Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Amazing Race 22, Episode 6

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (Botswana) - Maun (Botswana)

This week the teams on The Amazing Race 22 confronted the difficulties of driving themselves, in rented SUVs, in and around the town of Maun, Botswana.

Maun is a large town, not a city. But as the gateway to the Okavango Delta, it’s the center of Botswana’s largest foreign exchange earning industry: international tourism. It’s relatively prosperous and, for the protection of foreign tourists as the goose that lays the golden egg of safari tourism, relatively heavily (and efficiently) policed.

Coming into town from the luxury resort in the bush where the cast and crew of the reality-TV show had spent the night, two teams failed to heed the reduced urban speed limit signs, and were pulled over by local traffic police.

The racers seemed to assume that this was a “fleece the tourists” speed trap. But I wouldn’t be surprised if injuries to pedestrians, bicyclists, donkey cart drivers, etc. caused by tourists in big (and unfamiliar, and for many of them on the “wrong” side of the road) SUVs who have gotten used to racing after big-game sightings on otherwise empty jeep tracks in national parks, and don’t anticipate the complexity and density of the traffic mix in the center of town, are a significant local safety issue.

I’ve driven rental cars in Africa, and it’s sometimes worth the costs and potential hassles. But it’s also worth noting that problems with traffic tickets are among those you can largely avoid by hiring someone else to do the driving, rather than renting a self-drive vehicle. If your driver gets in trouble with the police, you can generally walk away, with minimal if any delay, and find another vehicle and driver with whom to continue your trip.

After being stopped for speeding, one pair of racers delayed themselves even more than necessary. They tried to talk first the police officer with the radar gun, and then his on-site supervisor, out of giving them a ticket.

A word to the wise: If you are stopped by police, being treated according to the law (such as by being giving a citation and required to pay the official fine, at the police station, for the offense you actually committed) is generally the best-case scenario you can hope for. Police who impose their own penalty are likely to treat you worse, not better, than the rulebook.

Don’t invite police to start demanding whatever they think they can get away with. Better to insist on exactly that which the racers tried to argue against when they were caught speeding: “If I’ve broken the law, give me a citation and let me go to the police station, pay the fine, and get an official receipt.”

At the police station, the racers compounded the chances of making things worse for themselves by trying to persuade the officials to take payment in U.S. dollars rather than in Botswana Pula (BWP). There are times when local laws require some government fees and fines to be paid in U.S. dollars or other “hard” currency (Euros, etc.) rather than in local currency. But unless someone insists that payment in U.S. dollars or other foreign currency is required, don’t offer or even mention having U.S. dollars, Euros, or any foreign currency.

If you offer to pay in U.S. dollars, or invite a demand for payment in U.S. dollars by calling attention to the fact that you have U.S. dollars (and not just local currency), you will almost always be charged more. You have U.S. dollars = you can afford more. Or your payment will be converted at a disadvantageous exchange rate.

If someone quotes you a price or fee in U.S. dollars, your first response should be, “I’m sorry, I’m in your country, and I only have your currency. How much is that in Pula?” Displaying a (modest) pile of moderate-denomination local currency notes from your wallet (your “bait” wallet that doesn’t contain any genuinely valuable documents) will add artistic verisimilitude to your claim not to have any U.S. dollars or other foreign currency.

In the past, such a claim would probably have been treated as implausible. But today, you can often truthfully say, “The ATMs here only dispense money in Pula.” That’s also a reason to reserve your hidden stash of U.S. dollars for the rare times when you really need them, since it can be difficult to replenish your stock of U.S. dollar cash where ATMs and banks only give out local currency or charge an exorbitant exchange rate for U.S. dollars.

Joey (age 21) had a different problem: navigating by means of a map and/or directions given by local people. “For our generation, used to GPS,” he says, “Getting directions from people is hard.”

In the first few seasons of The Amazing Race, more than a decade ago, not being allowed to bring electronic communications devices with them did little to differentiate the racers from other travellers. Today, of course, it’s a big deal. More and more often, we see the racers searching for bystanders who will let the racers use their smartphones to get directions, rather than for bystanders who can give directions themselves.

You might think that navigating without a GPS-enabled smartphone is an obsolete skill unless you are competing on The Amazing Race. But it’s not. There will be times when your smartphone doesn’t have a signal or is lost, stolen, broken, or out of batteries, or when you don’t have local data service or can’t afford to use it. There will be times when the place you are trying to find is not on your digital map, and the only way to find it is to consult paper maps and/or local people.

What can you do in these situations if you are part of Joey’s “GPS generation”, for which “We’re off the cellular network” has the same overtones that “We’re off the map” used to have for older cohorts?

First, if you plan to rely on a smartphone, maximize the chances that you’ll have a phone and digital maps available wherever you need them.

Get the least expensive phone — least attractive to thieves (i.e not an iPhone) and cheapest to replace — that will meet your needs. Before you leave on your big trip, back up all the data on your phone, and learn how to restore it onto a replacement phone in case you need to.

The only thing I had stolen on my last trip around the world was a cellphone picked from the breast pocket of my shirt. It wasn’t a valuable phone, but any equally functional replacement in the country where it was stolen would have cost me several times what I had paid for it.

Particularly if you are travelling with a companion, and have the same model of phone, consider bringing a spare (i.e. three phones for the two of you) if you plan to rely on your phone and would want to replace it immediately if it gets lost, stolen, broken, or water-damaged.

Cellphone repairs are much cheaper in most of the world than in the high-wage “throw it away and buy another” culture of the USA. But if it can’t be repaired, or is lost or stolen, replacing a smartphone in a country where imported electronic devices are heavily dutied could be much more expensive than buying a replacement on eBay while you are still in the USA.

Yes, you can buy stuff on eBay from outside the USA. But if you have it mailed to you in another country, the delivery is subject to whatever duty is imposed on imports to the destination country. That could be 200% of the retail value, even if the item is a warranty replacement.

Second, make sure that you have suitable maps of the places you want to go downloaded to your phone and available for offline use in places where you don’t have a cellphone signal at all, don’t have an account with a local data service provider, or can’t afford the roaming fees to use the data features (such as online maps) on your phone.

It’s critical to figure out in advance which apps will be available offline, and which depend (perhaps in non-obvious ways) on a network connection that won’t always be available or affordable. To find out, try using your phone for mapping, navigation, or other functions while it’s in “airplane mode”.

Third, practice navigating without your phone or other electronic devices. Leave them behind (or switch them off) and explore an unfamiliar town by foot and public transit. Scary? Perhaps. But better to try it out, and develop at least rudimentary (paper) map-reading and (verbal and gesture) direction-finding skills before you find yourself needing to rely on them in a foreign country. Backup skills and alternative methods are just as important as data backups.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 31 March 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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