- WASHINGTON POST
He Visited All 195 Countries without Flying. It Nearly Broke Him.
17:27 JST, August 8, 2023
Torbjorn Pedersen packed a suitcase with a few necessities in 2013 – shirts, jackets, shoes, a first-aid kit and a laptop – excited to begin a historic journey.
Pedersen hoped to become perhaps the first person to visit all 195 countries without flying. He figured he would return home to Copenhagen in four years as a record holder.
But Pedersen recently walked off a boat in Denmark, having completed his objective six years later than anticipated and feeling fortunate to be alive. Pedersen said he ventured about 260,000 miles via cars, trains, buses, taxis, boats, shipping containers and his own feet.
Pedersen, 44, said he encountered hundreds of challenges, including visa problems, war zones and near-death scares, but he finished with a reformed confidence in himself and in the world.
“I feel well above my age coming out of this,” Pedersen said. “This could be 50 years of life experience crammed down to 10 years.”
In January 2013, Pedersen read an article about tourists who had visited every one of the world’s countries. Pedersen had built a career shipping products and planning construction projects worldwide, and he had recently started dating. But he wanted to set a travel record, so he started to plot a route that would take him around the world without flying.
Pedersen said he received funding from a Denmark geothermal energy company that took an interest in his endeavor, and he withdrew thousands of dollars from his savings account and took out loans.
In October 2013, Pedersen said, he began his travels by riding a train from Denmark to Germany. He said he spent at least 24 hours in every country, where he often rented a bed in a dormitory or a hostel or found a host on the app Couchsurfing. He aimed to spend about $20 per day.
Traveling Europe was the easiest part of his voyage. Pedersen encountered his first hurdle when he said he couldn’t find a boat to take him from Norway to the Faroe Islands in December 2013. After about three weeks, Pedersen said, a shipping company let him on board.
“That kind of stuff seemed hard at the time,” Pedersen said. “But that’s child’s play compared to what I had coming.”
In May 2014, Pedersen said, he rode a boat in poor conditions from Iceland past icebergs during a storm. Before the boat arrived in Canada 12 days later, Pedersen said, he thought it would crash and sink.
In June 2015, Pedersen said, he was diagnosed with cerebral malaria at a Ghana clinic. He said he believed he was infected by the parasite about two weeks earlier in Liberia, where he said he slept outside a gas station. Pedersen said he hallucinated and temporarily lost his ability to perform simple tasks, such as writing. Even after about two weeks of treatment, Pedersen said, his hands shook for nearly three months.
But other moments reminded Pedersen why he started his voyage.
In the Republic of Congo in October 2015, Pedersen said, he sat on the back of a truck with about 50 people as they traveled on a dirt road. At one point, a woman began banging a water bottle against her hand and singing. Within seconds, everyone on the truck was singing together.
Still, Pedersen grappled with thoughts of quitting around that time. He was exhausted and lonely and felt people weren’t taking his mission seriously.
His perseverance only diminished in January 2016, Pedersen said, when he was traveling through an African jungle at night and encountered a group of men drinking and dancing to loud music. When they spotted Pedersen, he said, three men pointed guns at him and asked what he was doing. Pedersen thought he was seconds from dying.
The men let him go, Pedersen said, but later that month, a man fell asleep while driving him and seven others in Cameroon. The car started drifting off a dirt road and approaching a cliff when Pedersen said he jumped from his seat and grabbed the wheel.
Still, the kindness of other people kept Pedersen motivated. While Pedersen said his visa requests to some countries were denied for months, he found taxi drivers or mutual friends who were residents of those countries to drive him there.
Pedersen visited South Sudan in November 2016, almost three years into the country’s years-long civil war. He was terrified as he watched buses being shot at and passengers attacked, he said.
But it wasn’t long before the pendulum swung the other way. Later that month in Kenya, he made one of his best life memories when he proposed to his visiting girlfriend, Le, atop Mount Kenya.
As he chronicled his travels on social media, Pedersen said, people offered to host him and buy him beer when he visited their countries.
Another of Pedersen’s favorite memories came in October 2019 in the Solomon Islands. The electricity was out, Pedersen said, and a resident asked him whether he had any movies on his laptop. About an hour later, about 80 people were sitting around his computer watching “The Thin Red Line.”
Pedersen said he noticed commonalities among people worldwide. Everyone was discussing “Game of Thrones” when it aired in the 2010s. People played soccer and fiddled with fidget spinners and shared their opinions on Donald Trump in almost every country, Pedersen said.
In March 2020, Pedersen said, he arrived in Hong Kong with nine more countries to visit. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck and suspended international travel. Pedersen said he was able to get a job at a church that provided him housing.
“There’s no legit answer why I didn’t quit,” Pedersen said. “I should’ve quit many times.”
After living in Hong Kong for nearly two years, Pedersen said, he went to Palau in January 2022. In October, he and his fiancée got married in Vanuatu among palm leaf decorations and hearts etched into the sand.
In May, Pedersen said, he arrived at the final country, Maldives. A few days later, he said, he began a two-month sail across multiple oceans to Denmark. About 150 people – family members, friends and social media followers – greeted Pedersen on Denmark’s eastern coast on July 26.
Back in Denmark, Pedersen is searching for a new identity. He was timid a decade ago but now hopes to give speaking engagements about his voyage across the world and write a book. Other than that, he just wants to go somewhere quiet where he can process what he learned over the past decade.
While reflecting last week, Pedersen said the mundanity of people’s lives has stuck with him.
“People are just being people everywhere,” he said.
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