On September 28th, 2018, Woni Spotts finished visiting all 195 countries (193 UN Nations, plus The Holy See and Palestine), as well as 22 territories across the world. It was a massive achievement — a feat that few can claim and many desperately long to accomplish. For Spotts, it was the conclusion of an odyssey she’d begun in childhood, from adventures with her parents to the Caribbean and the Philippines to her brief stint as the subject of a travel documentary, Passing Through, that took her to 160 countries by the time she was a teenager. Even after she’d settled down to focus on college and a career, the itch to see every country lingered until she’d finally completed it.
Spotts’s accomplishment isn’t just notable because she gets ultimate traveler’s bragging rights, it also makes her a natural ambassador for both solo female travelers and travelers of color — two groups that have been historically marginalized in the travel space. In visiting every country, she became the first black woman to achieve that feat… though there’s been some debate here. Travel influencer Jessica Nabongo is closing in on the same goal and has publicly branded herself around that idea. On July 16th, well after Spotts announced that she’d finished her journey, the travel blog KnowYourMuse published an article titled “Jessica Nabongo Will Be the First Black Woman to Travel to Every Country, and Why it Matters.”
This coincidence has made it hard to talk about Woni Spotts and her achievements without mentioning Jessica Nabongo and vice versa, but it also reveals a paucity of imagination in travel writing. The industry is still all too focused on “first” when celebrating both travelers seems like a better path toward progress, especially in an industry in which black women often have to struggle for a voice. I was struck by this idea often last week when I spoke to Spotts on the phone about her passion for travel and the joy she takes in seeing the world. Sure, she cleared the air briefly about the debate over “who was first,” but she spent far more time celebrating the spirit of adventure and unpacking how (and why) she loves the road.
You’ve visited 165 countries while you were still a teenager shooting Passing Through. How would you say travel differs from being a teenager to being an adult? Do you feel then need to revisit some of the places you’ve been?
Oh, there are really great differences because a lot of the places that I visited, I just didn’t have the proper context or respect for the place. I felt compelled to return to a lot of these places because I didn’t really understand as much as I thought I should. As an adult, I can just delve deeper into some of the religious aspects and deeper into the cultural types of things that are going on where, as a teenager, I was just more concerned with my creature comforts and not really realizing that sometimes things are not going to be just like you want them to be at home. Back then, I focused a lot on trying to make myself comfortable.
What would you say your favorite part about going out and traveling is?
I like the different cultures, how they spend more time with their families. They prioritize family over making money and they’re quite removed from a lot of social media and even the telephone. They don’t even need a telephone because everyone they want to talk to is standing right next to them. It’s totally different. A lot of people are happy. I look to see if these people are happy. And if they’re happy, I think, “That’s all you can really want.”
How do you feel about the whole debate about who the first black woman to visit every country is, does it matter to you?
Well, I do think it’s important or else I wouldn’t have come forward, because I had the debate with this in my own mind. Do I want to come forward and say that I’ve done this September of 2018 and allow this person to continue to say that she’s going to do it into 2019, or do I want to just stay private and know to myself that I’ve done it? And I did battle back and forth about it. So, I think that my interaction and people that were wanting me to come forward is why I came forward because when she was contacted and told that I had done this, she went into cover-up mode, or like a suppression.
That motivated me to say, “Okay. I’m going to get a little bit louder about this and let her know that I’m here and I’m not going to just fade away because she has some followers.”
Have you talked to Jessica Nabongo at all?
I have not spoken to her. She tweeted to me on May the 11th and kind of wanted to talk, but she wanted to make demands about how she spoke, and I’m not going to be pushed around. So, I just felt like why do we have to speak the way you want to speak? I want to speak a certain way. You want to have the conversation another way. So I just basically told her, “When you’ve completed all the countries, maybe we can talk then.”
What’s one of the best countries to visit? What are your favorite places to go to?
Well, that’s a good question because I have found beauty in all the places, even when I’ve said, “Oh this city is terrible. I’ve got to get out of here,” I was able to find something unique and beautiful about those locations. But in terms of living somewhere, I love the Mediterranean area. I love Monaco. I love Santorini. So, those are places that I would just go to hang around just to bask in the beauty of the place. And the weather reminds me of California, only with better architecture!
As somebody who shied away from social media for so long, when you finally did come forward, were you ready for the onslaught of attention that people from social media —
No. No. Not at all. Both of my parents are in entertainment, and I play the piano. It became apparent from a young age that I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I just wanted to play the piano and write songs, but I didn’t want to perform because I was too shy. I didn’t like being in front of people, so I already knew that I didn’t like being in front of people or being the center of attention. I like to help others that want to be in the center of attention, but I’m not the one to be in the center of attention. So, it definitely is stepping out of my comfort zone to be here. And the more resistance that I received from the other side that wanted to deny that I had done it, the more I had to pursue media and things that I don’t feel comfortable doing. So I’m in a very awkward position.
What would you say, in your opinion, about social media distracts from the experience of travel? Because so many people, especially in my generation, are concerned with going to a place and seeing something and then sharing it with the world.
Well, it actually hurts me to see people going to these beautiful cities, taking a picture in front of the landmark place and immediately sharing it and then getting on the plane and going to the next place to share because they have to top that experience. It literally hurts to see that because I feel that in most places … There are some places where they don’t really have that much to see and you can see it in a day, but in most places, it’s kind of insulting to just go stand in front of there and then bolt out. I think they’re missing out on an experience for themselves. It’s sad that they have to get approval. It seems fairly desperate that you can’t just enjoy it and you be the audience of it. It’s you have to get this approval from everyone. Or… I don’t know what the motivations are. It could just be you want to make that person or the audience feel like, “Hey look how great I am.”
Whatever the case is, a lot of time is being spent to get the right shot and to impress, and not enough time just enjoying where you are.
Well, I definitely feel like many people my age are feeling social media fatigue at this point. What would you say your favorite thing about the virtual anonymity that you’ve experienced is?
I had no pressure. I didn’t have to have great photography skills. I didn’t have to worry about people uploading me and liking me, and things like this. I love Instagram. I want to say, I love the pictures. I’m a visual person and I’m not against it. I use that for inspiration. When I’m looking for places to go, the people on social media, blogs, whatever, sometimes they’re more informative than travel agencies because some travel agencies may not go to those places, and the Instagrammers are out there finding these weird locations that people don’t know about, which is great because that’s the kind of place I like to go.
So, it’s not all bad. And it can be blended together. You can be in some stunt type of position and you could have on some outfit or some traditional clothing and you can still take time to enjoy where you are. You can do it all, you know.
What’s a country that you’re longing to return to?
I’d like to look at some more islands in Greece… I loved Santorini so much and I didn’t go to all the islands. I went to Crete, and some people were showing me some other islands. I think they’re really charming. They have a nice feeling about them.
What are some money-making or money-saving tips you have for any potential travelers out there?
Whoa, that’s a good one. Basically, I use my income from my own business to fund the travel, but I don’t have a lot of responsibilities and I don’t know if many people can all of a sudden say, “I don’t have responsibilities,” and save more money than I can. I’m pretty much a minimalist and I look to not add a lot of responsibilities in my life so that I have the freedom and money freed up to go do what I want to do.
That’s how I’ve been able to go to places– I don’t have a lot of responsibilities.
What have you learned visiting every country? It’s such a massive accomplishment!
Well, I think I’ve learned, it’s cliché to say that we’re all similar more than we’re different, which I think we already know, but we seem to dwell on the differences and that’s just I guess going to be a puzzle to me because we really dwell on the minor differences. Just like if you go to one region, say you go to the Khmer region, people dwell on the differences between Vietnam and Cambodia. And that’s unfortunate because a lot of these places used to be one place and they have a shared culture, but now it seems we’re more and more and more becoming divided, and that’s bad to see. But I’ve learned that we are similar, and even if some of these places have some harsh environments or they’re way up in the mountains and you can’t even believe people live there, we all have the same types of desires and hopes and dreams and want to be safe. We want something to eat. We want shelter and it just manifests in all different types of ways.
What is some advice you’d give a solo female traveler who is thinking about getting out there for the first time?
I’d like to see solo female travelers make sure they have a meet and greet at the airport and have a tour guide, and they’re not really expensive things, and they could get oriented with wherever they’re going, and then they could branch off on their own and explore if they want to. Of course, that depends on where you’re going. You don’t need one if you’re going to London, but if you’re going to a place where you don’t speak the language or it’s pretty off the beaten path, I would like to see women and men have someone to meet them at the airport so they at least have someone to escort them to the hotel so they don’t get caught up into something, some negative activity.
What’s some advice you’d have for a young traveler, specifically a traveler of color? Sometimes we might feel like we’re not welcomed in some countries.
Well, I think, as a tourist, it’s different than moving in. So sometimes we’ll see something on TV and say, “Oh those people don’t like black people,” and this and that. But the tourist is different because you’re just visiting. You’re not invading. At that point, that’s why I say get a tour guide because the tour guide can be your friend there and you can get a feel of what it’s really like. If you feel it’s hostile to you. But honestly, I have never run into racial hostility. Never.
What are your future travel plans? How do you go about planning where to go next?
The next place I’m going to go is in Lapland and I’m going to go tour the winter months because I want to see the Northern Lights, reindeer, sleighs, the whole Santa thing. I have never been that far north, so maybe I’ll try to … I have been to the North Pole, but not above Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. And it’s above Russia too. So never that far above. And they have a really fun community up there. Sweet people and they’re different than the people in Scandinavia. They have a different DNA and they have a different culture, so it’s going to be fun to visit them. I haven’t visited them.
I only have one more question for you, and this is the hard one, so I saved it for the very end. You have to choose one place in the entire world that you think is the best country to visit, just one. I’ll give you as much time as you want to think about which one that is…
I’m still going to pick Monaco. I don’t care if everybody hates me. Monaco wins. It was little. It was clean. I could walk to France and Italy. You can fly anywhere you want. That’s the place to be!