Savannah Grace: on a mission to visit every country in the world

What made you want to visit every country in the world?

When I was 18, I’d already visited 80 countries because my parents travelled a lot. Now I’ve been to over 100. I just thought of it as a normal way of life because I’d spent my whole teens travelling. Recently, I realised that I’m well on the way to visiting every country in the world. I thought: “That’s an opportunity. Why don’t I just do that.”

When did you start your adventure?​

I didn’t want to travel when I started. When I was 14, my mum decided to just up and leave and travel the world for a year. Then, a year turned into four and I eventually learned to love it because it became my life, travelling with my family.

It was really hard in the beginning because my parents almost got divorced and at the same time one of my brothers was going off to Iraq in the war, which was very stressful. One of my brothers found out he had cancer, so we almost had to cancel the trip, but luckily it didn’t spread and we kept going.

When do you expect to finish?

I’d say in a few years, realistically. Luckily, I have easy chunks left to do because we travelled over land without lots of gaps. I covered almost all of Africa, nearly every country in Europe, all of central Asia, and then Russia, China and Mongolia.

I haven’t touched South-east Asia but those countries are easily accessible. I found Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan difficult to travel to because they were very out of the way.

Which has been the best place that you’ve been to?

I loved Mongolia because of the people. They are incredibly friendly and I had lots of crazy adventures with the positive, outgoing people there. Nepal is great if you love mountains and trekking.

I loved Peru. The Galapagos islands were fantastic as well. Before we went there, my husband said: “What’s so exciting about a bunch of birds and lizards?” But there’s so much amazing wildlife everywhere, from seals to iguanas. It’s like you’ve stepped onto a different planet. I love the Galapagos islands.

Which country surprised you the most on your travels?

Peru surprised me because I didn’t have much expectation of it. My husband said: “Let’s go to Peru this time.” We always travel on our birthdays. I asked: “What’s in Peru?” But it was really cool with jungles, sand dunes, sea, mountains and lakes. Machu Picchu was incredible, but the jungle in Peru was the best part.

You did a road trip around Africa. What was that like?

It was crazy, intense and extreme. My entire family did West Africa with backpacks. Halfway through, my parents got back together and my dad joined us.

It was difficult because in West Africa people don’t travel from country to country. The people tend to just stay in their village. There’s no train system or bus system, so public transport is out of the question. You get in a station wagon with 15 people on the roof. It’s shaky the whole way, with the exhaust coming in through the back of the trunk and rotting fish at your feet. Sometimes, there’s even a goat in there as well.

In Ghana, we met my now-husband. He had a giant truck and was planning to head through Congo and Nigeria alone. I said: “We’re going in the same direction. We can team up and we’ll go in your truck.” We covered the rest of Africa together and just pulled over on the side of the road at night and camped in the bushes.

Which of the countries that you’ve got left to do are you most excited about?

I’m dying to see the Northern lights and maybe somewhere with volcanoes. I think I’ll try to see the Northern Lights in Scandinavia or maybe head north in Canada. Norway would probably would be a nice trip with the Northern Lights and the ice hotel.

How are you funding your trip?

For the first part, when I was with my family, we were on a really tight budget. There was a lot of sleeping on the side of the road. In Africa, we just put out our tents at night and always ate local food to make it ridiculously cheap. It was cheaper to travel than to live at home. If we’re ever on a road trip we just pack canned tuna and make it cheap, so that we only have to pay for petrol.

Was it difficult travelling on a budget at first?

It was extremely difficult. You’re constantly hungry, tired and hot because you don’t want to pay for air conditioning. You go to places that have freezing cold bucket showers and some nights you don’t even shower because you’re sleeping in the bushes or on a train station platform.

Funnily enough, being ‘budget’ had the more rewarding experiences. We met more locals that way and experienced more of the local culture.

We didn’t get to go to the nice 5-star hotels and hide away from India. We really were actually in India, eating where the locals ate and drinking their water. We didn’t even have bottled water in India because it costs money.

Do you have any advice for other travellers?

The obvious thing is to do your research. Be respectful of the culture, especially with dress codes. I would say “don’t party and spend your money in bars making an ass of yourself”. You’re representing your country badly by behaving like that.

Why go to go to Thailand if you’re just going to drink cheap beer? You’ll go home sooner if you party every night.

Have you found it difficult travelling with your family?

There were some challenging times. Try to imagine being a teenager without a bedroom to slam the door on or hide in, no phone calls to your friends and nobody to talk to outside of your family. That’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

There’s also the upside of being with your family, which is having memories to share for the rest of your life, bonding and becoming stronger through it. Now, we’re inseparable.

How do you think you’ll feel when you’re finished your trips?

There’s still a great deal to see and I don’t think there will ever really be an end. I’ll keep travelling and write more books. I already have six or seven books that I need to write and I’ve got plenty of material.

I think I’ll always be travelling the world. If I visit every single country I can go back when I have kids and show them the places that I know. There’s always something new to see.

Savannah Grace has written two books on her travelling experiences, I Grew My Boobs In China and Backpacks And Bra Straps, and is working on a third, titled Rusty Tracks and Booby Traps. For more, see

Main image: Savannah Grace (Savannah Grace)

Getting scammed – Nigerian style

As we approached Akure, Nigeria, the minibus I’d blithely boarded in Oshogbo pulled over. The driver motioned me out. No one else disembarked. Eh?

He walked to the back of the minibus and opened the hatch, handing me my bag.

“Taxi,” he said, pointing to the patch of dirt across the road where a gaggle of sedan taxis sat.

“Abuja?” I asked, wondering if these taxis were bound for Abuja.

He shook his head, said something I didn’t understand, and motioned wide with his arm, then stopped, and made an arc. Ah. This taxi would take me to the bus for Abuja. I think. Maybe. Perhaps?

Nigerians speak English. I speak English. But we were having a heck of a time understanding each other’s accents. The taxi did take me to the Abuja bus. I was leaving one main public transport route and crossing town to the bus park for a different route. Like coming into Victoria Station and needing to get to Paddington.

I had to fill out a form before the bus left, just as I’d had to in Oshogbo and would later do in Abuja. This included my name, contact details and next-of-kin. Given the terrifyingly fast driving I’d seen over the last 24 hours, this struck me as a good policy. The bus started and drove towards Abuja, passing though green countryside, small towns, and the occasional house with the words “NOT FOR SALE, BEWARE OF 419” painted on the side.

Nigeria is (in)famously the home of the 419 confidence-baiting advance-fee scam. 419 refers to the number of the article of the Nigerian criminal code that is used to prosecute these tricksters. Nigeria is hardly the only place that these email-baiters hail from, but certainly, it is the most well-known. The “not for sale” signs are on properties that were probably used in local confidence scams, the equivalent of putting a “not for sale” sign on a bridge that a trickster has tried to sell at a cut price, in spite of not owning the bridge.

When I’d read online hotel reviews about places to stay in Abuja and Calabar, I’d realised that these 419 con artists had turned their attention to slightly less illegal activities during their down time. The reviews – supposedly written by reviewers based in Ohio and Maryland who’d written only a single review before disappearing – made me laugh.

“Excellent hotel beyond compare with a touch that is unarguably comfortable at all times. Wow!”


‎”Waaoh!!! Unbelievably classical and affordable hotel.”

I was aiming to stay in one of these classic and affordable – Waaoh! – hotels tonight. I barely had any money left after doling out my cash in dribs and drabs to soldiers, police, and taxi drivers en route from the border, and my ATM card was firmly sewn into the inside of my trousers, so no more cash would be forthcoming until I could, 1) remove my clothing and 2) get to an ATM. Nigerian hotels are expensive, costing far more than what I had left behind in West Africa. I’d have to slum it for the moment.

We pulled into Abuja a few hours after I’d changed buses – to the entirely wrong end of Abuja from where I wanted to be, which was near the long-distance buses and embassy district.

“You’ll take a taxi to the buses here,” explained the minibus driver. I switched again, trying hard to negotiate the drivers down from a pretty high starting point of about $20 for a taxi ride.

“It’s a long way,” explained one driver, who agreed to take me to the bus terminal for 1200 naira, or $8.

He was right. And he complained about drivers in Abuja. But to me, they drove wonderfully, much better than what I’d seen near Lagos.

The driver dropped me at the ABC Transport bus, where I bought a “sprinter” ticket to head to Calabar in the morning, before getting another taxi to the Waaoh! hotel I’d chosen based on price.

“I need a room,” I explained to the young woman at the front desk. “But I am out of money and so I need your cheapest room. And I need an ATM if I want to eat anything. You have wi-fi right?”

“Yes, but it is broken.”

This happened a lot. The digital world had come so far in the past ten years since I’d done the first, but frequently, I ended up frustrated by the connection speeds or state of disrepair. Sometimes I wondered if we’d really come all that far from when I’d watched a Zimbabwean read the entire newspaper while waiting for his Hotmail to load up in 2001 in Victoria Falls.

I took the cheapest room, counting out my coins and just making it to the 6500 naira ($41) I needed. I went into my dirty, dark, tiny room in the back corner of the hotel. No toilet seat, ants everywhere, stains on the bedspread – but it was in my price range.

Waaoh indeed.

I dug out my folding scissors and meticulously unstitched the Zip-Loc bag of money and cards from the inside of my black trousers. I was after my ATM card.

One of the hotel security guards walked me to the nearest ATM.

Which was out of service.

“There is another,” he promised. And this helpful, gentle security guard walked me through the hilly, pleasant backstreets of the Abuja embassy neighborhood to another ATM.

That worked. It spat out loads of money. The guard escorted me back to the hotel, and I happily tipped him, before dining on Hobnobs I had in my bag, and crawling in under the stained bedspread. Something nibbled on my calf all night as I slept, and in the morning, I fled to the bus early.

I had a ticket on the “sprinter” service to Calabar, the last town in Nigeria before Cameroon. From there, I’d get the Friday ferry to Limbe, celebrating my birthday by crossing the border.

But first, I had to sit on this sprinter – which is a nice van or maybe you’d call it a jitney – until dusk.

The van wasn’t sold out and still left on time. We had air conditioning and curtains to pull shut when the sun got to be too much. There were only six passengers – a businessman, a younger man, two adult women, a nun, and me.

We spread out, each taking a single seat or row. The bus driver gave us each an orange juice and a packet of Hobnobs. Which was great, even though I was overdosing on Hobnobs. We finished filling out the next-of-kin form so that we could leave – I’d caught on now to put down the US Embassy as a contact person. Hobnobs and paperwork complete, we headed out of Abuja.

“I have a question for the Sister in the back,” announced the driver. He’d begun to drive and was looking back through the rear view mirror.

“Might I ask our Sister to lead us in prayer and bless our journey?”

The nun sighed and looked exaggeratedly put-upon, then smiled and said, “Oh, all right.”

She read a verse from her Bible, the gist of which was to deliver us safely, and then sang a Nigerian hymn. Everyone else in the sprinter knew the song. They all joined in.

I felt like a loser now… not only did I not know the group song, but also, I can’t sing anything like this nun or these other passengers. They all sang beautifully.

Travelling in comfort makes a huge difference, I thought, as we pulled away from the four-lane highways of Abuja and headed out into the countryside. Even after three more hours, I was still delighted with this style of travel. Leg room! Knees not in total agony! And best, regular toilet stops that included time to graze.

OK, the toilet stops weren’t perfect. They featured three-sided concrete blocks without roofs, and you peed downhill into a trough. One of the women from our van went first. She eyeballed the situation, laughed and went ahead. Still, this was adequate compared to the no-toilet-stops I’d been living with for a while.

After a lunch stop for mango, avocado, and sliced white bread (French-speaking Africa has much better bread than English-speaking Africa), we headed out again, on in the direction of Calabar. The driver’s rap CD gave way to a country-style cover of Lay Down Sally. I studied my Coke can, and learned that what I’d long suspected was true – African Coca-Cola still has sugar in it, not high-fructose corn syrup. No wonder I craved it.

The men chattered away up front, while the women kept to themselves. In late afternoon, the road turned horrible, potholed and broken. Our driver steered slowly around and through the gaps.

The businessman’s mobile phone rang and he picked it up.

“Hello? … Yes, are you all right? … How were the elections in Jos? … Hmm. … Yes, I see. … They did what? Burned what? … Threw rocks at you at the polls? … Is everyone okay? … Okay, best wishes to you and your family. Stay safe.”

There had been a great deal of election-related violence in Jos. He fell silent when he hung up the phone, and then started reading the newspaper.

“Hey, listen to this.” He read out loud an article he’d come cross. “President Obama has advised against all non-essential travel to Nigeria. Americans should avoid going to Nigeria at this time.”

Five pairs of eyes turned to look at me.

“Uh… waaoh?” I grinned. Not much I could do about it now.

And five Nigerians laughed along with me.

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Beware the Sacred Forest of Oshogbo

After a marathon day of trying – and failing – to cross to Nigeria, I couldn’t bear to get out of bed again at five. Who knew if the Nigerian border would be open today after it had been unexpectedly closed all day yesterday? I hit “snooze” on my iPhone repeatedly for a whole hour.

The front desk clerk at my Cotonou hotel took a 50 euro note as partial payment for my night’s lodging, so I didn’t have to unsew and untape my ATM and credit cards from the inner calf pocket I’d sewn into my pants using a Zip-Loc bag. My black trousers had seen better days. Namely, Saturday, before I wore them all day in taxis on Sunday. I didn’t want to re-sew my valuables into a different pair of pants, so I was considering wearing the same trousers all the way through Nigeria, just leaving the my valuables taped in until Cameroon, where I could safely use a credit card again.

It was already nine by the time I got the zem motorcycle taxi to the shared taxi park and settled into one where the conductor was yelling “Igolo Igolo.” I gave all my coins to the zem driver (350 CFA) and then paid a reasonable and correct 1,500 CFA to the shared taxi driver for the hour-and-a-half ride to the border. So far, so good.

One good thing had come out of the mess of yesterday. I’d sorted out that if I went through the Igolo border, 30km north of the notorious Krake border, I could totally avoid Lagos and head straight to Oshogbo, where I hoped to see Osun Shrine.

The down side of Igolo is that there’s nowhere near the same amount of public transportation as at Krake. Taxis leave all the time from the main border, but not from this smaller one. So the route I’d chosen was not without risk, though I’d opted for ease and safety over convenience.

This time, when I got out of the taxi at the border and was deluged by people grabbing at my bag, I grabbed it back and walked away. I went to the money-changers, but my changer from yesterday wasn’t there, and neither was my helper.

“Border ferme?” I asked a changer.

“Non, c’est ouvret,” he answered.

I changed all my CFA to Nigerian naira. Again. And approached a crowd of three fixers.

“Ou est Abdoul Rahim?” I wanted yesterday’s guide.

“I haven’t seen him around today,” answered the oldest guy there, who was probably in his 40s.

“Okay, you take me.” I pointed to a teenager. He was about 14 years old, just a kid. The older guy patted him on the back and said something to him in his own language. Probably, “Go get ’em, kid.”

The kid carried my bag and led the way at a scamper. He did the same thing the guys had tried to do yesterday at both borders, which is just breeze across without stopping. He led me right into the arms of an official who caught him in a bear-hug before sending both us into the Benin immigration office.

And there is where two women in uniforms, who were more thorough than the men who’d stamped me into Benin, noticed that my visa had expired on April 6.

I smiled pleasantly and refused to budge until my fine/fee went from 30,000 CFA to 10,000 CFA. And then still refused to go change money and buy a visa. They sent a messenger to do it. I was annoyed that I’d already given a hundred dollars or so to Benin for a six-month visa and had only received three months. And after the last few days, I fancied myself done being a travelling doormat.

And with a firm thwack of a stamp, I was out of Benin. The kid led the way again, and some men caught us again. We were whisked into a Nigerian office this time, where three people laboriously copied down a lot of details and asked me what I was carrying. Mostly, they were excited that my passport showed I was 44 and I didn’t look like what they thought a 44-year-old should look like.

“You have something for us?” They asked at the end. I’d been warned that I’d encounter a lot of bribery in Nigeria. I naively thought I could avoid paying bribes.

“Congratulations on a successful election,” I said cheerily, breezing past them into an office full of men in uniforms.

I waited while two men in the room discussed if I should be given a “tourist” or “transit” visa. One of the bored officers had struck up a conversation with me.

“Where will you go in Nigeria?”

“First to Oshogbo, then to Abuja, then to Calabar, and from there to Cameroon on the ferry.”

“Oshogbo? To the shrine?”

“Yes, to the Sacred Forest.”

He chuckled.

“What will you do if…” He dramatically stretched his arms wide then swept them together. “…the forest catches you?

“Uh…I don’t know…does the forest catch people?”

“Yes, Susanne Wenger. Did you read about her? She came here and the forest caught her for 50 years.”

I had read about her. She was an Austrian artist who’d come to Oshogbo in the 50s and stayed there until her death a few years ago. She’s spearheaded the rebuilding and artistic interpretation of the Yoruba shrines in the Sacred Forest. She’d even become a priestess in the Yoruba religion. She didn’t build these shrines alone, but assisted local artists in planning and creating the shrines. She was one of these rare people who gets involved in a truly local way, not looking for fame or a book contract or patting herself on the back, but for a way to enable local traditions to continue and not be lost.

I heard a stamp, distracting me from my conversation about the Sacred Forest. I was in as a “tourist.” The oldest passport officer slowly copied down details from my passport. The kid looked bored.

Back outside, there was one more stop, where I showed my yellow fever certificate. Again, lots of copying down details. This one asked if I was taking the kid along to Cape Town, and I said “Yes”. The kid looked alarmed while the immigration guy chuckled. Then, again, a request for “something”. Again, a congratulations on a successful election.

And that was it. After about an hour of watching people write stuff down, I was into Nigeria. The kid led me to the final checkpoint, and then I heard:


Uh, that would be me. I must have missed another official.

I stopped. He checked my passport, and we were off again. The next man who stopped us had a uniform and a gun, and asked for 1,000 naira to let the kid cross over and take me to the taxi.

“OK, I carry my own bag then.”

Of course, finding the taxi is the part where I actually needed the kid. He started to take off my backpack.

“OK, 500 naira.”

I paid my first Nigerian bribe.

The kid led me down a crowded border street to a taxi for Ibadan, three hours away. He put me in it, and made sure I understood the right fare (3,000 naira).

I had to wait an hour for the last seat to sell. We left at one. In the meantime, the other two passengers had tried to get me to buy the last seat.

“We’ve been here four hours,” they said.

Sorry, not this time. 3,000 naira is 20 bucks.

The driver collected my 3,000 when it was time to go. I handed it to him, and then he handed it back with”I said 3,000.”

I looked at the pile of money he gave me. One of the thousands was a hundred.

Did I give him a hundred or did he just pull a fast one? I couldn’t swear I’d given him three thousand – but I was pretty sure I had.

I took back the hundred and gave him the thousand. Now I was feeling a bit irritated. Was the driver a small-time con artist? Had I pulled out the wrong money?

We drove out of town. The couple next to me was nice and Nigeria looked green and pleasant. I was just starting to think how clever I’d been to avoid Lagos because the rest of the country was nothing like that, when we started hitting police checks.

We got through the first and second checks okay. The third time, it was a customs guy. He wanted me to give him money.

“Absolutely not.”

He got kind of nasty. The other people in the car looked at me. They didn’t want to hang around here all day. This wasn’t going to be easy, was it?

“Just give him this,” whispered the driver, taking 300 naira out of my hand. He came back a minute later. “It’s not enough. He wants 500.”


The police stopped us over and over. The worst one hassled the young woman next to me, because she didn’t understand his English.

He looked right at her and said, “How am I knowing you?”

This baffled her. She shook her head. He then kept at her, asking where she came from over and over and confusing her. “The border,” she’d say. “No, I mean before.” She was silent and scared by his strange phrasing.

He made her get out and unzip her suitcase. I got out too and tried to engage him. He had a gun and the situation was tense – maybe I could defuse the situation. I offered him a biscuit.

Eventually, the driver whispered, “Give me 200.” I did, he passed it on, and we were allowed to leave.

Three bribes in my first hour! I was certainly getting a local experience.

On we drove, over a terrible road, hitting the main expressway somewhere west of Lagos, where I was shocked by the wreckless, fast driving. We passed three huge accidents in the next hour.

When we got to Ibadan, the sun was starting to go down. I thought I’d stay there, but the driver offered to take me the last 90 minutes to Oshogbo.

“You give me 7,000. I drive you.”

“No. Take me to the bus.”

“Ah. But it’s late.” He had me there.

“Okay, how much you pay?”

I thought about it. At 3,000 a head, he’d made 12,000 for the three hours ride. So he was asking for 7,000 for a drive of half that. 6,000 was the right rate, but did I really want to pay 40 bucks?

Nigeria isn’t cheap.

“Okay, 5,000.”

“You give me six.” Fine.

We zoomed along, out of the heaving chaos of Ibadan and towards Oshogbo.

“Can I get other people?”

I was tempted to say no, since I’d already paid for the taxi. But then, what’s the harm in letting him make a few more bucks? I took the front seat and he picked up four adults, who asked me a lot of questions. Nigerian’s reactions to me today have been amused or amazed. One policeman gave me his phone number. At least he didn’t ask for a tip.

I had to answer a lot of questions about not being married and not having children. “Don’t you want to enjoy a man while you are young?”

“It’s okay,” I said.

This puzzled them.

“Are you not loving enough?”

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the turn this conversation had taken.

“No… it’s…” I tried to think of a way to explain it succinctly in language that would make sense.

“Men don’t like me,” I said.

They nodded, sort of understanding but not really. But it made more sense to them a minute later when I added, “Anyway, I can’t cook. So I need a man who can cook.”

“A man wants to taste his wife’s cooking. You should learn to cook.”

I couldn’t win this one and changed the subject to how I could travel on to Calabar where I’d get the ferry to Cameroon.

The same man who had advised me to learn to cook then told me I could easily blast straight through to Calabar in a single day.

“Isn’t it unsafe in the Delta? What about the kidnappings?”

“That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Maybe so. Guidebook info is already a year old by the time the book gets to my hands. But I hadn’t researched this online. What if he was wrong? I’d stick to my plan, heading north to Abuja and then back down to Calabar. The long way.

We arrived at Heritage Hotel and dropped me off.

And while I was getting my bag out of the trunk, the driver, who had gotten FIFTY-EIGHT of my dollars today (more if you include what I was now sure was the sleight-of-hand at the start) for the 4.5 hours of driving, asked me for 2,000 more.

“No. I am out of money.”

“I am hungry.” He motioned at his stomach. He WAS thin.

I sighed and gave him what was left in my pocket – about five bucks, I had to acknowledge that new non-doormat Marie wasn’t having a lot of success at being a non-doormat – and checked in.

The hotel? $25 a night. Including A/C and hot water. Sure, the shower didn’t work and the ceiling fan was broken. But for $25, I wasn’t complaining.

And in the morning, I went to the Sacred Forest. The beautiful sculptures were fascinating and the serenity engaging.

The forest did catch me, even after all the hassle of getting into Nigeria.

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