At first listen, it’s easy to imagine world wanderer Franci Neely’s theme song could be Johnny Cash’s rendition of “I’ve Been Everywhere.” And a deeper dive into the classic ditty bears out this assumption — the tune, which states in rapid-fire dozens of destinations — is originally Australian, with Aussie locales.
Much like Neely herself, the anthem’s been celebrated in all four corners of the world, from Canada to Catalonia, Finland to Germany. Not only has the Texas-based philanthropist been to more than 180 countries, but she shares, “ Travel has changed me — in a good way.”
Neely says her joyful junkets have expanded her sense of empathy. Neely’s most recent journey took her to the far-off nation of Equatorial Guinea, a small country on Africa’s west coast known for its oil and gas exports.
There, Neely says she befriended a radiant woman named Isabel who lives on the Rio Campo which runs between Equatorial Guinea on the south and Cameroon on the north. Isabel still had campaign literature supportive of President Obiang’s re-election around her home, very common to see in Equatorial Guinea within a week or so after the vote.
“The presidential election was on Sunday, Nov. 20. Guess who won? The same man [Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo] who has been president for the last 41 years. His relatives won too, including his rakish son, Teodoro ‘Teodorin’ Nguema Obiang Mangue.” You don’t get that kind of insight into another country without having an open heart and mind.
Neely says she also enjoyed meeting Roberto Selso, a man in a colonial village called Batete in the southern province of the island of Bioko
Neely posed for a photograph with Selso outside the 200-year-old wooden home that is his paternal family heirloom. “These structures are vestiges of the colonial history of this country, populated by Portuguese and then Spanish,” Franci Neely explains. “Roberto was very happy to share history and a handshake with me.”
Why Franci Neely Says Travel is The Greatest Teacher
A new friend named Nellie in Rio Campo area of the mainland part of Equatorial Guinea. Franci met Nellie in a village called Tica on Atlantic coast (where turtles lay their eggs). It’s very close to the border of Cameroon, maybe 5 km away.
The human connections Neely forges are the driving force behind her global wanderlust. She recommends everyone get out and explore more, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic altered so many plans across the planet.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s so rich about travel. It’s an incredible learning experience for me,” Franci Neely says. “The focus of my travel became very different because of that.”
From Hong Kong to Morocco to Fiji to Malawi, Franci Neely has stood atop peaks and descended into valleys — and through that exploration, she has in many ways found a GPS to the sacred bond of the human spirit. She says it’s a connection that exists in the eyes and the heart and surpasses any written language.
Making friends on a Sunday in Equatorial Guinea — Ayene. Franci and a Dominican nun, outside of a church service.
From playful schoolchildren to the wisest village elders, Neely confides that every conversation she has while abroad is one she holds close to her heart. Her secret to shaping these soul alliances? She says she makes a point to really listen during these chats because that’s when some of life’s greatest lessons can be absorbed.
“I learn by listening and opening my heart and my eyes,” says Franci Neely. And even when newfound friends are far away, Neely keeps them close at hand as pen pals, maintaining connections with people in Cameroon and the Philippines — and she admits she never takes these extraordinary bonds for granted.
She says by routinely venturing outside of her comfort zone, she’s had access to experiences and conversations most Americans simply don’t have. One of her missions is to inspire her compatriots to break down stereotypes and experience foreign cultures with their own senses — they might be pleasantly surprised. Neely confesses that her jaunt to Iran was a life-changing experience. She says she discovered that the Iranian people not only have a highly sophisticated culture and a deep appreciation for their history, but they also have a deep love for the American people.
How Travel Can Change One for the Better
Franci Neely isn’t alone in her theories on the benefits of travel. A survey of studies published by worldpackers.com found that travel changes the brain, and exposing one’s gray matter to new languages, smells, tastes, and sights actually enhances creativity. And as if that were not reason enough alone to ignite a travel frenzy, a Cornell University study found the anticipation of travel to be more satisfying than buying a tangible possession.
Travel is also the key to becoming more open-minded, according to projects-abroad.org. “When you travel abroad, you get to experience a new and different way of life,” the site states. “Everything is new the moment you step off the plane. As a result, you’ll have to adapt to your new surroundings. This will broaden your perceptions and force you to become more open-minded.”
Even literary legend Mark Twain famously understood the benefits of travel when he posited, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime.”
The Washington Post reports that, according to sociologist Karen Stein, “Travel is a time that is sort of set aside from our everyday lives. It can create a flexibility, both mental flexibility and flexibility of social structures, that allows us to see things in a different way, have different experiences, or do things a little bit differently.
Another study reveals that students studying abroad returned more “open and agreeable,” thanks to relationships made overseas.
And the entire nation appears to be on board with Neely’s advice to hit the road for adventure. American Express Travel found that 54% of Generation Z and millennials have ranked international travel as a “high” priority in 2023, with Denmark, Turkey, Portugal, and Australia on the top of the destination wish list for this demographic.
“Television, movies, social media, books — these were all great substitutes while travel was on pause, but for many of us, getting out in the world and setting out on new adventures is an intrinsic part of who we are,” says Andy Crang, Exodus Travels marketing director. “To travel and discover, to explore new places, meet new people, encounter different cultures, and experience nature’s wild beauty is in our DNA.”
Franci Neely, who just returned from Liberia where she toured a historic church and met many welcoming locals, says she plans to continue her travels in 2023. Each trip brings her one step closer to visiting every country in the world. She marvels that she’s on target to meet her goal within the next couple of years, adding that her infinite curiosity for other cultures is what keeps her focused. “None of us are strangers if we look at each other in an open, accepting, sharing way, nonjudgmentally,” Neely explains. “And it’s very life-affirming to me to do that.”