Sunday, 15 October 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 5

Halong Bay (Vietnam) - Haiphong (Vietnam) - Hanoi (Vietnam) - Chennai, Tamil Nadu (India) - Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu (India) - Chennai, Tamil Nadu (India)

After returning to the mainland from the island in Halong Bay where they stayed during their “pit stop” for food and sleep, The Amazing Race 10 followed part of the route I suggested in last week’s column through Haiphong and by train back to Hanoi, although with no time for more than a night-time glimpse of Haiphong in passing.

Next they had to fly to Chennai (the official name of the city still widely known as “Madras”), India. That proved surprisingly difficult. All of the teams took at least 24 hours total travel time, and the fastest routes all involved multiple connections and more than one airline.

India and Vietnam aren’t terribly far apart, and their governments don’t have any particular political animosity for each other. Both Hanoi and Chennai are international gateways (although in neither case the busiest in their respective countries).

But there are no direct flights between anywhere in Vietnam and anywhere in India.

The lesson here is that this isn’t at all unusual. Most of the world isn’t like Western Europe, where almost every major capital city has direct flights to every other. In other regions, and between regions (as in this case between South and Southeast Asia), it’s more like the USA: air traffic between most secondary cities has to connect through relatively few “hubs”. It’s not unusual to have to go thousands of miles out of the way, maybe even via Europe, to get between cities in different regions of Africa — sometimes even in the same region. You can’t assume that you can get from one place to another the same day, even if price is no object and you pick the right day of the week to travel. (Many flights are less frequent than daily.)

The racers’ choices were between connections, some with long layovers or waits for the next flight, through Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, or (although no one chose it) Kuala Lumpur.

Once in Chennai, their tasks included a driving lesson and road test — in, of course, a classic Indian “Ambassador” model sedan — followed by a 10-mile (16 km) drive across the city.

Even in a driving school car with an instructor next to you, that’s a serious challenge. Signage in India is poor, at best, and the sensory overload of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells is distracting. The traffic is not merely chaotic but much more mixed than in the USA, with a range of sizes and speeds of vehicles from pedestrians, bicycles, and cars to bullock-carts, trucks, and buses. I once saw a gang of men pushing a wooden fishing boat at least 10 m (35 ft) long on a cart around a traffic circle in the financial district of Mumbai. No one else gave them a second look. Many of the larger vehicles are heavily overloaded, with poor brakes and little ability to turn or stop, while auto-rickshaws with their roll-cage frames and tight turning radius dart around them like bumper cars. (Always keep all portions of your anatomy entirely inside an auto-rickshaw. Never hold onto the outer frame unless you want to risk having your hand crushed.) Keeping track of what’s around you, and seeing a path through it, is a challenge.

To make matters much worse, this was probably the first time most of the racers had ever driven on the left side of the road.

I’ve talked before about the advantages of hiring a local driver rather than trying to drive yourself around a country like India. In other places, though, a chauffeured car can be prohibitively expensive. And driving on the opposite side of the road is, as I’ve mentioned before, a useful skill to learn when you have a chance, in preparation for The Amazing Race or for world travel in general.

So if this isn’t the right place (or, sleep-deprived and just off an airplane, the right time) to learn to drive on the “wrong” side of the road from what you are used to, where and when would be better? And when, sooner or later, you have to do it for the first time, what’s the best way to go about it?

Here’s my advice for the first time you drive on the “wrong” side of the road:

  • Don’t do it at night, or when you are fresh off a long-haul flight. This is most likely to be a temptation for people from countries where they drive on the left, coming for the first time to parts of America where it’s hard to get anywhere without your own car. No matter what the circumstances, and no matter how great the temptation or the expense, spend the night at the airport, or take a taxi or public transit into town, before trying to drive on the “wrong” side for the first time. Come back to the airport the next morning, if necessary, to pick up your car. (Airports — which generally have relatively well-signed access roads — are typically better places to start out on the “wrong” side than downtown car rental locations, so this may be a worthwhile strategy anyway.) For similar reasons, avoid rush hour and rain or snow.

  • Don’t do it alone. No matter what. If you are travelling by yourself, and can’t find anyone you know and trust to accompany you, arrange for an initial lesson from a driving school. If you make a mistake, and don’t notice it in time, the odds are that your companion will.

  • Minimize distractions in the car like music, telephone calls, navigation, etc. Driving on the “wrong” side for the first time demands your complete attention, even on a quiet country road. This is another very strong reason to have someone else with you in the car to handle navigation and other tasks.

  • Expect to make mistakes. Be conservative, and give yourself more room for error than you usually would. Everyone makes at least a few mistakes. The issue is whether you (or your travelling companion) notices them, and you correct your course, in time.

  • Avoid doing it in a city. You aren’t likely to wander across to the wrong side of a country road, even if there’s no traffic to remind you which side to keep to. The big hazards are intersections and, to a much lesser extent, narrow roads or roads without shoulders. (When you are sitting on the opposite side to what you are used to, it takes quite a while to get used to judging where the edges of the car, and the clearance to the edge of the road or traffic alongside.) Complex intersections, or suburban “strips” with lots of entering, exiting, crossing, and turning, are the most difficult and dangerous places.

  • Try to find an automatic-transmission car, at least at first. (Another reason to consider a driving-school lesson, if your rental car will have a manual transmission.) One of the most common errors of “wrong-side” learners is to start to turn into oncoming traffic, realize your mistake, and stop short — stalling the car before you can turn back to the correct path. I’m more ambidextrous than most people (it often goes along with being left-handed), but I still found that shifting with the “wrong” hand was one more thing to get used to. I also found it hard to get used to having the pedals in the same arrangement while the hand controls were all reversed. I made many more mistakes with the pedals, including the clutch, than with the stick shift. The fewer things you have to learn and remember at once, the better and safer.

  • Don’t get overconfident. The most dangerous time is when you have begun to think you have gotten the hang of it (and, have, mostly), but your reactions in an emergency, when you have to swerve without conscious thought, are still wrong. Go more slowly and carefully than you usually would for at least your first couple of weeks of wrong-side driving, and the first few days every time you switch sides after that.
Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 15 October 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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