The Man Who’s Been Everywhere
Bill Altaffer’s travels have taken him from the world’s iconic landmarks to the most obscure corners of the planet, from the Great Wall of China to the fabled Mount Athos monastery in Greece; from witnessing thousands of butterflies in the Gobi Desert to eating baked crocodile in Nairobi. Illustrations by Matthew Savino for USC Dornsife Magazine.

The Man Who’s Been Everywhere

One of the world’s most traveled people, alumnus William “Bill” Altaffer has visited every country in the world — many not just once, but multiple times. From North Korea to the North Pole, Sweden to the Sahara, Tipperary to Timbuktu, he’s seen it all.
BySusan Bell

In the 1990s, when alumnus William “Bill” Altaffer hadn’t quite finished visiting all the countries of the world, he traveled to French Guiana. After a trip to Devil’s Island, he and a friend decided to check out the fiercely guarded Guiana Space Center, a French rocket-launching base at Kourou. Pulling off the main road, Altaffer turned down into a grassy clearing surrounded by impenetrable jungle. Looming up ahead was a guard tower topped by a machine gun.

Altaffer, a retired high school teacher and movie extra who has appeared in more than 120 films, recounts what happened next.

“I look at my buddy, Kevin, and say, ‘Do you have a Costco card?’ So, he gives me his Costco card and we pull up to the gate, and the guard comes down with the AK-47, sticks it in our faces and says, ‘Yeah?’ And I go, ‘We’re members of Costco,’ and I hand him both our cards. And so he looks at them and then he turns them over and there are our names and our pictures. And I said, ‘You know, we’re both members of Costco.’ Then he leans in and he goes, ‘Pull on in.’ And we went on in and we gave ourselves a tour of this missile base.”

One of the world’s most traveled people, Altaffer is an accomplished raconteur. He tells this story with polished insouciance at the slide shows he gives across Southern California to rapt audiences eager to hear the adventures of a man who has spent his life journeying to the farthest- flung corners of the globe.

Altaffer has feasted on boiled cobra washed down with warm snake’s blood from a street stall in Bangkok. He’s polished off a plate of baked crocodile skewered on a Masai sword at the open-air Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi. And, he has sampled stir-fried dried yak with mint leaves, a local delicacy, in Shangri-La, Tibet.

He has returned from dinner to his hotel room in the Gobi Desert to find it invaded by thousands of yellow butterflies, spent a wakeful night peering through slits in the walls of a cave to observe lions and elephants drink at a watering hole in Kenya, and been lulled to sleep by the sound of yak grazing outside a Mongolian yurt.

When Altaffer’s son asked him recently whether there’s a country that he’s only been to once, Altaffer said he had to think about it. During the last century, he visited every country. Since then, he has been to every territory, enclave, exclave, colony and disputed area, as well as more than 900 islands. He has surfed and skied on all seven continents and has exhausted 12 passports and 130 visas. He’s been to North Korea a dozen times and has visited all 92 of Russia’s states, made three trips to Antarctica and voyaged to the North Pole on a Russian icebreaker.

“The world’s my house,” he said. “And I can’t imagine somebody having a house where they haven’t been up in the attic or down in the cellar. But now I’m getting into the closets. I’m getting into the drawers. I’m going into all the little nooks and crannies of the world.”

Photo collage depicting travel scenes

A longtime member of the The Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles and the Travelers’ Century Club, Altaffer has twice topped’s list (he is currently ranked fourth) and holds the world record for visiting the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

“Nobody’s even close to this,” he boasts of the latter achievement. “I think that shows more of how much you’ve traveled the world than if you just hit an airport and left.” Altaffer frowns on those who he says “treat travel like a grocery list,” just checking countries off.

“Unfortunately, these country collectors, or ‘touch-and-goers’ as they’re sometimes called, just put their foot down from a train and then say they’ve been in Mongolia,” he said. “That’s pretty pathetic.”

Instead, Altaffer visits places repeatedly, meeting people, writing articles about his experiences and trying to hit every UNESCO site, until, as he says, “I get it right.”

Altaffer says the initial inspiration to become a world traveler came from his father, an L.A. dentist beset by wanderlust who took his family on world trips.

Altaffer’s first taste of adventure came at age 6, when the cruise ship on which he was traveling with his parents hit an iceberg in fog and sank off the coast of Alaska.

Such a disaster at a tender age failed to deter him from a life of travel, however.

“It didn’t bother me much,” he says phlegmatically about the doomed cruise, in which all passengers and crew were safely rescued from the shipwreck. “We just got into the lifeboats.”

The following year, at age 7, he sailed down the Panama Canal on a freighter.

By the 1960s, he had traveled to Russia. In the ’70s, he was one of the first tourists admitted into China. In the ’80s, he landed on the Forbidden Isle of Niihau in Hawaii. In the 1990s, he was the first American, he believes, to lead a tour to the remote Yemeni island of Socotra, a tiny prehistoric archipelago that shelters 700 species found nowhere else on Earth.

In 2005, he made the front page of the Los Angeles Times as one of the first five American tourists to enter North Korea.

More recently, he traveled to Mount Athos, site of a Greek Orthodox monastery from which women have been banned for more than a thousand years.

Altaffer says he doesn’t have a favorite country, but he does have two lists of favorite places. One he dubs “The Swim-Up Bar List.” It includes Mauritius, the Maldives, Thailand, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Mexico. His “Historical/Cultural List” includes Russia, China, Libya, India, Peru, Egypt, Greece, and the United Kingdom.

Despite all the traveling he did as a youngster, Altaffer says he didn’t really appreciate travel until his late teens. By then he was majoring in history at USC Dornsife, where an anthropology class he took with Professor Ivan Alexievich Lopatin inspired him to travel the world.

Altaffer was so inspired by Lopatin’s tales of living with indigenous tribes in Siberia that he has made 25 trips of his own to Russia, visiting every tribe featured in his professor’s lectures.

“We all have something in common. People just want to feed their children, give the best they can to them and take care of the Earth.”

Another mentor was USC Dornsife alumnus and legendary traveler John Goddard ’55. The anthropology graduate was the first man to explore the entire length of the River Nile and the River Congo. The pair met when Goddard gave a talk at Altaffer’s high school. At USC, Altaffer joined Sigma Chi, Goddard’s fraternity.

“Goddard would come down to the fraternity house and climb this 100-foot-tall palm tree in the backyard with his bare hands, and then he’d sit there in the fronds at the top, swaying about,” Altaffer said.

“The guy was amazing. He went down the Nile for a year in a kayak by himself. I’m a tourist compared to him.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in history in 1967 and his master’s degree in 1970, Altaffer moved to Mammoth, California, where he taught skiing for three decades and joined luxury L.A. travel agency Hemphill Harris as a tour manager.

Now, Altaffer creates his own tours. His “Hero Cities of the Soviet Union” takes World War II buffs to all 13 so-called “Hero Cities” of the former Soviet Union (“I don’t even think Putin’s been to all of them,” he says). He escorts lovers of the bizarre to Tuva, Russia, the site of a national throat-singing contest and offers a trans-Pacific trip on a Russian freighter from Chile to New Guinea, while his journey across the North Caucasus takes travelers on a pony express of 30 taxis from Sochi to the Caspian Sea.

The only travel-related jitters that Altaffer will admit to are triggered by the parking at Los Angeles International Airport.

“If you’re afraid of traveling somewhere, well then you might as well just stay home,” he says. “If you’re scared, a dog will bite you, but if you’re not afraid, it won’t. That’s the way you’ve got to be with people. You can’t fake it.”

Altaffer believes that working as a teacher in inner-city schools in L.A. while attending USC as a graduate student helped him develop the street smarts he uses when traveling.

“I could probably walk into a group of ISIS soldiers sitting around a campfire and make it work.”

The key is respect and recognizing the common humanity in people no matter where you are or whom you’re talking to.

“We all have something in common,” he said. “People just want to feed their children, give the best they can to them and take care of the Earth.”

Travel, Altaffer says, broadens one’s understanding and increases empathy.

“There isn’t a person alive in the world today whose country I haven’t visited. I could be at the supermarket checkout and I ask the guy bagging 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.

“Not to travel is to miss out on the good fortune of being alive,” Altaffer said. “We live on this Earth, we might as well go out and see it.”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring-Summer 2018 issue >>