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HHWT Explorers: The Muslim Convert Who’s Travelled To Every Country Before 30

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Shasha Dania  •  Jul 04, 2019

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One of the biggest accomplishments for a traveller is definitely to visit every single country, filling our passports up with stamps and passes and visas from across the world. The list of people who've accomplished this feat is small but growing, and we were so amazed to learn that Sal Lavallo, one of the youngest travellers to join this list, is also a Muslim convert! 😮 We got to ask Sal a few questions about his conversion to Islam, how his faith informs his travels, and what his travel goals are now that he's been to every country possible!
1. What countries does your family have its roots in, and how did that shape your love for travel?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
My father was born in Italy and my mother is German. Growing up with an international family made the world seem small. The stories I was told as a child were about faraway places, but rather than these seeming foreign, I was told that I was a part of them. Ultimately, I began sensing myself as not just American or German or Italian but all these things and more- part of the entire globe!
2. How and when did you first encounter Islam? What were the events or circumstances that led up to your conversion - did you face any obstacles, and conversely, any moments of beauty that led you to decide to convert?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
 Really, my conversion wasn’t about “encountering Islam” but about a very personal inward search for the ineffable divine magic. I sought out many religious and spiritual experiences all as a process to help me know God. I love all forms of prayer and was always expanding my soul and furthering my spiritual journey. Ultimately, I came to my own truths, and practised those for a while myself, before being told that the truths I had realized were the same ones promulgated by Islam. The main realization was in Tanzania- when a wise village elder asked me what I believed, when I answered, he said: “what you’ve just said is Islam.” As I asked questions and looked for answers, I realized how similar what I had come to was to Islam, and I said my shahada very quickly. It didn’t even feel like converting – it was just an “Aha!” moment seeing that I already was Muslim. There have been no obstacles. 
3. How has the way you travel changed ever since you embraced Islam? (Whether in your outlook, the thoughts that have run through your mind, what considerations you have to take while travelling etc.)
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
 Travel is an integral part of Islam – it’s mentioned 27 times in the Quran! – and my journey around the world has significantly deepened my faith. When we travel we see God's wonders in the dynamic nature, the diverse people, and through all the emotions we have – thus travel brings us closer to God. It is also very important in Islam both being a guest and being a host – the way that we treat strangers and those passing through - it builds empathy and understanding. Practically, my travel has changed in that I actively seek out mosques to pray in, that’s always one of my favourite things to do in a new place. 
4. Visiting all of the countries in the world is truly an amazing feat, congratulations! What made you decide to embark on this journey, and what challenges did you face?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
In my later teen years, I was travelling a lot to visit my family and friends, in my early twenties, I started travelling a lot for my studies and then for my work. I didn’t go about it thinking I’d see every country but always loving new places. When I was 25 I had been to 115 countries and wanted to take off 6 months from work to go visit West Africa, the only region I had never been to. Those 6 months turned into 30! And I turned into one of the youngest people to have visited every country.
5. Was there any particular incident that was especially scary or intimidating? Did your perception of any country change after you visited it?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
 There are often disconcerting moments – but I always prefer to focus on the positive. Fear is a mindset that we give WAY too much power to. In fact, most fear is really just worry. We worry that something will happen….and then it doesn’t happen, and we wasted all our energy on worry. We should take precautions to stay safe, but we need to worry less and focus much more on all the wonders around us. If something does occur, usually it is fleeting, and instead of being afraid we need to think critically of how to get out of it. 
6. How do you stay close to your faith through the ups and downs of your journey (particularly with praying, Ramadan, and food), while still immersing yourself in the local culture/experience?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
I truthfully don’t find it difficult. It isn’t a chore to practice Islam. I can’t think of any situation where it was laborious to do so while travelling. Maybe prayer times can be off a bit because of other activities, or you have to eat more vegetarian if there’s no halal meat, or in Ramadan, you might be more tired – but these actions are all things we take joy in.
7. How has travelling brought you closer to your faith? Are there any particular verses from the Quran, for example, that have been a comfort to you?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
 In Surah Al-Hajj we are told that through travel our minds gain wisdom and our ears learn to hear. Surah Luqman says that while we travel Allah reveals many wonders. Muslims are even enjoined to travel - with Surah Al Ankabut commanding: "travel through the earth and observe God's work." 
8. What is the country (or some of the countries) that have been truly unforgettable to you?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
My favourite countries are the UAE, Tanzania, and Algeria. I love places where I feel like I’m always learning something new every day, that have kind people, good food, and awe-inspiring scenery. These three have each one of those, but there’s also something magical that can’t be described. Falling in love with a country is just like falling in love with a person – you can’t explain in words why you feel how you do.
9. Praying in a new country (especially in a new mosque) is always a moving experience. What are some of the mosques that have stood out to you, and do you have any interesting anecdotes or thoughts to share?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
Praying in new mosques is one of my favourite parts of travel, and I think I’ve prayed in a mosque in nearly all Muslim-majority countries. Yesterday I was blown away in Prizren, Kosovo because the mosque there was one of the most beautiful interiors I’ve ever seen, with light bursting through the windows. Often the smallest mosques in little villages feel the most amazing and intimate. But I also loved praying in ancients mosques like the Ummayyad Mosque in Syria or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, and modern wonders like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in my hometown in Abu Dhabi.
10. What has it been like to visit, experience, and even live with different Muslim communities around the globe?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
 My main learning is how diverse Islam is. We as Muslims have a tendency to think that the way we think and behave IS Islam, but so much culture has mixed in with the spiritual practice and this creates many variances in what Muslims are like around the world. I find these differences beautiful and rather than thinking that one is right and another wrong, I love to understand why they exist and what meaning they get from their actions. 
11. What is the one thing you need to have on a journey/trip?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
I always seek out beautiful nature and deep conversations where I learn about the place that I’m in. It’s these two things, appreciating beauty and learning from others, that really make me so in love with the world.
12. Now that you’ve visited all of the countries in the world, what’s next up to your itinerary? Are you the type of person who revisits a particular city/place to explore it more 'in-depth', or do you prefer to go somewhere completely new?
Credit: @sallavallo on Instagram
I do a mix of returning to the same places and trying new ones. There are places, like Tanzania, Italy, and France that I always want more time in and go every year. When I’m visiting new places I usually look for an experience I’ve never had! Lately, I’ve also been travelling more for events – weddings of friends, sporting events, and specific festivals – that makes even a return visit to a place completely new.
13. What advice (practical, inspirational, or anything really) would you give to Muslims who want to travel outside of their comfort zone, but aren’t sure?
 Credit: @ sallavallo on Instagram
Travel requires a balance between trying new things but doing what makes you happy. I don’t recommend anyone going on a trip that they aren’t excited about! Look at a map and think of what will fill you with joy – is it a weekend in a big city, or a hike on a mountain, or eating all the food in one place. Whatever it is, do what you want to do, not what you think you should. You can follow Sal's adventures on his Instagram and Youtube Channel.