When we last caught up with travel-fanatic Rus Margolin, he had just been to over 100 countries. Well, he just ticked off his 200th. I met Rus at Arctic Watch, one of the highlights on The Great Canadian Bucket List, and the kind of remote shore where rather interesting people wash up. For example, former-bond traders from New York who decide to visit every country in the world. Many years ago, I remember telling a girl in Hungary that I was travelling around the world, and without missing a beat, she asked me: So, what have you learned?” I caught up with Rus for a conversation about travel, experiences, highlights, some places you might not have heard of, and what he has learned himself. Check out some of his incredible photos in the slideshow above.
RE: I bet a lot of people ask you what your favourite country is. Does it drive you crazy?
RM: It's pretty much the most common question. And the less travelled people ask it even more. And my typical answer is: It depends. Are you interested in culture, history, nature, landscapes, people, food? And so on…
RE: Travel is so personal. I always tell people, “just because I had a great time in X, doesn’t mean you will.” Perhaps folks just want reassurance. I do like throwing in amazing countries they wouldn’t have thought of much, like Sri Lanka, and Cook Islands.
RM: I do the same and go a step further - Mauritania, Greenland, Turkmenistan, Iran, Vanuatu. See how their eyes open wide in disbelief. Djibouti as well.
RE: At this point, you could just start making names up! I’ve got a text box in my new Global Bucket List book about the amount of countries in the world. “The United Nations currently has 193 members; the US State Department recognizes 195. FIFA has 208 members because it takes into account countries that are governed by other countries but can still kick a soccer ball. Most sources give the number at 196.” How do you define a country? How many are on your list?
RM: I have my own list of countries. To me a country is not a UN entity but more like a unique destination - with it's own culture, nature, people, history, geographic isolation, and its own government. You start with a UN list, add various former colonies and islands and territories, add a bunch of de facto independent countries and you get close to 300. Greenland, Cayman Islands, Transdniester, New Caledonia, Galapagos, Easter Island, Canary Islands - these are all countries to me. Here’s my full list of countries.
RE: And is your goal to visit all of them?
RM: Not the primary objective. I am interested in seeing the most incredible and unique places in the world, having incredible experiences while doing it, and meeting people from all over the world. Plus I like contrasts - one day you are trekking Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, next week you are in Norway seeing Northern lights, next week you are clubbing in NYC and next week you are in the South American jungle. I am also still trying to see every possible animal migration and mammal species there is.
RE: I found the richness of the experience can become overwhelming, like eating too much dessert. How do you keep it fresh? How do you prevent becoming a jaded traveller?
RM: Alternate the experiences. When I got to "chateau-ed out" in France, I went hiking in Pyrenees. When the Western European democracy gets under your skin - you try Russia or Egypt.
RE: I’m sure many readers will be asking themselves: how the heck does this guy afford it? Were you a Wolf on Wall Street? Do you have to make personal and professional sacrifices to travel with such dedication?
RM: The fact is that travelling is actually often cheaper then living in a big metropolitan city. In many countries you can survive on $50 per day in relative comfort. The biggest expense of travel is airfare - which you minimize of you country to neighboring country, or allow for flexibility in finding cheap flights. You could lease a car in Europe for a long-term lease as cheap as 20 euro a day. South America, Asia, Middle East are all relatively cheap. Professionally it's definitely a huge sacrifice - but I’d rather look back at my life and think about incredible experiences than stare at a bank account or remember sitting in front of monitors and watching markets oscillate.
RE: Oscillating in Transdniester. That’s a good title for a book. And I confess I’d never heard of Transdniester until you mentioned it!
RM: In Transdniester you actually experience time travel. It's like going back to USSR - Lenin statues, rubles with hammer and sickle on them, beer in metal barrels sold in the streets. It's a completely independent country with its own government, money, military and police, language, sports teams. Just not recognized by UN
RE: I just looked it up on Wikipedia just in case you were making it up! OK, so what country did you find the most welcoming, and what country was the most hostile?
RM: For the most part I have to say that pretty much every country is welcoming. You always meet people who are proud of their country and want to show it to you. Iran was probably the biggest surprise in how open and friendly people were. Same for Cuba. Slovakia, Rwanda, the Pacific Island nations, Central Asia. Different culturally, definitely, but open arms everywhere. Perhaps maybe the Gulf Countries were a bit stuffy. But so are some states in USA.
RE: Have you noticed any universalities among the nations? Is globalization as prevalent in the cultural sense as the media would have us believe?
RM: Well, there’s cell phones. No matter how poor or isolated the country is - everybody has iPhones or smart phones of some sort, and most places have wifi. It was easier or find wifi in Egypt then in New York.
RE: Even in Transdniester and Djibouti?
RM: Transdniester absolutely. Djibouti, in the capital city. When I was camping in the desert, not so much.
RE: You’re chasing migrations and mammals too. What’s your favourite mammal? Some of them can be quite elusive. Like the virtuous and honest politician (or so I’m told...)
RM: I haven't met a virtuous and honest (or even either/or) politician yet. In the animal world - gorillas, orangutans, whales, grizzlies, elephants, lions are much easier and more enjoyable to deal with.
RE: You take some incredible images (some of which I’ve used in my books). Do you have a favourite? The pic that always brings a smile to your face?
RM: My top 3 stunning places, visually: Danakil in Ethiopia, Kamchatka in Russia, the Icefjord in Greenland. Most pictures bring incredible memories. That's the beauty of travel. Every country and city gets a real feel and taste and color, rather than just being a name on the map. Some of my favorite pics were from most insane experiences - like hugging a white baby seal in Canada, standing on top of Mt Kenya, stretching my arm toward a gorilla or whale shark, dancing my ass off in Ibiza during fluorescent spray-paint night. It's an endless list really.
RE: So, you travel around the world. What have you learned?
RM: Be open to other people and their views of life; be respectful of their cultures and traditions; try every food you can; take on all physical challenges; learn about everything and anything. Enrich yourself with knowledge and experiences, and then continue to repeat the process. The sky truly is the limit.
RE: I totally agree. And what’s next?
RM: A small trip to British Virgin Islands, then back to New York for DJ classes. And then: West Africa, Polynesia, Mongolia, India, more of Brazil and Russia
If you’re a travel nut. you’ll probably want to go everywhere. After all, there’s always something to discover – a landscape, a culture, a cuisine, or perhaps just an interesting person you’ll talk about for years. There are however plenty of places that are not as inviting as we would like. War, remoteness, politics, lawlessness, corruption – there’s a number of reasons why you might want to steer clear of these places, or consider more viable alternatives.
1. North Korea
As a Westerner, you’re going to have a hard time getting into North Korea, and if you do, an even harder time discovering the “real” North Korea. Tourism is heavily controlled by the government, who restrict who can come in, where they can go, what they can see, and even who they can meet. Photography is controlled (you can point and shoot only where they tell you to point and shoot), and visitors are accompanied by a North Korean chaperone at all times.
2. Bouvet Island
A volcanic island located in the South Atlantic Ocean, Bouvet Island is the most remote, uninhabited island in the world. A friend of mine actually went there, filming a documentary about the world’s most travelled man. What he found was a small rocky island, covered in glaciers, with no harbour or anchorage. The nearest land base, Queen Maud Land is 1750km away in Antarctica, while South Africa's Cape Town is just a stone’s throw at 2500km away. The island, 93% of which is covered in glaciers, is a Norwegian territory, and oddly, was used as a setting in the movie Alien vs Predator. If you plan to be the world’s most travelled person, now you know where you have to go.
It has the longest coastline in Africa, blessed with long, undeveloped beaches. But read anything about Somalia and you’ll probably see the words: war, terrorism, lawlessness, warlords, kidnapping, and murder. The Economist reports a hotel in Mogadishu recommending guests having at least 10-armed guards, which can be quite a strain on the old budget. As for the national parks, reports state that most of the animals have been hunted for food, and are no longer protected by the government. Landmark buildings have been destroyed from shelling, while museums have largely been looted. The government of Canada advises against all travel to Somalia, further advising any Canadians inside the country to leave immediately. In the end, no beach is worth your life.
4. Pitcairn Island
Although it is one of the most isolated inhabited places in the world, Pitcairn Island does receive some some tourists. Located in the South Pacific, the island is the last British territory in the Pacific. Most of the 50 people living there are descendants of mutineers on the doomed Bounty. There are no flights to the island, and getting there largely depends on whether you can convince a research vessel, cargo ship or yacht from French Polynesia or New Zealand to drop you off. Occasionally, cruise ships from Chile might stop by. There’s a museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of rare birds, and a very sought-after postage stamp to chase upon your arrival.
Visiting Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a hot traveller debate. On the one hand, it’s people are known to be extremely hospitable, its culture rich, and its countryside beautiful. The undeveloped state of tourism in the country has made many travellers feel an authenticity in their experience, perhaps lacking in other Asian countries. However, the political turmoil and iron-fisted dictatorship in Myanmar has led to widely reported human rights abuses. Still, roughly 350,000 tourists visit every year, although the government, who tend to prohibit independent travellers, strictly controls travel in and around the country. Government approved agencies facilitate tour groups, but perhaps the most difficult aspect of visiting this country is deciding whether or not you should visit at all.
6. The War Zones (Iraq, Afghanistan, Northwest Pakistan)
Unless you’re a soldier, fighting for one side or the other, chances are you’re going to find it very difficult to enter into a warzone. So you probably won’t find many not tourists, hitching around with an out-of-date Lonely Planet, hoping to take in the sites (RIP Palmyra), and interact with locals. “Canadians who choose to stay despite the warning should be accompanied by professional security escorts at all times,” advises the Canadian Foreign Ministry, shortly after advising that nobody should enter Iraq in the first place.
7. Alert, Nunavut
Like basking in the sun? In summer, head north to Iqualit, Nunavit’s capital. Once you there, get on a plane, and head north again, say about 2000km, and you’ll arrive in Alert, the most northernmost permanently inhabited place on earth. Alert is just 800km from the North Pole. From April to September, you can bask in sun 24 hours a day, but you’ll still need to cover up, as temperatures only breach, barely, 0C in July and August. Of course, there are also 6 months of pure darkness, which must weigh heavy on the five permanent residents. To join these Arctic researchers, you’ll have to hop aboard a scheduled military flight.
Three US backpackers discovered what happens if you mistakenly set foot in Iran. They were locked up as spies, suffering two years in prison before their release was negotiated. It is a pity. Iran has many historical monuments, beautiful mountains, lakes, and gorgeous beaches too. It does market itself to tourists, and has invested in a tourism infrastructure, but just a fraction of those who visit are Westerners. Iran’s political volatility makes it a difficult destination for travellers, who should consult established agencies and government offices before thinking of visiting.
9. Area 51
It’s going to be extremely difficult to visit a place that officially doesn’t exist. Even more so since this place that doesn’t officially exist has big fences with barbwire and very official looking signs warning trespasses that they will be arrested. Area 51 is the legendary top-secret military base located in the Nevada desert. UFO enthusiasts have long flocked to its well-protected edges drawn to legends of spaceships hovering over its area, and even aliens taken captive. Only 83 miles from Las Vegas, the US deny using this space to test the latest aircraft and weapons. Up until 1995, there were some viewpoints, but government agents, suspiciously dressed in black, have seized these areas. Your best bet for a view is Tikaboo Peak, about 26 miles east, which requires a 4x4 and powerful set of binoculars.
10. Tristan da Cunha
We’ve finally arrived at the most remote inhabited spot on earth, an archipelago in the Pacific located over 1750 miles from South Africa, and 2000 miles from South America. The main island has a population of 275, which is a metropolis compared to the Pitcairn Island, but deals with the same challenges. No airstrip, with supplies and few visitors breezing through on passing cargo ships. The island’s 80 families share just 8 surnames, and are mostly farmers with smallholdings. Tristan da Cunha is known for its remoteness, and also its wildlife, which include over a dozen breeding seabirds. Before you hitch aboard a ship in Cape Town, you’ll need prior permission from the Island Council to land on Tristan, which includes a return ticket of passage. There are two guesthouses, or you can stay with a local family as a paying guest.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.