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The Amazing Race 4, Episode 3 (12 June 2003)

Venice (Italy) - Vienna (Austria) - Gmunden (Austria)

Mistakes Were Made.

The key mistake for Cindy and Russell, eliminated from “The Amazing Race 4” this week, was to get train tickets, from a travel agent, to go from Vienna to “Gmund”, Austria, when they were supposed to go to “Gmunden”.

How did this happen? Who was responsible? And how can we avoid making similar mistakes?

Ending up in entirely the wrong place isn’t nearly so uncommon as we might think. People have flown to Auckland, New Zealand, instead of Oakland, California, USA — and vice versa. I once worked in a travel agency where a colleague sold a ticket to Bloomington, Indiana, to someone who wanted to go to Bloomington, Illinois. Or perhaps it was the other way around. I actually have friends in Bloomington, IN, but still I don’t always know which of these two Bloomingtons, or the several others in other states, people are talking about when they mention Bloomington passingly in conversation. Another colleague once came close to issuing someone tickets originating in Portland, Maine, when they wanted to fly from Portland, Oregon.

There isn’t always a travel agent at whom to point the finger when things go wrong: on the Internet, as a do-it-yourself travel agent, you have only yourself to blame for your mistakes. Last year it made the news when a couple from the U.K. found themselves really cheap tickets from London to Sydney on the Internet. It wasn’t until they were boarding their connecting flight in Toronto, and discovered that it was a smaller plane rather than another long-range widebody, that they began to suspect that Sydney, Nova Scotia, might be in Canada rather than their intended destination in Australia! The local tourist board tried hard to convince them that Nova Scotia would be an equally nice place to visit — as indeed it can be — but it wasn’t what they had planned on, and they didn’t stick around for long.

(Too bad: Rumors that “The Amazing Race 4” returns to the USA by way of Canada remain unconfirmed, but with the Canadian dollar still much weaker than the U.S. dollar, Canada remains the undiscovered, underrated, and grossly underpriced travel bargain of North America, this year almost as much as last.)

Even if a travel agent is involved, the problems aren’t necessarily their fault, even if that’s the implicit minor premise of most of the letters I get from readers asking for advice about things that went wrong on their trips. Viewers of the reality-TV travel show have the same problem I have, most of the time, as a real-life travel advisor: we simply aren’t shown or told enough reality to tell why things went wrong.

Did Cindy and Russell write down their desired destination for the travel agent, or show him the written directions to the next destination of the race? If not, how badly did they mispronounce the name? Did they look up where they wanted to go in the index to a map, or ask the travel agent to point to where he was sending them on a map? Did they proofread their tickets, one coupon at a time, before leaving the counter? Did the travel agent tell them there was more than one place with a similar name, or ask to which one they really wanted to go?

A common problem I face as a travel agent: someone names an unusual destination, with a name very close to that of a common destination. Do I assume they really mean the common tourist destination, and have gotten the name or its pronunciation slightly wrong? Or do I assume they really want to go to, say, an uninhabited island? I’ve learned always to ask — I’ve had clients who really wanted to go to uninhabited islands — but most travel agents in such circumstances, especially if there’s limited common language, will send the tourist to the place most tourists go. Most of the time, that’s what the tourist wants. Rarely, though, does the travel agent get extra credit for figuring it out and sending the traveller to the place they really wanted, rather than to the one they actually named.

Was there anything else in the race clue that would have helped them distinguish Gmunden from Gmund? Knowing the nearest major city, for example, can often resolve ambiguities. Similar names for multiple cities, towns, and airports in the same country — like Portland and Bloomington, among many others, in the USA — are surprisingly common. Not infrequently, a small village or historical site of great touristic interest has the same name as a much more populous, but less touristed, city or town. Even with the best gazetteers, I sometimes have difficulty identifying a place solely by name. The same place often has many names, and the same name can have many spellings or transliterations.

You may want to go from Urumchi to Kashgar in East Turkestan. There’s a train, and those are the names in local usage. But you won’t find those cities, or that country, on any timetables or government maps: East Turkestan is considered a province (“Xinjiang”, or “New Dominions”, one of the more crudely honest imperialist place-names I’ve yet encountered) of China, and the only officially-recognized transliterations from the city names in Uighur (the local, Turkic, Arabic-script language) to English are by way of Chinese characters and Pinyin: “Urumqi” and “Kashi”.

Ambiguity aside, it isn’t necessarily anyone’s “fault” when things don’t go according to plan. Miscommunications and unexpected events are an inevitable part of all but the the most stultifyingly routinized package tour. A willingness to risk making (embarassing and/or inconvenient) mistakes, and to be taken for a fool, is a prerequisite to bridging any language gap or eventually achieving fluency in a new language.

An itinerary is a plan, not a list of specifications for a commodity that you can take out of the box, compare to the list, and return for a refund if anything isn’t exactly as described. Shit happens, whether or not you are travelling.

(P.S. I’ll be travelling myself until late July, and for part of that time I’ll be out of the area where “The Amazing Race” is being broadcast in the USA and Canada. I’ll catch up when I return, if I’m able to get recordings of the episodes I’ve missed. In the meantime, happy travels.)

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