Tuesday, 3 August 2004

The Amazing Race 5, Episode 5

Pushkin (Russia) - St. Petersburg (Russia) - Cairo (Egypt) - Giza (Egypt)

I’ve criticized the travelling couples on The Amazing Race repeatedly for their lack of preparation, especially in not studying how to find the best flights. The importance of flight choices was on display again this week, with some teams getting from St. Petersburg to Cairo — not that far apart, on a global scale — 12 hours faster than others, and only two of the seven remaining teams finding any of the possible sets of connections that involved more than two flights, or flights on more than one airline.

If you make it through the current application process (no, Canadians are still not being allowed to apply, even though they travel much more and the race is much more popular on TV in Canada than in the USA), and get picked to race around the world for a one-in-eleven chance at half a million dollars, you should immediately apprentice yourself as a part-time intern in a local travel agency specializing in international flights, start physical training for extensive daily walking with a full pack, and plan as extensive an international practice trip with your partner as you can get time for before the race. You can go around the world from the USA and back in 2 weeks, with stops in Europe, India, and Southeast Asia, for US$2500 per person, all inclusive. I wouldn’t recommend such a pace for fun, but it would be excellent race training, as would spending two weeks trying to get around in a Third World country where you don’t know the language. Maybe let a friend pick the destination and arrange your tickets, so that, like the racers, you are completely unprepared.

There’s a limit, though, to how much you can prepare, and to what references you can bring. For the racers, that limit is the race rule forbidding them from bringing any references such as maps or guidebooks with them, even for the countries for which they have visas. For real travellers, the limit is the volume and weight — too much to carry for the entire trip — of all the guidebooks they are likely to want for a trip around the world.

So like travellers who aren’t on TV, the racers end up buying their maps and guidebooks along the way. At airports, mostly: teams aren’t allowed to leave the “pit stops” between legs of the race; only a few books are typically available for sale at the hotel bookstores at the pit stops; and most of the time the producers favor villas, dude ranches, castles, and other smaller, more distinctive, and isolated hotels that are even less likely to have on-site bookstores, newsstands, or Internet cafés than large, “What continent are we on?”, downtown business hotels.

For the majority of teams that spent 12 hours in Frankfurt airport (and could, if they so chose, have left the airport in search of bookstores in the city) in this leg of the race, it was likely to be their single best research and map and book buying opportunity of the entire race. Choosing which books and maps to buy, or how much money to spend on them (at US$23 for the Lonely Planet Egypt or US$24 for the Footprint Egypt guidebook, a single book or a couple of maps could cost a significant fraction of the US$123 the teams were each given for this leg) may not make good television drama, and weren’t shown at all, but these were actually key decisions in this episode.

So what’s the best reference and book buying strategy? For guidebooks, the needs of the racers are very different than those of normal travellers: almost none of the tasks for the racers have required any real understanding of, or interaction with local cultures, and there wouldn’t be time to acquire that sort of knowledge at a racing pace anyway. So the best guidebooks for the racers would be broad but shallow, covering large geographical areas in a single small book, filled with logistical details, and wasting no space on interpretation or reasons to visit, just how to get there and get around.

Different books would, of course, be best for real travellers with a higher priority on understanding what they see, interacting with local people, and being part of what’s happening, rather than just passing through as quickly as possible. I have reviews of the major guidebook series for independent travellers, as well as almost a hundred pages of other print and Internet resources on specific topics and for each region of the world (some of the references I find most useful for travel preparation, both in print and on the Internet, aren’t intended or marketed primarily for travellers) in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. And if you’re not forbidden to bring them with you, you can find many times more maps and guidebooks through specialty stores like Maplink in the USA, ITMB in Canada, and Stanfords in the UK than you would in any airport bookshop or hotel newsstand.

Unlike the racers, who had to solve a map puzzle this week as the clue to one of their “route markers”, real travellers aren’t given maps, and get to choose our own destinations. Whether in a reality-TV race or reality, though, my recommendation is to make bringing maps with you a higher priority for your money, and the space in your luggage, than guidebooks.

Special-interest guidebooks and references aren’t always available locally, but you can always buy or trade for second-hand copies of the more common general-purpose guidebooks from travellers about to leave, or coming from where you are going.

Finding maps locally is hit or miss, with little rhyme or reason to how useful or easy to find they will be. Some sort of map is almost always available locally, but it might be a “tourist map” (often the worst sort, designed for people who don’t need a map at all because they are on a guided tour, with pictures of tourist attractions rather than any useful detail) or a map in a language or even an alphabet you don’t understand.

When I was in China, for example, I found good cheap, detailed bus and transit maps readily available — in Chinese only. Since I can’t read Chinese, they would have been useless to me without the English-language maps I’d brought with me. First I would find where I was, and where I wanted to go, on the English map. Then I would locate the corresponding points on the Chinese map. From that, I could either figure out which numbered transit line would get me where I wanted to go, or point to my destination on the Chinese map to ask a passer-by to point me in the right direction or show me where the right bus stopped.

I recommend bringing with you whatever maps you think are essential, particularly overview maps of countries and regions and any specialized maps you’ll need for trekking or the like. I bring the best maps I can find, regardless of cost, and I’ve never regretted it. More than once I’ve had local people covet maps I brought that turned out to be better than anything locals had seen, and in China I wasn’t allowed to mail home my beautiful big bilingual map of the entire country (published as a joint venture with the Chinese government, but purchased from China Books in the USA) because the customs inspector at the post office assumed that any map that good must be a state secret!

Enough for now. It’s time for me to get some sleep (sleep deprivation is the bane of the overnight columnist as much as it is of the ‘round-the-world racer!) so I can go back to work in the morning helping other people plan their trips. But if you want more tips to plan your own amazing non-race around the world, and you’re in the San Francisco area, I’ll be giving a special talk this Thursday evening (5 August 2004) at the Airtreks.com office, and everyone who puts down a deposit toward an air trek will get a free, autographed copy of the new 3rd edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, with 600+ pages of additional advice. See my events calendar and the events of this blog for details of other coming events, including a newly-scheduled panel discussion on around-the-world travel at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, DC, 22 September 2004.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 3 August 2004, 23:45 (11:45 PM)
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