Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 11

Moscow (Russia) - Portland, OR (USA) - Newberg, OR (USA) - Cascade Locks, OR (USA) - Portland, OR (USA)

As is often the case with a real-life trip around the world, the final episode of The Amazing Race 13 was a bit of a let-down. The scenery on a sunny summer day in the Columbia River Gorge was as dramatically beautiful as anywhere the racers had been, but it’s the cultural differences, and the knowledge that at any moment something completely unexpected might appear, that gives travel abroad its extra thrill. It’s a relief to be able to relax your alertness when you get back to your own country, and (think you) know what to expect, but there can also be a subtle emotional downside to the loss of that extra edge of low-level but long-sustained heightened awareness brought on by travel in strange-seeming lands. Even travellers who don’t think of themselves as “adrenaline junkies” and haven’t engaged in anything as physically stressful as the challenges faced by the cast of “The Amazing Race” can still find it hard, when they come home, to come down from their addiction to world travel’s continuous rush of the exotic and unpredictable. Perhaps that addiction to travel — the one that so often brings people home already planning their next trip around the world — really does have a physical/psychopharmalogical component.

At the same time, following an extended stay abroad with travel in your home country, before you actually settle back in at home, can be a good way to minimize “re-entry shock” and an excellent way to learn more from your trip. After my latest year-long trip around the world, I spent another six weeks on a road trip across North America and back. I had been hesitant to do so much more driving, especially after almost 10,000 km in Australia. But it was a deeply rewarding part of our world journey, reinforcing what I’ve called the “Hasbrouck uncertainty principle of travel”: You can’t travel without changing both the places you visit and yourself. When you come back, what looks different than it did before you left? Which of those things look different because they have changed while you were abroad, and which look different because your perspective has been changed by your trip? And what do you understand about your homeland, that you didn’t notice or that didn’t make sense before, now that you can interpret it in the context of things you’ve seen in other countries? Reflections on these questions filled our hours on highways and byways of the USA and Canada, and continue even months after our homecoming.

The most interesting task for the racers involved an array of 150 photos of sites that they had visited in the course of their month-long trip around the world, which they had to identify from memory. This being “The Amazing Race”, the photographs were in individual “clue boxes” spread out on a grassy lawn on Thunder Island upstream from Portland, which the racers reached by a zip-line ride from the deck of the Bridge of the Gods .

Sorting photos and trying to match them with memories, places, and dates is actually a typical task for the end of a trip. For the racers, it was made more difficult by the fact that these were someone else’s photos, not ones they had taken themselves, and thus ones that wouldn’t necessarily match the point of view of any of their own photographic memories. Have you ever been sent a bunch of photos taken by a travelling companion, or someone you met on an excursion, and puzzled at the mental transformations needed to map them to the images in your mind? (“Oh, they must have been looking at that from the other side.”)

The photos the racers had to identify were also limited, of course, to the parts of the race that we, the television audience, had been shown. That’s typical in real life, too: Such is the power of the image that, in hindsight, our memories come to be shaped by which moments we “captured” on film or digital media.

What shows up on TV from the race, however, like what shows up in my snapshots from my trip around the world, is far from a random or representative sampling. For a variety of reasons, there were many places and types of situations where I took no pictures at all: out of fear of crime in some places, out of fear (for myself or others) of the secret police in others, or out of a desire not to be instantly identified as a tourist. Since all tourists are expected to have cameras, and to be using them, a person who doesn’t have a camera is frequently assumed, on that basis alone, to be something else — an expat, perhaps, if not a local.

During the parts of the racers’ trips that that are shown on TV, they have very few chances to talk with anyone other than their partners, or about anything other than, “How do I get to …?” Most of their opportunities for personal interaction are with fellow guests at the “pit stop” hotels and resorts, in airports and waiting rooms, and on planes and long-distance trains and buses. These are the parts that aren’t filmed at all, or that are deemed unlikely to interest TV viewers and shown only in the briefest snippets. But who’s to say whether these are interludes between episodes of the “real” race, or whether the televised challenges (or the iconic sights and sites that ordinary travellers make sure they photograph to prove that they’ve “been there”) are merely interruptions in the sequence of meetings with real-life people and places encountered and experienced along the way. If we had no photos to refresh our recollection, are the things we took pictures of really the things we would remember best, or that we would think of as having been the most important? I tend to doubt it.

If you need another travel fix, now that this season of “reality” television is over, tune in on Sunday, 15 February 2009, for the start of “The Amazing Race 14”. Or get a copy of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World and do it yourself!

Bon voyage!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 7 December 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I've been thinking how to end the RTW trip that I am currently on. I think I might travel the US a little, especially since I'll be coming back home to the Northeast possibly in the dead of winter.

Posted by: brian from, 10 December 2008, 02:10 ( 2:10 AM)
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