Sunday, 17 September 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 1

Seattle, WA (USA) - Beijing (China) - Juyongguan (China)

As the teams in the new season of The Amazing Race prepared for the start of the race at Gasworks Park in Seattle, host Phil Keoghan told them -- and us, the viewers -- that there would be some surprises. And there were, even in the first episode. What were they, and what lessons do they have for real-world travellers?

Eliminating a team in the middle of a leg, rather than at the "pit stop" as expected. This time a team was eliminated at the "pit stop" at the end of the leg as well, so for the first time two teams were eliminated in one episode.

It's tempting to write this off as a purely artificial change in race rules that have nothing to do with real travel. But I think there is a real lesson here: Real travel for any significant period of time will inevitably involve the unexpected.

Through five years and nine seasons of the race, I've provided a library of tips and advice to future racers -- some of which subsequent contestants have read and taken to heart. I do the same in my book, The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World .

More important than memorizing these or any other set of rules, however, is internalizing that the world is big, and diverse, as is the range of people and experiences you may encounter as you travel around the world. The most important world travel skill is the ability to deal with things you aren't prepared for, both by making decisions under uncertainty and surprise and by being able to accept your lack of understanding and lack of control of the situation.

Returning to previously-visited places. This episode was the first time that the race re-visited the same locations, and it did so twice: The starting line this season was at Gasworks Park, where the finish line of "The Amazing Race 3" had been. And as in the penultimate episode of "The Amazing Race 1", the racers went from Beijing to the most "developed" and restored section of the Great Wall of China at Juyongguan (Juyong Pass).

I know we've been through a hundred and some episodes of "The Amazing Race", and that the show's location consultants' imaginations might be getting tired. I don't mean to suggest that Beijing isn't worth more than one visit in a lifetime. or Seattle -- I like Seattle, really, and visit it regularly, although I must confess to being more fond of its slightly larger sister city across the border, Vancouver. And to give credit where credit is due, I think that the producers of "The Amazing Race" have done better than most real-world travellers I've known at balancing iconic "must-see" sights and sites with places fewer travellers visit.

Among other reasons, it's worth revisiting places to see the different ways that they change with time. If we've visited a place only once in our lifetime, it tends to be fixed in our memory as it was at that particular time. When we try to compare and contrast places, each of which we have visited only once, perhaps years apart, it can be very difficult if not impossible to separate out what was a difference between those places and what was a difference between those times .

I'm starting to plan my third and next trip around the world for next year, and there are plenty of places I'd like to go back to see how they compare now with what they were like when I first visited them, and with other places I've visited more recently.

Nevertheless, I hope that the producers of "The Amazing Race" don't think, and that the show's viewers don't get the message, that they've begun to run out of new places to see after only nine quick trips around the world. Each season of "The Amazing Race" is filmed over a period of a little more than a month in real time. So the nine seasons broadcast in the USA to date (viewers in some other countries are seeing the broadcasts several seasons behind) depict a little less than a year of actual travel. You might get temporarily tired of travel after being on the road for a year at a stretch. But I don't know anyone who traveled for a year who felt like they exhausted the world's possibilities of new places to go and things to see in that amount of time, or that there was nothing left to do but start over on the list of places they'd visited.

Including more non-white and non-Christian travellers. This season's twelve teams of racers include, for the first time, two Asian-American teams (one Indian-American and Korean-American) and two African-American teams, one of them observant Muslims.

Some critics seem to think that these casting decisions are some sort of "gimmick", unrepresentative of real life. But having studied the demographics of around-the-world travellers as closely as anyone, including custom-commissioned analysis of extensive government survey research data on travel from the USA, I beg to disagree.

Of the world's six billion or so people, roughly half are Asian. Roughly one billion are African, one billion are Muslim, one billion are Chinese, and one billion are Indian. So if you were casting a dozen globally representative teams, you'd expect there to be two Indian teams, two Chinese teams, two other Asian teams, two Muslim teams, and two African teams.

I know: The producers of "The Amazing Race" only allow citizens of the USA to participate. Please, before you flame me about this, realize that I don't produce the TV show or make the rules. Direct your comments to CBS and to Elise Doganieri and Bertram Van Munster, World Race Productions, 4120 Del Rey Ave., Marina Del Rey, CA 90292, USA.

Yet even in the USA, two Asian-American and one Muslim team out of twelve is not in the least out of proportion to real world patterns of travel. White European-Americans, especially native-born (i.e. non-immigrant) ones, are grossly under-represented among those people in the USA who have or actually use passports , and even more so among those who travel to anywhere other than North America, the Caribbean, or Western Europe.

San Francisco, where both the Cho brothers in the race and I live, has the highest per capita spending in the USA on international travel, primarily because of the amount that the city's Asian-American plurality spends on travel to visit friends and relatives abroad.

Travel is one of the central imperatives of Islam, and the Hajj is the largest (and, in most respects except religion, one of the most diverse) annual international travel phenomena. Muslims are vastly more likely than other African-Americans to have travelled overseas.

Members of diasporic populations -- such as "overseas" Chinese, "nonresident" Indians (i.e. people of Indian ancestry residing outside India), Jews, and those members of the Ummah whose primary identity is as Muslims rather than with any particular place or ethnicity -- are particularly likely to have friends and/or relatives in many countries and even on multiple continents. These are the people in the USA most likely to travel around the world, and they are a disproportionately large percentage of visitors from the USA to many countries.

So I see the greater representation of Muslims and Asian-Americans in the current season as a movement toward greater realism in the casting of "The Amazing Race".

One reason all this may come as a surprise is that guidebooks, in general, do such a poor job of representing this reality, much less incorporating it into the information and advice they provide.

I try to do so in "The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World". And when people who aren't like me -- women, parents, people who aren't white, people who weren't born in the USA and/or don't speak English as their mother tongue -- tell me I've fallen short, I try to incorporate their criticisms and suggestions in my revisions.

But many guidebook writers don't try. Often, that's not solely or primarily their fault: the outline and allocations of space to specific topics in a major guidebook series are typically set by the publisher and editors, not the individual writers.

But the results are bizarre, when looked at in perspective, and indicative of the depths of our unconscious cultural, national, and racial biases and presumptions.

Typically, references to "Westerners", such as "Westerners are often viewed as ... " or "Westerners often find ..." in an English-language international travel guidebook -- whether published in the USA, U.K., or Australia -- are really code for "white-skinned Christians". The existence of non-white and often non-Christian citizens of Western countries, and readers and users of English-language guidebooks, has barely begun to register on guidebook publishers.

Racial, ethnic, and national-origin diversity of guidebook readership has been discussed among writers of Moon Handbooks , who I think do a better job at it (along with, in somewhat different ways, the Rough Guides) than most of their major competitors. But it still has no formal place in their writers' guidelines. Like other guidebook publishers, they have a place in their standard outline for coverage of special issues for gay travellers and travellers with disabilities, among other "special" groups . But they don't have a standard place for issues faced by travellers of color, immigrants, or non-Christians.

The majority of tourist travellers to India from the USA, and perhaps also to India from Europe, are non-resident Indians (NRI's) and people of Indian origin (PIO's, who include the children and grand-children of anyone born in pre-Partition India). It's absurd for an English-language guidebook to India not to include a substantial section on what it's like for NRI's and PIO's, particularly those who may be visiting the country for the first time or for the first time since early childhood, but who may or may not be perceived as "Indian" depending on things like dress, body language, and knowledge of Indian languages.

Similarly, the vast majority of visitors counted in official statistics as tourists from the USA to the Philippines are Philippine-Americans, and from the USA to Taiwan are Taiwanese-Americans. A substantial percentage of travellers from the USA to South Africa are African American -- far higher than the percentage in the population of the USA. South Africa is a very different place for whites and Blacks, even today, and it's impossible to make sense of a statement about how "Americans" are perceived in South Africa -- or many other parts of the world -- without knowing whether it refers to Black, white, or brown-skinned Americans, or to Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Hindu Americans. White Americans, African-Americans, Indian-Americans, and American-born Chinese who don't speak Mandarin are all "foreigners" in China, but are treated very differently.

Yet I know of no widely-available English-language guidebooks to any of these places that base their understanding of their readership on these realities.

I hope my fellow writers will take this in the spirit of self-criticism of my own limitations and those of the publishing model, not just criticism of them. No one writer can internalize all possible perspectives, and publishers can't afford to send multiple writers to the same destination. (When multiple authors' names appear on a guidebook, that usually means they have covered different parts of the geographic territory, or perhaps different specialty topics.) I would love to see the publishing industry's normative assumptions about guidebook readership, and writers' guidelines, change, and I would love be proved wrong by finding existing guidebooks that better serve these goals. I invite correspondence from readers with suggestions of counter-examples, as well as from fellow travel writers as to how you approach these issues.

(Welcome to those of you coming here from the link on USAToday.com . Browse around: There's more here than just my commentary on The Amazing Race . If you want to get my weekly columns on the race and other travel news and tips by e-mail, I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter .)

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 17 September 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

In the Moon Handbooks series, the "Tips for Travelers" heading in "Essentials" at the back of the book allows for sections on "Access for Disabled Travelers", "Traveling with Children", "Women Traveling Alone", and "Gay and Lesbian Travelers".

Moon's outline doesn't call for a "Non-European Travelers" section, but I'm sure it would be okay to include one there, if appropriate. After the first edition of Lonely Planet Cuba was published in 1997, I received several letters about discrimination against black tourists to Cuba, a subject I hadn't covered. In the second edition (2000) I was careful to include warnings that mixed race couples (black/white) might be asked to show ID by the police and even nightclub doormen to prove that they weren't local/tourist couples. In provincial towns, black males might find themselves barred from certain nightclubs and resorts, passport or no passport. Hopefully this situation has changed over the past six years.

In a guide to the U.S. (and maybe also to the U.K.), I guess you'd have to include a warning that Muslim visitors can expect to be hassled by the authorities at airports and other "secure" locations just because they're Muslims. In a guide to Jamaica, you might have to warn white tourists that they could end up on the receiving end of black racism.

As touchy as race is the subject of sexual orientation. As I prepared the second edition of Lonely Planet Cuba, I came under intense pressure from my editors in San Francisco to include specific recommendations for gay tourists, even though all of Havana's gay venues were undercover and subject to official harrassment. Any place listed in my book would have been closed down very quickly. It seemed to me that my first world editors were only trying to impose their own values on a third world location. Some things we accept as given in North America, Australia, and Europe just don't apply elsewhere.

I sometimes find it hard to write for the disabled, families with small children, women traveling alone, gay and lesbian travelers, and non-white readers without sounding condescending. I really appreciate it when someone from one of those groups sends me a letter outlining the challenges they faced because it's like gold when I'm writing the next edition.

One thing I've learned over the past 27 years is to always try to see things through local eyes. If in doubt, take the local side. Do that and you'll seldom be wrong.

Best wishes,

David Stanley

Posted by: David Stanley, 20 September 2006, 16:59 ( 4:59 PM)

Regarding the issue of guidebooks not being oriented for X-Americans traveling back to country X (for various values of X)...

I think the guidebook publishers may be simply not targeting that audience because that audience is less likely to buy guidebooks. And I think they're less likely to buy guidebooks not because they don't think the books will cater to them, but rather because they typically are traveling to visit family memebers. There's a huge difference between traveling to a country because you want to explore it, and traveling to visit family members or friends. Guidebooks cater to tourists who are exploring a new country. I don't think there is a problem here. To take another look at the issue, a guidebook on Pennsylvania is not intended for me when I go to visit my in-laws there; it's intended for people who are there to see the sights.

Really, the issue is a marketing issue. I think there may well be a market for a guidebook that specifically targets this category of traveler, but it might be a hard sell. People don't generally try to explore areas that are familiar to them. You live in San Francisco - how often do you visit Alcatraz? When you travel to places you've lived in the past, do you visit the local tourist attractions? Most people don't.

Posted by: Bill Ward, 10 October 2006, 15:52 ( 3:52 PM)
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