I've become obsessed, over the years, with the idea of normal people who do amazing things. These are the fellow travellers you meet who seem like everyday people until you hear their stories and realise they're actually incredibly brave, adventurous, inspiring.
I met a couple of Swiss retirees in Botswana a few years ago and discovered they'd driven there – from Switzerland. I skied with a guy in New Zealand who'd been one of the first responders to the Mount Erebus air disaster in Antarctica. I travelled with an Austrian couple who had cycled around the world.
Normal people who do amazing things. Which seems an appropriate time to introduce Martina Sebova and Rachel Davey, two women who appear fairly normal, until you find out they're currently attempting to visit every country in the world.
Every country. That includes Sudan and Algeria; North Korea and Yemen. The pair are up to 127, and they've already ticked off Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Somalia. They're well on their way to proving you can go to absolutely any place in the world and be welcomed; you can do amazing things if you just decide to.
"We did some research and we realised there were only a handful of people who have seen every country in the world – a handful of men," says Martina, on Skype from the pair's current base in Morocco. "There were really no women who were represented. So, we were like, OK, let's just do it."
And so Martina and Rachel, a Slovakian tour guide and an Australian chef, decided to visit all 195 countries in the world, plus the 10 disputed territories. They're hoping to complete their task by the end of next year. In order to do that, they're going to need a lot more of the persistence they've already required to get into countries that are officially closed.
"It takes a lot of research, a lot of planning," says Martina. "At the moment the biggest ones we still have to apply for are Algeria and Pakistan. They need to be applied for in your country of residency, so most embassies keep turning us down."
Gaining access to Saudi Arabia, she adds, was the pair's crowning achievement so far. "We spoke to a few embassies and they told us no, because there's no tourist visa. So we decided we'd just give it a go at every embassy, and see.
"We knew a few people who pulled some strings, and then we pretty much just camped out at the Saudi embassy in Ethiopia for three days. On the second day we got into the embassy, so that was a step forward. From there it was just the right circumstances – I don't think it could be repeated – and they issued us a 'special visa', and we were in."
It turns out the secret to conquering the world is persistence. That, and visiting a lot of embassies, and begging. "It's usually the people at the embassies who can help you, who can point you in the right direction," Martina says. "They'll say, oh, go to Spain. And we will fly to a different country just to try to get a visa."
There have been some scary moments in the pair's adventures. While Somaliland was surprisingly peaceful and welcoming, and North Korea relatively benign, Afghanistan was a worry.
"We spent the majority of our time in Mazar-i- Sharif, in the north of the country, and for the most part we felt really safe in that city," says Rachel. "We had some really nice locals that we met, and we didn't move too far from that city, because we couldn't.
"We did take a day tour to Balkh one day, which is pretty close by, and it was one day where we didn't feel super safe. It was a bit shady. We had to be really well covered with our scarves, and when we got to the city, you could see the guys we were with, their eyes darting around whenever we got out of the car to see anything. Because it was Eid, there was a lot of Taliban in town visiting their family."
Making their way through 127 countries has taught Martina and Rachel certain things about the world: it's sometimes a strange place (Turkmenistan); it's sometimes a boring place (Djibouti); sometimes the food is excellent (Thailand, Mexico, Ethiopia); and sometimes the food is not (Central Asia). But almost without fail, wherever you go, the welcome is warm.
"We've confirmed our belief that people are generally good," Martina says. "They will help you and welcome you. People reading the media these days might think everyone out there will rob you or murder you or lie to you. But we find people will go out of their way to help, to go the extra distance. Even taxi drivers, most of the time they try to help us. And people we've met through social media – you might think, 'Why would you go to see a stranger in Somalia?'. But they're always good."
You can follow Martina and Rachel's travels on Instagram – their handle is "veryhungrynomads". You can watch in real time as they attempt to visit every single country on the planet, as they battle to secure visas for Algeria and Pakistan, as they visit Yemen and South Sudan, as they prove that two normal people, two women with an adventurous spirit and a tenacious attitude, can do amazing things.
And, finally, you can see them reach their goal, the last country, number 195.
"We want it to be somewhere easy, somewhere relaxing," Rachel says. "We're open to suggestions, but I'm thinking somewhere in the Pacific. Somewhere with a nice beach."
Have you been inspired by someone you've met on your travels? What's the most exotic or most difficult-to-access country you've ever been to? Or do you prefer safe and easy when you travel? Post a comment below.
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