The title of Albert Podell’s amazing travel book tells it all: Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth. There is no other book like this one and, certainly, no other traveler like Podell. Over a period of fifty years, he made seventy-two trips and visited 196 countries, including several that no longer exist. The first was in 1962, when he visited Canada. A year later, he went overseas for the first time and visited Spain and France. The final trips, between 2011 and 2013, were taken explicitly to scratch the remaining countries from his list: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Chad, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and finally—after numerous earlier attempts—Angola. Some countries rarely permit tourists entry; others were undergoing extreme political turmoil, making travel very complicated, let alone risky.
Podell didn’t have an every-country-goal until 2000. For many years, his travel companion was Harold Stephens, known as Steve. Podell (who trained as a lawyer) held a lengthy position as an editor at Playboy that provided him with a certain amount of flexibility; he saved enough money for what often became long and very expensive trips (dozens of airplane flights); he rarely stayed in up-scale hotels but sought, instead, lesser facilities; he ate every kind of food imaginable and some not imaginable; and he came close to death several times. The extremes of the weather also shaped his travels: thirty-three days on the Sahara, without ever seeing a cloud; thirty-three days of rain in the South Pacific. “Extreme travel” is the best way to describe what he often endured. He had to learn what to take along with him: food supplements, water purification tablets, and multiple kinds of antibiotics to mention only three.
What constitutes a country for Podell? How did he identify the 196 countries he needed to visit? “Hotmail lets you register your e-mail account from a list of 242 ‘countries/territories.’” He says that places that issue currency (the Isle of Jersey) or postage stamps (Pitcairn Island) are not necessarily countries. He thought the United Nations’ list of members might be a reliable guide, though Taiwan and Vatican City are not members. Yet, after much thought, he went with the UN list of 193 countries, plus Vatican City, Taiwan, and Kosovo, equaling 196 countries, though he visited numerous other territories. I certainly wouldn’t quibble with that figure since there’s probably no one else alive who has visited so many places. Once he set his guidelines, then he had to get to those places.
What we read in Podell’s narrative is a series of mini-journeys, describing most of his trips in marathon terminology. These trips were not simply to set foot in a country (or an airport) and add its name to the list, but in most cases he spent several days with a fair amount of exposure to areas besides the big cities. The first major trip, in 1965, took him to Andorra, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Jordon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, much of it driving over land. The hair-raising experiences also began on this journey, especially driving from Morocco across North Africa.
In that year (as well as much later), all of these countries required visas, often a thoroughly challenging exercise. Corrupt customs officials, policemen and soldiers demanding bribes at check points, terrible roads, mechanical breakdowns of Podell and Steve’s vehicles, land mines,
and potholes contributed to the chaos. In Tunisia he quotes local humor about the latter. “Q. What do you do when you come to a pothole? A. Honk, in case somebody is in it.” The hawkers everywhere would not leave them alone, including on one occasion when a fairly menacing African asked about an American woman temporarily traveling with them, “I wish to buy that girl from you. It was quite a challenge getting out of the offer. As a point of fact, it should be noted that women often traveled with him, typically referred to by only a first name. In Ecuador he refers to one of them as “Amy—Jamie’s successor,” and then continues his story. He’s quite the ladies’ man.
And then there’s the food—not the crazy things Podell ate in country after country—but an incident, such as this, in a restaurant in Alexandria: “The soup was indigestible, the salad unchewable, the bread unbreakable, the meat uncuttable—and the bill unbelievable. We were charged 50 percent above the already high prices on the menu because, the waiter explained, it was an indoor meal and we had eaten outdoors. We were also charged extra for the bread, extra for the butter, and extra for the sugar and salt. Extra for the tablecloth. And extra for a couple of flowers one of the peddlers [circling around them] had filched from the vase on our table. To this were added fees and taxes, which, the manager told us with a straight face, were for such essentials as the waiter’s old-age pension, repainting the kitchen, improving Egypt’s balance of payments, and widening the Suez Canal.” Or so it seemed.
For much of tropical Africa during a trip many years later, Podell relied on a tour-guide who insisted on being called God (short for Godfrey). The chapter is called “Doing God’s Work,” and Podell’s observations about the continent are that Africa “means lots of wasted time, slow transit, poor roads, starchy food, battalions of bugs, problems exchanging money, power failures, paranoid patriots, widespread petty corruption, and ubiquitous poverty, but at least the guns of war and the flames of revolution were on hiatus.” Of West Africa, specifically, Podell’s observation is not that it is not “developing” but “sliding backward.” Very well said.
There are too many delicious moments in Podell’s narrative to mention them all. But here are a few random tidbits. In Haiti, he encounters a sign that reads: “Do Not Kidnap Anyone Today.” On his flight from Haiti to Cuba, there were 50 Haitian TB patients. Podell’s observation: “Ever try holding your breath for 90 minutes?” The names of a few random restaurants in China: The Bung Hole, Dirty Dicks, Hung Far Low, the Golden Stool and My Dung. In Somalia, he had to hire protection (at $770 a day) in order to feel safe. And there were numerous other outrageous fees and charges throughout many of his travels.
So what are we left with? I’d call Albert Podell’s Around the World in 50 Years the most original travel narrative ever written. And bless Podell. At the end of his many journeys, he marries a Russian woman 49 years younger than he. Hard to get those Playboy years out of his system.
Read this book.
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 368 pp., $26.99
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.