WASHINGTON, April 6, 2013 — There is always that one person in the office or at a party who has just returned from a trip and treats it more like a checked box than a profound revelation. Whether they have discovered the true soul of that destination or not is of no significance.
Country counting is trivial, deceptive and not the way to measure a
world traveler. On the other hand, country counting does arouse a contemplative curiosity. The United Nations currently recognizes 193 official countries with Sudan’s split adding a digit. It ignores Taiwan and also Martinique, the latter which it lumps in with France. Fed Ex delivers to more than 220 countries and territories, including North Korea.
Border disputes are as old as time. The U.N. views Puerto Rico only as a U.S. Territory, which it is, but it still feels like its own country. Perhaps the most humane approach toward country counting would be to use the 204 nations that competed in the 2012 Olympics.
As for those frequent fliers keen on padding their countries-visited stats, there is the Travelers’ Century Club. This club spikes the number of countries to more than 300 by adding places that are not actual countries. They are included because they are removed from their parent country by geography, politics, ethnicity, and culture.
For example, Irian Jaya, also known as Dutch New Guinea, is far away from its parent country, Indonesia, both geographically and culturally. This kind of categorization makes sense within the many shifting nations in today’s world.
The geographic locations, politics and customs of Alaska and Hawaii are a far cry from what makes Arkansas tick. To consider these places as individual countries, however, as the Travelers’ Century Club does, blurs the borderlines. Heck, New York City smells different from block to block. You can wander its five boroughs for years and will never experience its every note.
Antarctica’s Deception Island, which is part of South Shetland and one of the Falkland Islands Dependencies, is a world unto itself. Travelers’ Century Club even subdivides the White Continent into seven countries, not including the regions leased for research.
Whichever destination calculus you choose, you should remain wary of relying on country counting for bragging rights. You can knock off 10 countries in as many days traveling through Europe, if that is your thing. A manic tour of Southeast Asia can log 10 more countries in less than a month.
Africa’s 55 countries make it a handy field of dreams for country counters. However, you will miss the most precious takeaway of allowing these destinations to mosey over and discover you.
One aspect to value is the Travelers’ Century Club recognition of how so many countries can have many diverse vibes that are blind to nationalism. The regional enchantment within such massive spaces as Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and the United States should alter how we perceive the world. None of these countries adhere to just one brand.
Geographically and culturally, these sprawling realms have provincial variations that are so distinct from one another that each of these nations could subdivide into a dozen or more provinces. Exploring these bigger countries and all countries, for that matter, at a slower pace will allow you to gain the insight lost in a check-the-box race.
For those looking to merely count the number of countries they have visited, airport stopovers and day-tripper cruise ship dockings are extremely weak entries. One confirmation of a contented soul is to be absorbed by one’s own surroundings. So do not tally the countries you visit but wander through them. Be available for the magic and roam out of bounds.
Bruce Northam has tallied up the destinations he has visited, but he did just that to simplify things for his forthcoming book, “The Directions To Happiness: A 125-Country Quest for Life Lessons,” which logs his encounters with unsung sages in odd places.
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