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The Amazing Race 4, Episode 9 (17 July 2003)

Pulau Manukan, Sabah (Malaysia) - Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (Malaysia) - Kinabalu National Park, Sabah (Malaysia) - Sandakan, Sabah (Malaysia)

Finding Your Way Around the World

Navigation is an essential skill for independent travel. If you don't want to be led around all the time on guided tours, you have to learn how to find your own way -- usually by following directions and/or reading a map.

"I'm just no good at reading maps," Millie says at one point during this week's episode of "The Amazing Race". And at the end of the episode, after taking too many wrong turns, and not getting back on the right track in time, Millie and her partner Chuck finish last and are eliminated from the race.

But there's more to it than innate ability. Here are some of the navigation lessons that might have kept Chuck and Millie in the race, and could help you avoid the need to limit yourself to guided tours:

  • Practice makes perfect.

    OK, maybe not perfect -- but it helps. As I mentioned in a column a few weeks ago, practice at map reading and navigation in an unfamiliar place should be an essential part of preparation for any contestant on "The Amazing Race", or for any independent travel (especially anywhere you will be driving your own vehicle, and/or where you don't speak the local language well).

    Even if you don't improve your ability to follow the map when you know where you are, practice getting lost will help you learn what to do when you don't know where you are:

    1. How not to panic (getting lost is often inevitable, and not usually or necessarily a disaster if you realize it promptly and act appropriately);
    2. How to figure out when you have made a mistake, before you have deviated too far from your desired course; and
    3. How to figure out where you are, retrace your steps, or find your way back to someplace where you know where you are on your map.

  • You can't drive and read a map at the same time.

    Driving and navigation are separate skills, and it simply isn't possible for even an expert to navigate effectively from behind the steering wheel. In road rallies -- competitive tests of driving and navigation -- there is always a separate, designated driver and navigator in each team car. In some longer rallies the teammates trade roles periodically, but in most day long road rallies one person navigates, and the other drives, for the entire course. That makes sense for most travellers as well, especially if they've travelled together enough to have figured out which of them is better at each task.

    The worst choice of roles, unfortunately, is actually the most common, as we've seen repeatedly in "The Amazing Race": the more controlling member of a team (usually the man in a male/female couple) insists on driving and on trying to navigate. No matter how much it goes against the driver's desire to be in control, driver's-seat navigation is generally just as counterproductive as backseat driving, or worse.

  • There's more variation in navigation skill than in driving skill.

    Driving more skillfully generally makes only a marginal difference to travel time, but navigation errors can easily double or triple it. In most situations where speed is limited (as it is in "The Amazing Race", where the racers are required to observe all local speed limits), if the same person is the better driver and the better navigator, they should navigate. If Millie really couldn't read a map, she should have taken over the driving -- even if she was a much worse driver -- and let Chuck navigate. Once again, their mistake was typical: because driving is considered more prestigious and macho (the navigator is second or third in command of an airplane, for example), most people think first about "Who's the better driver?" when they should think first about "Who's the better navigator?"

  • Maps matter.

    Far more people bring guidebooks with them when they travel than bring maps. That's a major mistake: most guidebooks are available locally, but the best maps often aren't. And the maps included in even the best guidebooks aren't intended as a substitute for full-sized sheet maps. I carry the best maps I can obtain in advance of wherever I'm going, regardless of price, and I've never regretted it.

    Most of the maps we see being used by contestants on "The Amazing Race" are either guidebook maps or (as this week in Malaysian Borneo) free maps from the government tourism office or chamber of commerce. Those aren't necessarily bad, but for driving in particular there are usually better and more detailed maps available for purchase. Once they know where they are going, the racers' first priority while waiting for planes, trains, or buses, or while in transit, should be searching out the best maps of their destination that they can find.

  • Get help from local people who know the roads and routes.

    Just because you are on your own doesn't mean that you have to find your own way. Especially on difficult, complex, confusing, or poorly-marked routes, the best map is often a local person who knows the way by heart.

    Occasionally someone has volunteered to lead teams on "The Amazing Race" to their next destination -- either on foot or in a vehicle -- but rarely have any of the racers actually hired a taxi to lead their self-drive car, or someone to lead them on foot through a city. A local teenager studying English in school, or a taxi driver, may charge only a fraction of the daily or hourly price of a professional "tour leader", while providing much more valuable personalized service.

    Even without a common language, someone can often draw you a map, or mark up yours, as long as you can communicate -- perhaps through a picture or pantomime -- where it is you want to go. One of the first purchases for any team on "The Amazing Race" should be a single-use camera with which to take pictures of the "route marker" flags, clue boxes, and signs. On the plane to each new place, the racers should get the help of a fellow passenger to write on a fresh page of their notebook in the language of the destination, "I am in a race. Have you seen a marker like the one in this picture? Please point which direction I should go," to use with the pictures in asking directions.

    Ordinary travellers can do the same for important messages they know they will need to communicate: wherever we go where she doesn't speak the language, for example, my companion has someone write, "I am allergic to milk, cheese, and butter" in the local language on a small card to carry in her wallet.


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