Sal Lavallo is a curious individual who is dedicated to exploring the world. He loves looking at what roles gender, race, class and religion play in people’s lives in each and every country in our diverse world.
He originally hails from the United States and has been to all 195 countries in the world.
Where have you seen the world’s best bathrooms?
I’ve certainly seen a lot of bathrooms during my travels! The best I have seen would have to be the bathrooms at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. They have so much gold accentuations that I recommend all my visitors to go in there just to take a look!
I also loved the bathrooms at a restaurant called “Peep” in NYC – they had what looked like a mirror from the outside, but in the toilet you could look out at everyone eating. Any toilet in Japan is fascinating with all the buttons and options.
I most prefer bathrooms in the Arab world and some parts of Asia as they use a faucet hose instead of toilet paper. After years in Africa and other travels I also see the appeal of squat toilets – it is much more natural.
What are your top 5 favourite countries?
I travel to learn about economic development and identity and therefore my favorite places are ones where I can gain new insights into these topics.
Since 2012 I’ve lived mostly in the UAE and I find it genuinely to be the best place on earth. It is somewhere where I learn every single day, not only from the amazing growth that occurs, but also from the fact that there are people from all over the world here.
I first visited Tanzania while working with Trail of Seeds, an NGO that I founded, and while there I fell in love with the landscapes, the people, and the culture. I now return every year and even own a small farm.
I love to explore places that are misunderstood and have negative reputations. Syria is a perfect example of this and absolutely blew me away. Its history is incredible, with Damascus being the oldest city in the world and the center of many civilizations the past thousand years.
A planned 6 day trip turned into 1 month in Africa’s biggest country. I’ve never been met by such incredible hospitality before.
I’ve been three times, to three very different parts: parties in Rio de Janeiro, working with indigenous tribes in the Amazon, and a school trip to Salvador, Bahia. Each trip showed me how stunning the country’s nature and people are!
Do you have any tips and tricks for booking a cheap plane ticket?
I always make the mistake of booking tickets way too late, so my number one tip is to book early if you can. It’s also always useful to take advantage of credit card or hotel points as these can be transferred to many airlines. I use SPG / Marriott Rewards which I can even transfer to Etihad and Emirates.
How long do you think is an ideal time to stay in one country while on vacation?
When visiting a place, I think there should always be a purpose, whether it’s for work or to learn something new, to see something specific, or to visit family or friends. The amount of time really depends on what you want to do there. If I have a friend in the country, I’ll usually stay 1-2 weeks but if I’m traveling alone maybe 2-4 days. There are 15 countries I’ve stayed in 2 or more months because of work or research and those have always become some of my favorites.
How does travelling the world transform your brain?
Travel opens our eyes to the world and forces us to realize how much we are conditioned to think and behave in certain ways. We think that one thing is obviously correct or obviously wrong because our society and culture has told us so, but a different culture will see it in an entirely new way.
If you travel with an open mind, not judging the new things you observe, but trying to learn about their purpose and foundations – then you begin to unravel the layers of your own conditioning and you expose your humanity while connecting with the humanity of others.
I’ve never met someone who I feel different from because I know that there is more that we share than we disagree on. Coming into an experience or a conversation with this mentality allows you to learn more than if you enter it wanting to fight or focus on differences.
Do you have to be someone who knows how to pack their entire life into a carry on, to travel the world?
No. Travel should be fun and about making yourself happy. If fashion and having many outfit options each day makes you happy – then go ahead and bring a big suitcase! I prefer mostly to travel with only a carry-on simply because it’s quicker at the airport, but that’s just me!
Which place have you returned to the most?
There are 50 countries I’ve visited two or more times, 15 that I’ve stayed in for 2+ months, and dozens that I’ve worked in professionally. The ones that I find myself returning to the most are ones that I have a deep personal connection with. For most of the past 6 years I’ve been based out of Abu Dhabi and so am always in and out of the UAE as it feels like home.
I also go every year to Tanzania, where I own a small farm, speak the language, and enjoy the culture. I also am often in Germany and Italy as those are where my parents are from. It may be surprising, but even when I was traveling fulltime I spent 70 per cent of my time returning to places!
What is one souvenir that you always bring back from your trips?
I wish that there was one thing I got from each country along the way, but I never thought I’d see them all and so never thought of making a collection. My souvenirs really are just my photos and my memories from all the experiences and conversations I’ve been fortunate to have around the world. What I have done is collected is collected coins and bills from most places and have that displayed in a vase.
How long do you take to plan each trip? Is it always spontaneous?
I usually am quite spontaneous. If I think to myself, “I really want to see Salalah, Oman!” I don’t want to have to wait months and months, so I’ll book the trip for the next week! Then I’ll usually call a friend from there, if I have one, to ask for tips of what to experience. I also take advantage of the concierges, especially at Marriott hotels, and will email them before asking for recommendations.
Do you think it has become easier for people to contemplate travel with the advent of Instagram and other social media?
Yes. It is amazing how much of the world we have access to. I love to share my photos on Instagram @sallavallo and I find it important to share meaningful captions that impart some of the insights that I’ve learned from each place.
My focus on Instagram is to promote the beauty and positivity of little known or negatively perceived places. Sharing photos and stories of stunning beauty from Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan teaches us that there is positivity, and sharing stories of everyday life there exposes our shared humanity. Showing the similarities makes the world feel more exciting and familiar, and that makes travel easier.
What is the one spiritual or emotional thing you feel you’ve gained after all your trips?
Being out in the world and constantly meeting new people, learning new things, and being exposed to the realities and ideas that I never even knew I didn’t know- is quite a spiritual experience for me. I’m Muslim and I am always seeking out mosques to pray in and connecting with other Muslims around the world.
Part of seeing the diversity in the world has been seeing the diversity in our religion and that has been phenomenal for me. Travel is important in Islam, it is mentioned more than 25 times in the Quran, and being a guest and being a host are important roles. What travel exposes to is our shared humanity – that we are all connected and we are all similar. Connecting with others and spreading positivity and love is among the most spiritual endeavors possible. It really is about the people and now when I look at a map, I see faces.