The ink stamps in John Rheinberger’s passports read like the register of an experienced—and dedicated—world traveler: Algeria, Bolivia, China, Germany, Haiti, Honduras, Iran, Japan, Libya, Namibia, North Korea, Spain, Ukraine, Vietnam.
Since 1974, the attorney from Stillwater, Minn. (pop. 18,225), has circled the globe, visiting every country on the planet from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—196 in all—concluding his feat last November with a trip to Somalia.
“I was surprised by how easy it was,” says Rheinberger, 62, reflecting on his accomplishment. “I had the benefit of technology. I had a world currency that I could convert virtually anywhere I went, and credit cards that are accepted worldwide.”
Rheinberger’s desire to explore began as a childhood fascination with maps and the 1956 adventure film “Around the World in Eighty Days.” In 1974, at age 25, he decided that traveling the world would be among his life’s pursuits.
Initially he journeyed across North America from Ottawa, Canada, to Mexico City, and in 1978, he flew to Australia, a trip he recounts as one of his most memorable. “I thought it was the 51st state when I was there,” recalls Rheinberger, who has filled four passports with entry and exit stamps during his 35 years of travels. “The people were so friendly, and they had fast food restaurants. That surprised me.”
The unusual rock formations in Brazil, its luxuriant blue and green flora, and its gorgeous women made Rheinberger cite the South American nation as the most beautiful country he’s visited. India was the most unique. That’s where he witnessed an elephant ambling the streets of New Delhi in 30-degree weather, experienced exotic smells of unusual foods, and saw elaborate ivory carvings that took lifetimes to create.
Rheinberger has devoted about 1½ years of his life and $230,000 to his worldwide tour, traveling twice a year, mostly during long holiday weekends. During each trip, he stayed in each country’s capital for three days, documenting the sites with a single roll of film.
As he grew more confident, he traveled to more obscure and remote destinations.
In July 2009, he journeyed to Nauru, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. “There’s a flight about twice a week and a boat that comes every two or three months, if it stops,” says Rheinberger, illustrating the difficulty of reaching some destinations.
Countries with totalitarian regimes can pose obstacles for travelers. To gain entrance last year to Cuba, Rheinberger, a tax and estate-planning attorney, created a resume giving him credence as an environmental expert.
Surprisingly, Rheinberger wasn’t particularly apprehensive about visiting countries ruled by dictators. “Initially, I was a little scared,” he says. “But in some ways you’re very safe because everybody is watching you and watching out for you. There’s a protection in that.”
Rheinberger’s sister, Margot, 53, who herself has traveled to 64 countries, is impressed by her brother’s methodical approach to travel. “When he arrives in a country, he actually may know more about their history than the residents because he has such a detailed memory and a great interest,” she says.
So what’s next for the world traveler? Rheinberger is considering adding a doctorate degree in history from the University of Minnesota to his six other academic degrees. “I’m fiddling around with the GRE (Graduate Record Exam),” he says. “And even if I don’t get the doctorate, what happens? Well, I sharpened my mind a bit.”