Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 10

Zermatt (Switzerland) - Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) - Miami, FL (USA) - Key Largo, FL (USA) - Big Pine Key, FL (USA) - Marathon, FL (USA) - Pigeon Key, FL (USA)

The Amazing Race 18 concluded on Mother’s Day with winning sisters Jen and Kisha pledging to use part of their US$1 million prize to help make life easier for their mother, who had raised them as a single parent.

To get to the finish line of the final double episode, they and the other teams had to complete a colorful array of challenges in Rio de Janeiro and the Florida Keys, ranging from the recreational (samba dancing at the head of a Carnival troupe) to the painful (a “Brazilian wax” hair removal treatment for both the male and female team members).

It wasn’t actually Carnival when the race was in Rio, but there’s plenty of samba music and dancing in Rio at other times of the year, without the Carnival crowds and prices. And if you want the full-on Carnival crush experience, many Brazilians consider Salvador de Bahia, rather than Rio, to be the best place to go. Where I live, in the Mission District in San Francisco, Carnaval is in May, to try to catch the brief window of warmer weather between winter rains and summer fog. The parade always goes past the end of our block — this year’s theme is Live Your Fantasy and the parade will include the S.F. Giants World Series trophy.

At a bar on Ipanema Beach, the teams race to mix 100 “caipirinhas” each, without drinking too many themselves to be able to keep on racing. The voiceover describes a caipirinha as made with rum, but in reality it is made with something quite different, and much more distinctively Brazilian: “cachaça”.

The main difference is that rum is distilled from molasses, while cachaça is distilled from (fermented) raw sugarcane juice. Cachaça has a fresher, lighter flavor than rum (but no less fiery!), colored by whatever sort of wood is used for the barrels in which it is aged.

Some of the worlds best rums are unavailable in the USA: Havana Club because of the US embargo on imports from Cuba (it’s technically illegal for a US citizen or resident to drink Havana Club even in a bar in a country other than Cuba or the USA!) and Tanduey (the world’s second-largest and one of its best but one of its least-known rum producers) because of the inexplicably complete lack of Tanduey distribution outside the Philippines, despite its excellent quality and extraordinary value for the price.

Nevertheless, while rum is no longer one of the most common alcoholic drinks in the USA (in colonial America it vied for that title, as the most common distilled liquor, with beer and hard cider), many good rums are available here, including sipping rums as well as those intended for mixing.

Cachaça is another story. Outside Brazil, it’s hard to find except in specialty stores catering to Brazilian immigrants. Even more importantly, what little cachaça is imported into the USA is almost entirely of the lowest quality, and fit only for use in mixed drinks like the ubiquitous caipirinha.

Good cachaça is for sipping straight up or with water or soda. The difficulty, and the fun, is in finding it. There are hundreds of small artisanal cachaça distilleries throughout Brazil, but little of their production makes it to shops even in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Pãulo. Essentially none of the artisanal stuff is exported. Like wines produced in small quantities and available for purchase only at the winery, the best cachaças can be bought only at the distilleries.

Like the teams on “The Amazing Race”, you’ll be offered caipirinhas (made with mass-market rotgut cachaça) everywhere you go in Brazil, or at Brazilian restaurants in the USA. But if you ever get a chance — as we did when we were invited into the homes of some connoisseurs who shared the stash they’d acquired on their travels around Brazil, or if you visit a specialty cachaça bar — try sipping a few artisanal cachaças.

Fortunately for the racers, their turn behind the bar was followed by a “pit stop” rest in Rio and then an overnight flight to Miami, giving them a chance to sleep off whatever they had drunk.

The racers’ tasks, and their settings, in the mid-Keys reminded me of some of my own experiences during a trip there some years ago. Even the Keys, the southernmost part of the USA, aren’t quite tropical. It can get surprisingly cold and windy there during winter storms.

We had planned to camp at Big Pine Key, one of the racers’ first destinations. But it proved almost impossible to drive stakes far enough into the hard coral limestone to anchor a tent, and we ended up fleeing our blown-out tent for a cinderblock motel down the road. (We came back a few hours later to find our campsite and tent submerged.) The racers similarly struggled to set up an awning and lawn furniture and decorate a trailer-park site without having everything they did wiped out by the wind.

As one of the local people the racers asked for directions pointed out, there’s only one road in or out of anywhere in the Keys: the “Overseas Highway” which carries US 1 to its southern terminus at Key West. Originally built as a single track railway, it was reconstructed as a highway after the rails were badly damaged in the great hurricane of 1935.

Because it was built on the original railway viaduct supports, the original highway was an unusually narrow (but, because of the near-complete absence of crossroads, unusually fast) and exceptionally dangerous two-lane road. In the 1980s, most of the landfilled causeway was widened, and all of the major bridges were replaced with substantially wider new structures.

The race finished with a pedal-tricycle sprint on one of the vestigial remnants of the old bridges on the railway right-of-way: the section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge (of which only two miles remain) which parallels the New Seven Mile Bridge between Marathon and Pigeon Key. I remember that bridge well: I was nearly killed by an oncoming car whose driver strayed into my lane in a confused slalom of ill-marked lane shifts redirecting traffic between the old and new roads as construction on the approaches to the new bridge was being completed — made worse by cloudbursts, crosswind gusts, and sun in their eyes on the horizon, glaring off the ocean below the storm clouds.

Today the remaining section of the old bridge has deteriorated to the point where all heavy or motorized vehicles are prohibited, and only foot and bicycle traffic is allowed. The racers don’t have to worry about overtaking or oncoming cars, but they struggle to make headway against the wind and keep their tricycles from being blown over the sides of the bridge. (Did I mention that the original Overseas Highway had neither shoulders nor functional guardrails?)

All’s well that ends well. The car coming toward me veered back into its lane just in time, barely avoiding spinning out or losing control. All the racers made it across the bridge to the finish before the storm arrived.

Keep your eyes peeled for filming of “The Amazing Race 19” within the next few months, for broadcast in the fall of 2011.

Bon voyage!

p.s. Earlier in this season of the race, I mentioned that Wayne Berhardson, author of the Moon Handbooks to Argentina and Chile, was re-visiting some of the areas of Chile affected by the earthquake a year ago. He’s now posted three illustrated articles in his blog which give some perspective on what has, and what hasn’t, recovered in that time:

From the Epicenter: Chile, One Year Later:

  1. March 24, 2011
  2. April 5, 2011
  3. April 27, 2011
Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 8 May 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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