The Favourites of Per Besson
Per Besson is an American traveller with a very Scandinavian first name, chosen by his Danish mother. He was born ready to face the world on July 7th (7/7), making it easy to fill out his birthdate on forms, avoiding the international month/day vs day/month format confusion.
Besides the US, he has lived in China (7 years), Brazil (6 years), Germany (5 years) and Italy (4 years), as well as Spain, Portugal, France, Argentina and now the UK. Growing up speaking both English and Danish, learning these different countries’ languages has come quite naturally. But, admittedly, he has not been able to quite perfect the British accent.
In 2019 after visiting Colombia, his 193rd and final UN country, he started studying Russian with an eye on travelling farther and wider across the vast expanse of the ex-Soviet Union.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
Ah… the favourite (or least favourite) country question…!! For the traveller of open mind and heart, a challenging question to answer. It is safe to say that countries are like people. Certain ones are much easier to like. Easy to like the countries with friendly locals, breathtaking landscapes, rich history and culture, tasty food at prices so low that one can eat the whole day for the price of Starbucks Frappuccino back home. And on the other hand, some countries are seemingly like children only a mother could love!
For me, all countries have given me something. Some because the memories are so wonderful. And some because the experiences have been so difficult that they have provided some of the best stories. Irritating, frustrating, painful, sickening, infuriating perhaps, but if no lasting damage, then all good in the end.
And since I am interested in history and culture, all countries are interesting. So what makes a country functional or rather dysfunctional? Happy or unhappy? Why is the country different from its neighbors? Shouldn’t kids who grow up in the same neighborhood turn out pretty much the same?
And for lovers of history like myself, it is the big countries that offer some of the richest tapestries of history. Big countries offer big stories and the pleasure of going deeper and deeper, unpeeling successive layers. For me, a big part of that journey has been learning the language, enabling me to connect with people across a broad spectrum of society. With that is access to a certain “hidden valley” within the soul of the nation available to those who can understand the culture embedded within the language.
So my favorite three countries are all big countries.
In 1995 I took 20,000 kilometer bus trip around South America, mainly in Brazil.
I was transformed. Brazil spoke to me. The spontaneity and the warmth of the people unlocked new parts of my being. I felt like a more human. I liked it so much that right after finishing my MBA in 1997, I moved down to Sao Paulo without a job, firing off CVs right and left until I eventually got a job with an American multinational and stayed for six years.
Brazil is not just a country. It is a sub-continent. It is a country with famously rich geographic and ethnic diversity but also unified by a special “Brazilianess” of warmth, inclusiveness, tolerance, and goodwill among its people that I found truly extraordinary. And ever since then, I have found myself in many places in this world where I run into Brazilians, and it feels a bit like coming home, right away the conversation easy, natural, warm and welcoming.
When I was a child of maybe 7-8 years old living in Oregon, my family would go out once a month for dinner to Chow’s Family Style Chinese restaurant. My father, who had been in China while in the US Navy in the 1930s, could say thank you in Chinese and I was so amazed. Never did I imagine I could learn Chinese. In 2001 I visited China as part of an overland trip from Hong Kong to Lisbon. I tried my hand at learning some Chinese, and some days it felt like I would learn two words and then forget three, and then also get the tones wrong.
Eventually, in 2007 I ended up moving to Beijing and finally took learning the language seriously. A bit humiliating as I thought I was good with languages and Chinese even harder than I imagined. My conclusion is that one has to be obsessed or masochistic to learn Chinese. Preferably both. However, to use the Chinese phrase, “I ate bitter”, I studied very hard and eventually became fluent in Chinese.
All this time, I was going one by one to all of the provinces in China that I missed. So much fun speaking a language that no one expects you to speak. The fact that I speak Danish (because of my Danish mother) is nothing special when one is 1.94m (6’4″) with blond hair and blue eyes looking more Danish than many Danes. But having that same biotype in China made me the center of attention at any place off the beaten track. And almost all of China is off the beaten path.
There is a saying that “Americans think everybody should be like them, and Chinese think no one can be like them”. Most Chinese have never left China, don’t speak a foreign language and have never had a conversation with a foreigner. And possibly never will. They simply have not learned to relate to things foreign. So I was the de facto ambassador representing the whole outside world for them. And that is a very special feeling and responsibility.
Like Americans of my generation, I was a child of the Cold War. Russia (or the ex-Soviet Union) was the far off place of the enemy, cold and uninviting populated by people of similar characteristics.
When I finally finished my 193rd country, I thought to myself, what language could I learn that would allow me to go deeper in the largest part of the world possible? And it was obvious that Russian would be the most rewarding for me. Not only useful in Russia and its 19 million, often sparsely populated, square kilometers but the other fourteen countries that emerged out of the ashes of the Soviet Union’s collapse. All have many Russian speakers, especially among the generation educated in the time of the Soviet Union.
Like many first time visitors to Russia, my first trip was on the Transsiberian (or rather Transmongolian) railroad in 2001, coming overland from China. Classic stops in Irkutsk, Moscow, Saint Petersburg. Beautiful, impressive in so many ways but a feel for me of not being in a very inviting place. Many things can feel heavy and difficult. No service with a smile like in the USA. No easy Latin warmth. But slowly also the growing realization that Russians are warm and emotional in their own way just not right away with strangers. It takes time, and maybe a few vodkas, to see the ice melt before your eyes. Getting to know Russia and the Russians is like picking up Tolstoy’s War and Peace with its 1100 pages and getting past the few pages until Tolstoy’s genius grabs you and pulls you into the story.
When we travel, we cannot expect that people we meet are interested or even know anything about our country (although if you come from the US, you can be pretty sure most people have some opinion!!). However, we can control what we learn about their country and culture. And that can serve as a basis for connection and the warmth of human interaction. For me, that common culture I have found fundamental in connecting with Russians is watching many of the well known Soviet/Russian movies. Not only good to practice Russian but to create a common language of experience.
Last year I was in western Ukraine in the city of L’viv, famous for being a center of Ukrainian nationalism. I found myself in a conversation in Russian with the Uber driver. He quickly worked himself into a bad mood talking about the situation with Russians in Donbas, Crimea etc., but then I wisely changed topics to one near and dear to all of our hearts; favorite movies. When he started talking about the favorite old Soviet comedy movies he had seen in his youth, he underwent a transformation. When we said goodbye, it was with a huge smile and a warm handshake. These are the type of special moments of connection when we find a common language.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
Neuroscientists say the pleasure response in the brain from a memory of some positive experience in one’s life is very similar to the experience itself. Things we buy can break when we drop them, burn down in a fire, be stolen or lost… or simply the thrill of the purchase wears off in the form of hedonic adaptation. On the other hand, the richness of our travel memories is with us forever. And the stories can get a little bit better each time we tell them.
Driving into the Punjabi sunset
There are so many moments of delight on the road. The warmth of contact with locals. The aching beauty of nature in its many manifestations. Special moments shared, and friendships made with fellow travelers off the beaten path. The giddy feeling of motion of transport as we pass the rich canvas of local color and street scenes. And then perhaps a soundtrack of local music, its contagious, primal power penetrating our consciousness. Or maybe all these things all together?
This is what happened to me after witnessing the daily border-closing ceremonies in the Pakistani Punjab border town of Wagah right across from India. Amphitheatres on both sides of the border filled with people shouting nationalist slogans, “Pakistan Zindabad!! “Hindustan Zindabad!” (Long Live Pakistan and Long Live India), goose-stepping two-meter tall men loudly slamming their feet on the ground, looking impressively fierce. Then, finally, a quick handshake of a split second of international cooperation between two towering Indian and Pakistan soldiers right at the border line, and the border is closed for the day.
And then the rush to get away from the border to catch a tuk-tuk back to Lahore along with a Chinese and a German traveler. Quick negotiation with a young, friendly tuk-tuk driver and off we zoomed off with catchy local music blaring out of the tuk-tuk’s powerful speakers, the driver zigging and zagging through traffic. The four of us joking and laughing as we enjoyed the cooling evening air (a relief after the 40-degree Celsius temperatures during the day) in the straight drive west towards the sun and the explosion of color on the horizon that the sunset brings. Simply magical.
“Pole pole” – Slowly, surely to meet the sunrise over Kilimanjaro
We look forward to visiting certain places for days, weeks, years, and sometimes for seemingly a lifetime. For example, when I was in high school, my father traveled to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. He reached the altitude of 5300m (of the total 5895m), and then like many who have traveled so far to get there, he turned back down the mountain, the altitude too much for him. Admittedly he was 80 years old at the time, so perhaps a valid excuse. However, he did keep up his fitness, later on completing a marathon (42km) at age 90.
So in my mind, Tanzania and climbing Kilimanjaro in my mind were always linked. So I told myself I wouldn’t go there except if I were also to climb Kilimanjaro. So I postponed this trip time after time until when I finally went; it was to become my 47th country visited in Africa. An old English friend of twenty years – Duncan – was going with his girlfriend Virginia, and I invited a newer Italian friend, Giovanni friend of mine, to round out a foursome. New friends, old friends pushing through the physical discomfort during the day, freezing nights in the tent, the uncertainty of reaching the goal, we are all like old friends in this camaraderie of common challenge and suffering.
In the first few days of hiking up the mountain, there hovers in our minds one constant thought. Maybe after that midnight ascent of the last day we will enjoy that most glorious sunrise from the roof of Africa. Or maybe not? In mid-ascent, one’s body may protest too much, and one must head back, the altitude sickness too much to handle. And there are also thoughts of ageing and mortality? Am I getting old and out of shape? If so, how much does that really matter?
The four of us, after six hours of ascent, zigzagging up a steep slope shortly before sunrise, crested over the lip of the crater at Gillman’s Point (5708m). From there, just a gentle ascent along the crater’s rim to the peak of Kilimanjaro. A moment of relief and a sense of accomplishment as the tricky part was behind us. And then a moment of sadness for Giovanni and myself as the altitude finally got to Virginia, she desperate go to straight back down. And Duncan, ever the attentive English gentleman, hesitated not an instant and took her down to a more comfortable elevation. Two years later, they were married. Virginia is in excellent hands. Duncan, too, by the way.
Giovanni and I continued our plodding steps “pole pole”(slowly slowly in Swahili) in windy minus ten degree Celsius weather to the tippy top of Kilimanjaro and its iconic sign (“Congratulations. You are now at Uluru Peak, Tanzania: 5895m…”) with people clustered around waiting for their commemorative photos. And then, before descending once again, we stopped to admire one last time the glorious sunrise above the snow/ice of Kilimanjaro with Mama Africa stretching out in all directions. A sense of accomplishment and gratitude, warm thoughts of my father, a release of tension, a sense of calm, but also somehow a sense of sadness. The sadness of achieving a goal and wondering what next. We all need to climb our own mountains but then also need to find new mountains to climb.
Last but not least – Colombia
For those fortunate to find themselves facing the last handful of countries, there is often the thought, “what will that last country be”? I had long postponed a trip to Colombia, knowing how much there is to see there and not wanting to rush it. I postponed my Colombia trip to the very end when I could finally tell my Colombian friends, “Last but certainly not least”. Flying into Bogota, I arrived at 2:30 am, tired after a long flight from London. Going through customs, I remember talking to the agent, telling him how happy I was to finally make my first trip to Colombia. My last time to say “this is the first time to visit this country”. Until of course there are new countries. What will be next South Sudan?
Arriving in Colombia, I felt this wave of gratitude come over me. And this wave would hit me again and again on that trip, waves of positive energy carrying me around the country as if I were the runner going around the stadium on a victory lap. And during my time in Colombia (Cali, Leticia, Bogota, Los Llanos, Medellin, Valledupar, Guajira, Santa Marta, Aracataca, Barranquilla, Mompox, Cartagena, San Andres) embracing the huge diversity of experience this country offers, I felt so present. So present in the moment. Those childhood dreams of seeing the world had come true—much beyond my wildest imagination.
Being grateful and present in the moment is easier when there is some special occasion, like visiting the 193rd and final UN country. But happiness truly happens when we can take some of that gratitude and presence back with us in our everyday journey through our lives.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Nigerian visa – How many days on a ten-day transit visa?
For many travellers, Africa offers some of the biggest challenges and the best stories. And many of them come from Nigeria. These challenges can start from getting the visa to the very moment that one tries to leave the country, as in my case.
(But for a little extra flavor of the Nigerian experience, let me add a reference to my absolute favorite visa story of all time when a certain Portuguese friend of mine found himself needing to spend a large amount of money on said visa, as well as make some other payments on the side. But before the visa was issued, his new “friend” at the Nigerian embassy of Lisbon insisted they go out for dinner… not once… but many, many times. At my friend’s expense. And the Nigerian friend in question showed an unusual appreciation for the most expensive wines on the menu).
Anyway, back to MY story where I find myself heading to the border from Nigerian going into Cameroon. I am pretty relieved that all has gone well on my trip in Nigeria so far. I had picked up a ten-day transit visa in Niamey, Niger and entered Nigeria from Porto Novo, Benin, going into Lagos. Lagos to Benin City on to Calabar, where I planned to take the ferry to Cameroon on Day 8, safely leaving the country with some margin as to absolutely not overstay my visa. There was a strike at the port, complete with some angry employees protesting and putting some bad “juju” (a spell) on the port company. So I headed upcountry five hours in a packed mini-van, plus a motorcycle taxi plus a shared taxi towards a tiny border crossing.
At this point, I am feeling good. I’m here in “big, bad Nigeria” and everything is going pretty smoothly. Up to now, I’ve enjoyed my trip a lot. Friendly, curious people, tasty food and that special feeling of being in a place way off the beaten path, where tourists are pretty unheard of. And unseen. I haven’t seen a white person for 3-4 days.
I was stopped at a checkpoint before the border where my passport was taken away, and then I got called into a back room and told that I had overstayed my visa. The official opened up my passport and pointed to my entry stamp and some scribbling that appeared to say “72 hours” when read carefully. “NO NO”, he said, “The embassy can’t decide how long you stay in the country; it is the immigration that decides this upon your arrival. You only have 72 hours to cross Nigeria!!”. He also added that there is a problem with the Islamic extremists Boko Haram and it looks very suspicious that I have visas for Pakistan and Afghanistan in my passport. It sounded like he wanted to play hardball. Oops! My visit to Nigeria was not going so smoothly after all.
So now I have “officially” overstayed my visa, a fairly serious offence in many countries. And I still need to get through several checkpoints before finally reaching the border to get my exit stamp and leave the country. I am threatened with being sent back the five hours to Calabar to “sort things out there”. A $1000 fine is mentioned as a possibility. A lot of time-wasting and adrenaline draining negotiation, and step by step, I make it to and across the border. I paid my only bribes – or fines depending on one’s perspective – ever in Africa, a total of about $14 (in local currency) and I arrived enormously relieved in Cameroon.
My border challenge was a temporary inconvenience for me, but for people who live in this part of the world, this is just reality/way of life. Western travelers, with our powerful passports, really don’t have much to complain about. It is usually our choice to travel to these types of places. And we can routinely come and go pretty much as we please.
Losing the ultimate souvenir – the well-worn passport
Some travelers possess vast treasure troves of souvenirs, sent and schlepped back from all over the globe. Some of these are sitting in closets, collecting dust. Some are displayed in impressive form in travel trophy rooms, display cases or a few shelves here and there. Some travelers buy little but preserve their memories in photo or video form. Finally, there are those whose travel mementos are their journals full of scribbling, musings and perhaps a collection of boarding pass stubs, museum tickets and other two-dimensional paper scraps that can be kept in album form.
Regardless of how one remembers one’s journey and how minimalist one is, there is usually one universally adored personal travel memento; the passport. Its entry/exits stamps and visas are sometimes in coherent order reminding one of trips itineraries past. The passport may be bent, worn, discolored. The more the traveling love it gets, the worse shape the passport is in. Blood, sweat and tears lost on the road may stain this document in ways metaphorical or otherwise. And memories permeate throughout. Over the years, the passports stack up in some drawer somewhere, revealing a life well-lived.
We protect our passports jealously when we travel. We can lose almost anything else and still continue the journey. Lose absolutely everything down to your underwear and your passport, and you can still receive money sent to the local Western Union, go on a shopping expedition and hit the road again, if necessary quickly crossing borders like a hurdler jumps over hurdles.
I usually am also quite protective of my passport when I am on travel mode, tucking away in a money belt or a padlocked section of my backpack. However, one time I found myself in Frankfurt train station, a place I have been literally hundreds of times. I just had arrived from London very, very relaxed. Too relaxed.
Leaving the train station, I realized that my passport had been stolen from a poorly zipped pocket of my backpack. This passport had had extra pages added to it a couple of times for a grand total of 102 pages. Every single page jam-packed with stamps as for years I had been asking the customs people to squeeze stamps in to fill all available space. This, in addition to about 35-40 pages of full-page visas, including almost all my Africa visas, many earned with a feeling of accomplishment/relief at embassies across Africa.
Ouch!! The realization of that loss hit me like a ton of bricks, and I was in a funk for days. On the positive side, it was a real dose of humility. We often take too much pride in supposedly being in control or being good at something. Like travel, for example. But yes, I still had much to learn. On the positive side, I was to travel with my mother the next day on a trip to Iran, and I had my Iran visa in my second passport. All things considered, losing precisely the passport that I did maybe not so bad after all. My mother certainly thought so.
Delhi Belly in Mumbai and Goa
What is a life of travel without some health issue that makes us appreciate the monotonous regularity of a more healthy life back home? I have been pretty lucky about my health (knock on wood) so far in my travels. Still, like many, or perhaps most travelers to India, I have had my challenges with the infamous Delhi Belly, that unfortunate condition of the gastrointestinal tract where at certain urgent moments, given a choice, you would much much rather skip seeing the Taj Mahal if one could find a bathroom instead.
I was en route overland from Beijing to Bangalore over the Karakoram Highway. All good working my way south in India after crossing from Pakistan to Amritsar. This is my first trip to India, and I am very cautious, thinking I can be lucky and outsmart the local bacteria. No Delhi Belly in Delhi or anywhere else the first few weeks. So far, so good. Arriving in Mumbai, I install myself, behind the iconic Taj Mahal hotel in Colaba, in the Salvation Army with its bed & breakfast steal of a deal at $3 . A couple of days of happy Mumbai life and then diarrhea and nausea hit me hard. Delhi Belly had struck!
I stopped by the pharmacy, and I optimistically loaded up with many curative goodies; antibiotics, hydration salts, plenty of water. Purchase made, and right after I stepped out on the street, I immediately took my medicine with plenty of water. And because of my nausea, I promptly threw it all back up again. I repeated the procedure with the same outcome. Again and again. Nothing else to do but go back to my room in the hostel and lie down miserable on my bed in this room with ten bunk beds. During this long night, I alternately dozed off for brief spells and stared up at the ceiling with the semi-hypnotic movement of the slow, lazy blades of the ceiling fan. And I wondered about all the places I would rather be. But by the following day, scarcely 24 hours after it began, I started to feel better, filling me with optimism and an appetite that allowed me to eat a half bowl of white rice which tasted so imaginably good.
Two days later, I was totally fit and on the train down to Goa. This is early June (2010), and monsoon season is almost upon us; Goa is quiet and peaceful, enjoying this low season lull. A couple of days I spent in a small beach town, and then I moved into the charming capital of Panaji.
Delhi Belly hits again, but this time even harder. I visited the local doctor, a gentlemanly 75 year educated in Portuguese before the Portuguese withdrawal in 1961. A kind, gentle man but aggressive when prescribing antibiotics, giving me not one but two!!
No express version of Delhi Belly this time but a full five days in bed. This, however, was the time I used to travel with a huge backpack and I was carrying a stack of some of India’s best literature, and I hadn’t had time to read yet; Salman Rushdie (Midnight Children), Arundhati Roy’s (God of Small Things), Aravind Adiga (White Tiger) etc. So with nothing else to do but read, I was going through 500 pages a day.
Luckily, on the 5th day, when I ran out of reading material, I felt good enough to go outside for the first time. At the local bookstore, and found that classic book of the traveller in India; Shantaram and promptly read 500 pages in it that very day. Locked in my room those five days all those days I was traveling through India, as I used to travel through the world as a small boy. By reading, imagining, and dreaming.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Advice is usually simply an expression of ones personal autobiography. We often get used to doing things a certain way and imagine that this can work for others.
Travel with one small carryon backpack
Traveling light is one of the classic travel tips. A few reasons of how it has worked for me:
1) Arriving later at the airport and not needing to check bags or wait at the baggage carousel to pick them up
2) Keeping my bag with me at all times while traveling rather than, for example, under the bus and worrying about somehow losing it
3) Not needing to leave my luggage somewhere and then have to circle back for it at the hotel, luggage locker etc.
4) Keeping my fashion choices simple. Most clothing is of a simple, light, sporty, quick, easy to wash and dry variety
5) Relaxing ritual of washing my clothes by hand and hanging them up to dry while listening to my favorite podcasts
6) Arriving in a new place with my discretely small backpack not immediately betraying me as a tourist “fresh off the boat”
7) No temptation to do a lot of shopping as “I don’t have any space anyway”
8) A little extra dose of healthy exercise as I am often simply carrying my 10 kg backpack around with me to save time/hassle/expense/insecurity of leaving it somewhere
9) A developing appreciation for minimalism
10) An appreciation for wearing a variety of nicer clothes when I return home.
Lift up one’s face from the phone
Yes, I know Google is our friend, and we can find out almost everything that we need to know with a few searches and a few clicks. We can even watch so many videos on Youtube that maybe we even think we know more than the locals. We can be so good at our research that we don’t even feel we have to ask anyone any questions.
Maybe you can remember those ancient days before the smartphone when travelers carried a physical map around, along with probably a somewhat lost look on their face, and we would approach people to ask questions? Sure the goal of that interaction was to get information. But in all those hundreds and thousands of spontaneous interactions, there was much more than that. We would often stop a minute and chat, maybe be invited for tea, maybe make a friend. Perhaps we would hear some amazing trip-defining stories or experience things so unique things that we would never otherwise be exposed to. Not even on Youtube.
So, resist the temptation to do research and overplan every step of the way. Instead, put your phone down, get used to asking those around at the slightest excuse, and see in what surprising directions these interactions can take you.
Language is about connection – a few words go a long ways
As an American (or any other native English speaker) we are born with a huge blessing. We speak the language of global communication. And we are slow to appreciate the full value of speaking at least a few words in a foreign language.
Of course, part of the value is exchanging information and being understood. For example, negotiating a price, finding out the bus time, understanding the menu etc. All very practical things. Nowadays, luckily a lot of those practical communication issues can be solved by Google translate. Sure we can say “hello”, “thank you” etc. (in English) in many places in the world, and it will be understood perfectly. We both understand what the words mean. So that is communication, right? That is true, but it is missing an important point.
When you make the effort (and it can be a big effort sometimes) to speak some words in a foreign language, the effort shows. And that effort shows respect and interest in the culture. It says, “I value your culture, and I am interested in you”. And it often can differentiate you from a sizeable majority of tourists who make no minimal effort at all. The bar is usually very low. Especially in areas where there are other tourists, this can set you apart dramatically. The subtext that they understand from your words is “he likes us, appreciates us, likes to learn from our culture”.
Sure if one lives spends a much longer time in-country one can make a real effort to learn the language, study the grammar etc., but when passing through it is enough to learn a few greetings and a few expressions that show you are polite and respectful, that you come in peace! Over time and trial and error, one can also learn random expressions that delight and connect you with the locals.
Years ago, when I was working with tourism to Libya, I learned the Arabic expression “wahda wahda” which literally means “one by one”. In other words, slow and easy, and everything will come in its due time. Whenever I used this expression in Libya, I discovered that people would often break out in big smiles. Embedded in these words is a dimension of culture and mentality that communicated that I understood that certain things couldn’t be rushed or forced. That I could go with the local flow.
Since then, in almost every country I have been to, I have learned local versions (like “pole pole” – slow slow in Swahili), or in some cases, the version is something more like “step by step”. Whatever the local version in Africa and across countries of the developing world, the message is the same. This big 1.95m (6’4″) blond white guy is actually, little by little getting closer to our culture and getting closer to us. Wahda wahda.