Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Amazing Race 22, Episode 10 (season finale)

Edinburgh, Scotland (U.K.) - Stranraer, Scotland (U.K.) - Belfast, Northern Ireland (U.K.) - Liverpool, England (U.K.) - London, England (U.K.) - Washington, DC (USA) - Mt. Vernon, VA (USA)

Ten years and twenty seasons of The Amazing Race separate my own visit to Northern Ireland in 2002, which I mentioned in columns about The Amazing Race 2 composed in Belfast cybercafes, and the first visit by The Amazing Race to Northern Ireland, which was filmed in 2012 and broadcast this week as part of the two-hour finale of The Amazing Race 22.

The only activity my own visit to Belfast a decade ago had in common with the racers’ activities there this season was a staged on-camera dinner party.

The contestants on The Amazing Race 22 had to act as waiters and waitresses serving a five-course meal to actors in period dress playing first-class passengers on the Titanic, in a banquet tent set up in the drydock where the Titanic had been built and launched.

In my case, filming of the BBC documentary that had brought me to Northern Ireland (“What Are We Like?”, BBC1, first broadcast 16 October 2002) concluded with a surreal dinner party in a mansion, Malone House, that’s owned by the city of Belfast and rented out for weddings and other events.

Over dinner, my three fellow travellers and I were supposed to discuss what we had seen on our separately-filmed explorations during the preceding week, and compare the impressions we had formed of Northern Ireland as a tourist destinations.

The food was expertly prepared and presented, and the television production team did their best to put us at ease, but it was hard to ignore the multiple camera crews surrounding our table, or the director popping out periodically from behind the potted plants to steer us back to the scripted agenda of topics to be covered in our dinner-table conversation.

The main question the four of us — representing different tourist demographics from different parts of the world — had been brought together to answer was, “Is Northern Ireland ready for international tourism?”

The Amazing Race 22 avoided this question entirely, and went to considerable lengths to avoid mentioning “The Troubles” or their legacy — even when it would have been natural to do so.

One of the tasks for the racers, for example, involved spray-painting a graffiti-style mural under the direction of a local artist. Northern Ireland is renowned for its murals, and one of the standard tours of Belfast is anchored by visits to the iconic murals that express the rival political identities of Unionist and Republican communities. Among my souvenirs of Northern Ireland were coffee-table books of photos and stories of these community-based murals.

Belfast’s mural tradition is inescapably and almost entirely political in content and themes. But rather than showcasing the political murals that Northern Ireland is known for and that tourists come to see, or introducing the challenge to the TV audience with shots of well-known Belfast murals, the producers of “The Amazing Race” managed to find a studio full of abstract, unknown, and atypically apolitical graffiti art.

Do the producers of the reality-TV show think that US audiences are less willing to engage with the legacy of conflict in Northern Ireland than with that in, say, Vietnam (which caused so much controversy earlier this season)?

As I’ve written in the course of a wider discussion of travel to countries which are known for their past troubles, “My verdict was that Northern Ireland wasn’t ready for international tourism: People interested in visiting Northern Ireland, at least from the USA, are those who want to learn about the peace process that’s still too recent and too fragile for most locals to be willing to discuss it.”

That was true in 2002, but I don’t know if it’s still true a decade later. With the passage of time, perhaps people in Northern Ireland are more willing to talk to visitors about “The Troubles” than they were 10 years ago. Perhaps visitors today, especially those from a younger generation, who didn’t grow up hearing news of Northern Ireland only in relation to its troubles, may not think or care to ask about them. Perhaps many of today’s visitors think of Belfast only as the city of the Titanic, the way it was presented on The Amazing Race 22 this week.

I haven’t been back to Northern Ireland since 2002, so I can’t say.

When we hear what others say about a place we once visited, it’s natural to compare their perceptions to ours. But it’s important to keep in mind that we are comparing not just how a place seemed to two different visitors, but how it seemed at two different times.

Did Belfast seem different to the cast of The Amazing Race 22 than it seemed to me when I was there during The Amazing Race 2 because my interests are different from those of the racers, or because I was part of a different sort of TV show: a “news” documentary rather than a “reality” show? Or is the difference due to the fact that times have changed, and Belfast with them, in the last ten years?

Have you been to Belfast recently? What was it like? Please leave a comment.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 5 May 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I went to Belfast in 1978, and remember crossing the border from the Republic under the watchful eyes of the squaddies. When we arrived in Belfast, we saw a traffic circle with numerous burnt-out vehicles that, we were told, sat between Catholic and Protestant cemeteries that were the scene of firefights. We took the ferry to Stranraer and I remember, in the waiting room,seeing graffiti that said "Brits Rule OK!"

Posted by: Wayne Bernhardson, 7 May 2013, 08:56 ( 8:56 AM)

Thanks, Wayne.

By way of comparison, in 2002 I biked across the border on a rural road. There was no demarcation of the border -- not even a path clear-cut through the woods -- and it wasn't until I got to the first town on the other side that I could tell I had crossed.

There was still plenty of graffiti!

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 7 May 2013, 08:58 ( 8:58 AM)

I am currently on sabbatical in Dublin. I took my family to Belfast when I had business at Queen's University in the Fall. We went back this weekend, for fun and to travel to the North Coast. I will probably return once more to Queen's before returning to the States.

I would not hesitate to recommend a visit to Belfast and to Northern Ireland to anyone visiting Ireland. With the exception of a change of currency and the receipt of a text message informing you of roaming rates, the border between the Republic and the North has become nearly invisible. You can zip across it in a train, as we did last fall, or on an interstate-like motorway, as we did last weekend. Northern Ireland has been heavily advertising itself as a tourist destination within the Republic of Ireland, particularly since the opening of the new Titanic museum last Fall. (We did not visit the museum. But my colleagues at Queen's and I are planning a grand dinner there if our proposal is funded!)

I can't say too much about locals' willingness to discuss the troubles. I didn't have a lot of time to try, with young children in tow. But the troubles were freely discussed on the tour that we took. And when I told my colleagues at Queen's how upsetting my wife found some of the murals, it didn't faze them. They expressed their own outrage at the "tribalism" (their word) and the trouble it had caused their city.

Posted by: Allen, 7 May 2013, 09:19 ( 9:19 AM)

I went to Belfast in 2007 and took the ubiquitous black taxi tour. Our guide was informative and non-partisan, so much so that we might have had trouble determining which "side" he was on. The most memorable moment was when he pointed out a glorifying mural of someone and said, "You see that man? That man killed a lot of people."

As our tour went on and we felt more comfortable engaging in personal conversation, we learned that our driver was on the same "side" as "that man" but clearly didn't have very much respect for him. So while the concept of these tours may have seemed threatening to those locals who might worry that their own version of events would be clouded by guides from the other side, in our case it actually appeared to be a healing process for someone who wasn't shy about questioning his own side's definition of heroism.

Posted by: Matt, 7 May 2013, 11:31 (11:31 AM)

We went to Belfast about two years ago and found it a very good tourist destination. We took a "Black Taxi" tour of both protestant and catholic areas, and a walking tour of downtown also.

Posted by: Ross Stevenson, 11 May 2013, 07:52 ( 7:52 AM)
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