As much as Cassandra De Pecol had wanted to avoid politics over the course of her globetrotting journey, war-torn Yemen became the only country in the world that she had left to visit.
The 27-year-old, who goes by Cassie, had visited 195 countries and was just one nation away from realizing her goal of setting two Guinness World Records — one for being the first woman documented to have visited all of the world's sovereign nations, and another for becoming the fastest person, man or woman, to do so. Along the way, her
Expedition 196 project sought to promote sustainability and peace.
"I want to represent the goodness of America, of American people," she told me via Skype from the Grand Turkmen Hotel in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, the second-to-last country on her list. "I'm risking my life doing so in some places. To me that's 100 percent worth it."
De Pecol had attempted to enter Yemen on January 27, two days prior to our conversation. She traveled by bus to a barren border crossing between Yemen from Oman.
A bearded border guard speaking through a tiny outdoor window told her that she was free to enter Yemen, but emphasized that the authorities in Oman couldn't guarantee that she'd be able to get out. He said she'd need pre-clearance from the U.S. Embassy in Oman, which was located on the other side of the country in Muscat. She turned back, deciding to pursue the pre-clearance before flying to Turkmenistan. She'd attempt to enter Yemen again the next week.
Her timing couldn't have been more fraught. A few hours later, newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and blocking the admission of citizens from designated "countries of particular concern," which included Yemen along with several other predominately Muslim nations. That same weekend, members of U.S. Seal Team 6 launched an ill-fated raid on al Qaeda operatives in central Yemen. At least a dozen militants were killed along with an unconfirmed number of civilians. An American commando died and three others wounded, according to news reports.
De Pecol is far tougher than she might seem at first glance. The 5-foot-7-inch blue-eyed blonde has been doing triathlons since she was 16 and knows the Israeli self-defense technique Krav Maga. When she was in her early twenties, she visited 25 counties by herself, stretching $2,000 as far as it could go, and even slept in train stations. For this recent global expedition, she remained undaunted by repeated travel visa rejections, returning to embassies in New York City week after week.
Multiple times during the expedition, De Pecol was detained by authorities who suspected she was a journalist, spy or drug smuggler. In Peru, her taxi was robbed at knife-point. In North Korea, a soldier looked her in the eye and said, "We will destroy you."
Going It Alone
De Pecol hails from Connecticut and traveled abroad when she was younger. Going around the world had been an idea in the back of her head since high school. Several years ago, she moved to Los Angeles and did odd jobs to make ends meet, but felt restless. She asked herself, "If I could do anything in the world, what would I do?" The answer: Visit every single country.
Cassie in a tuktuk in Cambodia. Credit: Cassie De Pecol
The previous Guinness World Record holder, an American professor named Yili Liu, took three years, three months and six days to visit every sovereign country, finishing in December 2010.
Burying herself in entrepreneurial books, De Pecol drew inspiration from
Chris Guillebeau, world traveler and bestselling author of "The $100 Startup" and "The Art of Non-Conformity." She began planning, attracting the support of sponsors that included Clif Bar, Eagle Creek, and Krav Maga Worldwide and getting an endorsement from the nonprofit International Institute of Peace Through Tourism. On July 24, 2015, she launched her expedition from Guillebeau's annual World Domination Summit in Portland, Ore., an event that challenges attendees to live remarkable lives in a conventional world.
Though De Pecol was moving quickly, she wasn't just going to airports and then leaving. During her travels she met with students, local government representatives, and tourism ministers. She gave presentations on sustainable tourism, urging hospitality that's energy-efficient, relies on local food production, and respects local culture and heritage.
Whenever possible, she stayed at bed and breakfast establishments, inns, or Airbnbs, she said. The Pacific island nation Vanuatu, which is vulnerable to the effects of global warming, was recovering from a powerful cyclone when De Pecol visited. Villagers welcomed her into their homes.
Recognizing that flying around the world isn't remotely sustainable, De Pecol also established a program to plant trees around the world in an effort to offset her carbon emissions, though she concedes that its completion could take years.
Breaking down barriers was a key aspect of her adventure. In order to enter North Korea, she paid $1,000 for a visa and joined a group of Chinese tourists led by a 24-year-old local guide named Miss Lee.
Cassie with Miss Lee in North Korea. Credit: Cassie De Pecol
"The first thing she gave the tourists was a set of "propaganda postcards," De Pecol recounted of her three-day tour. "I opened the envelope. It is literally the soldiers shooting down the Pentagon, and American soldiers going down with it."
Their bus went to monuments and landmarks, stopped at towering brass statues of the country's leaders, and passed villages where kids played and washed themselves in a river. The brief tour only showed the tourists what the government wanted them to see. Her conversations with Lee were friendly, but limited. De Pecol felt she constantly had to be careful what she said or did. Her hotel room contained a device in the wall that she suspected recorded audio. She still isn't sure what was real about her stay, and what wasn't.
During the last leg of her travels, De Pecol was returning to Syria's border with Lebanon from the port city Latikia. She shared a taxi with a 28-year-old woman from Aleppo named Hadeel who received clearance to join her husband in Germany as a refugee, leaving their demolished home behind. This would be her first time leaving Syria and her first time flying on a plane.
Cassie with Syrian refugee, Hadeel, sharing a taxi. Credit: Cassie De Pecol
"It's one thing, all over the world between countries, for governments to clash," De Pecol said. She wishes she could step into a world where everyone is regarded as a global citizen instead. That doesn't mean she hasn't experienced close calls, though.
She said that she'd been repeatedly detained, including in Bahrain and Libya, where the authorities suspected she worked for the CIA.
"A lot of times they'll think I'm a journalist because I have my tripod on the side of my backpack and I have my camera equipment," she said.
While she was waiting for a shuttle to a local bed and breakfast from the airport on the tiny island nation Grenada, officials came up and said she looked suspicious. They brought her to an 8-foot square room with a low ceiling, yellow walls, a wooden table and two worn chairs.
De Pecol learned that a couple of American girls were caught two weeks earlier trying to smuggle cocaine into the country. She had been carrying a sealed plastic bag of vitamins that included pills of turmeric, valerian root, and vitamin C. The authorities tested the contents of the bag individually before allowing her to leave.
During a taxi ride in Peru, four teenage boys armed with knives suddenly attacked the vehicle and robbed the driver at a red light. "I pretty much stuck my phone up my bum," she told me. "I didn't back my phone up. They cannot take the phone because it had all of my notes on it, my journal, everything." De Pecol called the incident a fluke and pressed on.
In early December, she arrived in Cuba and realized during the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel that she only had $20 in cash. American debit and credit cards aren't accepted there. "How am I going to pay the taxi driver? Then the hotel, they're like, we need cash, too," she recalled. "I felt so stupid."
She tried an ATM anyway. That didn't work. It was nearing midnight and De Pecol panicked as she considered walking back to the airport, which would take hours. The normally steely traveler sat on the side of the road and began to cry. Her taxi driver, who she described as a short man with brown eyes, graying hair, and a kind expression named Dago, approached.
"He said in Spanish, 'I have three daughters and I would hate for them to be in your situation. How about I take you back to my house? You can stay at my house tonight, and then figure everything out tomorrow,'" she said.
He dropped her off at his tiny concrete home and returned to work, De Pecol said. His wife made up the bed and the next morning, when the American emerged from the room, she discovered that the woman had slept on a thin, narrow foam pad on the floor covered only by a floral sheet.
"She had given up her bed so that I could sleep in it. She didn't even know me," De Pecol said. "Strangers all over the world, they want to show you how kind and helpful they are in welcoming you into their country."
Welcomed With Opened Arms
Cassie in Yemen, her final destination. Credit: Cassie De Pecol
On the morning of February 2, De Pecol finally crossed from Oman into Yemen. Even her Yemeni contacts were recommending that she get into and out of the country as quickly as possible. She headed directly to Hawf, a small village near the border located on the southern coast.
Donning a black hijab, a long-sleeved black shirt and black-and-white patterned harem pants, De Pecol met with a large local family living in one house. They fed her lunch — an impressive spread of freshly grilled fish, rice, spicy sauce, salad, and a stack of flatbreads. Later, locals demonstrated how they ground sesame seeds into oil and presented her with a plastic bottle full of the labor-intensive result. She drank camel milk and ate bread under the stars.
After crossing back over the border, De Pecol flew to Doha, Qatar. Sleep-deprived and full of nervous energy, she stopped at an airport restaurant and ordered a glass of red wine to celebrate. De Pecol achieved her goal in one year, six months, and 26 days. That's about half the time it took the previous Guinness World Record holder, Liu. Guinness still needs to verify her records, but De Pecol has the documentation.
As she reflected on her milestone, De Pecol launched Facebook Live from her phone to connect with viewers from around the world who had been following her travels. They offered congratulations and peppered her with questions. One person asked about Yemen.
"You see all this stuff on the news and you think, oh my god it is so extremely dangerous to go there," De Pecol responded. "But go and you'll see it's not."