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who’s counting anyway?

It seems only natural that, having met on the backpacker circuit in Ecuador, we would spend our life together indulging our joint passion for globetrotting. Although we have now been to 31 countries together (not counting the ones we have both visited, but separately), we have also traveled individually at times – S with her parents when D was unable to get away from work, D on various work trips to several countries well off the typical tourist circuit. This has enabled us to keep up a friendly, although admittedly one-sided, competition (D keeps meticulous lists; S has lost track of the number of countries she has visited).

We are by no means alone in this quest, of course. A couple of friends D recently visited separately recounted how one member of the couple worked in a day-trip to Andorra into his recent travels to Europe just to up his country count in their friendly family competition. Another friend who, like D, enjoys keeping lists has devoted quite a few conversations to the topic of what counts as a country visit.

Does one need to spend the night in a country to say that one has truly been there? Or does doing some sightseeing, interacting with locals, and sampling the local cuisine count as a visit? On the flip side, does spending a couple of nights in a country as immense as Russia, for example, count as visiting? What about work trips? A colleague recently recounted how she spent a week in Vienna for work, with meetings running from breakfast until midnight. This wouldn’t count as a visit to Austria in our book, no matter how much schnitzel she ate.

And then there’s the even thornier question of what’s a country. Does a trip to Belgrade in 1985 count as a visit to Yugoslavia, whose capital Belgrade then was, or to Serbia, whose capital it is now? Would a return trip this year count as a separate country? It’s the same city, right? Or is it? Even if one sticks to contemporary countries, there is plenty of room for debate. There are 193 UN member states. Most of them are fully recognized as independent nations, but not all. Cyprus is not recognized by Turkey, for example; South Korea claims North Korea, and vice versa; and there are more than 30 countries that do not recognize Israel. The Holy See and Palestine have observer status at the UN, and should almost certainly count, right?

And then there are 11 territories that claim various degrees of sovereignty, some of which are recognized by some UN member states, but which appear to fall short of nationhood – in some cases drastically, and in other by just a whisker. Kosovo is the leading contender for inclusion in the country list: it is recognized by 113 UN member states and has de facto control over most of its territory, though it is still fully claimed by Serbia. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria fall on the other side of the spectrum: they may behave like independent countries, in some cases issuing their own currencies and enlisting border guards, but few members of the international community recognize them as such.

The Cook Islands archipelago is an interesting case: the islands constitute a self-governing monarchy that maintains diplomatic relations with 49 countries. The archipelago is also included as a full member in eight UN specialized agencies. However, the islands – along with Niue, which has independent diplomatic relations with 20 countries – shares a head of state and citizenship with New Zealand, and it is the latter that sets all foreign policy.

Because we have to draw a line somewhere, and UN membership seems as good a defining line as any, we’ve decided to count our visits against the list of current UN member states (we have both visited the two observer states). By this metric D has now been to 57/193 countries, and S to 55, D’s work trip this month helping push him ahead for the first time since we met. We have no illusions about visiting all the countries in the world, but we can certainly aim to get as close as possible, and we still have so much left to explore.

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