After years and years of traveling through dusty deserts, mighty forests, snowy mountains, under the endless skies of the oceans, meeting hundreds and hundreds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, in rickety vehicles, more than full boats, trains and buses, the moment has finally come: visiting the very last country of them all - Ireland. Years before, when I still had more than 30 countries to go on my quest to visit all countries on the planet, I was thinking ahead and imagining reaching my goal. I also imagined how it would be to visit the very last country. It was at that moment, that I realized that I should celebrate this milestone with my dear ones, with people who were special to me. The alternative: arriving in some far away country alone, have my passport stamped, which seemed a big anti-climax to me. Looking at the list of countries that I had not visited back then, I noticed Ireland. So close to my home country, so attractive, so easy - easy to reach for many. I decided right away to keep Ireland for last.
Talking about that day some years ago, my nieces proposed that I should not fly into Ireland, but instead, walk across the border. I immediately liked the idea, and since Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, also formally possible. However, when I was looking for a suitable border to cross before going, I noticed that the border does not really exist, or at least, is not tangible. There are not even signs "Welcome to Ireland"; the only way to know you crossed the border, is when you see the maximum speed indicated in kilometres per hour instead of miles per hour. Following the border on the map, I was then drawn to a backroad which crossed a river: the stone bridge over that river would be exactly the border between the two countries. It seemed like the perfect spot.
After visiting Belfast and the northern coast of Northern Ireland, we are on the way on the morning of June 3. Friends from Canada and Romania, my father and partner: I drive a full car on the way to the border. The turnoff for Cullaville turns out to be closed, but with a detour we still come to this last town before the border. I have been so busy arranging stuff for this day, I never took the time to really think about the practicalities of this day. How to cross the last border in the world? There are no manuals for that question. It soon turns out that others took care of the practical stuff.
Just when I get my first glimpse of the bridge below, my brother in law shows up at the roadside, signalling me to stop. He takes over the car, while my niece and I walk down the road. The Union Jack that I am given soon brings me trouble, with passers-by telling me that this display of UK identity is not appreciated here. The divide of Ireland remains sensitive. At the bridge, more people are waiting: my sister and her eldest daughter, my good, long-time friend with his family. I am quickly given a small globe around my neck, and with a cloud of balloons above my head, walk to the bridge. Duck tape marks the border, and I am given an Irish flag.
Here I am, now, after all the borders I crossed, after decades of travelling, about to take just one step which will take me to the very last country on the planet. My brother in law starts the Irish national anthem on his smartphone, people applaud, and I step across the line, thus entering the 193rd and last UN country. I have completed my mission. What follows, is an interrogation at an abandoned building right next to the bridge. A "customs officer" in uniform gives me a hard time, taking proof of "contraband" out of a bag amidst a hilarious speech. A next surprise is when I get a self-made stamp, with which I then stamp my own passport. After all the exotic stamps in my passport, this is the first time I do it myself. A memorial to cherish! I then get a list of questions about my travels. While answering them, two locals stop by, and we have an interesting chat about the border, Ireland, Brexit, and travelling. They seem very surprised to hear about our reason to celebrate here, right on the border.
That evening, we get together in a pub in downtown Dublin for a party. More friends and colleagues show up; I am surprised to also see two Swiss friends show up whom I met at the shore of Khövsgul Lake in Mongolia half a year before. While the Irish one floor down get drunk, there are speeches, eating together while we watch videos that friends who couldn't come sent me, after which I cut into a special world-map chocolate cake. Amadeus, one of the Swiss friends, plays the guitar which brings even more atmosphere to this unforgettable evening. I sit on a sofa, someone gives me an inflatable globe, and while I hold the colourful balloon above my head and watch all the countries, it is finally sinking in: I have completed the biggest challenge I ever set myself in my lifetime. It will take more time for me to realize that I have really done it. A deep feeling of happiness fills me, also for having celebrated this special day with my family and friends. It feels great that they came all the way to Ireland to celebrate with me, making this day stand out in my life. It is time for new dreams, for new challenges.
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[Visited: April 2018]