The second season of BBC’s Race Across the World brought adventure and drama to television screens, culminating in a nail-biting finale in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. After two months racing overland from Mexico City against four other teams, uncle and nephew duo Emon and Jamiul Choudhury emerged as the champions, winning by just 20 seconds.
Emon runs his own businesses for a living, and had just two weeks to prepare before setting off on this epic adventure. In this wide-ranging interview, he talks about the last-minute preparations, the experiences of the journey, how it has impacted his life since, the decision to donate a huge proportion of the £20,000 winnings to charities helping children in poverty, and how the race enabled him and Jamiul to rekindle their relationship.
Why did you and Jamiul decide to apply for Race Across the World?
It was one of those things – you just apply half-heartedly, not thinking that you’d ever get onto it. I’ve applied to quite a few things myself like the Heist, Hunted, and the Island with Bear Grylls, and never got anywhere.
So when my nephew Jamiul said to me “there’s this one called Race Across the World”, and I hadn’t watched season one, I was like yeah, just apply, but don’t get your hopes up.
When we got the phone call, it was just mesmerising.
What did it feel like to find out you had been successful?
Well, it was actually quite a long process, because on our first initial contact they said “we’re just going to take you in for a few interviews”. It wasn’t until about two weeks prior when they said to us we were actually going.
So it was literally two weeks to get everything sorted and go on the trip.
Did that make it difficult to arrange cover for the businesses you run?
Yeah, I run my own businesses, I’ve got a few. Basically all my businesses are run by themselves. I’ve got managers in place, so even if I went away for some time, they wouldn’t really miss me to be honest with you.
Even when I did go on the trip, I didn’t tell any of my work colleagues. I just told my managers I was going away for two months, and that was about it really.
What exactly did you have to do to prepare in those last two weeks before you set off then?
It was getting everything in order, like my bills, my workforce, my managers – making sure they knew what to do. For certain customers who only dealt with me, I had to make them aware I was going away and that somebody else would be looking after their accounts. I just had to spread the work around my managers.
I think for the two weeks prior it was a case of packing the right things, going shopping, and telling my close friends and family that they might not see me for a couple of months.
“Some of the people we met were just extraordinary. People went out of their way to help us.”
So how much did you actually know about the journey before you started?
We knew nothing. Literally nothing. They kept us in a hotel in London, and they took us to the airport.
I assumed, because by then I’d watched season one, that we would start off in London and be going somewhere else. I did not think we would be getting a flight to Mexico City! When we realised we were going to Mexico City, my initial thought was they would probably tell us to go back to London. So maybe up through North America, through Alaska, all the way around China somehow, that way.
When we got to Mexico City and they gave us the envelope that said we were going to Ushuaia, even then I thought there was no way they would take us all the way through South America – because the misconception about South America is that it’s really dangerous.
Did your journey through the region change your mind about the perceptions of danger in South America?
I think it’s a case of a misconception of those countries, it’s what we hear about them in the media. In our team we didn’t have any trouble whatsoever throughout the whole race.
Some of the people we met were just extraordinary. People went out of their way to help us. It’s the people that really made our trip in South America, and that’s one thing that I’ll always take from the race.
We had to fly over Ecuador because of the civil unrest, and then I think in Chile there was civil unrest as well, and Dom and Lizzie had to be evacuated. When those things happened while we were on the race itself, it did throw us back a bit.
At the end of the day we did have security with us, so I knew we were safe. But it was crazy, because we met so many people in the hostels who were travelling by themselves, and when we talked to them, they’d had no issues whatsoever.
I can remember I met someone in Colombia who had just come through Ecuador. He had been through the civil unrest, and he said it wasn’t as bad as how the media portrayed it.
“In our race it was just me and Jamiul, and that’s a bond we’ll have for life.”
One of the amazing stories that we saw with you and Jamiul was how you guys were able to reconnect. Do you think travelling together gave you a special environment to do that?
I think a key thing was that we didn’t have any mobile phones, so we had to talk to each other! We were put in a position where, especially on the long bus rides, and we’re talking up to 36-hour rides, we were going up and down the bus talking to random people.
That’s where we got the most information as well, on the buses. We talked to strangers, and they’d give us advice on what to do, where to travel, and how to travel in certain countries.
In terms of the relationship between me and Jamiul, when we first started we were like strangers. I had never spent more than a day with him. And to be put in a position where I had two months with him, day in day out, was daunting at first.
But after the first couple of weeks we got used to each other. We were reminiscing about old days, and he was telling me about the family. It opened my eyes to exactly what I’d missed. It was good to rekindle our relationship like that.
Have you continued to be well connected after returning home from the journey?
Yes. I’m a lot closer to the whole of my family, like my mum and my dad, my brothers and sisters. Even with Jamiul, I speak to him like every other day, and before the race I’d speak to him maybe once a month, and just to say “hi, how are you”.
This trip is something that we shared. There’s only one person who knows what I went through, what he went through, and the struggles we went through – it was him. The other teams obviously went through the same kind of struggles as well. But in our race it was just me and Jamiul, and that’s a bond we’ll have for life.
On the show it looked like you made a special connection with the other teams too. Are you keeping in touch with each other?
We’re in a WhatsApp group, and we chat to each other almost every other day at the moment. Because of the lockdown we’ve been doing a lot of quizzes together, so we’re always interacting!
The trip was an experience we shared, all ten of us. We weren’t used to having a camera in our faces 24 hours a day. We were just nobodies really. Then we had this experience, not just the race itself, but having that camera recording literally all day, all night, so we had to watch what we say, watch what we do.
Some of the stories we shared too, because we all took different paths and different routes, but we’d all meet up at checkpoints. And the checkpoints were amazing because we would get together, and talk about the race and about the routes we took.
Are there any life skills you learned from the race that have been useful to you?
I think I’m a lot more patient now. I give people a lot more time.
For example, when we were asking for directions and talking to people who couldn’t speak English, we were in a rush. But at the end of the day, when they can’t speak English, you’ve just got to be patient. Because they want to help you.
After the race ended, we found out that you and Jamiul made an incredible gesture by donating a huge proportion of your winnings to help children in poverty. What inspired this decision?
Throughout the whole trip, we had seen a lot of poverty. In South America there is a lot of poverty, a lot of children on the streets, but it was in Brazil where it really hit us. We were in a quite affluent area, and to come across those street kids was really heart-breaking.
“That kind of money in the UK would help our lives, but it wouldn’t really benefit us that much. The impact it will have on saving lives and helping children to get off the street will be magical.”
That was the turning point in our race, because we had been doing it for different reasons up until then. After seeing that, we sat down at the checkpoint at Ilha Grande in Brazil and we said to each other, if anything should happen, if we should win, then we should donate it back to São Paulo, to Brazil.
In terms of the experience itself, you can’t put a figure on it. Money is almost secondary, it didn’t really matter. Obviously it’s a large sum of money, but it will be spent so well in Brazil, it will go so far, it will help so many lives.
That kind of money in the UK would help our lives, but it wouldn’t really benefit us that much. The impact it will have on saving lives and helping children to get off the street will be magical.
What has been the impact of the race on your life, and do you approach things differently now?
Since I’ve been back from the race, I’m a lot closer to my family and friends, I interact a lot more. I go out of my way to be that person, to socialise a little bit more.
Prior to the trip, running my own businesses, I wasn’t a very patient person generally. I couldn’t stay still. I wanted things done straight away, and it was all about work, work, work. Since I’ve been back I’ve just been more chilled out, I relax a lot more.
Also, sometimes you need that detox of not having your phone. It was actually amazing for me to not have my phone for such a long time, and even now, I tend to leave my phone at home, I just leave it for hours on end. I don’t check on it like I used to all the time. That’s another big thing for me that’s changed.
Do you have any big plans for the future? Do you want to travel more?
I was planning to go to India in March with my wife, but that got cancelled because of Covid.
We initially planned to go back to Brazil straight after the show to give the charity money away. We’ve been speaking to various charity organisations, and they want us to go over, so we’re just waiting for everything to calm down.
I’ve become a more rounded traveller since the trip. I think the beauty of the hostels was just amazing. It opens your eyes, because you’re put into a position where you have to interact with other people and fellow travellers, and they’re the people that give you the best advice.
If you go to a 5-star luxury accommodation, you don’t really interact with the local people. You’ll sit down, you’ll have your meal and then you’ll be back upstairs and that’s about it.
So it’s changed me as a traveller. I’ll do a lot more hostels and a lot more exploring. I think I’d go to countries without a plan and just go with the flow and hope for the best. There’s so much of the world to see as well, I’ve only really touched it.
“It’s one of the things that if you don’t do now, you’ll always regret it later on.”
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of taking time out of work to travel?
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to go exploring. It’s one of the things that if you don’t do now, you’ll always regret it later on.
I’ve done a lot of travelling myself, but I regret not going to certain places. When I was in Africa, a good ten years ago, there were certain places there I would have loved to have seen, and I was so close to them, but I didn’t.
So I would say just do it, and have an idea of where you’re going. Try to research the countries and learn a bit of the lingo, because that will put you in good stead for the actual journey itself, to understand the culture that you’re going into.
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