Category Archives: Travel

India is a different planet

I will now be somewhat Serious, which is quite rare, and may never happen again on this silly blog.

India may be the closest thing you can get to visiting another planet.

It’s a joke that every corner market sells bananas and cell phones. But there’s truth to that joke. More than 500 million people own cell phones and there’s a growing middle class to go along with a highly educated elite, which is just as creative as any other in the Western world.

Yet most of the population still lives in the countryside and is employed in agriculture. Just think of what will happen when they make the same shift we did in America, the mass migration to the factories to embrace horsepower instead of actual horses.

A hallway at the Red Fort, next to the Taj Mahal.

India is the world’s biggest democracy which only recently made the switch from state-run industry to a full market economy.

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Zooming on das Autobahn to Belgium, the friendliest place IN THE WORLD

So I’m driving on the Autobahn from Frankfurt, Germany to Goze, Belgium on zero sleep for about 36 hours, which is not the wisest thing in the world when you’re going 160 kilometers per hour, seeing how closing your eyes and napping for half a second will be fatal.

But I do not nap, and the Citroen of Itty Bittiness does not slam into the guardrail and burst into flames.

Frankfurt is a big city full of skyscrapers, the Manhattan of Germany, and this is because after World War II, cities razed by bombs had citizens vote: (a) bulldoze the rubble and start over or (b) rebuild on the ancient, narrow cobblestone streets and painstakingly restore all that was destroyed.

The people of Frankfurt picked “start over.” And you can tell, with just a glance, how any random city in Germany voted after the war.

Goze, Belgium was not bombed to rubble during the war. It’s a tiny little town full of brick homes and brick business and stone churches.

Belgium countryside

What’d I tell you? Belgium has brick houses out the wazoo.

If you’re not familiar with Belgium, let me give you a primer:

  • The Netherlands (Holland) is to the north, Germany to the east, France to the south and Luxemburg also hidden nearby, so people in the north speak Dutch / Flemish and those in the south speak French, though nobody really speaks German
  • Belgium is home to European parliament, NATO headquarters and 72 other important things, maybe because Belgium is friendly and has the best chocolate and beer IN THE WORLD
  • They are NOT French fries, but Belgium fries, invented right here, and the one thing that will make Belgium peoples unfriendly is to repeatedly ask for “French fries,” which I do not do

Just like three years ago, we stayed with my wife’s host family from when she lived here as an exchange student. I lived in Holland and Germany as a kid, so this whole area feels like home.

Battle of the beer: Germany versus Belgium

There’s a huge difference between Germany and Belgium when it comes to beer.

Back in 1516, a German king got tired of people going blind, getting sick or dying from moonshine and bad beer.

This king wrote the Reinheitsgebot (food purity laws), which said the only ingredients allowed for beer were water, barley and hops. He also set the price of beer and standardized things. Today, you can also use yeast, which is quite important, though they didn’t know about yeast back in 1516. Also: wheat malt and cane sugar. But you can’t use unmated barley anymore. NOBODY KNOWS WHY.

The Germans do a lot with those few ingredients. I drank many beers in many towns. Despite the lack of variety, they were all smooth and good.

HOWEVER: Belgium crushes Germany into powder when it comes to beer, because they have 250 different beers that are all excellent. Want a chocolate beer? Done. An IPA with hot chile peppers? They probably have it.

Belgium also has trappist ales — beer made by monks — with many recipes unchanged for almost 1000 years, which is longer than Joan Rivers has been alive. Chimay is probably the most famous. If you haven’t tried Chimay, hit Trader Joe’s and buy some. The stuff is as smooth as silk. If your lips ever touch a can of Budweiser again, you’ll spit it out and say, “Put it back in the horse.”

Things to do in Belgium

The country is small, flat and pretty, with all kinds of beautiful old villages and green fields. Do you like riding bicycles? Ride all over the place with a camera and a picnic basket. Go crazy.

It’s one of the friendliest places, too. People greet you with three kisses (right cheek, left cheek, right cheek) when they first meet you and one kiss whenever you see them again or say goodbye. This is much, much better than standing around or an awkward handshake. Everybody does it, and this breaks the ice.

Town in Belgium

Belgium is full of beautiful little towns like this.

Also helpful: everybody is handing out beer and wine like it’s going out of style, though they don’t binge. I never saw anybody staggering around, drunk out of their mind. They are professionals with the alcohol, and drink slowly and steadily rather than breaking out beer bongs and losing their heads like a college freshman who’s just discovered Bud Light comes in keg size.

So: ride around the countryside, meet people – and have dinner, which is not 20 minutes at the dining room table while people play with their iPhones. Dinner is a big social event that takes hours. Breakfast is a social event.  Also, lunch.

Basically, people in Belgium prefer the company of OTHER PEOPLE rather than televisions, iPhones and romance novels involving men in kilts.

This is refreshing and fun, despite the fact that I don’t speak a lick of French — because the secret is to listen rather than talk. In Iceland, Sweden, Belgium, France, Germany and elsewhere, people tended to talk to me in Icelandic, Swedish, French or German, as long as I (a) walked around like I knew what I was doing and (b) didn’t say anything.

This came naturally from being a kid in Germany and Holland, and from not speaking at all except to my sister for many years. She was my diplomat: “Guy is hungry for breakfast” and “Guy wonders if we can paint the dog white” and “Guy has just declared war on Syria.”

Over in Europe, I walked around not saying anything, pointing at stuff I wanted to buy and handing over monies. This works great. Try it sometime. If they ask, tell them Guy sent you, and that in solidarity, you also are cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

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How fast can a rental go on the Autobahn?

How fast can a rental car go on the Autobahn?

Now, I lived in Germany and Holland as a whippersnapper, and they never let me drive on the Autobahn back then. Whenever I pulled into the passing lane on my Big Wheel or bicycle, the nice men in police uniforms would pull me over and explain, in careful German, that “kinders nicht driven on das Autobahn” and such.

True story: a car once hit me as I drove around on a Big Wheel and it broke my leg. Totaled the car, though. I am kidding! The car exploded into flames.

So: as a grown-up, I just spent two weeks driving The Citroen of Itty Bittiness all over the Autobahn, and it forever changed me. Can I drive 55 now? No. I am ruined.

The Citroen of Itty Bittiness was a two-door hatchback with a lawnmower engine and four gears. Though this car was brand new, and pretty nice, it could’ve fit in the trunk of the Epic Black Car, which could’ve fit in the trunk of the Plymouth Fury III that I once drove.

citroën-ds3-04

With a pro photographer, a $20,000 camera and a studio, you can make even the tiniest hatchbacks look cool.

If we did that, the Fury would have a backup car with it’s own backup car inside, like those little dogs who hang out with big dogs and yip a lot. Those dogs are canine boxing promoters on TV, going crazy with the hype with the actual tough guy just stands there and looks bored, like he’d rather punch the reporter and get things over with. Now, what’s a Fury III look like? Here you go.

Back to the Autobahn: IT IS EXCITING.

In every other trip overseas — Iceland and Sweden, India and Dubai, Belgium and France — we’ve travelled with trains or drivers.

This is essential in India, because renting a car there and driving yourself is a surefire way to commit suicide. We’ve had professional drivers with their own sidekick spotters who sat next to the driver and helped navigate, because in the south, THERE ARE NO LANES. Buses have armored steel plates on the side that are all scratched up and dented from daily scrapes and collisions. Roads that would be two lanes over here will have about six messy “lanes” full of have bikes, trucks, mopeds, motorcycles, buses, cows and sometimes elephants. If you aren’t careful, an oncoming bus or lorry that’s turned your lane into it’s own passing lane will smash you into oblivion.

For a two-week trip to Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany and Austria, taking the train all over Heck and back would put the S in Stupid, and hiring a driver would cost far more than renting a car. Also, do you really want to haul all your luggage from Baggage Claim to a taxi, to a train, to another taxi, to your hotel, then to a taxi and another train, day after day after day? No. Because after three days of that, you’re gonna throw your luggage in a pile and look for a can of petro and a book of matches.

Back to the original question: how fast will a tiny rental car go?

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PART ONE: Dodging disaster and death in India and Dubai

Roaring toward certain death, I don’t flinch. Hitting the semi head-on will turn the car into a burning pile of metal, plastic and roasted flesh.

But I’m not afraid.

Not because I’m some kind of tough guy. No, I don’t fear death because (a) this happens every five minutes when we make the kamikaze decision to pass other cars and (b) my driver could dodge killer semis in his sleep.

The driver has a crewcut, a manly mustache and scars on his chin and cheek. He looks like an ex-Special Forces vet who got into a knife fight in the mountains of Kashmir, and he drives with supreme confidence and insane skill.

He’s the Indian version of Jason Statham in THE TRANSPORTER.

Our driver changes lane at 120 kilometers per hour without glancing left or right. A sixth-sense, like radar, lets him know where all the mopeds, cars and trucks are on the road, which has painted lines on the asphalt that you’d look at and say, “lanes,” but in India, lanes, seatbelts and airbags are for nancypants.

Are there driving rules? Oh, yes. There are two clear rules that everyone follows:

Rule No. 1: If something is bigger than you, and you want to live, MOVE OUT OF THE WAY.

Rule No. 2: Use your horn to (a) tell pedestrians and smaller vehicles to move or die and (b) inform buses and trucks you’re nearby so they don’t smoosh you into a twisted metal cube of death.

People use their horn all the time, maybe because they want to live, and every Indian driver on the road is incredibly skilled, maybe because bad drivers have a shorter shelf life than a box of Twinkies in Rush Limbaugh‘s pantry.

Coming in PART TWO: Leading a mob into battle against the Drums of Doom.

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Pieces of the World

I have been to a few places, and shot them with the Nikon of Infinite Beauty.

These shots got printed on canvas and framed for my first photo show, Pieces of the World.

Big thank you’s to the Candi and the Vini for thinking of it, and making it happen — and to everybody who showed up, from near or far.

On my earlier blog, I wrote a few stories about the India and Dubai trip, so when  I find time, I’ll repost those & write something  about Iceland and Sweden.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

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My first photo show is ON LIKE DONKEY KONG

Some of you know that I own a Nikon of Infinite Beauty, and that I’ve lugged it places.

India and Dubai, France and Belgium, Alaska and Hawaii, Sweden and Iceland — that sort of thing.

I’m having having a travel photo show — Pieces of the World: Photos on Canvas — 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18 at my favorite restaurant, Savory Faire.

Bottom line: canvas rocks. If you shoot photos, don’t print them on glossy paper and show off your pile of 4x 6 snapshots that you keep in a shoebox. No. Print your favorites on canvas. DO IT NOW. Because you could get hit by a truck tomorrow.

Sidenote: Is the title of the show just pretentious enough without being obscure and stupid? Maaaybe. Could I have gone with a photo-geek route with F-Stops in Eight Places? Sure, if I was a photo geek, but I actually hate messing with f-stops and whatnot.

Other rejected titles:

Snapshots of Where I Ate Fish Curry and Fermented Shark
Hey, These are Actually In Focus, Mr. Fancy Camera Man
I Rode on 43 Different Stupid Airplanes to See This Stuff

Some of the photos:

Arc de Triumphe in Paris, France

Arc de Triumphe in Paris, France

Houseboat in Kerala, India

Houseboat in Kerala, India

Sunset in Stockholm, Sweden

Sunset in Stockholm, Sweden

Kerio volcanic crater, Iceland

Kerio volcanic crater, Iceland, where Bjork held a concert from a floating raft in the lake. The acoustics are glorious.

Dune bashing in Dubai

Dune bashing in Dubai

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.

Google+

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