A 27-year-old man from Atlanta has become the fastest person to drive across the United States, obliterating the previous world record set in 2006. Ed Bolian whizzed his way from New York to Los Angeles in a mind-boggling 28 hours 50 minutes, breaking the prior record by more than two hours.
Bolian, who had wanted to make the record-breaking attempt since he was 18, says preparations for the journey took several years. First, he had to choose a car that would be suitable for such an intensive voyage. He settled on a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG, although the standard model wouldn’t exactly do-Bolian outfitted the car with additional fuel tanks, bringing the car’s fuel capacity to 67 gallons. More gas meant fewer pit stops to fill up the tanks, with Bolian’s car able to travel 800 miles before it needed to be topped up.If that sounds like a really long way to drive before getting a break, or you know, taking a leak, don’t worry because Bolian was prepared for that too. He traveled with a team of two others who could take turns driving, and as for the bathroom part, well, the car was stocked with extra bottles and bedpans in case of emergencies.
Bolian also installed police scanners, radar detectors, GPS units with traffic capabilities, and a whole host of other gizmos into his vehicle. His car also boasts a CB radio and giant antenna that allowed him to call out to slow trucks on the road in an effort to get past them faster.
Like many longtime New Yorkers, I don’t own a car and know little about the finer points of purchasing or owning a vehicle. A recent Volvo ad caught my eye in an airline in-flight magazine: If you purchase your car and pick it up in Sweden, they’ll pick up the tab on your trip. A new car and free travel? This was something I could get behind! Doing some research, I discovered quite a few of the top European car makers offer an overseas delivery program.
While you’ll have to plan in advance (generally 3-4 months) to get your car and your trip, you’ll save on the vehicle cost, plus get to pick it up hot off the presses and drive it around European roads. Once you have it shipped to the U.S., you will wait another 8-10 weeks or so to be reunited stateside. Some programs include free airfare and hotel nights, most include factory tours, European road insurance and import/export fees.
Here’s a look at the most popular programs, including travel costs and savings.Audi (Germany) Travel perks: European Delivery customers get 5-15 percent off airfares on Lufthansa, chauffeured pick up from the Munich airport and a free night at a 4- or 5-star hotel near the factory. On the day you get your keys, you’ll visit the Audi museum and factory, with free meals and snacks all day. You then have two weeks to tool around Europe, with free drop off (by advance arrangement) at any one of 16 locations in Germany and western Europe. Extra options: Serious Audi fans might consider an additional driving or race “experience” in summer or early fall (many of the winter events require special experience like driving in Scandinavia), where you can learn to drive like a pro, take on a racing circuit, or tour Europe in a luxury vehicle. It’ll cost extra, of course, from a few hundred euro per person. Note that all vehicles ready between November 1-April 15 must have winter tires installed at the factory, but that may be included in the cost of the car. Car pricing: Audis are priced from $33,800, before the discount up to 5 percent off MSRP, except for the highest end models such as the R8 Spyder.
BMW (Germany) Travel perks: You can get to Bavaria with 5-15 percent off airfares on Lufthansa. At the BMW Welt facility, you’ll get free museum and factory tours, and refreshments at the cafe. They’ll cover European road insurance for up to 14 days, then you can drop off your vehicle at one of 12 locations free, except Italy which has a supplement of up to 850 euro (must be those Italian drivers!). Extra options: In addition to airfare, you’ll pay to get to the factory from Munich airport, as well as any hotels on your trip. As befitting a luxury automobile, BMW offers a range of luxury add-on trips designed to make the most of driving the Autobahn in the ultimate driving machine. (The “optional” note indicates they aren’t included free in the deal, but they are specially designed for BMW customers.) Winter deliveries will also require seasonal tires in Germany; it is possible to rent the winter tires if you don’t have them factory-installed. U.S. pick up: Another option entirely is the Performance Center Delivery Program in Spartanburg, South Carolina. If you travel down south for your car, BMW will pay for your hotel and meals, plus a tour of its U.S. factory and museum, and best of all, professional driving instruction. You won’t get the savings you’d get on a European delivery, but the travel costs are much lower. Car pricing: From $29,065 with savings, up to 7 percent on MSRP. See all models here.
Mercedes-Benz (Germany) Travel perks: While airfare discounts aren’t included, you’ll get Mercedes’ travel assistance for booking your trip, airport transfers and one night hotel accommodations. When you pick up your car, you’ll have a tour of the factory and museums, meals at the delivery center, 15 days road insurance and a tank of gas to get you on your way. Extra options: You can add a self-guided tour of the Black Forest or Alps at additional cost. Drop offs in Italy, England or Spain are additional (Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands are covered at no cost), and you’ll have to arrange for winter tires as with the other programs. Car pricing: Vehicles from $35,800, with a 7 percent discount on MSRP.
Volvo (Sweden) Travel perks: The best “deal” of the European Delivery programs, Volvo will include two round-trip plane tickets from the U.S. to Scandinavia (we’d assume Stockholm, but it’s 4-5 hours from the Volvo factory), one night in a hotel in Gothenburg, as well as the usual factory tour and road insurance. Extra options: You will have to pay if you drop off or pick up anywhere other than the factory location, several hundred dollars or more, but it makes sense given the location of Volvo in Sweden as opposed to more central Germany. You may also see some seasonal charges: $150 per passenger supplement for summer flights, and the rental costs of snow tires between December and April. Volvo offers a variety of trips for more Scandinavian travel if you’d like to extend your trip. Car pricing: Eligible Volvo models are from $31,420 after savings up to 7 percent on MSRP. See available models.
Bottom line: If you’re buying a new luxury vehicle, you likely aren’t a budget traveler. The savings even with free airfare, road insurance and a night at a nice hotel won’t likely offset what you’ll spend on the rest of your trip, let alone a car. However, if you are in the market for a slick new ride, driving it home on the Autobahn after seeing how it’s made is likely to be an unforgettable trip.
Sometimes an “only in New York” moment has a more global story. On a rainy afternoon this week in Manhattan, my friend visiting from Germany was excited to spot a Mercedes with Munich plates. The car had a distinctive pattern covering its exterior, we debated whether it was metal, fabric or beads, but the actual decoration is much sweeter: gummy bears.
The back window detailed the “grand tour” of this visionary art, starting in Munich, traveling to Paris and London, and finally New York. The project is the third installment of artist Guenther Siraky‘s Mercedes Trilogy, which also took him and the car through Europe in 2007. The plan was to take the gummy bear car to each of the city’s major art museums, including the Louvre, Tate and Guggenheim, exhibiting the work of art in front of each museum. Over a million people have seen the car, and reactions range from disbelief and amazement to tears of joy. NYPD officers have even allowed him to park in forbidden places to display his work. While the car should be covered in rain and extreme heat, the slightly melted gummy bears just add to the vehicle’s charm. Siraky intended to sell the vehicle once he completed his tour last month, but he has extended his time in New York, and can be found driving it all over the five boroughs through the end of September.
See a slideshow of the gummy bear car in NYC below, and check in with the art car’s adventures through the artist’s Facebook page.
In the West, randomness is a crucial, torturous pillar of border security. Those who have been to Asia know that active sadism is supplanted by bureaucracy, vanity and venality. In my opinion these are highly preferable alternatives. Once you know how land borders adopt these principals, they can be easily navigated with a bit of tact, patience and occasionally a small financial stimulus. I find these vagaries far easier to deal with than the gleaming desks and suspicious minds that protect Western countries against threats ex umbra. At least the caprices of Asia’s gatekeepers are motivated by personal incompetence, not institutional torment.
To make things easier, I’ve noticed after a long period of driving my own car around Asia, with all of the bureaucracy that entails, that there are some core motivations that drive Asia’s customs officials. These motivations result in eerily similar individuals from border to border. And so it is one of the peculiarities of driving overland for long distances that you can have a near-identical experience crossing the borders of countries so disparate as Iran and Cambodia.
I haven’t been to everywhere in Asia, so I can’t say these truths are universal. But the following four types of border official have shown up at almost every land crossing I’ve been to so far so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if these were pan-Asian characters.The Break-Taker These guys just left and won’t be back for a couple of hours, sorry.
Entering Pakistan from Iran was a long process. We signed gigantic registers with entries dating back to ’80s and traipsed from building to building over barbed-wire fences. When were finally ready to go, having been in the borderlands for hours already, we had to wait for our security detail. We stood impatiently in the rapidly warming desert waiting to get under way. And waiting. And waiting some more. Where was this guy?
“He is having tea, of course,” someone informed us. “Would you like some?”
Time has no meaning when you’re dealing with authority, so we sat down for chai and were off promptly when we finished.
Later, in India…
“And so I can go now?” I asked, having laboriously acquired half a dozen stamps and bits of paper with Hindi scrawled all over them.
“You will have to get your car inspected by the safety officer.”
“And where is he then?”
“Oh, I am sorry sir, but he is unavailable right now. He is having his lunch and should return in a couple hours. Perhaps you would like some tea?”
Even later, in Cambodia…
“You cannot go,” the customs agent told me. “You need to have your car’s documents stamped by the head of customs.”
“Is he having tea?”
“No, lunch actually.”
“And when did he leave for lunch?”
“Two hours ago, maybe. He should return soon.”
The Wal-Mart Greeter Oblivious to his country’s immigration and customs protocols, he welcomes you like an old friend, often to your detriment.
Deep in leafy green forest in northern Malaysia there is a small border post with Thailand. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car’s papers and practically pushed me out of the country. I inched my car down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. Ah! A Thai guard at the end of the lane was watching me from the security lane and he beckoned me toward him. I drove up and rolled down my window. He smiled broadly at me and indicated I should just keep on driving.
I pulled away from the border and drove slowly down the road. I noted Thai people buying fruit from stalls and walking around with the evening groceries. I was in a bustling Thai market. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building and proceeded to confuse everybody.
“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?” I asked the immigration desk.
“Where is your Thai entry stamp?”
“That’s what I’m after.”
“When did you enter?”
“Three minutes ago.”
“You are leaving?”
“No, I’m coming.”
“Why do you come from Thailand?” he asked, seeing how I had walked over from the Thai side.
“I’m not sure.”
“Where is your Malaysia stamp?”
Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.
Later, in Laos…
A few months after, I entered Laos by way of vehicle barge, sharing the boat with two gigantic cargo trucks for the 4-minute ride across the Mekong. As I drove up the ramp to the main road at Huay Xai, I stopped and asked a uniformed man where to get a visa, showing him my empty passport. He only grinned and nodded. So I drove on, and I was suddenly in a town. I sat down at a riverside bar and drank a Beerlao, enjoying my minor transgression. Eventually I found the immigration checkpoint 3 miles downstream from where the barge had dropped me off. The customs officials seemed slightly perturbed because no passenger boat had come across for an hour, so where had I come from? This required a fairly taxing explanation, which they eventually and begrudgingly accepted.
The Smuggler’s Dream His only job is to check you’re not carrying anything illicit, but he’s either too trusting, confused, or it’s too hot outside today.
I don’t officially advocate smuggling or anything. But boy, if it isn’t tempting when it’s so easy.
Entering notoriously strict Iran from Turkey, I had done the paperwork dance, and it was time for customs to inspect my car. I nervously led a gruff-looking man dressed in fatigues to where I had parked. He barked at me to open the trunk, which I did in haste. He glanced over the heap of gear from afar, his eyes lingering on the possibly suspicious-looking photography and electronic equipment, camping gear, backpacks, and food.
“What is that?” he asked, nodding at the pile. “Clothes?”
“Well, yes, among other…”
“OK!” he interrupted, signing the form. “You’re good.”
Later, in India…
As I entered India, a small moustachioed official eyed my car suspiciously.
“So you have some objectionable things then? Things from Pakistan?”
“Drugs, other things…” he trailed off, his hand moving in circles to fill in the blanks.
“Uh, no, but…” I began, because I certainly did have things from Pakistan. But I was interrupted, as in Iran.
“OK!” he exclaimed, “You’re good!”
Even later, in Thailand
In Cambodia I had picked up some fellow travelers and the trunk was packed with bags. The Thai customs officer looked through the window when we rolled up.
“What’s in there?” he asked pointing at the back.
I figured I’d keep it simple this time: “Just stuff.”
The Jailer Lonely, bored, vain or incompetent, he finds a way for you to hang around much longer than you want.
After my inadvertent entry to Thailand and the subsequent confusion about visas, I still needed to register my vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai customs house I found a fat uniformed man melting into his chair, as if squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two demure women as he fanned himself with my car’s customs documents. He seemed in no hurry to let me go, raising objections to every one of my attempts to move things along. After stonewalling my paperwork for a while, I realized the problem: he actually had no idea what he was doing, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.
Later, again in Thailand…
When I left Thailand from the north, I realized the ghosts of customs past had followed me up the entire length of the country. The big man in the south had neglected to give me some obscure piece of paper that would allow my car to leave Thailand.
I insisted to the guard on duty that I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You need to get the papers where you entered the country,” he told me.
My words came to me slowly. “But… that’s 1,300 miles away…”
“Not my problem,” was his response
“So wait, wait. You will let me drive back to where I came from without any permits, but you won’t let me leave?”
About halfway through my sentence he had turned and slithered back into his freezing lair. I leaned my head into the small window and another official batted me away like a stray dog.
“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?” I called after him, a question he dutifully ignored.
So I did what a dog would do. I stood there staring forlornly into the distance for 10 minutes, whimpering softly, until he came back. He had a document in hand, and he was smiling at me.
“Just fill these out and you’re good to go,” he grinned magnanimously.
He was now my best friend. I was on my way.
Bonus Guard: The Sleeper The sleepers will do whatever it takes to get you gone so they can get back to their dreams.
I still had to get my car’s customs documents stamped first before I could leave Thailand. I didn’t expect this to go any better. I climbed the steps to the customs office and poked my head through the slightly open door. A young guy in uniform was out cold at his desk, his belly rising and falling in a peaceful rhythm. I cleared my throat and he awoke with a full body spasm. He looked mildly ashamed when he saw me, his wide eyes betraying the guilt of a lurid dream. I whipped out my form.
“You need to sign here, here, and stamp here and here.”
He shrugged and started stamping, offering me a self-satisfied grin when finished, as if there were no easier task in the world.
India‘s vast geography is a canvas for adventure, but such a big country invariably poses transportation difficulties. The solution to long distance travel in India has generally fallen under the purview of the country’s iconic railway network. In spite of delays and crowds, the train is the best way to see India.
Some might notice India’s ever-expanding road network and be tempted to hop behind the wheel. They might have visions of the open road, quaint towns and beautiful countryside, a trip unconstrained by bus or train schedules – a Kerouac experience for the yogic set.
I had similar thoughts before I entered India last year after driving there via Europe and the Middle East. I had seen the video of crazy Indian intersection below, and I naively assumed that type of scene would be rare. Then I spent two months driving from Amritsar to Kolkata covering almost 2,000 miles on back roads, high roads, trunk roads, city roads, mountain roads and paths that should be ashamed to call themselves roads. About 5% of the driving was sublime. The remainder was a grueling mental and physical test – less Kerouac, more “Mad Max.” I loved a lot of things about India, but driving was not one of them.
So my first piece of advice for driving in India: Don’t.
But if you’re the adventurous type, and you’re going to do it anyway, you need to know a couple things to survive that asphalt jungle. I lived to tell the tale, and I pass on this knowledge so that you don’t become one of the 140,000 people that are killed in road accidents in India every year.
With the type of chaos on display in the video below, it might be assumed that there are umpteen rules, unwritten and otherwise, that every driver strictly adheres to. In fact, there are only two: Rule 1: Don’t Hit Anything. Rule 2: Don’t Get Hit.
Straightforward, isn’t it? But as the Japanese say, the reverse side also has a reverse side. Beneath these simple precepts lie several conventions that are indeed unwritten, which allow for traffic to function normally. None of these practical guidelines bear any of the hallmarks of normal rules or laws, like standardization, adherence or enforcement. Consider them to be broad suggestions on how to not die on Indian roads.
Rule 1 is important becausethe last thing you want to do in India is crash into someone. While mob justice is rare, insurance and liability are a huge worry.Follow these four guidelines to ensure you don’t cause a diplomatic incident.
Praxis 1.1: Drivers only see what’s in front of them.
Indian drivers are forward-looking people in one very literal way. Under no circumstances should you assume that anyone will check their mirrors, if they have them. Drivers of cars and transport trucks alike will brake and swerve willy-nilly like a Camaro in a car chase. Anything behind their peripheral vision is not pertinent, and for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist. If you cream someone who swerves into your lane at the last minute, that’s your fault, bucko.
Corollary 1.1.1: All mirrors are vanity mirrors. Corollary 1.1.2: Whoever is behind, even by an inch, is always at fault in a crash.
Corollary 1.1.3: Don’t assume that vehicles have the same safety features as yours, like mirrors, airbags or working brakes.
Praxis 1.2: Be ready to brake.
On the road in India, remember the Boy Scout motto. Never assume that a gap in front of you will stay clear, or that there won’t be an impromptu cricket match after a blind turn on a mountain road. Be prepared. As I was driving on the four-lane divided highway from Agra to Varanasi, I rounded a long bend to find two extremely drowsy cows blocking both lanes. I hauled the car down from 70 mph to 0 with inches to spare. The cows were unperturbed by my horn and I had to slowly creep forward until a light kiss from my bull bars made them get up and move, like a couple of unimpressed teenagers.
Corollary 1.2.1: Animals are everywhere.
Corollary 1.2.2: You can get 7 years in prison for killing a cow.
Praxis 1.3: Use your horn at all times.
Timid foreigners driving in India are at first reticent to use the horn, which back home is deployed only in extreme cases of grievance or impending danger. Since every minute on the road in India is an extreme case of grievance or impending danger, it’s imperative to use the horn liberally and confidently. In addition to establishing dominance, you’ll learn a horn has many other uses, among them relieving boredom, filling awkward silences, breaking up cricket matches and waking cows.
Corollary 1.3.1: The louder the horn, the more important you are. Bonus if it plays a melody.
Corollary 1.3.2: False flag operations, where tiny hatchbacks use foghorns to part traffic, are not unheard of.
Praxis 1.4: Don’t drive at night.
Driving at night is almost a surefire way to hit someone. Until the sun has been well and truly down for several hours, nobody turns on their lights. Then every driver flips on their high beams, utterly blinding oncoming traffic. Humans and other animals are sadly not luminescent, but pedestrians and cows don’t distinguish between night and day when it comes to walking patterns. Just as pedestrians seem to have little sense of the speed of an oncoming vehicle, they also don’t seem to realize they are virtually invisible at night.
Rule 2 is just as important and subtle in its observance. Remember every parent’s pathetically thin defense when faced with lending their car to their teenager? “We’re not worried about you, honey, we’re worried about other drivers.” Were the kids raised in India, this excuse would hold a lot more water.
Avoiding getting hit is less about following any laws, and more of an art or a craft – an instinct, if you will – for avoiding vehicular tragedy. Fortunately, it’s an instinct that can be developed with experience.
Praxis 2.1: Small vehicles make way for large vehicles (Might Makes Right).
Philosophers and historians agree: when Thrasymachus contended that justice remains the domain of the strongest in “The Republic,” he was auguring modern traffic dynamics on the subcontinent. Drivers these days have adopted this ancient maxim. More practically put, that 10-ton truck is going to merge into your lane whether you like it or not.
One night I was inching forward on a jammed two-lane artery road into Haridwar. Several bus drivers who were sick of waiting in our lane simply turned on their musical horns (C1.3.1) and maneuvered into oncoming traffic, high beams flashing. Traffic coming from the other direction parted like a zipper, some vehicles veering into our lane, displacing smaller cars and motorbikes, others nose-diving into the ditch on the other side and bouncing along on their merry way. Point is: move, unless you want to argue the finer points of justice with ol’ Thrasy in the afterlife.
Corollary 2.1.1: Position yourself next to a smaller vehicle for an escape route.
Corollary 2.1.2: Upon a meeting of vehicles of equivalent size, inch forward until one driver yields.
Praxis 2.2: Signage isn’t relevant.
Speed limit? That’s when your car can’t go any faster. Stop sign? Invisibly located behind a tree. Red light? Shmed light. Don’t get hung up on the details like lane markings or “one-way” streets. These are merely road decorations. If you attempt to stop at a red light when everyone is flying through at 40 mph, things will end poorly.
Corollary 2.2.1: Go with the flow.
Corollary 2.2.2: For every sign restricting the weight of a vehicle there will be a smaller vehicle carrying a load as heavy or heavier than the restricted vehicle.
Praxis 2.3: Chill out.
Indian roads are not the place to freak out on somebody. If you get all road rage-y on someone who cuts you off, you’re going to get bashed up.
Here’s an example of how it can go wrong: I was driving into Agra, and vehicles were five abreast on a two-lane road. A little rickshaw hauling about eight people appeared out of a gap beside me and started to worm in between my car and to the left-front of me. Indignant, I moved slightly forward to cut him off (C2.1.2). He squeezed; I inched. Then he gunned his little motor and plowed through, ripping off my front bumper. He stopped and him and all eight of his passengers stared at me. The moment when my mouth was agape, registering my shock, was all the leeway the driver needed. He gave me a little head waggle as if to say, “No hard feelings,” and then lane-split his way down the road.
Another example: at a tollbooth in the country outside of Kolkata, three young men piled into my car. They wanted a ride into the city. At first I protested: my car, in spite of its appearance, was woefully underpowered and the shocks were gone. They simply smiled and wouldn’t leave. I relented. They turned out to be friendly, and I didn’t have to pay any tolls all the way to Kolkata. Also, one of them gave me a samosa.
Point is, if you stick to any principle you have about driving, you will suffer for it. As with all irritants in India, the solution is to take the long view.
Corollary 2.3.1: Every gap is navigable if your vehicle is small enough.
Corollary 2.3.2: Personal space on the road is as abundant as personal space in a crowded Delhi metro car.
Corollary 2.3.3: An accident in India is going to hurt a lot more people than just the driver.
Corollary 2.3.4: All vehicles are pack animals, designed to be worked until their last gasping breath.
If none of this has put you off from driving in India, then you are certainly cut out for it. It is actually sometimes very much worth it. The scenery off the beaten path, especially in the northern mountains, is unparalleled and difficult to access without your own vehicle or a personal tour guide. The apprehensive might parcel out their fate to a local driver who navigates Indian roads on a daily basis, but the thrill-seekers will see to their journey themselves. Just be aware that if you do tackle India like this, you’ll need a vacation when you get back.
N.B. If you are riding a motorcycle, all bets are off.
[Photo Credits: lead photo Bernard-SD; all others Adam Hodge]