Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 1

Palm Springs, CA (USA) - Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Sydney, N.S.W. (Australia) - Manly, N.S.W. (Australia)

ferry to Parramatta
On the ferry to Parramatta

The Amazing Race 18 kicked off via the Pacific, for only the 4th time, flying to Sydney and then taking the ferry across the harbor to the beach town of Manly. That’s me on another ferry headed out from Circular Quay past the Opera House, above, but I was there just before Anzac Day in April — autumn Down Under — while the racers were there in late November when it was much warmer.

Manly’s a nice beach, and a popular tourist ferry, but here’s a tip: For the most scenic Sydney Harbor cruise up under the bridge and beyond, for the price of a commuter ferry, take a sunset ride to Parramatta and back.

Anyway, the main task for the racers is to scuba dive with the sharks in the main aquarium tank at Oceanworld.

The TV show cut directly from arrival at Oceanworld to geared up and jumping into the tank with the sharks, rays, and other fish. But in reality, that would be preceded for first-time scuba divers by classroom instruction and then an accompanied practice dive in a training pool. And not all divers think even that is adequate preparation for a novice.

PADI says that an open water PADI dive certification course, after which you can participate in most ordinary recreational scuba dives, takes at least three days.

But according to my friend Brenda Semrow, co-founder of dive travel service and a PADI certified divemaster:

Learning to dive is really a 4-5 day commitment. Some people take longer.

First you have a book of, basically, physics lessons to learn about Boyle’s law, gas pressures, and stuff like that. You have real tests to pass!

After you’ve studied the book, your first day you have a classroom session in the morning, then a “skill check” in a swimming pool in the afternoon, with someone holding your hand.

You have several days of this before you start to swim around on your own.

Only one member of each team of two did the shark tank task, and they showed the racers alone in the tank. Maybe there was a staff person in the water just out of sight, but we didn’t see them. Even for experienced divers, diving is a two-person sport. One must always have a buddy in sight in case one needs to breathe from the other’s tank of air. These people are untrained divers! They should have a buddy at arm’s length!

Open-water certification in the U.S. costs about US$500 including equipment rental. but the conditions in, say, California, are far from optimal; “For your first dive, you want warm, clear, calm water,” Brenda points out. Not cold California surf churned with sand and sealife. “The water is cold in Sydney, too. This is extremely harsh for a person uncomfortable in the water. Cold water diving can be hard even for an experienced diver. The water temperature knocks the breath out of you and diving is all about controlling breathing. “

Both the lowest costs and the best conditions are found in places like the Egyptian Red Sea coast or Honduras, where prices might get down to US$200, or the Philippines or Thailand where it might be US$300.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a high-risk sport, dive shops and schools are subject to very little government regulation. Your main assurances of competence and safety are your own common sense and care, and the self-regulation and certification schemes administered worldwide by PADI (the Professional Association of Dive Instructors) and other competing but entirely voluntary, unofficial organizations. PADI, the largest of these groups, certifies divers — most dive shops and operators won’t rent you equipment without checking your PADI certificate — as well as dive masters (group leaders) and instructors.

A lot of people from the U.S. are afraid of getting certified in a Third World country, but that shouldn’t be an issue. The certifications are the same anywhere in the world. Really, it’s about your comfort. Look for a dive shop where the rental equipment looks new and well maintained, not where it looks five years old, even if that means you have to go to a different dive shop down the road that’s $25 more expensive for a course. There’s rarely only one choice.

Just don’t expect that under normal circumstances you’ll be swimming with sharks, on your own, as quickly as you can strap on a scuba tank, the way the racers appeared to do.

Which brings us back to the usual question: how much does this reality-TV show really have in common with the reality of travel around the world?

I spoke about this with with Laura Bly (the Laura Bly I helped take a trip around the world in eight days a few years ago) for her article about the new season of the race in USA Today:

The Amazing Race “is a lot more real than people give it credit for,” adds Edward Hasbrouck, a veteran ‘round-the-world traveler who blogs about the show.

“No matter how hokey the tasks, there’s an underlying reality of what it’s like to be on your own without the buffer of a tour,” he says, “and it confirms the enduring hook of a trip around the world.”

The same article in USA Today also has a poll of what readers think about “The Amazing Race”:

poll of USAToday readers

Your turn to comment: Is “The Amazing Race” reality, television, or a little of both? Does the race make you want to travel more, or turn you off? How much does what you see on the race resemble what’ve you’ve experienced on your own journeys?

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 20 February 2011, 21:03 ( 9:03 PM)

I love it and while of course they have to skip things like training course the show exposes to much of the world to people. It was my first sneak peak into what "world travel" looked like and I will never go back!

Posted by: Scott Hartbeck, 23 February 2011, 20:59 ( 8:59 PM)

Our family of 4 traveled RTW 7/1/2008 - 7/1/2009. Our kids were 9 and 11 years old when we left. We watched The Amazing Race (TAR) before that trip and still look forward to each new season and episode. Our travel is always independent utilizing Lonely Planet guide books, a smart phone with internet, and other traveler's and local's recomendations for hotels, restaurants, tour providers etc... . We also read Ed's book The Practical Nomad on RTW travel considerations prior to departing.

We moved hotels/locations about every 2.5 nights in that year long trip, except for a handful of times when we felt like just hanging out for a week or so. We had to deal with Bangkok's intl airport being shut down due to protests which caused us to reverse our planned travels through SE Asia for the following 2 mos. This only served to add an extra bit more of adventure and spontenaity to that part of the trip.

There are many aspects of travel that TAR doesn't have the time to cover. Like visa issues, scoping out accommodations, and choosing tour and/or transportation means and providers, or keeping yourself in cash, reading materials, and clean clothes.

But, we love the show and it draws our family together to get some laughs, and say "Hey we've been there", or "Wow we've got to get to that place".

Our last trip in December was to Chile - Santiago, Patagonia, the lake district, and then out to Vina Del Mar for New Year's Eve. We traveled with 3 other families and hiked / camped through Torres del Paine park in 40-60 mph winds and rain, and we were on an overall itinerary that really did have me feeling like we were on the show. We saw and experienced a lot but at a price to our serenity and sanity at times.

Posted by: Tim von Zweck, 23 February 2011, 23:29 (11:29 PM)

I think travel is so fun and important an activity that no matter how staged, we all need to see what our world really looks like. "Reality-based" or not, any show must tell a story, but it's not like they build sets and film The Amazing Race on a soundstage. I say it's real, but bear in mind: that means a real US-based competition program with world travel as its theme and the planet Earth as its gameboard. If you remember that, you'll get everything you're supposed to out of The Amazing Race, and (provided you keep your mind open and actually do a little THINKING on your own), a whole lot more.

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 23 February 2011, 23:48 (11:48 PM)

There were definitely accompanying divers there--they were not acknowledged in the way that sometimes assisting individuals are, but they were definitely visible in the shot. Also, the underwater camera operators would presumably have been experienced scuba divers able to assist in a real emergency.

Posted by: Eleanor, 24 February 2011, 17:15 ( 5:15 PM)

The Amazing Race is my favorite show! Never miss it, look forward to it for month, hate when it's over. I think it more real than other reality shows; mostly it is just good, clean fun! Love the views, the challenges, the personalities. Hope it NEVER ends!

Posted by: Trish W., 25 February 2011, 10:42 (10:42 AM)

I love to "play along" while I'm watching -- thinking about what I would do in the same situation. I don't get to feel as smug as I used to though, as the contestants seem to have gotten a lot more sophisticated over the years!

I was so happy with the team that won last season (the two women doctors). I think it was the first time my favorite team won and it was great to see them do it with such grace and good humor.

Posted by: Katryn, 26 February 2011, 22:40 (10:40 PM)
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