Thursday, 21 March 2019

BBC "Race Across the World"

It’s been more than a year since the final episode of Season 30 of The Amazing Race was broadcast. Season 31 was filmed months ago, but isn’t scheduled to premiere until 22 May 2019.

If you are looking for a fix of travel “reality” television in the meantime, I recommend the new BBC series, Race Across the World, now in the middle of its first season on BBC Two. “Race Across the World” premiered 12 March 2019, and all four episodes to date are still available for streaming on the BCC Web site.

The BBC tries to restrict streaming to IP addresses it thinks correspond to UK locations. But I’ve been able to preview the first few episodes of “Race Across the World”, and I give it a thumbs up. It’s the best of the localized spinoffs, imitators, and rivals of “The Amazing Race” in other countries and regions, and in some ways better than the US original.

The format of “Race Across the World” appears to be mostly based on Peking Express, the long-running and widely-franchised reality travel series first produced for a Flemish TV network and most successful in its Francophone version. The racers have to find their own routes — using only surface transportation and no flights — and pay for their own lodging (from a limited amount of money given to each team at the start of the race, plus whatever they can earn from casual labor along the way) between checkpoints that are typically several days journey apart. Sometimes they are on their own for a week or more at a time.

All of this makes the cast of “Race Across the World” solve more real-world travel problems than the teams on on “The Amazing Race”, who are typically told what means of transport to use and what route to follow.

Other elements of “Race Across the World” appear to be inspired more by “The Amazing Race” than by “Peking Express”. Curiously, there’s nothing in the credits to “Race Across the World” to indicate whether ideas for the series were licensed from either of these conceptual predecessors in other countries.

The producers of “The Amazing Race” have said that they conceived the show first and foremost as a “relationship show” rather than a “travel show”, and “Race Across the World” seems to have started out with the same soap-opera focus. There are only five teams at the start of Race Across the World”, compared with ten to twelve on “The Amazing Race”, so viewers get a more detailed sense of each of them.

The teams on “Race Across the World” can take any paid work or barter opportunities they can find, and some of them find work or charity on their own. However, each team is also given a guide to job opportunities along the routes they might follow that have been selected especially for the cast of the TV show. Some of these look more like the made-for-TV “challenges” and activities on “The Amazing Race” than like genuine jobs at ordinary local wages.

“Race Across the World” is more patronizing and Orientalist in its attitude toward local people in the places the race passes though — at least as expressed in the voiceover narration — than is the US version of “The Amazing Race”. That’s at least partially offset, however, by the advantages of the format, which makes the cast members on “Race Across the World” significantly more dependent on help from strangers they meet along the way, and allows them more opportunities for interactions with local people that aren’t completely staged by the TV producers, than on “The Amazing Race” (although what you see on both of these shows is, inevitably, significantly influenced by the presence of the TV cameras and crew accompanying each pair of racers).

The stakes aren’t nearly as high on “Race Across the World”: only GBP20,000 (approximately USD26,000) to the team of two travellers who finish first, compared to US$1 million for the winners of each season of “The Amazing Race”. Perhaps for that reason, the teams on “Race Across the World” don’t seem to have done as much preparation for the show as a competition, and take at least a little more time for sightseeing along the way.

Among the avoidable mistakes made by several of the teams in the first few episodes of “Race Across the World” was arriving at borders to transfer points without having enough of the right local currency to pay onward bus, train, ferry, or taxi fares. US Dollars and Euros are the most “universal” world currencies (Euros having long since displaced British Pounds in that role), but there are many places where neither US Dollars nor Euros are accepted. While there’s an ATM in the arrival area of most (not all) international airports, there’s no guarantee of finding an ATM or 24/7 money changer at a land broader crossing, train or bus station, or ferry port. I always try to find some fellow traveller in the waiting area or onboard who can change at least some money into the currency of my destination before I arrive.

The other mistake all but one of the teams made at the start of the “Race Across the World” was to assume that the fastest way to get from London to Delphi, Greece, without flying would be by train or by walk-on passenger ferry — not considering overnight long-distance buses. As high-speed trains allow longer and longer distances to be covered within a day, most overnight trains within Europe have been discontinued. For longer distances, those travellers too poor to afford to fly mostly take cheaper long-distance buses rather than trains.

For tourists, there’s an obvious drawback to travelling overnight, whether by train, bus, or ferry: You miss the scenery along the way. But if your goal is making long distances quickly and cheaply, look for the long-distance express night buses that transport workers between their jobs in Northern and Western Europe and their families and friends in Eastern and Southern Europe and the Balkans. The one team that took an overnight through bus to Germany, via the Dover-Calais night ferry, leaving after the last Eurostar (Channel Tunnel) train for the evening, got a substantial head start on the rest of the racers.

Several of the teams on the “Race Across the World” took Flixbus, which now owns the US “Megabus” brand and which markets the largest and best-known network of European long-distance buses, mainly on overnight schedules. But there were better options even than that.

Other less widely-known operators cater primarily to ethnic, immigrant, and “guest worker” niche markets. These services are largely invisible to tourists. Often they leave from immigrant and “ethnic” neighborhoods rather than from downtown terminals, and their Web sites may not be in English. Travel agencies and sometimes other shops in such neighborhoods often sell tickets on buses like this as an alternative to airline tickets. On the positive side of the ledger, travelling on a bus like this is a chance for immersion in a community that might otherwise be invisible, inaccessible, or simply overlooked by tourists.

For what it’s worth, these European buses have their North American counterpart in the direct buses, little noticed by most gringos, that operate between cities in Mexico and Mexican-American communities in places in the US as far north as Chicago.

One Bulgarian company (with its timetable and online ticket sales only in Bulgarian) offers direct buses from London to Sofia, the European Union capital city furthest to the southeast. That route would have enabled the racers to get to Delphi, via Sofia and Thessaloniki, more cheaply, with fewer transfers, and more than 24 hours faster than any of them did.

If you have a chance to watch “Race Across the World”, let me know in the comments what you think, and what travel lessons you learned.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 21 March 2019, 16:00 ( 4:00 PM)
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