An inward journey: At 21, Nevada City woman is the youngest to travel to every country in the world
There’s a difference between loneliness and being alone.
But sometimes they are one and the same.
Nevada City’s Lexie Alford, the youngest person to travel the world, said she encountered a few challenges on her trip. Maybe the most intimidating of them struck her not in the crowded, noisy streets of Delhi, but rather in the solitude of an empty hotel room.
Learning to be lonely and accepting the feeling of isolation, she said, soon became a strength. As she developed the skill, Alford became more grateful for those around her, and the 196 countries she experienced were more enjoyable.
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“Before, I could take (friends’) presence for granted … I didn’t know what it was like to be alone,” Alford said.
By 18, Alford had traveled to 72 countries.
Having received her associates degree from Sierra College, she considered the coming-of-age question that causes existential anxiety for many.
“I was being asked over and over again the most intimidating question you can ask young people,” said Alford, “which is: ‘what are you going to do next?’”
Alford wasn’t keen on attending university, considering the costs and what she saw as limited gratification.
Instead, she decided to travel the world.
On May 31, Alford walked into the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea, breaking the record as the youngest person to travel to all 196 countries at the age of 21. (The journey’s financial cost, she said, was the equivalent of a University of California degree.)
Alford is in the process of submitting thousands of documents to the Guinness World Records to prove her accomplishment.
Her journey was as much a logistical challenge as it was a philosophical one.
Alford hoped to answer an age-old question: what should she do with her life? And, more to the point, what makes her feel most alive? What is the meaning of happiness?
But before Alford could experience the introspective side of her journey, there was a mountain of logistics to climb.
On the precipice of engaging the longer stretch of her endeavor, Alford sat down with her travel agent parents and an atlas to determine how she could most effectively work her way to every country.
“I did all the travel management, so it was exhausting,” said Jan Alford, Lexie Alford’s mother.
Alford’s parents were big supporters of their daughter’s travels, providing more than just moral support.
Early in life, the couple who owns a Grass Valley travel agency — Adventure Travel — would pull Alford from school to experience different countries. She went to remote places in Cambodia, India and other developing nations.
“(My parents) really taught me growing up how to navigate the world — what to do (and) what not to do,” said Alford.
Although Alford accomplished 70% of her trip alone, according to her mom, her parents sometimes accompanied her. Additionally, they also always left her room open, providing a home base for her to return.
“(Nevada County) is the best place to come home to because it’s so quiet,” said Alford. “It’s a beautiful place to rest and unwind.”
FEW, ENDURING OBSTACLES
A persistent issue she ran into was acquiring enough cash to continue her journey.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t stress about money,” she wrote on her website.
Alford took on many jobs in order to self-fund her trip. Working at an early age, she had been saving money since she was nine, and continued working through her travels as a photographer, clothing model and travel consultant for her parent’s company, she said.
Money and loneliness aside, solving logistical problems to enter unsafe, or infrequently traveled, countries was her most difficult task.
Regardless of the country’s political turmoil, though, the people she encountered were always welcoming, according to Alford and her mother.
“She never had a problem in any country she went to,” said Jan Alford, except on one occasion when a West African immigration officer made a comment about “keeping her in his closet.”
That misogynistic sentiment aside, her gender seldom hindered her travels either from hecklers domestically or abroad, she said.
“I think the world is very ready for women in leadership roles and doing things that were once dominated by men,” said Alford. (Vox recently reported that women travel alone more than men.)
Alford acknowledged this was probably the only time period she could have traveled to every country in the world.
“It hasn’t really been a feasible option to travel to every country in the first place,” she said, “and it hasn’t been until recently that some countries are more welcoming to female travelers, especially solo female travelers.
“This is the golden age of travel. This is the greatest time to be alive.”
Alford was able to resolve some of the questions that sparked her 196-country-long trip.
She has come to understand that humans are similar, everyone desiring the ability to follow their passions, feel fulfilled and immerse themselves in something greater.
Frequently, she cited the happiest people in the world as those who struggled most and maintained few material possessions.
“Surprisingly enough, the people that have the least end up being the most kind and generous people in the world,” she said.
But there are boundaries to this sentiment, she said, as people need adequate food, water, health care and shelter before reaching this state of joy.
Western cultures, particularly the United States, she said, can learn from this lesson by more effectively redistributing wealth and giving to those with less.
Alford quoted an expression from the developing world to support her understanding that happier countries are ones that prioritize the betterment of community and ensure everyone has enough to live comfortably.
“In Pakistan, she said, “they say, ‘no Pakistani goes to sleep hungry.’”
While America is imperfect, Alford is grateful to be an American citizen, and for the political and social liberties that follow.
“We really are free,” she said. “We’re genuinely free. And that’s something that is easy to take for granted or overlook because we do have so many problems.”
Otherwise, she said, no country is perfect — none entirely happy nor worry free — including those in northern Europe, despite ranking high on happiness surveys.
TRAVEL IS ABOUT THE SEER, NOT THE SEEN
By 2018, Alford had visited 120 countries. During that time, she said she began to understand traveling as a highly subjective experience. What it ultimately offers the self is subject to what the self chooses to be offered.
“I completely believe that your opinion of a country is solely based on the experience you had there rather than the country itself,” she said.
Two similar people, she said, can go to the same place and have radically different perspectives on it.
For Alford, the more time she spent in a country, more deeply engaging its spaces and people, the more she enjoyed it.
“Some of my favorite countries are the ones that I got to stay the longest and the ones that I had the opportunity to go out into the rural parts and see the nature and see the locals and feel immersed in it.”
RETURNING TO the familiar
Having accomplished her goal to become the youngest person to travel to every country, Alford finds herself in a vaguely similar position as when her adventure began.
“I’m very much back in the spot where everyone’s asking me ‘what’s next?’ again,” she said.
Alford said she will take the next few months to mentally and physically recover from her exploring. She gave a TED Talk last Saturday in Austria, and hopes to do public speaking professionally.
She is also writing a book. The working title is “Around the World in 21 years.”
As for takeaways, Alford feels her travels offered her a deeper sense of appreciation — not only for accomplishing something more exclusive than space travel — but for experiencing life as a young, white female American in the 21st century.
“The biggest impact that travel has had on my life — seeing different ways of the world — is that I’m so grateful to have as much privilege and opportunity that I have.”
Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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