It all started with his obsession collecting international postage stamps at the age of six. One stamp from every country in the world was his goal. It culminated seventy years later with him having visited every country in the world while having collected stamps and having rated the toilets of each of those countries. This is the story of Albert Podell, a playboy editor, and his kickass mission to visit (toilets on) every country on earth!
It all started with a stamp collection
“Aged six, I started to collect postage stamps, and where the other kids specialised in certain countries, I wanted a stamp from every country in the world, Getting a passport stamp from every one may have been inspired by that. Those little coloured bits of perforated paper also instilled in me a fascination with travel because I wanted to see the lands where all the objects, people, and places depicted on those stamps came from.”
So he resolved early on the fact that there was more to life than hanging around in one city forever. And that’s exactly what he did…
As a young man, Podell took off on the next adventure whenever he got time off work from editing the next Playboy magaine. At age 28, he led an expedition around the world, setting the record for the longest automobile journey ever made around the earth. But as he grew older, he realised that he wasn’t satisfied with traveling in bits and pieces.
“As I moved past middle age, I still wanted to do one grand and glorious travel venture, to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, and, after I realized that I had been to 90 nations, I decided that I just might be able to visit every one of the 196 countries during my allotted years”
Accommodation budget of $10 a night
To accomplish his goal of visiting every country in the world Podell had to some tight budgetting to stretch his finances and hence his travels. In general he managed to stick to an accommodation budget of $10 a night sleeping in a wide range of situations. He has spent nights in his sleeping bag, “at border posts, roadsides, jungles, glaciers, trailers, airport floors, and in hostels, tents,, trees, teepees, campers, cars, desert dugouts, and flea-bag motels alternately sweating and freezing; dodging dengue- fever mosquitoes by day and malarial ones by night.”
Uncountable modes of transport
Trying to reach every country on earth is not always straightforward and often requires flexibility in transport mode. Podell has used them all from ancient airplanes, overloaded ferries, broken-down bush taxis, pole-pushed canoes, cotton trucks, camels, donkeys, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and more. “In short, almost anything that transports people, except an ambulance, thank God,” he joked.
He’s also been through some truly terrifying moments, like the time when he was unable to provide proof of not being Jewish to the Egyptian government, or the time he was unable to prove that he was not CIA to the Cuban secret police. He was also thrown in jail in Baghdad, when a conman pretended that Podell had hit him with a car. Some of his hair-raising moments include being stranded on Kiribati, robbed in Algiers and the Khyber Pass, nearly lynched in East Pakistan where he was mistaken for an Indian spy, and almost drowned in Costa Rica. But he also made friends with Korean borderguards
He met guerillas in Yemen, chased by angry water buffaloes in Asia, got attacked by flying-crabs in Algeria. He also broke his bones in a dodgy traffic accident in Afria and eaten loads and loads of weird stuff. He’s been arrested and robbed by corrupt police. But managed to continue his travels in-spite of all these tribulations. “These kind of mishaps always result in the best travel stories” he wisely added.
Understandably, he’s eaten some odd food during the course of his travels. “Among the most memorable was an anteater Steve (his friend) and I found recently run over on a road in Panama,” Podell said. “Not wanting to waste a good source of protein, we chopped it up, added salt and pepper, wished we had a box of Roadkill Helper, roasted it over a campfire, and it tasted… awful, like a burger marinated in formic acid.”
Some of the other strange foods he’s eaten include iguana in Central America, fish lips and organ meats boiled in blood in China, possum pie in the Caribbean, and crocodile in Australia. “I’ll eat almost anything except endangered species,” he told National Geographic News. “I ate the brain of a live monkey in Hong Kong. I ate old camel meat, which just slithers around in your mouth and coats it with grease.”
“Unfortunately, the elephant dung beetle I ate in Kenya smelled exactly like what it ate, but I overcame this olfactory impediment with a liberal application of insect repellant under my nose,” he joked.
Rats, he says, are unexpectedly tasty, “especially the big boys eaten in Africa, where they’re called ‘grass cutters’. The locals skin the rodents, split them down the middle, spread them out flat, and roast or grill them. Each tastes exactly like what it ate. If it lived in a cane field, it tastes like sugar.”
What defines ‘visiting a country’?
Frank Zappa ones said: “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.” We would highly agree with this as there is nothing better than trying a new beer in a new territory.
Podell, however, has much stricter criteria as to what counts as a ‘country’ while traveling. He obviously doesn’t cheat by counting places where he’s changed planes. According to his standards, for a country to be considered ‘visited’ three requirements have to be met: “it has to be a recognized country at the time you go there,” “you must have a visa or enter legitimately,” and, “you must get a passport stamp.”
He also has a few flexible rules: “you should at least go to the capital, stay at least 24 hours, and if possible cross the country in one direction.”
Other travelers that visited every country on earth
Podell is definitely not the only person that managed to accomplish the ambitious goal of visiting every country in the world.
In 2002, New Zealand businessman John Bougen managed to visit every country on earth in a mere 150 days!!
And in 2012, even more impressive, Graham Hughes became the first person to visit all countries in the world WITHOUT flying. He only used land and water transport to reach every country in the world and it took him only 1426 days to make it happen.
Compared to those world travelers Podell’s trips weren’t maybe so impressive after all.
He did something really kickass though. Something cooler than any of those other world travelers by coming up with his own global toilet rating system!
Rating global toilets: The Podell Potty Paper Rating System
Traveling to soo many countries the Playboy editor couldn’t help to notice the great diversity of toilets in the world. Or more precisely the diversity in the toilet paper situation as a measure of how a country ranks economically and socially.
“You can spend hours looking at these studies that are issued by the World Bank and the IMF. But I found the surest way to know where a country ranks economically and socially is to go to a public bathroom and check the toilet paper,” he said.
So to measure this Podell developed a unique system for rating countries, called the PPPR (the Podell Potty Paper Rating System).
The PPPR has seven rankings, starting with the best, which is soft white toilet paper, getting ranking number 1. From soft white it goes down to hard white; hard brown; purple, green, and other colors; to torn-up newspaper; to no paper at all, just a little bucket of water. The lowest ranking, which is a seven, is when there are no public toilets at all.
Surprisingly the only place he has tentatively given a number seven ranking is to his hometown of New York City. “In the entire city, I’m only aware of three public toilets” he said.
It is hard to pick my favourite country in general “but if I had to pick countries, I’d go with Nepal and Switzerland for scenery. For food, I would go with Vietnam, Thailand, and France. And for culture I would go with France, England, Spain, and Egypt.”
One of his biggest learnings from all his travels has been that people around the world are the same. “With the exception of the few truly weird countries (like North Korea and those in the midst of famine or war) people around the world are pretty much the same in terms of their love for their families and children, their desire to be happy, and their hope to live in peace and have a better life. The main differences I observed were that people in the very poor countries were far more able to get along on less than citizens of the rich countries ever could.”
The Book: “Around the world in 50 Years”
All the notes, diary entries and photographs Podell gathered on his global travels have been brought together in a book called “Around the world in 50 years”. A great read. Especially if you plan to travel to every country in the world yourself in about half a century. Timing is crucial!
Find out more about Albert Podell on his website http://albertpodell.com/