Thursday, October 15, 2009



by Jim Woods

The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson, “Happy Thought,” 1913

It’s a given that our world is shrinking, through education, ease of travel, the Internet, and most notably in commerce. Products made in countries other than our own—this assuming this essay is presented in the United States, but with deference to the just referenced Internet, it obviously may be read anywhere around the world.

But to make my point, we in the United States have become increasingly dependent on automobiles and electronics made in Germany, Japan and Korea—even my brand new American brand name laser printer is made in Viet Nam—and a myriad of commercial items ranging from furniture to toys from China and Mexico; clothing from Honduras, Thailand, and India; and foods from all over the world.

And the latter brings to mind my millennium cruise around South America and our layover in Argentina. I discovered the piquant meat sauce, chimmi churri, and tried to buy up the local supply so as to not go without it, once back home. It wasn’t all that easy to find but I did find a few bottles in a hole-in-the-wall grocery on a back street in Punta Alta. I bought the entire stock, only to find that at home, a popular specialty grocery routinely stocked all the chimmi churri I ever could use. So much for my pioneering discovery.

I shouldn’t be surprised at any “made in” label these days, but I was. My wife purchased a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt Capris, those three-quarter length pants that the ladies like. The tag displayed the exotic information: Made in Jordan, Hecho in Jordania, and Fait au Jordanie. The tag also recorded the fabric data: 98 percent cotton, 2 percent Spandex; 98 percent algdon (which has to be “cotton” but in what language, I haven’t a clue), 2 percent Spandex; and 98 percent coton, 2 percent Spandex. I thought it interesting that Spandex is universal while cotton can be spelled in numerous ways.

I’ve been to Jordan in my travels, but never considered the historic country to be a source of clothing for commercial availability outside its own boundaries. Had I associated textiles with the country’s products at all, I probably would have limited my uneducated assumption to rugs and carpets. But we were intrigued that the Capri pants came from Jordan. I think that was a determining reason for buying them. Jordan is among the more exotic places we have traveled.

Well, that and the Gloria Vanderbilt label, plus the fact that my wife earlier had purchased another set of Capris of the same label that became one her favorite casual garments. Strangely, we came to realize, that even though the label and size of both sets of Capris were identical, and even the style and cut too, the Jordanian product did not fit. The same set of Capris in a different fabric and color, but made in Sri Lanka, did fit. That was a huge disappointment for my wife—an article of clothing that she knew she liked, and this particular sample from Jordan, a country that she truly appreciates—then the letdown of not being able to wear the clothing. Did we blame the retail store for the disappointment? Did we blame the Gloria Vanderbilt fashion house for not holding to the same size standards wherever the garment was produced? No. We misdirected our blame to Jordan, the country.

Several years back when the car was introduced, I purchased my BMW Z3 roadster that was built in South Carolina, not Germany from where all BMWs should come. A subsequent year model of the car was equipped with integral roll hoops behind the two seats, and a factory kit using the same hardware became available for retrofitting some past models, mine included. I signed on for the kit and for the dealer installation. Although I never had the kit in my personal possession—it was shipped to the dealer who installed it—I did receive the installation manual that was part of the kit once the job was done.

Although the car itself is manufactured, or assembled at least, in the United States, many of the components come from other countries. The engine is from Canada, the remote alarm/entry fob is made in Japan; and many of the lesser hardware parts do originate in Germany. That installation instruction book also originated in Germany, and in fact was printed in German. The contents page included text in several languages though, simply because there was an entry titled “Secondary Languages.” Flipping through the illustrated instructions finally revealed instructions in those secondary languages, among which was English. That’s a bit of culture shock for anyone whose language is English to have that language listed among the secondary languages of the world.

Subsequently, while in South Africa, our cruise ship laying over in Port Elizabeth, I somehow discovered that the city was home to an auto license registry facility. Not too unique, I suppose, the city being the hub of a major commercial region of the country. Anyhow, I got the brilliant idea to acquire a South African license plate for my BMW Z3. My home state requires only a rear license plate, and front license place spaces are ripe grounds for expressing personal interests—religion, politics and devotion to alma mater—just about any message. (I “heart” my cocker spaniel.)

The South African license plates at the time were long and narrow, completely dissimilar to the standard rectangle design of U.S. plates. It was but little trouble getting a custom plate expressing my affection of BMWs. South Africa requires both front and rear plates, with equipment violations cited for not having both or for having a damaged one. I found the license registry and convinced the clerk that my front plate had been crumpled in a crash and I needed a replacement. I presented a sheet of paper with my personally composed license legend spelled out, paid the fees, and the attendant disappeared behind closed doors for a few minutes, and returned with a freshly stamped, black lettering on yellow background, license plate to my specifications. The receipt for my payment actually was a record of registration of my vehicle in South Africa, but of course the car has never been driven there. I convinced myself that I could gently bend the elongated plate to the curvature of the front bumper of my Z3 roadster.

We sailed on, stopping next at the cruise terminus, Cape Town, where we were accommodated in a day room at a public structure till our homeward flights were scheduled for departure. The building just happened to be the BMW Pavilion.

With the BMW name and logo adorning the structure, it was quite normal that a portion of the ground floor was devoted to display of BMW automobiles, motorcycles, and accessories. The Z3 Roadster was the current hot item; my own Z3 that I reluctantly had left at home for my cruise was barely a month old. The Z3 on polished display at the pavilion was my main interest, but not for the steering wheel curiously being on the wrong side, but for the front license plate area. The display roadster was fitted with an interface structure that adapted the unique South Africa license plate to the lines of the roadster front bumper. I had to have one of those molded fixtures to go with the license plate that was packed in my luggage.

The pavilion was strictly an informational display—vehicles or accessories could not be purchased. A formally suited host did aid me in locating the local BMW dealership, including making the phone call to make sure the license plate fixture was in stock before I spent a lot of rands for the cross-city cab ride. I anticipated the enjoyment of not only returning to my Z3 but also adorning it with the license plate and the obviously unique accessory for my car that would tie my treasures together. The part was wrapped in clear plastic sheeting with a small black-on-white adhesive label that declared the part number, etcetera, but the manufacturing point of origin was deflating—it was not made in South Africa but in South Carolina from where all Z3s are assembled!

The combining of affections for my roadster and the country of South Africa still is in place, and my front license plate draws the requisite inquiries from passersby and observers. The real rear license plate later became a point of interest too when I found a frame that declares the driver to have been a “Destroyer Sailor,” and announces the name of that honorable ship, U.S.S Harry E. Hubbard, DD748. That molded plastic frame—it’s made in China. That’s okay too, While aboard Hubbard half a century past, on another less-luxury cruise, we ported in Hong Kong for several days. It all comes home that indeed ours is a small planet, full of wondrous things.

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Contributed by Jim Woods, author of Champagne Books Assassination Safari, Parting Shot and Gunshot Echoes.

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