After 23 years travelling the world, Mike Spencer Bown set to leave Ireland and return home
Mike Spencer left home 23 years ago to travel the world. Next week he leaves Ireland, his final port of call, to return home and JOE spoke to arguably the most extensively travelled man of all-time.
Back in 1990, the 21-year old Canadian decided to sell his manufacturing business that was based in Asia in order to travel the world. Now roughly 196 countries later – “I don’t want to say exactly as you might offend some people” – he has decided that he has come to the end of his mammoth journey. And what a journey it has been.
Not only has he travelled the world, he has immersed himself in communities, something he feels sets him apart from others.
“There are more than 300 people who have been to all the other countries, but they are what I consider not real travellers. They are like passengers, and it is a transportation feat rather than a travelling feat,” he argues
“When people say I wish ‘I had travelled more when I was younger’, by travel they don’t mean fly to a country and stick their foot on the tarmac and then fly to the next country having only stayed in a hotel, do they? I doubt it, but that’s what seems to happen in a lot of cases.”
Dinner time in the Congo
While Mike had no travelling experience when he set off from British Columbia 23 years ago, he did possess skills that were to come in very useful during the rest of his adult life. He spent considerable time in the wilderness, so sleeping outdoors, hunting and fishing was nothing new for him. He felt comfortable around most animals having worked for a period as a bear barger [guides who ward off bears for tourists] and his navigational nous was already formed, which would later be put later to the sternest of tests.
He readily admits that travelling then was easier on the pocket than it would be starting out now. The exchange rate was particularly strong and many parts of the world had yet to be commercially developed. Hostels for as little as $0.30 a night were common.
After flying first to Costa Rica and tackling Central America, he spent a number of years in Asia which meant he could still dip into his old business for one week every six months to keep the income steady. By his reckoning, you would need eight years to see Asia properly, almost four for Africa and maybe two for South America at a push.
It would be a couple of years later before he completely finished with work, but says that money is grossly over-rated for such a trip.
“Money might not even scrape into the top five for skills you need to travel. Twice I was offered huge sums of money by high ranking officials to fund my trip as they were so impressed by my method of travelling, but I turned this down. But my costs were often low and I hitch-hiked some of the most dangerous countries.”
Horse riding in Kazakhstan
In all his time travelling, he was mugged just twice (in Angola and Algeria, though he is at pains to point out that these were some of the most hospitable countries he encountered), though in those early years he had to carry a lot of cash in a pre-ATM era, which meant he was even more vigilant and aware of his surroundings.
Incredibly, the traveller extraordinaire was arrested just once, quite the feat considering he was rambling around Iraq during the American invasion, spent time in Congo where tourists are arrested on average six times a day by various police forces and became the first ever tourist in Somalia after the 1991 civil war. The local officials were so stunned that anyone would want to visit Mogadishu that initially they were convinced he was some sort of spy, before finally realising his motives were above board, if not highly unusual.
Security forces in Mogadishu asked Mike to pose with their "favourite weapon"
At times, he could not have been much closer in times of conflict and recollects one hairy moment in Afghanistan.
“I was there when they raided a local restaurant, busting down the doors, turning off the electricity and they had their grenades and rifles," he recollects.
"The command was to confiscate any private person who held firearms, which the owner had for his safety, and give the locals a lot of hassle. When they saw me, I was interrogated, but I tried to use humour to lighten the mood, telling them I was just on vacation, and I was told it was best to move on.”
Africa posed some of the biggest challenges, with not only the sheer scale of the Continent, but the in-fighting made some countries “undoable”. Not for Mike, who decided that hitch-hiking was the only way around this.
“You can’t be practical in Africa with visa restrictions and in-fighting. For example in Eritrea the only way to enter is by plane as they have disputes with every single neighbour.” Many other countries were navigated by using his thumb.
Mixing it with the locals in Somalia
Luck too plays its part and he recounts going down one road where he was told there was a 30 per cent chance the Taliban would behead him if the vehicle he was travelling in was stopped and they discovered he wasn’t a Pashtun - an Indo-Iranian ethnic group belonging to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thankfully he made it through unscathed, and also considers himself fortunate never to have had a medical complaint other than two bouts of malaria, which only lasted a couple of days each. Coartem, which he could buy freely on the street, did the trick and he “just powered through it”.
One skill that stood him in good stead from spending so much time in the bush was his ability to read people and put trust in the right people. Just as well when you spend most of your life on the go.
“If you spend a long time in nature on your own, like I did when I was younger, when you come back and meet people, you are so interested in people you almost over-focus. You get a great insight and you learn a lot when people try to rip you off over the years.”
The traveller fascinating local kids in Rwanda
An understandable concern from such a huge undertaking would be the lack of personal relationships when your life is focused from moving from one place to another so regularly. While he admits family life is different to your average Joe – he did try to spend each Christmas with his mother where possible – modern technology has helped greatly.
“Facebook helps,” he admits. “You can actually meet people again. Pre-email even you would never meet anyone again, people didn’t even bother exchanging postal addresses. Then email came and while you would keep contact for a while, the conversation fizzled out after a while.
"With Facebook, you can keep up to date instantly. For example, there was one Finnish guy I met on Easter Island and I met him again later in Morocco, all through Facebook.”
In the pre-Internet days, or where technology was still in its infancy, the Canadian was reliant on fellow travellers for news which meant he would sometimes be a little late to the party for major events.
“When 911 happened I didn’t find out until almost three weeks later. I was out in the Canadian bush and someone hiked in specially to tell me.”
While it is just as well that Mike was not a keen sports enthusiast, he did decide that he enjoyed rugby after being exposed to the game in Yaounde, Cameroon of all places. And in rather unusual circumstances.
“The hotel in Yaounde was a brothel, ironically called the Ideal Hotel,” he begins. “All the hotels there were brothels and it was the only one close to the Embassy. I spent three weeks working on fake documents before the officials let me through, but rugby looked like fun and I saw plenty of it on the TV there.”
Toasting fellow travellers in Colombia
In fact excelling in forgery was a skill he had plenty of opportunities to develop over the years and says it was one of the biggest banes of his life.
“Sometimes they (border officials) are asking for things that don’t exist. I have been asked to show documents from the police of Canada to say I am an upstanding citizen. Given that Canada is not a police state, the police don’t have the right or responsibility to issue such documentation. Of course to get the visa I had to manufacture something.”
Strategically he picked Israel as his second last country due to issues a stamp on the passport may cause in other countries while Ireland was chosen “decades ago” as his final destination, as he couldn’t think of a better country to celebrate in. His two weeks in the country haven’t disappointed.
“I can’t believe the generosity of the people here,” he enthused. For example, I have spent a week in West Cork down to the generosity of Barry Looney, owner of the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen. He put me up, showed me around the sights and all from getting in contact when he heard my story on the radio. The Irish welcome in all its glory.”
Enjoying a cuppa in Ireland
Finally, when asked how Ireland compares to other countries from a travelling perspective, Mike explains that it holds up well, with Irish food and Guinness real trump cards.
“Irish meals are really big, so two of those a day would keep you going, while a pint of Guinness is like a mini-meal in itself. And I would never grow tired of people buying me drink!
Mike’s immediate future is concerned with media work, guessing he has at least two months ahead of him with TV appearances, radio interviews and a book to write, not to mention a film in the pipeline.
While he adds that he has other challenges in mind, he is due a break. It has been 23 years since his last one.