Add Melissa Roy to the list of women making history by visiting every country in the world. On December 27, 2019, 34-year-old Roy visited Bangladesh—the birthplace of her late father and grandparents—and became the first woman of South Asian origin to travel to every country in the world. Though she doesn’t plan to apply for a Guinness World Record (“I’m doing this for myself,” she says), she joins a small, trailblazing group of people who have achieved this lofty goal of visiting every one of the sovereign nation recognized by the United Nations. “It’s still astounding to me that more people have gone to outer space than visited every country in the world,” says Roy. “And even more people have summited Mount Everest than visited all the countries.”
Roy’s accomplishment is an unlikely one, considering that she rarely traveled as a child. She was born in the small Midwestern town of Monroe, Michigan, and grew up in Greenwood, Indiana. Until age 6, when her parents divorced, the family relocated to many different states because of her father’s job. “I was subsequently raised by an immigrant single mother who worked a minimum wage job and barely spoke English. I faced the struggles that come with growing up as a first-generation minority in Middle America,” says Roy. “I never had a chance to travel growing up because, quite frankly, we didn’t have the money to do so.”
Despite the circumstances, Roy had a deep curiosity about the world beyond her small town. “I never understood how some people want to sit in their one little corner of the globe and not want to see something bigger than them,” she says. “I have an insatiable curiosity for the unknown.”
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By age 19, Roy got her first taste of solo travel, studying abroad in Buenos Aires during her sophomore year at Pepperdine University. Having been bitten by the travel bug, Roy set sail on Semester at Sea the following year, circumnavigating the globe in 100 days. “In just one semester, I saw things that most people aren’t able to see in a lifetime,” says Roy. “I thought I would be able to slow down and start a normal career, but I wasn’t ready to settle down just yet.”
It wasn’t her original plan to visit every country—Roy didn’t even think it was a possibility—but the call of unfamiliar lands kept her traveling up to eight months each year. By the time Roy was 29, she realized she had already been to 66 countries and wanted to step up her travel game and inspire others. “Traveling on a shoestring budget, I want to show the world that it doesn’t matter where you come from or how much money you have,” says Roy. “All you need is an open heart and a desire to connect with others.’
Here’s the story of how she did it.
What Inspired Me: Having visited 66 countries by age 29, I decided to challenge myself and set a goal of visiting 100 countries and all seven continents before my 30th birthday. I ended up celebrating the big 3-0 in Antarctica with one of my favorite animals, the gentoo penguins. It was also my seventh continent. After that, I decided to keep going, with the goal of visiting all the sovereign UN countries.
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How I Paid For It: I am unusual in that I have no sponsorships or endorsements—I pay for all my travels out of my pocket. For the first decade or so, I would return to my home base in Hollywood, do various TV commercials, music videos, even background work, anything that would give me the flexibility to decide my own schedule. Meanwhile, I’d be planning my next trip on a shoestring budget. I was lucky to be in Hollywood at a time where I was able to make decent wages and even luckier that I made some wise investment decisions in the stock/bond market, allowing me to use my returns to fund my travels.
Country Counting: I became the first woman of South Asian origin to travel to every sovereign nation in the world when I visited my 193rd country, Bangladesh. As for the number of countries there are in the world, this is a big point of contention among travelers. I wanted to keep things as uncomplicated as possible and go with the list of actual UN members, of which there are 193. There are two more states that are not full fledged UN members but are under observer status. These are Palestine and Vatican City. Finally, Taiwan is a country that many other countries recognize but the UN views it under Chinese sovereignty. Those are the 196 that Guinness uses and I have been to all 196 of those but I just use the basic UN member list to keep things simple and less politically messy. If the UN recognizes it as a country, then all the members of the international community also recognize its sovereignty, and in my book that is enough to be a country. On the other hand, if I started counting disputed regions I wouldn’t know where to draw the line. What about Kosovo, Somaliland, Western Sahara, Hong Kong, Tibet and overseas island dependencies such as Aruba, Curacao, St. Martin, etc? I’ve been to well over 200, if you count some of those.
Why I’m Not Going for the Guinness World Record: I’m not going for a Guinness World Record because no record really corresponds to what I did—I wasn’t trying to be the fastest and I can’t be the youngest because that record is currently held by my friend Lexie Alford, who’s only 21 years old. I’m doing this for myself—and okay, maybe for bragging rights for my future grandchildren who can tell their friends how crazy their granny was! Lastly, having to submit something like 7,000 pieces of evidence, witness statements, etc seems like it would take the fun out of traveling for me. But I have so much respect for Lexie and the ones who have gone that extra mile to get the record.
Why Bangladesh: I chose Bangladesh as my final country to honor the birthplace of my late father, Subhash Chandra Roy (whom I’d seen for the last time on my sixth birthday) as well as all four of my grandparents. I wanted to try to find the village where my father was born but I thought it would be a shot in the dark because I didn’t know a single person in Bangladesh. Most of my family had moved to India after my father moved to the US, so I didn’t have any connections left in Bangladesh. Once we made contact, we went straight to the small village of Netrakona, and it was truly an emotional experience. Seeing the exact house where my father grew up was nothing short of powerful and moved me to tears. I had the privilege of staying with and meeting several of his childhood friends who were kind enough to share old photos and memories of him. I know he would have been proud of me.
Mixed Emotions: When I arrived in my final country, I experienced a combination of feelings: the euphoria that accompanies the accomplishment of a lifelong goal; the sense of relief that all the hard parts (ie. the bureaucracy and all the necessary sacrifices) were finally over; and the bittersweet feeling that I would no longer be able to have that adrenaline rush of landing in a new country. I was also one step closer to the inevitable, of having to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life. I no longer had this as an excuse or a crutch, a reason to procrastinate or postpone the next chapter of “adulting.” It’s the same feeling everyone experiences when they accomplish their biggest goal and then suddenly feel as if they have nothing left to work toward.
Best Experience: One of the highlights, of course, was reaching my final country with my mother by my side, whom I flew out to join me. Neither one of us had been to Bangladesh before, and both of our fathers were born there. This was also the first foreign country we had explored together as a mother-daughter duo. Seeing it as a symbolic homecoming to my roots and origins, I wanted to come full circle and end my journey where my family started—my ancestral homeland.
Meaningful Travel: Couchsurfing, which involves staying with a local host, is the way I travel in a deeper, more meaningful way. I was able to immerse myself in the local culture rather than insulating myself from it. The difference with couchsurfing, compared to Airbnb, is that it is a gift economy; hosts are not allowed to charge for lodging and is based on the idea that people are generally good and kind. It has renewed my faith in humanity time and time again.
Meeting Locals: I have been fortunate enough to take part in some incredible things that you could only do if you have a local host, friend or family in the country. For example, on the Pacific island of Kiribati I was invited to a wedding, a funeral and then an eight-hour wedding reception all in the course of one day. I had only stayed in Kiribati for five days, but I quickly became a part of the family and did things most people wouldn’t even get to do in a month if they didn’t know anyone there or were on a business trip staying in a hotel. In cases like this, staying for a few days with a local host makes a bigger impact on your life than staying for weeks but insulating yourself from the locals.
Best Birthday: Another highlight was Afghanistan. From the moment I went to their embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan to the moment I touched down on the tarmac in Kabul, I was treated with nothing but complete kindness and compassion, generosity and hospitality. At the embassy in Islamabad, I stared with awe and disbelief when they served me on a silver platter a four-course meal of chicken, biryani, salad and daal while I was waiting in the lobby for my visa. When I asked them if they do this for everyone, their answer was, “You are a guest in our home. We do everything to make a guest feel welcome and don’t let them go without eating.” Because of that amazing experience, I chose to celebrate my 34th birthday in Afghanistan, though I didn’t know a single soul beforehand. I happened to meet an interesting person on my flight to Kabul who said I should come to visit his coffee shop. Fast forward 24 hours: He closed down his coffee shop, invited about 15-20 of his friends and threw a full-blown birthday party, complete with speeches in different languages, a cake, candles, sparklers, balloons and even a handmade painting for a birthday present. I’ve never even had family members throw a birthday party like this for me, let alone strangers I’d met less than 24 hours ago.
The Concept of Home: Home was never a happy place for me due to a traumatic childhood I’d had with a lot of domestic fighting, police visits, my parents’ brutal divorce and custody battle leading to a restraining order, which led to me never being able to see my dad again, from age 6 until he passed away when I was 18. Throw into that mix a mental illness in my family, which led to more fighting, and you can see why I didn’t like being at home. I always dreamt of being elsewhere and soon enough I made this dream a reality, escaping whatever chance I had. Eventually, faraway lands became my happy place and still to this day I never get homesick.
My Comfort Zone: Home and routine go hand in hand and the unpredictability of foreign places and new experiences also go hand in hand. So where most people have a comfort zone that is cozy and familiar to them, my comfort zone is actually constantly experiencing new things and I get scared when I think about settling into a life of monotony or routine.
The Kindness of Strangers: Growing up I never had much family around me. It was only my mother and me living in America, and so I came to trust strangers quite easily. Fast forward a decade or so, and I am trusting and sleeping in strangers’ homes, hitchhiking in different parts of the world and striking up deep, intimate conversations with random people anywhere on a bus, train, plane, to a post office, a public restroom or the lobby of a doctor’s office. Strangers have given me the shirts off their backs without having any sort of obligation to do so. I find something quite refreshing about that. When you aren’t required to do something and you still do it out of the kindness of your heart, it just seems that much more genuine and organic.
Goals: My goals go beyond visiting every country in the world. I want to create meaningful connections with humans from every walk of life, shatter misconceptions and bring back faith in humanity. I hope to educate and inspire young women of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds that they, too, can explore the world on their own, taking risks, pushing boundaries and discovering along the way the incredible lessons of other cultures, which connect them back to who they are.
Advice for Other Women Who Want to Do This: My advice for women who want to do this is the same advice that I would have for anyone wanting to do this. It is possible—so get the word “can’t” and all the self doubts out of your mind and vocabulary. Honestly, though: If I can do it, I feel that anyone can. If cost is a hindrance, it is shocking how much you can save each month by cutting out things you don’t need (daily Starbucks, monthly manicures, personal trainers). I’ve often laughed at how much I save by traveling. Per month, it costs me more to live in one place in the States than it does to travel in most parts of the world.
Advice for South Asian Women: Embrace your heritage and everything about yourself. Funny enough, growing up I had an identity crisis because I was the only Indian girl in my entire class of all-American (Caucasian) students in Middle America. I never felt that I fit in or belonged. Oh, how I wanted to fade away—literally and figuratively—into an anonymous, homogenous crowd of people and not stand out. Looking back, I can’t imagine why I felt that way and didn’t celebrate my differences and beautiful complexion. Maybe that is one of the catalysts that caused me to want to explore the world, to see where else I may be able to find people who look like me. The answer is a resounding “everywhere.” Something like 80% of the world is various shades of brown, so being South Asian actually helped me blend in, giving me a sense of belonging I’d never felt. I’d always joked that in my commercial acting career being “ethnically ambiguous” was an advantage I had, and I think this applied to my world travels as well. Sometimes I’d think of it as casting myself as a local woman and dressing and playing the role as accurately as possible, studying the women and truly understanding where they were coming from. That, along with my psychology degree, really helped me get into the psyche of the local population.
What’s Next: I’m still not 100% sure what I want to be when I grow up, but I have been considering working with some NGOs with missions close to my heart and eventually starting my own. I am very passionate about women’s rights and empowerment of those that are vulnerable, which, let’s face it, are women, in most of the world. Being of a South Asian background myself, I feel pulled to work with Indian and Bangladeshi women, and one issue I have taken notice of is the one around menstruation–the stigma and taboo that surrounds it, and the lack of education and access to hygiene products. I’d like to do a combination of humanitarian work, maybe get back into acting again, and of course, I’ve always got to have an element of travel in my life. I want to do all of this while balancing a healthy, fulfilling personal life. If I can marry those things into a single career, that would be the ultimate dream.
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