Tag Archives: challenges

Crazy Driving in Southern Italy

Driving in Southern Italy is challenging and exciting.  It requires me to be on my toes, constantly ready to react. It stresses Diane out.  I’ve written previously about driving in Europe, but driving near Naples takes this to another level and is not for the faint of heart.  Here are some of the challenges we face…

Most people here drive small, maneuverable cars much faster than the posted speed limit.  They rarely stay in their own lane, often spanning two lanes or crossing into an oncoming one. They pass whenever possible, even on hills or blind corners when it seems unsafe to do so, expecting that the oncoming cars will make way.

Some of this erratic driving is necessitated by parked vehicles blocking the roadway.  Despite the fact that the cars are generally small, the parking spaces are even smaller, and people frequently exceed the boundaries.  They will park wherever possible, including on sidewalks, at corners, and in crosswalks.  They will park nose-in to a parallel parking place, with their tail hanging out in the street.  The drivers of parked cars often open their doors without looking, requiring one to be constantly on the lookout for motion in parked cars.  They will often double park (parking in the street beside cars that are parallel parked) as if putting their 4-way emergency flashing lights on magically turns wherever they happen to be into a legitimate parking spot.  Sometimes I’ve seen them triple park, blocking not only one lane, but part of the oncoming lane too!

A narrow street flanked by colourful buidlings that is filled with people and shops with good spilling out onto the street

Try getting a motorhome down this street!

Most shocking is a peculiar practice in Naples where drivers will shop from their cars.  They stop in front of a small store, usually double-parked, and honk their horns.  The shopkeeper will emerge, get their order and their money, then disappear into the store to return a minute later with their purchase and their change.  This is happening while other cars stack up behind or attempt to pass, without any apparent concern for them, as if this is completely normal (well, I guess it is in Naples).

Diane standing beside a tiny yellow car an night witha brick wall behind

Yes, this is someone’s real car!

If the cars are bad, the motorcycles and scooters are worse.  The majority of them are scooters (a lot of Vespas but now many Asian manufacturers too), so I’ll refer to them all as ‘scooters’.  Lane splitting by this plague on wheels is normal.  They drive between the other cars, passing on the left and right while traffic is moving, on blind corners, and in busy intersections.  At stop lights they worm their way to the head of the line, often performing major acrobatics to get to the front, or as close to it as possible, wedged in between the other cars and/or the curb.  When the light turns green, they race off ahead (they’re quick off the line), but they sometimes get passed again if the roadway has a higher speed limit, in which case they repeat the procedure at the next light.

Crazy scooter driving was commonplace in Asia, but I wasn’t behind the wheel there.  It’s much more exciting when one is in the thick of it.  A particularly shocking example we’ve seen was a man driving his scooter with a very young child, perhaps 3 years old, standing between his legs while he drove.  The child wasn’t wearing a helmet, wasn’t secured, and appeared to barely be old enough to hang on to.  The child wasn’t tall enough to reach the handlebars, even while standing, so was holding on to something lower, behind the front console.

Many scooters parked together

Scooters Everywhere!

On the other hand, we did receive a very nice favour from a scooter driver.  A scooter behind us started honking and drive up beside me so I slowed down and eventually stopped.  The driver reached over and gave me my swim goggles, which I’d forgotten to bring in off the rear rack of our camper where they’d been clipped with a clothes pin to dry.  Although she didn’t speak English, she must have seen them fall off while we were driving, retrieved them in the middle of this crazy traffic (at no small risk to herself), and then chased us down to return them.  Perhaps scooters are good for something after all?

The Decline of the American Empire

Our recent visit to the United States got me thinking about the challenges facing America today.  I think that the road ahead will be very difficult.

What is an empire?

Empires are nations whose power and influence extend beyond their borders.  They tend to enjoy false economies based on cheap labour and the plunder of other nations.  This is typically enabled by large and costly militaries.

Why do empires decline?

Empires enjoy false economies based on the continued access to cheap resources.  Cultural decay sets in when people become used to living lives subsidized by cheap imports and high levels of personal and government debt.  When empire economies falter, their militaries become an economic drain, but remain essential to try to protect the empire’s position despite its declining influence.  People used to an easier life squabble over how to divide the pie, rather than working together to increase the size of it.

Empires fall because they must eventually begin living within their means.  If they do not do this, they can only hope to delay the decline by borrowing against future generations – e.g. letting infrastructure decay, running a deficit, etc.

The American Empire

I believe that the United States currently enjoys empire status.  Its economic power and military reach allow it to influence world events far more than its size and population would suggest.  Through foreign and economic policy it exerts control over other countries, up to and including cases where some governments survive only because of U.S. support.  Why are the Americans at the table in virtually every peace talk?  What gives the Americans the right to chastise Palestine for recently seeking a recognition of statehood at the UN?

Even when the American economy was in free fall, investors flocked to the U.S. dollar for safety.  Despite serious economic problems and massive debt levels the U.S. enjoys very low interest rates, unlike other countries where interest rates rise as the risk of default increases (e.g. Ireland, Greece).  Through illegal immigration, multinational corporations, and lax environmental standards, the U.S. enjoys access to cheap labour and raw materials and consumes more resources on a per capita basis than most other countries.  And they don’t want to share.

The massive U.S. military allows them to project force anywhere in the world.  According to reports of the US. Department of Defence Department of Defence Base Structure Report and Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and Country the US military has over 540,000 facilities located on nearly 5,000 sites worldwide.  They have facilities in 39 foreign countries, with the majority of these located in Germany (194 sites, 52,000 personnel), Japan (108 sites, 36,000 personnel), and South Korea (82 sites, 29,000 personnel).  When the U.S. wins a war, they never really leave.  Despite their recent withdrawal from Iraq, I doubt that it will turn out to be any different in the long run.  There are over 1,400,000 U.S. Active Duty military personnel.  Of these, almost 300,000 were stationed in 150 other countries (including 126 people in Canada).  This is in addition to 104,000 deployed in Afghanistan (‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, an overly optimistic name) and 85,000 in Iraq (‘Operation New Dawn’, sounds like a B-movie).  The troops in Iraq were recently removed, but most are likely deployed elsewhere.  All together, the U.S. military has 78,000 personnel located in Europe alone.

The massive U.S. military props up the government and allows it to exert power worldwide, but at a very high cost.  In 2010, 20% of the US budget ($689 Billion) went to the Defence Department (Source: Wikipedia), an amount almost equal to that spent on Social Security ($701 Billion) and Medicare & Medicaid ($793 Billion).  The U.S. industrial military complex has a massive economic effect and exerts its own political influence to sustain itself.  Despite the recent US economic problems, spending on the U.S. military continues to rise even after removing the effects of inflation, almost doubling on a constant dollar basis in the last 10 years (Source: Wikipedia).

The American Empire in Decline

All good things come to an end. — Anonymous

I believe that the U.S. is an empire at the peak of its power, peering over the edge at a potentially precipitous drop ahead.  They are beginning to exhibit many of the symptoms of an empire in decline.

The U.S. has severe economic problems.  Some of these challenges may be short-lived, but others appear to be more structural and could have lasting impacts.  Despite repeated economic stimuli (e.g. bank and auto industry bailouts, near zero interest rates, multiple rounds of quantitative easing, tax breaks to home owners), the U.S. economy is limping along.  The U.S. currently has historically high unemployment, partly as a result of the continued trends of offshoring and automation.  The gap between rich and poor continues to widen.  Over 20% of U.S. home owners are ‘under water’ on their mortgage, meaning that they owe more than their homes are worth.  They have high and growing levels of personal debt and almost 1 in 6 Americans rely on government food stamps to ensure they have enough to eat. The U.S. budget has a huge annual deficit which continues to add to its massive national debt.  The government appears paralyzed, bickering over irrelevant matters while the nation suffers.  They’re spending their time rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic sinks.

Can the U.S. halt its decline?

The U.S. possesses a lot of assets that may be able to help postpone or slow its decline.  They have the largest economy and most powerful military in the world (many times larger than any other country).  As a result they have tremendous economic and political influence globally.  Through media conglomerates and Hollywood, they also have great cultural influence.  The U.S. dollar is the primary reserve currency for world banks, which affords it benefits it would not otherwise be entitled to, and the U.S. continues to be a world leader in research and in technology.

Most importantly, the U.S. has a record of re-inventing itself, allowing it to overcome virtually all important challenges to-date. Their notion of American Exceptionalism results in a confidence and ‘can do’ attitude that is hard to beat.  Will this be enough to overcome the apparent economic, political, and cultural decay they’re experiencing?  It remains to be seen.  If not, what will happen to Canada in the long term if our primary ally and partner in virtually everything loses it privileged position in the world?

Travel Pet Peeves

As with any sustained and repetitive activity of reasonable complexity, traveling tends to have its minor annoyances. We prefer to look at these as challenges rather than problems, but they can become irritating, especially when our energy, and therefore tolerance, is low or our frustration level high. One of the biggest challenges with sustained traveling is to not become cynical. It is easy to develop a ‘been there done that’ attitude, and to become critical of things that we don’t have to deal with at home. We try hard not to do this, and instead try to maintain a positive attitude and find the humour in the day-to-day challenges we face. In that spirit, here are some of the things that we deal with on a regular basis in India, many of which we also experienced elsewhere.

  • Dirty toilets – We needn’t say more, but we will in a separate blog entry.
  • Hard beds — Some beds aren’t much more than mats on a board covered with a sheet. Diane actually said the other day that she thought she was finally getting used to hard beds, but took it back upon waking the following morning.
  • Harder pillows – Some pillows are blocks of hard foam or seem to be packed with old rags. We had some pillows last night that felt like they were filled with lead shot. Once molded into position with considerable effort, they would not change shape through any natural motion of the head or neck. Diane got up in the middle of the night to get her fleece jacket to sleep on instead.
  • Dirty linens – The sheets have usually been cleaned, but are usually grey and often stained with mysterious shades of various nondescript colours.
  • Old beds — We’ve heard about how mattresses and pillows are filled with pounds of dead skin cells and the dust mites who feed off them. We can’t imagine what’s living in some of these mattresses, and have gotten into the habit of not checking what’s under the sheets. So far, no bed bugs though.
  • Higher pricing for foreigners – Entrance fees to attractions (museums, forts, palaces, etc.) are typically 10 to 20 times higher for foreigners. We can tell from the guidebook that this has been in place at some sites for years and also that it continues to spread, as many places that didn’t have differential pricing a few years ago do now. That being said, the foreigner price is rarely higher than $5 US.
  • Fees for camera use – Most attractions charge a separate fee for the use of a camera, which can be as much or more than an entry ticket. Very few Indian people have cameras, so they don’t pay this fee, but they do have cell phones with cameras in them and with which they take pictures. So, in effect, this fee is primarily an increased charge for tourists.
  • Separate Tickets – Many large attractions, like in North America, charge separate fees for various parts of the exhibit, no doubt designed to increase their overall revenue.
  • Negotiating – Having to negotiate for nearly everything. Room rates, taxis, auto-rickshaws, souvenirs, and even the price of bottled water (which we need regularly). Vendors almost always try to extract more money than they charge Indian people. In some cases they have no shame in asking many, many times more than the object is worth, trying to ‘anchor’ (as behavioural economists call it) a very high point for the start of negotiations.
  • Begging – The constant requests for money from woman, children, the elderly, and the disabled (or combinations thereof) are draining.
  • Taxi drivers — who won’t turn on their meters for foreigners, requiring a much higher fare to be negotiated. They sometimes claim that the meter is broken, but often just flatly refuse to use the meter.
  • Touts (including rickshaw drivers who act like touts) – Men who make money by getting commissions in return for bringing tourists to shops or hotels. They are often unscrupulous, and will do almost anything to get you to go with them, for example:
    o Taking you to a hotel other than the one you’ve asked for
    o Stopping the rickshaw mid route and asking you to visit a shop.
    o Claiming that the hotel that you’ve requested is closed, full, or otherwise unavailable.
    o Telling you that the price at a certain hotel is lower than it is.
    o Claiming that they are somehow affiliated with a particular shop or hotel (e.g. I work there, my brother owns it, etc.)
    The reason for all these shenanigans is that the commissions paid by some places are quite high relative to the money that can be earned elsewhere or a rickshaw fare. In some places it seems like the rickshaw drivers are working primarily for commissions, and not as a means of public conveyance.
  • Shop owners – who constantly ask if we’ll “come see my shop”. We are polite and usually answer “no thank-you”, but it can get a bit tiring to say this twenty times in one a city block.
  • Mosquitoes – this one barely belongs on the list because, to be frank, the mosquitoes here are smaller and leave a smaller bite than those in Canada. The difference is that in most warm places they breed all year round, so we deal with them constantly. There is nothing more annoying than trying to sleep when you have mosquitoes buzzing around your ears and you haven’t bothered to put up the mosquito net. The disquieting thing is that the mosquitoes here are entirely more deadly than those at home, as carriers for malaria, dengue fever, Japanese B encephalitis, and other diseases.
  • Noise – the noise levels in India are much higher than at home, and in our experience, even much higher than in big North American cities like New York. The noises we find most challenging are:
    o Honking – both when walking or on transport. The buses have air horns so loud they almost certainly damage hearing and they blast them almost continuously (alerting pedestrians, scaring livestock, when overtaking, when driving through villages, when a slow vehicle doesn’t give way, when traffic slows or stops, etc.) Motorcycles also seem to beep constantly, partly out of self-preservation.
    o Dogs barking – there are feral dogs in a lot of places that like to bark or fight at night, especially in the early morning.
    o Loud Music – Many buses play loud music. It is often so loud that local people complain, and it’s never in English. It is usually played a couple of notches higher than the level at which the stereo system is capable of reproducing clear sound, so not only is it loud, but full of static.
    o Cell Phones – everyone seems to have a cell phone, but there doesn’t appear to be any etiquette regarding the volume of the ring tones, yelling into your phone to compete with the background noise, or playing music through the phone’s loudspeaker on the bus so that everyone else gets to listen to it.
  • Cutting in line – People here often cut in line. It’s understandable that in a land of scarcity with so many people that they would do this. The most frustrating is when people cut in line at the train station ticket window, which is often long slow queue. Another example is at bank machines, which in some places have long lines. What’s surprising is that other people seem to let them do this. When confronted, they usually back down, but then resort to slipperier tactics, like giving their bank card and pin to another person, or having a woman buy their train ticket in the women-only line. Boarding buses and the second class portion of trains is another challenge. There are usually more people than places, and people use various tactics to increase their chances of a seated journey, for example:
    o as the train pulls up, jump on board before it stops and push through the line of people waiting to disembark,
    o throw some of their belongings through the bus window onto an empty seat, and when all else fails,
    o push and shove to get on board first.

We hope that didn’t sound too negative. We take it all with a grain of salt, and these challenges are greatly outweighed by the benefits of traveling. These issues are quickly forgotten when we meet special people, are offered unsolicited assistance from a local person, or witness something amazing. They all contribute to the experience, and in part, help to make it interesting.

Traveling as a Couple – by Patrick

I’ve noticed some differences between traveling as a couple and traveling as single, as I did in 1991.

  • We are more likely to meet and socialize with other couples who are traveling, rather than singles. We’ve spent time with other male/female couples (either married or dating), but also other pairs of travelers (male or female friends).
  • Everything costs more, because we are two people, rather than one. However, most accommodations and some transport are cheaper on a per person basis based on double occupancy.
  • Like we do at home, we often share our meals, allowing us to try additional foods. In India, most meals are served ‘family style’, where we eat out of shared serving bowls. The risk of sharing meals is that if one of us gets food poisoning, we’ll both get it.
  • I think we’re less likely to be homesick, because we have a companion from home with us.
  • We can share the workload of planning, arranging, packing, washing, etc.
  • We need to reach consensus on where we go and what we do. This requires communication and compromise. We don’t always agree initially, but we always agree eventually.
  • One person can watch the bags, while the other person investigates something, negotiates, etc.
  • In certain situations where it is warranted, like on buses or trains where our bags aren’t secure, one person can stay awake and alert, while the other sleeps.
  • We are more accepted by single women, whether locals or other travelers. They’re more comfortable to talk with a couple than a single man.
  • We are less accepted in situations that are considered appropriate for men only (e.g. mosques, bars).
  • In some rare cases, we need to split up, for example — airport security in Jordan where they physically search women in a separate room; at the entrance to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Delhi, where they have different lines for the security checks of men and women; optionally on subways in Cairo and major Indian cities, where women have the option of riding in separate women-only cars; on some boats in Egypt, where women ride at the front and men at the back.
    • We look after one another. I’m constantly looking out for Diane — making sure she’s with me and making sure she’s OK. She makes sure that I take my malaria medication, and that I don’t do anything too risky.
  • The biggest difference is having a partner to share the experience with, both the rewards and the challenges. Someone to talk to about what we’re seeing, feeling, and learning along the way.