At sixteen, Luís Filipe Gaspar decided he was going to play catch-up with the world. This is his story, the perils, the madness, the manias and the tips of one of the most travelled people on the planet.
The urge to discover the world disturbed Luís Filipe Gaspar’s spirit from an early age. He is Lisbon born and bred, an architect by profession and traveller body and soul. “I did my first travelling with my parents. We used to drive to Spain and France and that’s how got my itchy feet. Later, at sixteen, I decided to do my first Interail with a friend. I sold books and ice cream at the fair in Lisbon, made a tidy sum, my Dad lent me some change and I was off in search of adventure.” Twenty-four hours later he arrived in Paris. With a pack on his back, he went looking for the youth hostels he’d reserved beforehand. Some were closed, others had no beds, with the result that he spent the night at Gare d’Austerlitz and promised himself he would never again bother to book hotels – something he still adheres to today religiously.
After this trip, which took him to ten European countries, he returned home, sat down and did some thinking. In rather idiosyncratic fashion (especially for a 16-year-old boy), Luís calculated the number of years he would live, the number of holidays he would have in his lifetime and the places in the world he would like to visit. When he saw the result he understood that “I was a bit behind schedule”. So from that point on his mission was to “play catch-up”.
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Luís is now the 48th most travelled person on the planet, according to the Most Traveled People (MTP) website. Of a total of 872 places listed – which include states, provinces, regions, archipelagos and enclaves – he has bitten off 487 and has been in 133 of the 192 countries recognised by the UN. The compass which guides his wanderings is the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and he is well represented here as well: with 331 sites visited, he is 30th in the world ranking. But Luís cannot relax. “I’ve still got a long way to go!”
His travel philosophy is very simple: “squeeze the most out places”. That is why he has created various rules to simplify his life. One is not to spend the first day in the place of arrival, “I gain more time if I leave it till the way back”. Another is not to travel with bags in the hold, so as not to waste time or let people slip anything in or take anything out. As regards hotels, he looks for them whenever possible. If there is a bed, fine, if not “there is always the car, a station or a park bench to sleep on”. As preparation is all, Luís makes a very detailed programme of what he wants to see and do, but always leaves a day or two for the unexpected, so there are setbacks or new opportunities to enrich the stay. “Once, on the way back from Bolivia the plane was delayed six hours. I made use of the time, called a taxi and asked the driver to take me to a Jesuit mission in the middle of the jungle. When I got there, it was as black as pitch. In the darkness some candles lit up a magnificent wooden church where they were holding Easter mass. I’ll never forget the place, the people and the hymns, which appeared quite by chance on a journey that was supposedly over.”
Another of his golden rules is never to pack any preconceptions. “It’s a crass error and there have been several opportunities to prove it. Iran, for example, contrary to what you might think, is a fascinating country with incredibly friendly people where it is easy to get around.” Perhaps that is why Luís is playing down the trip he is about to go on in August, to North Korea. “I’m going with two friends also on the MTP site. It is these types of trips that have to be prepared beforehand like an Antarctic expedition, because lots things are out of our hands.”
Unlike lots of globetrotters who like travelling alone, Luís prefers the company, “of friends, the girlfriend or my parents, who infected me with the travel bug and who I Iike to pay back. We have been to Alaska together, to Syria, Hawaii, Israel, Argentina… they are exceptional travelling companions!”
Of all the countries he has set foot in, he can’t choose a number one, “because no two places and cultures are the same. You can’t compare New Delhi to New York”. There are places which give you more, some which give less and that’s that! India gave him a great deal, China less than he expected.
Something that has never disappointed him are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, whether natural or cultural. As regards marvels of nature, Luís puts Perito Moreno on a pedestal, one of the last living glaciers on the planet, which occupies part of Argentinian Patagonia. As far as cultural heritage is concerned, he confesses to a weakness for temples (maybe it is a defect of his profession). “I was most impressed by the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which have an amazing architectural and urban rigour, and with the pyramids at Giza and the Temple of Luxor, in Egypt. However much I try I can’t get my head round how they managed to work and transport the granite at that time.”
“Travel”, he insists, “always enriches us. I didn’t, for example, have any great fascination for deserts and now I’m hooked”. Places grow on him and Luís tries to get the most out of them and scours them from end to end. The fact that he has been to Bangkok three times does not mean that he has been to Thailand, because he has not seen the real soul of the country, which doesn’t inhabit the capital, but is in each of its provinces.
This architect, who has lived and worked in São Paulo, Brazil for eight years – and has also lived in Italy, Egypt, Mozambique and Tunisia – says there are four places he would like to settle. “New Zealand and Australia for their relaxed lifestyle, opportunities, people and freedom to explore them with a backpack. Hawaii, because it is an island paradise with access to all you need to live comfortably and because the thing about love and a shack only works for half a dozen months of the year. And Canada, because it is a kind of Australia in the Northern hemisphere”.
Fetishes and hang-ups
To each madman his fetish and Luís has a whole collection of them. “I am fascinated by trains. I have my hair cut twice a year god knows where. I always have more than one trip lined up. I only use Lonely Planet guides. I may not remember names or faces but I have a gift for remembering with amazing detail a place I ate somewhere Judas lost his boots in 1900 and something”.
Active, dynamic and with a spirit of adventure like few others, Luís peppers his trips with experiences hardly recommendable, if at all, for the faint-hearted. He has scaled Monte Branco with the best climber in Portugal, his good friend João Garcia; he does skydiving, skiing and has swum with sharks. “But one of the best dives I’ve done was at Vilarinho das Furnas reservoir, in Gerês National Park. We floated over a submerged town like a Wim Wenders angel, it was spectacular.”
Another of his passions or manias is photography. “It is a way to record places, moments and things that I want to keep in my memory and share with the people I regard as accomplices in my adventures. They are pieces that illustrate my never-ending pilgrimage around this small dot in the universe we call home.”
by Maria Ana Ventura
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