Lately I’ve noticed that some world travelers seem rather unappealingly attached to their “country counts.” It is certainly tempting to do; once you do start seriously wandering the globe and the count does start creeping up into impressive numbers, it is hard not to get a little, let’s just say, aggressive about adding places. Why not sneak over to Colonia del Sacramento for a day while in Buenos Aires and add Uruguay to the tally? Or take a day trip to Montenegro from Dubrovnik to bulk up the Balkans score. I’ve done both of those myself and enjoyed them immensely, but (I’d like to think) not just to notch two more nations. I gave my son grief this summer for driving a car over the Bosnian border from Croatia for a grand total of fifteen miles, and I joked that he could not really say he’d been to Bosnia & Herzegovina. His facetious response/rule? If you have something to eat or drink in a nation, it counts. So a cup of coffee later, he had added a new country!
All silliness aside, for all my wide travels, I’ve discovered in myself a preference to go deep – to spend a whole trip in one country or even one region. Beyond this, I’ve also gone back to many countries more than once when I just couldn’t get them out of my head. Yes, I could use my hard-earned money and vacation time to add another place to my list, but on a second or third trip, I can dig deeper than the main tourist sites and really get to know a place, or I can branch out and visit lesser-known cities or areas. And I just love the feeling of going back somewhere and feeling almost like a native; it’s so satisfying to really feel attached and connected or, even better, to know every little shortcut in a town and even give directions to someone else in a city halfway across the world.
Greece was one of the first places I visited multiple times. I had gone there as a child with my Greek grandparents, attended a camp in my teens, funded my own way there one summer during high school, and returned years later with my own family. Spain, too, became a favorite after a study abroad program and two subsequent trips to see new places and revisit old favorites, and France (notably Paris) has managed to insert itself into almost every western European trip I’ve taken.
The first country with which I truly fell in love, though, was Peru. I distinctly remember getting on the plane after trekking the Inca Trail and spending a little time in Cusco and Lima. I looked longingly out the window and just knew I would be coming back. In fact, I was back on a plane by myself a mere five months later to further explore the Cusco area and the Sacred Valley. I stayed in a small neighborhood in Cusco and fancied myself a Cusqueña; I walked all day, shopped in the local markets, and took a few day trips to Pisac and other towns along the Urubamba River. Rather unbelievably, I was offered the opportunity to go back again four months later to help lead a small group of visitors for a microcredit organization, and a year after that, I repeated that trip. Other than Peruvian tour guides, I may be one of the few people who has visited Machu Picchu three times in less than two years! I am now certainly the go-to source on Peru among my friends.
I have an even deeper connection and infatuation with Tibet, a country that is difficult to get to once, let alone twice. I originally went to Lhasa as part of a bigger trip to China but, again, before I’d even left this mystical city, I knew I was destined to go back and see more of both Lhasa and Tibet overall. A year later, I was back on the roof of the world and, this time, I hired a young man I had met on the first trip to take my daughter and me deep into the countryside. We spent days bumping along dusty roads on the Tibetan plateau. We stopped in raggedy little towns and ate with the locals; this eventful ride culminated in a brief stay and trek at Mount Everest’s north base camp, a place I had often imagined from all my reading. If I could, I’d jump right back on the brutal flights necessary to deliver me to spiritual Tibet yet again.
But other lands do call. One of them is Russia, the land of some of my favorite authors and a place that has long attracted me through its history and literature. In January, I will finally walk the streets of Anna Karenina and Raskolnikov, and in the bitter winter cold, I hope to experience in some small way the plight of so many pre- and post-revolution Russian characters, both real and fictional. I will see as much as I can, but after the Russian feast, I will do what the country-counters do – I’ll stop in Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland for a small bite of dessert on my way home!