Friday, June 18, 2010

License To Drive

Items to keep hidden while traveling.

As I slowly tick away at my to-do list this week, I'm starting to feel like maybe I'm accomplishing something before I take off once again.

Living in Baltimore is nice. I enjoy it. Actually, I think I only enjoy it because I get to leave on a regular basis. I spend five months straight at home and it was nothing but darkness and misery. Abuse even. No travel. Horrific. I sometimes wonder if I would have put up with all that nonsense if I still maintained my normal travel schedule. Whatever the case, my travel schedule is getting back to normal, the weather is warmer and life is much more enjoyable again.

Unlike my last few trips to Asia, Africa, Europe, Central and South America, this time I'm planning on doing some driving, which typically heralds the need for an International Drivers License. Way back when, I used to get a new one every year (they're only valid for a year) and have a stack of old ones somewhere at home. Eleven dollars for the photos and fifteen for the license itself.

Truth be told, it's not very impressive. Just a big, gray booklet in various languages telling police officers around the world that you are licensed to drive legally on their streets. Of course, it's not a Get Out of Jail card and you still have to give your "tribute" to officers worldwide (depending on the nation) when they pull you over for various offenses.

Actually, I kind of prefer the "tribute" system. Get caught speeding in some backwater? Maybe forty bucks settles the problem and you're on your merry way again. No need for tickets. No need for courts. No need to contest. And no impact on your insurance policies. All in all, not a bad way to travel.

The downside is that it's a guessing game. Speak English and your "tribute" goes up by 25%. Act like the proverbial "ugly American" and it can increase exponentially. Better to speak or have a traveling "companion" that speaks the language (the last two times I got pinched), then you're only paying the "local" rate - or perhaps a little bit more, depending on how much English they hear you speaking. Better to keep your mouth shut and act like an idiot.

Best advice: don't get into an accident. In America, you get into an accident and you simply exchange insurance information. Get into an accident elsewhere and you might just bump into a Range Rover owned by some fugitive wanted for extradition by the United States. Not fun. And not cheap.

Driving across the world isn't too bad. For the most part, it's pretty easy. In many parts of the world, a heavy throttle, quick reflexes and lots of honking will do wonders. In western Honshu, apart from driving on the wrong side of the road, the biggest threat are these strange, one foot deep gutters on the sides of the roadway. Err into one of those by texting and your Nissan GT-R is hosed.

The real fun though is when you're driving in those "less developed" nations, aka The Third World. All those pleasant Road Rules you learned in driving school are out the window. See that space between those two cars? The one that looks barely wide enough to fit your car? Yes, the one that squeezes six cars across a three lane roadway? Go there. Fill it. Massage yourself into the space, then nose in front of that ten-wheeler truck to your left, he won't mind.

Out there, it's the Wild, Wild West. Honk a little. Honk a lot. Maneuver. Never mind that it's smoggy outside from pollution, roll down those windows and have a drag on your cigarette. Just keep moving forward. Ignore the lane markers. Go as fast as you can. Hell, go faster than the traffic. And if that still doesn't satiate your need for forward motion, why not just cross the median and drive on the other side of the road? They'll get out of your way.

In America, we're constantly bombarded by people at stop lights asking for change. Hopefully that doesn't bother you because out there it's hoards of children knocking on your window (now closed to insulate you from the common people and save your precious air conditioning - hey, it's hot out there). And don't make the mistake of rolling down your window to give that one child a coin. Make that mistake and the entire village will be surrounding your car for alms.

But the real problem with driving out there in the world is returning to the Puritanical civility of America, with it's wide boulevards, stop lights and general lawfulness. Squeezing into that open space has become second nature, but your fellow drivers sure are unhappy here when you do.

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