I’m not usually a huge fan of “country-counting”, but at one point I decided to set a special goal for myself: I would visit 21 countries before I turned 21. It was kind of intended to be a gift to myself for my 21st birthday.
Now, at the time I had the idea, I had only visited 16 countries and my birthday was just a few months away. The first plan I made was a trip to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau, which would sit me nicely at 20.
That left me on 20 countries at the age of 20. Not bad. But I wanted my 21st country before my birthday. Since my birthday is at the end of April, I started thinking about an Easter trip to Vietnam, a country I’ve always really wanted to visit. But in the end, I decided I would rather go to Melbourne for the umpteenth time to spend more time with Felipe, who I’d only been with for a few months at that point but hardly ever got to see.
I don’t regret that decision at all. But unfortunately I never made the original goal. Last year, I turned 21 having visited 20 countries, with that elusive number 21 still missing. So, what did I do? I moved some of the pieces around, changed the game a bit. 21 at the age of 21 still sounds pretty cool, right?
So here I am now, just reached my 21st country in the nick of time, a week before my 22nd birthday. I feel that while I have prioritised exploring in my life and am working to make it a continuous feature of my lifestyle, I am so lucky to have experienced all of this and to have been able to start travelling at such a young age.
21 countries might not sound like a lot to some people, but then again, neither does 21 years, but both of them are the entirety of the depth of my experience, everything I have known. So today I thought I would write a short tribute to each country I’ve visited which will wind up summarising those 21 years pretty well, I think. Let’s begin:
Country Number One: New Zealand (1997 – now)
New Zealand, the country I was born and raised. I’ve spent basically all of my childhood here, and most of my life. I’ve talked before about how lucky I feel to be from this country which I consider to be the best in the world – and that feeling never changes, no matter how many countries I visit. And even though I have explored a lot of the place throughout my lifetime, I think I will always feel that there are more places here to see, more islands to visit, more hikes to do, more lakes, more mountains. New Zealand is so abundant in natural beauty which is something I have come to appreciate more and more the older I get.
Country Number Two: Australia (2000, 2005, 2007, 2017-18, 2018×3)
Australia was the first country outside of New Zealand that I ever visited. In spite of that, and the subsequent beautiful trips I had there during my childhood, growing up I always felt some kind of weird grudge against Australia, as if to be true to my New Zealand heritage I had to uphold some sort of rivalry against Australia. This kept me from visiting it again until much later. Now that I have spent some time living in Melbourne and travelling Australia, I don’t really know why I ever felt like that. Australia is a massive, beautiful, very well-organised country. My time in Melbourne came just when I needed it and taught me so much, and to this day I still miss that place like crazy.
Country Number Three: Fiji (2009, 2019)
My memories of Fiji from a family trip 10 years ago is that it was warm, relaxing and highly touristic, with a lot of friendly people but not a lot to do on the main island (Viti Levu). Another thing that sticks in my mind is how much poverty there was the one time we actually left the resort/tourist world. My recent visit there basically confirmed all of this, plus got me to think more about the divide between the rich and poor with the influx of tourists. I was also of course a lot more conscious about money matters this time, and realised that the water taxis are so expensive that they make visiting any of Fiji’s 300+ famed serene tropical islands difficult. I do think this is probably a good thing as it would limit over tourism on these important ecological landscape.
Anyway, Fiji was the first really different culture I ever got to experience, and it was an amazing place to go back and experience it in a romantic setting, too.
Country Number Four: Argentina (2013)
This trip to South America with my fellow Spanish students at school was really the first step out of my comfort zone when it came to travelling. My first time out of the peaceful Oceania, this was my first time to feel the hustle and bustle of big city life, to smell the exciting mix of millions of different lives being lived, and to see architecture that dates back hundreds of years. Adding the fact that it was my first time to really see real native speakers speaking Spanish, this was definitely a hugely exciting and eye-opening experience for 15-year-old me. My memories of Buenos Aires are fond ones of an electrifyingly exciting city with great vibes.
Country Number Five: Brazil (2013, 2016)
I visited the Brazilian side of Iguaçu falls for just one day, which happened to be my 16th birthday. I remember it being a simply magical experience – the beauty and power of those falls is just astounding. Nearly 4 years later, I went back to Brazil and got to experience so much more of it – speaking Portuguese, seeing the cities of Rio and Sao Paulo and the island of IlhaBela, meeting and travelling with local people, and seeing the natural and man-made beauties that make it so unique. From this visit, Brazil quickly became one of my favourite countries and I’ve been itching to go back ever since! Luckily I’ve got not one but two trips planned there this year with Felipe (who is Brazilian). I’ll also make the country even more special for me by having my wedding there next year. But more on that to come…
Country Number Six: Uruguay (2013)
This was another of the day trips from Argentina. What sticks out the most in my mind is the memory of the ATMs having no money left due to a financial crisis in Argentina which was causing people to panic and withdraw all their money. When the Argentinian ATMs ran out, people headed to Montevideo to empty their ATMs as well. What this meant for disorganised little me who hadn’t brought any cash with me that day, was I had absolutely no spending money for the day so I think I spent my time just wandering around the city. It is beautiful and a lot less loco than Buenos Aires, anyway.
-> Read more: Comparing major cities of South America
Country Number Seven: Spain (2014)
Spain is one country that will always have a special place in my heart, with it being the place where I truly learned Spanish, made so many deep local connections, and travelled solo for the first time. I forfeited my last year of high school to live in Spain for six months and I am so glad I did. I was truly in awe of all the history and how that seeps into the modern-day culture and the architecture. Spain is just a beautiful and fascinating country which I hope to return to someday soon.
Country Number Eight: France (2014)
I spent a whole week in Paris when I had just turned 17. This trip started off as one I had to take due to visa requirements for Spain, but it ended up as an amazing experience where I not only saw all the incredible sights of Paris and went to Disneyland, but I also had two important revelations. The first was that travelling solo wasn’t as scary as I had thought. The second was that knowing the language of the country really is such a useful tool, and I really should make better use of my time in Spain to learn Spanish for my last 3 months.
Country Number Nine: Portugal (2014)
It was only a short visit in Portugal that time, but it was enough to make me fall in love with the Portuguese language and notice how trusting and relaxed they were in Lisbon and Porto compared to other major European cities I’d been to.
Country Number Ten: Italy (2014)
This was right at the end of my trip, so I had almost no money by the time I got here. Luckily, I had a friend living in Celle Ligure, a small beach-town close to Genoa. It was really nice to just relax on the beach for a few days after a hectic few weeks travelling around, and I can’t tell you how good it was to see a familiar face after all those months meeting only new people. I also went to Rome, another fascinating city for someone from such a modern country as New Zealand. This trip also taught me to never travel with a big suitcase, if you can avoid it.
Country Number Eleven: Taiwan (2016)
After a nearly two-year hiatus from travelling, it was so good to finally get out there and explore again, and Taiwan was such a good place to do that. This was my very first time in Asia so it was absolutely fascinating to see the amount of people everywhere and experience a completely different lifestyle. It was my first opportunity to speak Chinese to native people in their native country. I was also visiting a friend from high school who lives in Taiwan, and it was so good to catch up again.
Country Number Twelve: Philippines (2016)
My friend and I embarked on a one-week adventure to the Philippine islands. In all honesty it wasn’t enough. I have to say that the Philippines is the most beautiful country I have ever seen in terms of natural wonders. El Nido is the most incredible place in the world in my experience. I also had an amazing time in Manila, despite people’s recommendations to the contrary, and found that the nightlife there was amazing. I also have very fond memories of the people. Overall a very underrated country for tourism, I have to say.
Country Number Thirteen: Colombia (2016-17)
Although I missed out on some of the most famous places like Medellín and Cartagena, I’m happy I got to experience Colombia on a path a bit less explored. That being said, the highlight of my trip was definitely the renowned Tayrona Park, a place I would love to revisit. The trek we did in the Amazon Rainforest was also unforgettable. One thing that was amazing was being able to get around and communicate with barely any issues in a language not native to me.
Country Number Fourteen: Peru (2017)
Unfortunately we didn’t get a lot of time in Peru but it was enough to cover the postcard spots – Lima, Cusco, Machu Pichu. Lima surprised me as being an incredibly charming city. The architecture and history in this place is absolutely amazing, and its another place I can’t wait to go back and explore in more depth.
Country Number Fifteen: Chile (2017)
It was exciting to finally leave the airport at Santiago, as I had been there four times but this was the first time I was actually able to explore the city. Santiago, as I’ve mentioned, is one of the cleanest and most organised cities in South America. Valparaiso is also really quaint town, perfect for a day trip. I look forward to revisiting Santiago later on this year.
Country Number Sixteen: Samoa (2017)
It was really nice to get out on a female family trip (my Mum and three sisters) and see the beauty of Samoa. I have talked about how much I loved Samoa – its tropical beauty is among the best of the south pacific. I’m also glad we got to explore a lot of the country and spent more than a week there. There’s a lot to see on each island, and it’s all driveable.
Country Number Seventeen: Malaysia (2018)
Malaysia took me by surprise as it was a place that had never really been on my radar so I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. I met quite a few friends, old and new. Although it was a bit difficult to navigate at times, it’s a good country to travel solo and it’s home to a lot of amazing art and culture.
Country Number Eighteen: Hong Kong (2018)
Hong Kong can only be described as a crazy city to me – so many people everywhere, skyscrapers in every direction. To me it is amazing how they have built such a thriving economy in such a small space, but it is still very overwhelming for the newcomer. My salvation was a trip to the tiny tranquil island of Cheung Chau.
Country Number Nineteen: Macau (2018)
I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in Macau, but the thing that interested me the most was the mix of heritage and culture due to the combination of Chinese and Portuguese settlers.
Country Number Twenty: Singapore (2018)
Singapore was as expected – clean, busy, serious. I loved their focus on both the environment and innovation. Another example of a very well organised and thriving Asian city.
Country Number Twenty-One: Japan (2019)
So, I made it! A week before my 22nd birthday I boarded the plane to Tokyo. I should say I couldn’t have asked for a better country to be my 21st. When you travel a lot, you start to think you’ve seen it all – Japan is there to tell you that nope, you definitely haven’t. One of the most unique places I have ever been in terms of the culture and the people. I loved how friendly and polite the locals were everywhere we went – it really makes a big difference. Stay tuned for a lot more posts will be coming out about Japan in the next few weeks!
I had my 22nd birthday on my last day in Japan and that evening we got on a flight back.
All these experiences have taught me something different and been a large part of what makes me who I am today. Honestly, I am so glad that the objective has been (somewhat) reached and I can stop counting countries now. I don’t have any plans to visit any new countries in the next year, but instead will be revisiting some of my favourite countries and enjoying taking it a bit more slow with my travels.