Many people who feel overworked, overstressed or just plain bored with their everyday lives, have probably said at one point, “Man, I’d like to take a year off to travel the world.”
But few people actually do it. And no one literally means they’d like to attempt the unimaginably expensive and logistically implausible task of seeing the entire world in 365 days.
However, three resilient travelers from different corners of the planet have recently teamed up to attempt just that: visit 206 countries and territories in one year, spending less than 48 hours in each country and break a Guinness World Record in the process.
The trip, called “The Expedition 206” world happiness tour, is being sponsored and organized by Coca-Cola.
By answering various vaguely worded email offers and classified ads that appeared in different parts of the world last year, Kelly Rose Ferris, Tony Alfonzo and Carlos Solórzano were among 18 international finalists chosen by Coca-Cola and flown to company headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, in September for a week-long evaluation involving team-building exercises and psychological profiling.
The finalists were also tested on their multimedia savvy – familiarity with blogging, tweeting, face-booking, and posting video files – as well as their interpersonal skills. Eventually, the three winners were selected and sent off into the world with iphones, blackberries, video cameras and digital recorders, and told to find out what makes people happy.
The trio launched its world tour on New Year’s Eve, and by the time The Nica Times caught up with them Jan. 22 in Granada, they had already visited 18 countries.
Tony, an affable 30-year-old from “the hood” in Washington, D.C., said even after three weeks on the road, and with less than 10 percent of their world tour completed, the trip is already “beyond blurring.”
“It’s strange, when immigration people ask us where we’re coming from and where we’re going next, we all just look at each other, like, ‘Where are we going tomorrow?’” Tony said. “And they ask where are you coming from? And I’m sitting there like, ahhh, were did we come from? It looks pretty suspicious.”
Kelly, a multilingual university student who was born in South Africa and raised in Belgium, adds, “Immigration is interesting every time. On the forms, there is a question asking: How many countries have you visited in the past six weeks? In the beginning we were filling it all in with small writing, but now we write, ‘18 countries. If you want to know, ask’.”
“Now we are like Zen masters, living the day here and now. And nothing else,” adds Carlos, a Yoga teacher who identifies as Mexican-Puerto Rican.
According to Tony, a typical day for the atypical travelers means waking up and leaving for the airport at 4 or 5 a.m, catching a flight, arriving in a new country between 9 -11 a.m., immediately interviewing people to find out what makes them happy, do some sightseeing, update their webpage (www.expedition206.com), eat and then crash in the hotel. Then they get up and do it all over again the next day.
Most of their sleeping is done in transit from one spot to the next.
The group’s webpage, which they update constantly throughout the day, has an interactive message board that allows people to communicate with the travelers and even give them sight-seeing tips. One of the trio tries to answer each comment or question posted on the page.
The airfares, visas and travel logistics are all handled by Coca-Cola, and the company gives each of the travelers a per diem for food and lodging. The group is received in each country by the local Coca-Cola representatives, who orient them and show them around.
“The places we’ve visited are wonderful, but when we remember this trip, we are going to talk about the people we met in those places, because that’s really what this trip has been about,” Tony said.
Between the three of them, the Coca-Cola happiness ambassadors speak five languages, allowing them to communicate, in one form or another, with most of the people they’ve met so far.
“That’s what’s different between what we’re doing and what you see on other travel channels, which is all about the country and the tourism,” Kelly added. “Here it’s about the people. It’s all about meeting the people and seeing what makes them happy and what their culture is about.”
The only two countries the group won’t be visiting are North Korea and – less understandably – Cuba, even though Coca-Cola has a presence on the island nation.
The itinerary does, however, include some other not-so touristy sites, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. The group will also be visiting Haiti in August, and claim they look forward to that stop.
Tony said the task of asking people what makes them happy on the quake-destroyed island, “Is going to be an opportunity to see what shines through the disaster, to see what grows from the rubble.”
“A lot of places we are visiting are really poor,” Carlos added. “But one lady in Guyana told us she thinks the poorest countries are the places where it’s the easiest to know happiness.
Because the moment you lose the material stuff and those desires, it’s easier to find happiness within. Those are the lessons of life. You would think that by going to First World countries it would be easier to find happiness, but that’s not true.”
The group also has rave reviews for Nicaragua, where cause for happiness is work and family.
“Nicaragua has such beautiful people, and even though it’s poor, it has such a rustic beauty to it,” Tony said. “We’ve really gotten into it; I’ve bonded with Nicaragua in a way I never expected to.”
The group’s 24-hour whirlwind tour of Nicaragua included a trip to Granada’s Isletas and a visit to the smoldering crater of Masaya’s Volcano – an experience they described as “very emotional.”
“When we got to the volcano it was an emotional moment for me,” Tony said. “I come from the middle of the city in D.C., and I never ever would have dreamed of something like that. So they let me stay up there for 20 minutes and have my moment.”
While much of the trip is happening too fast to digest properly, Tony said Nicaragua has made such an impact on him in a such a short amount of time that he’d like to come back to visit when the Coca-Cola world tour is over. Plus, he’ll have enough frequent flyer miles to travel first class for free for the rest of his life.
“I have a list of places I would love to live in the world, and it’s a short list because I am really picky – and (Nicaragua) has kind of made the list, because this is one of the places I would love to come and spend six months to year learning Spanish,” Tony said. “I love this place, and it surprised me how it’s captured me.”
Coming from someone who is seeing it all, that’s further evidence that Nicaragua is like no other place else on earth.