Thursday, October 11, 2007

I've moved!  
Sorry, Blogger, but I needed a fresh start.  You've been a good platform, though. Farewell...

Visit the new and refreshed Tarmac Philosopher at

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Roman Holiday + Fiat 500 = Happiness
Cab rides in Rome rival open heart surgery, discovers the Philosopher 

Every now and then, the Publication decides to actually spend some of its budget and send a writer on a road trip.  Road trips like these can range from a 40 mile jaunt to the Mojave Desert to a full-fledged, fortnight adventure that would stress out even Phineas Fogg.  Today, our most respectable Editor-in-Chief sent me a memo to announce I would be traveling to Rome and driving the new supermini Fiat 500 from the Eternal City to Turin.  It would be like something out of a romantic Italian road movie, an earthy adventure in the hot, olive-skinned hills of Umbria.  He declined to word it in that way, but Ennio Morricone was already playing in my head. 

Fun was the first word that came to mind.  Those cars are cute.  I usually detest calling a car “cute”, a symptom of my respectful adoration of the Mini Cooper, but the Fiat 500 is so cute I want to pinch its cheeks and hear it giggle.  

The best thing is that it’s not pretentious or cutesy-cute.  It’s not the Hello-Kitty cute that so dominates contemporary small-car design.  It’s a beautiful Italian cute.  Dignified and classy, yet playful and fun.  Golly, it’s a fantastic-looking car.

I had one week to prepare for my wild car-cation, and spent most of it at Barnes&Noble frantically soaking up as much of Fodor’s and Frommer’s as possible.  I had been to Italy before, but for a very short time: I once drove a Pagani Zonda F from Modena into Switzerland without stopping anywhere within Italy.  But this time, I would have to stop for petrol, stop for food, and stop for lodging, and I was totally devoid of street smarts.  Not good.  I would also be traveling all by myself.  Even worse.  

So without knowing a lick of Italian (with the exception of “autostrada” and “birra”), I boarded a massive Virgin Atlantic jumbo for Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci di Fiumicino.  I arrived at the terminal jetlagged and tired, all because of a little Italian girl who was screaming so loud the entire trip I thought she was being forced to listen to the health and safety lectures on repeat.  Anyway, I arrived in Rome totally unprepared to be arriving in Rome.  There are some things in the world you must be prepared for: medical board exams, open heart surgery, and driving through the Eternal City.

I had an hour to get to the Fiat factory and pick up my press-issue 500.  I decided the best way to get my bearings was to take a taxi.  Hailing the taxi was no problem: there were approximately 4 million taxis parked outside the terminal..  However, the taxi ride itself was one of the most vomit-inducing experiences I have ever been through.  My driver, a man named Vittorio, apparently had no conscious awareness of life, death, and eternal punishment.  He drove on any surface that was not vertical, and drove at speeds rivaling a Bugatti Veyron at Ehra-Lessien.  All the horrific rumors I have heard about Italian motoring were true.

"There are some things in the world you must be prepared for: medical board exams, open heart surgery, and driving through the Eternal City."

The Fiat factory suddenly appeared beside me, and I promptly got out of the car feeling like a quadriplegic who had just fallen down the stairs. I felt like falling out of the cab on my knees, kissing the ground, and screaming, "LAND!". 

Finally, I entered the wonderful world of Fiat.  The lobby was modern and cool, and a minibar with little bottles of San Pellegrino beckoned for me to refresh myself.  I presented my press badge, said the name of my contact, and before long, I was briskly en route to the press building.  On the way, the Fiat spokesman told me the amazing wonders and unearthly pleasures I would experience in my stint with the 500.  I wasn’t so sure.  I would be more certain once I reached the countryside and was able to collect my thoughts.  Rome was enough to beat even the most seasoned motoring journalist to a bloody pulp.

  Further into a gigantic warehouse, we met the tidy fleet of 500s.  I had not seen one in person before, and I must say, the pictures do no justice to how attractive and well-proportioned the spicy little number really is.  We approached spot #46, and there sat a creamy white 500, with chrome trim and the classic, throwback wheels. It was one cool car.  And that’s all I can essentially say about it.  I was handed the keys, told the petrol tank was full, and given directions to the Circonvallazione Settentriolnale, the Autostrada beltway around the Eternal City.  From there, I would navigate north into the sweeping hills of Umbria on the Autostrada del Sole.  What a cool name for a highway.  Sounds like the name of a bossa nova album. It sure beats “Interstate 5”.  

Everything seemed peachy.  The car was stratospherically comfortable.  The motor was surprisingly solid and muscular.  The ride was smooth. The air conditioning actually worked.  I felt good; I felt like the pseudo-tourist.  

But my confidence was about to be shattered when I actually started driving the streets of Rome.  Nothing prepares you for it; it is instant baptism by fire.  Sidewalks are considered a passing lane.  Pedestrians have the same right-of-way as fallen leaves.  Honking your horn is as common as using your brake pedal.  Roundabouts are high-octane wildebeest stampedes.  I suddenly realized the beauty of little city cars, and why Europeans love them so much.  If I were driving even a small sedan, I would been dead.  

After about 2 hours of terror, I made it onto the Circonvallazione Settentriolnale, and I was surprised at how good the Fiat was.  Fiats have a very well-known reputation for being unreliable and just downright crappy, but this car could actually be compared to a Toyota or Honda, in my opinion.  The stereo system was superb, the air conditioning was ice-cold, the whole interior just worked.   The engine did not feel like it was powered by a hamster named Gerald spinning in his wheel fast, and the suspension did not feel like it was made of rubber bands strapped between toothpicks.  This thing actually felt like a decent car! 

I was glad to get out of the smog and filth of Rome and out in the Italian countryside.  What a beautiful place.  Hills that seem to flow like olive oil out of a decanter; villages that look like they were built by the ancient Romans.  Beautiful wide motorways that cut through the landscape as though they were part of it.  And there I was, in a Fiat minicar, zipping through it with the windows open.  The only thing that was missing was an Italian farmer’s daughter in the passenger seat, a picnic basket in the boot, and some Puccio Roelens Orchestra piping through the stereo. 

To Be Continued.....

Monday, September 24, 2007

Rollin' with the Emir
Highways to Nowhere, Part 3

I had been in the deepest sleep of my life when the phone rang in my hotel room at the Grand Jebel Hafeet Al Anin.  It was my friend Gary the Persian, who told me to get ready for dinner and the night out in the city.  

I looked at my travel clock and it said 7:30 pm.  Dinner would be in a half and hour. No need to rush things.  I laid back down in the bed, and noticed for the first time a metal arrow set into the ceiling.  It was pointing towards Mecca, I realized.  

Everything here in the UAE is modern and Western, yet there are some things a Muslim dares not secularize.  Muslim women must walk several feet behind the men when out on the street, always dressed in black.  The men wear massive white sheets and red checkered head wraps that resemble pizza parlor table cloths.  

I asked Gary why the rich, young Emirs put on all this traditional show and then on the other hand violate everything else.  They surround themselves with burka-less women, eat and drink forbidden foods, consume alcohol, and indulge in other forbidden pleasure of the flesh.  This cafeteria Islam seemed to be growing in areas flushed with black gold fortunes.   

Gary smirked, and began by saying he was an observing Muslim, and did not take part in much of the Emir’s business besides doing his job.  He avoided the Emir’s less conservative activities, such as going to nightclubs.  

I can vouch for his truthfulness, because he and I were chatting outside “9”, an exclusive club in the heart of Dubai.  He had declined to accompany his boss into the club, and I had been able to slip out momentarily for a breath of air.

My evening had started at the hotel, with a subtly elegant dinner outdoors by the poolside at the Grand Jebel.   I’m no food critic, but I did eat some marvelous stuff.  Delicately roast partridge in a red wine sauce seasoned with some mysterious Middle Eastern nuclear-spicy pepper, on a bed of succulent couscous in a olive oil reduction.  Dessert was an expensive medley of exotic fruits, with a side of yogurt I guessed was cultured from the dairy of Mount Olympus.   It would have stumped even Gordon Ramsay as to why it tasted so good. 

After dinner, the Emir wasted no time in leading me back to the hotel, and inviting me to ride shotgun with him in his brand-new, jet-black Rolls-Royce Phantom.  The Phantom is a behemoth of a car: nearly 20 feet long, and chock-full of menace and opulence.  It is also the pinnacle of luxury.  No other vehicle on the planet can match the atmosphere and aura of the full-bodied Rolls.  It rides on a suspension made from butter churned by the cherubim.  It is powered by horsepower harnessed from Pegasus himself.  The wheel wells are carpeted with Egyptian cotton. The wood in the dash is harvested from the cedars of Lebanon.  Needless to say, this car fit the Emir perfectly.   

Dubai was approximately 90 minutes from the Mercure, and that meant it would feel like 2 minutes for us, since we were in a Phantom.  It’s like getting a free upgrade to first class on a 40-minute flight.  

The club was in the basement of some executive building, and like all expensive nightclubs, had a dumpy, barely-visible front door.  The Phantom pulled up in front, and a bouncer abandoned his post to open the suicide doors for the Emir and I.  The crowd waiting to get in was immediately split in two in preparation for the Emir’s entrance, which, as always, was going to be a big deal.  Me, the Emir, the supermodels, and four of his retinue slid past the front door with ease, and we entered Club 9.

The first thing you hear, of course, is the music.  When we walked in, it was Paul Oakenfold’s Ready, Steady, Go pulsating from every side.  I expected some Middle Eastern rave or trance beats, but instead, I got a British DJ.   Another side effect of Dubai’s desperation at Westernization.   

The next thing you notice is the blinding lasers, strobes, and ambient lighting used.  In this particular club, the theme was electric blue.  Everything radiated blue.  The floor tiles were backlit with LEDs that changed patterns.  The walls were giant screens showing seizure-inducing flashes of themed images. The dividers that separated tables and booths were sheets of falling water, coming from nozzles on the ceiling.  I have to admit it was all jolly exciting.  The thing that ruined the ambience were the masses of throbbing, heaving, sweaty bodies that we had to ford to get to our VIP table.  I was also irked at this club’s resemblance of the club used in the film Collateral.  I expected a shootout to occur any second. 

Personally, I had no care to be at Club 9, and was only doing so because I had to.  The Emir would be offended if I asked to be taken back to the hotel.  So I joined him and the two supermodels in a big, broad VIP booth, and sat staring curiously at the walls of water.  It was the only thing I felt comfortable doing.  

The Emir’s personal waiter asked if I would like anything to drink.  I asked for an iced tea.  He blinked and stared at me for a long time, as if waiting for me too add any other ingredients to the beverage.  But no.  Just an iced tea, please.  The Emir laughed at my lack of creativity, and asked how I got my job when I was so boring.  I politely explained that if I got too excited every time I drove a car or did something fun, my critical mindset would be blurred.  My analytical abilities would be compromised.  

That all sounded like a load of rubbish even to me.  I was just too straitlaced to throw down at nightclubs and spend lots and lots of money.  That was one of the reasons why I sought out the occupation of a motoring journalist: I wanted to drive nice, expensive cars, but it never made sense to me why people would buy them.  

Gary the Persian laughed at this.  He understood, he said.  As we were standing there, I felt another presence with us in the urban Arabian night.  It was one of the supermodels.  She took a thin cigarette from her handbag, and lit it.  The fumes surged out her nose in a big cloud of blue, putrid smoke.  I was downwind, and coughed.  She apologized in a monotone, disinterested Italian accent, and walked farther down the street.  Then it hit me: Dubai was a truly Western city, all the way down to the dirty, sad parts.  Behind the prosperity and wealth was the dark side of capitalism, kept neatly behind nightclubs called “9”.  

I had never felt more love for a nice, quiet hotel room than I did when we got back to the Mercure at around 4 am.  I needed to get home.  I wanted to see my cars, my friends, the cubicles of the Publication.  Strange and exotic places are overrated.  In my opinion, at least.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Chillin' with the Emir

Highways to Nowhere, Part 2

Mercure’s Grand Jebel Hafeet Al Anin Hotel is a beautiful perch high above the desert, and after a hellish drive in a Koenigsegg, was a welcome sight to a weary journalist. 

I was sitting outside at the hotel’s outdoor cafe by the pool, enjoying a glass of chilled flavored sparking water that tasted strangely like roses.  It was a local specialty, and Gary the Persian, who had arrived at the hotel earlier, recommended it.  I was expecting something rather horrible, but it was pleasingly refreshing.  For a second, I actually felt very cool and sophisticated.  

It was around 4 pm when the Emir finally arrived.  I was surprised to see him show up in a Bentley Arnage R instead of the Zonda.  What had happened to the poor Italian car?  “No more fuel!”, said the Emir cheerfully.  He had emptied the Pagani’s gas tank without even traveling 5 miles.  A spectacular feat, to be sure.  The good news is that fuel was the least of his problems.

The Emir reclaimed his two supermodels who came out of the hotel to greet him.  He linked arms with both of them, and with debonair flair, strolled through the palatial front entrance. Me, Gary the Persian, and the rest of his retinue followed respectfully behind. Gary informed me that dinner would be served at 8, with a “refreshening reception” beforehand and a visit to an “exclusive nightclub” afterwards.  I told Gary I would probably have to skip the nightlife, because I was needed back in Los Angeles at the Publication.  Gary smiled, and said, “Hopefully His Highness will understand, but I doubt.”  Bugga. 

The area where the reception took place was an incredible indoor/outdoor atrium of sorts, a vast terrace overlooking the desert.  The decor was modern and slightly art-deco with a Arabian flair, and just screamed of an excess of cold, wet cash.  The Emir was swimming in funds.  Extravagance was an understatement to this man’s expenses.  The bottled water was shipped in from a private bottling company in Austria.  The crisp, health-conscious hor d’oeurves were spectacularly expensive and fancy.  I half-expected butlers to serve us loafs of Parisian baguettes to dry our hands after we had washed them with Argentinean lemons.  All this excess somewhat offended my naturally Puritan soul, but I have to confess it was very easy to put up with.

During this “refreshening reception”, the Emir finally seemed relaxed and willing to engage in some conversation.  He spoke English better than some Americans, probably on account of his Harvard education.  He told me that his father was a partner in the multi-billion dollar transportation ministry in Dubai, and was responsible for creating the city’s “world-class” transit systems.  Apparently he also had a large amount of stock in some offshore oil drilling off the coast of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, accounting for his father’s “prosperous lifestyle”.  

The Emir continued by praising the United States for its commitment to do business with people like his father. 

“The United States is a beautiful place.  It is a country of so many colors, so many people.  But one thing unites them all: energy.  Energy unites the world, as well.  Energy makes countries become allies; energy makes us cross cultural borders in search of peaceful solutions.  God’s greatest gift to us is the earth’s energy.  We should use it for progress. ” 

I asked him what he thought about the United States attempting to achieve energy independence, and how so much public opinion in the US is against Middle East oil and favors alternative energy sources closer to home.

“There will always be a demand for petroleum.  It takes too long to come up with different energy sources.  Oil is the most reliable, it is the easiest to work with.  The whole world runs on oil, and it will stay that way.  And Americans must understand that the Middle East is most willing to do business with America.   I believe in capitalist societies, societies that run on business.  Money is not the root of all evil.  Money helps the countries protect and feed their people.  Without money, the world would collapse.”

I wanted to tell the Emir how cliched he sounded, but I acted like his words were golden, and furiously scribbled nothing in my notepad.  There I was, an obscure journalist guy who drove cars for a living, listening to the infamous side of world economics recite curiously hackneyed political prose while flanked by two Italian supermodels.  My job is overrated. 

It was time for prayer again, so I excused myself from the Emir’s presence, and went to the “bathroom”, which turned out to be a massive box of frosted glass panels, all backlit.  Very impressive.  I reached for my cell phone, only to realize that Vodafone doesn’t exactly have much of a clientele in the Persian Gulf.  Useless.  Thankfully, the concierge of the hotel was happy to assist my international call, and in a few minutes I was on the phone with my editor, begging for extraction.  

My editor took in my news with much amusement, and told me my flight left.... the following morning.  Ergo, I had no excuse to get out of the Emir’s nightlife plans.  

“Just roll with it,” said the Editor.  “Have fun and write up a good story when you get back.  And don’t get into any trouble.”   

I had no idea what he meant, and I didn’t really want to know.  When I got off the phone, Gary the Persian walked up and handed me my luggage and a room key.  “Go, rest, and prepare for dinner, with His Highness’ blessings.  He understands you are weary.”  

Thank Allah.  I booked it up to the room, and collapsed in a big leather chair.  I had 2 hours to rest before a night out in the world’s youngest and richest city.  


Monday, June 25, 2007

The Highways to Nowhere

The Philosopher journeys to exotic lands on a quest to seek out a sheikh.

I know, I know. My 2 faithful readers are probably complaining in their heads about the lack of Tarmacular Philosophizing lately. My excuse? I don’t really have one.

Anyway, we will now return to our regular programming with another automotive anecdote from my imaginary life as an intrepid motoring journalist.

I must admit,  I was bushed.  Tired.  Exhausted.  I don’t like being in such condition.  My personal aspiration is to be like Jack Bauer from 24: always moving, constantly encountering adventure, never stopping to use the loo.  That’s living, as I see it.  Sleep? Bah, humbug!  Sleep is a big fat waste of time that could be spent constructively, behind the wheel of a fantastic car.  That’s what I had been doing the last two weeks testing the new Mini Cooper S on the diabolically fun roads of Ireland.  

Still, despite my brain wanting to keep going, the rest of me was ready to collapse into a plush leather seat in an air-conditioned Airbus, with a glass of chilled Perrier water and an issue of Top Gear.  This was a gloriously luxurious picture after two long weeks sitting in a hip-hugging, moderately-cramped sport seat, drinking Diet Pepsi, feeling damp humidity blow from the air con, and sleeping for approximately 5 hours each night.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but you can see what I am getting at.

I was riding the shuttle bus from where we had dropped off our cars to the terminal.  My cell phone suddenly rang for the first time in two weeks.  It was my Editor, and he had some strange news.  Apparently, I was to obediently board a plane for London-Gatwick, where I would then promptly board an Emirates flight to Dubai, UAE.  

The son of some ultra-wealthy Sheikh had requested a writer from our Publication to join him for dinner and a drive on the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road, supposedly the greatest driving road in the world. And was this all for a particularly practical reason?  Apparently not.  What Sheikh wants, Sheikh gets, because Sheikh can pay for it.  The Bahrain Grand Prix was born from this adage.  

My thoughts of a cozy Aer Lingus flight were immediately shattered, and instead of passing under a gate labeled “Baltimore”, I was walking out on the tarmac to what appeared to be a flying microwave oven.  By some freak of nature, the Publication had discovered a small shuttle airline that serviced only the British Isles.  It was my distinct honor to be this airline’s third customer.  The plane was so small I was required to wear a flight headset so I could communicate with the pilot.  Also, it didn’t help that for most of the flight, I could not see anything on account of low clouds.  Not too low, I hoped.  For most of the flight, I pictured my transport’s tail sticking out of the center of Big Ben.

Luckily, we made it to Gatwick in one rattling piece, and I connected with a massive 767 that far out-luxuryized the Aer Lingus plane.  Cross the Taj Mahal with a Boeing and you get an Emirates Airlines plane.  I departed Gatwick at 9pm, heading for the Middle East, the last place on earth I expected to be in 7 hours.  

Dubai Airport is a marvel.  Usually, airports are surrounded by middle-class suburbia or urban zoning.  Dubai Airport is literally in the middle of the desert, just like the city.  Yet this is not your dusty, World War II North-Afrikan desert outpost.  It looks like Emerald City simply stricken by global warming.  ‘Tis rather odd to the eyes of a American suburbia boy like myself. 

 My plane touched down at around 6 am the next morning, but I was thankfully able to catch some shut-eye on the flight, even with some Sheikh’s mug welcoming me on the in-flight televisions every 30 minutes.   I guessed he was the Big Sheikh that ruled Dubai.  Or the Big Sheikh that ran the airline.  Who knows.  There are more billionaire Sheikhs in Dubai than there are censor bleeps on an episode of “Hell’s Kitchen”.

I was told by my contact that the young “Prince” was expecting me, and had sent a car to pick me up in about an hour.  I spent this time wading through the surprisingly lenient customs process, and browsing the duty free shops.  Then I was told the meat had arrived. 

I walked out into the open air, and the 120 degree dryness slammed into me like a propane explosion.  It was terrifyingly hot, and I was pleased to see three shimmering Range Rovers in front of me, the middle one with its passenger door opened.  Mine was silver, the two escort Rovers were black.  I thought I caught the sight of an MP5’s barrel in one of the black Rovers, but it might have been my imagination.  

Me and my escorts set off.  My new friend, who asked to be called Gary the Persian, told me the young Prince was eagerly awaiting my arrival, and had a wonderful selection of cars to drive on the Mountain Road.  This sounded fine and dandy, but I still retained a pensiveness about the situation.  After all: I had just finished driving Mini Coopers through shallow puddles for weeks,  and now I was riding in a Range Rover through the desert, with armed men behind and in front of me.  This isn’t a movie, is it?

It seemed like we had just left the airport complex, and our caravan was already on a highway leading to nowhere.  All the other cars were headed towards the city, and we were the only ones heading towards the blank horizon.  I had just seen a movie called “Syriana”, and there is an event at the end that does not glamorize a Range Rover caravan in the middle of the desert. 

Suddenly, we made a sharp turn off the main road onto what appeared to be a gravel driveway.  The only marking was a tiny sign in Arabic, which, obviously, I couldn’t read.  I just prayed it did not read “Camp Jihad”.   But thankfully, we did not arrive at such a destination.

Me and the meat arrived at a tiny outpost in the middle of the rolling dunes.  It looked like a pool-side guesthouse that came from a larger mansion.  Surrounding it was an expansive patio, with some chic awning shielding it from the broiling sun. Surrounding the patio was a grove of planted palm trees. The entire setup was as new as a Starbucks, and you could tell the building was designed with the latest technology in mind.  It was a perfect oasis.  

Two Italian supermodels flanked the Prince, who was sitting at a table on the patio, enjoying golden flutes of mimosa.  He rose to greet me, and was ever so polite.  Probably the most polite person I’ve ever met.  He was warm, friendly, and in desperate need of a job. 

From what he tells me, his life is essentially one long vacation in the sun.  He’s proud of it, too.  Once and a while, he will take care of his father’s business when his father is unavailable, but most of the time, he’s eating cake and indulging his love for insanely expensive cars.  Unlike many wealthy people, who attempt to hide their wealth behind trees, walls, security cameras and iron gates, the Prince is happy to show even the poorest denizen of Dubai his wealth.  When he drives through the city in his Rolls-Royce Phantom, he wants everybody to see him.  He’s the son of a Sheikh, for goodness sake.  Bow down.

Suddenly, our conversation was cut off by what sounded like an alarm bell.  The Prince excused himself, rose from his chair, and along with the rest of his retinue (save the supermodels), got down on his hands and knees and bowed in a certain direction.  Ah. All I could do was silently stand, looking at my feet with my hands behind my back. 

Later that day, we embarked for the Jebel Hafeet Road.  The weather was, believe it or not, hot and dry.  As I sat in the passenger seat of a red F360 Spyder, zipping along at a brisk 160 miles per hour, I reflected on my life as an automotive journalist.  Earlier today, I was holed up in an Irish pub enjoying some fish and chips.  Now, several hours later, I was sitting next to the son of a Sheikh going bucket-60 on a motorway in the middle of nowhere.  I looked behind us, and saw that our meat in their Range Rovers were tiny specks on the horizon.  Other than that, we had the road to ourselves.  Or should I say, the Sheikh had HIS road to himself.  

As we roared at 160+ mph, the Emir candidly explained the history of the Jabeet Mountain Road, and it goes something like this: it was built in 1987.  That’s it.  Apart from when it was built, the Prince couldn’t remember anything else about the road.  All he knew was that it was his personal playground were he could play with his life-sized Hotwheels.  

After a hair-raising ride on the empty highways, we finally arrived at the Mountain Road.  The Prince had set up a portable pavilion tent, under which sat his high-octane collectibles.  The official list:

2007 Pagani Zonda F, bared carbon fiber body, tuned exhaust (Prince likes big  noise!).

2005 Ferrari F430 Coupe, black, aftermarket carbon fiber rims.

2006 Koenigsegg CCX, silver. Very menacing.

2006 Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster, a hideous lime green. 

and finally, a pleasant surprise: 2006 Noble M15, blue. Subzero cool.  

Sadly, the little Ferrari looked out of place among these more exclusive ultracars.  

The Prince asked me to “take my pick,” as if I were choosing hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party.  He said we would “make friendly race” up the mountainside.  Race? On a public road? Would I get in trouble? The Prince nonchalantly told me it would be completely safe.  Safety, however, had a completely different meaning out here in the desert.  When a Westerner thinks “safety”, we think of airbags and five-star crash ratings.  When the Prince thinks “safety”, he thinks of avoiding a fatal, spectacular wreck by two inches.  

I apprehensively chose the Ferrari, just because it was plainly the safest car in the lot and the easiest the drive. The Prince, however, looked monumentally disappointed, and without a word handed me the keys to the Koenigsegg.  Now I was scared.  The Koenigsegg CCX, for the uninformed, is a diabolically dangerous car to drive: no traction control, 800 horsepower, and a temper rivaling that of a Norse thunder-god.  And yet the Prince impulsively hands it over to a jet-lagged, exhausted, pale, barely-lucid journalist with bloodshot eyes.  This guy is a basket case.

After handing me the keys, the Prince chose the Zonda for himself.  He got as excited and skittish as a ferret on crystal meth, and happily jumped into the innocent Zonda, unaware of its inevitable fate.  I, on the other hand, reluctantly sunk into the Koenigsegg, praying that I wouldn’t end up neatly compressed into a Jersey barrier.  But on the other hand, I was starting to believe the Prince would have trouble caring if that happened.  

It might be the most dangerous car in the world, but, by golly, the Koenigsegg is a blast to drive.  I wish I was well-rested so I could have actually enjoyed.  I’m not going to waste time describing the car, but just know it spits flames when it changes gear.  Enough said.  

The Mountain Road was simply a masterpiece of engineering.  It’s wider than the wingspan of an Airbus A380, but it is a veritable pig’s tail.  If you had a car with any understeer at all, you would be in the wall before you even stepped on the throttle.  This is a problem for a supercar which is designed mainly for going really fast in a flat, straight line.  Around corners, it was a wild bat out of its cage: no sense of direction, catastrophic understeer, and a back end defiantly refusing to grip.  I would have given my left leg to be driving the Ferrari, but Sheikh Jr. had been defiant.  It took me a couple minutes to realize this hombre was actually giving me orders. 

The Koenigsegg was giving me no mercy whatsoever, and it was an epic, Lord of the Rings-calibre battle to simply get the thing to turn a corner.  The Prince had no apparent driving skill; and from the cobalt-blue tyre smoke billowing from the Zonda’s wheelwells, I suspected he would use about 5 sets of rubber before we reached the end of the road.  That kid could not keep off his throttle.  Either that, or he did not know to change into third gear.  At one point, he executed a full 360-degree donut in the apex of a corner, forcing me to take military evasive action.  

Finally I put the pieces together and became aware of the fact I was fighting a Holy War.  I was a crusader, driving my Swedish Lutheran general against an automotive son-of-Saladin waving an Italian designer scimitar.  The entire reputation of Judeo-Christianity was at the mercy of my driving skills, and I, a pathetic test editor for the Publication, would NOT fail!  I would willingly sail through the pearly gates in a igneous Swedish supercar before I would let this Persian punk pass the finish line first.  

Needless to say, I proudly crossed the finish line before the Sheikh, but that’s because he wasn’t really racing to begin with.  He was still too busy 4 miles behind me turning his Zonda’s clutch plate into a cloud of ceramic stardust.  Something told me he would be slightly late for his own dinner. 

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dinner at a Truly Authentic Irish Pub

The Philosopher takes a meal at Sweeney's; and then continues to muse about cars.

One of my deepest fears is that someday, Ireland will become like the rest of the world. I fear that someday, concrete, power lines, high-rises, and retention ponds will move in and corrupt the green island. There are so many parts of the country that literally look like they were torn from myths and legends. As you drive along a frighteningly lonely road somewhere in Connemara National Park, County Galway, you almost expect to see a troop of riders from Rohan coming over a hill, spears and shields glimmering in the sun. There is simply nothing out there to remind you of the year 2007.

My musings were abruptly terminated by a crackling of static coming over my two-way radio. One of my partners announced we would stop for lunch in a little hole-in-the-wall pub that had somehow appeared out of nowhere. We had made our way into a sort of steep hollow, where a bowl-lake was peacefully embedded in a massive string of steep mountains. The pub was nestled in a niche beside the lake, surrounded by a rare grove of trees. The road was so narrow through this hollow it seemed more like a driveway to the pub.

The teensy sign read, “Sweeney’s”. That’s pretty Irish. My convictions were further confirmed by the massive Guinness poster decorating the front door. “Guinness! The Staff of Life!” Another one read, “Guinness is Good for You! Gives You Strength!” Aye, says meself, a different kind of strength.

Three American journalists in their twenties walk in a virulently Irish pub. Sounds like the beginning of the worst joke ever spoken. But it was reality for a second, and boy was it strange. We walked in, and blinked in the darkness. It seemed like this pub had never met a light bulb in its life. The only light was the diffused gray glow coming from outdoors. Thus, it gave a poignant power-outage atmosphere to the place. But it didn’t really matter, because the beverages were nice and chilly.

The man behind the bar, who I assumed was Mr. Sweeney, looked like a cross between a 60-year old Simon Pegg and a Model A Ford. He was your stereotypical Irish chap, minus the tweed cap, which was nevertheless sitting atop the modern cash register. The register was probably the only thing that reminded me I was in a financially-dependent, modern, electronically connected world.

There were two other patrons in the pub, both at the bar, relishing some exceptionally foaming pints, and talking what I think was English. Their diction was masked by the thickest brogue I have ever heard. They would have unceremoniously given Prof. Henry Higgins one honking heart attack. These chaps were dropping H’s like peanuts on the floor of a roadhouse saloon.
Nevertheless, it was quite entertaining; a true opportunity to soak up local color.

We asked the bartender if he served anything good for lunch. He said something about “senwishes”, which we reckoned to mean “sandwiches”, and curtly asked us to take a seat. The two chaps drinking their pints turned 90 degrees for about 5 seconds to stare at us, then went back to their conversation. We didn’t feel completely welcome, but we didn’t feel the least bit shunned.

The lunch was fair fare: a very large sandwich with a strange mystery meat that was surprisingly delicious. To be honest, it didn’t really bother me that I had no idea where this meat came from, or the fact the sound of a barking dog had suddenly stopped after the bartender went to go prepare the victuals.

I love the country of Ireland. It’s everything a country should be: long, winding, empty roads, a grand total of about 3 major intersections, about 100 yards of big motorway, and roughly 2 traffic jams a day. Ireland is essentially the world’s best kept secret, and I desperately pray it stays that way.

I muttered this quick prayer as we exited the pub, after a very satisfying dinner. It had started to rain, and a massive fog bank had swiftly rolled in. It was an unearthly sensation: the swooshing sound of the rain was the only sound we could hear. No birds, no creaking trees, no other cars on the road, nothing. It was terribly cold, and the sunlight was transformed into an eerie, gray luminescence. For some reason, it was claustrophobic, chilling, and desolating. As I walked toward my Mini, I found myself walking faster, desperately wanting to settle myself into the familiar, warm, cozy interior of my car.

That is one of the things I love about cars. They are familiar friends in strange places. Especially when driving in uncharted territory, cars become almost like loyal companion, like a faithful golden retriever that won’t leave your side when you trek across strange, barren lands. They allow you to be comfortable and secure while exploring and observing the inhospitable outdoors. The fabulous Mini just magnifies this effect.


Friday, March 09, 2007

On the Tarmac at Shannon Aerphort

The Philosopher has eleven hours to kill, and he's got a Mini.

Expanses of green, good earth spread before my eyes as Aer Lingus flight one-twenty-something touched down in Shannon Aerphort in western Ireland on a fresh Monday. The tarmac was lustrously shiny, following one of Ireland’s famous 5-Minute Downpours. The timing was exceptional; the perfect start to what I hoped would be a perfect two weeks. I was arriving the morning before the rest of my company to collect our cars and make preparations for the journey. My itinerary went something like this:

Depart from Los Angeles: 8:00 am. Arrive at Newark International Airport. Depart Newark 7:00 pm, as the sun sets. Fly across the pond, head-on into the sun, and arrive in Ireland at around 7:00 AM. Jostle my way through customs, take care of formalities, eat breakfast for the second time “today”, and wait for the cargo plane to arrive at 8:30 am from Baltimore. (Don’t ask why the Publication didn’t just have the Minis sent over straight from the factory in Oxford.) Walk out on the wet tarmac, and help unload the three little mites from the gut of a monstrous cargo jet. Great! Now I have three cars on my hands, and eleven hours to spare before the rest of the crew arrives. What to do?

I decided to choose my Mini and go for a recon mission in the surrounding area; and find some victuals and lodging before the party arrived. The next two weeks would be a “wing-it” assignment; ergo, the Publication hadn’t made any arrangements save for the overseas shipping, an overnite hanger for storage, and finance. We all agreed that to get a feel for the country, we should mix it up, make mistakes, and break as much conventional tourist protocol as possible.

I had my pick of three Minis, all the same, save for color. The choices: fire-truck red, banana yellow, or British racing green. I chuckled at my “early bird gets the worm” good fortune and jumped into the green one. There is something simply irresistible about a Mini Cooper S in British racing green, with white bonnet stripes and driving lamps. It can truly make kids happy at petrol stations.

I get myself all comfy in the Mini’s gloriously cozy interior, and press the Button. Yes, the new 2007 Mini comes with a Button. Just like its competitors, the Ferrari F430 and the Bugatti Veyron, the Mini has an on/off tapper, and it is tons of fun to press. I jiggle the shifter knob for feel, and then plunge it into first. Heck, yes. That works.

Something that bothered me a bit was that our Minis were American models fitted with temporary Irish licenses; therefore the steering column was on the left. It is a pain in the arse to drive on the left side of the road with the steering column on the left. It feels wildly unnatural, compared to how driving on the right side of the shifter knob feels wildly natural. Odd as it is, driving in the British Isles feels easier and more...well, correct than driving on the right side of the road. But, alas, we were fitted with leftist Minis, but it was a small irk that was colossally overshadowed.

The new Mini Cooper has that perfect amount of refinement and funkiness to please any discriminate auto enthusiast. If Steve Jobs were to design a car, he would come out with something very similar to the Mini. (Only the entire center console would have to be removed and replaced with an iPod click wheel.) And not only is it stylishly brilliant, but its engineering and driving is truly in a class of its own. Except the fact that the power window controls are in the center console, I can’t really think of anything wrong with the Mini. Yet. I still had two weeks of hardcore driving to put it through.