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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 11 (28 November 2001)

“You, my dear, are a pack rat.”

As so often happens after a bit of shakedown time on the road, Margarita and Frank on “The Amazing Race” on CBS-TV this week took time to lighten their loads, weeding out enough to get the remainder into much smaller packs. Carry all your gear on your back for even an hour a day (routine for independent travellers), and you’ll be amazed how many things that seemed essential turn out not to be worth their weight.

“The Amazing Race” also lightened its load of contestants for the last time until the finish, cutting the cast to just three couples for the final two shows. “Frat boys” and focus group favorites Drew and Kevin finished last and were eliminated, in one of the closest finishes of any episode yet, after arriving in Beijing on the same plane from Bangkok as Bill and Joe.

What went wrong for “the fratties”?

Many first-time visitors, even experienced travellers, fear that China will be a difficult place to deal with. But it isn’t. For most travellers, even those who can’t speak or read Chinese, China is relatively easy to navigate. And that’s the way it was for the teams in “The Amazing Race”. There were few wrong turns or long searches, and this week’s episode was the fastest moving yet. The racers barely sat still long enough to eat the beetle larvae they’d bought in the market. And none of them got sick, at least not on camera. (Rule #1: If it’s set before you in a restaurant, it’s probably edible. Rule #2: If you don’t know what’s in it, it’s less likely to gross you out.) Unlike on “Survivor”, the grubs were professionally deep-fried, not raw. But you didn’t think we could have a “Survivor” sequel without lip-smacking closeups of an insect-eating contest, did you?

Those who are still in the race are savvy enough travellers to have made it two-thirds of the way around the world. Even those who’ve never been out of the USA before have learned basic travel skills quickly — or been eliminated already. That’s normal, really. Travel skills are mostly common sense and open mindedness, not some esoteric science. As they get used to it, most people find travel is easier than they expected, wherever they go.

It helped that the clues and directions for this part of the race were written in Chinese. The biggest reason it’s so much easier to find your way around in China than in India is the near-universal basic literacy in China, even in out-of-the-way places. Even where the racers didn’t find English translators, they found eager volunteers to help with things like their shopping list.

Once my companion and I were studying our map in a plaza in Urumchi, East Turkestan (a region under Chinese rule but no more Chinese, and no less rebellious, than Tibet), trying to figure out the way back to our hotel, when a smiling Chinese soldier came up to us, obviously offering to help. She spoke no English, and we no Chinese, and neither of us spoke Uighur. She gestured to the map, obviously meaning for us to indicate where we wanted to go. We pointed to our hotel on the map. She took us by the hand, led us to the bus stop, waited with us for the proper bus, led us onto the bus, bought us bus tickets, rode with us, led us off the bus at the proper stop, and marched us up to the entrance of the department store next to our hotel!

It took us a moment to realize that she must have thought we were pointing at the store when we pointed at the map. A finger is a fairly imprecise pointer, and it was a very precise Chinese map. Now she was waiting expectantly for us to let her know what we wanted to buy. She may have been part of a foreign army of occupation, but she had gone far out of her way to “Serve the People” by helping us, and we couldn’t just turn our backs on her and walk off to our hotel, or she would think us terribly ungrateful and probably never help a lost tourist again. We hastily thought of something we could use from the store (cheap muslin and thread to sew up a package we were about to send home), communicated it to her (with pantomime of sewing). She led us to the sewing notions counter, bowed smartly, turned, and went away beaming in satisfaction at her good deed. Having preserved her face, we could then continue to our hotel.

Ultimately, what eliminated Drew and Kevin was an uncharacteristc (for them) lapse of trust. One of the basic realities of travel is that you often are not in control, and have to rely on the kindness, hospitality, and essential humanity of strangers. Convinced that their taxi driver didn’t know where he was going, they jumped out of the cab once they got to the general vicinity of their destination, and tried to find it on their own. Bill and Joe were also worried that their cabbie didn’t understood their directions (which were written in both Chinese and English). But they trusted that even if the driver wasn’t sure of the exact spot, he’d be able to find it quicker than they could. And they were right. Both taxis went first to the wrong entrance to the park. But Bill and Joe’s taxi drove them around to the other entrance, where the final route marker was, faster than Kevin and Drew, who’d given up on their driver, could make their way across the park on foot.

The fix is in on Internet domain names for travel.

As I mentioned in my newsletter last week, Internet governing body ICANN is on the verge of handing over control of the Internet travel namespace to representatives of the airlines, to the exclusion (and the detriment) of the traveling public.

ICANN’s bylaws require it to “operate to the maximum extent feasible in an open and transparent manner” and hold a public forum on any proposed policy. Yet despite my formal protest (seconded by several other ICANN-watchers) no member of ICANN’s Board of Directors objected to finalizing the award of a new “.aero” top-level domain to the airline cooperative SITA, without any debate or public hearing.

SITA had promised, very explicitly, that .aero and its policy-making would be open to industry and consumers alike. Instead, the rules for .aero were drafted by ICANN staff in secret meetings with SITA. Not surprisingly, these rules will allow only suppliers of travel services, not consumer advocates, to register in .aero or participate in .aero rulemaking. Decision-making proceedings will be “open”, but only to those within the industry; consumers and travellers won’t be welcome or allowed even to observe.

Also this week, the airline trade association IATA is moving forward on another top-level domain, “.travel”. IATA’s original proposal for .travel was passed over, quite rightly, because the airlines that make up IATA aren’t representative of the diversity of the travel industry, much less all those outside the industry with an interest in travel. Particularly strong objections were raised by those travel agents who work for consumers rather than travel suppliers, and don’t want to go back to being subject to the airlines’ control.

Yesterday, at a meeting at IATA headquarters in Montreal, IATA announced the formation of a “Travel Partnership” to ensure that .travel is operated for the benefit of travellers. But it’s a sham; the real purpose of the “partnership” is as a front to make IATA more acceptable to ICANN. Only one of the 25 partners on the .travel governing board will be a consumer representative!

But the fix is in. A source familiar with the negotiations has told me ICANN staff (who are, by all accounts, the real decision makers) are already talking about the award of .travel to IATA as a fait accompli — even though ICANN’s evaluation team recommended against it, and it was passed over and denied reconsideration by the ICANN Board.

Why should anyone care that the Internet is being hijacked by commercial interests? The issue is, in part, whether the Internet will be governed democratically or ruled by money and back-room cronyism. It’s also about whether we should have top-level domains (like .com or .edu) for sectors of activity — open to everyone with a stake in those activities — or solely for industries and commercial interests. Will the Internet travel namespace be a virtual community of travellers, or a domain where — as in a speech I heard this month by the president of — interactivity and participation will be limited to the opportunity to click on the “buy” button?

It’s not just about travel, either: the handling of .aero and .travel epitomizes the larger problems with Internet governance in general, and ICANN in particular. I’ll keep working for openness to consumers, the media, and the public. Watch for more on this subject here on my Web site.

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"Don't believe anything just because you read it on the Internet. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, and they do. The Internet is the most effective medium in history for the rapid global propagation of rumor, myth, and false information." (From The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, 2001)

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