Thursday, December 30, 2010

Making America's Roads Better

Years back, when I was buying my first car, someone warned me about all the additional expenses that I am going to incur. Among the other mundane items like insurance and repairs, he mentioned, traffic tickets. As a hesitant driver in a new country, I did not pay much attention to that then. Five years down the line, I definitely know what he was talking about.

I am not talking about occasional red light jumpings or parking violations. Those are part of life too, but much rare, and immensely avoidable. It is actually quite incredible. that for a country known for its orderly and law abiding society, speeding is not looked down upon at all. The posted limits are taken as just suggestions by most, from celebrity popstars to Nobel winning physicists. As for mere mortals like us, it may make otherwise boring drives thrilling, or make up for the lost time, but mostly we speed because we can. As my friend claimed after getting a $300 citation for going 22 miles over limit, the people speeding should be rewarded, not punished, since we know what we are doing. The real hazard on highways are slower vehicles, which block the flow of traffic and make things chaotic. No truer words were ever spoken.

I was caught 22 miles over limit once too, but the fine was much less. It was a sleepy village among the cornfields in Illinois. and I was in a real hurry. So not being recreational speeding, that does not count. However, all the other times, I speed strategically, following the old adage, never go alone. The other speeding cars are your best friends, and friends never let friends go far away.

Of course, nothing can be full proof. Driving down from Jacksonville airport to Gainesville, one passes through small towns of Waldo and Baldwin, and outsiders tend to speed by them, not caring about what seems artificially low speed limits. And mostly they get pulled over. The main source of revenue for those towns are traffic citations.

But thankfully, that idea has not caught on. I was driving back from Grand Canyon on this one lane Arizona highway, and that was the craziest collective speeding frenzy I was part of. A bunch of cars were going probably over 90 mph on a 65 mph zone, crossing slower traffic going into the opposite lane, and then kind of camped on the other side, occasionally coming back to let poor incoming cars pass by. One of those crazy cars came almost face to face with a police car in the other lane, and in any other place, he would have been pulled over for speeding and aggressive driving. Here the cop blinked his red-blue light once, backed off a little to let that car (and the five others behind him!) to merge back in, and went by.

This was also in Arizona, my highest speed ever, and dedicated to all the friends and strangers who speed, making the highways better places to drive.

You cant fake this picture!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gold does glitter!

Life as a frequent flier is not always fun, contrary to what the movie "Up in the Air" showed. Waking up at odd hours, traversing timezones, forgotten cellphone charger or medicines, every little annoyance adding up. And when the unpredictable weather and random flight cancellations are factored in, it is almost a perfect recipe for disaster. I see all the people stranded on their way to or out of Europe in last few days, and I realize I could have been one of them. In fact, I was, briefly in Berlin, before I was accommodated in a nice hotel, provided with food and was put in a direct flight to US next morning.

All because once my original flight to Cleveland via Zurich and Toronto was canceled, I could stand in the infinitely shorter rebooking queue for first and business class travelers, and get a seat in the direct flight to Newark next morning. If I were in the general queue, with a million people, I would have never made it. That's what happened n Paris last year, when I spent all my day standing in queues, and my night sleeping at the airport. I was a lowly "silver" then, in Delta frequent flier program.

Now after flying over 50,000 miles (when all said and done, I will end up flying almost 75,000 miles this year), I am "gold" in United, and what a difference that made. Flying back to Dresden via Frankfurt last time from US, I was stuck in an utterly chaotic snow covered Frankfurt airport. But instead of standing in endless queues, I could queue up sitting inside the lounge, and spend the night at airport Sheraton, before getting a first class train ticket for next morning, all on Lufthansa. Yes, lounges are nice with free drinks, internet and relaxing ambiance, and domestic first class upgrades are fun, and it is cool to see my bags coming out first, but the real benefit of having "status" is how you get treated in case of these irregularities. To use a borrowed phrase, that is indeed priceless.