Sunday, 10 December 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 12

Barcelona (Spain) - Paris (France) - Caen (France) - Bayeux (France) - Paris (France) - New York, NY (USA) - Garrison, NY (USA)

(Warning to readers: If you didn’t like last week’s column because you didn’t think it had enough to do with The Amazing Race television show, you probably won’t like this column either.)

As The Amazing Race 10 concludes this week, I could talk about Karlyn’s comment about her tandem skydiving partner/instructor, “I trust him; that’s the only thing I can do,” and how often that describes our situation as travellers.

Or I could talk about how, on the one hand, all the French people the racers talk to answer in English — regardless of whether, or how badly, the racers attempt to speak to them in French — and without a hint of their reputed snootiness to anglophones (which, to the extent it exists at all, is really much more about the English than about Americans).

Or, on the other hand, about how many more people in France than anywhere else the race has gone were shown with blurred-out faces — “Wouldn’t you like to allow your picture to be used for free in an American TV show?” not, apparently, being very persuasive with the French.

Or I could talk about the seductiveness of going through the toll booths more quickly with an E-Z Pass (U.S. East Coast) or Fast-Trak (the same technology under a different name on the West Coast) RFID road toll charge and vehicle tracking device, and the problems of controlling how it can be used — by toll authorities and third parties — to create movement logs and track vehicles even at places other than toll gates.

Or about the relative advantages and disadvantages of Orly (ORY) and Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airports in Paris for flights and/or trains to and from different places, or about my own experience flying from Orly nonstop to New York (JFK), back in the days when there was such a flight in addition to the flights that were also then operating between CDG and JFK. (Extra credit to any readers who know which airline last flew that route. Hint: It wasn’t based in France or the USA. Post your answers in the comments.)

Or about how different it would have been for the racers if the Concorde had still been flying between Paris and New York, and Concorde tickets had been allowed by the TV show’s rules.

Or about the ins and outs of how waiting lists are worked, or about the likelihood that skin color and class may have had something to do with why the African-American team without upper-class manners wasn’t confirmed from the waiting list in Paris, while both teams of middle-class seeming European-Americans were.

But that’s not what I came to talk to you about. (And no, this is not a song about the draft .)

The key thing without which a race around the world would not be possible — especially if you want to do it without the support of a television production crew — is the contemporary ease of international travel, at least for citizens of the USA (the only ones allowed to compete in “The Amazing Race”, to the annoyance of Canadians and many others who think themselves more skillful travellers than the average American).

It’s obvious that jet airliners have made world travel technologically easier than ever. Just as significant to the possibility of the race, though, is the political “facilitation” of travel that makes it possible for citizens of the USA and other rich countries to visit almost any country in the world with “only” a passport and a visa, the issuance of which is in most cases so mere a formality that Americans typically ask, “How do I get a visa to visit [country]?” rather than it even occurring to them to ask, “Can I get a visa to visit [country]?”

In the broadcasts of “The Amazing Race”, we never hear anything about how the contestants or the production crew get their visas. (A visa service gets them for them in advance, along with some “decoy” visas for countries the racers aren’t actually going.) Nor do we see anything of what happens as they go through customs, immigration, and border controls. Most countries including the USA don’t allow filming or photography in such “sensitive” areas. The biggest difficulties are almost certainly for the crew members who have to get valuable video and sound equipment through customs under bond, rather than for the relatively unencumbered racers.

These are real issues and potential real roadblocks, not the contrived sorts of “roadblocks” that are devised for the racers. The race has passed a few countries by because of permission problems like these. But the race simply wouldn’t have been attempted, or continued for ten seasons and counting with relatively little repetition of destinations, if it weren’t safe to assume that, with purely administrative formalities, Americans can go almost anywhere in the world, and can leave and return freely from and to our own country.

Of course, that assumption is strongest on this final leg of the journey, coming home to the USA. Whatever problems we may have in visiting or travelling between other countries — waiting uncertainly to see if we will be permitted to proceed forward into a strange country, or be held back for some mysterious reason — we know that we can always leave the USA (“Love it or leave it!” wouldn’t have much meaning otherwise) and, unless we renounce our citizenship, we always have a right to come home. As America’s poet laureate Robert Frost once wrote, “‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

Lately I’ve been reading about the history of the passport. (If you are interested, start with John Torpey’s “The Invention of the Passport” and Mark B. Salter’s “Rights of Passage”.) There’ve been pendulum swings for at least 200 years between belief in freedom of movement as a human right, and belief in the right to control movement as an essential element of sovereignty; between passports as tools to facilitate free movement of their bearers and of passports as tools to control their bearers’ movements, and even more the movements of the “undocumented”.

In recent decades, that tension has been expressed in the use of the passport and visa system to enhance the travel opportunities of citizens of rich countries, for whom the passport is primarily a symbol of power, privilege, and freedom to travel, even while the same system is used to control or simply to prevent the efforts of the people poorer people, with or without citizenship or passports, to travel freely across international borders in the same way as do money and goods. This tension was the dominant subtext to the ICAO meeting on passport standards that I attended earlier this year.

The pendulum, though, now seems to be swinging sharply. The ways that Soviet exit visa requirements or the passbooks of South African Blacks have been used to control the movements of the unfree, now are used increasingly against those who thought we were free. Those blue booklets in our pockets with “United States of America” on the cover and those magic-seeming words “The Secretary of State hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national named herein to pass without delay or hindrance” could, without further warning, come to be used as tools of virtual imprisonment inside, or outside, national borders.

Farfetched? Sadly, not at all.

Already, citizens of the USA are being denied their right to return home from abroad. (No, I don’t know what the producers of “The Amazing Race” would do if this happened to one of the racers.) The USA has proposed to require prior permission (“clearance”) for all international air travellers, and is about to begin requiring passports for travel across what it used to boast was the world’s longest open border between the USA and Canada. Permanent residents of the USA (green card holders) will soon be fingerprinted every time they cross the border, even if they do so every day to go to and from work. More than half a million people including U.S. citizens and land border crossers were targeted and turned back at U.S. borders last year solely on the basis of secret dossiers and “risk assessments” they themselves are forbidden to see.

So should I, or should my fellow Americans, concentrate on the television, enjoy both “The Amazing Race” and our own privilege to travel while they last, and assume that we’ll never be assigned a secret score of “undesirable” or find our name or number on a “no-fly list”?

I don’t think so. If we value travel as right, it’s up to those of us who still have it — impaired, but still much more than most people in the world — to speak up, and act up, now before it’s too late, and to preserve a world where travel adventures like “The Amazing Race” remain possible.

Thanks for sharing the journey with me throughout these ten televised trips around the world. I have a new edition of “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World” to finish updating before broadcasts of “The Amazing Race: All-Star Edition” begin in February, so don’t expect to hear much from me or see much new on my blog until then.

In the meantime, “Bon voyage” on your own journeys.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 10 December 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Season 12 auditions are soon. do you know if you have to be 21 at the time the application is due or by filming time?

Posted by: Gina Hill, 19 December 2006, 19:48 ( 7:48 PM)

Do you know the travel time of Race 12? And what is the application deadline?

Thanks, russ

Posted by: Russ Nielsen, 6 January 2007, 17:46 ( 5:46 PM)

My friend and I applied for Season 12. It's March 3 -- should we assume we will not get a call? I need to know whether to go out of town for a job or not.


Posted by: LM, 3 March 2007, 21:20 ( 9:20 PM)
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