No One Cares How Many Countries You’ve Been to

by Nathan James Thomas

In the latest entry in our The Recovering Backpacker column, Intrepid Times founder Nathan James Thomas reflects on the travelers’ obsession with keeping score. 

My wife is a linguist, and whenever we go out with a mixed group of other linguists and normal people, one of us ignorant normies will always ask the linguists at the table something like, “So, how many languages do you each speak?” 

If you ever find yourself in that situation, here’s what you’ll observe:

First, stunned silence. You’ll wonder if you’ve somehow accidentally insulted someone. And then, perhaps, a subtle throat-clearing. People will be staring at the table…awkwardness descends…what have you done?

Finally, after an agony of waiting, one of the linguists will take pity on you. In the tone of voice a teacher would use to explain a simple concept to an obtuse child, they’ll patiently inform you that the study of linguistics has nothing to do with learning individual languages. (As if anyone could be so foolish as to think so!). No — it’s about analyzing the underlying structure, patterns, and science that different groups of languages have in common (or something like that, anyway).

You’ll nod politely, apologize for your foolish question, and then…a twist: The lecture ends, and the patient linguist will say, “Well, actually I speak seven languages, but that’s beside the point!” And then, numbers will fly out from around the table, six here, four there, five over here. 

And that’s kind of how it goes with us traveler types, too. We all keep score. Yet, some of us have become a little too proud to admit it.

“Well, I don’t really believe in counting countries. You know it’s not about keeping score, it’s about the intrinsic experience! If I had to hazard a guess… well, I think it’s approximately 62. Wait, does Wales count?” 

Admit it: We all keep score

There was no bus stop, but I was told to find a spot on the windy mountain road where it would see me. I kept handing over coins to the driver until he let me on with a bored wave. The crunch of snow beneath the tires, trees covered in white, and the coughing of heavily swaddled passengers. We made it, finally, to the bridge. This was the border between Poland and Slovakia. No wall. No kiosk. No passport check. Just a narrow bridge over a calm, cool river. I walked alone. And about halfway through, my mind registered the milestone: First land border crossed on foot. Another country added to the list. 

A land border in Europe — credit

While we may tell ourselves we’re above it, travelers are the greatest keepers of score, counting every mile, every flight, every city to make sure it’s added to the ledger.

And while some of us weary veterans may affect a reluctance to share our number, many others are (understandably) far less inhibited. You’ll find tallies of the number of countries people have visited in their social media bios, blog home pages, LinkedIn accounts, and yes, even right here on Intrepid Times.

Why is that? If we travel for its own sake if travel is such an inherently meaningful, joyful, and all-consuming experience, why do we need to validate our experience of it by keeping score so assiduously? We don’t do this with other things we enjoy, do we? I don’t count the number of books I read or dirty martinis I consume (eh, about equal in number I assure you), because those things are deemed sufficient in themselves to be enjoyed without external justification.

So why do we feel the need to count countries?

Perhaps because the costs of travel are high. Not just financial costs, though those can be steep, especially if you’re going for a short trip or taking a familiar in tow. The time and the hassle involved are considerable, too. In what other context would you voluntarily subject yourself to the sleep deprivation, dirt, and discomfort of an overnight train ride through a developing country or the indignity of a crack-of-dawn flight from one of London’s less glamorous regional airports? Does the amount we invest of ourselves, our money, and our comfort mean we feel the need to account for what is on the other side of the ledger, too?

That may be part of it — there’s certainly more to it, as well. And I think the other side of the answer lies somewhere between the words competition and collecting.

I have friends who are massively into watches, and the cliche just one more watch abounds in that world — I believe there’s even a review website of that name. You can easily imagine a travel junkie like us using the expression just one more country. The countries we’ve visited become, in that sense, our collection, rather than watches in a drawer or stamps in an album, it’s stamps on a passport or pins on a map.

Hemingway said that true nobility isn’t about being superior to your fellow man — it’s about being superior to your former self. That’s lovely, but do we travelers live up to it?

Competitiveness is inherent in the act of collecting. Competing with your former self, certainly, but also with others? I think so. I won’t deny that in my earlier backpacking days, I was consumed with envy whenever I heard of someone having visited a country that I hadn’t been to and felt a sense of smug pride on the rare occasions when I found myself the most well-traveled person in the room. 

But that was years ago.

These days, keeping score seems to mean somewhat less. Not because the score has grown so high as to be sufficient or beyond counting (I wish…or do I?). It’s because what’s important has changed — the motivation has crystalized, clarified, and become purer. 

These days, I prefer to linger than to rack up the score. I have learned that one country where I make lasting friendships, learn a few sentences of the language, get to know a little of the history and mystique, is worth 10 stamps in the passport. 

Maybe I had to go through that scorekeeping stage in order to get here. Yet, even now, I must

Admit, when I do visit somewhere new, a little part of my brain just can’t help adding the number to the tally. 

No one else may care about the number of countries we go to, but I guess to some extent we always will.

Cover photo credit

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