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Travel that Transforms

A quest to visit all 193 United Nations-recognized countries dramatically shapes one Member’s perspective on travel.

An Exclusive Resorts Member since 2006, Jim Kitchen, 55, says travel is in his DNA. 

The youngest of five, he spent his childhood summers in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon, road-tripping with his family from Florida to Washington State. After college, he abandoned his plans to join the CIA and launched a travel company that sold Caribbean tours.

“I joke that I traded Moscow for Montego Bay,” he says. After he sold the company in 2005, he wasn’t sure what his next chapter of life would look like, but he knew world travel would play a central role. “I think traveling is what most people live for when they are not stuck doing the mundane to finance their next escape,” he says. Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Kitchen started teaching at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. On a whim, he Googled the number of countries in the world and realized he’d already been to half of them. He thought: Why not see them all? Over the past 30 years, he’s had meaningful experiences in all 193 United Nations-recognized countries. Here, he shares highlights from his globetrotting adventures.

How have you changed as a traveler over the years?

As a young person, I was a collector of places. I raced around ticking boxes. Grand Canyon, check! What’s next? On this big journey, I started to realize it’s not nearly as much fun to collect as it was to connect.

How do you connect with people in a new destination, especially when there is a language barrier?

I look for organic experiences. I probably worked about 100 jobs throughout my trips. I’d see people picking bananas in Cameroon and stop and spend time with them. A lot of developing countries connect over food, so I washed carrots in Afghanistan, picked vegetables in Colombia, roasted cashews in Guinea-Bissau, and made shawarma in Libya.

Can you share an eye-opening moment from your travels?

I was in a crowded market in Afghanistan surrounded by foreign sights, sounds, and smells. People were dressed differently and speaking loudly in this strange language. But when I paused to take it all in, I realized these people are so dissimilar to me yet we all share similar hopes, dreams, and bitter disappointments.

How did you strategize your world travel? How much time did you give yourself to make those connections?

I would do three to four weeks of travel at a time, spending three to four days per country. I might fly to Kiev, drive 300 miles south to see a former Russian mission silo, tour the facility, then drive through the countryside to return to Kiev and hit the opera. I call it power traveling—you see more than most people do in one week. I always had a driver and guide and would stay at a hotel in the heart of town so I could walk out and connect with locals.

A lot of people globetrot in their post-college years, but you embarked on this journey when you were married with two children. How did you incorporate family into your travels?

I think as we get older we become more fearful of the journey we want to take. It feels like there is more at stake. I truly believe visiting new places is the most noble activity we can do. It was important that my family be part of this journey and I took them to the less risky countries. I can tell my kids about poverty but for them to see it in the streets of Delhi, India, gives it context and has a lifelong impact. It makes them so grateful for what they have back home.

What country surprised you most?

Gabon in West Africa is the coolest place on the planet. There is the most amazing rainforest and it meets Africa’s most beautiful beach. If that’s not enough, elephants come out in the morning to frolic on the beach.

What's next?

I told my wife my journey served as a scouting trip. I’m making a list of all of the unbelievably fabulous places I want us to go back to as a family. Having walked in every country, I’m now hoping to see it from space. I also plan to write a book about my experience.