Gina Morello is an Aviation Consultant living in Dallas, Texas, USA. She is a recent “193er” having completed the UN Member Country list in December 2020. Gina was the first traveller and only woman to complete the list in the post-pandemic era. Ms Morello is the co-Minister of Charity for Nomad Mania and, in 2020, launched a new scholarship program to aid underprivileged students in having world travel experiences.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
This is my most frequently asked question and simultaneously my least favourite to answer because it is impossible to pick just three. Each country is so different and has something unique to offer, so I tend to say I like them all. However, three that really stand out for me are Ethiopia, Antarctica and Namibia.
Ethiopia is not necessarily easy to travel, but it is quite rewarding. Ethiopia has breadth and depth of experiences to offer the traveller, the most intriguing of which for me is the local culture. From the local ethnic groups in Omo Valley to the coffee and khat culture in colourful Harar, there is no shortage of authentic local experience opportunities. There is a deep history and religion present throughout the country as well as wildlife and nature to experience. Worth mentioning is also the cuisine. I love the unique food, which is quite difficult to recreate at home.
While not a country, it is a continent and a favourite destination for me, nonetheless. It is hard to beat the stunning raw beauty of the landscapes, and the tranquillity and peace found in its nature. It is an experience unmatched anywhere in the world. There are just not enough superlatives to describe the beauty of Antarctica.
Namibia, like Ethiopia, has so much diversity to offer its visitors, which is what makes it is so incredibly special. There is an opportunity to meet indigenous cultures, see diverse wildlife on safaris, visit vast and expansive deserts and enjoy the ocean as well. It is truly an amazing place.
Are there any countries you didn’t enjoy?
No, I have a different philosophy on negative travel experiences. I believe every country has something special and unique to offer. However, there are some countries in which travel can be mentally challenging due to the complexities involved and therefore have the real possibility of negative travel experiences. In the more challenging countries, it is easy to have an unpleasant or disappointing experience, such as a bad hotel, immigration processing, roads, or even with a guide. I try not to let a few experiences sour me on a whole country. I just look for new experiences to offset the difficult ones.
What are three of your favourite cities, and why?
I am not really a city person, but if I have to pick…
I was fortunate to work in Bangkok about ten years ago and found the warm hospitality of the locals is unmatched. In addition to the hospitality, the cuisine is one of my favourites. The numerous temples, markets and cheap massages make for a well-rounded experience. Unlike many capital cities, Bangkok is a bona fide destination rather than a stopover on the way to more interesting places. From luxury stays to backpacker budgets, you can find virtually any experience you want here. Just say Sawadeekup to Bangkok!
Rome, Italy is hard to compete with for favourite city status. I spent time working in Rome, so I was able to enjoy the local food and local wine extensively. I will never tire of Italian food, wine and coffee! Moreover, Rome has a seemingly endless supply of historical sites, art, and architecture to explore. I could spend even more time there to continue to take it all in.
I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to New Orleans, Louisiana, my hometown with the apt motto Laissez les bons temps rouler meaning let the good times roll in Cajun French. Known for its Creole, French, and Cajun influences, the outstanding cuisine, architecture, music, art, laid-back culture, and historic vibe of the city make it the best city in the world for some bons temps.
What are three of the worst places you’ve stayed?
Some of the worst attributes for me are lack of hygiene, no toilet, no running water, and no respite from the searing heat. Very few times have I experienced these attributes all at once, but it happens on occasion. In fact, I remember once in a Cameroon town near the Sangha river, once in Djenne, Mali and once also in Turmi, Ethiopia. If it is for one night, I feel like I can power through it, but I wish not to repeat the experience.
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
The world is filled with so many wonderful and luxurious hotels. Instead of naming specific properties, I recommend finding unusual, unique, or must-do experiences such as an overwater bungalow in the Maldives or French Polynesia, a treehouse stay in Vanuatu, a hotel made of salt at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, an Ice Hotel in the Nordics, a rooftop under the stars in Dogon Country, a manyatta in Kenya etc.
Similarly, there are many outstanding restaurants in the world, most of which come and go with the trends. More importantly, restaurant choice is highly dependent on your taste, budget, and time. If you have the appetite, I recommend checking out the following annual Top 50 list for the best current options The World’s 50 Best Restaurants | The best restaurants in the world. White Rabbit in Moscow and Borago in Santiago are some great places on this list. There is a similar list for bars too.
Lastly, at home in Dallas, Texas, I always love a good steak and some red wine at Al Biernat’s or Bob’s Chop House. The meat is so well-seasoned and cooked to perfection at Texas steakhouses that I rarely eat steak when travelling including Argentina.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Total Solar Eclipse and Northern Lights on the same day in Svalbard
One of my favourite travel moments was experiencing the Total Solar Eclipse and Northern Lights on the same day in Svalbard, Norway. I went to Svalbard for the 2015 Total Solar Eclipse, knowing that the weather prospects were poor for eclipse viewing. To my surprise, on a cold March morning, the weather was perfect. It was sunny and not a cloud in the sky, which is perfect conditions to view the spectacular sight of totality. Later that evening we took a snowmobile to a remote location for local food and spirits, and to watch the Northern Lights. Like magic, the Northern Lights appeared in the sky and danced for me. That evening was my first Northern Lights viewing and a magical day overall.
Reaching the final UN Country
Reaching my final UN Country was one of my most memorable travel moments. In early December 2020, I woke up to the news that Mozambique’s Visa On Arrival program had been reinstated. It was the news I had been waiting for since mid-March when the world was effectively shut to travellers. I made my way to Maputo a few days later. Upon arrival and after a protracted VOA process in the sweltering heat of the Maputo arrivals hall, I finally heard the glorious sound of a stamp of my passport.
My eyes began to fill with tears of bittersweet joy of achieving my travel dream amidst the tragedy of the pandemic. I was in my head savouring the moment with the rush of pride and accomplishment when I was suddenly interrupted. A luggage porter came to try to help me with my baggage (take my bag and demand money). It certainly snapped me out of the moment and was mildly annoying, but it reminded me of many travellers favourite phrase, “TIA”, an acronym for This is Africa. I just laughed and was happy to have finally arrived and completed my goal.
On the same trip to Mozambique were another favourite travel moment of mine and one of true inspiration for me. When I entered Mozambique as my final UN country, I travelled alone and made my way up North to Nampula to visit the GirlMove Academy, which is a girls school teaching empowerment, self-worth, service, and leadership to local young women and girls. While visiting, I had the opportunity to speak to the ladies at GirlMove about women and travel. I was intended to be a motivational speaker.
We had a round table, informal discussion via zoom because it was still 2020 and a pandemic. I shared my story with the ladies of GirlMove and asked them to share theirs. In an unexpected twist, I found myself truly inspired by these young ladies who are wise way beyond their years. I was moved to tears a couple of times just listening to their stories and watching them interact. Here are my big takeaways from listening to this wonderful group of young ladies. They are good lessons for us all to remember no matter what stage of life you are in:
- Dream big! Do not put a roof on your dreams.
- Pursue your passions! No matter what your special interest is (e.g., music, sports, psychology, optometry), you can incorporate it into your life’s work.
- It is possible! If you believe in yourself, your dreams, and your passions, anything is possible.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Angry protestors in Karachi, Pakistan
While on assignment in Karachi, Pakistan, my colleague and I narrowly escaped a mob of angry protestors who were outraged at the privatization of the state airline. We were trying to flee to the airport but were caught up in the chaos at seemingly every turn. During the protest, the rioters lit fires, one soul was shot and killed, and the sequence of events led to the resignation of the company’s CEO and, ultimately, the termination of our work contract. We made it out safely, but the scars lingered much longer.
Interrogation when leaving Libya
When leaving Libya, after saying our goodbyes, I moved through the process alone, where an immigration officer stared at my passport, my visa and began to ask me a bunch of questions. His English was bad and my Arabic nonexistent, so I couldn’t understand, much less answer his questions. After about 15 minutes of interrogation interspersed with the officer disappearing behind the doorway, my heart sank when he eventually pulled me aside to sit for further questioning.
At this point, I had visions of an extended time in a Libyan prison. In the middle of my lengthy interrogation, I remembered that, by some stroke of luck, I had printed out my original invitation letter for the visa even though it was written in Arabic. I fished it out of my documents, handed it to the immigration officer, and he disappeared for another 15 minutes. Finally, he returned, gave me back my documents, and let me board my flight. I was the last to board the flight. I was shaken but happy to leave after the worrisome encounter.
The many challenges
I have been super fortunate not to have been robbed or anything equally disturbing whilst travelling. My most challenging travel moments have been entering or leaving a country or moving between areas with security checkpoints. These are the times where you are effectively powerless and at the mercy of the immigration officer, military or police. From bribes, detention, and other various threats, many things can go wrong and do fairly often. I will just leave it at that.
What are three of your best travel tips?
My favourite tip is to set a budget and plan your wardrobe in advance. Then take double the cash and half the clothes
Learn a few words in the local language, such as pleasantries. Even if your mastery of the language is not perfect, the attempt will go a long way in demonstrating to the locals that you are genuinely interested in them. You might even garner a laugh from the locals, which is usually what happens when my Texas accent renders the local words barely recognizable.
Be an ambassador for your country
Be polite, respectful of the local culture, and remember the golden rule. It is good advice to live by and especially when travelling.