Around the world in seven years… and counting

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WHEN Danish traveler Torbjorn “Thor” Pedersen set out to travel the world and visit more than 200 countries without getting on any airplanes in 2013, he never thought he’d be on the last leg of his journey and stranded in Hong Kong while a pandemic raged worldwide.

“When COVID-19 turned into a pandemic then I knew for a fact that it was out of my hands and that I had no chance to find a solution,” Mr. Pedersen told BusinessWorld in an e-mail on May 15.

And so he found himself stranded for months in Hong Kong, which was largely successful in containing the spread of the virus, and he realized that staying in the city was the better option.

But hunkering down was frustrating for Mr. Pedersen, who is nine countries away from completing his plan of visiting 203 countries without using planes.

“It frustrates me that a project which is already well overdue keeps getting postponed,” he said but he counted himself fortunate to be in Hong Kong while waiting for the pandemic to end.

“I could have gotten stuck on a small Pacific island or on a ship. So in regards to how I am, I can just repeat: some days are better than others,” he explained.

But really, how did this ambitious idea of going around the world without resorting to air travel happen?

While the idea may strike some as rather outre these days, people were, of course, traveling the world long before airplanes were invented 117 years ago (counted from the first successful flight of the Wright Brothers in 1903). Magellan’s famous attempt to circumnavigate the world by ship 500 years ago was a success (though Magellan himself and many of his crew did not survive the trip). Famed journalist Nellie Bly — inspired by Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, Around the World in 80 Days — went around the world in 72 days in 1888 to prove it could be done, though she only visited a handful of countries because of the time crunch. She unknowingly was on a race against the society editor of a competing publication, Elizabeth Bisland. Ms. Bisland completed her own journey in a little over 76 days.

In 2013, Mr. Pedersen got the idea of visiting 203 countries around the world without air travel after he realized “nobody had been to every country completely without flying,” and that his would be an unbroken journey, meaning he hasn’t been home in seven years.

His journey, called “Once Upon a Saga,” is documented on a blog of the same name. The original plan was to finish the journey and be back home in Denmark after visiting the Maldives in October 2020 — but the pandemic has thrown a wrench into his plans.

Mr. Pedersen visited the Philippines in August 2019 and went to Marinduque and Siquijor.

“And here I am now. On a small picturesque island which would otherwise be perfect for a holiday. However, I’m not on a holiday and a forced holiday does not taste sweet to a man on a schedule which is already running late,” he wrote on his blog post when he missed his ferry.

And that’s how he has traveled: via local transportation, ferries, and container ships, usually from Pacific International Lines and Swire Shipping.

“It’s hard reaching an island if there are no ferries. It is complicated to navigate a conflicted country without flying. And while most visas come relatively easy, there are simply some which are nearly impossible to obtain when traveling overland. However, if I want to cross the land border into Iran then I need to approach an embassy and apply for a visa,” he said of his challenges.

The last nine countries on his list are all island nations, from New Zealand to the Maldives, which in his estimation, would take him another 10 months to do. He was supposed to wait for a few days after arriving in Hong Kong before heading to Palau. This has turned into months.

After an almost-decade-long journey, what Mr. Pedersen looks forward to is sleeping for an entire month and marrying his fiance.

“I will see all my friends and family as soon as possible… and all the children they have had while I’ve been away. I plan to write at least one book and pursue a life as a motivational speaker. Regarding social media, I hope to keep them alive and grow them,” he said.

He also documents his travel via Instagram (@onceuponasaga).

As for how travel will change after the pandemic, Mr. Pedersen was optimistic that aside from health checks and frequent cleaning of vehicles, travel will not change much.

“I don’t think we will see a lot of change. It’s likely that temperature checks and fumigation will become standard. Terminals will probably have more frequent cleaning and then that is about it,” he said before adding that having a vaccine will have everything returning to normal in a few years’ time. — Zsarlene B. Chua





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