Globe-trotting professor joined an ultra-exclusive club as a visitor to all 196 nations on earth.
By John DiConsiglio
Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration Bill Adams, Ph.D. ’77, is a world-traveler—in the most literal sense of the term. In May 2021, when his plane landed in the Central African Republic, Adams completed a multi-decade journey that is rarer than climbing Mount Everest: He has visited every country in the world.
From the vast Saharan nations to the European microstates, Adams has ventured to 196 countries—all 193 members of the United Nations, plus three entities with majority U.N. diplomatic recognition: the Vatican, Palestine and Kosovo.
Along the way, he hiked through mountain gorilla ranges in the Congo and rode the Trans-Siberian Express across Russia. He witnessed a total solar eclipse over the Libyan desert, a lunar eclipse over the Ganges and a sunrise over Machu Picchu. He flew in a hot air balloon over the Buddhist temples of Myanmar, savored chocolate croissants on the Eiffel Tower and attended Carnival in Rio and May Day in Havana. As a Fulbright Scholar, he taught at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and lectured at universities in Prague, Berlin, Nablus, Cairo and Kolkata.
“Every stop is a mind-expanding, unforgettable education in history, sociology, religion and politics,” he said.
While there’s no official tally of how many people have reached the milestone, most travel sites estimate it at about 100 to 250. Adams’ total of 196 countries doesn’t include those with limited diplomatic recognition such as Taiwan and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—but he’s visited those too. He chronicled his journey on his “Bill’s Excellent Adventures” blog.
Over time, Adams says he’s learned to pack light (“The rest of the world has laundries,” he said) and meticulously research everything from inexpensive airfares to destination weather patterns. Most importantly, at each stop he eagerly immersed himself in the local culture and sought out opportunities to meet people, from dancing at a wedding in Cairo to volunteering at an orphanage in Vietnam.
Learning at least a few words in each local language helped too, he said. “You don’t need to be fluent. But if you say ‘salaam alaikum,’ for example, it conveys respect and breaks the ice,” he noted. “It is a consistent pleasure to see how friendly and warm most people are around the world.”
Growing up in a small Texas town, Adams’ youthful travel ambitions rarely exceeded driving through Dallas. “I was jealous of classmates who had made it to Louisiana,” he said. He visited Mexico when he was 14, but his first major international trip was backpacking through Europe during the summer after graduating from Baylor University.
His wanderlust took off after a “transformative” 1981 trip to Egypt, he said. From the pyramids to the people who invited him into their homes, Adams was immediately enthralled. “Cairo was like another planet back then. Egyptians were super friendly, the food was delicious, and the ancient sights were incredible.” Even as Adams began to travel more, he returned to Egypt multiple times. “It was my first big travel addiction,” he said.
While teaching at GW, Adams spent semester breaks exploring other favorite destinations like Thailand and Brazil while increasingly traveling to new countries. In 2007, while examining his pin-covered travel map, he realized that he had visited nearly every country in the Western Hemisphere. He flew to the remaining Caribbean islands during long winter weekends. Next, he checked off the remainder of Europe with trips to Belarus and microstates like Andorra and Liechtenstein. Soon, he was venturing into hard-to-reach nations like Libya and Iran.
By 2014, with 50 nations remaining, the world seemed within reach. With his goal in sight, Adams pushed himself out of his comfort zone into adventures in Afghanistan, Mauritania and North Korea.
In 2020, after participating in a trial for the Moderna vaccine, Adams decided to complete his quest. The three nations left on his list—Yemen, South Sudan and the Central African Republic—had few COVID restrictions, but presented other dangers. All three were in the midst of prolonged civil wars. In his final stop, the Central African Republic, Adams landed in police custody for the first time in his world journey. While held for taking a routine photo, Adams negotiated a $600 fine down to $20 before being released. “In retrospect, I can laugh about it,” he said, “but at the time, while trying to stay cool, you don’t know for sure that this will end well.” Throughout his journey, Adams said, his only other hazardous situation was a night in Somalia when a flat tire stranded him on a dark road near warlord territory. He eventually flagged down an NGO jeep.
Adams isn’t done traveling either. While he may have seen every country, there are still sights he’s eager to explore, including the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil, the Atacama desert in Chile and the Douro River Valley in Portugal.
And despite his best efforts, the Northern Lights have eluded him. He’s made three attempts to view them—twice in Iceland and once in Canada. He plans to try again soon in Norway. “I’m determined to see those blasted Northern Lights,” he laughed, “if I have to move to Norway for the winter.”