Extreme Travelers Go The Distance For Destinations

Robert Bonifas and Don Parrish on the road in Khartoum, Sudan. i i

Robert Bonifas (left) and Don Parrish on the road in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The pair are members of a travel website where people compete to see the world. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR
Robert Bonifas and Don Parrish on the road in Khartoum, Sudan.

Robert Bonifas (left) and Don Parrish on the road in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The pair are members of a travel website where people compete to see the world.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

Most people travel for fun or because they have to, but for a select few, travel is a competition. The goal: See as much of the world as possible.

Robert Bonifas and Don Parrish are two such travelers, a sort of extreme Hope and Crosby.

I met the two Americans over breakfast one morning at the Acropole, a hotel in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. They had come to Khartoum to see the sights and check off one more place in their quest to see the entire planet.

They are members of mosttraveledpeople.com, a website where people try to visit 872 possible destinations. Out of more than 9,000 members, Bonifas is ranked fifth; Parrish is sixth.

To advance, members must prove they have been someplace using everything from visas to ticket stubs. Bonifas is keeping a close tally.

"I've visited 724 of those destinations; I've got 148 to go," said Bonifas as he strolled amid dusty displays in a Khartoum museum. "And Don is about four behind me."

Adventures From Mogadishu To Ashkhabad

The drive to see the world has taken the intrepid pair to some menacing places. The most dangerous? Probably Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, Bonifas said.

"They land the plane and face it out toward the runway, in case if something really happens, they can get in the plane and go," he recalled.

At Mogadishu's airport, Bonifas stood under the wing of the Russian jet, while his passport was stamped inside. He said the airport building looked fine from a distance, but added: "It's dangerous enough you don't even go into the terminal."

Part of the appeal of extreme travel is the sense of discovery. Parrish has seen so many obscure places, he tends to start conversations with sentences like this: "When you visit Ashkhabad, it's one of those great surprises."

Recalling the trip, a smile formed on his face as he seemed transported back. "It's filled with lots of interesting architecture, lots of beautiful domes."

If you're wondering where Ashkhabad is — I didn't know, either — it's the capital of Turkmenistan, one of the five "Stans" in Central Asia.

Parrish became interested in travel as a kid. He started collecting stamps at age 6. Later, he read the books of American Richard Halliburton, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, and inspired an entire generation of travelers to get off the beaten track.

"This man goes all over the world, and he has all these adventures," said Parrish, sounding like a kid again. "He climbs the pyramids. He swims through the Suez Canal. So, this really captured my imagination."

Learning How The World Works

Parrish, 66, of Downers Grove, Ill., is retired from a job with Lucent Technologies and travels at least half the year. The journeys generate extraordinary itineraries at considerable cost. Parrish remembers one trip required 73 flights. Bonifas says their current tour will run about $35,000 per person.

Parrish, who counts five passengers on the Mayflower among his ancestors, says he manages to afford the trips in part because he has no children.

Bonifas, who is 73, owns a burglar alarm company in suburban Chicago and is independently wealthy. The pair have traveled so many places together, they struggle to recall how they first met.

"We met on a tour ... I don't know, was it Africa? Or Central Asia?" Parrish asked.

"No, I think it was the first Iraq tour," replied Bonifas.

"Oh, was that the first? OK," Parrish said.

Given the blistering pace of their trips, you have to wonder: What do they learn? Parrish answered without hesitation: "You learn how the world works. You can see, for example, why some countries are rich and some countries are poor."

And the reason?

"Societies that allow people to develop to their full potential are rich," Parrish continued, "and countries that put impediments in the way of doing that are poor."

He added that an abundance of natural resources doesn't change the equation.

Bonifas says he's also learned to appreciate something else. No matter how much he may criticize the U.S. government, he says he prefers it to any government in the 187 other countries he's visited.

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