Meet the world’s most addicted travel junkie. Mike Spencer Bown spent the last 23 years visiting every country in the world. This is his incredible story.
After recently celebrating 3 years as a hopeless addict, I thought I had it bad. But Mike Spencer Bown takes the cake. He just finished an epic journey to all 195+ countries/territories around the world — and it only took him two decades to do it.
That’s one serious addiction!
Mike’s insatiable cravings have landed him in jail more times than he can count. He visited Saddam Hussein’s hometown during the war, canoed past sleeping tigers in Bangladesh, traveled by reindeer sled in Russia, was Mogadishu’s first tourist in years, and hunted with pygmies in the Congo.
His severe addiction & miraculous recovery is so astonishing that he’s currently being hounded by news organizations around the world to share his story. But even with all the attention, Mike graciously agreed to chat.
It’s for a good cause after all. Saving others from a life of debilitating addiction.
Now Mike, I know this subject may be difficult to talk about. But you’re amongst friends here. Nothing that you say today will ever leave this room.
Share your darkest secrets with us, and let the healing begin…
When did you shoot-up with your first dose of wanderlust?
“Back in the day, I used to do wilderness expeditions, often as the bear barger… this is the person responsible for dealing with bears by throwing up his arms, growling, and chasing them. I loved to roam around North America, visiting mostly wilderness areas, but cities and towns too. Eventually I got down to Central America, the first travel that required conventional travel skills instead of bush craft skills, and I was hooked. It wasn’t long till I was in South East Asia, doing an even mix of jungle, mountains, and ocean trips, while finding time to import and export, jewelry and my own designs for manufactured goods.
This was perfect, as it was about a month a year to deal with the business, and all the rest was travel as my containers were crossing the ocean…. I’d occasionally have to fly somewhere to wholesale them when they arrived in a port. Happy days, and this made me enough money that a long as I lived like a local, I could spend my whole life travelling. The other continents followed. The rest is history, and I consider my wander lust satisfied, on account of having wandered everywhere.”
What made you run away from home?
“Boring life is my greatest fear…. I can’t stand to have days go by where I’ve learned nothing and experienced nothing. I suppose you could say I wanted to live my life without any ‘downtime.’ The way I see it, we have billions of people on Earth doing the 9 to 5 thing, relaxing on the weekends. That facet of the human condition is well covered by others. That is fine for them, or not: I can’t comment on other people’s choices except to say that my choice had to be different.
For me, when I discovered that if I toss aside the need for comfort, safety, routine, a home, I could experience the whole world, I knew right then what choice I would make. It’s not so much that I was running from home, and more that I realized that if I didn’t insist on a home, the whole world could be home for me.”
How did your family & friends respond to your unconventional lifestyle?
“My family may have felt relief when I switched to relatively safer pursuits like hitch-hiking through Iraq during the war, going through Afghanistan by public transport, or hitch-hiking through the Rworenzori mountains past the genocidal Hutu rebels, so as to travel by motorbike a thousand kilometers deep into the Congo, and go on an expedition to live with a Bambuti pygmy tribe, hunting antelope with net and spear.
While I was a lad, I used to live off the land, sometimes going months without seeing a fellow human or even speaking; I was attacked by a mountain lion once, and nearly died of starvation another time, when I became ill from parasites in water, and couldn’t hunt or gather. Not to mention close calls with mountain climbing. Wilderness experiences are slightly more dangerous than doing countries, even the more dodgy ones, so in a sense, I ‘retired’ to the relatively low risk of full-on backpacking.”
Has your travel addiction changed you?
“Immeasurably. I’m fairly un-flappable now, whereas I used to worry about things as much as the next guy. For example, when I first started travel, I would feel nervous if I was landing in a mega-city late at night, where they speak a foreign language, and I had no information, and had to somehow get myself somewhere to sleep. Now, I take everything in stride… arriving in Dhaka at 2 in the morning… taxi takes me to dark streets full of garbage and stray dogs… have to try to talk to the street vagrants and flip one some coins to help me shout up stairwells with iron gates… no problem. Fun actually.
Same thing with unfamiliar experiences such as all this media attention I’ve had over the past month since travelling to my last country, Ireland, and now back to Canada. People would ask me, will you give talks to schools, just step in to an auditorium full of students and speak about your experiences? Sure, let’s go now. Do a radio talk show, while being filmed by a news crew? Sure thing. Sounds fun. Would you agree to go up that church tower and let our interviewer ask you questions, while a crew films you, for a charity documentary? Sure, no worries.
I suppose after being in so many situations, such as being held at gun point, or having interrogators screaming at me, in a military prison, that I will suffer worse than I’ve ever suffered before, that it’s hard to get my heart racing anymore. Lovely travel girls are a pleasant exception to this rule, of course.”
What’s your seediest travel vice?
“I’ve been put off by seedy, from all the seedy stuff I’ve seen. I simply don’t want to compete in this arena, as I don’t have the stomach or the inclination for it. Free parties in Europe, trying local ‘highs’ like khat or betel nut, full moon parties… these I’ll do. But this is zero on the scale of what I’ve seen on my travels: elderly gentlemen paying for transvestite and child prostitutes on Boracay; hearing a knock on my door in Gabon, late at night – it’s two 8-year-old girls asking me in French if they can come into my chamber. ‘Absolutely not’, I tell them. ‘Where are your parents?’ Disturbing.”
Can you tell me about your biggest travel regret?
“No regrets from me. I knew I was choosing a life without safety, comfort, possessions, health insurance ect, and that it was bound to be a grand adventure, but also risky, with a chance I’d end up having failed to have seen the world, and instead be suffering from incurable tropical diseases, old, and lacking in any marketable skills or pension. But here and now, my journey is complete, it took me only 23 years, proving that it is possible to see the world in a human life-span if you give it your full effort, and now with all this media attention, calling me The World’s Most Travelled Man, I have an excellent chance of being able to sell my book once I finish writing it.”
How do you fund your addiction? Armed robberies? Prostitution? Stealing copper wire?
“The best way to fund travel is to reduce costs. Do you really need possessions? I think not, especially as police and thieves will steal anything worth money anyhow. And maybe you can enjoy the gold standard of cheap hotels, the loch ness monster hotel (from South Park, where the loch ness monster used to appear and ask for $3.50 or ‘tree-fitty’, as they said). And what’s wrong with the local street food anyhow? Goat guts and rice with rocks in it can fill a stomach as well as fancy fare, and you can sort out the dental bill later.
But you will need many thousands to spend on experiences like gorilla encounters in the volcanoes of Africa, and sailing the Galapagos islands, or Antarctica, for that matter, so you’re going to have to be an entrepreneur or have some sort of a trade. Sorry to have to break it to you. But live cheap and you can keep work distractions to a minimum, and essentially travel full time.”
Have you ever overdosed?
“It used to be, in my first few years on the road, that i’d go through a spell of homesickness every 8 months, but I could power through this and carry on. Then, nothing for decades, until one time I was in the Caribbean, at a dockyards that Admiral Nelson and the British navy used to use, and I felt overwhelming waves of nostalgia after visiting an exhibit on the lives of sailors on those tall ships. Hiking in the hills thereabout didn’t cure it, and finally I guessed that it must be homesickness, but manifesting as nostalgia, since there was no longer any concept of home remaining in my mind. I took a local bus down to the airport and ordered a pizza in a restaurant there… problem sorted.”
Do you find it hard relating to normal people who are clean & sober?
“Not at all. Most of the time while travelling I’m talking to locals who can’t afford to travel even a little, and they are interesting in their own way. I’m fascinated by how people’s life-ways differ, and a non-traveller is a relatively pristine example of a regional culture. Yakuti reindeer herders never leave the Russian arctic, for example, but they have plenty of insights and are well adapted to their way of life. Travellers are highly globalized, and there is something to be said for that, but locals are fascinating too, even if they think the world is flat, or maybe especially if they think the world is flat.”
Has your addiction got you into any trouble?
“Plenty, though that’s all part of the fun. It’s all one misadventure after another in some places. For example, and to use a trip I already mentioned, my Lonely Planet guide book really let me down in Iraq. I’d bribed my way across the border in the autumn of 2003, and was travelling with a refugee who was returning to see if his family were okay. We hired an Iraqi driver and his car, and drove at 200 km per hour in a convoy through the desert to reach Baghdad. The driver knew to go in a convoy, to avoid the higher chances of insurgent attacks on lone vehicles, and he knew where to slow down to avoid bomb-cratered sections of this road, but he was a bit of a scoundrel.
He kept arguing in Arabic with the refugee guy, and would translate that he asked for more money due to wear on his tires. I’d get the guy to translate back that when you hire a car and driver, the tires are his concern. Having reached Baghdad, we went to drop off my refugee companion first, on the outskirts of town, and he asked me, “Will you be all right?” I imagine he was worried because I was going to be alone with this driver who had been trying to rip us off, and I couldn’t speak Arabic, and also, it was pitch black, save for the odd street light, and lights of military helicopters overhead, while gun fire crackled from the alleys.
I told him, “sure, I have the Lonely Planet Middle East“. But when I opened it to the Iraq section, I saw not maps and hotel listings, but a disclaimer, saying they were too scared to visit for research, instead they told me about how the Babylonians invented beer. Doh! But off I went hotel searching, using the universal hand signal for: show me a few hotels and I’ll choose one… that’s another story.”
If someone wanted to get a little taste of your addiction, how do you recommend they start?
“Start by honing your snap intuition as to someone’s character. People trying to rob you or rip you off are the equivalent of traveller college (there’s a time and a place for everything, and they call it college, don’t you agree?) study their faces, how they stand, how they talk… there are little ‘tells’ that you need to attune yourself to. That way, in the more dangerous countries, when your life might be on the line, you use your trained intuition to only put your trust in the good people, or as good as you can find, in the case of some taxi drivers.
The annoyances of the rip-off artists in more touristy places are priceless for what they can teach you, which far exceeds the loss of 50 cents on those mangoes they stiffed you on. So, start with the easier destinations, and work your way to more adventurous as you get more comfortable with the traveller skill set.”
Now that you’ve kicked the habit, what will you do with yourself?
“It’s an easy habit to kick… the habit of enjoying new experiences. All I needed to do was move on to the next new experience. I’ve signed with WME Beverly Hills, and the idea is that I do as many interviews as I am comfortable with now, and documentaries for charity, radio call-ins, etc. Then write my book.
With book in hand, I’ll fly to California and specialize in unscripted television for a while. Then movie rights to my life? Who can say? But however it works out, it’s been an huge amount of fun. If I manage to sell a lot of books, I’ll be able to afford rent in my home country of Canada. In the meantime, I’ll have my eye out for a cheap flight to somewhere even cheaper, and warm, where there’s a hut on a beach. A change is as good as a rest, and this way, I’ll enjoy both.”
How do we stay in touch to ensure you don’t fall off the wagon?
My website: www.MikeSpencerBown.com
Thanks for sharing your experiences with us Mike. I sincerely hope your powerful story can help others