Alumnus Bill Altaffer is among the world’s most traveled people. His passion for adventure was inspired by USC Dornsife’s late professor of anthropology Ivan Alexievich Lopatin and fellow alumnus John Goddard.By Susan Bell
November 15, 2013
William “Bill” Altaffer has feasted on boiled cobra washed down with warm snake’s blood from a street stall in Bangkok, Thailand. He’s polished off a plate of baked crocodile skewered on a Masai sword at the open-air Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi and sampled stir-fried dried yak with mint leaves, a local delicacy, in Shangri-La, Tibet.
The USC Dornsife alumnus has slept in a 105-story high hotel resembling a space rocket in Pyongyang, North Korea. He spent a wakeful night peering through slits in the walls of a cave to observe tigers and elephants drink at a watering hole in Kenya. And he has been lulled to sleep by the sound of yak grazing outside a Mongolian yurt.
Altaffer’s introduction to adventure began early. He was six years old when the cruise ship on which he was traveling with his parents ran aground in fog and sank off the coast of Alaska. That shipwreck, in which all passengers and crew were safely rescued, turned out to be the first in a lifetime of exciting journeys to far-flung exotic lands.
“It didn’t bother me much,” Altaffer said phlegmatically about the doomed cruise. “We just got into the lifeboats.”
The following year, aged seven, he sailed down the Panama Canal on a freighter.
“Dad was a Los Angeles dentist. He took me on family trips every year up into college, so I didn’t do the normal Little League thing most boys do. I traveled instead.”
Altaffer, a retired high school teacher and movie extra who has appeared in over 120 films, is among the most traveled people in the world. He has visited all 192 United Nations countries plus 300 island groups, disputed areas, territories and colonies and surfed and skied on all seven continents.
As one of the most traveled people on Earth, he has exhausted 12 passports and 130 visas.
Altaffer holds the world record for visiting the most UNESCO World Heritage sites (732 out of 936). He also led a tour to North Korea, one of a tiny handful of Westerners to be allowed into the isolated, hardline state. In 2005 and 2006, he held the record for the most traveled person in the world, according to the website Mosttraveledpeople.com. He is currently number four on the list.
Although he went on numerous trips with his family as a youngster, Altaffer said 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.
“ ‘Asiatic, Siberian and Russian Steppe’ was the title of the class. It was held in Founders Hall and I remember every bit of it,” Altaffer said.
He was so inspired by Lopatin’s stories of living with indigenous tribes in Siberia, he has since made 25 trips to Russia and visited every one of the tribes that was featured in his professor’s lectures.
Another mentor who helped spark Altaffer’s interest in travel was USC Dornsife alumnus and legendary adventurer John Goddard (B.A., anthropology, ’55). Goddard, who died at 88 on May 17, 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 Los Angeles 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.
“The guy was amazing. He went down the Nile in a kayak for a year by himself. I’m a tourist compared to him.”
After earning his bachelor’s in history in 1967, then his master’s in 1970 from USC Dornsife, Altaffer moved to Mammoth, Calif., to train as a ski instructor. He stayed for 36 years, also working as a tour manager for an L.A.-based travel agency, a job that took him all over the world.
By 1974, after traveling to 100 countries, he joined The Travelers’ Century Club in Santa Monica, Calif., continuing to travel to all 315 countries and territories the club counts worldwide.
In 1991, he launched his own elite travel company, leading trips each year to the most obscure corners of the globe.
Altaffer made the front page of the Los Angeles Times in 2005 as one of the first tourists to enter North Korea, a country he describes as more exotic than any other he has ever visited. He has returned four times and plans to go again.
“It’s like going to Mars with people on it,” he said. “The leaders are treated like gods, it’s like ancient history.”
He believes he was the first American to lead a tour to the Yemeni island of Socotra, a prehistoric island 150 miles east of the Horn of Africa that shelters 700 species found nowhere else on earth.
Altaffer has led tours to all 15 “Hero Cities” of Russia. “No-one’s ever done it before. I sent the brochure to (Vladimir) Putin. I didn’t get a reply but I thought it was interesting that an American came up with the idea.”
The traveler has divided his favorite places into two lists. The one he dubs “The Swim Up Bar List” includes the Maldives, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Mexico, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The other, his “Historical/Cultural List,” includes Russia, China, Libya, India, Peru, Egypt, Greece and the United Kingdom.
For his next trip, Altaffer is leading a tour to Russia’s Northern Caucasus.
“There isn’t a person alive in the world today whose country I haven’t visited,” Altaffer said with pride. “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.”
Altaffer has some final words of advice for USC students.
“Do those great USC programs where you take classes overseas. Go somewhere that is as different as possible from our culture. Travel is important because it will make you more worldly, more knowledgeable and more tolerant.”