In 2019 Jessica Nabongo, author of the popular travel blog The Catch Me If You Can, became the first documented Black woman to travel to every country in the world. From swimming with humpback whales near Tonga to eating delicious dumplings in Georgia, the world traveler shares how globe-trotting changed the way she sees the world and humanity.
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PETER GWIN (HOST): No one knows exactly when humans started traveling, venturing beyond the little corner of the world they knew to discover new places. In some ways, it feels like it’s always been part of who we are as a species. Before babies can even walk or talk, they’re trying to climb out of their cribs to explore.
It’s something that we need—to see what’s out there. For some of us that means what’s across the street or in the next town; for others it’s what’s in the next continent.
At National Geographic we meet lots of explorers who’ve been to lots of places, people who have a serious travel bug, but I’ve never met a more dedicated, more curious traveler than Jessica Nabongo.
JESSICA NABONGO (AUTHOR): So I was in Bali…I was in Rome…I was in Miami…In Afghanistan we walked across the bridge from Uzbekistan…My friend was doing Peace Corps in Fiji, so I went to see her…I met this Australian guy at a McDonald’s in Osaka, so I went to Australia and I saw him…I went on a solo, my first solo trip ever, to Costa Rica…So when I was in Kyrgyzstan with a friend of mine, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so excited to sleep in a yurt!”…When I was in Mongolia, I stayed in a ger, which is the same thing as a yurt. But in Mongolia, they call it a ger…That was, like, seven days, and I went from Indonesia to L.A., through Sydney, to Detroit, to Senegal. You know, it was so painful.
GWIN: Oh my gosh!
I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week we talk to Jessica Nabongo, the first Black woman known to have traveled to all 195 UN-recognized nations. We’ll hear about some of her adventures, which by the way she wrote about in her new book, The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World. And we’ll also ask her about what she’s learned along the way.
More after the break. But before that—if you like what you hear, please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard and to ensure that we keep providing you with stories from the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe. Back in a minute.
NABONGO: There’s this whole community of country counters, you know, a bunch of weirdos like me, and I’m like, Oh my God.
GWIN: Accurately tracking exactly how many people have traveled to every country in the world is super difficult. There’s not an official body that tracks this, but by many counts, the number’s less than 200.
NABONGO: Out of over seven billion: 150. There are, like, more people have been to outer space than have been in every country in the world.
GWIN: We checked with NASA, and that’s actually true! In 2021 the 600th person went to space. Yet even with modern transportation, going to every country down on the planet is still Guinness World Records territory.
People embark on this sort of epic travel for many different reasons: bottomless curiosity, the thrill of the chase, a desire to rack up a ridiculous number of frequent-flier miles. But Jessica was sort of born into the life of a traveler. She grew up with, basically, one foot on two different continents.
Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Uganda, and those early family trips back to Africa helped make her feel at home with vastly different ways of life and planted the seeds for her future travels.
NABONGO: I think because I was so young when I first went to Uganda, and it wasn’t made out to be like a foreign place—it was just like, OK, we’re going home. You know, I met my cousins. I met, like, my grandmother. My mom is from a village with no running water and electricity, and there was never this value judgment. And I really appreciated that, because I think that also shapes how I look at the world nowadays. It’s not good or bad. It’s just, it’s different.
GWIN: As Jessica grew older, she started to wonder, What could I find in all these other places around the world?
NABONGO: I think what I used to do is like spin the globe and then pick a place, and then I would look in the encyclopedia and just see what was what.
GWIN: But she followed the tried-and-true life path. She went to college in New York City
and then started her career in her hometown of Detroit. And then she did something that many people thought was crazy: She quit her job and, sort of on a whim, moved to Japan.
NABONGO: I resigned. I shaved my head, because I was like, I’m not going to find anyone to do my Black hair in Japan.
GWIN: She spent a year in Japan teaching English and then moved to London for grad school. Next she took a job in Rome for three years and then spent six months in Benin,
before eventually moving back to the U.S. But all during this time, she was traveling to other countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
NABONGO: And so it was actually during that time that I started my blog, The Catch Me If You Can, because my friends would always call me Carmen Sandiego, and they’re like, “Where is Jessica now?”
GWIN: By 2017 she’d racked up 60 countries and had a devoted following of readers. And then during a trip to Bali, she had an epiphany.
NABONGO: You know, Bali—like, spiritual awakenings occur. And when I was there, I heard or I read about an American woman named Cassie De Pecol, who had just gotten the Guinness record for doing it the fastest. It was like 18 and a half months—she did 193 countries in 18 and a half months. I, having been to every country in the world, that still blows my mind. The pure exhaustion of it all (laughs).
GWIN (to Nabongo): Seriously.
Not only did Cassie De Pecol get the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to visit all sovereign nations, she was also the first woman known ever to do it. It took De Pecol exactly one year and 194 days to make it to every country. But a couple years later, another American woman, named Taylor Demonbreun, beat De Pecol’s record with a time of one year, 189 days.
NABONGO: So then I was like, Has any Black person done this? And I found out about this guy named Slawek Muturi. He’s half Kenyan, half Polish; and I met him, finally, this past August. I met him in Warsaw. He’s been to every country twice, and he’s like 50 countries away from doing it three times. I’m like, You’re insane. I’m not doing that (laughs).
NABONGO: But yeah, so once I did all that, I found out no Black women had done it, and so I decided then that I wanted to be the first Black woman to visit every country in the world.
GWIN: While Jessica wasn’t interested in beating world records for the fastest time,
she did set herself a deadline: Make it to the remaining 135 countries by her 35th birthday, which was two and half years away.
But her project wasn’t just about ticking destinations off a list. It was deeper than that.
NABONGO: I wanted to have a cultural experience in every country I visited. Like, I wanted to know why this country is unique.
(Sound of cars starting up and driving around)
NABONGO: OK, good morning. We’re still in Mount Crystal. We’re about to go for this hike to the Grand Cascade, which is the big waterfall. Let’s do it!
GWIN: Jessica Nabongo has had enough adventures of a lifetime to fill, well, lots of lifetimes. Editing this episode was difficult because she told us so many great stories it was hard to choose from. There was the time when she went to Tonga and swam with humpback whales.
NABONGO: You know, I’m a pretty good swimmer. I did, I wasn’t certified for scuba, so I snorkeled, and I was so scared because it’s a humpback whale. So first of all, it’s bigger than the boat we’re in. So I’m like, How do you know it’s not going to hit the boat and we’re going to all flip over and die here? And so, you know, I get in, but I’m like, super nervous. And then I really get into it, and it’s incredible. And they sort of are playing with you. So they’re watching you, and they’re doing flips.
GWIN: In South Sudan she visited a cattle camp.
NABONGO: In Dinka culture, cattle is incredibly important, so we spent like three hours in a cattle camp, you know, milking cows and just hanging out.
GWIN: But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Take, for example, her dog-sledding experience above the Arctic Circle in Norway.
NABONGO: These girls behind us weren’t paying attention. Their sled slams into me. So the dogs knocked me, but then the sled, which came after the dog, slammed into me. What I didn’t realize until a month later was that I actually tore my labrum, which is kind of what connects to your leg and your hip, I guess. My doctor was like, “What happened?” I was like, “Well, I was in the dog-sledding accident in Norway.”
But some of her most precious gems—the little beautiful moments of revelation—caught her completely by surprise. Like once in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, she stopped at a beach to check out the local surf scene. Here she is reading from her blog post “Portraits of Senegal”:
NABONGO: My first full day in Dakar, my host had to work and I was left to wander around. We had lunch across the street from a surf shop, so I wandered over. I noticed Pake in the distance as he came out of the water. I watched him walk towards me, passing over the rocks, yelling at a small girl, and showering before he headed back to the surf shop. I was struck by his dark skin and the displaced surfboard under his arm. I had never seen a Black surfer, let alone an African one. In the first use of my French here in Senegal, I first asked the owner of the shop if I could take pictures, then him, if I could take his picture. He thought I wanted a picture of me with the board. When I corrected him, he seemed delighted.
GWIN: In some places, the experience was all about the food. For example…
NABONGO: One of the best places for food is the country of Georgia. They have these dumplings that are filled with meat. They make this really delicious flatbread, and it’s also the birthplace of wine. So we went to vineyards, and we went to all these wine bars and learned so much about the history of wine.
GWIN: But sometimes you get served something that you’re not really sure what it is. But hey— eating is an important part of the adventure of traveling and learning about a different culture.
NABONGO (reading from a blog post): Last week while traveling in Gabon, we sat down for lunch. I ordered veggies and rice, and Sal ordered chicken. Once our dishes were served, another dish was brought to the table. Neither of us knew what it was, but it was presented as a local dish. I made a video of Sal eating it, and we were later told it was pangolin, an animal I had never heard of. It was in French, so I assumed the name was different in English. In fact, I called it an armadillo when I saw the picture.
GWIN: Uh yeah, pangolins do kind of look kind of like armadillos. But according to the World Wildlife Fund, they are also the most trafficked mammal in the world.
In certain countries, pangolins are used in traditional medicine as well as consumed as a delicacy. And as a result, the eight species of pangolin range in status from vulnerable to critically endangered.
NABONGO (reading from a blog post): As you can imagine, once I learned of this, I was shocked and removed the video from my page. I, in no way, want to contribute to the extinction of any vulnerable or endangered animals. There are three types of pangolin in Gabon. The giant pangolin has been legally protected since 1987; however, this is not the case with the other two species of pangolin, which are often hunted for bushmeat. This information was taken from Eyes on Environment. I encourage you to do more research on this animal to learn more about conservation efforts and ways that you can support these efforts.
GWIN: More after the break.
GWIN: Though traveling was mostly fun, Jessica had her share of rough moments. In Paris someone tried to steal her phone, and in Rome a cab driver tried to kiss her. But the worst was a moment in Pakistan.
She’d had a great time visiting the country, but when she arrived at the airport in Lahore to depart, the security guards dug through her luggage, doubted the validity of her American passport, and aggressively questioned her about where she was going and why.
NABONGO: Then they put me into an x-ray, not a metal detector, a medical x-ray. And when I’m like, “What is going on?” They’re like, “Oh, sometimes people keep the drugs in their stomach.” So I’m like, OK. So now I’m freaking out. I'm like, Oh, you think I’m a drug mule? Got it. OK. So once they find out that I’m, in fact, not carrying drugs in my stomach, they let me go check in. So I check in, and they’re being rude to me at the check-in. I'm like, OK. I’m trying to keep it together, and then I go to security.
And in Muslim countries, women go into like a private little box for the security. I go in and the woman has me spread my legs. It was literally, that is the worst thing that has happened to me in the last decade. I mean, really in all of my travels, because it was, I felt so violated. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I was alone. I’m crying. And it was just awful.
And here’s where I want to talk about the importance in how we tell stories when bad things happen to us. I recognize the reason that happened to me is because there’s apparently a large drug-trafficking triangle between Pakistan and West Africa, right? So it’s specifically because I’m visibly African. I had such an amazing time in Pakistan. It’s, you know, conservative Muslim country. I was mostly with men the entire time I was there. Had an amazing time. Everyone was so nice to me. Strangers. It was phenomenal. And so for me, I have most issues with immigration when I travel because people think my U.S. passport is fake, because apparently Africans can’t be Americans. Weird. And then if I have my Ugandan passport, they think I’m going to, like, overstay a visa. I’m able to separate the horrible experiences that I have with immigration from my experience of the country. And I think for me, in particular, but I think everyone, that’s really important, because we can’t equate governments with people. Those exist on two different planes. We can’t equate politics with visiting a country.
GWIN: In 2019, with about 40 countries left, Jessica thought about giving up. The constant travel was physically draining and what was supposed to be a fun mission was turning into a slog.
NABONGO: When I was in Mali, which I think was country 154, I was again burnt out and over it. I remember FaceTiming my friend Ashley, and I was like, “What am I doing? Like this is dumb. I can’t. I can’t do this anymore.” Like, I’m exhausted. I’m going broke. This is just not a good idea. And I remember I met this photographer, and we went to the market. And we’re in the market, and he’s telling them what I'm doing and they’re like, “What?” Like, “Ce n'est pas vrai—It’s not true.”
“C'est impossible—It’s impossible.”
And I’m like, “Yeah, no, that’s what I’m doing.”
And then one of them said, “Ce n'est pas pour toi. C'est pour nous—It’s not for you. It’s for us.”
GWIN: And that was a turning point for Jessica. She’d started this journey with the goal of seeing how people live in every country in the world, but she realized that because she was sharing her travels on her blog and social media, other people were making these trips with her.
NABONGO: And so when I talk about how the journey became so much bigger than me, it’s because other people began to have a stake in what it meant for me as a Black woman to be traveling to every country in the world. And it really was them in Mali who gave me that push. They really gave me the push that I needed to to finish that journey.
GWIN: Finally, in October 2019, a few months after her 35th birthday, Jessica made it to the last country on her list.
NABONGO: The last country was the Seychelles. I wanted a place in Africa, so that was important to me. Because I love the African continent so much. It’s definitely my favorite region in the world. And I wanted a place that my friends were going to come. So in the end, there were 55 people there celebrating with me, like friends and family.
GWIN: In the Seychelles, Jessica threw a dinner party with a deejay. In fact, her friends and family joked that it was her wedding.
NABONGO: The government of the Seychelles were very kind. They gave me a coco-de-mer, which is the largest plant or the largest seed in the plant kingdom.
NABONGO: Yeah, it’s really, it’s interesting. You have to google a picture of it, but it looks like the bottom half of a woman. And it’s very unique to the Seychelles. And so they gave me one that sits on my bookshelf.
GWIN: These days, it may seem like the world has shrunk. Google Earth lets us look at any spot on the globe in seconds; people jump on planes every day, jetting off to practically every corner of the planet; and we’re inundated with world news 24/7. But the truth is the earth is vast, and Jessica Nabongo has been all over it, making connections with people all along the way. So the big question is, what has she learned?
NABONGO: That’s such a good question.
GWIN: This is where the heavy music is going to play right here.
NABONGO: (Laughs) I love that.
GWIN: The dramatic music.
NABONGO: Duh, duh, duh. You know my tip now, if you want to travel to places like this, is you have a local guide, you have that local connection. Someone who knows more than you. Someone who knows more than foreign journalists. Someone who’s living there every single day.
GWIN: But there’s also a lesson about human nature that she picked up.
NABONGO: Truly for me it’s the kindness of strangers. That made my journey what it was. I’m like getting emotional. Because I can’t, all of my amazing stories have people in them. It’s not like, Oh, I hiked this mountain and it was so incredible. I mean, that’s great too. But to me, so much of experiencing the world is experiencing it with people, right? There’s mountains everywhere. What makes the mountain different? You know what I mean? But the way we can understand the world and love the world and love humanity is by meeting people and becoming quick friends.
GWIN: If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app. And please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.
And if you want to learn more about Jessica’s travels, her book, The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World, comes out in June. It includes lots of her photographs from around the world. You can also check out her blog posts at thecatchmeifyoucan.com or follow her on Instagram @jessicanabongo.
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Khari Douglas.
Our producers are Ilana Strauss and Marcy Thompson.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Our copy editors are Caroline Braun, Amy Kolczak, Cindy Leitner, and Jennifer Vilaga.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
Check out Jessica Nabongo’s forthcoming book, The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World, published by Nat Geo Books. You can learn more about her adventures on her blog, The Catch Me If You Can, and Instagram page.
Learn more about pangolins, why they are so heavily trafficked, and the ongoing efforts to protect them.
Archaeologists have found that humans have been making wine in Georgia for 8,000 years. Talk about vintage.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe today.