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An Unforgettable Experience

January 3, 2010

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 14:54

I found myself standing in the center of a remote village of 500 inhabitants in the South Pacific. No streets, automobiles, supermarkets, or convenient stores. Women were on the ground preparing small fires, cooking, and weaving floor mats. Small children were playing while domestic animals wandered among them.

Thirty minutes earlier, I was standing at the shore near a dirt airstrip in Malolo, Fiji. I was about to walk around the small, isolated island when a man, maybe in his early 60s, approached me. “Would you like to visit my village?” he asked, as he pointed across the bay toward the larger section of the island, attached only by a shallow reef that appears when the tide recedes.

Moments later, I found myself on a small boat with him, along with the apparent owner of the boat, and an old, rusty lawn mover that the man was transporting to the village. He explained that we was the head of the village, an elected position similar to a mayor. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me and I really didn’t know what I was getting myself in to. My instincts told me that he was being truthful and that it might be an interesting experience, maybe even adventurous.

I understood that it was a very short boat ride, maybe five minutes, and a 30-minute walk when I was ready to return. Fifteen minutes later, and with the outboard motor at full throttle, we were headed out to sea. This made me uneasy. It turned out that we were navigating around some shallow areas and we eventually headed toward land. Even so, it was much further away than I had anticipated and it would likely take a couple hours by foot with the water at low tide.

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Sydney Icon

October 24, 2009

Filed under: travel — Terry Wohlers @ 16:26

The Opera House in Sydney, Australia is one of the most recognized man-made structures in the world. My wife and I got an up-close look at the outside of the Opera House 12 years ago, but tours of the inside were not being conducted the day we were there. I’ve always wanted to see the interior and was given the opportunity last week. The 60-minute guided tour included some history that I found fascinating.

The Sydney Opera House was designed and largely built by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. The project was launched in March 1959 and was scheduled to take three years to build at a cost of $7 million. It ended up costing $102 million and took 16 years to complete. A major problem was the construction of the roof. No one knew exactly how the claim-shell style covering would be built, even though construction of the foundation and other parts of the Opera House had been underway for years.

The design involved some of the earliest work using computer-based structural analysis software. Engineers worked through more than a dozen iterations of the roof design as they tried to find an economically-acceptable method. With Utzon’s help, engineers decided to use ribs to support the complex design. Some may refer to the roof structures as shells, but they are not. Instead, they are precast concrete panels supported by precast ribs. This approach made it possible to cast arches of varying length in a common mold. The Opera House consists of 10 roofs, all formed from a hemisphere and each having the same radius.

If you find yourself in Sydney, plan some time to see the Opera House. And, time it so that you can also see the inside. You won’t regret it.

Patience in Portugal

October 10, 2009

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 13:31

This week while in Portugal, I was reminded of how kind and gracious the Portuguese can be. They will go to great lengths to ensure that their guests are looked after and happy. Most Americans, Europeans, or Asians will not invite business acquaintances to stay in their homes when they are traveling on business, but some Portuguese will jump at the opportunity. In the end, the guests leave feeling fortunate to have had the opportunity to strengthen a friendship and get a much closer look at life of the Portuguese.

About every part of the world offers something peculiar. I was reminded this week of the way in which the Portuguese handle the start times of meetings. Some of us are driven by Outlook, alarms on our calendars and phones, and other devices that drive our days. The Portuguese may use some of these same tools, but it is understood in much of the country that meetings usually start later than what is published. It is not openly discussed, although the locals know that 09:00 really means 09:15, 09:20, or even 09:30 or later. I suppose this system works okay if you’re familiar with it, but visitors from other countries find it baffling.

The Germans and Japanese are about precision, even when it comes to the start of meetings. In Portugal, they become nervous, anxious, and even perplexed when arriving in time for a meeting to find almost no one present. Some time later, others begin to arrive and the meeting eventually begins, with no mention of the delay. This relaxed style is the way it is in Portugal and it can take some time to fully understand and appreciate it.

In or around 2003, as I recall, the prime minister of Portugal was scheduled to make an important statement on national television. Its purpose was to announce that Portugal would adopt a new policy of eliminating delays and starting on time. I suppose the thinking was that if this would happen, less time would be wasted and the country, as a whole, would become more productive. As it turned out, he was late for the start of the broadcast.

Tourist Travel to Space

June 20, 2009

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 12:43

Billionaire Charles Simonyi shelled out $35 million for a second trip to space in March 2009, again on a Russian spacecraft. His first trip, priced at $25 million, was in April 2007. That’s when he spent 14 days on the International Space Station (ISS). His more recent trip was a 13-day adventure on the ISS.

I had the pleasure of meeting a good friend of Simonyi’s who attended the first launch in Kazakhstan, Russia. He said the explosion from the launch was absolutely horrifying. Before it, he had visited the men’s room at the launch site where the plumbing was appalling. It occurred to him that the Soyuz TMA-14—the Russian space craft that Simonyi was on—had more than a few pipes and fittings that needed to perform. The state of the men’s room plumbing left him wondering.

Two days before the March 26 launch, Simonyi’s friend told me that Simonyi might give him a call from space if he gets a chance. Can you imagine receiving a phone call from someone on the International Space Station? I later found out that Simonyi indeed made the call.

Simonyi made his fortune at Microsoft as an executive responsible for the company’s flagship Office applications. In November 2008, the 60-year old married a 28-year old Swedish socialite—his first marriage. His friend told me that he attended the wedding in Sweden where Bill Gates was a groomsman. The friend worked closely with Gates and Simonyi at Microsoft.

Simonyi became the world’s first tourist to travel to space twice. He promised his new wife that the second trip to space would be his last.

Beijing

January 3, 2009

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 14:56

 

The following are some random observations from a November 2008 visit to Beijing, China. I hope you find them of interest.

  • On average, drivers in Beijing have had a driver’s license for three years.
  • Twenty percent of the cars in Beijing cannot be driven during the week. If your car’s license plate number ends in 1 or 6, for example, you cannot drive on Mondays. This rule does not apply to the weekends.
  • The skies above Beijing were much clearer than I remember them from previous trips in 1998 and 2002.
  • You see bicycles in Beijing, and in some places, many. But compared to 10 years ago, there are few. They’ve been pushed out by cars from Volkswagen, Audi, Shanghai-GM, Peugeot, and others.
  • The highways in Beijing, especially the major ones, such as the one to/from the airport, are in perfect condition. No expense was spared on bridges, overpasses, signs, etc.
  • When walking or running on the sidewalks and streets of Beijing, you really need to be careful. If you don’t, you’ll get mowed over by a car or bus, or worse, a three-wheel bike hauling a load of lumber or something else.
  • The French often meet for dinner at 9:00 pm, get served at 10:00 and wrap up at mid-night. The Chinese are at the other extreme. They meet for dinner early, begin eating almost immediately, and wrap up in a surprisingly short amount of time.
  • Relatively few Chinese can speak or read English. A Chinese friend created written instructions for my cab drivers.
  • Prices have gone up dramatically, yet much of what you buy is still 2-4 times less than in the U.S. That’s how inexpensive it was before. A can of Chinese beer at the hotel is $1.50, compared to about $.25 ten years ago. A 20-25 minute cab ride is about $7.

Beijing is a fascinating city. The Summer Games brought about significant improvements to its infrastructure. If you plan to go to Beijing in the future, be sure to visit Olympic Park to see the Bird’s Nest, Water Cube, and other striking architectural structures. The new terminal at the airport is the most impressive I’ve seen anywhere. Click here to see a few images from the trip.

Travel Annoyances

December 20, 2008

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 08:47

I like to travel and would not do it if I didn’t. I enjoy meeting people from around the world, experiencing new cultures and foods, and seeing historic sites and the countryside. I understand and appreciate most of the security measures at airports. However, there’s a few things associated with travel that are irritating, especially when they occur repeatedly.

 

One aggravation are the fees for Internet access at some hotels and airport lounges. Many hotel chains in the U.S. now offer free, unlimited Internet. They know that it does not cost them much once the network is in place. The maintenance cost is minimal compared to what they gain (happy customers) in return. I stayed at a hotel in Europe recently that charged $25 per day for access. When paying, you must also enter login codes and passwords and they can be a headache. I usually voice my disapproval when checking in and I hope you do too. I hope that someday, it is free and simple wherever you stay.

 

Most beds at hotels are reasonably comfortable, but I just don’t understand the reasoning behind a duvet, which is used widely in Europe and some other parts of the world. Maybe it’s because I grew up with sheets and blankets. Using or not using a duvet is like being an oven or refrigerator and nothing in-between. There’s no way to regulate comfort. Would someone please explain to me why they are used?

 

On occasion, people must answer their phone or make a phone call in public, but why do they have to talk so loudly? Many talk much louder than if they were holding a conversation face-to-face. I sat across from a woman on a train recently that talked for 30 minutes non-stop and it was anything but pleasant. Others in the train car were giving her the evil eye, but that didn’t seem to matter. What’s wrong with these people?

 

It’s a privilege to travel and I enjoy it a lot, and overall, these annoyances are minor. When they occur over and over, they can be puzzling.

 

Election Reactions Around the World

November 23, 2008

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 08:00

The plane pushed back at 1:50 pm on November 4, 2008 from San Francisco International Airport. It wasn’t until I arrived Beijing, China at 6:00 pm on the 5th that I learned the results of the U.S. presidential election. I was surprised by the views of almost everyone I encountered during my 16-day zigzag around the world. I found that people internationally are happy with our nation’s decision. Already, it has begun to restore our blemished image, making it less awkward for Americans to travel abroad.

The November 8, 2008 issue of The Economist reported the outcome of 53,000 readers worldwide who voted on-line. More than 44,000—a margin of better than five to one—chose Obama. When considering electoral college votes by country (using a method similar to the way the U.S.’s electoral college system allocates votes by state), Obama collected 9,115 compared to 203 by McCain. That’s a ratio of about 45 to 1. The authors of the article believe the U.S. will enjoy more international goodwill than it has in recent years, something that both parties can celebrate. A separate article in the same issue of The Economist stated, “America will now be easier for its friends to like and harder for its foes to hate.”

The challenge will be for Obama to deliver on his promises, especially considering the current economic crisis. More than 47% of Americans did not vote for him, so uniting the nation will be a very big job. Also, whenever one party controls both Congress and the White House, problems develop. History shows that Americans prefer the checks-and-balances that come with having different parties in Congress and the White House. So, only time will tell whether the outcome of the election is good for our nation and the world.

Are Cars in the U.S. Less Efficient?

August 16, 2008

Filed under: money,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 12:57

I was sitting at dinner last week in Austin, Texas when the subject of fuel prices came up. Individuals from the UK were present, so we estimated the cost of gasoline in the UK. Our estimate: $9-10 per gallon. One Brit was quick to point out that cars in Europe are much more efficient than those in the U.S., indicating that they often get 40-60 miles per gallon (mpg). In the past, I had wondered if European cars got better mileage, but dismissed the idea. The conversation, however, motivated me to do a little research.

Wikipedia publishes the 2009 UK fuel economy ratings and the 2009 U.S. EPA fuel economy ratings. The mpg for cars sold in the U.S., both foreign and domestic, ranges from a low of 12 to a high of 41 for highway driving. Most cars fell in the range of the mid-teens to the mid-twenties. (It’s interesting to note that the original Ford Model T got 13-21 mpg, according to Wikipedia.) I did not calculate the average mpg because of the number of cars presented in the list.

The 2009 UK fuel economy ratings divided the cars in two groups: 1) 100 cars with the highest fuel economy ratings, and 2) 99 cars with the lowest fuel economy ratings. All of the cars with the best economy run on diesel fuel. These cars range from a low of 66 mpg to a high of 88 mpg for highway driving. The mpg is based on an Imperial gallon, which is about 20% larger than the U.S. gallon. The cars with the worst economy was from about 19 to 29 mpg (also based on an Imperial gallon).

As you can see, the fuel economy of a car with a diesel engine is vastly different than one with a gasoline engine. It is believed that cars with diesel engines are more established in Europe, so this may be one reason for the belief that European cars get better mpg.

The other big difference between Europe and the U.S. is the fleet on the street. According to a March 2007 article titled U.S. vs. Europe in Cars, Gasoline and Energy published by AOL Journals, the U.S. fleet gets about 25 miles per gallon; China about 35 mpg and Europe about 37 mpg. This year, according to the article, automakers are implementing voluntary standards to improve European fuel economy to 44.2 mpg and China to 36.7 mpg. The U.S. will remain at 24.8 mpg.

Costa Rica

July 19, 2008

Filed under: review,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 10:19

My wife, daughter, and I visited Costa Rica last week and part of this week. We spent our time in the western half of the country near Playa Hermosa and Lake Arenal. Our previous visit to the country was 11 years ago, so the trip served as a reminder of how much Costa Rica has to offer. The following are facts about the country and its people.

  • It takes about 4.5 hours to travel from San Jose to the northwest coast, which is about 300 km (186 miles). A similar distance takes about 2.5 hours on an Interstate highway in the U.S. and 1.5–2 hours on the autobahn in Germany. A main (two-lane) highway stretches across the length of the country from the southeast to the northwest.
  • The Eco Lodge Hotel, located near Lake Arenal, was created as a pilot in Latin America using economical development from the World Bank. It was formed to preserve the environment and offer a rich ecotourism program. Eco Lodge kept 218 hectares of primary rain forest as a private reserve and is a pioneer in conservation and eco-friendly adventure sports. We spent three nights at the lodge.
  • A community of about 600 Maleku Indians in Costa Rica is working to preserve its tradition, culture, and language. The Eco Lodge has formed a partnership with the Maleku people to help with its efforts.
  • Canopy tours by zip line (cables, pulleys, and harnesses) originated in Costa Rica. The Eco Lodge was among the first to offer it. Zip lining has become popular in many regions of the world, including North America and Africa.
  • A pure form of Spanish is the primary language throughout much of the country. Relatively few people from Costa Rica can speak English fluently.
  • Costa Ricans are friendly and helpful and the country is a safe place, but petty theft (i.e., pick pocketing and car theft) is a problem in many areas.
  • More pineapple is exported from Costa Rica than from anywhere else in the world.
  • Arenal Volcano is one of the world’s most active. It erupts once every nine minutes, on average, and can be seen and heard from 30 miles away. It is the rainy season in Costa Rica (an understatement), so clouds and fog were frequent, but it cleared for a couple hours while we were near the mountain and we saw impressive activity from the volcano’s spout.
  • According to Wikipedia, Costa Rica ranks 5th in the world in the 2008 Environmental Performance Index, up from 15th place in 2006. In 2007 the government of Costa Rica stated that it hopes to be the first country to become carbon neutral by 2021.

A Ball that Snowballed

December 7, 2007

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 15:21

In early November, my wife and I stayed three nights in a rustic lodge outside of Livingston, Zambia, Africa. We discovered that a group of kids from a small village nearby wanted a soccer ball, but could not afford one. So, we went looking for a soccer ball in downtown Livingstone. After visiting at least a half dozen shops, and asking where we might find one, we stumbled across a very small place that sold everything from notebook paper and inkjet cartridges to snacks and soccer balls.

Three teenage foster boys that lived at the lodge took us to the village. It was a 10-minute walk along a narrow footpath through the brush. Upon arriving, we quickly saw that the standard of living at the village was very basic, as expected. Most of the homes were a single room constructed of mud/clay walls and thatched roofs. The death rate there is high, with malaria being the primary cause and AIDS being the second. Every day, 3,000 children in Africa die from malaria. One of the boys told us that the village was given mosquito bed nets from the government.

I later learned that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supplied mosquito nets for all of Zambia. The foundation has teamed with the Nothing But Nets campaign initiated by Sport Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly. One insecticide-coated net costs $10 and can last a family for four years. As of mid-September, the campaign had raised $16 million to purchase mosquito nets for Africa, with the Gates Foundation matching it dollar for dollar.

When we arrived at the school, we were overwhelmed by the excitement of the children. They treated us like rock stars and we had never experienced anything quite like it. We presented the schoolmaster and children with the new ball on behalf of our daughter’s soccer team. It was our understanding that he would share it with a local church and they will use it as an incentive to get the kids to come to school and church.

The next day, we summarized our experience in an email to our daughter’s team, parents, coaches, and managers and sent pictures. When talking with the three boys, we discovered an interest in team uniforms, but we knew it was not an option for them. We passed this along to the team and they decided to send uniforms from a Fort Collins high school, additional balls, and soccer shoes to the foster boys and village. Two boxes of gear was shipped to them on December 1. What started with a single ball snowballed into equipping the boys at the lodge and many children at the nearby village with a lot of gear. We hope this holiday season is a special one for them.

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