BBC's Race Across the World: What We Can Learn
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
"Reaching the other side of the world has never been easier. But by flying over, do we forget how to travel through?"
If you know me at all, you will know that travel is one of my biggest passions in life (did you know I had a gap year in Latin America?! I definitely never mention it...), and if you've talked to me recently, you will have probably heard me fangirl over Race Across the World, a BBC show that started last year. If you don't know what it is, then this is the basic gist:
Five teams of two are given a starting point, an endpoint, and the equivalent of the airfare from the former to the latter, which they must use to arrive there without catching a single flight. Along the way, they must reach certain checkpoints, and the first team to the finish line gets £20,000. The two series that have happened so far have seen contestants race from both London to Singapore and Mexico City to Ushuaia, Argentina.
Of course, with such tight budgets, the teams often go without food or proper beds for extended periods of time, and the work they pick up along the way to give their finances a boost is generally out of their comfort zone, and frequently features quite unpleasant toilet-related tasks! Even still, the challenges seem to be overwhelmingly outweighed by the incredible experiences had by every pair of contestants. My personal favourites from the most recent episodes included Jen and Rob's downtime in Salta, Argentina (I was so emotional, they're so cute), and Jo and Sam's time working at the surf school in Brazil (also an emotional experience - tears were shed).
The racing element aside, I think this show demonstrates exactly what it means to really travel well. Even if backpacking isn't your thing, there's still a lot to glean from RATW, and I think that gaining more knowledge from the culture of that country can be one of the most valuable things that one can take away from any trip abroad. Exploring culture allows us to truly connect with people from different backgrounds, and even if you don't meet locals on your trip abroad, I have personally found that you gain a new level of appreciation for a country and its people when you take the time to try and understand them, through their history, language, literature, art or any number of things.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with spending time by the pool on holiday, but nevertheless I would argue that it is at the very least respectful to make an effort to appreciate culture when travelling abroad. Ask yourself what the essences of that culture are, and how your perspective could change for the better as a result. When travelling through Kazakhstan, Josh and Felix (best friends from series 1) happened to come across a sports match involving about 60 men on horses and an *already* dead goat, which was apparently a game brought there by Genghis Khan. They were then invited back to someone's home for a meal and given somewhere to sleep for the night. Did that game look weird to anyone who isn't Kazakh? Almost definitely. A unique insight into another culture? Absolutely, because it wasn't just about the game itself. When being interviewed about it after the match, Felix mentioned that what really stood out to him was the way that everyone came together afterwards and talked about it in-depth and seemed to be reminiscing about it. Happening to go to that game meant that Josh, Felix, and viewers alike saw into Kazakh culture in a totally new way (of course you may have already been an expert, but I don't reckon Kazakhstan would ever be my specialist topic on Mastermind...).
Time and again, through taking time to explore and appreciate another culture without judging it by British standards or other preconceptions, the teams discovered some really unexpected connections with locals, which often led to their most valuable experiences throughout the race.
The other side of this is the generosity of strangers. Dom and Lizzie (brother and sister team from series 2) certainly experienced this big time when an Argentinian lady offered them a meal in her home and a bed for the night (again, I almost cried - I was way too emotionally invested in this series), and I think almost every team across seasons 1 and 2 experienced this as well.
In Latin America, I saw this so many times - there is a focus on caring for people like I had never seen before I went there. No, things do not always get done quickly as a result, but there is a real value placed on each individual. On all of my visits to Latin American countries - Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Chile - I don't think I can recall any occasion when the people we encountered as ReBuild/Step teams were not willing to give amazingly generously from amazingly little, particularly when it came to food and hospitality, but also helping with trips to the doctor, thoroughly insisting on paying for/providing transport (even though we were able to do so out of our own pockets), and treating us like family, having known us only for a very short time. Britain has its merits, but I don't think prioritising people over tasks is *generally* something we excel at. It is an example I have really tried to emulate since coming back.
And, of course, travelling through instead of flying over is so much better for the environment, plus you may get to see some incredible landscapes you'd totally miss from the air. In this article done by the BBC last year, they showed this chart explaining the CO2 emissions of different types of transport:
The maths is crazy. A short flight emits 3x more CO2 than travelling by train, and almost 5x more than travelling by coach. Obviously, planes save time, and yes, they are significantly more comfortable than coaches but forgive me for being blunt - your comfort is not always more important. I'm not saying you should forego a plane journey to China in favour of a coach, it would probably take about a month to get there; my point is that for those who can manage to take the time on shorter-distance journeys, there are some genuinely viable alternatives to planes that can have a much less damaging impact on both the environment and your wallet. Not only that, but it could well give you the opportunity for experiences you never expected that you would have missed by flying over. Had I been able to go to Paris and Nijmegen this year as planned (still gutted this isn't happening), I was going to travel via the Eurostar, and on my way back from Amsterdam Centraal, I would have had a 3-hour changeover in Brussels which is obviously on the travel bucket list - a total added bonus that flying would not have provided.
[^My dude Darron (raced with his son Alex, series 1) keeping it real with the handy quotes that support exactly what I'm saying]
I appreciate that not everybody has the opportunity to travel like this or even at all, and of course, my interest in travel may be low-key obsessive when compared with that of most people, but I really do encourage you to think about how you do it. If you are able to take the time to travel, then consider how you can allow your perspective to be broadened by experiencing a foreign culture, even if it's just taking a walk around a religious or historical site. Race Across the World is some top entertainment, but I truly believe that it highlights some really important things through what each team experiences about how to really travel the world well, not only through coming to appreciate different peoples and cultures, but also finding ways to protect the environment whilst diversifying our travelling experiences.
Thanks for reading my [probably quite over-emotional] thoughts on this. Happy travelling!
Thank you for reading! If you have any questions or if you'd like to guest-write for The Classicist with an Atlas then I'd love to hear from you - you can get in touch via the form on the Contact page or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.
Great tips on responsible travel from Katie and Ben from Two Wandering Soles: https://www.twowanderingsoles.com/blog/responsible-travel-tips
Carbon offsetting helpfully explained by Lucy from On the Luce: https://www.ontheluce.com/carbon-offsetting-flights/