Jessica Nabongo: “What traveling to all the countries of the world taught me”

(CNN) — As her plane began its descent to the Seychelles on October 6, 2019, Ugandan-American influencer Jessica Nabongo stared out the window, bracing herself for the momentous occasion that was to come.

Not only was she about to become a member of a prestigious club made up of the very few people who have traveled to every country in the world, but she would be the first black woman to have it documented.

Nabongo was accompanied by 28 of her friends and family, who had flown in to travel with her on this final flight.

It had taken more than 450 flights and over a million air miles, but she had managed to get to all 195 UN-recognized countries in the world.

The experience has been exhausting – Nabongo has taken more than 170 flights in a year and says she almost gave up on several occasions.

“There were a number of times where panic set in and I was like, ‘Oh my god, is this going to result in public failure? ‘” she told CNN Travel.

Epic challenge

In 2019, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to document her travels to every country in the world.

Jessica Nabongo

Nabongo has since written a book, “The Catch Me If You Can”, detailing his experiences moving from country to country during the epic challenge.

Named after her popular blog, it chronicles her record-breaking journey, focusing on 100 of the 195 countries she has visited.

“I’m a geography geek,” Nabongo says of her decision to take on the challenge, explaining that it was something she had wanted to do at least a decade before attempting it.

“In 2017, I kind of decided to do it before my 35th birthday,” she told CNN Travel.

So, was she able to meet her deadline?

“I passed my birthday by five months,” explains Nabongo. “But I ended up finishing on my dad’s birthday. He passed away [away] just two days after my 19th birthday, so it was nice to be able to bring it into the fold that way.”

According to Nabongo, who was born in Detroit, one of the main reasons she felt compelled to write “The Catch Me If You Can” was because very few black people were among the approximately 400 travelers who would have visited every country in the world.

“We’re so used to seeing the world through the lens of white men,” says Nabongo, who used his own photos in the book. “And it’s different. There’s obviously a certain uniqueness to the experiences that we have, as 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 discusses her travel experiences as a black woman in the book, released June 14, noting that such representation is extremely important.

create space

The travel influencer released a book, "Catch Me If You Can," featuring 100 of the countries she has visited.

The travel influencer has released a book, ‘The Catch Me If You Can’, featuring 100 of the countries she’s visited.

Jessica Nabongo

“It’s about normalizing our existence, because, yes, even in 2022, I’m often the only black person on a 300 plane,” she wrote.

“I can travel for days and never see someone on the same end of the color spectrum. My mission is to create space. To shake shit up. To say, we’re here and we belong.”

She feels responsible for portraying destinations that aren’t necessarily tourist hotspots with as much sensitivity as possible to challenge preconceptions.

“It’s really important to me,” she admits. “Telling stories about places most people might never go and really using my platform to put 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 wouldn’t have expected.”

These places include Afghanistan, where she was fascinated by the Hazrat Ali Shrine, also known as the Blue Mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Pakistan, where she could not get enough of the street food, and Iran, where she visited the ancient city of Yazd.

While social media was certainly present when Nabongo started to travel extensively, it was not as influential as it is today.

The former UN worker notes that having a successful blog and over 200,000 Instagram followers has given her many privileges, especially when it comes to travel, but she’s very aware of the content she shares, acknowledging that the impact of social media hasn’t been entirely positive when it comes to vulnerable places.

“When I was in Maui [Hawaii]I found this forest really amazing,” she says. “I did not geolocate [add the geographic coordinates of the location] because I know what it could have done to this forest.”

“As an influencer or someone of influence, you have to be extremely careful with how you share. For me, it’s really important to ensure the preservation of the places I visit.”

Impact of influencers

Nabongo during a trip to Bali, Indonesia in 2017.

Nabongo during a trip to Bali, Indonesia in 2017.

Jessica Nabongo

Nabongo is nostalgic for the notion of “traveling blind”, noting that it has become nearly impossible in the modern world.

“It’s definitely something that I miss in particular,” admits Nabongo, citing Peru as one of the destinations that left her a bit disappointed just because she had already seen so many images of its historical sites.

“When I got to Machu Picchu, I was like, ‘Oh, this looks like the pictures,’” she admits. “So that was disappointing.

“You think of places like Bali and Morocco, everyone goes to the same destinations and does the same things. And that just doesn’t interest me.

“But there’s Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan. There are so many places that people don’t think are useful in terms of tourism, where I had an absolutely amazing time.

“I really hope that through my storytelling there will be a reduction in prejudice about black and brown countries in particular.”

During some of her toughest moments on the road, Nabongo began to wonder if she would go to Seychelles, the last country on her list.

But the trip had become more than just fulfilling her purpose at the time — she knew she was showcasing places her followers probably never would have considered visiting.

When she reached her breaking point during a visit to Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, it was the words of some locals that convinced her to keep going.

“One of the guys said, ‘This isn’t for you. This is for us.'” she says. “It was really a watershed moment. Because my audience was growing and people were emailing me and DMing me, I realized the journey was getting so much bigger than me. These men really helped me reach the finishing line.”

While Nabongo notes that having a US passport gives her privileges not granted to travelers of other nationalities, she explains that she has been able to travel to more than 40 countries with her Ugandan passport.

secret weapon

Nabongo was able to obtain a visa upon arrival to travel to Iran thanks to his dual nationality.

Nabongo was able to obtain a visa upon arrival to travel to Iran thanks to his dual nationality.

Jessica Nabongo

“Having both a US passport and a Ugandan passport really worked in my favor,” she admits. “Because it’s super hard for Americans to go to Iran.

“And the US government prohibits Americans from going to North Korea[exceptionsaregranted”inverylimitedcircumstances”butIhadaUgandanpassportsoIcouldgo[desexceptionssontaccordées”dansdescirconstancestrèslimitées”maisj’avaisunpasseportougandaispourpouvoiryaller[exceptionsaregranted”inverylimitedcircumstances”butIhadaUgandanpassportsoIcouldgo

“It was my secret weapon. If I only had an American passport, I probably wouldn’t have finished when I did.”

Her success, and that of other travelers like her, will no doubt have inspired others to try and travel to every country in the world, but she’s keen to point out that this particular goal isn’t for everyone. .

Before embarking on such a quest, Nabongo points out that travelers should really ask themselves why they want to take on this challenge, “because that’s the motivation that will get you to the finish line.”

She hopes her story will inspire others to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.

“I don’t think everyone is interested in going to every country in the world,” she says. “But what I want people to know is that they have everything in them to do what they want to do in life.

“And if I could go to every country in the world, which is wild, I feel like everyone’s dream is achievable.”

Global network

Nabongo's thirst for adventure has remained strong since she ticked every country in the world off her to-do list.

Nabongo’s thirst for adventure has remained strong since she ticked every country in the world off her to-do list.

Jessica Nabongo

In “The Catch Me If You Can”, Nabongo shares various stories of strangers who have been particularly kind to her on her travels, including a tour guide named Maha in Jordan who gave her a dress as a symbol of their friendship.

“I definitely have friends from all over the world,” she says, before expressing her joy at how much writing the book has helped her reconnect with many of those she’s met on the road.

“It was really great,” she adds. “At any time on my WhatsApp, there are probably conversations in 20 countries.

“People, of course, will always start out as strangers. But if you’re open to it, you can quickly make friends and, in some cases, even family.

“For me, home isn’t about people. I think that’s why I feel so close to people when I travel. Because it’s like I’m building little houses all over the world, if you will. .”

While she found the process of visiting every country in the world grueling, Nabongo confesses that writing “The Catch Me If You Can” was “hands down” more difficult.

But she hopes the book will inspire more kindness in the world, explaining that she has noticed a change in the behavior of others, especially when travelling, since the early days of the pandemic.

“It was love and kindness, and then it turned into madness,” she says. “Now you see people fighting on airplanes and being really mean.

“So I think unfortunately that initial bump of love and humanity that we had in the first four to six months has dissipated.”

Nabongo admits that sometimes discouraged her.

However, she remains encouraged by her own experiences of human kindness and continues to seek beauty in the world wherever she goes.

And now that she has visited every country, Nabongo’s passion for travel has only grown stronger.

As of this writing, she’s about to take another trip to Senegal, which she describes as her “happy place,” and plans to tick off another goal eventually. visit all states of the United States.

“I have six left,” she explains, before emphasizing that she’s in no rush and will complete this particular task, “when I get there.”

Toya J. Bell