Last year, eight-year-old Dubai resident Ophelia Holden travelled with her mother, Stephanie, to New Zealand, Tajikistan, France, Uganda, India, Brazil, Serbia, the UK, Norway, Russia, the Philippines, Benin, Eritrea and Djibouti.
By February of this year, after going skiing in Andorra, the half-American, half-Colombian had been to 68 countries. And then: nothing.
As the coronavirus outbreak spread around the globe, travel restrictions were imposed and flights were grounded, Stephanie and Ophelia’s plans to visit every sovereign nation on earth – 193 in total – were temporarily shelved.
“I feel kind of stuck in one box, because I’m kind of used to going to a lot of places, but now we’re just here – all day,” Ophelia says. “I love traveling,” she adds. "It’s a way to see the world and how it is.”
Stephanie, who has already visited nearly 150 countries, says she hopes their travels show Ophelia “empathy, and understanding something else other than the lifestyle of Dubai”.
“I just want her to know how other people live, how other cultures live, and how some who are less fortunate live,” Stephanie says. “Hopefully by starting at a young age, this will be a part of who she is.”
Prior to the pandemic, the duo somehow managed to leave the UAE at least once a month, even while Ophelia attends school as a year three student at Kings' School in Umm Suqeim and Stephanie works full-time as chief strategy officer at MBC Group and head of MBC Ventures.
When lockdowns and travel bans began in March, Stephanie started pushing back planned trips to Chad and Cambodia to later in April. She has since postponed travel plans to October, adding constantly to their backlogged destinations list: trekking in Taiwan, Art Basel in Switzerland, the Raja Ampat islands in Indonesia, a polar bear National Geographic cruise in the Arctic, and an eco lodge in Bolivia.
Stephanie, who has lived in Dubai for 16 years, says she looks for unique, enriching or active experiences – not “kid-focused” or “touristy stuff”. They aren’t choosing countries in a particular order or focusing on certain regions before others.
“Usually we mix it up every year,” she says. “We do some Africa, some Asia, some Europe, some South America, some America,” Ophelia adds. “We mix and match.”
The youngest person to travel to all sovereign countries is American Lexie Alford, who broke the Guinness World Record at age 21 in October.
There are 247 people who claim to have visited every UN-recognised country, according to Nomad Mania, which lists rankings and verifies documentation for proof. Founder Harry Mitsidis estimates the total could be double that.
"2019 was a record number for achieving the goal, with an unprecedented 39 people doing it. Even in 2020, nine people did it, all within the first two-and-half months of the year," Mitsidis tells The National.
He says it is difficult to guess whether the youngest person record will be broken soon, especially given the devastating effect Covid-19 has had on travel.
“However, it is clear the record is being broken year by year,” he says. “A few years ago, the ‘youngest person’ was 29; that then became 27, and then eventually 21.”
Stephanie, 46, grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and travelled outside the US for the first time in high school when she did a year abroad in Hong Kong and learned Cantonese. During her time at the University of Pennsylvania, she spent a semester in Moscow studying Russian.
She moved to Singapore for her first job out of university with Merrill Lynch, and has since lived in various countries, including the US, India, Lebanon and the UAE. The Harvard MBA graduate came to the UAE to work as a McKinsey consultant and has been at MBC since 2005.
During her studying and working life, she started “roaming” the world. After giving birth to Ophelia in the US in October 2011, within two weeks Stephanie was hiking in the Utah canyons with her in a baby carrier.
The travel never stopped and “she always accompanied me”, says Stephanie. Early on, Ophelia visited countries such as France, Oman, Ukraine, Madagascar, Botswana and Zambia.
At age six, in Nepal, Ophelia climbed to 4,400 metres on the Tengboche to Dingboche hiking trail, which leads to Mount Everest base camp. “I’m a very strong hiker I think,” Ophelia says.
A few of Ophelia’s memorable moments include staying with her nanny Mercy in the Philippines, where she bathed in a bucket and sometimes had no electricity, and “the craziest dog sledding” on Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal, the world’s largest fresh water lake.
“I do like all of the countries, but there is a favourite: Eritrea,” Ophelia says. “I love Africa, it’s my happy place.”
She started writing about her travels in a journal over the last year and Eritrea was heavily featured. “I wrote everything about it,” she says. “They had a camel market, they had beautiful mountains, they had Italian architecture and a lot of fun stuff to do there. And my heart loved it.”
Benin, too, is one of her top picks because of the “voodoo dancing” and a temple where there “were pythons in every direction you would go, so it was kind of scary”. She also remembers the salt rocks in “weird star shapes” in Djibouti and the “beautiful waterfall” in Angola.
But when asked where she wants to go next, Ophelia surprises her mother by naming a couple of traditional tourist destinations: Paris and Egypt.
Paris, because "it seems pretty cool to see the Eiffel Tower and the art museums and Mona Lisa and the ballets", she says. And Egypt "because I want to see the pyramids and I think it's a cool place and there's the Red Sea."
For now, Stephanie and Ophelia have resorted to staycations in Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. But they are itching to get back on the road again, as soon as it is allowed and safe.