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“Amazing . . . the most original travel narrative ever written.” CounterPunch
Around the World in 50 Years is the inspiring story of an ordinary guy who achieved two great goals that others had told him were impossible. First, he set a record for the longest automobile journey ever made around the world, during which he blasted his way out of minefields, survived a serious accident atop the Peak of Death, came within seconds of being lynched, and lost three of the five men who started with him: two to disease, one to the Vietcong.
After that, Albert Podell set another record by going to every country on earth. He survived riots, revolutions, civil wars, trigger-happy child soldiers, voodoo priests, jihadists, robbers, corrupt cops, and Cape buffalo. He traveled through every kind of earthquake, cyclone, tsunami, volcanic eruption, snowstorm, and sandstorm that nature threw at him. He ate everything from old camel meat and African field rats to dung beetles and the brain of a live monkey. And he overcame encounters with crocodiles, hippos, anacondas, giant leeches, flying crabsand several beautiful women who insisted that he stop this nonsense and marry them.
Around the World in 50 Years is a remarkable and meaningful tale packed with some of the most memorable, frightening, and hilarious adventure stories you have ever read.
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About the Author
ALBERT PODELL has had successful careers as a magazine editor, director of photography, advertising executive, freelance writer, adventurer, author, attorney, theatrical investor and producer, and philanthropist. He recently became the oldest person to visit every country in the world and one of the very few people to ever achieve this feat. He is a graduate of Cornell University, was a graduate fellow in international relations at the University of Chicago, and holds a J.D. from NYU.
Read an Excerpt
Around the World in 50 Years
My Adventure to Every Country on Earth
By Albert Podell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Albert Podell
All rights reserved.
Between a Croc and a Hard Place
I was on a quest to visit every country on earth, but I was about to get stuck, between a croc and a hard place.
I had just reached the inner section of the Okavango Delta of Botswana, where one of Africa's mightiest rivers fans out into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. I'd taken a jouncing two-hour ride in an ancient Land Cruiser and a two-hour voyage through tall reeds and flowering lily pads in a mokoro, a pole-pushed dugout canoe with the shape (and, it sometimes seemed, the width) of a large banana. Then an hour's walk through the bush to where a guide promised I'd find many harmless photogenic herbivores.
I was kneeling down, doing what any Outside subscriber does when he isn't able to get the latest issues: examining half a dozen differing piles of animal excrement. The medium-sized crap with the pointy end was clearly from a porcupine. The huge tan ones of barely digested grass, tree branches, and palm nuts could only be an elephant dump. The blackish globular clusters were wildebeest. The tiny pellets were springbok. The small balls were zebra. The golf-ball-sized globes that contained fur and tiny mouse bones were from either a serval or a caracal; and—holy shit!—those fresh piles of pancake-shaped dung looked much like the spoor of Cape buffalo, the meanest and most dangerous animal in Africa, and one I'd been assured was not in the vicinity. But the scatological evidence was compelling: The turds looked like no other animal spoor, and, much worse, they were warm, almost steaming, no more than half an hour old.
I decided to get right out of there, so I rose up and ... froze. There, not more than 80 yards across the knee-high grass, were about 15 Cape buffalo looking intently and angrily in my direction. Since it doesn't take much to provoke a charge by these beasts, who live by the motto that the best defense is a good offense, attack at the first sight of a perceived enemy, and use their long horns with fatal accuracy, I was nervous. Very nervous.
I thought for a minute: What would Indiana Jones do in such a situation? The answer was obvious: climb a tree. Only problem was that the trees in the southern part of the Okavango Delta are few, fragile, and far between. It was about 50 yards from me to anything climbable. Even that was no safe haven, because these beasts will charge a tree repeatedly and knock it down to get at their prey. They're infamous for their persistence. Once they decide to get you, they've been known to wait at the base of a tree for a day or more until you become faint from dehydration and sleep deprivation and fall out.
I thought for another minute: What would Crocodile Dundee have done in this situation? The answer was obvious. I tried, as casually, apologetically, and unprovocatively as possible, to saunter away from the wild buffalo in a circular arc that would take me far downwind from them and back to the mokoro.
After ten minutes of shaky sauntering, my way was blocked by a large pond where a family of hippos was bathing near the far edge and a congregation of crocodiles was basking on the right bank. The male hippo spotted me and opened his mouth wide, in what resembled a yawn but was actually a warning to back off, and the crocs started to bestir themselves.
Since the Cape buffalo is the nastiest animal in Africa, and hippos annually kill more people (including tourists) than any other beast on the continent, and those beady-eyed reptiles are more aggressive than the American alligator, I was in a tight spot.
I thought for a minute: What would my portly scoutmaster have done in this situation? And the answer was obvious: have lunch and let the situation resolve itself. I dropped down into the tall grass, out of scent of the buffalo, which were upwind, and out of sight of the hippos and crocs, whose olfactory apparatus is less acute, then carefully checked my situation: I had a ham-and-cheese on rye with mustard, a leg of fried chicken, an apple, and a very upset stomach.
When I finished lunch, the hippos and the crocs were still staring at my last-known address. I thought: What would my old traveling buddy, Harold Stephens, do in this situation? And the answer was obvious: take a nap in the afternoon sun under the cloudless Botswanan winter sky. I was pretty sure the hippos would not waddle a hundred yards from their pool to hunt me down; the crocs couldn't see me and should be sufficiently satiated from the impala, kudu, lechwe, and wildebeest that came to the pond for a drink that they wouldn't be hungry for a human hors d'oeuvre; and I knew that a Cape buffalo would not attack a dead person, a category I optimistically expanded to include a sleeping one. I also remembered reading—or did I?—that the buffalo had difficulty using its horns to kill creatures that lay flat on the ground. So maybe I'd be safe if I took a nap.
I awoke with a start about 30 minutes later after remembering another germane speck of buffalo arcana: If the Cape can't gore its grounded victim with its horns it will simply stomp him to death with his hooves. End of nap.
I peeped through the waist-high brown grass and was relieved to find the hippo family frolicking in the pond with no lingering interest in me, the crocs dozing on their crowded solarium, and no more buffalo in sight. I crept for the mokoro and home base, having suffered nothing more serious from this little outing than some dung-scented fingers.
Since you've just met me, and may be skeptical about this tale, and others to come, or wonder if I'm exaggerating, let me hasten to assure you that, given my extensive experience enhancing "true adventure" stories when I edited the magazines Argosy, blue, and Modern Man, if I'd decided to fabricate the story, it would have been much more exciting. Like this:
The Cape buffalo snorted and charged directly at me. I ran to one of the few trees in the delta and clambered up just in time, his scalpel-sharp horn missing my leg by an inch. The beast relentlessly hammered the slender tree until it toppled, propelling me into the pond, where I bobbed up to see four crocs torpedoing right at me. I dove under the nearest one and swam onto his scaly back. I dug my fingers into his eye sockets and held on, steering him toward shore. The male hippo began to bear down on me, his deadly jaws wide open, capable of bisecting my body with one bite. On the shore, a pride of lions had gathered to be in on the kill. As my fate seemed sealed, a bull elephant lumbered into the pond for a drink. I seized his trunk and was hoisted to safety.
I was later assured by two Botswanan game wardens that I was safer with 15 Cape buffalo staring at me than just one. They explained that since a Cape will almost always charge when it feels threatened, there's less likelihood of one member of a grazing herd charging, because they each feel secure when chowing down with their buddies. The warden insisted that the real danger comes from encountering a solitary buck who, lacking the comfort and safety he feels in a gang, will charge to protect himself.
That assurance may be all well and good in theory, but since it would only take one angry iconoclast to wreck my day, and the risk of there being such a one among a mob of 15 is higher, I'd still prefer to be confronted with just one. Or, better yet, none.
At this point you might well be wondering: What's a guy like you doing in a place like this?
So let me take it from the top ...CHAPTER 2
A Late Start
It all began with Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I devoured it in one long day at the end of the 1959 winter semester at the University of Chicago, where I was the graduate fellow in international relations. Early the next morning I blasted out of academia and those gloomy Gothic towers and hit the asphalt, joyfully thumbing my way south and west on old Route 66, the Mother Road, through Towanda, Tulsa, Tucumcari, Gallup, Kingman, and across the Mojave Desert to the City of the Angels, then up the breathtaking coast road to bond with the Beats in San Francisco, yearning for more travel.
Three years later, already 25, I finally made it to my first foreign country, although it wasn't that foreign: It was only Canada.
My parents traveled little, never venturing farther from Brooklyn than Boston (once every four years to visit my father's siblings) because we were poor (my mother a secretary, my father a waiter in a succession of near-bankrupt kosher delicatessens where he never earned more than 70 dollars in a week) and because they found no delight in traveling. When they were quite young, they had each separately made the long and arduous train journey from their impoverished, pogrom-plagued villages in the hostile heart of Byelorussia to the teeming ports of western Europe, where they were jammed into the steerage compartments of dirty, overcrowded ships for a storm-tossed twelve-day crossing to the fateful examination at Ellis Island. That was, for them, enough traveling to last a lifetime. All my father ever wanted after that was "a roof that doesn't leak, enough food on the table, and a warm bed—with your mother in it." Their unwillingness to travel made me all the more eager for it.
I was at Fort Drum, near Watertown, New York, a sergeant in the Army Reserve on summer tour of duty, training my squad on the 155mm atomic cannon, a mean machine capable of hurling a nuclear shell more than 22 miles—about the distance to the Canadian border, although we never aimed it that way. At the end of our two weeks of live-fire exercises (without nuclear warheads), six of us crammed into the corporal's old car and headed across the St. Lawrence River for the nearest big city, which was Ottawa—Canada's capital—a neat, staid, pleasant, government town.
Canada looked to me a lot like the U.S., just a bit cleaner and quieter, with clearer skies and greener grass, and populated then only with white folks, all of whom walked slower, talked slower, and were more friendly and courteous than the Noo Yawkers among whom I grew up, but little likely to inspire anyone to imagine that foreign travel could be a fabulous joyride.
My next foreign foray came a year later, when I was picture-story editor of Argosy. A movie producer junketed me to Madrid, at whose outskirts he'd erected a cardboard-and-plaster full-size replica of ancient Rome to film Fall of the Roman Empire.
A week's free trip to Madrid could whet anyone's appetite for travel, but what made mine insatiable was a full-day stopover in Paris on my flight home, my first of a dozen visits since. I dumped my bag at an inexpensive pension in the Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg but never made it to back to bed. For the next 22 hours I devoured the City of Light on foot—the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, the Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Panthéon, Luxembourg Gardens, the Left Bank, the Right Bank, the American Express Bank (cash resupply), Montparnasse, the Sorbonne, Notre-Dame, evening with the artists in Montmartre, night with the ladies of the Folies Bergère in Pigalle, and a glorious morning watching the sun rise over the twinkling city from atop the hill in the basilica of Sacré-Cur.
Ottawa had been my first, shy, fumbling kiss; Madrid was heavy petting; Paris was going all the way, true love. I was hooked on travel and eager for some serious sightseeing.
On the practical side, I had a great job, good health, an apartment on fashionable East 55th Street, was dating some of the hottest models and actresses in town (a legacy from my previous post as an editor at Playboy), had saved enough to start an investment portfolio, and had a hundred other valid reasons to stay put. But I'd been editing Argosyfor four years and wanted to stop living vicariously. I'd sent writers and photographers on dozens of ventures, voyages, and expeditions—by dogsled across Greenland, to Cocos Island and to Bora Bora, searching for Inca gold in Peru, hunting for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, bicycling from Cairo to Cape Town, even giving the wild young Hunter Thompson his first assignment—and I wanted an adventure of my own.
In December of 1964 I teamed up with Harold Stephens, a travel/adventure writer and ex-Marine, to try to break the record for the longest direct, nonrepetitive, land journey around the world. We aimed to accomplish this by shunning the old Paris-to-Peking route (then blocked by the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Blinds), and taking a longer, more southerly course, across the deserts of North Africa, through the Middle East, along Marco Polo's route across Central Asia, through India and Southeast Asia to Singapore, then across the width of Indonesia and Australia, and back to New York from Panama.
There had been four previous transworld auto expeditions, but all had taken shorter routes. The Great Race of 1908 had sent the competitors from New York to Alaska, to Vladivostok, to Moscow, then across Europe to Paris. The Wanderwell Expedition of 1919–1925 had wandered well over the map, but its direct route had taken its Model T Ford from Spain through Italy, Greece, Turkey, on to India, Japan, and San Francisco. The 1955 Oxford and Cambridge Far East Expedition had driven a Series 1 Land Rover from London to Singapore via Austria, Yugoslavia, and Turkey, but had not circuited the world. The remarkable 1956 solo drive of Group Captain Peter Townsend was poignantly recounted in Earth, My Friend. He pushed a Land Rover over a similar course but did go all the way around, partly as a healing process after Britain's royal family broke up his romance with Princess Margaret Rose and refused to permit her to marry him because he was divorced, something a royal just didn't do in those staid days before Di and Charles and Camilla.
Those previous globe-girdling expeditions had—after deducting for side trips, backtracking, indirect routing, and city tours—traversed 16,000 to 18,000 goal-oriented, nonrepetitive miles. By driving closer to the Equator, where the earth's circumference is greatest, and by filling in some oceanic gaps with drives across Indonesia and Australia and up from Panama, our goal-oriented, nonrepetitive mileage would exceed the others by at least 6,000, thereby establishing a clear and unbeatable record for the longest latitudinal land traverse of the globe. I optimistically named us the Trans World Record Expedition.
Excerpted from Around the World in 50 Years by Albert Podell. Copyright © 2015 Albert Podell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Harold Stephens 1
1 Between a Croc and a Hard Place 5
2 A Late Start 10
3 The Land of a Thousand Horrors 16
4 Weighed Down in Egypt's Land 42
5 Into the Teeth of the Tiger 60
6 Changing Goals 75
7 Making a Splash 80
8 "Just Call Me God" 98
9 So, When Is a Country Not a Country? HO
10 Doing God's Work 117
11 Travels in SPAM Land 128
12 Hanging Chad 140
13 "Do Not Kidnap Anyone Today!" 162
14 Your Man in Havana 169
15 You Are What You Eat 177
16 Snow Beneath the Southern Cross 184
17 A Poke in a Pig 193
18 No Countries for Old Men 199
19 Into the Indian Ocean 210
20 On the Whims of the Dragoons 221
21 Murphy Moves to Tomorrow Land 225
22 To the Land of the Great Leader 239
23 In the Steppes of Genghis Khan 250
24 On the Wings of the Dragon 260
25 A Tropical Depression 275
26 Second Thoughts 286
27 My Meddle in the Muddle East 293
28 Guerrillas and Gorillas 305
29 Plan X and the Gray-Blue Eyes 337
30 …And One More for the Road 342
Countries Visited: In Chronological Order 347
I Gratefully Thank 351