Writer Dave Seminara
Dave Seminara usually writes about tennis or travel. When he does, he does so for the likes of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Association of Tennis Professionals, British Broadcasting Corporation and more. And there are tennis and travel books too - two of which were released earlier this year: Mad Travelers and Footsteps of Federer. In this episode Dave and I dig into the nuances of.....wait for it....tennis and travel. We contrast Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, as well as their fans. We attempt to decipher the enigma of William Baekeland, the faux billionaire that intrigued, and sometimes ripped off, the elite travel community. We also consider why we travel at all. With hopes that you care about either tennis or travel, enjoy the conversation.
I do call myself a pathological traveler or a mad traveler.
Joining me at SPx today is St. Pete based writer, journalist, vagabond, ex-tennis player Dave Seminara. Welcome, sir.
Hey, thank you very much. I’m not an ex-tennis player though. I’m back. I am back.
Back, you’re back.
Anybody at the St. Pete Racket Club can testify that I am back. Maybe not at top four. I’m losing most of my matches, but I’m back.
That’s great. I’m a tennis player as well. I’ve had to take a couple of one-year spells off for back issues and things. It’s always glorious to come back into the ring.
For folks who aren’t familiar with your work, you’re connected to a lot of great output. So, let’s just set context a little bit. Talk a little bit about your professional self.
I studied business in college and then found my way into the US Foreign Service. I think that’s my nomadic, and wandering and vagabonding trend sort of take back to that. When I was in the Foreign Service, I lived in a few different foreign countries. You move every couple of years. I did that for about six years. Then after that I gravitated into writing and journalism. I’ve been doing that for about 12 years. I’ve written on a lot of different topics, but travel is really my passion. Whenever, I get opportunities to write anything travel-related, that’s where I go to. I’m the author of four travel-related books too. I do call myself a pathological traveler or a mad traveler. Travel and sports are probably my two biggest passions in life, but I’m interested in all kinds of different things.
Some of the outlets you’ve written for are Wallstreet Journal, New York Times and certainly the pinnacle of your career, a piece in the St. Pete Catalyst.
Not just one. I think I’ve written a couple of pieces for you.
True, that is right. With more to come, hopefully. You’ve been cranking out the books too in short succession here. Let’s dig into the first one which is about Footsteps of Federer, which is about a pilgrimage you took. So, it’s travel, it’s sports in one, to trace the lineage and history and wander through the home country of tennis great Roger Federer. You’ve been writing about Federer for a long time. Let’s first talk about what draws you to him.
I’ve really liked Federer for a really long time. I’ve been a fan of Federer for years, but the older he gets, the more I really like him. I guess I got to explain that. I grew up in Buffalo. I’m used to rooting for losing sports teams. I’m a big Bills fan and Sabres fan. For me to root for an athlete or a team that’s very successful is kind of weird. I guess, what I’m saying is that when Federer was really at his best when he was in his prime, I liked him, but I wasn’t a huge fan of his. But the older he gets and the fact that he’s not retiring and is still succeeding. Weirdly he’s turned into an underdog in the latter stages of his career, I’ve become more and more of a fan of his. Not just for the beautiful way that he plays tennis, his elegant footwork and the beautiful strokes and everything. But for the way that he carries himself on and off the court.
The incredible example that he sets for kids. I have two boys. I would love for them to be great sportsmen like Roger. I find him to be really funny and engaging. I met him in person one time for like two minutes at Wimbledon where I was covering Wimbledon for the New York Times in 2013. He didn’t act like a celebrity. He was really cool. He just shook my hand. It was like, “Hey, how are you doing?” just like a normal guy. That really started to make me like him a lot more too. A few years back, when I had to stop playing tennis for about the third different time, you mentioned you’ve had some spells where you haven’t been able to play. Starting in 2017, I couldn’t play tennis because I got this autoimmune disease that attacked mostly my legs and my feet. For a period of more than two years, I was really suffering and I couldn’t play any tennis.
But in the middle of 2019, I started to get better again. I thought, “You know what I’d really like to do, I’d like to come back to playing tennis again, but in some place special.” I felt like I deserved a treat after all the suffering. I said, “I want to go to Switzerland. I want to play on tennis courts where Roger has played and learn more about Roger and travel in his footsteps and hopefully write something about it.” But I couldn’t just tell my wife, “Hey, I’m going to go for a two-week vacation in Switzerland and good luck hanging out with the kids.” I had to somehow turn it into a business trip. Luckily, I was able to convince a travel editor in New York Times to let me write about it, and to pay for most of my trip. That was the origins of it. When I got there, I met so many interesting people. The journey was so memorable for me, that I realized I wanted to write a whole book about it, not just an article.
In a lot of ways, Roger is treated as an ordinary person. There isn’t that reverence for him. Of course, he’s loved in Switzerland, but there isn’t that celebrity reverence. He’s seen as another man.
Just jumping into a logistical question with that, how does that work? If you’re employed by the New York Times to go do that story, you produce that piece for them. Are you pretty much free to then write a book separately from that if you so choose?
You are free to do that. However, in this case, they had first rights to the story. Technically, they had the right to publish first. Meaning that the book wasn’t supposed to come out before the article was. But as it so happened, the pandemic came along and their travel section was shut down for more than a year, the Sunday travel section. Actually, my article was delayed and delayed. They were super-gracious about it and said, “Hey, no worries if the book comes out a little before the article. We’re not bothered about that.” They were actually pretty cool about it.
That’s nice. And for our tennis fan listeners, I’d love to hear your take, because you’ve studied so much about Roger and tennis. Roger is known for his grace. Like you mentioned, he’s just an incredible ambassador for the sport. He’s connected a lot of people in his accessibility around the sport. When you juxtapose him to someone like Raphael Nadal who is really a beast on the court, and runs over people. And is a freak of nature in the best of ways. But there’s such a distinct difference between who they are.
Then I think that difference sometimes falls back to the fans as well. If you were to break the Nadal disciples and the Federer disciples into two categories, it’s interesting almost to see the type of people who will feud and feel so passionately of one over the other. I’m a Federer person too, in full disclosure. I root most for Federer to win, but my next best thing to root for is perhaps Nadal to lose. Have you noticed that in the sport? Do you have any insights on that?
That’s a really interesting question. Aside from the book, I also was asked to write two articles about obsessive, super Federer fans for the ATP Tour website, about a month ago or so. I got to meet some incredible Federer fans. People who are much more obsessive from me. People who actually stalk him and wait outside of arenas and courts for hours to meet him. One of them was a woman from Calcutta, India who has been to I think it was 54 tournaments or something like that, following Federer around the world. Another woman was from Belgium. I think that both men inspire passion in their fans. I’m biased on this completely. But from what I’ve seen, observing tournaments around the world, there is no one like Federer for actually bringing people out to the tennis courts.
Nadal has got his fans too, but the passion of Federer fans in the tennis world I think is completely unsurpassed. You try to get on a practice court, for example, a couple of years ago when he won the Miami Open. You try to get near the practice court where Roger’s warming up before a march, you can’t get near it. People are willing to wait a few hours just to get a glimpse of him. With all due respect to Nadal, I actually don’t root against Nadal too much unless, he’s playing better. I hated Nadal in the early years, in capris pant years when he first came on tour, because he was a threat to Roger. But the older Nadal Scott, the more respect I’ve gotten from him. Although, a lot of Federer fans are not like that at all.
A few of the obsessive ones that I just wrote about have some really nasty nicknames for Nadal and others. But what I found, in my travels too even in Switzerland is that Federer fans don’t really hate Nadal nearly as much as they hate Djokovic. Djokovic is really the villain, I have to say. Djokovic is the man that most Federer fans now feel most negatively against. Especially, after the 2019 Wimbledon final which he won in – I’m sorry but – very lucky, unfortunate circumstances. As far as I’m concerned, Federer fans are the most passionate in the world. They love Roger. A lot of them are tennis players themselves. They can appreciate how easy he makes things look. But you understand – if you’ve played tennis – that what he just did was not easy.
Yes, and I think Nadal played an interesting foil in just the way he played. The ferociousness was maybe a counter to the elegance which is what I see in the fans. Whereas, Federer wins in a way that is so transcendent. In that it’s just a mix of his mind. It’s a mix of his ability and his grace. Probably the fact that he never breaks a sweat whereas, Nadal is snarling and relentless. Djokovic just ends up in there like this almost brick wall. It just has a plainness to it. It lacks something you can really sink your teeth into. Both of those are just two different interesting juxtapositions to Federer’s royal esq play I would say.
The imagination in Federer is game too, and I admired someone. I’m a player who is not very good at the net. I don’t feel a lot of confidence to charge the net. Roger is of course the exact opposite. Whenever someone can elegantly finish to point at the net in an attacking style, there is just something that’s incredibly – at least for me and I think a lot of other tennis fans, I think it’s really admiral than a guy who wants to sit on the baseline and trade 50 ground strokes, which let’s face it, that can get boring after a while.
Yes, it’s true. Other than the most expensive kids’ meals in the world, what were the other main and surprising takeaways or I could just say the more nuanced takeaways that you had from your time traveling across Switzerland?
Switzerland is such an interesting country. I think it has nine or 10 million people or something in that ballpark. But it felt like such a small country after travelling in Roger’s footsteps there especially, the tennis world and how you can just bump into people who have weird connections to Roger. Just out of sheer coincidence, I ended up meeting the Abbott of a monastery who happened to baptize Roger’s children. I happened to meet Roger’s former dentist. I happened to bump into his father, and his twins in a hotel. There were an incredible number of coincidences like this. People who have met and people who have known him. Switzerland felt like a small, strange, little country. As you said, they’re not into hero worship and celebrity worship the way we are here in the US.
In a lot of ways, Roger is treated as an ordinary person. There isn’t that reverence for him. Of course, he’s loved in Switzerland, but there isn’t that celebrity reverence. He’s seen as another man. As a little example, in one of the towns where he owns his primary residence in the mountains, a town called Valbella which is very pretty. His next-door neighbor sued him, because he put up a playground for his children in the yard. Because it was partially blocking his view. The neighbor actually won in court. Just to give you one another little example. Another house that Federer tried to buy that I went and looked at it, Roger planned to buy this house, knock it down and then use the lot next door to build a tennis court.
When he filed for the zoning application to build that tennis court, guess what the municipality said, “Sorry, you can’t build a tennis court.” I said, “Are you kidding? People told Roger Federer in Switzerland, “You cannot build a tennis court Roger.” What I was told was in Switzerland the rules apply equally to everyone. I think that this is part of what makes Roger really cool. It’s because he hasn’t been worshipped. He hasn’t grown up in a country where people watch him as a celebrity. It’s made him into more of a normal guy. I went around to all these tennis courts where he practiced frequently and they tell me. For example, at the One Club, Roger was drinking little Keurig coffee container things. Not like fancy coffee, but he was drinking coffee from the machine the whole week that he practiced at this club. At the end of the week, he really thanked them and said, “By the way, how much do I owe you for the coffees?” he rakes the clay courts when he’s finished.
A couple of different clubs told me that he calls himself or texts himself when he wants court-time. He doesn’t have a handler or somebody or somebody to do that. He doesn’t say, “Will you clear the next spot for me too? Clear the whole club, because I don’t want balls straying onto my court.” He is an ordinary guy. Part of that is because Switzerland has treated him like an ordinary guy. That’s why he continues to live there, when Djokovic and many other tennis stars go to Monte Carlo to save money on taxes to save money on taxes. Roger is not worried about saving money on taxes, because he loves Switzerland. That’s why he just entered into a partnership a couple of weeks ago. Formerly promoting Swiss travel and being an ambassador of Switzerland. Unpaid, by the way too. I would say also he’s doing that for no money just because he really loves his country. Just I think really cool.
Yes, I mean at his level probably one of those precious things you can get is just normalcy and to show up. Just laughing, in America they would have had those Keurig cups on eBay in about 15 minutes after he left. You mentioned the dentist. The dentist said Roger is married to Mirka who was another tennis player. The dentist had said that she had perfect teeth. It reminds me just a little, tiny line that was in the book that Mirka got her start. I guess her father was a jeweler of some sort. And just happened to roll into a tennis tournament, and her not really knowing anything about tennis, somehow, she finds herself with Martina Navratilova who tells her she has the body of a tennis player. Not only encourages her to play tennis, but then later sends her a racket. I just don’t see how that happens at a random meeting at a tennis court.
Isn’t that interesting. They both had the regional connection, because she and her family were Slovak and Martina’s Czech. I think she felt some affinity and responsibility to her based upon that. But it is a very interesting story. Mirka comes from an immigrant background. Her father did have a jewelry store, which I understand. I don’t think he still owns it, but I believe it’s still there. Unfortunately, I did not have time to travel to Mirka’s hometown. She’s from a town right on Lake Constance. It’s supposed to be quite pretty. But their love story is very interesting too, because they met at the Swiss House of Tennis, which I did visit, which is a magnificent facility. Any tennis fan who wants to do a Federer pilgrimage should definitely go to the Swiss House of Tennis which is the National Federation. It’s where all the talented juniors train. But you can go there too. Any member of the public can go there and play. But that’s where they met.
They were both promising junior players. Mirka was three years older than him though. I think when they first met, Roger might have been 15, 16 in that range. And she was older. Their relationship didn’t start right away, because he was a little too young. But their romance blossomed. That’s where they first met is, at the Swiss House of Tennis in Biel, in the French speaking part of Switzerland. Then they had their first kiss at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. That’s really when they became a couple. I visited where they got married, which is a beautiful villa right on the outskirts of Basel. What I was told by many people in Switzerland is that Mirka is really – I was going to say she wears the pants in the relationship.
That might be a little too strong, but people told me repeatedly that Mirka is really the boss. She has been really cool about traveling with the kids and traveling as a caravan around the tour all these years, and allowing him to keep going. But what a lot of people think is that, the question of when will he retire? That’s going to be a lot up to Mirka. Whether she’s game to keep doing this, and if so, for how many weeks per year? But she’s older than Roger. And she’s an incredibly important person for his life and his career. And has been instrumental to his success, I think too.
I have to ask, it’s interesting. You have somewhat of a job of what I would call walking the line. You even used the word yourself, pilgrimage which obviously has religious undertones and we talk about obsessive fans that Federer has. There’s a pretty extreme intensity line here as far as people way over the top. You’re a very pragmatic person. You love him for what he does for the game. You appreciate him for who he is as a person. But it stops there. Yet you’re also responsible for translating this thing that he is into words. Such that it shows the world to maybe familiar with him and have one set of expectations for learning about this phenomenon that is Federer.
Certainly, a lot of people that are going to pick up the book already have a relationship with him. It really [16:03] about the leaning into the heavier, deeper connection with him through a book like this. How do you walk the line yourself when you think, “I’m going all the way to this country? I’m talking to childhood friends and seeing where he and Mirka had his first kiss.” You’re able to put that into a journalistic context while also being a fan. While also realizing that there are people that go way more intense with it?
I tried to strike a balance here. I do call it a fans pilgrimage in the title, because I didn’t want to make a completely journalistic account of his life. It’s not a biography. Although, you will learn a lot about Roger I think from this. But what my thought was, I like travelling in the footsteps of people I’m interested in, because you can learn a lot about a person from seeing with your own eyes where they have chosen to live for one thing. Where they like to practice and play tennis, where they chose to get married, where they worship. Things of that nature. I think you learn a lot about people just from walking in their footsteps. At the same time, I did walk the line in terms of trying to be respectful of Roger’s privacy while at the same time wanting to see all of these places.
As I said in the book, I did not want to be perceived as the crazed stalked who is going to be riffling through Roger’s garbage cans. And trying to do that. So, I tried to respect his privacy by not divulging the exact address and locations of his homes and such for example. Although, you can get that information quite easily on the internet, which I found surprising, because the Swiss do value privacy quite a bit. But at the same time, the media does publish a lot of information there about his real estate transactions and such. I left out certain things in my book like exact locations of his homes and markers that would give you a clue of where they are. Because, I thought if people are really determined to see these houses and things like that themselves, they can do the same thing that I did. But I tried to make the book very personal in terms of observations of, “I am a Federer fan. Here is what it was like to travel to the places where Roger’s chosen to live and to play tennis, at some of the places where he likes to play.
When you wrote the book about Federer, it came out of an assignment. It transitioned into Mad Travelers. What was the impetus for that book?
The impetus of Mad Travelers. Although, the books are coming out a few months apart, it would appear like wow, Seminara is really cranking out materials and books here. That’s really not the way things happen at all. Mad Travelers was born in 2014, believe it or not. So, this has been a slow process. I’ve been following this story of extreme travelers, and this gentleman named William Baekeland who was trying to get these guys to the ends of the earth since 2014 really. In 2014, the idea was I had done a series for BBC Travel called Travel Pioneers. Through this series, I got to meet some of the world’s most travelled people. I became fascinated with these guys. I’ve been a person, my life has been dictated by wanderlust, moving from all different parts of the world and all around the US. I wanted to write a book about wanderlust.
I wanted to profile some of the world’s most travelled people and to understand what motivates not just them, but people like me to be so restless. I wanted to look into the question of whether this restlessness was either genetic or whether it was environmental. Are we born with this urge to wander and run or not? The concept was born in 2014-2015. It’s really when I started writing the book. At that time, I knew this gentleman named William Baekeland who was this young guy. This young super traveler who everyone said was a billionaire, trust fund kid from England who was getting to the most remote places in the world and helping the most traveled people do that. But I thought he was legit. I thought he was who he said he was. This billionaire back in 2014, 2015, 2016, during that time period.
But I didn’t really figure out what the focus of the book would be. Until I think it was about 2018 when many of these world’s most travelled people realized that they had been scammed by this young man. That he wasn’t who he said he was. Then I realized that the way that this guy took everyone for a ride, was the ultimate example of wanderlust. I realized that what I wanted to do was write a book centered around this true story of William Baekeland. But that it was really a deep dive into wanderlust and a meditation on why we travel.
Carefully, you spent a lot of the book here. I can see how the original part of the book emerged. Then the Baekeland piece made a nice connective tissue for it. You really, chapter by chapter look into all the different potential psychological motivations for travel. Full disclosure, I was in that camp as well. I spent about five years backpacking around the world. So, I’ve lived that life a little. One of the first and most interesting counterpoints you always hear with people who look at extreme travelers is, “Is it travelling or is it checking a box?” one of the more interesting things is as people become experts with this is, it goes beyond just countries. So, sort of let’s visit all the countries designated by UN. That’s not good enough. People have done that.
So, now let’s break it down into individual points of interest we’ll say or regions. Those become the new checklists. Can you – as you’ve explored this world – just start up by saying what constitutes being a destination? Is it just touching a finger to the rock, the land as some people have had to do or is it spending this… My rule of thumb was three days in a country, which is very arbitrary. What are both sides of that argument?
Just to give people a little background. What we’re talking about here is the world of systematic travel or extreme travel. There’s a few big clubs. The main most famous one is called The Traveler Century Club. There’s another one called Nomad Mania. And there’s another one called Most Travelled People. Those are the three most famous ones. Each of these different clubs has different rules. They count different territories. One of them might have let’s say Traveler Century Club might be in a range of – I’m guesstimating here but – 350 places, something like that 400 places. Another one like Nomad Mania might have more like 2000 places and such. They all break down the world in different ways. For example, one might rate India, might have 27 points. Meaning – I’m guesstimating here, but let’s say there’s 25 or 27 provinces in India. One of the clubs might say, “If you really want to do India, you better have been to all 25 of those.”
The Traveler Century Club does not have rankings, but the other two do. What you have is this world of systematic competitive travel. They all have different rules, but the general vibe is you’ve got to just stand in the territory. First of all, you’ve got to be admitted though too. For example, I’ve been to a few countries that formerly did not let me in. Like most recently with my family, a few years ago in Argentina, we crossed over the Andes in a bus, an eight-hour bus ride from Balpora to Argentina. I had an outdated guidebook saying that Americans didn’t need a visa to Argentina. I was wrong about that. We got turned back. Technically, we were on Argentine soil for six hours, 20 miles into Argentina. But according to most other clubs, that visit would have counted because I was denied entry and deported, as were my family.
Usually, the rule is if there is a border authority in this place – many of the remote islands they’re getting to, there is nobody to stamp you in. If there is no immigration officials there, all you have to do is stand on the territory. You cannot just see it from a boat. You’ve got to get onto that island and step foot on it, and that counts. You don’t have to stay for any period of time. If it’s a country that has an immigration official there, you must be stamped in and formally admitted into the country. You can be there for just a very short period of time, and it will still count as a visit.
Once you start getting – there is the basic 90% that or relatively accessible by plane or by boats, and just a matter of the time and the money to do it. Once you start getting into the outliers, then there are actually various variables like danger or accessibility or permission. This is where Baekeland, which ended up not being his real name, claimed to have and be able to organize these trips and get large deposits for them, of which he never returned when these trips didn’t happen.
When you try to get to a place like for example Bouvet Island which is zoned by Norway. It’s in the south of Atlantic Ocean. It’s considered the world’s most remote island. When you’re trying to get to places like that, Expedia is not going to help you. Travelocity and Trip Advisor are not going to help you. You need to figure out ingenious ways to get places. This is where William stepped into the void, because he came on the scene of extreme travel. He did not appear to be a sales person or a business person or a travel agent. He was just a guy who wanted to get to these places too. He was 22, 23 years old. He supposedly had – he was a billionaire from inheriting all this money from Leo Baekeland who is the father of modern plastics industry. He was just a guy who was really ingenious. He found incredible ways to get people to remote islands and off-limits places.
I’ll give you just one very brief example. There is an island called Marion Island. I believe it is a six to eight-day bought ride south of Cape Town, and in the middle of nowhere. This island is owned by South Africa. In order to get permission there, there’s only a weather station there. The South African military only very occasionally goes there to service this weather station. William was able to somehow figure out a way, and ascertain that the South African Navy was going to be travelling to repair or service some sort of weather equipment on this island. Nobody knows how, but somehow, he was able to get permission for a bunch of travelers to go on a boat, which they described to me as one of the most hellish, but rewarding experiences in ships of their life. Of being on a boat for six, seven, eight days in very primitive conditions, eating food out of cans and such. They got to Marion Island. They had bragging rights for getting to one of the most difficult and remote places to reach in the world. They had William to thank of that.
Therein lies the weird mix of who he was and what he did. I think Pelarma – if I’m pronouncing it correctly – was another one where he actually did make the trip happen. He asked for a fee for that. He asked for a donation. He said that the guise of getting there was philanthropy. That he suggested an additional 10,000-dollar donation, which some of the travelers paid. But that donation never made it to the authorities. He kept it. Then there were a lot of other trips that were ultimately cancelled, and without refund. That’s the weird back and forth is that, he did enough of these trips successfully and even participated in enough of these trips to get enough credibility. But in the end, I think the damage of unfulfilled trips and promises was close to €750,000 or something in that regard and at a ballpark. Then you established a relationship with him. Can you walk us through? It’s funny that you’re actually still calling him William versus Josh.
No, I do continue to call him William. That’s how I refer to him mostly in the book, because to me and to everyone else he is still William. He still goes by William. That’s the name that I’m calling him. I’m just receiving a whole bunch of texts from him yesterday actually. And he’s calling himself William. I’m sticking with that. People can identify how they want these days, right? He does have a number of different aliases, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll call him William. William is an interesting character. The really interesting thing that I love about this story is, he has 19 or 20 victims in that range. They have varying responses to it. Some of them buy his narrative that he’s not a con man and he got in over his head. There are some people who aren’t bitter at him at all. And still want to be friends with him. There’s other people who want him in prison. It runs the gambit from there, but William is an interesting character.
I should say that HBO has a series about conmen called Generation Hustle. It’s coming out on the 26th of April. He is episode six in that feature. There’s an episode about William in there. William did not participate in their film, because he was putting a lot of demands on them that they could not meet. He did not participate in their film. So, they hired an actor to play him. I just saw a screening of the film a couple of days ago. It’s quite interesting. It’s only 50 minutes worth. It delves into a little bit about what happened, but it doesn’t delve into the big question of why. And how could this have happened, which is what I delve into in my book? But William, for some strange reason became a fan of mine. I don’t know if fan is the right word. He went through my website quite diligently, and read a lot of articles that I wrote. Actually, liked what he read and decided that he wanted to participate with me.
This is great, because there’s been a number of articles written about him in Rolling Stone and the Daily Mail, and a lot of British press. He hasn’t spoken to anyone else other than me. I was happy about that. But he and I had been corresponding for more than two years now. Our correspondence has ranged from interesting to bizarre to threats. It’s been a wild ride. But in the end, I’ve really learned a lot about him. I hope that this is really reflected in the book that I was able to penetrate into his character, and to who he really is. That’s all reflected in the book. A lot of our correspondence is in there.
It is, and it’s interesting. It seems you’ve recovered, because the threats were a little bit creepy. It seems like you have made it through that. Again, jumping back into process, behind the curtain then. If HBO thought enough of this to do at least the episode in the series, presumably he’s given you something more valuable than he was able to give them. What opportunities beyond the book does that open up for you? Are there any other options that are crossing your mind from a script or a screenplay to anything in that direction professionally to take this another step?
You know, I don’t know if that will happen. My focus is just on getting the book out there, because it was a lot of work. Mad Travelers took me years to write. It really was a labor of love. A lot of it stemmed as I said from my motivation to understand wanderlust better, which is to say to understand myself and people like me, better. I just want to get the book out there. I really hope that it’s successful. If someone wants to make a film out of it, I would absolutely love that. But certainly, I’m not counting on that to happen. I do think though that William has already reached out to me and very surprised. I don’t want to give away too much about the book. But I was very surprised. My attitude is a little different than other producers. I know that HBO did not participate. And they did not give him access to the film. So, he has not seen it.
But I gave him a copy of my book actually, months ago, an early manuscript. Then I just sent him the finalized version too, because I felt like if you were going to write a book about somebody, I knew he wasn’t going to like lots of it, but I felt like I should send it to him. I just braced myself for his response. I was like, “Oh boy!” I was bracing myself for a letter from his lawyer or who knows what. I was thinking, “Are there going to be lawsuits? What’s going to happen here?” because he has been threatening to sue a lot of other people. I was really surprised and gratified that he said that he thought it was fair. He said, “There are some things that I would quibble with in your book, some details here and there,” but generally, he said he liked my book and has reiterated that.
So, is there an opportunity there for a film that builds upon this book, but also could get the participation of William so that he could tell his side of the story?” I did endeavor to tell his side of the story in the book, which I think is a little different than HBO since unfortunately, they weren’t able to get his side of the story, his participation. I do have his side of the story in the book. But yeah, I think it could be really interesting to build upon the book and have a film, and bring William into it. Instead of having an actor, let him play himself.
As much as you’re willing to share, is it some mix of intention versus getting in over his head? Obviously, when you change your name, you do things like that. There’s some intention. Sometimes, you collect money and then you spend it. This trip doesn’t happen, and you don’t have to get back. I’ve seen many an honest business person get stuck in that unfortunate situation. But then it’s, “Oh wow, I got stuck in this situation and I didn’t pay it back, but that works. So, I’m going to do it again,” or, “I’m going to know that if I collect this money even though it doesn’t work, maybe that’s not so bad, because I’ll just keep money.” Where did you come down on this side of his intention?
I got into a lot of this in the book, but what I really would like the reader to do is… I share my opinions with the reader about where I come down on this. But what I really want is I want people to make up their own minds about this. Because there is no definitive answer. Only William knows exactly what his motivations were. I could tell you my thoughts, but they are certainly not definitive. I do want people to read the book and make up their own mind. But I would say that, everything that I have learned about William tells me that, “Did he tell some lies?” yes, “Did he pull some scams?” unquestionably, but on the other hand, is he – as some of the travelers claimed – just a flat-out thief and a criminal?” Just somebody who is a born crook who just moves from one scam to the next? I’m not so sure about that. I think all of this stemmed from William’s desire to get to these places. To be an extreme traveler. To be one of world’s top travelers himself.
All of the knowledge and all of his passion about remote and weird places in the world, if he was just a garden variety con man, he could make fake IDs or there’s many different things he could have done and possibly made much more money. I think that his love of geography, his wanderlust, his passion for extreme and weird places. And his desire to get there, was completely genuine. He stumbled upon this world of extreme travel. He saw that these guys, most of them were wealthy and were much older than him. He thought, “I’m 21 years old, I’m 22 years old, how can I travel the world like that? How can I get to these places? He met some of these guys, and he sensed an opportunity and he took. Although, I think he unquestionably did pull off some cons here and some scams. I guess I would assert my opinion is, that he is not necessarily a con man in the classic sense of the word.
I do think he is someone who wanted to see the world. And did it in a way that perhaps involved lying and scamming and cheating people. But I don’t think he was a complete fraud, in the sense that I don’t think he faked this love of travel and this desire to get to every last bit of the world. Because, even now as I am corresponding with him, he’s still trying to do these things. Even though, he’s not in the business of fleecing these extreme travelers any more. He still wants to get to these places. I think, in a way there is something actually that’s very genuine and real about William and his passion to see the world. I don’t know if that’s a straightforward answer. But that’s how I feel about it.
No, I think it’s very straightforward. I think that that’s what resonated with a lot of the folks whose money he took, but who still want to feel connected to him. These people in this world, they live at the edge of themselves. They’ve seen and done and pushed themselves in a lot of these places that are technically illegal to get to where they may have had to cajole or bribe or do whatever. At least, in that regard if they squint one eye, they can see him just doing the same thing as would be required of a kid with modest means to get these things done. While they were the victim, they also appreciate that his passion led him to take those risks and make those potentially bad decisions to fulfil the same wanderlust that they have.
Sure, and I think some people might read the book and come away with a completely different opinion than mine, which is fine. I would like that, but one thing I would like to point out too is, we talked a couple of times in this interview about travelers checking boxes. I would say this is an important point about something that I realized in researching this book and getting to know some of these extreme travelers really well, that I really changed my mind on this idea about systematic travel and extreme travel. Coming into this story, I was really biased against many of these travelers, because I’m a person who values deep experiential travel. I would prefer, when time allows to rather than hit 15 countries in 12 days, I much rather would spend one month in one country. I’m that kind of traveler.
I came into this story biased against these people. I thought, the whole idea of being ranked. And, “Oh, I’m ranked number six or whatever,” I thought all of that was very silly. The idea of counting countries before I got into this story, I had been to many countries, but I had actually never even counted them. Some of these guys had asked me, “How many countries have you been to?” actually, I had to be honest and be like, “I know it’s several dozen but I didn’t know the exact number even,” because I wasn’t that sort of traveler. But as I got to really know these guys over a period, not just of months but years, I actually really began to respect most of them quite a bit. And realized that there’s really no wrong way to travel. Those of us who like to travel deeply, and who have a few favorite places. And we keep returning to those places over and over again, our method of travel is not necessarily different than the person who is more like the toppers approach. Getting a little taste of many different countries as opposed to gorging on one or two of them. I felt like afterwards, I know a lot of travelers who let’s say have been to Italy 20 times or they’ve been to Greece 30 times. But they’ve never been to Africa say for example, or large swaths of the planet are totally unexplored.
They have a high and mighty hoity toity snobby attitude towards these extreme travelers. Like, “How dare they only spend two days in Swaziland or whatever?” I’m not saying either method of travel is right or wrong. But I came to realize that a lot of these guys, even though they are systematic travelers, they do learn about these places. Even if they only stay there for a day, or however long they stay, you’ll learn a lot about place that’s difficult to reach, because you’ve got to research it. You’ve got to figure out how do you get there? And you do end up learning about it. Some of these guys, I have to say maybe a few of them, I came away thinking, “This guy visits places and doesn’t really learn anything about it. He is kind of just checking boxes.” But they were in the absolute minority.
I would say, 90% of these guys they came away thinking – because I’d ask them and not quiz them. But I’d say, “You were in South Sudan. Tell me about that.” And they could tell you about it. They’re smart guys is what I’m saying. I think that a lot of us come into this and think, “This guy is ticking boxes,” but a lot of them are pretty damn good travelers. I developed a huge amount of respect for most of them. I realized that every way of travel is good. Every person is different. Just like, I might like fresh sea food and you don’t. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with a guy who doesn’t like it. The guy who’d like to have a little taste of all 193 countries, and get to all the islands, maybe he doesn’t get to know India as well as you did. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong. We’ve all got a finite period of time on this world. We’ve only got a limited amount of time. You can’t see everything, right? So, we all have to make difficult decisions about what parts of the world are we going to spend time in and which parts of the world aren’t we going to get to.
In the book, every chapter is almost a completely different psychological profile on why people would travel. To escape, to run to and really very quickly becomes evident that this presumption that knowing random things about a country. Trying a little more of its food is the highest utility of a country. But I would say that as I’m [38:49] what you said. It just really depends on what value you’re looking to achieve and what meaning you’re looking to achieve. Checking in boxes is just a different kind of value. It’s a weird example. But it made me immediately think of – I used to follow the [39:04] for a better round.
The Deadheads were built into two categories. One, were the people that were in it that were very experiential. They were more the living in a van types, high a lot, barefoot a lot, dancing and really living the bad edge of themselves. Then there were what we could the word the tebez and encyclopedic knowledge of the shows. I saw the first ever version of this show. I saw the longest ever version of that song. Then it’s almost like when you walked a parking lot, the two existed in the same crowd, but did not exist in the same micro-clusters in the crowd. They were very separate while been running together.
They were there for very different reasons. But each of them equally valid. One group would say to the other, “You’re too planned out to really understand all the real math and nuances that are happening there.” The other would say, “You’re not fully inhabiting the music in your body.” It’s all different types of value. When you look at the – and you have to repeat the name from the island that’s the Mount Everest that [40:06].
And just touching that rock for that person, the brand, the value and the meaning for touching a rock is probably singularly more powerful, because of all the relative factors building into that like you’d mentioned earlier. That to say that that’s less valuable than hanging out in a place, because you could hang out in a place for six months and never leave your apartment, and meet your neighbors and not see much of the country. What you did well in the book is really giving light to all the motivations and meaning and the drives behind why people can travel.
Also, the pacing how it echoes of Bill Bryson esq thing with lots of datapoints and lots of anecdotes and stuff, but yours was packed. You packed more of those in there that I think I’ve ever seen in a book. It just seems like every sentence was a different reference that could have used a footnote. Of course, the narrative part William was in there and gave you longer stretches of reading. But you could definitely see the time before that where they must have just been years of pulling out all the different perspectives in wanderlust is that accurate?
Yes, it is. there is a lot of research involved in the book. There is storytelling, but then there is also research. First of all, I felt very surprised that no one ever really wrote a book delving into wanderlust. Of course, there’s books that illustrate wanderlust. People talk about their wanderlust. But I couldn’t really find any book surprisingly, where people actually delved into research about wanderlust. Where does it really come from? How does it impact our lives? Is it genetic? Is it environmental? Where does it come from? How important is it? I was surprised there was really no book about that. I did want to delve into research. I was surprised that you find a lot more research about wanderlust.
There was much more research on it. People were focused on it as potentially something that was damaging or potentially a problem let’s say, 80 or 100 years ago than there has been recently. As the global travel industry has grown and become more and more important over the years, at this point 10% of the world’s population have jobs connected to the travel industry. Any negativity in relation to wanderlust has evaporated. It’s interesting to look at research from 80 or 100 years ago or some of the studies that I cited in my book where they viewed wanderlust as sort of a potential problem of people becoming [42:22] or people becoming unemployable because they were prone to travel.
If all these different options, all these different perspectives and different psychological angles could feed into wanderlust, which are the blocks that you would pick out that form your foundation for wandering?
I got in the book too that first of all, there is something called the nomadic gene which National Geographic wrote a cover story on. I think it was five, six, seven years ago in that range. It’s called DRD4-7R I believe is the name of the gene. I wanted to know if I had this. First of all, did I have the nomadic gene? You’ll read about a little bit in the journey in the book of me trying to first of all figure out how to get a test for this. The male clinic does a test for it. I did figure out a way to get myself tested in order to figure out whether I had this so-called nomadic gene or not. In the end, where I came down is, what a lot of researchers say is that any sort of traits are somewhat about 60% heritable or so. Which means that of the personality traits, and different things that make up who we are, we can trace something like 60% of them to our genes and heritability I believe it’s called.
For me, when looking at my family and who has wanderlust and who doesn’t, I have five brothers. Some of them really love to travel and others not so much. That’s the way things can work in families. But I came down thinking that I definitely inherited some of my wanderlust from my mom. But I think that it’s largely environmental too. The people who say that they were necessarily born to travel and such, there’s something to that. But in my case, it’s necessarily being exposed to something and whether you have positive, early experiences with that thing or not. I started travelling at a young age. I really liked it. That turned me on to it. Something could have gone completely the opposite way. Some people have early travel experiences and they don’t enjoy them or something puts them off on it and they’re put off forever.
I don’t necessarily believe in a completely environmental or a completely genetic answer to wanderlust. Wanderlust is a very complicated phenomenon. It’s not something that’s very simple and clear cut like having blue eyes or whatever. But it’s certainly an irrepressible force. If you have a strong case of wanderlust – someone described it once. I mention this in my book as an emotional epidemic, which might be over putting it. But all of the decisions that you make in your life, if you’re seriously influenced by wanderlust as I have been, what career you go into, where you live, how long you stay, whether you have children, whether you get a dog. All of these things are influenced by the degree of wanderlust that you have.
Have you done any thinking on whether the internet has changed that? In that, a lot of the searching or that same process can be replicated digitally without moving the body.
Absolutely, I delved into this just a little bit in the book. But that could use a whole book just in and of itself. Because I think that the internet and especially, some of the TV shows that are out there now have definitely infected people with more wanderlust, because now it’s very simply to go online and to see, “Oh my gosh, I could actually live in Bolivia.” A lot of us are working from home now, working from a computer. Digital nomads, we can work from wherever. You see online that oh wow, you could get an apartment in Bolivia for $300 per month or I could live in Paraguay or Bulgaria or wherever for X amount of money. We have shows like House Hunters. We have bestselling books like The Four-hour Work Week, where we learn that we could work less and save more money by being elsewhere. We got an entire really powerful travel media industry that sells travel relentlessly as a life-changing experience.
This is something I delve into a little bit in the book here too. I think that the travel industry has been very clever in the way that it markets travel to people. They don’t just say, “Hey, let’s go St. Croix, because the beaches are nice.” It’s all about experiences and, “This is going to change your life,” life changing travel. You can see in the book, if you google the term life-changing travel, you get billions of results. That the travel industry has very shrewdly marketed travel as a life-changing experience to people. I’m not going to say that it isn’t. In some cases, it can be. I think they’ve oversold that in a way. The entire travel industry, most travel writers are bribed with free stuff, with free trips, free hotels, free luxury things.
So, you don’t read about any bad trips. A travel writer is not going to write in Travel & Leisure magazine that on the assignment that they went on, that their wife – while they were gone – took up with another man, because she was sick of him being on the road for 30 weeks. They’re not going to write that they missed their kids’ little league ball games, because they were on assignment in whichever country. They’re not going to write about the taxi driver who ripped them off or whatever. What’s interesting about my books I think is that I write about all the ugly, nasty. Listen, I love travel. I’m not here as someone telling you that travel is a bad thing. That would be like someone who smokes six packs a day of cigarettes telling you, “Don’t smoke.”
But what I’m saying is that I’m the sort of writer that will tell you about all the positive things of travel, but some of the negative ones too. The entire travel industry is not about that. It’s about selling this false narrative that trips are life-changing. That even if you’re unemployed, and your wife just left you, and you’ve got stage three lung cancer, all you need is a trip to Bali and that everything will be fine. That’s part of the addictive nature of travel as we’ve been sold to believe that it’s a panacea for whatever is ailing us. I’m sorry, if that was maybe a long [47:48] drive.
No, it’s a different animal, but it’s different than what William did. But there is some element of knowingly making promises that probably aren’t ever going to be kept. Setting expectations that you simply know aren’t going to be there. Though, it’s certainly not to the degree that William did. When I originally asked that question, I was actually more leaning towards, does the internet satisfy wanderlust?
Oh, that’s a good question too, because during the pandemic we’ve had to try to do that. My kids and I, we started this little project of every day doing a different country. Starting with A all the way to Z. We’re on N right now, but we go on YouTube. We were doing it at the beginning of the pandemic every day. But the kids have gotten so annoyed with my little project. Now we’re doing it once or twice a week. We watch Geography Now videos and different videos on YouTube about different countries. Does it satisfy your wanderlust? Not necessarily just to watch a video about it or to read a book about it. But it does peak your interest in the place.
Actually, for me it stocked it even more. Because I watched a video about – last night we were watching videos about Namibia. We were onto the ends in our project. I thought, “Now, I really want to go to Namibia.” For some people, like I know people who could have their curiosity satisfied by reading a book about Namibia or watching a YouTube video about it. No, that’s good. I’ve seen it. I don’t need to travel there. Me and the hardcore people, we’re a little different. We read a book about a place via video and we want to go even more.
I’ll throw in my unsolicited take on wanderlust. This sort of fits with checking boxes and what not. We all are in existential crisis whether we want to admit it or not. Death is inevitable. Life is set up to make us not think about that. And to go through the years. The closer people get to that, which partly is circumstance, but partly this is why you see mid-life crises or otherwise some of the bigger travelers go heavy late in life. The closer you get to existential concerns, the more pressure and not in a bad way certainly, but a good way to get the most meaning out of your days and your years. I think people don’t exactly know what that means or how to do that. There aren’t a lot of good archetypes or some people will go straight stoic or live in a cave and not care about anything. Other people will go to other extremes.
But I think there’s certainly middle grounded people who say, “I don’t know exactly what the meaning of life is or why I’m here. But I feel pretty confident that of all my options available – traveling the world and exploring, isn’t a bad one.” Until I figure it out, I’m going to do this and feel like I’m making good use of my time while also gathering a lot of data along the way,” because now you’re starting to – as you explore the different like you said – when you travel to religious sites, you see the different cultures. What emerges in that is the commonality beneath all the different colored clothes and different sounding languages and different tasting food. That hints at some path to answering that question of meaning. I felt that a lot. Probably, that was an impetus from me earlier on too. But that’s my take on it.
That is a great take too. I completely agree with you. When I look back on my life, thus far I’m 48 years old. I think about the most memorable times and experiences of my life. The most memorable stuff, almost all of it is from travel experiences. I think back on that. I would not trade any of the trips that I’ve taken for anything. Your days are so memorable when you’re travelling. When you’re at home working, you get into a routine and, “What did you do last Thursday or last Tuesday?” Who the heck knows? Can’t remember. But you ask me about a trip that I took to wherever five, 10, 15, 25, 30 years ago, and it’s still vivid for me. I can tell you about what I did on the first day of that trip where it’s all so memorable.
Yes, we’ve got a finite amount of time on this planet. This is one of the things that I found interesting about these travel clubs. Is, the guys kept telling me, “Why don’t you fill out your travel profile.” They really wanted me to go onto their websites or their clubs and to fill out all the different regions. They wanted to know my number, you know what I mean. They wanted to know how many countries and territories I’ve been to. Towards the end, I finally succumbed. I almost didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t want to see how bad my ranking was going to be. I didn’t want to hurt my pride. Because in my social circle, amongst my friends and my family, they consider me a world traveler. But compared to these guys, I knew I was chopped liver.
By the end, I finally relented and I’m like, “All right. I’m going to fill out your thing.” It took me a couple of hours to go through this, because it’s not just countries. But it’s like trying to remain, “All right, how many regions of Italy have I been to?” and things like that. I went through and I got my ranking. It was not very good. It shows you your ranking. Then it shows this map of the world. The areas are colored in – that you’ve been to – in red or whatever. And maybe the areas you haven’t been to are all in white. They show the entire planet. It’s so incredibly humbling, because I thought, “Wow! Here I consider myself a pretty decent travel, but look at all that white and how little red there is on that board.”
Then you think, “Well, how many years do I have left? Am I really going to leave this earth? Am I going to live this world having left so much unexplored and untouched and unvisited?” but then if you really want to cover all that territory, you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices. Because the people who have been everywhere, it comes with a lot of price. It comes with a lot of sacrifices. You miss out on things too. You miss your friends back home. You miss things like having a dog. You miss things like getting to see mom and dad. And having dinner with your friends. You sacrifice a lot too. You’re either going to see a lot of the world, but make a lot of sacrifices or you’re going to stay home and have really great relationships and not see some things.
And that’s all through my lust of traveling. I wanted to go deep instead of wide. I was having amazing experiences. But they were wide experiences. I had an urge to create a masterpiece of some sort. The idea of sitting in one place, and going super deep in the one thing ended up winning the day for me.
I’m in the same position often. I’m making those kinds of compromises. I’ll tell you just a funny conversation I had with my 13-year old son last night. Because, every summer as a family, we usually take a big international trip to a different country or a few different countries. Last summer, we didn’t get to do that obviously, but this summer I’m poised to do that. We’re all vaccinated. I had a conversation with my 13-year old last night. I threw out just a few different countries that I was thinking maybe we could go to. There aren’t as many open as I would like. I said, “Where would you like to go?” he said, “Could we please just go to a country that’s at least as nice as the US or better?” he said, “I don’t really want to go to a nasty, dangerous, third-world country. I’m paraphrasing him, but something like that.
In essence, what he was saying is, “Please dad. Do we have to always be exploring new countries you’ve never been to and such?” could we please just go back to Italy?” or one of his favorite countries. I felt like, “Ooh,” it broke my heart a little bit. That he doesn’t have the same travel philosophy as me. But then again, he’s 13 years old. His travel philosophy is simple, “Can we please just go somewhere nice, for a change?”
Somewhere, I can be comfortably on my phone or computer.
Yeah, somewhere he can streamline Netflix and he has good broadband and internet connection is what he would like. And where he can play X-Box and such. Exactly, that’s the perfect holiday for a 13-year old.
Hopefully, that’s just an age thing. Otherwise, you’re going to have to have him gene tested just to make sure.
That, and the other thing about my wanderlust that drives my sons crazy is the dog issue. Because they want a dog, and I’m a habitual traveler. My attitude about dogs is, I love dogs. I grew up with dogs. I’d owned dogs during periods of my lifetime. However, when you have a dog then it becomes a lot more difficult to travel overseas for extended periods of time. Because you’re not going to bring dogs to other countries with you. Then it’s an added expense. My sons keep saying, “We’re the only kids we know that don’t have dogs. Why can’t we get a dog just because you like to travel?” again, it’s one of those compromises. It’s one of those things.
It’s a good life, though.
It is a good life.
We haven’t talked a lot about St. Pete. We finish each show with a shout out. I’m more inclined. Normally, it’s someone in St. Pete that’s doing cool stuff. But given you are as people that have listened to this. Especially, if they’re first dabbling into the world of these extreme travelers. Can we use the shout out to shout out to a resource or something that gave you a lot of value as you explored your own wanderlust out there in the world, other than Mad Travelers, your book obviously, which will be linked to in the show notes?
A couple of things I’ll just talk about, if you have wanderlust like me. One of the people I blame for my wanderlust aside from maybe my mom is Paul Theroux. If you haven’t read any of Paul Theroux’s non-fiction books – I’ve had a chance to interview Paul a couple of times, which is a surreal experience. He’s 80 years old. He just came out with another novel. He’s still publishing books. He is an amazing guy. I would say read Paul Theroux’s travel books especially. Some of his fiction is amazing too. I would also say too, I’d like to give a shout out to Geography Now, one of my favorite YouTube channels. I love Geography Now. The host is a little bit weird. He’s got a sense of humor that some people will not like. But he goes through every country.
He gives you a lot of highlights and very quick background. In 10 to 15 minutes, he’ll tell you about a country. I think it’s a really cool project. My sons complain about it a lot. As a break from your normal routine, you could just every Wednesday pick a different country. I don’t know, why not start A to Z? but if you have a different methodology, you could do it different. Every Wednesday or something like that you could say, “All right. Today, I’m going to be thinking about Azerbaijan,” or wherever. You could watch the Geography Now video about Azerbaijan if you’ve only got 10 minutes. But if you’ve got more time, if you’ve got an hour to devote to it, guess what? You could print out an article about it. You could virtually visit that country. I think it’s a really cool thing to do. It whets your appetite to travel. And you learn a lot too.
Wonderful, Dave Seminara author of Footstep of Federer, Mad Travelers, New York Times, BBC, Wallstreet Journal, St. Pete Catalysts. Not necessarily in that order of largeness, but enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much. Look forward to continuing.
Me too. Thanks so much.
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.