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The Amazing Race 3, Episode 11 (season finale, 18 December 2002)

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Hue (Vietnam) - Danang (Vietnam) - Hoi An (Vietnam) - Danang (Vietnam) - Hanoi (Vietnam) - Honolulu, HI (USA) - Lihu’e, HI (USA) - Wailua Falls, HI (USA) - Seattle, WA (USA)

This week’s episode of “The Amazing Race” included one of the most interesting “detours” to date: each of the racers either had to get across a river in a typical Vietnamese wickerwork paddle boat, or go a mile (1.6 km) on a dirt road with a loaded cargo bicycle. The boats were round baskets 4-5 feet (1.5m) in diameter, smeared on the outside with roofing tar — they sell plastic bags of tar for boat sealant in local markets. With only a single paddle, and no practice, it was all Flo could do to get her boat to spin in circles. The bicycles were piled well higher than the tallest of the racers, and almost as wide, with a load of smaller baskets. They were top-heavy, and almost impossible for one person to hold upright by the handlebars. In practice, cargo bikes like that are rarely ridden loaded or pushed directly by the handlebars. It’s standard for them to have a sturdy pole tied across the handlebars, projecting far enough out to one side to give leverage for the person pushing to steer the bike and hold it upright. A second person often pushes, and steadies the load, from the opposite side. But none of the racers thought of the bikes as in-line two-wheeled push carts, or sought to find or improvise a pushing pole. They all tried, unsuccessfully, to ride the loaded bikes (and, in Flo and Zach’s case, paddle the boats) by themselves.

Eventually — as soon as they asked — all of the racers got help from the crowds of locals looking on. First Teri, then (as the other saw, and started offering money), Ian, Gerard, and Ken got other people to steady and help push their bikes. After Flo gave up and she and Zach came back to shore, Zach asked for help some people hanging out by the boats, and they immediately paddled the two racers across the river to the clue and back in two of the boats.

The real challenge, I think, was to realize that they couldn’t do it alone. As travellers, isn’t that always true? Now matter how “independent” or “self-sufficient” we think we are as we travel around the world — or as we travel through life — we shouldn’t forget that our survival each day depends on the cooperation, mutual aid, and often hard, physical labor of the people who make the objects and provide the services that we use. In our daily lives at home, it can be easy to overlook those people. On the road our dependence on the gift of hospitality hits us in the face at every step. Without help (paid or unpaid) from local people, we don’t know how to meet our basic human needs: how to find food or a toilet, get from place to place, use basic tools that are designed differently in our homeland. It’s a lesson worth remembering after we’re back home, when “globalization” or “interdependence” can seem abstract or far away. The gift of hospitality can be transforming. As Teri said, “When I’ve thought of Vietnam in the past, I’ve thought about only war. Now, when I think back on it, I think back on a wonderful society, a place that’s really growing and coming into their own.”

Once again in this third season, “The Amazing Race” finished short of a trip entirely around the world. As far short, in fact, as would be possible within the lower 48 contiguous states of the continental USA. From Seattle, where the race ended in this week’s broadcast, back to Miami, where it began, is the longest regularly scheduled nonstop flight in the lower 48, and would have added more than 5000 kilometers (3000 miles) to the length of the race.

But that’s OK, and actually quite typical. If your fantasy of a trip around the world has been shaped by the restrictive rules of the around-the-world (RTW) tickets offered by airline alliances, it’s natural to assume that you have to start and end in the same place, or at least that you have to buy tickets entirely around the world, even if you aren’t going quite that far within the year’s maximum validity of airline tickets. But relatively few around-the-world travellers find that their needs are best met by these restrictive single-ticket airline and alliance RTW fares. The majority of “around-the-world” tickets sold by RTW specialists like are multistop one-way ticket packages that end somewhere other than where they began.

The racers have no choice but to buy tickets as they travel, one flight at a time. The natural result is that they have to take whatever tickets at whatever price is available locally at the last minute, when the cheap seats have long since been sold. The last minute walk-up fare is typically the highest possible fare, and sometimes no seats are available at any fare. The nail-biting tension of watching the racers worry about whether they will be able to get on the flights they want should be a lesson to ordinary travellers: It’s always better to have confirmed reservations, as long as the dates are changeable without penalty, than to have “open date” tickets with no reservations and no guarantee of being able to fly at all. In this episode of the race, eventual winners Zach and Flo had to make the 24 hour train journey from Hanoi without knowing whether they would be able to get on a flight once they got to Hanoi, since no seats at all were available a day in advance. They did get seats at the last minute, but they were lucky, and they were willing (more precisely, the television show’s producers were willing) to pay full fare.

To the extent that you know where you are going, are willing to commit to the set and sequence of destinations, and are confident that you will get that far within a year of when you buy your tickets, it’s generally least expensive to buy a package of tickets before your departure for as many of those flights as possible. Otherwise you are apt to end up like the racers, begging the airlines to sell you last-minute full-fare tickets. Or having to wait: on any given day in a center for independent travellers like Bangkok, there are hundreds or thousands of people waiting for seats, or for cheap seats, to become available to wherever they are headed next.

Booking ahead on trains is often expensive or impossible from abroad, but it’s equally important to do it at least a few days in advance, if you can, once you are in the country. I’ve had the same experience as Zach and Flo of not finding the highest class of sleeping berth available on the day I wanted on the train between Ho Chi Minh City and Hue. But had they known where they would go next, and made their train reservations a couple of days earlier when first they arrived in Vietnam, they might not have had to spend 24 hours (half the length of Vietnam) on the train in a chair car rather than a sleeping car.

You can wait weeks for seats on almost any airline route at a peak travel time like the current holiday season. The same is true in many regions during the Hajj (by far the world’s largest annual travel event), Lunar New Year in East Asia, Golden Week in Japan, trekking season in Nepal, and other local holidays you might never have heard of nor been able to anticipate. Last year at this time, my companion and I were the last two people to get on a flight from the USA to connect to Vietnam. We were told that if we didn’t make it onto that flight, which was oversold, no seats were available at any price for at least a week, probably two weeks.

As it turned out, all the teams ended up on the same flight out of Vietnam, and on flights within a few minutes of each other to Hawai’i, between Hawaiian islands, and to Seattle. Like each of the previous seasons, “The Amazing Race” came down to a taxi and foot race through the city to the finish line. The racers are forbidden by the rules of the race to break local speed limits when they are driving, but apparently they are allowed to encourage and reward their taxi-wallahs to speed. In Vietnam, Ken told Gerard, “It’s not worth winning a million dollars if someone’s gonna get killed by a car to do it.” Later, though, back in the USA, they offered all their remaining money to their Seattle cabbie — more than US$100 for a US$10 ride — if he beat the other teams’ taxis to the final “Pit Stop” at Gasworks Park (a very nice place, despite the name). Others teams apparently did likewise, and the result may have been the most dangerous episode in the race.

I got a lot of e-mail about last week’s column, both pro and con, some quite thoughtful and thought-provoking, ranging from the supportive to the highly critical. I regret the emotional pain my words caused some readers. I’m still reading through, and contemplating, all of these messages. (I do read all of my e-mail, except the occasional message erroneously intercepted by my spam filter.) I was particularly pleased at how many of those who wrote share my interest in, and concern for, the ethics of travel and its impacts on human rights and other aspects of human social ecology — even while drawing different personal conclusions, as each person should, about how to apply those values in individual situations. I’m sorry that the volume of correspondence precludes individual responses to each of those who wrote to me, and that there isn’t space or time here to respond to the wide range of questions they have raised, especially since many expressed opposite opinions on the same issues. I do, however, offer my sincere and heart-felt apology to those who took my institutional criticisms as a personal attack on them, their families, or their children. That was not my intention, and I am sorry that my 3 a.m. words left themselves open to that misunderstanding, especially when they were forwarded or re-posted elsewhere, out of context. I wish all of you, and your loved ones, a happy and healthy new year and a fulfilling life.

I’ll be taking a break from my weekly all-nighters writing these columns — until “The Amazing Race 4” is broadcast in 2003. Next week I’m off to Argentina, currently one of the world’s best travel bargains. As I point out in the current version of my FAQ on airline bankruptcies, it won’t be long before airline ticket prices and long-haul travel costs start rising from their current all-time low. I hope you all have a chance to travel as well, while it’s easier and more affordable than it’s ever likely to be again. And wherever you go, keep your eyes peeled for sightings of “The Amazing Race 4” in production!

Bon voyage!

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