Our first podcast episode of 2022 is headlined by a globetrotter, a Playboy editor, a journalist, a producer, an attorney, and an author of a bestseller — and these are all one person! Albert Podell’s life appeals to the imagination. At the age of six, his aim was to collect stamps from all the nations in the world. 69 years later, he realised every traveller’s wet dream: visiting all 196 countries of the planet.
Al said some juicy things on SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA (we couldn’t even use them all), he is quite a personality, and we felt an extra written interview was called for.
AL’S COMPANIONS ON THE SHOW
Francis Tapon has visited all of Africa’s countries and climbed the highest peak in 50 of them. He is a member of the California Outdoors Hall of Fame, a writer of two popular books and a public speaker. You can read more about him in our 2017 interview, rather intriguingly titled “Rwanda Is an Interesting Experiment”.
Marcus Westberg has few blanks left on his African map: he hasn’t been between Benin and Western Sahara, nor has he travelled east of Morocco or north of Ethiopia. The rest is all ticked, with many return visits for wildlife photography jobs. Get to know Marcus better in our interview.
Dalilah N. is a media buying strategist based in Kigali (Rwanda). She works for a South African advertising company and covers many countries of Africa. As a leisure traveller and nature fan she has experienced Burundi, DR Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Al, do you look back a happy man on what you’ve achieved in your life?
Sure, because I didn’t have any goals. My only desire was to have fun. That is also the main reason why I did my world trip. After I had already travelled to some countries, I wanted to go to every single one of them. It seemed exciting and felt like a very natural progression.
How old were you when you went on your first trip?
My parents never travelled. If you are a poor kid, you can’t start moving around the world before you’ve worked and earned some money. So, at the age of 25, I left the USA for the very first time and went to Canada.
After Canada, 195 more countries followed. You’ve bundled your experiences into a book Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventures to Every Country on Earth. What criteria do you use to determine whether a country has been visited?
My set of rules went like this: (1) stay for a week, (2) visit the capital, (3) try to cross it in at least one direction — unless it is a huge country like China or Brazil.
How do you prepare for your journeys?
Every trip had a different technique and it had to be prepared for in a separate way. During one of my African trips, I just went straight. From Chad to Niger to Mali to Burkina Faso to Mauritania. But when I went to Johannesburg, I applied a spokes-on-wheel approach. The South African town was my central base and from there I travelled to Botswana, Namibia, the Comoros, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Madagascar.
54 out of the 196 nations under your belt were in Africa. Which piece of advice would you give to people who want to travel to this beautiful continent?
You got to go with the flow because you’ll face delays inevitably. Don’t believe schedules, since most Africans are rarely on time. Don’t expect organisations to plan as far ahead as they should. And don’t think bush taxis will leave before they’re full.
Furthermore, it is also very important to hide your money safely. In many places you can’t use your credit card or find an ATM. So, if someone takes your cash, you’re dead in the water.
And always be very careful regarding your health! I always eat street food so I can see how they prepare my meal. But it’s also important to get a full set of vaccinations and take a good medical kit with you, especially when you’re in the bush. The last thing you want to do is being in Africa and have someone using a non-sterile needle on you.
What were your favourite moments from your trips to the Gorilla Highlands region?
When I visited Uganda in 2011, people were nervous about what was going on as Joseph Kony had just moved his soldiers into the jungle. Therefore, I took an expert in Martial Arts with me in case I needed a bit of help. On the other hand, I still remember going to Lake Bunyonyi, due to its sort of wild beauty. One of the nicest places in Africa.
Still, the most unforgettable moment was when I hiked to the mountain gorillas in the Rwandan Volcanoes National Park (see the featured image). You can’t just walk onto them because it is like entering somebody’s house. So, you must let them know that you’re coming and that you’re a friend. Therefore, I was the official gorilla grunter for our group. I had to say hello to them and talk to them by making sounds.
What made them choose you?
Because I was the silverback.
Do you think people overestimate or underestimate the dangers of Africa?
It depends. Many people in the West are too concerned about their security so they overestimate any dangers and just don’t go. Americans are very security conscious, much too much so.
If I speak for myself, I know what the risks are and carefully evaluate them. To give you an example, for many years it was very hard to get a visa to Angola. But when I was in Malawi I met some Irish bicyclists who were on their way to Angola, and they just said, ‘oh, we’ll get the visa’. I wondered how that would work, but some people just manage.
I never had any huge problems. In the Central African Republic I knew there were going to be a lot of shakedowns and I got into 38 of them. Military guys wanted something for themselves, and they wouldn’t let the bus move unless you gave them a bribe. So I made it a point to buy many inexpensive t-shirts at the Times Square — 11 shirts for 10 dollars — and then told the soldiers that they were 10 dollars each, making them a valuable bribe.
I can imagine one could get lonely while crossing the globe. Did your connections as a former Playboy-editor helped you to find company?
Well not many Africans read erotic magazines, so my work connection was not helpful at all. But I made sure to bring a girlfriend with me when the country I was visiting was safe. If it was going to be dangerous, I needed to meet women on the fly.
It appears like you have had a lot of success with ladies.
I don’t know about success, let’s just say I work very hard at it. My advice would be to treat them equally and be honest. If you want to attract them, find out what it is about yourself that you think is most desirable and make that manifest itself. Is it your athleticism, sexuality, or your intelligence? Whatever you think is special about you, let them know you have that.
What is your X factor?
I’m very adaptable. I can adjust to almost every woman in the world. Which is very handy when you’re travelling. If my goal is to end up having sex with a lady, I’ll put up with almost anything to get there.
There’s a video on YouTube in which you explain how to preserve toilet paper during the pandemic. You oversaw latrines in the army. Do you consider yourself to be a toilet expert?
Well, I wrote the official army manual where to build and locate latrines. I can tell you how long to make a toilet and how deep to dig, as long as I know how many people will use it and for how long. Another important factor is food. If they are eating a lot of beans, the hole must be deeper than usual.
Later on you also came up with your own formula for ranking public toilets. What exactly is the Podell Potty Party Rating (PPPR) system?
It is a quick way to know where a country ranks economically and socially based on the state of the public toilets and the toilet paper. For African countries, it differs between regions. In poorer countries such as Togo or Benin it would go from rough green or red toilet paper to torn-up newspapers to even no paper at all, just some water.
Is the travel-flame still burning?
Yes, I would still love to go to places I’ve never been to before. Like the Society Islands: Tahiti, Bora Bora, Mo’orea, … Or Easter Island. I’ve never been to those places because they’re not a country. And someday I want to get up to a few of these old kingdoms in the Himalaya, such as Mustang …