Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 4

La Paz (Bolivia) - Auckland (New Zealand) - Te Puke (New Zealand)

After giving us a refresher course last week in how not to travel from sea level to high altitude, this week The Amazing Race 13 reminded us yet again of how not to make your first attempt to drive on the opposite side of the road from what you are used to.

This time they didn’t have to drive in Indian city traffic with its density and mix of pedestrians and motor vehicles with bicycles and freely wandering sacred cows. But the producers did everything else to maximize the likelihood of collisions: the racers were awakened at 1 a.m. in La Paz (after an afternoon and evening nap that was probably even less restful on account of the altitude, which usually disturbs one’s sleep until one has acclimatized for several days), and arrived in New Zealand at 4 o’clock in the morning after more than 24 hours in transit, with only whatever sleep they got on the plane. Some people are much more able to sleep sitting up on planes and buses than others. Unfortunately, you rarely have a choice of day or night flights on long-haul routes, even if you aren’t in a race: long flights typically operate at most once a day, and it’s common for competing airlines to schedule their flights as close to the same time of day as possible.

At least the drivers weren’t alone. At first, the non-driving partners were pointing out when they were on the wrong side of the road (as we saw Toni tell Dallas, with a commendably motherly combination of promptness with lack of panic or insult) and reminding them, especially at intersections, “Make sure you stay on the left side of the road. Left side” (Aja to Ty). But by the end of the episode, a sleepless day later, the words from the back-seat navigators had changed to, “Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry!” That’s a big mistake, if a common one: It takes longer to fully internalize opposite-side driving than you think. After a few tense days without a head-on crash, it’s tempting to relax. But the greatest danger, as in many other tasks that require continuous concentration and quick reactions (such as driving a motorcycle), is not right at the start of the learning curve, but at the point just a little later on when you begin to think you are “getting the hang of it” and let your guard down.

It takes weeks or months to retrain your instincts to drive on the opposite side, if you manage it at all. I didn’t drive on the left until I was more than 40 years old, and I’m not sure it will ever feel as natural to me as it does to friends who travelled to, and drove extensively in, opposite-side-drive countries when they were younger and less set in their ways. Even after 10,000 kilometers in Australia earlier this year, I still needed my partner to keep reminding me as she gave directions, “Turn right, keeping to the left”. I did the same when she was driving.

After a month on the left-hand side of the road, including driving the length of the Stuart Highway across outback Australia from south to north (imagine a 2-lane road with triple- and quadruple-trailer “road trains” of rocks from the uranium mine that’s located nearby in a national park, wild kangaroos bounding across the road without warning, and a speed limit of 130 km/hour or just over 80 mph), we didn’t usually need the reminder. It was hard for either of us to resist the temptation to say, “Stop saying that! I know!” But perhaps one time in 20 it was really helpful — and as I’ve mentioned before, that’s more often at complicated urban intersections than on open country roads where there is little temptation to cross the center line (if there’s a line, which there isn’t in much of the world).

One thing that helped us start out driving on the correct (left) side was that we had been in places where they drive on the left (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia) for a couple of weeks before we arrived in Australia, and had spent a couple more weeks in Australia (travelling by foot, public transit, and train) before we picked up our rental car. If you can, especially if you are already in a place where the drive on the “wrong” side, try to start thinking on the left (or the right, if you are coming for example from the U.K., Ireland, Japan, Australia, or New Zealand to North America or Continental Europe) well before you start trying to drive on the left. When you come to an intersection on foot, or in a vehicle someone else is driving, try to visualize, in advance, the path you would follow through the intersection if you were coming in different directions, turning left, or turning right. If that seems too hard, and you can’t yet imagine what you would do, how do you think you will fare behind the wheel? Don’t think, “I could never drive on the left”. You’ll learn. But take it slow and easy, and try to start preparing your mind at least a few days before you get behind the wheel.

The government of New Zealand provides some information for foreign visitors on What’s different about driving in New Zealand? But it’s limited, and New Zealand is an exception in providing such advice. The World Health Organisation has recognised that traffic collisions are the most frequent cause of death among travellers but that fact is rarely called to tourists’ attention. Even where there is vastly more academic interest in tourism research than there is in the USA, the literature on international tourists and road safety is limited. To date there has been no empirical investigation of the problems experienced by visitors to Australia from right hand side of the road driving countries.

Sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, night racing on the wrong side of the road in unfamiliar rental cars isn’t the only indication that the racers got too carried away by thoughts of the prize to make rational decisions about what risks to take. Despite fearing that she has broken her arm in a land sailing crash (imagine vehicles like iceboats, but on wheels on a paved track, beach, or dry lake instead of on runners on a frozen lake; like iceboats, land yachts are much faster than water-borne sailboats, up to 100 km/h or 60 mph, with a world record of 187 km/h or well over 100 mph), Starr won’t take time out for medical treatment. After the land-yacht task, she actually gets into the driver’s seat and back on the highway before letting her brother and teammate Nick drive their rental car to the finish line of the episode — still without getting her arm injury checked by a doctor.

It’s one thing to “tough it out” and suffer temporary pain if no medical treatment is available. But neither a “must see” sight or site nor a chance at a million dollars is worth postponing or foregoing a side trip to a doctor or hospital for treatment that might reduce the likelihood of long-term pain, limitations on mobility, or other permanent damage, if treatment is available. Yes, there are places in the Fourth World (and some in the Second World, and even some really remote places in the First and Third Worlds) where there is no doctor , although you still might be able to find a medically-trained fellow tourist who could help. But that’s the exception, and that’s certainly not where Starr’s accident happened on the outskirts of Auckland.

We’ll find out next week if Starr’s arm is really broken. Adrenaline is a powerful painkiller, and it’s easy to underestimate a fresh injury. But prompt treatment can make all the difference in the long term, especially with certain types of injuries and illnesses including many broken bones. My partner was afraid to have her broken leg operated on in Ecuador. I was scared too when I got off the plane, expecting to meet her, and found that she was in surgery. We were disappointed and reluctant to cancel our plans for several weeks of trekking in the Andes. But if she hadn’t agreed to emergency surgery before trying to come home, she might not be walking now. Ecuador is a Third World country, not a Fourth World one, and Quito is similar in many respects to La Paz: in major cities, even poor ones, there is medical care available for visitors and wealthy locals that is far better than no treatment at all.

I’ve heard from too many people who waited too long to seek treatment for travel injuries or illnesses, causing long-term or permanent damage that was much more costly and inconvenient than modifying their travel plans to see a doctor or get to a hospital would have been. The worst case is that you might “waste” some time and money, but the best case is that you might save yourself from much more prolonged and potentially serious problems.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 19 October 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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