Wednesday, 17 May 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 11

Bangkok (Thailand) - Ayuthaya (Thailand) - Tokyo (Japan) - Fujiyoshida (Japan) - Lake Yamanaka (Japan) - Anchorage, AK (USA) - Mirror Lake, AK (USA) - Kincaid Park, AK (USA) - Denver, CO (USA) - Golden, CO (USA) - Denver, CO (USA)

The final episode of The Amazing Race 9 came down to a competition between the two front-running teams to identify (from a field of national flags) the flags of the countries they had passed through (counting only entries through customs and immigration, and not including airport transits) in the month-long race, and arrange the flags in the order that the racers had visited each country.

Remembering the sequence of countries proved more difficult that finding the flags. So in the most superficial sense, the travel skill that decided the race was itinerary memorization. Imagine that you’ve just seen, or participated in, If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium , and now you have to list, in correct order, the countries you’ve been in. Perhaps the most tricky bit for the Amazing Race 9 contestants was remembering whether they had stopped in Germany before or after Russia: all of the teams had flown through Germany en route from Brazil to Russia (but without stopping over) as well as flying back to Germany after their stay in Russia.

In an airline routing rule, this would be listed as SAO-X/FRA-MOW-FRA, with the “X” indicating, “without stopover” and with a scheduled transit time of less than 24 hours. On a ticket, it would look like this:

O São Paulo

Self-described “hippies” Tyler and B.J. figured it out ahead of Jeremy and Eric, leading the self-described “frat boys” to attribute their second-place finish either to a relative deficit of intelligence or to having studied at less prestigious universities.

I don’t think so. Flag identification, and recall of sequences of country names, might be topics in elementary or secondary school geography, but I doubt that they’re part of the college curriculum at Harvard (B.J.), U.C. Santa Cruz (Tyler), or even the Semester At Sea where Tyler and B.J. met each other.

It’s equally tempting, but would be equally mistaken, to attribute the hippies’ victory to the advantage of Tyler’s experience living in Japan, his ability to speak Japanese, and/or the disadvantage faced by African-Americans Yolanda and Ray, in comparison to the European-American teams, in trying to get help from Japanese passers-by. Yes, these things made a difference, but not a decisive one: All three teams arrived in Japan within a few minutes of each other, and were on the same flight back to the USA.

The more important factor in the outcome is that Tyler and B.J. wouldn’t still have been in the race at all when it got to Japan if they hadn’t excelled at a different real-world travel skill earlier on: Coping when things go wrong on the road, and you are dependent on help from others.

Twice, Tyler and B.J. finished last in a “non-elimination” leg of the race, as penalty for which they forfeited all of their money and all of their possessions except the clothes on their backs. The second time, when they drove straight to the “pit stop” finish line, barefoot in shorts after a task that involved swimming down a river in tropical southern-hemisphere summer Darwin, Australia, one of them was left without any long pants or footwear — only one leg before being sent to northern-hemisphere mid-winter Japan and then Alaska.

Each time this happened — and throughout the rest of the race, since they had lost the reserve of unspent cash that the other teams had accumulated — B.J. and Tyler had to make do with whatever they could persuade their fellow travellers (i.e. the other racers or other people staying in the same hotel or resort) or local strangers to provide.

You may never lose your pants and shoes half-way through a rush trip around the world, but you might. The most common serious crime affecting travellers is theft of luggage. Don’t bring anything with you on such a trip that you’d be heart-broken to lose. In one way or another, though, even those who think of ourselves as self-sufficient travellers end up relying on The Kindness Of Strangers to make or break our journeys. Both recognizing that fact, and being able to act on it when necessary — seeking and accepting help in a cooperative way that leaves both parties feeling good about the exchange — are key travel skills.

So what did B.J. and Tyler do to get people to help them?

  • Smile. As host Phil Keoghan pointed out at the finish, Tyler and B.J. kept smiling even when they thought they might be eliminated. It may seem unfair, but an upbeat attitude wins more friends than does misery.

  • Make the most of what you have. If you wait for the bus, while telling people, “I don’t have bus fare”, they are likely to respond (or at least to think), “If you can’t afford the bus, why aren’t you walking?” If you start walking (with a smile), someone is likely to offer you a ride.

  • Be prepared to trust strangers. For many people, this is the hardest part of independent travel. But sooner or later, every traveller will find themselves with no choice but to trust. Yes, it can be scary, but it’s inevitable. Better to accept the idea in advance than to panic when it happens. Remember that they may be at least as afraid of you as you are of them. Tyler’s experience walking through Japan was the best sort of practice in trusting travel. Walking and bicycling make for such revealing and personally transformative travel experiences (and such great stories, like those of cyclists Willie Weir and Dervla Murphy) not just because of their slow speed but because of the relationships of trust they require of the traveller, and the intimacy that trust creates. When you trust your hosts, they can open themselves up to you without the fear that travellers’ relative wealth and power often creates.

  • Try to see yourself and your actions as they appear to others. Whether they help you will be determined by how they see you, not by how you see yourself. Tyler’s experience and training as a film-maker was probably a big help in imagining different perspectives, and creating scenes that would appeal to others.

  • Give something back — even if it’s just a smile. If you can do something else to please, to entertain, to assist your benefactor, do it. Juggle, sing, dance, stand on your head. For better or for worse, far more people will give money to a busker than to a beggar. If they offer you hospitality, offer something more substantial in return. Cook them a meal. Clean their house. Carry their load. Care for their children. Above all else, if you ever get a chance to offer the same degree of kindness to another stranger, do it.

The Amazing Race 10 will be filmed sometime in the next couple of months, probably starting in June 2006, and broadcast this fall on Sunday evenings (yet another new time slot) on CBS-TVin the USA. Watch for race flags, and let me know about any sightings! Applications are now open for “The Amazing Race 11”; see my earlier notes on how to apply .

In the meantime, wherever you’re going, have a wonderful trip.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 17 May 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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