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.