Tuesday, 16 November 2004
The Amazing Race 6, Episode 1
Chicago, IL (USA) - Reykjavik (Iceland) - Hvolsvollur (Iceland) - Vatnajokoll Glacier (Iceland) - Breidarmerkur Lagoon (Iceland) - Grindavik (Iceland)
From the start, this first episode of The Amazing Race 6 was a bit more complicated a production than usual -- both for the television show and for my column.
For the television producers, the problem was a corollary of the success of "The Amazing Race": the more people are aware of the show, the more likely the racers and and the crew accompanying them are to be recognized, as they were by the person who took the photos I posted last season.
This season, after successive Emmy awards for best reality-TV show in 2003 and 2004, and record viewership that's finally moved the program into the top 20 weekly programs in ratings in the USA, the crowd of racers and film crew were spotted running through the Loop in Chicago from the starting line on the lakefront to catch a train to O'Hare Airport.
Betraying a Southern Californian's ignorance of places with multiple rail systems and stations -- particularly problematic in Chicago, still the rail hub of the USA -- one racer asks a passer-by on the street, "Which way to the train station?" The only possible response in Chicago, although it wasn't shown in the broadcast, is, "Which train station?"
Confusingly, the Blue Line "El" ("Elevated") from the "Loop" to O'Hare runs in a north-south subway at that point, despite the names, and not on the elevated loop. Midway Airport, one of my favorite airports since I first lived on the South Side of Chicago as a college student 25 years ago, and now the largest low-fare airline hub in the USA, would probably have been more convenient, but wasn't allowed by the producers, since going to Midway would have meant flying on one of the shows' sponsoring airlines' cheaper competitors.
Things didn't go any better for the producers on arrival in Iceland, where once again they were recognized almost immediately.
Thanks to my helpful colleague Amy at Airtreks.com (who worked at the Blue Lagoon when she lived in Iceland) and the kind translation of her husband Högni (who is from Iceland, although they met while they both were working on a cruise ship in the tropics on the opposite side of the world), I got a lot of details about this episode from Icelandic newspapers, television, and Web sites two months ago.
Reporters for local newspapers "rushed to the scene" when they got word of the commotion occasioned by the arrival of the race at the first pit stop, the Blue Lagoon baths and spa resort in Grindavik on the outflow lagoon of the geothermal power plant that's visible steaming in the background of some of the scenes in tonight's television episode.
Now, after seeing how much driving back and forth in opposite directions on the same roads the racers did (even those who didn't get lost and do even more backtracking, as several did) it's understandable why even the local news reporters found it difficult accurately to reconstruct the route of the race.
According to local news reports -- published and broadcast while the race was still on "the ice cube", as locals call the island -- the journalists were initially unsure what was going on. They figured it out pretty quickly, though, once they put their observations together with reports of the teams' arrival in Reykjavik.
The hotel at the Blue Lagoon is too small to accommodate the entire cast and crew, so most of the production staff spent the night in a fleet of trailers parked in the lava field near the finish line for the first leg of the race. At least one reporter hiked into the lava field and watched the filming of post-race interviews with the eliminated team (Joe and Avi) before being "escorted out".
Another photographer hid in the lava field and got pictures of the teams (although not nearly as recognizable as those I published last season) as they drove off the next morning. Others took pictures of the "Amazing Race" video crew as they in turn were filming the racers at Leif Eriksson (Keflavik) Airport.
People who had been hired locally to work on the race said that they (as well as, presumably, the people from the tourist promotion office who helped arrange to bring the race to Iceland) all had to sign 3-year secrecy agreements. But journalists sought out anyone who had seen or spoken with the racers and who wasn't under a non-disclosure agreement. The Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Hvolsvollur, for example, was identified as one of the race destinations by someone in a gas station where one of the teams asked for directions. Journalists didn't figure out where the racers spent the previous night only because they had been at a camp truly "on the ice" on the Vatnajokoll Glacier near Hofn -- remote even by the standards of a sparsely-populated country like Iceland.
Nothing like this -- with the local people who encountered the racers having being tipped off to what was happening, and production crew being on the other side of the news cameras -- had happened in the previous five seasons of the race.
If there's a lesson in this for real-world travellers, it's that privacy and anonymity can be at least as difficult to find in a "remote" and unpopulated place with lots of open space -- where there are few people, everybody knows everybody, and outsiders are instantly conspicuous -- than in a big city. Sometimes the best place to "get away from it all", and not to be recognized as a tourist, is a giant cosmopolitan metropolis, even a crowded one.
My own problems tonight relate to being in Hollywood for the annual PhoCusWright conference of Internet travel and travel technology executives. Since I'm by myself, and in conference sessions all day, I'm staying at an inexpensive motel a couple of blocks from the conference hotel. I don't need a fancy room, just a television and an Internet connection. Not too much to ask for, right?
My room had a television, but an hour before the start of "The Amazing Race" I discovered that because of a wiring problem it would get every channel except KCBS. Fortunately, this is Hollywood, where the hotel desk clerk understood, "I need to watch this particular TV show for my job," as a valid reason for an immediate room change.
Then I found that the advertised high-speed Internet service in the motel was inexplicably not working. Since I'm not staying over a Saturday night, I'd bought my airline tickets and prepaid for the hotel as part of a "package" offered by an Internet travel agency. Normally I'd make reservations directly with a hotel, or haggle with them in person at the front desk if I didn't have reservations, but in this case it was worth paying for the hotel through a packager to get dramatically cheaper airline tickets.
Travel industry people here at PhoCusWright refer to these offerings as "vacation packages", but they and the airlines' pricing managers who authorize the airfares included in these packages are deluding themselves: Since they offer deep-discount airfares on high-fare airlines without a Saturday-night stay requirement, they are much more useful for business than leisure travellers. But since the description of the non-working hotel Internet service came from the hotel, not from the packager from whom I made the purchase and with whom I have a contract, I have no recourse with either.
I've talked with travel packagers such as Michelle Peluso, founder of Site59.com (which has a particularly consumer-hostile disclaimer of responsibility in their terms and conditions -- no one who actually read and understood it would buy from their Web site) and now president of Travelocity.com, who claim that this distinction doesn't matter. But in cases like this it obviously does. I've also talked with people at PhoCusWright who claim to have figured out ways (to be deployed "real soon now") to provide accurate descriptions of these details on third-party travel Web sites. I'll believe it when I see it.
When you rely on third-party information, you take the risk, as I knew I was doing but many consumers don't realize. That's the tradeoff for sometimes (certainly not always) getting a better price. That's fine, if clearly disclosed, but it rarely is, and almost nobody reads contracts no matter how many times I and other consumer advocates tell people, "If you don't want to have problems after you've bought things, read all the fine print before you pay, and know with whom you are entering into a contract."
Anyway, I ended up walking down the street to the conference hotel, where I confused and alarmed the guards by walking in off the street (walking? in Los Angeles?) well after midnight and sitting down to work on my Psion computer on the hotel's wireless Internet connection -- at the closed bar in the empty lobby. Fortunately, they didn't kick me out, although they were clearly very suspicious and watched me closely.
It's still early to be making predictions about the race, although some of the previous winners and contestants (including last season's winners, Kim and Chip), didn't hesitate to do so when they were interviewed on KCBS after the broadcast of the first leg. Nonetheless, I'll be talking more next week about this season's travel racers. In the meantime, you can talk about the race yourself, and make your own predictions, in the "Amazing Race" message boards and game at IndependentTraveler.com , where my columns are also being featured this season.Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 16 November 2004, 23:59 (11:59 PM)