TCC Member Spotlight: Bill Altaffer, San Diego, California

Bill Altaffer on the road in Bulgaria

Bill Altaffer is one of the few TCC members who have completed the list. Not only that, but he’s visited over 950 UNESCO World Heritage sites, plus every oblast, krai, and republic of Russia. He has also surfed on every continent.

I’ve been impassioned with travel since early childhood. Perhaps it began when I was six years old and the cruise ship I was traveling on with my parents ran aground in fog and sank off the coast of Alaska. It didn’t bother me much since we just got into the lifeboats. The next year we sailed through the Panama Canal on a freighter. My dad wasn’t the type to be a Little League father, but rather he took me to see the world on long family trips every year until I went to college. By that time I had traveled in 80 countries.

I was lucky to have a couple of travel mentors at my university. An anthropology class I took with professor Ivan Alexievich Lopatin inspired me to travel the world. “Asiatic, Siberian and Russian Steppe” was the title of the class. It was held in Founders Hall at USC, and I remember every bit of it. I was so inspired by his stories of living with indigenous tribes in Siberia, I have since made over 25 trips to Russia and visited every one of the tribes that was featured in my professor’s lectures.

Another travel mentor was John Goddard, the adventurer who was the first person to kayak down the length of the Nile in 1951. We first met at my high school and later at USC (we were in the same fraternity) where he would come to visit, sometimes demonstrating his essential travel skills by climbing a 100-foot palm tree behind the fraternity house.

I was now inspired to really see the world. When I joined the Travelers’ Century Club in the early 1970s, my new goal was to travel to every country on earth. By 2009 I had completed the Travelers’ Century Club list by a visit to Wake Island.
For most of my life I have led tour groups to destinations around the globe, while settling down between trips for stints at such jobs as ski instructor and high school history and geography teacher.

Every traveler has been in tense situations but the most dangerous situations for me have involved flying on airplanes, especially in West Africa. Once, when flying out of Luanda, Angola, the plane’s engine caught fire during takeoff and the flight had to be aborted. Another time, some companions and I were flying to an island off he coast of Somalia when the engine also caught fire on takeoff. Because there was only one flight a week and we wanted to get to the island, we stayed on the plane while the flames were doused. It took off again and we made it.

And then there were the flights in Siberia when you would look out the window of the plane and see the landing gear patched with duct tape. Fortunately, the quality of the Russian air fleet has improved.

During a trip to China in 1997 I met my wife Qing, who is from Shanghai. We have two children, Lena and Joe. We recently cruised on the Ob River in Siberia. I like to take them to places that are uncommon, difficult trips that no one else would go to. I want them to see stuff that’s really unique. Although I’ve been to North Korea a dozen times, my wife would kill me if I took my kids back again.

I’m proud of my travels. I could be at the supermarket checkout and I ask the guy bagging my groceries where he’s from and he’ll go “Ethiopia,” and I’ll say “Where in Ethiopia?” and he’ll say “Gondar,” and I’ll say “I’ve been to Gondar,” and suddenly he’s got a big smile on his face.

I’ve already been to all the countries in the world, territories, colonies, island groups,
disputed areas, exclaves, enclaves, and oblasts. My Bucket List is full. I just love to travel. I don’t care where I’m going anymore–it’s all good.

Bill in the Altai Republic, Siberia
Bill with his family on the Ob River l-r: daughter Lena, wife Qing, Bill, and son Joe.

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