The Man Who’s Visited 198 Countries – Twice

The Norwegian traveller, journalist and TED speaker Gunnar Garfors has almost lost the count of how many passports he owns, reaching a number of 14. Meet the first person to visit every country in the world twice.

Have you ever heard of Thor Heyerdahl? A Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer who built a Kon-Tiki raft which he used to cross the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian Islands in 1947? That expedition was both horrifying and impressive, bearing in mind only a few people thought it would be possible. Mr. Heyerdahl could not even swim. Looking at the parallells of adventurism, Gunnar Garfors (44) is of the same caliber – a modern version of Mr. Heyerdahl.

Garfors is a Norwegian traveller, author, journalist, media professional and public speaker. He is the first person to visit every country in the world twice, as well as holding several Guinness World Records. One of the travel records was set in 2012 after visiting five continents in one calendar day.

Therefore, when Gunnar Garfors set his foot in the Czech Republic’s capital – Prague in March 2019, I had to meet him and ask … how is it possible to travel so much and why is it so important for him to constantly be on the road?

Eva: You have visited all of the world’s 198 countries. Why did you decide to travel the world two times?

Gunnar Garfors: It started a long time ago. My dad worked on a cruise ship when I was four years old. He used to send me and my younger brother old-fashioned videotapes with wonderful stories from his trips. After all, we couldn’t read. I remember we rushed down to the mailbox every single day to see if a new cassette had arrived. He told incredibly nice stories from the Philippines, Japan, China and Alaska. I remember how big of an impression it had on me, I told my mom: “When I grow up, as old as Dad, I will travel to many countries”. I think it all started then. So when I got a little older, I started travelling, but it was not until I turned around twenty years old when I started to travel to slightly “different” countries outside the Western world. In 2004, I visited Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, with my brother, and then I was so fascinated by the “stan” countries that I found out that I had to visit all seven of them. My journey in these countries finished in 2008/2009, and then I needed a new goal. This is how the idea of travelling to every country in the world was born. I finished my first round in 2013. As a new goal, I started working on a book project about the world’s twenty least visited countries, typically South Sudan, Yemen and some other countries that almost no one has heard of. And if you have, it is most likely because it is war and hell there. As I started visiting those twenty countries for my research, my journey showed me that no countries deserve to be visited just once. So, I decided that I had to visit all the other countries as well. That was the reason why I travelled to all these countries twice – I finished all of them by the end of December 2018.

There is something about the madness of these “travel records”. One of my records is a round-the-world trip in 56 hours and 56 minutes.

Gunnar Garfors

Did you see any changes in the people’s standard of living after all these years?

There have been a number of changes and, fortunately, for the better, at least when it comes to the people’s standard of living. However, as the wealth level increases, some negative aspects also arise, such as the increased release of greenhouse gases. For the planet, it is negative that more and more people get a higher standard of living. There have also been some countries where things have gotten worse during the past years; mostly countries affected by conflicts, war, bombs, grenades and hunger like South Sudan, Syria, Libya, the Philippines, partly in the United States, Turkey and some African states. Many of these changes are caused by new politicians who have pulled the country in a direction which is mostly affected by their own political interests. They gain power and become extremely power-hungry and make things worse for their people.

There are many travellers today, but you are a media man, everyone wants to interview you. How so?

Well, I do not know how popular I am. I think it has to do with the fact that I travelled to all these countries without quitting my full-time job. In Norway we have seven weeks off, counting the holidays. I proved to many people that it is actually possible. I received emails and social media messages from people all over the world who said they were incredibly inspired. In addition, I do not have a lot of money … or, I am Norwegian, so of course I have a lot of money compared to almost everyone else, but I am still not a millionaire. I do not come from a rich family or anything like that, and I am earning a very regular Norwegian salary. Yet, I could travel. I think it definitely contributed to media attention. When it comes to travelling the world for the second time, no one else has done it, and it has certainly contributed to further media coverage. In addition to having published two travel books.

Talking about records, you have quite unusual goals! Tell me more about it.

There is something about the madness of these “travel records” that really has nothing to do with travelling as such. Most of all, it has to do with logistics. For example, one of my records is a round-the-world trip in 56 hours and 56 minutes. We are talking about travelling very fast, seeing very little, and that is by no means the way I like to travel. It is about doing something that no one else has done before. I did it with some friends and it is the ultimate boy’s trip, a trip of madness, some sleeping and a little celebration. It is incredibly remarkable to achieve something that no one else has done before. Yet, it is not very exciting to travel around the globe, you only see airports and airplanes.

What is an “ideal journey” for you?

When I am on a job trip, I mostly stay at average hotels, luxury hotels are very rare. However, I am not spending much time in the hotel anyway. I sleep there, work and shower, and that is pretty much it. Spending money on luxury hotels instead of adventures or good food, becomes completely inexcusable. An “ideal journey” for me is about travelling as fast and smooth as possible, spending time exploring and getting to know local people, as well as walking a lot. I am not too fond of taking a taxi or a bus. Trains are fine, because I come into contact with people. It is all about maximising the time I have in the various places. Simply, get to know the culture, experience the atmosphere and get used to the smells that are there. But if I had to stay in a real western luxury hotel, then one might ask: “Have you actually been in the country?” Yes, of course I have physically stayed in that country, but I have not talked to a single local person, except maybe the employee at the reception, or a waiter or two. For me, it is important to leave this western bubble in which we live. Also, I only travel with hand luggage, a backpack. I do not bother to buy clothes in the world’s most expensive countries. Rather, I buy new and cheaper garments in places where I can support the local economy. I secure a slightly different wardrobe from the international clothing retailers like H&M and Zara. Of course, I always take detergent with me so that I can wash my clothes.

You spoke on TEDx Talks in May 2017, where you encouraged the audience to travel. You talked about how travelling opens up the mind and makes a person learn about himself. What aspects of your own personality did you discover after all these trips?

I think I have become more modest. You know, everyone sees themselves as the center of the world. When you think like that you will meet people who think similarly, yet live in other countries, sharing completely different worldviews. It makes you think a little. If you travel a lot and do not speculate a little over you own position and reduce your arrogance, you will be a lost case. In addition, you learn by travelling. As you never know what is going to happen, you become very independent and you develop creativity because you have to solve problems that emerge. Therefore, travelling has made me more creative. Also, you become more and more curious.

You are a typical journalist. You often mention you are concerned about “the stories out there”. What fascinates you so much about other people’s lives?

It is the human being and the culture that make a place unique and different from another place. Getting to know people and trying to understand how they feel and how they think is very exciting. It also allows you to relate to yourself which in turn allows you to learn more about yourself. You find out how you and others think and make some reflections about it. In a way, I am always trying to get into people’s minds.

If you can pick out one story people have told you, which one has made the strongest impression on you?

Haha, it is impossible to pick one story! But anyway, I will tell about my first time in Afghanistan … We got to know two brothers who showed us around and invited us to their cousins wedding. Suddenly the wedding was cancelled. When I asked what had happened, they said that the groom’s mother had been killed in an incident without describing it any further. What was supposed to be so nice and happy, suddenly took a complete turnaround. It is very sad to travel to a country where these kinds of things are quite ordinary. It is not a particularly hilarious story, but it made an impression.

You have previously said that travelling can be “conflict-relieving”. Not everyone dares to travel to war zones, but that has not stopped you. What has travel of this nature taught you?

I have learned that life is extremely fragile and can be taken away so suddenly. I have also learned that even in war zones people are very nice to each other. I did not travel to the front line, but I did talk to ordinary people, not necessarily the soldiers, but mostly the civil people. They are the ones I come in contact with and see the warmth they show. Although people see that I come from the “outside”, most likely realising that I have more money than them, they are still welcoming me with open arms. There was an Afghani family who killed their only hen that gave them one egg each day so I could share one meal with them. It did not help to refuse, they wanted to do it so I could get the best they had. Totally pointless! The fact that the people I meet will most likely never be able to experience other cultures, like me, it has been one of the biggest eye openers for me. It has shown me how privileged we are to travel; how lucky we are and how humble we should be. We have strong passports, we live in a democracy, we have the money to travel.

Now that you have seen so many cultures and societies … How would you compare these places with Norway, and would you ever build a life in another country?

I have already lived in six countries including Norway. I think I could live in any country in the world. I would not mind, but I do not want to live in any country for the rest of my life. I can live in another state for one or two years, I think, almost anywhere. But after all, it is in Norway that I have friends and family, I am very happy here. The only reason I started travelling was to find out if there were any places that were as nice as Naustdal, where I come from, but there are not. Hehe, I am both biased to say this, and, of course, it was also a bad joke.

Another record is completed with brilliance. Do you want to leave your passports at home and start a slightly quieter life at home? If not, what will be the next record?

For now, I do not know what I will do. If I get an idea, then I will definitely follow it. I have had a few too many idiotic ideas that I have had a hard time saying no to. But I know that there will be more journeys and more book projects for sure.

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