Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Amazing Race 23, Episode 4

Sintra (Portugal) - Bodø (Norway) - Svolvær (Norway) - Henningsvær (Norway) - Bøstad (Norway) - Svolvær (Norway) - Trondheim (Norway) - Gdansk (Poland)

In northern Norway at the middle of the latest two-part episode of The Amazing Race 23, host Phil Keoghan handed each team a clue directing them to Gdansk, Poland, and letting them know that when they arrived at the Lech Walesa International Airport, their first task would be to find their way to the Solidarity Monument in Solidarity Square, in front of one of the gates of the former Lenin Shipyard. (I wouldn't usually choose to link to Wikipedia rather than to a more authoritative source. But I'm doing so here to show how readily this information is available from even the most obvious sources.)

Yet at least four of the nine teams arrived in Gdansk without having any idea where they were going. They asked taxi drivers (in English) to take them to the shipyard, not the monument. They hadn't learned how to say the name of the monument, or the square, in Polish. They didn't recognize the monument when they drove past it or were standing in front of it. And they didn't use the one word which, even in English, might have gotten their meaning across: "Solidarity".

This is, in part, a useful reminder that times change, and with them the way places are perceived. The sites in some foreign locale that we remember hearing about in the news may be ancient history of little significance to local people, especially locals who have grown up since those events.

I was in college in Chicago during the Lenin Shipyard wildcat strike of 1980 that brought Lech Walesa to prominence as the leader of an independent labor union challenging the company (and state, since the shipyard was government-owned) union. There are more people of Polish ancestry in greater Chicago than in Gdansk or in any city in the world except Warsaw (and possibly, in recent years, London), and the events in Gdansk (and then throughout Poland) were front-page news for months.

The first thing that comes to mind what I hear the word "Gdansk" is the image of Lech Walesa speaking to a crowd of fellow workers with Solidarnosc banners in front of the shipyard gates. Of course I'd want to go to the memorial on that site, and to the Solidarity museum (originally nearby, but being moved over this winter to a new location elsewhere in Gdansk) if I visited Gdansk as a tourist.

Nobody under 45, however, has any personal memory of these events. They are only history, "remembered" only from lessons in school (how differently the same history is taught in different places!) or the stories told by older family members and acquaintances. To younger people, in the USA or in Gdansk, Lech Walesa may be better known from a different, much later period, as a professional politician and as the president of Poland from 1990 to 1995, rather than a grassroots activist.

But if the younger teams of racers can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the significance of the location of their next clue, they had ample opportunity to figure it out before they got off the plane in Gdansk. The racers had a 34-hour ferry ride down the coast of Norway from Svolvær to Trondheim, followed by a flight to Gdansk.

For more than a decade, I've been getting regular queries and requests for coaching from prospective racers studying my columns about previous seasons of The Amazing Race as part of preparing for their own appearances on the reality-TV show. Not this season, apparently. I wrote about the opportunities presented by transit time, particularly on long ferry rides and in waiting rooms and boarding areas, in one of my columns about the very first season of the race:

The journey -- even the waiting -- is part of the trip. Often, "getting there" is most of the trip. So make the most of it.

There was lots of "hurry up and wait" in this episode: some teams arrived at the dock in Marseille as much as six hours ahead of others, but all the teams ended up on the same ferry for the 18-hour Mediterranean crossing. Seemingly, the racers all saw those hours -- wrongly -- as enforced waiting time when they could make no progress.

Instead of just repeating, "Are we there yet?", until you get there, use your time in transit to plan, or to meet people, or both. I can't imagine that if any of the teams had spent their 18-24 hours in transit chatting up their fellow passengers in the waiting area and on board -- especially the homeward-bound Tunisians -- they wouldn't have been able to change money, get directions and at least a hand-drawn map to their destination, and quite possibly arrange a ride or and/or a guide directly there from the dock.

Your instinct may be to talk to the other foreigners on the plane, train, bus, or ferry, if they are more like you than the locals. Of course, you have something to talk about: your shared anticipation of arrival in a place you don't know. But other foreigners probably know no more than you, and have the same mistaken preconceptions. (Exception: expatriates who live in the place you are headed, who can be a useful if biased source of advice.) The most valuable people to talk with are typically the people from where you are going, who are headed home.

You can't count on anything, but you never know what you'll be offered. My travelling companion and I arranged a ride from the airport to our hotel in Shanghai, without speaking a word of any Chinese dialect or recognizing a single Chinese character, in the departure lounge before our plane left San Francisco. When our train from Tashkent let us off at 3 a.m. at Bukhara station, 18 km (11 miles) outside the city in an utterly empty desert, we already had a ride lined up with a well-to-do fellow passenger from Bukhara who was being met by her jeep and driver. When our flight arrived in Paris after all the currency exchanges at the airport had closed, we were able to use a coin phone to call the friend we were staying with because we had changed a few dollars (always carry a few cash dollars, the most widely-accepted if not universal currency) for French Francs while we were still being delayed on the ground at the airport in New Delhi....

In a video clip on the CBS Web site for The Amazing Race, Brennan and Rob are shown in their cabin on the ferry, trying to figure out whether taxis or guides will be available at the dock in Tunis -- without it having occurred to them, apparently, to ask any of the hundreds of Tunisians on board, at least some of whom surely spoke English.

There's ample time to sleep, eat, relax, watch the scenery, and look for a travelling Pole who could help you prepare for the next leg of your adventure on a 34-hour ferry ride like the one the racers were on in the latest episode of the race.

(Why would someone from Poland be on a domestic ferry in Norway? Because Poland's entry into the European Union gives Poles the right to work throughout the EU, but Poland remains poorer than any western European country, so huge numbers of Poles work in Western Europe. Polish guest-workers and immigrants are as ubiquitous as maids, kitchen staff, and maintenance workers in London tourist hotels as Mexican-Americans in similar jobs in the USA -- with the difference that by dint of EU membership, Poles in the UK all have legal residence.)

It would have been even easier to find Poles able and willing to give travel and translation advice while waiting for the flight to Gdansk from Trondheim. Everyone is bored and happy for a diversion, and most people are happy to help someone who is interested in visiting their country. It's usually pretty easy, in a situation like that, to tell the people going "home" (in this case, the Poles) from the people waiting for a flight to a (to them) "foreign" destination.

"Excuse me. Are you from Poland? I'm sorry I don't speak Polish, but do you speak English? This is my first trip to your country. Can you help me? Thank you! How do I say, 'Thank you' in Polish? How about, "Hello'? And 'Please'? Let me practice: 'Hello'. And 'Thank you' again. I'm trying to find this place. Do you know where it is? Can you show me a picture of it on your phone? (Their phone might work, and have affordable local data service, even if yours doesn't.) Can you help tell me the best way to get there from the airport? Can you write that down in Polish for me to show to the taxi driver or the ticket clerk in the train station? Thank you!"

Even if you aren't in a race, and have your route mapped out, this is the best chance you have to get someone -- who is likely to be bilingual or multi-lingual (since they are travelling abroad), who isn't busy with something else, and for whom it will help kill the waiting time -- to help you with your cheat sheet of most important words or phrases in the local languages(s).

"Can you tell me how to say, 'I can't eat meat'? (or, 'I'm allergic to dairy products', or whatever.) Let me try to pronounce that. Did I get it right? Can you write that down in Polish so that I can show it to people in restaurants? Thank you!"

You might be tempted to rely on a translation app, but (1) it might not be available when you need it (does it work offline, when you are in a place with no data service?), and (2) it's much less likely than a local person to give the correct expression in the current local idiom. For example, many dictionaries and apps translate the English "bicycle" into French as "bicyclette", and that's technically correct. If you say, "bicyclette", Francophones will recognize your meaning. But it doesn't work the other way, in this example: The only word for bicycle that's in common contemporary French (or Québecois) usage is "vélo", and that's what you'll need to look for on signs. If you are looking for "bicyclette" on signs for bike shops or bike routes, you'll miss the "vélo" signs and stay lost. This sort of discrepancy between dictionary definitions and real-world local usage is more common than you might think, and can be crucial.

Serendipity is the spice of travel. But to best enjoy the opportunities it presents, take Tom Lehrer's advice and "Be prepared!"

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 27 October 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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