Passions and ObsessionsVideo

Riza Rasco: Visit to over 80 countries in the pandemic—why?

Dinner with the second most traveled Filipina and the most traveled man in the world only begins to make us understand the passion of discovery

Riza Rasco (right) did as the Matses tribe did in the Amazon. (Photo from Riza Rasco)

Riza Rasco in Chad (Photo from Riza Rasco)

As of this writing, Riza Rasco is in Bhutan, that is, after Iran, where she explored its ruins, the Unesco World Heritage sites, churches, and temples, and met its people. But then, who knows where she will be tomorrow?

An FB update: Riza Rasco is doing yoga in Bhutan, her United Nations country no.181.

It’s hard to catch up with her, whether on social media or certainly, in person.

For now, we’re left only with her Facebook post: “Hamadan. My favorite city in Iran. It’s among Iran’s oldest cities (1100 BC), older than the Persian Empire. It’s ancient/biblical name was Ekbatana. We visited an archaeological site where they have already exposed some of the ruins of the old Ekbatana. It was interesting to see the ruins, which were older than Persepolis and Pasargadae.

“The city has given birth to many intellects, scholars, philosophers, poets, writers, artists and scientists through the years. There seems to be a ‘high concentration of geniuses’ (as Eric Weiner would say) in this city, like ancient Athens. I have found the people from Hamadan to be the most observant and the friendliest and kindest of all Iranians.”

In our dinner almost two months ago in the south of Manila, she had just come from Sulu, roamed its villages like the Badjao, and its mountains made “historic” by the Abu Sayyaf and in the distant past, by the Japanese and American occupation soldiers.

You become an armchair traveler, literally, when you sit down to dinner with her as you listen to the stories of one driven to discover each nook and cranny of the world, again literally. Sometimes you hold on to your chair through the vicarious thrill of her adventure.

Riza is no ordinary traveler, definitely no ordinary tourist. This former biotech executive is the second most traveled Filipina in the world, and in 2021, received the Extreme Traveler of the Year Award.

During the pandemic years of 2020-2021, she visited over 80 countries. “While everyone was in their homes, I was out there climbing walls to visit closed Unesco sites,” she tells us at dinner.

Ironically, Riza considers the global pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 as ‘my most accomplished years in world travel’

Ironically, she considers the global pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 as “my most accomplished years in world travel.” She says, “In 2021, I boarded 59 flights and visited 36 countries across five continents. Of the 36, 18 were repeat visits, 14 were new country visits, and four were short stop-overs. For the two-year pandemic period (January 2020 to December 2021), in total: I boarded 96 flights and visited 80 countries across five continents. Of the 80 countries I entered, 35 were repeat visits, 36 were new country visits and nine were short stop-over visits. Fortunately, I never caught the COVID-19 virus.”

She didn’t catch COVID, that is, until the Singapore-Malaysia leg, and she did quarantine, then off to see the world she was again, notably Iran.

Her travels during the pandemic earned her nominations for the NomadMania 2021 Biggest Traveler Award and the ETIC 2021 Extreme Traveler of the Year Award— two global award-giving bodies that are authorities in systematic travel, country collecting, and recognizing who is the most traveled person. Riza was given the ETIC 2021 Extreme Traveler of the Year Award—undoubtedly a nod to her curiosity and tenacity in seeing the world even through the pandemic, a most challenging time even for seasoned travelers. The annual award was given at ETIC’s meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2021, attended by the world’s extreme travelers.

“The support I received from many of my peers made 2021 an exceptional year for me,” she tells us.

So why does she do it—trying to visit every corner of the world, the farther the better, the goal being to cover all 193 UN countries, no matter what it takes? Even in the pandemic, “I kept going, go to wherever it’s opened.”

At dinner with us is American Charles Veley, the former IT executive adjudged as the most traveled man in the world—15 million miles traveled, so far—and whose exploits have been documented in the world media, notably the New York Times and Washington Post. “I am only no. 500 on his list of most traveled; he’s no. 1,” Riza says. “There are more people who have gone to space than to have traveled to all 193 countries,” says Charles.

Traveling the past 30 years or so, as far back as childhood, she finds very fulfilling the education travel imparts. “The nice thing about being able to travel, you learn about how different people survive in different parts of the world,” she says, and cites, “like in Cuba, no such thing as brands—flour, sugar, oil, it’s just one brand.”

A BS Agriculture Biotechnology graduate of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, she has a doctorate in cell/molecular biology and bioengineering from the University of Nottingham and was a biotech executive at Dupont de Nemoura, Inc., then Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures in the US. She had been based in New York when she decided to take a respite from work, gave up her home—“I got rid of my furniture”—to do fulltime travel in 2019, what she had always wanted.

The past few years have brought her all over in what could only be considered “extreme travels”—going to conflict-ridden areas, inaccessible destinations and peoples, and immersing herself in their cultures. She also founded the Philippine Global Explorers in 2019, a non-stock, non-profit group of well-traveled Filipinos, whose aim is to provide a supportive network for local travelers and to tap this network’s collective knowledge and experience to boost Philippine tourism, in partnership with the Philippine Tourism Board.

“There’s no exception to the places we visit—whether too remote, in conflict, even a rock in the middle of the ocean…The guys,” she describes the breed of extreme travelers like Charles Veley in whose footsteps she is following, “spend so much money trying to go to the rock in the middle of the ocean.”

It’s about treading the unbeaten path, a conquest of undiscovered space.

She stayed in the Amazon jungle with a tribe that hadn’t had contact with the outside world since the ’60s, dressing like them, hunting with them

Deep inside the Peruvian Amazon, living with the Matsés aka the Jaguar People. The Matsés made their first permanent contact with the outside world in 1969. 

We are in awe listening to stories about her stay in the Amazon jungle, with the Matses,  a tribe that made their first contact with the outside world only in 1969. She dressed like them, topless, gathered food with them, took siesta like they did, lived like them, communicating not through words but by sharing day-to-day experiences.

“Not verbal communication,” she recalls those memorable four days in the Amazon rainforest with the Matses tribe. “I did what they did—hunting, even carrying fruits the way they did, dug up yam, made basket from the leaves on the spot to carry the yams….

“They collect toxins from frogs for arrows used for hunting. They hunt wild pigs. Toxins are also used for intoxication. You burn your skin and put the toxin from the frogs, and you throw up. This helps hunters focus more. It’s an ancient tradition.

“I did everything with this tribe, except that.”

“They accepted her because she did what they did,” Charles comments on Riza’s once-in-a lifetime Amazon stint. “They were crying when she left.”

Getting there from Lima, then sailing for eight hours in a canoe, was arduous, but it turned out, not as challenging as getting out of the rainforest. A day before her scheduled departure, there was a big collision in the river where some people drowned or were injured. It was raining hard and Riza spent those eight hours, drenched, on the canoe ride. Her group arrived to a runway that was underwater, making plane departure nearly impossible. She would have to fly out on a helicopter, but then how to secure a seat on it? “That was so interesting,” she recalls to an incredulous dinner table—she danced the salsa, as a friendly gesture to the senior official, to secure a spot in the chopper.

Close to Riza’s heart is Africa, where she’s spent a good length of time, considerable enough to drive her to form Explore Africa for Impact, a public benefit firm in the US, a social enterprise to help the empowerment of women in Africa by partnering with tour operators in more than 30 countries in Africa. It promotes travel and tourism in Africa and gives 100% of its net profits to support community programs in education, livelihood training (i.e. tourist guide training program for women in Togo), employment and development of women. It built a school to benefit 220 children near Koidu City, in a diamond mining town in Sierra Leone.

 It’s culture that draws this extreme traveler to a place, and Riza loves Africa because it is a relatively “open society; it’s easy to immerse yourself in.”

The goal is to visit every place in the world, including conflict-ridden areas like Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya

The goal is to visit every place in the world, including conflict-ridden areas like Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya—in short, most traveled people like Charles and Riza go where others fear to tread. Riza spent three days in Libya, her tour including the Unesco site. During the pandemic, she set her sights on the island countries in the Pacific—Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Nauru among them.

Rasco’s visit hosted by the 11th Infantry Division (ALAKDAN) Philippine Army in Sulu

More important, in April, she and Charles finally got to tour Sulu, which has not been accessible to tourists. Given access by travel and military authorities, Riza and Charles were able to tour Sulu, its ethnic minority villages with their weaving and embroidery crafts.

“Sulu is a small island that packs a punch,” says Charles. “It can’t be compared to Boracay because it’s not just a beach. It has the ethnic minorities such as the Badjaos, the Tausug, the unconquered people. It doesn’t have night life, bars….it’s not just a beach place. You must be a certain type of tourist to appreciate Sulu, the Muslim part of the Philippines, as a different experience.”

Riza and Charles are looking forward to bringing extreme travelers or the Philippine Global Explorers to southern Philippines.

With more and more destinations being ticked off their lists, it’s easier to pinpoint countries or regions they, particularly Charles, haven’t been to, such as Bangladesh or the Sahara regions. Charles has been to North Korea thrice. He loves South Africa for the safari, food, scenery—“Every country has something to offer,” he says, “but South Africa has diversity with comfort.”

The remotest part of the world Charles has been to was Bouvet island off the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles from Antarctica

The remotest part of the world Charles has been to—an experience that was documented in New York Times and other world media—was Bouvet island off the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles from Antarctica, 1,000 miles from Cape Town, with the nearest island to it inhabited by 37 people. He went there with a Norwegian research vessel in freezing weather, but wasn’t allowed off the boat, so for two weeks he sailed with the crew, faced with nothing but ice, all the way to South America. “We went all the way to Falklands,” he recalls at dinner, with a little chuckle, “We saw the Union Jack (the British flag set up by the troops in that historic iconic photo) on the ground—with the penguins on it.”

Charles founded the community of most traveled people, devised a system for systematic counting of countries covered, which he then subdivided into regions to reflect a people’s culture and way of life. “Like, Canada has many sub-regions. In the US, going to New York is not the same as going to Guam. The Philippines has Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao,” Charles explains over dinner. “Ticking off the regions is the basis for ranking world travelers.”

Riza Rasco was given this Extreme Traveler of the Year Award 2021 in Azerbaijan.

Charles recalls the charm of Azerbaijan, which he visited in 2021 during the Extreme Traveler International Congress—a country of 10 million in the Caucasus region at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, coveted for its oil by world conquerors. Charles cites his stay in the iconic Fairmont Flame Towers hotel, a flame-shaped skyscraper, and the exclusive reception for 40 in the first oil rig platform right in the Caspian Sea. “We were the first tourists to fly onto the airport they were building, traveled up a road that didn’t exist until then,” he recalls the trip of many firsts.

The goal of most traveled people and extreme travelers like Riza and Charles is to visit every place in the world, notwithstanding pandemic, conflict, or strife. Why such drive?

Because the world is there—simple yet complex, ordinary yet special, predictable yet exciting—and because man is in it, just as simple and complex.

Read more:

Paris when it sizzled

Malabon: Lolo didn’t care about my reincarnation

About author


After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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