smug smile crossed my face as I strode through the airport in Bangkok last summer, toward a connecting flight that would take me to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to present a weeklong series of workshops and discussions about journalism in today's digital world. I had just landed from a wonderful weekend in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I visited one of the wonders of the world, the temple ruins of Angkor Wat.
Here are the countries UD's Ralph Begleiter has visited
... so far.
and counting .....
I was smiling over something no one else knew: I had just touched down in my 100th country, setting an unusual travel record. I relished being able to attach two new dots to the wall map in my office at the University of Delaware.
Visiting 100 countries isn't something I had ever set as a goal. Not like a runner reaching for a faster time, or a coach gunning for a record number of wins. It just happened, mostly as a result of an extraordinary career in which international travel became a hallmark.
I've traveled nearly two million miles, working in 100 countries on all seven continents, from Guam to Guangzhou, from Denmark to Dalian, from Moscow to Kislovodsk to Irkutsk (including all of the former Soviet republics), virtually all of Europe, both east and west, almost all of the Middle East (except Iran), and much smaller selections in South America and Africa.
I've visited all kinds of churches, synagogues, Confucian and Buddhist temples, and mosques. I've eaten just about every kind of food there is in the world – from falafel in Arab East Jerusalem to sushi in Tokyo. And, yes, of course, gotten sick on a few occasions. (On my first trip to China in 1983, I struggled to get out of the bathroom long enough to do coherent “live” news reports on CNN.)
I've reported from a gondola in Venice, ridden a train in rural China, visited log cabins in Siberia, seen the slum dwellings of Soweto and walked along the Congo River in Kinshasa.
I've watched Arabs and Israelis shake hands and make peace (only to see it fall apart again later), seen the bullet holes of war in Bosnia and crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, both before and after the end of the Cold War.
I've met Soviet and Chinese dissidents and Nelson Mandela; and interviewed Chinese and Arab dictators, and presidents and prime ministers like Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl, who were elected by their people.
I've dangled precariously in a rope net from a shipping derrick during a powerful storm while covering a Soviet-American summit meeting in Malta. I've celebrated Easter Mass just a few feet from Pope John Paul II at St. Peter's Basilica. And I've felt tears at Yad Vashem, Babi Yar, Sachsenhausen, Bitburg and the Berlin Holocaust Museum.
I've used rubles, yuan, dinars, shekels, pounds, pesos, francs, levs, riels, riyals, rials, baht, guilders, euros, krone, rupees, rand, leu, zloty, dirham, lira and lire, and even thick wads of worthless Ukrainian “certificates” which passed for money in the immediate wake of the Cold War.
My travels as CNN's “world affairs correspondent” from 1981–1999, took me inside former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos' famous shoe closet in Manila (she had 300 pairs!), to secret passages behind the walls of the pope's residence in Rome, and to the forbidden nuclear weapons research center in Chelyabinsk (one of the Soviet “secret cities”) after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1990. I recorded the first-ever on-camera report inside the previously impregnable Kremlin walls. I walked in Kuwaiti deserts amid pools and raging fires of pillaged oil after the Gulf War in 1991, and amid Arab-Israeli peace negotiators in Washington, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere. I've stood with thousands of shivering Kurdish refugees from Iraq on the mountainous border between Iraq and Turkey.
I've slept on the roach-infested tile floor of a border crossing between China and Hong Kong so I could be in place to report live on China's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. I've admired ancient glories in places like Luxor (Egypt), Palmyra (Syria) and Siem Reap (Cambodia), and enjoyed more recent culture in Europe and Asia.
My travels included lots of technology challenges. Hard as it might be to imagine, when I started working for CNN, there were no beepers, no cell phones, no laptop computers. Even our fax machine would be considered an antique today.
But the demands of my business, broadcasting hot-news reports – often “live” – from many of the places I've mentioned, took me on an incredible cutting-edge journey to today's technology. I was the guy who literally unscrewed the phone from the wall in Moscow and twisted bare wires together to transmit my stories (and some for the Wall Street Journal and other colleagues) by computer from behind the Iron Curtain. In Syria, I had to cajole a dictatorship-controlled telephone operator with a rotary-dial phone to allow me to connect my computer. In Albania, a young phone operator had never before seen a computer. She smiled broadly when I arranged for a colleague in Atlanta to use her name in a text message on my screen, to “prove” her phone was really connected to the United States for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
On a trip through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, I shlepped two huge equipment cases containing a satellite phone – literally unfurling the dish and pointing it at the sky over the Indian Ocean to connect with a satellite to make a phone call. Today, that technology fits in the palm of my hand.
Exotic destinations? How about Moose Factory, in Canada? Or Reykjavik, Iceland, where I reported on a history making summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Or Windhoek, where I landed on the last day of its life as a province of South Africa, slept in a train car for lack of hotel space, and helped celebrate its first day as independent Namibia. Or Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where I watched traditional horse races involving men wearing colorful tribal headgear and enjoyed hospitality in a yurt (look it up). After a train ride to Qufu, China, I visited Confucius' home and watched men playing billiards on the village streets.
I have enjoyed hospitality and marveled at the riches – and security – in royal palaces in France, England, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Japan and Morocco, among others. In Morocco, dinner with the king was delivered by costumed servers wearing pointy-toed slippers. Our food arrived, steaming, under cone-shaped baskets, while we were seated on the floor (beverage of the night: goat's milk). At one of the Saudi king's palaces in a remote desert town, a sumptuous buffet was served in white tents pitched atop valuable oriental carpets spread directly on the sand.
Belgium holds some special memories. Aside from the country's heavenly mussels cooked in beer and its famed chocolate (I brought home boxes and boxes of it around the holidays each year for family, colleagues and friends), I was once arrested and jailed briefly by Belgian local officials.
My crew was working on a documentary about Soviet and American nuclear weapons. We had just shot video of a high-security missile base in Florennes, when police took us into custody. I exercised my French for a few hours, explaining that we had permission from the Belgian foreign minister for this shoot. The town police chief reacted as if I were claiming to be a king. But when he finally phoned the foreign ministry, the chief abruptly changed his tune and released us, offering any assistance we might need.
I've crossed the Glienicke Bridge to Potsdam, Germany, where East and West famously exchanged spies during the Cold War, and walked across the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank, before Jordan and Israel made peace in 1994.
Unlike many travelers, I've rarely had the opportunity to spend much time in a single place, though I have returned to several countries – including Russia, China, Europe's NATO alliance countries, Israel and its immediate neighbors – many times over the past 30 years. Sometimes, the travel was unbelievably fast paced. After the end of the Cold War, I once worked in five former Soviet countries in a single day, starting in Moscow and ending in Kiev. Often, I made on-camera appearances, reporting complex diplomatic or political stories, after many hours of sleep-deprived travel.
Since 1999, during my years at the University of Delaware, my travel pace has slowed. But study abroad with students, and a series of invitations from the U.S. government to present workshops around the world on journalism and independent media issues have swept me across the 100-nation threshold.
Has any of this mattered to University of Delaware students? I frequently use references to other cultures, geography, politics and history in my classes, hoping to pique student interest in far-away places and international careers.
At Fidel Castro's palace in Havana in 2002, UD students and I shook hands with the man himself. My students were serving as Russian language translators for a delegation of former Soviet military officers at a conference on the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The University's quest to boast of study abroad opportunities on all seven continents helped me achieve that goal, too. Together with professional photographer and art professor Jon Cox, I co-led study abroad programs on the Antarctic peninsula in 2003 and 2005, teaching courses on the Geopolitics of Antarctica and Photojournalism.
In 2008, students accompanied me and UD physics professor Ismat Shah to Turkey, one of my favorite countries. It was a visit that introduced UD students to everyday life in this 98% Muslim country.
I annually deliver a lecture to UD's resident assistants about connecting UD to the world; it's based on my travels.
My extensive travels and interest in the Middle East led to teaching the Honors section of my Global Agenda course with weekly video-conference sessions together with students in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Last year, our entire section traveled to Dubai, introducing most of the students to Arab culture and politics for the first time.
And UD's Global Agenda program itself – with its international topics and speakers – was inspired by my worldwide travels.
My first Washington job was as an editor and reporter for all-news WTOP-AM-TV. Its facilities were built in the early days of American network radio when studio design reflected the art deco style of the 1920s.
On a 1991 visit to Ulaanbaatar, I witnessed a horse race typical of an annual Mongolian sports festival, where contestants wear elaborate caps representing their families or tribes.
On the day newly united Germany dismantled Berlin's “Checkpoint Charlie,” I picked up a cobblestone from the historic barrier that divided the Cold War city.
During the last years of the Cold War in the 1980s, street vendors in Moscow eagerly bought American blue jeans, cigarettes and chewing gum from visiting journalists. Artists, too, earned valuable “hard” currency – U.S. dollars – by selling us their work, like this chess set, hand-carved and painted ith emblems of the U.S. and its NATO allies, pitted against the hammer-and-sickle of the Soviet army.
YoUDee traveled twice with our class to Antarctica in 2003 and 2005, along with his companion, a stuffed penguin found in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.
On a trip to China, I found a graphic motto which has inspired me to “proceed regardless of difficulties.”
Most of my travel took place on official U.S. government aircraft. I flew with Presidents Reagan and Clinton on Air Force One. In the 1980s, we flew the same plane that returned President Kennedy's body to Washington from Dallas after his assassination in 1962.
With so many cultural, political, historical, geographic, religious and architectural experiences, it's hard to choose a favorite. Are you asking where I would go again on vacation? Or where I found myself most interested? Or which was most beautiful? Or delicious? I usually mention Turkey and Syria. I've visited those countries frequently enough to have discovered the warmth of their people, the spectacular beauty of their art and history, and the distinctive flavors of their food. But I have many wonderful memories in a very wide variety of places.
Nope. Most of my miles were traveled aboard U.S. government aircraft, including Air Force One and Air Force Two (the Vice President or Secretary of State's plane). No mileage points, but lots of great opportunities to converse with important and powerful officials, sometimes unshaven and in various states of sleep-deprived stupor, about some of the most intriguing political puzzles in the world.
No. The traveling press corps of which I was a part never was invited to bring spouses. That was probably a good thing, since we were working almost 24/7. Spouses would have been bored by the incessant chatter about global politics, and frustrated by the lack of time to see the sights. My wife and I have enjoyed together some of our favorite places in Europe at a more leisurely pace.
On the contrary, I made a point in every country to get away from the official bubble and see something special, even if only for an hour or two. In Morocco, I sneaked away from the official party of Secretary of State George Shultz with a more senior journalist, the Washington Post's Don Oberdorfer. For a whole day, while Shultz was enjoying some no-news down time, we escaped the bland city of Rabat for the ancient and fascinating city of Fes. Upon our return, the Secretary of State's wife warned us that if we ever did that again, she would have us banned from future official trips – unless we invited her to come along.
Of course! I took calls from my wife when our garage door froze shut, or the basement flooded, while I was away in some steamy African or Middle Eastern country. And once, when I promised my young son I would be home to attend one of his school performances, he scowled skeptically and said, “Yeah, right.” He nailed it; I missed his performance for yet another trip to Europe to cover an international negotiation. Another time, when he was much younger, I returned from a trip and asked if he'd seen me on TV. He had. “What did you think?” I asked. “You sucked,” he replied. (Everyone's a critic!) – R. B.
It's complicated. I've had some tough political decisions to make, and
I admit to being inconsistent. Others may disagree with my conclusions; I'm OK with that.
Antarctica isn't a country; it's a continent, without any national boundaries. After working there with UD students on two study abroad programs, I agonized over how to include it on my list. I did, as a country.
Is Taiwan a country? China considers Taiwan a renegade province, and the U.S. avoids annoying China by declaring the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Taipei to be not an “embassy” but the “American Institute in Taiwan.” I count it as a country.
What about places like Bethlehem and Jericho? Are they in a country? Only a few nations consider Palestine a country (the U.S. is not among them, but all the Arabs view Palestine as a nation). I count the West Bank Palestinian territories on my list.
After so much travel, I don't have much of a “bucket list.” I've never been to many of the most beautiful American national parks, and hope to accomplish that.
There are a few international destinations I still yearn to cross off my list, including North Korea and Myanmar (Burma) – just curiosity, really – and Iran (I was invited once, but the details didn't work out). And although I've been to Australia and New Zealand, I long to see their most beautiful places, Tasmania and the Christchurch region.
Students have encouraged me to try for all 190-plus countries, but I've foresworn that goal. – R. B.
I've been to the Czech Republic, both when it was Czechoslovakia and after it split from Slovakia; does that mean I've also been to Slovakia? (I don't count Slovakia.)
A similar problem occurred when the U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) broke up in the early 1990s. I had worked in the Soviet Union, but later visited all of the former Soviet republics (Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) when they became independent. I counted those “new” nations as countries on my list.
I've been to Bermuda and Diego Garcia, both part of the United Kingdom. And to French Guiana (on the northeast coast of South America). And to Greenland (an autonomous country in the Kingdom of Denmark). Do they count as separate countries? I don't count Midway Island and Guam, in the remote Pacific Ocean; they're protectorates of the United States.
The Catholic Church has an embassy in Washington, and Vatican City is widely viewed as separate from Italy, so I count it.
Using an official U.S. government (Federal Information Processing Standard, or FIPS) list of countries and places used by the UD Department of Geography, I've visited 104 such places ... including Antarctica. – R. B.