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The Big Interview: How Sal Lavallo is Visiting Every Country at 26 Years Old

Have you ever taken a moment to add up how many countries in the world you’ve visited? It might be more than you think.
When Sal Lavallo finished university, he realised that related trips and natural curiosity had taken him to 50 countries. A job in Abu Dhabi allowed him to increase his tally to 115 in just a few years. So, he thought, why not visit them all?
At 26 years old, Sal only has 18 countries left to go of the world’s 193, and success would put him among the youngest people ever to manage the feat. We caught up with him to talk about his quest.
Sal Lavallo interview

You’ve travelled a huge amount for somebody who’s only 26 years old! How did you get the travel bug?

Firstly, I grew up in an international household with a German mother and an Italian-American father.  So our daily lives and conversations always were more global in a lot of ways.  Thus, I always saw the world as small and attainable.  Secondly, when I was 16, I left home to go to the United World College, a 2-year boarding school with students from 90 different countries.  There I really grew to see the entire world as an interconnected place and began to think of myself less with national identities and more through global and human lenses.
These two things really explain my love for the world and help to explain my love for travel.

Did you always want to visit every country in the world?

In the beginning, I was just traveling to visit family and friends.  I would often visit neighboring countries as well, because I loved road trips and always wanted to see what differences there were between places.  Once I was in university I began studying and working in economic development and identity (culture).  These topics led me to doing research projects, working, and studying abroad in many new countries.  When I graduated university I had been to 50 countries.
I then moved to Abu Dhabi. For work I travelled to many countries and because of the UAE’s central location I would also take lots of fun vacations and weekend trips.  When I left my job in January 2016 I had been to 115 countries.  Then I decided to take time off – I thought it would be only six months, but it soon turned into 12 and then 15! It was in October of 2016 when I decided that I should finish all the countries off soon.  Why not?!

At time of writing, which countries do you have left to visit?

I have 18 left.  Because I was never “visiting every country” on purpose and without a strategic plan, I still have to visit 5 continents to finish.  I have some islands:  Fiji, Tuvalu, Cuba, and Malta.  I have some tricky ones in the Middle East:  Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. A few in Africa: Libya, South Sudan, Algeria, and DRC.  Then I have a handful of easier ones – Bhutan, Andorra, Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland!   It will be a fun round-the-world trip and I hope to finish this year.
Sal Lavallo at Machu Picchu, Peru

You talk about the importance of not just travelling to different countries, but striving to understand them. Can you tell us what you mean by that, and how you go about achieving that understanding?

Because of my background studying and working in economic development and identity, I am always interested in learning about a nation’s economic history and future.  I like to understand what are the main industries and resources, what goods are available at the markets, what nations they are trading with, the level of wealth inequality, etc. A lot of this can be observed just by traveling around and keeping your eyes wide open.  I also like to explore and understand the social dynamics through which people define themselves and others.  Whether there are issues of gender, race, class, religion, etc. I’m fascinated to explore the segmentations that exist in culture and also how people express this through art.  However, you must also know that you only see what you see.  No one will ever have the whole picture, not of an economy nor of a culture.

A common response we see to prolific travellers like yourself is along the lines of, ‘well, it’s easy to travel so much when you’re rich.’ Is that a response you’ve seen? How do you respond to it?

I get asked this quite constantly.  It’s funny because I’ve always been told that money should not be discussed and yet now I find myself being asked multiple times a day to explain my financial situation.
Usually people asking this question are really trying to understand how they can travel themselves, so I answer by telling them to look at their priorities.  Think of where to go, for how long, and at what level of luxury.  Obviously if you want to go far away for a long time and live like a sheikh then you’ll need more funds for that.  But if you just want to travel, you can do a short weekend trip somewhere close.  It’s all a balance.  There are many ways that you can travel, from luxurious world class to low-cost backpacking.  I’ve done all different kinds and think everyone needs to decide for themselves what they like.

What will visiting every country in the world mean to you personally?

For me it will be about how much I’ve learned.  It will be a validation of my ability to think critically and analyse the different ways that societies try to function.  There’s so much to learn from personal experience of being in a place, and I love travel because to me, it’s about constant learning.
It will also be a happy relief – an exciting feeling of accomplishment!
Sal Lavallo profile

Of all the countries you’ve visited, which would you consider your favourite and why?

I really love Tanzania and the UAE.  I’m biased to both because I use them as bases. I have a farm in Tanzania and visit every year for a few weeks.  Since 2012 I’ve mostly been living in the UAE and more than anywhere, consider it home.
The UAE is endlessly fascinating.  It’s such an optimistic place where development  (economically and socially) is constant.  It’s one of the only places I’ve been that is actively aware of their issues and working to improve.  There is such positivity in the country because everyone there sees it as a land of opportunity where they are able to progress around people from all over the world.  This is because of the fantastic leadership the country has experienced for generations and I am grateful to have been so welcomed and hosted there for so many years.

Were any countries particularly difficult to get into?

Some countries take a bit more preparation for sure.  In a few you are required to get invitation letters and work with local tourism agents to get your visa.  My main problem is that I don’t plan ahead.  I usually decide only a few weeks before I want to go somewhere and then I feel very rushed to get everything in order.
One of the more complicated processes was Sudan.  I had to work with a local agent to get an invitation form.  This allowed me to get a visa on arrival at the airport, but I wanted to go overland from Ethiopia.  This meant I had to go to the embassy in Abu Dhabi, pay an absurd fee, and get the visa.  Then at the land border I got scammed by some guys that were in cahoots with the immigration officials.  In the end, I had quite a nice time in the country – but the start was rocky!

Can you tell us any particularly crazy or scary stories from your travels so far?

Last summer I was doing a big West Africa overland trip and trying to get from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to Niamey, Niger.  No one could tell me how long it should take or how much it would cost, and I was a bit frightened because I knew that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was active in the area.
To cross into Niger the only drivers who would go made me hire a small armed ‘militia’ just in case, and made me sit in the middle of the car so I couldn’t be seen from the road.  When you’re in a remote place, late at night, not able to speak the language, and you’re sitting next to large men with guns and machetes, it’s easy to confuse whether they are there to protect you, or to harm you.  I got where I needed to go and was very thankful.

Finally, what advice would you give to young people who want to travel but are feeling uncertain or scared?

My main piece of advice is: Wake up every day and ask yourself, “How will I be happy today?”  Don’t do things that you “think you should do” – do what you want to do.  If you don’t want to spend the entire exploring ancient ruins or walking through markets, then don’t!  Don’t feel like you have to obey the lists of “must-do’s” or “must-sees.”  If you want to spend the whole day at the pool, then do it!  If you want to eat pizza or go to an American food chain, then do it – that’s fine.  Travel is about trying new things and learning new things and exploring the edges of your comfort zone, but only do as much as you can while still being as happy as you possibly can be!

For more interviews with travellers that have visited every country in the world, check out our interviews with Cassie DePecol and Henrik Jeppesen.

You can find out more about Sal Lavallo’s adventures over on his website.

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