When Gallatin Class of 2012 graduate Sal Lavallo left the United States for the first time at 12 years old, he could not have imagined that just over a decade later he would be racing the clock across the globe to earn the title of “Youngest American to Visit Every Country.” With only 18 of 195 nations officially recognized by the U.S. State Department left to visit, Lavallo has returned to New York City to prepare for an epic trip that will include stops on every continent to break the record before his 27th birthday in September.
Washington Square News: Have you always been interested in learning about different cultures?
Sal Lavallo: Yes, I got that from my dad. My mother is Italian and my father is German, but I grew up in Indiana, where is it pretty homogeneous. We would always sit with my grandparents and they would tell us stories of coming over [to the United States]. They grew up in Germany during World War II, and obviously with that history there is a long story of people being treated differently for reasons that are silly. I never had to address that in my own life. There was no one who was really different so I craved that. I was interested in studying that academically and seeing how I could make that into a profession.
WSN: At what point did travel become a part of that curiosity?
SL: We traveled a lot when I was a kid, but only roadtrips within the States. We would just get in the car and drive. One time we looked at the states that we hadn’t been to yet and tried to go to all of them, so the counting sort of started then. We hadn’t been to Louisiana, so we basically took a three-day weekend trip to Louisiana just to go. But before high school, I had only been on two international trips. My parents said that everyone could pick one international trip to go on, so I went with my father to Japan and China. Then I went to Germany with my grandmother to see all of the family. And then when I got to boarding school all of my friends were from so many different places, so I started to realize that if I just paid for the flight, then I would have a place to stay and food to eat.
WSN: Tell me more about that first trip that you took with your father to Japan.
SL: I saw the opening ceremony of the Nagano Olympics and decided that I wanted to go there and learn. It was a three week trip, and it was probably the easiest one because I didn’t have to figure out logistics. I was [12 or 13 years old], so it was perfect timing to see all that and to get time with my father. [Japan is] also just an amazing place. It’s different from anything that we really know as Americans.
WSN: As you get closer to having visited every country in the world, there have got to have been places you were a bit scared to go to. How did you handle that?
SL: I’m not an adventurer and I wouldn’t go somewhere that is unsafe. If that means that I don’t get the record, then that will be fine. But there are safe ways to go to most places. One situation that I will talk about where I did feel unsafe was while I was traveling by bus. There was one route that was known to be unsafe. There was a terrorist organization that hadn’t done anything yet, but was still there. It just ended up that everything went wrong and I had to hire an individual bus and pay for all of the seats. And then at one point, they said that they weren’t going to do this route unless I hired a militia of a least five armed men to come because they thought it was dangerous, too. I was stressed and scared the whole time, but I got there. I realized that if my mindset would have been different and if I had realized that the chance of something happening was low, then I would have been fine. There are two lessons from that. One, don’t do things that aren’t safe. Second, if you are in a situation where something could happen, be safe, but don’t let yourself get worried and turn it into a negative experience.
WSN: When you officially get the title of “Youngest American to Visit to Every Country,” how do you expect it to change your life?
SL: When people meet me, they often don’t know about the record until they look at my Instagram. I don’t care to measure up with anybody. When you’re doing hostel traveling, oftentimes people will sit around and talk about how they’ve been travelling for three months and have been to 10 countries. I don’t say anything, but maybe they’ll see the record on my Instagram and be embarrassed later. I think going to 10 countries is insane. I think the fact that so many students get to live abroad for multiple semesters is insane. I’m still amazed by that. I would never think that having been to only 10 countries is an only statement. That’s amazing.
WSN: Why do you think traveling is amazing?
SL: I think traveling is the best education you can have. I was once asked by a man at my job what I learned from all of my traveling. I think he was expecting some business lesson about the economy, but I said ‘everybody dances.’ To me, that is the most essential beauty of humanity.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 24 print edition.
Email Taylor Nicole Rogers at [email protected]