Sunday, 22 October 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 6

Chennai, Tamil Nadu (India) - Kuwait City (Kuwait)

It’s flattering to know that for several seasons, contestants on “The Amazing Race” have been reading my columns on previous seasons as part of their preparations for the race.

But I hope I’m not to blame for some of what happened this week in Kuwait City, where some of the contestants on The Amazing Race 10 appear to have gone overboard on my advice.

It’s getting harder and harder to film the show anywhere the racers and the television crews accompanying them won’t be recognized, especially at airports. That makes their experience less and less like that of real-world travellers who don’t have a TV crew in tow.

In Kuwait in June, two separate locals bloggers who happened to be at the airport spotted the arriving teams and figured out what was happening. Both of them posted articles with camera-phone pictures, and one of them followed the racers by car to the Kuwait Towers that were the site of their first task.

Spotting the towers might not have required much help, given that they are the most prominent landmark on the Kuwait City skyline. But driving to even a known location can be surprisingly difficult if the street signs are in a writing system you don’t know. (If there are street signs, which there are in Kuwait but not everywhere in the world.) Most of the time, one can eventually puzzle out the letters on a sign in an unfamiliar printed alphabet. With a script like Arabic, however, the “ligatures” make it hard for the uninitiated to tell where one letter ends and the next begins. If you learned to read and write as a small child, it’s an interesting experience to find yourself illiterate again as an adult when you travel someplace where things are written in a different way. It’s also a reminder of what life is like for the world’s billion illiterate adults, most of them in Africa, West Asia, and South Asia.

Leaving the towers, the racers continued to have difficulties finding their way, even after getting passers-by to write down their destination in Arabic. If possible, I try to get directions written both in the local language (to show people if I need more help along the way) and in the Latin alphabet used in English (to refer to myself). For the same reason, if I’m not lucky enough to find a fully bilingual, or at least bialphabetic, map I often carry two maps. I find the place I want to go on the English or Latin-alphabet one, then use landmarks or recognizable shapes and street patterns to find the corresponding spot on the local map to show people where I’m trying to go.

The racers got an extraordinary amount of help from strangers on the streets of Kuwait. People didn’t just tell them which way to go but led them there, both on foot (in fierce summer heat) and by car. One of the teams even got a police escort, with sirens and flashing lights, when they asked a cop for directions! (Chalk that one up to the presence of the television cameras.)

I’ve spoken several times before about the importance of recognizing one’s dependence on local help to accomplish almost anything as a stranger in a strange land.

But … except in poor countries dependant on income from tourism, where relations between visitors and locals are grossly distorted as a result, dependency is rarely reciprocal. Your need for help when you are travelling does not translate into anyone else’s obligation to provide that help.

A t-shirt popular in heavily touristed places around the world says, “No, I am not a tourist. I live here.” I considered getting one when I worked on one of the wharves on the Boston waterfront, along the “Freedom Trail” walking tour route, where tourists were constantly getting lost in the densely-populated and “picturesque” streets of the North End neighborhood — or asking for directions while standing on the red Freedom Trail line painted down the middle of the sidewalk. More recently, when I walked to work up Powell Street in San Francisco from the cable-car turnaround, I passed tourists in need of directions every day. I couldn’t, and didn’t, stop to help them all. I made choices, on the spur of the moment, of whom to help and whom to pass by.

This week, unfortunately, we had the unseemly sight on “The Amazing Race” of travellers following local people down the sidewalk, refusing to take silence or “no” as an answer, and literally tugging at their sleeves demanding help with translation and directions. As the television show was edited — which may or may not have reflected reality, given that only a small fraction of what happens is broadcast — they appeared to be modelling the behavior of the most persistent and aggressive beggars, vendors, and touts, about whom tourists complain so vociferously when they are on the receiving end of this sort of treatment.

Demanding will not make people more likely to assist you, any more than it makes you likely to give to beggars, or buy from pushy salespeople. Humility, patience, and an effort to understand will.

I’m a fine one to talk: I’m miserable at remembering niceties like follow-up “bread and butter” notes to say thank you to my hosts. But the first words I try to learn in a local language — and often the only ones I succeed in learning — are those for “please” and “thank you”. If words fail you, a smile is an effective substitute for both, and a bow is widely understood as “thank you” even where it isn’t a common practice. Shaking hands or any touching is culturally risky: it’s probably OK, and often very well received, with people of the same gender, but it’s best to let someone of the opposite gender take the initiative with a handshake, hug, or the like.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 22 October 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

You left out the little detail of women touching a muslin man while not being a relative or invited.

It is my understanding that leaves the impression you are a prositute in said countries, the same way wearing a short red dress in Jamacia when I was a child use to imply the same.

Posted by: Earl Colby Pottinger, 28 October 2006, 13:59 ( 1:59 PM)
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