Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A second unicorn

F1Outsider found another one for me. This one is in the middle of nowhere. But coincidentally, I visited the town last summer for my bro-in-law's wedding. I emailed the dealer some questions and I may ask my bro-in-law's wife's bro-in-law to check the car out. This is crazy.

Apparently, it was owned by a non-smoker and stored during the winters. It has 100,000 miles and has the older style taillights, which I prefer. It also doesn't have the rear spoiler, which I also prefer.

Turkmenistan president falls off a horse!

This is about as the-emperor-has-no-clothes as it gets.

Apparently, it was Horse Day in Turkmenistan so its great leader decided to participate in a horse race with an $11m purse. He won, of course, because he is awesome. Moments after crossing the finish line, this happened.

He was knocked out momentarily. Everyone was told to delete their videos of the mishap.

And this looks like an official state-sanctioned piece on Horse Day.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Russia-Japan Kuril Islands dispute

As a child, I remember always seeing riot police stationed outside the Soviet embassy in Tokyo. Ultra-nationalists there wanted the Russians to return some resource-rich islands, including the Kurils and Sakhalin.

I doubt these current discussions will bear any fruit. The Russians are still probably pissed at being the first Western navy to be defeated by an Asian navy in 1905.

Shenandoah documentary movie trailer

My wife is taking her students, who are mostly immigrants or children of immigrants, to see this documentary tonight. I'm tagging along.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

I lost...

I stopped bidding hours before the auction ended because I suspected the reserve was too high and there was going to be an unreasonable bidding war at the end. The reserve, I suspect, is around $7,500 to $10,000. The bidding war never materialized. I doubt the seller is going to sell the car for $5,600, so it's probably going to be listed again. We'll see what happens.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What happened in Xinjiang this week

At first, we only had the government's version. Here is a different story. Plus, this is the first time I have seen armed Uyghur rebels/terrorists. They are no doubt based in Pakistan/Afghanistan.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pan-American Highway records

The first video is from Viva Chile. Four French models did the drive in a Renault in 172 days.

The second video shows a trio doing it in a TDI Touareg recently in 11 days. They must have hauled ass. The scenery is spectacular and makes me want to visit Chile and Argentina all over again.

The unicorn!!!

Look what F1Outsider found for me!

Cold War-era Republic of China (Taiwan) passport

This was inspired by rchen, who recently posted something similar. I'm doing a bit of house cleaning and came upon my childhood passport.

2005 Volvo V50 T5 FWD test drive review

I test drove this automatic with 95,000 miles yesterday. Apparently, someone bought it right after I drove it. It was listed for $9,600.

First, the numbers. The turbocharged 5 cylinder puts out 217 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. That's not bad for such a relatively little car (around 3,100 pounds).

The driving experience was on the bland side. Despite its mileage, everything inside felt solid. There were just a few normal squeaks and rattles. The car had just enough power on steep climbs, but it felt like there was a momentary delay whenever I put my foot to the accelerator pedal, whether I was slowly entering an intersection from a complete stop or flooring it. The steering was precise but numb, with a hint of torque steer.

I forgot to sit in the back seat or check out the cargo area. I was just not that excited about this car.

The cost of our cheap shirts

300+ lives lost so far in Bangladesh garment factory collapse.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fritz Busch's 1974 VW Golf

This photo is from Edvin. Busch drove the entire Pan-American in 94 days in this VW.

A tale of two red wagons

I stopped by Buggy Bank again today to search for my next ride. I ended up test driving a red Volvo V50 T5 wagon. Coincidentally, this Rambler Cross Country wagon was parked nearby.

Dear Australians (and Brendan), I need your thoughts on beers

The sort-of-local liquor store has three Australian brews in stock. Are these worth drinking? Thanks in advance.

They are: James Boag's Premium Lager, Coopers Brewery Original Pale Ale, and Coopers Brewery Sparkling Ale.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How safe is Colombia?

I am thumbing through the latest edition of Lonely Planet Colombia right now.

"Is Colombia Safe?
The short answer? Yes!
...it's infinitely safer than it once was...."

I guess it's all relative. I found this map from the UN Office On Drugs And Crime.

Central: My 2013 Central America Bus Trip (Part 4)

Costa Rica-Panama

The chicken leg in lukewarm cream sauce that I ate in Nicaragua hasn't made me sick yet. Hurray!

Costa Rica is the opposite of Honduras. Nature here is unspoiled. The whole country is like one, well preserved, national park. As we pull into the San Jose bus station, some of the shopping malls we pass by remind me of upscale malls in Orange County.

At the station, the crew that has served us since El Salvador are done with their shift. I want to say a word about these two young men, our attendants. They were awesome. They have been working for almost 24 hours straight and they look just as fresh and dapper now as when they started this shift. I imagine they are the equivalent of what flight attendants in the U.S. in the 1960s were like-- glamorous, exploring exotic locales. Anyway, let's get back to the story.

The bus from San Jose to Panama City is completely full. The border between Costa Rica and Panama is supposed to be open 24 hours a day, so we arrived at the border at 4 a.m. The bus attendant had us quickly line up at the border. The urgency led me to believe that this was going to be quick.

It's 5 a.m., and we're still standing in line. The officials' windows have not opened. In fact, there's no one inside the border control building. I am tired, sore, and my face, which has not been washed for over a day, is greasy. So greasy, in fact, that when I rub my eyes, the grease burns my eyes. I also have to pee, but don't want to lose my place in line. And, there's nowhere to pee legally or discretely anywhere.

Then, I look behind me. And I see the sun rising. (See lede photo, which happens to be my favorite photo from the entire trip.) If there is anything more beautiful than a Costa Rican sunset, it's a Costa Rican sunrise. The scenery was augmented by the loud, almost shrill, chirping of hundreds of birds. All of my physical complaints vanished. My pains were gone. I didn't care about how my hair looked or how I smelled. I was in a zen-like trance. I was in the Zone. And it felt beyond great.

In that enlightened mood, we waited for another hour.

With Costa Rica's side finally out of the way, we walk across into Panama. An older lady who worked for Panamanian customs herded us, all of the passengers on the bus, into an oval room furnished with metal tables. She ordered us to place all of our luggage on the table tops and open them for inspection. But before she dug through our belongings, she led us in prayer. Strange.

After the inspections, it was more waiting. A guy in street clothes approached each of us and said that he represented the local municipality. Apparently, we each had to give him a dollar for the right to enter the area. It's the local ordinance. I sensed a scam, even if it's an officially sanctioned scam, and reluctantly gave him a dollar. To legitimize the transaction, he affixed a little sticker in my passport.

More waiting. This feral dog resting underneath our bus had the right idea.

Contrary to my mental map of Panama, it runs east-west rather than north-south. By late afternoon, we approached Panama City. I tapped the guy sitting next to me and asked if I was seeing the Panama Canal. He nodded. And we were going to drive over it, on a bridge!

At the foot of the bridge is this monument. It was paid for by the local Chinese community, recognizing 150 years of contributions to Panama.

And here we are, over the canal. This was an unexpected bonus of the trip, although when you think about it, how else was I going to get to Panama City by land without crossing the canal? To top it off, we were stuck in traffic on the bridge. I quickly learned that unless it's three in the morning, there is always soul-crushing traffic everywhere in Panama City.

In 43 hours of travel on Ticabus, I logged 2,223 kilometers through six Central American countries. I am almost done.

The next day, I plotted my trip to the Darien Gap. I went to the bus station to buy my ticket. The lady at the counter told me no tickets are sold in advance. Just show up at four tomorrow morning. I then went to the Tommy Guardia Geographic Institute and bought detailed maps of the Darien region. I capped the successful mission with a dim sum lunch at Lung Fung. Tomorrow, I complete my journey.

Guatemala war crimes trial on hold

This debate-- Whether to prosecute former leaders, or to let it go and just move on with life-- is eternal.

Monday, April 22, 2013

North Korean gas station attendant

More photos here.

Hyundai Galloper/Mitsubishi Montero

I saw a few of these in Panama, and I incorrectly assumed that they were cheap Chinese knockoffs. Apparently, they were built in South Korea. The only difference between the Galloper and the Montero is that the Galloper has two extra seats in the back.

Figure 8 trailer race


Central: My 2013 Central America Bus Trip (Part 3)

El Salvador-Honduras-Nicaragua-Costa Rica

The bus marathon continues.

It's around 11 p.m. I am in a cheap San Salvador hotel room, and I have to wake up in three hours to catch the 3 a.m. bus to Managua, Nicaragua. As I turn off the lights, I hear loud scratching under my bed. It's a big rat.

Now I am not certain that it's a ratus gigantus. I am too scared to look. But I notice that whenever I turn the lights and TV on, the scratching would stop. So I decide to watch Friends reruns on TV until 2 a.m. rather than sleep. It was not fun.

It's 2:30 and I am waiting outside, in the dark, for my bus. I talk to a man who works for a Salvadoran mining company. It has mines in Guatemala and Nicaragua. When one thinks of those two countries, "mining" does not quickly come to mind. The company regularly sends him to the mines, and he regularly takes Ticabus.

In order to reach Nicaragua, we have to transit through a piece of rural Honduras. You can quickly and easily get a flavor of a country's self-image by entering the country by land. In Canada, everything is clean, efficient, and professional. In Argentina, while you wait for the red tape to unfurl, you get to stare at a huge glamour-shot of La Presidenta, Cristina Fernandez. She's even wearing one of those sashes that you associate with tinpot dictators.

Well, judging by Honduras' border formalities (or lack thereof), you get the sense that the country doesn't give a damn. It's the only country I have been to where the traveler doesn't even have to get off the bus. The border agent doesn't even bother to get on the bus to talk to you. Rather, our bus attendant collected everyone's passports, along with a few dollars, and delivers them to the border control. Within a few minutes, the bus attendant returns our passports, stamped. It's like Honduras is saying-- We really don't care who comes into our country, as we have nothing to take or lose! The same was true when we exited Honduras.

At 6 a.m., just three hours from San Salvador, we are inside Honduras. This is the saddest country I have ever encountered. It is a dump, figuratively and literally. As far as the eye can see, there is garbage. On the roadway. In tree groves. In front of churches. Everywhere. There is absolutely no civic pride. Horses, cows, and chickens can all be seen picking through the refuse. I think I even saw a horse eat a plastic bottle. This Ford Taurus I spotted near the border in Honduras pretty much sums up the country.

The bus attendant serves us our first hot meal. It's in this neat little bus-shaped box. What's in it? Just an egg sandwich from Burger King.

After the brief jaunt in Honduras, we enter Nicaragua. Leftist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is definitely in charge. At the border post, his party's campaign posters, and his face, from the 2011, 2012, and 2013 elections, are pasted everywhere. You immediately get the sense that the country may be a democracy in name only.

The line to get through customs is slow. A pack of poor boys, and a teenaged girl, are simultaneous begging, offering to carry our luggage, and selling us snacks and drinks. One boy, with puppy dog eyes, knew that his cuteness alone was good enough to extract a dollar or two from sappy hearted gringos. He tugged at my arm and pleaded "Mira!". I looked down and he shot me a sad look. It didn't work on me.

Though Nicaragua looked almost as poor as Honduras, it was much cleaner. The concrete walls of its government buildings may be crumbling, but someone was thoughtful enough to sweep up the debris.

Ortega's Sandinista government is known for its close relationship with Venezuela and Russia. In fact, a big deal was made recently when Nicaragua bought hundreds of new Ladas to be used as taxi cabs. But while I was in Managua, I did not see a single Russian cab. Almost every car I saw was either Japanese or Korean. The cool UAZ truck dealership was one of the only reminders of the Russian presence there.

After a change of crew at the Managua station, I pretty much slept from there to the Costa Rican border. I was served a single chicken leg with cream sauce on board. It was only after scarfing down the entire meal that I realized this may have been a bad idea.

At the border, we parked next to this ten-wheeler Ford RV with Kentucky plates. It belonged to a young hippy family traveling the world. For some reason, Costa Rica was giving them a hard time about entering.

Once we cleared the border, I fell asleep to the Costa Rican sunset out my window. Tomorrow, I will arrive in Panama.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tim Cahill's Road Fever

Road Fever is one of my favorite books, and I am reading it again right now. In 1987, he and Garry Sowerby set a record by driving the entire length of the Pan-American Highway in 23 days 22 hours 43 minutes. For a flavor of the trip, here is the Popular Mechanics article.

Central: My 2013 Central America Bus Trip (Part 2)

Guatemala-El Salvador

I am at the Guatemala City bus station, and there is a complication. A big one.

I decided to do the Central American stretch of the Pan-American Highway this year because El Salvador is much safer now. The tiny country had one of the highest homicide rates in the world due to gang warfare. The government recently facilitated a truce between the two main gangs and the murder rate dropped like an anvil. And because El Salvador had always been my greatest security concern, I decided that it was finally safe enough to travel through there.

Nevertheless, El Salvador is not violence-free. Ticabus, the bus company I will be using, is very safety conscious. Its policy is to never run at night in El Salvador because of the threat of bus-jackings, robberies, or worse. All of its buses arrive at the San Salvador station before sunset and its passengers are forced to stay overnight in hotels until the next morning. I appreciate this measure.

The complication. The ride between Guatemala City and San Salvador takes around five hours. When I bought my ticket, I had a choice between a 6 a.m. and a 2 p.m. departure time. I wanted to leave in the morning but the bus company representative convinced me to leave at 2 instead. Why would I want to wake up so early? You'll be wide awake to enjoy the scenery during the 2 p.m. ride. Plus, you will definitely make it to San Salvador before sundown.

I bought the 2 p.m. ticket.

It is now 4 in the afternoon, and I am still waiting for the bus. When we finally leave, it is clear that we are going to be on Salvadoran roads late into the night. *Gulp*

This fear was initially erased when our bus slowly pulled out of the bus station driveway and into Guatemala City street traffic. I am riding a long-distance bus again!

And within a city block into our trek, my fellow passengers are bitching. Ticabus tickets are relatively expensive because the buses are safe, comfortable, air conditioned, and provide meals. Well, it soon became apparent that the A/C is broken. Passengers who paid good money are complaining. But there is nothing that can be done except to open the windows.

People often ask why I ride buses when planes are so much faster and safer. I reply that you experience things that you would otherwise miss on a flight. By leaving the windows open, I got to smell the scenery. And on this leg of the journey, that means I got to smell the car exhaust of Guatemala City, the raw sewage of the Guatemala countryside, and the burning trash of El Salvador.

Every long-distance bus ride in a third world country would not be complete without bad movies being played very loudly. From Guatemala to El Salvador, I was forced to watch the new Three Stooges movie; an old Jackie Chan flick; and Ted, which stars a talking teddy bear. The movies were interspersed with Duran Duran videos of all vintages, which I enjoyed. Then, they played this, USA for Africa's We Are the World:

Watching this brought back so many childhood memories. All the stars participated. In fact, Paul Simon quipped at the recording session-- If a bomb dropped on us now, John Denver would be number one again.

We crossed the border into El Salvador in the dark. And other than some very pushy and shady currency exchangers, the crossing was uneventful.

El Salvador's capital appears much tidier than Guatemala's capital, at least in the dark. People are out and about. Nice cars are parked in front of busy restaurants and bars. We pull into the bus station at 10 p.m. Thankfully, there is a hotel upstairs. However, I have to wake up in four hours to catch the 3 a.m. bus to Nicaragua.

At check-in, I buy a bottle of beer and two bottles of water. I down the Pilsener, take a quick shower, and jump into bed. I turn off the lights. I suddenly hear loud scratching. There is a huge rat underneath my bed. What am I going to do?!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Chechnya documentary

If there is any doubt that Russia Today is a mouthpiece for Putin, then this documentary will settle it. North Korea wishes it could produce such a polished and slick propaganda piece.

As a bit of background, after Chechnya failed to gain independence after two wars, Ramzan Kadyrov (he's the young bearded guy in the video) became absolute ruler. Putin gives him billions to make sure that Chechnya is peaceful and obedient to its Russian master. Kadyrov is not only ruthlessly violent with his people, but incredibly corrupt.

This video reminds me of propaganda pieces by the Chinese government on the subject of the Muslim Uyghur minority. Basically, the message is they are an exotic, simple, and beautiful people who like to sing and dance. And look, isn't it funny that their religion has so many backwards beliefs? Thankfully, we, as their big brother, are bringing them to modernity.

This video is a must-see.

Central: My 2013 Central America Bus Trip (Part 1)


Our mid-sized Embraer jet lands in Guatemala City at noon. It was a brief, one-hour flight from our connection in Mexico City. It seems everyone else on the plane was in their 30s or 40s, on business, and were private school classmates or members of the same country club. Everyone knew everyone else. I did not feel like I belonged, at all.

Through customs, we are greeted by a sad band of five men playing ironically cheerful "ethnic" music. The xylophone player was really talented, but none of them seemed to be enjoying their jobs. The posters on the walls tout the various sights and activities Guatemala has to offer. There is a smattering of ads for cell phone service and a disturbing number of ads warning travelers that the smuggling of drugs or money is not worth it.

Before I leave the airport, I exchange some money. While looking for my passport at home, I came across 75(!) euros in a drawer. I exchange the euros for quetzales. It is more cash than I need for the brief time I am spending in the country.

As a cup-is-half-empty kind of guy, I begin bus trips fearing the worst case scenario. In that scenario, I have food poisoning, my bus crashes, and I have been beaten and robbed. And so, unfortunately, with great paranoia, I step out of the airport terminal.

I cannot find the hotel shuttle van that is supposed to pick me up. I look in the unlit parking garage. I go up and down in the tiny parking garage elevator. I am convinced that I am going to get robbed. I clearly look lost and vulnerable to all the "regulars" there. Nothing happens to me, of course.

I finally find my shuttle van. It is probably the same Mercedes van that I used in my 2008 trip to Guatemala. It has definitely aged. There is damage on nearly every body panel. One of the rear view mirrors is held with masking tape.

As we cruise to the hotel, I take a deep breath and smell the traffic. The air is dirty, but the town feels safer and less menacing than during my last visit. I only see one little Indian girl sitting on the sidewalk, begging. And I only see one shotgun-wielding security guard, standing in front of a bank.

Coincidentally, my college professor and thesis advisor is also in town on the very same day. My focus in school was agrarian reform in Guatemala before the 1954 U.S.-backed coup. Professor Beatriz Manz is an anthropologist who studied Guatemalan indigenous groups during the civil war and documented torture, executions, and forced migrations. This afternoon, she is testifying as an expert witness in the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. She is testifying for the prosecution.

With the marathon bus trip about to start, I treat myself to a fancy meal at Kacao in the upscale Zona Viva neighborhood. I start with a couple of forgettable empanadas. The highlight, and probably the best thing I had during my trip, is the entree-- the kack ick. It's a traditional Mayan turkey stew with roasted tomatoes and peppers.

The view out my hotel room window (Guatemala City is not particularly breathtaking):

The next day, Orlando the cab driver picks me up in his Kia station wagon. We talk about family. When he tells me he has a 21 year old daughter, a 20 year old son, and a granddaughter, I am shocked. Orlando, at 40, is just two years older than me. He tells me that he is the breadwinner and his wife does not have to work, which he is very proud of. The economy, he believes, is improving, but there is still a lot of poverty. When he drops me off at the bus station and I shake his hand, I realize that his right hand is lame. It's non-functional. How was he able to shift gears that whole time?

As I sit in the bus station lounge, I learn that there is a significant complication.

Friday, April 19, 2013

I am NOT that guy

Welcome to my blog. You no doubt came here by googling Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev's name. Well, this is not his blog. Sorry.

However, if you are interested in obscure cars, geopolitics, unorthodox travel, and James Bond, I invite you to take a look around my blog and follow it if you like it. (Lemons out of lemonade moment.)


Thursday, April 18, 2013

I scored an interview with Bond actor George Lazenby

If you have any questions for him, let me know. Apparently, he was a car salesman and mechanic before he became Bond.

I'm back!

Pretty memorable trip. I'll be posting more photos and thoughts. Here are a few to whet your appetite.

The trip started with a six-country bus marathon over three days. It truly tested me physically and mentally. This is sunrise at the Costa Rica-Panama border. I have not seen many sunrises, but this is definitely up there as one of the most beauteous.

The ultimate goal of this trip was to reach the southern terminus of the North American portion of the Pan-American Highway. This is literally, literally, the end of the road. Whether you're in Edmonton, Boston, Oakland, or Texas, if you kept driving south, you would end up here.

And I touched the Darien Gap! On the left is Yaviza, where the highway ends. Once you cross this footbridge over Rio Chico, you arrive at the beginning of the Gap. Indians harvest plantains, go five hours in those little dugout boats, and sell them in Yaviza. That boatload of plantains you see on the left will be bought by a middleman at the harbor for $100.

After my bus trip, I spent a couple of days in Panama City. I saw two boats, including this Panamax LPG tanker, cross the Miraflores Locks.

On my last day, I took a train from Panama City (Pacific) to Colon (Atlantic). It took just an hour and four minutes. The track parallels the canal. This is the Gatun Lake portion of the canal.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Carspotting: 1976 Toyota Celica automatic

Mercedes W203 wagon

The C240 wagon is looking more and more likely as my next ride.

1995 Mazda Miata M Edition for $4200

What do you guys think of this? Too many miles?