Sal Lavallo is just 27 years old but he’s already visited 193 countries, meaning he’s travelled the world in its entirety. The last place on his list was Malta. He landed here last weekend and sat down with Lovin Malta for an interview at Le Méridien Hotel in Balluta.
Sal didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to start travelling the world. Through a combination of his education, his NGO work and his job as a management consultant, he did a lot of jet-setting, before he realised this was an achievable target. When he handed in his notice two years ago to travel full time, he’d already visited 115 countries. And in the last two years, he’s racked up a further 70.
“Travelling just blended in with my life,” he says.
This may sound like a very expensive affair but Sal has been very lucky in that respect. Through his education at the United World College he was able to stay over at the homes of the many international friends he made and with the help of SPG and Marriott, he’s been able to turn his many points into free stays and even free travel between destinations.
Here’s Sal celebrating his arrival in Malta
As a student of economic development, identity studies and culture, he’s been driven to better understand the people and societal structures which make up the countries he visits. He’s even created small homes-from-home to go back to and the majority of his travelling sees him returning to them. One of those is a small farm he owns in Tansania, another is the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE is his favourite place and one that sums up his philosophy. Listen to his description here.
‘My absolute favourite country to visit is the UAE, the United Arab Emirates and I’m a little bit biased because I’ve lived there for so long,” he says.
Just 40 years ago people were born in tents in the UAE and people didn’t have birthdays because they just knew they were born in the summer or around this time or that.
“To go from that to some of the most modern cities in the world and the way that they’ve done it being so inclusive of the citizens and really bringing up everybody is phenomenal to me, so it’s interesting to look at. I’m also interested in studying identity and I don’t think there’s anywhere that’s more fascinating to study Gender, Race, Religion, Class than in the UAE because all of those issues are important there, so relevant in the way that they are addressed and so it’s a fascinating place to learn about all of that.”
Malta is the last country on his list. Why? Sal smirks and says there wasn’t a major reason really. It just seemed like a good idea when there were so few countries left. He also wanted his last country to be somewhere special, somewhere he could bring his parents and importantly, somewhere you can’t go by accident. Hear him describe his reasoning here.
How does Malta compare to (literally) the rest of the world and was it worth the wait?
“Yes it’s very beautiful, it’s definitely exceeded my expectations because I hadn’t thought about it that much, I hadn’t heard about it so much. In my mind it’s always been the finale and I didn’t think about what I would do but there is so much to do, there is so much to see and there’s such a long history. The most interesting part for me is how every civilisation in the Mediterranean has been involved in Malta in some way and so it really has this diverse and dynamic history, a lot to see and do and the people are really friendly. So I’d say its definitely a fantastic spot. (So it was worth the wait?) Absolutely.”
What was the craziest thing that happened to him on his travels? Sal isn’t keen to reminisce. There have been some pretty frightening things he’s experienced like being robbed a couple of times, but that’s not interesting enough to share. Instead he wants to share stories that surprise people about the places he visits.
“What I like to do is really show the positivity of places, so I’ve recently posted all of these photos of Afghanistan and how beautiful it is and everybody was saying ‘We’ve never seen this side of the country’ but of course I did see and there does exist negative stuff but why would I? You can see that everywhere else, for the Sal’s story I want you to see the positivity.”
He takes this further when we talk about North Korea, a country long understood to be an authoritarian state where its people are seen as automatons controlled by an all-seeing – all-knowing government. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to connect to the people but his visit proved otherwise.
“I really was fascinated by North Korea because in University I used it as one of my case studies. Because I studied development and identity I used UAE, Rwanda and North Korea, so I have read almost every book there is about North Korea, I’m always following the news on it so I was excited to go and see it for myself.”
“So even though I knew all of that and I had seen all of these countries and I had met people of all different walks of life I still think that went in feeling like the North Koreans would be ‘Alien’, that I wouldn’t be able to connect with them at all. And then on the first night that I was there my guide and I stayed up talking and he was the same age as me and we talked about sports and girls and making our Dads proud and getting jobs for our future and having a family.”
“It was just like a normal two guys talking and at the end of it he said to me ‘do you really think that all we do is make bombs?’ and I said of course I don’t think that. Then I asked him if he thought all Americans are Imperialist Pigs and he laughed and said ‘of course I don’t’. I think it shows that you anywhere you go you can connect with people. No bomb or border or anything can take away our humanity and when I travel that’s what I really look to, to connect with people on and yes sometimes it’s harder but it’s possible.”
“North Korea is also fascinating because it went against some of the preconceived notions that I had so one of the first things is that when I landed I wanted to go as far as I could in a car. So I told them ‘let’s go as far as you can take me’ and we got lost and you know everybody always thinks that the government knows exactly where you are at any moment and you only see what they want you to see but we’re stopping on side streets asking farmers ‘hey, how do we get back to the hotel?’ because they had forgotten and they were lost. So literally on the first day I get lost in North Korea and then I have this awesome conversation with the guide. So when I wake up the next morning I think ‘this is so different than what I thought and in some ways more normal than I thought’.”
So does Sal have any advice for people looking to make a similar journey or just to make the most out of their travels? He sure does…
1. Think hard about where you want to go, for how long and at what level of comfort. Then save up to reach your target.
2. Don’t do what you think you should, do what you want to do. If museums aren’t your thing, don’t go to them because you have to. If you want to relax in the hotel then that’s fine. People think that they need to exhaust themselves on vacation but you don’t. Do what makes you happy, see what you want to see, eat what you want to eat.
3. Travelling isn’t always about going to see every country in the world and it shouldn’t be seen as this huge obstacle. It can be as simple as commuting. Last year I took 3 months off of travelling and I worked in New York and everyone kept asking, ‘Oh isn’t it boring to not be travelling anymore?’ but every day in New York is travelling because travelling is about meeting new people and seeing new things and you just need to get out of your comfort zone and do that.
4. Set your target but try and push yourself because you might be surprised. There are 365 churches in Malta so everyday go to a new one… There’s always places that are near that you can see and even though it might not be the most Instagrammed place or the place that you’d be most interested in, you’d be surprised.
And after so much travelling, what life lessons did Sal takeaway from his adventures?
All too often we disagree with someone and want to argue and fight when they hear something crazy or out of the ordinary. ‘Oh I have four wives… no that’s wrong!’. But when you listen and you start asking questions, you learn to deconstruct somebody’s idea and better understand how its constructed.
2. Connecting and learning
There’s always something that you have in common with somebody. Finding that is really exciting on a journey. You can learn from everybody you meet and sometimes you learn stuff you don’t want to repeat. So if there’s someone awful you’re still learning from them because you’re saying ‘I don’t want to be like that dude’, but you’re still gaining something from that person.
3. Everybody dances
I always say that everybody dances and I’m a big dancer and I love dancing. I think it’s the most beautiful expression of human happiness and everywhere in the world people do it. I’ve even been to these churches in America where they are not allowed to dance but they’ll sway back and forth. It’s such a fun thing and it’s such a human thing. Everybody eats and everybody sleeps and everybody speaks but dancing is something we all enjoy. We don’t often think about dance around the world but for me it’s been fun to explore the different dances around the world.
After all this travelling it’s clear that Sal is looking to settle down for a while and find a job that allows him to travel but once a month, not four or five days a week. That would be more relaxing he says.
“I’m not interested in having another list to check things off of,” he concludes.