Sunday, 11 March 2007

The Amazing Race 11 (All-Star Edition), Episode 4

Petrohué (Chile) - Puerto Montt (Chile) - Punta Arenas (Chile) - Ushuaia (Argentina) - Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego (Argentina)

Navigation is one of the few major challenges that real-world travel around the world and The Amazing Race consistently have in common. This week, the racers were given a compass, a map, and a destination (a building, although they didn’t know whether it was a well-known one), and had to find their way to that destination through the central business district of Punta Arenas. Independent travellers who aren’t being led everywhere by a tour guide face challenges like this every day. For the sake of reality the racers ought to have a major challenge like this at least once every season, although so far as I can recall this was only the second time in eleven seasons, and the first for any of these contestants.

This season’s cast of racers made the typical compass-reading mistakes I talked about in the first season, when the racers (including Team Guido) were in the desert in Tunisia. Once again, some of this group followed the wrong end of the compass needle, and started out in exactly the wrong direction.

Eventually, though, they all find their way to their goal. And therein lies a lesson.

Making your way through a city as a tourist isn’t like following a carefully planned wilderness orienteering course. Metal objects in your pack and on the street, and tall steel-framed buildings around you, can throw off even the best magnetic compass. Maps designed for tourists are among those most likely not to be drawn to scale, to emphasize areas the map makers think are more likely to interest tourists. That distorts compass headings as well as distances. If you are following a map in a guidebook, it was probably based on fieldwork at least a year old, more likely two, even if the book is a new edition, hot off the press. The map might be wrong, things might have changed (a new highway or construction project cutting off a pedestrian route or obliterating a former landmark), or the office or museum you are looking for might have moved to a new location, even if the building or location still exists. (In my hometown of San Francisco, for example, the Asian Art Museum has moved several miles across town to the building formerly occupied by the city’s main public library.)

If the compass and the map don’t seem to agree, or what you are looking for doesn’t seem to be where they have led you to expect to find it, you can ask local people. The racers try that, with typical results. Most people don’t know which way is “north” or “south”. (That’s why a compass is often invaluable, even if you know the local language.)

Some people don’t understand, some people don’t recognize where it is they are trying to get to, and some people think they understand and try to give directions — although they may or may not be correct. Could you accurately, without hesitation, describe to a foreigner who knows none of the streets or landmarks, and speaks little English, every step and turn on the route to a random address on the other side of the town where you live?

Of course, you can ask more people, average their answers, and go in the direction that more people point you. But that might still be wrong. And the more people you ask, “Which way is X?”, the more likely you are that, even if you are going the right way, someone will eventually misunderstand, or get it wrong, and tell you, “It’s back the way you are coming from.” How can you tell which person’s directions (to the extent that you understand them) are correct?

Never, by the way, ask, “Is this the way to X?” In many cultures, politeness requires that the answer always be, “Yes”. To answer, “No” to this or almost any question would be considered insulting, even if true. Simply saying the name of the destination usually suffices to communicate that you want to go there, and people can and will respond by pointing, or leading you, even if you don’t have a common language.

No amount of compass or map reading skill, and no directions from passers by can guarantee that you won’t go astray. Even if someone goes with you to lead you, there might have been a failure to communicate, or they truly might not know or might be mistaken. Everyone makes wrong turns or goes the wrong way sometimes.

Thus an essential part of the art of navigation is the ability to judge how likely you are to be on the right course, and when you need to turn around, go back, and try another course.

That’s an aptitude that’s very hard to obtain except through experience. It’s an important ability to acquire, though, and a special case of an even more important, and more generally useful, travel skill: an accurate sense of one’s own ignorance, the limitations of one’s knowledge and certainty, and the likelihood that one is wrong in whatever one is thinking, especially in one’s assessment of the meaning of a strange situation or phenomenon.

Humility, in other words, is an essential travel asset, even in a race.

If you’re not in a hurry, the worst case if you go too far before turning around is that you will have wasted some time., while the best case is that you’ll find something unexpected and enlightening or entertaining, especially if you’ve gotten off the normal tourist route.

If you’re pressed for time, you can less afford to take that risk, so you turn around sooner. Of course, that reduces your opportunities for serendipitous surprises. Worse, the sense that you can’t afford to risk making a mistake, or going too far wrong, pressures you to be less willing to trust, and quicker to doubt. Impatience and hurry are major contributors to mistrust, especially mistrust of what you are told by local people. And mistrust, in turn, tends to be reciprocated and to be the root of much mutual animosity between hosts and guests.

You don’t have to trust that you’ll get where you thought you wanted to go, or find what you are seeking. But trust that you’ll find something, and that it might be better than what you thought you came to find. That’s a lesson we all can use, wherever we go.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 11 March 2007, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

A point in fact with the Rob/Amber team it should be noted that after botching the "sign pole" challange and then turning to the "navigaton" one they (Rob) made an unfortunate error (decision) in not wanting to go by the compass thinking he knew where the targeted building actually was and proceeded to take not only themselves but another team as well off course and to the wrong building causing a pretty sizeable time loss.

I question his judgement on this as he is usually right on in checking things out in advance. So this is a prime example of what you pointed out about making as sure as possible you ARE going to where you do want to go and in the right direction (with help if needed, of course). Thereby avoiding time delays not to mention frustrations that can happrn. This missjudgement contributed to their ultimate elimination.

Posted by: Gerry Barger, 16 March 2007, 08:26 ( 8:26 AM)
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