When it comes to travelling around the world, Jessica Nabongo has nailed. The 35-year-old has completed her two-and-a-half-year epic adventure of travelling to every UN-recognised country of the world (plus 2 non-member states), becoming the first black woman to do so. Travel is in the blood of the Detroit-born Ugandan-American, as she is the founder and CEO of Jet Black, a travel company that promotes tourism around Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

When she started sharing the travels on Instagram and her blog The Catch Me If You Can, she became a worldwide phenomenon with millions following her journey.  On October 6th 2019, Jessica touched down at country 195 of 195. A few weeks later we catch up with the entrepreneur-turned-responsible-travel-influencer to learn all about this monumental achievement, how she travels amidst a plastic crisis and her must-know travel hacks.

Photo credit James Bland

Hi Jessica! Now that you’ve been to every country in the world, how does it feel?

I feel like it changes every day. It ranges from ‘did that really happen?’ to ‘Oh wow this is amazing’. I’ve finished this goal that I set for myself two and a half years ago. It’s funny because even just now I was speaking to the woman at the front desk at my condo building and there was a guy who works here and when you tell people you’ve been to every country in the world people don’t believe it. They start asking you but what about this country and that one and I’m like ‘no I’ve actually been every country’.

I think in many ways it’s still settling in and I’ve only been home five-six days, so this is the first time in two and a half years where I’ve been this still for so long. So, I think my brain is still processing. But mostly it feels unreal.

Are you taking this time to rejuvenate have some time for yourself now that you’re back?

Abso-lu-te-ly! It’s really important for me to take this time to be still and to rejuvenate and to really process this entire journey. And also to choose and be very deliberate with how I’m going to move forward in all facets of my life.

 You concluded your trip on October 6th in Seychelles. Is there a reason specifically why you chose it ended with Seychelles?

I chose Seychelles because I wanted to do somewhere in Africa, that was pretty important to me. And at the same time, I wanted to make sure that it was a place where my friends and family would want to go as well.

Photo Credit Jessica Nabongo

Is there something that you love doing in every country you go to? I read that you really like going to markets.

Yeah, I definitely try to visit markets in every country. One thing I try to bring home where I can is alcohol. I love getting whatever the national alcohol is, be it rum or vodka or whatever. I love picking those up. So, when you come to my house, you’ll see wine and alcohol from all over the world.

That’s really interesting. Is that a way to also try and support the local community?

Oh yeah absolutely and that for me is a really big deal. I have an international development background and it’s really important to me to positively affect the economies when I visit them because I used to work for the U.N. and I used to work for an NGO and I truly believe that charity isn’t going to change the lives of people in terms of like a massive change for an entire country.

But I do believe that small and medium enterprise can and so much of tourism affects small and medium enterprises whether it’s someone who is running a taxi company or people who are working in a market. Those are the things that are really going to start to change people’s lives on a micro and then on a macro level.

I love to travel because I love culture and I love seeing how people live all over the world, but I also feel like it’s an amazing opportunity to positively affect these economies.

There’s also an environmental aspect of your travels, you care a lot about plastic pollution and what’s going on with our environment. Do you have any advice for the modern-day traveller?

You know, prior to this journey, I would have never considered myself an environmentalist. Growing up in the US, no one really said like ‘turn off the water’ or ‘recycle, don’t use plastic’. I mean they did have ‘reduced, reuse, recycle’ but there was never really a push for it. And it’s because here in the US we hide our garbage, you’re not looking at it all the time. But in a lot of other countries, you really see the effect that all of this plastic is having, you see the plastic build up.

I snorkel a lot and so I see plastic in bodies of water. It’s really a crisis, it is a global crisis. And so as far as tips; number one being aware of every single moment of the day that you’re touching plastic.

Number two; figuring out ways to reduce your use of plastic. So, when I travel, I travel with my water bottle. I also travel with a reusable cup, like a little metal cup so that I’m on planes I use that because if you’re travelling, say, Detroit to Amsterdam it’s an eight-hour flight. There’s going to be at least three drink services. And now times that three cups by like three hundred people on the plane…

For me, I’m one person but you know that’s minus three cups being used. So, if more and more people start taking their own cups on planes that’s a way to start. There are all of these really cool kits online like bamboo silverware, metal silverware and straws and things that you can travel with to help reduce your use of single-use plastic.

Photo credit Elton Anderson

With all this travelling that you’ve done, there’s bound to be a hiccup. How did you deal with any bumps you met along the way?

Logistics were certainly a nightmare. But I think luckily given my background I know a lot about the world. I did my master’s degree at the London School of Economics, I’ve lived in five different countries on four continents and so I knew a lot about the world.

When I started this journey, I’d already been to 60 countries and I have friends living pretty much all over the world.  Honestly, I feel like that gave me a leg up in many ways. So it was easy for me to pivot and also I think most of most of the challenges came with visas. For example, when I went to get my Afghan visa, they told me no. And I’m like ‘that won’t work, I need no to be a yes’. And so, I was persistent. And three hours later I got a visa.

I really think that my persistence and determination is what helped me to get past speed bumps because I don’t feel like I hit any roadblocks, except when I ran out of money, but I just considered these things to be small speed bumps.

Did you fund the most of the trip by yourself?

Yes, I fund it mostly myself. I had I used savings, I raised money through gofundme.com but all of the money that I made, I spent on this journey so now I have to make more money!

Were you working full time while you were travelling?

Yes, I was working full time. I run my own travel agency and then I also work with brands doing content creation and I still consult with the U.N. every now and again. So, I did all that while I was on the road.

Photo credit Elton Anderson

Do you have any travel essentials and travel hacks? The best seasons to travel or any tips you want to share with fellow travellers?

As far as the best time to travel, definitely at end of the raining season because, you got to be positive and pray that there is no rain, but that’s when you’re really going to find a lot of deals. Especially in Asia and as far as if people just want to travel more, I say chase the deal, not the destination. Because there are amazing websites like secretflying.com, theflightdeal.com,  airfarespot.com where daily they send you emails showing you cheap deals and so if you just want to travel, you can travel that way and go really far for really cheap.

So to be flexible.

Yes, for sure. As far as must-haves for me I always travel with my compression socks, health first, and noise-cancelling headphones.  They are absolutely necessary on a plane.

On Instagram, you’re pretty huge. You have around 170K followers Do you have any advice to aspiring travel influencers?

Oh, such a good question. I don’t know that that should be a goal. I think I would focus less on trying to become an influencer and I would focus more on what do you want to share with the world? What is your ‘why’? And I think honestly that’s why people have sort of latched on to my story because it’s authentic. I think when you watch my Insta stories, when you read my captions it’s coming from an authentic place. It’s not coming from a place of ‘I want to influence you to do something’ or ‘I want to sell you something’. It’s really coming from a place of if there were no Instagram I would be doing this otherwise.

What do you want to do with this influence that you have on the platform now?

I have this big platform and I do believe there is a responsibility. For me, a part of that is about responsible storytelling. I’m very careful about how I talk about the places that I visit.  Even if something bad happens to me I can’t then say ‘don’t go to this country, this country is terrible’. I’m one person who had a singular experience and that should be taken with a grain of salt, in the same way, take positive stories with a grain of salt right.

We talked about reducing our single use of plastic, that’s one thing that I will continue to do. Also, I just want to encourage people to live out loud and to really create the life that they want to live. It’s not about trying to model your life after mine. That is a fool’s game because you don’t know what I’ve been through, you don’t know what happens when I’m not on Instagram, so you can’t try to model your life off of a highlight reel. Of course, you can be inspired by people that you see on the Internet. But I think it’s really important to dig deep and figure out what your best life looks like for you. And it’s not going to be the same for everybody.

Did you do most of your travelling alone or did you also have company every once in a while?

I did 89 countries solo.

Did it ever get lonely travelling solo?

Yeah sometimes. Travelling for example in Francophone West Africa because I speak French but I’m not fluent, I’m intermediate I can survive on my own with French but it becomes exhausting because I’m not fluent.

Sometimes I would go out with local people and if they’re talking to each other and they aren’t being rude but they aren’t taking care to make sure I’m following along just because they’re with their friends. So yeah sometimes that can feel a little lonely and isolating.

Photo by Jessica Nabongo

What’s something you’ve learned travelling as a solo black woman all over the world? How was that experience for you?

It’s funny because people ask this but I’ve been black my whole life. I don’t know how to be anything else.  Honestly, I would say for me where my race came into play is with immigration and that’s because I’m a visible African and there is a lot of discrimination towards Africans globally because there is this idea that if Africans are moving about that they are somehow moving only for immigration, right? And so whether I was using my U.S. passport, I’ve had immigration officers who thought it was fake. And using my Ugandan passport I have been questioned as to why I’m visiting a place even with a tourist visa.

What about with the people that you met and the countries that you visited, were there any issues?

No, very rarely. It was mostly with immigration. Honestly once I got passed immigration typically it was great. There is only less than 2% of the countries that I felt not welcomed.

That’s really motivating.

I really hope that what people see from my journey is that the world is super safe. The world is very welcoming. We’re getting all of these negative inputs but it’s based on cultivating a culture of fear to keep people in their own borders. And I think to almost keep us away from each other and keep us away from realizing like we’re more similar than we are different and most are good. If we all had the power of understanding that, the world wouldn’t be in the place that it is now.

Do you have any tips to women who want to break into solo travelling?

Just go! That’s really it. The world is waiting for you.

Photo credit Elton Anderson

There’s a lot of people that are inspired by you, by your courage and your sense of adventure. Who are some people that you look up to?

Oh that’s a good question. Well, I think I look up to some people for different reasons. As far as like travellers I love Eva Zu Beck. She’s Polish and she does a lot of solo travel to really interesting places like Yemen and Pakistan and Iraq. I really like her Instagram feed and I love her messages. Same with Erin Outdoors, who’s a photographer, I think she’s absolutely incredible.

Oh Myleik!  She’s amazing and I’m inspired by her because she is all about no-nonsense advice with general life tips but also entrepreneurship. When I started my entrepreneurial journey, it was really following her that helped me in so many ways.

Finally, you’ve recently launched Thisisthecatch. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Yes, this is my new baby. I’m constantly giving birth. The Catch is an e-commerce site but really what it is a luxury lifestyle brand with goods that are curated from my different trips. And so the first offering is the passport holder. And it was handcrafted in Ukraine, it’s this beautiful leather. And the reason we’re launching that first is sort of because that’s your passport to the world and that’s where we really wanted to start.

But we’re going to do items from all over, it’s going to include jewellery and scarves and bags. And the thing about it is we’re only offering a quantity of 195 for everything we do.

So, after all the countries that you visited.

Exactly. And everything is numbered so once it’s gone, it’s gone. We’re never going to bring back the same thing twice. I like that because it’s going to keep everything fresh.

Those are your next plans for the time being?

Yes. So we’re doing Thisisthecatch and then we relaunched Jet Black in November because we’re doing four retreats next year.

Photo credit Elton Anderson

Check out all of Jessica’s adventures on her Instagram @thecatchmeifyoucan

Thank you Jessica for spending time with us and sharing all of your cool knowledge.


Disclaimer: This interview has been edited slightly to fit a written format