Out of tens of emails I receive every single day, the most frequent question is usually: “Where should I go?” It’s a question that I’m more than used to by now. It’s also a question that was relatively easy to answer in the early stages of my traveling, but now has gotten increasingly difficult.
The reason it has become a difficult question to answer is because when you initially start out traveling, all you see is one exotic country after another. So, when I visited Mexico and Argentina, I had an amazing time. But, later on, when I moved to Brazil, I had an even more amazing time. Naturally, when people asked me what my favorite country was, for a long time the answer was almost always Brazil.
As someone very wise once said, the more you know, the more you know what you don’t know. After visiting over 85 countries, I no longer have a “favorite” country; what I do have is a “palette” of countries that I enjoy spending time in depending on my needs and my mood. Certain countries simply “mesh” better with my personality and may (or may not) mesh better with yours. It’s more of a consequence of experience and wisdom than anything else.
For instance, Brazil is one of the most extroverted places I’ve been to in my life. You could just be walking on the street and easily strike up a conversation with pretty much anyone. People are incredibly open and friendly. Everyone is smiling. Things are super easy. It’s easy to form connections and friendships. If you’re a shy and introverted type, the first thing that’ll happen is that you’ll be motivated to become more outgoing and friendly.
On the opposite side of the spectrum there’s a country like Russia. Most of the year, it’s a cold and dreary place where even smiling at strangers is considered strange and even inappropriate. Thanks to close to a century of authoritarian rule, people are inherently untrusting so making good friends takes time. However, once you do make friends, you’ll have friends for life.
Russia is a country at the extreme. It’s a cold and unforgiving place, but it’s also a place where a man can indeed feel like a man. I haven’t been in any other country where true and raw masculinity is so revered and respected by the society as a whole—not to mention sought after by extremely beautiful and sexy women. That can be a severe culture shock if you’ve lived your entire life in the West and have never experienced a country where political-correctness is as foreign concept as trying to clarify that you don’t eat meat to a waitress in a restaurant.
Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. So, if Russia proves too much of a culture shock, there’s always Serbia, a country with a similar mentality as Russia, but warmer and easier-going people. The food is also much better and tastier (one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had was in Belgrade). In fact, that’s exactly what I did couple of years ago when it suddenly became super cold in September in the gorgeous St. Petersburg, Russia: I booked the first flight to sunny Belgrade, Serbia.
Being originally from Ukraine, I have a thing for Slavic countries (and Slavic women), but I hate the cold and dreary weather and the decaying Soviet buildings everywhere. So, what’s the solution? That’s easy. There’s always a solution. There’s Croatia, a Slavic country that’s also blessed with a beautiful Mediterranean coast. Croatia is like Russia’s distant cousin, but the weather is much better than even Serbia, especially when the latter experiences a scorching 40C (110F) summers. Croatia feels like a mixture of Italy and Serbia. And, as expected, the food is awesome.
If you like Old World Europe and enjoy cities like Rome or Madrid, then you’ll enjoy Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina. Buenos Aires is what happens when you put large Southern European capitals in a blender. The resulting cocktail is a mixture of all things European inside South America. There are parts of it that look like Madrid. There’s also a feeling of being in Rome. Other times it even feels like Barcelona. It’s also about five times cheaper than either of those cities.
But don’t come to Argentina if you’re looking for Latin America. Argentina is too European to have the familiar Latin American feel. If you want to experience true Latin American culture, you must head north to Colombia or Peru. Venezuela is cool too, but it’s busy self-destructing at the moment (not to mention being too dangerous). Colombia and Mexico are my two favorite “Latin” countries.
One thing I love about Turkey is the tea. I don’t drink coffee, but my tea needs to be close to perfect. Strong. Tasty. Maybe even exhilarating. Turkey is one of the best countries in the world if you love tea. The best part? There’s just one type of tea. You come into a cafe/restaurant/hole and the wall/street stand/whatever and ask for tea. They don’t ask you whether you want Earl Grey, English Breakfast or some fancy shmancy hipster vintage artisan tea. They just pour you a cup of delicious tea. Period. End of story. (India’s masala tea is similarly ubiquitous.)
When I lived in Denmark, I loved that everything is “fair.” In fact, it seemed that “fair” might be Dane’s favorite word. Pretty much anything and everything in the world can be agreed and all differences will be reconciled if things are deemed “fair.” But you know what sucks about Denmark? The tea. I once came into a trendy coffee shop and ordered tea. The guy behind the counter opened up a wooden tray, containing probably 50 or 100 packet teas. After few minutes of deliberation, I finally randomly picked some tea. I never did return to that coffee shop because I didn’t want to go through that agonizing process ever again.
Finding an ideal country is an iterative process. Picking a country that suits your personality is like choosing what business to start. When you start a business, you’re basically operating blind, feeling your way through the darkness. You’re confused and don’t know what works and where you’ll succeed. That’s normal. Hopefully, if you’re doing something right, over time, you’ll slowly figure out what works and what doesn’t you go from there.
That first business flopped, but something about it worked, and that turned into the second business. The second business may have flopped as well, but thanks to important lessons learned while building it, you start a third (or tenth) business that ultimately succeeds.
It’s the same when it comes to travel. Maybe you’ve been dreaming about visiting Argentina for many years. So, you finally take the leap and go. After spending a week in Buenos Aires, you realize that the people are too snobby and not “Latin” enough, so you move northward to Peru and Colombia. After traveling around Colombia, you realize that Medellin is the perfect combination of safety, weather and quality of life. You end up staying in Medellin until you get tired of the monotony of the city and decide to go to Bogota or Cali.
Or maybe you’ve always dreamed of visiting Russia, but find the people a bit too blunt for your Westernized, politically-correct upbringing. So, you pack your bags and head to the Balkans and settle into Montenegro, Macedonia or Croatia, countries with similar cultures to Russia but with nicer weather and better quality of life.
At the end of the day, whether a country has one fantastic tea or an array of 100 different teas, or whether a country truly feels Latin American or more European is a superficial and trivial reason that shouldn’t affect your decision to live in the country. If you really enjoy Denmark with its universal bicycle lanes and lovely politically-correct culture, you probably wouldn’t really care whether there’s one great tea or you’ll be forced to pick among the 500 fancy artisan teas that confuse the shit out of you. And if you like Brazil, you probably wouldn’t care too much that in such a picturesque city like Rio de Janeiro, the crime is so unpredictable, that you can’t ever leave the house with anything you’re not willing to lose, and that no matter what you do, especially if you don’t look Brazilian, the odds are good that you’ll get robbed at some point during your stay.
Nevertheless, none of that matters if the country connects with your soul so deep and you love the country’s culture so much that whenever you’re away, all you do is count the days until your return—even if you’re in your “home” country. None of that matters when you fit in this new country much better than you’d ever fit in your own home country. Nothing else matters when pretty much everything else clicks in this country, and you find yourself pinching your skin every morning because you can’t believe you’re actually living in this amazing place. This is what really counts.
There’s no such thing as an “ideal” country. That’s like saying there’s something like an “ideal” woman. Initially, all you have is an idea of what you consider to be perfect. You have an idea what you like. You have a set of preferences. Maybe it’s the tropical climate or the lush outdoors. Maybe it’s being near the sea or high up in the mountains. At this point, all it is is an idea and nothing more.
But you must begin somewhere. Pick a country you’ve always wanted to visit and go. Don’t worry if things don’t click; in that case, simply pack up and move to the neighboring country. Keep moving if things don’t click. Sooner or later you’ll form a set of countries that will lure you time and time again. Or maybe it’ll be one special country where you’ll decide to settle down permanently.
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James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.