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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 4 (3 October 2001)

es Baux de Provence (France) - Marseilles (France) - Mediterranean Sea - Tunis (Tunisia) - El Jem (Tunisia)

“Are We There Yet?”

This week, in the fourth episode of “The Amazing Race” on CBS-TV, grandparents Margaretta and David are eliminated after what seems a conspiracy of circumstantial delays.

First, the taxi they get into in Tunis for a 200-mile ride to El Jem doesn’t want to take them the whole distance. (Scarcely surprising. Flag down a cab on the street in Boston sometime, and try to get the driver to take you to New York City, right away, nonstop, even if their shift was about to end.) The city cab takes them to the long-distance taxi stand on the outskirts of town, where they have to arrange to charter (or share) a long-distance taxi for the main part of the trip. (Shared inter-city taxis, with fixed terminals, are a standard part of the transportation system in much of Africa and Asia.)

Then the taxi driver won’t take U.S. dollars, wanting to be paid in Tunisian Dinars. Unusual — most people almost anywhere will accept cash U.S. dollars, albeit at an unfavorable rate — but not unknown. Even in crashed-currency countries where most people use U.S. dollars, you should always carry some local currency. Margaretta and David still haven’t changed any money, and don’t have any dinars, only the dollars they were issued by the TV producers as their allotment for this leg of the race.

There’s a bank only steps away from the long-distance taxi stand (hope rises), but the bank is either closed or unwilling/unable to change dollars (hope falls). By the time Margaretta and David are able to get on the road again, they’ve fallen irredeemably behind the other teams, and are eliminated at the end of the day.

Bad luck, or bad travel tactics? A bit of both. Yes, they were unlucky, but on every trip you’ll get some bad breaks. Hope for the best, but be prepared (if you can) for the worst.

But what could they have done? Should they have risked precious time when the ferry arrived in Tunis trying to change money while the other teams were rushing past to the next clue and checkpoint in the race?

Maybe, but that probably wasn’t necessary. Their big mistake — a mistake that all the racers made, but that only tripped Margaretta and David this time — was to get caught up in the destination as a goal, and forget that 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.

Even if you can’t find anyone in the waiting room or departure lounge, or on board, who speaks your language and is from the place you are going (unlikely), you can still use the transit time to study your guidebooks and maps. The “Amazing Race” contestants had plenty of time to buy guidebooks and maps while waiting for the ferry, and probably could even have bought them on board. The worst time to start figuring out which direction to try to go is after you’ve plunged into the scrum of friends and family meeting arriving returnees, and touts looking for arriving tourists, at the exit from customs and immigration.

By getting group tickets, Joe and Bill saved everyone money over the cost of separately purchased staterooms. But it was probably a mistake not to travel deck class, where the opportunities to meet and enlist Tunisian allies before arrival would have been greatest. 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.

Random Acts of Kindness

When they get the next clue, and have to find their way through the Medina, the racers no longer have any choice but to rely on locals for directions. Lots of cities, especially older cities around the world, have impossibly dense and confusing warrens of alleys at their center in which even the best map can’t substitute for a local guide.

So will terrible things happen if pairs of naive Americans — most of whom have never been out of the USA before — are led into the depths of an African bazaar by crowds of unknown Arab young men? Will they be robbed? Raped? Subjected to endless sales pitches for carpets and crafts?

No. Nothing of the sort. The world is, as events at home and on the road constantly remind us, a kind and welcoming place where most people we meet are as decent and considerate human beings as we are.

All of the racers are immediately shown to their destinations, seemingly as quickly and directly as their guides are able, by the first people they meet to whom they able to communicate their desires. No one is harassed, harangued, or (so it appears) solicited to buy things they don’t want. Most of those who try to pay their helpers have their money refused.

As Americans, we’re schooled in the virtues of self-sufficiency and “not depending on anyone else”. For many Americans, letting go of our sense of being in control, and allowing ourselves to depend on others, can be a more difficult act of faith than, say, bungee-jumping. Three cheers to all the contestants on “The Amazing Race” that, when they had to put their faith in humanity and trust strangers to lead them onward, none of them hesitated. In my book, that’s their greatest accomplishment thus far in the show, and justifies the ovation they give each other — including the last finishers, Margaretta and David — at the end of the episode.

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