Meet the adventurer: Jessica Nabongo on the lessons learnt from visiting 195 countries

In October 2019, travel entrepreneur and photographer Jessica Nabongo became the first documented black woman to visit all 195 UN member states, travelling to 89 countries solo. She talked to us about extreme destinations and new adventures.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020,
By Nora Wallaya
Jessica Nabongo

Jessica Nabongo talks to us about new adventures and what it means to be fearless. 

Photograph by Elton Anderson

What inspires your adventures?

Curiosity — that’s what’s always inspired me. I have a strong desire to see the differences and similarities in how people live everywhere in the world. Even at home in the United States. I put a lot of trust in strangers, and I believe you can travel solo anywhere.

Who was the most interesting person you met?

My guide in Algeria, Zaki. It was towards the end of my journey, and at the time there were a lot of anti-government protests going on there. We were supposed to be touring, but we ended up sitting in a café, talking. I’ll never forget what he said: “I'm just living for the sake of living. You can't have wild ambition around here, especially if you're the oldest child.” It really struck me. Simply because of where he’d been born, his opportunities were limited to the point where he didn't even want to think about success.

Do you have any travel heroes?

Barbara Hillary. She was the first black woman to visit the North and the South Pole, and she did it aged 75 and 79 — isn’t that wild? The other is Cory Lee. He’s in a wheelchair, and has visited 37 countries. I can’t relate to him because I haven’t faced those challenges, but I love that he hasn’t let being in a wheelchair stop him from exploring the world. I also follow Traveling Black Widow on Instagram. She was married for 31 years, but after her partner died, she went on to explore the world. I love her.

When we talk about diversity, people mostly think about racial diversity, but it’s also about abilities, age and body type. There are so many different types of diversity, and everybody should be seen. I like to see how people are living their lives without boundaries.

Jessica in Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, United Arab Emirates. 

Photograph by Jessica Nabongo

Before your career as a traveller, you studied international development and worked with the United Nations. Did this help to prepare you?

Learning about political and economic history at the London School of Economics absolutely opened my mind and taught me about the world, and the UN was certainly an interesting experience. My studies gave me an understanding of post-colonial dynamics and how different countries wield their power. A simple example of how this can apply to travel is the relationship between former colonies and air routes. The easiest way to get to former French colonies, particularly in Africa, would be by flying through Paris — the French airlines there will have a monopoly because of the diaspora.

What was the most extreme place you visited?

Let’s talk about South Sudan. The US embassy strongly discourages US citizens from travelling there, and I was advised by a diplomat that it was too dangerous. South Sudan is insecure in terms of its government, and, of course, terrible things have happened. But I always say no country in the world is completely safe, and no country in the world is completely unsafe. You find what you're seeking. What I'm seeking is humanity. I'm seeking love. So I went anyway.

I spent my time there with a South Sudanese woman, Nyankuir. I didn’t want to go to a compound and never leave it. Instead, I visited a cattle camp — cattle are an extremely important aspect of Dinka culture. I spent time speaking to the elders and the children, and I found out my bride price — 30 cattle, at most, because at five-foot seven, I’m considered short there.

I also think of my trip to the market. There was an old man sitting right in the middle of it. His face was super wrinkled and I found myself just staring at him. I thought he was begging for money, but it turned out that his children were grown-up and had left home and he didn’t like being home alone. So he sat in the market every day to interact with people. I asked for his picture and he told me to hold on, because he wanted to put his glasses on first. So now I have these two portraits: one of how he wanted to be seen, and one of how I wanted to see him.

Both were beautiful and simple experiences. I never felt afraid. It was a reminder that you should take everything you hear from people with a grain of salt.

Jessica visiting a cattle camp in South Sudan. Cattle, she discovered, are an extremely important aspect of local Dinka culture.

Photograph by Jessica Nabongo

What travel kit can't you do without?

I like mirrorless cameras because they’re lighter — whether they’re Sony or Canon. I think the 24-70mm is the perfect lens, in terms of getting that wide range of shots, from landscape images to beautiful portraits, and being able to move with one lens. Obviously, you can take more than one lens, but if you’re travelling for extended periods you should take a 24-70mm. I also travel with my drone. I have a DJI Mavic Air that I find to be lightweight — and inconspicuous when I need it to be.

Did you ever experience any setbacks?

I don't believe in failure. And I don’t have the ability to be embarrassed. Embarrassment isn’t a natural human trait, in my eyes — it comes from socialisation. If I fell over in the middle of Grand Central Station, I’d laugh at myself. I truly believe that every failure in your life is just an opportunity to learn.

What do you collect while travelling?

Alcohol. In Peru, I got pisco; in Georgia and New Zealand, I bought wine. Waragi — a kind of gin — in Uganda, and more gin in Eritrea. Then rum in Barbados, of course, and rakia in Serbia.

If you could change one thing in the world of travel, what would it be?

Single-use plastic. I wish it didn’t exist. On my travels, I really saw the effects of it. I once went snorkelling in Nauru, one of the world’s least-visited countries, and there was so much rubbish in the water — it broke my heart. I see it all the time, everywhere, but unfortunately mostly in developing countries. Corporations brought in all this plastic and didn’t tell anyone how to dispose of it. These communities are used to organic waste, like banana peel — you throw it out. They have no waste-management system to deal with it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

My mother has always said ‘humble yourself’. I appreciate it because when you travel, depending on your passport, depending on your social class, depending on so many different things, you can go to places with a lot of ego, or you can humble yourself and know that everyone is equal. It enables you to connect with all types of people, no matter if they're a man sitting on the floor at the market, or if they’re a general manager at a Four Seasons property. It's really just about seeing people exactly as they as are — human beings. Having humility is so important.

Where are you off to next?

I’m off on a road trip through New England, USA. I’ll start in New York, go up to Connecticut, then Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York State and New Jersey. I’m really excited about the food. Because it’s the East Coast there’ll be lots of amazing lobster in Maine and Rhode Island. And I can’t wait to explore the outdoors — there’s Acadia National Park in Maine, and most of these states have a great Atlantic coastline. I’m going to enjoy something new, but stay safe, considering the current time.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking of embarking on a similar adventure?

Travel with kindness, travel with positive energy and without fear. I think what holds people back a lot of the time is fear of the unknown. What I've learned throughout my travels is that most people are good, and because of that, there's no reason to have an innate fear of a stranger. Most people really want to help you. A lot of the time people are just really happy that you're in their country.

For more of Jessica Nabongo’s adventures, visit her blog The Catch Me If You Can, or follow her on Instagram. Jessica has recently launched an online shop, selling goods collected from her travels.

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