Maurizio Giuliano has visited every country in the world, and he completed the quest at just age 28. He got into the Guinness for being the youngest to do so at the time, and have also been to most of the world’s “other entities” (of which there is no objective list). In this interview he shares some of his favourites.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
I love Asia, and Bhutan is the country I love the most. Besides unspoilt nature and idyllic cultural sites away from mass tourism, people are so friendly and proud of their traditional way of life. It is a country that took my breath away. Despite being hyperactive, I think I could spend a long time there and never feel restless — it is a place where my mind and body just entered a different state — one of relaxation and appreciation for life and nature, for the simple things away from consumerism and frenzy. I was honoured to meet His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo (then Crowne Prince) and have tremendous respect for him. My tip: even though there is a fixed daily cost to visit, this cost includes almost everything you could want and is well worth it.
When I visited in 1989, aged 14, to see a pen pal whom I had befriended by exchanging snail mail over months, I had an incredible feeling of deja vu. Perhaps I lived there in a previous life? I became conversant without making much effort and felt at home from the very first moment. Despite very serious shortcomings in terms of civil and political rights, the culture and education of people were incredible — a country with such a rich history and cultural expressions: Hospitality and warmth. Now the country doesn’t exist anymore in the same form, but I think it still lives inside the “soul” of Russians and other peoples of the former USSR. My tip: whether in large cities or rural areas, take the time to look and find that special “soul”, perhaps a remnant of the past as much as a pivot of the present.
It may not be as breathtaking or bespoke as more remote or supposedly glamorous places, but Lisbon is my favourite European city — and Europe is where I am from. The richness of art music, the historical sights, the varied landscapes, the friendliness and relaxed attitude of the people, a good socio-political system, are completed by usually excellent weather, fantastic food (I like simple food!) and wine, and reasonable prices. It is a country that has simply nothing missing, in my view. Tip: consider moving or retiring there if you can.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Nighttime landing in Atafu, Tokelau
During my backpacking in the South Pacific, after months, I managed to book the regular government boat from Samoa to Tokelau, which was monthly at the time and had limited availability. The journey itself to the three islands was unique: a small boat navigating the waters for two days without any other boat in sight, in the company of only a handful of locals, and then each island would magically appear on the horizon, soon followed by the chanting and welcome of the locals.
I reached the remotest island, Atafu, at night — and needless to say I was a curiosity for the locals. Small rafts came to the boat and transferred us ashore while some sort of sea crabs climbed on me. With my Lonely Planet guide in hand, I asked for fisherman Faleti Lopa — and indeed, he was there and had a spare room just as the book said. Lonely Planet was truly a travel survival kit! He woke up to welcome me, and we had lots of chat, coconuts and fish. Twenty years later, I connected with his niece on Facebook’s Tokelau group and am glad to know he is well and fishing.
Love at first sight in Africa
Aged 16, I went to Sierra Leone to visit a Lebanese friend who lived there, who was studying with me in the UK. It was always hard for my parents to see me go to unusual places (a euphemism compared to their anxious language), but they trusted me (and supported me generously), and I will be ever grateful to them for that. From the moment I landed (KLM flew there at the time), the heat and humidity permeated my body, along with the sounds and scents of the countryside around Lungi airport, and I felt loved and in love. Nowhere else had I felt that human warmth before. Thirty years later, I have lived in Africa for ten years and can’t wait to go back.
Twenty-four hours in Antarctica
After much negotiating, I got a seat on a Chilean military aircraft to Antarctica, specifically to King George island — I couldn’t have afforded a luxury cruise or expedition. My stay was only 24 hours, including a helicopter trip to the mainland. I can’t believe how much I got done: from visiting the Chilean, Russian and Chinese bases and chatting with their staff, playing with the penguins and seals, making friends with the Chilean military — I just didn’t sleep. The feeling of being in such a remote continent was in itself unique, and I found enough time to simply sit and contemplate the natural beauty of simplicity. Peaceful, simple. We humans may consider ourselves the centre of the world, but this was definitely reversed at that time.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Being told I am not who I am
Travel hiccups do happen when you least expect them, and not necessarily in unusual places or circumstances. While working in Mexico, I went to Europe for Christmas with my family. As my wife wanted to stay longer, I decided to go back to Mexico the other way round: a quick trip to Moscow and Bangkok and back via Taipei to Vancouver and Mexico. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, at the boarding of my flight from Taipei to Vancouver, a local official asked me a lot of questions about my travels, myself, my baggage, and more.
I was asked what languages I spoke and tested in each. I couldn’t believe my ears when she told the airline to offload my baggage: I wasn’t allowed to fly. But I thought I was literally dreaming when she confronted me, saying my passports were counterfeit and I was neither Italian nor British. I was from Latin America, apparently, and she insisted on knowing my real identity. I literally fell onto a seat and couldn’t speak for a long while. It took hours to mobilise my embassies so I could fly the next day. I didn’t get much of an apology: Apparently, going around the world in two weeks and speaking several languages without an accent is suspicious.
Seeing utter poverty and war for the first time
Africa is marvellous, and so is Angola. That was my second trip to sub-Saharan Africa, aged 17, during my gap year. As I was a freelance journalist, some Italian priests histed me for free in their mission, in exchange for my articles and photographs in their magazines (that was my version of volunteering).
I was staying in the Golf district of Luanda, an extremely poor area. I had never seen poverty to such an extent before: people who literally had a hut to shelter them from rain and get by day by day in the hope of having enough food and water for their children and themselves. They had almost no material possessions. And as if it weren’t enough, while I was there, UNITA attacked the government and foreigners were evacuated.
I left the day after major explosions and attacks started, and I could hardly imagine how the situation for vulnerable people would get even worse. Yet, even without almost any material possessions, I was still impressed by the smile and warmth of those I met. They might have had what few privileged people have: resilience and faith. I love Africa. And that was also a turning moment for me, shaping my desire to work for a better world in one way or other.
Losing my passport in Albania aged 16
Albania is a rather developed European country now, but the situation was very different in 1991: the communist government had just fallen, and there was a situation of near-anarchy. On the flight from Rome to Tirana, my passport was stolen (by an Albanian who was being deported from Italy, as we discovered later).
It was great that an Italian diplomat was at the airport when I arrived and told me to show up at the embassy the next day and all would be sorted. So I did show up at the embassy, where hundreds of Albanians were camping in the hope of fleeing to Italy, and after some time, spoke to an Italian. Sadly the diplomat I had met had travelled due to a family emergency.
Two weeks ensued while I tried to convince the embassy that I was truly Italian and that my Milanese accent wasn’t an Albanian accent. The feeling of being undocumented was bad. Yet, those two weeks allowed me to meet wonderful Albanians, who hosted me in their homes and became friends — that was in the days before Couchsurfing. In difficult times, and perhaps especially in such times, is when you can truly appreciate human solidarity and humanity.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Exploring culture is about people
When we talk about art, music, architecture or even food, that’s actually “cultural expressions”, not culture per se. Culture, I would say, is the ways in which people behave and interact in a society — ways which then give rise to those cultural expressions. If you truly want to plunge into a culture, get beyond those cultural expressions and spend as much time as possible with the locals — blending in as much as possible.
I am ashamed to say I have been several times to Delhi but didn’t visit the Taj Mahal (quite embarrassing and not a good example), but that was because every time I was too busy in Delhi with invitations by Indian friends and acquaintances to weddings, festivities, food parties, or simply hanging out. I have honestly become able to interact with people from all walks of life anywhere, and this likewise helps me feel at home everywhere — and it’s great to enjoy travel while having this feeling of being comfortably at home nevertheless.
Become a miles wizz
I have spent and still spend a lot on travel. Yet, I spend much less than what one might think. Just at this moment that I am flying from Europe to New York, I have a huge choice of free nights, vouchers, a statement credit, plus the obvious miles and points. For the uninitiated, read The Points Guy or similar — you could be saving a lot on your flights and accommodation.
Document your trips!
This is something I wish I could have done better in my backpacking years, but the internet was in its infancy — though I did write as a freelance journalist. I am in the process of digitising about 7,000 photos from my early travels and plan to put them online in some sort of project when I have time. My collection of 69 passports filled with stamps is also meant to go online. But I am going to document my travels retroactively for the most part.
So, now that the digital world offers infinite opportunities don’t miss your chance to have your own travel blog, website, channels etc., early on in your travels. You will find your own angle, something related to you (whether it be a passion, a hobby, or even a disability you live with) or what you do on the road (eating good food, dancing, or meditating). We are all part of this wonderful community called Planet Earth.