He's almost there. One hundred and sixty one down and just 39 to go, Graham Hughes, 31, is all set to enter both the record and history books as the first man to set foot on all the countries in the world in one continuous sweep. Graham has also chosen to spice up his remarkable feat by deciding not to use air transport. He has already set a Guinness World Record by visiting 133 countries in one year by scheduled ground transport.
The expedition that kicked off on January 1, 2009, which Graham has named The Odyssey, moved into Asia after having called on the countries in South America, The Caribbean, Central and North America, Europe and Africa. Graham stopped at Kochi trying to find a boat to Sri Lanka.
His dishevelled auburn hair hidden beneath a black kangaroo leather hat, his face sporting red stubble, bright eyes that stare straight at you through his specs, Graham is a delightful raconteur. He has that uncanny knack to strike bonds of friendship with anyone, anywhere. And like the Ancient Mariner, when he talks of his adventurous journey, of stories from the far corners of the planet, you simply listen.
For this audacious adventurer from Liverpool this has been a challenge. “Yeah, especially when I have chosen to travel within certain rules like no flying, no private transport as this is a Guinness Book of Records regulation and to step into dry land and not sneaking into tiny backwater regions and making a claim. I just find a way to get into a country and out of it. So far I have squeezed into a strange mix of transport from cargo ships to private yachts, banana boats to fishing vessels. I talk to them, explain what I'm doing and people have been helpful,” says Graham whose expedition is largely self-funded, with National Geographic, Lonely Planet and BBC backing his effort.
“The idea was born eight years ago. I was backpacking around South East Asia and longed to go around the world. One thing that stopped me from doing it earlier was that several countries were at war then. I visited 70 countries then. Preparations for The Odyssey began in earnest in 2008 when I decided to go ahead and do it. Lonely Planet approved of my idea and I was ready. My budget was 20,000 pounds, my savings.” He travels on his own, sometimes accompanied by cameramen from the television companies for short distances; he does his own logistics, films everything and posts a regular diary on his buzzing blog.
Graham does not simply whizz past a country. He spends some time at each place. “Sometimes it is unscheduled like spending days, weeks waiting for visas, ships or other transport. I travel fast and travel light (sleeping bag, a week's change of clothes, his camcorder, medicine in the backpack). But one must be ready for the unpredictable. You do no know when a cargo ship leaves; you cannot predict being thrown into jail for six days. I travel with local people, often stay with them. This helps me get a better feel of the place. It is much better than flying into an airport, a city and then flying out again.”
Of course, Graham's travels have not all been cushy. He was thrown into jail at Cape Verde on charges of ‘human trafficking,' spent six days in a Congo jail and freed without a charge, was arrested by two drunken cops in Cameroon and ‘survived' a nightmarish, reckless drive on a ‘death machine' in Nigeria.
“But I would like to see the positives and talk more about them. These bad experiences were bound to happen. Largely it has been one wonderful journey and the people amazingly friendly. The planet is not as bad as people perceive it to be. The best part is that most of the inhabited places in the world, at the moment are at peace. Travellers are welcomed. It was not so in the early eighties during the Cold War or when the Iron Curtain was drawn tight.”
Warmth of strangers
Graham talks of one incident that really moved him. “I was in a late night bus in Iran. An old woman, must be around 80 or more, was sitting across. She glanced at me at times, smiled and talked continuously on her mobile phone. I waved at her, smiled and nodded. After a while she came close and asked through gestures to talk to someone on the phone. It was her son, an English teacher who told me that the woman was his mother and that she was worried about me. I was surprised and asked him why. He said that the bus would arrive early morning and his mother was concerned about what I would do for breakfast. I was moved. Her son Hussain was there at the bus stop to welcome us and she spread out a lavish breakfast for me. I was stunned by the kindness. And people say that Iran can be dangerous.”
Countries have strange rules, strange sights, and unbelievable history. And Graham can go on talking about them. He confines himself to Turkmenistan and some of its bizarre facts. “There are hilarious gold statues of Saparmurat Niyazov aka Turkmenbashi, the first president of the nation. He was a real madcap who renamed the month of April after his mom, demanded an ice palace be built in Ashgabat, its capital which is in the middle of a desert, changed the words of the national anthem to make it all about him and had statues unveiled of himself. One good thing he did was to ban lip syncing at public concerts. There is so much of interesting things happening around.”
All this and more will find its way into Graham's book that he plans to write once he finishes this expedition in New Zealand. He's also looking forward to the scheduled engagement with his Aussie girlfriend Mandy. “I met Mandy in Egypt on one of my travels. A backpacker herself she understands the thrill of travel. She has hung around at home fixing up everything for me, like getting visas, coordinating with the television channels and that stuff.”
Graham has had a blast on the road so far. “I have seen and understood things that I and you wouldn't believe, I have met people who have virtually blown me away and had some amazing experiences.”