As her plane began its descent into the Seychelles on October 6, 2019, Ugandan-American travel influencer Jessica Nabongo peered out of the window, preparing herself for the momentous occasion about to take place.
Not only was she about to become a member of a prestigious club made up of the very few people who’ve traveled to every country in the world, she’d be the first Black woman to have documented doing so.
Nabongo was accompanied by 28 of her friends and family, who had flown in to travel on that last flight with her.
It had taken more than 450 flights and over a million air miles, but she’d made it to all 195 UN-recognized countries on the globe.
The experience was exhausting – Nabongo took more than 170 flights in one year, and says she nearly quit on several occasions.
“There were a number of times where panic set in and I was like, ‘oh my god, is this going to result in public failure?’” she tells CNN Travel.
Nabongo has since written a book, “The Catch Me If You Can,” detailing her experiences moving from country to country during the epic challenge.
Named after her popular blog, it recounts her record-breaking journey, focusing on 100 of the 195 countries she visited.
“I’m a geography nerd,” Nabongo says of her decision to take on the challenge, explaining that it was something she’d been keen to do at least a decade before she actually attempted it.
“In 2017, I sort of made a decision that I wanted to do it by my 35th birthday,” she tells CNN Travel.
So, was she able to meet her deadline?
“I overshot my birthday by five months,” Nabongo explains. “But I ended up finishing on my father’s birthday. He passed [away] just two days after my 19th birthday, so it was nice to be able to bring him into the fold in that way.”
According to Nabongo, who was born in Detroit, one of the key reasons she felt compelled to write “The Catch Me If You Can” was due to the fact that very few Black people are among the 400 or so travelers thought to have visited every country in the world.
“We’re so used to seeing the world through the lens of white men,” says Nabongo, who has used her own photos in the book. “And this is different. There’s obviously some uniqueness in the experiences that we have, as we exist in the world, as very different people.
“But also, just in terms of how I see humanity. My respect for humanity. I see a huge difference.”
Nabongo touches on her experiences traveling as a Black woman in the book, released on June 14, noting that such representation is hugely important.
“It is about normalizing our existence, because, yes, even in 2022, I am often the only Black person on a plane of 300,” she writes.
“I can travel for days and never see someone at the same end of the color spectrum. My mission is to create space. To shake s**t up. To say, we are here and we belong.”
She feels a responsibility to represent destinations that aren’t necessarily tourist hotspots as sensitively as possible to challenge preconceptions.
“That’s really important to me,” she admits. “To tell stories about places that most people may never travel to and really use my platform to put these places in a more positive light than we usually see.
“I found a lot of beauty in a lot of places that people probably wouldn’t have expected.”
These places include Afghanistan, where she was entranced by the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as Blue Mosque in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Pakistan, where she couldn’t get enough of the street food, and Iran, where she visited the ancient city of Yazd.
While social media was certainly around when Nabongo first began traveling extensively, it wasn’t quite as influential as it is today.
The former UN worker notes that having a successful blog and over 200,000 Instagram followers has afforded her many privileges, particularly when it comes to travel, but she’s very mindful of the content she shares, acknowledging that the impact of social media hasn’t been totally positive when it comes to vulnerable locations.
“When I was in Maui [Hawaii], I found this really amazing forest, ” she says. “I didn’t do a geotag [add the geographic coordinates of the location] because I know what that could have done to that forest.”
“Being an influencer or someone of influence, you have to be incredibly careful with how you share. For me, it’s really important to ensure the preservation of places that I’m visiting.”
Nabongo is wistful about the notion of “traveling blindly,” noting that this has become almost impossible in the modern world.
“It’s definitely something that I miss in particular,” Nabongo admits, citing Peru as one of the destinations that she felt slightly underwhelmed by simply because she’d seen so many images of its historic sights beforehand.
“When I got to Machu Picchu, I was like, ‘Oh, it looks just like the pictures,’” she admits. “So it was disappointing.
“You think about places like Bali, and Morocco, everybody’s going to the same destinations and doing the same things. And that’s just not interesting to me.
“But there’s Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan. There are so many places that people don’t think are valuable in terms of tourism, where I had an absolutely amazing time.
“I really hope that through my storytelling, there’s a reduction in bias about Black and Brown countries in particular.”
During some of her toughest moments on the road, Nabongo began to question whether she’d make it to the Seychelles, the final country on her list.
But the trip had become about far more than just achieving her target by then – she knew she was showcasing places her followers would likely never have considered visiting.
When she reached her breaking point during a visit to Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, it was the words of some locals that convinced her to keep going.
“One of the guys said, ‘It’s not for you. It’s for us.’” she says. “That was really a huge turning point. Because as my audience was growing and people were emailing and DMing me, I was realizing that the journey was becoming so much bigger than me. Those men really helped get me to the finish line.”
While Nabongo notes that having a US passport grants her privileges that aren’t afforded to travelers of other nationalities, she explains that she was able to travel to over 40 countries on her Ugandan passport.
“Having both an American and a Ugandan passport really worked in my favor,” she admits. “Because it’s super hard for Americans to go to Iran.
“And the US government forbids Americans from going to North Korea [exceptions are granted “in very limited circumstances”, but I had a Ugandan passport so I could go.
“That was my secret weapon. If I only had an American passport, I probably wouldn’t have finished when I did.”
Her success, along with that of other travelers like her, will no doubt have inspired others to attempt to travel to every country in the world, but she’s keen to point out that this particular goal isn’t for everyone.
Before jetting off on such a quest, Nabongo stresses that travelers should really question why they want to embark on this challenge, “because that’s the motivation that’s going to get you to the finish line.”
She hopes her story will encourage others to go after their dreams, whatever they might be.
“I don’t think everyone is interested in going to every country in the world,” she says. “But what I do want people to know is that they have everything inside of them to do whatever it is that they want to do in life.
“And if I could go to every country in the world, which is wild, I feel like everyone’s dream is attainable.”
In “The Catch Me If You Can,” Nabongo shares various tales of strangers who’ve been particularly kind to her during her travels, including a tour guide named Maha in Jordan who gave her a dress as a symbol of their friendship.
“I definitely have friends from all over the world,” she says, before expressing her delight at how writing the book has helped to put her back in touch with many of those she’s met on the road.
“It’s been really great,” she adds. “At any given time on my WhatsApp, there’s probably conversations going across 20 countries.
“People, of course, will always start out as strangers. But if you’re open to it, you can quickly make friends and in some cases, even family.
“For me, home isn’t about people. I think that’s why I feel so closely connected to people when I travel. Because it’s like I’m building little houses all over the world, if you will.”
While she found the process of visiting every country in the world grueling, Nabongo confesses that writing “The Catch Me If You Can” has been harder “hands down.”
But she hopes the book will inspire more kindness in the world, explaining that she’s noticed a shift in the behavior of others, particularly while traveling, since the early days of the pandemic.
“It was all love and kindness, and then it became madness,” she says. “Now you’re seeing people fighting on planes and being just really mean.
“So, I think unfortunately, that initial bump of love and humanity that we got in the first four to six months has dissipated.”
Nabongo admits that this has left her feeling rather disheartened at times.
However, she remains encouraged by her own experiences of human kindness and continues to look for beauty in the world wherever she goes.
And now that she’s visited every country, Nabongo’s passion for travel has only grown stronger.
At the time of writing, she’s about to take another trip to Senegal, which she describes as her “happy place,” and eventually plans to tick off another goal. visiting every state in the US.
“I have six left,” she explains, before stressing that she’s in no rush, and will complete this particular task, “when I get to it.”