The Truth About Cars » Travel http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 19 Oct 2014 11:58:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Travel http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/category/editorials/travel/ Riding the Luxury Buses of Latin America http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/riding-luxury-buses-latin-america/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/08/riding-luxury-buses-latin-america/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 16:34:59 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=895202 Traveling by bus is the preferred mode for the growing middle class throughout Latin America. White collar workers, government employees, and students take long-distance buses for many reasons. First, it is much less expensive than flying. Second, buses reach a lot more destinations than planes. Finally, even those who own cars prefer to let a […]

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Traveling by bus is the preferred mode for the growing middle class throughout Latin America. White collar workers, government employees, and students take long-distance buses for many reasons. First, it is much less expensive than flying. Second, buses reach a lot more destinations than planes. Finally, even those who own cars prefer to let a professional do the driving, thus minimizing wear and tear to their own cars and the stress of dodging out-of-control big rigs and stray animals for hundreds of miles.

The stereotype, of course, is that all buses South of the Border are chicken buses– second-hand American school buses with psychedelic paint schemes, tinted windows, and chrome galore. In fact, luxury buses– built in Brazil and Europe– are very common and often have more amenities than commercial airliners. Make the jump to learn more about them.

The Buses. Along the Pan-American Highway, three brands dominate. Busscar (Brazil), Marcopolo (Brazil), and Scania (Sweden). Many are double deckers.

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Accommodations. All the buses have TVs hooked up to DVD players up front, constantly blaring bad American movies. Think Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, Fireproof (starring Kirk Cameron), or any Kevin James movie.

All luxury buses have a toilet in the back, as the long-distance buses make very few stops.

The seats recline, some up to 160 degrees. One Peruvian bus company even offers a business center onboard, complete with printer and fax machine.

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The Staff. Two drivers usually man each bus. And they are always men. They switch off after a few hours of driving, as it is very fatiguing work. The express bus from Osorno, Chile, to Punta Arenas, Chile, which cuts through Argentine Patagonia, for example, takes over 28 hours.

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The waitstaff onboard the buses puts the flight attendants of American legacy carriers to shame. Their uniforms are chic and tidy and they will go out of their way to make their passengers’ trips pleasant. Even after a couple of days on the road, they look like they just started the workday an hour ago. It’s unreal.

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The meals. On the most fancy of coaches, you get a meal just like on an airplane. When you buy your ticket, you have the option of beef, chicken, or vegetarian meals. And they are actually delicious. When meals are not available onboard, the bus will invariably stop at a clean and reputable restaurant. The photo below shows a meal I had during a stop in the Argentinean Lake District. The restaurant was at the base of a cliff and a waterfall behind the eatery provided the ambiance.

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The worst meal I had on a luxury bus was in Honduras, where I was served a Burger King breakfast sandwich, and it still wan’t half bad. Here it is, served in a cute bus shaped box.

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For a summary of my Pan-American bus journeys, by the numbers, click here.

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The bell tolls over Seattle, but not for most commuters http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/10/the-bell-tolls-over-seattle-but-not-for-most-commuters/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/10/the-bell-tolls-over-seattle-but-not-for-most-commuters/#comments Thu, 17 Oct 2013 10:30:48 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=625873 It would appear as though the price of admission to traverse the longest floating bridge in the world on a daily basis has had quite the impact on commuting patterns in Seattle. A study to be issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation this week – barring another tragicomic display by the powers that be, […]

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It would appear as though the price of admission to traverse the longest floating bridge in the world on a daily basis has had quite the impact on commuting patterns in Seattle. A study to be issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation this week – barring another tragicomic display by the powers that be, of course – has uncovered that use of the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge – Evergreen Point (colloquially known as the 520 floating bridge) has gone down by half since tolling began near the end of 2011.

The tolls, ranging from $0 for late-night and early morning travelers, to $5.25 for those rush-hour commuters who prefer to pay the man by mail, have caused 9 out of 10 drivers to find another path to work and play across Lake Washington. The majority of those avoiding the toll have annual incomes of $50,000 and under, while those making $200,000 and above (and are no doubt enjoying the more open road) pay little if any mind to being tolled.

On the upside, more commuters are using mass transit due to the tolls – which were enacted as one of the five DOT demonstration projects under their $1 billion Urban Partnerships Congestion Initiative – with around 45 percent preferring to “ride the wave” than drown in a congestion pricing tsunami.

The information provided by the study will be considered by Olympia, Wash.’s best and brightest this week as they debate on whether to set tolls upon the other two floating bridges (both carrying east- and westbound traffic on I-90) over Lake Washington to help fund the construction of the 520’s replacement, set to open in 2014.

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Road Trips, Pit Stops & Public Employees http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/09/road-trips-pit-stops-public-employees/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/09/road-trips-pit-stops-public-employees/#comments Fri, 20 Sep 2013 15:18:41 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=524441 In the next couple of days Autumn will officially begin. For most of us, however, Summer ended back on Labor Day, that final day of freedom before kids all over the country had to get up early, stuff their new school supplies into their backpacks and board those big yellow nuisances to all of us […]

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In the next couple of days Autumn will officially begin. For most of us, however, Summer ended back on Labor Day, that final day of freedom before kids all over the country had to get up early, stuff their new school supplies into their backpacks and board those big yellow nuisances to all of us who have a daily commute. Anyone with kids, kids, kids is tied to home so, for all but a privileged few, the season of great cross country road trips is at an end.

I am a seasoned cross-country road tripper. I started road like most children of my generation, in the rearward facing back seat of my parent’s Oldsmobile station wagon as the Kreutzer family made our regular pilgrimage from our home in the mist shrouded forests of Western Washington to the vast, sun scorched plains of Eastern Kansas. Five kids, ranging in ages from 4 to 14, and two adults were crammed into the interior of the silver-green machine while our luggage was secured up-top in an old-time wooden roof rack covered under a tightly lashed canvas tarp. A couple of years later, we made the same trip in the back of my father’s newly purchased Chevrolet pick-up, the adults isolated happily up front while we kids rolled about loose in the atop blankets and sleeping bags protected from the elements by an aluminum canopy. Later, when my older siblings were deemed just “too big” to be forced into making the trip, my sister Connie and I shared the back seat of dad’s Delta 88.

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I made my first cross country trip behind the wheel around 1990, with my friend John in my Dodge Shadow Turbo, when I drove from my home in Washington State to the Seafarer’s International Union’s School of Seamanship in Piney Point, MD. To this day John will tell you that I am some kind of control freak because, despite his many offers to relieve me, I drove every damn mile of the trip. Despite the fact that I hadn’t ordered cruise control on the car, the little Shadow proved to be a good ride for the cross country trip. With a tall 5th gear it positively loped along the interstate and, thanks to tall comfortable seats, we made the trip in good shape. When my training was done, I made the return trip alone in just under four days.

In 2001 I made virtually the same trip in my 1984 Cutlass when I drove from Washington State to Washington DC, a trip I made at the end of February managing to stay just ahead of a wicked arctic air mass that dogged me all the way across the great Plains, and, after storing the Olds for two years while I was overseas, made a leisurely return trip with my wife. In 2010 I crossed the country yet again in my 300M Special and, if the best laid plans of mice and men work out, expect to make the trip the opposite way in our new Town & Country sometime next summer.

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The trip out to Buffalo in the 300M was probably the worst trip I have made. The car itself was great, it was the man in the driver seat that had real trouble and the reason was my as yet undiagnosed Diabetes. The ancient Greeks called Diabetes the disease in which you drink away your arms and legs and extreme thirst is one of the first signs that your blood sugar is out of control. As I understand it, when your body’s own insulin fails to bring your blood sugar down to normal levels, your body reacts by making you drink gallons and gallons of water. The water, in turn, carries away excess sugar in your urine and that sugar makes every trip to the bathroom smell like Lucky Charms.

The big Chrysler and I probably got about the same miles per gallon all the way across the United States. Unfortunately for me, my tank was a lot smaller than the 300’s and I ended up stopping at damn near every rest area on Interstate 90 as I made my way out from the west Coast. For the most part, I am pleased to report that the vast majority of rest areas along my chosen route were perfectly serviceable facilities and I feel nothing but gratitude for the men and women of the State Highway Departments that maintain them. One state, however, has rest stops that are head and shoulders above the rest. Are you ready for it? That state is South Dakota.

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Rest areas in the State of South Dakota are beautifully maintained facilities. Their grounds are always impeccable, my own yard should look as good, and inside the restrooms are always sparkling clean. In their lobbies, many of the buildings have computerized informational kiosks and interactive geographic and historic displays that make them seem more like museums than public restrooms. Larger Information Centers are actually manned by staff who can help plan side trips and point out special attractions along your route and feature much appreciated extra amenities like pet exercise areas and places where RVs can empty their septic tanks. Having had the opportunity to visit almost every one of them, I think I can say with some certainty that they are consistently the best in the United States and I think it is important to note that Interstate 90 through that part of the country is not a toll road. These services are provided at no cost to Interstate travelers by the people of South Dakota.

In these still somewhat austere economic times, a lot of the services provided by federal, state and local governments have fallen by the wayside. We hear every day about poor service, bureaucratic nonsense, deteriorating infrastructure, new taxes and new forms of revenue generation so it’s nice to be able to report on something good for a change. That’s the discussion I would like to engender here today. Earlier this week we all had a chance to tell our stories about the times public employees have been less than helpful or about how our government has given us the runaround. Today, if you dare, let’s talk about the times they have got it right. Sure, it’s more fun to complain but somewhere, some public sector employee is fighting the good fight. It’s time they got a pat on the back. If you don’t like that, just to keep it classy, tell us about the best place to take a roadside dump.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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RFID Enhanced Driver’s Licenses: Big Brother Or Brighter Future? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/09/rfid-enhanced-drivers-licenses-big-brother-or-brighter-future/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/09/rfid-enhanced-drivers-licenses-big-brother-or-brighter-future/#comments Wed, 04 Sep 2013 15:22:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=508993 Wired.com is reporting that the state of California has abruptly tabled legislation that might have allowed RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips to be embedded into the state’s drivers’ licenses. Privacy activists are hailing the suspension of this plan as a victory against government intrusion in people’s lives and believe that these chips, which are actually […]

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Wired.com is reporting that the state of California has abruptly tabled legislation that might have allowed RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips to be embedded into the state’s drivers’ licenses. Privacy activists are hailing the suspension of this plan as a victory against government intrusion in people’s lives and believe that these chips, which are actually tiny radio transceivers that can be accessed over the open airwaves without the consent of the person carrying the document, will eventually be used to track people’s movements without their knowledge. Currently, three states, Michigan, Vermont and Washington, already have RFID chips in their licenses and are already sharing information collected by the DMV, including basic identity data and photos, with the Department of Homeland Security via a national database. Scary, right?

To understand what the Department of Homeland Security is doing with this data, you need to know that since June 1, 2009 the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) has required that a passport be used to cross our Northern and Southern borders. Prior to that time, any US citizen could drive to Canada or Mexico and, on the return leg of their trip, present themselves to US Immigration officials back at the border crossing with nothing more than their good looks and their American accent as proof of US citizenship. The men and women who manned the ports of entry interviewed everyone who presented themselves, maybe looked at their ID (which is not proof of citizenship), and then made a decision about whether or not to let the person in. WHTI sought to change all that by ensuring that people who traveled abroad, even on a simple day trip to Toronto, would do so with actual verified proof of citizenship in their pocket in the form of a US passport.

States all along our Northern and Southern borders reacted with fear and suspicion. To people on the border, the ability to go across the river to go shopping, visit friends, go to church or even have your kids participate in high school sporting events is a given and people naturally worried about the ramifications of getting and holding a passport. They complained to their congressmen and it was decided that the best solution was to allow border states to issue their own border crossing cards. Most states decided that the simplest way to do this was to use the pre-existing infrastructure of the State Department of Licensing and thus, the “Enhanced Driver’s License” was born.

A ample Washington Driver's license issued to "Mary Jane?"  WTF are they smoking up there?

A Washington Driver’s License Issued to “Mary Jane?” WTF are they smoking up there?

Although we generally think of our government as one solid ill-tempered blob of bureaucracy, the truth is that for the most part the various agencies you share your information with do their very best to protect your privacy. Generally, unless there is some kind of special pre-existing agreement between bureaus or a court order, the various parts of government will not share your information with one another. This desire to protect your privacy is especially pronounced across the State and Federal lines. The IRS, for example can’t look at your birth certificate. The DMV can’t see your military records, etc. This also means that Immigration Officials don’t have access to State DMV records and, in order for the state issued border crossing cards to work on the Federally protected border, the various states in the program must share the information they collect with Immigration via a shared database.

Anyone who works with databases knows that the way you draw up information on a person is by entering their information. Naturally, when you have a line 1000 cars long, you don’t want your immigration officer trying to enter the data by hand and, to get around this, most enhanced drivers’ licenses have a “machine readable” code printed on the back of them that more or less matches what you would find on the bottom of your passport’s data page. As this part of the document is swept through a code reader, it automatically populates the data fields on the officer’s computer. The search is run and, if everything looks right, you are good to go after just a few questions.

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Technology has continued to advance, however, and in the past few years the old machine readable system has been upgraded to include RFID technology. International treaties have been signed and RFID technology has been incorporated into passports worldwide. It also appears in border crossing cards like Nexus and the US Department of State’s own Passport Card. The payoff has been shorter wait times at the border and today people who hold RFID enhanced crossing cards can cross via special lanes that expedite the process by allowing the Immigration Officer manning the booth to pull up your information prior to your arrival at the window. The process is simple, you just pull your card out of its protective sleeve, wave it at the card reader at the head of the lane as you pass by and then present it to the official when you arrive at the window. With your data and photo already in front of him, the Immigration Officer gives you the once over, conducts the interview and sends you on your way.

Of course the fact that you are carrying around a radio transmitter that is capable of broadcasting your vital information all over the magnetosphere has some people worried. Anyone with the right equipment, they say, can steal your data as you walk down the street. The truth is, however, somewhat different than the popular perception. First, your border crossing card does not actually have personal information encoded on their chips. They are instead encoded with a number that refers back to the database I mentioned at the top of the article. Without access to the database, the number is meaningless.

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But the cops can track you by that number when you drive by, right? Probably not. Most cards come with a foil impregnated sleeve that, assuming you faithfully keep your card in it, actually stops the transmission of even that small amount of data. Passport books, by the way, do actually have your data and photo encoded on their chips – the same information shown on the photo page of the book – but the cover of the book is foil lined in order to prevent transmission while the book is closed and the chip used has a much weaker signal. This weak signal, incidentally, is why the new passport books are not included among those documents allowed in the express lanes at the border.

So there it is, the actual truth about what is going on via the RFID chip in your pocket and what the chip in the new California driver’s license would have done as well. Of course, privacy advocates are concerned that the system could be abused, that certain parts of the government could track your movements through the card in your wallet the same way that they can track your movements via the cellular signal from the phone in your pocket or via your license plate through plate readers mounted on so many police cars these days or by computer enhanced photo recognition software linked through surveillance cameras located in public places or through all the metadata stuck to the photos you post on Facebook or by – well you get the point. Vulnerabilities are everywhere and each one is yet another chance for someone, maybe a criminal with a transmitter and a computer, the police, Big Brother, et al, to get into your pocket and into your personal business.

I see both sides of this argument. Every day brings new news about just how far the government is delving into our lives. They, or at least their computer programs, are listening to and recording our telephone conversations, they are sifting through our emails, the post office is photographing all the envelopes we mail, my car is recording my driving habits on a black box and the TSA is x-raying my luggage and laughing about the size of my dong every time I go through the scanner at the airport.

"I think I see it there behind that other thing."

“I think I see it there behind that other thing.”

So what? I want that quicker trip across the border and, even though it is more intrusive than a lot of what we are subjected to, I also want that shorter line at the airport that I get because they are scanning my nutsack rather than groping it. It seems to me that the advantages of having an RFID chip in my enhanced license would outweigh the liability, especially since I can prevent any problems by using a sleeve or one of those metal lined wallets they are selling these days for just this purpose. You may say that I am trading my freedom for security, but I think otherwise. I am bearing a slight intrusion for the sake of convenience. That’s what the future is supposed to be isn’t it? A slicker, cleaner place where I am not bothered with all the minutiae of daily life. The only thing government surveillance is going to find out about me is what everyone on TTAC already knows, I’m a dull, fat, middle-aged man who owns a minivan. Ho-hum.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Highway Star: Road Tripping In The Ford Freestar http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/highway-star-road-tripping-in-the-ford-freestar/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/07/highway-star-road-tripping-in-the-ford-freestar/#comments Fri, 05 Jul 2013 16:14:18 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=494309 Sometime in the predawn hours of a day in early August 1974, my father loaded his wife and five children into his recently purchased Chevrolet ¾ ton pickup truck, the adults isolated safely in the cab while we kids were locked like monkeys in a cage under a canopy in the back, and left Snohomish, […]

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1978 Ford Freestar

2005 Ford Freestar

Sometime in the predawn hours of a day in early August 1974, my father loaded his wife and five children into his recently purchased Chevrolet ¾ ton pickup truck, the adults isolated safely in the cab while we kids were locked like monkeys in a cage under a canopy in the back, and left Snohomish, WA for Horton, KS. It was a trip we made several times during my childhood and I have vivid memories of waking up in the predawn hours when the air was still cold and first rays of the sun were just beginning to paint the sky in the East. In the decades since, my road trips have always begun that same way and so now, having just completed their first big road trip from Buffalo, NY to Washington D.C. my children will share those memories as well.

With my glorious, mile-eating 300M now in another man’s garage and my daily driven Pontiac Torrent far too small for three car seats in the second row, there remained only one choice of vehicle for our trip: the “Gray Lady,” the 2005 Ford Freestar van that I have previously written about because of its transmission issues. Despite my previous assertions that I was entirely happy with the repairs my local Ford dealer had made, I must confess that the discussion that accompanied that article, and the long list of problems many of TTAC’s best and brightest recounted about this particular model made me a little concerned about making the 8 hour jump to DC. The good news is that the Ford made the trip without incident, on days when the temperature hovered solidly in the mid 90s, air conditioner blasting the whole way.

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I have always thought the inside of the Freestar is a comfortable place to be for driver and passengers. With my daughters in car seats in the second row captain’s chairs and my son atop a booster in the back row our ability to cram in the necessities of a life with young children was somewhat limited. Still, the well at the back of the van, an area large enough to swallow the third row seat to create a flat floor for loading larger cargo, had enough room for a large cooler, a folding stroller and three medium sized suitcases. In addition to the booster, the back seat held my son’s electronic-filled rucksack, presents for the people we were visiting and our Jack Russell Terrier in her medium sized travel carrier. On the floor between first and second row seats, a space made possible only by the fact my girls are still too small to have their feet reach the floor, were bags with still more personal electronics, DVDs, toys and other things and between my wife and I was small cooler with drinks and snacks. Even loaded to the gunnels, I was able to have the driver’s seat in its rearmost position and the seat back tilted the way I liked it. My wife, too, had her entire foot well to herself.

Out on the New York State throughway we wicked up to speed and ran on cruise control right at the posted limit all the way to Erie,PA where we peeled off south across the rolling hill country towards Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania turnpike. The van handled well, our new transmission transitioning on its own between overdrive and the lower gears without so much as a judder in order to perfectly maintain the speed I had set on the cruise control. The steering wheel was steady and firm, and the van’s soft suspension soaked up the road’s imperfections without transmitting them to my velour ensconced back side. As I have said before, the view out the front of the van is unobstructed and I soaked in the sights as they rushed towards me.

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The Pennsylvania turnpike is a miserable road to drive. Road crews are working hard to make it better, but using it to cross the state remains arduous. Steep grades slow the big trucks down below the limit and force most of the cars to the left where those of us who are not interested in doing 20mph over the speed limit end up obstructing those who are. To passengers it feels like you are on the ocean, the vehicle pitching and heaving on the grades and rolling ponderously to one side and then the other as you continually change lanes. Eventually you hit the turn-off to DC, a maelstrom of traffic known as Breezewood, that puts you on city streets and subjects you to stoplights and a left turn across oncoming traffic before putting you back on another freeway, which leads to another that soon fills with ever increasing traffic as you bore in on our nation’s crowded capital.

Thanks to a couple of big accidents on the highway and backups that stretched into the dozens of miles I also had a chance to test my van in stop and go traffic. The brakes worked great and the van accelerated smoothly six or seven feet at a time everytime I pressed the pedal. We were, at the end of our long wait, rewarded for our patience by the sight of a broken car in the middle of the highway, both ends smashed as it contacted the cement barriers fore and aft while it spun. That sobering sight passed, we headed on into DC and arrived in time for a late dinner.

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If you have never visited Washington D.C. it is a trip worth making. The Smithsonian is free, but the parking is not so don’t forget your wallet. We visited the National Air and Space Museum annex at Dulles airport one day, played in the pool the next and went to the National Mall the third. It was not the kind of mall my kids were expecting, but they persevered. The fourth day we loaded the Freestar back up with our luggage, electronics, dog, still more presents and souvenirs and placed our now sunburned bodies back in our seats and made the trip back across Pennsylvania home to Western New York.

We ran through some vicious thunderstorms and the Freestar responded well. The wiper blades I had changed out prior to our trip did a good job of clearing the water off the van’s massive windshield and the tires I bought new when we got the van two years ago had more than enough tread to channel away the water on the roadway. We dropped our speed according to the conditions and despite the incredible downpours I never felt anywhere near the limits of control. We rolled into Buffalo just after suppertime, still running on the tank of gas I put in before we left our hotel in Arlington, VA, put the van into the garage and our trip was completed without incident and totally trouble free.

Once again my Ford Freestar has impressed me with its comfort, cargo capacity and its solidity. I have never been a Ford guy, in fact this is the first FoMoCo product I have ever owned, but other than the vehicle’s somewhat dowdy styling I haven’t a single complaint about my experience. I see these rigs selling on Craigslist for just a couple of thousand dollars these days and, if one is prepared to deal with the possible mechanical issues, they are an appealing alternative to their much more expensive competitors. Although I would rather have kept the rather large amount of money I had to pay to replace my van’s transmission in my pocket, I am glad that I did not dump it at a loss and purchase something else when it ran into trouble. She truly is a Gray Lady and although she is aging she remains graceful and competent in all that she does. I am proud she is a part of my family.

2003 Ford Freestar

2005 Ford Freestar

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Lake Michigan Car Ferry, SS Badger, and EPA Reach Agreement http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/lake-michigan-car-ferry-ss-badger-and-epa-reach-agreement/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/lake-michigan-car-ferry-ss-badger-and-epa-reach-agreement/#comments Mon, 25 Mar 2013 05:04:03 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=482025 The Lake Michigan Car Ferry website is reporting that the Environmental Protection Agency and the operators of the Lake Michigan car ferry, the SS Badger, which runs between Ludington MI and Manitowoc, WI, have reached and agreement that will allow the historic steamship to continue operating. The Badger is one of the last coal fired […]

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Click here to view the embedded video.

The Lake Michigan Car Ferry website is reporting that the Environmental Protection Agency and the operators of the Lake Michigan car ferry, the SS Badger, which runs between Ludington MI and Manitowoc, WI, have reached and agreement that will allow the historic steamship to continue operating. The Badger is one of the last coal fired vessels operating commercially on the great lakes and its continued operation means millions of trade and tourist dollars for the region it serves. During the summer months, the 6650 ton vessel makes two round trip crossings per day and can carry 600 passengers and up to 180 automobiles.

The SS Badger’s future was cast into uncertainty when the ship’s permit to dump coal ash into the waters of Lake Michigan, something that was common when the ship was constructed in the early 1950s, expired in December of last year. The current agreement allows the company to continue dumping ash into the lake with a 15% reduction for the next two years while constructing a containment system that must be in place by January 1, 2015. After that date, no more ash can be dumped overboard.

Yours truly made the Ludington to Manitowoc crossing in the summer of 2004 and had a wonderful time. Having spent around 5 years as an engineer on large, oil fired steamships in the Pacific, I was excited when, planning a cross country trip, I discovered the ferry service. Instead of driving south through the maelstrom that is Chicago area traffic, I cut across bucolic upstate Michigan and made a leisurely passage in fine weather. Like many other fans of the SS Badger, I am thrilled that this historic old vessel will continue sailing into the foreseeable future.

 

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Shakken Up: How A Little American Persistance And One Little, Old Japanese Man Beat The System http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/shakken-up-how-a-little-american-persistance-and-one-little-old-japanese-man-beat-the-system/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/03/shakken-up-how-a-little-american-persistance-and-one-little-old-japanese-man-beat-the-system/#comments Mon, 04 Mar 2013 10:00:28 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=479631 Wherever I am in the world I will always be a typical American man. Despite a lot of the stereotypes that spring to mind when I say that, I learned a long time ago that it isn’t a bad thing. I was raised right and I have solid values. When seats are limited I will […]

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My 1986 JDM Twin Turbo Supra

Wherever I am in the world I will always be a typical American man. Despite a lot of the stereotypes that spring to mind when I say that, I learned a long time ago that it isn’t a bad thing. I was raised right and I have solid values. When seats are limited I will stand so my elders can sit. I always hold the door open for ladies, and I keep plugging away no matter how hopeless the situation might seem. There are a few things here and there that can cause problems once in a while, too. For example, I won’t be deliberately insulted, I need my personal space and, of course, I feel like I am loser if I don’t have my own set of wheels.

Don’t leave home without it

Owning a car in Japan is a bad idea for most people. To begin with, getting a driver’s license costs thousands of dollars and involves and extensive training program. Then there is the cost of the car, insurance, gasoline and tolls to consider. Also, unless you are fortunate to own a place to park, you will have to pay rent on a parking space and, of course, anywhere you go you will pay to park, too. Then there are the costs of oil, tires, repairs, even car washes to consider. Let’s not forget taxes and, of course, the great terror that is the vehicle inspection system known as the Shakken.

The Shakken system began in the post World War II era when the few cars remaining on the roads were generally old and unsafe. Shakken’s stated purpose has always been to ensure that all vehicles meet certain safety requirements, but it is also generally acknowledged that the policy has helped to ensure consistent sales of new vehicles as people seek to replace cars that they believe will fail the test. The guidelines are stringent, and without the correct inspection sticker affixed at the top of your windshield, where it is easily spotted, your car cannot be legally driven. There is little tolerance for lawbreakers.

Of course, when I purchased a 14 year old Toyota Supra, everyone thought I was nuts. In general, the Japanese do not buy used cars outside of a dealership, and person-to-person sales among strangers are almost unheard of. For the most part, the Japanese trade-in their cars when they purchase new ones or they sell them to companies like “Gulliver” that buy old cars for a pittance and then take them to auction. Cars that are worthy are bought by dealers, marked up considerably and then resold in-country. Cars that are unworthy are sold to exporters and eventually end up in places like Australia, Russia or parts of the third world. From my friends’ perspective, a car as old as my Supra was not worthy and should have been on its way to the southern hemisphere, preferably as scrap, instead of sitting in a Kyoto parking spot.

My 1986 JDM Twin Turbo Supra

The whole thing was quite a scandal and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion. Two buddies, Matsuda and Taka, were especially critical of my purchase. Self styled car guys, they began to speak ill of the Supra the moment it arrived. Never mind the fact that it was a Toyota that had less than 50,000 kilometers on the clock. In their minds, simply because of its age, the car was in grave condition. Unfortunately for them, they made the mistake of spouting off and insulting my intelligence in front of my girlfriend, who, in typical Japanese fashion, believed everything they said. I, of course, in typical American fashion, ended our friendship right there on the street. So much for fair weather friends.

It wasn’t like I had paid a lot anyway. I had purchased the car from the Japanese wife of a New Zealander for roughly $600. The car didn’t have a mark on it, the engine was spotless, it sounded good, drove flawlessly and it even had about 8 months of shakken left on it. I figured that even if it somehow failed the dreaded inspection, I would have a cool car at my disposal for the better part of a year at nominal cost, and so it really didn’t matter. But then, of course, I got attached to my little car, and as the dreaded day drew nigh, I decided to ask around.

The women at my office were worse than useless, they were misinformed. They told horrible tales about the inspection process, about what would happen if the car couldn’t pass, and how certified repair shops would use the process against me. No matter how small the trouble, the women told me, the mechanics would insist upon costly repairs before releasing the car. They told me that there was no way a car that old would ever pass, and that I had been a fool for buying it in the first place. They even told me that I would end up paying to recycle it. There was the air of plausibility about what they said, but even so, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

Another shot of my 1986 JDM Twin Turbo Supra

In addition to my workmates, I also solicited the opinions of my students, some of whom, it turns out, were much better informed. For the most part, I learned, the average Japanese man took his car back to where he bought it for the shakken. Upon buying a brand new car, another inspection is not needed for three years. After that, inspections are required every two years, and a typical dealer, I was told, pretty much rubber stamps the next two inspections so long as they have had a hand in maintaining the car. Therefore, most cars are about 7 years old the first time they really go under the microscope and, like most Americans, the average Japanese person is ready for a new car after 7 years whether they actually need one or not. The car is traded in, and the process starts anew.

Simply follow the easy instructions

Once in a while, there are people like myself who have purchased a car outside of the dealer network. People in my situation usually end up taking their car to an independent shop and, as the women at my school had said, most of these shops will go over the car with a fine tooth comb. The result is usually a pretty stiff bill and, as a foreigner, I was especially ripe for the picking. But then, one of my oldest students, a Mr. Hanaoka, a retired engineer in his 70s who spent most of his free time drinking heavily and studying English, told me about another little known option, the “user shakken.” Amazingly, in a land where there isn’t much DIY, there is a DIY inspection.

Following Hanaoka-san’s instructions, I went to the Kyoto DMV and collected the paperwork. While I was there, the helpful clerk sat me down in front of a video that explained the entire process. Then I was sent home to complete my own inspection. Although it was all in Japanese, the documents were well illustrated, and I was able to go through it at my own pace. Although there were some parts of the form I did not fully understand, the inspection was not complicated. I measured tire tread depth, checked all the lights, looked for leaks, etc and found that, as expected, the car was in generally good condition.

I did, however, uncover a leaky shock absorber and a burned out driving light. The light was an easy fix, but the shock was more problematic, there was no real way to fix it myself and unless I was damn clever they were going to see the dark stain of shock oil under the car at the inspection station. Fortunately I am damn clever.

The day I took the car to the inspection station it was raining like hell. I rolled up to the main office and took my paperwork, as complete as I could get it, inside. After waiting in line I approached the counter hoping for a little help to complete some of the informational blocks at the top of the form and was pleasantly surprised to find that for a fee of around $5 that the clerk would actually do everything. I paid my money and ten minutes later took my car around back to the inspection station.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The inspection station was set up like an assembly line and I was required to drive the car from station to station. There was a brake test where I put the car up onto a set of rollers followed by speedometer test on the same machine where I was required to run the car up to 45 kmh. There was an underside inspection station where I sat in the car while a guy underneath tapped about ten spots with a hammer and, thanks to the wet weather, failed to notice my dripping shock absorber. There was a headlight test where a set of robotic cameras examined the front of my car to make sure everything was working within proper specs, a horn test, a brake light and blinker test and an emissions test. It was all quite efficient and I don’t think the entire process took more than 30 minutes.

As I recall, the total cost was around $450. Some of that was for the inspection fee, some for vehicle taxes, and another large part of it was for some kind of insurance that would pay for any public property I might damage in an accident. The whole thing was quick and painless and after weeks of consternation and worry, I was highly satisfied when I was awarded a new two-year sticker without a single hitch. I drove home in triumph.

Wherever I am in the world I will always be a typical American man and, despite a lot of the stereotypes that spring to mind when I say that, I learned a long time ago that it isn’t a bad thing. I was raised right and I have solid values. I keep plugging away no matter how hopeless the situation might seem and sometimes that can pay big dividends. I remember the people who helped me, too. Today, many years later, when I have the opportunity to raise a glass, I often find myself thinking about those days and of Mr. Hanaoka. He was a man who knew how to get things done, and when the whole system is stacked against you, you need a guy like that on your side.

Mr. Hanaoka at one of our school parties. Even though he was older than every other student, he never missed a single party.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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日本の警察の車: The Cars of the Japanese Police http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/%e6%97%a5%e6%9c%ac%e3%81%ae%e8%ad%a6%e5%af%9f%e3%81%ae%e8%bb%8a-the-cars-of-the-japanese-police/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/02/%e6%97%a5%e6%9c%ac%e3%81%ae%e8%ad%a6%e5%af%9f%e3%81%ae%e8%bb%8a-the-cars-of-the-japanese-police/#comments Sun, 24 Feb 2013 14:19:02 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=478547 Hot girls in short skirts are the first things that leap into my mind whenever anyone says anything about the Japanese. The internet has not helped to change that, in fact it may have made things worse. If you add the word “Japanese” to any noun that describes a group of people and enter it […]

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They can cuff me anytime.

Hot girls in short skirts are the first things that leap into my mind whenever anyone says anything about the Japanese. The internet has not helped to change that, in fact it may have made things worse. If you add the word “Japanese” to any noun that describes a group of people and enter it into your favorite search engine, pictures of hot young girls will always appear near the top of the results. Look for Japanese tour guides, Japanese students, Japanese beach volleyball players or Japanese anything and you will see I am right. Try it, I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, did you look for Japanese Police? I did, and despite my prior confession I was surprised at what I found. The main reason for that is because I have met a lot of Japanese police officers over the years and I can tell you from my own personal experience that they are, for the most part, nothing at all like the ones pictured above.

One of the most respected and professional police forces in the world, the Japanese “keisatsu” is a no nonsense outfit that takes its work seriously. Detectives pour over crime scenes and mark even the smallest bits of evidence with dozens of tiny red flags, rank and file officers patrol the streets on foot in groups or individually man “police boxes” in virtually every neighborhood and Japanese traffic police hone their driving and motorcycle riding skills to such perfection that only an idiot would think about running. The keisatsu is not an organization to be disrespected or trifled with and anyone who does, does so at their own peril.

Like any modern police force, the Japanese police have a tremendous amount of equipment. I could write several articles detailing armored cars, motorcycles, disaster response vehicles, buses, etc. but the most instantly recognizable vehicle in any police force is always the police car and Japan is no exception. Decked out in stunning black-and-white livery, Japanese police cars command instant attention and respect on the street. Unlike the United States, where most police cars are one of just two or three common types of sedan, the Japanese use an astonishing variety of cars, each especially suited to a specific role.

This photo is a bit dated, but I still love it.

Without a doubt, the coolest cars in the Japanese police’s motor pool are the interceptors, and well they should be because they are based on some of the baddest rides going. Some of the more famous examples have been Skyline GTRs, Mitsubishi 3000 GTs (Called the GTO in Japan), the RX-7, RX-8 and even the Fairlady Z. However, the Japanese police seldom engage in high speed chases and the rules of the road are usually maintained by speed cameras and the good old fashioned speed trap. So, while they look glorious wearing their official colors, these cars are used more as public relations tools than they are as true enforcers of public order.

One tool the keisatsu does use to great effect on the road is the unmarked car. These can be virtually any make or model and generally they hide their lights in the grill or under trap doors in the roof that pop open when they are triggered. I imagine that, like the unmarked cars used by American police forces, these cars are easily recognized by the locals but to me they were a real threat. On at least two occasions I ended up having polite conversations at the side of the road after cutting around a line of slow moving cars on the freeway to find one of these at the head of the parade. In both cases I got a firm talking to, but fortunately no tickets.

The Toyota Crown at work – check out those raised lights!

The backbone of the Japanese police fleet is the “patto-ka” and the most common patrol car on the Japanese roads today is the Toyota Crown. I have seen three versions of the Crown in action. One wears police livery but goes without the overhead lights and I presume this type of car is used by high ranking officers as a part of their duties. Actual “siren cars” as every little Japanese boy calls them, come in two flavors, those with regular, fixed red lights and those with red lights that can be raised for better visibility at accident scenes. Toyota Crowns, by the way, are also used in Japan as taxi-cabs and medium sized limos. The sheer number of them on the road makes me think they are pretty tough cars.

The Japanese police car Americans know the least about are those most often assigned to small neighborhood police stations. Because the Japanese police are committed to community policing, officers are often assigned to these small “koban” and they generally stay close to their duty station. The cars attached to these outposts are usually small econoboxes, with the cars most used being from the tiny 660cc kei class. These little cars are a great fit because they work well on narrow roads and offer the ability to carry a passenger. They are by no means fast and they would not serve as good patrol units, but they were never intended to.

A typical around town police car.

That’s because when posted to a Koban, Japanese officers are most often found on foot or on bicycles. Of course, we have bicycle patrols in the United States as well, but unlike the expensive high tech multi-speed bikes that specially outfitted and uniformed police use in our country, the Japanese approach is more mundane and makes a lot more sense.

Decked out in their regular uniforms on the same type of plain, single speed upright bikes often used by Japanese housewives, complete with handlebar mounted baskets and small cases on the cargo racks, the keisatsu are able to see and hear things that they might miss were they to patrol using motorized transport. They use the bicycle to its best advantage and their accessibility to the public makes the cop on the beat an easily approachable and welcome part of any neighborhood. How many American children know the names of the police officers who patrol our neighborhoods?

Bicycles patrols are more than just effective ways to reach the public, the are also environmentally friendly. As the sponsor of the Kyoto Convention on Climate Control, the Japanese government is especially concerned about going green wherever possible and, as a result many of the newest official vehicles are either hybrid or battery powered and police cars are no exception. As with the kei class cars, these vehicles are used in for short trips rather than day long patrols, but the fact they are relied upon at all shows that the Japanese police are constantly looking to modernize their fleet. Like the interceptors, these cars garner a great deal of public attention and often appear at public events. I expect that the numbers of these in service with the police will continue to increase as time goes on.

The Japanese police are a good organization that works hard to ensure public safety. They are serious about the job they do and the variety of vehicles they operate says a lot about their commitment. Like police forces worldwide, the Japanese police must work within a budget and one way they do so effectively is by using the right tools for specific jobs. I hope you have enjoyed this limited look at some of the cars they utilize in their effort to protect and to serve.

The average Japanese cop is more about kicking ass than he is about showing it.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

Another dated photo, but too awesome to pass up. They can cuff me anytime. These guys are the real-deal. The Toyota Crown at work - check out those raised lights! A kei class van. A neighborhood "police box." A typical police motorpool, including a crash response truck. Once upon a time, the fast cars of the Japanese Police were imports. Nissan March - not kei class, but small. Mitsubishi electric This photo is a bit dated, but I still love it. Mazda RX-8 R33 Skyline A typical unmarked Nissan Skyline A typical around town police car. The Fairlady Z On patrol with the Japanese police. Japan 13 Bicycle cops - Picture courtesy kimonobox.com

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North Korea Diary: All Roads Lead To Pyongyang http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/12/north-korea-diary-all-roads-lead-to-pyongyang/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/12/north-korea-diary-all-roads-lead-to-pyongyang/#comments Sun, 25 Dec 2011 13:00:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=423442 The familiar wail of a police siren cuts through the chilly early winter morning air rudely snapping me out of a cold-induced slumber. Our minibus slows to a crawl as our minder winds down the window to wave his papers at a bunch of stern-faced traffic policemen. The officer that checked the papers gave the […]

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The familiar wail of a police siren cuts through the chilly early winter morning air rudely snapping me out of a cold-induced slumber. Our minibus slows to a crawl as our minder winds down the window to wave his papers at a bunch of stern-faced traffic policemen.

The officer that checked the papers gave the 17 university students on the bus a once-over before waving to his partner to turn off the siren. It seems that a Toyota Coaster minibus filled with students is a rare sight in this part of the world.

Then I caught sight of a little round badge bearing the smiling face of the “Eternal President” Kim Il-Sung on the officer’s coat.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” the voice in my head whispered.

Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or better known as Communist North Korea.

In the capital city of Pyongyang, the roads are wide but not as empty as you might think. An eclectic mix of cars ply the six-lane dual carriageways, sharing space with run-down electric trolley buses and trams.

The most common car seen on the streets is the Romanian-built Dacia 1310. Most of them are part of the city’s taxi network though our minders were quick to add that these taxis are expensive to take and most citizens only take them as a last resort.

How expensive is an average cab ride?

According to one of our minders, Mr. Kim Mun-Chol, the fare upon flag-down is 3 USD and a 15-minute ride would set you back nearly 20 USD. The international exchange rate stands at 1 USD : 133.75 North Korean Won (KPW) but the local exchange rate is closer to 1: 100, presumably for easier rip-offcalculation. Foreigners are explicitly forbidden to use or even hold onto the local currency and are only allowed to deal in USD or Euros.

Most other Dacia 1310s seem to be private vehicles barely kept in running condition with homemade parts and the owners’ tenacious will to get by. I saw a local attempt to change a wheel on his Romanian love just outside the restaurant that we were about the have lunch at.

The pins holding the brakes together were roughly cut bolts that looked seemingly as if they were scavenged pieces of metal put together. The amount of welding done within the wheel well also hinted at the numerous repairs that have been performed to keep this car going in a country where getting spare parts is difficult to say the least.

Just as I was about to take a photograph of the man working, another of our minders appeared in front of my camera and said with an almost too cheery a grin: “This way please, we are having lunch here.”

He refused to budge till I entered the restaurant.

With housing issued by the state, where you stay is a poignant reminder of your social status. For the roughly three million citizens living in the city, they consider themselves amongst the fortunate ones in the country with barely acceptable access to electricity, food, and running water.

Whilst some struggle to keep their cars going, others indulge in conspicuous consumption with Mercedes Benz topping the unofficial chart of most popular marque in the city.

Mercedes of various models and age serve as the premium mode of transport for the rich and powerful. Parked right outside the Koryo Hotel, a North Korean rated five-star hotel where we stayed, is a fleet of presumably armoured S-Classes wearing the Red Star marked diplomatic plates.

And it is not just the stereotypical “dictator special” S-Class that is the mark of a made man here. More modern products like the GL-Class and the latest E-Class models are occasionally seen barreling down the road at speeds well above the legal limits with relative immunity from the local law enforcement.

For those just a few rungs beneath the top of the social ladder, Volkswagens, in particular, the Passat and Jetta are choice picks. Further down, citizens seem to shower their favour equally between locally made Pyeonghwa Motors products and Chinese-made Brillance, BYD, and FAW products.

The roads in Pyongyang are never packed enough to cause any real traffic jams and drivers mostly subscribe to the driving style of the right-of-horn. But that is not to say that they disregard lights at junctions. At the few working traffic lights in the city, drivers, regardless of how expensive the car they are driving, placidly wait out the change of lights.

At junctions without traffic lights, and there are quite a few in a city with hardly enough electricity to go around, there are female traffic police officers conducting traffic. One of our minders joked that these ladies are picked for their attractiveness and dedication to the job. Judging from the officers’ rosily made up faces, it seems that there is a seed of truth in his jest.

And as I wonder how these ladies keep traffic flowing all day while bearing the brunt of the sub-zero winter cold, our driver pulls into a petrol station to top up the tank. North Korea imports most of its oil from neighbouring China at “friendly prices,” said one of our minders and declined to elaborate on further enquiry. His carefully worded reply did little to prepare me for the biggest surprise of the trip.

Total fuel bill: 50 Won

The price of diesel is one Won per litre.

And I doubt the price of petrol is any more expensive.

 

The author was part of a team of 16 journalism students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University chosen to tour the country from Dec 3 to 10 on a reporting practicum offered by the school.

The trip is fully funded by the Wee Kim Wee legacy fund.

All images courtesy: Wong Kang Wei & Edwin Loh

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