Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 7

Zoutkamp (Netherlands) - Amsterdam (Netherlands) - Stockholm (Sweden) - Häggvik (Sweden)

Do you need to be young, strong, and physically fit to travel around the world?

The short answer is, “No”. But it does raise some issues, as we saw this week on The Amazing Race when the contestants faced a reprise of a challenge from a previous season: finding “a needle in a haystack” or, more precisely, one of the handkerchief-sized flags in a field of round bales of hay that had to be broken open, unrolled, and picked through to find the clue flags hidden in just a few of the bales.

Round hay bales are five feet high and weigh a thousand pounds or so each, so even unrolling them is an arduous task. Luck had a lot to do with it, but it’s no surprise that the two professional athletes in the race (two members of the Harlem Globetrotters), by far the biggest and presumably the most fit of the racers, with a particular advantage in leverage from their height, finished first.

When The Amazing Race 6 came to Häggvik, the racers appeared to be suffering from severe sleep deprivation. This time, it was more an issue of tired muscles, as the last challenge before the hayfield involved filling and stacking sandbags — an arduous task, as you know if you’ve ever had to do it — to protect themselves against a dynamite blast in a quarry. Apparently the only thing the show’s scriptwriters knew about Sweden was that the Nobel Prizes were founded by the inventor of dynamite. (Yes, I’ve filled sandbags. No, it had nothing to do with dynamite or blowing things up.)

Real travellers, of course, are unlikely to have to do any of these things — which leaves two questions: How strong and fit do you have to be to travel around the world? And what are the most challenging real-world physical tasks that travellers need to be prepared for?

How strong do you have to be to travel around the world?

Not very. Brute strength is rarely needed for travel. We may think of the Third World as the land of “hard travelling”, but the places where the physical infrastructure of travel is worse tend to be those where the service infrastructure of people to help you (carrying your luggage, for example, where the path is unpaved and there is no motorized transport available) is better and cheaper.

Lots of people with limited physical ability — small, frail, sedentary, old, young, out of shape, etc. — travel around the world every year, many of them on their own. Even for people with more extreme physical disabilities, more is possible than you might imagine, if you are willing to put up with having to pay people to help you over the rough places in the road rather than being able to get by on your own with more technically sophisticated aids to personal mobility. John Hockenberry’s memoir of life as a globetrotting NPR war correspondent in a wheelchair, “Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence”, provides some thought-provoking examples.

There are places where travel is genuinely and unavoidably hard work, mainly because of the rigors of long-distance ground transport in roadless areas, and/or a lack of accommodations at any price that satisfy First World standards of minimal comfort. But those are almost all either in parts of the Fourth World where there are few tourists, not even many healthy young backpackers, or involve particular types of travel like trekking that are inherently physical anywhere in the world. There are lifetimes of other parts of the world to explore.

If you’re going to compete in a race, it’s common sense to train for it, and train hard. If you live a sedentary life, particularly if you drive everywhere, it makes sense to get in as good shape as possible for walking before you set out on an extended journey on which you won’t always have a car. In general, however, physical and mental stamina is more likely to determine the limits of where you can comfortably travel than the maximum weight you can lift or how fast you can sprint.

What are the real-world physical challenges that travellers should be prepared for?

Walk: Even very leisurely sightseeing on foot and by public transit is likely to involve at least five miles a day of walking. You don’t have to spend all day, every day, sightseeing. The more slowly you travel, and the more time you spend in each place, the less likely you are to come up against your physical limits trying to see too much in too little time. But if you plan a busy travel agenda, be sure you’re in good shape for the amount of pavement pounding it will require.

Lift: Unless you’re on an escorted tour with baggage handlers everywhere, it can be difficult if you can’t lift your luggage up a high step onto a bus, truck, or streetcar, or into a luggage rack above your head. There will usually be someone nearby willing to help, but occasionally there won’t be, or there won’t be anyone you are prepared to trust with your luggage at first glance.

Climb: The kinds of infrastructure adaptations we’ve gotten used to in the USA since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act — in particular, elevators and ramps in public facilities — are not (yet) the norm even in the rest of the First World. Often there’s only one elevator, escalator, or funicular. If it’s out of service, the alternative is to take the stairs. Museums, in my experience, are generally pretty good about providing for visitors with limited strength and/or mobility. But it’s routine to have to go up or down a couple of flights of stairs to get on or off a bus, train, or subway. In some steep towns and cities streets and footpaths become flights of public steps. (Complicating matters, some of the steepest cities are also those at the highest altitudes.) Hotels with elevators can be scarce or nonexistent, depending on where you are. It’s reasonable to expect, and to negotiate, a lower price for a room that requires climbing more than two flights of steps. But you should expect to have to climb up and down at least a couple of flights of steps several times a day. For many travellers with limited strength, the most difficult thing they routinely have to do is to get their wheeled luggage up or down stairs at entrances and exits from train, bus, and subway stations.

Carry or drag: If you can’t carry or wheel your own bag(s), you can usually take a taxi or rickshaw, or pay someone to carry your luggage to and from the place you are staying. Most of the time, wheeled luggage will ease the way. If you’ve arranged your schedule (or lack of a schedule) so that you don’t need to be in a hurry, you can go slowly and stop and rest as often as you like, maybe even sit on your wheeled luggage to rest if it’s sturdy enough. But if distances are short enough for almost everyone to walk — in a small but touristic town, for example — and/or if none of the porters seem trustworthy, there will be occasional times when you have to make your way to your hotel or hostel, with your luggage, on your own. If the distance is much more than a mile, and there’s lots of traffic, there’s probably some sort of motorized transport available. But the places where there is no motorized transport are likely to be those where the roads or paths are unpaved. Half a dozen times in my last year-long trip around the world, I had to cover more than half a mile of rough stone paving blocks, rounded cobblestones, or coarse gravel — the worst possible surfaces for wheeled luggage. If you aren’t prepared at least occasionally either to put your pack on your back and carry it if it has straps, or to drag it over such a surface, that will put some significant limits on where you can go.

Stand: You won’t always find a convenient seat if you get tired and need to rest. Even if you’d be willing to sit on the floor or the sidewalk in a pinch at home, you probably won’t feel like doing that in places where there are no sidewalks and the streets are covered with animal (and perhaps human) excrement. You might have an unexpectedly long wait for a bus on a street corner, or you might board a crowded bus, not find a seat, and get stuck in a traffic jam for an hour or two. If you look ill or faint, people are likely to give up any available seat for you. People in most of the rest of the world are considerably more deferential to elderly, pregnant, or disabled people, in such situations, than is the norm in the USA. But travelling on your own can be difficult if you can’t stay on your feet for a couple of hours at a time.

Endure: Especially in transit — on vehicles of all sorts, or while waiting for transport — you can find yourself in physically uncomfortable circumstances for hours at a time. How long are you prepared to wait around the bus yard for a vehicle to fill up with passengers before it leaves? For how long can you tolerate a cramped seat on a bouncing bus on an unpaved road, with other passengers pressing against you on all sides, perhaps with too much smoke and too little ventilation, or perhaps with a frigid draft? Many buses in other countries are more comfortable than Greyhound, but sometimes the conditions turn out to be worse and the journey longer than you expected. You can usually (not always) carry some snacks with you, but keeping to a regular meal schedule is sometimes impossible. When you’re judging whether the ride will be bearable, be realistic about your tolerance for sustained discomfort and your confidence (or lack thereof) in what the trip will be like and how long it will take. Consider both your physical and mental stamina. After how long a journey, at the end of the road, in a strange place (perhaps in the middle of the night if you are delayed, even if you were scheduled to arrive in the daytime), will you be too tired or feeling too debilitated to find your way to a place to stay, managing simultaneously to stay sufficiently open to the experience and not to take your tiredness and discomfort out on your travelling companion(s) or the people you meet, yet sufficiently alert and wary not to set yourself up to get ripped off by pickpockets, muggers, or con artists?

Listen to your body: Most people who overexert themselves while travelling do so not because it was necessary to get where they wanted to go, do what they wanted to do, or see what they wanted to see, but because they were too distracted by the sensory overload of being in a strange place — whose sensations, after all, they had come for the purpose of experiencing — to remember to pay attention to the pain, tiredness, or other sensations of their own body signaling that it’s time to rest. Before you put yourself in such a deliberately and profoundly distracted state, practice paying attention to your body’s early warning signs. The excitement of travel is a powerful drug that, like adrenaline, can keep us from noticing our pain, tiredness, hunger, or thirst until it’s too late for a quick recovery. On the road, remind yourself to stop periodically and ask yourself, “Do I need to slow down? Do I need to stop and rest for a bit? Drink? Eat? Sleep?”

There are things I didn’t do on my last trip around the world, in my late 40’s, that I might have done had I gone to those places on my first such trip in my 20’s. But there are also things I noticed and learned on my last trip, seeing things with more experienced eyes, that I might not have appreciated if I had seen them earlier in my life. Travel while you are younger and more fit, if you can, but travel when you are older, too, even if you are less fit.

Bon voyage!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 8 November 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Interesting question...

For the Amazing Race I don't there is any question that you need to get into some shape to better handle whatever the producers throw at you. Last week's all female team was eliminated because of a physical challenge also.

For those of us not competing for a million dollars, getting our endurance up will not hurt and I think enhances any trip.

Your body is able to adapt to the stress of jet lag and travel and the constant movement won't tire you out as quickly. You can enjoy more your trip completely energized, as opposed to being run down by the end of the day.

Posted by: brian, 11 November 2009, 18:32 ( 6:32 PM)

Nice tips and suggestions. Not fit enough can often be an excuse not to travel. Yet the world is actually more accessible than people imagined.

Posted by: Jean, 12 November 2009, 00:53 (12:53 AM)

Thank you for this post. "Reality TV" seems to be going down the unfortunate road of equating physical strength with one's worth as a human being. It's refreshing to be reminded that in "real reality" there are plenty of opportunities for those of us with less muscular bodies.

Posted by: Johanna, 12 November 2009, 07:17 ( 7:17 AM)

There's also the great story of James Holman in "A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler" by Jason Roberts.

I am now 63, and with great chagrin, I gave up my way-too-big backpack last year, and switched to an Eagle Creek delight with big wheels. The bigger the wheels the better. I had plenty of opportunity last February in Chile to be thankful I switched.

Thanks as always for your newsletter.

Posted by: Garrett Olney, 12 November 2009, 08:04 ( 8:04 AM)

My wife and I are 68 and 70 respectively. My wife has a pacemaker and walking distances can be troublesome. Where ever we go we try to figure out what medical facility would be the best should we need one. Often in larger cities there is a healthcare facility that has English speaking doctors and staff. With research you can find out where these facilities are. We are members of Medjuet Assist which will fly us home airambulance if we should become hospitalized as well as other benefits. We've never had to use it but I did have the card out once when we were in Panama. Probably a sensible investment for people who do light adventure travel. We know that rest and not always pushing the limits is what is best for us at our age and condition. That is why we do not like to take organized trips that are push, push, push. Our favorite way is to stay in an apart hotel with cooking and washing facilities near the places we want to explore when possible. That way we can eat some meals in as well.

Posted by: David Lane, 4 September 2011, 07:17 ( 7:17 AM)
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