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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