Counting Countries:

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Meet Charles and Alla Campbell, a local couple on a mission to visit every country in the world. Only three more to go.

            Of the thousands of photos living in self-crafted photography books on shelves, the multi-colored glass sculptures resting on wooden coffee tables, tapestries of kaleidoscopic colors softening the hard wood floors, what is encased in a wooden shadow box hanging on the basement wall of the Campbell’s home is what she wishes me to see. 

            “I got this in Papua New Guinea,” says Alla Campbell. “It’s a fertility necklace worn by men. I bargained with the lady but she wouldn’t budge. Her grandmother made it.” I step closer, examining the cascade of shells and the multi-colored woven yarns, realizing its beauty but amazed at its purpose.

            It is almost impossible to count the number of relics, tapestries, signs – even model caskets – and memorabilia displayed in Alla and Charles Campbell’s Lake Oconee home. However, it takes mere seconds to grasp their dedication to travel.

            Since 1998, life has been a whirlwind.

            “I had a friend of mine who was a travel agent,” remembers Alla. “We were at lunch one day. [She said] we’re going on this trip to Africa, and we have one more place. I had always wanted to go to Africa. That started it.”

            She and Charles had done the customary cruise ship experience before, but this debuted their out-of-the-box thinking when it came to seeing the world. When Charles was working, Alla soon found herself traveling solo with friends. “It sort of mushroomed,” she laughs.

            As the years passed, the number of countries visited escalated, and so did their goal. At that point, “we set out to go to every country in the world, every UN country. So that’s been our goal. In the last six years, we’ve really made a push.”         

            Two big trips each year, followed by some small adventures, grew their number exponentially. Many trips were with groups of friends and tour groups where the entire trip was planned for them. While they don’t like traveling on a ship with 5,000 people, a group of fifteen to 20 was perfect. They recently just visited Israel with their church.

            “Then,” says Alla, “the closer we got to reaching our goal, especially the last three or four years, we have had to do it on our own.” Since the remaining number of countries was small and most were countries most people didn’t want to visit, it was “hard to get trips with groups to where we want to go,” adds Charles.

            If it was a trip for two, Charles would make all the travel plans while Alla would gather the necessary visas. “Then, we’d do it,” says Alla.

            Some countries require a visa simply to transit the airport. “We went through the airport in Baghdad,” she remembers. “I knew that we probably should have a visa to transit, but I wasn’t completely sure; I didn’t bother to get one. When we got there, they were really upset with us. I didn’t feel like I was in danger, but I was afraid they might send us back to Istanbul where we came from.” Countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq and others require an airport transit visa.

            As the country list grew smaller, so did the number of people who wanted to go with them.

            “When we were really pushing it, nobody wanted to go where we were going,” remembers Alla. “Sometimes we didn’t even want to go where we were going. Everyone had a fit when I went to North Korea.”

            According to Alla, North Korea was no big deal in 2014. They were traveling with a company on another trip when the tour company announced they would be guiding a tour to North Korea. “I signed up immediately,” she says. “It was a small group. We flew from China to Pyongyang. They were very nice to us.”

            She recalls one of her few unnerving travel moments happened at the demilitarized zone (DMZ). “Through interpreters, the guards were saying things like ‘Why are you here? We hate you.’ We tried to explain that we wanted to learn about them. Then, I asked if I could take a picture with him. The guard quickly said, ‘Yes.’”

            They consider Africa the hardest place to travel due to having 54 countries.

            “There are some places you don’t want to be long,” says Alla. “If a country is not that stable or safe, the only thing we might do is stay in the airport for a few hours. I have to get out of the plane and on the ground. I’m not going to say I’ve traveled through and I’ve been there. I have to get out of the plane.

            “There are some countries that we’ve only spent time in the airport. There have been a few where all I’ve done is get out of the plane and stand on the tarmac. I did that in Burundi. I had a visa, but I knew they didn’t want me to go in. So I got out of the plane and stood on the ground. We’ve been to some places that are pretty hairy.”    

            For Charles, it was a 32-day trip through eighteen countries (totaling 45,000 miles), including many World War II sites in the South Pacific like Samoa and New Caledonia, that he remembers fondly.

             He recalls visiting Tinian where the American bombers that delivered the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945) took off. “We went and saw the loading pits,” recalls Charles. “They had the old radio station that the Japanese had. You could see where the shells hit and where they had to patch. It had been restored into a museum. They brought in lots of objects; it was quite interesting.”

            And he visited where the Battle of Tarawa (November 1943) took place on the Gilbert Islands. “It’s hard to believe thousands of Americans and Japanese were lost. The island’s only about two-to-three miles long and one-half mile wide. That’s like one per square foot. It was hard to believe,” he remembers.

            Last year, they toured with Georgia Tech and the WWII Museum on the Band of Brothers trip. “We actually had three of the actors with us on the tour,” says Charles. “We followed them through London, Normandy, and Belgium. They would show us the movie, and then we would go there.”

            What remains?

            “Syria, Yemen, and Libya,” says Alla. “We were going to Libya in April and had everything set up, but they started a civil war. Everything was cancelled. We are planning to do a tour of Lebanon in October, and then we’re going to Syria. Damascus is not really a problem. The company feels like we can do that, and they are well-versed in the Middle East.

            “Then there will only be two left. I’m not really concerned about Yemen. It’s a sad place.”

            The most enjoyable moment for Alla happened during her visit to country number 189. While in Nepal, “I paraglided off a mountain. I never planned it,” she says. “It just came up. I was available, so I did it.”

            Both agree that hiring a local guide is the best way to see a country. When they are with groups, most of the time there is a guide provided. But when the traveling duo are on their own, Charles looks for a tour by locals.

            Other travel advice includes always have transportation and a hotel booked. “We always make sure we have transportation from the airport to the hotel,” says Alla. “We never get off the plane and look for it.”

            They always carry the American dollar for most countries, especially those in Africa, prefer it. Usually, everything is prepaid, and if not, always carry Visa or MasterCard.

            Their Briggs & Riley luggage has logged the miles as well, and it’s never out of reach. They never check baggage especially when visiting multiple countries in one trip. They try to carry clothing that is washable, and there’s never a hair dryer or make up in the bag. “If we can’t get it in there,” says Alla, “we don’t carry it.”

            The one thing she is never without, her camera.

            “Growing up,” Alla says, “we hardly had the opportunity to travel. I had no idea how this would hit me. I love it.”

            Next year allows them a return trip to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. This time, it’s a family affair where Alla and Charles will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with their children and grandchildren. It’s only fitting that the Campbell milestone be spent in a place that exists in three of the world’s four hemispheres.    

Story by Judy Garrison

Photography by Seeing Southern

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