John Rheinberger was strolling through the main square in Dakar, the capital of the western African nation of Senegal, when he asked a passerby to take his photograph. Having traveled alone to dozens of countries, this was something he had grown accustomed to, and usually he found people to be accommodating. But this time, the passerby refused, which put Rheinberger on alert: something was amiss.
He was approached by a group of young men who struck up a conversation about the pants he was wearing. The group was very complimentary to him and began to take an apparent closer interest, pulling at the cuffs and examining the material. It was clear their motives were not to praise his fashion sensibility. As Rheinberger strategized his next move, it was too late. His passport had been taken and would be held hostage until he paid a ransom to get it back.
A situation like this might rattle the typical American traveling abroad, but Rheinberger remained cool. Promising payment, he coaxed the thieves back to a location near his hotel – and its security – where he could safely make an exchange. In the end, he lost a few dollars but ultimately got his passport back.
While the experience was far from enjoyable, it was one he was able to take in stride as a seasoned globe-trotter. Rheinberger has set foot in every country in the world – all 196 of them. And the nearly 40-year journey has taught him many lessons, not the least of which is how to get out of a sticky situation.
Rheinberger’s first curiosity with travel began when he was a child. He recalls long road trips with his parents while growing up during the ’50s and ’60s, a time when it was fashionable to travel by car and see the country. By the age of 18, he had visited 46 states.
“I really liked the momentum of the car. Everywhere I looked, there was something new to see,” he said. “I liked the idea of the unknown – the illusion of excitement visiting places I’d never seen before.”
But as he grew, Rheinberger understood there was so much more to see. “It’s like a dog chasing the car – if I ran and didn’t catch it, there was always something else.”
A planner from the start
As a student at St. Thomas in the late 1960s, Rheinberger spent a lot of time thinking about his future. He allowed himself to be exposed to the differing ideas of his classmates and professors; his own ideas began to develop as a result. Among them was the idea to complete his education – which he did in short order. He earned his undergraduate degree from St. Thomas in 33 months with a double major in history and political science.
As his ideas continued to grow, he created a list of life goals that if accomplished could lead him to a fulfilled life. It included everything from community involvement to furthering his education. (Today, he holds six degrees, including an M.B.A. from St. Thomas.) It also included the goal of seeing the world through frequent travel, which he describes as one of his “cardinal desires in life.”
At first, Rheinberger simply aspired to see new places and experience new things. He didn’t set out to visit every country, but a friend helped open his mind to the possibility. On a whim, the pair rented a car and drove nonstop from St. Paul to Alaska and back in a week. “He was a good travel companion at the time because he had availability, a desire to see the world – and a credit card,” Rheinberger said. They continued to travel together and made their first trip across an ocean to Australia in 1978.
Even though he had been to Canada and Mexico, Rheinberger credits the Australia trip as his first true international experience. It also was the first trip in a yearlong schedule that brought him to three additional continents.
Six months after returning from Australia, Rheinberger embarked on a whirlwind tour of western Europe. In December of that year, he took swings through South America and Africa. It was his first experience traveling alone, which soon became his modus operandi. In those early days, he made sure he took the time to soak in what he was experiencing. “When I was younger, there was a sense of wonderment with each new country,” he said of his first trip through Africa, where he took in sights such as Victoria Falls, Lake Tanganyika, the Great Pyramids and the Suez Canal.
In 1979, after taking a trip through the Soviet Union, it was time for a break. Rhienberger entered law school and, consequently, entered a time in his life when he would focus on building his career and starting a business. (He is a tax and estate planning attorney in Stillwater, Minn.) He didn’t leave the country again until a 1990 tour for the U.S. Army Reserves brought him back to Europe – the only trip he took for professional reasons, during which he was able to acquire his 107th country, Lichtenstein.
Every country has a story
Ask Rheinberger about his travel experiences on a philosophical level and he tends to talk in metaphors about reaching for lofty goals and always coming up with new ideas. But ask him about a specific country he has visited and you will learn that each one has a story.
There is no shortage of anecdotes, including how he got the best sleep of his life while traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway or how he was approached by a wealthy-looking gentleman in an Ecuadoran restaurant with an offer to spend an evening with a prostitute, an offer he respectfully declined.
Rheinberger also shares a harrowing story about a trip to Zaire, a country that he ranks as his worst to visit. “Zaire has the worst airport safeguards in the world – and that’s the least of its problems,” according to Rheinberger, who discovered when he arrived that there was a national strike in progress. “The airport is located 15 miles from town, but there is no transportation provided to get back and forth,” he said. To get around meant bribing corrupt military and government officials. After spending one night and nearly missing his opportunity to leave while getting harassed at an airport check-in, Rheinberger was happy to cross Zaire off his list.
Another lesser-traveled destination was reached on an excursion to Antarctica. “If you have a group of people who claim they’ve been to Antarctica, you’ll know which one is telling the truth.” According to Rheinberger, when asked about the most memorable attribute of the icy continent, some might expect to hear about the water or the cold. “They’re lying. Because if you’ve ever been there, the most vivid memory you have is the smell.” Apparently, there are no pooper scoopers on Antarctica, and in a place where penguins have the run of the land, things tend to pile up over time.
When choosing destinations, Rheinberger likes to focus on capital cities. “The capital is the cultural center of a country. You can see a lot in a short amount of time,” he said. “I also find that you get a real experience by staying in the city.”
By immersing himself in the capital cities, he allows himself to experience what locals might feel, unlike what he refers to as the “National Geographic” perception, which tends to be a single person’s account of an individual moment that most people would never experience.
Rheinberger also finds that capital cities offer the best accommodations. When it comes to where he rests his head, he spares no expense. He stays at four- and five-star hotels whenever possible for several reasons. “You get what you pay for in a lot of ways,” he said. “I like to stay at well-known places because taxi drivers know where they are, they have the best security, they are usually centrally located and they almost always have good restaurants.”
When it comes to food, you might expect that he’s sampled some of the strangest delicacies the world has to offer. On the contrary, “I like burgers and fries, and you can get that in almost every country.” And when there are no other viable options, “There’s always a McDonald’s.”
But even American food can have its shortcomings in certain parts of the world. While visiting Bhutan, a country in the Himalaya Mountains, Rheinberger ordered a burger at a supposed high-end restaurant. Over time, he had learned to ask about the origins of food he was about to eat to avoid any digestive interruptions. Upon asking his server, he learned that all of the country’s beef came from India, where cows are allowed to die of natural causes before being exported. A red flag arose when he learned how long it took for the beef to be transported. “I wasn’t taking any chances on beef that had spent a week or more on a push cart coming up the mountains to Bhutan.”
Although there are a few downsides, Rheinberger mostly prefers to travel alone as it’s much easier to handle logistics of only one person, particularly toward the end of his “list” when he says visiting countries became much more mechanical.
“In the beginning, I had a lot more of a sense of wonder about the new places I was seeing,” he said. “It became more about crossing countries off my list toward the end. The differences between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ places became irrelevant.”
Travel tips from the expert
As someone who has spent so much time in airports and hotels, Rheinberger often is asked for travel tips. For anyone hoping to match his accomplishment, he lists several suggestions:
Try to be the first person in line to check in at the airport and the first person on the plane. “In some countries, government officials can override your seating,” he said. “The first person to sit in a seat gets to keep it, even if there are two people assigned to the seat. Your carry-on luggage has to fit, too.”
When arriving in a foreign country, try to be the first person through customs. According to Rheinberger, “This guarantees a better shot at getting a taxi and helps you avoid any extortion by the remaining taxi drivers – if one exists at all.”
Do not rely on wake-up calls. “About one-third of them fail, regardless of hotel quality. You should always get one, but only count on it as a back-up.” Rheinberger doesn’t travel with an alarm clock, but has his own system: “Drink water before you go to bed, you’ll wake up eventually.”
While getting around in an unfamiliar place, don’t be afraid to ask questions of the locals, but use the rule of three. “Ask three people the same question, if at least two people have the same answer, that’s probably the right one,” he said.
Never forget your ideas
According to Rheinberger, “St. Thomas is a dangerous place.”
And that’s coming from someone who has traveled to such perceived dangerous places as Afganistan, Yemen and Somalia, where, incidentally, he says he felt quite safe. “Because people are so concerned with where they’ll find their next meal that they don’t have the luxury to commit a crime.”
With regard to his St. Thomas experience, the “danger factor” is in the learning and sharing of ideas and where those ideas can lead you. In Rheinberger’s case, they led him around the world over the course of nearly 40 years. “St. Thomas is a cradle of ideas,” he said. “None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been involved when I was a student. I wouldn’t have had the tools.”
In November 2011, Rheinberger stepped into Somalia and, at that moment, his 196th country. What’s next for the man who spent much of his life traveling the world? Some pursuits are yet to be determined, but he is sure of one thing, “You always have to plan for tomorrow, you have to initiate it. Never forget your ideas.”
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