Over 196 countries and 28 years of non-stop backpack traveling. Mike Spencer Bown, a 49-year old globetrotter from Canada, has sure seen the world.
We meet Bown on Kyiv’s Pedestrian Bridge. Looking every bit the global citizen he is, Bown shares his first traveling experiences from the early 1990s.
“I used to go into the wilderness where I would live for up to six months without speaking, living off the land: picking nuts and berries and hunting wild animals,” he says.
Our meeting spot is not arbitrary. The Pedestrian Bridge, which stretches across the Dnipro River and overlooks the city’s stunning landscapes, leads to Trukhaniv island, a green oasis between Kyiv’s left and right banks.
Mike Spencer Bown on the Karakoam Highway in Pakistan. Photo credit: Courtesy
“If you go a little bit back into the wilderness, there are a lot of frogs and snakes and strange mushrooms. It’s quite fun to just wander and look at things,” he says of his favorite place in the Ukrainian capital.
Bown’s love for wilderness evolved into a love for traveling. And since the 1990s, the Canadian has visited every single country in the world. His last one for “finishing the world” was Ireland, which he managed to explore for free.
“I decided that when I come to Ireland I would say yes to any media request,” Bown explains. “So I was doing speeches at schools, all kinds of newspapers, talk shows – everything. As a result, people recognized me in the streets: they wouldn’t let me pay for a beer, fish and chips, or anything like that.”
Bown says that his visiting interests lie with places that “have a lot of conflict or extreme nature,” which he manages to explore thanks to his practical knowledge and wit. The traveler recalls his bold adventures in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.
“I managed to get through the Rwenzori Mountains [in Congo] – where people were saying it was impossible for a white man to survive – by pretending to be a United Nations inspector,” he says. “Up to 8 or 10 times a day [the militia] would stop me, point the gun and say angrily: ‘Give me the money or I will kill you.’”While in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bown also got to live with the Bambuti pygmy tribe. Photo credit: Courtesy
While in Congo, Bown also got to live with the Bambuti pygmy tribe. Together, they hunted antelopes using nets and spears. “That was quite fun,” he says.
Bown also managed to become the first tourist to visit the Somali capital Mogadishu since the fall of their central government in 1991. At the time, the city had “tank shells coming overhead and constant sniper fire.” Later, he even managed to earn the Somali government’s favor, so "it all turned out for the better."
Bown in Newfoundland on Change Islands. Photo credit: Courtesy
Bown says that the only time he felt real danger was during his trip to Iraq in late 2003. Back then, operation Iron Grip of the Gulf War was in full swing.
“I thought it would be fun to dress as an Iraqi, bribe my way across the border and hitchhike around watching the Americans battle against the Iraqis," Bown says. "Without speaking, so that no Iraqis would realize that I’m a foreigner.”
Bown with some Huli Wigmen in Highland of Papua New Guinea. Photo credit: Courtesy
But this was only fun until he got into a car to hitchhike: his driver insisted they stop in Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. This was right at the time when the U.S. was capturing Hussein.
“We sat in an outdoor restaurant and I had to speak to him in English… I could see hundreds of Iraqis giving me the evil eyes and I was thinking ‘are they going to come and cut my head?’” Bown says. “But luckily I survived.”
Bown’s love of traveling coincides with his philosophical nature. He shares his opinion that there are in fact two ways of being human. Traveling across the globe has allowed him to experience both.
“When you’re around people, that’s one way of being human…The other way is when you’re hunting alone in the wilderness or traveling for months between possible hunting places with no one around,” he says. “The one way of being human has nothing in common with the other way of being human.”
Bown in Peru. Photo credit: Courtesy
His numerous stories have come together in an award-winning book called “World’s Most Travelled Man.” Published in October 2017, the book is a profound account of his 23 years of “wilderness wandering, sea voyages and overland treks to survey the Earth.”
“Depending on how you define ‘traveled,’ a lot of people consider me the most traveled person,” Bown says, explaining the book’s title. “There are people who have done it faster… They may get out of the plane for just an hour, take a selfie, and get back on the plane. But I wanted to properly see each country in the old-fashioned manner."
Love for Ukraine
Despite having a frame of reference as wide as the entire planet, Bown calls Ukraine his “favorite place for North Hemisphere summer.” Since 2015, he keeps revisiting the country every summer.
“It’s four years in a row now I’ve come back for at least a few months,” he says.
Among Bown’s favorite things about Ukraine are the friendly people (“I have so many friends here. It’s just crazy.”) and the fact that the country is not overloaded with tourists.
Bown on Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. Photo credit: Courtesy
“Maybe you’ve been to a place like Barcelona… It’s an amazing amount of tourists everywhere, all crowded together.“
He also highlights the colossal changes he’s noticed in Ukraine since his first visit in 2005.
“[In 2005,] it was very Soviet. The people had the expression on their face, just like what you see in industrial towns, deeper into Russia... [Today,] the younger people especially, they seem more like what you’d find in Poland or even Germany. They seem much more European now.”
/By Maria Romanenko