When it comes to traveling, there are a ton of folks doing round-the-world trips or multi-year journeys and who have been to tons of countries. But Albert Podell blows all these people out of the water, since he has been to every country in the world which he proudly proclaims in his book Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth. The title is a little misleading since the book is about his trips to a few dozen countries rather to all 196 countries, but this can be forgiven since it turns out to be a very amusing, fun and informativeread, part-travelogue, part-biography.
Podell earned fame for traveling around the whole world in a vehicle in the 1965, which helped him earn the record for the longest automobile journey around the world. In the ensuing decades, he became the editor of Playboy and other magazine and dated models and actresses, but approaching retirement, Podell decided to visit every single country. By 2000, he had visited merely 83 so from then on, he visited multiple countries every year until he achieved his goal in 2012.
The book is not just some breezy travelogue but a collection of the craziest, most dangerous and difficult trips Podell undertakes. As a result, the majority of the book is taken up by countries like Haiti, Chad, North Korea and Liberia, hardly backpacker favorites.
The book starts off with several chapters about Podell’s 1965 car journey when he and his partners struggle through the Sahara from Algeria to Egypt, and later, are almost stranded in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, as war with India begins. For his troubles, Podell even almost gets lynched for being suspected of being a spy. The rest of the book is about his ensuing trips in the 2000s when he visits such destinations as Haiti, Sierra Leone, Sudan and tiny Pacific nations like Nauru and Kiribati.
The most interesting chapters are when he visits several countries in West Africa with the help of “God.” No, not the almighty in heaven, but a jovial Togolese tour guide in Ghana called Godfried Agbezudor who takes Podell through Benin, Togo and Ghana. Podell then “reciprocates” by taking God with him on a next trip to Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea. The chapters about Mongolia, Cuba and Bhutan are rather interesting while the North Korea chapter serves to highlight how repressed and tragic the country is. Podell completes his quest with a hard-earned trip to Angola, a country that actually does not allow tourists.
With an eye for detail, a keen awareness of news, and an awesome attitude towards mishaps, Podell provides jaunty commentary of his trips despite enduring all manners of obstacles and frustrations. Bribery, inefficiency and the lack of infrastructure feature a lot which is not surprising since Podell travels through some of the poorest and most underdeveloped and war-ravaged nations.
If there is one problem, it is that Podell’s main reason for visiting these countries is to check off a list so as a result, some of the less prosperous countries are described in mere paragraphs which basically outline how wretched they are. There is an almost dismissive air to how Podell describes those countries, but not the people, so much that one wonders if there is any point to mention the countries in the book.
Few travelers go to those countries so Podell deserves credit for doing so himself. Readers might possibly come away with a strong sense of pessimism but a lot of the world is not at peace or prosperous, as current events in the Middle East and parts of Africa prove, and it is not detrimental to realize this.
It is an arduous and at times costly task but Podell doggedly sticks to his guns and knocks off countries until he triumphs in 2012.
He doesn’t make it easy for himself as he decides to revisit countries he had visited before that changed their names and split or merged, like Vietnam which existed as North and South Vietnam back when he was a Vietnam War soldier, and the individual states which made up Yugoslavia.
This book is more than about travel, but about accomplishing personal goals and knowing more about the world. In this, it does a brilliant job.