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The Amazing Race 3, Episode 6 (13 November 2002)

Fez (Morocco) - Casablanca (Morocco) - Marrakech (Morocco)

“Take the train from Casablanca going south”

This weeks’ episode of The Amazing Race 3 on CBS-TV provided an object lesson in the pros and cons of sticking together with other travellers on the road, versus going off on one’s own.

From the start of this leg of the race, the seven remaining teams travelled in two clusters, as a result of which they were grouped on two trains, two hours apart, “riding on the Marrakesh Express”.

Only two of the teams (Drew & Derek, and Gerard & Ken) had a formal “alliance”. This isn’t Survivor, after all. There are no votes, and it’s just a race, so there’s no obvious benefit to helping other teams. The other teams simply found that joining a group is the best way not to be left behind.

There are no winners until the last leg of The Amazing Race. Until that final episode, finishing first in a stage doesn’t really matter — all that matters is not being eliminated for finishing last at the end of a stage. The goal of the race is to stay with the pack, out of last place, until all but the final three teams have been eliminated.

Damon and Andre (dubbed “Team 911” because one is a firefighter and one is a police officer) haven’t yet had a chance to show much travel skill. Some observers have been surprised that they’ve stayed among the leaders this far into the race. But I’ll reserve judgement. They may have demonstrated a better understanding of race strategy than any of the other teams to date: they’ve tried to do as little as possible on their own. They’ve picked out the teams that appear to be savviest, and have followed them closely, whether they liked it or not. Until near the end of this episode, that’s kept them well out of risk of elimination even though the two teams in the “alliance” haven’t invited them to join.

(Have you even been travelling, wanting to get away from other tourists, and had someone attach themselves to you as a fellow traveller because they thought you knew where you where going? What can you really do about it, even if — unlike Andre and Damon, who seem more considerate and respectful than some of the other teams — they’re an “Ugly American” from whose behavior you want to disassociate yourself?)

As long as you are in a pack, you are unlikely to be eliminated from the race or, in real-life travel, lost or isolated. If you take a wrong turn, you’ll take it with others — and there’s safety in numbers. “Team 911” falls behind only when their taxi, cut off from the other racers, goes to the wrong neighborhood. By themselves in the wrong part of town — in an Arab city where Blacks are as much the underclass as they are in many European or American cities — they get delayed (until the television producers show up to bail them out) by document checks from suspicious authorities.

It’s a lot easier to follow the same route as other travellers than to go it alone. It’s cheaper per person, since you can spread expenses such as a guide over more people. The three teams in the lead, for example, split the cost of hiring a taxi to lead their own vehicles in a convoy to the highway out of Fez and towards Casablanca.

And it’s usually faster. Escorted tour groups, with a bus and a professional local driver waiting to take them from one sightseeing highlight to the next, can obviously notch a lot more “been there’s” and “done that’s” in their travelling sticks in the same amount of time than travellers who have to find their own way. But even without a guide, a small group of people helping each other with logistics and communications can generally travel faster in unfamiliar territory than a solo traveller or a couple.

Each time there’s something your group has to figure out, such as getting something translated (the teams of racers got one of their “route marker” clues this week partly in Arabic, which none of them could read), getting directions, or figuring out which line to stand in to buy train tickets, your whole group can move on at the pace of whomever is fastest.

Different people may be quicker at different things (communicating in different languages, or in gestures; reading maps; befriending passers-by sufficiently to get their assistance; dealing with bureaucrats; etc.), but the whole group can move on as soon as any one of you solves the problem or gets the necessary information about what you need to do next.

For all these reasons, many “independent” travellers fall in with other travellers at each stage of their journey, follow wherever these ad hoc groups go, and rarely strike out on their own in a less obvious or uncommon direction. Once you get into the mental habit of following “the way of tour” (as the signs in English labelled the standard path through one national park I visited in Taiwan), it can take a considerable mental effort to deviate from whichever route most other travellers are taking.

That’s the mistake made by most of the teams in the second cluster of racers (and on the second train from Casablanca going south). Three out of these four teams, each fearing that they might be left behind, try to separate themselves by all three trying to find the “Fast Forward”. But there is only one “Fast Forward” pass in each leg — this time it’s a custom carpet woven in the pattern of the Amazing Race logo, hidden among the piles of wares in a back-street rug-shop. The teams that try for the “Fast Forward”, but don’t find it first, only fall further behind, and the Arianne and Aaron, already lagging, are eliminated.

As it turns out, the last task the racers have to complete is selling bowls of steamed escargot — selling, not buying — to bemused local customers at a stall in the night bazaar. So Zach and Flo, the one team on the second train that doesn’t try for the “Fast Forward”, catch up with the lead teams while they are waiting for the market to open, and end up finishing ahead of them all, behind only Ian and Teri (who found the “Fast Forward” first, and therefore didn’t have to take a turn as snail salespeople).

The lesson in this for real travellers is, of course, that you can’t separate yourself from the madding crowd by taking the same detour as everyone else. If you do, you’ll just find that you’re in a smaller place that’s even more crowded with tourists who’ve come there for the same reason.

Anywhere listed in a guidebook as “undiscovered” isn’t — the guidebook will have taken care of that. You aren’t likely to get off the beaten path by going anywhere that’s even mentioned, at least not in any detail, in a popular guidebook. (That’s actually an advantage to using a less well-known guidebook: the most popular ones are the victims of their own success.)

Does that mean you can’t escape the tourist traps, or can only do so with difficulty or inside knowledge of where the tourists aren’t? Not at all. Most places in the world — including most towns in heavily touristed countries, and most neighborhoods in even heavily touristed cities, are hardly ever see a tourist. Get off the train at a city that isn’t mentioned at all in your guidebook. Get on a random bus headed away from the city center, and get off at a market or shopping street or center in a neighborhood distinguished by nothing except that no tourist ever goes there. You’ll quickly realize that escaping the tourists is easy — if you want to and really try.

Bon voyage!

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