Books by Bryan Meyers

Programming in RPG IV

Control Language Programming for IBM i

RPG IV Jump Start

Power Tips for RPG IV

VisualAge for RPG by Example

 
Our Amazing Race
Our Amazing Race -- Around the World in 23 Days
This blog chronicles our whirlwind trip around the world.

Itinerary Print E-mail
Tuesday, 05 April 2005 20:45

Tomorrow's the big day. We haven't even left yet, and the schedule has already changed. It's now going to take us 24 days to explore the world. (We had the choice of spending overnight in Salt Lake City, or an extra day in London -- easy choice!) Even with the delay, we'll still beat Phileas Fogg by 56 days.

Here's our itinerary:

  • April 6, Billings - Los Angeles
  • April 7-8, Los Angeles - Tokyo
  • April 11, Tokyo - Seoul
  • April 12, Seoul - Beijing
  • April 15, Beijing - Paris
  • April 16, Paris - Cairo
  • April 18, Cairo - Athens
  • April 20, Athens - Rome
  • April 22, Rome - Venice
  • April 24, Venice - Pisa
  • April 25, Pisa - London
  • April 29, London - Billings
Four continents, nine countries, 12 cities, 24 days. We'll just plan to sleep the entire month of May! Internet access may be sketchy in some locations, so these postings might be delayed occasionally. But we'll try to let you know what's going on as it's happening.

 

 
Opening Day! Print E-mail
Wednesday, 06 April 2005 20:47

A journey of 26,000 miles begins with a single flight segment (or in this case, two). I think Confucious said that. Not much excitement today -- lunch in Billings, Pizza in Salt Lake City, and sleep in Los Angeles.

There was really nothing to take a picture of, so no pictures today. In fact, about the only out-of-the-ordinary event was seeing Reuben Studdard ("American Idol") being searched by the TSA at LAX -- and my camera wasn't ready.

The whole purpose of today was to get to Los Angeles, which is the jumping off point for the whole excursion. Tomorrow it's off to Tokyo, where we'll post an entry Friday night, Tokyo time.

Bye for now.

 
If This is Friday, It Must be Tokyo Print E-mail
Friday, 08 April 2005 20:48

Finally! Our trip is already getting off to a late start. Our plane was three hours late leaving Los Angeles (3pm Thursday), so we didn't arrive in Tokyo until after dark (7pm Friday). For those of you who asked, the flight time is 11 hours. We had the upstairs cabin of the Korean Airlines 747 practically all to ourselves -- there were only six people up there (out of about 400 total passengers). But it's still a pretty long flight, so we're heading for bed.

Good night!

Ginza District, Tokyo

 
Ain't Got No Circadian Rhythm Print E-mail
Saturday, 09 April 2005 20:49

Since our biological clocks were already screwed up anyway, we started out the day early, just after 5am with a visit to the Tsukiji Fish and Produce Market. This is an amazing sight. Virtually all of the food that is served in Tokyo restaurants comes through here fresh every day, and many people buy for their own homes as well. We were almost run over several times by delivery carts, and the smell was ... fishy.

Later we visited the serene Hama Rikyu Gardens nearby. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and it's an incredible sight. Even Japanese citizens are visiting Tokyo to see the blossoms, and many gardens will light them up at night. These gardens were once the private duck hunting grounds for the Emperor of Japan. Visiting dignitaries also stayed here as his guests. This tea house is in the middle of a saltwater pond on the grounds.

Following the Hama Rikyu Gardens, we boarded a water taxi and spent 40 minutes traveling up the Sumida River to Asakusa, a traditional neighborhood from Tokyo's Edo period in the 17th century. This area is the home of the Senso-ji Temple, Japan's largest Buddhist temple. There were hundreds of thousands of people there -- shopping, worshipping, and wandering. We also stumbled onto a Shinto wedding ceremony, which was fun to watch.

We figured out how to use the subway system (with a little help from some patient Japanese), and only got lost once, on our way back to the hotel. This evening, we plan to wander around the Ginza, Tokyo's version of Times Square.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Teahouse at Hama Rikyu Gardens

Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa

 
Hanami Cherry Blossom Festival Print E-mail
Sunday, 10 April 2005 20:51

"If in this world there were no cherry blossoms,
our hearts in springtime
would know no peace."

This poem was written by the Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-880). He knew whereof he spoke.

We could not have timed our Tokyo visit any better. The cherry blossoms are just incredible. Words and pictures cannot adequately describe their beauty. We started today at Ueno Park, where we were showered with cherry blossoms every time the breeze blew.

There had to have been a million people there enjoying the blossoms. And Ueno Park isn't even one of the more popular spots. They actually stake out picnic and camping spots for days on end, and the party lasts well into each night. The park is the home of several museums, temples, shrines, and pagodas, but today is was just a sea of people. You didn't want to go against the current if you knew what was good for you -- stay to the left, please.

All of today's pictures are from Ueno Park, but we also visited the Ameyoko Arcade, a nearby shopping alley; Electric Town, another shopping area, devoted entirely to electronics; and the Tokyo Municipal Government Towers, with their spectacular 45th floor views of the area. Tonight, we plan to take on the Roppongi nightclub district.

Sandy and I are doing pretty well navigating the Tokyo subway system, even though all the signs use Japanese characters.

We learned two important lessons today. First, Bryan learned that Coke has a stranglehold on the cola market in this city. But we did manage to find the only vending machine that vends Pepsi, so things are good. Sandy learned the difference between a Japanese toilet and a Western toilet. She says a Japanese toilet, which requires deep knee bends to use it, will keep you young. (And neither of us have figured out all the controls on our high tech hotel toilet.)

Tomorrow, we'll finish here in Tokyo, then it's on to South Korea, on our way to China.

Hanami Cherry Blossom Festival

Ueno Park, Tokyo

Kiyomizu-do Kannon Temple, Ueno Park

Cherry Blossoms, Ueno Park, Tokyo

 
Shakin' All Over Print E-mail
Monday, 11 April 2005 20:52

Not much excitement here today, unless you count the earthquake and being chased off the grounds of the Imperial Palace by a guard armed with a whistle.

While we were packing this morning, about 7:20am (4:20pm Sunday Mountain time), we both started feeling a little dizzy. We're on the 11th floor of a 25+ story hotel, and Bryan noticed right away that the building was swaying. But instead of watching the incredible sight, we cowered in the bathroom and watched the toilet slosh for about a minute. It turned out to have been a 6.1 magnitude earthquake centered about 30 miles north of Tokyo. It was the strongest quake in Tokyo since June, 2000. There was no major damage, except that transit was disrupted for a while between Tokyo and the airport at Narita. But it was an adventure, nevertheless.

Later this morning, we decided to see the Imperial Palace. As we were approaching the Palace, a guard started shooing us away. Not being fluent in Japanese, and not understanding what the guard was trying to say, we ignored him -- bad move. He started chasing us down the sidewalk, blowing his whistle, and wildly gesturing for us to stay on the sidewalk. In a few minutes, we figured out what was going on. A procession of horsemen, horse-drawn carriages, police cars, and limousines pulled up to the palace. We think it may have been the Dalai Lama, who was visiting the Crown Prince.

It was raining pretty heavily by then, so we just headed out to the airport and boarded a Korean Air flight to South Korea.

By the way, last night we rode to the top of the Tokyo Tower, Japan's answer to the Eiffel Tower (but some 30 meters higher). The night view was spectacular.

There was one other adventure: bibimbap (bee-bim-bop). Bryan tried out this traditional Korean dish of rice, vegetables, diced meat, sesame oil, and hot pepper paste on the plane. He was not impressed enough to explore franchising the idea. But he didn't get sick, so here we are at midnight sitting in the airport at Incheon (outside of Seoul), waiting to board our plane to Beijing in the morning.

Next dateline: China.

Japanese Imperial Palace

Roppongi District, Tokyo

Tokyo Tower

 
Welcome to China (?) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 12 April 2005 20:53

Good first impressions are not the strong suit of Beijing. It's a city of about 16 million people trying to balance the old with the new.

The city is moving from a bicycle/pedicab world to an automobile-centered society overnight. While Tokyo exhibits an urban bustle, Beijing is chaotic. Automobiles, buses, bicycles, pedicabs, and pedestrians all coexist on the streets in close proximity.

There is constant demolition everywhere, and occasionally corresponding construction. Sitting on the edge of the Gobi Desert, the city is dusty, dingy, and alarmingly polluted. People tell us to expect to get a chest cold here after a couple of days from the pollution; we believe them.

The people you see on the street are noticeably indifferent and inhospitable. They don't seem happy (no wonder, with 12 hour work days seven days a week).

And the city is much bigger than the maps indicate. We easily got in our 10,000 steps after arriving Tuesday afternoon, walking around the neighborhood surrounding the hotel.

On the way from Capital Airport, our driver told us that Beijing might not be as modern as other cities, such as Shanghai or Hong Kong, but Beijing is the cultural center of China. After spending Monday night in the Incheon Airport in Korea, we were bushed, so instead of taking in the culture, we called it an early night.

Beijing Street Scene

Garbage Day

Poultry Market

 
A Great World Wonder Print E-mail
Wednesday, 13 April 2005 20:54

"Ni Hao" from China. We got an early start today (7am), so we could go about 1 hour north of Beijing on a tour of the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall.

We visited one tomb, for the third Ming emperor, Chang Ling. The tombs are magnificent, with several gates and buildings leading up to them. We passed through the same gate that the dead emperor used to pass to the spiritual world. To get back to earth, we had to return through the same gate, and scream "I am back!" in Chinese.

The emperor is actually buried in a huge man-made hill behind the tomb, with subterranean passages and slaves (not volunteers) who accompanied him to his just rewards.

From here, we rode about another hour north to the Great Wall at Badaling. This is truly amazing. Built by hundreds of thousands of slaves, at a human cost of one life per meter, the Great Wall extends for about 6500km.

Badaling is the section of the Wall that most tour buses go to, and it has the most carnival atmosphere, but even here, you are in awe of the structure. We rode a "pulley cart" up and down to the wall itself, but walked several km along the Wall. We climbed to the topmost outpost, until a guard told us "No Way" to signal the end of the line. Some of the steps are incredibly steep, and the climb is not easy.

Here is also where we learned to say "Wo bu yao" ("I don't want...") to dozens of vendors hawking everything from t-shirts to souvenir booklets. There are also several black bears who will jump at food you toss them.

The tour also did the obligatory commercial stops -- at a jade carving factory, and a Chinese "medical" facility, where "famous, old Chinese doctors" would diagnose your ills from a menu of about 20 or so preset items, and prescribe various teas, snakes, and herbs to cure you. The worst peril was escaping with your wallet intact, and we managed. We also managed to down the Chinese lunch that was provided, without any ill effects -- yet.

The ride back to Beijing took two hours in terrible traffic. Our guide had picked us up at 7am, and we arrived back just after 7pm. It was a very long day, so we'll close with "bye bye" -- or as they say here in China, "bye bye."

Ming Tombs

Great Wall

Great Wall

Beijing Traffic

 
The Forbidden City Print E-mail
Thursday, 14 April 2005 20:55

Today was one of those days that we were glad we had comfortable shoes, extra camera batteries, and a couple of gigabytes of camera memory.

This morning we took a taxi to the Forbidden City. This was the home of the Chinese emperors starting with the Ming dynasty in the 1400s. The architecture was incredible, with glazed tilework everywhere, amazing gates, and huge rooms. There was also a great deal of reconstruction work going on, because the Chinese are frantically trying to position the Forbidden City as a showpiece for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The crowds were everywhere. At one point, there was so much pushing and shoving going on, that Sandy and I were moved about 20 meters without ever moving our feet! It was like being carried along in a current of people.

South of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, which of course we remember from the student demonstrations of the 1980s. This is also the location of the Peoples' Hall (pictured), where Richard Nixon first opened China to the world in the 1970s (at least that's the way the Chinese tell it).

After walking through Tiananmen Square, we took a pedicab ride through a hutong (alley) marketplace, with open-air grocery stalls and other merchant stands. Instead of being safe in a taxi amidst the chaotic traffic, we were part of the problem.

The driver dropped us off at Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) Park. This was an area that the emperors used for sacrificial rites and diplomatic ceremonies. The symbolism was everywhere, and it was a relaxing walk along various temples, pavilions, and gates dedicated to peace, tranquility, and spirituality.

Not ones to leave things well enough alone, we then proceeded to walk through some pretty hectic hutongs and streets, towards our hotel. By the time we finally gave up and took a taxi home, any hope of tranquility was out the window.

Tonight, we plan to take in an acrobatic show, then in the morning, it's good-bye to China, where "high speed Internet" is a painfully relative term, and off to Paris.

Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square

Our Pedicab Ride

Temple of Heaven

 
Is Paris Raining? Print E-mail
Friday, 15 April 2005 20:56

Our last night in Beijing took in some of the culture of China. We went to a Chinese acrobatic show, complete with spinning plates, contortionists, tumblers, and high wire artists. It was an enjoyable way to spend our last few hours in China.

Friday was one of the longest days on the trip thus far. After an 11 hour flight from Beijing to Paris, we took a bus into the city for a quick overnight visit. We took in the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs d'Elysses, and attended the end of a mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. We ate crepes, baguette sandwiches, apple tarts, and of course frites (French fries), at a couple of Paris cafes. We wandered around some downtown neighborhoods, and walked along the Seine River, observing Paris street life. It was rainy and cool (about 50 degrees).

But the highlight of the evening was the Eiffel Tower. On a Friday night, this area is a popular hangout for younger Parisians on dates, and it was pretty crowded. We took elevators all the way to the top of the 330 meter tower. At dusk, the view was magnificent. The tower itself is also quite a sight. It is equipped with thousands of strobe lights, which are lit every hour for ten minutes, giving the tower the look of a giant twinkling Christmas tree. We were there a little over two hours, time enough to experience three strobe lightings.

The "lowlight" was the Paris subway system. While it usually gets you where you're going, it doesn't seem to run on any recognizable schedule, the cars are in need of maintenance, and breakdowns appear to be frequent. Signs and directions are inconsistent and conflicting. The maps are more complex than they need to be, and the signs seem to go out of their way to avoid using English (even the multilingual ones).

A ticket agent sold us a ticket to the airport on a train that doesn't exist (the last one had already left), and we didn't find that out for about an hour. Along with two other people in the same boat, we grabbed a taxi back to the airport, to spend the night.

Arc de Triomphe

Notre Dame Cathedral

Eiffel Tower

 
Honk-kuna Matata! Print E-mail
Saturday, 16 April 2005 20:57

Because we were only going to be in Paris for about 14 hours, we decided not to get a hotel. Having recently spent the night in the Incheon airport in Korea, this seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But the Charles DeGaulle Airport (CDG) is nothing like ICN. Instead of sleeping in a comfortable visitors lounge on a soft chair, we laid out on a marble floor just off a major hallway. It was noisy and cold, and we got no sleep. We had stored our carryon luggage with an agent, and we just counted the minutes until we could claim it again in the morning.

Morning finally came, and we boarded an Air France jet to Cairo. Having just come from rainy 50-degree weather in Paris, we were struck with the contrast of the dry Sahara Desert and 90+ degrees.

The airport was chaotic. Many "government tourist" agents and tax drivers descended upon us, but we managed to get to the information desk for our hotel and arrange a driver. After a few minutes in the cab, we weren't sure this was any better than just choosing a random taxi on the street. Our driver didn't know where he was going, didn't look were he was going, and came within millimeters of several wrecks. He spent the whole drive with his fist firmly planted on his horn, and weaved through the traffic, making up lanes as he went.

His main concern was "baksheesh" (a unique blend of a tip, a bribe and a handout). Once we finally got to the hotel, after asking many bystanders for directions, he looked appropriately hurt when we only tipped him 20% of the fare (customary "baksheesh" would be 5-10%, but we didn't have any smaller Egyptian money).

Speaking of money, that's been one of the most interesting challenges on this trip. So far, we've dealt with US dollars, Japanese Yen (about 100 per USD), Korean Won (about 1000 per USD), Chinese Yuan (about 8 per USD), Euros (about 1.40 USD per Euro), and now Egyptian Pounds (about 6 per USD). It's difficult to keep the exchange rate straight on such a rapid rotation, so we're being especially careful whenever we purchase anything.

Since we hadn't really slept since Beijing, we managed to stay awake just long enough to arrange for a driver to take us to the Pyramids and downtown Cairo tomorrow, then we ate and fell into bed.

 
But It's a Dry Heat Print E-mail
Sunday, 17 April 2005 20:58

If you were to spend one minute with each item in the Egyptian Museum, day and night, you'd spend nine months seeing all the catalogued exhibits. So we breezed through it in 60 minutes today.

We hired a driver, Hassan, for the day, who spoke English well, and knew the area. Given our short timetable, we thought this would be more efficient than a bus tour, and the price was right: 360 Egyptian Pounds (before "baksheesh"). On our own schedule, he took us wherever we said we wanted to go (and to a couple of places that probably offered him kickbacks).

It was a whirlwind tour of the Egyptian Museum, but we did see some of the treasures of King Tutankhamen, including his golden portrait mask from 1340BC; dozens of intricately carved sarcophagi (stone caskets); giant stone hieroglyphic tablets; and hundreds of stone sculptures. The museum is massive, and it's bursting at the seams with exhibits spanning 4500 years of history. Today, it was also bursting at the seams with people; we think all 20 million Cairenes decided to check it out today.

From there, we visited the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built around 1348. The main minaret is 81 meters high -- the tallest in Cairo. The mosque also includes two tombs, for the sultan and his son. We got there just as the call went out for midday prayers. Muslims pray five times daily, a local resident explained, and on Fridays (the holy day of the week) everyone attends prayer services at a mosque and hears an Imam preach a message from the Koran.

From there it was on to the Pyramids at Giza (with intervening stops at a papyrus factory and an aromatic oils shop...we talked our driver Hassan out of the carpet factory). On viewing the pyramids, you cannot fathom how they were built several thousand years before Christ. The Great Pyramid comprises 3 million limestone blocks, each of which averages 2.5 tons, and stands 140 meters tall. And it's not just rocks piled on top of each other; each one is so carefully fitted that you cannot slip even a piece of paper between them.

A short distance from the Pyramids is the Great Sphinx, with the body of a lion and the head of a man. We were not allowed to park near the Sphinx, but Hassan let me jump out of the car and take a couple of pictures before a policeman on a camel came to chase us off.

Not that we were breaking any posted traffic rules. There appear to be no rules to break. Hassan told us that he cannot drive without his horn, even though it is against the law to blow it. As in Beijing, and to some extent in Paris, the painted traffic lanes and signs were a waste of money. Everybody just points their car where they want to go, and then they start honking and step on the accelerator. Cars coexist on the road with pedestrians, camels, donkeys and horses -- with amazingly few collisions.

It was hot here today, in the 90s. Especially compared to the rainy cool 50s of Paris on Friday, it's quite a contrast. A constant warm breeze off the Sahara makes the temperature bearable.

In the span of five days, we've climbed both the Great Wall of China and the Great Pyramid at Giza. Tomorrow, we'll do some more climbing; it's on to Athens where we'll explore the Acropolis.

Egyptian Museum

Prayers at Mosque of Sultan Hassan

Great Pyramids at Giza

Great Pyramids at Giza

Great Sphinx

 
Goodbye to France Print E-mail
Monday, 18 April 2005 20:59

Today was a "getting there" kind of day, from Cairo to Athens. At 4am we took a car to the airport and headed for Paris, then connected to a flight for Athens.

Our son, Jason, is fond of complaining about the Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris, and having experienced it a couple of times now, we'd have to agree that it's one of the worst airports we've ever seen. It was apparently designed to meet some secret French design goal that had nothing to do with passenger convenience.

The concourses are arranged sequentially, in a line, so to go from Terminal 2A to Terminal 2F, you must also traverse the entire lengths of Terminals 2B, 2C, 2D, and 2E; or wait for a bus to do the same thing. The signage is confusing and contradictory. The video displays only show the flights in the immediate vicinity, and sometimes show different gate numbers for the same flight. Apparently the video display that displays Air France Flight 1828 really means Air France Flight 2337. (I always thought that the numbers were the same in most Roman-based languages, but apparently I was wrong.) In some terminals the lounges are outside security, other times they are inside.

Even though we were only connecting to another Air France flight in transit, we still had to enter France, going through customs, then leave the country again at the security checkpoint. Oh, and don't even get us started on how helpful the airport personnel were (not). It's a good thing we had more than two hours' layover, because it took us most of that time to figure out where we were supposed to be.

But we got to Athens safely, just as the sun was setting. Riding in from the airport, it seemed that Athens is an interesting blend of old and new; simultaneously the classic cradle of civilization and a modern sprawl of concrete and traffic. By the time we got here it was too dark to do any exploring, so we're calling it a day. Tomorrow, we're taking a half-day tour of the highlights, then we'll explore on our own.

Plaka, Athens

Athens Sunset

Acropolis at Night

 
Tour d'Speed: Day 14 Print E-mail
Tuesday, 19 April 2005 21:01

Ever since I was in grade school, I've wanted to visit Athens. Today, I finally got that chance. And I was not disappointed.

We checked off most of the top ten "must see" stops today, starting out with a half-day guided bus tour. This tour served to orient us to the city, and then we spent the rest of the day exploring.

We started out at the Panathinaiko Stadium, the site of the original Olympic Games in the fourth century BC, which was rebuilt for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Following that, we visited the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, ancient Greece's most colossal temple.

Most of the day, however, was spent in or around the Acropolis, the highest point in ancient Athens, home of several temples, including the Parthenon. This area is under constant and eternal restoration, but we stood in awe of the structures there. Once again, we managed to visit the Parthenon on the same day that all 4 million Athenians also chose to check it out; it was very crowded.

Around the Acropolis, we visited the Theatre of Dionysus, the Odeum of Herodes Atticus, and the Odeum of Agrippa -- all ancient open-air theatres or concert halls. Next to the Acropolis is the Agora, the marketplace and gathering place of ancient Athens.

In addition to climbing the Acropolis (no small feat), we also clambered to the top of the Areopagos. This is a huge, slippery marble rock between the Acropolis and the Agora that has two claims to fame. First, it was the site of civilization's first jury trial (a murder trial). Second, the Apostle Paul preached from here, as recorded in Acts 17:22-34. Here is where Paul is said to have converted the first Athenians to Christianity.

We closed out the afternoon by walking through the Plaka, an area of shops, sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and bars. Then, following a brief breather at our hotel, we climbed a very steep street, and caught a funicular (a railway slanted at a 45-degree angle) to the top of Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in modern Athens. We got there in time for a spectacular sunset and some great evening views of Athens.

Acropolis from Temple of Olympian Zeus

Parthenon

Areopagos

Athens Side Street

 
My Big Fat Greek Funeral Print E-mail
Wednesday, 20 April 2005 21:02

We started out today at an archeological dig in the Keremeikos area of Athens. There was some incredible statuary there from the 1500 years that the area served as a cemetery, until around 300BC, most of it pretty well preserved. Archeologists were actively digging while we were there (although "active" probably indicates more movement than we saw).

From there, we walked over to the Roman Forum, which the Romans built in around 100BC in an attempt to move the commercial center of the city from the ancient Agora. If you look real closely at the front gate at exactly noon, you can see the names of Julius Caesar and Augustus inscribed on it -- kind of an ancient "donors' wall."

A genuine gyros at a sidewalk cafe served as lunch, then we hit the subway and headed for the National Archeological Museum, the largest in Greece, and often described as the best archeological museum in the world. It opened at the end of the 19th century to house and protect antiquities from all over Greece. Some of the older displays are from the 17th century BC -- about 4000 years ago. Many of the statues, jewelry pieces and pottery items come from the Acropolis, Keremeikos, the Agora, or other archeological digs around Greece.

Tonight, we're headed to Rome. We hear there's been some excitement there over the last few weeks, so we'll report back on what all the fuss is.

It's definitely a small world. While we were wandering around the Acropolis, a young lady asked us to take a picture of her and her family. As it turns out, she's from Chicago, but went to school at the University of Montana. Go Griz (or however you say that in Greek)!

Keremeikos Cemetery

National Archeological Museum, Athens

National Archeological Museum, Athens

 
Habemus Pizza! Print E-mail
Thursday, 21 April 2005 21:03

Until you've been to St. Peter's Basilica, you haven't really been to church. We can tell you that the Dome is 435 high and 138 feet in diameter, but that doesn't begin to describe the scale of Michelangelo's magnificent structure. It's huge! And it's indescribably beautiful.

We joined thousand of other people today in visiting the Basilica, which is the main attraction in the Vatican. In the Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's Square), they were preparing for Sunday's inaugural celebratory mass for Pope Benedict XVI. TV crews were camped out in their semi-permanent scaffolding, and dozens of satellite trucks were parked at the edge of the Tiber River.

Inside the Basilica, we viewed Michelangelo's Pieta, one of the most serene sculptures in existence. Bryan had seen it in 1964 at the New York World's Fair, but it seemed more at home here. We also saw the Statue of St. Peter, which people rub or kiss for good fortune, dozens of pieces of Renaissance art and sculpture, and incredible wall and ceiling decorations.

It was a bit unnerving to see the bodies of several popes on display in their funeral monuments. The idea of using a church as a mausoleum was just a little off-putting to our Protestant perspective. We also did not join the tens of thousands of people waiting in line to see the body of Pope John Paul II. (The line to see the Basilica instead was considerably shorter.)

Because of the recent conclave and preparations for the celebratory mass, the Sistine Chapel was closed, so we were unable to see it.

The rest of the day, we rode a special bus route that took us to many of the tourist attractions. If you should ever visit Rome, this ride is quite a bargain. It's called the 101 Open Bus; for 13 Euros, you can ride it all day long, getting on and off at any stop, as many times as you want. Aside from seeing the attractions, it's convenient, cheap transportation. The purpose of the bus ride was to orient ourselves for further exploration tomorrow.

Our hotel in Rome is, um ... quaint. Because hotels are very expensive here, we opted for a local hotel instead of a chain. Our hotel is literally across the street from the Colosseum and the Forum. We are on the third floor (which is actually the fourth floor), without an elevator. We had to lug our 100+ pounds of luggage up 54 steps. The advertised "Internet access in the grand lobby" is actually about half a kilometer away in an Internet cafe. The 10" TV has no English-speaking channels.

But that's not all bad. For the first time in two weeks, we are not being subjected to CNN, the round-the-clock, round-the-world "Who's Your Papam?" channel.

St. Peter's Basilica

Pieta

Spanish Steps, Rome

Trevi Fountain, Rome

 
We Who Are About to Get Booted From the Train Salute You! Print E-mail
Friday, 22 April 2005 21:04

This morning we wandered around the Colosseum area, near our hotel. This giant arena (the world's first superdome) was used about 70 A.D. to stage violent games, with gladiators fighting each other, and animals, to the death. It could hold 50,000 spectators, from all walks of Roman life. Each class of people watched from one of four different levels.

Only about 1/3 of the original structure is intact. One of the things that impressed us about it was its complexity. There are hundreds of subterranean cages and mazes. The Romans devised elevators to transport animals from one level to another (an invention that apparently has not caught on in hotels here).

We also visited the Roman Forum, the ancient marketplace and commercial center of Rome. In fact, Italy's Capitol Building is still here, right next to the Forum. This area is also the site of the prison where St. Peter was held.

It was our plan to move on to Venice today. When we got to the train station, the agent told us that all the trains were full today, and she could not sell us a reservation. Unbeknownst to us, Monday is Italy's Independence Day, so this starts a three day weekend.

She was willing to sell us a ticket, though, without a reservation, and told us to take our chances. We joined in on the pushing and shoving, and managed to get onto the next train to Venice and stood in the hallway for a while, until we got our luggage awkwardly situated in the walkway, and actually found a couple of seats. We weren't even sure we were on the correct train, but no one threw us off, and we enjoyed the ride through many mountain tunnels and scenic Tuscan towns.

Six hours later we arrived in Venice's Santa Lucia Station. A water ferry brought us near our hotel, and we carried our luggage the rest of the way (another 100 or so steps up and down bridges and up to our room). Tomorrow, we'll explore.

Colosseum

Colosseum

Roman Forum

Colosseum at Night

 
Yet Another Italian Church Print E-mail
Saturday, 23 April 2005 21:05

Venice is unlike any other city in the world. Built entirely on small islands (mostly man-made), Venetians have to improvise many of the things we take for granted; for example, garbage pickup is accomplished using small handcarts to pick up plastic bags left near doorsteps, then dumped onto a specially-designed barge. And you definitely would not want to be the UPS delivery man in Venice; aside from the obvious obstacles, the addressing scheme is chaotic. But there is no traffic; you must park your car in a huge parking garage on the edge of town, then use the public transportation: water taxis or ferries.

The jewel of Venice is the Piazza del San Marcos, St. Mark's Plaza. We spent much of today marveling at St. Mark's Basilica. While St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is notable for its scale and opulence, St. Mark's is notable for its unique location and its quantity of gold. The entire interior of the church (and some of the exterior) is tiled with millions of tiny mosaic tiles, most of them gold. Mark the Evangelist is enshrined here, in a crypt at the center of the church. It's interesting that while Israel is generally considered the Holy Land, Italy and Greece have many of the landmarks that form the historical foundations of the early Christian Church.

We have mastered nearly every form of public transportation on this trip. In Venice, we navigated easily through the city using the water ferries, which run on routes and schedules just like buses. Sandy managed to figure out how to take a ferry to just about every church in town, and they were all amazingly beautiful.

We spent a great deal of time window-shopping for Murano glass. This one-of-a-kind glass is made across the water from Venice, in nearby Murano. We fell in love with its many colors and unique designs.

Today is Sandy's birthday. We won't say which one, but in Roman numerals, it's L. We celebrated with pizza. You can "fagettabout" Chicago-style or New York-style pizza. Our favorite is Venetian-style pizza. Once we discovered this delicacy "al funghi" (with mushrooms), we couldn't eat anything else. There's just enough time for one more slice, so we'll sign off for today.

Piazza del San Marcos

Entrance to St. Mark's Basilica

Grand Canal

Typical Side Canal

 
Da Venezia a Pisa Print E-mail
Sunday, 24 April 2005 21:06

Today we boarded a Eurostar train to Pisa, by way of Florence. The trip took about five hours, but the Tuscan countryside was beautiful to watch. We had originally wanted to stop in Florence, but decided that it would be easier with our luggage to just go all the way to Pisa directly.

We were not disappointed. Our hotel window overlooks (or rather, underlooks) the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Sandy and I climbed all 500+ steps to the top and took a few pictures.

We also visited the nearby Cathedral, and saw the hanging chandelier that inspired Galileo's Law of Pendulums. As with seemingly all Italian churches, the interior was awe-inspiring. Also on the same block was the Baptistry, a perfectly round, acoustically perfect stone building, which reverberates sound beautifully. Recently uncovered 14th century frescoes in the cemetery close by gave us a tangible sense of history.

In the "small world" department, we ate at a table next to a couple from Eureka, Montana, stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. Then, at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, we ran into Claus and Inge Weiss, IBM friends from Toronto. Claus and Inge are on a four week trip around Europe, skiing, sightseeing, and visiting relatives. We spent most of our time together marveling at the coincidence, and probably didn't get as many pictures as we should.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo, Pisa

 
Arrivederci, Italia Print E-mail
Monday, 25 April 2005 21:07

We've already decided that we want to return to Italy again one day. This country is beautiful to see, and interesting to visit -- especially the Tuscany area. Its engaging history, wonderful food, medieval towns, storybook countryside, and Renaissance architecture, art and sculpture all combine to make this an area you can easily fall in love with.

But it's time to leave for now. This morning, we boarded a train back to Rome so that we could fly on to our last destination, London. We're actually getting pretty good at figuring out Italian train schedules and station layouts, even without knowing the language.

Arriving in London about sunset, we lost no time in navigating the "Tube" (subway) from Heathrow Airport to our hotel near Westminster Bridge in central London. All of our hotels have had excellent locations. This one is in County Hall, a refurbished historical building; it's located right next to the London Eye, the world's largest moving observation platform, a kind of giant Ferris Wheel built for the Millenium celebration.

We took a short walk along the Thames River, then settled in to rest up for a long day tomorrow.

Tuscan Countryside

Parliament Buildings, London

 
But It's a Humid Cold Print E-mail
Tuesday, 26 April 2005 21:08

We've been very lucky with the weather on this trip. We've had mostly sunny days; any rain has been light and short, or has fallen on the last day when we're leaving anyway.

Welcome to London.

This morning we boarded an open double decker bus just in time for about six hours of solid rain. Even with the emergency ponchos provided by the bus company, we were pretty soaked in short order. And it was cold -- about 50 degrees. Nevertheless, we got in a full day on checking out London.

In an effort to get under a roof, we spent several hours at the Tower of London. This castle complex has served as a residence for English kings and queens, as well as William the Conqueror; a fortress and armoury; a notorious prison; and most recently the home to the British Crown Jewels.

It's probably best known as a prison and execution place. Sir Walter Raleigh was held here for 13 years. Henry VIII's wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were beheaded here. Many other famous prisoners also met their end at the Bloody Tower.

It was fascinating to visit the torture chambers and prison cells, as well as the White Tower castle, which has been turned into a museum. But the high point of the visit was seeing the British Crown Jewels, including the crowns, orbs, and sceptres presented to royalty at their coronations.

By the time we were done at the Tower of London, the rain had let up a little, so we continued our bus tour of the high spots. We also took a boat ride down the Thames River, which meanders through downtown London. We've found that these bus tours are a great way to orient ourselves to the city. While everyone else is looking around at the sights, we're checking the map to see where we are, and where we want to visit later. Now that we're properly oriented, we'll do some more exploring tomorrow.

This evening, about sunset, we boarded the London Eye for its last "flight" of the evening. There are 32 observation cars on the giant wheel; each holds 25 people (there were about 10 in ours). The Eye takes 30 minutes to make a single rotation reaching a height of 443 ft. On a clear day, you can see 25 miles from the top of the Eye. The city was just lighting up for the evening as we reached the top, and the skyline was awesome. Bryan took a few (dozen) pictures, which we'll bore you with when we get home.

Chopping Block, Tower of London

British Crown Jewels

London Eye, Parliament, Big Ben

 
London by Day and Night Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 April 2005 21:09

It turns out there are churches in London, as well as in Italy. And, of course, we wouldn't want to leave one unvisited, so this morning we went to St. Paul's Church. Sir Christopher Wren built this church following the Great London Fire of 1666; it's on the site of earlier churches dating from the first century. The earlier ones were either destroyed by invaders or fire, so Wren decided to make this one out of stone. He modeled it after St. Peter's in Rome; it's not quite as big as St. Peter's, but it's pretty impressive.

Inside, St. Paul's seems more like a military and historical memorial than a church. Much of the statuary and artwork commemorates British heroes, patriots, or other famous Brits. Sir Christopher Wren, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, Florence Nightengale, Lawrence of Arabia, and the Duke of Wellington, among others, are in the crypt.

We climbed all 500+ steps to the top of the dome (that seems to be a recurring theme on this trip), and enjoyed a spectacular view of the London skyline.

Following that, we called on the Queen. Buckingham Palace is only a short tube ride away. We didn't get there in time for the changing of the guard, but the palace grounds and gate were still worth the visit. The palace itself is just a big marble box, not very impressive, except for the Queen Victoria Memorial Fountain, and the traditionally dressed sentries in front.

There we were, in jeans and a sweatshirt, while many British subjects were decked out in their Sunday best -- I guess, just in case the Queen actually showed. They were very proper and formal. We were warm.

Around lunch time, we did a spot of shopping at Harrod's, London's famous department store. We rode the Egyptian escalator, visited the convenient in-store Princess Diana Memorial, and spent all of one pound on a croissant in the huge food court.

During the afternoon, we took in the Natural History Museum, which was built over 100 years ago by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. This building, the nearby Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall were built for the Victorian Exposition at the end of the 19th century.

Finishing out the day, we boarded a double-decker bus for a "London by Night" tour. As it turns out, London isn't a very visual city at night. But the driver was somewhat funny, and the outside ride made us appreciate our warm beds back at County Hall.

Good night, all!

St. Paul's Church

Guards at Buckingham Palace

 
Pints and Pounds Print E-mail
Thursday, 28 April 2005 21:10

We had been warned that London would be the most expensive city to visit on our trip, and it certainly seems to be. Most of the prices look about the same as in the US when we look at the tag, but since the prices are in British pounds, we are effectively paying double what we're used to. For example, a typical short ride on the Tube costs 2 pounds (about $4.00); the same trip on a New York subway would be $1.50. A can of Pepsi in the convenience store across the street is about 70 pence ($1.40).

Thursday morning, we wandered around Parliament Square for a while. Because of the upcoming election next Thursday, Parliament is not in session, so we could not visit inside the buildings. That logic escaped us -- its seems to us that now would be the easiest time to accommodate visitors -- but there's no arguing with a machine-gun-armed Bobby.

So, we crossed the street to Westminster Abbey instead. It's hard to decide whether this magnificent thousand-year-old abbey is a church, a cemetery, an historical memorial, or a site for British events of state. It has served as the location of royal coronations since William the Conqueror was crowned here in 1066. It's an active Christian church, although it's hard to imagine how very many people could worship there as a group. Recently, it's been the site of the funerals of Princess Diana and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

There are thousands of memorials and statues to various patriots, heroes, and famous people. The tombs and crypts look like the marble edition of Who's Who in Britain. Edward I, Edward III, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Henry VII, Mary Queen of Scots, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton ... it's difficult to maneuver through, around, and on top of all the tombs inside.

We think there must be a law that says anyone who gains at least the rank of Lieutenant in the British military automatically gets a statue erected in their honor (or as the British say, honour). The monuments are everywhere in London, sometimes even in the middle of the street, with no protection from the traffic.

It occurred to us that we hadn't yet had a classic English lunch of fish and chips, so we popped into a common pub and corrected that omission, washing it down with a pint of Stella lager. The tab for a single order: 11.75 pounds ($23.00 US).

We then wandered up to Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus to do a little window shopping, but we soon tired of the cold, and decided to take on the British Museum. It was a short Tube ride away, and we were careful to obey the constant admonishment to "Mind the Gap" as we left the train.

The British Museum is overwhelming. There are over 6 million items on display, collected (or stolen) since the museum was established over 250 years ago. We didn't want to miss anything, but we soon realized it was hopeless. There are mummies, statues, archeological fragments, masks, jewelry, costumes, pottery, money, prints and drawings ranging from prehistoric civilizations to recent years.

We saw the Rosetta Stone, which first allowed archeologists to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics; a huge statue of Ramses II taken from his memorial at Thebes; a mummified Egyptian cat from 30 BC; a 20-foot tall stoneware Chinese Buddha from AD 585; a carved and painted wooden thunderbird totem from North America; an Aztec mask made of turquoise mosaic tiles from the 15th century.

Having just come from Greece, we found it interesting to view the "Elgin Marbles," marble statuary stolen from the Parthenon, and obtained in 1779 by Lord Elgin. The Greeks have been clamouring for their return ever since, and at the National Museum of Archeology in Athens, we even saw empty pedestals ready to display the statues if the Brits (who have a different perspective on the affair) ever see fit to repatriate the stolen goods.

After a few hours overloading on museum displays, we gave in to exhaustion, and packed it in for the night.

Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey

Parliament Square, London Eye

Westminster Abbey

Piccadilly Circus

 
Lon-Done! Print E-mail
Friday, 29 April 2005 21:11

Today, we embarked on the final three legs of 14 flights around the world. It's been quite an adventure, but we're both ready to be home. The day started at 5am London time, with a Tube and train ride to Gatwick Airport. It ended safely 22 hours later at 8pm Mountain time, with touchdown in Billings.

Over the last 24 days, we've flown over 26,000 miles, and notched another couple thousand or so by car, bus, train, subway, funicular, and ferry boat. We've experienced every imaginable type of traffic, including boats, rickshaws, and camels. We've each walked over a quarter million steps, and completely worn out a pair of shoes.

Along the way, we've also experienced every imaginable type of toilet fixture; we've inhaled a (shortened) lifetime supply of second-hand smoke; we've been misunderstood in eight different languages, including English and 54 dialects of Chinese; we been overcharged in seven different currencies; and we've gotten lost in a strange city no fewer than two dozen times.

We've climbed the Tokyo Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Spanish Steps, and the dome of St. Paul's Church. What an amazing experience!

With this experience, we feel qualified to put together a "Best, Worst, and Most Unusual" list (just our opinions, and based just on those things we experienced on this trip).

Best Airline: Air France

All of our airlines were members of the SkyTeam alliance, and Air France, Delta, and Korean Air Lines all did a great job of getting us where we were going in style. But it's hard to beat the full five-course meals served aboard Air France, complete with real silverware -- not the post-9-11 plastic used by Delta. Air France's cabin configurations offered the best privacy and room of any of the airlines. Plus, they even offered us pajamas!

Worst Airline: Alitalia

This state-owned airline is in sorry shape, and there are signs everywhere of cutting corners. Because we had several very long flights, we opted for first class tickets. Alitalia's idea of a first class cabin is to just not sell the center seat; you still get the same small uncomfortable Airbus seat and no extra legroom. They did have a nice lounge in Rome, though, complete with showers.

Best Airport: Incheon, Korea

This airport was one of the best for overnight transfers that we've seen. Staying overnight, we appreciated the roomy, safe lounges for transfer passengers. They accept just about any currency in the stores and restaurants, and the facility was easy to navigate -- nicely designed as an international hub.

Worst Airport: Charles DeGaulle, Paris

We already complained about this airport earlier, so we won't repeat the litany here. But next time we go to Europe, we'll go through Amsterdam instead.

Best Aircraft: Boeing 777

Okay, call us chauvinistic, but Boeing really outdid themselves with the 777. It's roomy, solid, and reasonably quiet. A close runner-up is the 747, probably because we were fortunate enough to have an almost completely private ride on the upper deck from Los Angeles to Tokyo.

Worst Aircraft: Airbus A321

Having flown mostly in the US, we thought there couldn't be a more uncomfortable aircraft than the Bombardier Regional Jets that have mushroomed domestically. We were wrong. The Airbus A321 is a noisy, rattling piece of junk, with uncomfortable seats and bad cabin configurations.

Best Hotel: Intercontinental Tokyo Bay

Even an earthquake couldn't shake our impression of this fine hotel. Like all our hotels, it had a good location. The staff was helpful and friendly, it was near the train station, and the high-tech toilet with the electric seat had more controls than a small airplane.

Worst Hotel: Albergo Romana

Okay, its location just across from Rome's Colosseum was outstanding. But the lack of an elevator, the outside traffic noise, and general indifference of the personnel, put this hotel at the bottom of our list. And what is with shoving two twin beds together and calling the result a double?!? As they'd say in London, "Mind the gap!" This was the case throughout Italy.

Best Internet Access: Korean Air Lines

Korean Air Lines had free wireless Internet access in their lounges (and surrounding areas). At least we assume it was free -- maybe I just accidentally hacked into their company network while we were camped out at the airport.

Worst Internet Access: Albergo Romano

High speed Internet was not very prevalent anywhere in Italy, but this hotel had advertised its availability in the "grand" lobby. As it turns out, the lobby was the size of a broom closet, and the only access was several blocks away at an Internet cafe.

Favorite City: Venice

We enjoyed most of the cities we visited, but Venice was just plain cool. Once you figure out the public transit system and the main canals, there's something interesting around every corner and down every "calle." Paris has a reputation as being the "city for lovers," but we found Venice much more romantic, and great place to spend Sandy's birthday.

Least Favorite City: Cairo

We're glad we visited, but now we've done it. It's dusty, hot, and windy. The city is not very tourist-friendly except near a select few attractions. On the day we left, there was a bombing in the marketplace we had visited the day before. And the constant pressure for "baksheesh" is annoying. It was cheap to visit, though.

Worst Traffic: Beijing

This city's traffic is pure chaos, mixing pedicabs, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, car, buses, and trucks. The original street designers helpfully put up signs and lights to let people know what they had in mind, but the rules are studiously ignored.

Most Unusual Traffic: Cairo

It's a close decision between Beijing and Cairo, but Cairo wins by mixing donkeys and camels in with the cars, buses, and trucks.

Most Unusual Toilet Fixture: Japan

Japan gets two awards here: most high-tech, and most no-tech. You have to be careful in Japan to use a stall labeled "Western," or you'll find yourself straddling a porcelain hole in the ground. On the other hand, our hotel toilet had a seat-heater, and various spray nozzles, fans, and blowers to accomplish whatever end your end required.

Traditional Japanese Toilet

High-Tech Toilet