Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 8

Salzburg (Austria) - Feldkirch (Austria) - Schaanwald (Liechtenstein) - Balzers (Liechtenstein) - Sargans (Switzerland) - Zermatt (Switzerland)

This week the challenges for the cast of The Amazing Race 18 were all navigational: following road maps by moped 22 km from the Austria-Liechtenstein border to the other end of the of the “principality”; finding the fastest rail connections from there to Zermatt, Switzerland; and locating at least five hotels on foot from the Zermatt train station. [Corrected to remove erroneous reference to rental cars.]

Lichtenstein is just now completing the process of joining the Schengen zone, within which there are essentially no border controls. But that process was delayed by other nations’ doubts as to whether Lichtenstein had fully renounced its historic role, characteristic of European micro-states, as a haven for smugglers. As of the time the race was filmed there were still “normal” formalities at the borders of Liechtenstein.

Some of the racers noted that it wasn’t that difficult to follow the map of Lichtenstein, as long as they kept their map handy (one of the racers lost their map in the wind) and stopped to consult it at intersections. I don’t recommend riding a motorcycle in a foreign country unless you’ve already learned to ride and gotten a motorcycle license at home, but even in a car it’s much, much easier if someone other than the driver handles the map and navigation. One of the biggest difficulties with solo travel by car in a strange place can be finding a safe place to pull over or stop to consult a map before you commit yourself to a course through an intersection. There are more or less dangerous workarounds, but the only real solution is a companion.

There are no direct trains on the racers’ route to Switzerland. For more on finding European rail connections, especially between countries, see the advice I gave the last time the race was in Switzerland, two years ago.

On the pedestrian streets of Zermatt, the key factor was whether the racers relied on getting directions from passers-by along the way, or whether they took the time before they started out from the station to (1) get a detailed street map and (2) get someone who spoke English to find and mark their destinations on the map.

When you’ve been cooped up on a train, bus, plane, or ferry, it can be tempting to hurry out of the station and off into town to explore. But you’re much more likely to find maps, information, and English speakers at a transit hub than on a random street corner later on. Always take the time to look for a tourist information office and see what they have to offer before you leave the transit terminal.

Getting someone to mark your destination on a map is especially useful later on if the people who happen to be nearby when you need directions don’t speak English. An obvious corollary of this is the importance of getting a bilingual map in a country where the local language is written in Chinese characters, Arabic script, or anything other than the Latin alphabet. What you want is a map that doesn’t just have, for example, names of streets and landmarks in Pinyin transliteration, but actually has them in Chinese characters. Such a map may seem cluttered, and may be harder to find and seem less useful than an English-only tourist map, but I’ve often found a bilingual map essential to finding my way.

In a city, if people can read the name of your destination in their language on your map, they don’t even have to understand the map to be able to point you in the right direction to walk. Similarly, at a bus, train, or ferry ticket office, if you point to the name of the town you want to go to on your map, the clerk will assume that you want to buy a ticket to go there. Everything else — the time, date, and price — can be communicated in numbers (which are more standardized than alphabets) or by pantomime and pointing at a calendar, clock, etc.

Ever since broadcasts of The Amazing Race on CBS in the USA were moved to Sunday nights, the race has been immediately preceded by the venerable “60 Minutes” news show. But I didn’t tune in early last week, so it wasn’t until later that I found out that the last episode of the race had come on the heels of a 60 Minutes segment on Greg Mortenson, author of the bestseller “Three Cups of Tea”.

The next day, Jon Krakauer — also a bestselling author, and one of the sources for the “60 Minutes” story — published his own lengthy feature (available only from in Kindle format, unfortunately) about Greg Mortenson, his books, his work, and the charities he has been involved with.

The substance of both reports is that Mortenson not only told tall tales in his books (which in itself might be forgiven as “artistic license”, as it often is with travel storytellers) but misspent donations to the charities with which he was associated on his personal expenses, and lied about doing so.

I’ve talked about Greg Mortenson before, and praised the approach to philanthropy he preaches (although without really knowing whether that’s what he practices). So it seems appropriate to comment on whether I stand by that endorsement — which I do.

By way of full disclosure, I should also note that well before he published his first book, began running a well-funded charity, or became famous, Greg Mortenson and his wife, Tara Bishop, were clients of one of the travel agencies where I worked. I dealt with them only occasionally, though, as they worked primarily with one of my colleagues. Nothing in my evaluation of the latest allegations is based on any of my personal dealings with them. I have no personal knowledge of any evidence that would support or refute any of the accusations against them, and I wouldn’t reveal any such information anyway, unless I were legally compelled to do so.

For what it’s worth, I find the reports by “60 Minutes”, Jon Krakauer, and others credible, well-documented (including eyewitness on-camera interviews and named sources), and persuasive.

But what I think is the most important and distinctive piece of Mortenson’s message remains valid regardless of his personal actions:

Wealthy first-world people (and while there are rich Pakistanis, by the standards of places like Pakistan almost all First Worlders are wealthy) can accomplish much more on the ground in other parts of the world by giving money to local people, at local wages, living a local lifestyle, to do the work using, as much as possible, local techniques and locally-available materials and knowledge of local conditions, and working in conjunction with existing local community structures. Not by sending expats on international NGO expense accounts, living in the best lodgings in town other than those of the drug- or warlords or foreign soldiers and mercenaries, driving around (or being driven around by some of their servants) in expensive white Landcruisers, and importing building materials and almost everything else they use from abroad.

In this, Mortenson was and is right, and his personal faults and failings should not be allowed to discredit other organizations that practice what Mortenson has preached. For example, Pacific Environment — who I mentioned in the same article in which I talked about Mortenson’s message — has achieved extraordinary “bang for the buck” in protecting the Pacific Rim environment through grants and other support from the USA for indigenous activists, movements, and community groups in Russia and China.

It’s easy for some people to give generously (and sometimes unwisely) to charity when they are confronted with suffering “in their face” while travelling. It’s easy for others to make excuses not to give: How do I know this beggar is really needy, and not being “worked” as part of a scam? How do I know the money I give will really go to support this school or clinic I’ve been taken to visit?

Is our real discomfort with our lack of certainty as to how best to contribute to charity — or with the fact, confronted most forcefully when we travel, that by the accident of birth we are rich, most people in the world are poor, and it’s us and not them who have the power of our wealth, if we choose to use it, to try to change that situation?

I’m as guilty-feeling, as uncharitable, and as uncomfortable with my choices as anyone. But at the end of the day, the real lesson in the Mortenson parable may be that giving money to organizations in the USA or other First World countries isn’t necessarily more likely to get it into the hands of the needy than giving it directly to people we meet while we travel. Some of our donations may be misused in either case, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for eschewing all charity.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 24 April 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Just a minor correction. Teams did not drive any cars during this episode. Instead the traveled by train from Salzburg to Feldkirch and then by taxi to the border.

Posted by: MaF, 27 April 2011, 23:45 (11:45 PM)
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