It’s a word that gets tossed around casuallyregarding people who travel internationally.
Yet it seems somehow insufficient to describe the record-setting travel exploits of Dusty Pfundheller, a 2005 Altoona High School graduate.
Dusty, who celebrated his 31st birthday Tuesday, marked a much bigger milestone last weekend when he visited Israel to become — by several definitions, he believes — the youngest person to travel to every country in the world.
He recently applied to Guinness World Records to be recognized for eight travel-related world records,including the youngest person to travel to all nations recognized by the United Nations, the Olympics, the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, and the Lonely Planet travel guides. Guinness officials confirmed the organization is beginning the verification process for Dusty’s application.
He also is seeking formal recognition from a travel-tracking website called thebesttravelled.com.
When Dusty first tallied his travel exploits for a Leader-Telegram feature in January 2016, he had visited six of the world’s seven continents and 127 countries, or about two-thirds of the 193 recognized by the United Nations. He was just getting started.
In the ensuing 16 months, Dusty has literally visited every remaining corner of the world, including several countries where few Americans dare to venture. By his count, combining various lists, he has visited 236 countries — always trying to meet locals and never counting airport stops, as some power travelers do.
That chilly last continent? He visited Antarctica in January.
The seven countries initially singled out for their potential terrorist ties in President Donald Trump’s travel ban? Dusty checked Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Sudan off the list in 2016 and made it to Iraq and Somalia in March of this year.
How about North Korea, generally considered the most closed country in the world? Dusty finagled his way into a visit last July and has smiling photos of himself in front of giant bronze statues of supreme leaders Kim Jon-il and Kim II-sung in Pyongyang to prove it.
Throughout his excursions, Dusty found himself increasingly drawn to exotic locales, where people were eager to talk to a rare American tourist.
“The more I went to places that most people never go or haven’t even heard of, the better the adventure I had,” Dusty said last week in a telephone interview from his home in Singapore.
He approaches his unofficial ambassador to the world role in a humble, regular-guy way, showing interest in others and trying to leave a good impression of Americans in his wake.
“I just try to be myself, a nice, friendly person,” he said.
Dusty also has done volunteer dental work at sites across the globe, including the world’s smallest country, the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, where people got very excited last November to learn a dentist was visiting. By the time Dusty left, he figured he had treated half the nation’s population of about 50 people in the lone, long-vacant dental chair.
Remarkably, Dusty has done almost all of his globe-trotting in the past four years while working more than full time as a dentist in Singapore and paying off his loans from UW-River Falls, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2009, and the University of Florida College of Dentistry, from which he graduated in 2013.
He spends a little more than half his days at work and travels the rest of the time. The logistics add up because Dusty typically works 11½-hour days seven days a week to build up enough time off for his adventures.
Dusty does extensive research before his travels and usually connects with locals over the internet before arriving at a new destination. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
Perhaps his most harrowing tale involves the time he spent a night in jail while traveling alone in the East African nation of Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries that is struggling to emerge from a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war.
The February 2016 visit there began uneventfully, although even Dusty, who has stayed in some pretty ramshackle quarters, was surprised to see the level of poverty at the home he had arranged to stay in through couchsurfing.com.
In the evening, he and his host went to a bar, where Dusty, as the only foreigner, attracted the attention of a police officer, who questioned him for about half an hour. The grilling ended after Dusty followed his host’s advice and slipped the officer $5.
The frightening part occurred at about 11 p.m. when two military officers, armed with AK-47s, showed up at the host’s house, asked to see Dusty and searched his luggage. Just when it seemed like everything was going to be OK, two trucks showed up carrying about 20 soldiers, all dressed in camouflage uniforms, carrying large guns and barking orders in French.
“It was the middle of the night and deep in the forest, and it was really, really scary,” said Dusty, who had no idea why he was being detained because he doesn’t speak French.
The soldiers took Dusty to a local jail, where he was thrust into a cell with five other inmates, a soaking wet floor and only a bucket for a toilet.
With no guard in sight, a terrified Dusty sat in a corner with his head down hoping nobody would bother him when, out of the blue, one of his cellmates said, “Where are you from, man?” Dusty was shocked that he could speak English.
“They treated me like a VIP in that jail cell,” Dusty said, recalling that his cellmates shared their limited food stash and even offered to share space on the newspapers they sat on to avoid contact with the gross floor. “It was absolutely incredible.”
The next day the inmates all got to go outside and shower — Dusty passed on that opportunity — and then a guard talked to him, learned he was an American and let him go.
For Dusty’s parents, retired teachers Raina and Bob Pfundheller of Altoona, such stories are unnerving to say the least, but they have learned to trust their son’s judgment and support the love of travel they instilled in him as a child.
Raina said the key for her is to focus on his incredible opportunities instead of the potential danger.
“I’ve had four years to practice strengthening my mental discipline,” she said. “Now, when I start to scare myself with dark thoughts, I silently remind myself to think of something more pleasant. I actually say to myself, ‘Stop! Don’t go there!’ ”
It also helps that, thanks to Dusty’s busy schedule and the 13-hour time difference between Altoona and Singapore, Raina and Bob often don’t know where Dusty has been until he’s safely back at work.
“It’s not that he’s secretive; it’s that he knows we’ll worry, so he waits to call us,” Raina said.
Dusty’s biggest border battles came when trying to gain access to Israel and Syria.
“Israel and Syria don’t like each other, but the one thing they have in common is the first two times they didn’t let me in, but then the third time they did,” he said with a chuckle.
Even though many Americans visit Israel, Dusty believes he was denied a tourist visa his first two attempts — including one visit when he landed at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv and was interviewed off site — because he had visited and made friends in Arab nations viewed as hostile to Israel. His plight, with Israel the only country he hadn’t visited, made the Israeli news. The Times of Israel even ran a blog he wrote titled “Tinder Dating got Me Deported from Israel” in which Dusty described how he told Israeli security officials he had met girls from the dating site Tinder in Lebanon and Iran.
Eventually, after hiring a lawyer and filing a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice, Dusty got his long-sought visa and visited Israel’s famous sites with Raina, who called the chance to share the momentous occasion with her oldest son an “amazing Mother’s Day gift.”
War-torn Syria presented an entirely different challenge, and Dusty wasn’t going to be deterred by warnings from co-workers about the Islamic State group that included showing him gruesome videos of violence there by militants. Dusty had no plans to go near IS-held territory and had been advised by residents that the capital of Damascus was safe.
After being denied a visa through normal channels, Dusty learned some travelers are granted access at the border. So he went to the Lebanon-Syrian border twice in failed attempts to get a visa — the first time despite dying his blond hair and eyebrows dark to better fit in and the second time despite the pleadings of a female Syrian dentist he had met on Tinder.
On the first border visit, Dusty recalled fearing an interrogation when a policeman “with a huge gun” called him over. But after asking his name and where he was from, the policeman shocked Dusty with his next question: “Can I add you on Facebook?” Dusty said the experience, which still makes him laugh, made him think, “Maybe this place isn’t so bad.”
Dusty eventually gained admission when his dentist friend connected with the Syrian dental association’s president, who wrote a letter to the Syrian government on his behalf saying the group wanted Dusty to present at an international dental conference in Damascus. It worked. After 16 security checks, Dusty’s visa was approved and he presented at the conference, where he was a novelty as an American.
“None of the people at the conference had met an American in six or seven years,” he said. “After I got done giving my presentation, they lined up for photos. Over 100 of them ended up taking photos with me.”
In what is widely considered a Muslim nation, Dusty acknowledged being surprised at the crowd’s religious diversity and at seeing about half the women not wearing headscarves.
The only way to enter North Korea is with a tour group, so that’s what Dusty signed up for, although he ended up being the only one in his group.
But he was far from alone, as two tour guides were with him at all times. “Every visitor to North Korea is required to be accompanied,” Dusty said.
Even in North Korea, Dusty stuck to his engaging, personable style, chatting with his twentysomething guides about everything from dating and family to what they do in their spare time.
“I know they were being paid to be nice to me, but I really felt that we were friends by the end,” Dusty said.
All in all, it was fascinating visit, and Dusty was surprised at how normal life seemed in the places he was permitted to visit. He did, however, mention being stopped by police when his group drove down a street where visitors are not allowed and being told to get down immediately when he stood on a park bench to get a higher angle for a photo. Such behavior, he was told, is not permitted.
“I had a really great time, I saw the country and people were nice to me,” Dusty said. “There was really nothing crazy at all.”
In all of his travels, Dusty said no place compared with Somalia in terms of danger. The East African nation has been wracked by civil war and poverty for decades.
“I had four guys with guns that walked with me everywhere I went,” he said. “It was crazy.”
In his two full days in Somalia, Dusty saw some sights, went to a beach and visited an internally displaced persons camp near Mogadishu, where he met with dentists who weren’t interested in his offer of medical assistance. The camps are tent cities filled with hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalians, mostly women and children separated from the men in their lives, who are forced to line up for food and water rations.
Dusty found himself wishing the women could be trained to work so they could be self-sufficient instead of forced to live indefinitely in such miserable conditions.
While he never saw anybody get hurt or heard any gunfire, his visit to Somalia was nonetheless an unsettling experience.
“That was the only country I’ve gone to where I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t need to go back there anytime soon,’ ” Dusty said.
While many of the most-traveled people in the world head for the relative safety of Kurdistan when seeking to check Iraq off their itineraries, that wasn’t sufficient for Dusty, who wanted to see what he considered the “real Iraq” he’d seen on TV.
So Dusty obtained a visa and went to Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. He arranged a tour through an agency in the United Kingdom — the only company he could find worldwide offering tours in Iraq.
“I had to have three people with me the whole time. That’s how little people go there,” Dusty said, noting that his escorts included a driver, a representative from the Ministry of Tourism and another man.
Yet even in Iraq, Dusty connected with people online before his trip and arranged to sleep in the homes of local residents. He talked to his hosts about the Iraq wars and everyday life while the ministry official waited in the next room.
“None of them had ever met a regular American, and they couldn’t believe I was going there as a tourist,” he said.
Dusty considers himself fortunate to have been to places and had experiences unlike anyone else on the planet.
He maximizes efficiency by generally traveling solo and at an ambitious — some might say frantic — pace that involves little downtime and limited sleep. Fortunately, jet lag doesn’t seem to slow him down.
“It’s an adventure from the second I land,” he said.
His visit last August to Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon in southeastern Iceland, is an example of his travel style. Before arriving, he had arranged for a local to pick him up, and they drove the five hours to the iceberg-filled lagoon straight from the airport.
Family and friends back home in Altoona love to follow Dusty’s adventures on social media.
One of his followers, Altoona Middle School teacher Kim Wardean, said she has used his experiences as a teaching tool, sharing stories from his website and discussing his example of goal-setting.
“As Dusty’s seventh-grade English teacher, I always knew he would go places, and he literally did — to all 236 countries,” Wardean said. “His trips and experiences that he has shared on social media and on his website are amazing. I am so proud of his accomplishment and have been bragging him up, especially to our Altoona Middle School students.”
Now that he has conquered the world, Dusty tentatively plans to return to the United States in the next year or two and continue practicing dentistry. He has pondered writing a book about his travels.
But don’t expect him to “settle down” and become a couch potato anytime soon.
Traveling is in his blood. It’s part of his identity. And there is the matter of the 10 countries he traveled to with other people. He is considering returning to those in the next six months so he can claim to have visited every nation solo.
“There are obviously a lot of places in the countries I’ve visited that I haven’t been,” Dusty said. “There is still so much more to see.”
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