Thursday, 21 May 2015
Snapshots from my visit to Palmyra in 2008
The month I spent in Syria was one of the highlights of my most recent trip around the world in 2007-2008.
[We spent an entire day exploring the Roman city of Palmyra, most of the time without a single other person in sight.]
There were bureaucratic hassles, but these were caused more by the US than the Syrian government. US financial sanctions against the Syrian government, which made travel to Syria difficult for US citizens, predated the current civil war in Syria. Our bank went even further than was required by the US government (and probably further than was legal) to retaliate against us for having legally travelled to, and legally spent money in, Syria.
But the measure of pleasure in my visit to Syria wasn't how I was treated by border guards, visa officers, or banks. As was also the case in Yemen, the attitude I met on the street, in shops, in the hammams (bathhouses) and in other places in Syria was, "We hate the people who rule us. You probably hate the people who rule you. Why should we care if Assad hates Bush, and vice versa? You are our guests. We love Americans. Please be our friends!"
Communications are difficult (and, with the secret police watching, potentially dangerous) through the great firewall of Syria, and I neither speak nor read any Arabic. People spoke more-or-less freely with me, but usually without giving their names. I haven't kept in touch with any of the people I met in Syria, and I don't know how many of them are dead or alive, homeless or displaced.
As for the places we visited in Syria, I know that many of them are no more, or are only remnants of what they were just a few years ago.
All five of the World Heritage Sites we visited in Syria have been substantially damaged by the fighting. None of the factions or foreign intervenors in the Syrian civil war (including the USA and its proxies) have spared these places any more than they have spared human life: the covered souks and grand mosques and minarets of Damascus and Aleppo, the Roman amphitheater at Basra, the Krak des Chevaliers (originally a Crusader castle, where I celebrated my birthday while snow fell on the cedars of Lebanon, and which has been used again in the current war as a fortified hilltop gun emplacement), and last but not least, the Roman provincial capital city of Palmyra in the inland desert of central Syria.
[The Roman structure on the butte-like hill in the background has been conspicuously visible as a fortified high point and source and target of shelling in recent news images of the fighting in Palmyra.]
Palmyra is a remarkable place -- one of those where the sometimes-arbitrary designation, "world heritage site", actually seems appropriate. It's unique and irreplaceable.
But human lives, it should go without saying, are also unique and irreplaceable.
I find it disturbing when people seem more concerned about what is going to happen to the stone column of ancient Palmyra than about what is going to happen to its present-day inhabitants. The headline about the fighting in Palmyra in today's Los Angeles Times, for examples, mentions the "Fabled ruins, artifacts of Palmyra, Syria" but says nothing about people. The first four paragraphs discuss threats to museums, artifacts, ruins, and statues. The human death toll isn't mentioned until paragraph five.
[This man arrived at the long-distance bus depot in Palmyra while we were waiting for our bus to Homs. The sheep -- legs trussed but alive and shitting -- was loaded into the luggage compartment of another bus as unaccompanied cargo.]
As in any foreign war, it's easier to say I care about the people I met in Palmyra, or about people I've never met in places I've never visited, than to figure out how to translate my concern into action.
[We met these boys at the top of the hill overlooking the Roman city. They were just playing. Unlike urchins we've encountered at tourist attractions in some other countries, they didn't ask for handouts, they didn't try to sell us anything, and they didn't try to pick our pockets. Today, if they've survived, they are old enough to have enlisted or been conscripted into fighting for one or another faction in the civil war.]
The US government, acting in my name, is neither improving the lives of the people on the ground in Syria nor increasing its understanding of their grievances by sending in more small arms and inflicting more death from above. And the US government needs to be prepared to recognize facts on the ground: an organization that controls territory, wields power, and carries out some level of administration is a government, whether we like it or not. Establishment and maintenance of diplomatic relationships are typically more important with enemies, with whom there may be few if any other channels of communication or opportunities for "citizen diplomacy" through tourism and business, than they are with friends.
US refusal to recognize governments because the US disagrees with their policies has had long-term negative repercussions with Cuba, with Vietnam, and elsewhere. The US was wrong not to recognize that the Taliban was, at one time, the (evil) government of Afghanistan, and may be equally wrong in selectively failing to recognize other governments it doesn't like, such as in Somaliland and the Western Sahara (SADR). It's not as though moral or political legitimacy is a criterion of US diplomatic recognition, as is evident from the US recognition of absolutist family monarchies and practitioners of apartheid, where the Emir's word is law and his son will become the next emir, democracy be damned, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait (where the US fought a war to reinstate the monarchy), Oman, Bahrain, and the U.A.E.
But at the end of a day with news like today's, it's hard to know what to do except mourn for Palmyra, and its people.
Friday, 15 May 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 11
Trujillo (Peru) - DFW Airport, TX (USA) - Arlington, TX (USA) - Dallas, TX (USA)
One of the unrealities of The Amazing Race as a "reality" television show is that members of the cast have been forbidden to have cameras, phones, or most other electronic devices. I'm old enough to have made my first trip around the world with a film camera (okay, it had battery-powered zoom and autofocus) and nothing else electrical in my luggage beyond a flashlight and a cheap digital watch. But today, travellers take smartphones and other electronic travel gadgets for granted (although, given international roaming fees, they probably shouldn't).
This season, each of the participants in The Amazing Race 26 was provided with a device that looked like a smartphone, although it appeared to have been crippled to function only as a camera and to have neither phone, GPS, nor Internet capabilities.
Throughout this season of the race around the world, the teams were showing taking selfies. It wasn't clear whether they were merely taking the opportunity to document their own journeys (in spite of each pair of racers being accompanied by a professional videographer and sound technician) or whether the selfies were being taken on the orders of the TV producers, perhaps to be used as product-placement advertisements for one of the sponsors of the show.
Viewers didn't find out what was up until this last episode of the season. The decisive final challenge for the remaining teams in the race was to arrange each of their selfies from the month-long trip around the world in the order in which they had taken them.
At least the racers were only given cameras, and told to take handheld selfies, rather than also being provided with selfie sticks. Whatever one thinks of handheld selfies, they are by nature self-directed and have limited effect on other people nearby. Selfie sticks are much more problematic. Selfie sticks are increasingly being banned in museums and at concerts, where they interfere with other people's views. In crowds, they can be quite dangerous.
My current peeve are the people who try to ride a rented bicycle one-handed across the Golden Gate Bridge while using their other hand to wave a camera around on the end of a selfie stick.
Don't get me wrong: Riding over the bridge to Sausalito, and returning by ferry, is a great excursion. I'm glad that thousands of people a day have discovered this and are making it part of their visits to San Francisco. Those wielding selfie sticks probably mean no harm, and don't realize the hazard they pose to themselves and others.
The bridge sidepaths are narrow for heavy two-way traffic, and even skilled riders need to keep both hands on the handlebars (and the brakes, in traffic) and pay full attention to holding their line. The crosswinds are often strong and gusty. As the sidewalks round the bases of the towers, eddies of wind turbulence coincide with sharp blind turns. I've been riding over the bridge regularly for 30 years, and know what to expect, but the only places I've ever been blown off any of my bikes by wind gusts are on the Golden Gate Bridge and its approaches. An out-of-control selfie stick with a camera on the end makes a dangerous flail. When I encounter fools like this weaving around on the bridge sidepath while waving selfie sticks, I'm tempted to snatch their sticks away and throw them and their cameras over the railing into the bay.
The next step is the flying photographic drone. These aren't yet quite small, light, and cheap enough to have become an expected part of any traveller's equipage the way a camera is. But drones are making aerial photography (even in places like over the Golden Gate Bridge where a drone crash could precipitate a serious car crash) accessible and affordable to a rapidly growing spectrum of amateur photographers. Flying camera drones are already no larger, heavier, or more costly than the first video camcorders carried by amateur travellers in the early 1980s. The first commercial use of flying drones has been in wedding photography, but I expect that professional travel bloggers won't be far behind in packing drones in their luggage. How long will it be before flying drones are no longer an object of curiosity, or before vacation photos are expected to include aerial video selfies?
The racers' task of sorting their selfies in order by where they were taken wasn't easy. The focus of a selfie is, by definition, on one's self, leaving only peripheral clues as to its context. How much does your appearance really vary depending on where you are?
It's tempting to dismiss selfies as inherently narcissistic, and/or as exemplifying the trophy-hunting style of travel: "Been there, done that, got the selfie to prove it. Time to move on."
There's another way to look at selfies, however, as exemplifying a focus on the internal journey that is often the most important aspect of travel. Travel is often a personal growth experience, and self-transformation is often the most important part of our journey. Not every traveler intends or of is conscious of how travel is changing them. Many a traveller realizes that they have become a different person only after they return home, as part of "reverse culture shock" or "reentry shock".
From this perspective, the selfie is the visual counterpart of the travel diary or journal: an attempt to document and preserve a record of the internal journey of the traveller. This makes sense: When you show someone your travel photographs, do you tell them about what you saw, or do you try to explain how it made you feel?
But that still leaves the same question as is posed by any travel photography: Do our photographs enhance our ability to remember, or does what we photograph displace or overshadow our other memories?
Will we come to rely on our personal archive of selfies (and will we preserve it?) to remember which trips to which places we enjoyed, and which we didn't?
And are selfies and self-image a substitute for, or a supplement to, introspection and self-awareness?
Friday, 8 May 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 10
Otuzco (Peru) - Trujillo (Peru) - Huanchaco (Peru)
The highlight of this episode of The Amazing Race 26 was a visit to the site of Chan Chan (near Trujillo on the coast of northern Peru), once the largest city in the Americas and largest adobe (mud-brick) city in the world.
Despite its scale and significance, Chan Chan is less well known and visited by fewer foreign tourists than several other pre-Hispanic American sites including Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes (perhaps the single most iconic "bucket-list" tourist destination in the world not yet visited by The Amazing Race), Teotihuacan near Mexico City (visited by The Amazing Race in season 3), and the Mayan sites of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, including Chichen Itza (The Amazing Race 3 went to nearby Tulum).
One reason for lower visitorship to Chan Chan is that while vast, it is low and sprawling without pyramids, towers, or other iconic tall monuments. Another is that the adobe which is its most characteristic and significant feature is constantly weathering away.
That highlights a common dilemma for archaeologists and for governments trying to balance economic development and funding for historical preservation through tourism with the negative effects of both tourist visits and the the reconstruction that creates or preserves visual attractions for tourists.
Although it wasn't mentioned in the voiceover narration or any of the racers' comments on the reality-TV show, that dilemma was reflected in the racers' task: working with "archaeologists" to make and transport mud bricks to be used in reconstruction and "maintenance" of deteriorating and/or reconstructed portions of Chan Chan.
It may be that when Chan Chan was inhabited, there was an ongoing and continuous process of rebuilding of deteriorating adobe walls through the incorporation of new mud bricks. But the "reconstruction" of historical artifacts is not archeology, and "maintenance" is only sometimes considered an appropriate part of "conservation".
The work the racers were involved in would more accurately be described as part of an ongoing process of replacing or covering over architectural and archaeological artifacts with new replicas constructed to allow tourists to experience the site as some interpreter thinks it might have looked at some particular past time.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with the construction of replicas, whether they are merely made to look like the originals (or what someone thinks the originals once looked like) or whether they are replicas built with what are thought to be historically authentic although new materials and techniques. Experimental archaeologists make replicas of large and small artifacts in order to test theories of how and from what materials they were made, and to determine empirically what sorts of fabrication marks or traces those techniques would leave on artifacts after aging.
But from the point of view of conservation, preservation, or archeology, it makes more sense to build these new replicas anywhere other than on top of, displacing, or commingled with the materials found on archeologically significant sites. Even when the best efforts are made to ensure that reconstruction and repair is nondestructive and reversible, it almost inevitably entails at least some loss or damage of the historical record. It can be particularly unfortunate if reconstruction work today interferes -- in ways that may be impossible to anticipate -- with attempts to employ imaging, sensing, or other research techniques developed in the future.
From the point of view of historical interpretation, there are difficult choices to be made as to whether to "restore" sites or artifacts to the way someone thinks they looked at some point (and if so, which one) during the time when they were inhabited or in use, or at the time when they were "discovered" or encountered by Europeans or other foreigners, or simply to "stabilize" them against further deterioration.
That last task is particularly difficult at Chan Chan, where the adobe is inherently vulnerable to erosion whenever it rains. It rains rarely in the coastal and Andean deserts of western South America. Years often pass with no rain at all. But when it rains it pours, as it did in places in the Atacama Desert a little further south earlier this year. Both falling rain and flash floods of groundwater can rapidly wear down or wash out large sections of exposed structures made of material with no water resistance.
Tourism can be a problem even at unreconstructed archaeological sites. Visitors can trample and compress the ground (obscuring traces of what is or was below) and damage structures even if they are trying to be careful and not deliberately looting or picking up fragments as souvenirs. Creating access for tourists may be difficult without alteration to sites and structures. Visitors' breathing can increase the humidity in confined spaces where dryness has been a preservative, and lighting can fade murals and accelerate the deterioration of textiles.
If cost is no object, the best preservation or conservation strategy may sometimes be to leave ancient artifacts in the ground, and to keep tourists away. But making artifacts visible, doing so in situ, and creating on-site replicas or replacements that enable visitors to imagine that they are seeing history as it once was, are often the most effective strategies for generating revenue to support both local people and conservation work.
I'm not an archaeologist, I haven't visited Can Chan, and I pass no judgement on its curators. Many governments and many local tourism entrepreneurs recognize that archaeological artifacts are a perishable and nonrenewable national resource, but nevertheless regard their economic exploitation through tourism as essential to national economic development, and in some cases to survival. Who are we to fault them, if we are unwilling to contribute as much to fund the protection of ancient artifacts that have been left in the ground as we are willing to spend to visit those things and places that we can see and experience for ourselves?
Without a time machine, we can visit neither the past nor the future. In reality, we travel in the present, even if our fantasies may take us elsewhere or to other times. Whether we travel to learn about the past or (as is my personal priority in travel) about the future, no Herculean labor of historical "reconstruction" or World's Fair "futurism" can take us there, other than in our imagination.
Friday, 1 May 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 9
Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Trujillo (Peru) - Otuzco (Peru)
One of the benefits of travelling to many different places is gaining enough perspective to tell which activities, ways of doing things, foods, etc. are really characteristic of the specific place where you first encounter them, and which are actually common around the world even if you never see them in your home country.
A case in point this week on The Amazing Race: fresh squeezed sugar cane juice.
The Amazing Race has occasionally returned to a place that it visited in an earlier season, for a "reprise" of a challenge that was especially popular with viewers. Real travellers do the same thing, returning to places we have visited before to try to recreate peak experiences. The attempt is rarely entirely successful, although it can be interesting to learn about both how places have changed and how we as observers have changed since our previous visits.
In this episode, the racers had to perform a very similar task to one that was assigned to the cast of The Amazing Race 17 five years ago: cutting and crushing raw sugar cane and drinking a cup of the cane juice. But that was in Bangladesh, and this time was in Peru, almost exactly on the opposite side of the globe. The antipode of Trujillo is actually closer to Kuala Lumpur than to Dhaka, but on a global scale that's about as far apart as major cities get. The antipode of anywhere in the lower 48 mainland US states, by contrast, is somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
I first tasted fresh cane juice in Pakistan, but it's common, with minor local variations in additives (lime, salt, ginger, etc.) , in many countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania. So why is it rare to the point of being almost unknown in the USA (except in Hawaii), even in places where sugar cane is grown?
Sugar cane is uneconomical to ship long distances. Most of the weight and bulk is the fiber, not the juice. That's why sugar cane is invariably pressed ("milled") and often further processed close to where it is grown, regardless of whether will be used for refined sugar, rum or other cane-based alcoholic drinks, or ethanol fuel.
Raw sugar cane juice goes bad if it isn't drunk, refined, or fermented almost immediately. Rum is fermented from molasses, which is why it was possible to ship refined molasses from the Caribbean to centralized and sometimes faraway distilleries in Boston and elsewhere. Cachaça, which The Amazing Race encountered in Brazil several seasons ago, is fermented from raw cane juice, of necessity in smaller "artisanal" production facilities close to the cane fields.
Small quantities of fresh sugar cane show up from time to time in farmers' markets and some stores in San Francisco, but the one juice bar in our neighborhood that used to have a cane press wasn't able to find a sufficient and reliable supply of fresh local cane.
A cane press is a sizable, specialized investment. Typically, a cane juice vendor, having invested in a press and secured a constant supply of cane, sells nothing else. You can't readily extract the juice from sugar cane using a food processor or a standard juicer of the sort that you would use for most fruits or vegetables. The cane fibers are strong and stiff, and have to be squeezed hard between heavy, firmly mounted metal rollers. Extracting as much juice as possible requires as many as half a dozen passes through the press, with the crushed stalks being folded over on each other again after each pass. Power is supplied either by a gasoline or electric motor or by a person pulling heavy metal crank arms two or three feet long.
I doubt that anyone is manufacturing cane presses in the USA, so if you wanted one you'd have to source and import one from abroad. You might run into problems with workplace safety regulations, since it's necessary to shove the stalks firmly into the moving rollers, which could easily grab and pull in your fingers. I'm not sure it would be possible to fit effective safety guards on a hand fed cane press, and a mechanical feeder, even if such exists, would add another whole level level of complexity and expense.
Finally, both cutting sugar cane to harvest it -- as the racers had to do in this episode -- and pressing it for juice, one or two stalks at a time, are slow and unavoidably labor-intensive, even with a motorized cane press. That's why commercial sugar cane cultivation is concentrated in the lowest wage countries, and uneconomical in high wage countries even where growing conditions for cane are good.
If you haven't tried fresh sugar cane juice, you don't know what you are missing. It's not too sweet (no sweeter than many other processed and packaged drinks) and with a far more complex flavor than you would expect from "sugar water". It's cloudy, somewhat viscous, and has a fresh green taste that reminds you that sugar cane is a sort of grass. The most deeply flavored processed derivatives of sugar cane, blackstrap molasses and dark punch rum, can't come close to the subtlety of flavors in a glass of fresh-squeezed cane juice -- regardless of whether it makes you think of Peru, Bangladesh, or wherever else in your travels you first encountered it.
Sunday, 26 April 2015
Privacy Commissioner finds my complaint against Air Canada "well-founded"
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has found that my complaint that Air Canada violated the Canadian "Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act" (PIPEDA) by failing to respond fully, properly, and in a timely manner to my request for what information Air Canada had about me, and what third parties that information had been disclosed to, was "well-founded".
Unfortunately, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner's Report of Findings (file PIPEDA-031664) upholds my complaint only with respect to the least significant of Air Canada's violations of PIPEDA: Air Canada failed to provide any response to my request within the time limit established by PIPEDA.
The Privacy Commissioner's report finds that other than being too late, Air Canada's responses to my request "satisfy Air Canada's obligations under PIPEDA".
That erroneous finding by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner is based on an improper narrowing of the scope of my request and my complaint, on misunderstandings and misstatements of the facts (probably based in part on technical ignorance and in part on overly credulous reliance on false claims by Air Canada), on a fundamental mistake of law regarding the difference between an "agent" and an "independent contractor" or "service provider", and on failure to apply the plain language of PIPEDA as it relates to accounting for disclosures of personal information to third parties.
The result was that the Privacy Commissioner found no violation of PIPEDA in Air Canada's failure to provide me with any accounting of any of the data about me collected and held on Air Canada's behalf through its agents, or in Air Canada having provided only a few examples of third parties who might have accessed my data (not including entire categories of such third parties), rather than the comprehensive list of such third parties required by PIPEDA.
If I didn't already know better, both Air Canada's response to my request and the Privacy Commissioner's "findings" would have left me completely unaware that multiple copies of my reservations had been stored in a global cloud of computerized reservations systems, and that those PNRs can be retrieved, viewed, printed, or passed on to other third parties by any office anywhere in the world of the travel agency that made my reservations for Air Canada, Air Canada itself or an unknown number of other airlines, or those CRS/GDS companies (including through unsecured and publicly-accessible itinerary-viewing Web sites), without any geographic or purpose limitations or access logging.
The details are necessarily technical -- you've been warned! -- but here's what the Office of the Privacy Commissioner got wrong:Continue reading "Privacy Commissioner finds my complaint against Air Canada "well-founded""
Friday, 24 April 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 8
[The line of people waiting to audition for The Amazing Race extended around the corner for two blocks.]
Goanikontes (Namibia) - Windhoek (Namibia) - Johannesburg (South Africa) - Amsterdam (Netherlands)
As soon as the contestants on The Amazing Race 26 got into taxis at Schiphol Airport (a waste of money if you aren't in a race, since there is a mainline train station directly under the airline terminal at Schiphol with rail service to Amsterdam's city center and many other domestic and international destinations) Mike's eyeglasses fogged up, and Rochelle criticized him for choosing glasses over contact lens.
I've sometimes worn contacts. I like their wider field of view and clearer vision in rain, snow, or fog. But for The Amazing Race or your own trip around the world, bring your glasses.
Here's the advice about this I give in the latest edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World:
I recommend strongly against contact lenses for travel outside the First World, particularly in dry, smoky, polluted, or dusty areas. Contact lens supplies are heavy and bulky to carry and hard to find or expensive in many areas. Sterile conditions are hard to obtain, and eye infections are a serious risk. If you insist on wearing contact lenses, it's essential to carry medication for eye infections and to know how to use it. Eye infections can cause permanent vision damage unless treated immediately.
Travellers who have worn contact lenses for years, grown accustomed to them, and prefer them to eyeglasses may be tempted to disregard this advice. Lots of world travellers set out with contact lenses. Most of them soon switch to glasses, as I do whenever I leave the First World.
The racers had to ride bicycles, with their luggage, for about 10 km (6 miles) into downtown Amsterdam. Most of that distance was on a cycletrack (bike path) along the Amstelveen river.
Ten kilometers may not seem like far, but it was probably at least an hour's ride. Dutch bikes are heavy, and on crowded cycleways, just as in heavy automobile traffic on a two-lane roadway, passing is difficult and dangerous (and frowned upon). Everyone goes single file at the speed of the slowest vehicle in the line of traffic. Typically, that's a bakfiets ("box bike" or cargo bike) carrying two or three small children and/or a load of groceries.
One of the places where bike paths separated from the traffic of larger motorized vehicles can be most useful, even when they are shared with pedestrians and in some places (including the Netherlands) shared with small motorcycles, is as routes in and out of the centers of big cities. Traffic, road design, and navigation typically make getting in and out of big cities the bane of long-distance bicycle travel.
But as I've discussed previously, the existence of designated cycling routes doesn't necessarily translate into bicycle-friendliness or ease of route-finding for cyclists. The racers had difficulty finding their way along the bike route into Amsterdam, and it wasn't their fault. The Dutch wayfinding and signage system for bicycle routes is sufficiently problematic that English-speaking local passers-by had trouble giving any directions -- much less directions on the fastest or most direct route -- that they were confident the racers would be able to follow.
Anyone who signs up for the cast of The Amazing Race ought to be prepared for bicycling challenges. Cycling should be part of pre-race training for anyone who's picked for the cast. Host and co-producer Phil Keoghan is a serious cyclist, and bicycling has figured in almost every season of the race.
I spent a couple of hours last Saturday talking with would-be racers at a public casting call for future seasons of "The Amazing Race" in San Francisco. I was surprised that, while one couple showed up in riding kit with their tandem bicycle, they were unaware of Phil's interest in cycling or the edge that being cyclists might give them, either in being picked for the cast or in winning the race.
More than 500 people lined up for the chance to have their application videos for The Amazing Race filmed by a crew from the local CBS affiliate TV station. Some people camped on the sidewalk overnight to make sure they were among those who made it in front of the camera before filming of audition videos closed for the day. One would-be racer had flown in for the weekend from Kentucky to have her audition video filmed in San Francisco.
There was no chance for applicants to meet or be interviewed by any of the casting team. If anyone from "World Race Productions" was present, they were incognito. Each individual applicant or couple who showed up early enough got one take of less than a minute in front of the camera.
Why did so many people choose to wait in line for the chance to be filmed for the race in this setting, rather than sending in a video they had filmed themselves or had a friend film?
Some people said they lacked the technical skill to film their own video. Some had already tried sending in their own video, but hadn't been called back for a further audition. Others said they just wanted to meet other fans of The Amazing Race.
Most people at the casting call were applying as couples, but there were also a few individuals were hoping to be matched up for a month-long on-camera "blind date" trip around the world .
Some people showed up in costumes, with props, and with well-rehearsed 30-second pitches to deliver on camera. One couple in matching attire had brought a foot-tall Travelocity gnome statue to show their willingness to promote the reality-TV show's commercial sponsors.
Other applicants seemed to have given little thought to the differences between, (1) why they want to be on "The Amazing Race", (2) why they think they could win "The Amazing Race", and (3) why they think the casting team (led by co-producer Elise Doganieri) should pick them over any of the other people in the audition line, or who send in self-filmed videos, or who are recruited by the TV producers.
My advice to anyone selected for the cast is to read my archive of columns about The Amazing Race, which has lots of advice about what travel skills are needed and how to prepare for the race.
But getting onto the cast for a game show or "reality-TV" show is a different task, requiring different skills, from winning the on-camera competition.
The producers of The Amazing Race are casting a commercial, for-profit TV show. They don't care what you hope to get out of the race, whether you will win, or whether viewers will love you or hate you (as long as they want to watch you). The casting team cares about only one thing: Whether more (and secondarily, wealthier and more attractive to advertisers) viewers will watch the race if they cast you than if they cast any of the other applicants or anyone else they might be able to recruit. That's all you need to communicate in your application video: Why people will want to watch you more than any other potential racers.
I worked my way along the sidewalk (the line stretched around the corner for two blocks) asking people why they wanted to be in the cast of The Amazing Race. Some of the people waiting in line to audition said they wanted to win the million-dollar prize, or to get a chance to take a trip they didn't think they could afford or think they would find too difficult to organize on their own.
Most of the would-be racers I talked to, however, were more realistic. Many of them knew that there were other ways to travel. Surprisingly many had already travelled around the world, and/or lived abroad, on their own. In earlier seasons, the TV producers avoided casting anyone with international travel experience, presumably because they wanted a cast of "ordinary Americans" that viewers without international experience could identify with. But that bias seems to have faded. There are racers each season who have never been out of the USA before, but people who have travelled widely and/or lived abroad have come to be a routine part of the cast.
More of the people I talked to at the casting call were motivated to apply for The Amazing Race by the desire to test themselves against the challenges created by the TV producers than by desire to win the race, get rich, or travel around the world. They were all travel exhibitionists, of course. But most of them saw the race as a very personal individual or partnership challenge, like finishing (not winning) a marathon.
Take a lesson from these people trying out for The Amazing Race: You can take a trip around the world without having to be rich (at least not in US terms) and without having to take your long-shot chances on being picked for the cast of a reality-TV show. Just do it!
Friday, 17 April 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 7
Cap Ferrat (France) - Nice (France) - Windhoek (Namibia) - Erindi (Namibia) - Spitzkoppe (Namibia) - Swakopmund (Namibia) - Dorob National Park (Namibia) - Goanikontes (Namibia)
Namibia, as host Phil Keoghan pointed out near the start of this week's episode of The Amazing Race 26, is the least densely populated (by people, that is) country in Africa. That makes it one of the best places for "big game" viewing safaris. Humans compete with other animals for land, food, and water, which is one of the reasons that reserving large tracts of land for wild animals and tourists isn't always popular with local people. Few African countries have both large and/or dense human populations and dense populations of other animals. In general, one can tell whether visitors are interested in cultural tourism or wildlife tourism by which African country or countries they have chosen as their destinations.
There's a corollary, of course, to the fact that the best wildlife viewing is in places with few people: uncrowded places with few people tend to be slow and expensive to reach. This should go without saying, but it's surprising how often people are surprised to find that a place they've read about as "off the beaten path" really is exactly that.
There are so few flights to Namibia that the producers of The Amazing Race made reservations in advance for all of the cast members (and the accompanying film crews). That's something they have rarely done, and only in cases where people without reservations might have to wait days to find space on a flight.
If you're planning to fly to Namibia, especially if your schedule is constrained by the dates of a pre-booked safari or other activities, make reservations well in advance. The same goes for most other countries in Africa, including more populous ones. Airline routes and flight frequencies follow the money and the trade routes, and the value of trade with and within Africa, other than in oil and minerals, is small. There's less airline passenger capacity per capita to, from, and within Africa than in any other inhabited continent.
Southern Africa is as far away from the USA as any other part of a continental landmass. Only some Indian Ocean islands are closer to the antipode of anywhere in the USA. Getting to southern Africa, don't expect direct flights, frequent service, quick and convenient connections, or cheap tickets. The racers were booked on the only direct flight route to Namibia from Europe, but most travellers to Namibia have to make connections through South Africa. Botswana, Namibia's almost equally sparsely populated neighbor country, has no long-haul flights at all.
The TV producers had booked connecting flights for the racers originating from the airport in Nice (airport code NCE). In this case, that made sense. But it's worth noting that while Nice is the best-known airport serving the French Riviera, it's far from the largest city or only airport on the French Mediterranean coast. Marseille is a much larger city than Nice, and it's only about three hours by train or two hours by car (barring traffic) from Nice to Marseille. There are no direct flights between the Marseille airport (MRS) and southern Africa, but there are direct flights as well as trans-Mediterranean ferries between Marseille and several cities in North Africa. It's hard to predict in which cases prices, schedules, or availability will be better to or from Marseille or Nice, so it's generally worth comparing both options.
I happen to like Marseille, and would recommend that you take the chance to explore at least a little if you are passing through. That isn't necessary, though, if you just want to use Marseille as gateway to the region. Marseille is a major rail hub and TGV (high-speed train) terminus with direct TGV service to cities as far away as Brussels, and much better rail service in almost every direction than Nice. There's a mainline rail station at MRS airport, so you may not need to go to the downtown Marseille station (Gare St. Charles) or change trains at all. And there's frequent shuttle bus service as well as direct rail connections from the Gare St. Charles to MRS.
A complication for tourists arriving by air in Namibia is that most international flights arrive in the capital and largest town, Windhoek. (The only exceptions are a handful of direct flights between South African cities and the formerly South African-controlled enclave of Walvis Bay, Namibia.) Most tourists, however, are trying to get away from the city to wildlife reserves in less populated parts of the country. Domestic flights, including both scheduled domestic flights on Air Namibia and the small private planes (like the ones the racers took) that serve private game reserves, use a completely separate airport, ERS, which is 43 km (27 miles) from the international airport, WDH. That makes Windhoek the smallest city in the world, so far as I can tell, with separate domestic and international airports.
The racers were flown in single-engine Cessnas to the dirt landing strip at Erindi, one of the ranches that has been converted from agricultural to a private "game" reserve and stocked with the zebras, elephants, giraffes, and other animals that tourists want to see. From then on, the racers had to drive themselves to and between their clues and challenges.
If you are going to rent a self-car in a place like this, after 24 hours or more in transit, do yourself a favor and get a good night's sleep before you start out. It's easy to underestimate the distances and difficulty of driving in a different country.
Namibia is only a small part of Africa, but Africa is a big continent. Being sparsely populated means that traffic is very light, but also means that few roads, even between the largest towns, are paved. It can be a long way between places with water, food, or fuel. Driving on dirt and gravel is much more tiring than on paved highways.
I've driven rental cars in South Africa, despite the hazards of sharing the road with poorly maintained, overcrowded, and recklessly driven vehicles. Conditions in South Africa are very different from those in Namibia or any neighboring countries, however. Highways in South Africa are generally paved, and it's rarely too far to a populated place where services would be available, at least in an emergency.
The racers had trouble positioning their SUVs properly within the width of narrow, unpaved, lightly traveled Namibian roads. Steve and Aly, who were eliminated when they finished last in this leg of the race, were arguing about whether or not they were too close to the left edge of the road just before they punctured a tire on something alongside the graded dirt strip.
Positioning within a lane, or within the width of the road or track without a center line or lame markings, is one of the more difficult aspects of driving on the "wrong" (less familiar) side of the road. Both the driver and the passenger are used to having most of the width of the vehicle extend to the opposite side. It takes time and effort to develop a new sense of how far the vehicle extends to each side, and when it is actually centered in the lane despite the fact that you are viewing the road from an off-center seating position on the opposite side from what you are used to.
This is more difficult on a road with light traffic, where you aren't in a stream of other properly behaving vehicles with which you can align yours. It's most difficult when it's combined with the challenge of driving on what is essentially a one-lane (or one and a half lane) road, where the norm is to drive in the center of the road. When you've been driving down the middle of the track for an hour without seeing another vehicle, it's hard to remember that you need to pull over to the left when an oncoming vehicle approaches.
At one point the racers were sent to a German-language bookstore in Swakopmund, a small town (although one of the larger ones in Namibia) which is mostly known, for better or worse, as the bastion of Namibia's German colonial cultural heritage.
The racers' task was to find the directions to their next stop, which had been published – in German, of course – as an advertisement in the local German-language newspaper.
None of the members of the remaining teams of racers spoke German. So once they found the right ad, they had to find someone to translate it for them.
Several of the teams ran right past a Black man who was standing right outside the entrance to the bookstore reading a copy of that very newspaper. These racers went across the street, and asked the white desk clerk of a hotel to translate the ad, which she did. I can only guess that these racers assumed that a Black man must not be German. That was a mistake, even if not intentionally racist.
There are Black people in Germany, albeit not as large a percentage as in the USA, including both immigrants and native-born Germans of African, African-American, and other African diasporic ancestry. More importantly for travellers, many of the languages most useful for world travel are more widely spoken as second or third languages than by native speakers. This isn't true only of English. The majority of speakers of French today, for example, are Africans who speak French as a second or third language.
In most places where German is the most common native language, many people speak English. German is widely spoken as a second or third language, and useful for travellers, in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey, where there are few native speakers of German.
You could get around most of Africa in English, French, Arabic, or Swahili. But there are also African former colonies of Germany, Portugal, and Italy where the respective former colonial languages continue to be spoken by significant numbers of people. There are hardly any Italians in Eritrea (although I did meet some), and hardly any other Eritreans who speak Italian as their first language. But I've been told by Italian friends that they found -- to their surprise and pleasure -- that it was possible to get around Eritrea in Italian.
Friday, 10 April 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 6
Schliersee (Germany) - Munich (Germany) - Nice (France) - Monaco (Monaco) - Èze (France) - Cap Ferrat (France)
Jackie and Jeff, the team eliminated from The Amazing Race 26 this week, were one of the "blind date" couples brought together at the starting line of the race around the world by the "reality" TV show's casting directors.
I don't know if the TV producers were trying to create on-camera love affairs or on-camera arguments and breakups with their "blind date" pairings. At the finish line of this stage of the race, after being eliminated, Jackie and Jeff talked about how they had actually found they liked each other (unlike, although they didn't say this explicitly, some of the other "blind date" couples), and suggested that they considered future romance at least a possibility.
Contestants who are eliminated from The Amazing Race before the final episode of the season are not sent home immediately. To avoid spoilers, all the eliminated teams are sent to a resort where they are "sequestered" by the TV producers until filming of that season of the race is complete. Even the racers' friends and family members aren't supposed to find out how they did until the race is broadcast on TV several months later.
So Jackie and Jeff will have (actually, already did have, in the real world) a couple of weeks at a resort with little else to do except, if they so choose, getting to know each other and the other eliminated racers better.
Racing, although stressful, probably gives partners of better sense of their compatibility than time together at a resort where few decisions need to be made and little work needs to get done. Nonetheless, as I've written about in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around The World and during previous seasons of The Amazing Race, compatibility while traveling is as poor a guide to compatibility while living together in the same place as compatibility at home is a guide to compatibility on the road. Travelling together is not the same as living together in one place, It puts different stresses on a relationship, and brings out different features of our personalities and patterns of behavior.
If you meet someone and fall in love on the road, you should expect a second period of getting to know each other when you try to settle down somewhere together. And you should expect to find that the person you are now living with at home is a different person in some respects than the person you had come to know on the road.
Part of the pleasure and danger of travel romances -- to put it another way, part of the romance of travel and of the traveller -- is that even people who have no intent to deceive or act out a "role" often find themselves taking on different personas when they are travelling. Travel changes us, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently. That's part of the value, the attraction, and for some of us the addictiveness of travel.
An unexpected footnote to this week's episode in France and Monaco was that none of the racers appeared to speak French, or not enough French to ask for directions.
In the first few seasons of The Amazing Race, the TV producers had a strong bias against casting people with too much international experience or linguistic expertise, as was confirmed in post-race interviews with some of the racers. Most native-born US citizens have never travelled outside the USA, and I think the TV producers assumed that ordinary TV viewers wouldn't be able to identify with racers who seemed too cosmopolitan. That seems to have changed. There are still teams in every season who have never left the USA before. But in more recent seasons more cast members have had international travel and/or living experience and have been functional in a variety of languages.
More of the racers have been able to communicate at least a little in Spanish than in any other language besides English. But somehow I would have expected, perhaps naively or reflecting my age, that out of fourteen people left in the race at the start of this episode, at least one would have spoken some French.
One of the most popular pages on my Web site is an article I wrote in my blog more than a decade ago in response to a reader's question about which languages would be most useful for world travel.
The most heated debate prompted by my article, in comments on my blog and in other forums about language learning, was whether I should have included French, and with what priority relative to other languages.
I included French on my short list (although I ranked it below English, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, and Arabic), not because of the number of people who speak French as a first language around the world, but because of its value as a "link language" in places where few people speak English. French is no longer the international language in the 21st century, as it was through the first half of the 20th century. But when nobody around speaks English, I'll always try French before I give up and resort to sign language. It has proven useful in some unexpected places where there are few if any native speakers of French.
I've found myself speaking Spanish in Africa and French in Asia with other non-native speakers. You can find someone who speaks Mandarin in almost any city in the world. You never know what language(s) someone may speak. In a pinch, try any and every language you know.
Friday, 3 April 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 5
Bangkok (Thailand) - Munich (Germany) - Schliersee (Germany)
Some travellers might not interpret being sent to a Bavarian beer garden as a "challenge", even if I'm in the dissenting faction that would argue for Belgium as the best destination for beer tourism.
There were other challenges for the cast of The Amazing Race 26 in this episode, however, that were both more difficult than carrying beer steins and more relevant to the reality of travel around the world.
Continuing this season's theme of a trip around the world as an extended romantic "date", one member of each two-person team of racers had to serenade their partner with a love song while on a ladder extending up to the balcony of a Bavarian cabin. They had to repeat this exercise until they were judged to have adequately covered the song. And to make things more interesting, each time they tried and failed, an extra (attired, like the racers for this challenge, in a "traditional" Bavarian costume) poured a bucket of water on their head from the balcony.
Contestants on The Amazing Race -- like real world travellers who want to join locals in everything from karaoke to clubbing to religious festivals -- have often been required to learn local songs and dances. The difficulty in this particular challenge seemed to lie mainly in the lyrics rather than the melody or rhythm, and in the fact that the song was in German, a language in which none of the racers assigned this task appeared to be conversant.
Enough with the jokes (video, transcript) about the difficulty of recognizing or pronouncing names and other words with unfamiliar phonemes or alphabets or writing systems. This is actually an important real-world travel skill which we have seen tested repeatedly on The Amazing Race over the years in a variety of contexts: Season 9, Season 16, Season 19, Season 24.
It's sometimes necessary, and often useful, to be able to repeat a name or other word or phrase that we have heard spoken in a language we don't understand, and/or to recognize it when we hear it said by someone else.
Technology can sometimes provide workarounds. If you can't get someone to write down the name of the person, place, or thing you are looking for, or if you are in a place with low literacy, you might be able to get by with a cell phone recording of an audio clip. But you can't count on that always being an option, even if you are carrying a cell phone and are willing to risk its theft by using it in public. (Mobile phones now far surpass wallets or jewelry as targets of pickpockets and snatch thieves, surpassed only by tablet computers that are even more conspicuous, harder to hold securely, and more valuable.)
Singing in a foreign language, as the racers had to do in this episode, is an interesting example because it is actually a common assignment even for people who don't travel to places where foreign languages are spoken. It's not just opera singers who routinely are called upon to sing in languages they may not understand. It's a common assignment for members of local church choirs and many other amateur singing groups.
Having a partial but insufficient sense of the meaning of the words you are trying to sing (or speak) may help, but may also mislead you into using the intonation and placing stress on words and syllables in the same way that you would for the same parts of speech in English. That, of course, may be completely wrong.
Short of some level of functional ability in the language, what's probably more useful, aside from a good musical ear for pitch and rhythm (which can be as important to comprehensibility in speech as in song) is having a sense of the vocabulary of phonemes used and not used in the language. What are the sounds in this language that have no counterpart in English? And what are the sounds in English that have no counterpart in this language?
If you are trying to make notes for yourself, or to annotate something written in a foreign language so that you will remember how to pronounce it, what code can you develop for yourself? It doesn't have to be either the writing system that is used in the foreign language, or a standard phonetic scheme, but it does have to work for yourself as an aid to acoustic memory, reproduction, and recognition. Published phrasebooks often try to use their own ad hoc and informal phonetic codes, but in my experience these don;t work very well.
Do you sing in foreign languages? How do you learn and remember words you don't understand, especially if they include sounds that don't occur in English or your native language? Please share your tips and techniques in the comments.
Friday, 13 March 2015
The Amazing Race 26, Episode 4
Phuket (Thailand) - Bangkok (Thailand)
The teams of travellers on The Amazing Race 26 were given a weird array of tasks this week, most of which had little relevance to normal visitor activities. My friends with more experience and knowledge than I have about travel in Thailand found the episode relatively uninteresting.
The one choice the racers had to make that might have been a test of real-world travel skill was whether to travel around the city of Bangkok by water taxi or by "tuk-tuk" (three wheeled semi-enclosed motorized rickshaw).
Because the teams that chose each mode of transport had to perform different tasks along the way, it was hard for viewers to tell which was faster. And the choices offered to the cast members by the TV producers omitted other transit options that would probably have been the best choices for at least some portions of the racers' assigned route.
What's the best way to get around Bangkok?
Taxis are not the way to go. I've seen worse city traffic in Jakarta and São Paulo, among other places, but a taxi in Bangkok can get stuck in a traffic jam for hours even if you're only trying to go a couple of miles. It's frustrating even for passengers, and road rage among drivers seems to be common. I once took a cab to a business meeting in Bangkok, to keep my suit looking presentable in the heat and humidity. Half-way there, after an hour or so, my driver jumped out to argue with another cabbie over who had the right of way. He left the engine running, his door open, and the cab stopped in the middle of a gridlocked intersection, while he chased down another driver he thought had cut him off and they got into a combination of a fistfight and a kickboxing match. Unlike in Los Angeles, no firearms were involved. But I decided it was best to walk away and find another taxi.
Tuk-tuks are faster than taxis in some cities such as Delhi or Bombay where the chaotic traffic flow leaves them room to maneuver around and between cars and trucks. But the vehicular travel lanes on Bangkok streets are generally too narrow for a tuk-tuk to fit between adjacent lanes of cars and trucks. A tuk-tuk in Bangkok is noisier than a taxi, and open to the air (for better or worse) rather than air-conditioned, but generally no quicker than a cab.
There's little reason for most tourists or ordinary visitors to hire a private water taxi the way the racers did. Similar "longtail" water buses offer frequent, relatively fast, relatively inexpensive service along and across the Chao Phraya River through the center of the city. Water traffic on the river is heavy, but not so much so as to significantly slow down the narrow longtail boats. Between points sufficiently close to the river, this is usually the fastest and most pleasant way to go.
The main drawback to the water buses is that stops at the designated landings are short, the boats don't tie up to the docks while loading and unloading, and there are no gangways. Passengers have to step on and off the boat quickly when the boatman bumps it up against the pier, holding it in place only briefly by keeping the engine running.
Make sure you have a map that shows the water bus routes and landings -- a paper map, not one on your phone or on another electronic device. This is not the place to expose your phone to snatch thieves, and you don't want to risk dropping your phone in the river if the boat lurches and you grab for a handhold. I say again, carry a paper map. Keep track of your progress, so you're poised to get off the boat promptly when you get to your landing.
Not mentioned on The Amazing Race 26 were any of Bangkok's rail transportation options. Bangkok's canals, which at one time were its primary transportation arteries, were filled in for roads rather than for railways. But over the last 20 years, Bangkok has gradually put in place a limited but quite useful, and still expanding, urban rail transit network.
Despite the currently small size of the network, it's a bit confusing because there are three different urban rail systems with different operators and separate fares. A shared stored-value payment system -- like the Oyster Card in London, the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, the Clipper Card in San Francisco, or the Charlie Card in Boston -- is planned but not yet implemented.)
The elevated BTS "Skytrain" -- the first system to be built, because it was assumed that it would be too difficult to keep rail tunnels below the shallow water table from flooding -- and the underground MRT "Metro" were built and are operated by separate private concessionaires. The Airport Rail Link to downtown is operated by the state railway.
If your route is between points reasonably close to any of these lines, they are the best way to go. Fares are relatively high for locals, but that's sometimes a benefit for foreign tourists since it means that these trains (like the similarly somewhat costly metro systems in, among other places, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) are much less crowded than more affordable local mass transit options. In cities like these, poorer people walk or take buses, while only wealthier classes can afford the train -- the faster, more comfortable, premium choice.
The most obvious mistake made by all of the contestants on The Amazing Race 26 this week was to take taxis from the Bangkok airport to their next assigned "route marker" downtown.
Where there's a train between the airport and the city, it's almost always a better choice than a taxi unless you have too much luggage to handle on public transit or you are traveling in a family or other small group that can share a cab. Especially if the airport is far out of town, it's often quicker and cheaper to take the train from the airport to the city even if you still end up taking a taxi for the last few miles from the downtown rail station to your final destination.
The Amazing Race 26 is far from over, but broadcasts in the USA will be interrupted until 3 April 2015 to clear the airtime on CBS for college basketball. In the meantime, happy travels!