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The Road Less Traveled

Evansville native Sal Lavallo uses global trekking experience to establish career
Uzbekistan, 2019Uzbekistan, 2019
"I returned to Central Asia, one of my favorite regions, for the wedding of a friend from Abu Dhabi," says Lavallo.

Travel has never simply been a means to “get away” for Sal Lavallo. In fact, visiting places and countries around the world could be called a career path for him.

When he was just an eighth grader at Holy Redeemer Catholic School, his graduation book remarked that by his class’ 25-year reunion, he would have visited every country in the world.

“I kind of always said, ‘Oh, I’ll go to every country,’” he says. “But I didn’t realize I’d said it that early until a friend showed me that book.”

The now 30-year-old Evansville native works as the head of the Foreign Direct Investment at the Abu Dhabi Investment Office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. His role entails attracting private sector companies to the country. Through his career, he’s also been an advisor for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and started a nonprofit that benefited countries around the world.

But one of the facts of Lavallo’s life he’s most known for is his penchant for travel — in fact, just after his 27th birthday, he completed the goal of visiting all 193 established countries of the world (as of 2017; the number of established countries is now at 195). The milestone, reached on Nov. 17, 2017, in Malta, makes him one of the youngest people on record to visit every country. The accomplishment has meant more than just being a traveler. It has helped — and continues to help — shape Lavallo as an individual working in a global profession.

“I use a lot of my experience from traveling around the world in my work now,” he explains. “I feel like I’m able to take the knowledge I learned to talk on social media and inspire other people to think about what travel means and in my professional life to help other countries and help the UAE have economic development.”

▲ Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 2016 “This was around the time that I decided to go ahead and finish every country,” Lavallo says. “I was at 150 and debating whether to return to work or stay on the road. We know what I ended up choosing.”

Such a journey took more than simply stating he dreamed of traveling. A 16-year-old Lavallo attending Reitz Memorial High School searched for opportunities to broaden his horizons at an early age.

“When I was 16, I started classes at an international board school called the United World College,” he says. “There were students from 90 different countries there, so it made it really easy to go travel to see them when I was younger. I would just pay for the flight and then didn’t have to pay for a hotel and stuff. That made the world really accessible.”

He also is quick to give credit to his family for such a love of broadening his view of the world. His father was born in Italy, and his mother is German. Lavallo easily recalls stories told by his grandparents that revolved around family from Argentina, Italy, Germany, and so on.

“That made the world feel open. I felt like home wasn’t just Indiana,” he says.

The family also fostered an appreciation for traveling. While growing up, Lavallo remembers road trips to 44 states as a family.

“We would do crazy trips, like 30 hours to Montana and 40 hours back, stopping randomly wherever we wanted,” he says.

▲ Kosovo, 2018

All of it bundled together to create a “travel bug” in him, latching onto his curiosity and passion for learning about others that followed him as he began his studies at New York University. Diving into economic development, Lavallo found a concentration in critical development and comparing different economies to learn why some are better than others.

“I started traveling for work, on my own, and through school,” he says. “I studied abroad in Israel and then in Abu Dhabi.”

As he continued studying, Lavallo also was awarded scholarships through NYU, allowing him to visit Brazil and New Orleans. A grant to research and compare all eastern African economies came next. Through this, Lavallo realized he wanted more “ground experience,” so in 2010, he began what’s known as an nongovernmental organization that he named Trail of Seeds. Through this nonprofit, Lavallo and others traveled to Tanzania, Brazil, Venezuela, and St. Kitts for projects that focused on promoting culturally sustainable development through three activities: introspection workshops, micro-grants, and promotion.

“The first step was traveling for family, for friends. Then, the second step was starting to travel more for work,” Lavallo explains. “When I graduated, I moved back to Abu Dhabi to stay and become a management consultant with McKinsey and Company.”

That job was not only a step toward putting his degree to use working in economic development globally, but also expanding his passion of discovering the world through travel. His job with McKinsey saw Lavallo working and/or temporarily living in 15 different countries over three years. If that traveling was not enough, he used personal time to fly to another country for a visit after a project was completed.

“It was the first time in my life I had the funds to travel how I wanted. And Abu Dhabi is kind of in the center of the world,” he says. “You could go three hours to Africa, three hours to India, or three hours to Europe.”

All of this came together like puzzle pieces, creating a picture that allowed Lavallo to continue a childhood passion while also working in a field that he found interesting and fulfilling. Each place traveled was put on a list, where Lavallo kept track of how many of the 195 countries he was visiting. And with each new place added, he found himself trekking a path similar to another Evansvillian – John Clouse.

▲ Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2019
“I love how the UAE combines nature with cities,” Lavallo says. “Unfortunately, most people only see the shining lights and fancy things. I’m trying to promote more of our eco-tourism offerings.”

“He was the first person who ever visited every country on the record, and he was from Evansville,” says Lavallo. “He was in the Guinness World Record Book for being the most traveled man (at the time).”

Clouse, a lawyer, earned his title of “the most traveled living American” from the Guinness Book of World Records in 1987, after visiting the 304 countries recognized at that time by the Travelers’ Century Club. In 1998, Clouse was still listed in the book, having been to all 192 sovereign countries and all but six of the non-sovereign territories on record at that time with the United Nations. (As one can see, institutions and record keepers differ in what defines a country.) He told the Christian Science Monitor in 1998 that he had crossed the Atlantic Ocean at least 100 times and the Pacific Ocean close to 50 times.

Like Clouse, Lavallo wasn’t necessarily out to set world records. Traveling for Lavallo is about knowledge, learning, and connecting. It’s about diving into aspects he finds interesting rather than just passing through.

“I’ve always thought it was cool that he didn’t just touch down and leave. He likes to spend two or three weeks, he likes to meet people,” says Lavallo’s father Stephen, an Evansville lawyer.

While Guinness allows travelers to count airports as an official visit to a country, Lavallo prefers to spend significant time in each country, as he personally travels for experiences and connections.

“My job is about forming relationships,” he says. “So when I’m working and somebody is like, ‘We’re investing in Mauritania,’ and I can go, ‘Oh, I’ve been there,’ it’s a connection. One thing I often say is when I look at a map, I see faces. Every flag I look at, I like to remember what I did in that country.”

What’s the trick to being a globetrotter? For Lavallo, he says there is no one way. Sometimes he backpacks, sometimes he stays in hotels, and other times he houses with the guides taking him through a country. He meets families and business people, taxi drivers and cooks. He converses with men his age about marriage and their belief systems (Lavallo is Muslim). He takes the time to try different foods and dance.

▲ Havana, Cuba, 2017 “While in Havana, the song ‘Pure Imagination’ from ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ kept playing in my mind — the part where Willy Wonka says, ‘If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it’ — because so many people go to Cuba for the Caribbean island tourism, cigars, rum, and classic cars, but they ignore the sad reality of the place,” Lavallo says.

“I ask him sometimes what the political feeling is like in other countries,” says Stephen, “And Sal says, ‘You know Dad, when you get down to it, below the politicians and all that, people want a roof over their head. They want to feed their children.”

Reminiscing on his travels and experiences, how he applies them to working in investments and global markets, Lavallo’s stories naturally revolve around the principle of “you connect on the similarities, but you learn from the differences.”

While it may feel like globe-trotting travel may be completed for him, Lavallo believes the opposite. In May, he spent time in Yemen camping with friends. For his 29th birthday, he took a special trip back to Japan. And he shares that he would love to visit every country once again, because places change, and he changes as a person as well. Each new experience opens the door for him to find a new way to connect.

“I always say it’s such a blessing and a privilege to be able to have seen so much of the world, and to not share that with others would be an injustice,” Lavallo says. “My whole point always was that travel is about learning and connecting and that you don’t have to get on a plane to travel. For me, it’s about encountering the unknown.”

Keep up with Sal’s travels on Instagram
@sallavallo

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