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The most travelled Jesuan?

Unlike many former Jesuans, Phil Goddard (MML, 1978) did not become a captain of industry. His career as a translator has given him a lot of freedom to see the world, and with 116 countries and a 3,000-mile walk under his belt, he thinks he may be the College’s most travelled graduate . . .

I’m old enough to remember the days when PC stood not for personal computer or politically correct, but postcard. In pre-Facebook days, they were an essential means of keeping in touch. And Cameron Wilson, my director of studies in French literature at Jesus, had an awful lot of them.

By tradition, any of his students who travelled abroad would send him a card. His mantelpiece was literally overflowing with them, stacked fifteen deep. Sometimes one would flutter down onto his faded carpet in the middle of an earnest debate on Racine or Corneille, and he would pick it up without pausing for breath.

We all loved Cameron, and choosing a card to send him became an important part of any trip. Sometimes it even influenced our choice of destination: the obscurer the better. My crowning glory was when fellow linguist Tim Skeet and I sent him a card from Burkina Faso which briefly enjoyed pride of place on the mantelpiece until another arrived to cover it up. Those postcards were one of the reasons I started going to odd places.

At some time in the late 1980s, I realised I’d been to seven new countries in one year, and someone said why don’t you try and visit them all. That sounded like a good idea, though not compatible with a nine-to-five job. I’d been working for Citibank until then, but decided I preferred words to numbers and tried my hand at freelance translating, which is what I’ve been doing ever since. I don’t mind admitting it often sends me to sleep, but it pays the bills and allows me and my wife to travel.

How many countries are there? It depends on how you define a country. My preferred number is 197: the 193 full members of the United Nations, plus the Vatican and Palestine, which have observer status, and Taiwan and Kosovo, which are not universally recognized. I’ve been to 116 so far. If I die before my wife, I’ve jokingly instructed her to Fedex a little bit of my ashes to each of the remaining countries.

And what constitutes a visit? Stopovers don’t count: I have to leave the airport and spend at least a few hours looking around. My shortest stays have been New Zealand, Liechtenstein, and the Philippines, at half a day each.  Some might say this is a superficial way of travelling, but I’d rather see a little of each country than none at all. And my longest stay is the United States, where I’ve lived for thirteen years.

My favourite countries are the tiny ones nobody has heard of, where the immigration officer raises an eyebrow when you say the purpose of your visit is tourism. Like São Tomé and Príncipe, two specks off the coast of Central Africa, where the remains of the Portuguese colonial era are fast vanishing beneath a blanket of tropical vegetation. Kiribati, in the Pacific, is disappearing too, this time beneath the waves as a result of global warming. And Transdnistr, next door to Moldova, has gone one step further: it doesn’t officially exist, since no one recognizes it.

Once I wandered out of a blizzard and into a pizza restaurant in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in America. There were only two customers inside, and they waved me over. It turned out that one was Norman D. Vaughan, who took part in Admiral Byrd’s first expedition to the south pole and had a mountain named after him in Antarctica. The other was George Meegan, who walked from Tierra del Fuego to Arctic Alaska, following a very circuitous 19,000-mile route that took him seven years to complete. After our third bottle of wine, I decided I’d like to do something like that.

Years later, I did. It was a bad time in my life: my first wife died of cancer, aged only 49, and I needed something to cheer me up and get me out of the London house where we’d lived happily for nineteen years.

So I walked from New York to Los Angeles, and it was the most extraordinary and life-changing thing I’ve ever done. I wore out three pairs of boots, so each lasted about a thousand miles. I stayed with a Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, and at a Buddhist retreat in the Arizona desert where people took a five-year vow of silence. And I met the woman who’s now my wife.

Cambridge is a place of infinite possibilities. I wasn’t an especially distinguished student, and I didn’t have the drive and confidence to follow many of those possibilities. But I hope I’ve gone some way towards putting that right since then.  

Phil Goddard thinks he may be the College’s most travelled alumnus, but he’d love to be proved wrong. If you know otherwise, you can contact him via phil-goddard.com

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