Instead of throwing herself into a milestone birthday party, Jessica Nabongo planned to visit every country in the world when she turned 35.
When she landed in Seychelles on October 6, 2019, Nabongo, now 38, became the first black woman and one of less than 250 people to travel to all 195 countries: 193 states recognized by the Nations United plus two non-member states, the Holy See and Palestinian territories.
Using her dual citizenship as a Ugandan American, the Detroit native has been able to explore countries most Americans will never see, including Turkmenistan, Cuba and North Korea. She’s compiled her photos and stories into a new book, “The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World,” with National Geographic.
“It’s the friendliness of strangers that made my trip so beautiful,” Nabongo told the Post.
In October 2018, Nabongo, who works remotely for a luxury travel agency and as a consultant for the UN, entered North Korea using her Ugandan passport. (The US government prohibits its citizens from visiting the country.) She was shocked by what she saw.
“I thought of North Korea as a place where the sun didn’t shine, the sky was never blue, and everyone wore grey,” she wrote of the one-party state in “The Catch Me If You Can”.
But Nabongo told the Post she was pleasantly surprised at how “normal it was.”
Nabongo spent five days on a “very prescriptive government tour” exploring the capital Pyongyang with a private tour group she found on Google.
“I followed children on educational outings. I’ve seen couples in parks and grocery stores [which were small but stocked with food] and people who cycle or take the subway to work,” she said.
One evening, the group headed to a bar full of music and people – mostly men – having a beer after work. She said she wasn’t really able to chat with many North Koreans due to the language barrier and their “reserved” and “quiet” nature, but she felt they were fascinated by the idea of meeting an American.
Nabongo admitted people often ask her about North Korea’s labor camps and prisons, which she hasn’t seen, but noted that she’s also never been in the projects or in a prison in the United States.
“Terrible things are happening all over the world,” she said.
However, she noted how insular the country is. “Once in the city, you could tell that the country is not very exposed to the rest of the world. Nowhere do you see advertisements, brightly colored clothes or jeans, or western brands in supermarkets,” she wrote. North Korea, along with Cuba and Turkmenistan, were among the only countries with virtually no Wi-Fi.
However, she wrote that the city was filled with skyscrapers, tall apartment buildings, government buildings and public squares “like you see in other capitals”.
Nabongo writes in his book that Pyongyang “looked like a time capsule”, a common description for many communist countries, and distinctly remembers green and red subway cars, a relic of the 1970s.
Despite the city’s “retro” vibe, it was modernized in 2012 when leader Kim Jung Un announced that the skyline was too gray and ordered buildings to be painted in “amazingly brilliant”.
As a seasoned traveler since the age of 4 – when she got her first passport stamp traveling to Canada with her parents – Nabongo said people should try to keep an open mind while traveling the world, managing their expectations.
For example, she said she was “disappointed” when she arrived at Machu Picchu because she had seen a million photos: “You’re like, ‘Oh, okay, that’s exactly what I thought. what it would look like.'”
Nabongo recommends starting conversations with locals to see what they suggest to see, do, and eat.
“People who are in the country know more about the country than Google ever will,” she said.