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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 1 (5 September 2001; rebroadcast 9 September 2001)

New York, NY (USA) - Johannesburg (South Africa) - Livingstone (Zambia) - Songwe Village (Zambia)

Is this show for real?

The Amazing Race around the world on CBS-TV got off to a fast start in the first episode: a footrace out of Central Park; competitive taxi hailing; subway-station broken field running with backpacks; jet-lagged drivers, just starting to get used to driving on the left, passing trucks on shoulderless unpaved two-lane tracks; a cable crossing of a canyon; and a bungee jump.

My first job in travel was with a company owned by a Zambian who specialized in, among other things, arranging trips to Southern Africa. But I’ll leave it to my fellow New York and Southern Africa experts with to offer pointers on the specifics of how best to get to Kennedy Airport and how to drive on African roads. (I’m originally from Massachusetts, so I suppose it’s natural that my jaywalking skills are more highly developed than my driving.)

I’d rather start with the bigger picture: What can we — who aren’t in a race for a million dollars — learn from the challenges faced by the contestants on the show, in order to improve our own travel skills?

That question presumes, of course, that “The Amazing Race” has something to do with real travel. Sure, they call it “reality” television. But we all know that this is Hollywood, and the first question most viewers are likely to be asking is, “Is this show for real?”

Yes and no — both in ways that might surprise those who haven’t (yet) taken an air trek themselves.

Around-the-world travel is for everyone.

The cast (“contestants”) of “The Amazing Race” were undoubtedly selected to try to attract the broadest possible audience, by having someone to represent and draw viewership from every major demographic group.

Some of you probably think that’s completely unrealistic. The only people who’d take a trip around the world in real life are rich, young, single, male adrenaline junkies — not people like those on the show. Right? Wrong.

True enough that, as Brennan said in a pre-race interview on the CBS Web site, “A lot of people take a year and go travel” between school or college and starting a career. (A smart choice: international experience through travel is one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your career.) A sixth of British high school graduates defer starting college for a year, mostly to travel, and the USA is steadily catching up in recognizing the value of such a “gap year”. Students and young people taking a gap year are, however, far from the only or even the predominant sort of air trekker.

Real people of all ages, races, occupations, and stages in their lives and careers set off on trips around the world every day. If there’s anything unrealistic about the contestants in “The Amazing Race”, in fact, it’s that they are slightly less diverse than the travellers I work with. (Living in San Francisco, I especially notice the absence of Asian-Americans on the show, for example). By and large, though, central casting’s vision of a cross-section of ordinary Americans matches the real-world character of American around-the-world travellers.

The average age of the contestants on “The Amazing Race” is 35, exactly the same as the average for customers of (the leading around-the-world ticket agency in the Americas). Three of the 11 race teams are all female, just as a quarter of clients are women traveling alone. Five of the 22 starting racers on the show are over 45, again almost exactly equal to the percentage of real air trekkers. My own clients have included middle-aged bankers, laid-off dot-commies, and 80-year-old women traveling alone without reservations and staying in “youth” hostels.

So is there a lesson here? Yes: You don’t have to be selected by network television producers to be able to take a trip around the world. As I meet more and more air trekkers, after 10 years of working full-time to help people plan trips around the world, I believe more firmly than ever that the biggest barrier to long-term travel for most Americans is simply getting up their courage to decide to do it. (See my page of tips, “I couldn’t take a big trip like that, because…”)

Around-the-world travel is not a race.

If it’s easier than most people think to take a trip around the world, it’s much harder than most would think to do it in as little as 31 days — the length of “The Amazing Race”.

The single most common mistake made by people planning an extended trip is trying to go to too many places in too little time. Typically, both the host and producer of “The Amazing Race” have admitted in preview interviews on “The Early Show” and the CBS Web site that they badly underestimated how grueling a pace their itinerary would require. And that was with an elaborate, and expensive, production staff.

It’s possible to go around the world in a month, but few would do it that quickly for fun, and if they did they’d visit fewer than the five continents of “The Amazing Race”.

As I say in “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World”, patience is a budget travellers’ best friend. Perhaps the most astute comment in the first episode of “The Amazing Race” came from Margaretta: “We’ve been going so fast that we haven’t taken time to be smart… We’re going to be smart and slow down.”

Last week the International Labor Organization reported that average vacations for workers in the USA are shorter than in any other industrialized country in the world, including Japan, and getting worse. So it’s understandable that a month — half the length of a typical annual vacation in may European countries — seems long to most Americans. It’s not a lot of time, however, when you’re trying to see the whole world. Imagine trying to see all of North America in a month, and then compare the size of Africa, or of the world.

More time is easier to get than more money, and will do more to improve your trip. For an enjoyable trip around the world, I recommend at least two months. They may not realize it, but that’s an amount most people can get, if they ask for some unpaid leave, without having to give up their job.

Interestingly, even the contestants who thought they could never raise the money for a trip around the world on their own were all able to find the time — regardless of children, jobs, and other obligations. If they could do it when Hollywood called, they could have done it on their own. It’s just a question of self-motivation and priorities.

Ten of the eleven teams aren’t going to win a million dollars, anyway — and neither are you and me if we follow their route around the world. My advice? Plan your trip accordingly.

Ana, for example, thought the show was her only chance of a lifetime to take a big trip. “We couldn’t afford going around the world,” she said in an interview on the CBS Web site before the race began. A false assumption, but a common one. (I’ll talk about money more in the course of future episodes.)

Yet, when Ana and Matt were eliminated from the race on the second day, what did she say? Was it, “We’ve already arranged to be traveling for the rest of this month, we’ve been flown to the other side of the world and given a ticket home at someone else’s expense, and we don’t have to rush any more. We get to have the time of our lives for the next month on our own in Africa before we have to go home.”

No. Her reaction was, “There’s nothing we can say or do now.” She literally couldn’t imagine the point of travel without the “goal” or the competition. This, too, is a mistake many travellers make. Focused on the “been there’s” and “done that’s”, they accumulate notches in their traveling sticks while losing sight of the reasons places, famous or not, are worth visiting: the experiences we have when we get there, or along the way. Those are the experiences we have only if we open our senses up to everything around ourselves, especially the things we weren’t looking for. Noticing the unexpected, and figuring out what it means, are among the most important skills and pleasures of independent travel.

Often a trip is motivated by things to do, places to go, or sites to see: the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Egypt (all of which have appeared in ads for “The Amazing Race”). Yet when I ask someone what was most important about a trip to these places, the typical answer is, “I met this person who…”. Rarely is seeing the marquee attractions even mentioned in the highlights.

I don’t even like dogs, but I give extra credit to “Team Guido” — Joe and Bill, who’ve styled themselves after their mascot — for being the only contestants to say in their pre-race interviews, “We’re gonna have fun”. My advice? If you want to learn some things you can use in your own travels, when you aren’t in it for the money or forced to rush, than slow down and keep your eyes open to every chance to enjoy the ride. That’s what I’ll be doing throughout the season of “The Amazing Race.”

See you next week when The Amazing Race — and its object lessons in travel — resume in Zambia!

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