What’s a mama bird to do when the last baby bird has left the nest? Take up new hobbies, perhaps? Pick up old ones?
I’ve been doing both this year. New ones for the first six months – and then playing with an old (somewhat dormant) one for the last 6 months: the quest to see the world. All of it is probably not possible within one lifetime, but a taste of all the world’s countries should be doable.
By my count, the world has 198 countries:
193 member states of the United Nations,
plus the Vatican, which has permanent observer status in the UN, as does
Palestine – which should by rights be a proper member, but full membership is being blocked by one of the mighty countries of the Security Council. But after the current horrors, perhaps that will finally change. We can hope!
Finally, Taiwan, Kosovo and the Sahrawi Republic (Western Sahara) are all recognised by many countries – and by me.
Et voilà: 198!
I will enter country #135 – the first new country of the year – on 7 January, at 3,175m altitude, in the midst of what promises to be a stunning (and possibly a tiny bit scary) bus journey. Can’t wait!
After that, who knows!
Meanwhile, here are highlights of the year that is about to move into history:
2023: 28 countries, including 9 new ones, and new islands, regions and territories
2023 started with surgery for me. I now have a blue titanium plate in my left wrist. (No, it does not go off at airport security). The year continued with a well-above-average rough Norwegian winter. I finally got tired of it and decided to reward myself with a spontaneous trip to the sun.
Starting in Miami, which even after several visits, isn’t exactly my favourite place, I hurried away as quickly as I could to Puerto Rico, which surpassed my expectations. (I had imagined it would be like Miami – or any number of cities in that part of the world that are similar to the point of tedium.)
La Perla in San Juan
In fact, I enjoyed the colours and the sounds of San Juan so much, I ended up spending longer than I had intended in Puerto Rico.
1. The Dominican Republic
Whilst there, I flew over to the Dominican Republic (country #126). It was an interesting day, with plenty of time to see the sights and wander around taking in the atmosphere of Santo Domingo’s old town. Definitely adding DR to the list of countries I want to see more of.
The streets of Santo Domingo
British West Indies
I finally moved on from Puerto Rico, by way of an overnight stop in Tortola in the BVI (British Virgin Islands), where the word painkiller takes on a whole new meaning –
West End, Tortola
– and another relatively brief stop in Anguilla. A quiet sort of place. Probably ideal for couples wanting peace and quiet and beautiful beaches…
– but too quiet for me, so I moved on to a place I’ve wanted to visit for a while…
Saint Martin/Sint-Maarten: Dutch and French Antilles
– not least to see planes land at Maho Beach: Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, an island that belongs to two countries, both in the EU.
Guadeloupe: more French Antilles
From Sint-Maarten, I headed to Guadeloupe, another French island, and filming location for Murder in Paradise. I happened to see a few episodes of that series, and that’s what inspired me to choose the Caribbean for my spur-of-the-moment island hopping. It looked so warm and colourful and inviting.
Guadeloupe also ended up being my final island. A friend died rather suddenly, and I changed my flights to make it home in time for the funeral. The only option available would arrive in OSL at 09.00. The funeral was at 13.00, in a city 1 hour away. Yes, that could work.
It also meant I would have to spend a day in NYC –
– and I used it to visit Ellis Island.
As it happened, it didn’t work. My trans-Atlantic flight was delayed by 4 hours, and I missed the funeral. Just. It was a distant friend, but still…
Rainy days in Latvia and Lithuania
March ended in Vilnius and April began in Riga: just meeting friends for coffee and catch-up.
West Africa: roadtrip!
2. Sierra Leone
is country #127, and one I was a tad nervous about. Watching Blood Diamond just days before, probably didn’t help. But Sierra Leone didn’t feel threatening at all.
Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary was a highlight
From Sierra Leone, we drove to Guinea (country #128). TBF, I wasn’t too crazy about Guinea. ‘Bumpy roads’ doesn’t even begin to describe Guinea’s transport infrastructure, just like ‘crowded’ doesn’t even begin to describe Conakry‘s crazy markets. And something about the vibe…
Some interesting experiences, though:
Also, getting our Guinea-Bissau visas at their embassy in Conakry was a breeze, so there is that.
What was meant to be a 7-hour journey from Guinea to Guinea-Bissau, ended up taking 35 hours on gruelling roads, including spending the night on a worn-out mattress in a refugee reception centre at the border. But we finally made it across the river to Guinea Bissau (country #129).
A few days later, we drove through Casamance (the southern part of Senegal), in this interesting car…
– on the way to Banjul, capital of The Gambia, where we celebrated two birthdays…
Birthday dinner overlooking a crocodile pool
– before continuing north the next day, back into Senegal, to end our West African journey with 4 fun-filled days in Dakar, where we lazed on the beach at Ngor Island…
– had a look at public art, courtesy of North Korea…
– and explored Île de Gorée with its evocative history of slavery.
We tried all sorts of interesting cuisines…
– thanks to new friends that happened to be chefs. From Argentina, Peru and the Philippines, they are all working in Dakar.
Goodbye for now, West Africa!
On a re-visit to Cyprus in August, I had a closer look at both sides of the divided island, the three world heritage sites…
– and the British base at Akrotiri.
Denmark and Sweden
A brief hop to Denmark to check out Viking heritage in Trelleborg…
– and sleeping in a jumbo jet outside Arlanda airport in Stockholm.
In late summer, I met a bunch of new people at a random meet-up in Oslo, all as crazy about travelling to the world’s weird places as I am. Two of them – Melissa and Ellen – had recently met and decided to see Iraq, along with Mel’s colleague David and his daughter Lina. Perhaps I would like to come along? Why yes. Yes, I would! And so Iraq became country #130! A little victory there! (More of ’em coming up, those little victories – all the way to #198!)
Over 3 fun, full days (sleep? who needs sleep?), we scouted out Baghdad…
– Babylon – ancient and not so ancient…
Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palace on the rivers of Babylon
– and the holy cities Karbala and Najaf…
– where I discovered I really, really dislike being invisible.
In October, Cat and I road tripped on the Istria Peninsula, checking out coastal towns in Croatia (Pula, Opatija, Porec and Rovinj – all gorgeous, but with Rovinj a tier above the rest), Lippizaner horses and underground caves in Slovenia, and big city Trieste in Italy.
Ukraine (and Poland)
The most thought-provoking journey of the year, was an autumn visit to Lviv in Ukraine, with a night in Poland at either end for logistical purposes. The trip was organised by Orest Zub, Ukrainian traveller, activist and manager of NomadMania, aiming to show us that life goes on, despite the Russian ongoing full-scale war on Ukraine. We visited a hospital where soldiers and other war victims are treated and get fitted with prostheses, and a cemetery with an ever increasing number of fresh graves. We also did more ‘normal’ things: art walks, historical walks, visiting an outdoor museum, talking to people…
At the end of October, I went to Birmingham to be at the funeral for my friend Andrew’s grandmother. A lovely service for a lovely lady.
6. Cape Verde
Cabo Verde is about more than just the beach life. There’s loads of interesting history and friendly folks all round, so another spontaneous decision made it country #131. I spent a long weekend on the main island Santiago, exploring the ancient capital Cidade Velha and the present-day capital Praia.
Banana Street, Cidade Velha
Logistics necessitated a night in Lisbon, decked out for Christmas, even though it was only early November!
7. South Sudan
Another last-minute trip took me to country #132, South Sudan. Sooo interesting, both wandering around the capital Juba…
– and spending a few days with the Mundari people.
A 9hr-wait on the way home from South Sudan, turned in to a fun and interesting day where I got acquainted with Addis Ababa, in part courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines.
The Addis stopover experience made me want to try another, so I scheduled a Turkish Airlines stopover on the way to Jeddah. You can’t go wrong with Istanbul. We stopped by the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, and the iconic Pudding Shop. Most of all, though, we wandered about in soaking rain.
9. Saudi Arabia
Finally, well, almost finally: Saudi Arabia. I’ve wanted to visit this enigmatic kingdom ever since reading Thesiger’s Arabian Sands as a teenager, but it was always next to impossible. Not anymore. Cat and I spent three December days in Jeddah, seeing the historic Al-Balad district, the Red Sea waterfront, what was until recently the world’s tallest flagpole, and browsing a few of the city’s shiny shopping centres.
A quick back and forth to Warsaw, a little volunteer side gig, you could say…
– and finally, a work trip to Tromsø ended the travel year.