This is Graham Hughes, the first person to visit every country in the world without setting foot on a plane. Originally from Liverpool, he now lives on his own private island off the coast of Panama, which he won on a “Survivor”-style gameshow. We caught up with him to discuss travelling by cargo ship, eating live octopus and staying on the right side of the law.
Hostelworld: Do you have any tips for meeting people when travelling?
Graham Hughes: Because I was travelling the world without flying, I spent a lot of time on public transport, which always makes for a fascinating journey. If you’re with other people and you’re the only westerner on the bus or train, you’re gonna be the centre of attention. Sometimes, when you’re tired and grumpy, you don’t really want to be chatting away to people, but most of the time it’s an absolutely fantastic way to meet people, because you’re sitting next to them for hours – you may as well have a natter and find out what they do and what they think of their country and the world. You get this kind of great perspective that you would never get from reading a guide book or a blog.
HW: Which was the friendliest nation you visited?
GH: One thing that struck me throughout the trip was how friendly people are all over the world – even in London! I’ve travelled for a long time to a lot of countries and I didn’t get into any trouble with other people. I got into trouble with the law a couple of times, but as far as people were concerned I didn’t get into a fight, I didn’t get into a fracas, I didn’t even get anything stolen from me. So I don’t know whether I’m just very, very lucky, or whether the world is a bit friendlier than we give it credit for.
HW: Which country would you like to revisit and why?
GH: Iran – it was outrageous how friendly people were there. They were coming up to me in the street and trying to take me home and make dinner for me, give me somewhere to stay for the night, make sure I was getting on the right train. I was expecting it to be quite conservative, like Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Actually, there’s nowhere in the world that I wouldn’t really like to go back to, even some places that I may not have had a great experience in – I’d like to give them a second chance.
HW: You had several brushes with the law didn’t you?
GH: Yeah, they were mostly centred on West Africa. I got into trouble a couple of times in Guinea and Cameroon. I was also held for six days in a police cell in Cape Verde, but that was kind of my own fault because I turned up in a boat with 10 Senegalese fishermen. They thought I was trying to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country. When I got into some real trouble again, I was in Congo. I’d had two hellish days of travel through Congo out on a dirt track. I arrived in the capital Brazzaville at night time, and the police stopped me and I lost my rag with them and ended up spending six days in a police station again. It was pretty grim. There was a point there where I just didn’t think I was getting out of that one. But eventually they let me go. I learnt a very important lesson for people that are travelling: just keep smiling. Just go “yeah officer, whatever you say.”
HW: Weirdest tradition or local custom you encountered?
GH: In Uzbekistan they like to eat boiled sheep’s head – it’s a delicacy over there. Apparently they give the visitors the eyeballs because they’re the best part, but I drew the line at eating sheep’s eyeballs. I did eat a live octopus in South Korea though, which was strange but awesome. It kind of wriggles around in your mouth as you’re eating it. Technically it’s not actually alive – it’s been cut, but the tentacles keep wriggling around of their own accord. It’s like eating a plate of wiggling worms. You’re meant to dip it in soy sauce and oil to stop the suction cups sticking on your oesophagus and choking you. I think a few people have actually been taken out.
HW: What would you do differently?
GH: A lot of things! I would have a dedicated person who was helping me behind the scenes. I had my friends and family helping me out, helping to run the website, helping me catch rides on cargo ships, things like that – but they had full time jobs and families to worry about. They did an incredible job considering! I also think that if I was doing it again I’d be able to do it a lot faster now because I didn’t know which way to go a lot of the time. There was no one to blaze a trail before me, so sometimes I really was just counting on the information that was on the internet or in guide books, and sometimes that was out of date and wrong. For example, I spent six weeks in Kuwait because I thought there was a ferry that went from Kuwait to Bahrein, and that apparently had stopped a couple of years earlier. So I had to get a visa to go through Saudi Arabia which costs a lot of money and takes a long time.
HW: Would you recommend travelling by cargo ship?
GH: Yes and no. I mean I really enjoyed it. I guess it depends on what type of person you are. I love being on the sea. I loved disconnecting from the outside world for a few days. I liked hanging out with the crew. It gives you a better understanding of the scale of the world. I think travelling without flying in any respect whether it’s on a train or a ship or a bus, it does actually make you realise how big and also how small the world is.
Check out part II, where Graham goes into detail about why he didn’t use planes on his travels, money-saving tips and travelling alone!