Tuesday, 24 August 2004

The Amazing Race 5, Episode 8

Lake Manyara (Tanzania) - Kilimanjaro Airport (Tanzania) - Nairobi (Kenya) - Dubai (United Arab Emirates)

I’ve tried to avoid criticizing the contestants on The Amazing Race, most of whom have limited international travel experience and all of whom are subject to being depicted
in whatever manner the television show’s producers and editors think will attract the most viewers, no matter how much that may distort what really happened.

But I can’t restrain myself this week, when the racers’ behavior, at least as depicted on television , crosses what I see as an ethical line between unskilled travellers, or even boorish “ugly Americans”, and people who refuse to pay their bills.

Aside from the possibility that getting arrested for “theft of services” could ruin your trip or cause you to lose the race (presumably it’s only the presence of the television cameras that protects Colin when his and Christie’s driver goes to the police), it’s a breach of the trust extended by people much poorer than the racers. It has no excuse — again, as shown on television, which may well have edited out exculpatory events — even if doing otherwise would have cost them the race.

The television producers share the blame, unless they too redeemed themselves off camera: It’s one thing to cheat other racers, or allow them to cheat each other, but it’s something else entirely to cheat locals, and the producers should forbid and penalize it. I can only hope that, off camera, the producers made up the amount that Chip and Kim shorted their taxi driver, and would have done the same for Colin and Christie’s driver had they not eventually paid what they had agreed.

Colin tries to claim that he only agreed to pay the full US$100 if his taxi driver didn’t let any others pass him. That’s not much for a two-hour taxi ride, for four passengers — the two team members, the camera operator, and the sound technician — from a luxury safari lodge in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. More importantly, he appears not to have tried to qualify his offer to pay until well after getting into the cab — and, by doing so without the driver’s explicit agreement to a lower price, implicitly agreeing to pay the $100 price the driver had demanded.

Travellers, in their inevitable ignorance relative to locals, make lots of mistakes, but that doesn’t entitle them to demand their money back after the fact. That’s even more true where, as here, a relatively poor local person has, in effect, extended credit to a much wealthier traveller by not demanding payment in advance.

The way to minimize problems is to ask questions in advance, and/or to reciprocate the trust by assuming that local people know what they are doing, and are trying to help.

After the fact, Colin complains that it was unsafe for the driver to start the journey with a “compact spare tire” on one wheel. But the “doughnut” spare would have been plainly visible had Colin given the cab even the most cursory visual inspection. That should be standard practice before getting in almost any vehicle, certainly for a journey as long as two hours. Before buying a bus or train ticket, especially when there’s a choice of companies or classes, I always try to go down to the station or bus yard to inspect the vehicles.

Colin might also have suspected that if the driver was reluctant to go faster, even for more money, maybe he had a reason. The last couple of times I’ve had to drive on compact spare tires, they have been rated for a maximum speed of only 45-50 miles per hour.

Whether a flat tire is normal wear and tear which should be included in the regular fare or rental price, or damage for which the passenger or renter should pay extra, is perhaps arguable (although I don’t think so). I’m currently contesting an attempt to bill me over US$200 for “damage” to a car I rented from the Fox Rental Car franchise at LAX airport in Los Angeles that had a flat tire in the garage of my hotel, forcing me to drive back to the airport to return it at 45 mph on city streets on the compact spare, rather than on the freeway. For all I know, that tire may have had a slow leak when I picked it up. But in Colin’s case, any court in the USA would have found that insisting the driver go faster than he wanted to was “contributory negligence”. He should have paid more if he caused the driver to ruin his spare tire, not less.

It’s not clear that Chip and Kim’s taxi driver is really much more willing to accept their inability to pay the full amount on the meter. But since he doesn’t find out until they are outside the city of Dubai in the desert, it’s not as easy to walk over to the police station to make a complaint as it was for Colin and Christie’s driver at Kilimanjaro Airport. Despite Chip’s protestations of good intentions, he actually placed himself at even greater risk of arrest: Colin had the money to pay the full amount he had agreed to (as he eventually did), which Chip didn’t.

Chip had a choice: he could have, but didn’t, warn the cabbie in advance, “I have only US$X. Will that be OK, or can we work something out?” Nor did he offer to give up something of readily realized value — his watch, for example — in lieu of cash to pay the fare. In the end, he put the race ahead of his ethical and financial obligations — and, as travellers so often do, moved on while someone else was left behind with the adverse consequences of their lack of consideration.

Earlier this season in the race, when self-described “bowling moms” Karen and Linda lost all their money (under a new rule for the race this season) for finishing last in a non-elimination leg in Egypt, they decided that it would be unfair to beg from people poorer than they are. So they waited for a tour bus to arrive at the pyramids, and begged what they needed to get on with the race from other (relatively wealthy) foreign tourists. A commendable choice: too many First World travellers who run short of cash in the Third or Fourth World forget that theirs is only a temporary cash-flow problem, and very different from the situation of local people trapped in permanent poverty.

Next week we’ll see how Kami and Karli, who had to turn in all their cash as the penalty for finishing last this week, cope with a similar set of choices. (Note to future racers: bring or, if you accumulate some cash or are in danger of finishing last in a likely non-elimination leg, buy some small readily saleable items — an extra wristwatch, for example — that you can use in lieu of cash if your money is forfeited.)

Thus far, the twins’ (lack of) attire in Egypt, Tanzania, and the UAE has displayed an astonishing lack or either awareness or concern for local mores. The teaser for the next episode suggests that we’ll get a case study of whether sex appeal will trump the immorality (by local standards) of so much young female flesh on display in motivating people to help them. I suspect that it will work better in Dubai than in Kolkata, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 24 August 2004, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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