So, I came across an article the other day about a guy who had spent twenty years travelling to every country in the world. I can’t remember his name and I can’t find the article, so feel free to not believe me. I’m pretty sure I didn’t imagine it. But, I’ve been busy, so this may well be the case.
Anyway, he spent what he referred to as a lengthy amount of time in each country (although, if you try and do the maths it still can’t be that long, right?) getting to know the culture, hanging out with the locals, and generally getting a good, rounded picture of the place.
Whilst I was reading through, I found myself firstly nodding blindly in agreement that his few weeks or months here and there were a decent amount of time to get to know a place and, secondly, violently shaking my head in disagreement. Is it really long enough? Is it?
Think about it this way. I have lived in my hometown for 22 years, and there are still things I am finding out about it every day. There are still places I don’t know about, people I haven’t met, events I’ve never been to.
Brighton… My hometown that I know nothing about
So, my first question is…
How much do you need to know about a place?
Is it enough to be able to reel off a couple of attractions, or do you need to be able to name every single person who lives there and understand every little snippet of history that has made it the place it is today? Because, although I’m no expert, I’m pretty sure that’s near impossible.
I know a few people who consider countries they’ve only witnessed in transit as places they have been to, even if they have never left the airport. And, whilst it’s true that you have actually stepped foot in the country if that’s the case, does it really warrant a tick on your to-do list?
When it gets to this stage, you begin to start wading through murky waters. What ‘counts’ and what doesn’t? For some, simply breathing the air of a country is enough, whilst others like to get under the skin of it (whatever the hell that means), but at what point does one become the other? More simply, where is the line?
Let’s say, for the sake of this article, that Jimbob has spent two days in a city, pottering around eating nice food and seeing some popular sights. He hasn’t travelled out of the city and he arrives and leaves from the same airport which is not far from where he is staying. Then there’s SallyAnn, who has spent a week in the same place as Jimbob, again eating well and seeing some pretty things. She’s taken a few day trips, though, to a couple of places outside of the city. She wanted to see how the rest of the country live and, with the short space of time she had, thought this would be a good way to do that. Lastly, we have Gladys, who has spent six weeks travelling around the whole country. She spent a couple of weeks exploring the same city as Jimbob and SallyAnn, but has ventured further afield, too, visiting both rural and urban hotspots.
Now, tell me this. Can Jimbob, SallyAnn, and Gladys all say they have been to this country? Does anyone have more right to ‘brag’ about it than the others? What if I then said that Jimbob could give you a potted history of the country in thirty seconds and has friends there who took him to all the local hangouts, whilst Gladys spent her time on a tour bus with other English people, stayed in resorts, and couldn’t even tell you what the capital city is (I don’t know how this would happen if you spent six weeks somewhere, but let’s just say Gladys is particularly ignorant). Knowing this information, who would you say had more right to ‘count’ it as a place they had been to?
Driving through the Croatian countryside on the way back from Montenegro. In transit.
Time is the most important thing, right?
I guess what I am trying to say is that length of time doesn’t really matter, it’s what you do with your time that counts. Sure, two days isn’t nearly enough time to visit everywhere in one town, let alone a whole country, but neither is six weeks (or six months, or one year) if you still don’t know something as simple as what the capital city or the national dish is when you leave.
The most eye-opening thing about the article I mentioned at the start, though, was the comments (no surprises there). Within the piece, there was a quote from the guy saying that most people are passengers not travellers, passing through places quickly, not bothering to get to know them. Well, as you can imagine, this stirred up a whole load of bitterness. Commenters left, right, and centre, were calling the guy arrogant, and assumed that he had the bank of mummy and daddy to fund his trip (for the record, he didn’t). Others were envious of his courage and wished they could do the same. Some were adamant that twenty years wasn’t enough time to get to know the world, whilst others wished they could spend that long learning the intricacies of this planet.
So, to answer the title of the post, how long do you have to spend in a country for it to count?
As long as you want. As long as you need.
I quite like the quote the guy threw around. I guess we just have to make sure we aren’t passengers. That we have an active role in the places that we visit, and come away knowing that little bit more. That’s all we can hope for really in a world that’s so diverse.