Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 1

Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Tokyo (Japan) - Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Cai Be (Vietnam)

The Amazing Race got off to its best start in years tonight. Even the hokiest-seeming challenges, such as the one that eliminated a team at the starting line, actually tested skills that are important for real-world travel. And even tasks that were entirely “staged” (in one case quite literally, on a TV sound stage) in Japan and Vietnam nonetheless managed to reproduce and give the racers an experience of “genuine” aspects of travel and local life, so far as I could judge as a television viewer and someone who has visited those countries.

Before they got their tickets from Los Angeles to Tokyo, the racers faced a wall of Japanese license plates, with the challenge of finding a plate issued in a specific district whose name was written in Japanese on the racers’ clue cards. That’s not a problem you’re ever likely to face, even in Japan much less in the culvert of the Los Angeles River. But it is an extremely important type of problem, which requires a specific and valuable travel skill: picking out a sign or label (often from a cluttered background or an array of similar seeming signage) that matches a written cue, even when you don’t understand the writing system and can’t conceptualize what you’re looking for as words or letters, but only as an unpatterned visual image. It’s hard, and some people are naturally better at it than others, but it gets much easier with practice. And its difficulty is also a compelling lesson in the value of learning the alphabet or writing system, even if you don’t learn the language. It’s a lot easier to recognize a sequence of letters you know, even if you don’t know what they mean, then to match a complex image in which you see no recognizable components.

For what it’s worth, the team eliminated at the starting line in the license plate search, Lisa and Eric, had already demonstrated their lack of travel savvy by riding a motorcycle without wearing helmets in their introductory video. The statistics are overwhelmingly clear that nothing most travelers are likely to do — even most so-called adventure sports — are as likely to kill you as motorcycling, especially in the Third World. If you’re considering riding a motorcycle, whether as passenger or as driver, do yourself a favor and take some safety classes. Before you leave home, practice driving or riding as passenger on an unfamiliar, ill-maintained bike both off-road and on the worst roads you can find, rather than waiting until you get to a place like Vietnam to try to learn. If you think you might want to drive a motorcycle abroad, get a proper motorcycle license in your home country. Without it you’ll be not only illegal but uninsured: Even travel insurance invariably excludes any consequences of illegal activities like operating a vehicle without a valid license. Speeds are relatively low on Vietnamese roads, the typical motorbikes seem small and relatively harmless, everyone rides without a helmet, and nobody asks if have a valid license before renting you a motorcycle. But motorcycle crashes are the leading cause of death or serious injury to travellers. And if you survive a crash, the police may check the status of your license, as will a diligent insurance company before they pay out a claim for medical treatment or evacuation.

On arrival In Tokyo, the racers made their way (by taxi, a waste of money since the train is faster and less subject to traffic delay) from Narita Airport to the Tokyo Tower downtown, where they were ushered into a television studio where a mock “game show” — centered on eating sushi with way too much wasabi — was being staged in a claustrophobic theater in the round reminiscent of a wresting arena, or perhaps a poker match with spectators. (Was the goal to make the two racers whose “real-life” occupation is as professional poker players — they were recognized by some Japanese passers-by in the airport who had seen them on TV — feel at home?)

The game show was entirely “made for The Amazing Race” (although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the “host” in the Elvis-style suit was actually some well-known Japanese media figure in a cameo role — does anyone know?), but it was also somehow completely “in character” for Japan, with everything from bizarre animated cartoon graphics (the fire-breathing dragon with the cheerful high-pitched warble, “Eat The Wasibiiiiiiii!”), to rival sections of spectators, identified by matching color-coded sun-visors, cheering and and jeering in synchronized chants, to overly made-up women in mock-schoolgirl costumes bowing politely to the winners as they awarded them their clues and onward directions. (In East Asia, remember to use both hands as you accept an envelope or “name card”, to show respect.)

Bizarre as it sounds, “Sushi Roulette” was also one of the best scenes ever in “The Amazing Race”, encapsulating the disorientation and the sense of being inescapably in the spotlight and part of a carefully choreographed performance — but one to which you don’t understand the lines or know the script — that is that is so characteristic of many foreign visitors’ first impressions of Tokyo.

Next the extras playing “spectators” in the game show audience took on the role of groups of “tourists”, with the racers in the role of tour guides who had to herd their groups (not letting anyone fall behind or get separated!) through the mid-day crowds on the streets to the next “pit stop”, leading their groups with color-coded flags matching the colors of the tour groups’ sun visors. All just like typical Japanese tour groups anywhere, except that for comic relief it was the foreign tourists who had to find the way for the locals.

After a chance to nap, the teams set out again in the middle of the night for Vietnam. (Jet lag might have allowed them a decent sleep, since the afternoon and evening in Tokyo correspond to night in Los Angeles where they had just come from.) Those who took a few minutes to check before leaving for the airport quickly determined that (as is typical for short-haul flights anywhere, unlike long-haul flights that sometimes leave at weird hours) there were no middle-of-the night departures from Tokyo for Ho Chi Minh City. The flat rate from Narita Airport to Shibuya District is JPY21,000 plus tolls, and if you’re in no hurry there is certainly no reason to even think of blowing that much on a taxi. In fact, the combination of frequent fast service on multiple rail lines, a variety of buses, and expensive taxis means that there is probably nowhere in the world where a taxi to the airport is consistently a more expensive wrong choice than between central Tokyo and Narita. Taking taxis back to Narita was was a mistake that all the teams made that could come back to haunt them if they run short of money later on. Any team that knew better would have been more than US$200 ahead of the rest.

The teams of racers who checked the Web were all shown looking at Travelocity for prices and schedules of flights from NRT to SGN. Perhaps this depiction was merely artistic license, or a concession to Travelocity as the principal advertising sponsor of “The Amazing Race”. But Travelocity is optimized for customers in the USA, not those looking for flights between places in other regions of the world. If price is no object, and you’re interested only in schedules, the single best source of global airline timetable information is , not Travelocity.

In Vietnam, the team that had come in last in the Tokyo leg had an extra “speed bump”: they had to bring the harbormaster his lunch of “pho”, the ubiquitous beef noodle soup that — with regional variations — is the Vietnamese national dish and one of my favorite foods in the world. The real challenges for all of the racers were wading into a mud-pit to spread fertilizer around some trees, and herding a flock of ducks from one pen to another.

Perhaps the TV producers just wanted shots of the racers smeared with mud and with their clothes falling off, but there’s also an important lesson: farming, especially in a poor country with limited agricultural mechanization, is dirty, backbreaking physical labor, and requires its own set of skills at things like understanding how different types of animals behave, individually and in groups. Vietnam is one of the most romantic places I’ve ever visited, where First World foreigners can afford to travel easily and comfortably. But life for locals, including farmers, is anything but easy or comfortable. Not surprising, the quickest of the racers at the Vietnamese farm tasks were the father and son from a Montana farm and ranch, Matt and Gary, for whom it was hard and dirty but all in day’s work, just like at home.

If you missed the season premiere, CBS has full episodes of this season and season 14 on their Web site. Some of my readers abroad have reported that CBS tries to block visitors from IP addresses they think are outside the USA, but at least the videos work in any major browser or operating system, not just Windows or MSIE.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 27 September 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I think you are being a little hard on Lisa and Eric
for not wearing helmets. After all, as California
residents they are subject to the manditory helmet
law. I strongly suspect that the producers and/or
camera crew was responsible for the decision to
shoot the scene without helmets because they thought
it would look better.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 5 October 2009, 22:53 (10:53 PM)
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