The Hardest Place in the World to Visit

U.S. Customs checkpoint at San Francisco International Airport (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Updated on September 10 at 9:35 a.m. ET

Albert Podell has accomplished what few people in the world can imagine, and probably what many would dream of: decades spent traveling the world, visiting countries that seem inaccessible and even treacherous. In his undeniably entertaining piece for The Atlantic, “The Hardest Places in the World to Visit,” Podell details the fraught process of obtaining visas to some of the world’s most dangerous states. His stories are lavish and colorful—a glamorous version of maybe every Millennial’s dream.

But there’s a tragic irony here. As Podell describes the incredible feat of entering places like Sudan and North Korea, for much of the world, the United States is one of the most difficult and expensive nations to get into.

While Americans enjoy the privilege of visiting almost any foreign country with little trouble, the U.S. visitor visa for short-term trips is notoriously hard to get. For some parts of the world that Podell mentions (Somalia, for example, and many other African nations), the rejection rate for U.S. visas is over 60 percent. If a citizen of any of the countries he mentions compiled a list of “Hardest Places in the World to Visit,” I bet the U.S. would top it.

But it’s the tone of Podell’s piece that is troubling, that is so very American—glib descriptions of very real places with long and complicated histories of war and colonialism. Maybe it’s because my family immigrated to the U.S., or that I have relatives in the Middle East who would love to leave, but it feels insensitive at best to romanticize a reality that is inescapable for many.

For example, Podell denigrates with a charming story the very real and perilous boat journeys that thousands of refugees make—and often don’t survive:

I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”

Perhaps international travel requires a kind of colonial mindset—to acknowledge, then brush aside, that sort of human tragedy and venture into the strange and exotic, ignorant of culture and language. And to take that obliviousness to Angola, as Podell does, a nation that was long-embroiled in civil war and is only just grasping a semblance of peace, is morally obtuse:

The countryside I traversed had little natural beauty, and most of the wild animals had been killed during the civil war; the souvenirs were five times as expensive as similar items in other countries; the Portuguese-influenced food was bland and boring; and when I asked for a doggie bag to take my leftovers back to my hotel, I got charged five dollars for the bag.

The horror.

If it had ended there, Podell’s attitude might be tolerable. But after a (perhaps too) generous offer from The Atlantic to field reader questions, Podell continues to scandalize and exoticize. When asked when he committed an American faux-pas, his answer:

Propositioning my beautiful hotel maid in Cairo. She spoke no English, so I pointed to me, then to her, then pulled the blanket back and pointed to the bed, then gave her some money. She nodded affirmatively, pointed to the wall calendar for the next day, then pointed to 2 o’clock on her watch. So I assumed we had agreed to an afternoon delight.

When she arrived, I tore my clothing off and she ran out screaming. It turns out that the innocent creature had thought I wanted her to change the sheets.

This is plainly very creepy, and the horrifying encounter seems to be a symptom of Podell’s sense of entitlement to not only all the countries on the planet, but also women’s bodies.

Other countries do not exist for Americans to discover and appraise. They are not there to serve as a bucket list for well-heeled Americans to check off, and to frame them as such condescends to The Atlantic’s increasingly global audience and the multiplicity of American identities. This is the reality that Podell’s piece ignores and the privilege that blinds him: If you have an American passport, you have the most powerful passport in the world. You have the freedom of movement that the people of these nations can barely dream of.

Update: Podell responds:

Few journalistic plights are more pathetic, or less forgivable, then that of the harried writer who, in an attempt to create an exciting and interesting piece, resorts to mis-stating the facts, researching in a careless manner, and only seeking out materials that support her conclusions, incorrect as those may be. Yet that is exactly what your Nadine Ajaka has done attacking me and the article I wrote for The Atlantic.

Ms. Ajaka terms it a “tragic irony" that the U.S. is one of the most difficult nations to which to obtain a visa, and she slams me for not having included it on my list. In doing so, she blithely (or blindly?) attributes this to some form of American superiority complex while overlooking the very valid reasons why the U.S. visa application asks so many questions and why a visa here is so hard to obtain: Because the U.S. has the highest rate in the world of visitors who purposely overstay their visa deadline and remain here as illegals. And I should know: I married one of them.

She also conveniently ignores the fact that—regardless of whatever title the Atlantic editors may have affixed to my article—it was solely about my personal experiences in applying for visas. It was never intended as a comprehensive list of the most difficult places in today’s world for obtaining visas. If that had been its intent it would have included Syria and Libya and Afghanistan, etc.

She next erroneously claims that “Podell denigrates with a charming story the very real and perilous journey that thousands of refugees make and often don’t survive.”

This is total bullshit. My reference to my having traveled on “rickety inter-island rustbuckets” in Indonesia and the Philippines was clearly about vessels serving local commuters in those nations. It had absolutely nothing to do with refuges trying to escape wars and oppression in ships run by smugglers.

She then accuses me of offering “glib descriptions of very real places with long and complicated histories of war or colonialism.”

Here she commits the cardinal of the untrained or biased journalist: She fails to refer to the original sources. If she had taken just a few minutes to scan my  book, Around the World in 50 Years, she would have readily found, after my long description of the history of Nauru, the following: “All in all, a sordid saga of the developed world’s military, economic, and geopolitical imperialism, and its harmful  results.” The book is replete with similar observations about other nations mentioned in my article.

Ms. Ajaka, intent on carrying out her agenda despite all the facts to the contrary, next accuses me of having a “colonial mindset” because I complain about being charged five dollars for a doggie bag at a restaurant in Luanda, for which she claims that I was oblivious to the violent civil war that nation had been through. This is nonsense. The reason the prices are so high in Angola has nothing to do with that long-settled civil war, but with the fact that they are in the midst of a gigantic oil boom, where the avaricious government cares little about tourists or its citizens, and where prices for tiny apartments are more than $5,000 a month, because the oil executives are willing to pay that.

She is then “scandalized” my my mis-adventures with a hotel chambermaid in Cairo that she finds “creepy and horrifying.”

The Notes editor had passed along a series of questions from readers, one of whom asked me to submit my biggest faux pas, and instead of copping out, I was truthful, but I get no points for that from Ms. Ajaka. And, once again, she fails to look into my book, where this incident is explained in two pages, and where I note:

[F]rom this misunderstanding I learned a valuable lesson that helped me through years of foreign travel. If you speak in a different language than the other, make sure—unmistakably sure—that you and the other person are in agreement. Be sensitive when you are in a position of power, as a hotel guest is with an employee. Never assume that a member of a foreign culture will readily undertake an act that is proscribed by her society. And avoid presuming that just because a person is poor or working class, they’ll do anything you want—even if you’re head of the IMF.

Her final error is to accuse me of having a “sense of entitlement” and that I “ignore the privilege that binds him.”  In rebuttal, I respectfully submit to your readers the observation I wrote in Around the Word in 50 Years after observing the conditions of the Sahara dwellers:

I felt sorry for the people who had never sheltered under a tree, lain in a flower-filled meadow, or basked in a cool brook. I thought of my parents’ courageous migration from their shtetls that had enabled me to be born in the most prosperous of lands, while these less fortunate people had been born in the most wretched.

What if we, like them, had been born never to know a full belly, a day without fear of illness and uncertainty, a carefree love, a rewarding life? I had believed that people could be masters of their fates, that with ambition and perseverance they could rise and achieve, but I realized then that for many—indeed, perhaps for most of humanity's billions—that their were no grand opportunities, no high hopes, no worry-free days, no comforts but an early grave.

Entitled? Hardly. Eternally grateful? Truly.

I rest my case. Ms. Ajaka has none.