Don’t ask Albert Podell ’58 how he finally got a visa to enter Angola, because he won’t tell you. All he’ll say is that it involved the assistance of three people in that country, plus another in Portugal and “a guy in the Middle East.”
Over the previous year, Podell had considered and abandoned a half-dozen schemes in his effort to obtain a visa to Angola, an all-but-impossible task for the average American. He tried getting certified as a gemologist so he could pass himself off as a diamond buyer, but his eyesight was too poor. He thought about joining a birdwatching tour, but the chances of getting a visa were still iffy, and the hefty deposit was nonrefundable. Then there was the idea of just renting a four-by-four in Namibia and sneaking across the border—but after reading about the conditions in Angolan prisons, he decided that was just plain stupid.
Podell’s actual visit to Angola—in November and December 2012—was no great shakes, marked by bland food, unremarkable sights, and stratospheric prices. But the journey was memorable for capping his long-sought quest to visit every country in the world. In March, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press published his memoir of those travels, Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth.
In the book, Podell chronicles his many voyages, from the sublime (swimming with penguins and sea lions in the Galápagos) to the ridiculous (a madcap misadventure to make a flight off the island nation of Kiribati, where his best laid plans were nearly undone by an inkless printer and a dirty van). He contemplates such weighty issues as child soldiers and female genital mutilation, and such lighter ones as the proliferation of Spam in the South Pacific. He eats the brains of a live monkey in Hong Kong and enjoys a “superb horse steak” in Mongolia. In Madagascar, he gets a rare look at a golden bamboo lemur and witnesses the joyous ritual disinterment of ancestral bones. In Zambia, a pickpocket robs him of one of his most prized possessions: a cache of American toilet paper.
‘I do like being confronted with some problem in a foreign country that requires an ingenious solution.’Podell almost dies at least twice, including a near-drowning in Costa Rica and a close call in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), where he narrowly escapes being hanged as an Indian spy—a fate he avoids through, of all things, a florid demonstration of severe intestinal distress. And that’s not counting the time he dodged a swarm of poisonous sea snakes while diving off the Great Barrier Reef. “I may be a mild adrenaline junkie,” admits Podell, who may also have a gift for understatement. “There’s a huge thrill to surviving a near-death experience. Winston Churchill once said, ‘There is nothing more exhilarating in life than to be shot at and missed.’ I mean, I don’t enjoy coming within a few minutes of dying, but I do like being confronted with some problem in a foreign country that requires an ingenious solution.”
A retired attorney and former editor at Playboy, Podell never traveled much as a child, coming from a family of homebodies. His grandparents had emigrated from Russia, he says, and as far as they were concerned, that was enough of a road trip. “In the rest of their lifetimes,” the Brooklyn native says with a laugh, “they never went farther than Boston.” The former government major didn’t leave the U.S. until he was twenty-five, when he crossed over to Canada during his Army days at Fort Drum. (“It was kind of different than the U.S.,” he recalls. “It was clean and neat and grassy, and the skies were not polluted.”) He caught the travel bug in earnest in 1963, when a magazine junket took him to Spain and France. Two years later, he and a friend embarked on a globe-trotting adventure that spawned an earlier memoir—Who Needs a Road?: The Story of the Longest and Last Motor Journey Around the World—that remains in print today. “I just loved traveling,” Podell says. “It beats working hands down.”
While a years-long effort to be the first person to drive around the globe longitudinally got bogged down in technical snafus—after umpteen field tests, he could never cobble together a vehicle that would have made it across Antarctica—he eventually settled on the idea of visiting every country on Earth. But that opened up a question both practical and esoteric: what is a country, anyway? “And that wasn’t easy,” Podell writes. “Even as reliable a source as the Economist concluded, in an article titled ‘In Quite a State,’ that ‘any attempt to find a clear definition of a country soon runs into a thicket of exceptions and anomalies.’ Yet I needed to know where the goalposts were. It wasn’t sufficient to accept Frank Zappa’s delightful criteria: ‘You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline—it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.’ “
Podell read the Montevideo Convention of 1933—which had codified the criteria for statehood—and consulted with international law professors at NYU, among other research. In the end, he decided on a list of 196 comprising all the members of the United Nations, plus three that aren’t included for political reasons: Taiwan (kept out by China), Kosovo (ditto, by Russia), and Vatican City (which never applied and prefers to have “observer” status). “When you get down to it,” he says, “a country really is what the big powers say will be a country.” He visited about half of them in the past decade, after retirement freed him up to spend months-long stretches on the road. Eventually, he got down to what he termed the “Savage Seven” of dangerous African countries—a list that included Chad, Somalia, and South Sudan—and found that most of his friends and family (a.k.a. “the legion of naysayers”) thought it was time to call it quits. A therapist friend even offered a free mental-health evaluation. “My insurance agent advised he was unable to get me that million-dollar term-life policy now that he knew where I intended to travel,” writes Podell, who also penned an e-book of travel safety tips that came out in April. “And Professor John King [PhD ’63], my forensic pathologist pal at Cornell who usually autopsies pigs and sheep around the world that have died of mysterious diseases, thoughtfully volunteered to ‘help get what is left of you home.'”
But with a combination of bravado and savvy—Podell’s strategies included dressing so shabbily that he looked too poor to be worth mugging—he made it through. It didn’t hurt that he brought along a friend whom he describes as “a fearless martial arts expert and crack shot.” By the time Podell departed country number 196 (Angola), he had gone through seven passports—some of them expired, but two retired; they were so full of extra pages that the State Department refused to add more.
Asked to name his favorite country, Podell answers that there’s only one that has it all in terms of culture, food, and natural beauty: the good old U.S.A. But he notes that getting so far away from home has offered some invaluable perspective on his native land. “If you look at the way many people live in the undeveloped world, on less than a dollar and a half a day, you come to realize how extremely fortunate we are to have the kind of comfort, safety, and security that we have in the U.S.,” Podell says. “But most Americans don’t realize how fortunate we are, because when they travel they go to places like Paris, Rome, or London; they don’t see the kind of devastation and destitution that I saw. Sure, if you want to spend a fortune, almost every country has at least one American-style hotel, and you can go there and eat American food and hang out with a bunch of Americans—but you might as well stay home.”
Inside the ‘Hermit Kingdom’
Podell’s memoir includes passages ranging from the lighthearted to the tragic. In one of the more sober episodes, he describes his trip to North Korea—a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK—in August 2010, during the reign of Kim Jong-il. At the time of Podell’s visit, very few Western tourists entered the country,and its government kept even tighter control of those visitors than they do today—for example, inspecting camera flash cards and deleting unapproved images.
I was not prepared for the modernity and wealth of Pyongyang. I’d expected a shabby, run-down town not much different than the capitals of many poor nations, so I was amazed to find instead a clean, modern, prosperous-looking, smoothly functioning, and livable city. It may be the world’s largest Potemkin village, but it more than did its job of creating a favorable impression.
I saw thousands of trees bordering the streets, vast tracts of grassland, gardens, even vegetable farms, and was told that the city had more than forty parks and the most green space per capita of any major city. The dozens of gleaming white thirty-story apartment buildings I saw, home to the regime insiders, were unabashedly contemporary—cylindrical, curvilinear, or layered, most with terraces—each separated from its neighbor by a hundred yards of trees and carefully cultivated shrubs. I was taken to three immense arches, more than ten impressively powerful monuments and commemorative towers, many over a hundred feet high, and saw at least thirty gigantic public buildings of shining marble and polished granite. Each subway station (300 feet down in case the West tries to nuke them) was spacious and attractive,with cheerful art and colored lights, and not a speck of trash anywhere.
And it was just as pristinely clean throughout the countryside that I was allowed to see. When we were driven two hours south of the capital and two hours north of it, all we saw along the new, tree-lined, eight-lane highway were tidy towns of neatly dressed people and peaceful cooperative farms, lushly green with ripening rice, corn, and beans. I knew that our hosts were not about to show us any poverty or shabbiness, and that their job was to make us disbelieve that this was a dictatorship in which famished citizens ate undigested corn kernels they dug out of cow manure and where more than half a million died of starvation in some years. We were never shown those skeletal people or DPRK’s A-bomb plants or the factories where they made Rodong medium-range missiles for Iran, Syria, and Pakistan.
Only if we looked closely could we discern some implicit indications of poverty: our bus drove for thirty minutes during which we did not see another car on the superhighway; half the people walked and the other half rode bikes, often two on a bike; every bit of land not used for buildings or green space in this 80 percent mountainous nation was given over to growing crops, as far up the hills as they could push it; everybody was quite thin; there were few streetlights, and other outdoor lights were kept low, except those illuminating the propaganda palaces; interior lights were frugally controlled by motion sensors, daylight sensors, and insert cards; in the hotel bowling alley, if I didn’t roll my ball within a few seconds, the lights illuminating the pins went out; restaurants used miniature napkins and stainless steel chopsticks to conserve trees; and our guides wore the same clothes four or five days in a row without washing. Ironically, the harsh heel of their dictatorship has generated one of the smallest carbon footprints of any nation.
In six days I saw not a single dog or cat, because the people could not afford to feed them, or had eaten them long ago. In five hundred kilometers of travel through this meat-deprived land, I saw not one goat, sheep, or cow. In one residential park, I saw a man catch a squirrel, stomp it, cut off its tail, and proudly put it, still alive and quivering in its death throes, into his bag to eat for dinner, as he made clear from his joyful gesticulations. It was difficult to reconcile the gleaming apartment buildings with residents stomping squirrels for dinner, but such is the paradox of the DPRK.
‘The tour was heavy on anti-American propaganda and nationalism bordering on xenophobia.’The tour was heavy on anti-American propaganda and nationalism bordering on xenophobia. We were taken to, and proudly told in fervid detail about, the humble homewhere Kim Il Sung was born, and then shown his awesome, four-story mausoleum, fronted by a plaza of one million square feet, surrounded by a moat, and reached though a marble hallway 450 yards long that I was allowed to enter only after my shoes had been dusted, disinfected, and blown clean. We were driven to the Workers’ Party monument, and the Martyrs’ Cemetery, and the 150-room International Friendship Exhibition, a repository carved into Mount Myohyang for the 90,000 gifts the GreatLeader had received from other nations (mostly expensive and ornate, with only one from the U.S., a Wilson basketball signed by Michael Jordan and presented by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright). We were taken on a long drive to the DMZ (the four-kilometer-wide and 240-kilometer-long demilitarized zone between North andSouth Korea), to Panmunjom (where the armistice ending the fighting of the Korean War was negotiated and signed in 1953), and to the Concrete Fence (a wall 250 kilometers long, built by the South from sea to sea across the peninsula, “to keep our nation forever divided,” we were told, and behind which the puppets of the South were planning a new invasion since their earlier one had failed). The next day to the museums: the three Museums of the Revolution, the War Museum (filled with U.S. planes,tanks, and guns captured in the Korean War during America’s “cowardly retreat”), and the Art Museum (featuring portraits of the Great Leader performing various heroic functions). Finally to the Juche Tower (commemorating the Great Leader’s Socialist/Confucian philosophy of government), the captured US “pirate-spy” ship USS Pueblo; and, everywhere—and I do mean everywhere—portraits, murals, paintings, posters, billboards, and signs exhorting the populace to struggle and strive, and depicting theGreat Leader encouraging farmers to grow more grain, workers to produce more machines, miners to dig more coal and iron, soldiers to be prepared to fight their imperialist foe, and children to zealously guard and defend the future of the nation.
Even the meals were part of the propaganda effort. Either because the North Koreans believe that all imperialists have ravenous appetites, or because they wanted to demonstrate that the claims of food shortages and starvation in their country were false, they sought to stuff us, at every meal, with three to four times more food than any human could possibly ingest at one sitting. Each meal, including breakfast, featured soup, at least five kinds of vegetables, a fish dish, a beef dish, a chicken dish, a pork or duck dish, plus a variety of other treats, from spicy squid to bean curd casserole, glassy noodles to scrambled eggs, frankfurters to potato pancakes, and on and on. This imperialist gained ten pounds in six days.
From AROUND THE WORLD IN 50 YEARS: MY ADVENTURE TO EVERY COUNTRY ON EARTH by Albert Podell. Copyright © 2015 by Albert Podell. Reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.