This is an interview with Woni Spotts, the first black woman to visit every country in the world.
This is actually Part 2 to her introductory article where I present her to the world and give a synopsis of who she is, what she did, and why she's credible.
The following is the “how and why she did it” piece. A full transcription of the phone interview I had with Woni on May 10, 2019. She tells stories from her favorite trips, what safety is like for a black woman around the world, and what travel means to her. I also ask her what she plans to do now that she's finished her global journey (hint: she wants to travel more!).
It's a truly unexpected story considering she had virtually zero social media presence through out it all, so I hope you enjoy the intimate details of how this woman to accomplished such an amazing feat!
Gabby: To begin, what was your life like before you started your journey to visit every country?
Woni: I was a normal American kid going to high school. My travel journey began during high school, and intensified after high school, and went on until 1982. Because some of them were, Yugoslavia, and some were under the Soviet Union. So we still visited [the locations] that are considered countries now, they were just counted differently. Because we were visiting regions.
Gabby: Yeah! Side note, that was interesting to me too [in terms of your claim], how the world has changed over such a period of time.
Woni: Mhmm, and it's more fun to visit Eastern Europe now than it was then!
Gabby: I'm sure! So when you say “we”, was this the film crew and documentary crew that I've seen you mentioned in?
Woni: Yeah. And it was around 1979 so picture, you know, like one of those sitcoms where the kid is the reporter? It started out doing like notes, field notes, and it wasn't very glamorous. It was kinda like I was gonna be put into different situations and be the butt end of the joke.
Gabby: [laughs] That makes sense. I saw a comment on the IMDb page of the film that said the film was kind of funny, that it had a theme to it, and you were a character, etc.
Woni: They looked it up recently after I made a little video. When I made that little video it may have reminded someone on the internet about the movie, and I think that's when they went on there and left a comment. Because it's just a forgotton film, like, all the films that no one did were public broadcasting quality films, almost like new stuff, and they just don't keep it. Because I tried to find other films that [Nolan Davis] did and I couldn't. These things pop up, someone may have it in their house somewhere.
Gabby: Ah, one of those types of films! The kind someone probably has on VHS in their basement.
Gabby: So how did your work partner with Nolan Davis [listed as the producer and creator ] begin?
Woni: Nolan was my father's best friend, that's how I initially became involved in the film.
Gabby: You said this documentary project began in high school, so I'm guessing this film was the beginning of your desire to see every country in the world, and you continued by yourself afterward? Or were all of your travels because of the film?
Woni: I wanted to avoid going to college and do something other than high school, so that's why was interested. I didn't have the idea to visit all the countries, I just wanted to go. I used my college savings to fund my part of that film, because there were times when they had certain accommodations that I didn't like that I had to pay for [laughs]. Remember I was 16 or 17 years old. For example they had situations like living with local families where they didn't have a door on the house. On some of the islands there were lizards and animals running in and out of the house. The crew didn't mind, they wanted to rough it and thought it was funny. But it's just not my style So my dad's girlfriend who was chaperoning me, we would get a hotel room and the two camera men and two pilots would stay more local. They liked to drink with the locals and have fun and party, and we would be in the hotel.
Gabby: I understand and can relate. Sometimes, in some places, you just don't want to rough it as rough as other people do, ha!
Woni: Yup! And then they go, “well, it's not authentic travel”. And I'm like—”I can't use a squat toilet! [laughs] Why wasn't I warned of this? I've never seen this before!” I had to come up with all kinds of inventions to get around it.
Gabby: Throughout your travels to 200+ territories and countries, did you become more uncomfortable with the uncomfortable? Those types of new things?
Woni: … No! [laughs] That's one of the things that I have not been able to conquer. Plus I have OCD that make me want to clean and organize stuff. I'm like, no, I don't want any lizards around, I don't want bugs coming in, I need to be somewhere sealed. Except I made an exception in Mongolia because the yurts that they had were sealed so I thought it was safe… but bugs still got in!
Gabby: [laughs] Hey, I'm glad you're honest and accept how you like to travel and stick to it!In her 45 minute interview, Woni Spotts talks about her life story, safety as a black woman who travels, her best adventures, and some surprising travel details. Read the full transcription here. Click To Tweet
Gabby: So from what I gather these travels span more than a couple of decades. Did you take any breaks and go home or have you been traveling consistently since then?
Woni: Yes! So here's what happened: the bulk of the travel happened from high school (1979) to 1982, and then on from that point everyone kind of broke down and was tired. My father was pressuring me to start college, but I told him this was a learning experience and I wanted to keep going! But ultimately everybody just got tired. So I went back to school because I didn't have my own [travel] plans because I felt like I couldn't [travel] alone and I needed to have a lot of people with me to do it. This was my mentality back then. So I went back to normal life, had boyfriends, and did what everyone else was doing. I went on with my life—started a business, moved a lot. But in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to go to the remaining countries. The way we did it [during the show] was that we went to the countries that we wanted to stay at for the least amount of time, with some exceptions. We were trying to save a lot of the more difficult places for last.
Gabby: Wow, what a story! How difficult was it to get visas and actually gain access to all of these countries? I'm sure with an American passport most countries aren't too big of a problem, but I've seen other black traveling women like Jessica Nabongo have some frustrating issues.
Woni: Well there were different problems then. With a lot of these things because I was younger, I let [the documentary crew] deal with it, so because I wasn't responsible for getting the visas and I don't really remember. But a lot of the time we were given permission to go where no one else could go because there wasn't a oversaturation of journalists. We would ask someone in that location or nearby to write a letter or explain that we were doing a documentary, they would speak to someone else and we would be able to go. We would even get escorted and have official vehicles to help us in certain places.
Gabby: Ah wow, that is definitely much more difficult in 2019. You say with that documentary project you had visited nearly 165 countries by the time you were in your early 20's. Did you become tired of travel as a result?
Woni: I did become tired, to an extent. During most of my hiatus I was traveling domestically. But the funny thing is a few years later I found myself feeling empty. I felt like I wasn't doing enough even though I was having a normal life like everyone else. It felt like something was missing. So obviously I realized I had the wanderlust. Like I said, a lot of time had passed by and I thought, you know, “I'll get married, I'll get a husband, and then he'll take me to all these places.” But then I never did!
Gabby: Wow, really!
Woni: Yeah. And so in 2013 I decided this was it—I don't have any pets, I'm single. I'm going to the rest of these places.
Gabby: And that was when you picked up again decided to finish your travels? You had about 30-40 left correct?
Woni: Yep. Because I went to the Galapagos, Easter Island… I just went to all the places I wanted to go whether they were countries or not. And then lot of the travel I did in the early 2000's was actually looking for another country to live in. So I was hanging around in the Mediterranean a lot seeing where I could live. I'd thought I wanted to live in France—actually Monaco—so I spent a lot of time there trying to get acclimated to the culture. And I wasn't even country counting, I was just traveling.
Gabby: I love that. Not for a check list or some record, but just for the sake of travel. Just living your life the way you wanted to. That is inspiring.
Gabby: What was the country you spent the shortest amount of time in, and the country you spent the most amount of time in?
Woni: The longest is France as I mentioned, trying to see if I could live there. The shortest was Greenland, and it's a funny story. I just did a day tour from Iceland. I didn't see much that I wanted to do and they really did not have a lot of places I could feel comfortable eating at. I think they did have more on the other side of Greenland but I was on the side closer to Iceland. We just hopped off the plane, a lady toured us around, we got to dance, we went to a museum, and we got back on the plane. So the whole thing was only around 4 hours.
Gabby: Well, that counts! [laughs]
Woni: Yep, I got a taste of it. And I met some very nice indigenous people, they were very happy to have us visit. The funny thing is there was a polar bear running around too! People were running around looking for it.
Gabby: What! In your small day trip there you almost got eaten by a polar bear. You even have a cool story to tell for that short period of time.
Gabby: I'd like to ask one of my biggest questions now. You're a black woman who has been traveling for 40+ years, to every region of the globe, in all different states of the world—in general, is the world a safe for black women?
Woni: Yes, it is.
Gabby: Have you had any incidents in your travel that have made you doubt that occasionally?
Woni: Well, sometimes at border crossings I may have felt like that were… criminals. [laughs] They may try to extort you, and honestly I just paid. I just paid rather than fight it. The worst place where I'd have to say I've had that issue is Mexico. And I live right next to Mexico! I've had it happen multiple times—almost all of my problems have been in Mexico. Which is weird because I know people who live in Mexico and they never seem to have any issues. [laughs] Maybe they don't like me.
Gabby: Yeah, that's crazy, you don't have to go very far to have those issues!
Woni: But as far as safety, here's what I do. For example, I see a lot of women just booking an Airbnb to some locations, flying there, and walking around. They may not know that for example in some European countries, they get an influx of African prostitutes. So a black girl aimlessly walking around town may receive unusual attention or harassment and not know why when it's for that reason. So I never really recommend walking around with no plan. I always plan to have a meet and greet with locals or other travelers, or to even have a local guide for your trip. A guide can make sure you're seeing the best of a destination and also be your friend and advocate while you're there. I'm not a daredevil or a risk taker, even though people may perceive me as that.I asked the first black woman to visit every country in the world, who did so over a span of 40+ years, if the world was safe for black women to travel... Here's what she said: Click To Tweet
Gabby: So you travel with a “better safe than sorry mentality”. It definitely helps take away the stress of it. But traveling that can can be expensive. Were those recent private tour companies comped at all? I noticed you credited them in your YouTube video.
Woni: No, I have no sponsors. I just wanted to notate that those companies made my last trips very comfortable. That YouTube video was made for friends and family so it wasn't a high budget production. I also credited them because being a vegan traveler is very difficult and they all accommodated me very well.
Gabby: Wait, what! You're vegan too?! For how long?
Woni: Well like in Mongolia they eat basically meat and milk—
Gabby: [laughs] That is not vegan friendly!
Woni: Exactly! It's like the opposite. Their most popular drink was one with vodka and milk. I was like I can't eat meat, I can't drink milk, I don't drink… I can't be up in here! [laughs] It is a drawback for certain places. Luckily I know enough to have back up meals, protein powders, and vegan bars I pack with me just so I don't starve to death. But most places have grilled vegetables or vegetables and potatoes.
Gabby: In that sense a tour company must be really valuable for translating. It would be very hard to ask for a vegan meal in Mongolia if you don't speak the language.
Woni: Yup, and it was actually so cute, one time they told them I liked avocado. Well, they didn't even know what avocados were where I was, but they imported some for me! But they were brick hard. So I'm like… thank you, but I'm not gonna be able to eat this for 3 days!
Woni: Also to answer your original question, yes I have been vegan most of my life. When I was a teenager I was vegetarian because it was nearly impossible to be vegan. I was a new vegan, and it was already hard to be vegan even at home living in California where they supposedly have vegans. It was difficult, and it was certainly difficult to do that anywhere else.
Gabby: I'm sure. I've heard particularly in South America—I'm thinking about the passport stamps I saw from yours in Ecuador and Chile, and your journey to Antarctica—they have a very meat centric diet. That must have been difficult.
Woni: Mhmm. Well they haven't always been that way, they used to be almost vegetarian, But the Spanish settlers introduced a lot of meat into their diet. Especially in Bolivia my guide told me that the indigenous were basically vegetarian and vegan, but with the settlers and introduction of agriculture and livestock farming, their diets gradually changed. Meat began to be seen as a status symbol of wealth so it was desired.
Gabby: Where there any countries you visited that catered to your vegan diet pretty comfortably?
Woni: India I could order almost anything in a vegan way.The complete transcribed interview with Woni Spotts, the first black (and vegan!) woman to visit every country in the world. Click To Tweet
Gabby: Wow! You have without a doubt had a life of adventure and experience. I'm sure a lot of people will be wondering: what are you going to do now?
Woni: I'm going to go back and revisit some places I didn't get to appreciate. And I'm going to go visit the Lapland and see the Northern Lights and reindeer and sleighs, and all that Santa stuff.
Gabby: Well I think you've answered every question I've thrown at you Woni. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me, a total stranger, and tell me your life's story. You're one of the few people to visit every country and territory in the world, and likely the first black woman to do so. Is there a message you want your travels—and your life—to represent to people?
Woni: …That's a tough one. There are a lot of messages. I love travel because it fills you with a whole lot of good memories. A normal person lives their lives and has certain highlights—well, if you travel a lot you get a whole lot of highlights! And you're infused with those highlights and energy from all over the world, and I think it's definitely changed me fundamentally more than if I had just gotten married and stayed in one place and had a lot of responsibility and not been able to move. I didn't want to be at the end of my life and wish I had gone here or there. And I don't think you can do everything, I don't think you can get married, have kids, and have the same level of freedom to go do whatever else you want to do.
Gabby: I agree. There has to be some give and take. There may have been some sacrifices, giving up a domestic life for a life of travel, but in your opinion it was worth it for you. It makes me so happy to hear you say that as a traveler, because I feel the same way. It's always worth it.
Woni: Yes. Traveling is something that can't be taken away. I've had people say to me—”How could you spend that much money on travel?! You could have bought XYZ!” But I bought those things, and they didn't make me happy. Cars get old, laptops have to be replaced, phones have to be replaced, relationships fail. But traveling never goes away, it's with you forever. So I value it more.
Gabby: I couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you Woni!
Woni: Thank you for sharing my story.Yes. Traveling is something that can't be taken away. I've had people say to me—How could you spend that much money on travel?! You could have bought XYZ! But I bought those things. And they didn't make me happy. Click To Tweet
And so there you have it, Woni's life story. To accomplish this feat in the way she has—in her youth for a TV show, while being on a restricted vegan diet, and as a black American woman—is truly special.
While I believe she is the first black woman to visit every country (and if you're still skeptical, read here for some evidence on why I think Woni is credible) even if we put that aside, her accomplishment is huge and deserves praise on its own merit.
One thing Woni has told me repeatedly is that she does not care about fanfare or virality. She doesn't desire fame, sponsors, influencer contracts, or social media presence. She wants her story documented and known, and to continue on with her life.
Share this record-setting achievement with a friend by sending this article to them, or sharing it on social media so Woni can get the global recognition she deserves.
Nice post! Thanks for sharing!