Gunnar Garfors is a Norwegian traveller who is one of the most travelled people in the world and one of the few people who is known for having visited every country in the world twice.
What are three of your favourite countries and why?
Every country in the world is among my favourites in one way or another, but let me pick three countries on different continents for this one.
Madagascar is called the eighth continent for a reason. The country’s diversity is just wild. Not only can it boast of incredible scenery and very hospitable people, but the food is also world-class and comes with a very low price tag.
South Korea is one of the most undervalued countries in Asia, often neglected or forgotten when it comes to discussions about where to go on holiday. I love the long history, the slick innovation when it comes to technology, their never-stopping party genes and the stark contrasts between Seoul and towns and villages elsewhere. Their food is also mouth-watering.
Chile is so long and narrow that almost everything in terms of nature can be found here. I particularly love the southern part that includes the Patagonia region it shares with Argentina and its fun and thriving capital Santiago. People are also super friendly, and they sure know how to party here too.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Africa is such an unreal continent, so I’ll pick all three stories from there.
The final country
I have to include visiting Cape Verde for the first time, my final country out of all 198. I felt kind of empty upon having entered. What if I never would have another new country to visit? But celebrations soon took over. Family and friends had joined my trip to the African islands, and all 13 of us celebrated in style for a long weekend.
They had been close to me for years and knew how big a thing this was to me, as well as how much it had cost. They knew how many gadgets, designer clothes or sports cars I could have purchased. But I would never trade anything for experiences, memories and friendships from every country in the world.
Introducing myself as a tourist in South Sudan
I travelled with a friend to the newest country in the world, and she hadn’t travelled on the continent outside South Africa before. To ease the culture shock of a first-time traveller to the real Africa, I opted for supposedly the best hotel in the country, with a swimming pool and all. The place was run by James, an eccentric Brit who could brag about having hosted a fair number of rather original guests. He asked what on earth we were doing in South Sudan.
I told him we’re there as tourists. He went totally quiet and refused to believe his ears. I had to repeat in an attempt to reassure him. He started laughing at a decibel level usually reserved for jet engines. “You’re not kidding me, are you? I have been here for five years. I have never seen a bloody tourist. Are you out of your mind?” he asked, still laughing. A slightly unorthodox way of welcoming a guest, I’d say. But very memorable.
African police logic in Ghana
My brother and his wife travelled eastwards from Accra with me and my then-girlfriend Nicole on a rented minibus with a driver. We were stopped by the police after a few kilometres. Two uniformed gentlemen were standing next to their parked police car. Both were armed, one with a pistol in his belt, the other one with a semi-automatic machine gun over his shoulder. Our driver stopped, and was asked to pay a “fine.” Let’s just say it never benefitted the local tax coffers. He was not happy and whispered something about corrupt crooks before handing them a note and some coins.
We continued for 20 miles or so until we reached another two police officers. My brother figured we would have to pay again and sighed loudly. The driver was about to slow down but suddenly floored it and passed the officers who were standing in the middle of the road. They even had to jump to the side to avoid being hit. Nicole was not impressed and asked if he was crazy. He turned around, smiling, and pinpointed an essential detail. They did not have a car and would be unable to follow us. I laughed out loud. His logic couldn’t be argued with.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
The Central African Republic
I almost didn’t make it out of CAR (The Central African Republic), the first time there. I needed a bank, but none seemed to be Mastercard connected, and I had to walk into several without luck. The fourth or fifth one was filled to capacity with angry people, but my curiosity ensured that I still entered. None of them cared about me, the lone white person in the building, at least not until I raised my phone and snapped a photo. An old man began shouting and pointed at me in French. People started screaming loudly, and at least four people grabbed me. They were not happy about being photographed. A guy in his twenties explained in English that they were there to demand their paychecks after not having received money for months.
The bank didn’t have any money and couldn’t help, so when I walked in and showed disrespect, their anger had turned to me. I apologized and showed him and the three men who were still holding on to me that I deleted the photo from my phone. He ordered me to follow him before I was lynched, and we ran from there together after my saviour said something in French that made the others let me go. We walked quickly down Avenue de Independence, a rather fitting name following my near-death experience. Emanuel, the young guy, walked with me, and I treated him to chicken and beer at a market. Not much, but I was almost broke. In other words, I put the value of my own life as one Mocaf beer and half a local chicken.
Staying the night in a police station in Niger
I had checked online that I could buy my visa on arrival at Niamey airport. That turned out to be highly inaccurate. The highest-ranking police officer on the border asked me if I thought I could do anything in Africa just because I was white. I explained that I didn’t think so at all but that I had read on the internet that I could get a visa on arrival. “The internet says everything,” he responded. Rightly so. We discussed for twenty minutes or so, without any solution in sight. He then decided to call his boss. After consulting her, I was driven downtown by two police officers. I had the pleasure of staying overnight in a small dirty room in the main police station in Niamey.
The police chief arrived the next morning, appearing elegant and extremely militant, with a thin moustache and his police hat hanging slightly to the side. Smiling was not among his hobbies, and my hopes of getting a visa faded. Two hours later, a huge policeman approached me and ordered me to step into a black police van. We were back at the airport 30 minutes later, and he walked just behind me to the check-in counter of Air Burkina. He gave his orders, and I had my boarding card in hand within a minute. I was escorted to the security screening area, where security personnel took over and led me to the plane while I heard him shout out that journalists were not welcome to Niger. I guess that his boss had googled my name. At least I didn’t have to pay for my return ticket, and it turned out to be my first-ever free flight.
Being blamed for rising sea levels in Tuvalu
An old fellow in a bar approached me one evening. He asked me where I was from. “Norway,” I answered with a smile. “What? Nowhere?” he wondered. I told him that he was pretty close, and explained that it is in Scandinavia, then that it was part of Europe. That made him truly mad. “We are sinking. We are sinking because of you!” he shouted at me furiously and went on to explain that it was the pollution from Europe that caused his island nation to sink. Countries and islands might sink and drown, or sea levels will rise, and countries and islands still drown. The perspective isn’t important. The result is the same. Most scientists seem to agree that ocean levels will rise. That still doesn’t help the old guy and many others like him. They have very real problems to deal with; Where will they and their grandchildren live in the future?
What are three of your best travel tips?
Go jogging wherever you go
To go for a run is an excellent way to get to know a new place and to discover hidden treasures such as restaurants, bars, parks, beaches and hidden paths that you would otherwise never have found. Many of these are worth revisiting later when wearing different kinds of shoes. As a foreigner, you will usually stand out, also when you jog. Use this to your advantage and get in touch with locals and fellow travellers alike.
This especially applies if you smile to those that you pass on your run. Also, when you are on vacation, many of us sit still more than usual, whether in plane seats or on beach chairs. This tends to show on your waistline after your holiday. And finally, if you bring a smartphone or a camera, you are almost guaranteed to come across good photo opportunities, places you would otherwise never have seen had it not been for your run.
Don’t use guidebooks
Then you’re putting your travel experiences in the hands of some random traveller that visited your destination at some point in time, most likely stayed for a short time and only spoke to a few people. The info is most probably outdated, and you will end up doing the tourist walk of shame, doing exactly the same thing as “everyone” else. Merely following what some random person has written in a guidebook is like plagiarising another person’s holiday. It isn’t illegal, but man, how unoriginal. Live your own holiday!
Furthermore, the owners of the bars, cafés and restaurants aren’t stupid. When they one lovely day notice, by an increased number of foreign visitors, that they have in fact been listed in, i.e. Rough Guides, they will naturally hike their prices. Of course! Wouldn’t you have? With brigades of well-off foreigners coming from nowhere into your business? I mean, travellers are often pretty well off and might not mind or care if prices go up 30%. But locals do, of course. So, you will end up in places that accommodate foreigners. And of course, those wanting to hook up with foreigners, trying to get you to buy them drinks. Finally, it doesn’t exactly make you seem like a friendly person, sitting on the bus or a bench with your nose into a guidebook, instead of actually engaging with locals, asking them what you should do.
Travel with hand luggage only
It makes your trip so much more flexible, better for the environment and fun. Instead of buying clothes back home, wash your clothes locally and buy new local products. That boosts the local economy. Any wannabe robber can see that I can’t possibly be carrying much of value, so they are less likely to bother. It is also more relaxed as I look less serious with hand luggage only and I might not even be considered a tourist. It looks like I’m just chillin’ and that I presumably know what I am doing, even in a new place. “He doesn’t even have a big suitcase. He must have been here before.”
Never turn down the possibility to travel, whether domestically or abroad. Your only bad trip (unless you do hard drugs) will be the one you didn’t go on.