Jason Mayfield
 
Jason, you finished all UN countries in September last year. So, how did it feel? How did you celebrate? What did you do in your final country?

It was really a mixture of emotions. A combination of relief and excitement more than anything. Exciting to have finally accomplished a major goal that I have worked on for a long time, and relief I will be able to focus more now on going back to places I’m interested in instead of “needing” to spend my time working towards a list. I celebrated with about 40 friends and family who joined me in Iceland for a long weekend of celebrating. We did all of the major tourist things near Reykjavik - the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, and an excellent city history walking tour. It was really amazing to have such a large group of people decide to join me - and made me realize just what a supportive group of people I have in my life who stuck with me despite my not always being around for holidays and other occasions the last decade or so while I worked towards this goal.

What do your family and friends think about your peregrinations?

Although I think it’s a bit hard to explain to people who haven’t “been there” just how big the world is, I think everyone is super impressed. One friend actually summed it up for me perfectly lately when he told me “did you know more people have been in outer space than have visited every country?” It’s a pretty cool fact. The funny part of the whole thing, is often now when friends or co-workers introduce me to someone it’s as “and he’s been to every country in the world!”

Is there ever a 'negative' side to travelling for you? If yes, what is it, and if no, does that mean you have never had to sacrifice anything to travel?

The biggest negative for me has been the time and money - as I’m sure it is for a lot of people. I’ve had to turn down offers to do things with family and friends in order to maximize time away from work to travel to some of the more remote places I visited. When you’re on a limited vacation schedule you can’t always afford things like going away with a group of friends for a week-long vacation. I’m actually looking forward now to having the time and money to do more low-key things.

When did you decide to do all countries? Was there a specific moment when you said 'I will do this'?

I think for me it was somewhere around 10-15 years ago when I realized I was already at about 50 countries. I think “the moment” came for me in 2005 when I read on CNN that North Korea would be allowing a group of American tourists to visit for the first time in decades. I saw this as the only chance I might have to go, so wrote to the tour company and was on a plane to Beijing in under a week. North Korea might not have felt so urgent if I didn’t think it would be my one and only chance to check it off the list. From there it pretty much snowballed, with 10-15 new countries every year.

Which countries have surprised you positively or negatively compared to what you were expecting?

Some of the biggest positive surprises for me have been Finland, Palau, Senegal, and Afghanistan. Finland because from the moment I arrived, it just felt comforting and familiar. Growing up in Minnesota with a large Finnish community probably explains a lot of that, so combine a somewhat-familiar culture with a more laid-back European mindset and it’s a place I keep returning to and loving. Can’t wait to take a couple weeks one of the upcoming summers and explore more of the country. Palau because I expected it to be “just another South Pacific island” but the snorkeling trip I went on is what convinced me to start scuba diving and exploring the part of the planet that’s underwater. Perhaps my favorite part of Palau was the part underwater! I worked in Senegal for several months several years ago, and it was my first time in West Africa. I think having the chance to spend a large chunk of time there and really get to meet the people made me fall in love with West Africa in general. Since then, I’ve been back at least a dozen times, spending time in St. Louis as well as Cassamance. Finally, Afghanistan. I went about ten years ago, when tourism was really just starting to take hold again. We took a ride out of Kabul into the Panjshir Valley and the scenery and people we met were amazing.
 
I can’t say any country in particular has surprised me negatively, but there were a few places I am not that interested in going back to. Many of the islands in the Caribbean that are overrun by package tourists didn’t do too much for me, and since I have a pretty short attention span I got bored pretty quickly after a couple of days on many of the South Pacific islands. I guess I’m just not the sit on the beach and enjoy the tropics kind of guy.
 

Tell us a couple of travel stories which have really impacted you.

One story that comes to mind was crossing the border from Congo, near Pointe-Noire into the northern Angola exclave of Cabinda. At that point I think I had visited about a few African countries, and hadn’t really experienced any frightening moments and hadn’t experienced much corruption. I chalk lots of that up to speaking French, and not being an easy target due to being 6’4 and I’m told - somewhat imposing. At this border, leaving Congo, some small official in a T-shirt who proclaimed himself the “health officer” demanded to see our yellow cards. Very unusual to do a health check leaving the country, but we gave it to him. He paged through, and decided we needed some vaccine or another which we didn’t have. Of course his solution was that he could give it right there (with what I’m sure would have been some questionable needle filled with an even more questionable substance) or just pay him 5,000 francs as a fine. I’m not sure where I got the bravado from that day, but I got out my cell phone, and told him I was going to call the Minister of Health in Brazzaville and he was going to explain to him why he thought we needed that vaccine. He paused for a moment (as I started dialing some fake number) and finally shouted vas-y! (Go on!)  while pointing to the Angola border. Ironically, for all the bad rap Angola gets, entering from there was a piece of cake.
 
I think the other story that comes to mind was on my 40th birthday. I timed it perfectly so that Zambia would be my 100th country, and crossed the Victoria Falls bridge to visit. One of the few fears I have is a pretty crazy fear of heights, and this bridge was high! So, of course, how better to work on conquering my fear of heights than a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge. It was absolutely terrifying and exhilarating but also something I will never forget. Of course, whitewater rafting down the Zambezi the next day was pretty wild as well.
 
Storytelling has actually become one of my favorite post-every-country activities. I get questions from people all the time of “I bet you haven’t been to” this exotic country or that that they can think up. Inevitably, I always meet it with “well, I actually have been there - and let me tell you a story…”
So, has travel changed you or not?

I would definitely say travel has changed me. I remember my first time in Africa more than 25 years ago, and flying from Amsterdam to Johannesburg and looking down and expecting to see wildlife and exotic diseases everywhere. Now, you could pretty much drop me in any corner of the world and I would feel comfortable and right at home. I think the best thing I’ve learned from all my travel is how to very quickly adapt to new and unfamiliar circumstances. Even when I’m in a new and strange place, all this travel has given me an immense toolkit to draw on to figure things out. It’s also been a great help for my notoriously poor sense of direction, and I actually don’t get lost nearly as much anymore!

You also have a blog... Tell us a little about it and what your aims are with it. 

I have to admit I’ve let my blog suffer a bit since visiting Iceland. Part of that is due to the fact October-December is always my busiest period at work, so that hasn’t left as much time. It’s also meant I haven’t had any time to really travel, so haven’t had interesting stories to tell. Many travel blogs are out there trying to sell credit cards, experiences, and people are trying to make a living off of them. For me, it’s more a way to share my stories and experiences with people. The biggest reward for me has been when people read something I posted - usually about Africa - and it’s inspired them to step out of their comfort zone and give something a try. Knowing I’ve helped someone else to take that step to explore and grow is the most rewarding thing for me.

As a gay man travelling alone, what have been the advantages and disadvantages, if any, of your sexual orientation to travelling and how has this perhaps shaped your own perception of a country you visit?

Lots of people ask me what it’s like being gay and traveling to places like the Middle East, Africa, or more conservative countries. Just as often, I’m told “I would never go to country X because of the way they treat gay people/women/etc.” I think my view on this has evolved over time, and I truly believe the way change and progress is made is by participating. When you allow a place to be walled off from the world (think North Korea as an extreme example) it’s very easy to convince people that some group is completely different than they really are. That’s not to say I’m going to run down a busy street in ISIS-controlled territory in a feather boa belting out show tunes, but rather that there are always small opportunities. I have a lot of gay friends tell me that it’s “easier” for me to ”get away with” because I generally don’t fit many peoples’ stereotypes of what being gay means. Maybe that’s an opportunity to educate as well. Some of the most surprising conversations I’ve had have been in some of the most conservative places I’ve visited - and I’ve learned to trust my instinct in these situations. I think people would be surprised that even in what appear to be oppressive places there are lots of liberal and open-minded people.

What are your travel plans now that you have finished the countries?

Honestly, I’ve been at a bit of a crossroads the last couple of months. Nothing shows that more than the trip I recently completed. I was actually torn between two options: the first was taking two weeks to do a road trip through the southern US to visit four of the eight states I haven’t been to. I think such a trip would be really interesting culturally, plus I’d get to spend some time in the car I keep making payments on but rarely use. What eventually won, however, was simply having some fun and traveling for the sake of travel. I had a bunch of great plane tickets on hold to take me on a crazy 17 day round the world trip - almost all in first class - to visit some of my favorite cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cape Town, Paris…it sounds crazy, but ended up being a great reward type of trip for myself. I’m still super interested in exploring new places, but at the same time I’m really looking forward to going back to places I enjoy and being able to spend a bit longer in them. The last two years of traveling did feel like a bit of a chore - not because I wasn't excited for the individual trips, but because I felt like I had a chore list I had to work on.

Finally, if you could invite four people from any period in human history to a dinner, who would they be and why?

For starters, I’m going to assume that they don’t have to be from the same period. It’s a tough question, because the people I’d most like to meet aren’t the same ones I would invite to dinner. I mean, Jesus Christ would be great to sit down and have a glass of amazing whiskey with and hear him tell stories from 2016 years of humans screwing up the Earth and doing stupid stuff. However, at dinner, can you imagine how awkward people would be around him? Same goes for inviting people like Ghandi, Harvey Milk, Jóhanna Sigurðardótir, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King. I want a dinner that´s fun and entertaining, and people who would tell epic stories after a few bottles of wine. So, given that, I think I would go with Barack Obama, Robin Williams, Captain Cook, and Monica Lewinsky. Obama was an easy choice - he’s clearly the “coolest” President the US has ever had, and his bromance with Joe Biden shows he has a really fun side too. Plus, the guy has to have some crazy and amazing stories from the last eight years. Captain Cook? Well, he was one of the greatest explorers of all time and also made sure that his ships were always provisioned with plenty of since he believed it could cure all illnesses that sailors might face. Robin Williams was also an easy choice. Dead Poets Society was my favorite movie of his, and showed he could have a deep and serious side - and also in hindsight also probably showed that there was a tortured soul inside as well. Plus, look at the Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire - the guy was seriously funny as well. Finally, Monica Lewinsky. She probably has some of the best stories to tell, and I’d love to chat with her about my love-hate relationship with Washington, DC. It’s an amazing city full of amazing experience, but at the same time it can be a soul-crushing place where people are very good at using people and screwing over the little guy when things “go wrong.” Nobody knows that better than her. So yeah, those four and LOTS of wine!

The photographs accompanying this interview are from Jason's private collection.

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