Meet the first woman to travel to 196 countries
© Cassie De Pecol
Record-breaking Cassie De Pecol became the first and fastest woman to visit all sovereign nations, but her biggest challenge is still ahead.
After crossing into Yemen on a bus at 4 am last February, Cassie De Pecol, then 27, completed her goal of visiting 196 countries solo. She also set two Guinness World Records for fastest person and fastest female to travel to every sovereign nation on a quest she named 'Expedition 196'. This 18-month-plus journey not only took De Pecol around the world, but it brought her life’s purpose into focus.
“The value of travel is understanding the world in a better way, and that’s through breaking down barriers and just being completely open-minded,” said De Pecol.
She’s now working on a documentary, a book and sharing her experiences on Google Expeditions and in a TED talk – all to further her passion for sustainable travel and women’s achievement. Here are some of the most fascinating experiences and life lessons gleaned from her journey around the globe.
Finding her way
“Before this whole thing, I was working two babysitting jobs. I really didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself. The expedition really morphed me into the woman that I am now. I walked into it kind of a selfish person. I walked out of it kind of silent, but with this great understanding about life and a great hope for what I can do for the world. I tried to get to know someone in each country, to learn his or her story – because everyone has a story.”
Picking a path around the world
“My route was based on a level of difficulty regarding visas, meeting with university students, meeting with mayors or Ministers of Tourism or filming for an educational documentary. I was trying to plant trees and collect water samples. My plans would change constantly.
“If I ever had any free time, I would just walk around and explore. I tried to veer off the beaten path as much as possible to really see a place. For example, Oman is a pretty safe country and there's so much to do once there. But I found that once I wandered the little side roads, I was invited into the home of a woman who shared bread and camel milk with me. I didn't know Arabic, and she didn't know English, but we sat there and smiled. She thoroughly enjoyed my company and watching me consume her food. There were plenty of experiences like this one that made me really appreciate the authenticity of travel and cultures.”
Her favorite country (besides America)
“I wasn't sure what to expect in Mauritius, but when I got there, I was surprised at the beautiful nature, the conservation element of the islands reefs and lagoons and the kindness and vibrant spirit of the people. Mauritius gets kind of pushed aside when you consider its sovereign neighbors of Seychelles and the Maldives, both rich in tourism.”
Into parts unknown
“I wasn’t really as nervous to head to Syria, North Korea, Iraq and Sudan as other people were for me. I was nervous to go to Somalia a bit more than the others (the amount of security was the most I'd ever experienced) and Yemen, since I crossed the border by bus (the risks were higher when staying in the mainland of Yemen from sunrise to sunset).
“Something that most people don’t understand is that the fear of terrorism exists among the people who live in these countries as well. They are victims of terrorism just as we are in Western countries, so there was a common level of understanding and bond between these people and myself when I’m in their country.”
The scariest part
“Surprisingly, there were only a few moments on my expedition that weren't that great, but the online negativity surpassed any of them. Witnessing how terribly degrading and judgmental people can be online is one of the scariest things I experienced, more so than anything that’s ever happened in person. I was alone, and at times depended on technology to take my mind off of things, but it ended up being the culprit for being able to mentally manage situations while on the road. It also took away my focus when it came to experiencing new places, so I tried to stay away from it as much as possible.”
The final passport stamp
“I was turned back at the Yemen border (after a four-hour bus ride) by Omani officials since I didn't have clearance from the US Embassy for Oman to let me back in after I entered Yemen. After I went to the American Embassy in Muscat and they granted me permission to enter back into Oman after Yemen, I did it all over again – 4 am bus, winding roads, only Westerner and they let me in.
“But once in, I traveled two hours to Al Ghaydah, had lunch with a local family, walked along the boardwalk, talked with Yemeni women enjoying their Thursday afternoon with their families, saw how sesame seed oil was made locally and drank chai. There is an immense amount of poverty – children and families would come up to me asking for water, not money. I bought some water bottles and handed them out to the families throughout the day. It was a really enriching experience before heading back before sunset.”
The biggest joys
“Either crushing through icebergs in a dingy in Antarctica surrounded by penguins, or spending a week in the Mongolian wilderness in a yurt, free of Wi-Fi, cell service and completely alone.”
A woman alone
“I’ve actually never had fear to travel alone. I’ve tried to pinpoint why I’m not afraid to go to places alone. But I’ve been traveling since the age of 18. As a woman, you have to always be watchful. Knowing a little bit of self-defense is important. Always be aware of your surroundings. And not being overly friendly, I think, is important.”
The deeper meaning
“The record was a great launch to find the funding towards my mission of promoting peace through sustainable tourism. I wanted to challenge myself, my expectations and educate the youth on the importance of goals and changing the world. I also wanted to prove people wrong about war-torn nations, to show people that despite all of the hatred we see directed at some of these countries, the people are good and it is safe to travel there.
“The value of travel is what you gain about understanding the world, culture, humanity and that’s through breaking down barriers and just being completely open-minded. If we can understand people and cultures from a grassroots level, instead of judging them from the outside based off religion, gender or race the more peaceful our world will be.”
On her next vacation
“If I ever were to take a vacation again, I would love to go to the North Pole and see the polar bears.”
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