By Rishika Sharma, on September 15, 2022

Visiting every country in the world (and busting destination myths) with Jessica Nabongo

How many countries have you visited? Five, 10… maybe more if you’re very lucky? Well, Jessica Nabongo, our guest on Out Travel The System this week, has been to every country in the world – including some you might think are forbidden to U.S. travelers.

Jessica is a Ugandan-American writer, photographer, and travel expert. Not only is she one of the fewer than 300 people to have visited every country in the world (an incredible achievement on its own), she is also the first Black woman to have done so. Her favorite places to travel are in Africa and the Middle East – regions often depicted as too ‘dangerous’ for tourists – and her new book, The Catch Me If You Can, aims to show the true face of some of the world’s most stigmatised destinations.

It couldn’t be more timely. In November 2022, Qatar will host the 22nd FIFA Soccer World Cup, becoming the first Arab and Muslim nation to have the honor. But when Qatar won the ballot back in 2010, the news was met with floods of negative comments, articles, and even calls to boycott. So why are similar destinations such as Dubai, or even Bali and the Maldives so readily added to travel bucket lists without a second thought?

Unfortunately, many destinations are perceived – or depicted – as unsafe for leisure travel, even when such a classification is not grounded in reality or supported by government travel advice. Our regular data correspondent, Christie Hudson, notes that even Mexico, a huge tourist spot for American travelers, is still regarded with uncertainty and insecurity by some. “There’s just a lot of worry about is it totally safe? Is it safe in the resort? Can I go into town?” Her advice is to lean on The U.S. State Department’s travel advisory system, which ranks countries on a scale between one and four, with one being the safest and four advising against leisure travel. On this scale, Mexico is categorised as a level-two, which means you should exercise increased caution while visiting. This might sound alarming, but other level-two countries include France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and most of Europe – destinations that most Americans wouldn’t think twice about planning a vacation to. Interestingly, Dubai – which is often perceived a ‘safe’ Middle Eastern destination – is currently a level-three, while Qatar is a level-one.

With her incredible travel experience and time spent working for the U.N., Jessica is uniquely positioned to dispel some harmful destination myths. Here are her top travel tips:

Challenge your preconceptions (and prejudices!)

“When you look at travel magazines, the focus is on Europe, so that’s where people feel safe because that’s what’s being sold as what is safe. What a lot of people don’t talk about is the excessive amount of pickpocketing in places like Barcelona and Paris and Rome. But Rwanda is one of the safest and cleanest countries in the world – not just in Africa, but in the entire world – yet no-one is saying, ‘For my first trip, I’m going to go to Rwanda’ because of the stigma that we have around traveling in Africa.

People romanticize certain countries in a way where they’re willing to take the negative with a grain of salt, but when it comes to Africa or Central and South America and the Middle East, the attitude is that the negative far outweighs all of the positives and so, if something negative does happen, the narrative becomes that women shouldn’t travel solo there.”

De-condition yourself

“I have a story of when I landed in Khartoum. I walked out of baggage claim and just saw a sea of men. I started to get that feeling of nervousness and when I couldn’t find my friend, I begin to cry. A guy came up to me and offers me his phone, so I take it and go find my friend. I realized that I’ve been socialized to believe that as a woman, I shouldn’t be in a space where there’s only men and that made me uncomfortable. So many times my journeys have been helped by the kindness of strangers.”

Separate people from politics

“Many phobias have been manufactured by media to ‘create’ a political enemy. That’s the case with ‘the Middle East’ and the associated Islamophobia. But Jordan is one of the safest countries in the world, yet people are afraid to travel there because it’s part of ‘the Middle East’.”

Connect with locals and people in-the-know

“The resources that I use is my network: friends, former colleagues, classmates, and social media. For places where I don’t have a resource on the ground, like Afghanistan, I Googled tour guides, and I found this this amazing guide in Afghanistan.”

Don’t let fear overshadow your trip

“I assume everyone’s good because I’m good. I’m not a thief, so why would I assume a housekeeper in my hotel is going to steal from me? You have your intuition, so trust it, but don’t over-index on worrying about the unknown. What happens for a lot of people is they will prepare, get the money, buy the ticket, but then when they finally go on the trip they’re so nervous. They’re constantly thinking about staying safe and making sure they don’t become a victim of crime, and so then when it happens, their attitude is like, ‘I knew it would happen.’ But for me, I don’t allow the anxiety or the fear to take over my travels.”

Be humble

“Acknowledge that you’re going into someone else’s country. Just like when you visit someone else’s home, adjust your behavior to their preferences, to what fits in and what that culture demands.”

Want to learn more?

Listen to the podcast now, check out the complete transcript below, or catch the full conversation on Spotify or Apple.

Nisreene Atassi, Expedia Global Head of Social Media, and host: I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel The System. This week we’re talking about the stigma of travel destinations. We’ll talk trends…

Christie Hudson, head of Expedia PR for North America (sound bite): No-one ever thinks twice about planning vacations to those countries…

Nisreene: ..hear from expert guest author Jessica Nabongo…

Jessica Nabongo, writer, photographer and travel expert (sound bite): ..when you look at travel magazines, you look at travel books, the focus is on Europe. So that’s where people feel safe because that’s what’s being sold to them as what is safe.

Nisreene: ..and really get down to business.

Christie (sound bite): There’s just a lot of worry. Is it totally safe? Is it safe on the resort?

Nisreene: Here we go.

[Intro music]

Nisreene: Today we are talking about demystifying travel and all of the locations that might prompt a negative reaction, maybe unnecessarily. I’m really excited because today I’m joined by Jessica Nabongo. She’s the author of The Catch Me If You Can, which is a book that just came out and it’s really changing the landscape of travel. And, of course, we’ve got our fabulous data correspondent Christie Hudson with us today to talk about all of the tips and tricks that you need to know. As a tiny reminder, our data hacks segment from last year was the most downloaded of all of the seasons. We literally do a ton of research to get deeper into particular travel-related topics, perceptions, and trends. We’ll always be discussing the results here, in this section on this podcast, every week.

Hi Christie! Welcome back.

Christie: Hi! Thanks for having me.

Nisreene: So, tell us, what’s the most polarizing place that you’ve visited

Christie: Well, I actually recently came back from Mexico, just last week. And, you know, even Mexico, as popular as it is, has quite a stigma attached to it for some people.

Nisreene:Okay, so that seems really silly to me because Mexico is such a popular destination. So, Christie, what does the research say?

Christie: Yeah, I mean, it’s such a popular destination. Obviously people from the U.S. and Canada go there all the time. But there is a lot in the news around drug cartels, crime. So I think there’s just a lot of worry about is it totally safe? Is it safe on the resort? Can I go into town? That’s where a lot of the information that’s available out there is going to be really useful for travelers. People may or may not know, the U.S. State Department has a travel advisory system. It’s regularly updated, and its whole purpose is to help U.S. travelers research destinations and plan trips and be informed. So they give every country around the world a ranking from one to four. One is the safest – it’s defined as “Proceed normally”, exercise normal precautions when traveling. And level four, at the other end, is for destinations that the State Department has deemed a bit too volatile or too dangerous for leisure travel.

And they don’t just categorize destinations at the country level. For example, a country, Mexico is a great example. Parts of it are a level-two overall, which just means “Exercise increased precautions” when you’re traveling. But other parts of Mexico, due to gang activity or cartel crime, those are going to be level-fours. This is the case for a lot of destinations, not just Mexico. So it’s really important to research, because rarely do you go somewhere and just stay at the resort, I hope. I hope that you want to kind of get out and explore a little bit more. And so when you’re doing that, you want to really know kind of “Where am I going? Is it going to be safe? And what’s the surrounding area look like?”

I think the Middle East is a really great example of that. So, specifically, let’s talk about Jordan and Oman. So, both are considered level-two destinations, aka, “Exercise increased caution when visiting”. And that may sound alarming, but you’d actually be surprised to hear that some of the other countries listed as level two are Mexico, France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark. Honestly, most of Europe is a level-two, and no-one ever thinks twice about planning vacations to those countries, which just goes to show that perceptions and stigmas around some Middle East destinations might be worth re-examining. And, just to clarify, there are certain territories in Jordan in particular that are more restrictive. They are characterized as “Do not travel” zones. But the majority of the country and certainly the main tourist areas are pretty low-risk, according to the U.S. government. Morocco is considered a level-two, so it’s another great place to add to your list.

Nisreene: Really interesting information. I actually didn’t realize that a lot of those countries were level-two or even levels three or four. I’ve been to a lot of the level-two countries that you mentioned, including Morocco and Jordan, and I had an absolutely amazing time. I was a conscious traveler, which is how I travel regardless of where I’m going, always trying to keep a good head on my shoulders, being fully aware of my surroundings. But it’s really, really good to know that… I think a lot of these places are actually at the same level and we just need to be really mindful of where we’re getting our information from so it doesn’t skew the way we think about a certain destination.

Christie: So the U.S. State Department travel advisories are incredibly helpful. And, in fact, as a rule, Expedia would never recommend leisure travel to a destination that’s currently listed as a level-four. And even level-three destinations come with a lot of caveats. But, generally speaking, anything listed as level-one and two is considered pretty safe for U.S. travelers. So you can go to, you can subscribe to alerts and advisories, especially if you’re planning a trip. You can actually subscribe for that particular destination. And there are a lot of great resources. And at the risk of sounding kind of like Smokey the Bear of travel, I will just say it’s always a good idea, when traveling, no matter where you’re headed, whatever it’s ranked on the list: Keep your wits about you. Do your research. Keep your passport on you and in a safe location, and consider leaving your valuables at home. Increased caution, I think, is always worthwhile when you’re traveling.

Nisreene: All right, Christie. Well, thanks so much, as always, for sharing those amazing stats. It definitely helps to provide so much context for everything that we’re going to talk about on the show today.

[Musical interlude]

Nisreene: All right, I want to introduce you all to Jessica Nabongo, my guest today. Jessica is an author and a traveler and she is incredibly passionate about visiting destinations around the world that might be a little less-traveled. She’s also the first Black woman to have visited every country in the world – which is such an amazing task – many of which are underexposed in terms of tourism. And she recently authored a book, The Catch Me If You Can, which chronicles her journeys around the globe to some of these really unexpected places.

This episode means so much to me, because – I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my family’s originally from the Middle East, which oftentimes comes up as a place that a lot of people feel like is super, super scary, and they don’t want to travel to. So I’m really excited to talk about why people have this misperceptions of some of these beautiful countries and how she goes about trying to get people to maybe change their minds about them.

Hi, Jessica! Welcome to the show. Thank you so much for coming on today.

Jessica: Thanks so much for having me.

Nisreene: So excited to chat with you. And congratulations on your book, The Catch Me If You Can.

Jessica: Thank you so much.

Nisreene: I thought I was well-traveled, Jessica, until I started reading more about you. And now I, now I don’t if I’m well-traveled anymore. I was like, “You know, I’m going to count how many places I’ve been to, because, like, I bet you I’ve been to a lot. Like, this woman’s been to 195. Like, I feel like I’m probably, like, halfway there.” 30. I was at 30.

Jessica: (Laughs) 30 is still a lot of countries.

Nisreene: It is. But, Jessica, like how did you do it? It’s, like, so incredible. When did it hit you just how absolutely monumentous of a task you just completed? Like, was it once you landed boots-on-ground on the 195th, or was it a week later, or was it recently as, like, your book has come out? Like when did it really hit you that you accomplished something so unbelievably incredible?

Jessica: Honestly, I feel like it still feels unreal. You know, like, 195 countries plus ten territories. That’s just a lot. So sometimes I’m like, “Did that really happen?” But I think, you know, I’m constantly reflecting on it. I’m constantly reading emails and DMs from people telling me how they’re inspired by it and which always, it always takes me aback a bit because I’ve been traveling so much for so long that it’s such a regular part of my life that I don’t really think about it. So that’s why I always say when people are like, “I haven’t traveled as much as you,” I’m like, “Yeah, like, less than 300 people in the world have traveled as much as me.” But 30 countries is definitely a lot for any person, so I…

Nisreene: Thank you for making me feel better. I appreciate that.

Jessica: (Laughs)

Nisreene: What are some of the destinations where, when you told people where you were going, that you either received funny looks or negative comments, where they were maybe, like, confused or shocked that you were going to this place?

Jessica: North Korea, of course. Everyone asks about North Korea. Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, even… I, really, even when I went to Colombia and Haiti. So, I went to Haiti in 2015 to celebrate my 50th country. And everyone assumed I was going for work and I’m like, “No, I’m going for a beach vacation.” A lot of people don’t even think about the fact that the Dominican Republic receives the most tourists of any Caribbean island, and it shares an island with Haiti. So, of course, Haiti has amazingly beautiful beaches, but, you know, it’s all about narratives. And, obviously, Haiti has struggled through a lot. But it’s a country that I fell in love with, when people were just like, “Are you going on a mission trip?” So there’s so many countries people are curious about. South Sudan, I think, is another one as well.

Nisreene: Yeah, I mean, South Sudan, North Korea, that I get. I’m actually surprised to hear you say Venezuela was one that got some sort of funny looks. Why do you think people had a weird perception of you going to Venezuela?

Jessica: People just focus on the politics of a place. And, for me, politics and the citizens themselves exist on two very different planes. You know, I worked in development. I got my master’s degree at the London School of Economics, and I formerly worked for the U.N., so I know a lot about the industry. But you have to separate politics and people, because they aren’t the same thing. That’s why I hate when countries do embargoes because it doesn’t actually hurt leadership. It actually just hurts the regular, everyday people living in that country.

Nisreene: I want to go back to a comment you made. You mentioned Haiti being so close to the Dominican. When you were going to Haiti, was it because you knew you wanted to check it off your list or was it because you knew it would deliver on that amazing sort of, like, beach-destination vibe?

Jessica: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s always been both for me. I was always looking for a new adventure and always looking for a vacation. So it was definitely both of them. I’d always wanted to visit every country in the world, but in 2017 I set the deadline of my 35th birthday.

Nisreene: Okay.

Jessica: My visit to Haiti was before I set that deadline, but, again, I was constantly trying to see more and more of the world.

Nisreene: What an amazing accomplishment to hit by the age of 35. Well, so of some of the places where you got some weird reactions from people, which ones ended up being some of your favorite places?

Jessica: Yeah, all of them. (Laughs)

Nisreene: Okay, give me your top three. Give me your top three.

Jessica: Those three? Like, they all made the book ’cause they’re all amazing places. But Venezuela was probably one of the top three just because the beaches in Los Roques were amazing. Like, just stunning Caribbean beaches. South Sudan was really amazing. So, I connected with some local people and we spent a long time – like, several hours in a cattle camp, because cattle are incredibly important in Dinka culture. Getting to know more about the culture, more about the the political history was really amazing. Obviously, it’s the world’s newest country. And then Somalia was great. Being able to connect with local people is always the best for me. So, you know, we went to the markets, we did a road trip to the coast to Berbera, which is on the coast on the Red Sea. I’m, like, I hope my… I hope that’s right. It might not be Red Sea.

Nisreene: We’ll check after.

Jessica: Over there! (Laughs)

Nisreene: I love the comment about sort of, you know, visiting it through through the people’s eyes and, you know, getting these experiences through other people, because I do think that is a big part of what makes travel really rewarding. Was there ever a destination where you were surprised by the people? Like, any scenario where you went in to travel to a place with a preconceived notion and then it sort of changed after you had gotten there?

Jessica: I think that my travel superpower is that I don’t really travel with preconceived notions. Even before finishing my journey, what came out of it and what I know is that most people are good. And so I think about all of the past travels to these so-called scary countries where I was solo for the most part, and the journey through those countries was made beautiful by the kindness of strangers. So based on that experience, I never went into a country and felt nervous. I’m not afraid of people. And once you’re not afraid of people, then what is there to be afraid of? In terms of what surprised me, I think Uzbekistan was really surprising for me. The people were so much fun. Like, I think about this woman who I met in this bakery, who, like most aunties in the world, was telling me that I needed to get married and have children. So there were all these really incredible experiences that I had in Uzbekistan that I really fell in love with the country and the people.

Nisreene: That’s an amazing sort of outcome. I want to talk a little bit about perceptions. You know, I love that that’s your superpower, because I think that’s probably what has helped propel you to be able to visit all these places, because fear is a real thing. Fear always sort of stems from something. When we were first thinking about doing this episode, I really wanted to talk a little bit about the Middle East because that’s where I’m from, right? And so I feel like there’s just a lot of misperceptions about the region and things like that. But then it got me thinking, “Well, my perception of the Middle East is completely engineered by the fact that I’m surrounded by Middle Eastern people.” And so I know those people and I know the region and that kind of stuff. And so it was never positioned to me as a scary place. But, obviously, there are a lot of people that have these preconceived notions or perceptions. Where do you think a lot of that stems from for the general public?

Jessica: Where are you from?

Nisreene: I’m from Syria.

Jessica: Yeah. I mean, so the Middle East is my second favorite region after Africa.

Nisreene: Love that.

Jessica: The perception, the negative perception of the Middle East, it’s very, clear-cut, super easy. Islamophobia, which was manufactured by the media, right? And I think, personally, a lot of that manufactured Islamophobia is for for financial gain, right? So once we create an enemy, we don’t care if that enemy is being bombed. We don’t care if that enemy is having their resources taken because they’re the enemy, so that’s what should be happening, you know? So we don’t care that Yemen is experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, right? But we care about Ukraine. So because of that, people are afraid. And, you know, it’s interesting because I was talking about Jordan one time and someone asked me if Jordan was safe and I was like, “Jordan is literally one of the safest countries in the world.” But I have to remember that people don’t think of these as individual places. They think of it as the Middle East. And so they don’t even pull out countries to judge them individually. It’s just like, “Oh, the Middle East is a scary place.”

And, you know, also, I’m from Detroit. The biggest population of Middle Easterns is in America is in Metro Detroit, Dearborn. The largest mosque in America is in Dearborn. So I went to school with a lot of Chaldeans and, you know, so I grew up knowing and feeling comfortable around all types of people because the metro Detroit area is incredibly diverse in terms of, like, immigrants and their children. So, yeah, I hope that when people read the book, I hope that as people read these stories about the region that they begin to shift their idea and their understanding of the countries in the region. And I really hope that it encourages people to explore the region because it’s so beautiful, people are so kind. Honestly, I feel safer and more comfortable around men in Middle Eastern countries and typically Muslim countries, more so than I do European countries. You know, I have found in my experience that Muslim men, Arab men, have been more respectful than, you know, men when I travel around European countries.

Nisreene: Yeah. And I’m, personally, very thankful for people like yourself who are out there really helping to educate people around the world about what a lot of these places are and what they stand for and the, sort of, the realities of some of these destinations, which I think is great. Even you mentioning you growing up in Detroit and already being exposed to a lot of people, I think is just a perfect example of how we’ve got to be exposed to certain things and to certain types of people in order for that fear to go down a little bit. It’s just very, very clear that what you’re exposed to really does influence some of this stuff.

Jessica: Yeah.

Nisreene: So what advice would you give people who aren’t necessarily that exposed? Like, maybe they live in Middle America or maybe they live in a place that’s predominantly one specific type of demographic. How would you recommend people sort of go out and learn a little bit more about the people and places that that you’ve been able to really be exposed to?

Jessica: Mm-hmm. Read the book. (Laughs)

Nisreene: Read the book?

Jessica: It may sound like a shameless plug, but I feel like the reason this book is so important, number one, it’s published by National Geographic. National Geographic have been the gatekeepers of culture in travel for, I believe, over a century now, but typically their writers are white and male. And now you have me, a Black woman who’s both American but also very African, writing a book and sharing my images. I was incredibly intentional because, a few years ago, there was a world-travel book, and I was so excited to get it because there’s an entry on every single country in the world. And so I couldn’t wait to look up Uganda. And I could see Uganda and the picture is of a little boy who’s in dirty clothes in a market. And I remember I was so angry. Uganda has Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River – like, so many lakes. Huge concentrations of primate species and bird species. And that’s before you even mention the incredible culture, the food, the music, everything, and, you know, some of the nicest people that you’ll meet in the world. And they came with this picture in a travel book of a little boy in a market who was dirty. That’s always stuck with me. So now you have a book which includes these countries I talked about – Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan. And not only are people going to learn about these countries, but it also humanizes it. How many times do people see beautiful images of beaches in Yemen? Never. Or beautiful images of a mosque in Afghanistan? Never.

But now there’s this book, and it’s now a part of the travel canon. And, to me, that changes everything. And so it’s been so beautiful to see people sending me images of their children who are reading the book, or their children just picking it up and engaging with the book. And I’m not just talking about little Black girls. It’s everyone. I want this book to not only make people think differently about the world, but I want this book to make people feel connected. Because once we feel connected, we begin to care about people. Then we see, yeah, it’s problematic that you’re dropping bombs over here or that you’re extracting resources where you shouldn’t be. People who are afraid, hopefully they read these stories. And even if they don’t visit those countries, I hope it makes them feel differently about it.

Nisreene: So the people who are afraid, how do you reassure them? How do you help them overcome that fear? What advice would you give to people?

Jessica: For me, I always say, because one of the top questions I get is, “Oh, my God, as a Black woman, how do you travel around the world?” Because there’s this idea that as a Black woman, I should be, you know, like, murdered, I guess, any time I leave my home. But I’m like, “Look, if me looking like this, visibly African, if I can travel to 89 countries by myself…” I think I did 13 of the 15, you know, State Department red-list countries by myself. If I can do that and come out and have nothing but positive things to say and nothing but these beautiful stories of humanity, then you can go places, Like, what makes us different? You just have to you have to release that fear. And, you know, for me, I think that I’m a good person. I assume everyone’s good because I’m good. I’m not a thief. Why would I assume a housekeeper in my hotel is going to steal from me? I’ve never used a hotel safe in my entire life. I don’t assume people are going to steal from me. And I’ve never had anything stolen from me.

Nisreene: Okay, see… (Laughs) I’m like the exact opposite of that. I always feel like someone’s going to steal from me.

Jessica: (Laughs) Has anyone ever stolen from you?

Nisreene: I mean… I actually think it’s from an overprotective mother, but that feels like a whole other show, so we won’t get into that one…

Jessica: So I’ll tell a really quick story. So I was in Khartoum. You know, whenever I land in a Muslim-majority country, I definitely, I err on the side of conservative in terms of my dress. So I cover my head, I’m wearing loose clothing to cover my body. So I’m there, it’s mostly… Like, I walk out of baggage claim and I just see a sea of men and I can’t find my friend. And I notice I’m getting, you know, I’m getting that feeling of nervousness and I’m like, “Where’s my friend? Where’s my friend?” And so I’m, like, waiting in line at the cell phone shop – because, you know, the U.S. has embargoes, so you can’t use your U.S. cell phone there, you can’t use anything. But they’re, like, letting men go in front of me. So I go to the currency conversion place and I ask the man, I’m, like, “Please, sir, can I use your phone?” And I’m, like, about to cry and I’m feeling nervous. And so I finally – the guy’s like, “Take it, like, go outside, find your friend, whatever.” So I find my friend and I take the phone back.

And, so, in that moment, because even when you said, is there anywhere you’ve been where you’ve been nervous, I didn’t mention this because no-one did anything to me. I tell that story and I’m very careful in how I tell it, because it’s not that, Khartoum, arriving in the airport was scary. That’s not what it was. It was that I have been socialized to believe that, as a woman, I shouldn’t be in a space where there’s only men and that made me uncomfortable. No-one did anything, everyone was nice to me, but I had my own thing going on in my head.

So to me, as travelers, I think it’s really important that we interrogate these things. And it sounds like a lot of nuance, but it’s necessary because if I said, “Oh my gosh, when I landed in Khartoum, I was so scared” people will say, “Well, I don’t want to go to Khartoum. That sounds scary.” But there was nothing scary. It was something that was going on in my own head. And so that’s why I think it’s important to talk about the nuance.

Nisreene: So now all of the lucky travelers out there have your book as a resource. But when you were traveling, what were you using as your resource? So, let’s take North Korea, for example, because that is a place where it’s probably difficult to get into. Tell me a little bit about how how you prepared yourself for some of these places and what resources you used.

Jessica: North Korea actually isn’t difficult to get into at all. Americans can’t travel there because the United States government forbids Americans from traveling to North Korea, not the North Koreans. So I went on my Ugandan passport. But, yeah, so, for me, I don’t really prepare for places. Like, I make sure I know where I’m sleeping and I make sure I have a ride from the airport to the hotel. Outside of that, I’m very much, like, open to seeing what happens. The resources that I use is my network. So my network of friends and former colleagues from the United Nations, family, people that I did my masters with in London, and then social media. Literally, I would put up and I would say, “Hey, I’m going here, here and here. Can anybody connect me with, like, cool people?” So for me, I always use people as the resource.

And in places like, for example, Afghanistan, where I didn’t have a resource on the ground, we would just Google tour guides. And I found this this amazing guide in Afghanistan, Noor, who then ended up – a lot of people who ended up going to Afghanistan, like, after me, they all used him, which was incredible, because his business grew like crazy after I went there. And, obviously, everything happened, and so now him and his family are safely living in Australia. So they were able to to leave during everything happening.

Nisreene: What advice would you give to travelers who are have decided that they want go to a place that’s maybe a little off the beaten track or visit a destination that’s a little less popular, like a Saudi Arabia or a Qatar or Haiti, for example? Where do you think they should start? And what are some key things that you think they need to know going into those experiences?

Jessica: My biggest advice would be don’t read the news. (Laughs) Just stop looking at all the news articles about it. Find a tour guide in those countries and ask them the questions, because they actually know what’s going on in their country. They are there, living there day to day. They’re going to always know more than Google will ever know. So I would say use Google to find that tour guide and then trust them. You have to trust that they want to welcome you in the country and show you the best that there is to do.

And then in terms of other advice, I would say you have to be humble, right? And you have to acknowledge you’re going into someone else’s country. You are not at home. When I visit someone’s home, one of the first things I say, “Shoes on or off?” because in my house we don’t wear shoes. So when I’m visiting someone else’s home, I adjust my behavior to what they want and what their preferences are. So I think it’s important to go in with that humility and also to make adjustments to sort of fit into what that culture demands.

Nisreene: You mentioned you feeling unsafe in Europe, a place that people automatically go to the most. Like, people who have never traveled outside of the United States, I think when they do that first international trip, more often than not it’s to Europe, or they want to go to the U.K. because the language isn’t going to be a barrier. People feel much more comfortable in a destination where everyone’s speaking English. What do you think is… things that people assume but maybe aren’t necessarily the case when traveling to Europe?

Jessica: I think we have to also recognize that the travel industry is decidedly Eurocentric, right? And it has been forever. And so, you know, when you look at travel magazines, you look at travel books, the focus is on Europe. So that’s where people feel safe because that’s what’s being sold to them as what is safe. You know, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world and one of the cleanest in the world. Not in Africa, but in the entire world. But no-one is saying, “Oh, for my first trip, I’m going to go to Rwanda” because of the stigma that we have around traveling in Africa.

I think the interesting thing about Europe is the excessive amount of pickpocketing, right? I’ve never heard someone say they were in an African country and got pickpocketed. But that’s a huge thing, like, in Barcelona, in Paris, in Rome. And, you know, these countries are – these cities and countries are absolutely beautiful and I enjoy visiting many of them. But I think that people romanticize it in a way where they’re willing to take the negative with a grain of salt, and they romanticize it in a way that they don’t romanticize Central and South America, or Africa and the Middle East. So the negative far outweighs all of the positive in those regions. If something negative happens in Europe, it’s like, “Oh, that’s just bad luck.” But if something negative happens, like, in Costa Rica, it’s like, “Oh my God, women shouldn’t travel solo to Costa Rica because something bad happened to a woman.” It’s how the industry has been set up.

But I do feel hopeful. I think there’s been a huge shift in the last several years. I think through the democracy of social media, we’re seeing more places – like Morocco, I feel, is having its heyday for tourism right now.

Nisreene: Such an amazing place.

Jessica: Yeah.

Nisreene: So amazing:

Jessica: Cuba, Saudi Arabia. I know a lot of people are catching flak for visiting Saudi Arabia, but from when I went in 2018 – I haven’t been back, but I’ve seen a lot of images. And, wow! Like, I’ve just seen images of how much it’s changed just in the last four years. So I do think that the tide is changing. But I definitely think, you know, people run to Europe first because that’s what we’re selling to them.

Nisreene: Why do you think people are catching flak for visiting Saudi Arabia?

Jessica: A lot of people are saying, “Well, you shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia because of the government.” Um, I’m not sure how many people are paying attention to what the U.S. government is doing, but, you know, you don’t hear people saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t travel to the United States…” Well, now you are hearing people say it.

Nisreene: Yeah, I was going to say. Yikes.

Jessica: But, you know… Right? The U.S. has been doing a lot of crazy things for a long time. But politics and tourism, for me, exist on two different planes.

Nisreene: Yeah. How do you come into a place and balance any fear, but also being a responsible traveler for yourself? When you’re traveling alone, there’s just, like, common-sense things and behaviors that you should do to protect yourself, probably regardless of where you’re going, right? Like, for me, I’m, like, really careful about my purse, whether I’m in Chicago, New York, Barcelona, Paris, like, the mean streets of Seattle, because pickpocketing can happen literally anywhere. What advice would you give to people who sort of, like, over-index on trying to be really, really safe and protective, but also, like, being open to absorbing the culture and letting yourself sort of be a little bit free in a place?

Jessica: Again, it’s about trusting humanity and trusting yourself. Now, you know, we have the Spidey senses, right? You have your intuition that will say, “Hmm, this doesn’t feel right.” I trust myself, but I also trust strangers a lot. Maybe 1% of strangers have let me down. So I’m not going to over-index on worrying about my safety because of 1% of strangers. I’m a data girl, so I’m looking at the 99% of my experiences that are positive.

And I think the other thing is I travel with positive energy. And, you know, some people may think, “Okay, whatever,” but  you attract what you put out. What happens for a lot of people is a lot of people will, they’ll prepare and, you know, they finally get the money, they buy the ticket, they go on the trip and they’re so nervous, right? And so they’re constantly thinking about staying safe and making sure they don’t become a victim of crime. So then when it happens, they’re like, “I knew it would happen.” But to me, I’m like, “You attracted that.” I’m not allowing the anxiety or the fear to take over my travels. I’m really just out here having a great time.

Nisreene: I want to ask you, were there any places that you felt like really, really debunked a very common stereotype that is sort of out there in the world?

Jessica: Pakistan.

Nisreene: Talk to me about that. Why?

Jessica: So I went to Pakistan through Oman. As I’m getting off of the plane, this man starts talking to me and he’s like, “What are you doing here?”

Nisreene: (Laughs)

Jessica: And I’m like, “Oh, I’m just… I’m on vacation.” And he’s like, “Okay…” You know, just asking me some questions, like, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “I actually have no idea. I’ll figure it out when I get to my hotel.” And he was really kind and he said, “Here’s my number. If you need any help, let me know.” And then, without me asking, he brought me a luggage cart. My time in Pakistan – I didn’t actually interact with many women at all. I met people at events and they ended up – one invited me to their home with their family to eat lunch. And my journey throughout Pakistan was actually made incredible by the kindness of Pakistani men. And I think, first of all, a country like Pakistan, people’s ideas that are conjured up in their head… I had an absolutely incredible time in the country. And I hope, again, this story helps to debunk what a country like Pakistan actually is like. So when you get outside of the headlines and you actually put your boots on the ground and you have these interactions, you see these places aren’t scary.

Nisreene: Yeah. Man, Jessica, you are… you are incredible. I feel like I could talk to you for absolutely, like, hours upon hours upon hours. Before we wrap, I just want to check. Is there anything else that you want to sort of get out to our listeners? Any other sort of plugs or anything coming up that you think will be good for them to know?

Jessica: I really hope that people are able to pick up the book. Again, it’s 100 stories from 100 countries with over 300 images, published by National Geographic. It looks great on your coffee table, but I also would encourage people to read it cover to cover. The audiobook is coming out July 12th and what I love about the audiobook, I speak in 80 languages on it. So for every country.

Nisreene: What?!

Jessica: I know, crazy.

Nisreene: I was going to ask you if I could record the audiobook, but I guess that’s not an option. Okay, fine, fine.

Jessica: And you can appreciate this! For all of the Arabic-speaking countries, I didn’t use the same “Welcome” to the country. I used the dialects from each country, from all of the Arab countries.

Nisreene: Amazing! I love that.

Jessica: So, so yeah, I’m really excited about the audiobook and there some other elements that we put in to really make people feel like they’re going on the adventure, because they don’t have the images. So I really hope that people also listen to the audiobook, because it’s a really fun adventure.

Nisreene: Done. I’m going to do the audiobook for sure. I’m going to get both, Jessica. I’m doing it. I’m doing it.

Jessica: Do both! Do it. (Laughs)

Nisreene: All right. Well, Jessica, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Like, one of the best travel conversations I think I maybe have ever had.

Jessica: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.

[Musical interlude]

Nisreene: I have to say, Jessica’s mindset and approach to travel is like nothing I’ve ever seen. And what makes, I think, her so special is that she is so risk-averse and almost has no fear. But what became really, really clear in our conversation was that fear is really what holds so many people back from experiencing some of these most amazing destinations. So I’m so glad that we had this opportunity to really just demystify some of these places and talk a little bit more about them and really humanize the places and the people and the cultures just a little bit more.

Have you traveled to a place that was considered dangerous but you had a great travel experience? Tell us on social and tag @Expedia and @PRX.

As a reminder, listeners, your safety and your comfort is paramount. So, obviously, we talked about a lot of places that, right now, the United States government might deem to be a little too dangerous to travel to. So, as always, use your best judgment, do what makes you feel the most comfortable and the most safe.

For more info on episodes, guests, and to find travel inspiration, be sure to visit Out Travel The System’s blog at

All right, well, thank you, everyone today for joining us and, of course, special thanks to Jessica Nabongo, author of The Catch Me If You Can. If you want to find out a little bit more about Jessica and her amazing adventures, be sure to check out her book and visit to learn more.

And if you have any questions for me, or comments, or thoughts, of course, be sure to hit me up. You can DM us on @Expedia or you can visit Follow, subscribe and share so that you don’t miss an episode.

Out Travel The System is brought to you by Expedia, with special thanks to PRX and Sonic Union. I’m the Executive Producer and your host, Nisreene Atassi. Special thanks to the following:

Additional writing by Rachel Sullivan Producer
Rishika Sharma
Associate Producers Syma Mohammed and Nathanael Taylor
Production Assistant is Alex Thiel and Carolina Garrigo
Theme music and original composition by Kevin J Simon
Music edit, sound design, and mix by Rob Ballingall
Music supervision by Justin Morris
Executive Producer and Writer Halle Petro
PRX Executive Producer Jocelyn Gonzalez

Out Travel the System is recorded with Sonic Union in New York City.

Don’t miss our next episode where we really dig into some awesome travel hacks with specialist Catherine Phan, where she shares all of her amazing secrets regarding loyalty program hacks.

Till next time, this is your host, Nisreene Atassi, for Out Travel The System. Find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Happy travels!

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