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January 22, 2008 17:15 +0000  |  'Round-the-World Travel 4

I was just sifting through my 'Round-the-world pictures and realised something rather important: I miss travelling... a lot. It would appear that I'll have to do it again sooner than I would have thought.

November 30, 2007 09:47 +0000  |  Korea 'Round-the-World Travel 5

The view from N. Seoul Tower

So I mention in passing that I have pictures of my Korea trip on my website today and then realise: "wait a sec, I haven't actually put them *live* yet..." So I just set them up now.

Most of my favourites made it into my final RtW post, but there's still a bunch of pretty ones in there if you're interested. Emily-Jane, you feature prominently (obviously), as does Jeong-yeon, though I don't think she reads this site.

Here are the categoires:

And now that it's almost 2am, I'm going to bed. More interviews tomorrow and then a trip to Kelowna to see the parents and get some of my packed stuff out of boxes. Internet will be sketchy there, so don't expect to hear from me while I'm gone eh?

November 16, 2007 12:54 +0000  |  Korea 'Round-the-World Travel 13

I'd like to preface this post with the following statement: I have awesome friends. Seriously, Shawna, Emily-Jane and Jeong-Yeon hadn't seen me in over 2years and in the short time I spent in Korea I was practically treated like the Pope (but in a good way). You were all wonderful to me -- thank you so much for making my time in such a foreign place so amazing.

I'd also like to mention that I have a lot of pictures that I want to include here so this post is likely to be long. If you're committed to reading it all, you've been warned.

Charity & Emily-Jane in the Secret Garden Emily-Jane was born in the year of the Pig Shawna was born in the year of the Monkey The daylighted river by night Emily-Jane in front of the river The fish tickle when they eat you Jeong-Yeon is much prettier when she looks like herself Jeong-Yeon's friend was pretty and this picture came out just right Little locks were affixed to the chainlink fence atop the Seoul Tower The Seoul subway system I never really got to taste it, it just scalded my mouth This was pretty A view of Seoul from the N. Seoul Tower

Leaving Yeosu

So when I left you, I was preparing to leave the little town of Yeosu for the bigger, shinier city of Seoul. I was glad to be getting out of there frankly -- not because I have anything against Yeosu or my superawesome host, but... well... Yeosu's small. It's car dependent and pretty insular. White people are gawked at etc. Actually, it's kinda like a Korean Langley -- it's even got the Christian dominance down ;-)

But I still like Yeosu better than Langley :-)

Oh, and before I forget, I forgot to mention that Shawna and I are internet famous now thanks to one of her co-teachers who writes for an independent paper in Korea. I have no idea what the site says, but there's pictures!

So, after one last day of relaxing in Korea's Turtle Ship capital, Shawna and I boarded the 11pm bus to Seoul which would have us meet up with her friend Charity in Seoul at 4am the following morning. It's a 5hour trip for 30000₩ or a 45min flight for 66000₩ and while I would have rather flown (I don't sleep well in transit) the others couldn't do the same so I bit the bullet and agreed.

Tangent: Systemic Racism

Something that really surprised me was how racist Korea seems to be. I'd read about the problems Emily-Jane had run into but figured that they were isolated incidents but sadly, this appears to not be the case. Koreans are very passionate about how great Korea is, but at the same time, they appear to be deeply distrusting of foreigners. Business often reject non-Korean visitors and something as simple as taking money out of an ATM tends to be restricted to the few key machines available around town.

The simplest form of this exclusionary behaviour would be how we tried to book our bus tickets online. The bus company's website has an English side and Korean side, but only the Korean side allows online bookings. Shawna can understand Korean though, so she just hopped on the useful side of the site and proceeded to order our tix... until she got to the spot where you had to input your Korean citizen card number. A valid credit card was not enough, nor was a residence card. No, you have to be Korean to book your seats ahead of time. Foreigners can find out what's left when they get to the station.

Most of the people I met there either don't know about this (as they're not foreigners, they don't notice these things) or don't think that it's a very big deal. Shawna didn't seem to have a problem with it (maybe she's used to it) and Emily-Jane has come to bitterly expect it. I however was furious. This kind of thing would never fly in Canada. It'd be called for what it is: racist and exclusionary. Yes, I'm bitter.

Back to the Story: Seoul Day 1

Mentally foggy and weighed down by my heavy pack, I hobbled through the Seoul bus station behind a reasonably well-rested Shawna. We met up with Charity, hopped on the subway, and made our way through Seoul's subway system to Emily-Jane's house where we were met with smiles, coffee, bacon and eggs... at 6am. That Emily-Jane is frickin' awesome.

They let me get an hour or two of sleep before we headed out to see the city. Shawna and Charity were only here for the weekend and there was a lot to see.

After meeting up with Shawna's cousin (totally green at teaching English in Korea), we toured the city, hitting a series of temples complete with nifty statues and burial sites. As is the case with most old stuff in this country, the Japanese invaded and burned the majority of these buildings to the ground years ago, so what we were looking at were recreations, but pretty nonetheless. I'll have more pics in my imager soon.

We rounded out the day with dinner in a western bar (I had a burger! After 2 burger-free months, it tasted amazing) where we met a friend of Charity's. Then, on to a boat cruise up the river that divides Seoul. The city of roughly 10million is split evenly on either side of this river and as such there are a number of bridges cris-crossing it's banks making for an interesting tour. We got some nice sights which unfortunately don't come out well on my camera so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Shawna / Emily-Jane handoff

All four of us crashed at Emily-Jane's that night, but Shawna and Charity had to get back to their respective towns so the following day, Shawna left me for home and I started on the final leg of my trip: the big scary city of Seoul.

Emily-Jane gave me a mini tour my first day, and over the days that followed, we showed each other around the city. I'd heard of the Cheonggyecheon, a river here in Seoul that had been daylighted and so Emily-Jane talked to a few information booths for me until we got what we needed. There's a picture here for you, and I've got some more ready for my imager, but seriously, you've gotta see it for yourself. They've really done a great job cutting nature into the city like that. The river is a few kilometres long, includes trees, brush and yes, fish. It's the original river, dug up from under the city and prettied-up to make it a great place to hang out at night.

Throughout the rest of the week Emily-Jane took me from landmarks to malls, all the while getting me used to the crazy-sized subway system (300+ stations! To give you some concept of scale, Toronto has about 43). We saw a movie (Beowulf -- it was horrible), had some tasty food (Coldstone!) and some less-than-tasty, yet more cultured food (Shabu-shabu). I even ate octopus! Or rather I tried, but it burned my lip so bad, I still have the sores as I write this.

To give Emily-Jane a break (and to let her go to work as she'd called in sick to spend time with me once already) I met up with Jeong-Yeon for two of my days in Seoul. She took me to a photo shoot (she needs professional pics for her career), where I was introduced to "doctor fish". These fish live in a tank where people put their bare feet and the fish nibble at the dead skin etc. Apparently, it's pretty big in Turkey and it's gaining ground Korea. How does it feel? Kinda like there's a hundred little fish chewing on your feet actually: ticklish ;-)

Jeong-Yeon also introduced me to her jazz friends (big band) and I got to see them perform for a paying gig. I took some more pictures there of her and her friends but only a few came out due to the low light. After that, Emily-Jane met up with us and after some fooding, I returned to Emily-Jane's. We sorta developed a pattern for my time there. The day was her working and my sightseeing, the evenings something simple like karaoke (Emily-Jane is frickin' high-larious in the mic), then a late-night movie (purchased from a fake-DVD vendor on the street for 2000₩). Dude, I bought so many DVDs on this trip. Most of them anime! It was really wonderful to spend time with Emily-Jane this time around. Back when we lived in Toronto, I don't think we spent nearly enough one-on-one time and now I feel like we're closer because of it. ...and she's so damned pretty! It's tough not to be in a good mood in the morning when you wake up to that smile :-)

Final Days

I ended up extending my trip by a couple days thanks to Jeong-Yeon and Emily-Jane's coaxing and used that time in much the same way the rest of the week had unfolded. I managed to navigate the subway labyrinth flawlessly to make the 120min trip to Jeong-Yeon's side of the city and visit the hospital where she's doing her post-accident physio, and then get all the way back to Gunpo (Emily-Jane's neighbourhood) in time for a dinner party at a home of one of Emily-Jane's friends watching (wait for it) Project Runway Canada. Of course I was only told that I was going to her friend's house for a dinner shindig (nice one Emily-Jane!) but despite the lameness inherent in such a trivial show, it was still fun. Her friends are super cool.

I wrapped up my final day with the intention of going to Youngsan electronics market to buy a new media player (Cowan D2 8GB baby!) but halfway there I realised that I didn't have enough time in my day to do everything I wanted so I abandoned the toy in favour of ordering one online later. I did some shopping at E-mart (Walmart for Koreans as Walmart FAILED there), cleaned up Emily-Jane's place some, packed up my stuff and headed to the airport... where my flight was delayed for four hours.

Observations

So that's pretty much my whole trip. I thought that I would finish this post off with a big list of observations about Korea as I was compiling a multi-page booklet based on the weirdness I ran into day to day there. It should be noted though that these are just that: observations so it's entirely possible that I don't have my facts straight. I only write what I see. It should also be noted that as cracked-out as I think the country is, I still love Korea.

  • Korea appears to suffer from a small cartel of companies running the whole country behind the scenes. Everywhere you look, the buildings you're in, the escalator you're on, the phone you're using, the gas you're pumping, the car you're driving, the bank you're visiting... it's all owned by one of a few brands: Samsung, LG, KT, SK, Hyundai.
  • Fish cookies do indeed exist, and they're sold on the streets of both Yeosu and Seoul.
  • Commercial business on multiple floors of a building is a common sight in Korea. While the ground floor may play host to a shoe shop and convenience store, the second floor could be a bar, the third a karaoke room, the fourth, a DVD room, the fifth floor host to a Gumdo gym.
  • DVD rooms are cool. Instead of renting a flick and taking it home to your crappy system, check out a DVD room and for 10000₩ you get a small theatre for two on leather couches.
  • Yeosu, and to a lesser extent Seoul, suffers from a skilled labour surplus. Kids go to school, work their asses off for 16hours/day, get into university and emerge with impressive degrees... and they pick up garbage because that's the only job available.
  • Koreans still burn garbage. They don't appear to see this as a problem.
  • In Yeosu especially, it's tough to find a local restaurant with chairs. Sitting cross-legged is the norm, and if you're 180cm tall with knees that don't like to be crossed, tough luck.
  • The streets are chaotic. Drivers regularly run red lights and speed in Yeosu. Pedestrians are not afforded much.
  • Due to a parking shortage, all cars must have a phone number available on the dash so that when you double-park, you can be easily contacted to move your vehicle.
  • Most of the cars you see are riddled with add-ons and upgrades. From the simplest (a wider rearview mirror) to the more elaborate talking GPS navigators and sensors at the back to tell you how far you are from the curb, there is a considerable amount of money and technology in these things.
  • Cars are very much a mainstay of transportation. Even in a city like Seoul, with a subway system as impressive as theirs, a massive number of people commute by car.
  • No one pulls over for ambulances. If you're dying, you might wanna call a cab instead. They might have better luck getting through the city quickly.
  • Yeosu is host to a series of obnoxious night clubs that advertise themselves by driving trucks sporting golden mascots around town blasting music.
  • The vast majority of commercial stores sell mobile phones. Seriously, it's pretty much cell phones, convenience store, hair salon, cell phones, convenience store, hair salon... etc.
  • Txting is preferred over actually calling someone.
  • Mobile phones are WAY cooler. Emily-Jane's sports an interactive subway map, English/Korean translator and unit converter. Shawna's talks when you open it, and Jeong-Yeon's actually does video conferencing.
  • You can sign up for a service there that sends your cellphone a text message whenever your credit card is used. How cool is that?
  • The Mobile network is not world-friendly. That is to say, phones you buy in Korea work in Korea... and only Korea.
  • Boiling tap water is far and away the norm.
  • Food is shared from a common plate. That is to say, you don't have a plate of your own and so everyone's saliva-coated chopsticks are jabbed into the common food bowls. This, from a nation so afraid of germs that its citizens often walk around outside in face masks.
  • There is a definite culture of service. People serve others at the table as a matter of course, and the service sector is really wonderful. Everywhere you go, someone is bowing at you.
  • $1 = 1000₩. This means that there is no such thing as fractional prices. Also, taxes (VAT) is always included so your bill is usually a very round number.
  • Systemic Racism (see above)
  • While people drive on the right side of the road, they walk on the left side of the hall.
  • Respect for your elders is built right into the language. Instead of addressing an old man with a friendly "hello", Koreans say "adge-i-shee" (old man) or "adge-i-ma" (old woman), a term of respect.
  • Fan Death, that is, being suffocated to death by running a fan in a closed room is a common fear among Koreans. Many people won't run a fan, or even an air conditioner (!!) in a closed room. As a result, all fans in Korea come equipped with a timer to prevent such a horrific occurrence.
  • Emily-Jane gets a secret discount for being cute in the open market from time to time.
  • Buildings new and old are often equipped with various energy-saving technologies like auto-on lights, heated flooring, and manual/instant water heating. Other nifty things include convenience store refrigerators that play classical music when you forget to close the door all the way.
  • Individually wrapping things that have already been group wrapped is common.
  • Some of Seoul's subways sport a cool light-up map that shows you where on the subway line you are.
  • Christians are everywhere. In what used to be a predominantly Buddhist country, you see little red neon crosses absolutely everywhere. They're aggressively attacking the population, with missionaries in the streets trying even to convert foreigners with their pamphlets of propaganda.
  • Seoul shares it's subway system with freight trains that use the tracks to deliver stuff throughout the city.
  • Seoul has made available online a downloadable, updateable transit map that you can install on your cellphone, PDA or laptop.
  • Since most phones in Korea use the same power adaptor, public charging stations are available in train stations and on the trains themselves. There are also numerous commercial stores that offer a charging service for a fee.
  • Seoul's transit system is managed by an in and out turnstyle system. You use your ticket to get on and off the train. Costs are based on distance, so if you pay 1300₩ for a trip that should cost 1500₩, you can't leave the station without paying more.
  • Korean tallying notation is different. I can't reproduce it in this format, but trust me, it's nifty.
  • Number pads at ATMs are inconsistent. That is to say, some pads run 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 and others run 7 8 9 4 5 6 1 2 3. This proposes a problem if you haven't memorised your pin code, so much as the pattern which it makes on said number pad.
  • They love Anne of Green Gables but many have no idea where in Canada it actually is.
  • Korean hospitality is awesome. So long as they know that you love Korea, they buy/serve you food, give you money and will talk your ear off about Korean history.
  • Advertising often features white models when anyone who's tried to shop there knows that a white person would never fit the clothes advertised.
  • You don't wait for waiters in restaurants. Instead you call them over or in some cases, there's a button on the table to summon the wait staff.
  • There are large barriers at the edges of streets and subway platforms to help the blind find their way and not get hurt.
  • The Seoul subway has designated door-opening spots where the subway always stops. This, when the trains are human-driven.

Closing and Future

So yeah, that's my take on Korea. The next 50years will probably be pretty exciting over there. On the one hand you have this time-hardened culture of geritocracy and service plagued with insular racism, and on the other you have fanatical Christian missionaries trying to fuck up I mean, fix a culture that isn't broken. Along with that you're getting Western influences like everyone-for-themselves capitalism and a massive influx of foreigners. Korea's going to change... a lot. I just hope that it does it well.

November 13, 2007 16:40 +0000  |  Korea 'Round-the-World Travel 3

...on the 14th that is. I've decided to extend my stay in Seoul, Korea 'till the 16th 'cause I like it here so much and I feel like there's more to see. Besides, Emily-Jane and Jeong-Yeon are too cool to fly all the way here and see them for so little time.

So yeah, if you were planning on dropping by YVR to say hi on the 14th, don't 'cause well... I won't be there :-)

Update: Itinerary

For those who have asked, here's my new itinerary.

November 07, 2007 08:14 +0000  |  Korea 'Round-the-World Travel 0

To the rest of the world, Yeosu (if anyone has heard of it) is in South Korea, but the locals don't see it that way. They are a single country divided and so when they refer to their home, the people here ask: "So how do you like Korea?"

The Trip

The Dolsan Bridge

Getting here was a lot scarier than I thought it would be, as Jeong-Yeon was unable to meet me at the airport. Instead, I had a scrap of paper with some instructions on how to traverse the country after 19hours of travelling. Here's what my first day out of Europe entailed:

  • Leave hotel at 8:00am
  • Take train to Fuimancino
  • Check in for flight
  • Fly to Singapore
  • Lay over in Singapore
  • Fly to Incheon (Seoul International)
  • Get bags etc. and based on English instructions from Shawna find out how to get a bus to Gimpo Airport (Seoul Domestic)
  • Get correct ticket and bus (I hope) and ride along foreign roads hoping the squiggles on the signs mean I'm going where I'm supposed to be.
  • Arrive at Gimpo. Book last flight to Yeosu (6:30pm) and begin trying to figure out how to call Shawna.
  • Find friendly information person who explains that pay phones are dumb and that I can just use the info booth's phone. Apparently all calls within Korea are local calls.
  • Talk to Shawna, advise regarding arrival time, walk around airport for an hour.
  • Fly to Yeosu where I'm met with flowers (yay!) and a hug from Shawna. Shawna's friend drives us to her place and I crash.
  • Total travel time: roughly 26hours

Recovering from the jet lag has been harder here than it was in Frankfurt, but thankfully Shawna and her friends have been tolerant of my grogginess. I'm more or less over it now though.

Culture

Kina

Yeosu is beautiful, and I'm not just talking about the scenery. The people here are just plain awesome. I'm repeatedly impressed by the culture of sharing here that just doesn't exist back home. One of the few foreigners I've met here explained it best: if you're playing basketball with a couple guys and one of you goes off to the machine for some Gatorade, he'll return with one bottle for everyone. There's no money to hands, no agreements to buy the giver lunch later, it's just how it is, and similar behaviour is expected from all those involved for the future.

Like other Asian countries, a reverence and respect for elders is ingrained in the culture so deep that it directly affects the language. When speaking to someone older than you, you must use the polite form of the language (an-yang-ha-say-oh vs. just anyang), and elders are entitled to ask you anything they like, while you may only speak when spoken to or ask limited (non-probing) questions. It really is a pleasure to spend time with these people.

The culture has its downsides though. For starters, one of Shawna's teachers who seemed quite excited to talk to me when I first arrived, shut down when I explained to him that I never graduated university and quit my job to travel the world. While I'm rather proud of both of these facets of my life, it appears to be enough to have him lose interest. The focus on university (and school in general) is just insane here. Kids start school at 9am and often run all day, often 'till midnight... and they haven't even tackled homework at that point. It's no wonder that sleeping in class is so common. It's also acceptable (though many teachers don't do it) to engage in corporal punishment (hitting the kids) and hitting in general seems common practise among the children for fun.

Sleeping

Shawna

Ah Korea. Where moving from the couch to the floor is a "step up" in terms of sleeping arrangements. Koreans by-and-large sleep on the floor here. It's comes with the bonus of extra space in your apartment when you're not sleeping, and since many homes use heated floors to keep warm, it makes for a cozy sleep... if you can only get past the fact that it's the frickin' floor. Also, unmarried male/female pairs can't sleep in the same house -- regardless of what's actually happening there. Of course there's no law, but for the sake of not making any waves, Shawna had male a friend of hers afford me a spot on his floor a few nights this past week to avoid situations where significant people in the community might notice where I was sleeping. Personally, I think it's silly and don't give two shits what the locals think when I know I'm being a gentleman, but this is Shawna's life and I'm not going to make it tough for her here. Yeosu is still rather old-world in this regard.

Lifestyles

Koreans are way better environmentally on some things and horrible with others. Hot water, for example, is handled with a little button panel on the wall. Push a button and hot water is available (almost instantaneous), push it again, and the hot water goes away. Compared to Canada, where we waste megawatts of power just keeping 50L of water warm 24hrs a day this only makes sense. They also make heavy use of those instant-on lights I liked so much in Germany, but their doors and windows aren't as well designed.

Soomi

They seem a little too crazy about sterility here though. Water from the tap is boiled before consumption (why it can't be cleaned before reaching the tap is beyond me) and a number of food products you buy are wrapped in plastic, then individually wrapped again. Also, walking around with a face mask on is common. Sometimes it's for keeping your skin UV-free (it's a fashion thing) and other times it's to prevent communicable diseases. Kinda crazy when you realise that everyone eats from the same bowl in a restaurant. They don't even use individual plates.

The Food

And now the part so many of you are waiting for: the food. I'll make this easy for you: I still hate it. Not only that, I still hate it and I haven't even eaten that much of it. Shawna's been kind enough to take me to the few western restaurants around town while I've been here and even those still taste way too Asian for me to be comfortable. I'm going to eat kimchi though, don't worry. Just not yet.

Sightseeing

The green tea fields

In terms of sights, Shawna & friends have been really accommodating. I've seen pretty much everything there is to see in and around Yeosu. If the city wins it's Expo bid for 2012, there will be lots for the tourists to see... they'll just have to work on the transit infrastructure 'cause frankly, it sucks.

Since Shawna has to work during the day, her friend was kind enough to give me a tour around town. Soomi, one of Shawna's closest friends is really cool and her English is excellent. She took me to Yongmunsa Temple (very pretty, very old), Jinnamgwan (the old Naval headquarters during the Japanese invasions) and around town to go shopping (sadly, everything seems just as pricey here as online in Canadian dollars). In the evenings I've had the chance to meet a number of her friends over drinks and BBQ, or go to a classical music performance by some of the teachers in her school (Tchaikovsky, Dvorak), and just yesterday I met a girl I'd run into in Firenze (my first time) who was also teaching here, and she took me on a tour with her class to see the city.

Pretty trees over a path near Dodongo

The biggest outing though was probably this weekend's trip to the Boesung green tea fields and the Suncheon Folk Village of Nakaneupseong for which I have many pictures. Some of the shots are here, but the majority will make their way into my imager soon.

What's next

Alright, I'm burnt. I've been blogging for about 2hours now, so I'm going to take a break and do some dishes. I'm heading up to Seoul on Friday where I'll spend the remainder of my time with Emily-Jane (yay!) I'll close by saying that it's wonderful to be able to see Shawna and the life she's built for herself here. For the first time, I see her in the kind of life she wants, rather than the one she just happens to be in... and it looks good.

November 07, 2007 08:08 +0000  |  Family Italy 'Round-the-World Travel 3

Tell me something: do these blogging police really exist? 'Cause if they do, I can think of a few people (*cough* Audrey, Chris, Stephen, Lara and Shawna *cough*) that could use a few tickets ;-) This is what happens when you put stuff off though. You get carried away with what's going on and the to-post list piles up. I'll try to cover everything and break it up into two posts: this one about my last week in Rome and another (hopefully today) about my past week here in Yeosu, Korea.

Dad's arrival

My Dad's flight was due in at noon, so I got up at a reasonable hour and headed over to the airport by way of their stupid-crowded train. 11€ takes you to the little town of Fuimancino (foo-man-choo?) which is host to Rome's international airport. He was a bit beat up from the flight so we didn't do much sightseeing that day, just got some food and a brief walk around town. It was just nice to have him around really.

The Coliseum and Friends

The Coliseum (internal)

The touring started the following day. My Father the morning person, was kind enough to not wake me 'till it was almost time for the hotel to stop serving breakfast (thanks Dad!) and after that we made our way to the Coliseum. When it comes to the Roman ruins, most tours in Rome don't include an interior tour of the Coliseum, so today we would do one of those, then do the rest of the ruins the next day.

As appears to be the case for most of my European tours, the value for your money is often hit & miss. Our tour guide knew his stuff (though some of what he said contradicted what we heard from the the following day's guide: were Christians executed in the Coliseum or not?), but the audio devices we used to hear him pretty much sucked. I ignored what the guy was saying for most of it and just looked around... damn.

Structurally, the Coliseum isn't really all that impressive... unless of course you take into account that it was built like 3000 years ago... by hand. It was at this point that I realised how badly the Christians fucked us all with the Dark Ages. The Romans understood how to use concrete, and reinforce their structures with iron scaffolding, techniques we use even today. Hell, they even filled the base of the Coliseum with water to enact navel battles back then! Really, really, impressive.

We filled the rest of the day with visits to some of the smaller well-known Roman landmarks: the Trevi Fountain, The Spanish Steps, and Piazza Popolo. There's pictures in my imager of what we saw there, but in short, it's pretty :-)

The Roman Ruins and Other Christian Sites

The Vatican at twilight

The next day we did our big tour of the Roman ruins. For those who don't know, Rome is basically built on top of previous incarnations of itself over the centuries. All around the city, people have dug up ruins accidentally while attempting to lay a foundation for a new building and so you'll find excavation sites in many places. However, the majority of the "good stuff" can be found in the South East corner where you'll find the remnants of the Roman Forum and the very place where Julius Cesar was cremated.

Standing there, amongst the big marble pillars and crumbling temples, I realised something when I saw what was left of Cesar's final resting place: we don't matter. It doesn't matter how rich you are, how smart you are, or how powerful you are, give the world a few hundred years and no one will care about who you were. Even for the exceptions like Cesar, Cleopatra, Napoleon etc., in the end, your ashen bones are just another place for fat tourists to sit while they talk about where they're going to eat next... Kinda humbling isn't it?

We rounded out the day with a trip through The Pantheon Piazza Venezia and Piazza Navona and finally onto The Vatican. Dad looked thoroughly impressed (though tired) but it was at that point that I had to break it to him: barring some smaller, less impressive sights, he'd just seen Rome.

Armed with this information, we decided on a trip to Pompeii for the following day.

Napoli & Pompeii

My Dad and a piece of history

In order to get to Pompeii, you have to take a train to Napoli (Naples) and from there, a commuter rail to Pompeii. Napoli is a horrible place. Dirty, scary and really not worth visiting. On top of that, the commuter train to Pompeii was stupidly crowded, noisy, and about 40min long. If you're into ruins though, it's probably worth the trip.

For those who don't know the story, Pompeii was a little town based at the foot of Mount Vesuvius in pre-Christian times. (Sorry, I don't do dates very well). Anyway, the volcano erupted and killed pretty much everyone, but managed to preserve the town. In fact, the ash fell so fast that the people caught in the blast had their terrified faces embossed in the hardened ash for centuries. Then, some guy dug it all up in the 70s and made plaster castings of it all. Now, you can see the horrified looks and even folded clothing of people in their last moments... oh, and you can see what's left of the town too.

If you dig ruins though, its pretty neat. I have pictures in my imager if you're interested.

Firenze (Again)

It was at this point that both my Father and I were beginning to get frustrated with the food available to us. Trust me when I tell you that Romans just can't cook. They suck at it. I guess they figure that they don't have to worry 'cause all the dumb tourists go there anyway, so why bother working on their cooking skills?

The view from the top of the Duomo in Firenze

I had, on occasion, talked about the fabulous food I'd had in Firenze (Florence) and how willing I'd be to go there if my Dad was willing to split the fare. He went for it, so the following day we hopped yet another train out to my favourite part of Italy. I got to play tour guide again, which I rather like and we went for a really nice lunch at a local pasta place after which I made a pain in the ass of myself trying to convince my father to climb the Duomo with me.

A word to those considering something similar with their elders (I wonder how my Dad feels about that word?): Seriously consider the implications of goading your loved ones into a physically taxing situation -- especially if said person is not in the best physical condition. The climb to the top of Firenze's Duomo is roughly 460steps, straight up, through narrow, stone corridors. There is no elevator and therefore no easy way to evacuate people in case something bad happens. There were a few occasions where both my father and I were afraid he was going to drop dead. It's a scary thought, especially when I had to come to terms with the fact that I was the one convincing him to come up there in the first place.

My Dad and David

He didn't die though, and he tells me that he's glad he went 'cause the view was amazing. If you go to Firenze and are up for the conditions mentioned above, I very much suggest you make the journey.

We finished up our time in the city visiting the city central square (where David originally stood), doing a little tourist shopping, and munching on the Best Pizza Ever. Dad loves Firenze now. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only place worth staying in Italy.

Last Days in Rome

With one day left in his Rome trip, Dad and I took it easy. We walked around town a bit, tried to do some shopping and I took him to Travestre, a town within the city of Rome, home to little coffee shops and small, family-run restaurants. Surely, we'd be able to find something worth eating here? Sadly, we struck out again. Some more walking down by the Tiber was had and then we headed back home to get Dad to sleep early. He had a flight at 7am which meant he was looking at a 4am wake up call. Ouch

Dad woke up and said goodbye, graciously allowing me to sleep the rest of the night away, and I was left with one more day in the city. I happily ignored most of the daylight hours, letting my body recover from the warp-speed travel of the previous few days. It was at about 3pm though that I reminded myself that I wasn't likely to be in Rome ever again and that I should get out there and see what it was like one last time... and so I headed back to the place that drew me out this way in the first place: the Vatican.

The roof of Basilica San Pedro

I'd almost resigned myself to skipping the Basilica San Pedro (the big church in the Vatican) because I didn't want a repeat performance of the Vatican Museum fiasco. My feet couldn't take it. But no. I was in Rome, and damnit, it's just 2hours of my life to see something like Michaelangelo's Pieta. And so, I got in line.

It took about 30min. Unlike most queues I'd seen on this trip, the length was misleading in a good way

The pictures I took of the Basilica are toward the end of my Rome pack, but in no way can they reflect what I saw there. The Basilica is amazing. Infuriating, since one has to come to terms with the fact that such a beautiful palace was built on the backs of the poor and the conquered, but beautiful none the less. I'm so glad I went.

And that marks the end of my Europe trip. The next stop would be Korea, the following day.

November 03, 2007 17:22 +0000  |  Italy 'Round-the-World Travel 9

I know that I've fallen behind with the blogging. Shawna's promised me some time to myself this coming week though so I should be able to catch up. I still have to post about my last week in Rome and this past week in Yeosu. It's been interesting I assure you.

For now though, you'll have to make due with my pictures from Rome and Pompeii as well as a second set from Florence (with my Dad). Check back soon for details etc.

October 28, 2007 01:31 +0100  |  Nifty Links 'Round-the-World 4

xkcd seems to say in one comic strip that which I've been trying to explain for 48 days.

October 23, 2007 01:26 +0100  |  Italy 'Round-the-World 2

I know that it's been a while since my last update and that even that one was kinda lame, so I'll try to be thorough. Even if you don't read this one though, I'm sure you'll like the pictures :-)

A bridge over the river

The POP INN Hostel

I'd heard horrible things about Rome. Pickpocketting was incredibly common, and that some people actually had their bags slashed open by thieves on vespas as they drove through piazzas. It was enough to have me seriously worried about how I was going to get to my hostel and so I made sure to book a place really close to Roma Termini, the central station. As it turns out though, Rome really isn't that scary and while pickpocketing is pretty common, simple precautions and taking care not to trust anyone certainly helps.

My hostel was pretty damn awesome. Free bottle of wine in my room along with some post cards and a common room with a big LCD TV to watch movies with fellow travellers. The bed was horribly uncomfortable and the bathroom pretty dodgy, but the staff were too fabulous to let any of that get in the way. If you find yourself in Rome, I muchly recommend them.

The Day I Circumnavigated the Vatican

Since my Father had expressed little interest in seeing any of the "religious stuff", I made sure to hit the Vatican first for my independent touring. I woke up at a leisurely hour, hopped on the metro and over to Ottovani station and found my way south to Piazza San Pietro where, as expected I saw the stupidly long line for the Vatican museum. I knew I'd be in that line at some point this week, but not today.

The view from Gianicolo Hill

Piazza San Pietro is pretty amazing and the pictures I've taken just can't do it justice. If there's anything I would recommend for travellers to cities like Rome, it's a wide-angle lens. Hell, go fish-eye if you can... there's just too much to fit in a shot and not enough space in the frame.

When I tired of staring at the church and watching nuns talk on cell phones, I checked out my map and decided that the Travestere would be the next best destination... sadly, they don't have a subway line going there so it was going to be a considerable walk (I don't trust buses).

Here's where it gets a bit insane though. I made one simple mistake and as a result ended up going all the way around the Vatican coming right back to the beginning on the other side of the square... at which point I freaked out and realised I'd burnt roughly an hour and half walking around the walls of the smallest country in the world. After recomposing myself, I realised that I had a long way to go and not a hell of a lot of time to do it so I pushed on.

Travestere

I didn't know where I was going really. General direction, yes, but my map book didn't have famous landmarks on it, just their Italian names and the streets surrounding them. I stumbled onto the Fontanone on Gianicolo Hill, host to the most panoramic view of the city. Really, it was awesome. As the afternoon bled into evening, I saw flocks of birds fly in chaotic sweeps through the air over Travestere in the distance. I was close, I could see where I wanted to be... but it would take me another hour before I found myself in the Yaletown-esque village. It's really quite pretty there; lots of shops, cafés and restaurants with kids playing football in the streets and people walking their dogs while eating gelato.

The Colosseum at night

I strolled in the direction of "home" and despite the pain in my knees and feet, I was determined to walk all the way. It was dark now, but the map made it look like it was just another hour to get to where I needed to be... not so much.

The Ruins at Night

Rome is full of barriers. In most cases, it's a wall from some old palace that's been maintained over the century, or a moat around another monument, or in this unfortunate case, a huge iron fence erected around the ruins to keep people out at night. So there I was, the rather large expanse of ruins between myself and the hostel and so yet again, I found myself walking around something very big for the second time in the same day. It took a very long time, but I got some alright-looking shots through the iron bars. (it's amazing what you can get with a steady hand and a hypershot option your camera)

As I came around the Northeast corner of my latest obstacle, I ran into the awesome Roman Colosseum, backlit by yellow flood lights against the night sky. It was here that I almost gave up and took the Metro home, but by then it was too late, I was too close to give up now. Besides, I was hungry (having not eaten anything but a croissant and an orange juice for breakfast) and there had to be something tasty between here and the central station.

A kitty keeps someone company

And so I kept walking. Knees aching and feet burning though, I found a decent restaurant where I refuelled before making the final trip home on foot. Big day, lots of pain, but lots and lots of great pictures.

Given the previous day's discoveries and the corresponding pain, the rest of the week was pretty relaxed. I did a lot of "recon", looking around Rome to see what was where so I could be a decent tour guide for my Dad when he arrived on Sunday. The only major expeditions I went on were to the Protestant Graveyard and the Vatican Museum.

The Protestant Cemetery and Cat Sanctuary

If you have more than a few days in Rome, a nice place to visit is the final resting place of some of the world's most famous artists and activists: The Protestant Cemetery. In a little well-kept spot on the south end of the city core, you'll find the graves of famous folks like Keats and Shelly as well as a number of people famous enough to be mentioned on Wikipedia's coverage of the site, but not famous enough for me to know who they are. The site also doubles as a cat sanctuary. As you walk through the graveyard, friendly felines lounge about on gravestones keeping their favourite dead people company, and sometimes they'll come nudge at you for some attention. It was a most peaceful and relaxing place to spend some time.

The Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel

Everyone says the same thing about the Vatican: be there early. How early, is always a debate but clearly, I wasn't early enough 'cause by the time I got there, I was looking at about 2hours of waiting... and wait I did, because there was no way I was leaving Rome without seeing the Sistine Chapel.

Piazza San Pietro

However, after 2hours in line, you're finally permitted entry into the museum which is packed with all sorts of art and historic artifacts and about 10,000 slow-moving people. Sure, you can skip right onto the Sistine Chapel, but once there, you can't go back so you either move at a snail's pace through the museum or skip it all and see the chapel immediately. I chose the former... big mistake.

Most of the museum is pretty unimpressive really. For the most part, the Vatican is filled with the results of Papal self-importance over the last 1500years or so. There's a courtyard built for Pope Something XII and features these mediocre-looking statues etc. There's also an extremely large collection of Roman busts including those of both mortals and pagan gods. I 12' high statue of Herakles is part of the collection, as is a marble sculpture of a 30-breasted woman. Really not worth the 2hours or so I was herded through with the 10,000 spectators.

And then, at last, I met the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's famous work. To be honest, I don't remember much of it. I was so tired, shaking from hunger and pain in my legs and feet from standing for so long that I really didn't care what was on the wall, I just wanted to get out of that mob. The chapel is quite pretty, but I'm sorry to say that I can't really say more than that. Lesson learnt: avoid stupidly long lines and eat well before visiting important monuments.

The Communist Rally

Toward the end of the week, I was tired and decided to take it easy. For my last day at Pop INN, I just hung around the river, took some pictures and lounged around my favourite seat in Rome. I'll have a picture later.

My Dad at Piazza Popoli

I moved to a nicer hotel on Saturday though so that when my Dad arrived on Sunday, I wouldn't have to pick him up and move my stuff at the same time. I sat down, paid 17€ (!!) for 24hours of internet and pretty much vegged-out for a while and let my body recover... but I couldn't ignore the noise from outside. Someone had a megaphone and there was music and cheering coming from the street below. I set my laptop to download Veronica Mars, put on some warmer clothes and walked out into the parade...

On October 20th, Rome was the site of a national rally for the Communist Party of Italy. People had come from all over the country to march from Piazza Republica to this really big public square on the Southeast side of the city. The crowd was massive, in the tens of thousands, flags everywhere, System of a Down's "Toxicity" blasting from mobile speakers and of course battalions of pamphlet distributors. There were also a number of vendors selling tshirts with notable leftist visionaries and anti-globalisation slogans. The irony of their presence at a Communist rally was not lost on me.

It's also worth noting here that unlike typical anti-globalisation events in North America, the participants were not only 100% non-violent, but not a single member of the group wore a mask or hid their face in any way. The crowd was a healthy mix of ages from kids as young as 2 to little old ladies. People were friendly and helpful in explaining to me what exactly what was going on: Apparently, way back in July, the Communist parties (yes, there's 2 in Italy) who make up only 10% of the government, posted a call to all supporters to meet on the streets of Rome to protest for a more labour-oriented government. As is tradition, those who support the Communist Party responded to the call and showed up by the thousands from around the country.

I followed the parade along the route and was treated to a tour of some of the lesser-visited parts of the city. We found our way to a big public park where a stage had been erected and more vendors had set up. I left the party and went looking for ice cream.

Dad's Visit

My Dad's here now, and we've already had a full day of sightseeing, but since it's 2am and we've got another big day ahead of us tomorrow, I just don't have time to post about it. I'll post more later I guess but for now, I'm sure the above will suffice for an update ;-)

October 19, 2007 01:28 +0100  |  Italy 'Round-the-World Stupid People Travel 9

I've had a most disturbing experience just now and thought that I would share.

I'm here in Rome at an ok hostel where I've had occasion to meet a number of really interesting people. In the few nights I've been here, I've met two nice girls from Ohio, four cool guys from Australia, three friendly Germans and a family of four (two girls and their parents) from Melbourne. However, I also met someone else, and this is where our story begins.

His name is Tim and he's from Kamloops, British Columbia.

At first, it was cool to be able to share some of the same background with a fellow traveller. We sat around the common room with the Australian family and chatted about all sorts of fun stuff like politics, the environment, our occupations etc. But as the night wore on, more and more alcohol was brought to the table and I slowly came to remember one of the things I was fleeing from when I left BC: stupid-ass drunks.

To put things into some perspective, I should mention that at the Canada Day celebrations on Grouse Mountain, it is tradition to have to lie to the partiers and tell them that they are out of alcohol as the evening wears on. This is because BC'ers tend to lack that bone in their heads that tells them when they've had enough to drink and without propper corralling, they've been known to get out of hand. The idea for some it would seem, is that everything is always better when hammered, and you're only hammered when you have trouble standing.

Now Tim wasn't too fargone, but I suspect that had he been able to afford more Yeager, he'd have been well on his way. I noticed the signs though early on: his respect of personal space disappeared, his voice got louder and louder, and his insistence on being the centre of attention was punctuated by yelling across the room. It brought me back to 6years ago, living in BC, having to deal with this seemingly consistent malfunction and having no idea how to make these people get the fuck away from me... So I got the hell away from them instead... 4349.9km away to be exact.

...and now I'm going back. Jesus Christ, what have I done?