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Edward Hasbrouck on "The Amazing Race 4"

Episode 2: Thursday, 5 June 2003

Cortina d'Ampezzo (Italy) - Venice (Italy)


"I realize you want to win, but this is really beautiful."

As Amanda's comment while being rowed through Venice in a gondola points up, there's a big difference between the way you'd travel if you were in "The Amazing Race" for a million dollar prize, and what you'd do if you just wanted to enjoy the ride.

As in previous seasons, the racers seem to think they have to choose between "Fast" and "Fun", as though the whole race were one of the "Detours" in which teams "must choose between two tasks, each with its own pros and cons." They are mistaken: This needn't be the only big trip of a lifetime, for the racers or for most ordinary tourists.

You don't have to make it onto the cast of "The Amazing Race" to take a trip around the world. Airline tickets are close to their lowest prices in history. If you plan ahead, instead of buying full-fare tickets for each flights at the last minute like the racers, tickets from the USA around the world and back start at under US$1500 for the cheapest routes. And round-trip tickets from the USA to almost anywhere (except portions of Africa) cost less than that.

It's generally a mistake to try to cram everything you've ever wanted to see and do into one trip, on the theory that you'll never get back to those places again in your life. With few exceptions, if you decide you really like a place, you can come back again when you have more time. And you're more likely to enjoy it in the first place if you don't try to do too much, or cover too much ground, on your first visit. Pick a more limited area, and go slowly enough to appreciate it. Get a sense of life, instead of just sights and sites, and you'll be better able to tell if you want to return to explore further afield.

In their hurry to go to too many places in too little time -- which might be expected to be what sets racers apart form ordinary travellers -- the racers are much more normal than you might imagine. The most common mistake of around-the-world travel planning is trying to go to too many places in too little time. My rule of thumb is that most first- time around-the-world travellers would be happier at the end of their trip if they cut their initial list of destinations at least in half. Each season of "The Amazing Race" lasts about a month in real time; I recommend taking at least twice that much time, if you can, to avoid remembering your trip as an endless succession of airports and taxis.

In other ways as well, the story of this episode of the race is that the most seemingly abnormal aspects of the race, and the racers' actions, are actually quite typical of the challenges faced by real travellers.

There are two major tests of skill in this episode of the race. In the first, the teams have to make their way through the city of Venice either by gondola (rowed by a professionals, but having to direct the boatman from a map, and forbidden to ask for directions) or on foot (under their own power but free to ask for guidance).

It's a no-brainer, but most of the racers get it wrong. Rule #1 of direction finding, especially in complex mazes, is to enquire locally or, better yet, get a guide to lead you. Trying to find your own way, and getting lost, can be an interesting and educational experience, but it's apt to be slow.

The team that gets to the "route marker" first, Chuck and Millie, asks strangers for directions at every turn, and eventually find someone going their way who leads them to their goal. Most of the teams choose the gondolas, and direct the gondoliers through wrong turns and into dead-end canals. Jon and Kelly do worst: they go on foot, but Jon won't ask for directions and relies on his compass instead. ("Typical man", says my female partner, probably correctly.) My advice? Carry a compass and a map, but use them as your last resort, not your first.

As it turns out, the race through the streets and canals has no effect on the order of finish. The next "Roadblock" is at a pseudo-16th century masquerade ball (with possibly the largest cast of anything we've seen to date in "The Amazing Race") that doesn't start until hours later. All the racers are waiting together when it opens, except Dave and Steve who use the one "Fast Forward" to bypass the rest of the tasks in the episode.

Each team can only use a "Fast Forward" once in the entire race, so it's a major strategic move and one that few teams seem to have used wisely in previous seasons and episodes. But it looks like a reasonable choice here: they get a 6-hour jump on all the other teams, and a chance for Dave to rest the knee he injured in the first leg of the race.

You might think, "In the real world, there's no magic ticket to bypass the hassles other travellers go through". But in some ways even the "Fast Forward" does have its corollary for ordinary travellers: most people budget for an occasional -- but only occasional -- major splurge of extra comfort for rest and recuperation from the rigors of the road. Knowing when you (and your travelling companion) would most benefit from a night in a better hotel, a fine meal, a taxi rather than a bus, or a flight rather than a night on train, is an important travel skill.

The final challenge in this episode is for each of the racers to identify which of the costumed revelers' masks matches a snapshot they are handed at the entrance to the ball. Chris keeps making mistakes, and having to start over with a new photo each time; in the end, he and Amanda finish last and are eliminated from the race.

Surely, this is no test of any real travel skill -- or is it? If you don't speak the language, and it isn't written in an alphabet you understand, you'll often find it essential to match meaningless (to you) patterns in books and maps with those on street signs, buildings, etc. Can you recognize the Chinese characters for "men" and "women" on the doors of the toilets, and tell them apart? That's as far as I ever got on character recognition, but it was pretty important to learn that much!

It's harder than you might at first expect: Is this a different symbol or name from the one in my guidebook or map, or the same one written in a different script or style? And fundamentally, it uses the same conceptual and pattern-recognition skills as the racers' challenge to match the colors and shapes on the masks of people at the Venetian palace party to the postcard they were given.

So kudos to the producers of "The Amazing Race" this week, for a good collection of tests of real travel skills. Stay tuned, and maybe we'll get to some interesting destinations this season to match the interesting activities. Or don't stay tuned, and take a real trip to some interesting destinations yourself!

Bon voyage,

Edward

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