When Is a Country Not a Country?

Welcome to Zambia. Sort of.      Photo by the author.

Welcome to Zambia. Sort of.      Photo by the author.


Port au Prince, Haiti, 1999

“Sorry, it’s too dangerous,” says the driver.

To the best of my knowledge and experience, Port-au-Prince is the only place in the world this side of Damascus where a cabbie will refuse a twenty-dollar bill to take an American into town for a quick, drive-through tour.

With nothing else to do I wander the apron. Behind our dormant jet a row of scarred, treeless hills bakes in the noon heat, raped of their wood and foliage for firewood by a million hungry Haitians. The island of Hispaniola is shared in an east-west split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The border between these countries is one of the few national demarcations clearly visible from 35,000 feet — the Dominican’s green tropical carpet abutting a Haitian deathscape of denuded hillsides the color of sawdust.

In front of the terminal, men ride by on donkeys and women balance baskets atop their heads. Somebody has started a cooking fire on the sidewalk. Haiti is the poorest country in the entire western hemisphere, and I can see more squalor along the airport perimeter than you’d see in most parts of Africa.

I notice a pair of large white drums being unloaded from our airplane. Something doesn’t look right — crewmember intuition — and concerned that we’d accidentally transported some hazardous material, I ask a loader if he knows what the barrels contain. A forklift carries them to a corner of a ramshackle warehouse, and three skinny helpers pry off the heavy plastic lids. What’s revealed is a tangled white mass of what appears to be string cheese floating in water. A vague, quiveringly rotten smell rises from the liquid.

The forklift driver sticks in his hand and gives the ugly congealment a churn. “For sausage,” he answers. What we’re looking at, it turns out, is a barrel full of intestines — casings bound for some horrible Haitian factory to be stuffed with meat. Why the casings need to be imported while the meat itself is apparently on hand, I can’t say, but somebody found it necessary to pay the shipping costs and customs duties to fly a hundred gallons of intestines from Miami to Port-au-Prince.


THE SEGMENT ABOVE is from a book I’ve been pretending to write — a memoir of sorts that I’ve titled “Half the Fun.” It describes an afternoon several years ago, when I was a cargo pilot for DHL. The setting is the Port au Prince airport in Haiti — a country that I have never been to.

Oh sure, I’ve flown into to the Port au Prince airport several times. But just the same, so far as I’m concerned, seeing that I never set foot outside the terminal, I have not been to Haiti.

The issue here is what, exactly, constitutes a visit to another country. Making that determination can be tricky, and those who travel a lot will occasionally wrestle with this quandary. When your plane stops for refueling or you spend the evening at an airport hotel… does that count?

Where to draw the line is ultimately up to the traveler; it’s more about “feel” than any technical definition of a border crossing. But there should be a certain, if ineffable standard — something along the lines of that you-know-it-when-you-see-it definition of pornography.

According to my own criteria, a passport stamp alone doesn’t cut it. At the very least, a person must spend a token amount of time — though not necessarily an overnight — beyond the airport and its immediate environs. On the pin-studded map that hangs in the dining room of my apartment, there is no pin for Haiti.

Other cases, though, are more subjective. For instance, traveling once between Germany and Hungary, I spent several hours riding a train through Austria. We pulled into Vienna in the middle of the night and sat for six hours. At sunrise we headed out again, trundling across the Austrian countryside toward Budapest. Certain people might consider that enough, but there are no pins for Austria on my map. I saw towns, cars, people… but all through the window of a train, never touching soil. Doesn’t count.

Trickier is the evening I spent camping “in” Zambia. We’d been traveling around Botswana for a couple of weeks, headed toward Victoria Falls. One afternoon we took a motorboat up the Zambezi River to a tiny wooded island, where we pitched our tents and spent the night. On the map this was Zambian territory; I had Zambian mud in my shoes. But we saw no villages and only a handful of people. I experienced nothing that could differentiate that portion of the river from the Botswana side only a few kilometers behind us.

Making things more difficult was the YOU ARE NOW ENTERING ZAMBIA sign posted on the Victoria Falls Bridge. The famous span, from which dozens of bungee jumpers hurl themselves daily, straddles the Zambezi; one bank belongs to Zimbabwe, the other to Zambia (I dare you to find a sentence with more Zs in it). Up along the rail, watching the bungee jumpers drop headfirst toward the frothing whitewater, I must have stepped across that border fifteen times. But have I actually been to Zambia? Nah.

Author's photo.

Author’s photo.

On the other hand, I have been to Liberia. Our flights would lay over for a few hours at the country’s only international airport, Roberts Field. On two or three occasions I hired a driver to take us out for a quick mini-tour of the nearby area. We never spent the night, but I walked through villages, met people, took pictures. Liberia gets a pin.

Sometimes though, the country itself is what muddles things up. Consider the world’s various territories, protectorates, self-governing autonomous regions, occupied lands and quasi-independent nations. Yeah, I know, Vatican City is a sovereign state, politically speaking. But in practical terms, is it really? Did my visits to Hong Kong count as visits to China? What about Tibet? Western Sahara?

And let’s not begin to assess the countless atolls, archipelagos, and assorted tiny islands scattered throughout the oceans. If a citizen of Japan visits Guam, has he been to the United States? In one sense, sure. In another, perhaps more accurate sense, he’s simply been to Guam — neither genuine U.S. turf nor a country unto itself. You can make a similar argument with Bermuda, Tahiti, and elsewhere. Sometimes, maybe, there is no country.

Then we have the whole “Balkans Effect” quandry. Borders sometimes shift, countries change names, and so on. A trip around Yugoslavia prior to the war there counted as one country, but it has since divided into several. Sometimes (South Sudan, East Timor) a entirely new nation is calved from a different one. Which criteria do you observe, the borders at the time, or the borders today?

Together these things can make it impossible to provide a wholly accurate answer when asked how many countries you’ve traveled to. It depends. For me the number is eighty-five. Or thereabouts.

Of course, that’s only important if you’re the sort who keeps track of such things. Hardcore travelers are known to hold “passport parties” upon reaching certain milestones – a 50th, 75th, or 100th country. In the eyes of some, country-counting cheapens the act of travel by emphasizing quantity over quality, but maybe that’s sour grapes. Birdwatchers aren’t chided for their “life lists,” so why begrudge a traveler his maps and pins?


A version of this post originally appeared in the magazine Salon.

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39 Responses to “When Is a Country Not a Country?”
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  1. Ben says:

    Air travel reinforces this ambiguity when you board the plane. Technically you are in the country the plane is registered in when you are in the plane.

  2. SteveP says:

    Of course there is no Botswana shore on the Zambezi – you would have been in Zimbabwe by then. One should always be careful about these things, especially in Africa. There is a monument to two Canadian women shot by the Zambians while swimming at the hotel below Victoria Falls in 1973.


    In our family the rule is you haven’t “been” there without the passport stamp. So I’ve never been to Zaire, despite that long night in Kinshasa.

  3. Hal says:

    Is Taiwan a country? I have been there a lot; living for 3 months at a time.

  4. pbc says:

    I’m afraid being in an embassy won’t cut it. Nobody could rightly claim to have visited, say, Burkina Faso while remaining steps away from Georgetown.
    Same goes for US preclearance areas within airports in Canada. Travellers are officially US domestic passengers at that stage. We enter a sterile area under the terminal roof in which we’ve had our passports marked with a US stamp, cleared US customs and had a nice chat with a US immigration official. Stars and stripes flags hang, and an austere Obama portrait looks down at us. CNN blares from overhead TV screens. But I’m still in Vancouver/Edmonton/Halifax. I can buy a Tim Hortons coffee using a toonie and Canadian laws apply, so if I do something silly it’s the Mounties who will be summoned.

  5. Jim says:

    We visited Bosnia and Herzegovina (is it one or two?) but there is a part of the B&H country that calls itself the Republic of Serbia. Go figure that one. The part of B&H controlled by the Serbs is called, by them, the Republic of Serbia, but there are no border controls entering from the rest of B&H and nobody else calls it that.

  6. Adam says:

    A longtime reader of this site, I somehow missed this topic. For what it is worth (not much, of course):
    I am a bit of the Aspie spectrum and I maintain a list of all countries that I visited (and all flights, airports, planes, etc. – and there is quite a lot of them – and yes, I am on flightmemory).
    My rule is “was I there on purpose?” and it works for me.
    There are certain countries that you simply cannot do anything in. How would one qualify Order of Malta? Is this a country? It has an extraterritorial site in Rome (Palazzo Malta), own car license plates, own postage stamps. I (on purpose) set foot in the palace, and I definitely count it as a country that I visited – even though all I did there was standing for a couple of minutes. There was nothing else I could do.
    I also count Brazil, even though I never left the Sao Paulo airport – because I specifically chose the flight connection so that there will be a stopover there (NB, I did leave a “deposit” there, so Daniel’s rule applies :-)). I wouldn’t have counted it, had the reason for being there been taking the cheapest connection or had the plane been diverted.
    And I like to up the numbers, so, for example, Germany, West Germany and East Germany count as three.

  7. Daniel says:

    Apologies for my obscenity but I cannot resist to share this very practical rule of thumb: I was told a country counts if you took a number two there.

  8. Ben says:

    Border crossing and air travel can get even more convoluted when the plane you board takes the country that airline is registered in if I am not mistaken?

  9. Eliecer says:

    What about working an alternate system? Say a pin color category:

    Green for actually “been there” qualifiers
    Yellow for “simply set foot in…”

  10. WorldwideWayne says:

    I would say set your own standard and to hell with anyone else’s opinion. My own standard is that if I have cleared customs and immigration, then yes, I have been in that country, however briefly. Have I immersed myself in every country I’ve visited? In many cases, yes, in others no.

  11. ASimPerson says:

    How many countries are there? When is a country not a country?

    This video gets into it:

    As for the answer to both questions is the same, though: “it depends”.

  12. Ian says:

    When have you been somewhere you have never set foot in? I landed in an American airport [I forget where]. I handed my Canadian passport to the immigration officer who, upon looking at it, said,”You have visited Miami”. “No”, I replied, “I have never visited Miami”. “You have been to Miami” he insisted. This went back and forth for a bit , and then he showed me my passport which indeed had an American entry stamp for Miami.”Oh”, I realized. “I changed planes in Miami; I never left the airport.” The gentleman had indeed reason to believe that I had visited Miami; I had reason to assert that I had never been to Miami.

  13. Curt Sampson says:

    Well, sometimes it’s not so hard. I had an overnight layover in Japan back in 1980 when I was moving (ok, being moved) from Canada to China, and though the hotel near Narita was terribly generic, I knew I’d had the Japan Experience when I discovered that the 440-channel music system in every room (Yusen, for those of you who know) had a channel dedicated entirely to birds chirping.

    I still got the Game and Watch the next day anyway, but I didn’t need it as proof. Many, many years later I’ve now been living in Japan for a decade and a half, and even now the Yusen bird channel would be a very, very Japanese experience.

    (BTW, they also have one where they count sheep all night. Doesn’t help you sleep, though, at least if you’re like me: the first time I heard it I just *had* to know how far they go, so I stayed up until it wrapped around at 1000.)

  14. Julia says:

    For me I actually must leave the airport and eat, see the sights, etc before I consider myself as having seen that country. For example, this summer I had a connection to Brussels on my way to Spain. Sure I spent three hours there but I never left the airport so I don’t think I have “been” to Belgium.

  15. Parwez says:

    Why a picture of Mauritius arrival stamp???

  16. Greg Stueve says:

    I have a contrary question? Can you claim to have been in a country when you haven’t technically been to that country?

    I have spent approximately a total of a week on a couple of excursions to Crimea when it was still officially part of Ukraine. However, even before it was annexed to Russia, I could tell I was not in Ukraine any more. Most of the people I met had Russian passports in addition to Ukrainian passports and spoke Russian exclusively–fortunately for me since I speak Russian but not Ukrainian. I was in Sevastopol in 2009 on the day that the Russian military was proudly parading Russian armed missiles on the streets of Sevastopol and were stopped by ordinary Ukrainian police patrolmen.

    I have never been to Russia except for my travels to Crimea. Have I been to Russia? Technically no. Can I put a pin in Russia? Maybe a smudge of borsch on the map.

  17. Msconduct says:

    I seem to specialise in going through Belgium without it counting (once by bus, once by train) and I stopped at Bombay once without even getting out of the plane (you could do that then). No pins for them. I wouldn’t count a country unless I had done something there that was specific to that country – seen a sight specific to there, for example. Just eating or sleeping there wouldn’t make the cut.

  18. Dave Wallace says:

    I can give you 3 “Z”s in a single word. Zyzzyx. An actual place in California.

    • JamesP says:

      Ah, yes, Zzyzx Road – an exit off the 15 freeway. I’ve never been to Zzyzx (a town that’s a ways down the road from the exit), but I’ve driven past that sign many times.


      The Zzyzx Road exit is an important waypoint for anyone in Los Angeles making a Vegas run! When we see the sign, we know we’re on the last third of the drive.

      One of these times I should take the exit and visit Zzyzx – and get my passport stamped 🙂

  19. Fake Charles Lindburg says:

    I have flown all over and used to fly between SYD and SFO, requiring a stop for customs in HON, very frequently. I have, therefore, never been to Hawaii, because I have never left the airport

    I have left the airport in several locations where I wished I had hid out in the lounge. We landed in Fiji Islands during one of the ‘coups’ that used to happen on a regular basis in the island. I’ve been to Fiji.

    Owning to a parts problem with a Pan Am 747, in the 70’s, I spent a week in Guam. I don’t consider involuntary stops where the airline pays for everything “visits.” After that incident I always flew QANTAS, so their were no more stops in Guam.

  20. Scott Allan says:

    Patrick, you rock. As always, I enjoyed the insight of this article. My personal approach to this is, unless have you had sex in that country, you don’t get a pin. (We have a separate pin board for that.) So… It sometimes causes us to do mildly off color things to get the pin, which has has been a great thing. ;-{)

  21. Alex T says:

    The closing question begs the answer, “Because, given the inevitable ecological impact of a competition to visit the most countries, the behavior clearly raises ethical questions that birdwatching does not”. Still, a good read as always, despite that.

    • TyTy says:

      No need to politicize, Alex. If you’ve seen the movie (or read the book) “The Big Year” you’ll know that birdwatchers have a fairly significant ecological footprint. What doesn’t these days? I think that, ethically, we should be far more concerned about the impact we leave on countries we visit, rather than solely on our ecological footprint (not that the latter isn’t important). Maybe that’s just me, though.

  22. Carl says:

    Makes me think of my visits to Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan; each has their own border policies. While I have been to Iraqi Kurdistan many times I don’t know that I’d say I really visited Iraq as I didn’t have to get an Iraqi visa as would be required for visiting anywhere outside of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Hope you finish that book some day

  23. Nancy B says:

    You should write the book!

  24. Jeff BH says:

    Is Monaco a country?

    I consider Hong Kong and Macau, even now, sufficiently different from China to count separately, and you have to go through passport control to get into them.

    Is French Polynesia, for these purposes, a “country”? I know it’s part of France, but….

    You know what’s amazing to me? At this point, no one under the age of about 41 has been to an Iron Curtain country as an adult.

    NOT AN AD: I keep track of my countries, airports and airline routes on flightmemory.com. Love that site.

  25. David Beaver says:

    Our family rule (applies to driving or taking trains) is that you need to get off the car/train and eat a meal in the country (or US state). So driving through a corner of Georgia on I-59 did’t count, but stopping for an ice cream in a tiny sliver of Bosnia did give us credit.

    And for flying, I agree that you need to get out of the airport.

    • Stephanie says:

      I agree. Rhode Island counts for me because I got out at a rest stop there once, but Kentucky doesn’t because I only saw it through a car window between CVG and Cincinnati. Likewise, I’ve only been to Senegal as a refueling stop between JNB and JFK (in the middle of the night yet), so it doesn’t count either.

  26. flymike says:

    You haven’t really been to a country or experienced it until you’ve had a driver’s license and an ex-wife there.

  27. Chad H says:

    Patrick, just on the subject, do you consider “constituent counties” of a larger “country” as one, or do you count each constituent?(ie- do you count “The UK of GB&NI” as one or do you count England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each as one? (I believe the Netherlands has similar issues).

    • Alastair says:

      I once spent about an hour on the apron of Cardiff airport, but that wouldn’t qualify Wales for a pin on my map. Which is probably my loss.

  28. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    If I may suggest, whether your visit to Hong Kong counts as a visit to China or not depends rather greatly on when you visited. If you visited exclusively before July 1, 1997, then, no, you didn’t visit China. If you visited after that date, you did.
    I would additionally suggest judging China by a visit to Hong Kong is rather like judging the US by a trip to Manhattan.

  29. James says:

    My definition for visiting a country is being outside the airport and spending money while in country. So, I have been to Mauritius (back in 1999 I had a six hour layover between Antananarivo and Mahe) since I left the airport, went into town, bought lunch (spicy shrimp curry) and hung out at the dock before returning to the airport, but not Japan (changed planes numerous times, spent money in the airport only.)

  30. Tod Davis says:

    If you really wanted to get smart then an embassy is technically part of its home country.
    BTW have you ever stepped foot in Australia or New Zealand?

    • James says:

      More to the question — what is a country? Do you count Scotland and England separately (I do — they are two of the “home countries” in the United Kingdom)? If you are old enough, do you count East and West Germany separately? Suppose I’d been to Sarajevo for the Olympics — have I been to Bosnia? Or do I still count Yugoslavia?

    • Chad H says:

      I’m afraid the Embassy thingn is a myth. However if you’re on an ROI registered plane between Heathrow and Edinburgh do you make a fictitious legaldivert through Ireland?