Travelers’ Century Club: My new travelers group of 100 countries covers the scope of world and travel modes
MADRID – When I first started traveling as a 22-year-old backpacker, I never counted the countries. I was too busy counting expenses and experiences. The fewer expenses I had, the more days I had for experiences. In fact, when I returned home from my year-long round-the-world solo journey, I never counted the countries until years later when people asked.
For the record, it was 25. I forgot the number a half hour after I wrote it. As my travels continued into my 30s, 40s and 50s, more people asked how many countries I’d visited. I never really cared. I had other goals when I traveled. Meeting locals. Getting off the beaten path. Writing good travel stories that would sell and inspire others to travel, the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Reluctantly, I wrote down the list. It was around 80. To satisfy the curiosity of others, I started keeping track.
I recently learned the number is important. It led me to an exclusive travel club that caters to intrepid travelers like myself who find the best travel resources are fellow travelers. Last fall I joined the Travelers’ Century Club, a Cupertino, Calif.-based club for people who have been to at least 100 countries and territories.
The list has 330 “destinations” and they use the term loosely. It includes states. Hawaii and Alaska are on the list. It includes Spanish islands. Menorca and Mallorca count as two. So do United Arab Emirates cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
You also don’t have to do much more than touch the ground, let alone spend a night. They count ports-of-call and plane fuel stops, as long as you disembark and, the website says, “set foot in the territory.” No, I am not counting Ukraine just because I bought a bottle of vodka in Kyiv’s airport.
Whatever. It got me in touch with 1,500 TCC members, mostly from the United States but also around the world. During our trip to Madrid earlier in October, Marina and I attended a dinner meeting of the Barcelona-based Mediterranean Chapter.
I thought I traveled a lot. I’m a stay-at-home dad compared to some of these people. At dinner I sat next to Wen-Hung Kuo, a Taiwanese who has been to 179 countries and 269 places on the TCC list. He started traveling at age 12 when his mom was a college professor and continued during his career as a public health professor overseas.
A Portuguese named Joao Peixoto has been to 320 on the list and Frenchwoman Joan Pens has been to 324. I’m at a relative couch potato at 131. Those two weren’t there, no doubt negotiating a visa for some island inhabited only by penguins or someplace.
When discussing how many countries I’ve visited, my working number has been 110. I’ve had hearty debates about what should be included. Some say only independent countries should be listed. Don’t list Guam or Puerto Rico. (I don’t.) They’re part of the U.S. Don’t list Scotland or Wales. (I do.) They’re part of the United Kingdom. (However, the UK’s Office of National Statistics refers to them and England as separate countries. That’s good enough for me.)
The TCC uses the United Nations list of 193. On that list I’m at 97. But the UN doesn’t include many countries such as Scotland, Wales, Netherlands Antilles or even Vatican City. I do. (Upon further review, my new working number is 109. I may have mistakenly included Northern Ireland. I had removed it four years ago after I went to Belfast and the Protestants were adamant that they were part of the UK and the Catholics were equally vociferous about being part of Ireland. I just forgot to change my total.)
I don’t care. I don’t count countries. I count experiences. I average about one new country a year. I return to places. Every time I go back somewhere, I peel back another layer of culture. I don’t bother with the main sites. I seek off-the-beaten path places such as parks and neighborhoods, local bars and restaurants.
But these TCC members get out there. My lord, I’ve traveled internationally for 45 years and these people go to places I can’t even pronounce, let alone have visited. Where the hell is Srpska? It’s an “entity” containing Bosnia and Herzegovina. Turns out I’ve been there. I didn’t even know. How about Maluku? It’s an island in Indonesia. One woman went into Afghanistan. She posted a photo of her in a headscarf with two smiling men carrying Kalishnikovs.
On the TCC’s Whatsapp thread, members have discussions about things like the departure tax in Guyana, the preferred border crossings into Pakistan and how war zones are good destinations as tourism is down. I always considered myself a savvy, adventurous traveler, but I suddenly felt silly trying to figure out the best train to take to Trieste.
The TCC has opened new parts of the world for me. The club began way back in 1954 when adventure travel was considered crossing the Mexican border to get cheap beer. But Bert Hemphill, whose Hemphill Travel Services in Los Angeles organized deluxe around-the-world air tours, got to know people who had been to 100 countries. He and his tour director, Russell Davidson, started the club and by 1960 there were 43 members.
Since then, club members have gone everywhere, from Greenland to West Africa to North Korea. As of today, 25 people have been to all 330 TCC destinations.
So it was with great anticipation that we went to my first TCC meeting. We met at El Rincon de Esteban, a nice restaurant in Madrid’s museum district. Suitable for the TCC, it was off the beaten path on a back alley with Madrilenos clientele. A local matador was entertaining friends with his guitar skills upstairs while we gathered in the basement featuring a brick arched ceiling. It looked like a giant wine cellar.
To my surprise, I was asked to give a presentation on any recent adventure. With this group, I felt like a juggler on stage following the Rolling Stones. Zhang Deng, from Wuhan, China, (Yes, that Wuhan. He has some stories.) had a slide show and riveting talk about his visit to Syria. It included before pictures off the Internet of beautiful mosques and his after pictures of a pile of rubble.
Francesc Borrull, the chapter coordinator, talked about gorilla tracking in Uganda. Wen talked about Yemen, one of the most war-torn countries in the world.
Then I got up and talked about my swell September trip to Montenegro. I’m sorry but whitewater rafting and hiking in a former Yugoslavian republic doesn’t compare with passing lines of soldiers carrying machine guns. I plowed through. I blew a joke about asking for directions. I didn’t have enough pictures. I listened for any snoring.
Later, I talked to Francesc about the club. A retired CFO in the automotive industry, at 66 he’s been to 120 UN countries and 178 on the TCC list. After finishing high school in Barcelona, he started traveling around Spain. He got the travel bug and he has scratched it ever since.
“That was like an open door,” he said. “To see the world and the approaches to life are different in different places.”
I asked what the members all have in common besides a love for travel.
“When you decide to become a member of TCC, you like to have a kind of recognition,” he said. “I’d say what people have in common is this kind of satisfaction to achieve something. Most of them have in their room or house a wall map where they put their needles in. Me, too.”
Me also. The world map in my room only has nations’ flags. I don’t mark territories. Alaska? Hawaii? Why? Francesc said it’s because when the club formed in 1954, there were fewer than 70 countries. Hemphill and Davidson wanted more and added territories that were worthy destinations. Hawaii and Alaska didn’t become states until 1959.
Importance of the check list
OK, I get that. But it led to a negative thought that has swirled in my brain ever since I started traveling. Some travelers are obsessed with their number of countries. I have traveler friends who are trying to catch me. I keep telling them, “Don’t concern yourself with the number of countries. Concern yourself with what you do in those countries when you get there.”
In 2017, the TCC’s Indy Nelson from Hayward, Calif., became the youngest person to visit all 193 UN countries at age 24. He did it in 539 days. That’s one every three days for a year and a half. Huh?
One Seattle member boasted of visiting 20 countries in 30 days. He posted a flight chart showing he’d taken 155 flights in 2023. That’s in 10 months with still more flights coming before year’s end. That’s one flight every other day.
Maybe I’m too old school, but that seems like that goes against the meaning of travel. As the TCC’s motto states: “World travel … the passport to peace through understanding.”
How does one understand a country if they visit for less than 48 hours? I asked him simply … Why? He never responded but numerous members defended him, saying social media has made country counting acceptable and you can know one island in one or two days.
I wrote that I average about one new country a year. Someone piped in with, “At that rate you will reach all UN countries by the time you turn 193!”
Not funny. I answered, “I don’t give a damn about seeing every UN country. I give a damn about experiencing a country for more than a passport stamp.”
Since then I’ve mellowed. I engaged with some heartfelt people. All of us have the most important thing in common: the love for travel and accepting other ways of life, other customs, other ways of thinking. Also, it appears the Mediterranean Chapter members are a bit different than the Americans who, like myself for decades, have competition as part of their DNA.
“I think in our chapter we don’t have these kind of young people who want to be to all 193 countries,” Fransecs said. “They exist but in our chapter the people when they visit a country try to see what is really worth it. Not only counting the countries but to see as much as possible.”
Some people online clarified for me and made good sense. One said the beauty of TCC is you meet people with various modes of travel, whether it’s country counting or driving overland, using public transportation or cycling cross country. Another defended the checklist.
“This is a club for people who do count countries,” one wrote me. “And it’s the only group of people we can really share this with. We’re people (who) are happy for us. The reason we are all in this club is because our regular friends find all this travel talk (far) too boring.”
True. I have lived in Rome almost 10 years. I have a sister who has yet to ask me about my life here. Not one question. She has no curiosity about what it’s like to live in a glamorous city overseas.
That’s fine. Travel isn’t for everyone. It’s definitely for me and the other 1,500 TCC members. And in December I will take part in my first TCC group trip. I normally travel alone or with Marina. I don’t like guided tours. But this group is different. It’s seasoned. And we’re going to a place that has enough logistical issues where a group trip makes sense.
If anyone is close to 100 countries and territories and would like to join TCC, go to the website at https://travelerscenturyclub.org/ and find the local chapter near you.
If you’re thinking of going …
How to get around: Madrid’s Metro subway and buses are €1.50 a trip. Buy the pack of 10 for €12.50. The subway goes from the airport to the city center for €4.50 including a €3 airport supplemental fee. A taxi from the airport to the city center is fixed-rate €30.
Where to stay: Hotel NH Madrid Nacional, Paseo del Prado 48, 34-91-429-6629, https://www.nh-hotels.com/en/hotel/nh-madrid-nacional?utm_campaign=local-gmb&utm_medium=organic_search&utm_source=google_gmb. Four-star hotel part of the Europe’s NH chain has excellent, helpful staff and in a perfect location near the museums and parks. I paid €640.95 for three nights, not including breakfast.
Where to eat: El Rincon di Esteban, Calle de Sta. Catalina 3, 34-914-29-2034, email@example.com, 1 p.m-midnight. An old, local establishment catering to Madrilenos, it features traditional Spanish fare such as migras, bread and pork mix, oysters and fried eggplant with sesame and honey.
When to go: Madrid broils in summer. Average highs in July approach 90. January it drops to 50 with lows in high 30s. In October, we had days in mid-80s with lows in 60s.
For more information: Centro de Turismo de Madrid, Plaza Mayor, 34-91-578-7810, www.esmadrid.com, 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. In Real Casa de la Panaderia on north side of plaza. You can download Metro map to your mobile.