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.”