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Gustavo Woltmann happens to be sitting across the street from Fort Lauderdale beach, but inside Soapy's Internet Cafe, logged on to his laptop, he could be anywhere. Barstools are arranged in front of a row of computer terminals, and a cooler is filled with soft drinks and bottled water. "Big in Japan," a 1984 Alphaville hit, plays through Woltmann's computer speakers, new wave drowning out the old. He turns down the sound, his boyish face registering a subtle twinge of recognition.
Or is it regret?
After all, the song, a synthesized ode to the Orient, begs a question the clean-cut Brazilian would rather not answer: Has he ever been to Japan?
The answer is no, and that bothers him.
"I'm competitive when it comes to countries," he explains. In a way he has a right to be. Woltmann, who was born 26 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil, has been around. One time he was riding a bus in Peru that was hijacked by Shining Path guerrillas; another day he had to coax an employee of the embassy of Moldova, a tiny nation between the Ukraine and Romania, to issue him a tourist visa. (Almost no one, it seems, ever tours Moldova.)
Woltmann traveled through Moldova and has the passport stamp to prove it. For the record he's been to 61 nations and territories. That puts him about a third of the way toward his goal of traveling to all of the world's nearly 200 countries and territories. Currently the Guinness Book of World Records has entries for the most traveled man (John D. Clouse of Evansville, Indiana, who has visited all but two of the world's countries and territories), the most traveled couple (Robert and Carmen Becker of Pompano Beach) and the youngest person to visit each continent (a 15-year-old Louisiana resident named David Svec), but nothing in the category Woltmann hopes to initiate. Indeed he has corresponded with the Guinness Book's publishers about the possibility of being listed.
Woltmann first came to South Florida in 1992. Since then the area has been a sort of home base. He's currently staying at the Villa Hostel in Fort Lauderdale after a stint in the Caribbean. In order to help him, Soapy's owners allow him to use their Internet service free of charge. Woltmann spends most of the day at the café, working on his soon-to-be-launched Website, misterhawaii.com, e-mailing friends worldwide, and plotting his next trip, to American Samoa.
Although he's been on the road since 1992, Woltmann, who resembles an Aryan Ken doll, wasn't always so focused. "Until last year," he says, "I was just traveling around." Though as a child he was fascinated by maps and geography, he had traveled no farther than Rio de Janeiro (once) by high school. It was entry-level wanderlust. On January 10, 1992, after graduating from a private high school, he hitchhiked from Brazil to Alaska. From April 1994 to March 1995, he walked Brazil's 5000-mile-long coastline, from the southernmost point to the northernmost tip, crossing rivers and traversing sand whenever possible.
It sounded like a good thing to do -- at first, anyway. "I walked for two days, and I hated it," he laughs. "I wanted to go back home."
But he couldn't. "I was on national news saying, "I'm going to walk the entire coast of Brazil!' I can't quit now!"
He thought he would sustain himself by fishing but soon realized he didn't know enough to get by, so he relied on the kindness of local villagers and fishermen, who provided meals along the way. "Then I just couldn't stop," he says. "I couldn't see myself staying in one place."
The coastline walk took a year and earned him the nickname "the Forrest Gump of Brazil." Woltmann keeps a black binder of newspaper clippings that document his accomplishment, which made him a minor hero in his homeland. Still, he couldn't stay put, so he hit the Pan-American Highway again in 1996, returning to North America. In the United States he traveled mostly by car, hiring himself out to companies that needed vehicles delivered cross-country. In 1997 and 1998, he visited Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and Mongolia, spending a week on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Woltmann, who has sun-bleached hair and blue eyes, offers only easy answers for why and how he travels so much. It's fun, he says brightly. It's educational, a healthy addiction. To pay for his travels, he says, he works odd jobs along the way, like doing Web design, which, he adds, is how he got his laptop. He's hesitant to disparage any of the places (including most of Europe, some of Asia, and the Americas) that he's visited. When referring to his recent three days in Haiti, Woltmann prefers to focus on the friendliness of the people, not his dirty, cockroach-infested accommodations. There, in the middle of a blacked-out night (his hostel didn't have a generator, so nights were pitch dark), someone tried to break into his room. But even if there was danger, he'd rather accentuate the positive. "I think [Haiti] is good practice for Africa," he says. He plans to see that continent while based at a friend's house in Cape Town.