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The world's greatest traveller

For some people, travel is a necessity. But for William Chalmers, it is a passion. This man, named the world's greatest traveller, travels to learn and grow and not to rest and shop. He tells Nilima Pathak how the wander bug bit him and why one of the greatest travel adventure events ­ the Global Scavenger Hunt ­ which he organises is helping change the world.

By Nilima Pathak
29 Oct 2004 | 12:00 am

For some people, travel is a necessity. But for William Chalmers, it is a passion. This man, named the world's greatest traveller, travels to learn and grow and not to rest and shop. He tells Nilima Pathak how the wander bug bit him and why one of the greatest travel adventure events ­ the Global Scavenger Hunt ­ which he organises is helping change the world

The year was 1966 and William Chalmers was eight years old. He had just finished reading Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days and had made up his mind: one day he too would travel to all those exotic lands ­ Borneo, Kathmandu, Timbuktu...

So passionate did he become about learning about new countries and cultures that he began to immerse himself in his new hobby ­ collecting stamps, maps and coins. Few things gave William more pleasure than poring over maps of different countries or examining coins or studying stamps.

For him, every foreign stamp was a source of wonder, every foreign coin, a reference point in history. Little did he know that it would all come in handy to him one day. Over the years, this intrepid traveller would visit more than 100 countries and start one of the most popular ­ and gruelling ­ travel events: the Global Scavenger Hunt.

Known as the 'world's greatest traveller', a title bestowed upon him by the media and also the National Geographic Traveler, after he won the Human Race in 1989, William, who was in New Delhi recently, was all praise for India.

He finds the country a wonderful travel destination. "There's so much history... and the people are warm, open, helpful and welcome travellers," he says. "And do not discount Indian cuisine; it remains on my list of top five global foods along with Italian, Japanese, Thai and BBQ!" he gushes.

William first read about the Human Race, (billed as an 'international travel adventure' in which two-person teams would race through 110 countries picking up odd trinkets and competing for thousands of dollars) way back in 1989 while on a flight from Los Angeles to London.

"I was immediately hooked and knew I had to enter the race with my best friend, fellow graduate school student and stand-up comedian, Andy Valvur. We got a sponsor to pay our $10,000 entry fee and off we went."

The Human Race
During the race, William and Andy used almost every mode of transportation ­ from planes, bush taxies, canoes, bullet trains, tuk-tuks, bicycles and rickshaws to camels, elephants and even oxcarts.

The trip was fun, but both also realised that they did not have enough time to slow down and experience any of the places they were passing through. They could rarely talk to the people, eat local cuisine or take in any of the famous sites.

"For example, we were in Paris and we thought we ought to go to see at least the Louvre." They did go but "spent just 13 minutes there", says William.

To illustrate how rushed they were, he narrates an interesting incident that occurred towards the fag end of the journey. The jet they were to board for the final leg from Milan to New York was ready for take-off and had, in fact, left the parking bay.

Missing it might have meant losing the race. So they bribed a gate agent to bring the jet back to the gate so that they could board the aircraft ­ and be the first to reach New York City!

All in all, in 17 days, the duo, starting from San Francisco, touched Hawaii, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bali, Cairo, France, Italy and Slovenia before finishing in New York.

"Interestingly, during the last weekend of the race we were in Slovenia and the Berlin Wall was coming down. It was a historic moment and it was not lost on us as students of international relations.

"We almost gave up and wanted to go to Berlin to become a part of the historic event instead of continuing our quest. But Phileas Fogg (of Around the World in Eighty Days) would never have given up and neither did we!" the winner says.

The duo won the race in 17 days and picked up the $25,000 first prize. But, says William, "Winning the event was actually an anticlimax for us. The journey was the real reward."

William and Andy had become Cold War era summit groupies and attempted to attend all the Soviet-USA leadership summits between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But every year they also took wilder trips ­ attending the Jamaica Reggae Sun Splash Festival, chasing eclipses in South America, enjoying carnivals in Rio, windsurfing in the Gulf of Siam, going for safari rides in Nepal...

After the event, some newspapers dubbed them 'The World's Greatest Travelers.' The title stuck and in 2002, when National Geographic Traveler magazine referred to William by the same title, it created waves.

"Although, I do not take the title too seriously, as it poses more problems with strange questions being asked, yet it opens a few doors and puts some extra shine on the projects that I am now doing," William admits.

* * *

"I have always been inspired by this wonderful quote of St Augustine: 'The world is a book, of which those who stay in one place, read only one page.' If I died today, I would know that I have lived a full life at 46. I have seen more than most. I am blessed in some way for being able to see what I have, experienced all that I have done, and met people who have become friends along my travels."

So, how many countries has he visited?

"I gave up counting," he says, "could be 100-plus. It didn't seem to matter to me anymore. I read somewhere that a full life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the places and moments that take your breath away!"

Early days
William was born on June 8, 1958. "I was lucky to grow up in somewhat rural Windsor, Ontario ­ Canada on one side of the street and, across the river Detroit, Michigan, USA. I've always had an international perspective."

But, having lived and travelled extensively throughout North America (Canada, USA and Mexico), he considers himself, a 'Newlander'.

His childhood was idyllic, enjoying the Canadian seasons to the full. The cold, brisk winters found him ice-skating on the pond, while during summers he would go fishing or catch fireflies and frogs. Camping, canoeing and hunting have all been great childhood memories.

"I guess the travel bug bit me at a young age and my wanderlust never wavered," he says. After high school in Canada, William went to university in Southern California, hoping to become a marine veterinarian. (Jacques Cousteau was one of his early heroes.)

But personal tragedies intervened. William lost his father when he was 15 and, a couple of years later, his mother fell seriously ill.

"I dropped out of college and returned home to take care of her. It was the best and worst year of my life helping her, unsuccessfully, fight throat cancer. During that year, she became my best friend as we did a lot of laughing and crying together. I was blessed to get to know her as a friend and not just as a mother," he says.

William then went on to take an advanced degree in political economics from the London School of Economics in 1985-86 and briefly considered an MBA or law degree back in California, "but decided that my formal education was complete and the w

By Nilima Pathak

By Nilima Pathak