One beer for every country on the map

The last we checked, there were 198 countries on the map, and Norwegian Gunar Garfos has travelled to all of them. The writer talks to the young Phileas Foff about his itchy feet.

August 29, 2015 01:30 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 06:07 pm IST

Garfors in Iran.

Garfors in Iran.

It all began with a bet. Gunnar Garfors, already becoming famous across the world over as an avid traveller, was hosting a party for his friends in Oslo. This was in 2009, South Sudan was not yet born, and the Norwegian had travelled to 85 countries by then. The 34-year-old told his friend Ola Akselberg that he would visit the remaining 112 countries. Akselberg smirked. “There is not a chance in hell you’ll make it,” he said. “Oh, yeah?” Garfors took up the challenge. “Okay, but you'll have to visit them within the next six years,” Akselberg said. A deal was sealed: they would drink a beer for every country visited. Akselberg even promised a bottle of rum if Garfors visited baby South Sudan. Then, just before Garfors visited country No. 198, the Cape Verde islands off the northwest coast of Africa, Akselberg drove to his house in a car. In it was stacked 198 beer bottles.

Garfors has clinched the world title of becoming the youngest person ever to travel to every country on the atlas. But pause before you dismiss it as just another Guinness World record stunt because he has accomplished the feat  with  a full-time job and before turning 40. The spiky-haired, smiling explorer has another ‘first’ to his credit. In 2012, he was the first to visit five continents in a single day. Why, I ask, in a Skype interview. He explains that it was a stunt to promote his book,  How I Ran out of 198 Countries , published first in Norwegian and now available in English too.

You’d think that all the places would be just one big jumble in his head, but Garfors cheerfully recalls little details from every country he has been to. “Passions, hobbies, quests… they don’t become a blur,” he says. “Look at football fans. They remember every footballer’s jersey number, height, goal… travelling is exactly like that.”

Garfors is from Naustdal, a tiny beautiful village on the west coast of Norway. He travelled a lot within the country with his family when he was young. They were able to afford it because they “bought a huge caravan that was pulled by our own minibus,” he says. But the first time he travelled without them was on a trip to Europe with a friend when he was 17. “We got train passes and we went to as many countries as possible,” he says. “We slept on benches, in trains, in youth hostels… but there was just so much excitement that we didn’t really care about all that.”

That may have been affordable then but how does one earn enough to visit every country in the world? “I have no car, no CD collection, I don’t buy much. I earn decent wages [a former journalist, he is now President of an international radio and TV organisation and advisor for Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation]. So I use all my money to travel. Plus, I walk a lot and use cabs only when required,” he tells me. Perhaps, but who gets that many days off? Norwegians, apparently. Garfors says his country is generous with holidays: the statutory minimum paid annual leave is 25 days in addition to nearly two weeks of national holidays and 52 weekends. I make a mental note to move to Norway.  

Garfors did not pick places using guide books like the rest of us do. “I don’t want to plagiarise someone else’s holiday,” he says. “It’s best to ask local people what to do.”

Asking local people seems to have gifted Garfors a bottomless never-ending well of tales. In  How I Ran Out …, we learn that he nearly got married in South Korea and was almost lynched in the Central African Republic; he was deported from Niger; he was the only tourist at that point in the whole of Nauru; and he met interesting people like the tour guide who had 17 girlfriends… the list of tales are is endless.

But for him, the most memorable stories are from Afghanistan and North Korea.

Garfors visited Afghanistan with two friends, one of whom he says “freaked out like no one else would when we entered the country”. They crossed over the border from Iran in a taxi — without an exit visa. Procuring one soon turned into a nightmare. To fight the surly men in the serpentine queue outside the Iranian consulate, they had to be “Norwegian rude” rather than “British polite”. They had to take HIV/AIDS tests. And, at the end of the wait, the officer refused to believe that they were tourists. “Are you spies? Are you crazy? There are no tourists in Afghanistan,” he barked. Two weeks later, the weary trio managed to leave the war-torn country. “It’s terrible, no one in Afghanistan even knows what a postcard looks like,” Garfors says.

This is a lot like how Coca Cola is alien to the North Koreans, he continues. How did he even get to North Korea, I ask. “You can easily go as long as you’re not South Korean,” he laughs. “I was accompanied everywhere by two guides (or guards, as I call them). No one in North Korea has heard anything about the rest of the world — about John F. Kennedy or Madonna. They don’t know that men have gone to the moon. They’ve been told that North Korea is the most perfect country in the world and they truly believe it.” The guards kept a keen eye on him, but Garfors still managed to roam around one morning without any supervision. “I just got the guard drunk and went for a jog by myself,” he chuckles. “That was the best part of my trip there.”

 He refuses to list his favourite places, but his book provides clues. He dislikes Kuwait where “extreme Islam mixes with extreme capitalism”; Bahrain where “all the rich do is brag about their purchases”; and Qatar and Bangladesh. Myanmar, Madagascar and Cuba are some of his favourites.

And India? Garfors has visited the country five times. “It’s a truly amazing and diverse country,” he says, but the stories that I read later about India later in the book are not exactly joyful. For most of the trips, Garfors has had company – his brothers, sisters, girlfriends – but he has also travelled to many countries alone. “No one wants to go to some of these places,” he says. “Some of these unpopular places are beautiful, and even the most war-torn countries have at least one peaceful area.” Like the time he went to Libya when Gaddafi was still in power.

Being Indian, I ask him how his mother reacted to this passion, or, as some may call it, madness. “She used to tell me to spend more time with my family, but I was stubborn and she knew that. So she stopped nagging me. In fact, when I told her that I was going to Afghanistan, she simply said, “Oh, ok”. I said, ‘Aren’t you a little worried?’ And she said, ‘Well, I can’t afford to worry. I have six other children!’ I love her for that,” he smiles.

When you run out of all the countries in the world, then what’s next?

“I’ll never stop travelling,” he says. “There are so many places that I haven’t been to and so many I’d like to go back to.” He’s already packing his bags to the U.S. and drawing up an itinerary for next year. “I’m going to Japan, Sri Lanka, Germany, the Netherlands… some on work, some on my own… Not to travel will be an insult to my intellect,” he says, dramatically. He was very keen that I mention that.   

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