This Canadian visited every country in the world

How this Canadian journalist and filmmaker completed his goal of visiting all the countries in the world

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Stephen Fenech has seen Antarctica’s scenic landscapes, experienced the peaceful atmosphere of Buthan, lived through a terrorist attack in Sri Lanka and fallen from Mount Fuji in Japan.

In fact, the Toronto photojournalist and filmmaker says he has visited every country in the world, even North Korea.

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While Fenech works full-time for The Shopping Channel, he is also a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker. His documentary Chad Exodus, about the Bororro tribe in Central Africa, has won prizes that include the 2013 Malta International Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award in the 2013 Yosemite International Film Festival, which qualified him for Oscar contention. He is the author of Earth: Been there Done that Got the T-shirt, Book One: The Big Kahuna and Book Two: Missing Pieces to the Global Puzzle that talk about his adventures around the world. He is working on updating his second book to include his experiences in Palau, East Timor and Nauru.

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While Mount Fuji was perhaps his closest brush with death, he was nearly burned alive in an out-of-control forest fire in Northern Alberta and was almost eaten by a Komodo dragon in Indonesia.

Now that he has accomplished his lifelong goal, Fenech plans to revisit his favourite spots and explore his home country. Surprisingly, he hasn’t made it to every Canadian province yet and he has set his sights on space.

The National Post’s Beatriz Silva spoke to Fenech about his adventures, his accomplishment and what he plans to do next. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: When did you decide to travel the world?

When I was in my 17th year, I took a course in world issues and we were watching these films, these documentaries, and I was seeing all these different cultures around the world. And I just felt like I was on the outside looking in, and I really wanted to experience it — have a more visceral experience.

I’ve always looked at experience over money. That’s been my guiding light.

Stephen Fenech in airport
Stephen Fenech at an airport in Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic was the first country he travelled to. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

Q: What was the first place you travelled to?

It was a proverbial baptism by fire. I just finished my final exam in high school, and I put down the backpack and I went down to the Dominican Republic.

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I only knew three words in Spanish, and even those, I didn’t know them well. And what happened was the plane arrived late, and as a result, all the banks were closed at the airport in Puerto Plata. So, I had no local currency, and I didn’t understand what people were trying to tell me. I didn’t know what to do. I ended up spending the night, just rolled out my foam mattress in my sleeping bag on top of a construction site in the middle of a shantytown.

Foam mattress on the floor
Foam mattress in sleeping bag on top of a construction site in the middle of a shantytown where Stephen Fenech slept in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

The next morning, when dawn finally came, I started lumbering into town and I crossed paths with three people, an old lady and two men, and she had a kettle and some small cups, and she just offered me a little thimble of espresso. I don’t know, it just rejuvenated me.

As I kept making my way into town, I had the Canadian flag on my backpack and a Canadian saw me and he stopped his bike. He basically showed me around town and I never looked back. When I went down there, I was afraid of my own shadow, and when I came back, I was so empowered because I had this complete paradigm shift — from one extreme to the other — and I never looked back from that point.

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People in Dominican Republic
The lady and two men who offered Stephen Fenech espresso during his Dominican Republic trip. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

Q: How long did it take from that trip to your last trip?

Well, I would have completed the entire world three years ago. I was set to go. I had my plane tickets and my last three countries. They all hovered around Australia. But then COVID struck and I couldn’t even use my plane tickets. My last country would have been Nauru and I couldn’t use any of it because Australia closed the borders. So, I wound up in Palau in December of 2021, and then last year, in June of 2022, I made it to East Timor and then I just finished Nauru in March. At the end of March of this year, March 27, I finished the world. It took me 36 years in the end.

Q: Did you always come home between the trips?

I set out to see as much as I could on one trip and that trip took three years. I left home, and I didn’t return home for exactly three years plus two days and that was a 61-country trip and that was non-stop.

Q: Was it hard to stay away so long? What did you miss the most?

I missed my family because, you know, when I started travelling, there was no such thing as the internet. Everything was done with a system called poste restante. I would send somebody a letter and I’d say, “OK, send me a return letter, right? Poste restante, general post office,” and then whatever city I knew I was gonna be in. And then when I arrived in that city, I would go to the post office.

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Usually when you really miss home for your own reasons, it’s when things are going completely wrong. Like, I got laid out in a bed in China. I got really bad pneumonia that I caught in Beijing. All I could think about was coming home. I was overwhelmed one time when I landed in the islands off the coast of Africa, like Madagascar and Comoros. But when I landed in Nairobi, Kenya, I had just finished seeing a big chunk of Asia, and I found it overwhelming because it’s like, “Oh my God, there’s 53 countries here.” I didn’t even know where to turn. And I actually gave serious thought to going home at that point because I didn’t know where to turn, I was just kind of lost for a while.

Stephen Fenech and two men
Stephen Fenech with his guide and driver in Bhutan. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

Q: What was the best place you’ve ever visited?

I could look at that from different points of view.

My favourite country hands down is Bhutan, which is a Himalayan Kingdom right beside Nepal. And the reason for that is I really felt a sense of peace when I was there. It may sound a bit strange, but the truth is they measure progress in Bhutan in terms of gross national happiness. They want their population to be happy and they really live their state religion, which is Zen Buddhism, on a day-to-day basis. And everyone’s so courteous, everyone speaks English, all the animals in the country are protected, and even the forest that’s been covering it for millions of years, it’s never been cut down. So they really live in harmony with their environment.

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City-wise, I would have to say Cape Town. Cape Town is just such a beautiful city, with the waterfront complex and Table Mountain, which rises right in the middle of the city, and there’s just so much to do. I spent more than two weeks in Cape Town, and I didn’t want to leave. There’s still so much to see.

Photo of Cape Town
Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

But the best trip of my life, I would say would be Antarctica, which is a little bit ironic to some people, because they go, “It’s frozen down there.” And that’s not the case at all. Like, it’s untouched nature that’s on grand display all the time and with 24 hours of daylight. I felt like a kid in a candy store being completely surrounded by penguins in a rookery. There’s like 10,000 penguins surrounding me and they’re all squawking and just carrying on. It was so funny to just watch them and it’s so untouched that they’re more curious about us than we were of them. I think they looked at me as a giant penguin because of my winter clothes. But the penguins are just one small aspect of that.

There’s the glaciers calving before you, and humpback whales flipping their tails and just all the leopard seals, the elephant seals. I was just amazed.

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Stephen Fenech in Antarctica
Stephen Fenech in Antarctica. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

Q: What was the most difficult place you travelled to?

There’s a lot of things that come into play. I almost lost my life many times from terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and in Afghanistan. But what really takes the cake in terms of danger in my eyes is my experience in Equatorial Guinea, because I had arrived in that country on the heels of a failed coup d’état. And I needed to go through the country. I mean, apart from wanting to see it, I actually needed to go through it because I was in Gabon at the time, and I needed to get to Cameroon to catch a flight out of Dewala. But what happened was there was so much rain and the artery is very hilly terrain through the jungle and it’s just a mud track. So, what happened was I spent more time out of the vehicle than in it.

Car in Equatorial Guinea
A car on a sand road in Equatorial Guinea. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

But the worst aspect of it was the military. I had to pass through a series of police checkpoints, right? There were 14 of them. But at one, the military guy wanted a bribe. And I said no. And he didn’t hesitate a second, he just pulled out his sidearm and he pointed his gun right in my heart. And I’m stuck in the middle of the jungle. It was night. It was dark. And to them I was the cash cow. So, I ended up giving him money, but not as much as he wanted. I looked at him. I said, “I’m not a bank, I work for my money like you.” I mean, that kind of appeased them a little, he put his gun away. But it still scared me. I was so happy to cross that border. And even that was just crazy, and I call it a gauntlet through hell, really. But eventually I did cross the border and made it into Cameroon.

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But the closest — it almost seemed imminent that I was going to die this day, believe it or not, and it’s so ironic — it was in Japan. My brother and I climbed Mount Fuji and normally, in the summertime, Mount Fuji is an easy climb. But we were climbing it in the off-season and even though the Japanese authorities warned us, my brother said, “They’re being overprotective, whatever.”

Stephen Fenech and his brother
Stephen Fenech and his brother before climbing Mount Fuji, Japan. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

But we hit an ice storm about 50 metres from the summit. We were close to our goal, but we didn’t realize how ill-prepared we were. And if I’m going to be completely honest, if we had died, it would have been a case of death by misadventure, because we slipped and we fell and I thought, “This is imminent.” I was flying down the slope faster than a luge, that’s how fast. I got banged up pretty good and I was going right to the edge of a cliff and, to me, honestly, it was divine intervention, because my foot — just right at the very edge, just before I was about to go over the drop — there was a wooden stake sticking out of the ice and it caught it almost like a brake pedal. So, I was on my back and then my knees just bunched up and I literally stopped right at the very edge of the drop.

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My brother would wake up in the middle of the night after that for the longest time. He’s OK now, but he would have panic attacks, because he had actually bruised his heart when he fell. So, that was a lesson.

Stephen Fenech's brother
Photo of Stephen Fenech’s brother climbing Mount Fuji, Japan, moments before falling. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

Q: Was there a country that gave you a big culture shock?

I think one of the most bizarre places I’ve been to is Papua New Guinea because I was there for the Goroka festival and the Mount Hagen festival and then I went into the interior. The way they painted themselves and carried on, that was kind of a shock to me. There was also the Bororo Wodaabe tribe in Chad, who have this festival every year called Gerewol, which means choosing the best one. A woman will actually pick a man from a different tribe. They’ve been doing that for thousands of years. Also, the Mundari tribe in South Sudan, I’ve never seen a tribe that loves, they protect their cattle, but they love them like they’re their own children. They sleep with their cows and everything is to protect their cows. Some of them are armed. They burn all this grass to keep the bugs away from their cows. I mean, that was a little bizarre, but that’s the norm, right?

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Stephen Fenech and man
Stephen Fenech at the Goroka festival in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

Q: What do you like the most about travelling?

There’s a buzz you get when you’re in a new country and you’re seeing something for the first time. Your eyes are wide open. It’s just such a visceral experience. You’re smelling, you’re tasting, you’re seeing, you’re hearing. It’s just an assault on the senses. It makes me feel alive. It’s hard to describe the feeling but I feel like I’ve grown as a person, and I feel like an ambassador. I tell people, “OK, you can work and make money but when you get out there and you have all these experiences, that is like money in a bank. It’s something that no one can take away from you. You’ll never lose those experiences. You can always lose your money, but you’ll never lose those experiences.” That’s been my guiding light, it’s been my mantra. It’s always been experience over money.

Q: What do you like the least about travelling?

Sometimes you have to deal with “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Sometimes you have no choice, you’re stuck.

In Ghana I was camping in the rainforest and the heat was so terrible. But there was no escape from it. There was no wind. So, you basically suffered, you know, you’re sweating in your tent, and just, there was no escape from the heat. Sometimes you’re just stuck in certain places like airports and going through different bits of bureaucracy and also just appeasing different administrations, trying to get a visa. You have to acknowledge that, “Look, I’m not home, things are not as efficient.” But that’s part of the experience.

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Stephen Fenech in front of Nauru Airlines plane
Stephen Fenech in front of a Nauru Airlines plane. Nauru was the last country Fenech visited to complete his goal. Photo by Courtesy of Stephen Fenech

Q: How did you feel when you realized that you had accomplished your goal?

One word: empowered. It was a relief, especially because my very last country was just such a struggle all last year. I struggled because there was radio silence from the other end trying to get the visa. I got the visa from three years ago and maybe that’s what caused the problem. But because of COVID, they were kind of lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of how COVID struck, it didn’t hit Nauru till late in the game. Not like the rest of the world. So, just trying to get the visa for Nauru was just near to impossible. Things finally started to change direction in January of this year. And then the wind really changed direction. A week before, I checked the Nauru Airlines website, and they said, “You no longer need to get a PCR test to get on the plane.” I couldn’t believe my fortune at that point. And I did get the visa about a month before that. But then I still had to do a bank transfer and have your hotel booked and paid for. So, there was a lot of hurdles. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Q: What’s on your list right now?

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After finishing the world, I wound up in Bermuda. But now, in September, I’m planning to go back to Ireland. That’s the first one on my list. And there’s a castle in France. I really wanna check out Normandy. And then I go back to the Old Country, which is my parents are from the island of Malta, near Italy. So that’s where I’m gonna go and just hang out with my relatives there. But then after that I’m probably going to take another trip into Yemen.

My goal is to get up into outer space. Because I just think that would be an awesome final chapter of my book, would be to get up there and actually view the entire planet.

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