Graham Hughes is known as the first person to visit every country in the world without flying. He did it in just over four years and completed his project in January of 2013. In this interview, he shares some of his favourites and stories.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
Egypt is my ground zero for backpacking. It’s the first place I ever went backpacking. I just fell in love with the place. It’s so foreign, interesting and it’s frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why people go there and freak out about getting followed around by touts, but there’s a certain level of good humour that you need to deal with it. The history of Egypt is so fascinating, and it’s still alive today. I’ve been four times to Egypt. Every time I just absolutely loved it. It’s always something. It’s so old, but it’s always something new. I just wish they could get a decent government that sort of plays out for the people. But, yeah, really good experiences.
I’d say Thailand for another favourite of mine. I’ve been four times now. It’s just one of those places. It’s beautiful, and the beaches are just stunning. But, unfortunately, getting waxed by over-tourism, so maybe it’s not too much, but just the attitude and the feels. I just got a good feeling when I’m there.
Finally, I’d say Bolivia, again a crazy place. It’s the only place on Earth where you can go to the Salar de Uyuni, where they have the salt flats, and you can walk on the salt flats, and there is a bit of water on the salt flats which looks like a mirror, it looks like you’re walking in the sky. I went to La Paz for the first time in 2000 to go on a guided tour around San Pedro prison in La Paz, guided by one of the prisoners.
Honouable mention: Iran
My list probably changes by the day, but Iran was the country that surprised me the most on my journey. I was expecting a not particularly friendly country. I thought it would be a mix of sort of Saudi Arabia, Eastern Europe and Russia where people don’t really talk to you unless they feel they have to. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was incredibly welcoming from the moment I stepped over the border. People want to talk to me. People invite me into their homes, and people invited me to parties. They helped me get to wherever it needs to go. It was brilliant.
Are there any countries you don’t enjoy travelling to?
On my journey, I made a few bad decisions. One of the worst decisions I made was to pay some Senegalese fishermen to take me over 650 kilometres of open ocean. That was a very bad decision, so during that journey again? Not really for me. I would never do anything so stupid.
What are three of your favourite cities, and why?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site that had to be restored after the conflict. It’s just phenomenal, It’s like something from Game of Thrones which is funny because they filmed Game of Thrones there. It’s this amazing medieval city with stone roads, stone buildings and the beautiful red terracotta roofs on all the buildings. They’ve got lovely restaurants, and it’s just phenomenal.
Merida, in the state of Yucatán in the peninsula of Mexico. Just a really beautiful city. While I was there it was Easter, they had the Mayan warriors playing fire hockey in the streets. It was hockey with a burning ball. Phenomenal. The food was amazing. Food is such a pleasure in life, and it’s one of the big draws for me for travelling is experiencing these different foods around the world. I love food.
I absolutely love the bones of my home city. The more I travel, the more I love it. It’s a very socialist left-leaning city, and it always has been. It’s a city that has the oldest established Chinatown in Europe. The first mosque in the United Kingdom was in Liverpool. Years and years of successive migration and welcoming people from all over the world has turned it into a world city. The kind of small-minded little England mentality it’s not really what Liverpool does. Liverpool is not like that. When these neo-Nazis came to march in our city, thousands of people turned out to stop them, and I love that about my city.
Barcelona, Grenada, and Sorrento are some of Graham’s other favourite cities.
Are you a Liverpool or Everton supporter?
Everton. We haven’t won anything for the last 26 years. If you stay positive, as an Everton supporter, you can stay positive about anything.
What are three of your favourite hotels or places you’ve stayed and why?
Christmas in Suva, Fiji
Up there has to be when I stayed in Suva, Fiji, with a woman called Sandy, and I was staying there over Christmas. On Christmas day, she took me to stay with her family for the day. And so I had a traditional Fijian Christmas, and it was great. We got up really early in the morning. We had to grind the coconuts to get the half shell of the coconut. You sit down, and you have this bit of metal that comes out underneath where you’re sitting. You grind it against a piece of metal and get all flakes out, and you get milk out of it as well. That goes into a bucket, and then that bucket is put into a cloth, and you end up getting all coconut milk out of it to drink and then put in the food. There were probably about 30 people at the house, and it was just phenomenal to take part in that kind of cultural celebration at that level of being with someone’s family.
Sleeping under the stars in Egypt
Back in 1999, I travelled through the western deserts in Egypt, and I slept out under the stars. I have never seen the stars so bright in my life. That always stays with me even, years and years later.
An entire room while Couchsurfing in Abidjan
When I was travelling, one place sticks out in my mind: I was in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, which is the biggest city. The woman I was staying with was Couchsurfing. She lived in this beautiful apartment block, and she lived on one of the top floors, and I had a room and a bathroom to myself, and I just wasn’t used to this. I was used to staying in sort of shanty conditions like sleeping on hammocks and stuff. Having a room to myself instead of sleeping on the couch was phenomenal. That one sticks in my mind.
What are the three worst places you’ve stayed?
Expensive guesthouse in Moroni, Comoros
I’ll tell you what was a place where I was particularly unhappy situation was on the islands of Comoros where there was literally just one guesthouse and it was hideous with no air conditioning, just a fan, we didn’t really work. All of the plug sockets were just hanging off the wall, the bath was a sink, filled with concrete sink, filled with cold water and a half bottle of orange juice, orange juice, and we used it as a scoop to scoop it over your head. I was stuck in Comoros for three weeks and it ended up costing me so much money as there are nowhere to couch surf there. There’s just one place on Couchsurfing there, but it was on a different island.
Brothel in Asuncion
Years ago, I stayed in Ascension in Paraguay. I turned up, and I should have noticed that there was a sign on the wall, for hours, like you could get a room for like an hour. I should have noticed that, but I didn’t until I got into the hotel. I went in, got into my room, put my backpack down and collapsed onto the bed, and I could hear the fact that this wasn’t just a normal hotel. It was actually a brothel, so that was a funny experience.
A tiny room in India
I stayed in a tiny room somewhere in India about 20 years ago where the door slid open.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Swimming with jellyfish in Palau
I’ve got to say one of them would be swimming in the Jellyfish Lake in Palau, which is also the Rock Islands and an area of Palau, which is a World Heritage Sites sight. I think it’s the only animals on the planet that makes energy through photosynthesis, so they have no predators. They don’t need to catch any prey or food, they just float around in the water, and they make the energy from the sun. You can swim in this lake, and this lake is insane with millions of jellyfish in this lake floating around. At the time, when I jumped in, there are quite a few other people around, but they were part of a tour group. I was on my own.
They all left, and I was the only person in this lake full of jellyfish. It was just phenomenal. It was like being on another planet, because you are kind of weightless, and you got these weird things floating around you. It was just phenomenal. It was like being on another planet because you are kind of weightless, and you got these weird things floating around you. That was just a phenomenal experience and an amazing moment.
Getting to South Sudan
I guess getting to South Sudan (his last country) because of the achievement. I proved it was possible. It was incredible.
Boat in Papua New Guinea
I was going from Wewak in Papua New Guinea to Madang on a boat. I was invited into the bridge of the ship. I stood out on the wing on one side, and they gave me a chair, and I sat out there at night time. I’ve been out in the desert, and I’ve seen a lot of stars, but that night! I was very close to the equator. So, when you, when you’re that close to the equator you see all the stars. It’s phenomenal, but also to the right of me was the mouth of the Sepik River, one of the biggest rivers in the world that don’t end in a Delta.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Toilet in Iran
When I was in Iran, and I hate squat toilets. I’ve hated them since I was five years old where I was camping in France with my mom and dad, and I experienced my first squat toilets. I think I burst into tears because I was like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. It absolutely freaked me out. Some backpackers are like, Oh, I prefer squat toilets, and I’m like, no, no, no. Just no. Anyway, so if I’m given a choice if there’s a western-style toilet to use. I’ll always go for the western-style toilets. But I was at someone’s house in Iran, and I really needed to use the loo for a number 2.
I went into a lovely modern toilet, but it was a squat toilet and no toilet roll. Just a tap to wash your hands, and then you wash yourself with your hand. So psyching myself up, “I can do this, I can do this”. I just hate squatting. I hate the position, and I missed the hole by about half a meter. It was literally on the side, behind the squat toilet. Luckily, I had my wallet with me, so I took out a business card. I hate squat toilets. I hate squat toilets. It’s one of the reasons why I chose Waterways, the charity that I raised money for while I was travelling. The world needs more toilets.
Greyhound buses in America
I think Greyhound buses in America are pretty rough.
The worst moment: Losing his sister
The worst moment of the Odyssey Expedition had to be losing my sister. That was difficult. Getting back on the horse and continue the journey. I got the news that my sister had been diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas after I had just arrived in Papua New Guinea. We didn’t know at that time how bad it was going to be. At that point, I’ve been to 184 countries and at 17 left to go. The shock of losing my sister hit me really hard. That was tough.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Do your research
Number one has got to be to do your research, do your research. I meet people who don’t learn anything about a country before they go there, and I find it a bit disrespectful, but also it can get you in trouble. I didn’t know, for instance, that in Dubai, you could be arrested for sticking two fingers up to someone. Also, do better research. I’m not talking about going to the library and sitting there for days on end making notes. I’m just talking about the history, the culture, the religion and the language they speak. Learn a bit of the language is always good. Just even say a few words. Learn how to say hello and learn how to say goodbye, learn how to say thank you and learn how to say cheers. People appreciate you are taking the time to just do a little bit of research on their country.
Doing your research also make things cheaper. If you just turn up, you are more likely to get ripped off. You’re more likely to spend too much on accommodation, and you’re more likely to get ripped off by unscrupulous touts who tell you that your hotel is closed and then take you to their mate’s hotel because they get a commission on it. So that (do your research) would be my number one advice.
Don’t bring a towel
I never travel with a towel. When I am backpacking, I don’t want to have a towel because invariably, the first thing you do when you go somewhere for the day is you get up, you have a shower, you wet your towel, and then you put it in your bag, or you make it bangle outside your backpack. It’s just this big soggy wet mess you could do without. It gets absolutely filthy if you leave it outside your bag. If you put it in your bag, it wets everything else. If you put it in a plastic bag in your bag, it stinks when you take it out. It’s just a nightmare. Forget about it. What I used to do is wherever I was staying, I asked if I could borrow a towel.
I can’t stress this enough. Travel light. Anything you need you can buy in another country. There is nothing that you need to bring from home, that you cannot travel without that you can’t get somewhere else. So, a small backpack, one that you can fit under the seat. It pays dividends. If you’ve got a small backpack, people are less likely to take things from it.
Do you have any little known travel tips?
Bring an emergency phone. Having two phones is a really good idea. If you’re travelling around Africa, I always recommend having an emergency phone in case you get arrested. When I got arrested in Congo, they took my phone off me, and I had another phone in my bag, so I secretly used that to text to my Twitter account that I had been arrested. Within an hour, the British Embassy had been informed, so that was very useful.
Do you have any plans for another massive project like The Odyssey Expedition?
I am desperate to get around the world on an electric car around Africa through Asia, Australia, to New Zealand to South America drive from the bottom of South America, all the way to Alaska as longest journey by electric car. I love road trips, although I didn’t drive myself on the expedition. The idea of driving around America, Canada, and Mexico, I love that, and now we have an opportunity to do it in an environmentally friendly way. That can showcase the ability of the electric car, which is something that I think we need to do.
Will there be a movie someday?
I would love it to be. I spoke to an agency over in LA, but it’s difficult to translate it into a movie because, in a movie, every story has to have a metamorphosis. The main character has to change on their journey. I don’t know how that would work with my story because I thought the world was a buzz and that people were lovely, and I had a great time doing this thing, and I went out, and it was. So I don’t know how much I developed as a person during the journey. Maybe I became a little bit more respectful. Maybe I got a little bit more patience, but that doesn’t mean a Hollywood movie.
Jinja Island in Panama
Graham is currently trying to keep Jinja Island (an island he won on a game show) in Panama running and he is looking for investors. For more information please visit JinjaIsland.com. You can follow Graham on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and on GrahamDavidHughes.com.