Buenos Aires as Home Base
At this point on my globetrotting journeys, I mastered being a digital nomad, traveling 20 countries in 16 weeks. So I figured, why stop? I always wanted to visit Argentina, which didn't make it onto Around-the-World 2005 trip because Star Alliance didn't have an airline partner down there. Also on my Facebook feed, I happen to see that one of my former interns-turned-friends now lives in Columbia, countries no. 60 and 61, here I come!
Once down there, I had to see Iguazú Falls and hired a local driver to take me to Paraguay from there, country no. 62. Since I spent several weeks in Buenos Aires as a base (it's really far down there, it's kinda like Australia, once you're down there, you might as well see everything in the region), so I took a ferry to Uruguay, country no. 63. At this point, it still hadn't occurred to me to visit every country in the world. It hadn't even occurred to me to visit 100 countries.
Back-break and heart-break
Soon after, given that my dad passed away suddenly at the beginning of this "16 countries in 16 weeks" journey, financial crisis struck our family. And since I'm the type to meticulously organize all family affairs in neatly tabbed binders and shouldered the sky for my family for 3 decades, I rushed home to the rescue, with a "last hurrah" in Panama, country no. 64, before spending months as the family grief counsellor, mover, painter, plumber, electrician, man-with-a-van, hoarding clearer, financial planner, estate manager, motivational cheerleader, so mom can safely retire in comfort and my siblings wouldn't have to hold up the crushing sky like I did.
It was back breaking work, to break apart two hoarders' furniture because donation centres didn't accept them. I spent weeks scrubbing black mould that would not let go of the house we had to sell for mom's financial survival. Every scrub was watered down with my heartbroken tears: I had sacrificed my entire existence (no social life, no love life, no fun, no play) to find and afford my family this beautiful, catalogue home, and I was handed back this mould-infested hoarding nightmare.
What if I travel 100 countries...
I spent the following summer healing my back-broken body and heart-broken soul. I wadded in gratitude for never wanting kids, and knowing 100.0000% that I, Ellany Lea, wouldn't and couldn't impose such back-break and heart-break onto the next generation. Thanks to Somatic Experiencing plus the ten preceding years of self-development, I healed decades of trauma, thawed my nervous system like a mofo and rekindled a fierceness to be me with no other human having a say.
In that spaciousness, the seed of "What if I could travel to 100 countries?" sprouted. I thought, "OK, I am not a white extroverted Western 20-something boy. I am a colored introverted non-belonging 30-something woman. Add being a highly sensitive empath, who absorbs everyone else's crap and to whom small talk and mosquito bites feel like needles under fingernails, hmm... it this a good idea?"
Peaceful and tranquil travels
So I pulled out my trusty Excel spreadsheet and researched beautiful, tranquil places that I wanted to see (f*ck travel guidebooks and critics who have not traveled). I flowed through Ireland, country no. 65, Slovenia, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, Romania, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, St-Petersburg in Russia, Belarus (this visa was the most peculiar to date, a story for another time) and Ukraine. Country counter now stood at 86!
I even passed through Barcelona and "visited" the Sagrada Familia cathedral on YouTube plus admiring it from the gardens, in order to skip the hoooooooards of people there. Clever, right? I learned more via that YouTube documentary than I would have there.
Country no. 86 marked a major turning point in my globetrotting mindset. It had really sunk in to my psyche and my wisdom-body that every place is the same: taxi drivers at the airport overcharge (I would if I were one), loss occurs at every foreign exchange (I'd take my cut too if I were the forex), things go wrong, and things go right, most of which you have no control over. Many Arab men felt entitled to harass me, while others were my heroes and saviours out of awkward hiccups.
Gimme Warmth and sunshine!
An unexpectedly early snowstorm covered much of the former-Soviet countries I visited. I was sooo ready to ship my winter coat and boots to mom and head for Caribbean sunshine and sea. Being a flight routing genius by now, I globetrotted Cuba, country no. 87, (thank you mom and dad for my Canadian passport!), Dominican Republic, Haiti (which I went overland from DR and proved myself right to never ever listen to the media or fear-mongerers who haven't traveled), Jamaica, Antigua, Saint Kitts, Dominica, Barbados, Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, Grenada, and Trinidad, with several free stopovers. I ended that journey in Guyana, with Suriname as the big country no. 100, woot woot!!!
56 Countries in 52 Weeks
In the meantime, my business shifted from 1:1 coaching to group programs and masterclasses, which freed up my time even more and provided residual income. I had already, years ago, established a two-day work week, and working only first 3 weeks of every month. So I only needed good internet two days a week, which minimized the primary stress of a digital nomad.
With Curaçao (Dutch territory), Belize (snorkeling in Ambergris Caye), Honduras (diving in Roatan), El Salvador (hiking Cerro Verde volcano), and Guatemala (meditating in silence for 10 days), I ended up travelling 56 countries within 52 weeks! I didn't plan it like that, I just followed the flow. When I wanted to stop, I stopped. When I wanted to move on, I moved on.
It all unfolded in front of me like marbles rolling out of a tipped over marble jar. I ended that year in Guatemala, country no. 104!!!, to participate in a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreat that I booked months before, knowing that I would need some grounding and stillness, the makings of inner peace. The retreat was Dec 26-Jan 4, and I couldn't imagine a better way to ring in the new year.
Moving to Spain, Olé!
When I emerged from Vipassana, I knew I was moving to Spain. I'd been looking for 104 countries, now my new home base. In my research, I found a Canada-Spain youth mobility visa for 35 and under. It was 33 days before I turned 36, I mean, what were the chances?!? Had I delayed a month, I might have missed the boat!
The Spanish consulate in Toronto said the visa would take a month or more. I got it in three weeks! So I moved to Spain with a 9kg carry-on suitcase and a small red backpack (that eerily resembles the backpack emoticon).
By now, my thinking was, "If I can digital nomad to 100 countries, with ease and grace, then surely I could do 100 more," given that there are 193 United Nations countries. It helped that on a clear day from the South of Spain, you can see Morocco across the Mediterranean Sea. It'd be 8 months before I felt the urge / need / calling to travel.
Transitioning from solo to group travel
When business got busy, which is a red flag for freedompreneur me, I took a trip to Tunisia and Malta, countries no. 105 and 106, to clear my head and re-strategize my workflow and offerings. I felt at peace. Finally. At peace inside and outside of myself. It would be yet another 8 months before I joined a group tour to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, countries no. 107-110. The country counter was supposed to be 111, but Turkmenistan rejected my visa because I'm of Chinese descent.
I knew I'd proven myself to myself, so was overjoyed to pay Lupine to organize my travels. After a decade of solo travel, I wasn't sure about group travel. But since Lupine's motto is: tours for people who don't do tours, I had suuuuch a great time and met lifetime friends, one of whom was also on my Overlanding West Africa tour. What are the chances?!?
Overlanding West Africa
Group travel to off-the-beaten-path places draws in suuuch a richly interesting group of people, my people. So I booked an overlanding camping trip with Overlanding West Africa. My research confirmed that it's simpler, more economical, and safer to travel with a group. And we get to see way more fascinating sites.
Now, I'm a city girl. I don't do camping. I feel like that's a white people thing (listen to Trevor Noah's autobiography "Born a Crime", he'll back me up on this). Lol! So I first flew to Cabo Verde, country no. 111, for some fanciful R&R. My friend bailed last minute, which was perfect, because I felt ever so free to change my itinerary and swing by Mauritania, country number 112, before joining my group in Dakar, Senegal, country no. 113.
And onward we went to The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leon, tallying 117 countries! There's so much I could say about overlanding in this very harsh region of the world, but I'll keep it for another time. The short version: it didn't put me off camping, I still don't love it, but I booked another overlanding trip to Cameroon, all the way down to Angola, which ups the country counter to 123 :D