For His 30th Birthday, a Norwegian Blogger Hopes to Visit Every Country on Earth

An interview with Jørn Bjørn Augestad

By / February 2019

A recent article about couchsurfing in Afghanistan that featured a Dutch tourist and his companion, Jørn Bjørn Augestad, appeared in dozens of media outlets and newspapers worldwide. A 29-year-old Norwegian tourist, Augestad is on a mission: he plans to visit all of the world’s 201 countries before his 30th birthday, in November 2019. A travel agent for Kilroy Travels, Augestad—who goes by Vagabjorn online—has just a handful left before reaching his goal. EthnoTraveler talked with Vagabjorn while he was in Cape Verde, a cluster of islands in the Atlantic.

Do you have any travel rituals, something you do in every country you visit?
Not really, I just try to make friends and memories everywhere I go. I always travel alone, and use apps to socialize, like Couchsurfing, Tinder, InMessage, and Instagram. Now that I am used to it, I find it very easy to make friends on the road.

What is your favorite way to pass time on flights? How do you deal with jet lag?
I try to visit countries in bulk, for example, staying six months in West Africa, ten months in Asia. So mostly I don’t cross more than one time zone at a time and therefore don’t get much jet lag. Also, I’m the kind of person who sleeps when I am tired and eats when I am hungry, so I don’t have much routine that jet lag can shake up.

Vagabjorn surfing sand dunes in Oman.

Do you try to learn basic greetings or phrases in the languages of the countries you visit?
Yes. I speak Norwegian, English, German, Spanish, and French, which has helped me a lot, especially in South America and West Africa. It is impossible to travel to every country without learning a fair bit of Arabic and Russian, as there are so many countries where these languages are spoken. Places where I stay longer, I try to write down a list of words and phrases on my phone, and even when staying with families who don’t speak any English, these words let me get by in almost every situation.

How do you record and keep memories? Do you write in a hardcopy journal?
The only time I write by hand is when I fill in visa application forms. The rest of the time I blog and share my experiences on social media—all from my smartphone.

Did you have trouble getting visas for any country, especially “closed” countries like North Korea?
Oh yes, but North Korea is actually one of the easier countries to visit. You just get your visa on arrival as long as you book a tour there. The harder ones were Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea, which took a lot of time and embassy visits. Libya has also not issued a tourist visa since 2011, so I had to get a company there to issue papers saying that I was an engineer who was going on a business trip. I was quite nervous about being thoroughly questioned at immigration at the Tripoli airport, but I guess my documents were credible enough, so they just stamped my passport and wished me welcome.

How has travel shaped and changed you as a person? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from other cultures?
I’m from a small Norwegian island called Finnøy, 45 minutes by boat from the city of Stavanger—so one of the most isolated places in the world. As a boy I had to take a boat to school every day. Traveling has broadened my view in every way possible, and now I think of the whole world as my home. If I would have stayed behind on the island, I probably would have been more like my peers, living life like it was a big shopping list—you get a job, a girlfriend, an apartment, and then children. I don’t have any of that and feel very free and content that way. Not that I judge any way of living, but my way makes more sense to me for the moment.

Vagabjorn in the Comoros and San Tomé.

As someone who’s seen way more of the world than most, what would you say to those who mainly see it through news outlets and movies?
We are being served travel stories from travelers and journalist all the time, but it is when you go to the places yourself and stay with local people that you can truly understand what life is like there. Afghanistan and Syria are places like that, with beautiful cultures that have just been slaughtered by the media. I was recently interviewed by a journalist in Afghanistan about the hospitality there, and the article ended up in more than 70 newspapers around the world with the headline “‘naive, reckless’ tourists couchsurfing in Afghanistan.” It became just another negative review of Afghanistan, and I felt like I had been used as a propaganda tool. I guess people—journalists included—don’t like to challenge their views on certain things, whereas traveling confronts you will reality on a daily basis. Also, most people think that their way is the right way. One example is us “western counties” fighting for democracy in Syria. Most people there just want the peace and stability that “our” war has taken from them.

What do you appreciate about your home country and its culture?
Coming from Norway, I’m generally used to being able to trust that everyone around me wants to do me good, whereas in countries with more poverty and corruption, you will find taxi drivers, police officers, and others who are trying cheat you to get money from you. I understand that they usually do this to help themselves and their families and sometimes just think of it almost as a tourist tax that people who come from “the first world” have to pay.

On your Facebook profile, you mention rootlessness as part of your identity. Does being on the move ever get old for you?
I have had one time when I felt like quitting traveling and setting down with a 9-5 job, house, and family. It was in 2016 after having traveled for 14 months, the last six months of which I was camping throughout West Africa. During those months I was robbed, stabbed, was in a car accident, spent five days innocent in jail, had malaria a couple of times, and was generally sick and tired of the lack of variety in food, showers, and comfortable places to sleep. It took me some months before my wanderlust came back, as I think it always will. I will never stop traveling, but in the future, I plan on spending some months in each place before moving on to the next, instead of always being on the move.

You seem to be a minimalist when it comes to packing and spending money. How would you describe your travel style?
I am a radical minimalist. I try to travel light and live light, having sold all my things about four years ago and just buying things for the time when I really need them. I don’t even have all my pictures stored somewhere. If I lose my phone or computer, I don’t really care that much, as I have my favorite ones uploaded on my blog and social media. I keep 3-4 pictures from every place I visit, which I want to be my memories, in addition to a two-minute vlog episode from every country, which I store on YouTube.

Let’s talk about food. What is one of the most memorable meals you’ve eaten? Weirdest? Worst? Do you have any snacks you regularly pack with you?
I’m a flexitarian, meaning I try to not eat meat when I can. However, when I stay with families, especially in Africa or Central Asia, they don’t usually understand the concept, and I’ve been served all kinds of intestines, goat balls, chicken fosters, fermented horse milk, and pure fat meat pieces. One thing I eat almost every day is bananas and peanuts as they are cheap, full of energy, and available everywhere. For me, food is just fuel, and I don’t do any fine dining in Michelin-star restaurants.

Vagabjorn on the streets of Aleppo.

What commonalities do you notice among the peoples of the world? In your opinion, what are the problems we must face and solve together?
We are all humans sharing the same needs everywhere on this planet. Some are more privileged than others, but not just by financial means. In fact, I’ve seen people happier in countries where they have less. By “being privileged,” I mean some people have been educated to know what is best for themselves and their countries. If countries like Nigeria, Sudan, and Equatorial Guinea had known how to best distribute the wealth of their oil, instead of giving all the profits to big corporations and corrupt leaders, they could have been very wealthy countries. The key is education. And trade instead of aid. Micro loans for starting up small businesses are better than big donations, which sometimes end up poorly distributed. The people there know what is best for themselves, and it is not always the same as we think. Organizations like Kiva are doing crowdfunding where lenders can give a few dollars to entrepreneurs and will get paid back as soon as businesses grow and can make money on their own. This I think is a good solution, where I wish more people would contribute.

I try not to ask “favorite” questions, but I can’t not ask in this case: what are some of your favorite places you’ve visited?
I like traveling in the rougher countries like in West Africa and Central Asia. Madagascar and Sudan are other examples of places where tourism hasn’t really reached. Another country I love and believe is one of the most diverse on Earth is Ethiopia. Places that are too developed—like Las Vegas, Dubai, and Singapore—are on the opposite side of my list.

You’re scheduled to visit Seychelles in March 2019. Will that complete your 201 countries quest? Any thoughts on what you’ll do next? Any places you’d like to revisit?
Actually, the visit to Seychelles will complete my visits to the world’s 195 countries. There are 193 UN members in the world and two observers [the Vatican/Holy See and Palestine], which most everyone agrees are countries. Additionally, I count the members of the UN agencies as countries [Niue, Cook Islands, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Kosovo], which brings the number to 201. I will visit these six before turning 30 in November this year, and then I hope to start my own travel agency to help others see the world by organizing and leading trips to my favorite destinations.

 

Heather M. Surls, an EthnoTraveler contributor, lives and writes in Amman. Follow Vagabjorn’s journey on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or through his website, 201countries.

 

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