Friday, 25 September 2015

The Amazing Race 27, Episode 1

Venice, CA (USA) - Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

One of the reasons I love to fly is the view from the air. You can learn a lot from an airplane window that you can’t readily discern from the ground. The first military uses of balloons and airplanes were for reconnaissance, not transportation, and the first major commercial use of flying drones is turning out to be aerial photography. I try to get a window seat on any flight, and I’m the passenger who ignores the flight attendants when they ask everyone to pull down the blinds so other passengers can watch movies or play video games.

I don’t mind being told in advance of potentially interesting sites that I might miss if I didn’t know when, where, or what to look for. But the sights that most reward the effort of going to distant places are typically those that change the way I see the world precisely because they are visions of things I didn’t know to expect and perhaps didn’t even know existed.

I needed new eyeglasses recently, and had to explain to a new optometrist why I don’t like “progressive” multi-focal glasses: They put too small a portion of the visual field in focus at any given distance. I prefer bifocals, which have a wider field of focus. “With progressive lenses, I can only see a small area around what I’m focusing on. It’s important to me to be able to see things that I’m not already looking at,” I told the optometrist.

The high point of this first leg of The Amazing Race 27 was a helicopter ride over Rio de Janeiro. The reality-TV travellers were told that after their sightseeing flight each pair of contestants would have to answer a question about “what they had seen”.

The actual question turned out to be trivially easy. But before and during their helicopter rides, some of the racers were very worried about how they would know what it was they were supposed to see, when they hadn’t been told in advance what to look at.

In this, the racers were like many real world travelers who place a priority on seeing and doing what someone else has told them that they ought to see and do. Some travellers feel lost and confused when they don’t have a guide, or when they are in a place that’s not mentioned in their guidebook or about which there is little or no information on the Internet. That’s not because they will actually get lost, but because they simply don’t know what to do.

To travellers who rely on guides or guidebooks to tell them what’s significant, any unexpected event or sensation that captures their attention and diverts it from what they came to see can be perceived as an interruption, like a sound in a theater that distracts you from what’s happening on stage. In real-world travel, however, audience and stage, figure and ground, or foreground and background are in the eye and mind of the beholder.

The racers were supposed to notice and remember the statue of Cristo Redentor (“Christ the Redemer”) on the summit of Corcovado mountain. It’s a memorable icon of Rio, to be sure. There’s more of Rio to see from the air, however, than first meets the eye of someone focused on “monuments”.

What Jin and Ernest notice first about the view of the city are the “favelas”: neighborhoods of self-built houses where more than a million Cariocas live. The favelas are especially conspicuous from the air, as viewers of the race saw in some helicopter shots similar to these, because they occupy most of the high ground (which is disfavored by wealthier people because of its vulnerability to landslides).

Favelas are sometimes erroneously described as “shantytowns”. From the air, it was clear that this isn’t accurate. While homes in some favelas are mainly tents or shacks made of plastic sheeting and cardboard, brick and concrete houses, sometimes two or three stories high, predominate in other favelas. Informal housing isn’t just a euphemism: it better describes what actually distinguishes favelas from “formal” settlements in wealthier parts of the city.

Jin and Ernest aren’t alone in seeing similarities between the geographic segregation of rich and poor in Rio and back home in the USA. There’s an extensive political, social, and academic literature comparing the geographies of wealth and poverty — often visible from the air, as I and others have noticed before — in the polarized and segregated big cities of Brazil, the USA, and South Africa in particular.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 25 September 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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