Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Amazing Race 19, Episode 1

Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Taipei, Taiwan (Republic of China)

The producers of The Amazing Race seem to be choosing the cast more and more for celebrity or potential celebrity, with fewer and fewer ordinary travellers in the race. This is, of course, a for-profit production whose goal is to maximize viewership and thus advertising and syndication revenues — they aren’t trying to produce a travel training show.

This season the cast includes two former Olympic athletes, a former NFL football player, two former Survivor winners (i.e already TV stars, and recognized as such by the other racers and by people they meet along the way on the race), and the usual quota of male and female eye candy.

But the first episode of the new season featured important travel lessons, and challenges in which success depended on real-world travel skills.

Before the racers even got to LAX, one of them dropped her passport on the ground while getting back in her car at a gas station. She was lucky: the people at the gas station who found her passport figured out from the accompanying film crew that she was part of “The Amazing Race”, took her passport to the airport, and had her paged.

You can’t expect to be so lucky. Keep your passport and any real valuables someplace completely separate from any place you go into often, especially from wherever you keep your money for daily spending. Not only will that greatly reduce the chances of losing your passport while looking for your money in a shop or on the street, but it will enable you to hand over your wallet, or have it picked from your pocket, without losing more than a day’s spending money.

Fill the wallet you keep accessible with valuable-looking but worthless items (expired credit cards from accounts that are no longer active, for example), so a thief or mugger who rifles through it quickly will believe that they have gotten all the money and plastic you have with you, and go away without looking further for hidden stashes.

Thieves won’t believe you if you say you don’t have any money or credit cards or that you don’t have a cell phone (make sure you back up the numbers and other data in your phone in case it is stolen), but it’s surprisingly rare for thieves or muggers to keep on searching a victim once they have a plausible-seeming wallet and a cell phone (working or not). I haven’t yet taken to carrying an old broken cell phone along with my “bait” wallet. But as pickpockets and muggers focus increasingly on phones, which they know have to be carried within easy reach to be useful, I’ve begun to consider it.

In Taipei, the racers’ two most difficult tasks both involved memorizing or copying arbitrary sounds or images. The contexts may have been hokey, but these are things that travellers often need to do.

First, the racers had to figure out where to go, based on a clue displayed on an electronic billboard in flashing Chinese characters. Even the one American-born Chinese racer who had studied Chinese in school, and spoke some Mandarin, couldn’t sight-read the characters. And there are relatively few English-speakers (most of them visiting Taiwanese-Americans) on the streets of Taiwan, even in central Taipei. Not all the teams could find anyone to translate the sign on the spot. So many of the teams were able to find out what the clue was only by copying down the (to them meaningless) characters — this is one reason always to carry a small pocket notepad and pencil — and showing what they had written to an English-speaking person, once they could find one.

The key thing was being able to copy the characters accurately enough that someone literate in Chinese could recognize them, despite having no idea what they meant or even which aspects of their appearance were significant and which where merely attributes of calligraphic style or ornament. The point is that travellers often need to recognize, copy, or match writing in local languages. The ability to do so is distinct from actual knowledge of the language (or even the writing system), and can be valuable even when you don’t understand the language at all.

The Chinese characters on the billboard signified the Taipei Confucius Temple, where the racers faced another challenge in mimicry: After listening to a Confucian saying over the telephone, they had to repeat it word for word to a monk to receive their next clue.

The saying was in English (although somewhat accented English), but most of the racers still had considerable difficulty. The problem seemed to be that they could remember and repeat back the sense of the saying, but tended inadvertently to alter or omit some of the inessential words.

If you don’t know the language, of course, you can’t rely on meaning as a crutch for memorization of a vital sound sequence. If someone tells you that you need to find the “__________” to get where you are going, and you get lost, you need to be able to say, “I am looking for __________” to an English-speaker, or even just “__________?” to someone who doesn’t speak English, in order for them to be able to help you. It doesn’t matter as much whether you know what “__________” means as whether you can reproduce the sounds accurately enough for a local person to know what they mean.

If you are in such a situation, don’t just ask the person giving you directions or telling you what to say to repeat the word or phrase. If they are willing to take an extra moment, ask them to write it down. If that’s not possible, repeat it back to them verbally a couple of times, and give them a chance to correct your pronunciation.

We’ve seen a similar telephone task before in “The Amazing Race”. But that’s OK, as this is something any world travellers will eventually need to do. Once again, as with copying writing in a language you don’t know, memorizing and mimicing sounds in a language you don’t know is a distinct skill from learning what those sounds mean.

[Update from Laura Bly in USA Today (26 September 2011): “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 [on travelers’ imaginations] of a trip around the world.’”]

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 25 September 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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