Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Amazing Race 29, Episode 1

Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Panama City (Panama)

This season of The Amazing Race has a cast composed entirely of “blind date” travelling couples who met their partners for the first time at the starting line of the reality-TV race around the world.

Whatever lessons the remainder of the season may have in store about romance (or breakup) on the road, success or failure at the travel tasks in this first episode of the “blind date” season didn’t appear to have much to do with the racers’ unfamiliarity with their teammates’ strengths, weaknesses, or travel and relationship styles.

Road navigation was what separated the winning and losing teams this week. The racers never got more than an hour’s drive from Panama City, but team after team got lost for several hours at a time.

Why was it so hard for the racers to find their way, even with maps in hand and in a place where the road signs are in English and/or Spanish?

It’s tempting for television viewers to blame the blind date couples’ navigation problems on their lack of experience working with their partners as teams. But the TV producers love arguments between teammates, and would likely have shown them to us if they had been the cause of teams being delayed or eliminated.

Some of the racers blamed a general lack of street signs. I’ve read that road signs are absent from many intersections in Panama, even junctions of significant rotes. But I don’t find this an adequate explanation for the racers’ difficulties. Many of this season’s racers have experience in the military, where one has to be prepared to navigate without road signs or in places where the signs are all in an unfamiliar alphabet or writing system. The racers had paper maps. With a map, an automobile odometer, a compass (something anyone on “The Amazing Race” or travelling independently ought to be carrying), and some practice, it’s possible to do a fair amount of navigation by dead reckoning.

The problem, I suspect, is a lack of practice at dead reckoning. Let this be a lesson to my readers who aspire to compete on “The Amazing Race”. That, in turn, may be a consequence of an “Amazing Race” rule that has made the “reality-TV” show increasingly different from real-world travel: Members of the cast aren’t allowed to bring cellphones, GPS receivers, or other electronic devices with them on the race around the world.

That wasn’t such a big deal in the first season of “The Amazing Race” in 2001. There were a few cellphones (Nokia Communicator) and handheld PDAs that could connect wirelessly through a cellphone (I had a Psion Revo Plus) with touchscreen Web browsers. But none of these devices had integral GPS receivers, and the iPhone (which popularized the concepts Psion pioneered) wouldn’t be introduced for another five years. Even for early adopters of these devices, international cellphone roaming was prohibitively expensive. Neither travellers nor locals, anywhere in the world, were expected to rely on pocketable electronic devices for navigation or other travel services.

In the early seasons of “The Amazing Race”, teams sometimes gained an edge by borrowing a cellphone. But they weren’t lost without one.

Fifteen years and twenty-eight seasons of “The Amazing Race” later, the ubiquity of entry-level Android smartphones has led to substantial decline in non-smartphone products and services for travellers and atrophy of the skills — such as map-reading and dead reckoning — to make use of them.

Paper maps still exist, but today the people who are willing to pay for the most detailed, accurate, and up-to-date mapping — wealthy people, delivery and emergency services, and even the military — want maps in digital formats, and that’s where all the effort is going. Printing paper maps has always been expensive, especially since the more frequent the updates, the smaller the press run and the greater the cost per copy. There is no longer a critical mass of buyers for good paper maps of many places. Local availability of good maps has always been spotty, but it’s vastly worse than it was 15 years ago. If you want good paper maps, it’s more important than ever to track them down in advance and bring them with you. These days the only locally available paper maps tend to be free maps handed out to advertise local businesses, often with scales distorted to highlight the advertiser(s) or make their location(s) seem more attractive. In maps, as in apps, you often get what you pay for.

Similarly, translation apps and Web sites have destroyed the market for printed phrasebooks and translation dictionaries for travellers.

Many of the staffed travel information and hotel-booking offices that were common (and in some parts of the world ubiquitous) at long-distance train and bus stations have been replaced by tourist information Web sites, smartphone apps, or unattended information kiosks. This is a logical priority for limited marketing and tourism promotion budgets, but it leaves visitors without smartphones much worse off than they used to be.

Technological changes that affect the tools and skills you need for world travel aren’t limited to smartphones and the Internet any more than to maps and navigation. When I first visited China in 1989, electronic calculators were rare. Knowing how to read an abacus was a skill more basic than knowing how to recognize characters, and one I included in the first edition of “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. Today, I’ve heard from recent immigrants that students in China think of an abacus as something their parents or grandparents used. They might have handled an abacus in an elementary-school class about numbers, but they’ve never relied on it as a general-purpose calculating tool.

This isn’t the first time that new ways of doing things have made older travel skills largely obsolete. How quickly, and how completely, did railroads and then automobiles eliminate the need for most travellers to know anything about horses or other draft animals, which had been the vehicles of human mobility and the most essential travel skills (for anyone who wanted to go further or faster on land than they could walk) for all prior human history?

Travellers today aren’t likely to need to fall back on their ability to handle horses. It’s still common, however, to find yourself in a spot where your smartphone is broken, lost, stolen, or has no signal. It’s still worthwhile, I would argue, to learn and to maintain your ability to function without a smartphone, even if you carry one and use it as your primary tool for many tasks. The more you rely on your smartphone, the more you should have a “Plan B”.

Before you leave home, make a list of all the things for which you use your phone. Think about each of them, and how you would accomplish the same task without your phone, or whether you would be willing and able to do without it.

What are those functions for which you have come to rely on your phone, especially when you are away from home? Or for which, if you are younger, you have never used any tool other than a cellphone? (What’s a “phone booth”? What’s a “cybercafe”?) What’s your “Plan B” for travel without your phone?

What other travel skills have been, or are being, forgotten? Are they still worth learning as a fallback? Please share your thought in the comments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 30 March 2017, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

It sounds like it's high time for an updated edition of "The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace" -- and you should go ahead and let it be published as an ebook, too.

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 14 April 2017, 07:52 ( 7:52 AM)

I find my Android phone (with a T-Mobile multi-country unlimited low speed data plan) particularly useful for local buses. It tells me how long until the bus arrives, shows me exactly where to find the bus stop, and shows me the route as I'm on board so I know exactly when to get off. Also works for metro, subway etc., but for some reason doesn't understand ferries. I travel with an iPad as well, so can usually plan the day's travel ahead of time, but the phone is handy if I change plans, of something goes wrong.

I also use the maps app to navigate. I can use paper maps just fine, but the phone is lighter than an AtoZ in London, for instance. I've always enjoyed navigating, and am sorry to see the skill becoming obsolete, but I know a lot of people had difficulty with it.

I also use the translate app, mostly for menus.

I used to ask hotel/hostel/T.I. staff for info on local buses, I wonder whether the use of maps apps is one reason apartments are so popular now?

Posted by: Kathy, 14 April 2017, 12:17 (12:17 PM)

I always take a paper map of the city I'm going to. I find the small (even on a Note 4) window you get into the map on a mobile phone inadequate to get a fuller picture.

When I went to Japan in 2004, I read on the web that they lacked street signs (which I would have struggled to read in any case). So I armed myself with a digital camera, a pad and pen, and, as Edward says, a compass. I never got lost, but it was notable to me that a local friend was so accustomed to studying the map and calling for directions that she never noted landmarks even when telling me their stories,

The obvious knowledge most people have completely lost is the phone numbers in their lives. Because everyone hits a button to make calls instead of dialing or keying in the number, no one learns phone numbers. In an emergency, who do you call?

When we were on the road for a few days last summer, a friend did the whole thing via his cellphone: he used it to figure out directions, find restaurants, book hotel rooms, etc. As we found out when we traversed the same 250 miles three times in two days, looking at a paper map would have given a better oversight of the travel plan...

I was glad of the really good restaurant Yelp found for us in Rawlins, Wyoming, because the more obvious alternatives nearer the interstate were all fast food. On the other hand, I do think people may be losing the willingness to explore serendipitously. The same instinct that led people to stay safely in the Hilton or eat in McDonald's in Rome (known quantity, less risk) makes it seem safer to look in the phone rather than look on the ground.

A couple of years ago, a shower-desiring house guest came in and asked if the water had been turned off. I live in a very small street, so I did the obvious thing: I went outside and looked to see if there was an explanation. There was a big truck, and a couple of workmen. So I asked them: there was a break, the water was turned off, they were waiting for someone to come move his car, which was parked right over where they thought the break was, and did I need some bottles of water? An hour or two later, I got email from the (30ish) people who live downstairs. Did I know what was going on with the water? There was nothing on the website...


Posted by: Wendy M. Grossman, 19 April 2017, 03:13 ( 3:13 AM)
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"Don't believe anything just because you read it on the Internet. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, and they do. The Internet is the most effective medium in history for the rapid global propagation of rumor, myth, and false information." (From The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, 2001)
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