I can distinguish three different eras in my life on the road. The first focused on Getting the Furthest with the Most Stops at the Least Cost. My first overseas adventure started in 1956 thanks to Icelandic Air and Holland-American ships both offering dirt cheap student fares. We were contemptuous of that new book, Europe on $5 a Day. Why, we puzzled, would anyone spend that much money? There were great hostels for $1 a night, hearty meals the same. So that philosophy was pretty well settled by the time I arrived in Nigeria on New Year’s Day, 1965 as a freshly minted Peace Corps Volunteer.
It wasn’t long before we knew how to “dash” the railroad guy who would permit us to sleep in the “Post” car on top of reasonably comfortable mail bags anywhere Nigerian Rail was headed, or hitch a ride with lingering ex-pats to any corner of the nascent Republic. Midway through my tour, PC/Washington sent me to Ethiopia to which I added a swing down the continent to South Africa by boat and returned north to the Congo by train and then boat, back to Lagos, and, naturally, the mail train back to my post.
The final orgy was, of course, The Trip Home: Up the West Coast by freighter to Casablanca; a hitch hike to Cairo that included one long bus ride in which I was employed as a scribe for immigrant workers needing their papers filled out in English; free passage through the Suez Canal and up the Gulf of Aqaba after persuading the German merchant ship captain; an overland trip to Beirut; a third-class train to Vienna via Istanbul to England; and home. And still keeping it at that $5-a-day option.
The Second Era of travel, with more cash available, was to entwine overseas jobs with side-trips aimed at stimulating the heart and mind. A gig in Iran allowed picnics on the ruins of that step-pyramid of Chogha Zanibel which was destroyed in 640 B.C. While ensconced at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, it involved trekking into the heartland of Saudi Arabia to “liberate” pieces of one of the locomotives T.E. Lawrence had blown up, laying in the sands the other side of Mecca (via The Christian By-pass). It also included having Aggie Grey, who was author James Michener’s model for Bloody Mary in South Pacific, bake my 29th birthday cake in Western Samoa.
Perhaps this is a better example. I finished a job in Ahwaz, Iran in May 1970 and was not scheduled to start another in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, until October. My choice was to take a two-hour plane ride between the two or go due east to Afghanistan, India, and Southeast Asia on a route that included Australia, Tahiti, Easter Island, and Chile. From there I took a train over the Andes to Buenos Aires, a boat to Uruguay, a plane to La Paz, a train to Lake Titicaca, an overnight steamer to Peru, a bus to Machu Picchu, a plane to Bogota, a bus up thru Central America, and finally home by plane to Traverse City, Michigan for some cherry pie. After the pie, I flew to Spain, then Greece, arriving a day before work began in Jidda. The cost was considerably more than $5 per day but was the kind of safari for the young and able adventurers for whom sleep, food, and energy never seemed to be an issue. I confess that I reverted to earlier habits when riding in 1962 on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Moscow, paying for my travel by trading Kennedy half-dollars with fellow passengers for the far more valuable rubles.
Phase three: the concierge
This third phase carries a serious level of difficulty when getting into the remaining countries on my list. Call it: Engaging Others.
I thought I had found the best approach to this by badgering friends-of-friends assigned to Hard-to-Fill Embassy posts in places like Central Asia, West Africa and various, increasingly numerous war-torn countries. The best of those contacts were modestly helpful. But, of late, I’ve settled on a far better approach: I book into a 4-star hotel, but not those 5-stars which are an embarrassment, as is this whole business of inflating “stars.” Once unpacked, I make an endearing friend of the concierge. If there is a team, take some time to choose the one with the most interest in a challenge. Of course, carefully applied baksheesh may need to be part of the package, but not until the game is afoot.
For instance, my embassy contacts had warned that Djibouti was off limits, and Somaliland was definitely a no-no. In an earlier era I might have taken a pass but at my age one doesn’t have time to follow all the rules. So, I booked into the Hilton in Doha where I passed some time seeing how vast sums of money can be ill-spent in designing extraordinary ways of ruining our planet. After engaging each of the four concierges, I judged Marcellus, a brilliant young Ibo from the Eastern region of Nigeria, to likely be the most helpful.
I explained not only my need to go to Djibouti but that I wanted to also see some of this new “Somaliland” for myself. His response was the best, “I like the idea. Give me a day.” He cancelled the hotel I had booked in Djibouti, moved me instead to the Sheraton, where the concierge, Mohammed, was a pal of his, and dealt with all the paperwork. Marcellus found great joy in having pulled all this off in a day and laughed that mirth-filled West African laugh in showing how easy it all could be.
I found that Mohammed was equally keen. He hired a trustworthy cabbie with a broken-down hack. “You don’t want to draw attention,” he told me. I bounced around the pot holes of Djibouti, first to the “Embassy” of Somaliland for signed papers, then to a pock-marked building for another couple of imprimaturs, and finally back behind the barricades of the Sheraton, all accomplished in a day.
As an aside, the hotel’s breakfast room was reminiscent of the bar scene in the first Star Wars film because of the array of seemingly intra-planetary creatures, all hovering over laptops, whispering behind hands the size of baseball mitts, deals being struck and unstruck. These were the war lords of the Horn of Africa, our boys in cameo in the heart of it all.
Mohammad drove me into Somaliland where I saw nothing but relentless heartbreak. Thankfully, my departure from that unhappy place, a fiction created by a complexity of interests beyond my understanding, was only held up three hours because the chief in charge of the barricade had to have an aching tooth pulled.
Another rich source of assistance in outings such as these are the missionary nuns and priests, still busy in nearly as many countries as is the Peace Corps. During the early days of the Biafra War in Nigeria, three nuns violating every rule in the playbook drove me through road blocks and skirmishes to a prison holding a Nigerian friend of mine. Even to this day, a woman in a religious habit makes a great body-guard.
You may have noted at the beginning of this third phase of my travel life the mention of “my list.” A little explanation is in order. In 1966, during a chance meeting with my Notre Dame mentor Father Theodore Hesburgh, himself an avid traveler, we compared our country “count.” It was not dissimilar and over the following 47 years, whenever we would meet, he would greet me with, “How many have you got now?” We declared a gentlemanly tie in 2013 with 146 countries each. Since his death I’ve continued my list.
I count voting members of the United Nations, although I keep a list of “Others.” Our rules were to have a hotel receipt and send a letter from the country before we counted it. “Airport Only” was not acceptable. Other more-than-frequent travelers play by an assortment of rules but we considered ours The Gold Standard. I have continued the quest with other players, but the remaining countries aren’t exactly pleasure domes.
One other bit of travel advice Father gave me was always to make friends with the Papal Nuncio when in a capital city. The only one of the Seven Deadlies the Pope’s ambassadors dare approach is the one related to food and drink. “Get on their guest list,” he urged, “They always have the best cooks and the best cellars in town.” When this strategy has worked, it has been a memorable night out.
That level of dining is a far cry from my origins, although maybe by not too great a stretch. Travel came early, easy, and unlikely in my family. Among the first tranche of Europeans to settle on the northern shore of Lake Michigan to raise cherries, we were a rural, one-room-school-house, Saturday-night-square-dances-in-the-township-hall community. The country church bell ringing in mid-week to herald the end of World War II was one of my first conscious memories.
Shortly after that, two things happened which may have determined much of what followed. In the school room was a very large map suspended on pulleys. When you finished your work, you could pull it down and study it. The peninsula we lived on was an 18-mile finger of land jutting out into Lake Michigan. It was outlined on that globe and I remember thinking, “I could always find my way home.” That was because my home could be seen even from outer space. That childish notion has always stuck with me, and it worked. I’ve always managed to find my way home.
And secondly, my father loved the AAA Road Atlas, so even before Route 66 was of note, he would bundle the five of us into the car and, in successive years, drive us to Tucson, New Orleans, Miami, Canada, and Mexico. We made no reservations, stopped at every roadside museum along America’s two-lane highways, and were allowed one song each in the jukeboxes of our diner stops. This was capped by my being chosen at age 15 as a 4-H Exchange Student to the largest hog ranch in Iowa. An immersive cross-cultural experience never to be matched.
So travel was in my bloodstream. My high school graduation present was an eight-country European outing headed by my mother; after my Bachelor’s degree, it was a year of study in Ireland. Most summers found me back in Europe, including a bus trip to Russia in the midst of my Masters study. Peace Corps opened the vein further. Travelling alone and with an undying interest in the lives of others, I continue toward the last of this life-long quest: visiting each of the 193 countries with a vote in the United Nations.
To celebrate my 80th birthday I booked a little outing to Bhutan, my 179th country to visit under the Hesburgh/Carroll Accords. If you haven’t tried it, let me suggest “The Happy Nation.” They have chosen not to build consulates around the world to control their immigration issues. Think of the overhead they are saving. Instead, you book your stay through their government tourist agency, pay them
50 percent immediately and they send you a paper which you hand to Customs plus $20 upon arrival and, bingo, you’re in. No standing in lines with two photos and uncertainty. The altitude must be good for them.
I climbed to Tiger’s Nest on one of the more modest of the Himalayans, still 10,420 feet, and declared victory. Increasingly, I’m finding the borders of my 18- mile peninsula enough of a challenge and as satisfying as my outward-bound experiences. And it may not be all that long before I test out the premise that you can see it from outer space.
Following his Peace Corps service as a television production advisor in Nigeria from 1962 to 1964, Timothy Carroll was the first executive director of the then-National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Peace Corps country director in Pakistan, Poland and Russia; and served as protocol officer at the Justice Department. He received the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service in 1986 for co-founding the non-profit Eye Car, Inc. in Haiti.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2019 issue.