13th February 2020
Sometimes you just have to look at two countries and say, wow, what a match made in heaven.
A great couple is defined by their ability to perfectly complement one another, revelling in each other’s strengths and supporting one another through their weaknesses, with plenty in common as well as differences which make them unique.
People are pretty spectacular whether they come in a romantic, friendly or familial pair, and the same could be said for countries. Combining countries helps travellers to see a place in a larger regional context, to understand a shared culture, history or geography, and to compare and appreciate the differences between them.
We've even given our country combos their own mini love stories for Valentine's Day because, in many ways, travel is a bit like love. Invested time, bumpy roads, unexpected moments, always learning, always growing…and usually more fun in pairs!
A coupling that got off to a rather frosty start. Sweden enhanced its white wonderland by adding to its glittering plains hotels made of ice, while dogsleds and snowmobiles weaved patterns in the snow covered ground, while Norway preferred the simple life. Dazzling friends with the natural untouched beauty of magnificent fjords and dusted pine forests, where whales could dance in the waters under the watchful gaze of towering mountains. But those beautiful ribbons shimmering blue and green that stretched between them was envied the whole world over. How could their hearts not thaw knowing that together, they lit up the whole night sky?
Chile and Argentina had a friendship that flowed like wine and who bickered over whose was better. Their ensuing laughter resounded like the crashing rapids of waterfalls in the collision of their frothy descent and erupted through geysers at its pinnacle. They competed, sometimes ferociously, to be crowned most beautiful, sculpting Patagonian glaciers and rainbow rocks against Chilean lakes of aquamarine and monolithic Easter Island heads. But together they grew volcanoes to stay warm when the chill descended, etched out valleys in boredom and painted a sky full of stars. All that kept them apart was the world’s driest desert that couldn’t even be moistened by the wine their people spilt dancing to strumming guitars, but even that gave them something to laugh about.
Lovingly nestled between Ghana and Nigeria, Benin gave birth to the voodoo religion. While spooning Togo, it seeped across the border, joining in a mutual worship like proud parents. But that’s not all they have in common. With a tragic shared history of slavery, their journey together has not been smooth, but they have birthed diverse ethnic groups whose cultures are rich and colourful, their union peaking at the tops of every mountain, entangled within their mangroves and as ebbing and flowing as the furious seas on their palm-fringed coasts. They gift each other fetish treasures, and animals as wild as the spirits who expel their power in the thrashing bodies of willing voodoo worshippers.
Bhutan looked over to India and admired its openness. It welcomed cultures and people from far and wide and adopted a little bit of everyone and everything, so popular and overflowing as it was. It was altogether modern and ancient, intelligent and artistic, an undulating colonial metropolis...a place where tuk-tuks and tea-plantations collided. Bhutan, so cut off from all that freneticism existed peacefully in its mountain scenery and untouched nature, remaining steadfastly itself for 500 years. Despite being so very happy, it sat in wonder of that place that buzzed with life. Bhutan never knew, but India sometimes gazed over to its serene neighbor, so pure and dominated by green, where pilgrims trekked up whole mountains just to worship, and wondered just the same thing.
Growing up with siblings can be hard, especially when they are so different. Kyrgyzstan’s free spirit could gallop across grassy plains or whistle down mountain nooks, while its nomadic people enjoyed much the same pleasures. Big brother Uzbekistan liked to flex his architectural muscles and drew in travellers from far and wide to sell their wares in the shadows of great monuments honoring powerful, revered men. But these hard lands were connected by a delicate string of silk which bound the brothers in history, and a united front in the face of the third, most unusual of the lot: Turkmenistan, who carved his own path and rarely descended to the childish competitions of his beloved brothers.
Some couples are just meant to be from the offset, cut almost from the same cloth, sharing a sea of golden sand and rivers that eventually become one, while pyramids sprouted from the land where trees might have been. Strong cultures were born from both Egypt and Sudan, each with a power that once stood in equal stead. A happy ending seemed inevitable. Time ticked by and the land they gave to each of their children planted seeds of resentment that grew until they turned their backs on one another. The two countries burned with longing to stand side by side in peace and love, hoping that with every grain of sand carried across the borders on the soles of travellers’ feet, they may someday be united once more.
Opposites certainly attract in the case of Peru and Bolivia, but as one, they are a force of nature and culture, beauty and brains, the wonderful and the weird, the colonial with the indigenous. Peru pulsates along the well-trodden Inca trail to a time almost lost, preserved in the nooks and crannies of Machu Picchu, feeding into the rich amazon rainforest, through all its unusual wildlife, and keeps afloat the cultures skimming Lake Titicaca. Bolivia meditates in a world somewhere between Earth and heaven, offering glimpses through salt-flat pool reflections. But paradise is easier reached from the peaks of the Andes or on the crest of warm smiles from the strongest indigenous culture in the region, and momentarily lost in the vast arid deserts.
A mutual beauty only enhanced by a natural volatility, the chaotic Congo and resurgent Rwanda have a true love/hate relationship born from fiery passion. Blossoming from a soil rich in minerals, they nurtured their national parks - the Congo kept its own raw and rowdy, while Rwanda organised, setting examples with proud tears and beaming hot-sun smiles. Both laying green hands over the fertile bed to protect the rare wildlife that call it home. A chain of volcanoes separates these lands and bad blood runs in the veins of some of their inhabitants like the bubbling lava deep within its core. But the enduring strength which has seeped into the hearts of the people intent on conserving that harmony, celebrate the gifts the two volatile lovers have bestowed on them.