I don’t typically do interviews on my blog (in fact I never have before), but when I heard about Woni I was intrigued. I commented on her blog and she immediately wrote back to me which began a conversation in which I discovered a sweet, humble, shy and fascinating spirit, one I truly wanted to know better. My impetus to write this is so that more people can also know her better. She is inspiring as a woman, as a person of color and as a 50 something traveler with a lifetime of travel wisdom and stories to share.
Woni has gone beyond what any other traveling woman (that we know of) has accomplished. She wasn’t looking for fame or accolades, she just visited every country in the world, in her own way, without sponsors and (gasp) OFF of any social media. This is one of many things that makes Woni’s journey so special to people who don’t believe in racing around the world just to say you did it. Woni visited Easter Island, Greenland, the Galapagos, places she just wanted to visit, whether or not it “counted” as a country.
(All images owned and provided by Woni Spotts)
Woni is finally getting some media attention (that she really doesn’t want but deserves). She has done a few other interviews and if you are as fascinated by her as I am, you’ll want to read them.
Who is Woni Spotts?
Woni was born in Los Angeles, CA in 1964. Her parents were Roger Hamilton Spotts, a successful American composer and musician and Betty Spotts, a singer, songwriter, pianist and dancer. They traveled around the world and took Woni along, planting the travel seed very early. Sadly both have since passed away and Woni is an only child.
While in high school, Woni had a unique opportunity presented to her by a family friend, Nolan Davis. Nolan, a screenwriter, author and journalist, had conceived of a daunting project; to make a documentary with material from every country in the world. Thanks to the sense of adventure she already possessed, Woni was on board with this project and ended up visiting 160 countries as a teenager!
Sadly, the project was never completed as Nolan had passed away. At this point, Woni was exhausted from the pace of travel and had been already losing steam for the project.
Back to Real Life
Woni returned to “real” life…college, job, etc but the wanderlust was still there. She never found a mate or friends that were as keen to travel as she was and for a while, this kept her from realizing her travel dreams. How many of us can relate to that?? At one point she had an epiphany. “I realized I was getting older and that if I didn’t go to those places [I hadn’t been], I was never going to go. I was tired of looking at the pyramids in documentaries and so I said, ‘That’s it! I’m going to Egypt. Egypt or bust!’”
Once Woni made the decision to stop waiting for others to travel, the beast was out. She joined organized tours, found local tour guides in less developed countries, and even went on an expedition to Antarctica. Between 2014 and 2018 she visited her last 33 countries. As of September 28, 2018, she had visited 195 countries, 7 continents and 22 territories, at the age of 55.
So that’s the background. Now I’ll let Woni speak for herself.
What Inspired You To Visit Every Country?
It was not my intention to visit every country. At first, I went along for the ride. Later I realized that I visited so many countries that I could easily visit them all in my lifetime. I’ve also visited areas that are not considered countries.
Did You Always Enjoy Travel as a Child?
My first impressions of traveling were good ones. The pilots actually let me work the controls and the flight attendants played with me.
What are your favorite places?
I love the Mediterranean area and I am fascinated with polar regions.
You went to some places that are now war-torn such as Syria and Yemen. What was it like when you visited?
Yemen was not having visible violence when I visited in the early ’80s but a few years later they had a lot of turmoil. I didn’t spend much time in Sana’a or Sana, Yemen but the architecture looked like gingerbread houses. I visited the museum and walked around the city. My main focus was on visiting Socotra Island’s weird trees. I love oddities. Yemen is an interesting “under the radar” destination and very important to history.
Syria had issues when I was there (also in the 1980s). In many cases, violence was localized. I was able to see Syria without any nearby violence but the atmosphere was tense. I had a city tour then we drove to Palmyra. It’s sad to see that Palmyra was damaged.
Tell me about visiting North Korea
North Korea was intense. I received a safety briefing and a lot of warnings not to do this or that. Honestly, I just wanted to leave. Filming was limited after they initially granted permission. I could not explore (even with their selected guide) or relax.
What is unique to your experience as a black female traveler?
Most of the world recognizes me as a Black American tourist. My local guides relate to me that they are encouraged to see a wider demographic visiting. Because I am Black, my tours are always from a different perspective. For example, in Bolivia, the pain of Spanish Colonialism, which consisted of mental and physical brutality, as well as cultural and spiritual oppression, were fully expressed to me. In China, the guides used their real names confiding to me that they are usually forced to use an “American” name. In Egypt, the guide never hid the African-ess of Ancient Egypt. The same can be said for many countries. My experience touring as a Black woman has been unique.
Sometimes I am treated like an oddity. People are curious more than racist.
In the United States, I was asked to stand aside until everyone else boarded. I reported the behavior, received an apology but no reason was given. The TSA “felt me up” on a few occasions but no more than anyone else. Sometimes vegan snacks trigger extra scrutiny.
That’s right, she’s even a vegan traveler! I have tried and failed at that so I asked her for tips.
I always tell the tour company I’m vegan so they are able to accommodate. On the road, I’m easy to please. I eat grilled veggies and potatoes mostly. I bring single serving protein shakes, tea, decaf coffee, cacao powder, and tomato powder or broth for instant soup. At home, I’m an intermittent fasting Keto vegan so I only eat once a day and I eat very low carb. Every 10 days I pig out on vegan cupcakes and potato chips. Pigging out is required to keep your body from acclimating. I revamped my diet because I was gaining weight 2 years ago and like the results. I do 20 mins of HIIT cardio every other day in the house or hotel and weights every 7-10 days. While traveling, I skip the weights. No gym needed, no excuses.
(Oh I have plenty of excuses Woni!)
Do you have a favorite funny story?
A 20-year-old Bedouin man proposed to me in Jordan. He laid out in detail his income and how we would live (a cave was involved) he kept me company on my long walk out of Petra. I tried to tell him I was older than his mother but he wouldn’t listen. He handed me a business card that said: “Donkey Engineer” Oddly enough, in Turkey, a business owner also proposed (after a two-minute meeting) He said we would live in his cave hotel. So far two cave-dwelling offers on the table. 🙂
Have you ever considered marriage or children?
Her answer to this vapid question (I’m sorry I asked since I personally hate being asked!) is brilliant and I am going to steal it.
I wanted someone I could trust, a relationship more powerful than marriage. I deeply adore children that’s why I extended my childhood 55 years:)
Advice for other travelers?
I’ve seen extraordinary beauty, history, and peace in countries deemed unsafe and not fit for travel. I usually follow the safety recommendations. I wait for tensions to die down but sometimes you just have to go! Egypt was never going to be declared safe so I made my choice. If a local tour company is willing to escort you, it’s usually safe enough.
If I could do It again, I would first visit places that I’m sure I’m going to love. If you insist on visiting every country just to say you did it, I suggest traveling regionally. For example, base yourself in South America and visit countries you’ve never visited. Repeat the process in Central America, The Caribbean, South Pacific, South East Asia, Eurasia, Europe, etc. Enjoy your precious time in each place.
When I told her my own plans to visit as many countries as I can, she told me this:
“Please don’t rush. I rushed through the Caribbean, Pacific islands, and West Africa and now it’s a blur. I would like to revisit certain places. The last 30 + places have been so enjoyable. I’ve seen things that interest me and go at my own pace. I travel by myself using a local guide. I saw an 80 plus-year-old woman in Greenland pulling her huge luggage. We have the rest of our lives to explore:)”
When asked about whether or not she plans to keep traveling (well duh!)
Yes, there’s always something new to see even if it’s the same country. Japan, Italy, France, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, etc. can all be visited from different perspectives.
Now I’m taking a break and moving to a new area of California. I’ll be on the road in a year or so.
Is there anything else people should know about you?
I want people to know that I have used the internet from 1998. Prior to that I used electronic instruments and components. I know how to use electronics and computers. I’m not “analog”. My photos, movies, books and music are all digital. I live alone so for security reasons, it’s not wise to announce a long absence from my residence to the entire world. I have chosen not to share my life digitally. Also, I never thought anyone cared about my activities.
Well, there ARE some of us that care!
I’m thrilled and flattered that Woni allowed me to interview her and I’d love to get her story out there. Woni was never (and still is not) after fame but simply wants the acknowledgment in the travel community that she was the first black woman to visit every country in the world. Others should not capitalize on an honor that is hers.