On February 27, 2018, our plane touched down at Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport outside of Belize City, Belize. Within the hour, I was stamped into my twenty-fifth country. There was no fanfare to accompany the thump of the ink hitting my passport. No banner dropped from the ceiling to celebrate the milestone. No new revelation hit me as part of the 25+ club. At the time, I was more concerned with helping my mom and sister clear customs, finding our rental car agency, and getting this newest adventure underway.
The more I reflected on it, though, the more significant the milestone became to me. I began to recognize how much the places I have been privileged to visit and the experiences I have had in each one have shaped the person I have become. Discovering a love of travel, and actively pursuing it, changed the course of my life. It has influenced my professional choices, provided some of my strongest friendships, expanded my worldview, and grown my confidence, flexibility, problem-solving skills, and cultural sensitivity. It’s hard to imagine where or who I would be now had that pesky, welcome, wonderful wanderlust not come calling for me.
Each of my first twenty-five countries has impacted me in its own unique way. Today, I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned over my past sixteen years of international travel. It’s a small sample, minuscule in comparison to the history, culture, and depth of these nations. The lessons to be learned in each are innumerable, but my hope in sharing these few is that you will be fondly reminded of your own adventures or inspired to embark on new ones.
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1. ) Bahamas (2002)
I only visited the Bahamas for a single day while on a Disney cruise with my family, but it was enough for me to learn how beautiful and exciting travel outside my home country could be… and that I wanted more of it.
2.) Mexico (2004)
As I purchased a handmade doll from a street vendor in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, I learned the joy of speaking with someone in her own language. It was my first time truly employing my high school Spanish, and the woman’s giggly smile as I muddled through our conversation encouraged me to continue pursuing the language through college and beyond.
3.) Panama (2007)
I learned the importance of family in Latin culture while in Panama for my friend’s grandparents’ 50th-anniversary festivities, and also that there’s unlimited fun to be had with a big crowd of rowdy, celebrating Panamanians on a chiva party bus.
4.) Ecuador (2008)
It was while studying abroad in Ecuador that I first learned how a place can bury itself inside your heart so that you’ll ache to return there on an almost daily basis.
5.) Peru (2008)
In Peru, I learned that you can sit and stare out over the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu and never quite get enough of it.
6.) Canada (2009)
Traveling the vast expanses of Canada’s Yukon Territory, I learned that sometimes it’s a glorious thing to feel very, very small and very, very alone.
7.) Chile (2010)
After an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Chile and shook us up in Valparaiso, I learned to believe in the kindness of strangers. I’ll never forget the owners of a powerless internet cabina who went out of their way to help connect us with our worried families in the States.
8.) Argentina (2010)
In western Argentina, I learned the hard way that if you’re planning to drive the Ruta 40 south of Bariloche, you’d better spring for a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. Surviving flipping our car onto its side – and subsequently paying for the damage – also made me resolve to never again be without insurance coverage while renting cars abroad.
9.) Uruguay (2010)
Upon leaving Uruguay, I learned the importance of checking to make sure your passport has actually been stamped when crossing a border to prevent delays, fines, and general inconvenience.
10.) Brazil (2010)
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I learned how to get around in a country where I don’t speak the language, and also that even if the Cristo Redentor is covered in scaffolding, it’s worth a trip to the top of the mountain for the breathtaking views.
11.) Haiti (2010)
While responding to the devastating earthquake in Cite Soleil, Haiti, I learned the true definitions of strength, fortitude, and generosity as we found ourselves being selflessly protected and cared for in an emergency by the very people we had come to help.
12.) Thailand (2011)
I learned what “paradise” means on the beaches of Thailand, but also how quickly the glimmer of paradise can fade in the face of the darker side of tourism.
13.) Laos (2011)
While tubing the Nam Song River in Laos, I learned how much of a party destination Southeast Asia can be. Thankfully, I also learned how easy it is to rent bicycles and explore the beauty outside of the bars.
14.) Vietnam (2011)
Vietnam was a humbling, non-stop learning experience as I saw the “American War” through the eyes of those who had once been our nation’s enemies, but who rarely gave us anything but a warm, friendly welcome.
15.) Cambodia (2011)
In Cambodia, I was amazed to witness how a people who had so recently experienced the absolute depths of human depravity had somehow found the strength and resilience to earn their country the nickname “The Land of Smiles.”
16.) St. Kitts and Nevis (2014)
I learned that there is nothing more joyful and freeing in St. Kitts than renting a motorbike from a dodgy shipping-container-turned-rental-office and whizzing around the island with the man you just married.
17.) Dominica (2014)
While taking a cooking class in the mountains of Dominica, I learned that nothing beats fresh, colorful, homemade Creole cooking … and that M is not to be trusted with the important task of slicing plantains at an angle for frying.
18.) Grenada (2014)
Disembarking in Grenada from our honeymoon cruise, I learned that it is well worth the cost to hire a boat to take you past Grand Anse to Morne Rouge beach. We had that paradise almost entirely to ourselves!
19.) Iceland (2016)
I learned how tourism can be both a blessing and a curse in Iceland, where the sudden boom brought new jobs and economic prosperity to a nation that had nearly gone bankrupt a few years before. Unfortunately, these changes came along with risk to priceless ecosystems and the disruption of the remote country’s quiet way of life.
20.) United Kingdom (2016)
In Scotland, I learned a new appreciation for the intelligence and agility of border collies, as well as the value of preserving traditions, as we witnessed an amazing sheep herding demonstration in Kincraig.
21.) Republic of Ireland (2016)
As we drove south through western Ireland, I learned that spontaneous detours can lead to unexpectedly delightful finds. When we caught sight of a castle in the distance and decided to chase it, we ended up experiencing a spectacular sunset on the Mullaghmore peninsula.
22.) Dominican Republic (2017)
I learned in the DR that, while all-inclusive resorts are nice to relax for a couple of days, they don’t really match my personal priorities and travel style in this season of my life.
23.) Czech Republic (2017)
In the Czech Republic, I learned the impact decades of upheaval can have on a cultural psyche. Spending long periods of time devoid of a homeland or lacking self-governance has left the Czechs a reserved but resilient people.
24.) Hungary (2017)
On our first night in Budapest, I was delighted to learn how right Hungarians are to be proud of their sophisticated, delicious cuisine. The fact that our dinner was accompanied by a fabulous string quartet only made the experience richer.
25.) Belize (2018)
Finally, I learned that Belizeans on the whole are perhaps the most genuinely kind and welcoming people I have had the honor to meet so far in my travels. Their wicked senses of humor and easy laughs make you feel immediately at home in the country of which they’re so proud.
So there they are – the first twenty-five! It was difficult to keep each section brief, as each of these countries – and its place in my heart – is worth so much more than one or two sentences and a photograph. Nevertheless, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey through time. It was a lot of fun to go back and revisit the photos and memories that accompanied each trip, and I was overcome by gratitude for the opportunities I have enjoyed, the people I have met, and the growth that I have experienced along the way. With that first milestone reached, I can’t wait to see which countries will make up numbers twenty-six through fifty! Stay tuned!
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This list was first published on March 19, 2018 and last updated on March 15, 2021.
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I visited the Hiroshima Peace Park in the early ’70’s and was unprepared for its impact on me. Having lunch at a nearby restaurant, I couldn’t help but wonder how that fateful day had impacted the hosts and wait staff in the restaurant and as I spoke with them came to realize that there were very few people in that large city who hadn’t had immediate family lost in the bombing. Yet, they were unfailingly polite (the Japanese people have cornered the market on good manners) and treated me with genuine courtesy. Difficult to know how they really felt about me as an American, but what that lunch did for me was to get me thinking about that awful day from a different viewpoint, from the perspective of those still affected some thirty years later. It didn’t just change my thinking, it changed me.
Wow, Alan. That sounds like an incredibly impactful experience, especially to have happened so soon after the bombing. There’s such a difference between reading about historical events, disasters, or tragedies, where the people involved are just a mass of faceless strangers, compared to meeting a population and realizing that they were intimately connected to and fundamentally changed by whatever occurred. It was amazing to walk through the streets of Cambodia and realize that everyone my parents’ age and older had lived through the terror of the Khmer Rouge and somehow were able to move forward with their lives after that terror had passed. I can understand how you walked away from that experience a changed person.
Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!
Gwen, your list, and more importantly your anecdotes about each have been rattling around in my head off and on today, so thank you for the thoughtful commentary. I’ve been thinking about what makes a memorable travel experience and my experience in Japan and yours in Cambodia are certainly due to the historical significance and what happened there. There is also just the sheer beauty and majesty of places like Yosemite which has a different face for all the different seasons.
But I had one other experience not unlike my time in Hiroshima. Not long after the Berlin wall came down, I had the opportunity to visit Dresden, Germany. It’s a beautiful city and they too had a terrible night in their history. So many bombs were dropped the word “firestorm” was coined. I’m really not trying to make any kind of political statement about either place but there was a church left in Dresden from that night that still bears the scars and scorch marks from the fire. I again had the opportunity to “see” the city from the perspective of the people who lived there.
For me, visiting places where such human suffering happened affected me. I had read Kurt Vonnegut in college (required reading in the sixties, I think) and so I knew what had happened from afar, but being there was way different than reading about it.
It is good to have the other kinds of experiences too. For my wife and me, Yosemite will always be our favorite spot. When she was a young girl, her father would take her and she got to see the firefall when they would build a bonfire on Glacier Point and bulldoze it over the side around 10PM. She said it was absolutely spectacular!
Thanks again for the site, I appreciate all your doing here!
I really appreciate your comments, Alan, and think they’re spot on. You’re also right that it’s amazing how places can impact you in different ways for different reasons. I love that I can be humbled by a cultural or historical site and then a few days later be overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. I haven’t gotten to Yosemite yet, but I have heard great things and can’t wait to experience it myself. What a wonderful memory for your wife to have had a family tradition around the firefall! Thanks again for commenting.
What a delightful post! I always loved your desire to see the best in people and places! Fun read, and promoted me to reminisce about some of the greatest experiences of my life. ❤️
Thanks, Marisa! That means a lot to me. I’d love to hear your list, too, if you ever care to share!
Loved this from #1 all the way to #25! Makes me want to go back and reflect on our adventures abroad!
Next time I see M I want him to demonstrate his plantain cutting skills!
Thanks, Renee! I’d love to hear your reflections if you ever feel inclined to share! And as for M’s plantain cutting, you should definitely ask him to show you! He was instructed to cut the plantains long and thin and on an angle, which started out well at first but devolved as he hit the bend in the fruit until he was basically slicing bananas like you would put in cereal 😛 Our hosts didn’t quite know what to say. It was pretty funny, and I now take care of our household fruit-slicing needs!
This is such a cool post! It makes me want to do one for my soon to be 16 countries. Maybe you should do one for all of the states you’ve visited too! 🙂
Do it do it do it! I would love to see what you would come up with and live vicariously through you. Or, since you’re so much closer to 50 than I am, you can do it for your 50 states and I could feature it as a guest post 🙂 Now, get thee to a New Mexico!
Love this list, Gwen! And really love your approach to travel and seeing the world. I think we share a lot of the same philosophies. Love seeing your adventures and how much of South America you’ve visited. I would love to spend more time there.
Thanks so much, Riana! I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, and I have to say that based on a preliminary perusal of your website I absolutely agree that we’re very similar in our approach to travel and blogging! (I may or may not have said, “Yes, girl!” out loud when I read the “I believe in spending on trips while also saving for retirement” part of your bio :)) Definitely looking forward to checking out more of your articles.
As far as South America goes, I absolutely encourage you to prioritize getting there as soon as possible. Of all the places I’ve visited, that is the general region (with the exception of Alaska and the Yukon) that has taken the biggest hold of my heart. Let me know if I can help you in any way!
Thanks again for checking out the site! Happy travels!