Tuesday, 11 January 2005

The Amazing Race 6, Episode 7

Budapest (Hungary) - Ajaccio, Corsica (France) - Calvi, Corsica (France) - l’Ile Rousse, Corsica (France)

In this week’s episode of The Amazing Race, Adam and Rebecca jump into first place (midway through the race around the world, although still in Europe despite a side trip to Africa) by completing a “Fast Forward” challenge that requires open-ocean diving on the sea floor off Corsica in heavy, antique lead-weighted diving suits and helmets, with air supplied through hoses from the surface.

That’s easy enough for Rebecca, who’s previously been trained and certified as a scuba diver. Adam, however, has difficulty figuring out how to control the air valves, his breathing, or his buoyancy. He ends up floating on the surface, helpless and panicked, with his diving suit inflated so rigidly that he can’t move. The dive crew has to haul him bodily out of the water onto the dock and unscrew his helmet.

Despite the divemaster’s quite appropriate suggestion that Adam take a break until he calms down — panic is a major risk factor in diving and, according to some things I’ve read, the leading cause of death while diving — Adam soon accedes to Rebecca’s demands that he hurry up and try again. This time he succeeds in controlling both his panic reaction and the air valves, descends to the sea floor (we aren’t told how deep it is), walks some unspecified distance along the bottom to the location of the next clue, and successfully returns to the starting point and the surface.

It’s tempting to assume that “All’s well that end’s well”, and to direct any criticism at Adam for his fear, rather than at Rebecca for her urging him to do something he felt he wasn’t capable of.

I’m not a diver, and I don’t feel qualified to judge just how much actual danger there was in this type of dive (at least if the diver didn’t panic), in these conditions, with, presumably, extra helpers standing by and even more care being taken than in a normal tourist dive on account of the television shoot.

But real-world travellers can’t rely on television producers to check out the safety of adventurous activities or outfitters. Nor can you assume that certified guides who know what they are doing will ensure the safety of an activity — some things are inherently dangerous, even when done or overseen by experts — or count on local people who profit from arranging tourist activities to warn you of their dangers. There are plenty of places around the world where the tourist economy revolves around activities most locals regard as insanely dangerous, and would never engage in unless they were paid.

“If tourists want to pay us to risk their lives, why should we stop them?” is the typical attitude, especially in places where most of the tourists are much richer than most local people.

Nor can you assume that something must be safe just because, “Everyone else is doing it.” Other tourists are probably no better informed about the risks than you are, and likely to be making the same assumption. Typically, it’s only after a fatal accident that people start asking why they didn’t all perceive the danger in the latest local adventure-sports fad. And the risk may be very different for those with expertise or training (certified divers, for example) than for novices — it’s very dangerous to assume that something will be safe for your travelling companion just becuse you know how to do it safely.

Of course we’d like our vacation to be a holiday from worries about things like safety, but that’s not possible, no matter how much we pay a tour operator to take care of us and protect us. Our personal safety is something for which we all have to take personal responsibility and maintain alertness, even while we are travelling, especially in unfamilar places or situations.

I was thinking about this recently when I met a friend who had survived last month’s tsumami at a dive resort in the Maldives. When every structure on the island was washed away, the distinction between “staff” and “guests”, or who had paid whom (almost everyone having had their money and personal documents washed away anyway) became relatively insignificant. When it took three days for help to arrive, what came to matter was their physical and emotional condition; what useful objects they had salvaged or could find; and what skills and ability each of them had to help themselves as well as help others survice.

It’s common, for a variety of reasons, for people to take risks while travelling that they wouldn’t take at home. Almost all of us do, in different ways. “I’ll never be here again, or get another chance to do this,” is a powerful temptation. I explore back alleys in China, alone and on foot, speaking and reading no Chinese. You, perhaps, jump out of airplanes with a parachute, or jump off bridges tethered only with a bungee cord.

What matters isn’t whether we would try each other’s flavors of adventure, or think each other nuts, but whether our choices are reasonably deliberate and informed by a reasonably complete knowledge of what risks they entail. The key thing is that we be aware of, and comfortable with, the choice we’ve made, so that whatever happens, we’ll feel the risk was worthwhile and deliberately chosen, not something to regret.

Which risks are inherent in the activity, and which can be avoided? If something does go wrong, and you get hurt, would you rather it happen while you are travelling, or closer to home?

One obvious way to reduce the risk of activities like diving, climbing, or whitewater sports, if you plan to engage in them while travelling, is to get at least some training near home, before your trip. Not only will that give you some safety and self-rescue skills, but it will give you an idea of what to look for in an outfitter, and how to judge their competence and safety.

Ask a local expert or trainer, or the instructor in your introductory class at home: “What should I look for, or ask about, before I decide to go kayaking/sky diving/canyoneering with a local operator in Country X?”

If you have no training of your own, it’s hard to judge a guide’s or instructor’s purported credentials, but it’s a lot easier at home than in a strange country, and much easier if someone you trust has given you a checklist of things to look for and ask about.

None of us wants to be laughed at for our fear, as many television viewers no doubt laughed at Adam this week. But even less, if we think about it, do we want to have to live with having chosen to take risks that we didn’t think about, as a result of which we or someone else came to harm.

It’s good to overcome unfounded fears, and many things that are scary aren’t really dangerous . But well-founded fear that warns us of danger can be a good thing: a useful reminder of the importance of rational risk assessment, regardless of what personal criteria and values we use to conduct that risk/benefit analysis.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 11 January 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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