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City woman has trotted the globe to 150 countries

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Donna Shaver was getting close, so she decided to knock off the five Stans a few years ago.

That would be Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan , Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

"That brought me up to 147. Then, I went to the three Baltic countries this past summer -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia," she recalled.

So it was that on July 27 this summer that she crossed the border from Latvia to Estonia. And thus, she had finally come to visit her 150th country. "So I achieved the goal, which has really been 44 years in the making."

She reached a rare level. The Charleston woman was already a card-carrying member of the Travel Century Club for having notched a visit to a 100th country in 1995 -- it was Mongolia. She now joins the club's more rarefied Silver Level, receiving a letter, a pin and new membership.

"Not so many people have achieved 150 as have achieved 100," said Shaffer of what she describes her "travel disease."

"It's an honor."

Which raises an obvious question: There are 196 countries in the world, so ...?

"No, I don't anticipate that," she quickly replies. "But I did not anticipate getting 150."

Still, she added, "I'm not quitting."

The retired schoolteacher obviously has a serious case of the travel bug. Also, "I return to favorites places, and that doesn't count" toward her club total.

She cannot tell you how many miles she has traveled, but does know the exact number of flights she has made: 754. "The shortest being 15 minutes, the longest being 16 hours," she added.

She admits that after so much jetting about, finding fresh, new places to go isn't so easy as it used to be. "They're really getting harder to find."

And, of course, there are many places she has no interest in attempting. "I don't want to go to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan -- places like that."

She counts Iceland as her first country visited -- many years ago her plane touched down briefly on the way to England.

Her teaching career, along with some inheritances, has enabled her traveling addiction.

"I became a teacher because of the summer vacation; each summer I went on at least one trip and sometimes I went on two trips. Along the way, I inherited some money here and there, which helped with finances."

Her house is jammed with things she has brought back from her many travels, as well as photo album after photo album stuffed with her memories. She has learned: She is now doing smaller, more tightly focused albums, spotlighting her best photos to show to interested friends.

At age 70, continued travel is dependent on three things, she says: desire, health and money. "I'm just enjoying the opportunity while I have it."

Her one complaint has to do with airline service. She has high praise for the service and friendliness on Asian carriers and Germany's Lufthansa, but don't get her started on Delta and US Airways.

"About the only negative thing I can say is, the airline service is going down the tubes. The service on the airplanes, particularly American carriers -- Delta, US Air -- has deteriorated over the past 30 to 40 years."

As for personal foibles, unlike some people, she does not travel with a lucky charm.

"I haven't needed any so far. I've run across people who do have their lucky charms, but I've never thought I needed it. I just go on my happy way. A change of clothes, my makeup, just personal hygiene items -- there's nothing specific. My camera, of course."

People always ask what her favorite countries have been. She can point out places she finds desirable, like Bali and Indonesia, and sights like the Taj Mahal, which she has visited twice. "People say, 'What's your favorite country?' and I can't say. But Asia is my favorite continent. I love a different culture."

A recent visit to Cuba was an eye-opener.

"When I went to Cuba, I didn't know what to expect because our government and their government do not get along. It's no sign that the people can't get along. I wasn't expecting such friendliness and such musicality."

Then there are the different experiences, like when she went gorilla trekking in Rwanda. "Over a two-day period, we saw about 60 mountain gorillas, which you do not see in zoos. The most exhausting thing I'd ever done; it was very difficult."

In Dubai, she had the most expensive meal -- actually a lunch -- of her life at the world's only seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab. She paid $189 for the endless buffet that also included a tour of the hotel.

"I was kind of ashamed of that for a while. I said -- well, to myself -- I'm not gonna be here again."

Three lobsters later and a tour of the remarkable building and everyone on the tour agreed afterward it was a life experience worth the sticker shock.

"You could just eat yourself into oblivion. It was a whole experience, not just the lunch. For the experience, it was worth it."

As for what's next, passport-wise, she stays up to date with the International Travel News, a research guide featuring reviews of destinations generated by travelers. "I will continue to look at that publication as a source of ideas."

Her hobby has borne more fruit than she ever could have hoped. Her photos include ones of her in Estonia holding up a placard that reading "150." Just to be clear, "It's not my age, it's not my weight, it's not the top reading on my blood pressure -- it's the number of countries I've visited," she reminds the viewer.

"Some people buy cars. I just made it my priority to see the world. So, I have done it in that way. If you try to do something for 44 years, you can achieve a lot. Even after all the journeys I've been on, I'm not a jaded traveler. I'm just interested and excited about everything. So the thrill is still there. Hopefully, I'm not done yet."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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