Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 10

Moscow (Russia)

The travellers on The Amazing Race 13 continued to struggle this week, making mistakes and showing a surprising lack of basic travel skills for teams that made it to the penultimate leg of the race around the world.

Cyrillic is both one of the easiest (along with Greek) and the most widely useful second alphabet for a speaker of English or any other language written in Latin letters. You don’t have to learn what the words mean in Russian (or any of the other languages written in Cyrillic) to learn to sound out the Cyrillic letters, and it doesn’t take most people more than a single lesson and a day of practice to be able to match written signs to words in written or spoken destination names or directions.

The racers don’t know for sure where they are going to go — the television producers get them a certain number of “decoy” visas in addition to the ones they will actually need. But they knew in advance, when they saw the Russian visas in their passports, that Russia was on the “short list” of possible destinations. And after three consecutive legs of the race in countries whose languages are written in Cyrillic, I can’t imagine why none of the racers had gotten someone at one of the “pit stops” to teach them the alphabet.

Three of the four teams also picked what they should have known was the more difficult mode of transportation for a foreigner to navigate, choosing to travel by trolleybus (“trackless trolley” in Bostonian usage) rather than by Metro (“subway” in USA usage). Starr and Nick, who rode the subway, easily and quite predictably came in ahead of the other teams who rode the buses.

It’s understandable that some of the racers didn’t know what was meant by a “trolleybus”, and confused it with a diesel bus and/or a trolley (“light rail vehicle” or “streetcar” in the USA, “tram” in Europe). For those who don’t know, a trolleybus is propelled by motors powered by electricity drawn from a pair of wires strung overhead along the street, but rides on rubber tires on ordinary streets and roads, not on steel wheels on rails. Trolleybuses are found on limited routes in a few North American cities, but only in San Francisco (where the steep streets and unusually short typical distances between bus stops maximize their advantages, and the city and county had cheap electricity available from the Hetch Hetchy dam) are a large proportion of the buses and bus routes electrified. [Correction, thanks to the comment from Paul Schlienz: Also in Seattle and Vancouver, where conditions are similar in both steepness of streets and availability of cheap hydroelectricity.]

Most high-traffic bus routes can benefit from electrification. Trolleybuses themselves cost a little more than diesel buses (although much less than rail vehicles), but last many times longer with much less maintenance because of the inherent simplicity of the electric drive. Electric motors produce full power almost instantly, even from a standing start, obviating the need for a gearbox or complicated transmission and making them perfect in stop-and-go traffic. Stringing overhead power wires costs a fraction of the price, and takes only a fraction of the time, of laying rails for streetcars. Unlike streetcars, trolleybuses can change lanes to pass other vehicles, making it easier for them to share lanes with other traffic. They are virtually silent, produce no emissions at the vehicle, and the electricity to power them can be generated from renewable and less polluting sources. As oil gets more expensive (and if concern for global warming begins to have any effect on transportation planning), one the first changes we are likely to notice is a resurgence of trolleybuses . Indeed, an immediate start on conversion of some of their idle SUV and other car and light truck production capacity to trolleybus production should be part of the terms of any government financial aid for automobile manufacturers .

But that’s another story. The issue in The Amazing Race — and for you, dear reader, as a traveller — is how much easier it is to find your way on almost any rail transit system (streetcar, subway, or commuter train) than on most buses, particularly if you don’t speak a locally-understood language. Bus stop signage, when bus stops are signed at all, is often cryptic, and even if someone tells you to catch a bus “at” a particular intersection, that still falls short of specifying exactly where at that intersection you board: On which of the intersecting streets? Before or after the intersection? On which side of the street, or at a center island? Then you have to figure out where to get off — not too difficult if you can ask someone (in words or by pointing to a map or the written destination) to tell you where to get off, but hard if you can’t communicate, are on your own, the bus is crowded so you can’t see out, you don’t have a sufficiently detailed map to tell where along the bus route you are, and/or you don’t know where along that route, or at what intervals, the bus will stop.

On a subway, the platforms or stops are usually well demarcated. And as New Yorkers Starr and Nick demonstrate, once you have plotted your route on a map (or gotten someone to show you, drawing or writing or counting the stations on their fingers if there is no common spoken language), you can navigate by counting stations or stops without the need to rely on station signage — although there are more likely to be visible signs identifying subway stations than identifying each stop on a bus route.

Streetcars, where they are an option, are intermediate between buses and subways in ease of navigation, depending mainly on whether they have a dedicated right-of-way with specified and marked “stations”, platforms, or stopping places, or whether they share the same lane on the street with other vehicles and stop at unmarked and uncounted spots along the route.

Of the teams that took the trolleybus, mother and son Toni and Dallas fell further behind and lost the race by losing their passports. They blamed only themselves for leaving the waist-pouch with their passports in a taxi. But unless it was a categorical imperative of the race rules, they should never have put their passports someplace where it was possible for them to be separated from their bodies. Any item of luggage, bag, or purse can be lost or stolen, especially a waist-pouch worn outside your clothes that fairly shouts that it contains your valuables. It can be snatched in an instant by someone who slashes the strap, even from behind or the side (or while confederates hem you in), and a waist-pouch will be the second thing (after your cell phone) that a thief demands that you hand over.

Take a lesson from this week’s eliminated racers: Don’t put your passport at risk of loss or theft. Carry it somewhere secure inside your clothes, such as in a “secret” inside pocket or a pouch worn inside your clothes.You or a tailor can add a passport-sized pocket in all sorts of places in different garments (including undergarments). After you clear customs and immigration, stop and put your passport away before you go out into the scrum of people meeting arriving passengers. Don’t get it out again until you are inside your hotel, at the front desk, and need it to check in.

There will inevitably be discussion about whether, had they not been eliminated, Toni and Dallas would have been able to leave Russia and return to the USA without passports. It’s an interesting question: The law is clear, but what would actually happen is not.

Under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” That right is near-absolute, and not dependant on possession of a passport or other documentation. But the USA has begun trying to enforce a requirement for citizens to have a passport in order to return home to the USA

Both Russia and the USA have ratified and are legally obligated to comply with the ICCPR, and under the Constitution it is “the highest law of the land”. But in the USA, Congress has created no mechanism to enforce the rights guaranteed by the ICCPR. What’s needed is a simple law to create a Federal cause of action for violations of the ICCPR, and to give the Federal courts jurisdiction over such cases. This would be a meaningful demonstration of commitment by the USA to honor its international obligations, without the need to submit to any sort of international jurisdiction — such cases would be heard within the existing Federal courts. This is part of the Identity Project Agenda for the Obama Administration on the Right to Travel that I’ll be discussing with Congressional staffers in meetings this week in Washington.

The finish line for this week’s leg of the race was at “VDNK Park”. Formerly the home of a permanent Exhibition of Soviet Economic Achievements, it now hosts temporary exhibitions of capitalist economic achievements, also known as trade fairs. But the “VDNK” acronym remains as the name of the Metro station, as does the upward-sweeping tapered titanium pillar, visible in the background of several scenes in the race, that honors the (quite genuine) achievements of the cosmonauts and other participants in the Soviet manned space program.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 30 November 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Edward, I agree with the thinking about the metro being the way to go in AR13 ep.10. I have tried hard to find out exactly where Toni/Dallas and Andrew/Dan reside without success. However, I am pretty sure that it is not New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco or Philadelphia with complex subway systems. I know that Ken is from San Diego and Tina is from Tampa and that both Nick and Starr are in New York City. This gave that big edge to Nick/Starr who are the only team with in-depth current subway system experience. The Moscow subway system appears to be roughly the same complexity as that of new York City.

Posted by: Arthur, 3 December 2008, 20:41 ( 8:41 PM)

While I agree with you that the metro was the better option, none of the teams that took the trolleybus option got off at the wrong stops. They were far behind to start with. Nick and Starr were far ahead because he counted the statues correctly.

But some cities do have bus systems with labeled stops and electronic signs on the bus indicating the stop. There are at least some bus lines in Osaka that work that way and some in Washington, D.C. And I know I've taken buses in several other cities where the next stop is at least announced on board, which is less satisfying as one might not be sure of how a name is pronounced.

Re: passports, I'm surprised this hasn't happened before on the show. My understanding is that the racers are required to keep their passports in those bags with the race logo. But, of course, Dallas should never have taken his hands off the bag in the cab. My assumption is that the race crew keeps photocopies of the passports, which can facilitate replacement in the event of loss or theft. At least Russian visas are now pasted into the passport. They used to be a separate piece of paper which you had to have stamped at every hotel you stayed at. (They still need to be registered, but the hotel usually just makes a photocopy and it's pretty transparent to you.)

Posted by: Miriam Nadel, 4 December 2008, 02:45 ( 2:45 AM)

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Posted by: Sharon, 4 December 2008, 23:29 (11:29 PM)

"There will inevitably be discussion about whether, had they not been eliminated, Toni and Dallas would have been able to leave Russia and return to the USA without passports. It's an interesting question: The law is clear, but what would actually happen is not."

Anybody else notice in the final episode that Toni and Dallas were not at the finish line with the other teams? I would assume they were delayed sufficiently that they could not get there in time.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 8 December 2008, 01:50 ( 1:50 AM)

With regards to the Cyrillic alphabet, the other disappointing (yet not at all surprising) thing was that frat boys Dan & Andrew seemed unable to transfer their knowledge of the Greek alphabet to Cyrillic. It seems like both of their entire wardrobes are comprised exclusively of fraternity t-shirts which feature Greek letters, and most frat boys are required to learn the entire Greek alphabet. While Greek and Cyrillic aren't identical, they are similar enough that any reasonably intelligent person (clearly not Andrew, arguably not Dan) should be able to at least sound words out by knowing one.

Posted by: mateo, 8 December 2008, 13:13 ( 1:13 PM)

Regarding trolleybuses, San Francisco is actually not the only city in North America with an extensive system of electrified bus routes. In Seattle, approximately one third of the bus routes within the city utilize trolleybuses, and in Vancouver, British Columbia, the majority of the bus routes within the city are trolleybus lines.

There were two major reasons for the fact that trolleybuses survive and thrive in both of those cities: (One) The Pacific Northwest has historically had low electric power rates due to its hydroelectric dams, which made trolleybuses a very cost effective alternative, and (Two) Both Seattle and Vancouver are hilly, and Seattle, in particular, has hills every bit as steep as those in San Francisco. As a result, using rubber wheeled vehicles, with their far greater traction, makes much more sense than rails given the topography. Indeed, the only way rail vehicles could climb many of the hills in Seattle would be with a cable mechanism, as is still used in San Francisco's cable cars and was utilized in a very innovative dual electric/cable streetcar system that existed in Seattle until the 1940s.

Regarding Cyrillic, I learned it in one night shortly before I made my journey to Moscow, in 1981. It was absolutely invaluable to me since I was actually able to read signs and easily find my way around even though I didn't speak Russian. As for the Moscow Metro, it is an amazing subway system that is without a doubt one of the best in the world, and by far the easiest way for the tourist to get around the city. It is also one of the gems of the city from an aesthetic standpoint. While the newer stations away from the city center are much more utilitarian, the original stations in the city center, which were built in the 1930s, are a real treat. Full of chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass, sculptures, and other enhancements, this is one of the most beautiful subways anywhere in the world.

You also mentioned the VDNKh exhibition of economic achievements. I remember that place well, and I agree that the exhibit on the Soviet space program is well worth seeing. No one can ever take away from the great achievements of the Soviet space program, of which the Russians have a justifiable right to be proud.

Also of interest along those lines is an enormous monument to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, located within walking distance of my hotel in the Lenin Hills - now called the Sparrow Hills, I believe. The sculpture is of a man turning into a rocket and is quite a landmark in that part of town on the south side of the city.

Posted by: Paul Schlienz, 18 December 2008, 11:43 (11:43 AM)

Miriam: In Tallinn, Estonia all the bus routes also have named stops which are clearly signed, and on-board the stops are announced both vocally and visually on an electronic display. There are no route-maps on-board though, although the offical website does plot them all on a Google map.

There are also trolley-busses and trams, all of which work on the same ticketing system, which makes it all very simple to use.

Posted by: Tony, 22 December 2008, 04:11 ( 4:11 AM)
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