December 29th, 2009

Arriving in Puerto Varas on Christmas Eve Eve, there was only rain. Dozens of groups of tourists rushed up the volcano to try and catch of glimpse of the sights before jumping back on the road. Rushed in their itineraries, they attempted to make South America into a rush-able Euro destination. The epic distances in this vast continent will crush the strongest resolve.

I sat inside and waited out the storm. It was time to spend one of my valuable extra days. The next day I met up with Morton, a 32 year old bridge engineer from Denmark. His first long trip was 2 years and he has been making 6 weeks a year to travel since. We both thought that visiting a volcano on Christmas eve was a good idea, so we agreed to go. We could only get a bus that dropped us off still 18 kilometres away, so we started walking. The sun was out in true Christmas Miracle fashion as we walked down a dirt road with our thumbs out.

We figured hitchhiking would be a fitting backpacker’s holiday activity. There was not even so much as a nibble until our luck changed even further. I tried to maintain a “I just want a ride, not to kill and eat you.” face as cars wizzed by. A car began to slow and I thought it was not a good idea to run up to it. Didn’t want to get scarred. The back door opened slowly, I still wasn’t clear about the offer. A young college looking kid got out and invited us in.

His Mom was the driver. You could tell that she used to hitch quite a bit in her day. Still very much fit, with deeply earned smile lines, she said “We’ve been looking for some hitches all day.” This was not to be mistaken as a “We are hunting for hitchers.” But more of a “We wanted to lend a hand.”

It turns out that they were going to the top of the volcano as well. We conversed and shared 2 hours of volcanic experience. They dropped us off at a beautiful waterfall, which was out of their way.

After we eventually got on the same bus back to town, we agreed to cook a huge Christmas diner (Yet another miracle). We shared conversation with new people. People who embraced strangers on the most sacred day of the year to not meet strangers. It was a backpackers Christmas. But the real miracle was not that we had perfect weather. It had nothing to do with getting to a place that public transport would not let us get to on this day. It had nothing to do with sharing a feast either. It was the floating feeling that I only get once a year, late at night, Christmas eve. It was the feeling of warmth and security in this universe. That warm silence. I had it, from my bed. Alert and unable to go to sleep, yet complete. I shared this feeling in a room full of 7 other sleeping travelers. Some things are hard wired after all. Thousands of miles away from those I love, I was not alone.

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December 19th, 2009

It’s been a few weeks since my parents went home and a nagging suspicion is fast growing a valid premonition. I had a hunch that the south of South America might leave me with a long deserved lull in social experience.

I’m speaking of the balance in life that seems to rain true on most intimately important instances. That is, what comes up must come down (and fortunately, up again). Coming in from a fantastic 4 months in Europe and Africa, I hope that the balance is not equal in time.

At first there were just not a whole bunch of people in each of my given hostels to even talk to, but now it is a question of compatibility. Yes I’ve met some interesting folks, but their fierce differences don’t lend to the instant and timeless friend ships that I had the benefit of in New Zealand.

But this is not the first rodeo that I’ve been to. There is a whole world out here that needs living.

I’ve crossed over to Argentina once again to Bariloche, in the Lake District. Rolling in the bus on the way to town I am struck down by the ruggedness of this endless post card. As always, the bus keeps driving past some of the most picturesque visions I have ever seen. Be it tourist bus or transport bus, it always seems to ignore the very best.

One thing in Bariloche that is fun for the whole family are the mounds of yellow blossomed bushes. With flowers similar to snap dragons, these weeds of hope sprawl along the roadside. Their audacity could cause a scholar to concede in yellow as a primary color. With unbelievable resiliency, they punctuate the land disproving the hypothesis that South America is just a mirror continent of North. Plants don’t grow this way back home.

Blatantly in a botanist’s beard, golden pollen would gather. The land lacks a distinctive pine vapor that will be found in all the beauty of the America in the North. I went with a few guys from Canada to a viewing point and was pleasantly surprised with a café which had one star prices and a 12 star view. Empenadas were just a dollar a piece. Had this been in Europe, they would have been 10 euro.

Bariloche is a place of many tourists, but also a hefty dose of outdoors within reach. It is also the chocolate capital of Argentina. Quite wonderfully priced as well. I went on a 30K mountain bike ride which was almost completely up and down hill.

As I switched into 24th gear I powered down the steep hill so quickly that my fastest cadence could not keep up with my kinetic velocity. I could have done without the hills that I had to pedal in first gear to get up. To tell you the truth, I jumped off my bike to walk it up the majority of the times.

I promise that these posts are more of a vent than a cleverly constructed allegory (not quite sure I used that right, probably not), but as things make their way to paper, they tend to make their way to sense for me as well.

The point of it all, as it appears in this moment, is that when you get the opportunity of a declining hill, you shouldn’t just coast down it, because there will be an up hill battle around the corner. As we say in Californian Culture, “Bomb It”. When life seems easiest, when it is in it’s brightest burst of yellow, that’s the time to give it your all. That is the time make your mark on things. When things get a bit shit, jump off and walk your bike. Walk it to the top with Ernest. Save your best for the decline. And then Swing for the Stars.

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December 16th, 2009

I arrived in Pucon at 8am via my second overnight bus ride in a row (getting up at 4am the two mornings before that) feeling good. I felt alert and cogent. At this rate I could easily cross the planet in 30 days via overnight bus. I made my way to a hostel to which no one from reception would become awake for hours to come. The hostel was more of a house, complete with a living room, dining room, large backyard. There was a pool, though no water. I though of how clever it would be to advertise a pool and then have the laugh of telling the guests that “We said pool. We never said water!”

I pulled out my iphone and checked my email in the living room of the house as I waited for the staff to wake up. I got something from American Express that said I owed $65,000 and that my minimum payment was $30,000 which was due a few days ago.

Oh Shit; game over. I had been compromised. My card number fell into the hands of someone along the way (likely someone who I had never met at home) and it had racked up more debt than I could dream of. How ironic? The person who has all but completely said goodbye to material possessions has a bigger credit card bill than anyone he has ever met. Wow, I have to go home, like tomorrow. And get some high paying job, so that I can work my ass off for…… Lets see, how long would it take me …….

It was definitely something that I was capable of, but with the recent hikes in APR, I was sure I would not be in my 20s the next time I would be traveling.

Why didn’t I think that I could get away with the fraud protection angle? Because I had turned off my phone number 10 months ago, rendering American Expresse’s ability to contact me all but impossible. I haven’t used this card for over 3 months. Someone could have been living like a king on my credit for quite some time by now. It would be ruled as negligence on my part in a court for not even checking my account for 3 months.

Christ, someone could have just stolen my password to the online access from an internal database. With that they could have updated my contact information to their phone number, thus sidestepping me completely. People who commit identity thefts are not idiots after all. They are nerds. When they catch the car, they don’t bark at it, they chop it up and sell it’s parts.

Well, at least I was going to say hello to all of my friends back home soon. But lets face the music. Get to the bottom of this, get some closure. I opened up Skype and made the call.

“Ring Ring…..”
“American Express, this is Charlotte how may I help you?”
“I think someone has stolen my credit card number because I have a huge charge on my account.”
I winced as I said this over the phone. Pacing up and down the hallway, others in the hostel were beginning to wake up for breakfast. Overhearing bits of my conversation “$65k” as I was shaking up and down the hallway.
“I’m sorry, you broke up for a moment. Can you please repeat that?”
You mean I had to go through all of that again? With the magnitude of compounding interest, I think I just racked up another 200 bucks. This was becoming an expensive phone call. What if someone only bought something for 40k a few months ago and the sheer speed of the interest had grown the cancer into $65K. My diligent 750 credit score was probably an Ethiopian 220 by now. I didn’t worry though, it would be back about the time that I had finished paying this debt. I couldn’t believe it, I was about to be shopping those debt consolidation companies that I always laughed at.
“I said, I think I have a huge debt that isn’t mine….. I received an email…… do you think you could check my account?”
“Sure, but let me first say that if that happened to you, you are covered by our credit protection service and you wouldn’t be responsible for that.”
We will see, after they have record of “me” picking up the phone and approving the charges for $40K of lumber in a Nebraska Home Depot. They had to rent out every flat bed in the fleet that day. It was an extra $1,200 which was easily approved after the first call.
“Can you check and see?”
My heart flutters into overdrive. This is it. Game on? Or Game over.
“It says here that you owe us $65. You had a membership renewal fee of $50 and you didn’t pay it so there is a $15 late charge.”
“Oh is that all?” “Well, Pay it right now with my bank account on record.”
“Can you see the email that we sent you? We would like to know if our system is sending out bogus emails or if it is a spammer online.”
“Actually, I think I know what the problem is.”

I checked the email again and it was definitely a byproduct of my last 4 days of nonstop travels. The email was correct with respect to American Express. And they waived the late fee, respectably.

I was in Pucon, the Lake District, Patagonia by some people’s definition. What was there to do here anyway? Well there was a lot, but the number one draw was the active volcano that the town hugged. I signed up to climb it and heard of the prospect of snowboarding down it. This was, unfortunately, one of those things that had to be done in a tour. And again, when trying to fact gather about the difficulty, feasibility, and price of snowboarding down an active volcano there were unique stories from everyone you asked.

All in all, it turned out being an $100 excursion, out the door. The stories of difficulty varied all from double black diamond, to not worth carrying up the board, to “I’ve been skiing all my life and I wouldn’t do that run if you paid me.”

I went to the equipment shop that was run by three young French men. They asked me whether I was goofy or regular foot. What degree my stance usually was and a bunch of other questions that I should have taken as a sign that I was not experienced enough to do the run.

“Left foot, forward.” I said as I tried to keep a balance of not revealing too much of my lack of experience, yet finding out enough about the run to be well prepared. I snowboarded for about 5 years when I was a little kid, but then dropped it to make room for my healthy obsession with bodyboarding. That obsession would take importance over snowboarding for 11 years.

Just before leaving on this trip, I went snowboarding with my buddies for the first time in over a decade. I had declared that I would either not be able to stand up, or I would be better than I ever was as a kid. The later proved true. I am still, far from skilled in snowboarding. I can do S turns, but not in the black diamonds.

I told my guide that I had been snowboarding for 5 years, but had been away from it for about 10 years because of an infatuation with surfing. I used surfing because I knew that it was likely that he would, just as spell check, not recognize nor respect the sport. While abroad I often refer to bodyboarding and Surfing as one in the same. If you are stuck with the meaning of bodyboarding too, think of Boogie boarding, but ad some skill and respect (the later was a favor).

Either way, the guide thought he was about to share a run with some pro surfer. His voice became audibly excited as he began to ask me questions about my home breaks. He was a part time surfer himself. At the top of the run, he would offer to switch cameras with me so that we could take pictures of each other going down the mountain. He was also excited about taking pictures with me at the top. I was about to disappoint this guy, big time.

But first we had to get there.

We hiked for 4 hours. The paths switched back and crossed directions many times. The path was like a latter due to the amount of people who had hiked it before. The foot steps were very well plotted. I hiked with ice axes in case we missed a foot hold. We were to dig it into the volcano to prevent us from sliding too far down. I was carrying my board and boots in a special backpack. It was a lot lighter than I though but the weight distribution on my lower back would leave me not capable of hiking a national park the next day.

We hiked and hiked until we finally made it to the top 4 hours later. I was expecting to see deep red lava but was greeted with a slicing sulfuric sensation as the wind changed directions. There was steam rising from it, but we were not at an angle that we could see the lava. It was amazing how many people walked out passed the suggested safe area to try and snag a photo of the lava.

As everyone else began to suit up to slide down on their butts, I got a bit of advice from my guide. He said “Listen, we are really far from a hospital, so just ride within your skill level. The first part is hard and icy, but after that it’s a piece of cake.” It began to grow evident why no one else in the group (or any other group that day) had elected to get down any other way than on their butts.

I thought “If I can hike up it, then it isn’t very steep. And if they can go down on their butts then it isn’t that steep. And if it is that steep, then there isn’t any reason I can’t just go down slowly. Unless. Unless of course it was all ice. Then I would be screwed.”

I strapped in and saw that it was pretty freaking steep. To make things worse, it was very porous and icy from all the footprints. There were deep channels as well from people sliding down on their butts. Nothing I couldn’t handle (I thought). As I tried to stand up for the first time, I learned that my backpack would be an additional obstacle. It would pull my center of gravity back toward the face of the mountain. I overheard a voice say “Wow, that guy must have a ton of confidence in his riding ability. I would never do that.”

Nope, not confidence in my riding, just a huge want to experience it. I just wasn’t going to let my lack of experience count me out of a new one. I chose if I got to do something. It wasn’t me trying to get a job that I didn’t have enough experience for, but couldn’t get that needed experience because I didn’t have enough experience. This was not the chicken, nor the egg.

After a series of failed attempts to stand up, I eventually did and went down the first hard bit slowly. After that the guide realized that I wasn’t going to be the wizard that I let him believe I would be.

But the rest of the mountain was wide open and untouched. I found myself, yet again, in a situation almost all alone, enjoying something that most people who even came this far would sadly never get to. This was walking on The Great Wall of China all over again. It all comes down to taking the proper chances and ignoring the herd when the time is right.

As close to powder as I have ever achieved, I sliced through the fields of unpacked, volcanic, snow. The run lasted for over a half hour. I was just the guide and me.

When we got down the volcano and back to the hostel, I devoured cherries from one of the trees in the back yard that yielded enough to feed ten hungry men every day. When I was completely full I napped in a hammock that was strung between two of the trees.

Now, what would you do with a volcano?

The Pics

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December 16th, 2009

I took a sleeping pill to try and beat this awareness. I could feel the water being stolen from my skin. I elected to fumble around in the dark and drink someone else’s water bottle. It was a better fate to have your water bottle be stolen than to listen to your camp mate dry heaving all night long. I figured I would just give which ever sorry soul who’s bottle I nabbed mine the next day.

I pulled out all the stops. Sleeping pill, and audio book on my ipod. If this didn’t send me to dream land, nothing would. I did end up getting to sleep eventually, though it only lasted for 2 hours until one of the other people in the room tossed a pillow at my snoring face. I sprung to attention (unaware of the pillow of course). It was only 3 in the morning and I would not sleep for one more moment that night. I was too hot and too cold as I cycled through all the permutations of heavy synthetic down jacket, 3 layers of wool blankets, smart wool socks, and imitation ugg boots. This was the first time I would use my “insurance policy” as I would call it. A synthetic down jacket that was both super light and super thin. It had been sitting at the bottom of my backpack for the past 10 months waiting for an occasion like this. I cramed it into a space bag, squeezing out all the air until it’s size was a completely manageable mass. The next day we were back in the Land Cruiser.

We stopped at a lake that was full of flamingos. What in the hell were they eating at this altitude? We were so far away from everything. It was the same as the llamas and llama like creatures that we kept driving by on the road. How were they surviving at this desolate altitude. And then we would pass over another mountain ridge that bore tons of Icelandic type shrubbery. They looked like the hair from a treasure troll. But then those fields contained no life at all. This is where I could imagine something living, but it seemed that the Bolivian creatures prefered a challenge. And then we would pass another ridge and see hundreds of flamingos. Like god was playing a game with us. Seeing if we would eventually find out that we were just passing through a series of dioramas that he had made for a school project.

We were slowly lowering in altitude until we would be at 15000 feet for the next night’s sleep. We made it to the edge of the salt flats by sun set. The next morning we were to edge out onto something that could be seen from space. Something that was the biggest of its kind on the planet. Something so foreign that one could easily believe they were in a dream. I am talking about the Bolivian salt flats. But first we would spend the night in a salt hotel. It was literally completely made of bricks that had been carved out of the ground. You could lick the walls if you wished.

We ate dinner that night and oddly enough it was quite bland. Perhaps they did this on purpose so that we would get a greater experience out of the hotel. One of the people from our group had the initiative to grab a spoon and carve a piece out of the wall to season the meal with. It worked like one would have imagined. It was wild.

The next morning we got up at the 4:30am time that our driver told us to. We were all packed up by 5am and waiting by the car, with no driver. We felt like a bunch of idiots. “That shit! Why are we up so early if he isn’t even going to get up?” 5:30 came and the twilight was quite strong. We didn’t want to miss the sunrise so we found out driver’s room, knocked on the door, and received a repeat Spanish message of what he had advised us the day before.” Rule number one of international travel: Always check to see if there is a time difference. As it turns out, we were up at 3:30am and Bolivia was an hour different from Chile.

We got in the car and drove out to the flats. “How big exactly where these things anyway?” We were all thinking. We drove swiftly for thirty minutes in one direction and didn’t see a thing other than white.

The sun began to reach the boarder of the horizon as the salt took shape and color. I jumped out of the vehicle and my boots made a noise close to the sound of boots smashing into ice. The crunch, crunch, crunch livened me as I took astronaut like strides across this foreign land. I felt like I could have been upside down. My senses confused. The rest of the people in the car were slow to exit. This lack of enthusiasm shocked me. Not since I dove the great barrier reef had I been so disappointed in my companions appreciation for their surroundings. This is what we traveled three hard days to get to. This is the big draw. Maybe they were beat. Maybe they were not really built for this. They were, after all, just students on holiday. They had been living in one place for the past 3 months, they hadn’t been living on buses and boats and out of a backpack. This was not the time to pout. This was a once in a lifetime occasion. Enthusiasm should find its way to the front of your being. This is not a rehearsal, [Life] this is the real thing :)

They eventually all made their way out of the vehicle but two would soon be returning to the tightly packed bench seat. The driver was repetitively quick to order us back into the car to go to the next spot. I wanted to spend the day there. I wanted to run experiments on how things reacted in this wild land. So clear and flat. The white took different shades and personalities with every moving second and the sun made it’s dominance known. Then the sun broke over the land and shadows shot in silly slender strands for what seemed like miles. I imagine this would happen everywhere if everywhere were so shamelessly flat.

I had to do it so I just did. I lay flat on the surface and licked to test my hypothesis. Salt it was, and damn good salt at that. This portion had cracks that formed scales the size of double beds. It was the wet season, but they were in the middle of a drought. In a few short months this place would incur a half inch of water on the surface, forcing it into the worlds largest mirror. With every moment, the Sun gave it reason to grow brighter and brighter. Soon it would blind us in it’s glory.

A silent howl hung over the horizon as out driver demanded we get into the car to see the next spot. We drove for another 20 minutes until we hit an island in the middle of the alabaster lake. It was covered in 1000 year old cactus. Some of which stretching twenty feet high. What an odd and random edifice? We had breakfast here as an ostrich made it’s way around the island. We chased it and fed it bits of our corn bread to the tune of “Ragaton” which blasted from our car.

This island gave the vastness prospective. As the sun grew progressively high in the sky we set out to employ our creativity in the limitless prospective shots that the walls of white evoked. Since everything was a flat color, one could fool the camera into appearing that you had a tiny person in your hand, or that you were surfing a pringles bottle. We had been brainstorming the day before for hours on how amazing our shots were going to be, but once we were there, the others were too tired to follow through with much of anything. This coupled with the sun being too low in the sky to really confuse the perspective into a magical state. Before I knew it, the driver was calling us back into the car and the others were actually willing to go. I was the single one who was seeking to savor this sacred situation.

We rolled on to the next three stops which were opportunities to buy things. It was disappointed to say the least. Later that day, I started my journey back to Chile. There was one other girl making her way back the same way who had just had the tour from the more expensive. Lonely Planet endorsed, company. After chating with her I realized that my suspicion was correct. It was the exact same tour. The only difference was the price.

The next day it was was back on a 24 hour bus to Santiago and then another 10 hour bus to Pucon, the Lake District of Chile. I felt invincible. I could just live on buses. I was immune. This I would soon learn was not true. My mental faculties would soon break down in a most memorable way.

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December 14th, 2009

After 24 hours on a bus to San Pedro (the Chilean boarder town to Bolivia) it was time to get ready to sit in a off road vehicle for the next 4 days. The town of San Pedro was desolate but touristy at the same time. It in it’s self had a bunch of things to do, but I was more interested in what was waiting over the boarder.

I begun by shopping tour agencies. There was no way to just wing it and go around with a few buddies for 4 days off road. Sometimes you are just forced into tours. There were only 4 companies that operated on the Chilean side and the first warned me of the $135 visa that was mandatory for American visitors. Another agency said that you could pay only $60 at the boarder and that would give you a 4 day pass for the purpose of this excursion. Another said that you could use an ATM, Cash, or Credit Card for the visa. The point of the matter was that in Chile, you might get 5 unique stories and you have to use best judgment and a little luck to get by at times.

I read online that every agency is the same, save the price, so I decided to go with the cheapest one. It was a $40 dollar difference which is not nothing and from what I can tell, it was the same exact trip. As we got to the boarder, the customs official asked me for $60 and stamped a piece of paper. It must have been a bribe. Who cares?

Our drivers must not have been any older than 17 years old. They were doing this for a summer job, but were remarkably good at driving off road. They secured our bags to the top of the late model Toyota Land Cruiser with timing belts. Within the first 30 minutes, we had a flat tire.

The driver and the his companion in the front seat pouted and groaned as they examined the damage. Had they never changed a flat? They tried to waive down other tour agency drivers for help. The first blew by us, literally leaving us in the dust. But the next stopped. The drivers seemed to be stalling, as if the tire was about to magically fix itself. Maybe it was. Maybe I was about to see some Bolivian mind trick that the boys knew from home.

I thought back to when I went with my friends Dave and Warren, 1000 miles south into Mexico when I was only 18 years old. We quickly learned how to change a flat. We also learned how to deal with a tire fling off at 75 miles per hour (when the sun is setting, you are out of gas, and the next gas station is 30 miles away.)

It took about 30 minutes for the drivers to change the first flat. I say first because it was the first of 4 that we would incur withing the next 2 days. The next flats were fixed much more quickly, but I wondered if the boys knew that they should be letting air out of the tires to prevent them form popping so often. They must have known that. They drive off road professionally. Didn’t they?

The further we got into Bolivia, the crazier the land scape got. Over every mountain ridge the terrain seemed to be completely different. We drove for the better part of the day until we stopped at our first shelter for the night. It was at 5500 meters. Thats just over 18000 feet. At this altitude, many people get sick. They get head aches, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramps. Put it this way, at this altitude, you have to think of every breath you take. The air is so thin that you cant afford to take the tinny breaths that you take for granted at sea level.
So I was wide awake when I should have been going to sleep. Even though I knew I was not going to die if I fell asleep, I for some reason, was wide awake.

To find out what happens next. Tune in tomorrow :)

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December 11th, 2009

Plain and simple, I liked it more than Buenos Aires. Many will dispute this opinion with me, but I have my reasons. It felt like a college town instead of a busy metropolis. It seemed laid back and down to earth in comparison to Buenos Aires. The landscape reminded me of both Granada and Sarajevo in the sense that it was a mountain town with a river that dissects its flank. It could have been the fact that we stayed in a hostel (which always have better locations than hotels) or that the ratio of colleges to muggers is far richer than its Argentine counterpart. One thing is for sure, there is more to this city than the international community gives it credit for.

It is a stark downgrade in danger when you see only half of the population wearing their backpacks in the front (as opposed to Buenos Aires having 100% of the population wearing their backpacks in the front). You don’t feel that crime is eminent in Santiago. It feels about as likely as any other capital city (with the exception of Japan, Thailand, and Switzerland.)

The steaks here are unfortunately not up to the Argentine standard of excellence (but where else in the world is?) The people on the street are helpful, friendly, and for the most part slow down their speech to give you a chance to understand (a welcome change from their previous colonizers, Spain). I had as nice of a cab ride as I have ever had in my life here when the driver not only made conversation (helping me with my Spanish), but made special effort to give me further directions on how to get to my final destination by foot.

The infrastructure is much better here than in Buenos Aires and it shows in the subway as well as the sidewalks. The drivers follow the traffic laws and don’t even speed. The fruit here is almost free. I purchased 1 (2.2 pounds) kilo of strawberries for 2 dollars here and they were the highest quality I have had in ages. To translate, 2.2 pounds of high quality strawberries in America can easily run as high as 10 dollars. The fun fact of the day is that a high percentage of the produce that we enjoy in America is actually produced here in Chile. Even in a remote tourist impacted town (yet to be covered later) can you find 9 high quality apricots for the incredibly reasonable price of 1.5 dollars.

Many of the shopping centers that we went to looked as well planned as something dreamt up in the heart of Irvine (the most preplanned community in all of California). The only difference is that you will see several well marked security guards as every entrance. These are not gun carrying men, rater ear piece wearing men.

Santiago shares the lack of homogeneous people that Buenos Aires does, but as you get out of the major city, you begin to see a much more ingenious flavour (and it is welcomed). Perhaps it was because we were situated near colleges (in comparison to Buenos Aires), but the women in Santiago were much more attractive. In the week that I spent in Buenos Aires, I could sadly count the number of stuning women on one hand. In the first few hours of Santiago, I nearly passed this feeble goal.

But lets get back to the hostel, because this was a big part of why I found Santiago superior. We stayed at one of the highest rated hostels in South America and the staff was on the ball. They had any conceivable question answered almost before you could think it. Bud asked about going to Val Pariso with a tour (an artsy enclave just 2 hours outside of the town) and the woman answered with “No tours. If you go with a tour, you will see the city for 15 minutes. I’ll tell you exactly how to do it yourself.” She must have been reading my blog with that type of response. We were in a hostel after all, where the aim of the staff is not to pamper, but to ensure satisfaction.

We set off on a bus that would cost 5 dollars each way to Val Pariso and got to the bus station. As Bud walked in to the information center to get some bearings for us, he came back out and said that there was a nice Chilean man with an English accent who offered to take us around the town for a reasonable price. The man ended up having a Aussie accent (a mistake that I would have certainly made only ten short months ago, and is exceedingly common in non-common wealth nations.)

Though we had decided to wing it the day before, we were definitely heading in the right direction by not having purchased a day excursion. We wondered up and down the remarkably San Fransisco like streets with the help of our Aussie accented guide. I looked at my Mom and said “So we are paying him to help us wander?” Again, it was a step in the right direction. My Mom was enthusiastic to have a patented wonder of the city in Santiago, but kept on saying “Ok Alex, lead us in a wander/wonder.” I would laugh every time at the point that she was attempting to essentially purchase/plan/control an occasion whose only chance at existence was to be devoid of the three previous descriptions. She would quickly smile as she realized the proposition’s irony. It was the grown up version of the classroom appearing puzzled when their professor gives them a paper to write on their choice. So long have we been trained to follow directions, that we become lost when granted true freedom.

My Mom joked as she said “It’s great that I got to check off the experience of staying at a hostel, but no one needs to know that it was such a nice place.”

I said “See you later” to my parents with an awkward pause and then got a bit more specific “much later”. The fact that dawned on me was that I was just over the half way point in my journey and that it had the habit of growing in length. Who knew when I would actually return home. Who knew if I had actually even hit my half way point. This I was fine with, but pondered if it was becoming borderline abusive to those who missed me at home. I turned and quickly skipped down the stairs to the subway which would drop me at the train station. The 50 extra pounds of weight I carried in my backpacks had long ago been adapted for with my legs and back.

Dynamics had changed. This time with those who I love at home. This was a first taste of what was to come when I would eventually return. It reminds me of the old adage “This time it is personal.” I had been traveling with my parents for the last 2.5 weeks as an adult. Sure sharp and shocking changes had happened on my trip before, but they were always in a perceivably controlled environment, where the prospect of them sticking back home was always in question.

When leaving the city, an old man ended up walking me to the North Bus station (a truly Japanese gesture) which was on the roof level of a major shopping mall. This took the cake for the most confusing, unlikely, and well disguised bus station that I have been to in my 50 plus countries of travel (lifetime, not in this trip alone.)

I boarded the double decker that I would be living on for the next 24 hours with dread. My previous record for continuous bus travel was 14 hours from Sydney to Byron Bay. The Aussie Gray Hound was also the least comfortable long range ride of my life. It made me vow to never travel overnight by bus again. This Chilean ride of 24 hours was about to change that. So much in fact that I have elected to return the same way with excitement.

My next post will blow your fucking socks off, at least my experience was sock blowing. If I can convey it in cyberspace is another question.

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December 1st, 2009

We made our way to Uruguay for the day via fast ferry. We went to the city of Colonia which is a small and quiet vacation town. Here I was reminded of how much American I have lost over the past 10 months. As my parents strolled down the street shopping in the windows, I found myself bored to pieces. My consumer was dead.

I thought that it seemed an awful lot like my parents knew how to do only two things: eat and shop. Speaking of eating, I have regained about 80 percent of the weight that took me 10 months to shed in the past 2 weeks of dining with my parents. I’m not complaining here! 4 inch thick steaks twice a day for two weeks (with dessert and a starter) has been a lovely change from eating once or twice a day, something modest and almost never sitting. But it has taken its toll. I am beginning to look like an American again. It was something along the lines of breakfast, then two hours later a drink, then two hours later a big lunch, then two hours later another drink, then two hours after that a big big dinner. I had flashbacks about days where I simply didn’t eat anything because I was sitting in a train for its entirety. I then to a moment to reflect on if I am interested in that lifestyle of casual and social eating. Now that I had found out how little you can survive on, I found it wasteful to go back to the old ways. For that matter, I have fully realized how wasteful the American way of life is from start to finish.

Now on to how good the food is. I ate something called a tower of meat in Colonia which is steak, chicken, and beacon stacked on top of itself in a monument to cholesterol. I believe the expression is “liquid sex” when trying to describe what happened during consumption.

As we went back to the docks to catch the boat back to Buenos Aires, the boarding station was empty. The last employee that was leaving for night and locking up told us that the boat left 30 minutes ago. My mothers eyes welled up with tears as the realization that Uruguay has a one hour difference in time and that we were stuck in Colonia till the next morning. I felt like scolding her for such a helpless reaction to such a benign setback. I wanted to say “Cry when the last ship sinks in the harbour.” But then my sense kicked in and I realized that this is the type of setback that I have been handling for the past 10 months. She was new to this type of thing.

We ended up spending the night in the Hotel that was connected to the restaurant that was responsible for the meat tower and catching the next boat out in the morning. Over the next bunch of days we ended up taking a bunch of tours that I will spare you the mind melting monotony of sharing. Well all but one. I am going to keep it brief, but it is worth mentioning.

We signed up for a load of tours without really even knowing what they entailed. One of which was while we were in the town of Mendoza (wine capital of Argentina). All of the tours leading up to this one were slightly not what the information center had promised. For instance, one city tour was only in Spanish which was fine for Bud, hard for me, and impossible for my Mom. One day trip which was hiking and climbing turned out to be hiking and repelling (the boring part of climbing when you go down.) We also had one 3 hour tour around the city where we got of the tour bus for a collective 20 minutes. But the tour that took the cake; the one that really drove the last nail in the coffin, was a day trip out to a canyon.

After sitting in a bus for 7 hours, we still hadn’t seen anything other than an expensive stretch of desert identical to Arizona. We only had stopped a few times for gas and snacks. I thought that maybe we had in fact done some sort of activity and that I had blocked the whole experience from my memory due to its lack of substance. I asked my mom if I was crazy, or did we just pay a bunch of money to sit on a bus, listening to a Spanish lady screaming into the microphone, for 7 hours without doing anything?

My Mom laughed and said she was thinking the same thing. We eventually got to a canyon (which was spectacular) and drove through the whole thing. Not for a moment, did it make any sense, to stop and let us walk around for even a half hour. Why the hell did we take a half hour at the gas station and another half hour at the snack shop? Now, the reason we all have endured 7 hours of blank dessert and screaming Argentines, is a good time to stay in the bus? This is why people don’t travel much. Because they aren’t doing it right. It is more taxing this way.

I feel less free at this moment than I do when I am chained to a desk job. Seriously, this was so backwards, it was polluting the water system. I knew exactly the fate of the weekend warrior.

That day, by the way, lasted for 15 and a half hours and we were out of the bus for less than three of which.

But it’s not all doom and gloom here in Argentina. We did happen to luck out on one of the trips we booked. We decided to spend two nights out in the mountains in a log cabin. The place we ended up was lovely. It was remote, yet awesomely equipped. There was only one catch. It only took cash and we didn’t have enough of it. The closest ATM was 40 miles away and we only had limited time in the mountains and the public buses would have taken the better part of a day to get back and forth.

What a lovely role reversal we had fallen into. Now, sort of, my consumption driven parents were forced to go on a budget (for a few days). Something that both of them have experience with, yet have been fortunate enough to be above for many years now. Bud’s solution was to ration the money for enough to have a modest meal three times a day and go on a short river rafting trip. My Mom’s plan was to get more money.

Tensions arose only minutes after we realized that our quality of life would be seriously different for the next two days. I giggled with joy to get to experience this and, even more, see how each reacted differently. This was far more interesting than sitting on a cramped bus for 15 hours.

Fortunately and unfortunately, my parents started to get creative and realized that they had some American cash with them that the hotel would accept. Also, the rafting place took credit card. Within a few hours it was back to the normal extravagance. It’s a good thing that we got to go river rafting, because it turned out to be much more fun than I had remembered it.

Not without worries, I dreaded seeing my Mother fall overboard. Of course, she did not. But I had serious anxiety about the possibility.

We went swimmingly down the river as our expert guide gave simple and direct rowing orders. Turns out, he was related to one of my parent’s friends that was about 2 degrees of separation away. Our boat rowed in unison to the point that we should have been on an instructional video. There were all sorts of safety precautions including life vests (standard), helmets (rarely seen), and safety/rescue kayaks (the first I have ever experienced) that followed the boat closely. But it was all in the guide really. He had a ton of confidence and was a great leader. He was the head of the operation and was responsible for everyone out there (three boats full).

In an agreeable fashion with my Mother, this excursion made up for the half dozen worthless tours we went on in the two weeks before. I enjoyed the time with the parents, but until these past few days, it wasn’t something memorable at all. It was just a 2 week reminder that the past 10 months were being lived in a fashion that is far superior to that of most.

I can only hope that my parents have learned something from being poor for 2 hours :)

Actually, in this trip, I have heard plenty of stories that I have never heard from them. I never knew that they kayaked with whales or backpacked through Europe for 6 months. I have slowly but surely been leaked a few gems over these past few weeks.

We have only a few more days in Santiago Chile, until my parents fly home and I continue my journey. They, I am willing to admit, will be missed.

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November 24th, 2009

The game for this post will be to decide which switch was most profound. In the past few days I have switched continents, hemispheres, time zones, cultures, qualities of life, those who I have surrounded myself with, haircuts, diets, and a few more things that I’ll let you pleasurably discover over the course of this post.

But first we have to get there!

How many people can honestly say that they have been on three different continents and in two separate hemispheres in a 24 hour period? I can confidently say that I might be the most bad ass jet setter of all time :) I got to the Marrakech airport 3 hours early like a good little international traveler and found myself waiting for a solid hour for Iberia (a Spanish Airline that I strongly suggest you never chose to fly with) to figure out how to set up their check in station. I was at the front of the line so I was not worried about getting on the plane in time. The manager began to sweat as the employees fumbled with boarding pass printers and weigh stations. He nervously checked his watch, there were a solid hundred behind me in line. Finally he seems to break under the pressure and pats me on the back, sending me over to an unidentified desk. I appreciated his touch.

The woman checking me in had a remarkably familiar electric orange scarf tucked into her suspiciously tightly zipped jacket. I failed to mention that I have (at my leisure and opportunity) somehow honed my observation skills to that of a first class spy. It seems that, in the lack of the rat race, I have amplified my attention to details like accents, dress, and ethnic facial recognition.

I hope whoever I end up marrying (in a million years) never reads this confession, but I notice everything. I have for a long time (truth be told) but now it is becoming scary. I notice when someone has taken something out of their pockets from the difference in how their pants fit. I notice when someone is lying, based on a bunch of things (that I won’t share). Most of all, I can look into someone’s eyes and realize if they believe the statement they just gave to me. I have found that people often say something and then in a split second give a look of “Did he buy it?” These are usually the people who don’t believe in themselves one bit.

What a judge? Right? Well, no one ever said I was right all the time……(did you buy it?)

Back to the woman in orange. She was not an employee of Iberia at all. She worked for Easy Jet (hence the scarf). Did I trust that she knew how to work with the Iberia system? Maybe all of the check in systems were standardised by airport. As I would learn in the next 24 hours, being an Easy Jet employee was a step in the right direction.

I passed though Moroccan customs and the security guard frisked me. He felt my crotch for longer than any other security guard (in any country) had ever done. I didn’t appreciate his touch!

My first flight was just an easy 2 hour one to Madrid. The first plane was smaller than the full sized, trans continental monsters that I would be taking from Madrid to Buenos Aires. It was stripped, I looked like an Easy Jet plane, but older. I thought “no big deal, the big new one will be the next one I get stuck on for 13 hours.” I had a 7 hour layover in the Madrid airport in which I spent some time talking to a South African who said that she rode with Iberia for 9 hours without a movie. She said that the only form of entertainment was the radio.

Keep in mind that this is now the standard for flights that are sub 3 hour ranges. Typically now, airlines don’t even offer peanuts (unless you are ready to pay) for these domestic length flights. But I was going to be stuck in this next bird for 13 hours. The best flight I ever had was Qantas from Sydney to Bangkok. It was the definition of a perfect flight. Keep me well entertained, fed, and distracted and I can sit in a chair for 80 hours.

The first flight yielded two (that I know of) occasions of a seat being sold to more than one person. The equation of two people and just one seat leads to two upset people (as you may have guessed). This was a bad omen indeed.

As I approached the terminal for the 13 hour flight, there were already 100 people forming a line over an hour before the plane was scheduled to board. I decided to get in line and happily saw the line push out another 300 behind me in the course of the next half hour. The time had come. The flight attendant made the announcement “now boarding” and the neatly formed line of 400 instantly dissolved into a gelatinous blob of frantic pushing. Something, unfortunately, broke.

Fingers crossed, I made my way down the gang way, but when I saw the plane, it looked old. It looked as though it was just some outdated, skinny, metal snake that belonged in a musty bowling alley. Come to think of it, it would have made an excellent bowling alley. But as far as planes go, now a days, I am looking for something puffy and bloated. Something with two stories of neatly formed windows on the side. Those are the types of planes that will ensure proper entertainment, food, and distraction.

As I boarded the plane, I made my way down earth tone rows of carpeted seats. There weren’t quite chickens in the overhead compartment, but it was definitely a depressing downgrade from Qantas’s flag ship. I quickly found that there were no screens in my seat back. There was only one 12 inch screen every 30 feet or so. This means that we are at the mercy of watching what the flight attendant pops in on their time.

Yuck. Suddenly my life doesn’t feet glamorous at all. But it gets worse. They announce that there will be two movies during the course of the flight. Thats right, 13 hours in the air and only 3 of them might provide sufficient distraction, if I can even see the screen from my spot on the plane. The movies to show, two that must have been designed to put one to sleep. The plane is 15 minutes to take off. I take it as a tip. Three people (that I know of) have been sold the same seat.

Over the course of the next 3 hours, the crew manage to get around to serving us a meal. This would be followed by 9 hours of them literally sitting in lawn chairs in the food area and waiting for people to come to them to request periodic refreshments. They literally sat in lawn chairs, like unemployed donkeys and waited.

On a plus, the passengers were a lively bunch (presumably the parents of the Spanish boys I met in Rome a few months back). They used the food area as a sort of lounge. I have never seen such social plane in my life.

The one upside to this plane was that the seats had serious side bolsters up at the head. When I bent the flaps inward to cradle my upright neck I found that my head could not move more than a few centimeters to either side without hitting the padded walls. This might seem claustrophobic to some of you, but it turns out that I slept for 6 hours.

It must have been the side bolsters. It was either that or that Iberia in their infinite wisdom have elected to slip a roofy in my food. Either way, I slept for 6 more hours than I ever have on a plane. Was this an adaptation to sleeping abroad for 10 months?

During the flight (when the two gloriously boring movies were not playing) the screens cycled through cheesy power-point slides that promoted how spectacular Iberia is. It was so Spanish of them. Always taking themselves so seriously, implying that they were a big deal, or somehow ahead of the curve. This attitude is evident in everything from the Spanish train system to their lack of enthusiasm to learn and speak a second language (I know what you are thinking. But when we aren’t the largest economy in the world, we too will learn a second language.)

But look! Mira! We can put a little icon of a plane ON TOP of a MAP that indicates where we are in the flight!!!!! That was impressive 15 years ago. How about a camera on the tail of the plane? Nope, thats worthless as your 15th pair of shoes.

Getting off the plain and into the customs line literally took an extra hour. Put it this way, My parents were scheduled to land 2 hours after me and they were through to the outside of the airport before me.

Did I mention that I was meeting them? Anticipating them, I wondered if I would notice any changes they had gone through. Looking for them at the head of the airport, my mom snuck through the crowd and popped out to give me a huge hug. He face flushed, sadly I noticed 10 more wrinkles than how I left her only ten months ago. It was evident that she took her mothers passing with heavy heart. I didn’t want to see this pain. It was like a president in their second term. The weight of the world had been firmly on her shoulders for about a year now. Bud, her husband had gained weight in the face, but didn’t seem to have aged a day. It looked like she was part of some movie magic or something out of a sitcom when they want to turn someone into a grandma.

I’m officially dead when she reads that last paragraph by the way :) But I was already killed by that pain she wore on her face just moments before. To be fair, it was the flush in her face and the night of lost sleep that gave her this affect. Now, spending time with her, she still has the same glow I remembered. My Mom, for all of you who have never met her, is a beautiful woman. How do you think I got so good looking?

Taking a cab to our hotel, we chatted like we were at home again. It wasn’t weird. It was much the same as walking down the streets of Sydney with Pat, or Bangkok with Ryan, or London with Christina.

We arrived at our hotel to an incompetent hostess. My Mother had spent weeks researching the perfect hotel to spend a week in Buenos Aires in. She decided to go with one that demanded Paypal as part of the reservation process. When going back and forth with an inconsistent and unresponsive staff for the weeks before, she asked me for advice. I replied with “find a different hotel.” It was the same as interviewing a prospective employee with a perfect resume, but then she shows up late and drunk to the interview. Find another.

We are now 6 days into our stay in Buenos Aires and the Paypal issue is not yet resolved. I’ll spare you the specifics. This was the first sign that I was in possession of a skill that I have been largely taking for granted. Early on, I found myself internally saying “But you’ve had 10 months to figure all of this out. It’s not obvious to everyone.” to about 20 decisions per day. Little dos and don’ts have been filling into my brain for the past 10 months now.

Also, for the most part, I’ve been traveling alone for the past 10 months, and those who I have traveled with are of the independent nature to the point that decisions are casually muttered in passing, only once, when it is relevant. For instance, my previous traveling partners would not speak of what we would eat for dinner until we were in front of a menu. My Mother (bless her beloved heart) somehow finds a way to discuss this type of detail during breakfast.

It was just a different style than I was used to and I think that considering I went from 10 months of limited long distance contact, to 24/7 we are doing pretty damn well as a cohesive unit (best run on sentence of the day). There were moments when I wanted to just tell them to sit back and let me make all of the decisions for the day because I knew all of the eventual outcomes of the proposed dialogues, but I thought it would appear brash. My patience for these day to day travel situations had evaporated to the same level that we all share for computers and the Internet at home.

I had just been doing it for too long to be at all confused. I landed in a huge city that I had never seen and I knew exactly what to do, but I had to slow down because my parents had a different style.

Let’s clarify, before going on any further. My Mom, bless her beloved heart, is a huge reason I am traveling today. It was her ambition that dragged me to 12 countries before I was even 18. She isn’t some honky. She’s ultra well read, educated, traveled, and cultured. And Bud the same, but to make things even more impressive, he rode a motor cycle through Europe with his buddy for 6 months when he was 22 years old. He gets the backpacker lifestyle. Hell, We’ve been trading stories of Europe for months now.

I had warned my Mother that I had changed forever a few months ago in an email. Jokingly after the first day together again, I asked her what she had noticed has changed. She said “Well, for one thing, I used to worry and watch over you, and now I find that as I have stopped worrying about you, you have started to worry about me. You seem to be looking over your shoulder every few moments to to see if I am alright.”

This is exactly right. My Mom inherited the worry bug from her late Mother (My favorite Grandma of all time), I also had this bug until about, well, 10 months ago. I haven’t had anything so colossally important in my reach to worry about since then. That is, of course, until my beloved Mother came to visit.

She took a spill a few years ago over a half step in the front walk way of the house that I grew up in. Since then, she was been more than cautious about unstable and less than flat surfaces. Her Mother, by the way, fell over that same step only a few years before her. I was the only to witness my Grandma fall. If you have never seen this yourself, believe me, its and experience you hope to miss. The front walk way is being resurfaced as I type this post (and I hope that half step burns in hell BTW).

By the way, Buenos Aires is full of two things: uneven tiled sidewalks, and drippy air conditioners. My Mom walks these streets like she is planning every step out, one at a time. And when it comes to crossing a street (often more torn up than the sidewalks) it’s like she is walking on ice. This freaks me out as one can imagine.

But it’s not all worries now that I am back on the company payroll. It’s restaurants and hotels for the next two weeks. And Buenos Aires is the perfect place for this to happen because the steak here is said to be some of the finest in the world. I am the first to say that the hype to true. The steaks are cut about twice as thick as at home and are wonderfully seasoned. I am being fattened up every day now with meals I won’t ever forget! Pretty soon I’ll look American :)

The people here are wonderfully seasoned as well. They usually speak Spanish slowly and clearly (unlike the Spanish spoken in Spain). As my Mom will attest, Buenos Aires is one of the more beautiful cities that either of us have been to. Unfortunately, the infrastructure is shot here with the poor sidewalks and inefficient air conditioners, but there are monuments that look like they belong in Europe. The air here is fresh (when there isn’t a car driving by). There don’t appear to be any emission’s standards here.

We are soon headed to Mendoza, but not before popping over to Uruguay (one hour away by boat)

Tune in for the second half of this article when I write it!

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November 15th, 2009

The Dunes of Morocco

I think it is safe to say that the dunes of Morocco are one of those things that don’t take much to understand.  What I mean by this is that you can say “Great Wall of China” or “Egyptian Pyramids” or “Mount Everest” or “Cage diving with Great White sharks” to your friends and they will be able to instantly picture it, and then imagine how cool the experience must have been.  Riding a camel across the Sahara desert, through 300 foot sand dunes, is easy to appreciate.  As with many of these experiences, there is much sacrifice required to get to the location.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be special.

Spoiler alert: This experience is easily HIGH up in the top ten things I’ve ever done.

But first there is a contrast to be drawn.  Though Morocco is great and interesting and beautiful, it’s also very taxing.  This country is filled with 95% amazing people and 5% swindlers.  Unfortunately, the bad 5% tend to swarm you like flies.  The difference between Morocco and Europe is that you can’t idle in Morocco.  You can’t just stroll without a purpose.  You have to have your guard up the whole time and you have to have a purpose at all times.

For instance, if you are walking to somewhere.  You must keep a brisk pace and firm direction.  If the bad 5% see you appearing to be lost, they will move in.  You can’t really just sit in a park or a square, they will move in.  And you can’t make yourself approachable.  If you follow these rules, then you will be fine.  But it isn’t always easy to do this.  For instance, when you get off of a bus, fully loaded with your backpack, and have no idea which way to go to get to a hostel.  The best solution that I found was to ask someone who is anchored for directions.  Someone who is currently holding a position at a retail store, or better yet, a security guard or police man.  If you ask one of the many men loitering on the corner, you will instantly acquire a personal guide.  This personal guide will take you directly to his friend’s place and demand money for his trouble.  It will go something like this “Do you know where crystal desert hostel is?” and he will say “Of course.  Let me walk you there.”  Then the man will walk you to his friend’s place (sometimes stopping at all his friend’s shops as well).  He pretty much then won’t leave you alone for your stay in that town.

The bus from Fez to Risanni (the gateway town to the Sahara Desert) is an overnight 10 hour ride.  The road is frequently under construction and the leg room is as little as I have seen since the Australian Gray Hound (bad).  After sleeping for just 20 minutes between 4:20 am and 4:40 am, I begin to see the twilight in the dessert.  We pass many small towns on the way to Resanni that have huge posters of a young man in a few cheesy poses.  It turns out that this is the King of Morocco and to be quite honest, he looked sinister.  I asked a few of the locals later what they thought of the king, and as usual in most places, received mixed reviews.

The CTM bus arrived in Risanni at 6:30 am and before I knew it, there was a man asking me to show him my baggage ticket (CTM is the premier bus service company in Morocco.  They take baggage very seriously.  In every stop there is a man employed by the company that won’t let anyone get to a bag stored in the under haul of the bus unless they have a corresponding ticket.  The bag man is careful to see that the bag sticker and the presented ticket align.  This is oddly enough the highest level of bag security that I have found in all my travels.)  I assumed that when the man asked for my ticket, that he was the bag man for CTM.  He did it in plain sight of the drivers, increasing his reputation.  Before I knew it, my bag was on top of an SUV and I was headed for the final 45 minute journey out to the dunes.

But wait a second, you’re dealing with a god damn 10 month veteran here, not some new bee.  My spidy senses started to go haywire even through the sleep deprivation.  The guard was back!  “Why aren’t the rest of the backpacker’s packs on the roof of this SUV? What is the price of the camel tour anyway?”  “The rest are coming. ”  “How many are there?”  “5 more.  And there are a many different prices for the camel.  Are you happy with this?”

Am I happy?  Since when has a person associated with a bus service EVER cared if I was happy?  I told the man to pull the bags down.  “It’s really early, we just want to find some breakfast and an Internet café to check in with our family.”  “Ok, I have a place for you to relax.  Follow me.  We don’t go anywhere until you are happy.”

I looked around and there was no one even up in the town.  Tata was the man’s name.  He quickly lead us away from the rest of the backpackers to his restaurant/hotel.  Remember what I said about personal guides?  Luckily I had my wits about me enough to not get into the car, but I failed in fending off the personal guide.

He poured some tea for us and drew out a few itineraries.  The most expensive was 1500 derahm (150 euros).  This was much more than we had heard it costs to go on this type of a trek.  I said “This is much more expensive than we were expecting.”  Tata was all smiles, but he brought a sense of urgency that quickly repealed his intended impression.  He as overweight, brown skinned, and had a buzzed head of hair (avoid him if you ever come here).  I felt cornered.  I didn’t even want to do business with this guy at all.  Then the two CTM bus drivers walked into the restaurant and had some tea.  (the place wasn’t open to the public and it was a fair bit of a walk away from the town center.  It was on the second floor as well.  The divers must have been in on it.  I didn’t want to bargain with him, because I didn’t trust him in the first place.  I just wanted to pop unto the Internet and check out what advice other travelers had given about this place.  But is was only 7am and the Internet café didn’t open for another 2 hours, so we grabbed our bags and decided to wait outside.  Tata stood in front of the door.  “Ok ok, I’ll give you the trip for 1000 derahm.”

“That wasn’t too hard.” I said to Erin as we walked down the street away from Tata’s place.  He wasn’t going to get our business on principal now.  I couldn’t trust him after his fishy move.  As we sat on the corner waiting for the Internet café to open, a few other men tried to sell the same sort of thing for 700. Many boys road their bikes by us in and beamed a beautifully honest and sincere “Bonjour!!!!” (this was the 95% that you want to see as much of as you can.)

9am hit and we made our way to the Internet café.  It was something out of a bad middle eastern joke.  Tons of computers sat on dirt floors and were connected to screens that didn’t match in color.  Probably An IT man’s worst nightmare, but the connection was faster than anywhere I had through the whole of Australia.  I scoured the Internet to find reviews and advice about Risanni and found surprisingly few things.  Advice about swindlers being present, but nothing specific and more importantly, no “trusted company”  I looked for something on Tata’s company (Chez M’Barek, Panorama Tours) and found nothing.  Instead I found a few independent websites that were tour companies of their own.  The prices started at 300 euro and ended at 3000.  I looked a little longer.

Finally I found something that said “trips should cost about 350 dirahm per night.”  and I even found a post on a travel blog with an email address and phone number of a “trusted” tour company. I looked at the number of posts that the author had made (like someone’s number of reviews on ebay) to try and validate the claim.  The poster had only made one other post.  It was likely that the poster was the owner of the tour company, but the Internet wasn’t saturated with these types of posts, so if it was the owner, he was probably more educated than most.  The English was perfect in the post.  I decided to give the phone number a call.  Within 20 minutes we were picked up by two young men in an SUV, but not before we saw the last of Tata.

As I stood outside of the bank waiting for Moha (the long shot from the travel blog) the flies began to swarm.  First it was 4 boys who stood around me in 10 foot proximity.  They were about 9 years old and trying to guess where I was from.  England? No.  Holland?  No. Australia?  No.  Canada?  No.  America?  No, China!  The boys laughed and pulled their eyes tight from the temples to simulate a slant in their eyes.  They said “NOOOOOOO!”  Joyously and I said back “You’re right, I’m from Japan!”  The boys stood by as Tata approached me.

He got really close to me and asked me if I was going on his tour.  I said no and he said I was a “Bad man.  A fake person.  A cheat.”  He said that he “gave me the information about his tours” and that I “owed” it to him to come back to him and tell him that I was going with someone else.  I apologized (only because I feared that I might be stabbed if I said what was on my mind.)

He stayed in my face and put the pressure on.  The boys turned into trinket salesmen and an old woman moved in and hovered at my waist line, begging for money.  The flies had found the shit.  It was all converging at once, and then Tata said “I’m going to go find her! She is the one that will decide.  You can not decide”  He went storming off looking for Erin.  Luckily she was upstairs in the Internet Café.  Luckily she didn’t have to witness this swarm.

Just as things got hot, an SUV pulled up with two young men and one said “Are you Alex?” and I said “Yes, what is your name?” “I am Moha.  You called me about 20 minutes ago.”  Great!  It was time to get the hell out of dodge.  “Ok, wait here, I am going to get my friend.”  “We can put your backpack in the back.”  I passed, considering the morning I had just had.

Moha said “Do you mind if we stop here in town to pick a few things up?”  We agreed.  Moha got out of the SUV and the driver, Ha-Med, sat in the driver’s seat with the windows down.  Just as I was filling Erin and the Ha-Med in about what a Fuck Tata ended up being, just like a cheesy horror movie, Tata had his final chance.

He approached the car and started yelling at Erin directly.  “You are rubbish lady!  I knew it all along!”  I looked at the driver, as if to summon his local authority to tell Tata to “Fuck the Fuck off.”, but Hamed didn’t seem concerned with Tata.  I took this as a good sign that Tata was all talk.  Still, I felt like a fish in a can.  I just wanted to get out of Ressani.  Moha got back from the market and we started down the road.  I felt relieved, but my trust was shot.

Moha looked back at us and began to tell us about his service.  He used all of the same vocabulary as Tata.  “You are Welcome.”  He said as he touched his heart.  (It is a truly elegant piece of the Moroccan culture to see someone touch their heart when they want to emphasize sincerity.) Unfortunately, people like Tata cheapen this gesture. “I make the good price.” Moha said. I look at Erin as the SUV speeds down the desolate road and wonder if Moha was completely full of shit and would turn on us just the same as Tata.  At this point, we had made our move.  It was all up to fate.

The asking price, by the way, was 550 dehram, a staggering 3rd the cost that Tata’s asking price.  This much, was already going in the right direction.  Moha’s hotel was made from mud and hay, but don’t let me scare you off, it was absolutely amazing.  It felt more like a relaxed house than a hotel.  And to be fair, it only had about 4 rooms.  It was more of a bed and breakfast.

Back at the house, Moha began to draw a stick figure map of the desert as he explained some possible itineraries.  I looked at Erin as if to collect my winnings from the bet that Moha would have the exact same itineraries as Tata, and the rest of the town for that matter.  I was right.  This whole desert thing was really suspicious.  I have found it quite common in third world nations for your neighbor to rip your idea off without even pretending to differentiate themselves.   I guess coming from America makes me hyper aware of capitalism.  Though, to be fair, in 9 times out of 10 in America the Unique Selling Point, is no more authentic than Tata’s heart pat when saying “You are welcome.”

The difference was the Moha was not pushy, at all.  He was also flexible about the experience.  “These are just suggestions.”  If you want a few more days, It’s just 300 Dehram per day.  I asked him who our guide will be and if he speaks English and he said “Gumby!”  and looked at a black man who was hanging out in the opposite corner of the room.  He looked over and said “Hey man! what’s up?” with almost no accent.  I was very pleased.  Things were looking up.

I was thrilled with the name of our guide and how relaxed he seemed.  The hotel faced the beginning of the dunes.  They were only a 15 minute walk away.  What an amazing location.  Gumby started giving us the low down on everything.  “We brought you here on 4 by 4 and now you will take 8 by 8.  You will be riding Jimmy Hendrix.  This is the name of the camel.  There are two camel.  Jimmy and Hendrix.”  Interesting to remember that Tata refered to the Camel that we would be on was also Jimmy Hendrix or Bob Marley.  To a degree, things would stay this peculiar the whole time.

Jimmy and Hendrix were loaded up with food and water and ready to be mounted.  Erin had warned me that you get on them when they are on the ground and then they stand up.  The process swings you forward and backward with more than enough force to throw you off if you weren’t prepared.  Thankfully, I was.  Erin road horses since she was a child.  I have a cowboy for a step father; that should do.

Jimmy and Hendrix are magnificently alien.  They seem to consist of neck, legs, and stomach.  I never knew how much noise camels make.  These two seem to have something barbaric to say every time you touched them, but as soon as they were walking, they seemed at home.  Gumby walked us down the dirt road with Hamed (the driver) towards the dunes.  I thought “That’s crazy.  A one to one ratio of tourist to guide.  That will never happen in the western world.”  the sun set quickly as we rocked back a forth in our saddles.

All at once, everything that I had ever passively learned about riding a camel came back.  “They aren’t like horses you know.  They are a lot wider and they take big awkward steps.  It isn’t a smooth ride at all.”  I instantly thought “and why the hell did I take the two night tour?”  I thought I would be dead in just 15 minutes at the rate of pain I was sustaining.  Just too wide.  Just too Jarring.  But the moment we entered the dunes, the ride got better.  Hendrix’s legs dug into the sand and the jerking and jarring were muffled.  By this time it was dark and the next hour of riding was made by star light.  You couldn’t really take your attention away from staying centered, because you would easily just slide off the side of Hendrix.  The saddle seemed loosely placed on him. Still the stars were in a panorama that could even be appreciated from a peripheral.  After about an hour we arrived to the camp site.

Gerard and his little brother were sitting there waiting for us.  It was very elaborate, yet nomadic at the same time.  Gerard, the cook, has the most honest face in the whole of Morocco.  His smile lines wear deep.  Upon first meeting him, he says that he only speaks a little English.  He would be the leader and champion of conversation for the rest of the trip.  Turns out, he spoke English, along with 9 other languages, very well.  Spanish, German, English, Dutch, Berber, Arabic, Basque, French, Italian, and Japanese.  This guy set a record in my book.  But he didn’t like school, because the teachers would hit him if he got a word wrong.  So he learned everything from interaction.  He told us that we would be learning some Berber while out here in the dunes, but the first thing we had to do was get proper names.  I was from now on, Mohamed and Erin was Fatima.

A few fun facts:  Mohamed is as important to the Arab and Islamic world as Jesus is to the western world.  Fatima is the name of his daughter (slightly different direction than Jesus ended up going.)  And in case you haven’t noticed yet, almost everyone is some version of Mohamed.  The two young men who picked us up in Ressani, were Moha and Hamed.  As a matter of fact, Gumby’s real name is Mohamed, but he has been going by Gumby now forever because he was sick of having the same name as everyone.  And it’s not just a joke.  EVERYONE refers to him as Gumby, even when speaking in Berber.

Gerard peels and chops vegetables with the help of Gumby as we all chat in the same communal tent.  They pile the veges in a tepee, sprinkle some magic seasoning on top, and then cover it with a tajine (like a metal cone shell).  After 40 minutes of steaming a beautiful meal is borne.  We eat the meal with our hands in true Berber style, pinching bits of the food up with pieces of Moroccan bread (think if French bread came in a 2 inch thick Frisbee form).  We share this meal, 4 nomads and us two tourists over Berber tea (the sweet mint tea that we had at the rug shop in Fez).  Jimmy and Hendrix burping and farting behind the tent.

Promptly after, the boys play some music with a local drum and some metal instruments.  Quickly after they finish, we hear drum beats in the distance.  It appears that we are not alone.  Just over the next dune, about a football field away, are other campers.  I think back to the similarities in Itineraries, Camel names and now after dinner ritual and wonder who the glue is in this.  10,000 miles from home, in the most desolate desert known to man, my capitalistic mind is still hard at work.

The chemistry between Gumby and Gerard is insane.  They make such sharp jokes at and with each other that they often have to run out of the tent and into the dark dunes in order to let their lungs have a chance.  Sure they were smoking Hash, but that is all part of the Berber experience.  Gerard is always ready to laugh and it isn’t long until we give him a reason to laugh for the rest of the trip.

I take a moment to stop and think that we are getting the experience of an incredible group of nomadic people and their camels, and a few dozen 300 foot sand dunes all to ourselves for just under $40 per day.  This tops getting to play on the Great Wall of China for only a few Bucks.

The next morning, I wore a pair of Erin’s pink cotton, baggy yoga pants to prevent the chaffing I received from Hendrix and my jeans to proliferate.  As I emerge from my tent, Erin says “Presenting…… Fatima!!!!” and the boys have a huge laugh.  Gerard runs up behind me and fits me with two mini tajines under my shirt to make me look like I have the worlds sharpest nipples.  Gumby ties a string just below to accentuate the ensemble.  The deem me Aisha (yes, like the song found on youtube) and maintain this name for the rest of the trip.  Gumby presents me with a ring and I am his wife for the remainder of the trip.  This sends Gerard into a perpetual state of laughter.  Jokes of every possible iteration and carnation are explored.  I divorce and remarry several times and hundreds of camels are moved in dowry form in the process.

This is about the time where you might be thinking, I’ve read 3717 words and I still haven’t had a proper description of the dunes.  This is also were the story gains it’s balance.  This is where the sun rises and we get our first glimpse of the dunes from up close.  Remember that we entered by night.

When the sun rose the next morning, we were situated in a sea of purity.  The sand didn’t have any of the dust or dirt that you will find at most beaches.  All of the world’s problems had been dropped from this sea in the journey.  Down to an elemental level, this sand was different.  Strong and tightly packed at points and ever eager to swallow you whole in others.  A mystery.  We might as well have been on mars.  It was so different.  The color that the winter sun brought was anything as drastic as deep red to as drab as bleached white.  You’ll see.  The pictures are amazing.

It turns out there were other tour companies just a few dunes away and that there was a small crowd forming on the local large dune.  But even then, there were well less than 40 people there in total.  We climbed a smaller dune to have the experience to ourselves and enjoyed the sunrise long after the rest of the tour groups stuck to their tight itineraries of “back on the Camel by 8am”.  This is where our guides were different.  They just let us move at our pace.  It was just the two of us, no one else to keep happy, so why not?  Strings of 8 tourists on camel back made their exit while we enjoyed a lazy brunch.

It finally occurred to me.  This was the first place that I could actually loiter since I arrived in Morocco.  It was my first vacation within a vacation.  All the people we were with actually embraced a Jamaican like attitude and it was just what we needed.  The original proposed itinerary was crowded with line item-able activities, but that was for the weekend warriors.  That was for the type of people who don’t see any reason to go to the Colosseum more than once.  Well, if it was great, do it again.  The proposed plan was to make our way to the Algerian border and check out the black desert.  Once we got there we would watch some nomadic people make couscous and sleep in their camp.  “Fuck that” I thought.  The dunes are the reason I am in Africa.  I could sit out here and ponder for days.  And why would I want to hang out with a bunch of strangers.  I want to have as much fun as I did the night before.  I know freedom when I see it, and the black desert was not it.

We told Gumby our idea and he agreed.  We spent the whole day in the dunes.  We took our time.  We loved it.

We stoped at a different nomadic tribe to have some lunch and the flies were all over me.  I couldn’t understand how, but they seemed to ignore Gumby and Erin. They even ignored the food.  It turns out that the flies of the Sahara are really only interested in Jimmy and Hendrix.  The problem was that Hendrix wiped his face on my back during the ride, thus sending the flies into a blood lust.  Erin said that I should rub an orange peel on my skin so that the oils would throw them off the scent.  After the meal, I tried it and it oddly enough worked like a charm.

After bonding with Jimmy for the whole day (I swapped Hendrix for with Erin, because I couldn’t handle how bad ass he was) I couldn’t help but feel like we were not all that different after all.  He was just a louder version on me.  In fact, now that I have been exposed to his ultra loud burping and farting, I think Ill remember him every time I am visited by the gas.

Jimmy always ate the bits of grass found in the dunes and Hendrix always pooped.  I couldn’t figure out how they swapped the food without us seeing.  On the last ride of the day, Hendrix didn’t want to get fitted with the piece that sits in his jaw.  He screamed and waived his head violently while Gumby just sat patiently waiting.  He never hit the camel for it was “His heart” and his lively hood.  The massive head hurled back and forth and as Gumby stared with concentration.  In a flash, like a ninja, Gumby caught Hendrix by the hair on his chin, a paralyzing hold.  But Gumby never forced Jimmy or Hendrix into anything and he let them eat all the grass they pleased.  He even had us walk for a portion because the dunes were too steep for the camels and he didn’t want them to struggle too much.

After a stellar time, we came back to the hotel made of mud to create this post.

This particular experience was sponsored by Cary Johnson and I’d like to thank him for his wonderful generosity.  This is Cary’s second experiential sponsorship (you might remember reading about his first in the caves of Turkey).  Cary is the Vice President of eVisibility, the Internet Marketing Agency that I used to work at.  He is known as the Candy Man in the office, because he is always coming back from lunch with treats for everyone.  I’d like to share a story now about Cary’s character.

One day I was having a bad day and I brought it to the office.  When I was leaving a meeting, Cary asked me for a favor (something small, like to print something out) and I basically shrugged him off.  A few minutes later he came into my office and said the following:

“What you did out there hurt.  I come into the office every day and only treat you one way.  Like a god. All I do is brag about you and back you on every decision.  You’ve got to give me some of that back.”

I apologised and he left the room, but then it really hit me.  It was true.  He was right.  All he ever did to anyone in the office was breed a positive vibe.  He backed us all and that is so rare.  He was in the position of power where he didn’t need to treat us like equals, but he chose to.

Now, even when I am no longer under an employment agreement, he still looks out for me.

Cary is actually a new father as of the end of October!  He and his beautiful wife Brook just had their first child Olivia!  Thinking of how well Cary treated me and everyone else at eVisibility, I know that his daughter is bound to be spoiled to pieces with love and support.  This makes me happy.  REAL HAPPY.

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November 15th, 2009

Fez

Getting here from Chef was a 4 hour bus ride through the most vast and expansive range of dirt hills that I have ever seen.  A barren wasteland of infinitely fertile land with farmers too poor to plant the seeds to feed a starving world.  All the while, American farmers sell corn to the bio-desile firms instead of exporting out growing power to hungry mouthes.  The remainder of the American corn and wheat surplus has been converted to soy years ago, due to the higher price it tends to fetch.  Africa is such a heart break.  But maybe I am all wrong.  Maybe the seeds have been planted and the farmers are just waiting for their yearly rain!  The soil looks turned…..

Fez is a very metropolitan city compared with Chef.  It is home to the largest Madena in the world.  A madena is a walled city, also known as an old city that resides within a newer city.  Think Indiana Jones part one.  This place seems like it is strait out of a movie.  A labyrinth to end all labyrinths, complete with camel head studed butcher shops, leather dieing factories, mosques, the Arab world’s oldest college (founded in 500AD), and donkeys carrying oversized propane tanks through dimly lit alley ways.

This all belongs in a movie. Being as the half mile medina in chef was enough of maze, we consented to a guide to lead us through the 5 mile leviathan.  Rasheed is a 60 year old man who speaks 8 languages and has been leading guided tours through the medina since he was 20.  Thankfully he was our guide today.  He was soft spoken and charming.  He taught French and Arabic at Cal State Fullerton for two years and has family and friends from all over the states.  With lightly Jewish accents, his cleanly shaven face smells of old spice. I quickly ponder if he wore this fragrance to make the westerners feel comfort, or if he had an authentic affinity for classic American fragrances.

Morocco is one of those places where you can physically feel two oceans of culture mix and swirl in a wonderfully diverse cocktail and Rasheed is the literal personification of this.  He speaks to us with the highest level of silky charm, almost too quiet to hear over the sound of the bustling world to his back.  All the while stopping kids in the back alleys and kissing their cheeks and waiving hello to their mothers.  He shakes hands with many of the shop owners, yet have visible rivals as some of the people  trade loud comments with him in Arabic.  One man tries to walk his overloaded donkey down an extra crowded and narrow alley and Rasheed raises his tone to an unsettling level.  Only a moment later, he looks back at us and gives us some tid bits about the next shop without acknowledging his previous quarrel.

This is the blend of cultures at a thousand miles per hour.  It’s not that he is two faced, he is just able to fully communicate with everyone and anyone.  He is the most culturally aware person I have met in my 10 months and my entire life for that matter.  He spends the day taking us to many places that we never would have found by ourselves.  Places that we never would have had the guts to walk into even if there was a lighted sign that said “welcome”.

The sidewalks ran a deep blue was we stormed alleys of clothing dyers.  Rasheed pats a few of the workers on the back; the luxuries of a 40 year veteran.  He says “did you notice that I haven’t paid for any of the goods I have purchased today (as he carries a few wheels of goat cheese and a few other items)?  I know everyone so well here that they trust me.  They tell me to pay them whenever.  Tomorrow, next week, even next month.  They know I’m not going anywhere.”  He literally grew up in this 5 mile stretch and is now a local icon.  His price for the day (by the way) was 7 euros per person (Erin and Me only).  A boy kicks a piece of trash recklessly in front of us and Rasheed smacks him on the top of the head, just harder than friendly.  His calm waters run deep.

We go to a outdoor factory used to stain leather.  The process takes just over a week where the animal hide first sits in a pit of lime to take all of the color out of it and then in a pit of pidgin poop (acidic) to strip all the hair off of the hides.  Then, the hide sits in one of 5 colored dye pits made from minerals or plants including: saffron root (yellow),  mascara mineral (black), and berry (red).  After this the hides are left on a hay covered rooftops for the sun to bake into submission.  Then the colors are locked in.  Forever.  The entire outdoor factory, every step of the process, lay beneath us, as we watch from a third story shop.  Onward is a view of Fez as a whole, a ton of simple high rise mud buildings with tiny square windows and a sea of satellite dishes that religiously point to the southern sky, instead, contradicting their master’s bowing east towards Mecca.  You have to love this place.  You just don’t have a choice.

We move on to get lunch and Rasheed takes us to a tourist trap where they cover the table with 30 small dishes full of starters.  Something clicks as not right when the waiters all wear cheezy hats, and there are nothing but old white people in the place.  I ask our waiter how much this lunch will cost per person and he replies with a cheerful “20 euros”.  I stand up and walk over to Rasheed and demand a different location.  He takes us to somewhere with a set menu of 10 euros.  I look at Erin and say “Hey, we asked for a tour.  Would you expect anything less?”  It’s ok to get Raped once in a while right?

But lets talk about freedom.  Religious freedom to be exact.  Fez is know to be the capital of artistry and culture in Morocco.  They have many religions practicing openly within the tightly confined spaces of the median, but the most interesting pair is Islam and Judaism.  In some of the neighboring countries , not so far from here when you look at a map, are countries who share hatred for each other’s dominant religion that leave an acrid burn in my mouth.   Yet this place, not so far from those extremists, lives in a harmony.  It’s far more impressive to see an African nation living in religious harmony than a western nation.  You have to love this place.  You just don’t have a choice.

We finally go to a rug factory where we sip on local tea as we hear the pitch.  First the tea, a green and mint mix; it tastes like a hot liquid cup of chewing gum.  I look at Erin and say “Best tea I’ve ever had !”  She smiles with a face that can only say “ditto”.  Now onto the carpets, starting at 100 euros, I think to myself, “Why would anyone pay so much for something that they step on?  It’s a rug!  I don’t care if it took 3 months to make by hand or if a machine popped it out in 30 seconds.  It’s shit, I step on shit.”  I realize hand crafted rugs are the third best useless and money making invention behind the notion of charging $5 for a 50 cent cup of coffee and charging $1 for a small bottle of something that flows out of your tap for less than a penny per 10 gallons (water).  Doe’s anyone remember oxygen bars?  Or corrugated steel roof tops?  If I’m going to pay 100 euros for a rug, it had better be saturated with 150 euros worth of cocaine!  But the tea made the presentation worth it.

After a long day of Berber-ism, we went back to the hostel, to which I write this post.  I sit in my all male dorm alone, because it is the low season and we are in a nation dominated by Islamic values.  Erin sets in an all female dorm alone, because it is the low season and we are in a nation dominated by Islamic values.  I am not allowed to visit her dorm, but she is allowed to visit mine (I feel like I am back in camp, or 2nd grade).  I am actually, believe it or not, not allowed to know where her dorm is located on the property.  I think I received the shock I was looking for.  Boom!!!! Morocco!!!!!  My traveling spirit is revitalized in a few short days away from the ordinary.

……….”He’s Back!!!!!!!”………………….

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