AS OUR PLANE circled Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport, I looked down through bleary eyes at the city's breathtaking skyline. I have taken this 17-hour flight across the Pacific many times, always allowing a day to recover. But there would be no time for rest on this trip. We were racing against the clock in an around-the-world scavenger hunt in which every minute would count. I shook my head, checked my watch and braced for the landing.
Outside the terminal, scavenger teams scattered. The race--which promised $20,000 for the winner--was on. Assignment lists had been handed out mid-flight, and most of the 30 scavengers had stayed awake all night planning their strategies. My partner, Katie Finegan, and I set off at a dead run. We covered Hong Kong island and the peninsula of Kowloon, areas separated by a spectacular harbor, bought a Chinese chop but didn't have time to get it inscribed, found an aphrodisiac in an herbal medicine shop and picked up a bird feeder. We taxied to the New Territories, a rural part of the colony, for a Hakka hat, a wide-brimmed, fringed straw hat worn by elderly Chinese women, and then rode the tram up Victoria Peak to have our picture taken at the top. We rushed into a Taoist temple demanding, to the astonishment of worshipers, that our fortunes be told.
We didn't stop until all our Hong Kong chores were finished. By late afternoon, we staggered into our hotel, glassy-eyed with exhaustion, only to discover that most teams were not using their rooms but had already moved on to the next city. How could this be? We had spent the day screaming at taxi drivers to hurry, had ignored the puzzled stares of shoppers as we raced down the city's crowded streets and had even skipped lunch. We couldn't have moved any faster, but apparently we were already far behind the pack. Were we wimps? Or was this the beginning of a scavenger hunt from hell?
OUR JOURNEY INTO this traveler's nightmare began quite innocently in July. Katie was thumbing through a travel magazine and noticed a small article announcing The Human Race, an "international travel adventure" in which two-person teams would race through 10 countries picking up odd trinkets and competing for thousands of dollars. She was intrigued.
The entry fee was $5,300, to cover air fares around the world and hotel accommodations in 18 cities. Each team would be responsible for its own food, land transportation and cost of the trinkets, which boosted the ultimate cost of the trip to $7,500 per traveler. This "adventure" was priced too high for my budget. After all, a regular around-the-world ticket could be had for about $2,000.
Undeterred, Katie called Montecito race organizer Jonathan Bassan, a one-time insurance salesman, land developer and art importer who, for the first time, was organizing international travel for others. He had a voice that was charming, soothing and expansive as he rhapsodized about The Human Race as a dream he'd had for a long time. He promised the "cultural experience of a lifetime."
My first question was: "Is this a race designed for athletes and marathon runners? Do I have to be a physical fitness buff (which I am not) to compete?"
"Oh, no," Jonathan said. "Don't worry. You won't have to climb any mountains. If you're in reasonably good health and you've traveled before, that's all you need."
After Katie heard more about the race, her enthusiasm was contagious. This might be her only chance to compete in such a contest, she said. What if she won? "Can you imagine it? A 78-year-old woman winning a race around the world? Oh, wow!"
I remained doubtful. Although we had both traveled to exotic places, this just didn't sound like a good time. Katie, a glamorous former speak-easy singer and orchestra manager from New York, has hit every continent but one since she retired eight years ago. I am a reporter with the Associated Press in Los Angeles and an incurable travel junkie, racing off to foreign lands whenever I can. Sometimes I travel with Katie, a longtime friend whose age has never been a deterrent. I am 33 years her junior and have trouble keeping up with her. But 10 countries in three weeks sounded incredibly hectic, even for the most experienced traveler.
Katie was relentless. She was so anxious to become involved that she offered to lend me the money for my entry fee. Reluctantly, I accepted. I was a writer, after all, and this sounded like a good story. And what if we did win? Wouldn't that be the best story ever?
When we met the other Human Race participants in October at an inaugural dinner in San Francisco, my original trepidations returned. We saw husky young men with backpacks. I recognized Kenneth Crutchlow, a professional adventurer who was in the Guinness Book of World Records for walking across Death Valley. One woman contestant was a dedicated runner. A 31-year-old corporate assistant from Brentwood, Bill Chalmers, arrived wearing an Indiana Jones leather hat, a diamond earring and an air of mystery.
After dinner, Jonathan Bassan stood on a balcony in a hotel cocktail lounge and addressed his eager travelers. "It's a beautiful world," he philosophized. "I want people who participate in this race to be able to partake of the cultures out there."
Until our arrival in San Francisco, we knew only which countries we might visit, and now Jonathan was finally revealing more details about our destinations. The race would be divided into four segments: Asia, Egypt, Europe and New York. Winners would be declared for each continent by using a scoring system based on pictures, notebooks and the collection of scavenger items purchased as well as punching in on a time clock. The pictures, we were told, would prove that we had visited the sites required. The notebooks ultimately would be filled with trivia such as the names of the three pyramids in Giza or answers to questions such as "how did Kuala Lumpur get its name and what does it mean?"
Jonathan also distributed race rules: No renting private cars or drivers. No tour guides. Teammates must stay together, not split up to save time. And the sabotage of other teams was strictly prohibited. For the first time, we were told that there would be only one night of paid accommodations in each city along the course. If any team needed an extra night, the members would pay for it. This would set the frantic city-a-day pace we were to maintain for the next three weeks.
JUST HOW TIRING this pace would be became clear in Hong Kong. By the time we finished our Hong Kong assignment list and checked into our hotel, Katie and I could barely bring ourselves to look at the tasks required in the other Asian cities. The next stop was in Singapore, where there were nine instructions including "find and purchase a brass ear cleaning spoon" and "who and what is Ah Meng?" There were five chores in Kuala Lumpur, six in Malacca. Many items on the lists involved religious shrines, and were followed by the instruction: "Explain its significance." The scariest assignment appeared to be in Penang: "Snake Temple: Photograph at least one team member with a snake on him or her."
We arrived in Singapore after a half-day flight from Hong Kong, grabbed a cab, headed toward town and began giving our driver intricate instructions. Only then did we realize that he didn't understand English. We stopped at a hotel, unloaded our luggage and negotiated with yet another cabdriver. (One of our competitors later confided his team's method for dealing with the language problem: "We would ask the cabdriver, 'Do you speak English?' They always said yes. Then we asked, 'Is it going to snow tomorrow?' If they said yes, we got out of the cab.")
At mid-afternoon, we set out to find Ah Meng, who we discovered was an orangutan at the Singapore Zoo, a 45-minute ride from the center of town. When we arrived, the zoo was about to close and the orangutan handler said Ah Meng had been put away for the day. He told us that she'd had a busy afternoon posing with all the Human Racers as well as enduring the usual hordes of children. She was tired and cranky.
We pleaded with him. Finally, he said he would send someone to see whether Ah Meng could be brought out briefly and whether it was safe for us to be photographed with her. We were ecstatic when he said it was OK to see the orangutan. He opened the cage and there she was, a fat-bellied, gentle old lady. We had little time to observe her. We took a picture and were off and running again. On our way out of the zoo, we passed colorful pathways leading to areas where exotic animals lived. True, another item had been scratched off our list, but we had seen nothing of the remarkable Singapore Zoo.
It was getting dark, but we were determined to finish more of our assignments. We hiked up to a Buddhist temple where, while a woman knelt in prayer, I snapped pictures. We searched for an hour for an obscure pottery shop with a kiln shaped like a dragon, but failed to find it in the dark. Katie was frantic that we were falling even further behind other teams. We had heard that some were already in Malaysia, the next leg of the race. But fatigue, jet lag and hunger came crashing upon us, and for the first time in our long friendship, Katie and I were yelling at each other. We decided to head for the only scavenger assignment that involved food.
"Newton Hawker Center," the list read. "Have dinner there. Detail what you both ate, including the cost. Take photos of yourselves and your meal." As we wandered through the outdoor array of food stalls, we spotted two familiar faces at a table: Jonathan Bassan and his friend, Fred Heim. They were having dinner. We bought some noodles and sat down with them.
"You look terrible," Fred said. "What's wrong?" We told them. The fun race we had entered seemed to us to have become an endurance contest designed to test how long racers could go without food or sleep while fighting insane obstacles. Besides, we thought we'd at least have time to socialize with friends who lived in Singapore. Jonathan agreed that the pace was a little more competitive than he had expected and suggested that we slow down, enjoy the scenery and continue along the course as observers. In other words, forget trying to win.
It was only the second day of the race! We declined. We returned to the hotel and prepared our race strategy for Penang. We discovered again that some of the racers weren't taking the time to stay the night, hastily heading for the next stop.
"We didn't sleep much," adventurer Kenneth Crutchlow said later. "We did four hours average at each hotel. . . . It was like bashing your head against a wall."
When Katie and I reached Penang, we raced on to the city's famous reclining statue of Buddha. Then, at the famed snake temple, Katie, brave as ever, volunteered to be photographed with a poisonous snake. (The snakes were said to be safely in a stupor from incense in the temple). She did not realize that the snake handler, trying to be funny, would coil the reptile around her head. She screamed and nearly fainted as it slithered down her neck. She turned purple and her knees buckled. I snapped a picture and screamed at the man to get the snake off of her. It took an hour and several cold drinks for Katie to recover enough to continue on to more temples.
IF THE BREAKNECK pace we had been maintaining wasn't enough to do us in, a required 400-mile overland bus journey came close. It was the darkest time of night in Indonesia, well after midnight and hours before dawn. We were bouncing along a dirt road somewhere between Jogjakarta and Bali when the bus came to a lurching stop. The driver jumped out.
Why had the bus stopped? Were we being hijacked? Had we run out of gas? After all, we had been on this road for hours with just one pit stop. We asked some fellow passengers, but no one understood English. I couldn't move to look out the window. Packages blocked the aisles. Passengers were jammed two to a seat.
Finally we discovered that the bus had a flat tire. A half-hour later, the driver climbed back into his seat and revved up the engine. The tire was fixed.
Not that spending 18 hours on a stuffy bus was the only excuse for our misery. In fact, we had boarded the night before in a state of sheer exhaustion following a full day of scrambling to the tops of Indonesia's tallest monuments in the searing heat and humidity. And just minutes before we raced onto the bus, we had battled our way through a crowded native market screaming that we had to have a sarong and a temple sash.
As the sun rose, we pulled into Bali, grimy and dazed, our feet swollen to balloon size. We staggered into the hotel lobby, and our appearance stunned the other racers. Jonathan arrived at our room, and we recounted our harrowing trip. Once again, Jonathan suggested we quit. "I have never been a quitter in my life," Katie said icily.
During our rest stop in Bali, racers finally slowed down enough to exchange horror stories. First on everyone's mind was the 18-hour bus ride.
"We went over a bump and the latrine overflowed. From then on, the bus smelled of urine," recalled Bill Gay, 38, a steel distributer from Virginia. "Then some kids started throwing up. We had one meal at a rest stop where we thought they had a black lace tablecloth. When I looked closer it was covered with flies.
"On the bus, they brought around these packages of rolls for breakfast. We opened ours and there were little bugs inside the bread. We were so hungry we picked them out and ate the bread." It was after the bus ride that Gay decided that this was no picnic. "The most fun I've had on this trip is when I take a shower and brush my teeth."
Others agreed. Deborah Copaken, a young American photographer living in Paris, compared the ride to road trips she had taken while covering the war in Afghanistan. "This is a lot more ridiculous," she said.
Bali was to have been a rest-and-relaxation spot. But there was trouble in paradise, to be sure. The Human Race appeared on the verge of self-destruction. Two teams had already suffered "divorces," and the former teammates were wandering the course as single travelers. Each had entered individually, had been matched up by Jonathan and found that they couldn't get along under such stressful conditions.
Other teams were being accused of cheating. Participants complained that rules were being broken and rewritten. One team phoned race officials in Bali from Jogjakarta to ask whether it could skip the 18-hour bus ride and take a two-hour flight. Team members were willing to be penalized by adding the 16-hour difference to their score. Some teams had formed "super teams" of four, sharing cabs to save money.
To address these problems, what was described as the first "U.N. of the Human Race" was convened on a palm-shaded patio in Ubud, Bali, as lizards skittered up the walls and delegates panted in the heat, swigging bottles of beer to stem the flow of sweat pouring down our "Human Race" T-shirts. Jonathan had chosen a hotel without air conditioning miles away from any beach. ("Everyone loved that hotel," he said when I complained later. "It offered a typical Balinese experience.")
When the bus ride was mentioned, racers booed and hissed. Jonathan quickly turned the meeting over to his associate, Willis Bass, a 41-year-old retired stockbroker from Atlanta who had worked as a fund-raiser for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Bass had devised the scoring method for the Human Race, a system so complicated and seemingly arbitrary that it was disputed up to the last day. I never understood how it worked. All I knew was that Bass carted a huge time clock from country to country for racers to clock in their times at each segment's final destination.
Willis suggested a new racing category to encompass the split teammates. They would be called "fellow travelers," following other teams along the course, but would be barred from competing for prizes. They protested, with no luck.
At the end of our stay in Bali, the winners of that first leg were announced. Evelyn Jaffe, 40, a part-owner of a bagel company from Carpinteria, and her partner, Rose Porreca, a mother of eight from Rochester, N.Y., won.
"We're both real strong women," said Evelyn, a mother of two and a physical fitness buff who runs 4 miles and swims a mile every day. "If you have kids, you can survive anything. What's a few nights without sleep? We've done that all our lives."
Rose wept with joy but admitted: "There were times when I thought I was going to die." They won a return trip to Asia and 10 days of accommodations.
Other standings were announced. I told Katie I was sure we would be last and we were. We were so far out of the competition that Jonathan didn't take the time to look at our pictures. By now, we had earned the reputation of being the loudest complainers, and Jonathan was not amused. Katie's lighthearted ribbing had become the bane of his existence.
DESPITE OUR poor showing in Asia, Katie's spirits were high as we embarked on the second segment of the race, the Middle East. We saw Egypt as a chance to start over. Now that we knew how the race worked, perhaps we could still compete. As we flew to Cairo, she sang, "See the pyramids along the Nile . . . ." She joked with Jonathan on the plane, telling him she wanted only one prize--a face lift. "You've aged me 20 years with this trip. You owe me a face job," she insisted. The plane touched down at 4 a.m., and we prepared to start running.
Our pace was unexpectedly slackened, though, because another "U.N." meeting scheduled for 5 a.m in Cairo had been delayed an hour: A pair of never-identified cheaters was being confronted. Apparently they had hired a taxi driver in Singapore to buy all their trinkets while they did other scavenger chores. Officials discovered the cheating by accident, which suggested that the race was essentially uncontrollable. Two judges were not enough to keep an eye on everyone. Rumors circulated that some teams bought required bus tickets, then flew to their destinations.
At the Cairo meeting, we were given a new set of rules to avoid such cheating--more pictures at every possible spot, pictures of bus drivers, train conductors, shopkeepers. Jonathan declared, "I kind of screwed up on the first segment so I don't want any ambiguity now."
If the new rules did anything, they intensified the competition among the teams and pushed the more serious competitors over the edge. At this point, it was apparent that there were several teams that flat out needed to win the prize money to offset the cost of the trip, teams that would stop at nothing to win.
Susan Sparks, 33, is a schoolteacher from Madison, Ind. Her husband, Terry, 37, is a tool- and die-maker. They insisted that they were novice travelers and were unlikely to win anything, but they had set an unbeatable pace up to this point in the race. It was the Sparkses who had skipped the wear and tear of the 18-hour bus ride to Bali. Angry racers grumbled that they should have suffered a larger penalty, but the judges disagreed.
In Egypt, the apple-cheeked Hoosiers became speed demons. They did Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor by train, plane and bus in 36 hours. Then they took to bed with severe exhaustion and stomach troubles. Susan said they hadn't eaten a decent meal in days. "We can't afford to eat," she confided to me. "We borrowed money to go on this trip."
I saw them in action one day in the Khan el-Khalili, the colorful bazaar of shops and restaurants in Cairo. Katie was laid up with food poisoning, and our plan to race on had been stymied. I had joined Judy Busch of Capistrano Beach, one of the travelers who had split with her partner in Bali. We were determined to do the chores on the list even if we couldn't win. One instruction read: "At the following address--7 Khan el-Khalili--is sold a unique Egyptian food. What is it? Order one and take a team photograph eating this food (It's delicious)." We found the shop and were seated at an outdoor table eating the food--a delicate puffy pancake sprinkled with sugar--when two figures screeched to a halt near our table. It was the Sparkses. Terry frantically ordered the proprietor to give him a pancake. The man said it would take a few minutes to make and went inside. For the first time, Terry looked around and saw us sitting there, our half-eaten pancakes on our plates.
"Are you eating that?" he demanded. Grabbing Judy's plate and fork, he held up the pancake as if he was eating it while his wife snapped a picture. Just then, the proprietor emerged with Terry's pancake. Terry threw money into his hand, declared, "We don't want it. Sell it to somebody else," and raced off in the direction of the next scavenger item.
The next day, we heard that San Franciscans Kevin Erdman and Mitchell Danielson had broken into a national monument. At Alexandria, finding the doors to the Kom el-Shuqafa Catacombs closed at 8 a.m., they climbed in through the windows to take a picture of the bottom of the vault. They later confirmed their deed, saying that was the kind of behavior the race required if you wanted to win.
"We are cultural terrorists," said Bill Chalmers, the Westside corporate assistant, one day as he reflected on the meaning of the race and the effect it was having on the scavengers. "The globe has become one big photo op for everyone. . . . This doesn't help our image as Americans." The race was taking its toll on the competitors. We were turning into obnoxious tourists.
The Sparkses were pronounced the winners of the second segment, winning a return stay at the hotel in Cairo. They weren't there to receive the award because they were still sick.
AT 3 A.M., we arose for our flight to Paris. We vowed to make the European segment enjoyable even if it meant slowing our pace even more and admitting that we were out of the competition. This trip was supposed to be fun, wasn't it? But, on arrival at the Paris airport, my bag and Katie's bag were missing.
We began the time-consuming task of tracing missing luggage. The search for the missing bags would continue throughout the European segment with phone calls to the airline from every hotel. All of our warm clothing for Europe was in those suitcases. We shivered through France, Switzerland and Italy, and by the time we left Venice I had bronchitis.
Our first stop was in Chambery, France, where we were told to find the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. We had gotten off the train, grabbed a cab and given our instructions. The cabdriver began to exclaim in French. Katie translated: "Why are all these crazy Americans looking for Leonardo? He's not here." Other teams, we found out, had hired the same cabdriver and spent as long as six hours scouring every graveyard in Chambery. Leonardo, indeed, was not buried there.
Later, when I asked Jonathan about this, he shrugged and admitted he had not gone there to check it out. He explained that he hadn't had time to visit all the places on the assignment list. Instead he had phoned various sources who had told him about places of interest. He told us that he had had it from two sources that Leonardo was buried there. "It turned out to be a great giggle," he said of the misadventure. One bit of trivia I learned from this mixup: Da Vinci was cremated.
From Chambery, we overnighted in Geneva, and then took the train to Italy. In Verona, we posed in front of Juliet's balcony. And in Venice, Katie, still game to do all of the chores on the list, volunteered to make contact with yet another kind of wildlife--the pigeons of St. Mark's Square. Our instruction was to take a picture of one team member with a pigeon on him or her. We bought pigeon food, scattered it and in an instant Katie was covered with pigeons that pecked at her.
With our luggage still missing, we skipped Yugoslavia and headed straight for New York, where we found our bags at last and caught up with our fellow racers.
Bill Chalmers had arrived two days earlier and locked himself in his room trying to beat a fever that also afflicted Bill Gay, the Virginia racer. I was coughing hard. Other racers dragged into town, but the race was not over yet.
By now, the furor over the Sparkses reached a crescendo. Bill La Tulip, a 39-year-old sales representative from Florida, and his 32-year-old partner, Mike Shalan, cornered Willis Bass in the hotel bar for three hours. The two, dubbed by Chalmers as "the detail brothers" for the meticulous records they kept, argued convincingly that the Sparkses should be further penalized for that plane trip to Bali. At one point, a lawsuit--plaintiff and cause of action unknown--was threatened.
The next morning, as we waited in a Manhattan hotel to begin the New York segment, Jonathan appeared ebullient.
"Where should we all hold our reunion?" he asked the racers.
"How about Calcutta?" I suggested.
"How about L.A. County Superior Court?" Chalmers asked.
Jonathan had a course set out in New York that seemed designed to fell anyone who remained healthy and kill off the rest of us. It was bitter cold, down in the 20s, and the wind was whipping off the river.
In six hours, we were to reach these places by bus and subway: Grant's Tomb in upper Manhattan, Zabar's on the West Side (where we had to buy something from the fish counter), Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where we were to buy an entry pin but not enter), Edgar Allan Poe's cottage in the South Bronx, Fraunces Tavern near Wall Street, Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy, Katz's Deli on the lower East Side and the Flatiron Building in lower Manhattan. And if that wasn't enough, the instructions then called for a trip to the Statue of Liberty or Coney Island.
"I did all of it," Gay said. "I was burning up with fever. I got to the Statue of Liberty, and I threw up."
When I returned to the hotel, I sat down with Jonathan to talk about the race. He acknowledged that things had not played out as he had expected. The racers were more competitive than he anticipated, he said, and he had not even prepared for the possibility of cheating.
"My little thing that was supposed to be a fun adventure has turned into something else," he said. "It's a soap opera.
"(This is) not for somebody that wants a unique holiday," he said. "It's for somebody that likes competition. . . . Now that I know how this thing is going to be played out, maybe I would set an age limit--no one over a certain age could participate." (Had Katie and I disgraced everyone middle-aged or over? Did he mean we should stick to Love Boat cruises to Acapulco?)
As for the widely held view by racers that there was no fun on the trip, he said, "People climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro don't say they had fun. They say it was an unforgettable experience. . . . It's my overwhelming impression that for the majority of people it was a real rewarding experience they won't forget."
On that last day, the world caved in on the Sparkses. Bass told them that the standings had been recalculated. They had been given an additional penalty for the plane trip to Bali, which put them out of the running for first place. They appeared stunned, packed their bags and left town without starting the grueling New York segment.
After New York, the grand finale was to be the announcement of winners and final standings at the Manhattan hotel where the sponsors--Visa, Michelob Dry beer and Holiday Inns International--sent photographers to take pictures.
"Well, at least we finished the course," Katie said. "When they put up the list, I can show my grandchildren that I finished, even if it's in last place."
Then the list went up. Bill Chalmers and comedian Andy Valvur were declared the winners. Bill La Tulip and Mike Shalan, of the meticulous records, came in second. Kevin Erdman and Mitchell Danielson, who had sneaked into the catacombs, were third. Ironically, none of the three teams had paid for their own trips. Chalmers and Valvur were sponsored by a Los Angeles industrialist, who received the prize money. La Tulip and Shalan won their trip from a video store by raising money for AIDS, battered wives and other charities. Erdman and Danielson were sponsored by their employers.
Three runners-up were listed. That was all. The Sparkses were missing. The two teams that had gone through divorces were dropped, along with the rest of us. No standings. No recognition.
"I'm hurt that my name isn't up there," Katie told Jonathan. He looked annoyed. "You'd be hurt whether your name was up there or not," he snapped.
That was the last we saw of Jonathan. We packed up our scavenger items, which he had never examined, and took back the photos, which he had never seen, and left. We passed up a party being given by one of the sponsors.
I heard from Jonathan once after I returned to Los Angeles. He acknowledged that this first Human Race had some problems and may have been the wrong trip for us. "This race appeals to a unique personality," Jonathan said later, and perhaps our personalities were not suited to this sort of competition. "I hate roller coasters. I don't go on them. But every once in a while, I get stuck on one and can't understand why everyone else is having a good time," he said. The Human Race was our roller coaster, he suggested. Jonathan would admit that, next time, he would do it differently, perhaps by shortening the itinerary or including fewer tasks in each city.
"I hear he's planning another one of these races," Valvur joked after the winners were announced. "It's going to include Beirut and the Love Canal. It's going to be called Holiday in Hell Tour."