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I'm no fan of the internal-combustion engine. When I have to drive a motor vehicle to get to places with inadequate mass transit or bicycle access, I mostly drive a gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius. But sometimes there's no other way to get where you want to go, especially when you are travelling and have to take whatever vehicle is available for rent.
This week on "The Amazing Race 3", for the drive from Lisbon, Portugal to Algeciras (near Gibraltar), Spain, the racers were provided with diesel-powered passenger vehicles on light truck bodies.
Let's call a truck a truck. Car makers call these things "sport utility vehicles", but I refuse to use that label for something so inutile, for sport or anything else. The reason car companies have promoted them so heavily in the USA is that, being designed to qualify -- just barely -- as "trucks" under the definitions used by regulatory agencies, they are exempt from many of the fuel economy, air pollution, and safety standards that apply to cars. The name "SUV" was coined to avoid the deservedly negative connotations of "truck", without contradicting the official claim not to be a "car". As long as the manufacturers officially label them "trucks" to get them approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, I'll call them trucks as well.
(Yes, this a something of a digression, but one I feel entitled to as a card-carrying member of the National Writers Union, which is actually Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers. If I'm going to pay dues to the UAW, the least I can do is to speak up for my union brothers and sisters to be given a chance to build more ecological vehicles and a saner, sustainable transportation system.)
Anyway, using a truck as a passenger vehicle on the highway is even less appropriate in Europe, where fuel costs two to three times as much, than it is in the USA. Even with the greater miles per gallon (kilometers per liter) of a diesel engine, and the large tank of a truck, the teams can't make the 400 mile (650 km) drive to the terminal for the ferry to Morocco without refueling.
(In case you ever go from the USA to, say, Canada or Mexico, or come to the USA from those or any other countries, and need to know, 1 km/l = 2.39 mpg; 1 mpg = 0.425 km/l. When will the USA go metric, and end the need for anyone to have to go through these USA-metric conversions?)
Diesels are more popular in Europe than in the USA, precisely because of their lower fuel cost. They also produce a different mix of air pollutants, which some countries' regulations favor. A third of all new cars in Europe have diesel engines, and an even higher percentage of trucks -- including light trucks or "SUV's".
But four of the eight teams in the race filled the tanks of their diesel-engine trucks with gasoline. It's a common mistake for travellers, especially in places where diesel engines in passenger vehicles are so ordinary that rental agents don't bother to call attention to them when they hand out the keys. The consequence was that, as is usual in such cases, the engines died a few kilometers down the road. How did the racers, and how do other travellers, get into this fix?
OK, OK, they're in a race. But even in a race, the mistakes you make through impatience are likely to cost you more time than it takes to do things carefully. When their engines stopped running, they lost much more time than it would have taken to skim the owners manual before they started off on a five to six hour drive. The most common direct causes of elimination from "The Amazing Race", in all three seasons, include failures to read and follow directions and bad judgments made in excessive haste.
Most rental car companies in the USA use similar cars, and most people pause barely long enough after getting into a rental car to figure out how to turn on the radio before they drive off. People look at me like an idiot when I'm still in the rental lot ten minutes after being handed the keys. But every car has its quirks, even in the USA. And figuring them out only after you're on the road could cost you money (if you don't notice a scratch or dent that was already on the car, and you get charged for it), time (as it did for the racers when they didn't check what type of fuel they needed), or your life (if, for example, you don't figure out how to use the windshield wipers and washer, or find out that you're out of washer fluid, before you're blinded with a spray of mud from a passing truck, while at highway speed).
Before you get into a rented vehicle, walk around it and inspect it carefully for nicks and dings. If you don't report them to the rental company immediately, you're liable for them. Repairing a tiny scrape can cost hundreds of dollars.
Then adjust the seat, all the mirrors, and any moveable controls like the steering wheel position (extremely dangerous to change while in motion).
Next, make sure that you know where all the controls are, and that they work, before you start moving. If you have a companion, have them watch from outside to verify that the headlights, turn signals, brake lights, and backup lights work.
Finally, test the brakes a few times, at gradually increasing speeds, before you pull out into traffic. Otherwise identical new vehicles can have wide variations in how far you have to depress the brake pedal before they start to slow down, and how quickly the brakes "grab". Braking too quickly in traffic can be as dangerous as not braking quickly enough.
All this holds true for nonmotorized vehicles as well. Before you accept a rental bicycle, check it for loose nuts and bolts and frayed cables, test the brakes with a panic stop from full riding speed, and adjust the seat and handlebar height.
Ian got his and Teri's truck running again by draining the gas from the tank onto the ground, and walking to a filling station for more diesel. (What's a little pollution -- actually quite a bit, pouring a full tank of gasoline into the roadside groundwater -- and a risk of fire or explosion, for a chance at a million dollars?) Zach, Flo, Arianne, and Aaron were able to get their vehicles towed to all-night service stations, and were back on the road (engines still running a bit rough) in time to make a ferry only an hour or two behind the teams that used the correct fuel.
But as has happened before in "The Amazing Race", the most important lessons this week come from the team that was eliminated for finishing last.
When Kathy and Michael's truck conked out, they found themselves near a four-star hotel on the highway. They walked there and, after talking with the desk clerk, they decided they wouldn't be able get their truck towed to a repair shop that night. Unable, they concluded, to get anywhere, they decided to get some rest, and spent a comfortable night at the hotel. In the morning, they got their truck fixed (they hadn't figured out the problem was caused by the wrong fuel), and went on their way to the ferry. But the night in the hotel put them on so much later a ferry that they were eliminated at the end of the leg in Fez, Morocco.
Normally, a fancy hotel is a good source of assistance in an emergency (or in a race). In the circumstances, however, it must have been obvious to the hotelier that if they told the couple it would be impossible to get their truck repaired until morning, they would get a pair of customers for the night. We know the hotel had an empty room, since Michael and Kathy did stay the night. And we know from the other racers' experiences that towing and repair service were available on that road at that hour of night. It's pretty obvious that they were misled by the hotel staff, and equally obvious why.
I was tempted to label their choice a mistake, until I heard what they said after they were eliminated from the race.
Michael and Kathy met while they were both on vacation in Cancun a year and a half ago. Since then, they've kept up a long-distance relationship, but they'd never spent more than five days at a time together before the race. In their audition for the cast of "The Amazing Race", they said they wanted to be in the race to test their relationship, and find out if they were suited to try to live together. Not for the money.
Travelling together can be the torture test of a relationship: over the years in my work as a travel consultant, I've seen it make, and break, many pairs of friends and lovers. Each of the previous two seasons of "The Amazing Race" has featured a married couple who had been separated before the race; in both cases they decides by the end of the race that they didn't want to try to get back together. Not every travel romance holds together at home, but I could think of many worse ways to test your compatibility to live with someone.
Kathy and Michael were tired, sleep deprived, and frustrated. Rather than take it out on each other, they took a rest. Yes, they were eliminated from the race. But at the end of the day, they had learned from travelling together that they were ready to move in together. When I think about it, I think they did the right thing -- whether or not their relationship survives for the long term.
They accomplished their goal. They were able to remember their real priorities, even on the road, on camera, under extreme stress. That's a major accomplishment, and I wish them all the best.
Not to scoff at a one-in-eight chance at a million dollars to share with my partner, but I'd rather risk losing the chance at the money than risk losing the chance at a relationship with my partner that might last a lifetime.
And that, I think, is the real lesson for us as travellers: keep your goals in perspective, and remember why you travel in the first place. For love, for friendship, for fun, for experience, for education, for enlightenment, for empowerment. Not just, and not primarily, to get there, to get there first, or to say you've been there and done that.
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