Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Amazing Race 24, Episode 6

Colombo (Sri Lanka) - Alawwa (Sri Lanka)- Rambukkana (Sri Lanka)- Ambepussa (Sri Lanka) - Mount Lavinia (Sri Lanka)

In Europe, tourists are likely to think of Sri Lanka as a tropical beach destination that competes with places such as Thailand and Bali for their vacation business. There are nonstop scheduled and charter flights to Sri Lanka from many European cities, and ads for package holidays in Sri Lanka in the catalogs of mass-market travel agencies and tour operators.

From North America, on the other hand, there are no direct flights to Sri Lanka, and it’s too far to go for week-long holiday. Some Americans might remember that the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke lived in Sri Lankafor most of his life, but they probably don’t know if any of their friends have ever been to Sri Lanka.

The teams of travellers on The Amazing Race 24 liked the scenery in Sri Lanka, but not the tasks they had to perform.

The most dangerous of the racers’ challenges involved directing traffic, on foot, in a crush of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws. Phil Keoghan, the host of “The Amazing Race”, referred to these vehicles as “tuk-tuks”. That’s the usual term for them in Thailand and Southeast Asia, but in India and South Asia they are more often called “auto-rickshaws” or simply “three-wheelers” or “rickshaws”, although the latter terms can also be applied to human-powered bicycle-rickshaws.

Auto-rickshaws are practical, extraordinarily manueverable, able to handle surprisingly rough roads (at least at low speeds), and fuel efficient. Older two-stroke models were notorious for noise and smoky exhaust, but current production is mostly of less polluting four-stroke models, many of them powered by compressed natural gas.

To the extent that collisions and injuriries are recorded, auto-rickshaws have a better safety record than you might expect. That’s partly due to their relatively low speed, partly due to their maneuverability, and partly due to the fact that the frame forms a fairly effective integral roll-cage, as long as you stay inside it.

The racers note that the rickshaws are “like bumper cars”. That’s certainly been my experience. Glancing collisions between rickshaws are common, and sometimes the driver doesn’t even seem to notice or care.

This makes it crucial never to let any portion of your body protrude beyond the roll-cage frame of the rickshaw. If you need to hold on to keep from being jostled, grab one of the internal cross-braces rather than wrapping your fingers around one of the outer bars where you could get your knuckles crushed or ground off.

Graphic signs in the auto-rickshaws used as school buses exhort children always to keep their hands, feet, and heads entirely inside.

As a pedestrian, give auto-rickshaws a wide berth — you’d be amazed how sharply they can swerve — and above all don’t put yourself in a situation where you can get pinched in between two rickshaws.

That’s exactly the siutation that members of the cast of The Amazing Race 24 were placed in by the producers o0f this episode. Fortunately, none of them got hurt. But don’t try to emulate them on your next trip to trishaw-land.

Link | Posted by Edward, 30 March 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Amazing Race 24, Episode 5

Batu Caves (Malaysia) - Colombo (Sri Lanka) - Galle (Sri Lanka) - Colombo (Sri Lanka)

As with Malaysia, this is the second time, and the first in a decade, that The Amazing Race has visited Sri Lanka.

It hasn’t been easy for the tourism industry in Sri Lanka, or for those trying to promote Sri Lanka as a tourist destination.

A civil war that began in the early 1980s dragged on for more than 20 years. International tourism in parts of the country further from the centers of the fighting continued to be a major contributor to the Sri Lankan economy throughout the war. But civil war limited the possibilities for tourism development and promotion. In 2001, in a deliberate attempt to undermine the government by cutting off the inflow of tourist spending, guerrillas attacked the international airport, doing more than a third of a billion US dollars in damage to the national airline’s fleet of long-haul airliners.

A ceasefire between the government and the rebels was negotiated in 2002, but tourism was only beginning to show signs of recovery from the war when the country was hit by a devastating tsunami on the day after Christmas, 2004. Portions of The Amazing Race 6 were filmed in Sri Lanka a few months before the tsunami, but not broadcast until a few weeks after the disaster.

There was little time for reconstruction after the tsunami before the “Great Recession” began in 2007, cutting into discretionary spending on things like tourist travel.

Boosters and investors haven’t given up hope for Sri Lanka’s future as a tourist destination, however. Cynics might say they have no choice but to pin their hopes on tourism. There’s no other obvious source of hard currency for a tropical Third World island with cheap labor but without industrial or manufacturing infrastructure or major oil, gas, or mineral reserves.

At the moment, things are going well. Foreign investment in new hotels and resorts is pouring in, and visitor numbers and spending amounts are setting new records each recent year.

The return of The Amazing Race 24 this season was facilitated in part by the reconstituted Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. Perhaps the clearest sign of the tourism promoters’ success was that the words “civil war” and “tsumani” were never mentioned on the TV show, something that would until recently have been unimaginable.

On the subject of disasters, these episodes of the race in Malaysia are being broadcast during a media frenzy of interest in what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370. Howevere, none of the racers’ flights were into, out of, or within Malaysia on the national airline — the racers were shown travelling on Malaysia-based “low-cost” private airline Air Asia and on the Sri Lankian national carrier, Srilankan Airlnes. There’s no evidence that Malaysia Airlines had any responsibiloity for whatever happened to its Flight 370. Malaysia Airlines remains, in my opinion, one of the world’s best airlines in passenger sevice both in the air and on the ground.

Link | Posted by Edward, 23 March 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Amazing Race 24, Episode 4

Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) - Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) - Batu Caves (Malaysia)

The Amazing Race went to Borneo this week, for the second time in the history of the race. As when the race first visited Borneo a decade ago, the racers’ gateway to the island was the city of Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Borneo — in case you weren’t paying attention in geography class — is an island that includes all of one country (Brunei) and portions of two others, Indonesia and Malaysia. Brunei has a small population, large oil and gas reserves, and is ruled by an autocratic Sultan (imagine Kuwait but with jungle instead of desert) making it wealthy but expensive and not attractive to many tourists.

Most foreigners who fantasize about a trip to Borneo think first about a visit to the larger portion of the island constituting the five Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan. But Malaysia is significantly wealthier than Indonesia, with much better infrastructure, and it’s generally much cheaper and easier to arrange flights to Malaysian Borneo than to get to Indonesian Kalimantan.

So it’s not as surprising as it might seem that The Amazing Race has chosen to visit Malaysian but not Indonesian Borneo. It’s a little more unusual that the race has twice gone to Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah, but not yet to the other main city of Malaysian Borneo, Kuching in the state of Sarawak. Kota Kinabalu is a modern city mainly known as a center for oil, mining and forest products. Kuching is an older city, with more cultural attractions, less dominated by extractive industries. It’s typically the least expensive place on Borneo to get to from mainland Asia, and the hands-down favorite among cities on Borneo of clients I sent there in my time as a travel agent.

If your interest in Borneo is primarily ethnographic, you’ll need to get out of the cities anyway. All of the cities of Borneo are dominated by people from other islands and/or the Asian mainland: Javanese, Malays from the peninsula and elsewhere, “overseas” Chinese, etc. The tasks the racers had to perform were, as usual, hokey, but served to demonstrate how much the status of the indigenous peoples of Borneo resembles that of native Americans.

Link | Posted by Edward, 16 March 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Public questioning of US government on human rights

US government delegation listens to questions from the UN Human Rights Committee. (Click image for larger version.) At the head table, left to right: Scott Shuchart (Senior Adviser, Office of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, DHS), Megan Mack (Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, DHS), Bruce Swartz (Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ), Roy Austin, Jr. (Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, DOJ), Mary McLeod (head of the US delegation and Principal Deputy Legal Adviser, Department of State). US Army Brigadier General Richard Gross (Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense) in profile at left in front of Ms. Mack.

Today and tomorrow in Geneva (early Thursday and Friday morning in the USA), a delegation from the US government will be questioned publicly by members of the UN Human Rights Committee about US implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

I’m attending the proceedings on behalf of the Identity Project.

Here’s the schedule of the webcast public questioning:

  • Thursday, March 13, 15:00-18:30 Geneva time (7 am-10:30 am PDT, 10 am-1:30 pm EDT)
  • Friday, March 14, 10:00-13:00 Geneva time (2 am-5 am PDT, 5 am-8 am EDT)
  • tentative additional session Friday, March 14, 14:00-17:00 Geneva time (6 am-9 am PDT, 9 am-noon EDT)

This is neither the first nor the last step, but a critical step, in the review conducted by the Human Rights Committee every five years (as with each other country that is a party to the treaty) of US implementation of this international human rights treaty. I’ll have more details after the sessions, but here are some quick links for those tuning in to the webcast:

Updates and my reports from Geneva:

Link | Posted by Edward, 12 March 2014, 22:24 (10:24 PM) | Comments (0)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Amazing Race 24, Episode 3

Guangzhou (China) - Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia)

This leg of The Amazing Race 24 began, as the previous leg had ended, on the tree-lined pedestrianized main street of Shamian Island in Guangzhou, flanked by what were once the banks, consulates, and similar edifices at the center of the European colonial and imperial presence.

In most other countries, such a quiet and park-like car-free low-rise enclave of well-preserved historic buildings at the heart of a mega-city city would be an exclusive district of embassies and mansions for rich people. That’s the case, for example, with much of Zamalek, on an island in the Nile River in the center of Cairo. But such is the fashion among China’s nouveau riche for modernity over tradition that boutique hotels in renovated buildings in Shamian are significantly cheaper than impersonal and characterless highrises elsewhere in the city center.

The only highrise on Shamian Island, the White Swan Hotel — the city’s most prestigious venue when it opened in 1983 — is currently closed for renovation, having been surpassed in ostentation by any number of newly-built monstrosities elsewhere in the city. There’ a private so-called “hostel” on Shamian, but I’d avoid it: It’s just across the street from the White Swan construction site, and you can get much better value for the same price at the Hostelling International hostel on the other side of the river.

Prices at the rest of the hotels on Shamian Island, even those that have undergone more modest renovations, are similar to what they were when I last wrote about Guangzhou five years ago. That means they are a better value than ever for foreign tourists, since prices in big Chinese cities, while still inexpensive by First World standards, have generally increased as business travel to China continues to boom.

Link | Posted by Edward, 9 March 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Amazing Race 24, Episode 2

Guangzhou (China)

This season of The Amazing Race has an All-Star cast of racers on their second or third reality-TV trip around the world. So we expected to see the lessons of travel experience on display.

At the starting line, however, one member of the cast failed the final medical check by the physician who (along with a psychiatrist) accompanies the production team. Rather than replace both members of the two-person team, the TV producers allowed the other member of the team to race — with an unexpected substitute partner from another team from a different previous season of the race who had apparently been waiting “on standby” in case of such a possibility.

Not surprisingly, this “shotgun marriage” pair was eliminated this week, after only two legs of the race, providing an object lesson in the importance of knowing your travel companion(s).

Because Mallory and Mark had never met before the starting gun of the race, they lacked an intuitive or habit-formed understanding of how they would divide the tasks or double-check each other’s work. After struggling to load a motorized kiddie-car along with their own luggage onto their taxi, as part of one of the race challenges, they drove away leaving one of their backpacks behind on the sidewalk. Each of them thought the other knew where the backpack was and had put it in the cab.

Then they wasted time arguing about what to do. They hadn’t discussed or agreed in advance on what they would do in such a contingency, and each had a different instinct: Mark wanted to go back to look for his pack, while Mallory wanted him to go on without it.

Guangzhou and the other cities of the Pearl River Delta have reputations as the highest-crime regions of China. But Mark’s backpack was still sitting in the street, untouched, when they got back perhaps an hour later, for whatever that says (not much — the presence of TV cameras may have had a deterrent effect) about the risk of property crime against tourists.

Another data point on safety: All the taxis in which we saw the racers riding had heavy, closely-spaced steel bars separating the passengers from the driver. I found it disconcerting the first time I got into such a taxi in nearby Shenzhen. It felt like getting into the back of a police prisoner transport vehicle, or a dog-catcher’s van. And what were the drivers so afraid of? Robbers or carjackers with clubs or knives, presumably. By comparison, many taxis in U.S. cities have bullet-resistant plexiglass partitions to protect the drivers against pistol-wielding robbers or carjackers. The metal-cage barriers reflect the fact that street thieves in even high-crime Chinese cities are unlikely to be armed with firearms. Defenses are clues to threat models, which in turn are clues to the patterns (or perceived patterns) of likely attacks.

The choice Mallory and Mark faced isn’t as obvious as it might seem. To her credit, Mallory had made sure that both partners’ passports and medications were with them, not in their luggage. In some previous seasons of The Amazing Race, teams have been penalized by having to hand over their packs and money and continue the race with only their passports and the clothes on their backs. All of the teams have accommodations and food provided by the TV producers at each 12-hour “pit stop”, airline tickets paid for by the camera and sound crew accompanying each pair of racers, and a cash allowance handed out at the start of each leg to use for taxis, bus and train tickets, or whatever. There’s often enough excess in the allowance to buy a few clothes. There are often shops (albeit overpriced ones) within the premises of the pit-stop hotel or resort, or opportunities to buy things while waiting for trains, planes, or buses or for opening hours of challenge sites.

Every real-world traveller will eventually face a choice like this. You are on the way to the airport, train station, bus depot, or ferry terminal when you realize that you have left something behind. How important is it? (“How much money is it worth?” and “How hard will it be to replace?” are separate questions.) How certain are you of where you left it, and how likely is it still to be there? How much time and money is it likely to cost if you miss your intended plane, train, bus, or boat and have to change your tickets and wait for the next available departure?

Or your luggage (or some of its contents) gets lost, stolen, falls in the road and gets run over by a truck, or simply goes missing. It might turn up tomorrow, next week, or never. I once had a bag of my clothes come loose and fall out of the back of a pickup truck at night on a steep, unlit jeep track during a camping trip in Texas. A National Park ranger found my bag, perhaps soon afterward, but then it was misaddressed, cast aside, and forgotten. Several years later, another park ranger found my bag again in an “unused” storage building that was being demolished, and mailed it to me in California!

What are the most essential items you would need, but couldn’t count on being able to replace locally? Do you have them on your person or in your handbag, rather than in any luggage from which you might conceivably be separated? If you arrive at your destination, but some of your luggage doesn’t, would you go on without it or cut your trip short and go home? How long would you wait around to see if it turns up?

Do you know if your travelling companion(s) would make the same choices?

Most “lost” airline luggage is only temporarily misplaced or misrouted, and turns up a day or two later, but it can take up to a week. You can travel without most of your luggage, but would you want to do so? And are you prepared to do so? Tracy Johnston’s Shooting the Boh is a hair-raising account of a wilderness whitewater rafting trip in Borneo on which the author had to make do with borrowed clothing and equipment because her delayed airline luggage didn’t arrive in time. If it doesn’t convince you to plan flights arriving at the staging point of a tour or cruise at least a full day in advance, I don’t know what will. My partner once made do for four days, while a mis-routed bag made a grand tour of Southeast Asia before it caught up with us, with only what she had in in her purse — but that included toiletries, medications, and a spare pair of underpants.

Some teams took less time to make decisions, such as which partner would do each challenge, because they knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and/or had discussed and agreed, before the race started, on what they would do in likely contingencies.

Real-world travellers can plan and prepare for joint decision-making. Here’s what I recommend in The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around The World:

My impression is that too few people think carefully enough about their choice of traveling companions. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly the case that more people are dissatisfied, after the fact, with their choices of companions (including, for some, the choice of whether to travel alone) than are dissatisfied with their choices of destinations.

Before you commit yourself to a long or complicated trip together, try to take a short “shakedown” trip, at least a weekend getaway, to get a feel for each other and how you will travel together. It’ll be well worth the expense if it spares you a disastrous long trip with someone incompatible — or a lost friendship.

Make sure you agree not just on where you want to go but on what you want to do there, and why. One of the most common mistakes in travel planning is to get together with a group of people who want to go to “the same place,” and not to realize until you get off the plane that one of you wants to spend time on the beach, one in the shops, one in the temples, one in the museums, one in the cafes, one in the villages, one in the mountains, and one in the brothels. That may be possible, but if you are going to split up immediately on arrival there isn’t much point in going out of your way to travel together in the first place.

Make a list of where you want to go, what you want to see or do there, and what your goals and priorities are for the trip. Do this separately, without consulting each other, and then compare your lists.

Because reasons for going places or seeing things vary so much, and because it’s often the small details of daily traveling life that cause the most friction, it’s especially important not just to list destinations or sights of interest. Get together with everyone with whom you are considering traveling, and have each one of you describe to the others, in as much detail as possible, what they envision a typical day or two on the road would be like: what you will do, where you will stay, where you will eat, how you will get around, how you will make decisions, etc. As you listen to your prospective traveling companion(s), try to actually visualize the trip described, and to compare it with your own vision of the trip you expect to take.

These predeparture exercises are no less necessary if you plan to travel with a spouse or lover. Travel can place severe stress on a relationship, in ways different than love, marriage, or living together. Don’t take for granted that someone you love and/or can live with happily is someone with whom you’ll want to travel, or that someone you fall in love with on the road, and with whom you love traveling, is someone you’ll love to settle down with or live with at home. People who set out in couples should leave themselves open to the possibility that they might split up along the way, and that even if they do, they might want to be together again once they get back home. Travel can bring out behavioral traits and aspects of people’s personalities that aren’t visible, or don’t cause problems, at other times. Don’t take for granted that you know your lover’s tastes in travel if you haven’t traveled together before.

The real problem wasn’t that Mallory wanted to go on without Mark’s bag, or send a taxi driver to look for it, while Mark wanted to go back for his bag. The problem was that, as Mark said later, they hadn’t yet established a basis for trust in each other, hadn’t discussed contingency plans, and hadn’t agreed on a way to resolve disputes.

Rather than take time to make a joint decision, Mallory immediately started trying to get a taxi driver to go get Mark’s bag and bring it back. By the time Mallory gave up trying to get any of the nearby drivers to understand what she wanted (it probably would have been possible with pantomime and pictures and lines drawn on a map, but Mallory only tried to communicate in spoken English words), it was too late for Mallory and Mark to go back for the bag themselves without being eliminated.

So far as I can recall, no team has ever been eliminated from The Amazing Race because they took too much time to consider their options. Many teams have been eliminated as a result of hasty mistakes and bad snap judgements that cost them more time later on. When you are in a hurry or on a deadline, you can’t afford mistakes. That means, as Mark recognized, that when time is of the essence, you need to slow down and take extra care with critical decisions. Run for your train, or for the finish line of the race, but only after taking a minute to confirm and agree (unless you have decided in advance which one of you will make the decision in such a case) that you are running in the right direction.

Link | Posted by Edward, 2 March 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0)

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