Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 10 (season finale)

Palma de Mallorca (Spain) - Barcelona (Spain) - Tours (France) - Loire Valley (France) - Paris (France) - New York, NY (USA)

[Part of the vast, grand, but unused Canfranc train station at the Spanish portal of the Somport rail tunnel through the Pyrenees. This should be the main passenger rail gateway from Spain and Portugal to France and the rest of Europe.]

Partially retracing their steps, but reversing which modes of transport they were required to use for which parts of the journey, the teams on The Amazing Race 21 began the two-part finale of this season of the race by flying from Mallorca to Barcelona on the Spanish mainland, and then taking trains from there to Tours, in the Loire valley in France.

A train trip from one Western European country to a neighboring one shouldn’t be complicated, but in this case it is. As I’ve mentioned before, the logical high-speed rail route between Spain and France, the potentially invaluable Somport rail tunnel through Canfranc in the central Pyrenees, on what should be the direct route between Paris and Madrid, has been closed since 1970 (!) as the result of a ridiculous dispute between the two countries (France appears to be in the wrong, but who really cares) over the cost of repairs to the approaches to the tunnel on the French side.

Rather than settling this petty squabble, the two countries granted a concession a few years ago to a private contractor which spent 300 million Euros (US$400 million) to build an entirely new tunnel more than 5 miles (8 km) long as part of a new, less direct high-speed rail line through the eastern Pyrenees with a total price tag of more than a billion Euros. The connections between the new tunnel and the rest of the Spanish high-speed rail network (which uses a different gauge) are still incomplete. There are still no direct high-speed trains to France from either Barcelona or Madrid, and at least for now the connections are inconvenient and non-obvious.

I tried a variety of online route-finding services to see what connections they would suggest for the journey from Barcelona to Tours. did find the fastest route, but it requires four changes of trains including connections using two Metro lines between mainline train stations in Paris. didn’t find any of the other slower but shorter and simpler connections with only one or two changes of train via OrlĂ©ans and/or Vierzon. On the other hand, none of the other services I tried were able to figure out the Paris Metro transfers needed for the fastest route. There is still a business opportunity for a company that can provide a better rail travel route-finding tool.

Back in the USA, the final (and decisive) challenge for the racers in New York involved a pile of flags with the words for “Hello” and “Goodbye” in languages used in each of the countries the race had visited this season. The racers had to identify which meant “Hello” and which meant “Goodbye” by running them up the poles under the flags of each of the corresponding countries on the plaza in front of the headquarters of the United Nations.

(I wonder whether the U.N. officials who agreed to allow the race to be filmed there realized that this episode would be broadcast the day before Human Rights Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly on 10 December 1948.)

I’d quibble with the choice of first phrases to learn in a local language, putting “thank you” and “please” ahead of “goodbye”, but at least this challenge tested a genuinely useful travel skill.

Brent and Josh, the couple who won the race after finishing the phrase-flag task most quickly, remarked to each other as they went through the visitors’ entrance to the U.N. complex that they had lived in New York for 20 years, and had often seen the U.N. buildings, but had never visited them before the race.

I think that’s fairly common. The U.N. is important, but there’s a lot else to see and do in New York. New Yorkers tend to take the presence of the U.N. for granted, while visitors to New York City tend to have other priorities for their time, especially since tours of the U.N. are available only with advance reservations.

I’ve been to New York almost every year of my adult life, on business and to visit friends. But I’ve only been to the U.N. when I’ve had a special reason to be there, which has been rarely.

I saw the UN headquarters for the first time in 1982 during the (unsuccessful) U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. On Saturday, 12 June 1982, more than a million people — the largest political gathering in one place in US history — marched and rallied in Central Park in support of unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament. So much for the bizarre revisionist history which portrays President Reagan as universally popular rather than as polarizing, intensely controversial, and terrifying to an enormous number of people who feared he was likely to start World War III!

The following Monday, 14 June 1982, I was one of thousands of people who blockaded the missions to the U.N. of the nuclear-armed nations, including both the “declared” nuclear powers who hold permanent memberships and veto power in the U.N. Security Council, and the then-undeclared nuclear powers Israel, India, and South Africa. 1700 of us were arbitrarily picked out for arrest, but I wasn’t one of them. South Africa has since dismantled its nuclear weapons, while India and Pakistan have since made public their possession of nuclear arsenals. Israel continues neither to confirm nor deny the existence of its nuclear weapons, despite the evidence leaked to the press by heroic whistleblower Mordechai Vununu.

I didn’t find myself in front of the U.N. complex again until 27 September 2010, when I joined a small picket line in the rain (I’m shown at 2:10-2:30 of this video) organized by the Kashmiri-American Council in support of human rights and self-determination in Kashmir.

And I didn’t make it inside the gates of the U.N. until earlier this year, when I observed a session of the U.N. Human Rights Committee (not to be confused with the separate U.N. Human Rights Council) as part of a training for U.S. human rights advocates preparing to participate in the Committee’s upcoming review of U.S. (non)compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), one of the most important human rights treaties to have been ratified by the U.S.

Every five years, each party to the ICCPR must report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee on its implementation of the ICCPR, and appear before the UNHCR to be reviewed.

The U.S. is in the midst of this periodic review process: On December 30, 2011, the US made its 5-year report to the UNHRC on its implementation of the ICCPR. During 2012, human rights activists in the US and around the world have been reviewing the U.S. report, and preparing “shadow” reports on the inaccuracies and omissions from the U.S. report, to aid the UNHRC in its review. These “shadow reports” are due to the UNHRC by December 28, 2012.

At its March 2013 session, the UNHRC will decide on a list of priority issues to be discussed with the U.S. government. After receiving written input on these issues from the U.S. government and interested organizations and individuals, the UNHRC will hold a public meeting to question representatives from the U.S. government about the U.S. human rights record during its October 2013 session. Following this public dialogue, the UNHRC will publish written “concluding observations” including recommendations to the U.S. for improving its compliance with the treaty.

As this description of the process should make clear, the UNHRC has no enforcement power. But it’s the only independent entity before which the U.S. is required to appear, and which is entitled to cross-examine the U.S. government, publicly, concerning its human rights record. As such, the UNHRC has a powerful pulpit for “naming and shaming” of human rights violators.

At the U.N. this March, I got to hear members of the UNHRC cross-examine the official apologists for the human rights record of the government of Turkmenistan, who gave such unconvincing responses as, “We don’t need to take any action to protect women’s rights, because there is no problem in our country: No women in Turkmenistan has ever complained to the government about discrimination or violation of her rights.”

Will the U.S. government (which, I have discovered through FOIA requests as part of my work with the Identity Project, doesn’t keep any record of the complaints it receives of human rights violations) do any better than Turkmenistan? We’ll find out next year. I’m currently working on submissions to the UNHRC from the Identity Project, as part of the U.S. Human Rights Network, addressing U.S. violations of Article 12 of the ICCPR, which guarantees the right to freedom of movement.

Normally the UNHRC travels to New York for one of its four sessions each year. But this year, to save money, it’s holding all of its sessions at its permanent headquarters in Geneva, where its secretariat is based. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to be in Geneva in March and/or October for the UNHRC sessions reviewing the U.S., but I’ll keep you posted.

The next season of The Amazing Race has already been filmed, with broadcasts to begin Sunday, 17 February 2013 on CBS-TV in the USA.

There will also (finally) be a chance for Canadian citizens to compete in a version of “The Amazing Race”, but I doubt it will satisfy the Canadian travellers and fans of the show who’ve been flooding me with comments asking when they will be able to join the race. The Amazing Race Canada on CTV will be limited to travel within Canada, so it won’t give Canadians a chance to prove how much more skilled and experienced they are at world travel than typical U.S. citizens.

I don’t understand why the Australian franchise of “The Amazing Race” (highly recommended) gets to go around the world the same way the U.S. edition does, but the Canadian racers will be confined to their own country. Canada is big, and a nice place to visit, but the different treatment isn’t fair.

I don’t make the rules — I just write about the race — so please direct your flames to World Race Productions.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 9 December 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Paris travel tip : the proper and fastest way from Gare de Lyon to Gare Montparnasse is not the Metro but the bus #92 which requires no change.

Also, when coming from the South East and going to Tours or Nantes, there are direct Lyon-Nantes TGVs that will circumvent Paris entirely, skirting its southern suburbs.

Posted by: Linca, 13 December 2012, 00:04 (12:04 AM)
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