(CNN) — As her plane began its descent into the Seychelles on October 6, 2019, Ugandan-American travel blogger Jessica Nabongo looked out the window in preparation for the big event that was about to take place.
Not only was she about to become a member of a prestigious club made up of very few people who traveled all over the world, she would be the first black woman to document it.
Nabongo was accompanied by 28 of her friends and relatives, who came with her on this last flight.
It took over 450 flights and over a million air miles, but she made it to all 195 countries in the world recognized by the UN.
The experience was exhausting: Nabongo flew more than 170 flights in one year and says she almost got fired several times.
“There were a few times when the panic set in and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is this going to be a public failure?'” she tells CNN Travel.
In 2019, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to document a trip to every country in the world.
Named after her popular blog, it chronicles her record-breaking journey through 100 of the 195 countries she has visited.
“I’m a geography freak,” Nabongo says of her decision to take on the challenge, explaining that she really wanted to do it at least ten years before she actually attempted it.
“In 2017, I sort of made the decision that I wanted to do this for my 35th birthday,” she tells CNN Travel.
So, was she able to meet the deadline?
“I overstayed my birthday by five months,” Nabongo explains. “But I graduated on my father’s birthday. [away] just two days after my 19th birthday, so it was nice to be able to engage him in that way.”
According to Detroit-born Nabongo, one of the key reasons she felt the need to write Catch Me If You Can was the fact that there are very few blacks among the 400 or so travelers who are thought to have visited each of the them. country in the world.
“We are so used to seeing the world through the lens of white men,” says Nabongo, who used her own photographs in the book. “And this is different. Obviously, there is some uniqueness in the experience that we get, since we exist in the world as very different people.
“But also, just in terms of how I see humanity. My respect for humanity. I see a huge difference.”
Nabongo recounts her journey as a black woman in a book released June 14, noting that such a representation is extremely important.
The traveler has released a book, Catch Me If You Can, which tells the story of 100 countries she has visited.
“It’s about normalizing our existence because yes, even in 2022, I’m often the only black person on a plane of 300 people,” she writes.
“I can travel all day and never see someone on the same end of the color spectrum. My mission is to create space. Shake shit. To say we are here and we belong.”
She feels responsible for presenting destinations that are not necessarily hotspots as sensitively as possible to challenge preconceptions.
“It’s really important to me,” she admits. “Tell stories about places most people might never go and really use my platform to present those places in a more positive light than we usually see.
“I found a lot of beauty in a lot of places that people probably didn’t expect.”
These places include Afghanistan, where she was fascinated by the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Pakistan, where she couldn’t get enough of street food, and Iran, where she visited the ancient city of Yazd.
While social media certainly existed when Nabongo first began to travel extensively, they didn’t have the impact they have today.
“When I was in Maui [Hawaii]I found this really amazing forest,” she says. — I did not geotag [add the geographic coordinates of the location] because I know what it could do to that forest.”
“Being an influencer or someone powerful, you have to be incredibly careful about how you share. It’s really important to me to ensure the safety of the places I visit.”
Nabongo during a trip to Bali, Indonesia, 2017.
Nabongo is wistful about the notion of “traveling blind”, noting that it has become almost impossible in today’s world.
“It’s definitely something I miss especially,” Nabongo admits, citing Peru as one of the destinations she’s been a little unhappy with simply because she’s seen so many images of its historic landmarks beforehand.
“When I got to Machu Picchu, I was like, ‘Oh, it looks just like the pictures,’” she admits. “So it was a disappointment.
“You think of places like Bali and Morocco, everyone goes to the same places and does the same things. And it just doesn’t interest me.
“But there is Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan. There are so many places that people do not consider valuable in terms of tourism, where I had a great time.
“I really hope that my story will reduce bias, in particular against black and brown countries.”
At some of the most difficult moments along the way, Nabongo began to doubt whether she would make it to the Seychelles, the last country on her list.
But by then, the trip had become much more than just reaching her goal—she knew she was showcasing places her followers would probably never have thought to visit.
When she reached her breaking point during a visit to Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, the words of some locals convinced her to keep going.
“One of the guys said: “This is not for you. This is for us,” she says. “It was a really huge turning point. As my audience grew, people emailed me and sent me direct messages, I realized that the journey was getting much bigger than myself. These people really helped me get to the finish line.”
While Nabongo notes that having an American passport gives her privileges that travelers of other nationalities cannot, she explains that she has been able to visit more than 40 countries on her Ugandan passport.
Nabongo was able to obtain a visa on arrival to visit Iran due to her dual citizenship.
“Having both an American and a Ugandan passport really worked for me,” she admits. “Because it is very difficult for Americans to go to Iran.
“That was my secret weapon. If I only had an American passport, I probably wouldn’t have graduated at that moment.”
Her success, along with that of other travelers like her, will no doubt inspire others to try to travel to every country in the world, but she is keen to point out that this particular destination is not for everyone.
Before embarking on such a quest, Nabongo emphasizes that travelers should really question why they want to take on this challenge, “because it’s the motivation that will take you to the finish line.”
She hopes her story will inspire others to follow their dreams, whatever that may be.
“I don’t think everyone is interested in traveling to every country in the world,” she says. “But I want people to know that they have everything inside them to do whatever they want to do in life.
“And if I could visit every wild country in the world, I feel that everyone’s dream is achievable.”
World Wide Web
Nabongo’s thirst for adventure hasn’t waned since she crossed off every country in the world from her wish list.
In Catch Me If You Can, Nabongo tells various stories about strangers who were especially kind to her during her travels, including one about a guide named Maha in Jordan who gave her a dress as a token of their friendship.
“I definitely have friends from all over the world,” she says, before expressing her admiration for how writing the book has helped her reconnect with so many of the people she met on the road.
“It was really great,” she adds. “At any given time, there are probably conversations in 20 countries on my WhatsApp.
“People, of course, will always start out as strangers. But if you’re open to it, you can make friends quickly, and in some cases even family.
“For me, home is not about people. I think that’s why I feel such a close connection with people when I travel. Because it’s like I’m building little houses all over the world, if you will.”
While the process of visiting every country in the world seemed exhausting to her, Nabongo admits that writing “Catch Me If You Can” was more difficult “without difficulty.”
But she hopes the book will inspire more kindness in the world, explaining that since the early days of the pandemic, she has noticed changes in the behavior of other people, especially when traveling.
“It was all love and kindness, and then turned into madness,” she says. “Now you see people fighting on planes and being very rude.
“So, I think, unfortunately, that initial surge of love and humanity that we got in the first four to six months has dissipated.”
Nabongo admits that at times this made her feel disheartened.
However, she remains inspired by her own experience of human kindness and continues to look for beauty in the world wherever she goes.
And now that she has visited all the countries, Nabongo’s passion for travel has only intensified.
At the time of writing, she was about to make another trip to Senegal, which she describes as her “happy place”, and eventually plans to mark another destination. visiting all US states.
“I have six left,” she explains, before emphasizing that she is in no rush and will complete this particular task “when I get to it.”