New Delhi: William Chalmers had read Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days at the age of eight in 1966. He was captivated by the idea of travel and spent hours pouring over maps in the hope of some day visiting the exotic-sounding places including Marrakesh, Borneo and Timbuktu.
Now, he is known as the "world's greatest traveller" — a title bestowed upon him in 1989 after he won the HumanRace, about which he first read while flying from Los Angeles to London that year.
In 2000, he set up the Global Scavenger Hunt, the world's only real-life travel adventure competition that is done annually. The event's goal is to help raise $1 million (Dh3.67 million) every year for the Great Escape Foundation.
It supports international humanitarian organisations that help empower people on a "great escape" from poverty, including building schools with Free the Children, medical clinics for the Nomad Foundation and micro-loans for Kiva.
Chalmers' travels have taken him to more than 100 countries, including India. He said, "I have had the opportunity to touch terra firma many times in India and have noticed innumerable changes, especially in New Delhi, since my first visit here in the late 1970's, but Delhiites remain the same — ever smiling!
He speaks to Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
GULF NEWS: Why do you refer to The Global Scavenger Hunt as ‘A Blind Date With the World' and what new is happening?
WILLIAM CHALMERS: The competition is in fact A Blind Date With the World because our travelling competitors do not know where they are going to. That way the participants can neither read guidebooks nor research online to get information about our secret destinations. The event takes people out of their comfort zones and forces them to trust strangers in strange lands. It is a true travel adventure competition with teams combating jetlag as they circle the globe in 23 days visiting 10 or more different countries. The idea is to test their travel savvy, travel IQ, overcoming language barriers, cultural differences, logistic challenges, and dealing with personal team dynamics in the heat of the competition itself. The entire adventure can be daunting for those less travelled.
Since Christmas is coming, we are offering one Team a chance to win a free trip for two around the world as official participants in The Global Scavenger Hunt that crowns The World's Greatest Travellers. On New Year's Day 2011, one lucky team of two will be selected to win the $9,900 per person prize. Qualified travellers just need to apply online at www.globalscavengerhunt.com before December 31.
How was your Human Race experience?
I had entered the 1989 race with my friend, a fellow graduate school student and stand-up comedian, Andy Valvur. We got a sponsor to cover our $10,000 entry fees, and we won the race after circling the globe in 17 days and collected the $25,000 first prize.
Some writer dubbed us the ‘World's Greatest Travellers.' The title stuck and several years later, National Geographic Traveler magazine picked up on it.
During the race, we used almost every conceivable mode of public transportation available: we took tuk-tuks, bullet train, rode bicycles and rickshaws, employed dhows and gondolas, rode on camels, donkeys, and elephants — even ox carts. We ran more than we would have liked and took a few jets across the oceans. It was absolutely thrilling.
How did the idea of The Global Scavenger Hunt occur to you?
After I won that race, no one ever put together another around-the-world race like that. I realised that the next best thing to participating in one would be to organise a travel adventure competition based on my own experience. That's how the idea was born. It has been a fun journey full of ups and downs. We had to unfortunately cancel a few events including our very first one in October 2001 due to the 9/11 terrorists attack, as well as the 2003 event due to the combined effects of the Iraq War and Sars outbreak in Southeast Asia and China. But we have now held seven successful events have had competitors applying for the event from over 45 nations.
On what basis are the candidates and places chosen?
We receive applications from travellers all over the world and each applicant is personally interviewed at length and only travellers who can prove their travel bona fides are selected, as we cannot take any kind of chances. I don't want to be committing travel malpractice by taking a novice tourist to remote destinations in India or Morocco and sending them out to do cultural scavenges — one may never see or hear from them again!
How are the teams formed?
The Global Scavenger Hunt requires two-person teams so most teams apply together — husband-wife, father-son, mother-daughter, or just good travel mates. After several interviews we get to know our travellers well and so far have always had a great selection of truly extraordinary travellers participating.
What are they advised to pack?
Some people have a habit of carrying too much baggage. Our two simple words of advice are: if you cannot carry it — don't take it; and pack only your curiosity — leave your expectations at home alone. Also, a personal set of do's and don'ts include: Do not eat where you sleep; learn to trust in the kindness of strangers; and he who runs cannot walk with dignity — slow down and enjoy the moment.
How does one extract the most out of a holiday?
One has to understand the difference between taking a holidays and travelling. I have always travelled to learn and grow, not to shop and rest. I do understand that most people need to get away from their daily grind of work, school, family and life itself, and that holidays are a form of escapism that people really need to recharge their batteries. But my suggestion to them is to take longer trips that will replenish them more and to try to add new destinations to their lists, instead of just revisiting popular or favourite places. Unfortunately, most of the tourism trade is geared for shopping and sleeping on the beach.
After all the travelling you've done till date, what's your world view?
Despite pockets of resistance, I remain upbeat and positive about the direction of humanity and believe the glass is half full — although we have numerous challenges lying before us.
Did you ever encounter any misadventures?
Oh yes… too numerous to mention. But in the end, unpleasant surprises are nothing more than lessons learned and can be turned into opportunities. For instance, flight delays or cancellations can give you time to read or chat with other travellers; bad weather or strike actions, can give you a chance to meet more locals and engage them. Travellers do get discomforted with extreme weather changes, global jetlag, and eating different foods. Thankfully, we've had everyone return in one piece so far. There have been instances of upset stomachs, but I will not call it Delhi belly — because it happens everywhere!
What is the biggest impediment to travel?
Easily it is fear and unreasonable expectations. People are scared of the unknown, which is a natural human tendency. But by trying new things and conditioning oneself to be more aware and curious, one can easily overcome that. Terrorism is the new fear factor — especially in the West; but it is an unreasonable fear because the likelihood of being killed in a terrorist incident while travelling is as much as travelling at any time — almost nil! Also, unreasonable expectations take away the joys of travel. People want to know all about a destination before they even arrive at the place instead of allowing spontaneity and serendipity to evolve naturally. This results in expecting too much and being disappointed.
- 1958: William Chalmers was born on June 8 in Windsor, Canada.
- After high school in Canada, went to a university in Southern California to study economics and international relations.
- 1986: Took another advance degree at the London School of Economics (LSE) in political economics.
- In between studies, held several jobs including as a paper boy, a delivery boy, working on boats in a local marina and working in a factory manufacturing cars as well as a Congressional assistant.
- Moved to Santa Monica, California and dabbled in corporate business and writing.
- Became a political consultant working on numerous campaigns for including then President Bill Clinton, Senator Barbara Boxer, (former Governor) Gray Davis.
- 1998: Retired from politics to create his charitable Great Escape Foundation.
- 2000: Wrote a book A Blind Date with the World.
- Established the annual adventure travel competition Global Scavenger Hunt in 2000.
- 2011: Will publish his next book On the Origin of the Species Homo touristicus: The Evolution of Travel from Greek Spas to Space Tourism.
Timeline: Evolution of a global traveller