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From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Yui Pow Redford has visited every country on Earth. She tells Valerio Esposito about her experiences, and the dangers of travelling alone as a woman
‘’Oh well, I did not know that!” That’s what Yui Pow Redford said the first time someone pointed out that she was the first Asian woman to visit every country on Earth. As a child, she spent hours looking through old issues of National Geographic in her father’s studio, a cramped, musty room with a big paper-filled desk, a creaky swivel chair and a tatty sofa. Surrounded by Buddhist relics, she was transported away to weird and wonderful places, from Kashgar to Timbuktu, to Zanzibar and others whose names she couldn’t pronounce.
That little girl, now a woman, arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year: the only dot left unconnected, the missing piece of the puzzle, country number 193. She breathes a sigh of relief. ‘’Wow. I can’t believe I managed to get out of this alive,” she thinks to herself, looking back at the life-changing journey of the past 17 years.Yui was born in Singapore 38 years ago. Her father, a pilot, took her around the world for long periods, and she spent her childhood in different countries. Her mother worked as a scuba diving instructor. She likes the imagery: “My father was in the air, my mother was in the sea and I was on the land!”
It would be hard today to imagine such an indomitable spirit limited by the constraints of an office cubicle, making PowerPoint presentations and responding to emails. But that’s exactly what happened. She came to London to study her master’s degree in finance and she began a successful – yet unfulfilling – career as a business analyst.
“It’s something I would probably do differently. I didn’t carve my own path that early on. I was good at the job but at the end of the day I wasn’t going to make a difference in other people’s lives with pointless spreadsheets and meetings,” she says.
So she took a plunge and she quit her job to follow her passion. After saving up to fund her travels, she set a deadline, got a teaching qualification and she began the adventure that led her to break a record and become the first Asian woman to visit all 193 United Nations member countries in the world.
’’It’s something I’m very proud of. But it wasn’t a goal that I explicitly set at the beginning. The aim of my travels has always been, first and foremost, to learn and educate myself and to make a difference in the world. It has never been about a record, a number.”
One of the main ways she contributes is by visiting local schools where she meets students and educators, and donates time, money and materials. “Nothing makes me happier than knowing that I’ve inspired someone, or enabled them to improve their life in some way. To me, witnessing someone achieve their potential is a beautiful thing,” she says.
Her achievements take on a different meaning, a bigger importance when you consider that she managed to do what she has done as a lone woman, travelling to countries where danger lingers.
‘’There are other people who have succeeded in this. But they all tend to fit into the same demographic, that of the wealthy white male. That’s why this is one of the things that I am most proud of. It’s the fact that I am a woman and this was really, really tough,” she says.She recalls her experiences in countries where women do not enjoy the same rights as men: “When I went to the Middle East people could not understand that I was alone. I would wear a ring and say that I had a husband and two children, as I did not want to jeopardize my safety.”
And that was probably the biggest challenge for her: overcoming her fears and travelling to countries that do not have a good a reputation, particularly in Western media. But Yui always kept an open mind: “I wanted to know… Is life on the ground what you see in the news? And the truth is… what we see is not the reality of what it’s like.”
What she discovered is that we, as humans, in opposite hemispheres and time zones, are not so different after all: “People’s perceptions of the world are based on stereotypes towards cultures, countries and even certain generations.”
When it comes to social media, she confesses that she chose to reduce her online interactions. Every time she posted a picture of herself posing in front of ancient ruins in Libya, on the icy rocks of Antarctica or the golden dunes of the Sahara, someone would inevitably say or think ‘’Oh God, this woman is crazy!’’
‘’There is always someone who does not understand your passion and cannot relate. That’s why I stopped telling people. And in fact, 99% of the people, including my family, didn’t know about my goal until I completed it. I just went and did it.”
She stresses the importance of cultivating meaningful relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, as this is the only way to preserve the emotional ties in your life when you spend nine months a year in another continent.
And after each trip, London is always the place that Yui returns to. The spirit and diversity of the city never fail to inspire her: “I like the fact that almost everyone in London is from somewhere else and people almost have an equal chance to be themselves, as opposed to being the odd-one out,” she says.
She might have completed her mission, but the journey never ends: “The beauty about my life is that there’s always the next thing. My future projects combine my greatest passions in life – travel, language, and writing. And of course… going to the Moon, although that might be a bit difficult!”