Meet The Stamp Collectors: Lori Rhodes

Meet The Stamp Collectors is a series of interviews with travelers who've reached the milestone of visiting 50 countries, hence they've collected 50 passport stamps. This elite group of adventurers share real-life insights about their love of exploring our precious planet. They are voyagers who seek out unique experiences and develop their own perspective through immersive travel experiences. I hope their stories and sage advice will inspire you to push your boundaries and continue to travel near and far. This is not a contest about who's been to the most countries but a reflection on what it's been like to visit at least a quarter of the world's nations.

Lori Rhodes is about to visit her 51st country–an admirable feat considering she's managed to explore the world while working full-time. Lori is a very intrepid traveler who loves to go absolutely anywhere. Her favorite trips allow for lots of outdoor adventure, maybe a beach, definitely some art or culture, some wildlife if available, and fantastic food and wine.

Lori was born in Orwell, a very rural town in Northeastern Ohio but had spent the majority of her adult life in New York City. She traded in rural America for the big city life but has traveled extensively around the U.S. and has visited 46 states! She shares that the beauty, breadth, and diversity of the United States still fills her with awe. About three years ago she packed everything up and moved to Dubai for the opportunity of a lifetime and has no plans to leave any time soon. Dubai is a stellar base for a globetrotter like Lori as within 8 hours or less, you can be in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Russia, or Europe.

What was the 50th country you visited? 

Reaching 50 seemed to take forever, but that's probably because I've traveled to a number of the same countries multiple times. But Japan wins the prize for the 50th country for me! What a magical trip, not because it was Number 50, but because Japan is just such a mind-blowing place overall. The people are some of the kindest, most polite, chicest people on the planet. Their meticulous attention to detail is like nothing we have in the West. There is so much to do in Tokyo alone that I felt like we could have stayed a month and still not have seen everything. The energy in Tokyo is electric! We also visited Kyoto, which is a completely different experience than Tokyo. Kyoto is more laid back but just so regal–no wonder it was where all the geishas lived. I'd love to return someday and spend more time traveling throughout the rest of the country.

What was the first country you visited outside of your birth nation? 

It was either Jamaica or Canada. Canada was not that far from where I grew up, so it's possible we drove across the border to Niagra Falls when I was very young. The first place I vividly remember was Jamaica. To this day I can recall with absolute clarity every detail about the fish market on the dock, with all the fisherman just coming in with their catches. Our little supermarket in Ohio didn't even have a fish counter in those days so you can imagine how exotic this all seemed to my little 7-year old mind! I've never returned to Jamaica, but the lush hills, the waterfalls, and the Caribbean sea are indelibly printed on my memory.

What's your favorite phrase in another language you've learned through your travels? 

It would have to be "Let's Go!" I can cover off on "Let's Go!" in all of the romance languages plus Arabic and Thai! In Arabic, it's Yalla, and can be used to mean not only "Let's Go" but also "Hurry Up!" I learned the Thai version, pai, from a tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai and it's always been one of my favorites.

Is there a book that has greatly influenced you as a traveler? 

As a kid, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn really made me dream about what an adventure it would be just to run away. Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express made me long to go to Istanbul. Even A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens made me really want to visit Paris–but I certainly did not want to meet Madame Defarge!

More recently in my traveling life, I discovered Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. That novel that must have launched a thousand trips to India! It's such a sweeping, fascinating, riveting story and has become one of my favorites of all time. It takes place in the not-so-distant past, but the world has changed so dramatically since the late 1970's that it seems as if it were forever ago. Overall, books on India rank very highly on my list of inspiring travel reads. William Dalrymple's City of Djinns is another favorite, as is Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald.

What is your favorite travel quote?

A quote attributed to the Dalai Lama, "Once a year, go someplace you've never been before" are words that I live by. Sure, we've gone back to places where we have friends or family, and there's always something nice about revisiting familiar places because then you really start to get a deeper understanding of a particular place. But setting a goal to go somewhere new every year has led us to places that, as a kid, I never even dreamed I'd visit like Vietnam, South Africa, and Morocco. Every New Year's Eve, I make a list of the new places we visited that year, and then I write down five new places for the coming year with the intention of getting to at least one or two of them.

Which was your favorite country for food? 

Spain. The food in San Sebastian, in particular, is like nowhere else. Anthony Bourdain introduced his San Sebastian episode by saying "Even the bad restaurants are good." And, of course, as always, he was right. The pintxos bars offer the most delectable treats–we visited at least three every night. Most of the wine comes from nearby La Rioja but they also have this amazing sparkling white wine called Txakoli that we'd never even heard of before. Then there are the Michelin-starred restaurants, like Arzak and Rekondo, two places we tried for lunch. Both had the most exquisitely prepared food yet were surprisingly low key and unpretentious. You could just see how happy everyone was to be in those rooms, enjoying such incredible culinary delights.

Which was your favorite country for architecture? 

The United States because of the sheer diversity of some the world's best architecture located throughout the country's major cities. The New York City skyline always makes my heart race faster whenever I see it; Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper, is an architecture aficionado's dream city; Miami's Art Deco district is one of the most colorful and distinctive looking places anywhere in the world. Then there are superb buildings by some of the world's best architects: Oscar Niemeyer's United Nations headquarters in NYC; Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water in rural Pennsylvania and Guggenheim Museum in NYC; Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall in LA; Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in NYC; Richard Meier's Getty Center in LA...the list could go on and on. Add iconic structures such as the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge into the mix and what you have is an unbeatable and incredibly rich collection of modern architectural marvels.

Which was your favorite country for nature? 

Uganda. Seeing rare mountain gorillas was always a dream, and with Uganda only a short 5-hour flight from Dubai, it seemed like an easy long weekend trip. But when I started really investigating the parks and wildlife in Uganda, I decided we needed to spend two weeks there. The extra time allowed us to visit several parks and also to see so much of this awesomely beautiful country. Winston Churchill called it the "Pearl of Africa" and boy was he right. It has all the wildlife you could ever hope to see–lions, chimpanzees, elephants, hippos, rhinos (although not in the wild yet), giraffes, zebras...and of course, the spectacular mountain gorillas. Uganda is amazingly lush, with the Nile River running through the country, but also has mountains, forests, grasslands–such a huge variety of topography. Sleeping in a tent surrounded by the sounds of nighttime activities of cape buffalo, elephants, lions, and other animals is an experience I will never forget.

Which was your favorite country for art? 

My favorite country for art would have to be Italy. The fact that you can walk into any number of relatively "ordinary" (by Italian standards) churches and find among the art paintings by Caravaggio and sculptures by Michaelangelo or Bernini is beyond incredible. Rome is just one big museum it seems to me that there's always something new to discover, or often, something ancient that has recently been unearthed while rebuilding a road. But beyond Rome, Florence, and Venice, there are pockets of fabulousness in what seems like the middle of nowhere like the gardens in Tivoli, just south of Rome where there is also an ancient Temple of Sybil smack in the middle of a restaurant there. Or the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto's masterpiece, in Padua, not too far from Venice. There are endless examples of the most spectacular art outside of the major destinations in Italy.

Which country left a lasting impression on you?

Denmark. The people are very warm, they value functional simplistic design, they're all gorgeous, they all bike to work, and everyone seems to have an enviable work-life balance.

Which country exceeded your expectations, and why? 

Oman! Who knew–what a secret gem! One of the best things about living in the Middle East, among many great things, is the discovery of Oman. I'm not sure we would ever have gotten there if not for our move to Dubai. Oman has everything–mountains, desert, beaches. My last trip there was this past May with some friends from the US. We went to a mountain resort called Jabal Al Akhdar to go hiking and just relax. Oman has abundant sea life along the Musandam Peninsula which makes for great snorkeling and diving too. It even has a cool, wet microclimate in Salalah in the summer, which means you can escape 45 degree Celsius temps in Dubai for some rain and waterfalls with just a quick flight. 

Is there a country that changed the way you travel? 

Portugal. A good friend was living and studying in Lisbon for the summer many years ago. I just knew I had to visit her while she was there–what a great opportunity! We had an amazing time, but in addition to traveling with my friend, I also spent a little time traveling by myself which at that time, I'd never done before in a foreign country. That was when I discovered that you meet so many more people when you travel by yourself! It sounds silly, but I gained a lot of confidence on that trip and have since traveled alone on occasion. It made me realize that traveling on your own can be extremely liberating and loads of fun. Today I would never decide not to travel simply because I had no one to go with me.

Which country disappointed you? 

I never want to be in a position to be disappointed by a country–sure, there are places I've liked more than others, but I usually chalk that up to the fact that I didn't really do enough research before going on the trip. I'll always give a second chance to anywhere that wasn't quite what I had thought it might be.

Which country was completely different than what you expected? 

The United Arab Emirates. When I moved here, I knew that Dubai was a super modern, very futuristic cosmopolitan city. What I didn't know was that it's a far bigger melting pot of people from truly everywhere than even New York City. On any given day, you're working with people from the Emirates, Lebanon, the UK, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Poland, Russia–the list is endless. And on top of that, the other six Emirates have some extraordinary places, like the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Louvre in Abu DhabiJebel Jais Flight, the longest and fastest zip line in the world in Ras Al Khaimah; superb scuba diving in Fujeirah; and gorgeous dunes in the Liwa desert. The UAE has fantastic weather for about 8 months of the year, which means that you can spend loads of time outdoors going to the beach, the mountains, or the desert practically year round.

What country are you eager to get back to? 

India, it's the gift that keeps on giving. When we went the very first time, while we still lived in NYC, we were smart enough and lucky enough to get a 10-year tourist visa. Now that I live so close to India, that visa means the world to me! We've been back three more times since that first trip, and try to go somewhere different once a year. You can literally go to India for the weekend from Dubai. I adore Jaipur and want to return there as often as possible, but would love to travel in Kerala as well as the Himalayas and the Andaman Islands.

Which country would you not go back to? 

There's nowhere I'd never go back to. Everywhere has something positive and wonderful about it, sometimes you just need to dig a little deeper to find it.

Which country cemented your love for travel? 

Greece. My husband and I went on our honeymoon to Santorini, Limnos, and Athens. This trip really marked the beginning, for me, of trying to figure out how we could travel abroad at least once a year from that moment on. We had never traveled outside of the US together and for each of us it was only our second trip ever to Europe. It combined everything we still love–fantastic art and history, unforgettable scenery, amazing beaches, delicious food. This was pre-internet, so everything pre-Internet was a bigger adventure than it is today–getting lost, not understanding the language, finding the best beaches, the best cafes. We had so much fun!

What is your all-time favorite country? 

Cambodia. It's not something I can easily put into words but I felt so at home from the moment I arrived into Phnom Penh. If I could open a business there, I'd move to Cambodia in a heartbeat. Seeing Angkor Wat and the other temple complexes was a dream come true, but the people remain the most memorable part of that trip. I was completely overwhelmed by how genuinely lovely the Cambodian people are despite having endured such unfathomable hardships and horrors. They are among the kindest, nicest, warmest people I've ever met.

Have you had any responsible travel experiences? 

We stayed at an amazing tree house surf camp and eco-lodge in Nicaragua, Buena Vista Surf Camp. They only had electricity for a few hours a day, no air con, no internet, and community meals which resulted in very little food waste. Also, we try always whenever possible to visit local communities with community guides. Two of the best experiences we had were in Uganda and India. Both were powerful eye-opening experiences that changed our perceptions immensely in terms of understanding how well these communities lived while also gaining a greater understanding of the challenges that they face in today's world.

What is your top travel tip? 

Yes is usually the best answer to almost every question.

What is the most prolific lesson you've learned through travel? 

I'm not sure that most Americans know how precious the concept of freedom of movement truly is–I think many of us take for granted the fact that we can leave the country whenever we like as long as we have a passport and a return plane ticket. We are incredibly lucky that we have the right to travel and everyone who is able to do so should exercise that right. Every place you visit becomes an opportunity to break through stereotypes, prejudice, or preconceived notions. Getting off-the-beaten-path, meeting new people, and understanding their country's history from their own perspective imparts a worldview that can never be achieved by scrolling through Instagram or watching the news.

What keeps you motivated to continue traveling? 

Knowing that no matter where I go, my eyes will absolutely be open to something new or I'll have some kind of positive life-altering experience. Either I'll test myself if we're doing something scary like white water rafting on the Nile River, or we'll discover an amazing Chagall altar in a winery in Provence, or we'll meet new lifelong friends as we did on our first trip to Oman. On that trip, we met a fantastic couple from Zurich on the dive boat. Flash forward a few years, after several trips and visits together, I'm now their first son's godmother. You never know who you'll meet or what will happen when you travel, so you should always be prepared to just dive in headfirst and enjoy every experience.

What countries are on your bucket list? 

It's an ever-evolving list but in the short term, I'd love to get to Mongolia because its vast emptiness is something I'd love to experience; Zambia because you can go on walking safaris, which sounds potentially scary but also super exhilarating plus I'd love to see Victoria Falls from both Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Myanmar because I know that Lola enjoyed it and her photos looked amazing!

Where are you headed next? 

Budapest! We have a break coming up and will go for five days. I can't wait to visit the thermal baths, they look so grand. The architecture looks fascinating and I'm hoping the ruin bars will remind me of the East Village when I first moved to New York City. We'll take a bike tour along the Danube which I just know will be breathtaking.

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