Kemi Onabanjo’s Journey to 30 Countries Before Her 30th Birthday

My name is Kemi Onabanjo and I am a certified ‘ajala’, or as my more learned colleagues would say, a travel enthusiast.

In June 2016, I successfully achieved a personal goal I set for myself – to visit 30 countries by the time I turned 30. The goal was aptly named Project 30 by 30, and I managed to achieve this goal a good 16 months ahead of time. Folks have asked me a lot of questions ranging from why I set this goal and how I managed to achieve it on a Nigerian passport, to how I funded the project and where I am headed next. So I decided to take a moment to answer all those questions and share the entire experience with the world. Here we go!

Travel mantra
Travel mantra

Why?

I have always been curious about the world. I remember devouring volumes and volumes of children’s encyclopaedias (I guess Google is the new encyclopaedia) while growing up and my parents having to buy new editions as soon as they were released. I enjoyed watching a program on NTA Channel 5 called ‘Children of the World’ where kids from all over the world convened somewhere (can’t remember where now) for cultural and talent displays. There was a little boy from Nigeria who used to play the xylophone and although I used to watch him with a mix of pride and great envy (as I could not play any musical instrument or sing to save my life), it was watching the kids from other countries in their beautiful costumes that gave me the most delight. I loved and still love to play the ‘country and capitals’ game – still played it on the bus ride to Idanre Hills last holidays, and I won, whoop! Sorry, I digress.

Although I was curious about the world, I did not start travelling until I was 13, and being a true Nigerian, my first destination was London, England! It took another 6 years before the next trip happened, and this time, it was to the other destination for true Nigerians – Dubai, United Arab Emirates! I went on both trips with my family and although, they were mainly to visit family and look for bargain deals (again, another hallmark of being a true Nigerian), we also managed to visit some tourist attractions. I don’t think I still have or remember any of the items we bought on those trips, but I remember how I felt when I first saw the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, the still policemen in front of Buckingham Palace, the imposing Burj Khalifa and the breath-taking sand dunes in Dubai. As my eyes widened in excitement every time I saw these things, it felt like my mind also popped open in enlightenment. The thrill from landing in a new country, looking out for similarities and differences with Nigeria, trying out new food (although that took a while) was next to none.

London, England - 2000
London, England – 2000

As soon as I started working and earning money, I started saving aggressively for travel – I even set up a dedicated bank account for my travel-savings. About 6 years ago, I decided to be deliberate about my travel destinations when I realized that my vacations almost always led me to the same spots – London, Dubai and Accra, Ghana. And that’s when I decided to start visiting at least 2 new countries every year – 1 in Africa, and 1 in any other part of the world. About 4 years ago, this goal metamorphosed into the Project 30 countries by 30 – and here we are today! Done and Dusted. To God be the glory! 🙂

Dubai, UAE - 2006
Dubai, UAE – 2006

 

How?

First, I have had the good fortune of having to travel for work to cool countries like Sweden (more cold than cool), Kenya, Cameroon, Tunisia, Brazil, AustriaIvory Coast, Benin Republic, South Africa, USA and Mauritius (dear future husband, you can strike that off the potential proposal/honeymoon locations, thank youuu). On my business trips, I quickly learned the art of exploring whichever city I landed in on the weekends. Sometimes, I deliberately arrive/leave a day earlier/later so I can explore the city, and I happily pay the hotel bill for that extra night because I essentially got a free flight to the country 🙂 I fell in love with some of these countries and I have gone back multiple times to explore other cities within them. I have plans to revisit some of them in the nearest future because there is still so much ground to cover.

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In deciding between which campus of my business school I should spend more time on, France was a more attractive option compared to Singapore, due to the miracle of the Schengen visa and the access it gives you to most European countries. However, the thought of living through winter scared me and I tried going to the Singapore campus but that did not quite work out right. Ultimately though, I can say that braving the winter and going to the France campus paid off big time! In the course of my 11 months in France, I managed to visit 8 additional European countries including The Netherlands (I never counted the many stopovers at Schiphol airport as visiting the country), Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia.  All things truly do work out for good for God’s children. Amen, Halleluyah!!!

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Visas – Being a Nigerian passport holder means that I need a visa for a good number of countries – even within Africa. Things are changing though, with more African countries opening up their borders and removing visa restrictions for other African passports. While we wait for that to happen, I have learnt the art of filling visa applications like a pro. I don’t even think about it, whine or worry about it, I just get right straight to filling it.

Quick tip: I have all the important documents scanned and saved in a folder on my computer – passport data page, work I.D. card, pay slips, template letter of introduction from employer, previous visas, even my grandmother’s birth certificate (lol). This makes it easier for me to put all the supporting documents together, print them a day to my interview and just hop to the embassy like a champ. It also reduces the stress associated with visa interview prep, where one is constantly worried about forgetting an important document at home.

I also constantly do a lot of research on visa hacks for that lovely green passport of mine. I am always looking out for countries I can visit without a visa, or where I can get a visa on arrival. You cannot imagine how elated I was to find out that you don’t need a visa to enter Mexico if you already have a valid U.S visa and that if you have a valid U.K visa, you can get a visa on arrival in Turkey. Plus, the fact that I only had to pay US$50 for a visa-on-arrival to get into Tanzania was a huge relief! These seemingly little visa workarounds make travel-life a little more pleasant.

Prison Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania - 2016
Prison Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania – 2016

Funding- Since I am not a trust fund kid (yet), I had to save a LOT to be able to travel. Life is all about trade-offs, so I chose travel over expensive shoes, bag and clothes. I also have the luxury of not having to worry about diapers and crèche fees yet. I saved in Naira and US Dollars. Every month when my salary got paid, I would change some small USD with my ever-faithful aboki and then deposit in my local domiciliary account (not under my mattress o!). I usually printed my USD bank account statements when I was going for visa interviews, as part of proof of funds.

It was frustrating to see that the deposits yielded no interest but at least it was accessible and I could withdraw it whenever I needed it. This habit of changing forex small small came in handy when I began to save for my business school fees.

Quick tip: Open a domiciliary account so you can start saving in USD for your travel fund. International flight ticket fares are usually quoted in USD, so you can pay for your tickets from that dom account. It will be less painful than paying hundreds of thousands of Naira.

If you can get a debit card linked to the dom account, even better. That way you can spend from your dollar card abroad without whipping out a calculator to calculate exchange rates and bank fees every time. This will save you from exchange-rate induced high blood pressure or tension headaches!

The current economic climate does not seem conducive for any forex related transactions now, but this too shall pass. We hope it will not last forever. As soon as this storm passes, open that dom account and start saving in USD.

Flights- For me, this was the biggest part of the travel expense. I love to travel but I don’t particularly enjoy airports or flying, so I try to minimize the time I spend getting from point A to point B. I would rather pay a little extra for a direct flight than have to stay at an airport for hours waiting for a connecting flight and being tempted by the evil perfumes at duty free that keep calling out to me, lol.

In my working years before business school, I always used the same travel agent (who has now become a family friend) because I did not have the time to go online. I would ask the travel agent to give me 2-4 flight options and their prices, and then I would choose the most affordable and time-efficient. When I became a student, and had more time and less money, I booked a lot of my tickets by myself, online – go figure!

Beyond flights, I have also used other modes of transportation to explore more and manage costs. I went on a 7-day cruise of the Greek Isles for my 25th birthday and I got to visit 7 cities across 3 countries – Greece, Italy and Turkey. On my last birthday, I took a train from Berlin, Germany to Prague, Czech Republic. During my last international trip with my best friend and her family, we also took trains from Barcelona to Madrid in Spain, and from Lisbon to Porto in Portugal. Trains are great – you don’t have to take off your shoes to go through security, you don’t have to get there 3 hours before departure, you usually would get a great view of the scenery and landscape, and you can sleep in peace without a seat belt holding you down.

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Accommodation – This is another major culprit in the high travel expense category, and I have tried out a lot of different options in a bid to manage costs. I have stayed at all sorts of hotels (even the 0 star ones), hostels (more available in Europe than in Africa, and the best one I have stayed in so far was in Japan), serviced and non-serviced apartments (great for when you’re travelling with a group), Airbnbs (the new kids on the block which I absolutely love) and even once, I stayed at a colleague’s house who was out of town (this is a good way of getting super cheap accommodation if you have colleagues in other countries). Not every time 5-star hotel, sometimes hostel. However, on my birthdays, I always give myself a treat and stay at a fancy hotel for just that night at least. It’s a not-so-cheap way to get a free birthday cake, maybe some wine, and on some very good days, a free room upgrade! Hotels are usually very nice when it’s your birthday 🙂

Takayama village, Japan - 2016
Takayama village, Japan – 2016

Solo vs Group travel – This one is tricky. I have done both and I definitely prefer to have my people with me on trips. I think that memories are even more beautiful when shared with friends and loved ones. However, the coordination challenge is real. Between weddings, pregnancies and babies, vacation calendars that won’t synchronize, bosses who refuse to approve leave requests, and other unexpected life events, it is very challenging (sometimes impossible) to travel with your full squad. So, I have learnt to be content with travelling with just 1 friend, or joining a group of people where I know just 1 person. My trip to Gambia over the Easter break in 2014 was with a friend and 3 other ladies who were her colleagues from work. It was awkward for like 5 minutes initially and then we became a real crew over the 5 days we spent together. And today, when we see each other, we do warm hugs and try to catch up real quick on life. Now that I think about it, this is actually a good way of expanding your network of acquaintances and people you know.

Banjul, Gambia - 2014
Banjul, Gambia – 2014

Technology – Unfortunately, I am one of those late adopters of new technologies/apps (e.g., I only joined Instagram last November) but once I eventually get with the program, I definitely max it out. I have found some apps and websites that have helped make my travel experience easier in one way or another. My personal favorites are:

  • Yelp – This app uses your location to provide a list of restaurants, bars, cafes, and all things related to food, complete with ratings and reviews. The best part is that it provides directions to your chosen destination, and gives you the option to call and make a reservation.
  • Splitwise – Great for tracking your spending and splitting bills when travelling with a group. You know how easy it is for money matters to scatter friendships!
  • Been – This app helps to keep track of where you’ve been around the world, and it’s simple, yet powerful, visual of the world map helps you see your ‘gaps’ and can be used to draw up your destination wish list.
  • Booking.com – Especially great for alternative accommodation options like apartment-hotels, and they almost always have a deal/discount for you.
  • Uber – This is one of the safest and cost-effective ways to get around a city- enough said!

That’s all folks! I hope with these few points of mine, I have been able to convince you, and not confuse you, that it is great to explore the world through travel!  A lot of my choices of where to go and what to do have been heavily influenced by this project of mine. The moral of the story is this: you have to be deliberate about achieving your goals, travel-related or otherwise. It won’t just happen.  You have to make it happen for yourself, and with a little discipline and a lot of motivation, you can surely achieve it!

“Kemi, where are you headed next?”, you may ask. “What is your next travel goal?” Still undecided, but I have a long wish list of countries that I would like to visit soon. Top on that list are Senegal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Cape Verde, China, Pakistan, India, Singapore and Switzerland. Any willing companions and hosts? 🙂

Cheers,

Kemi