Tuesday, 8 March 2005
The Amazing Race 7, Episode 2
Cusco (Peru) - Arequipa (Peru) - Santiago (Chile)
Must you see the "must see" attractions?
This week The Amazing Race said, "No", leaving Peru for Chile (via, inexplicably, Argentina, once again forbidding the racers from taking the nonstop flight on LAN Chile) after a "pit stop" in Cusco without a visit to Machu Picchu, the World Heritage Site that is most visitors' first, and often only, destination in the region.
Few foreign tourists go to Peru and don't go to Machu Picchu. Even fewer get as close as Cusco -- the nearest airport and nearest large city -- without going there. Certainly no tourist goes to Peru without at least considering a detour to Machu Picchu.
Does this mean there is there something wrong with the race producers' choice? Not at all. Cusco itself is a World Heritage Site, and there would be plenty of good reasons to go to Peru even if Machu Picchu didn't exist.
But many viewers are likely to be surprised, and question this choice, just as your friends would probably be surprised, and some might expect an explanation, if you went to Peru but not Machu Picchu, India but not the Taj Mahal, Egypt but not the Great Pyramid, or Paris but not the Eiffel Tower.
We may never know why the producers of the race chose the route they did. To some degree, that choice reflects the success of the show, and the power of the fantasy to which it appeals: the idea of a trip "around the world" is more significant than the specific places it passes through, and in its seventh season the race no longer feels the necessity to prove its bona fides by visiting the marquee attractions in every country where it touches down.
Most people never live out their fantasy of a trip around the world. Even for those who take such a trip, it's most often planned as a once-in-a-lifetime journey. As a result, around-the-world travellers often feel obliged to include certain icons of world travel, or think that "if I'm going to Country X, I have to go to Site Y". The same thing happens even on shorter trips to places people expect to visit only once in their life.
A typical result is that someone with little interest in oil paintings, who would rarely spend a free day in their hometown in a museum of visual art, reads a guidebook that lists art museums as a "must-see" in every major city in Europe. Convinced that "You couldn't go to Paris and not go to the Louvre", they spend half a day, out of their two or three days in Paris, waiting in line to see the Mona Lisa. After repeating this process in half a dozen other cities, they wonder why they didn't enjoy travel in Europe as much as they enjoyed travelling in other places where they did things more in line with their own interests.
For me, there are no hard-and-fast rules. There are places that, for most visitors, live up to their reputations, and others that disappoint most visitors yet somehow remain on the "standard" tourist routes. There are reasons -- often good ones -- that particular sights and sites have acquired their iconic status, and there are reasons to avoid any such place and -- all else being equal, which it never is -- to choose destinations of lesser repute where there's a higher ratio of locals to tourists, and/or of local tourists to foreigners.
Most people who've been there think -- and I concur -- that the Taj Mahal is a special place, and worth a considerable detour. But so are many other places in the South Asian subcontinent. For what it's worth, if I had to recommend a single side trip to a city in India other than an international gateway, to visit a spiritual and architectural monument of great symbolic importance, I would have no hesitation in choosing the Harmandar Sahib ("Golden Temple") in Amritsar, rather than the Taj Mahal.
I spent a week in the Paris area, and I have no regrets that I didn't choose to spend any time at the Louvre. I'd take it as an insult to the richness and diversity of Paris and its inhabitants if you tried to tell me that nothing else in the area could possibly be as rewarding as that particular museum.
That's a matter of taste, of course. My point is not to suggest an (alternate) hierarchy of must-see's, but to point out that that there are more places to go, things to do, and equally valid choices of priorities than are admitted by even the most exhaustive list of "musts". No one can see the whole world, and few people would agree on what are its "highlights". Any lifetime of travel will, inevitably, leave most of the planet unvisited.
If someone in the USA says they are going to Europe, they aren't likely to be asked, "But why aren't you going to China?" even though that might be a possible alternate way to spend the same budget of travel time and money (or less). The question I would ask is, "Why is Europe your priority?" In the same vein, the question for The Amazing Race or the real-world traveller who follows the same path isn't, "Why didn't you go to Machu Picchu?", but "What interested you about Cusco and Arequipa?" or wherever you did choose to go.
In choosing destinations, the important thing is to be aware of your own interests and preferences, and to plan a trip that reflects what you want rather than what anyone else with different priorities might choose. Pay little or no attention to recommendations -- especially to "top 10" type lists -- unless you know something about who is making those recommendations, and why. That means not just, "Do they know something about travel, and about this place?" but "What kind of person are they, and what do they like?"
It's your own life. Take your own trip, for your own reasons.Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 8 March 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)