Friday, 24 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 5

Copenhagen (Denmark) - Marrakesh (Morocco)

Former bike messengers Alli and Kym finished first again in this leg of The Amazing Race 25 after yet another task that required making deliveries by bicycle.

This week each racer had to secure several bundles of freshly-tanned goatskins with bungee cords on top of the rear rack of a bike, and then make their way through the narrow lanes of the old city of Marrakesh to a designated workshop to deliver the load of leather. All of the racers had difficulty with this task.

The racers were unprepared for the traffic on the narrow lanes of the old city, which are too narrow for cars, trucks, or buses but heavily congested with a complex traffic mix of pedestrians with pushcarts, loaded cargo bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, horse and donkey carts, stray goats, and other surprises.

In the USA, we associate “traffic” exclusively with motorized vehicles. Except on sidewalks in the downtown areas of a few cities, and on even fewer bike paths — mainly in some of those same cities and some college campuses and university towns — “car-free” in the USA means largely “traffic-free”. So it’s tempting for people in the USA to infer from this, incorrectly, that separated bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure is inherently less congested and therefore safer than rights-of-way which bicyclists share with larger motorized vehicles. That can be a dangerous mistake: We saw the racers colliding repeatedly with each other and with other vehicles (fortunately, without apparent serious injury) when they stopped or turned without warning.

Many bicyclists and pedestrians in the USA don’t think of bike paths or sidewalks as rights-of-way on which one has to pay attention to other traffic. People on such paths routinely stop without warning, hold conversations, or make U-turns in the middle of the path — just as drivers of motorized vehicles do on lightly-trafficked roads in much of the rest of world.

In places where urban transportation is less dominated by motorized vehicles, “pedestrianized” downtown areas can be difficult for any vehicle, including a bicycle, to penetrate. Don’t be surprised if you have to dismount to proceed safely, or can’t proceed safely with a bike at any speed. And it can be as difficult, and takes as much care to find a place where you can safely pull over and consult a map, or pass a slower-moving cyclist, on a bike path in a Dutch city with a steady stream of two-wheeled traffic as to do the same in a car on a freeway in Los Angeles. You need to look, then signal, then pull out of the path of traffic before you stop.

Even those of the racers who were able to pedal and steer their bikes, or who realized that they ought to get off and walk their bikes, had trouble finding their destination.

In the USA, essentially all occupied residential or business premises have addresses including a sequential building number and a street name, and most intersections are signed with those street names. Rural roads in most of the USA are usually signed with the same names as appear on maps, and both city streets and country roads tend to be oriented North-South or East-West and signed with those cardinal directions. (New England and some other regions are exceptions. New England streets and roads tend to wander, and are often signed with the name of the next town, village, or neighborhood rather than with the name of the street or road.)

Systems of building identifiers, street and road signage, and “wayfinding” methodologies vary greatly in other parts of the world. Streets and roads may not follow straight lines or be oriented or signed according to cardinal directions or in the same ways as in the USA.

In the U.K., for example, many houses and office buildings are identified by name rather than by street number. The numeric identifier typically entered into a GPS or smartphone to find a location in the U.K. is not the street address but the postcode, which identifies the location as precisely as the little used nine digit “ZIP+4” code in the USA.

Building numbers in Japan are not in sequence along the street, while in many cities in Japan as well as some in other countries the primary location indicator is a block or quadrant rather than a street. There are often multiple streets in the same city with the same name. They might have some modifier to distinguish them, like the Washington Street and Washington Road that one finds in many a New England town. But they might not, and even if they do the prefix or suffix might not be obvious, or might not always be used.

In France, which we found even more bicycle-friendly than Scotland on our trip this summer, despite having even less bicycle-specific infrastructure, there’s a single national road numbering system (unlike the multiple overlays of interstate, federal, state, county, and city street numbering in the USA). Even tertiary rural roads in France, like through rural roads in most of the USA, are typically signed by number if they are signed at all. And since bicyclists in France use the same roads as motorized vehicles, that means they can also use the same maps and signage — an often overlooked but enormously significant advantage, since where there are more motorized vehicles than bicycles, motoring maps are easier to find than cycle-specific maps.

Not so in some other countries. In the U.K. and Germany, even numbered roads aren’t necessarily well signed by number. Signs at rural intersections typically indicate either the name of the next major town or city in that direction (helpful, although still potentially ambiguous if more than one branch might take you to the same city), or, more often, the name of the next village — useless unless you have a sufficiently detailed map to show every village.

In the Netherlands and the Flemish portion of Belgium, there’s an extensive network of separate bikeways that bicyclists are expected to use. Since bicyclists are in practice required to use this separate route system, not all of which closely parallels motor roads, they can make only limited use of signage or maps for motorists. Most signage on the bikeways in these regions either follows the “next village” system of wayfinding (problematic for travellers unfamiliar with the locality, as previously discussed), or relies on a system of numbered waypoints (“knooppunten”). With a printed or electronic knooppunt map, you can define a route by a sequence of these marked intersection points. But they are useless without such a detailed bicycle-specific map, and it can be extremely difficult — as I learned the hard way — to find your way back onto a planned route of this type if you miss a single sign or make a single wrong turn.

The canonical method for finding your way through an unsigned maze of small streets or alleys in a city, village, or souk is to hire a local person, typically a student or other young person, to lead the way. This is especially appropriate where you can’t speak the language or read the local alphabet or writing system. The racers kept asking directions of passers-by, and then going on. But none of them appeared to be recruiting, or offering to pay for, an impromptu guide to go with them.

Many of the signs signs we saw on streets and shops in this episode of the race were at least partially bilingual. The street-food stalls the racers had to help assemble in the central market square of Marrakesh, for example, had their menus posted in French as well as Arabic.

One of the racers, who learned Spanish in the Air Force, and now gets to practice her Spanish regularly in her job as a flight attendant, was shown haggling with their taxi driver in Spanish. Morocco is in one of those parts of the world where most prices are negotiated rather than fixed. But why in Spanish? Isn’t Morocco a former French colony where the second language is French?

Yes, but Spanish is the second most-common foreign language in Morocco, after French and ahead of English. Many Moroccans in tourism and service industries speak Spanish to accommodate tourists from Spain, which is just across the straits of Gibraltar. Morocco is closer to Spain than to France, and accessible by ferry from Spain even on a day trip.

There are even two small enclaves of Spanish territory, the towns of Ceuta and Melilla, on the African coast accessible only from the Mediterranean Sea or through Morocco. These have been a focus of contention as points of entry for immigrants from Africa to Europe, and have been encircled by increasingly high fences reminiscent of those between the USA and Mexico.

Regardless of how they make their way from Morocco across to Europe, with or without government permission, there are huge numbers of Moroccans — perhaps as many as a million— living in Spain. Moroccans dominate the seasonal agricultural “guest worker” labor force in Spain the way Turks dominate “guest worker” occupations in service industries inGermany and Austria. Just as you can find people everywhere in Turkey who speak some German from having lived in Europe, so you can find Moroccans who learned some Spanish while living and working the fields in Spain.

Visitors wouldn’t necessarily know this in advance, but you can never anticipate where and with whom any foreign language will prove to be useful. I’ve found myself speaking French in Uzbekistan and Spanish in Ethiopia. In a pinch, try any language(s) you know.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 24 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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