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The Amazing Race 2, Episode 8 (24 April 2002)

Hong Kong SAR (China) - Sydney (Australia) - Adelaide (Australia) - Coober Pedy (Australia) - Breakaways National Park (Australia)

Learning to say, “Which way…?” in Australian

In this week’s double episode of “The Amazing Race 2”, we see the importance of being willing to ask for directions. There are lots of reasons — including luck — why the remaining teams made it this far. But any team that tried to be self-reliant, and find its own way without assistance, would very likely have been eliminated this week, if not sooner.

It’s strange, perhaps, that this lesson came in Australia: It’s a country almost as obsessed as the USA with “rugged individualism” and the myth of the “self-made man”. It’s also an economically developed country where a sort of English is spoken (though one of the challenges in the race actually depended upon understanding Aussie slang, or finding someone who could translate it into American), where a traveller might be forgiven for assuming that they’d be able to find their way around on their own.

It’s a pair of paradoxes: one of the essential elements of capable and confident traveling is a willingness to depend on others. And stopping, even going out of one’s way, to ask for directions, may be the best way to get somewhere faster, even in a race. The key travel skills at issue, I think, are humility, trust (especially trust in the goodwill of strangers), and patience.

The often-true stereotype of men as less willing to ask directions than women, as well as the sexism prevalent worldwide that makes men and women alike more willing to help a strange woman than a strange man, albeit for different reasons, are the major reasons I expected the teams of two women to do better than the men in “The Amazing Race” — just as women, despite their greater fearfulness about traveling alone, often find they have an easier time than men as travellers because they ask for, and are offered, more help from people along the way. (Of course, they also receive a greater measure of sexual harassment than men generally get.)

How were these skills at asking for help on display this week in “The Amazing Race 2”?

  • In Hong Kong — as at several previous points in the race — Oswald and Danny didn’t even try to find the next clue on their own, but instead made their way to a fancy hotel where they got directions from the concierge. Concierges are professionals at expediting whatever it is rich, hurried visitors want to do. If you had to accomplish a random travel task as quickly as possible in a strange city, the concierge in the best hotel in the city might well be the single best person to ask for advice. Obvious enough, once you’ve seen it — but why didn’t any of the other teams in either season of “The Amazing Race” ever try this? Probably because they thought, with excessive confidence in their own ability to do things unassisted, that the time lost talking to a concierge would be greater than the time saved by their advice. Each time Oswald and Danny have done this, the other teams have been mystified about how they made it looks so easy. But none of them have yet caught on, or imitated their tactics.
  • When Paige and Blake got a taxi driver in Hong Kong who didn’t speak English, and compounded their bad luck by directing the driver to the wrong region of the city, they got back on course to the next clue by calling the tourist information hotline on the driver’s cell phone. Few cities in the USA are as accommodating as this to foreign travellers, especially those who don’t speak the local language. But in a significant number of other countries, especially in Asia, there are nationwide English-language telephone hotlines (often toll-free) for foreign tourists, staffed by people whose job it is to provide this sort of free aid and advice. And while it might surprise those Americans who assume that the USA is on the cutting edge of high technology and consumer electronics, wireless phones are not only more common but also significantly more technologically advanced in most of the rest of the world, even the Third World.
  • On the advice of the hotel concierge, Danny and Oswald went to a travel agency to find out what flights were available and make their reservations from Hong Kong to Sydney. All the other teams tried to phone each likely airline directly, or made the rounds of their ticket counters in an airport mob scene that’s become a familiar refrain of “The Amazing Race”. The travel agency demonstrated their value by finding connections on a different route, arriving in Sydney half an hour earlier than the flights the rest of the teams found on their own. It helped, of course, that price was no object: CBS-TV picks up the tab (on the credit card of the two-person film crew accompanying each team of two racers) for full unrestricted coach fare. But regardless of whether the priority is schedule or price, professional travel agents can often do enough better than do-it-yourselfers to justify the small service charge for their assistance. In this case, because the travel agency also arranged for a car to the airport for their four full-fare customers, Oswald and Danny got to the airport, tickets in hand for the earlier flights, while some of the teams that went straight to the airport were still trying to make airline reservations and buy tickets.
  • When they had to wait several hours in Adelaide for their charter flights, all the teams spent their enforced layover getting directions from the tourist information office — either in person or by phone — to the location of their next clue near Coober Pedy. In the USA, promotion of tourism is largely left to private-sector entities. The typical local “tourist information center” is a kiosk run by the Chamber of Commerce that dispenses mostly brochures and advertisements for specific businesses, rather than general information or advice. In most of the rest of the world, promotion of tourism is considered a public economic development function, responsibility for which is taken in large part by government ministries at every level. Typical government tourist information offices provide everything from maps and cheat sheets of key words in the local language(s) to lodging directories (with government ratings) and hotel booking services. They’re especially useful in a country where you don’t speak the language and/or haven’t figured out how to use the local phone system — they are usually quite willing, if necessary, to make local calls for anything from theater reservations to public transit directions, and to write directions down in the local language so you can show them to people if you get lost along the way. (My most recent experience of this was earlier this year in Seoul, Korea, where the staff at a local tourist information booth did all these things for me, happily, and would have been insulted if I had tried to tip them for their services.) Even while remarking on the smallness of the town of Coober Pedy, and the emptiness of the outback, Paige and Blake found a tourist information center by the side of the road where they got directions to their next clue.

Gary and Dave were eliminated at the end of this week’s double episode, largely because they got impatient and abandoned one task (hunting for an opal in a pile of rocks in an underground mine) for an alternative (golf — a game neither of them had ever played — in a grass-less desert), rather than completing what they had already begun. It appears that there wasn’t enough suspense in the non-elimination legs of “The Amazing Race” to maximize viewership. So CBS combined a non-elimination leg with the elimination leg that followed into a two-hour broadcast this week, and will do so again with the final two episodes. That will make the season finale a two-hour broadcast, with the final three teams, on Wednesday, 15 May 2002. See you again next week, en route to New Zealand!

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