By Afnan Linjawi
JEDDAH – We’ve all had the dream to visit a few countries in our lives, but Eric T. Nguyen decided to visit them all.
Nguyen is a 24-year-old American who set out to break the world record for the youngest person to travel to every country in the world.
There are a total of 197 sovereign countries in the world. Nguyen has already visited 193 countries and he is on his way to visit the remaining four. According to Guinness World Records, the youngest person to travel to every country in the world is British banker James Asquith. He broke the record at the age of 24.
“I plan to do the same in a lesser time period. I have four countries left: Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and Eritrea but I will not be deterred. I’ve always loved to travel since I was a little kid. Since the age of two, my parents used to take me on family vacation every other month. Of course, I barely remember Costa Rica or Jamaica at the age of five,” said Nguyen.
When he turned 18, Nguyen started to travel on his own.
“I traveled to Asia on that first great trip, and I fell in love with it. I didn’t think of breaking the world record for the youngest person to visit every country in the world until I read about Gunnar Garfors, he was the youngest hobby traveler to visit every country at age 37. I figured I still had lots of time to visit every country, being only 20 at the time,” said Nguyen.
He took a six month break from school to travel to 50 different countries around the world.
“I later came across an article on James Asquith and I was inspired to do what he did since he was even closer to my age. However, my parents and family had other plans for me, they wanted me to become a family doctor. For the next year and a half, I studied extremely hard and got my Bachelor’s Degree. Then, I was given the most difficult decision of my life, to decide whether to go directly to medical school or to finish traveling the world. That’s when a talk with my biology professor, who was also a doctor, came in handy,” said Nguyen who consulted his professor about his desire to travel.
“My professor sat me down and told me how amazing it was that I was traveling the world and how much he regretted not traveling when he was younger, but proceeding straight to become a doctor. He was sad at how he was overworked, and he never got a chance to travel the world,” said Nguyen.
When Nguyen visited Saudi Arabia, he spent the 24 hours he had in the country in Jeddah, a city he fondly recalls for its friendly vibe.
“I felt the people of Jeddah were really friendly. I loved the charm of the old city of Jeddah and enjoyed the elegance of the Park Hyatt Jeddah. I got to see King Fahd’s fountain and I was surprised by how open minded some of the people I met were,” said Nguyen.
“There are so many American brands here,” he exclaimed, wide-eyed as we walked through the food court of Red Sea Mall.
“Everyone is dressed so elegantly here. The Western media gives us such a negative image of the region, we miss out on the beauty of all these different cultures. Saudi Arabia seems like a first world country,” said Nguyen.
He added he faced good and bad memories throughout his travels but they all equally enriched his worldview.
“I wish more Americans would travel and see the world out there. Traveling is my hobby and I want inspire others to do the same. You don’t have to be a millionaire to be able to see the world. I budget as much as I can through my travels,” he said.
He added he was able to experience life in developed countries and life in underdeveloped countries.
“When I dragged myself 10 miles in Central Africa just to get clean water to drink, I realized just how incredibly privileged I had been all my life,” he recounted. “Travel opens our eyes to the grim reality of everyday life in the underdeveloped world, and how we owe it to these people to do our bit to improve their lives.”
He also narrated how travelling to war-torn countries can change our lives forever; how, when we see the war-hit zones and the houses reduced to a rubble, when we hear gunfire echoing into the darkness of the night, we finally realize the true horrors of wars.
“I faced many near-death situations throughout my travels. Once I contracted malaria in the jungles of Liberia; another time I unexpectedly caught a sighting of Daesh militants near the Syrian border,” he added.
His strangest experience so far? “North Korea, hands down!” he said as he recalled how after finally securing the visa to the secretive country, he and the other fellow tourists were made to stay at a hotel located on an island (so that they wouldn’t escape) and monitored by three officials at all times.
“But at the end of the day, you are always left stunned by the kindness of people wherever you go, no matter where in the world,” he observed, as he reminisced about how at one time “some kind strangers” in Japan walked over 10 miles out of their way to drop him off to his hotel.
“I feel that traveling helps people understand things from a different perspective and is an essential learning tool. As a result, I feel that traveling helps increase empathy and sympathy between people, by viewing things from a different point of view. It also helps people not to take things for granted,” said Nguyen.