Early in this season, some readers posted on the message boards — with absolute certainty — that there would be no non-elimination rounds on this installment of The Amazing Race. They wrote it so often that I started to believe it, not bothering to make the easy phone call to CBS to verify it. Well, this week was a non-elimination round (though Phil said there would be only two, as opposed to the usual three), and I have learned an important lesson: Don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Of course, this lesson is as old as a TRS-80 computer, so I'm not sure why it took me this long to learn it, but it is rocking my world. I am now starting to consider the possibility that perhaps that prince of Zimbabwe who e-mailed me will not in fact be sharing his millions with me. I'm going to send him an angry e-mail, just as soon as I get that new free computer that Bill Gates promised me a few years ago for forwarding his beta test to 10 of my friends.
At the beginning of this week's episode, I expected Nate and Jen to be an easy elimination, considering they finished the last episode declaring their mutual hatred. Nate was hoarse when they opened this week's clue, so it sounded like they'd spent the last 12 hours declaring that hatred at very high decibels. ''Once we get riled up, we can't stop, and it's hard to fix,'' said Jen, making the couple the romantic equivalent of the Crips and Bloods.
The teams were off to Italy, a land where prego isn't just a spaghetti sauce; it's also a term of politeness! The teams had to take a bus and then a ferry, and considering the first bus left Bosnia at 6 a.m. and the teams (who all bunched up on the ferry) got off the ferry in Italy after nightfall, I thought we had been subjected to some false tension: Clearly the ferry hadn't left for hours, giving everyone plenty of time to make it. But after a little Web searching, I found out the bus from Dubrovnik to Split takes about five hours, and the ferry another four and a half, making it a closer call than I'd assumed. All of this is to say: Bertram van Munster, I apologize for doubting you. The next time a contestant says something foolish but it sounds like the sentence was artificially assembled with words selected from phrases uttered in eight different countries, I will ignore my suspicions and tell myself, ''No, this is on the up-and-up. I will just assume that Nate has an incredibly erratic voice box and that is why his statement is the aural equivalent of an Elmer's-glued ransom note.''
Arriving in Italy, all teams were given a car and a Blackberry: They would be getting a message, but they were not to use the Blackberry for any other reason. I'm sure this directive was aimed at Jen, who would have spent the entire drive filling up Nate's e-mailbox at home with such notes as:
SUBJECT: My fantasy
TIME: 11:45 p.m.
Nate: I am in the back of the car right now and fantasizing about kicking the back of your seat so hard you fly through the windshield and drive over your own head. Then and only then will I experience true happiness.
SUBJECT: The back of your head
TIME: 11:47 p.m.
Nate: I am staring at the back of your head, just as I have for this whole trip while you drive around the world like a grandmother after her third stroke. I just want you to know that even though the back of your head doesn't have your stupid face on it, I still hate it. More later.
Anyway, the product-placemented Blackberries' purpose was to receive e-mails from the racers' loved ones, a lame rip-off of the tearful Survivor staple. There's a big difference between the shows, though: OnSurvivor the contestants are starving, living in primitive conditions, and isolated from their friends and families, so a letter (or visit) from home is highly emotional. But the Amazing Race contestants are driving around in a rental car, with a loved one. Sure, Ronald and Vyxsin got a little teared up, but I have a feeling that might have been due to a hint of carbon monoxide poisoning, and a cracked window would have solved that problem.
I was intrigued by Nate's message from his parents: ''You better win this or you better not come home.'' Joke...or Psychology 101 insight as to why he has stayed with Jen for so long? And then there was the note from someone who I gathered was Nicolas' dad and Donald's son: ''Dad, don't embarrass me.'' Alas, that ship has sailed, or, rather, that pole has vaulted. The most Donald's son can hope for now is that his dad doesn't dry-hump a travel agent. Small victories.
In the first of many nearly debilitating screwups for TK and Rachel, while asking for directions (and getting the good suggestion — to steer clear of Bologna — that only Nate and Jen also received), Rachel left the clue behind at an Italian café. When TK discovered this, he was as annoyed as hippies get. With passive-aggressive comments like ''If [the clue's] not back there, we're out of the race....I just want you to prepare for it,'' TK was like the stoned version of a guilt-tripping dad. I expected him to say, ''I'm not mad at you; I'm just disappointed. Remember the time I smoked three bowls and then discovered that my roomie had finished all the Bugles? That kind of disappointed.''
The three teams who went via Bologna not only took a longer route but were further handicapped by a closed road. It was tough to figure out the time frame for all this, but considering that Nicolas and Donald slept by the side of the road until it opened at 6 a.m. and still arrived at the same time as Ronald and Christina, who kept on driving via a circuitous longcut, it seemed endless. This was the moment that it hit me just how exhausting this race must be: These teams got up around 2 a.m., and after more than 24 hours of buses, ferries, and cars, they still had two challenges to face. No wonder it broke Vyxsin, as I'll get to later.
(Incidentally, when Donald and Nicolas decided to pull over and wait for the road to open, Donald alluded to the fact that he had ''driven thousands of miles a year.'' Add long-range trucking to his mysteriously eclectic résumé, right after ''gold miner.'' I'm waiting for the moment they arrive at the mat and he grumbles at Phil, ''Greeting reality contestants at a pit-stop mat sure has changed a lot since I was doin' it.''
NEXT PAGE: The hippie has a bad trip