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Planes, trains and camels: Minnesota man travels to 196 countries

John Rheinberger saved the hardest for last. In his quest to visit every country in the world -- 196, by his count -- Rheinberger put off Somalia until last week. He arrived in Hargeisa, Somalia, on Saturday and returned to the Twin Cities on Wed...

Globetrotter
GLOBETROTTER KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY JEAN PIERI/ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS (August 12) A brown travel bag has accompanied John Rheinberger, 55, to 115 out of the 150 countries he has visited. He is sitting on his 1989 Buick, which has a license plate that coincidentially bears the letters JET.

John Rheinberger saved the hardest for last.

In his quest to visit every country in the world -- 196, by his count -- Rheinberger put off Somalia until last week. He arrived in Hargeisa, Somalia, on Saturday and returned to the Twin Cities on Wednesday afternoon.

Friends and family members were at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to greet him after his Delta Flight 5708 arrived from Washington, D.C. He was jetlagged -- he'd been up about 40 hours -- and wore a huge banner that said "196 Countries! Program Completed."

"It was a good stay," said Rheinberger, who lives in Stillwater, Minn. "I wasn't scared, surprisingly. It's a very safe, very open society. It's a Muslim community, so they take care of themselves. It's one big large family, and you become part of it."

Rheinberger's five passports now boast stamps from every country in the world recognized by the United Nations, including Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Libya and Cuba.

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He estimates that he has traveled more than 775,000 miles over the course of 44 trips that have taken more than a year of his life. He has traveled by airplane, train, car, bus and camel and has spent about $225,000.

Quite a feat

When Rheinberger set his goal of visiting every country in the world 35 years ago, there were only 143 countries.

His sister, Marguerite Rheinberger, said she pushed him to finish checking off the countries on his list.

"I said to him, 'You've got to get going because these things are starting to multiply like rabbits,'" she said. "It's a magnificent feat for anyone, but it's especially magnificent for him because as the countries were getting harder to get to, there were some that we thought he would never get to."

Rheinberger, 62, a lawyer, said he didn't think he would complete his international quest until 2017. "I originally thought that the last country might be Afghanistan or North Korea," he said. "I guess, in retrospect, I got lucky. Fortune worked out for me."

Rheinberger said he was surprised he could accomplish his life goal.

"Events broke for me, and I was very lucky," he said. "If I were to start again, I am not sure that the next 35 years would be as accommodating as the past 35 years have been."

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Travel routine

A former Stillwater City Council member, Rheinberger has bachelor's degrees in history, political science and geography.

He has master's degrees in history and business administration, in addition to his law degree. He is retired from his job as a part-time Army Reservist in the Office of the Judge Advocate General.

Rheinberger, who is single, has his travel routine down pat. He never checks his bag, and he never uses his frequent flier miles, because of schedule restrictions. He is always the first to check in on a flight and the first to board the airplane.

He rarely stays in a country for more than three days. "If you stay too long, every day is the same," he said.

He usually visits capital cities because they are the "most intensive symbols of a country," he said.

He sticks to standard American food and eats at his hotel or McDonald's. In Hargeisa, Somalia, he stayed at the Ambassador Hotel and could order hamburgers, french fries and Cokes.

Collecting memories

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Rheinberger has adopted specific definitions about what counts as a country. He believes there are 196 sovereign nations in the world -- the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Kosovo, Taiwan and Vatican City.

Now that he has visited all the world's countries, Rheinberger said, he is thinking of visiting Juneau, Alaska, next year so he can say he has been to all of the U.S. capitals. Even though he has been to every other capital city, he said he still has a few capitol buildings to tour.

"It's not just going to the capital city, it's going to the capitol itself and going inside and seeing where the legislative body is or where the governor's office is," he said. "I just don't want to collect things...because they take up space."

Apart from collecting capitols, he said he doesn't want to talk about any other possible travel goals. "I have to be careful because the minute I say it, it kind of comes with a semi-commitment, and people start to ask me about it," he said. "I dare not say the next thing."

He said he realizes that reaching his lifetime goal is just a "momentary title, an illusionary completion. That's all it is."

But he has this advice for anyone else interested in following in his footsteps: "Have a plan and stick to it. Modify it only as an absolute last resort. Take it in steps or layers. Know that each experience builds on the next."

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