The writer, photographer and world wanderer is on track to make history, and documenting each step of the journey.
A true citizen of the world, Jessica Nabongo has traveled to over 170 countries – and counting. An explorer since just past diapers, the Detroit native is on track to become the first black woman to visit each of our planet’s 195 countries. Nabongo is also an exquisite writer and photographer, sharing her journey with the many thousands that follow on social media and visit her blog, The Catch Me If You Can.
“I’m a geography nerd. So, I’ve always just been fascinated with the geography of the world and different cultures,” she says. Nabongo is a first-generation American, born to Ugandan parents. “They made traveling a priority. In the summer, we would travel. We would go to the Bahamas or Jamaica, other places in the Caribbean. Even if we were going to Canada or, I don’t know, California or Ohio, it was always about enjoying vacation, really.”
Nabongo says she’s always been pulled by a strong wanderlust and a desire to see the world, but in 2017, she decided she’d set a more specific goal. “I’d done research and found that, it seems, no other black woman had completed this feat,” she says.
“Also, in general, not a lot of people have done this. There’s less than … estimates are around 400 people, confirmed it’s around 200. I think a lot of people also just think it’s easier than it actually is.” Figuring out the logistics – how to fly between countries, applying for visas – is where it gets tricky.
“A lot of people think that I’m doing everything solo. I’m definitely not. I’ve been traveling for so long, and I love traveling with my friends. But now, because I’m going to places that are more off the beaten path, it’s a little difficult to convince my friends to travel with me,” she says. More than a third of Nabongo’s excursions have been solo trips. As a woman traveling alone, she’s not afraid but she does take extra precaution. “I rely a lot on my intuition.”
She prefers to stay in a hotel when solo versus a hostel, Airbnb or other less traditional alternative. A hotel provides extra layers of protection like lots of other guests, a concierge and security. “Say you’re being chased by someone, or whatever, you can run back to the hotel,” she says, adding, “It’s easy to tell a taxi driver where it is and not get lost.” To that note, she says she doesn’t take a lot of public transit while traveling alone.
It’s all about finding your comfort level, Nabongo says. For instance, she wouldn’t recommend taking your first solo trip to a non-English speaking country if you only speak English. “When you’re comfortable, you’re going to be more confident. And when you’re confident, you’re not going to be vulnerable,” she says.
Still, she’s careful not to deter women from touring alone. She reminds that most women who are attacked are victimized by people they know and not by strangers lurking in the tall grasses of foreign lands. “I’ve been interviewed a lot about solo traveling stuff, and I feel like there’s this negative lean: ‘Oh, women shouldn’t travel solo because it’s so dangerous’ and blah blah blah. I hate that, and I don’t agree. I’ve been to 62 countries solo and I’ve come out unscathed.”
To the novice traveler, she says, “Don’t overthink it.” She warns against getting so caught up in the planning process that you get overwhelmed and turn what should be a great time into a stressful one, or worse still, “just never go.”
And she says be careful not to lug along that you-won’t-catch-me-slipping attitude and allow it to stop you from making new friends on your journey. “In the U.S., we’re taught to be afraid of our neighbors. Trust your intuition but also be open to trusting strangers,” she says.
When we speak, Nabongo is preparing for Chad, then Cameroon and the handful of countries still left to visit in West and Central Africa. She’ll leave Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, for last. When she travels, she says, she gets to see “the best parts of humanity on a global scale.”
Nabongo wants the people following her quest – 115,000 on Instagram – to realize, “We are more alike than we are different. The stories that I share, it’s really about humanizing the foreigner and making the foreigner feel like your neighbor.”