Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 6

Narvik (Norway) - St. Petersburg (Russia)

Once again this week on The Amazing Race 17 the teams faced challenges that were contrived for reality television but that had more in common than might be apparent with some of the tasks undertaken by real-world travellers.

In a district of “dachas” on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, one member of each team has to plant potatoes under the supervision and to the satisfaction of a local “babushka”. A Russian “dacha” is often defined as a weekend “second home” in the countryside, which would be a luxury in the USA. But most dachas are in quite densely populated and even more intensively cultivated districts on the urban fringes, and are much simpler than a typical American vacation home.

Much of an ordinary family’s time at their dacha is devoted to cultivating food, and a significant part of the fresh produce found in urban Russian homes comes from their and their friends’ dachas. Imagine spending your weekends in a hut you’ve built in a large tract of community gardens divided into plots often no larger than a typical suburban American back yard, and you’ll have a better picture of typical dacha life than what’s conjured up by references to a “second home”. Few dachas have running water, and many are self-built, with amenities (or the lack thereof) comparable to the crudest of old-fashioned ice-fishing shacks.

What’s this got to do with real-world travel, if you aren’t going to Russia? As the large response to my column earlier this season on international volunteering made clear, many people are interested in volunteer opportunities that will actually involve them in ordinary life and daily activities with people in the places they visit. And one of the more accessible (if not necessarily best) such programs, especially for people without special skills, is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF — yes, the acronym is pronounced like a barking dog).

WWOOF links volunteers with organic farms or other small family farms in countries around the world who accept workers — often seasonally — without cash pay but in exchange for room and board on the farm. It’s an especially attractive program for people who want to spend more time in the country than they could afford to from their savings or ongoing income, but who wouldn’t be able to find paying work and/or obtain a work visa. (If the laws were strictly interpreted, WWOOF volunteers in most countries would probably be required to obtain working visas. In practice, most don’t, and are able to get away with it because they aren’t getting paid in cash or needing to open a local bank account.)

So a fair number of travellers without experience at agricultural labor find out what it’s like only after they have committed themselves to a WWOOF placement. Some like it, some don’t. Farms are often (not always, but often) relatively isolated. A WWOOF volunteer may be part of a harvest team, or may be the only outsider living and working with a family. You might be accommodated in the farmhouse as one of the family, in an outbuilding more like a Russian dacha as I’ve described it above, or in a tent. As with businesses or organizations that accept unpaid interns, some farmers see WWOOFers mainly as free labor, while others make more or less effort to make the experience worthwhile for the volunteers. You can try to get references for a specific host from previous WWOOFers, but you have to accept a degree of inherent uncertainty as to whether you will hit it off with your host — or like farm work.

This is just one example of the issues that arise in finding and choosing volunteer opportunities. For more advice on this decision process, as well as reviews of the pros and cons of some specific organizations including WWOOF (based on research including interviews with past participants), see How To Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas by Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher, and Stefano DeZerega.

Later in this leg of “The Amazing Race”, teams had to listen to recordings of three classical music compositions, then identify which of a large room full of (simultaneous) pianists were playing those particular works.

That’s not a challenge you’re likely to face, of course, and most of the teams that tried it eventually gave up and did an alternate task instead.

But as I discussed last season, both acoustic and visual pattern recognition are valuable skills in dealing with a foreign language — even if you don’t understand what the words mean.

Pattern recognition isn’t just about words. On the road in a foreign country, you may find yourself needing to recognize the logo of a business you are trying to find; the symbol used on signs to represent, for example, a particular local concept, type of place, service, or product; the sounds in the local phone system that correspond to “dial tone”, “busy” (“engaged” in British usage), and “ringing”; or the characteristic sound of a particular local activity, facility, or apparatus (which sound helps you find it when you can’t read signs in the local language). There’s a degree of global (and a greater degree of regional) standardization to all of these, but there are always local exceptions. Often the exceptions are the signs, symbols, and sounds that indicate the most locally distinctive things, which are often those in which visitors are most interested.

It’s not rocket science, but here are some things the racers learned from the music challenge: Even if you are going to have to recognize several sounds, words, phrases, signals, or whatever, learn them one at a time. Listen to it several times. Try to repeat it back — speaking, singing, or whistling, no matter how silly you feel doing it. Keep at it with each sound until your informant indicates that you’ve parroted it back correctly before you move on to the next.

The reality-TV racers aren’t allowed to carry most electronic devices, but if you want to get high-tech you could record e.g the name of the place you are trying to as a voice memo on a cell phone, and play it back if you have trouble pronouncing it when you are asking for directions. In countries where most people are literate, though, you’re usually better off having your informant write down your destination in the local language. I always carry a very small breast-pocket notebook and pencil (so the notes won’t smear if they get wet) for things like this.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 31 October 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I think if you want to see challenges that you might face while travelling, watch a show like Man Vs Wild (helpfull tips on what to do in blizzards etc) or if you are up for comedy watch an idiot abroad. Amazing race isn't really meant to be a "travel" show or a guide to travelling.

It is a good way though to see some activities available that you may not have otherwise considered doing.

Posted by: Anonymous, 7 November 2010, 10:28 (10:28 AM)
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