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If it’s Tuesday, it must be Malta
January 09, 2018
In November, Sal Lavallo became one of the youngest people to visit every country in the world – all 193 of them. We spoke to him about his favorite places, what he never travels without, and what he took away from the experience.

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This past November, Sal Lavallo (ADH 13-16) touched down in Malta – the final stop in fulfilling his goal of visiting every one of the world’s 193 countries. 

At 27, he is one of the youngest people to ever complete such a journey, filling nearly six passports in the process.

Sal – from Indiana, but born to European parents – had always loved travel. While a consultant at McKinsey, he was based in Abu Dhabi, and did a fair bit of continent-hopping for his client work. After leaving the Firm in 2016, he decided to take a bit of time before figuring out his next career move, using the time to explore the world. At the end of 2016, he realized that there were only about 30 countries that he hadn’t visited. A new goal for 2017 came into being. 

“When I left the Firm I was going to take six months off, and then that turned into a handful more, and then finally it turned into a year,” he explains. “I said, okay, if I take that much time off, I need to achieve something. So why not try and finish?”

Armed with hotel points, a list of friends in far-flung places, and, toward the end of his journey, a sponsorship from SPG and Marriott, Sal threw himself into the final leg of his travels with gusto, gathering thousands of Instagram followers along the way (his handle is @sallavallo, if you’d like to follow him as well).

He also took advantage of the attention to put focus on the beauty of places that Westerners are typically taught to fear and to avoid – Yemen, Syria, Libya – and to underline the commonalities that we all share.

He recently sat down with us to talk about his journey and what he took away from it.

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You are based in the UAE, and also own a small farm in Tanzania. What are some of your other favorite places and why?

For me travel is about learning. I studied development and identity and so my favorite places are where I can learn about these issues. I was in Algeria for a month this year and not only is the nature completely not what you would expect – there is a lot of desert, but they also have a huge Mediterranean coastline, and mountains, and pretty islands – but the people are some of the most hospitable in the world. And it's such a diverse spot that it's really interesting to learn about the history. They had the Romans, the Carthaginians, and a lot of the people there are descended from the Ottomans. It's an interesting place.

Another spot that I like a lot is Syria. I was just there this year. It's another place that's really misunderstood. Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It's interesting to go and pay attention to the history, and food, and people of a place that we typically think of only in terms of war.

I also really like Argentina. I have a lot of family living there. There’s lots of really good food, and you can go horseback riding and paragliding, or kind of live a “cowboy” lifestyle. Honestly, I've loved so many places, it's hard to say a favorite. There really isn't anywhere that I don't like so I always have good things to say about everywhere I go.

What was the most challenging aspect of getting to so many places? Isn’t it difficult to get visas to some countries?

99% of my experience was so positive, it's almost disingenuous to pick a challenging bit. There can be visa issues, but I was really lucky and my timing was perfect. I don’t consider myself an adventurer and don’t want to take security risks, but I was able to visit each country in times of relative peace or in parts of the country not experiencing violence.

Americans can't go to North Korea now, but I went a few months before the travel ban. There was a year-and-a-half window where getting to Cuba was easy, and I went in that window. The visa stuff can be a challenge: you have to structure the way you're going to do it, where you're going to fly, where you're going to be when, how you get the visas, so it is logistically difficult. But as a McKinsey alum I like that challenge. It can be difficult, but there's so much to learn, so it's worth it.

Sal in Libya

Did being a McKinsey alum help you in any way on your travels?

When I was working in the Middle East Office, I worked in ten different countries and met a lot of great people. I still have many friends at the Firm. In my finale in Malta, two of my McKinsey batchmates, people I was BAs with, came and met me for the big party. And my former colleagues helped me several times. In Algeria, Libya, and Syria, I stayed either with McKinsey friends or with their families. Being a part of that kind of global community has helped me to explore the globe because it's given me a lot of tools to access and understand the world.

Is there an experience you would highlight as being particularly transformative?

I was really interested to go to North Korea because I studied it quite extensively for my undergraduate degree. What I realized before going was that even I – who had been to so many places, met so many people, and knew relatively a lot about the country – thought I wouldn’t be able to connect with the people there, as if they would be too different. 

Really quickly after I arrived, I realized that wasn't true. One night my male guide and I stayed up really late together. We talked about sports, and girls, and making our dads proud, and getting jobs, and having a family. And he, of course, is a very privileged North Korean, and I am obviously a very privileged American, but it was so strange to go in such a short time from thinking I wouldn’t be able to relate to anyone there, to feeling close with this guy.

Most of my favorite anecdotes are along those lines of my ideas of a place being really shifted.

Is there any one thing you never travel without?

I always take my Kindle because I always want to be reading. I feel like that's another way of travelling – travel through books. So I always have my Kindle. I recently was reading Clarice Lispector's anthology of short stories. I also love G.K. Chesterton and I'm always reading him.

For the first six months I travelled without a phone, which was fun. That caused a lot of annoyances since I wasn’t able to communicate easily with people. 

What would you say is your biggest takeaway?

The lesson that I learned the most was to listen more than you talk. A lot of times when you're travelling – or anywhere, for that matter – you'll hear a viewpoint that is completely different to what you think is correct and your instant reaction is to fight back. But then you're not going to understand their mindset. If you take a step back and ask questions, you learn about why someone has underlying beliefs. You can only deconstruct someone’s ideology if you know the foundation of it.

When I lived in Israel, I would talk to both Israelis and Palestinians about their views on the conflict. At times I would immediately want to interject my opinion, but I learned very fast just to ask questions, and listen. There's a beautiful quotation I love from Lester B. Pearson, the former prime minister of Canada. He said, “How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other?”

That's a big part of my purpose of wanting to see the world: to know other people and then to understand them. You can still connect even with people who might believe in something completely different from you, because you can understand the human essence below all those layers.

Sal in Mongolia

Your Instagram account seems to underline the commonalities that we all share as humans.
Yes, I started Instagraming more [@sallavallo], which I thought was a good way to share my insights, and what I was learning. My goal on Instagram is to promote the beauty and positivity of little-known, lesser-visited, and negatively perceived places.

Right now I'm featuring Libya, and I did Syria and Yemen before that. Showing the pretty photos of Yemen doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of negativity there as well, but our minds are complex enough to understand that things aren't just one way. I like to show the sides of places that nobody's seeing, and that nobody’s being shown.

It's a hard world to travel through, but it's also beautiful, and the truth is that people at the end of the day all want to connect, and people all want to be loved. Travelling, I have definitely seen that. There’s not a single person I’ve met that I’ve been unable to relate to.

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