Real-life lessons from The Amazing Race

Travel isn’t as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be, as many people know from experience. Interspersed with moments of sheer awe while standing on the Great Wall of China or seeing the sun rise over Machu Picchu are mind-numbing delays at airports, cranky searches for restaurants, and tense cab rides wondering if you’re headed to the driver’s cousin’s jewellery shop rather than your hotel. That partly explains the popularity of The Amazing Race, which starts its “all-stars” 11th season this Sunday (February 18) on CTV. We can relate to the racers’ travel frustrations, which destination travel shows never acknowledge.

Not that we believe The Amazing Race’s “reality” isn’t contrived. We’d love to learn how hoofing it with a camera crew influences locals’ reactions to the racers, and what bits were edited out to make a compelling story. And what’s in those puny backpacks, anyway? Lonely Planets for 16 countries and two pairs of underwear?

We hoped that Adam-Troy Castro’s new book, “My Ox Is Broken!” Detours, Roadblocks, Fast Forwards, and Other Great Moments From TV’s The Amazing Race (Benbella Books, $24.95), would provide those juicy behind-the-scenes details. But alas, it’s as anticlimactic as a non-elimination episode. The 472-page book largely rehashes incidents past in tedious play-by-plays that might have been interesting had the episodes aired yesterday rather than five years ago. Castro interviews several teams about their travel experience but extracts only sentimentality. A chapter titled “The Real Rules” is a real letdown. There must be dozens of rules viewers don’t know about; most likely racers are forbidden to carry cellphones and to bribe officials. But Castro provides none of this, instead using this section to state obvious maxims about how racers play the game, such as “Understand there’s nothing at all personal about this [race] unless you make it that way.”

Fans who want nothing more than episode recaps might as well visit reality–TV Web sites. But there’s a better option.

San Francisco travel guru Edward Hasbrouck uses each episode as a springboard for real-life travel advice. As the author of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World (Avalon Travel, 2004 third edition), Hasbrouck is well qualified to comment. For over 15 years, he was a travel agent specializing in complex, multistop air travel.

In his blog, we learn from racers’ mistakes. Why did one team get from Muscat to Perth faster than another? “Sometimes there are many possible flight connections from point A to point B, and often the fastest or best route is less than obvious, or leads through someplace you wouldn’t think of as a major hub,” he explains. He advises readers to ask about interline connections (between airlines), which most travel agents won’t offer unless specifically asked for them.

He also adds some enlightening cultural insights. For example, writing about Season 9 when the racers are in Moscow, he comments on the fact that they’re “futilely making grand New York taxi-hailing gestures with upraised arms, and asking in puzzlement and frustration, ”˜Why aren’t any of these taxis stopping?’

“The answer,” Hasbrouck continues, “is that gestures—even ones that seem ”˜natural’ and automatic to those who use them—are culturally specific. It’s rarely a good idea to make any gesture (other than pantomime) without first taking note of whether that gesture is used by locals, and has the same meaning as you are used to.”

Using Season 9’s B.J. and Tyler as examples, Hasbrouck points out that how you cope when things go wrong on the road, and whether you allow yourself to trust in the kindness of strangers, can make or break a journey.

Hasbrouck is set to blog on the latest season at ­amazingrace/.