If you passed Graham Hughes on the street, you’d most likely mistake him for just another backpacker, or perhaps a student two weeks past a shave.
Behind the glasses and the unassuming smile, however, is a man that has achieved something extraordinary: Graham is the first person to visit every country in the world without boarding a plane.
He has used boats, cars, buses and trains to visit every corner of the planet, a journey that has taken him four years to complete. Even more extraordinary is the fact that he, originally from Liverpool in the UK, now lives on a private island in Panama, a prize he won through a gameshow. (Yes, we’re seething with jealousy too.)
Graham stopped by Reddit this month and invited readers to ask him anything – and we did. Here’s a roundup of his most interesting answers.
Firstly, how did you get the idea for this great adventure?
It all stemmed from my love of travel, which I’ve had since I was a kid. Before I embarked on the journey I had already been to about 70 countries in my life.
I can’t sing, I can’t play a musical instrument, I can’t run 100m in less than 10 seconds, but I am fairly gifted when it comes to getting around, sleeping in uncomfortable places, making myself understood, trying new things, putting myself out there… going to every country without flying seemed like something that was within my capabilities – I was kinda surprised nobody had done it before to be honest.
How were you able to finance your travels?
I saved up, I got some money for the TV show I made for Lonely Planet. Towards the end of my journey, my family and friends chipped in to ensure I finished what I had started. The whole thing cost me around £27,000 over four years – just under £7,000 ($10,000 USD) a year.
Did you spend time in each country, or go through them marathon style to check them off a list?
It was fairly marathon style, but some places I hung around, waiting for visas or ships. Sometimes I’d stay a little longer than I really needed to… I occasionally found it hard to prise myself away. But, as I always say, these places aren’t going anywhere and, who knows? Off the back of this thing I might get a TV show in which I can go back and really explore these places without having to race through (or hold a video camera at arm’s length!).
“I lost my rag once I’d been arrested and taken to the police station in Brazzaville. I shouldn’t have done that. I learnt an important lesson: keep smiling”Graham Hughes
What are your top 5 favorite countries?
It changes daily, but I’d always put Iran, Bolivia, Thailand, Madagascar and the UK near the top of the list.
Which country has the most beautiful women?
The UK, specifically LIVERPOOOOOOOOL!!
What country were you most surprised by and why?
Iran. Because it was NOTHING like what I was expecting it to be. Friendliest country in the world by a mile. One night on a bus to Khorramshahr, a little old lady was sitting in front of me.
After we’d been on the road for around 20 minutes, she got out her cell phone and called somebody. After chatting away in Farsi for a while, she turned around and smiled at me through the gap in the seats. I smiled back. Then, to my surprise, she handed me her phone and gestured for me to put it to my ear. I did so and the voice on the other end introduced himself as Hossein.
He explained that he was an English teacher in Khorramshahr, that I was sitting behind his grandmother and she had called him because she was concerned about me.
‘Really? Why is she concerned?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ said Hossein, ‘she’s concerned that the bus is going to get into Khorramshahr very early – at 5am – and that you’re going to have nowhere to go and nobody to make you breakfast. She would like to know – if it’s okay with you – if she can take you home with her and make you breakfast.”
…And which countries would you avoid visiting again?
Well, I had unhappy experiences in Cape Verde and Congo, but I reckon I’d go back there. The people were lovely, it was just the police I had a problem with!
Can you elaborate?
The fine police officers of Cape Verde (understandably) didn’t quite understand what the hell I was doing arriving in the country on a big wooden canoe with a bunch of Senegalese fishermen. It was an idiotic thing to do.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t kick myself for being such a fool. I was angry with Cape Verde for a time after that, but it was five years ago and I’ve mellowed in my old age. Like seriously? A WOODEN CANOE?? Total dick move.
Congo – that’s not as justifiable, but I did lose my rag with the police chief once I’d been arrested and taken to the police station in Brazzaville. I shouldn’t have done that. I learnt an important lesson though: KEEP SMILING! Seriously. It could have saved me a good few days of sleeping on a concrete floor.
Did you ever feel really unsafe?
Only when a representative of the British Embassy in Congo came to visit me in my holding cell and made it quite clear that if I didn’t stop shouting and kicking the door the police might, erm, “make it look like an accident”. That proper freaked me out.
What languages do you speak? Were you able to communicate with the locals when they couldn’t speak English?
I speak a little bit of French and a little bit of Spanish. I have to admit I’m not so good at languages but I’m fairly good at making myself understood. At the end of the day you can just smile and point at stuff! I wish I had more of an aptitude for languages though. I’ve got a mate who speaks eight languages. He’s like a wizard or something.
What’s the toughest region of the world for trying to get by just on English?
China used to be tricky back when I first went there in 2002, but now – since the 2008 Olympics – a lot of the signage is in both Chinese characters and Roman letters, so it’s a lot easier to ensure you’re on the right bus. Russia’s pretty tough still.
What was your longest single journey?
Going to Nauru on an old cargo ship from Australia. The round trip took 34 days, On the way I returned to The Solomon Islands and Kiribati (places I had “ticked off” the year before). The crew was mostly from Fiji. It was a lot of fun.
Do you think you would have had a harder time if you were a woman?
I think it would be harder but not impossible. Some of the greatest travellers of all time – Nellie Bly, Gertrude Bell, Annie Londonderry – took on similar challenges, back when the world was a LOT more dangerous. Staying safe includes following your intuition, always updating your Facebook or Twitter and having somebody waiting for you at your destination (CouchSurfing is great for that). You’ll find that you’ll rarely travel alone, there’s often someone who’ll make sure you get where you’re supposed to go.
Did you fall ill while doing this?
No! Remarkably enough. They should so make SUPER-SOLDIERS from my DNA. I had all the vaccinations I could possibly have before I left the UK, I took anti-malarial tablets in malarious areas, tried not to drink the tap water and tried to stick to hot food. Plus a fair dollop of luck!
Did you ever suffer from homesickness?
Not so much. With stuff like Skype and Facebook, home is never far away.
Which country’s food do you miss the most?
The best meal I had was in a street-side awning in Jayapura, West Papua. Sweet and sour squid on rice. I still have happy dreams about that squid.
And what was your least favourite?
My least favourite was “balut”, fertilised duck egg in The Philippines. Sounds as gross as it tastes.
Was there a time you thought you wouldn’t finish?
Yes, after my sister passed away in March 2011 I really struggled to get back on with the journey. At that point I had been to 184 countries and had just 17 left to go, but I knew they would be the hardest to reach without flying (the Pacific Island states and Indian Ocean nations) but so many people had helped me get that far, I really had to finish it. I’m glad I did.
If another country splits, like South Sudan, would you have to go to the new country?
South Sudan was my final country. I returned there from Australia after visiting the Pacific and Indian Ocean Island states. It wasn’t a country when I started. If a new country emerges, I can head out there without flying. I’ve got my eye on Bougainville and Greenland!
What do you do for a living now?
I was a wannabe filmmaker. Now I’m just chilling on my island and writing the book about my travels. I guess that makes me a wannabe writer!!
How rich are you?
At the moment I’m £87 into my overdraft, so not very!! Although I do own a share of this island I’m living on, so on paper I’m worth at least $100,000 USD.
Did you work at all along the way for extra money?
No I didn’t, but you can fairly easily get work while you travel – at a backpackers or guest house, teaching English as a foreign language, teaching surfing, fruit picking in Australia etc.
What future goals do you have?
Get the book finished! And I’m planning another round-the-world trip in 2016 with a fellow Guinness World Record holder, Tyson Jerry.
How’s private island life?
Sweeeeeet! I live off-grid, solar panels, rain water collection, all that jazz. Dolphin Bay around the back. Bocas Del Toro town is just 20 minutes away by boat. I’m the self-proclaimed Mayor of Carrotopolis. I love this town!!
Can I live with you? I am extremely nice, I love animals and cooking.
Ha! You can surf my couch on Jinja Island, Panama (look it up on Google Maps or CouchSurfing), but you’d have to be nice… and a bit crazy to live here!
You’re a Scouse? You know you’re meant to NEVER walk alone, right? Not gallivant around the whole world on your tod!
Ha!! C’mon, the world is full of people! I never walk alone!
Read more about Graham’s adventure at grahamdavidhughes.com.