 34 states and territories), we have not, as of yet, visited any of India's South Asian neighbours. We are contemplating a trek in Nepal in the early part of 2011.

A year and a half ago, in March 2009, we did something that we’d never done before – we went on a cruise. We joined my wife’s family in the Caribbean for an amazing 14-day cruise. Our ports of call included the Bahamas, St. Maarten, Curacao, Puerto Rico, Aruba and the Turks and Caicos, allowing my total to grow to 39.

That opened the door for Ireland to be my fortieth country, and what a trip it was for us as a family. It’s especially exciting for me to watch my kids catch the travel bug. Just the way they talk about the trip to Ireland or about the cruise in the Caribbean – they sound like such seasoned travelers. They’re already accumulating countries well beyond their years. Now they’re dreaming about a trip to Egypt to see the pyramids. Their world is even smaller than mine. But I also hope that I’m instilling in them an appreciation for world travel and a love for people of other lands and for other cultures and for the beauty of the earth. From what we see as parents, they are well on their way to learning what it means to be global citizens.

And that is really what this should be about. Even as I conclude this entry, I worry that it sounds like boasting, or that it trivializes travel. I realize that counting countries is only one way to measure your travels, and it seems like quite a shallow one at that. In some ways, as I see the list written out, it doesn’t seem that impressive. I mean, I haven’t ever set foot in South America or Africa or the Middle East. As well, my visits to some of these places – on the cruise, for instance – were very brief, though in every place I did take the opportunity to walk around and try to get a feel for the place. I am an advocate of slow travel, not just breezing through a place to add it to the list. (Note: I did not include in my listing several countries such as the Philippines, Iceland, El Salvador, Japan and Taiwan, where I only saw their airports.) I also believe that travel is most meaningful when you pay attention not just to places but to people, whether your travel companions or strangers that you encounter along the way. As well, personal learning and growth has always been a huge focus for me as I’ve been able to experience other cultures. There’s nothing like travel to broaden your perspectives and to allow for that experience of both losing yourself and finding yourself (as Pico Iyer has written in his classic essay, “Why We Travel”). I hope that my other travel writing convinces you that these other concerns are ultimately more prominent in my mind than simply compiling a list of countries. However, the list does exist and does simply remind me about how incredibly privileged I have been to travel to each of these countries. And I already look forward to my 41st and 42nd and…


Mark Jonathan Harvey Klassen said...

Oh, no! My counting may be off, by at least one! My sister - and traveling companion in Europe during the summer of 1992 - has just reminded me that we visited the small city/country of Monaco that summer. Darn, those small ones can sometimes fall through the cracks. She also thinks we visited the Vatican City, but I insist that she's wrong on that account. We thought about it, but it cost too much, or the line-ups were too long, or something like that. Not a big deal, whether it's 40 or 41, right?

Herb's Meditations said...

Interesting account Mark.

A wise friend once told us;
"There are three ways to visit countries;
Visiting places,
Visiting people,
Connecting with movements.
Interesting challenge.
Your somewhat much-traveled