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The Catch Me If You Can

The Catch Me If You Can PDF

Author: Jessica Nabongo

Publisher: National Geographic


Publish Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN-10: 1426222262

Pages: 416

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

I GOT MY FIRST PASSPORT WHEN I WAS four or five years old. What I didn’t know at the time was how generous life could be and that I was being handed the world to explore. I could not have imagined that little blue book would lead me to a carpet seller in Afghanistan or that I would fall in love with a mosque in Iran. How could I have guessed that I would form lifelong bonds on a road trip in Namibia? Or that kissing a giraffe

in Kenya would be as memorable as walking next to one in Niger? That little girl could not have known she would climb Japan’s Mount Fuji or swim with whales in Tonga.

I grew up in a home with hundreds of books, two sets of encyclopedias, an atlas, and a globe that, though now inaccurate, still sits on my countertop. I am a geography nerd. Always have been, always will be. My parents never put boundaries on me and my sisters. We were raised to feel like anything truly was possible. So it’s no wonder I developed so many wild dreams; visiting every country in the world was just one of them.

Let me back up a little. I have lived many lives—some short, some prolonged, all vastly different—and I’ve enjoyed each one. In my childhood, I was engaged in sports, music, ballet, and tap recitals, and I had sleepovers with people who became lifelong friends. In high school, I was voted “Class Trendy” and was quite the social butterfly.

In college, at St. John’s University in New York City, I graduated magna cum laude, helped establish the Africana studies minor, held internships at both Time, Inc., and Pfizer, and was accepted into a competitive summer program at Harvard Business School. My first full-time job was at Pfizer, where I was given pay and benefits that flirted with six figures. Company car, check. Base salary that was on par with my friends slaving away on Wall Street, check. Cell phone and home internet paid for, check. Expense account, check. Stock options, check. 401(k), check. As a 21-year-old, what more could I ask for?

I had laid the foundation to take the corporate world by storm. My path ahead was clear: a successful career, someday married to a six-foot-three, perfectly chiseled partner, two brilliant children, and a sprawling home with two luxury cars parked outside.

Everything was going according to plan. I had relocated back to Detroit, and with the freedom of adulthood and disposable income, I let loose. Weekends often consisted of trips to Miami or New York. I spent too many weeknights having martinis downtown. I was excelling at work, and for my 22nd birthday, I bought myself a two-bed, two-bath condo with views of the Detroit River and Canada. I had a custom closet built for my shoes and designer jeans. Life was good. Very good.

Then, one day something in me snapped. In the parking lot of a doctor’s office I checked my email on bonus day only to see a three-digit figure that still makes me cringe. I was doing all that I could to reach my sales goals. I was going above and beyond and had become a favorite sales rep among the doctors in my territory. But my bonus was a reflection of the pharmaceutical marketplace, not my effort. I realized in that parking lot that life is not a meritocracy.

I went home and Googled teaching jobs in Japan. Japan came to mind because I had a friend living there and I had always been fascinated by the Japanese language because it has similarities to Luganda, my parents’ native tongue. I applied for a job and was hired to teach English in a small community. I began preparing for a move to a country and continent that I had never visited. This was in 2008, before I had Twitter and before Instagram was even launched. There was no “Black travel movement.” At this point in my life, I had traveled to nine countries and one territory across three continents. And I had never traveled solo, save an awful eight hours in Paris. I packed my bags and put the contents of my condo into a storage unit, and then I had an unforgettable going-away weekend. As a final preparation, I shaved my head, knowing I would not find anyone to do my Black hair in a small city outside of Kyoto.

My move to Japan ultimately changed the trajectory of my life. Unwilling to go back to the life of working nine to five in the United States, I decided to continue living abroad. When I left Japan, I started a blog called The Catch Me If You Can, began focusing on my photography, and traveled until I ran out of money. Subsequently, I called London home while I earned my master’s degree at the London School of Economics, then I worked for a nonprofit in rural Benin, and I followed that with a post at the United Nations in Rome. I often quit jobs because while I was unsure of what I wanted to do in life, I always quickly figured out what I didn’t want to do.

Americans, including me, have been socialized to believe that a successful life is finding a high-powered and high-paying career, buying a huge house and fancy car, and having a beautiful family. Although this fantasy works for some people, it didn’t work for me, so I tried to find what would work for me.

In February 2017, I finally figured out what I wanted to do to find fulfillment in my life: travel to every country in the world. I said I would do it, and so I did. In October 2019, I sat on the shores of the Seychelles, surrounded by family and friends, having checked the 195th country off my list.

Entrepreneurship helped bring me to this goal and the life of freedom I was seeking. After leaving my last corporate job in 2015, I founded Jet Black, a boutique luxury travel agency that worked to promote tourism in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Its initial goal was to change the narrative about countries in those regions, and it evolved to also promote Black tourism. As a content creator, I partnered with brands on social media, and in November 2019, after my journey was complete, I founded the e-commerce site The Catch with the aim of giving artisans from around the world access to a global marketplace. Entrepreneurship is certainly not for everyone—I’m exhausted thinking about my day-to-day balance—but the freedom that comes with it makes it the right choice for me.

Fourteen years after that life-altering decision to move to Japan, life looks a lot different. Now, life is dreaming, creating, and achieving the impossible. It is experiencing new foods and new cultures, learning new languages, and turning strangers into friends. It is experiencing the world with my closest friends and inspiring people to live alternative lifestyles. I traded that traditional nine-to-five for all of this and more.

People often make assumptions about my life based on the swoon-worthy photos on social media. They assume I am always on vacation or that what I do is not “real life.” I assure you, it is. I have created the type of life that I want to live: one that excites me every single day when I wake up. I changed my belief system around what “real life” is and what it can be.

After living an unconventional life for so long, I’ve realized the most important thing to me is my freedom—freedom of movement, freedom of time, freedom of location. I rarely know what day of the week it is. My body is now incapable of getting jet lag. I strive to create a life in which I say yes and no whenever I want. I found happiness only once I started choosing what I actually wanted and stopped letting others or circumstances choose for me. Now, I very rarely do things that I do not want to do (including when my mother asks me to cook a dish for Thanksgiving. Not doing it! Love you, Mommy!). I am focused not on money but rather on having enough to do the things that interest me.

This freedom and indulgence in all life has to offer means it’s now nearly impossible for me to name a favorite thing. I have neither a favorite country nor a favorite food. Life is too full of amazingly beautiful things, places, and people to pick just one.

I have visited the world’s 195 countries and 10 territories. Through these travels I learned two key lessons: First, most people are good. My journey was made possible by the kindness of strangers—some who opened their homes to me and others who donated money to help me reach the finish line. I do not know when we started to assume the worst in each other, but if you consider yourself to be a good person, why would you assume that a stranger is a bad one? I always assume the best of people because that is what I received nine times out of 10 in every corner of the world. The few bad experiences will never outweigh the good.

The second lesson I learned is that we are more similar than we are different. In the end, neither race, gender, social class, religion, sexual orientation, body type, education level, nor nationality make you better than the next person. The French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Once you fully accept that, you realize how much our differences simply do not matter.

As travelers, we have a duty to tell the stories of the places we visit with dignity and respect, to share our adventures without patronizing places or people. There is always danger in a single story. One person’s experience in a country can cause others to follow in their footsteps or swear to never step foot in a destination. If I am going to tell a single story, I seek to find the positive. I travel with a lens of curiosity and a desire to understand what everyday life is like. I am looking to learn rather than confirm biases. When traveling, and really in life, you will find what you are looking for. If you look for joy, you will find joy. If you look for beauty, you will find beauty. Alternatively, if you seek misery, you will find that. Life gives you what you seek. What are you seeking?

For far too long we have seen the world only through one lens, and I am here to offer an alternative. Most of the people who have visited every country in the world are white men, and there is no question that our experiences are very different.

I am a Black woman, but beyond my Blackness, my travels are shaped by my Africanness. I am unmistakably African, and I am identified as such no matter where I am in the world. Upon exiting the Accra airport in Ghana recently, an immigration officer referred to me as an African princess—even to other Africans, I am stereotypically African.

I have had many issues with immigration due to the negative perception of Africans globally, and yet, somehow, I have managed to keep going, persevering through tears and anger. But through the pain, I have always felt that the behavior at border control was not reflective of the population of the countries I have visited. And although these challenges are frustrating, the privilege of the journey is not lost on me.

I want to change where the world travels to and how the world sees travelers. For too long, a homogeneous group—a group that does not look like me, or much of the world for that matter—has chosen Eurocentric top 10 lists. These lists are determined by people who often have barely scratched the surface of global destinations—very few of whom have been to 50 countries, let alone 195 like me. Although those destinations are often aptly beloved, if you rely on them alone for your bucket list, you’re leaving an entire world left to be explored. That world is full of natural beauty, kind people of diverse backgrounds, cultures worth engaging with, and histories that should be learned. Whether or not you make it to these places isn’t the point. My hope is that even if you couldn’t find these countries on a map before reading this book, you will understand the joys and riches they offer and the way they changed me for the better.

I have wanted to travel to every country in the world since my 20s simply because of my curiosity. But the journey that I completed was so much bigger than me. It morphed from a personal goal to being about changing narratives and ensuring that people who look like me are seen equally as tourists around the globe. It is about normalizing our existence, because, yes, even in 2022, I am often the only Black person on a plane of 300. 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 shit up. To say, we are here and we belong.

The intention of this book is not to convince you to travel to every country in the world, though it might. That was my dream. My intention is to show everyone—not just Black women and men, but all women and men—that your dreams are valid. Your dreams are achievable.

Would I do it again? Probably not. While I am proud of this journey, it was not easy. There were a lot of lonely nights. There were tears of frustration. There was anger from being treated as less than equal. The resilience required to complete this feat could only be bestowed by the universe that selected me for this particular mission.

Now you’re ready to dive into the story of my journey—or at least some of it. In these pages you’ll follow me to 100 countries, in the order I visited them. I have been to all 195 UN-recognized countries, so you’re probably wondering how I decided on these 100.

I had a cultural experience in each place I visited, but, honestly, they were not all impactful enough to share. I left out some countries because I want to experience more of them, including some of the world’s most visited, like Mexico and the United Kingdom. How can I write about Mexico without visiting Oaxaca or Guadalajara? Though I lived in London for a year, how can I write about the United Kingdom having never seen Scotland or Wales?

Most of the countries that made it into this book are ones I fell in love with, countries that upon arrival found a special place in my heart. They are where I met characters whose stories needed to be told or strangers who became immediate friends. Many of these destinations do not immediately come to mind when people create a bucket list, but I believe you should consider them for yours.

This book is a collection of countries that make my heart smile. I hope my stories make you laugh, cry, feel something, and ultimately make you think differently about the world in which we live.

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