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The Amazing Race 2, Episode 11 (season finale, 15 May 2002)

Auckland (New Zealand) - Maui, HI (USA) - Anchorage, AK (USA) - Trapper Creek, AK (USA) - Oakland, CA (USA) - San Francisco, CA (USA) - Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA (USA)

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Nevada any more.

“The Amazing Race 2” finished its reality-TV trip around the world with a sprint to Fort Baker, in a section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just across the bridge from San Francisco — hundreds of miles from where it began a month earlier in Nevada. That’s not unusual in reality: many air trekkers finish their journeys far from where they started. But viewers might have expected that, in the normal manner of a race, the start and finish line would be the same. A true race around the world would go entirely around the world, not stop a couple of percent short of complete circumnavigation. That’s Hollywood for you!

Perhaps from the Kiwi perspective of Phil Keoghan, host of “The Amazing Race”, San Francisco seems right next to Las Vegas. Certainly it does if one is looking at a small-scale “tourist” map of the entire USA. But San Franciscans (much less people in Marin County, where the race actually ended) would be quick to disabuse visitors of any illusions that San Francisco is the “same place” as an unmarked spot in the Nevada desert, or even that they and Nevadans (or Southern Californians) live in the same cultural country.

Of course, Americans are prone to make the same mistake when we go abroad: places that appear to be right next to each other on small-scale maps of the world, or on our mental maps, often prove to be many days journey apart when we arrive in the neighborhood. In Phil Keoghan’s home country, for example, the racers (and many American TV viewers) were probably surprised at the all-night drive it took to cover just part of the length of New Zealand — a “small” pair of islands, compared to the size of the globe. It’s a big world after all! That may be the most important lesson if you’re planning your own trip around the world: almost everyone wants to see more places and travel further than is feasible without turning your vacation into a race.

The final sprint, and the race, were won by Alex and Chris over Wil and Tara. When the remaining racers had to wait, once again, to get on the same flights, everything that had gone before, and any travel skills except raw speed on foot (which is rarely critical, although I’ve done my share of running for planes and trains), became irrelevant.

Either the producers still haven’t figured out that flights on many long-haul international routes are at most daily, or they like it that way because it keeps more teams in contention throughout the race, rather than lagging hopelessly behind. The lesson for you is that, even if price is no object and you want to get somewhere ASAP, you might have to wait all day or overnight for the next flight, and it might take you two or three days for the fastest possible connections to get you there. If you’re not in a race, better to travel at a more relaxed pace, adjust your schedule to that of the least expensive flights, and spend your money on enjoyment, rather than on what turn out to be much smaller savings of time (for larger expense) than you might imagine.

I haven’t been in a race, but I have had a network television camera crew following me on my recent travels. I’m writing this from (formerly EasyEverything) in London, part of the London-based chain that includes the world’s largest cybercafe. It’s under the same ownership as Easyjet, the London-based discount airline that sells a higher percentage of its tickets on the Internet than any other airline in the world. At 6 pounds (GBP6, approximately US$9) for 7 days unlimited use of high-speed Internet terminals available 24 hours a day, It’s been easy for me to make it my temporary local office.

I’m here in the UK (although visiting Northern Ireland makes one question whether there really is a “United” Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) courtesy of the BBC, with whom I spent last week filming a documentary on tourism in Northern Ireland that involved being wired for sound and shadowed by a camera as I explored the region’s attractions. It was a chance to observe the ceasefire and the progress at reducing communal conflict and violence (problems on which we seem to be making little, if any, progress in the USA), a working holiday in Belfast and Derry, and an unexpected opportunity to experience, for a shorter period than “The Amazing Race”, life as an independent traveller in the eye of a TV camera.

Ever since Frederick Wiseman pioneered “fly on the wall” style filming with documentaries like “High School” in the 1960’s, viewers have marvelled at how people could make such fools of themselves when they know they’re on camera. But what Wiseman realized, and what others have taken advantage of in recent reality-TV productions, is that’s it’s impossible for anyone — actor or not — to remain continuously self-conscious of the camera’s presence. After three days of constant filming, I’m sure I did and said some stupid things that would destroy my reputation as a travel expert — although I’m hoping that the BBC’s editors will be kinder to me than Wiseman or the producers of “The Amazing Race” were to their subjects. (The resulting program will be broadcast, at least in Northern Ireland, in October 2002 on BBC1 television.)

Overall, the experience of traveling on camera felt more like normal tourism, without the camera, than I would have expected. As tourists and travellers, especially if we are moving quickly, we get accustomed to constant encounters with the strange, and it ceases to seem out of the ordinary that we’re a stranger everywhere we go. But of course to those we meet (except for a few professionals at dealing with strangers in the travel “industry”), we’re still as strange as we ever were, just for not being locals. So the characteristic situation is that we are trying to do something that we think of as completely “normal” and ordinary — which it is, from the standpoint of the tasks that travellers are regularly trying to accomplish — while local people are looking at us, with equal validity from their point of view — as outlandish freaks. “Why are you staring at me? Why don’t you just answer my question?” is a natural attitude — if we forget to look at ourselves as we appear to others. It was much easier for me to act normal, after just a few days practice, than for the people I met to act normal in front of the camera.

For the racers, the result is that, as they get used to the cameras (which they do during preparatory filming, before the race proper even begins), and forget their presence, they also forget their impact on the people they meet. Very rarely in either episode have we seen any of the racers take advantage of the power of the camera to win friends and influence people. Certainly we’ve never seen any of them stand up at the front of an airplane cabin, and announce, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but as you can see we’re filming a TV show, and we have a position open for an on-camera guide and translator in the next segment. We need someone who’s fluent in the local language and knows the city where we’re arriving inside out. We need someone who’s available for at least 24 hours from the moment we land, and we can’t offer cash compensation, but the person selected will get to appear in a prime-time television series. For those who are qualified and want a chance at American network television, we’ll be conducting interviews following this announcement in row 13.”

For ordinary travellers, the important thing is to stay aware of how much our presence, like that of a camera and microphone, changes the places we visit. The only places we see in their “typical” state are tourist traps that are always occupied by tourists. Everywhere else, we see people and places not as they normally are, but as they are in the presence of outsiders such as ourselves. It’s a sort of “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” of tourism: the act of our visiting a place inevitably alters what the place looks like and how people there behave. It’s a principle well known to social scientists: it’s no accident that Erving Goffman’s classic of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, uses a tourist hotel as its textbook case of “life as performance” and the differences between how people perform when they are “backstage” and when they are in view of the “audience” of tourists.

The ways that tourists, by our very presence, chance the societies of the places we visit are also key components of the cultural ecology of tourism, and key issues of ethics in tourism addressed by groups like Tourism Concern. So think about the impact of how you travel on the places and people you visit, and what you’d think if you were watching yourself.

If you’re still game, CBS is still accepting applications for “The Amazing Race 3”, to be filmed this summer and broadcast this autumn. Until then, enjoy the summer, and keep traveling.

Bon voyage!

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