One question us travelers get asked a lot is “How many countries have you been to?” The problem is, I don’t know how to answer that question.
Ok, so for me, depending on how I count, it could be anywhere between 33 and 43. (Yes, I actually wrote them all down and counted them for this!)
So now you’re saying “What do you mean? A country’s a country!” But is it?
Let’s think about this.
First, do I count the country I come from? I mean, of course I’ve been there, and have seen parts of it other than where I grew up, but I don’t usually count it. But maybe I should.
Then there’s the matter of somewhere like China. Technically, Hong Kong, and Macau are both part of China, but I’ve seen some people count them separately. Despite Taiwan being claimed by China, I count it as its own country, because I think most Taiwanese would be horrified at being called Chinese. But then, I lump Hong Kong and Macau in with the rest of China. And now that I think about it, I have no particular reason for that, except for perhaps simple geography. And when I finally make it to Tibet, can I count that separately? If a country is occupied by its neighbours, does that make it less of a country? So is China one country, or five?
The same problem applies to the UK. Are England, Scotland, and Wales one country or three? (I haven’t been to Northern Ireland, in case you’re wondering why I left it out) I like to count them separately, because I do think they each have their own identity, but some people might simply count Britain.
To take this further, I can include places like Vatican City (fully recognized as a country, although I’ve never actually counted it before) and even The Republic of Užupis in Vilnius, Lithuania.
So what makes a country a country? Does it need to be independent of any other to have that ‘status’?
Then, to top it all off, how long does one have to stay in a country to say I’ve been there? Is it enough to step foot in the airport between flights? Do I need that stamp in my passport? For many, the stamp is the key, but I don’t think so. And if it is, what about traveling in the EU, where you don’t get stamps when you from one country to another? Or is it required that I stay overnight? A few days?
Let me give you an example. A few years back, I had a stopover in Amsterdam on my way home from Scotland. I had just enough time to take the train into the city, wander for a couple of hours as the winter dusk fell, get something to eat, and get back to the airport. The thing is, I really don’t feel like I’ve seen the Netherlands at all, especially not with that ticking clock in my brain the whole time I was there, forcing me to constantly check the time so I wouldn’t miss my flight!
Even staying the night isn’t always enough. In a very similar situation, I once had an overnight stopover in Japan. By the time I got from the airport to my hotel, showered (I’d come off a trans-Pacific flight) and got into town I had a couple of hours to wander up and down and around a street in Narita and see a temple, got some food, then went back to my hotel and crashed. The next morning it was off to the airport again. So after my whole three hours wandering in the dark, no, I don’t feel as if I’ve been to Japan.
So for both of those instances I got a stamp in my passport and set foot outside of the airport, but I just don’t feel that I can count those countries in my official ‘count’.
Now that I think about it, maybe it’s a factor of being able to tell a story or give advice. I certainly wouldn’t dare to give anyone advice about visiting the Netherlands or Japan, but I think I’d have something significant to say about every other country I’ve been to.
So I’m going to put my count at 36, including Taiwan, England, Scotland, and Wales, but leaving out Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, the Netherlands, Vatican City, the Republic of Užupis, and my home country of Canada. And now I realize that this still doesn’t make sense, because I just said it’s about having had experiences in that place, and I certainly have things to say about Hong Kong, Macau, and Canada. In fact, I’ve spent more time in each of those than in, say, Finland, where I only visited the capital city for three days! And yet I still count it.
In the end it’s all irrelevant. I’m not one who worries much about numbers of countries visited. A stamp in my passport means nothing if I’ve got no memories of the place, and no stories to tell. And there are always so many places to see in a country that many deserve repeat visits. I’ve been to several countries more than once, but usually to explore different areas than I went to previously. Now, I’m about to head back to Burma for my third time, and to China for my fourth, to see different parts of these countries that fascinate me so much.
So let’s ignore the country count, and focus on experiences. People met, places seen, and new adventures had are the things that matter, no matter what country they’re in or how many times you’ve been there.
What about you? How do you count countries you’ve visited? And how important is it to you?