Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 1

Gloucester, MA (USA) - Boston, MA (USA) - London, England (UK) - Stonehenge, England (UK) - Lenbury, Herts., England (UK)

Viewers may have been disappointed to see the “Amazing Race” teams drive to the Stonehenge parking lot, collect their clue, and drive on, making their visit nothing more than a photo opportunity. Those who visited Stonehenge themselves years ago may not have realized that most visitors are now kept at a distance, and only very small groups are allowed, by special arrangement, to walk among the stones. But even if closer access were allowed, is what the racers did really that unusual for visitors from the USA to England?

And is it any different for visitors from England to the USA? How many people from England, or other countries, feel that they have “seen the USA” because they’ve spent a week in New York or Orlando? For how many of them is a visit to the Statue of Liberty or the faux-castle of Disney World more than a photo op? And does trying to “see the USA” in 15 days allow for any more depth or subtlety than, “If it’s Saturday, this must be Stonehenge”?

Thinking about what foreigners do when they visit our own country, and what an incomplete and/or distorted picture that gives them, helps put in perspective the limitations on the “knowledge” of other countries that we get from our travels abroad.

This month I spent five days each in New York City and Orlando, two of the most popular destinations in the USA for international visitors. Both are especially significant in shaping the image of the USA abroad because they are the only place in the USA (or, not infrequently, together the only two places) that many foreigners have visited, rather than merely one or two of many stops on an extended exploration of the USA. People in the USA may think of Orlando primarily as a domestic vacation destination, but the nonstop scheduled flights between Orlando and Manchester or São Paulo, or the charter flights from numerous other cities abroad, are for inbound visitors rather than, say, central Floridians eager for a holiday in the Midlands. Don’t get me wrong: Having done both, I’d rather visit Manchester than Orlando, but I know that’s not most tourists’ cup of tea.

In Orlando (more about that in another article to come) I stayed in two of the tourist ghettoes, International Drive and the Universal Studios resort and theme park complex. In New York I stayed, as I usually do in the city, at Hostelling International at 103rd St. and Amsterdam Ave. It’s the world’s largest hostel and one of the most expensive (US$49 per person per night, including breakfast, in a six-bed dorm room), but exceptional value for a reliably clean, safe place to sleep in Manhattan, with amenities including free wi-fi, comfy lounges, a patio garden and roof terrace, kitchen and laundry room, volunteer-led tours to places on and off the tourist track (gospel music at Harlem churches on Sunday, anyone?) , and an information desk staffed by volunteers with more helpful, practical advice for independent travellers than almost any hotel concierge.

Both tourist Orlando and HI-NYC are among the best places in the country to take the pulse of the flow of international visitors to the USA.

Two factors dominated the current mix of international visitors in both places: the recent expansion of the US “Visa Waiver Program”, and the recovery of Brazil’s economy from the global recession ahead of most of the rest of the world.

The limit on visitors to the USA from most of the world is set by the requirement for, and difficulty of obtaining, a tourist visa. Citizens of only a few wealthy, mostly European countries are allowed to visit the USA, even as tourists, without a visa. In November 2008, the US Visa Waiver Program was expanded to include South Korea and six countries in Central and Eastern Europe (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia). Pent-up demand means that citizens of those countries are conspicuously over-represented in this year’s cohort of foreign visitors to the USA.

Brazil is an unusual case, most similar to China and India in that it has a growing upper class with money to spend on vacations in the USA, limited only by the visa rules, but also a huge poor population eager to emigrate to the USA, whether legally or illegally (visible in increasingly-established Brazilian immigrant communities in places like Framingham, MA) — and which has led to it being excluded from the Visa Waiver Program.

Tour operators and airlines I spoke with in Orlando at the American Society of Travel Agents trade show told me Brazil appears to be the only major country from which economic recovery has allowed visitorship to the USA to grow sharply in the last year in spite of the hassle and expense for Brazilians to obtain tourist visas to the USA. Similarly, in New York, hostel staff confirmed my impression of a surge in Brazilian visitors this year.

As for the first episode of the new season of “The Amazing Race”, the key issues — as so often before — were driving and road navigation.

Some of the racers had never or rarely driven manual-transmission cars before. None of them appeared to have driven on the left-hand side of the road before. But while host Phil Keoghan’s last words to the racers before the starting “Go!” were, as they have been each season, “Travel safe”, the TV producers made the racers do something quite unsafe by starting out driving on the “wrong” side of the road in a hurry and when they were just off a tiring and disorienting trans-oceanic flight.

Do yourself a favor, and don’t follow their example.

In the USA and Canada and a few oil-exporting countries, “standard” rental cars almost always have automatic transmissions. That’s not true anywhere else in the world I’ve been or heard of. Automatic transmissions are, in general, much less efficient than manual transmissions. In the vast majority of the world (including Western Europe) where fuel is much more expensive than in the USA (or at least much more expensive relative to typical local wages), automatic-transmission cars are by definition luxury cars, and priced accordingly. “Standard” rental cars are likely to have manual transmissions, while automatic-transmission rental cars have to be specially requested, will be more expensive, and may be unavailable at any price in some locations, at some times, or from some companies.

If you plan to drive abroad, especially in a place where they drive on the opposite side of the road, get a friend or a driving school to teach you to drive a stick-shift car before you leave home. It’s vastly easier and safer to learn to shift in an empty parking lot than on the street in traffic, and when you aren’t simultaneously trying to deal with navigation, unfamiliar road and traffic patterns, foreign-language or otherwise unfamiliar signs, or driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

Get a good rest before your first attempt to drive on the opposite side of the road. If you’ve just flown in from another continent, spend the night at an airport hotel before you pick up a rental car. Or take public transit or a taxi into the city, and come back to the airport the next day to pick up your car. Or better still, plan to spend your time in your arrival city, during which you can watch the line cars take through intersections and think about how you would drive on their side of the road, at the start of your trip before you start driving. And don’t plan to drive too far or in any hurry that first day on the “wrong” side. Some people adjust more quickly than others, but it can be enormously stressful and tiring to have to remain constantly alert to what path your vehicle is supposed to follow, in a way that you don’t have to when you are driving on the side of the road that for you is “normal”.

For the racers eliminated this week, though, the problem was navigation rather than how to operate their car. Angelinos Tony and Ron, despite their previous international travels, couldn’t deal with the different pattern (or lack thereof) of English roads from what they were used to. It wasn’t so much that they got “lost” as that they kept failing to figure out the correct path through complex intersections, leaving them knowing they had turned the wrong way but losing time and having difficulty getting back on course.

The most telling clue to the nature of their route-finding problem was their statement that there “weren’t any signs” on the English roads. In fact, English road signage off the motorways is typically much better and more systematic than signage of state and local roads in New England. But the losing racers perceived the English signage as lacking because they could map neither the signs nor the roads themselves to the fundamental elements of their mental maps.

I’ve been in on the East Coast, mostly in and around Boston (including near Gloucester), since mid-August, and it’s reminded me how different the patterns of roads and the fundamental nature of route-finding and navigation are here than in California. Even San Francisco, the most European of West Coast cities, has streets that, with rare exceptions, were determined either by grids or by the slopes of hills, rather than having evolved from wandering cowpaths.

There aren’t many seven-corner road junctions in the USA west of the Alleghenies (yes, I know there are some, but not many), and there’s little ambiguity about what it means to “turn left” or “go straight” at most intersections. “Partial” freeway interchanges, where you can’t readily reverse direction, are rare in Southern California. It’s one thing to say, “turn left from Hollywood onto Vine”, and another to describe in words or on a sign which way to go at an English roundabout, or at the irregular (and poorly signed) triangular corner of Farm, Farm, and Farm roads in Dover, MA, that I’ve been bicycling through lately.

In all of this, New England road patterns have more in common with roads in England than either does with Southern California — I was surprised that teams from outside the Northeast didn’t have as much trouble finding their way from Gloucester to Logan Airport as finding their way from Heathrow Airport to Stonehenge.

The last laugh of the week goes to American Airlines’ competitors. American paid for a product placement as the earlier arrival of the limited flight choices the racers were offered from Boston to London, and thus the airline they all wanted to be on. But after the race was filmed, American decided to cut back Boston’s status as a secondary AA hub. While AA is keeping the Boston-London flights for now, they are dropping all nonstop flights on several major routes to and from BOS including Boston-San Francisco (a key business route where AA is giving up on trying to compete with Virgin America and Jetblue) and Boston-San Juan (once the most important and busiest route from Boston to the Caribbean, both for vacationers and people visiting friends and family). So much for AA’s investment in promoting their Boston services!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 26 September 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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