It all began in Bali. On a two-week vacation there in 2017, Jessica Nabongo was feeling adrift after a career change from corporate desk jockey to entrepreneur. Then she read an article about a traveler named Cassie De Pecol, who had just set the Guinness World Record for visiting every country on the planet in the fastest time. Nabongo realized there was a community of people like her—people who long to set foot in every nation. She wanted to become the first Black woman to do it.
Nabongo was actually well on her way, since she’d already been to 59 countries. She started traveling at age four, tagging along with her Ugandan parents on family trips from their home in Detroit, Michigan. Little did her parents know what they were setting in motion when they instilled the travel bug in their young daughter.
On October 6, 2019—her late father’s birthday—Nabongo completed her mission when she landed in the Seychelles, having visited 195 countries (193 United Nations member states plus the two non-member states, the Holy See and Palestinian territories). But it’s not just about the country count. Along the way, she became a writer, photographer, and passionate advocate for inclusive and ethical tourism. She shares her adventures on the blog The Catch Me If You Can and on Instagram.
Now Nabongo is working on a book with National Geographic about her experiences around the world, highlighting 100 of her favorite countries, to be published in 2022. On April 21 she’s hosting National Geographic’s Earth Day Eve 2021—a virtual event with musicians and Nat Geo Explorers coming together to celebrate love for the planet—while clad in an outfit made of recycled single-use plastics. Watch the event at 8:30 p.m. ET on National Geographic’s website or YouTube channel.
Here she talks to us about surprise encounters, banishing fear, and tips for traveling better.
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 toward 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 South Poles, 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.
Before your career as a traveler, 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 U.S. Embassy strongly discourages U.S. citizens from traveling 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.
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 traveling 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 socialization. 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 traveling?
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 snorkeling 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 are—human beings. Having humility is so important.
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.
Has the pandemic caused you to think differently about travel?
I think I’m definitely more conscious about the environment. I always have my reusable water bottle instead of using those little plastic bottles. Even though I find it slightly annoying, it’s something small that I can do. On planes I fly with a reusable cup so that I’m not using plastic cups. The other thing is slowing down. I want to spend more time in places versus always having to get back home. Why do I have to leave? There’s Wi-Fi. I think we’re going to see that trend across the board because everybody’s working remotely.
What are some other things people can do to travel more sustainably?
Single-use plastic is one of the biggest things harming Earth right now, so a lot of my focus is on that. But I also think it’s important to watch how much you waste. If you’re in a restaurant and you don’t have a big appetite, ask for a half portion. It’s about being a deliberate traveler, just taking that extra minute to think how can I have a lower impact on this place that I’m in and on the planet in general.
You took road trips in the U.S. last summer. What did you learn about your home country?
I went to 25 states in 2020. Before I left Michigan, I took a COVID test. Then I drove to New York and started with New England. Then I did Delaware, Maryland. I also road-tripped around Utah and much of the South. Americans live in one of the largest and most diverse countries in the world, but so many people have never been to the national parks in their state or in the neighboring state. And there are all these microcultures, like lobster fishers in Maine. I learned about the Geechee/Gullah culture in South Carolina. I went to Oklahoma and got to learn about the history of Black cowboys. We’re always chasing passport stamps, but how about we explore our own country, whether it’s the U.S., Kenya, or Canada.
What are some places around the world you’re still longing to visit?
The Okavango Delta in Botswana. I’ve done safaris in almost every African country, but people say that’s one of the best. Also gorilla trekking in Uganda and the beautiful, pristine beaches of Madagascar. I think I’ll do all three of those this year. My bucket lists don’t last very long.
This article was expanded from one that initially appeared on National Geographic’s U.K. website. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.