The Catch Me if You Can Book Review
As it stands, the UN recognizes 195 countries in the world. Traveler Jessica Nabongo has been to them all!
I first heard of Jessica Nabongo when I discovered her remarkable travel memoir entitled The Catch Me If You Can, which was published by National Geographic early in 2022. Her book describes the trips she has taken around the world, as well as her experiences as an expat. I sat down (virtually) with her for an interview and she shared her unique experiences.
Nabongo, a Ugandan-American woman from the city of Detroit, dedicates her book to her parents, Rose and Ephraim and acknowledges their bravery in coming to the United States to start a new life. Having dual passports has come in handy on Nabongo's travels-the US offers its citizens visa-free entry into 186 countries, including several European Union member states. Armed with both Ugandan and American passports, governments around the world granted Nabongo access to explore their countries.
It would be easy to focus on the beautiful, Instagram-worthy photos that Nabongo includes in her book, but there is a riveting story behind the pictures. Nabongo shares how her Ugandan-American background prepared her for embracing and blending in with different cultures. She also shares how travel has changed her life; her years of travel have led her on a journey of radical self-acceptance. Because of this, she recommends that readers read each section of her book in order so that they can experience the unfolding of this journey.
Nabongo has made quick jaunts to foreign beach resorts, but she has also lived as an expat in several countries. Although she includes beautiful photos of every place she's visited, she does describe the racism and othering experienced by dark-skinned African travelers. This sort of experience has ranged from being photographed and stared at, which she experienced as an English teacher in Japan, to the fluctuations in status she experienced while working as a United Nations consultant in Italy. She might be dismissed as a lowly migrant worker on her morning commute to her UN job, honored as an expert the moment she entered the office building for work, and then experience harassment as if she were a sex worker when out to dinner with friends.
Although there were benefits to being able to blend in when visiting certain countries, she also experienced the downsides. Nabongo's third time working abroad was as an intern and trailing partner to her Italian boyfriend to the tiny West African nation of Benin. She enjoyed being able to blend in with the locals and found that she wasn't pestered by panhandlers like her white colleagues were. On the other hand, she would sometimes be completely ignored while her white colleagues were greeted with curtsies and afforded accommodations. She found herself wanting to scream "I am American" just to gain an ounce of respect.
Being Ugandan-American gave her a unique perspective when visiting countries in Africa. In her book, Nabongo speaks of the connection between the African continent and Black people in the United States. "I don't think of Africa as a monolith...West Africans feel close to the African diaspora because of the historical and cultural context. (In Uganda) There's no idea of a unifying blackness. My mom knew of Blacks in America, but not their story nor how they got there". For Jessica, who grew up observing Uganda Martyrs Day in the US, her Ugandan heritage is important to her. Even though she can't peel matoke nor mingle posho, Jessica Nabongo is proudly Ugandan.
Nabongo also sees the spirit of Africa in other countries outside the continent. One of the most gorgeous sections of her book is on Brazil. "For me, I feel very at home in Brazil. The food, the kinship with people, the landscape...No matter where I am, I experience a place through the people and their connection with their culture", Nabongo mused during our conversation. In Brazil, she has reveled in Carnival festival street parties, shot photoshoots with her circle of creatives and witnessed a heard of wild horses cross the beach on a tiny island. Her friend, the well-known TV personality Chef Roblé, cooked for the group when they weren't savoring the local seafood stew called moqueca. About both Cuba and Brazil, Nabongo writes, "Something about the African spirit has stood the test of time and continues to permeate the cultures of my favorite places around the world."
During our interview, I asked her about which countries didn't get their fair share of attention from travelers. Of these countries, she mentioned Iran and Venezuela. As we know, sometimes relations between countries can be tenuous- I asked her if being an American citizen affected her treatment as she traveled to countries that aren't on good terms with the US? "Governments and people are on two separate tracks. Nobody looks at me and assumes I am American", Nabongo stated matter-of-factly.
In Venezuela, for example, she basked on the purest white sand beaches by clear blue water. Because of sanctions, the travel industry and media ignore these islands, which are still so natural and pristine. Nabongo felt warmly embraced on her visit to Venezuela. She received a nighttime tour of the capital, Caracas, from a few locals who took her to historical monuments and then invited her home for fresh-picked mango smoothies. She now refers to them as family.
One small critique of her claim to have visited every country is her claim to be in Syria while sitting on a sunny fence in the Golan Heights. The Golan Heights is a territory held by Israel since 1967 and then annexed in 1981. Israeli road signs are posted and Israeli currency is legal tender. All of the residents pay Israeli taxes and depend on the Israeli electrical grid and water system. In addition, when in Sudan, Nabongo wrote, "I always err on the side of conservative when in Muslim countries" referring to her black headscarf. Whereas, in her "Syrian" photo, looking at her short dress, exposed knees, and entirely uncovered head, one might get the impression that she doesn't think she's really in Syria either.
The biggest lessons of this book are the importance of traveling and exploring the world, and using these experiences to grow as a person. She inspires us to make our own travel plans, and whether your own travel wish list has 100 countries on it or 3, this book will open your heart and mind to the natural and cultural wonders of this planet. As Nabongo writes, "travel allows you to be a lifelong learner, if you let it".
Shoshana Kirya-Ziraba is a married mom and lifestyle columnist who splits time between Texas, California, and Uganda. From cooking to fashion, she covers what she likes to read about! Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.