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Most-Traveled Man Hangs Up His Walkin' Shoes
Originally published on Sun November 17, 2013 11:24 am
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There are travelers and then there are travelers. Mike Spencer Bown is clearly the latter. For 23 years, he has wandered the Earth exploring every country on the planet. Now, he says he is hanging up his traveling shoes and returning home to Calgary, Canada. What more fitting guest could there be for our Wingin' It travel segment?
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MARTIN: Mike Spencer Bown joins us now for the studios of the BBC in London. Welcome to the program, Mr. Bown.
MIKE SPENCER BOWN: Thanks.
MARTIN: So, how many countries are we talking about? Really, every country?
BOWN: Yeah. There's something in the 190s, maybe mid-190s.
MARTIN: Do you remember the first really big adventure that you went on, on your own?
BOWN: Well, my first big adventures were outdoor, like, wilderness expeditions. So, I used to be bear barging and living in the wilderness.
MARTIN: I don't know what bear barging is.
BOWN: That's when bears are making a lot of trouble and maybe you got an expedition that can't go through an area on account of too many bears. So, you need someone to barge the bears. So, let's say five or six bears make trouble each day. You need someone to throw up their arms and go grrr and chase the bear. And it came in useful for other animals because you got, you know, in Africa, you've got a lot of similar animals. You got forest elephants can get quite ornery and, yeah, there's a lot.
MARTIN: So, on this big lifelong adventure, really, what was the goal of each trip? I mean, what did you need to accomplish there to say, OK, I've been there. I've been to Nigeria. Did you just need to see some sights, eat some food or get to know it in some bigger way?
BOWN: Well, a lot of people just think they just need to put their foot across the border and then get the stamp. But for me that means nothing at all. And in fact, doing the country is just a consequence of seeing everything of interest. So, if you see everything of interest on the planet then you'll find that you've also done all the countries.
MARTIN: So, when you go to a country - I mean, foreign correspondents who are often going to some really dodgy places, usually use a local guide of some kind. Do you do that or do you just go on your own?
BOWN: I just use all the local guides, so there's all these locals. And if you're a good judge of character, you can see who's friendly. So, yeah, you just talk to them and you figure out what they suggest and just one thing happens after another. I guess I call it freestyle traveling because you don't really go off a guidebook. You just arrive and see what happens.
MARTIN: I won't ask you to talk about your single-most favorite spot but can you give us a couple?
BOWN: Yeah, there's so many good spots around. I mean, I really liked living with the Mbuti pygmy tribe in the center of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the middle of that jungle. And we'd go out and hunt for antelope using spears and nets. And then we'd be living in these little leaf huts and doing, like, pygmy-style singing at night. And that was really magical experience.
MARTIN: How did you find the pygmy tribe?
BOWN: Random actually 'cause I had to hitchhike through the Rwenzori Mountains, where the United Nations were trying to stop me, saying I'd be instantly killed.
MARTIN: And you said that's the destination for me?
BOWN: Yeah, exactly. 'Cause I thought that's unlikely that it's really going to be that dangerous. I mean, the M-23 rebels were there and some of the genocidal Hutu rebels. But I thought I should be able to just get by them pretty easily by impersonating a U.N. security inspector. And luckily I met an American gentleman in central Asia in Kazakhstan, and we had a few beers and he gave me his card. And it was the United Nations security card. And I thought, ooh, that would be useful. So, I laminated and I kept it, 'cause I knew I needed it for Congo. 'Cause I heard from other travelers that Congo could not be done 'cause as soon as you cross the border, the police steal everything you have and you have to retreat. So, I saved this card. And, of course, you know, as soon as I started hitchhiking, I got picked up by a guy who was carrying some spare tires. And quite often I was stopped by other rebels or police trying to steal my money but I'd slap down this card. And, of course, they're illiterate, so they can't read that the name is wrong on it. So, they salute me, sir, I go through. So, I avoided having everything stolen. So, it worked out perfectly. A perfect example of freestyle traveling.
MARTIN: Did you ever travel somewhere where you thought you could stay for a while, that you could live there?
BOWN: I don't know. There's so many good places. Actually, you know, in Kazakhstan I spent a lot of time. And the Altai Mountains, I rented a yurt and a horse for 10 bucks a day, and I just ride around all day.
MARTIN: What's the best piece of travel advice you can offer a young person who's hearing this and thinking, wow, that's something I'd like to do?
BOWN: Well, OK. If you really want to travel to dodgy places, like, you know, like I did, for instance, Iraq during the war and Afghanistan, and some areas that other people wouldn't do, but don't do those until you've honed your ability to assess whether people are good or whether they have some sort of ulterior motive. Because the most important thing is you want to be passed from good person to good person. It's like a social network that vastly predates Facebook. And good people tend to know other good people.
MARTIN: Are you ready to go home? I mean, you're returning to Canada to live now after 23 years on the road. Are you really going to be able to do this, to sit still?
BOWN: Yeah, I think I will actually, because it's a long trip, it really is. I've been living out of a backpack this whole time. I don't even hardly have any possessions. I mean, I'm down to one pair of trousers now. I just wear these $15 nylon trousers, and I've got one left, so it's hard to even figure out how to wash it. You have to sort of wash it in the sink and then wear it to dry it. Yeah, so it's time to settle down and lead a little bit more normal life in a sense where I want it to be stable enough where I can write.
MARTIN: Ah. So, that's the plan. You're going to write something?
BOWN: Yeah. I'm going to be writing a book starting very soon.
MARTIN: Mike Spencer Bown, the world's most traveled man. Thanks so much for talking with us, Mike.
BOWN: It's been my pleasure.
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MARTIN: And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.