Friday, 31 October 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 6
This week, many of the contestants on The Amazing Race 25 continued to have trouble finding their way around Marrakesh, both on foot in the center of the city and driving product-placement cars into the outlying mountains. The team that lost the most time to missed turns and other route-finding mistakes finished last in this leg of the race, and was eliminated.
It's easy for television viewers to think, "I could do better than that." But could you really, if you understand neither spoken nor written Arabic? And how would you go about it?
Here's an updated overview of techniques and tools for finding your way to a destination in an unfamiliar city, especially where there are few or no signs in any writing system you can read:
- Get someone to lead you.
This could mean hiring someone (perhaps one of the crowd of children or older students who crowds around you wanting to practice their English) to walk with you, or hiring a taxi to drive in front of you, as contestants in The Amazing Race have sometimes done even when they were required to drive their own vehicles. In a maze of twisty little unsigned and possible unnamed streets, it can be almost impossible to give clear verbal directions or draw a clear map, even with a common language. It's common for a generous local informant eventually to give up and say, "It's too hard to explain. Just follow me and I'll lead you there." The most difficult aspect of a situation like this can be deciding whether or not to offer to pay, or if so, how much. Someone who is doing you a favor out of generosity or hospitality may be offended to be offered a tip. But in a place where personal services are normally compensated, someone who takes time to help you may expect you to pay them the normal local wage for such a service, and feel ripped off if you don't. You can't always tell what's expected. I think it's generally best to offer a tip or payment, especially if someone has spent significant time or gone significantly out of their way to help you, but to take no for an answer if your offer is refused.
- Ask passers-by for directions.
This is easier said than done if you have no language in common with most of the people on the street. The more tools for communication you have, the better your chances that the next person you meet, after proceeding in the direction you have been pointed, will be able to understand where you want to go, and get across to you what to do next. Any map -- even a bad map or one in a language neither you nor your informant understands -- can be helpful as an aid to non-verbal communication. Have paper and pencil handy in a place where you don't have to dig in your luggage for them, and offer them to people from whom you are asking for directions. The first chance you get -- ideally, before you even set out -- get someone to write down the name and address of your destination and any other information that might help you find it or help someone along the way give you directions (e.g. a phone number at your destination that a local person can call on their cell phone). If someone tells you to take bus number 64, ask them to write that down in the local language. The next person you encounter may not understand "64" in English, but if you show people at the bus stop a page in your pocket notebook with "Bus 64" written on it in the local language, they'll be able to indicate with gestures whether or not you should board an unlabelled bus that comes along. I doubt that this technique is prohibited by the rules of The Amazing Race, but I've hardly ever seen this technique used by contestants on the reality-TV show.
- Use digital maps.
With the exception of the advice about specific smartphone models, most of what I said two years ago in my three-part series series about Smartphones and Digital Maps for International Travel is still valid today. To make use of digital maps, you either need reliable, affordable, wireless data coverage while you are travelling, or you need to have digital maps downloaded and stored on your device for "offline" use. For now, Nokia Maps remain the best worldwide offline maps for smartphone use, but it's not clear for how much longer the Nokia Maps database for Symbian will continue to be updated: Microsoft has paid Nokia to discontinue development of new phones with the Symbian operating system, in favor of Windows Phone. No more new Symbian phones are being made, although tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of them remain in use. As for data service for access to online maps (such as Google Maps) while abroad, T-Mobile USA has begun offering the first service plans for customers in the USA that include wireless data even while roaming in many countries. But while these plans do include roaming data usage in China and, somewhat remarkably, India, they don't include Morocco or many other Third or Fourth World countries, especially in Africa. Even offline maps stored on your own device are less reliable than paper maps, and have other drawbacks. Cellphones are theft magnets, and smartphones more so. iPads and other tablet devices are worst of all, and the top targets of snatch thieves around the world. Even an unsuccessful attempt to steal your device can result in it being damaged and rendered temporarily or permanently unusable. What's you Plan B for maps -- and everything else for which you use your phone -- if it runs out of juice or is lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair?
- Use paper maps.
Paper maps are as useful as ever, but have been getting harder and harder to find, either in advance of a trip or locally. The travails of paper map creators, publishers, and distributors mirror those of authors, publishers, and distributors of printed guidebooks. Both local people and visitors (at least those with money, who used to buy high-quality paper maps) are using digital maps on smartphones, drastically reducing sales of paper maps other than the cheapest and poorest quality ones. Even if good maps are published locally, they may be not be easy for visitors to find. So it's more important than ever, and more likely to be worth the price premium, to track down and procure the best maps you can before your trip. Most specialized brick-and-mortar travel book and map stores in the USA, including the entire chain of Rand McNally company stores, have closed. So has Maplink, which for many years was the largest mail-order supplier in the USA of international maps. (Maplink's domain name was sold at the bankruptcy auction, and now redirects to a completely different company with which I have no experience.) There are still some excellent map stores in other countries, as I list in the resource guide in the latest edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. But international shipping tends to be quite expensive for small map orders. Since the demise of Maplink, the best source in the USA for international travel maps has been Omni Resources (Omnimap.com). As was Maplink, Omnimap is mainly a wholesale distributor but happily services retail orders. They have only a very few maps on display for walk-in sales at their office in North Carolina, but you can get a sense of their mail-order catalog from this page of maps of Morocco. Call or e-mail them if you can't find what you want, or aren't sure which map(s) will be best for your purpose. It's hard to judge or compare maps without having them in your hands. (For what it's worth, I had no financial interest in Maplink, and have none in Omnimap -- they don't have an "affiliate" advertising program.)