Around the World in 50 Years documents Albert Podell’s adventures, misadventures, divertissements and detours in his journey to visit every country on the planet. When things first got underway in 1965 when he was 27, he merely intended to complete the longest automobile journey ever made around the world, beginning in Paris and culminating in New York. Eventually, he became the first American to visit every country in the world — an achievement that took nearly 50 years and countless hours of planning to achieve.
Ultimately, it took 102 different trips to circumnavigate, traverse, and criss-cross the globe. Almost one million miles later, not to mention the half century gone by, Podell had finally visited 196 countries. Along the way he had to decide what the definition of a country was, and revisit certain areas when new countries were recognized or existing countries splintered. There’s a certain sense of pride taken in not succumbing to the temptation offered by shortcuts. If you’re going to say you’ve visited every country on the planet, you want to do it properly.
Podell’s early journeys tended to be with a friend or two along for the ride, and then various lady friends would accompany his itinerant adventurers. In his early career, Podell was an editor at Playboy and seemed capable of attracting some very engaging company along his route. Decades later and at the end of the road, as he attempted some of the toughest and securest border crossings, it was a lonelier task to cross the remaining countries off his long list.
For the first half of the book, few dates are given as journeys happen, which could be a device to encourage the reader to not think too long about the political and historical realities of those eras, or could be easily due to poor record-keeping. Adding a timeline and more context to flesh out the stories of each of the countries Podell lays tracks in could easily have doubled the size of the book. That said, there’s room for a future annotated edition with some more detail given about why certain parts of the trips were rather ill-advised.
It might be easier to keep track of the string of girlfriends and relationships Podell mentions than the time passing. The inclusion of dates would make it possible for readers to be certain when in history a particular journey is taking place, and to help them better understand the context and the challenges of each journey based on current events. This information seems purposefully hidden, as Podell glosses from one leg of the journey to the next, carefully choosing the episodes were he’d like to flesh out some of the more interesting aspects of the people and places he encountered.
A wonderful guide is found in Godfried Peters Agbezudor, whom Podell engages in Africa to take him to some difficult locations. “Just call me God,” he introduces himself when Podell lands in Benin with the goal of also seeing Ghana and Togo. Normally Podell would eschew guided tours, but when it’s a question of particularly difficult terrain and a very likely language barrier for the entire trip, sometimes you have to put your trust in someone like “God”.
God turns out to be a voodoo high priest, which is even better than Podell could have hoped for, as he sought to gain understanding of that region’s religion. With his luggage caught up in an Air France strike, Podell wonders if they could make a sacrifice to try to get his bags back faster, and God explains some of the finer points of how and when it is appropriate to practice voodoo. Turns out it is certainly not for recovering luggage.
Podell experiencse some of the sacrificial arts, as he turns out to be God’s first client for his tour company, and part of their itinerary involves taking two chickens to a particular site on an auspicious day to thank a bigger God for making this business venture a success. God turns out to be such an entertaining and pleasant guide that Podell engages him again on a future trip to Africa, expanding the geographic areas where God can guide future travelers. It would seem those chickens were well-sacrificed, indeed.
Live monkey brains feature as one of the delicacies Podell tried but did not seek out — sometimes you have to accept what you’re given rather than cause a fuss and embarrass yourself and your hosts. He documents all throughout the book some of the strangest delicacies you could imagine, plus a few of the after-effects of the damage done to his digestive system as a result.. I hope a second edition will include maps in between chapters to indicate how much ground has been covered, giving a sense of progress toward the ultimate goal. As it is, entertaining as the stories are the series of anecdotes has little flow or path.
If you’re feeling inspired to take your own journey around the world, try out Podell’s quizm “How well do you know our world?“; after reading the book, I scored 52 percent. Around the World in 50 Years gives a taste of many places on our planet, but there’s nothing like getting on a plane and crossing an ocean yourself to get to know a new place and its people. Podell certainly gives inspiration for future trips, and there’s a lot of possibility here for follow up essays or books where he could expand upon his 50 year journey.