Excerpted from THE HAPPINESS OF PURSUIT © 2014 by Chris Guillebeau. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.
It was nearly one a.m. when I stepped off a plane and stumbled into the international airport in Dakar, Senegal.
I’d been here many times before, but it always took a moment to regain my bearings. Everywhere I turned, a different guy offered to help with my bags—a series of offers I didn’t need, since I always travel light—but the persistent porters were hard to turn down. A shouting match erupted between two of the men. I knew what the stakes were: Whoever served as my escort would be eligible for the tip.
I picked out one of the porters at random and followed him to a small alcove above the shouting crowd. A couple of plastic chairs were nailed to the floor. “Here,” he told me in French. “You can stay here and sleep.” I looked at the chairs, paid off the guy, and set up camp for what I knew would be a long night.
My final destination was the tiny republic of Guinea-Bissau, just half an hour by air from Dakar, but the flight didn’t leave until seven a.m. What to do for six hours?
I could have gone into the city and found a hotel, but the prospect of three hours of sleep before trudging back to the airport wasn’t enticing. Better to ride it out until I reached my final destination and was able to crash in a real bed.
I had a bottle of water, procured upon arrival, and a three- ounce bottle of vodka, procured in the Frankfurt airport lounge prior to heading to Africa earlier that day. Together with an airline blanket (thanks, Lufthansa) was all I needed for a few hours of fitful sleep.
Four days earlier I had walked in the rain past Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. My destination was a tiny consul- ate office in a sublet United Nations building. The office had no listed hours. For a fee of $100—payable in cash, no receipt provided—I received the visa I’d been hunting down for several months.
This trip would take me from New York to Frankfurt to Dakar to Bissau, and then back out via Lisbon and London a few days later. It was both a journey and a task.
Even when you’re worn down from three continents of travel, it’s hard to sleep on a plastic chair in a West African transit area. I was careful to keep the strap from my laptop bag coiled around my leg, but still woke with a jolt every few moments as I worried about a return visit from the “helpful” porters. When I managed to drift into real sleep, a swarm of mosquitoes arrived to keep watch, ensuring that I never dozed for long.
I thought about what a laughable experience it was. Why, after having achieved a healthy measure of career success, with plenty of projects at home and a worldwide community of friends in more pleasant surroundings, did I find myself propped up on a plastic chair in the middle of the night in Senegal?
What was the journey and the task?
First things first. This area of the world is where it all started, many years ago. Ten years earlier I had roamed the region as an aid worker, serving as a volunteer for a medical charity. Through trial and error I learned how to avoid bribes (well, except for airport porters) and make my way through chaotic arrival scenes like the one I encountered tonight.
So why had I returned?
It was simple, really. This time I was on a different kind of mission. For the past decade I had devoted much of my time, money, and attention to visiting every country in the world. Every single country in every region, with no country left behind—it was a lifelong challenge I had pondered for years before finally accepting it as the quest I would pursue for as long as it took.
This mission had led me to breakaway former Soviet republics and remote islands in the South Pacific. I’d watched the only flight of the night on another small island take off without me. I’d successfully arrived in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia without a visa, somehow convincing the immigration authorities to let me stay. I’d been deported from a country I’m still trying to forget.
Along the way there were many nights like this one in Dakar, where I arrived with no plans except onward travel, flying or riding in a crowded minibus to another small country that made the news only when it was in civil war or threatened with disappearance due to climate change.
In a weird, almost masochistic way, I liked the idea of re- turning to Senegal. Full circle, back to the beginning, that kind of thing.
After more than 190 countries, the journey would soon be coming to an end. Not yet, though. First I had to make it to Guinea-Bissau, my final country in Africa.
The Dakar airport won’t win any awards for overnight stays, but when the sun rises over West Africa, it’s worth waking up for. It happens very quickly—shift your eyes and you’ll miss it. One minute hazy, the next minute Rise and shine, traveler!
By that point I had stumbled back down to the check-in zone and cleared the relaxed security point. I bought an instant coffee and sipped it as I stood in the queue for boarding.
Far from home, there’s a feeling you can experience even when you’re bone-weary. No matter how exhausted (Eighteen hours of flying! Two hours of sleep on a plastic chair.), and no matter how ridiculous the situation (I’m flying to Guinea- Bissau for no good reason!), you can still savor the thrill of ad- venture. As the caffeine kicked in and I stretched my legs, I began to feel better. As crazy as it may have seemed to some people, I was out in the world, doing something I loved. Life was good.
The half-hour flight took us along the coastline at low altitude. The sun fully unfolded in the sky, I dozed against the window seat, and before I knew it e were wheels-down in the capital city.
Landing on the other side, there was no jet bridge that led to a shiny arrivals hall, or even a passenger bus to ferry arrivals to the building. I walked down the stairs of the aging aircraft onto the tarmac and directly into the dusty immigration building a short distance away.
The welcoming committee appeared to have taken the day off. Instead, a lone immigration guy glanced at my papers and stamped me through without a word.
I watched as the bags were thrown onto a single creaky conveyer belt. Once again, the porters fought over rights to luggage duties. The morning with the beautiful sunrise was dissolving into a sweltering day, and another group of men competed to become the chosen taxi driver to deliver the occasional foreigner to the only hotel.
But I smiled at my good fortune, for I had just achieved another milestone on the long quest to go everywhere. Out of fifty-four African countries, Guinea-Bissau was my very last. After ten years of exploration, I had only two more countries to go before completing the whole world.
Once Upon a Time
People have always been captivated by quests. History’s earliest stories tell of epic journeys and grand adventures. Whether the history is African, Asian, or European, the plotline is the same: A hero sets off in search of something elusive that has the power to change both their life and the world.
In the Judeo-Christian story of creation, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden and sent to toil the earth. In the Buddhist story, the question of practice and struggle is emphasized over creation—sacred texts skip straight to the quest toward enlightenment.
The world’s best-known literature reflects our desire to hear about struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. From Aesop’s Fables to Arabian Nights, many classic stories are about ad- venture and quests.
Shakespeare kept us enthralled with quest stories of ship- wrecks and mistaken identity. Sometimes all was well that ended well, but sometimes tragedy followed as the natural consequence of a flawed character’s poor decisions.
In modern times, Hollywood knows that quests are an easy sell. Consider the blockbuster franchises Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, and countless others. The tougher the odds and the higher the stakes, the better—as long as the audience has something to believe in. We have to believe in a hero’s mission, and once we do, we’ll gladly stick around to see how the hero can overcome.
The best video games, which now draw more of our money and attention than books or movies, are also programmed around quest stories. You, an ordinary soul plucked from obscurity, have been entrusted with defending the earth from an alien invasion. (Conveniently, you have been supplied with a rocket launcher and a rechargeable health pack.) You, a mere plumber with a stubborn disposition and an especially hard head, must rescue the princess from the castle. (Oh, this is the wrong castle? I guess you’ll have to keep going.)
Most of these quest stories are told over and over in different ways, often with a fair amount of exaggeration. They can be engaging stories, but for the most part they aren’t real. We enjoy them because, for a brief time, they have the power to alter our belief in what’s possible. Maybe there really is an alien invasion! Maybe there really is a holy grail somewhere out there, just waiting to be discovered.
As I wandered the planet, spending years journeying to nearly two hundred countries, I discovered something important.
I loved the travel, and everywhere I went had something interesting on offer. My worldview was broadened as I encountered different ways of life and learned from people in other cultures. But equally fascinating was that I wasn’t the only one on a quest. All over the world, people had discovered the same way of bringing greater purpose to their life. Some had been toiling away at a goal for years without any recognition. Going for it, whatever “it” was, was simply something they found meaningful and loved to do.
“I want to make my life worthwhile,” one woman said. “I consider myself an instrument, and if I don’t put myself to work for the greatest possible good, I’ll feel like I wasted a chance that will never return.”
Some of the people I talked to were pursuing quests that involved extended world journeys like mine. I met strangers and new friends who walked, biked, or otherwise traveled across entire countries or continents. In Istanbul, for example, I met Matt Krause, a financial analyst from Seattle. Matt had traveled to Turkey with the intention of walking all the way to Iran, meeting strangers along the way and understanding a different way of life. At first it was just a crazy idea, he said. But then it stuck with him, becoming something he knew he’d regret if he didn’t see it through. (Lesson: Beware of crazy ideas.)
Meanwhile, other quests were about mastery or collection. A Boy Scout earned every merit badge (154!) by the age of fifteen. A middle-aged woman devoted the rest of her life to seeing every possible species of bird. As she explained in her journal, what started as a hobby turned into an obsession after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
Some people’s quests were distinctly private. A teenager from the Netherlands set out to sail the open sea, becoming the youngest person in history to successfully circumnavigate the world’s oceans alone. The publicity she received from the record-setting adventure was often critical and largely unwelcome. But receiving attention, whether positive or negative, wasn’t the point. “I did this for myself,” she told me after she’d finished. “Not for anyone else.”
Others chose to join forces, including a family of four who set out to bicycle 17,300 miles from Alaska to Argentina, building a dream together along the way. Also feeling wanderlust was a young couple who visited every basilica in the United States hoping to better understand their faith.
Much of the time, the quest was something physical: a mountain to climb, the open sea to traverse, the visa processing office to persuade. But what these strivers were searching for usually went beyond the stated task. Matt Krause, the financial analyst who set out to walk the entire length of rural Turkey, reflected on the life he’d known back in America. It wasn’t just that he was now in another country, he said later. It felt as though he’d opened a path to another life. Out there on his own, walking mile after mile along the dusty village roads, meeting strangers who became friends, he felt a heightened sense of being alive.
Something about these people I met stood out. They spoke with intensity. They were focused on their goals, even if they didn’t immediately make sense to others. I wanted to understand why they’d chosen to pursue big goals with such determination—were they driven by the same urges as I was or ones that were entirely different?—and I wanted to learn what kept them going when others would have stopped. I had the strong sense that these people could teach critical lessons.
What were the lessons in my ten-year journey?
The first lessons were about the practical aspects of pursuing a quest. If you want to achieve the unimaginable, you start by imagining it. Before beginning, take the time to count the cost. Understanding exactly what you need to do, and then finding a way to do it, makes a quest much more feasible.
Courage comes through achievement but also through the attempt. As I worked my way through country after country, regrouping at one of the many stops along the way that felt like second homes, I became more optimistic about my chances of success. In the final year of the journey, I felt unstoppable. I can really do this! I realized, and the realization gave me strength and endurance.
As Don Quixote learned many years ago, quests do not al- ways develop as planned. Travelers are often waylaid or misdirected, and some challenges prove especially difficult. Yet misadventures (and sometimes even disasters) produce confidence. When I found myself spending all night in a deserted air- line terminal, waiting on another canceled flight, or completely out of money in a remote part of the world, I learned that things would usually be OK. I learned to laugh at my own misfortune, or at least to not panic when something bad happened.
The next lessons were more about the inner work of an extended journey. Many quests lead to an alchemy-like transformation, either with respect to the quest itself or the person undertaking it. Once you start down the road to adventure, you don’t always know where you’ll end up.
Coming to the end of a quest brings lessons too. The story doesn’t always tie up well. When something has been a major part of your life for years and then is gone, a sense of alienation can set in. You have to think about what’s next, and whether you can re-create the intense feelings you had during the time you were chasing down your goal.
As my journey neared its end, I wondered what I could learn by talking to others. My curiosity about questing became a quest in itself—one that, it turns out, allows me to offer guidance to those who are themselves engaged in a search for meaning.