June 30, 2008

How to rent a car

1) Get a driver's license. These are remarkably useful things to have, especially in North America.

2) Get a credit card that insures rental cars against collision and loss. Such cards often charge an annual fee, but will pay for themselves if you rent as rarely as once a year - buying that insurance from the rentacar company often costs ~$15 per rental day. Make sure that card is paid up, as the insurance may lapse if you're past due, and bear in mind you have to use it to rent the car.

3) Book online, in advance, preferably with at least one Saturday-night stay. I generally use Expedia to comparison-shop the various major chains, then go to the cheapest chain's corporate site and book a car there. I rarely wind up paying more than $25/day.

4) You don't need to provide a credit card number to rent a car, so feel free to book more than one, just in case.

5) Save money when you book. The bewildering rentacar business model includes all manner of "promotion codes", "discount codes", etc. Taking 30 seconds to find such a code online at places like RedFlagDeals or MouseSavers (of all places) can save you 15-20% or even more. Also, check the company's "Deals" page for special offers. Also, note that renting for a week can be cheaper than renting for 4 days.

5) Watch out for gotchas. Your mileage may not be unlimited. You may not be allowed to drive out of province/state/country, or if you do, the terms and conditions may change dramatically. (For example, Thrifty and Dollar in Quebec forbid you from leaving Quebec; Enterprise changes from "unlimited mileage" to "expensive, limited mileage" if you cross the border into the USA; Avis does the same trick on weekends.) Don't lie; many rentacars have onboard GPS trackers.

6) If renting in Europe, or actually anywhere outside of North America, either be comfortable driving a stick, or make it very very clear that you want an automatic.

7) If you are going to a faraway place, you may need an International Driver's License, which your home country automobile association can provide. However, it's an annoyance and only lasts one year. In practice, rich countries generally just accept each other's licensing systems, and poor countries are more willing to rent without such paperwork, so I've only ever needed one of these in South Africa, which only accepts foreign English-language driver's licenses. (Quebec's licenses are in French. This has never been a problem in the USA, but can be elsewhere. They also don't obviously indicate date of birth, which is annoying.)

8) Look for smaller, independent car rental places if you don't have a credit card, or if you're under 25, or if you want to rent a luxury car, or if you want to rent long-term. In particular, I recommend Super Cheap Car Rental if you need a car in California, esp. long-term, and you're not automotively vain: they provide well-used but well-maintained vehicles for reasonable monthly fees that include all insurance. Also, they're nice people.

9) In the USA you're often asked if you want "liability insurance" for ~$20/day (which is sometimes more than the car itself!), and it's incredibly hard to get a straight answer on whether you actually need this or not. In Canada the cultural context is such that the notion of going to and/or doing anything in the USA without copious insurance, lest you break a leg or get sued or something equally awful, is perceived with great trepidation. My impression is that rental car companies are generally required to provide the legal minimum of liability insurance, but I dunno whether this covers you out-of-state. In general I turn it down and then drive nervously.

10) Sometimes one-way rentals are very cheap; I once got a one-way rental from Phoenix to L.A. for $9.99/day and no extra one-way charge, presumably because Avis had a glut. Sometimes they're very not. Sometimes it's free to return a car to a different location in the same city where you rented it; sometimes it's not. Check in advance.

11) Check the car for damage before you drive it away, lest you get charged for it later. Although the one time this happened I sent them a scorching email and they immediately dropped their claim.

12) If your license has been suspended, don't rent from Thrifty, as they will actually check. (This is how I found out my U.S. license was suspended some years ago. I had been renting cars regularly from other companies for months.)

13) You will have an noticeably easier time at the U.S./Canada border if you're driving a rental car; the guards presumably figure "well, they might be dodging the cops, smuggling drugs, and planning to work here illegally, but hey, no problem, they'll never escape the wrath of Hertz!"

14) Don't return the car late. You get a "grace period" of maybe an hour, or even less; after that they start charging you usurious fees. Also, try to return it full, or they'll charge you amazing amounts for the gas you didn't put in the tank, and then rent the same car, unfilled, to the next customer and tell them to bring it back with the needle where it began. I think rental companies actually make most of their profits from surcharges and insurance.

15) If you leave something in the car, they're actually really good about getting it back to you; Avis once mailed me (prescription) sunglasses I had forgotten from California to Canada, on their dime.

16) If you drive a rental car to Burning Man, try to wash it thoroughly and then bring it back at a 24-hour automated-return location, because the employees will be rather upset with you, and not without reason (the engine will be coated with playa dust even if you never popped the hood.)

June 20, 2008

we love it when our friends become successful

Check it out: my friend Nigel Dickinson just won a 2008 Press Photographer's Year Award, which is quite prestigious if clumsily named, in the "Features" category, for his stunning Cambodia travel photography.

June 12, 2008

Myth America

From Thomas Friedman's latest column:

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Democrats’ nomination of Obama as their candidate for president has done more to improve America’s image abroad than the entire Bush public diplomacy effort for seven years.

...Every once in a while, America does something so radical, so out of the ordinary — something that old, encrusted, traditional societies like those in the Middle East could simply never imagine — that it revives America’s revolutionary “brand” overseas in a way that no diplomat could have designed or planned...

For now, though, what it reveals is how much many foreigners, after all the acrimony of the Bush years, still hunger for the “idea of America” — this open, optimistic, and, indeed, revolutionary, place so radically different from their own societies.

What he's talking about is the myth of America.

That myth used to be incredibly powerful, especially in poor countries where people lived in a kind of oppressive stasis, of which Egypt is an excellent example. The myth was that somewhere across the Atlantic there was a better place, a land of hope and opportunity, a meritocracy that accepted people of every race and creed and nation, where if they worked hard they could not just succeed but transcend their otherness and become an integral part of this magical place; and you too could go there - heck, you already know people who know people who already have, maybe you never will but you could, and if you did, hell, your children could grow up to become President!

And every Hollywood movie and Michael Jordan T-shirt helped reinforce this myth. Not everyone bought into it, certainly, maybe not even a majority, but those who did held on to it tight. (And in my experience, gentle suggestions to such people that what they were describing actually sounded a whole lot more like Canada got dismissed out of hand.)

We're not just talking Nigeria and Egypt and India here; a similar attitude, a view of America as a place where you don't just whine about problems but you solve them, America where the government gets out of your way and lets you build your empire, and/or America where the future is forged, was pretty common across the developed world, too. Most Brits would admit a sneaking sympathy to that view, and I think it's part of where Le Monde's famous Nous sommes tous Américains headline on 13 Sep 01 came from.

And then, over the last seven years, as all of that goodwill aimed towards America disintegrated, the myth of America died with it. Its believers discovered that the land of hope and opportunity was actually the land of Dick Cheney and Abu Ghraib, and they felt bitter and angry and cheated.

But then: Obama. The son of an African, with dark skin and a Muslim name, runs for the presidency. The Party Establishment has anointed another candidate (uh, at best a gross oversimplification, but we're talking story not reality) - but this is not a prime ministership; it's the people who vote, not the party. And the American People sweep this son of a Kenyan Muslim to the threshold of the presidency!

If you squint at him from far away, Barack Obama is practically King Arthur back from Avalon to save the day: he is the myth of America incarnate, just when that myth was believed dead.

(For the record, he would have been my third choice, after Richardson and Edwards.)

June 09, 2008

Islands in the slums

This NYT article about a gated community in India is a really good snapshot of what the developing world is like today.

As money flows into an impoverished nation, first you get a few tiny islands of First World development, usually in the capital: embassies, presidential mansions, five-star hotels. Inside you find armies of servants in ill-fitting uniforms ready to obey your every whim, for labour is cheap. But the lack of infrastructure still tells. I've been in many luxury hotels with little garbage cans for soiled toilet paper placed beside the toilets because the plumbing still isn't up to much, generators that hum all day and night, and menus which are largely theoretical. (I know, poor me.) Outside - often, literally, immediately outside - all is filth and chaos, and the streets are clogged with crowds of the malnourished. Beyond major cities the roads are often so bad it can take all day to travel a hundred miles.

Then the pockets of wealth begin to metastasize: four-star hotels in secondary cities, private estates, luxury tourist resorts. Public transport begins to shift from cramped tro-tro/matatu/dalla-dalla minivans to slightly-less-cramped buses (which invariably play movies and music at EXTREMELY LOUD VOLUMES) and, especially if they were lucky enough to be colonized by the British (hey, it sure beat being colonized by the Portuguese!) rickety but serviceable railways. A couple of decent roads appear, although bizarrely this often happens first in remote, little-travelled regions, rather than along main arteries. Internet cafes and privately owned cell phones become more visible, even in local-residential areas. Shantytowns swell up in the outskirts of cities as young people flock from rural areas to try to get a taste of their nation's growing wealth. Usually they fail. Meanwhile, in the cities, a tiny middle class begins to develop.

Almost invariably, in old cities, a suburb-like region without historical inertia and ancient buildings becomes the epicentre of the modern earthquake, and the first entire region of the country to go semi-First-World: Miraflores in Lima, Pudong in Shanghai, Ma'adi in Cairo, Juhu in Mumbai, Pétionville in Port-au-Prince. It's where the rich live, where the modern shopping malls and cinemas go. And it's flooded, needless to say, with poorly paid servants and security guards. Gated communities like those mentioned in the above article develop elsewhere. Meanwhile the slums grow to epic proportions.

Then - and this is in some ways the most interesting stage, one that China went through in the last ten years, and that India is going through right now, and perhaps one that Paris went through 150 years ago - highway and sewer networks are built, shantytowns become slums and those close to wealth are razed, and the formerly isolated pockets of development begin to reach out and connect to one another, like merging drops of water, until you get multiple connecting avenues, regions, even entire cities of money and modernity, all still surrounded by bitter, grinding poverty. Shanghai today, for instance: not just First World but actually Next World, having in many ways leapfrogged New York and London. (Maglev railways, anyone?) People flock from around the world to live there, at the coal face of the future, and huge expat communities grow.

Meanwhile, not so far away, in the same country, slum dwellers sleep ten to a room, and subsistence farmers still eke out a living as they always have.