193 Club Interview Series – Part 1: David McKee

June 4, 2020

This is the first in a series of interviews we are carrying out with those of our clients who have visited all 193 UN member countries. Here we speak with David McKee of Seattle, whom we helped to visit both Iraq and Libya.

David McKee on the island of Savai’i in Samoa, his 193rd country, where he was stranded for nearly a month due to the suspension of flights during the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is the first country you travelled to and which was the last to finish off the 193?

Until I was out of high school Canada was my only “foreign” country, except for a walk across the border into Tijuana, Mexico for a few hours when I was 15. I grew up in Washington state in the northwestern corner of the US within 150 km of the Canadian border. Our family would go camping every June at the same modest resort in British Columbia just 20 km on the other side of the border. My parents had never been out of North America either, so I lacked the head start and motivation that many travelers get from a globetrotting childhood. The only states I had visited until age 16 were Oregon and California, also on the US West Coast.

I began serious international travel by flying from Seattle to Oslo when I was 18 in January of 1972. In the middle of winter I hitchhiked from there to Athens and then spent 3 weeks walking back and forth across the mountains of Crete, sleeping rough much of the time.

Almost 50 years later my final country of the 193 UN member states was Samoa in March of this year. On that trip I made it to the final six countries that I had left, all in the South Pacific. Samoa closed its borders due to Covid-19 less than a week after I got there. That left me stranded for a very pleasant 3.5 weeks before my repatriation on a US State Department flight to San Francisco on April 8.

Which country would you say has been your favourite to travel to and why?

Like most globetrotters, I have routinely been asked “What is your favourite country?” My standard response until this year has been, “The one I have not been to yet, but will go to next.” In other words the anticipation of going to a new destination is a big part of the pleasure of traveling. Of course I am still looking forward to going to a lot of new places, but no longer to any unvisited countries.

To be more straightforward, my favourite country is not very exotic at all. For a number of years all three of my daughters were living in Berlin and two are still there after 7 years. I have visited them there many times in the last decade. I am lucky to have witnessed first-hand during that time the way in which Berlin has become a vibrant cultural and business start-up hub and a tremendous magnet for talented young people.

Nothing has been more special than spending time with my daughters there and learning more about their adopted country through their work and study experiences and their own community of friends.

We lived in North Rhine-Westphalia in the 1990s while they were growing up. We were the only English speaking family in Warstein, a small town with a big brewery where I worked. One of the best things about living in Germany was being able to drive a few hours to vacation in France whether it was skiing in the Alps or exploring Provence.

Of course I had other favourites before Germany. These were always places where I had worked or studied. France was my number one place for years after studying at the University of Paris for a year, followed by Hong Kong where I did a stint as a banker.

Are there any countries you have visited that you have not enjoyed at all and would never go back to? If so, why?

There is hardly a country that I feel like I would not go back to, even ones where I have had very negative experiences. Going back is a way to get some closure following a truly negative occurrence. Most often my work has dictated where I go and which unvisited countries I venture to next. Going for work offers a higher a level of satisfaction than simply tourism, since I am paid to go there for a purpose and have reason to get under the surface in meeting with local businessmen and officials. Even the dullest country from a sightseeing standpoint can be an intellectual adventure if you are involved in a promising project or business deal. It is frustrating though when the business trip is so hectic that there is no time for some famous site.

What country has surprised you the most, in that it was totally different to how you expected?

If the question is changed and you ask which country has delighted me the most it would be Tuvalu, one of the countries that I made it to on my most recent trip. During my entire stay of five days, it was entertaining enough to simply contemplate that this remote collection of small atolls numbering just 11,000 inhabitants is a fully sovereign state with the same UN status as China and India. Just with a phone call from the hotel owner I was able to get a lunch meeting at two-hours notice with the former prime minister. Bhutan was another small country with limited tourism that I found delightful thanks to its purely Buddhist character.

Which country has changed the most since the first time you visited?

My first visit to the PRC was in 1982, though I had already studied Chinese in Taiwan in 1973 and 1974. My last visit to the Middle Kingdom was in January this year at the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak. I still have a vision from nearly 40 years ago of a coal smoke grey sky and thousands of cyclists in blue Mao suits on the streets of Xian with only a handful of vehicles, mostly chauffeur driven black government sedans. Indeed there was still no private car ownership. On my last trip driving along a wonderfully empty motorway in Shanxi province in a spacious Buick was a little too much like the sensation of travel on a freeway through rural America.

What have been the biggest positive and negative changes you have seen in travel since you first started travelling?

The positive changes to travel have brought negative ones, and vice versa. These days international travel seems almost effortless since nearly all arrangements can be made on line directly by the traveler. Gone are the days of repeated visits to a travel agency before every trip. The number of cities accessible by air and the frequency of flights has multiplied many times over since I began my country quest. Fewer and fewer countries, even in Africa, require visas before arrival. The majority of countries have long since recognized the economic benefits of tourism and now encourage it. Airfares in relation to average income levels have decreased tremendously. Consequently the numbers of people traveling for pleasure have increased exponentially in the last half century. Many of the most famous sites seem overwhelmed with visitors during the peak seasons and for much of the year. But it is a wonderful thing that such a high proportion of people from developing countries now enjoy the kind international tourism that had been mostly limited to citizens of rich world countries a few decades ago.

Many people feel that the more countries you visit, the more of an addiction it becomes, with the need to visit every one. Did you feel this at all? And how did you feel when you visited your last country? Was it a sense of accomplishment or relief that you’d finally done it?

Around the age of 15 or 16, before I had barely set foot out of my own region in the US where I had spent my entire life, I distinctly remember feeling a strong urge to get out of my home town and explore the world. Since taking my first overseas trip a few years later, I have never stopped planning extended journeys that often took precedence over finishing my academic studies or professional advancement and unfortunately even over family life.

I took the Trans Siberian Express at the height of winter on a solo journey at the age of 20 in the early 1970s during the Cold War. I repeated it in the other direction two and half years later combining it with the Orient Express train route from Paris to Istanbul and buses across Turkey to the Caucasus on the first two legs.

Throughout my life on most occasions when I have had the time and money to travel I have planned trips to new countries. On our honeymoon we bought $700 Eastern Airline passes that allowed unlimited travel for three weeks. We did 20 flights in 21 days taking in nine island states in the Caribbean as well as Bermuda. Our friends were puzzled when we returned to Seattle without a tan.

The need to roam the world is without doubt a form of addiction for a certain subset of humanity. Recent studies provide evidence of a “risk taking” gene shared by those who love to travel. There may indeed be a scientific basis to the old clichés about a “travel bug” that “gets in your blood”.

What’s your aim now for your future travelling? Are you looking to go back and visit places you have travelled to previously but want to explore further or are you moving onto the TCC list and visiting territories you haven’t been to before?

Upon reaching my last country in March this year I did indeed feel a sense of accomplishment about joining an elite, if not formal, club. In a 2019 Condé Nast story, Harry Mitsidis, the founder of NomadMania was cited as saying that there are probably around 400 people who have pulled off the feat. Compare that to the 2000 billionaires on the latest Forbes list (down 10% from the previous year ago). Or just think that 855 climbers reached the summit of Mt. Everest during the 2019 climbing season alone. Over the last 70 years there have been many more billionaires at one time or another and alpinists that have bagged the world’s highest peak since 1953, but in all of human history probably less than 500 people have been to every UN recognized country. So we who have done it should not hesitate to brag a little. Even if most people simply don’t understand the appeal of setting foot into so many places they know little about.

I still crave those releases of “new place dopamine”, therefore the Travelers Century Club list of over 325 “unique destinations” has immense appeal for me. However it is not a realistic goal to make it to all of their territories and dependencies since so many are simply too remote and even unpeopled. Out of 132 places on their list that are not UN countries, I have been to about 53. That leaves 79 places to chip away at but I feel no urgency at all. I will do it more opportunistically than systematically. The majority of these remaining places are islands in the Caribbean, Pacific and Mediterranean. To me island destinations always have an unique appeal, so I hope to go to many as I enter my retirement years. I am looking forward to taking the ferry to Jersey and Guernsey on my next trip to Europe. Ronaldo’s homeland of Madeira has been on my mind for quite a while. I would love to get in touch with my Scandinavian roots by seeing the Faroe Islands. I have surveyed Greenland from the air so many times on flights home from Europe to Seattle that I feel a need to finally set foot there.

NomadMania’s division of the world into 1281 regions to see is a challenge on a much higher level than the TCC list. It is hard to believe that several people have accomplished it. Recently I have spent a lot of time on NomadMania.com to register my visits to over 600 of their regions. They tell me there are only 75 travelers on their site who have made it to all 193 countries and over half of their regions like me. I have enjoyed probing my recollections of a half century of travel to figure out and classify my visits to these places.

Ever been in any dangerous situations throughout your time travelling?

My trip to Tripoli, Libya in the spring 2019 would qualify as dangerous by most people’s definition. The US State Department had issued its highest level of alert, a statement “DO NOT GO TO LIBYA.” I have never taken much stock in my government’s travel advisories. I would never have reached my country quest goal if I had. But when the warlord Khalid Haftar moved his militia to within 20 km of the capital with continued fighting on the perimeter, I had to decide whether to still go since I had visa and air ticket already in hand. I decided to risk it only after arriving at Tunis airport and seeing that the flight would still go and was mostly full. In the end the center of Tripoli was calm and safe. I enjoyed a long stroll all by myself along its arcaded boulevards, through the medina and to the waterfront corniche during my one day there.

David McKee in Tripoli, Libya

Trans Siberian Express

Minus forty is the same in Fahrenheit and Celsius. That was the temperature east of Lake Baikal and in Irkutsk when I rode the Trans Siberian Express westwards across Russia as a 20-year old in February of 1974. The 8000 km from Khabarovsk on the Amur River in the Russian Far East to Moscow was the longest segment of a series of trains that took me from the Pacific to the Mediterranean through four countries during two weeks with several stops of a night or two along the way. At either end of this epic rail journey  there were crossings: from Yokohama to Nakhodka near Vladivostok across the Sea of Japan aboard an aging Soviet passenger ship, the Baikal; and from Piraeus to Marseille for another 3 days in the hold of a Turkish ferry with a long stop in Naples allowing a visit to Pompei.  Before the ship ride in the Pacific in February and after my poor man’s cruise across the Mediterranean in March I hitchhiked from south to north from Kagoshima to Tokyo and from Marseille to Paris.  Prior and following these thumb-propelled segments through much of Japan and France there were two more ship journeys: one from Okinawa the length of the Ryukyu Islands to Kyushu and another across the Atlantic Ocean from Cherbourg to New York City sailing on the Queen Elizabeth II, the flagship of Cunard Lines. 

There the symmetry ends. From New York I hitchhiked across the USA in four days to return home to Everett and close the giant loop. But in early October at the start of my year circling the globe I had flown across the Pacific to reach Taipei, Taiwan with stops in Honolulu, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Except for the vastness of the Pacific, I had gone around the earth sticking to its surface the whole way. 

Those nearly nine months were bookended by summers working as a commercial fisherman at a remote set-net gillnetting site on the western shore of the northern end of Cook Inlet, Alaska. Prior to flying across the Pacific I had even hitchhiked home down the Alaska Highway in August for the third time,  from Anchorage across the Yukon. But this time I had taken the Alaska Ferry from Skagway to Seattle.

One of the most indelible memories of that year was the deep blue sky of Siberia and against it  the long, snaking plume of white vapor suspended over the 25 cars of the steam-powered Trans-Siberian Express as it wound its way through the endless green expanse of taiga. The extreme cold seemingly deepened the colors and contrasted them more sharply. In eastern Siberia during the 1970s and for 80 years since its construction as the world’s longest railroad the daily Trans-Siberian Express was the only connection for the population with the outside. Thus the train was a milk-run halting every hour or two at towns and villages scattered along the way.

Despite the cold I descended at every stop to escape the train’s stuffy, overheated compartments and corridors and breath in the bracing, frozen air. As I walked up and down the icy platform to stretch my legs, intimate public scenes of welcome and departure of heavily bundled passengers getting off or just boarding their railcars for days of travel played out before me. Once their family members or friends were in their compartment, the send-off parties would stand on the platform next to their window to prolong the goodbye wordlessly with gestures and facial expressions until the train finally rolled off.

At each station stop I lingered on the platform near the door of my railcar until the train’s whistle blew, and the woman conductor at each wagon signaled us with handheld flags and shouts to get back on board. Often only when the train had slowly started to roll did I grab the hand rail and pull myself onto the step after which the conductress shut the heavy metal door.

Late one afternoon I inadvertently took this station stop routine to a dangerous extreme. The train pulled into a village just as the sun was setting. The red orb shown through the birch trees illuminating the izbas -Siberan log houses – on a snowy hillside a hundred meters from the platform.  I had studied the timetable and anticipated a 20 minute halt, longer than normal, perhaps so coal and water could be taken on.  So I headed up the hill with my Nikon camera hanging from my neck in order to get some close-up shots of the traditional lacelike carvings decorating the exterior of these Siberian homes. The glow of the sunset provided the backdrop.  After taking just a few shots suddenly the locomotive’s sharp whistle pierced the air. My photographic trance broken, I pivoted around to see the train’s  one meter tall wheels just beginning to turn. Immediately I had visions of being left behind, stranded in a Siberian village with just the clothes I had on and my camera.  It was the 1970s, the height of the Cold War which spanned the long Brezhnev era. In addition to my travel belongings, my passport, money, tickets and hotel vouchers for the remainder of the trip were in my compartment on a train departing without me. What would the Communist village authorities do with me, a young American without authorization to be there? My Russian at the time was limited to just a few words and phrases. Would I simply disappear into the depths of the  Siberian gulag never to be heard from again as had happened with so many WWII prisoners of the USSR?

With these thoughts racing through my head I began the dash down the icy slope to the station platform. Almost immediately I tripped and tumbled to the ground. The jagged ice tore the knee of my corduroy trousers. Halfway down I fell again banging my camera on the hard snow. My third slip on the ice was by far the scariest. While running on the platform I fell again and nearly slid under the massive steel wheels of the train as it rapidly picked up speed.

Gasping I picked myself up again to see that all but three railcars of the 25 making up the Trans-Siberian Express had already lumbered past me. What’s more the doors at both ends of the third to last car were closed tight. Thankfully one door of the penultimate wagon remained open. Quickly I crouched and readied myself and then jumped and grabbed the vertical handrails on the outside of the railcar next to the door and pulled myself on to the steel grid of the bottom step a good three feet off the ground. The conductress of every wagon puts out a stepstool on the station platform to make it easier for passengers to get on and off. There was no such aid for me on this boarding.

Breathing hard I stepped into the wagon as the train still gained momentum. But after about 30 seconds while I was still catching my breath the train suddenly lurched. Accompanied by a cacophony  of mechanical rumblings and hisses it violently ground to a halt that was about as sudden as several hundred tons of steel is capable of.   

In a state of semi-shock I began making my way to my compartment which was several wagons forward. As I opened and closed doors and passed through the corridors running along the right hand side I had to absorb the contemptuous expressions of my dour Soviet fellow travelers. During station stops many passengers stand in the corridor to observe through large double-paned windows the platform goings-on.  Unlike me they saw no need to descend from the train at every opportunity.  

Immediately I realized that many of these people had witnessed the entire spectacle of my running and tumbling down the hillside to get on the train before it left me alone on the platform during winter’s early nightfall.  Hence their expressions, even sterner than usual for Soviet citizens for whom it is a well-known national trait to not smile in public or at strangers. Brushing past a few dozen frowning faces I opened and closed the three doors at the end of each railcar to finally reach my own. To avoid any further reproachful looks, I quickly slid open the door to my compartment and closed it behind me. Crawling onto my berth I stretched out and pulled the blanket over me. Only the next morning did I reemerge into the corridor.

One of the niceties of travel on long distance trains in Russia and the Soviet Union then is the attention paid to the passengers by the “dezhurnaya” a Russian term which simply means a woman on duty at a post. In Soviet times outside the elevator or stairs of every hotel floor there was a dezhurnaya at a small desk who kept the guests’ room keys and brought tea in addition to doing up the rooms in the daytime. Of course she doubled as a spy on foreign guests as well. In the case of the railroad there was a dezhurnaya, usually a middle-aged woman, for every passenger car.  I translate this term as conductress here but her duties were much broader than taking tickets.  She distributes fresh bed linen to passengers, collects their soiled sheets and pillow cases when they got off,  and for a few kopeks brought them glasses of tea in metal holders from the samovar built into a small compartment at the end of every wagon. She keeps the stainless steel toilets and wash basins at either end of the wagon clean.  At station stops she bundles up in a thick cotton padded coat, called a “fufaika” – standard issue for Soviet workers, and fur hat and stands dutifully next to the stepstool that she has placed on the platform, checking tickets as passengers board.  In Soviet trains each car was heated by a small coal-fired furnace.  I still retain vivid images of dezhurnayas sweating and grunting in the cold as they shoveled coal from a pile on the platform into a bin underneath the railcar.  

The following morning  I learned that my episode had had unfortunate consequences for my dezhurnaya. At the beginning of the journey we were a small group of foreigners, that had sailed together from Yokohama. The state travel agency Intourist had clustered us all together in a few compartments at the end of one wagon. One of these fellow foreigners, none of whom I clearly remember any longer, had seen me desperately running to catch the train and pointed me out to the conductress. Naturally she felt some responsibility so impulsively she pulled the handle of the emergency brake in our wagon.   Thus I became personally and directly responsible for halting the mighty Trans-Siberian Express in the empty vastness of the taiga at the height of the great Russian winter.

My friends explained to me that the conductress had been reprimanded by the train engineer for her determined action to save me.  The risk of an irresponsible American youth not getting back on the train was not sufficient cause to pull the emergency brake.  Naturally I felt bad for her.  Fortunately I still had in my bag a small box of Japanese cakes that had been the gift of a friend seeing me off at the pier in Yokohama. I had only eaten half of them so presented the remaining ones to her. What delighted her much more than the individually wrapped tiny cakes was the box itself. Such beautifully crafted packaging was unknown in the USSR of the time. I am sure she kept it for many years in her small apartment wherever that could have been. I only hope the box soon ceased to remind her of the scolding she had received on my account. 

The stretch from Khabarovsk to Irkutsk was perhaps the longest of that journey for continuous travel and the most romantic since it was not yet electrified. Coal burning steam locomotives pulled all the trains. The frequent stops at every village along the line  in the sparsely populated region lengthened the journey even more.  The terrain in eastern Siberia is uniformly covered by coniferous forest but at least there were some ups and downs and twists and turns that stand in contrast to the swampy flatness of western Siberia. 

A dining car – “vagon-restoran” in Russian – was of course a key feature of the ride. My Intourist voucher may have included meal coupons. In any case visits to the dining car were one way to relieve the clickety-clack monotony of whole days and nights watching the forest and snow roll past.  Getting to the dining car was something of an adventure however. This was due to the typical design of long distance Soviet passenger cars constituting probably 90% of all such train cars in the country in those days.  As mentioned there were three doors at the end of each wagon. The first interior door, which was lightweight and swung easily,  opened to a small vestibule off of which was the dezhurnaya’s private compartment where she had a berth, a small table to organize passenger tickets and linen receipts, her own electric tea pot and a stock of clean sheets and pillow cases stored in the space above the corridor ceiling. The two doors prevented blasts of cold air from entering into the passenger area during station stops.

The second door was a bit heavier and required turning a handle. It led to the unheated end of the wagon with outside doors on both sides. The toilet was in this area too with the cold suppressing the odors. Stepping on the flush pedal allowed for a peek downwards through the bowl at iced over railroad ties flashing past. This was also the smoking area as it is on trains all over the world where smoking is still allowed.

Negotiating the heavy steel doors at the end of each car requires the greatest effort.  First you pull down hard on the stainless steel lever that is the door handle. Then with a mighty yank you pull the door toward you. Still hanging onto the door you step onto the treaded steel plate over the coupling linking the cars. This plate jerks back and forth due to the uneven rails making it hard to simply stand there. Through gaps around the moving plate the tracks, ties and some of the train’s undercarriage are visible.  An accordian-like transition between the cars, like in an articulated bus,  provides minimal protection from the cold. It is like passing through a deep freeze. Pulling on the handle with one hand to close the heavy steel door behind, you lunge forward while standing on the bucking steel plate to grab the frozen handle of the same door on the car in front of you with the other hand.  As you slam shut the door behind you push down the handle of the door in front and give a big shove sometimes with your whole body. Slamming that door, you walk through the railcar to the other end where you repeat the same exercise.  The dining car was fifteen cars from my wagon, meaning that I had to manage 30 of the steel doors, and open and close 90 doors in total passing 30 often smelly toilets in order to get a meal served to me in the dining car.  

Needless to say once seated in the restaurant car I tended to linger, sometimes for hours. A featured dish was a thick, greasy hamburger with an egg sunny side up on top, garnished by fried potatoes and a pickle or two. Thick slices of dark Russian rye bread was the best part of the meal.  

What advice would you give to young people who have just started to travel or have hopes to start to travel in the future, to make the most of their experiences?

If you have the wanderlust gene, then try to satisfy that desire before you start a career. That is pretty standard advice. I figured out early on that it is much more satisfying to go to country and do something meaningful like foreign language study and then take in neighboring countries as opposed to just roaming the world for an extended period as a backpacker.

When you do choose a career, do so with the knowledge that down the road once you have the professional experience and have performed well in your job, you will be given the opportunity to travel for work or to be posted overseas, or be able to apply for jobs in other countries.

Above all be patient. My country quest has been a lifelong journey not a race or competition. If you go to only 4 new countries per year on average for 50 years like I have done you will have 200 countries under your belt and could become a member of the same elite club, except in a few more decades that club’s membership will have expanded many times over. One expert cited in the Condé Nast Traveler story estimated that as late as the 1980s only 20 people had been to every UN member state.

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Author Lupine Travel
2020 Jun 04
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