In July 2015, Cassie De Pecol flew to the sovereign nation of Palau. But this wasn't just any vacation. The 27-year-old from Connecticut was embarking on the journey of a lifetime: to be the fastest person and first documented woman to travel to every single one of the world's 196 sovereign nations and break a Guinness World Record. In February 2017, this brave adventurer achieved her goal, making the voyage in 18 months and 26 days. She broke the previous record and also became the first woman to visit every country on earth.
In addition, De Pecol had a noble goal: to promote peace through sustainable tourism. She anointed herself the "chief explorer" of Expedition 196, as she called her record-breaking journey around the world. She also served as an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism and collected water samples for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation along the way. And she's making a documentary about her trip, too. "I personally love finding new, inspiring things, places, culture, environments in countries around the world that are in need of tourism," says De Pecol.
So how has she pulled it off? The expedition has cost her almost $200,000 (including airfare), which was partly funded with donations from sponsors like Clif Bar and Eagle Creek, as well as eco-hotels like Six Senses Zighy Bay in Oman. She spent two to five days in each country, visiting schools and meeting with tourism leaders. Here, De Pecol shares her inspiring story.
Laura Begley Bloom: What made you want to do this?
Cassie De Pecol: In high school, I had this feeling that I’d do something major in life, change the world, enhance the world, something like that. I always had this yearning to accomplish something way bigger than myself and to make a longstanding, positive impact on the world. It wasn’t until the age of 25 when reality hit me that this vision was never going to come to fruition unless I made some major moves as soon as possible. I wasn’t happy with where my life was headed, working odd jobs and not following my passion so, that, muddled with the anxiety of never knowing how much time I’ll have left, made me take that leap of faith. I knew that it was either now or never and at that point, I decided that no one was going to steer me away from this worldly vision and extravagant personal goal.
Begley Bloom: Were you a big traveler growing up?
De Pecol: Not so much. My mom is from Canada, so we’d always take trips back and fourth to visit family, and I think the only other country I’d been before the age of 18 was St. John in the Caribbean on a family vacation, which is, of course, U.S. territory. For some reason, the thought of leaving my home state was always so thrilling to me.
Begley Bloom: What did you do before?
De Pecol: I worked odd jobs in sales, website development, marketing and childcare. While I developed great relationships with the families that I worked with and really enjoyed caring for children, there wasn’t a future there, in regards to my career. Despite all of my odd jobs, I was able to barely pay the bills, which is also what fueled my desire to take off on this quest as soon as I could.
Begley Bloom: Were people surprised when you said you were going to do this?
De Pecol: Initially, I only told my parents and a couple of my friends. It wasn’t until I was about six months out from taking off that I told everyone else. I didn’t want anyone's personal opinion to hold me back, so I kept it mostly to myself in its initial stages until I was 100% committed. My parents were very supportive and my friends were supportive as well but of course unsure as to how it would all play out. I’m really grateful for the support of my parents for giving me the space and motivation to follow my dreams even if it was and still is, scary for them to wrap their heads around.
Begley Bloom: What was the most amazing place you visited?
De Pecol: The most intriguing region would have to be the Middle East. For some reason, I’ve always had this yearning to go over there. I knew I’d love it, even though many people would try to tell me that it’s the worst place in the world and that I’m crazy for thinking that. Turns out, when I went, it ended up being my favorite region after all. All of this negative stuff we hear in the news and from politicians about Muslims and the Middle East couldn’t be further from the truth in regards to how kind, helpful and happy the people are, generally speaking. Also, the culture is very unique, the landscapes are beautiful, the food is delicious (dates with coffee… YES!) and the music is some of my favorite in the world. From Afghanistan to Oman to Jordan and Iran, I’ve been welcomed wholeheartedly by the people and have fully enjoyed myself, immersing myself in their way of life.
Begley Bloom: Any hurdles along the way?
De Pecol: Mental hurdles were the most challenging. I was alone in this thing, and I had to sort through the good times and the bad on my own. Sometimes I messed up, oftentimes I was sleep deprived, and the rest of the time I was juggling all the other responsibilities that came with managing an entire 196-country expedition while trying to absorb as much about a country as humanly possible in such a short period of time.
Begley Bloom: Was there anything — good or bad — that you encountered because of being a woman?
De Pecol: Generally speaking, I experienced so much hospitality from people all over the world, but I don’t think that has anything to do with being a woman. I did, however, have several terrible experiences where I was faced with discrimination and unfairness. When negative experiences happen to me, I don’t automatically think that it happened because I’m a female. It’s really when I share these stories with others that they automatically assume that it happened because of my gender. Either way, the positives outweigh the negatives on this expedition, and overall I’ve had wonderful experiences.
Begley Bloom: What did you do when you were in these locations?
De Pecol: There were several elements to Expedition 196. Spreading peace through tourism and economics was one of them, promoting sustainability was another and advocating women’s rights and achievement was another. Then there’s the YouTube vlogs — which showcase the beauty of many of these nations that I've visited — and the educational documentary that I’m filming to be used in part with a tool-kit and book written with the students I’ve spoken to all over the world. I also promoted my sponsors.
Begley Bloom: How did you give back?
De Pecol: People often say that there’s no way I could preach sustainability when I was flying so much, and they’re right. I’m not saying that I’m a sustainable traveler, but I've been working toward being one with each tree that I planted with the students on the expedition, collecting water samples to test for the presence of microplastics to send to Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, staying in and promoting sustainable/regenerative hotels and most importantly, educating university students who are studying tourism on the importance of responsible travel and incorporating or keeping in mind the elements of sustainable/regenerative hospitality and tourism. Many students I’ve spoken to have no idea what sustainability even means, so it was my job to educate them on this and encourage them to support responsible tourism best practices when pursuing internships and throughout their careers.
Begley Bloom: Do you think you've had an impact on other women?
De Pecol: As a young woman myself, I like to think that I can set the standard for young women worldwide to pursue a quest or dream that is out of the norm or that everyone tells them they shouldn’t do. It’s my job to leave a legacy behind that positively influences future generations of innovators, entrepreneurs and trendsetters, especially when it comes to women.
Begley Bloom: What's next? What do you plan to do after you meet your goal?
De Pecol: A major part of me wants to just devote myself towards humanitarian aid and putting all that I have into addressing number 13 (climate action) and number 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, while incorporating sustainable development. This is why I’m developing a universal student internship program to address these needs. Money is of course a factor to ensure that I’m able to enhance our world through these humanitarian goals. And the initial plan is to continue to work with brands in their advertising campaign as well as have a show (a girl has got to dream, right!?). Anthony Bourdain has been an idol of mine since high school, and it’s always been a dream to follow in his footsteps with his TV career, but instead of focusing on food and travel, something else and travel. I’m also lining up speaking engagements, TEDx talks and the like, which will take me both stateside and on international trips over the course of (hopefully) the long term.
Begley Bloom: Any advice for someone else who wants to do this?
De Pecol: The best advice I can give is: If you have a dream, quest or goal to not let anyone deter you from pursuing that. Have an immense amount of motivation and dedicate yourself to your vision one hundred percent. Know that if you want something that bad, you’ll do everything in your power to make it happen. Utilize Google — it’s been the best resource for me to learn how to write a business plan, obtain sponsors, plan my route and so on. Utilize social media, listen to podcasts and network with as many influential people as possible. Act now. Have that sense of urgency. Don’t wait. Tell yourself every day — either in the mirror or every night before you fall asleep — where you envision yourself a year from now, because the more you tell yourself what you want, that goal you want to achieve, the higher of a chance you’ll without even realizing it. Work day in and day out to achieve that goal. Fail. Learn from constructive criticism. Don’t be stubborn, but be stern and confident in your beliefs and vision. Inspire others to inspire yourself along the way. Learn to depend on only yourself to get the job done, so that both your successes and failures are up to you. Above all, always believe that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how difficult it gets.
Laura Begley Bloom