198: How I Ran Out of Countries, by Gunnar Garfors, is a sloppy afterthought of a travel memoir.
Before I say anything just take a good look at the cover design of this book. Yes, you are indeed looking at a photo of a guy slam-dunking a “globe” into a basketball hoop. The background design raises some questions as well. What’s up with the breezy-looking cocktail and the sexy reclining woman? Is that…King Kong on top of the Empire State Building? Not sure if the author and staff were just giddy late at night after one too many Red Bulls but if I happened to be a random guest perusing the bookstore aisles I would have mistaken this for a bar guide rather than a travelogue.
So how the heck did this book end up on my list of “29” this year?
It would not be an understatement to say I’m obsessed with travel. I have travel dreams and goals ranging from Mozambique to Greenland, and travel is a big part of the reason I ended up in South Korea four years ago. I spend a lot of time reading travelogues, blogs and websites online – so it was only a matter of time before I ran into the infamous Gunnar Garfors.
Garfors has risen to Internet-fame after being allegedly the youngest hobby traveler to visit every country in the world. He has his own blog and a host of followers and fans – he’s even broken a few other world records. I read this book of his as a supplement to my other travel “studies.”
The book is rather loosely organized. Garfors has a chapter on every single country, but that’s about it for continuity. For the most part it is not organized chronologically, alphabetically, geographically or culturally. Rather, it’s organized into sections based on themes, with titles like, “I Don’t Relax Like You Do,” or “Here Comes Trouble.” Throughout his narratives he continually introduces new people and refers back to old ones, jumping around in something close to 20 years’ of traveling history, such that it’s impossible to ever get a clear chronology of his life. Not that that’s the point, but it’s just one more factor in why this book is something of a hot mess.
Garfors does introduce his odyssey with a bit of a backstory that starts with a bet made in a beer joint. Then he explains his criteria for 198 countries:
I count all 193 UN countries. I also count the 2 observer states, the Vatican and Palestine. Yet another 3 countries are acknowledged by a number of the 195 above. I do therefore also count Kosovo, Western Sahara and Taiwan.
193 + 2 + 3 = 198. So there you have it. But what exactly counts as having visited a country? Garfors explains this as well.
A lot of people ask me how I count a country. The answer is short, I must have done something there and have a story to tell. And no, I do not count transit stops in airports. It should also be needless to say that I prefer to stay awhile. To have time to explore, to meet people.
Fair enough. And while I think his criteria is sound and good, the disappointment is in how rushed, vague and even random his descriptions of each country are. I understand that documenting 198 countries is a daunting task, but even so, Garfors has no consistent structure for how he introduces each country. He promises to include a “story”, but this ranges from an actual narrative with dialogue to a slapdash one-sentence description.
For example, his entry on Iran chronicles the progression of his flirtatious relationship with a rich girl and her loyal bodyguard. It’s written like a memoir. Yet in his entry on Thailand, he merely gives a bit of trivia on the history of Bangkok, and mentions that he got a fish pedicure. Other entries are somewhere in the middle: a mixture of vignettes and musings, usually with a couple of obligatory facts about the country thrown in for reference. It’s the travelogue version of a grab bag – with each entry you have no idea what you’re going to get.
It goes without saying that some of his chapters are better than others. Some of his entire sections are even better than others. His section “TIA: This Is Africa,” gives some really interesting insight into a lot of the sub-Saharan African countries, including with the AIDS epidemic and the failure of traditional aid.
There is a lot that doesn’t work in Africa. We know that. But we don’t do anything about it except for donating money when we see offensive footage on our TV screens…But traditional aid is one of the main problems that the continent struggles with, or so my brother claims, who has see the misery up close when he lived in Malawi.
A mixture of narrative and insight, with distinct characters such as Garfors does in his chapter on Malawi, and in much of his “TIA” section, is how I wish the entire book could have been. There are a few other entries in this book that have such a quality. Among the better ones are his entry on North Korea (he outwits and out jogs his guard), Afghanistan (explaining to the baffled consulate staff that he’s really just a tourist), and Papua New Guinea (an impromptu visit to a parent-teacher conference). In these few entries are the substance of actual adventure, of experiences truly unique to that destination, or just unique in general.
Sadly, a gross majority of the rest of Garfors’ stories seem to be limited to two settings: a bar, or a bar-like restaurant. Garfors has an uncomfortably strong obsession with alcohol, and uses his Norwegian heritage as a defense (“We aren’t rude, really. Only shy. Alcohol is the social glue…”). I’m not one to blink at someone who enjoys a buzz here and there, but when the majority of the plots follow the same scenario of tracking down an establishment and bonding with a “local” over several drinks until they nightmarishly blend into one never-ending saga of bar hopping and raunchy stories it’s hard not to mentally check out. But if there’s one thing even more obnoxious that Garfors keeps referring to throughout his idylls than drinking it’s women. Let’s just say wanderlust isn’t the only kind of “lust” he suffers from.
Throughout the book he throws around the terms “young and beautiful girls,” “beautiful women,” and “gorgeous girls,” with the almost creeping air of the sex tourists he so happens to look down upon. His beef with Qatar is its gender imbalance – apparently he can’t be celibate even for a few days. And to be sure, there are loads of stories about both his brief dallies and his more serious relationships. There’s a term for such a thing, actually. It’s called TMI.
Being a progressive from Scandinavia, Garfors doesn’t fit the stereotypical chauvinist mold, but perhaps rather the horny, free love one. I hope he forgives me if I am mistaken, but I’m not sure what else to think when his entry on Croatia is reduced simply to an encounter with a stranger that begins with a hostile interrogation and ends in the best and wildest sex of his life. The hook up vignettes are the least of it. When Garfors mentions his ex girlfriends he seems to get a thrill out of describing the raunchiest thing they almost managed to get away with, even if they break the laws of the land (Laos), or disturb the neighbors (Taiwan). His most bizarre experience of all, though (Canada) has to be a sex favor for his 29-year-old Muslim friend who wants to lose her virginity before she turns 30. Remind me once more what any of this has to do with world travel.
Sex and drinking aside, Garfors also enjoys emphasizing his rule-free, guidebook-free, tour-free way of traveling. “Easy is boring” is his favorite mantra and he repeats it like propaganda. He looks down on others who join tour groups and go the beaten path. He revels in living on the edge. He describes several close encounters to death yet insists that he never felt truly scared in any of the countries he visited. That’s great for a young single dude high on adrenaline. Not so relatable for the rest of us.
Finally, considering how well traveled and well rounded a person he promotes himself, Garfors refers to fellow travelers/people from other countries in oddly judgmental ways. “Typically African,” “definitely British,” “typical expat” – these are among the descriptions and phrases that he spouts along the way. At one point he says he’d rather count the grains of sand on a beach than talk to a “stereotypical American” wearing “mandatory white tennis shoes.” Ouch. Oh, and I have no doubt the Belgians would appreciate his opening sentence about their country: “Seriously, who has anything good to say about Belgium, without thinking about it?”
To give him the benefit of the doubt, it could be a cultural Norwegian tongue-and-cheek thing that goes way over my head. Or a language barrier. But man, even if that’s the case his editors needed to tear themselves away from the water cooler and nip this crap in the bud.
What could have been a delightful and inspirational pastiche of travel stories is actually an obnoxious, egomaniacal train wreck of a memoir. Throughout it Garfors shoves his now-cliché travel wisdom at his readers:
Travelers have learned that arrogance is their worst enemy and that being humble goes a long way. Only by acknowledging that people you meet are your equals can you understand and appreciate the world genuinely and truthfully.
Planning everything is not possible. And if you plan too much you will only annoy your fellow travelers. Because things rarely go as planned.
The sad thing is that you can get most all his advice and insight easily from Wikitravel or any of the viral travel blogs people flock to these days. It’s only his hit-and-miss misadventures that are unique to this book. He certainly is a colorful character, and you have to wonder how self aware he is – assuming that he has been made more so by traveling as conventional wisdom suggests. At the beginning of his narrative Garfors tells us:
To travel to every country in the world may seem like the ultimate ego trip. And it is. But it isn’t arrogant or decadent.
That post-script last sentence is an interesting provision– it hints that Garfors may realize that a world trip can indeed become an ego trip in the worst sense without the right steps. And the sad thing is, if Garfors is any example then maybe I’m better off having only traveled to a half dozen countries instead of all 198. “Easy is boring,” but so is an insecure, hypocritical, arrogant egomaniac who can’t wait to tell you all about it.