Archive for March, 2008


On the 8-hour bus ride from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina, you climb steep roads twisting their way across the Andes Mountains before emptying you into the heart of the wine region of Argentina.  Shortly after crossing the high-elevation border into Argentina, we spotted a snow-covered peak that our bus driver identified as Aconcagua – the tallest mountain you’ve probably never heard of.  Measuring 22,841 feet, it takes the honor as the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia, bigger than Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet) and Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) but well short of Mt. Everest (29,028 feet).


A couple of hours after descending from the Andes, we arrived in the provincial capitol of Mendoza.  Within a few miles of the city, there are dozens of vineyards producing wines that regularly receive international acclaim.  As this recognition continues to increase, so do the town’s visitors.  While we missed Mendoza’s annual wine festival by a week, we met several travelers who had come to Mendoza just to sample the local grape juice.  We did our part by visiting a few wineries, including a half-day tour through nearby vineyards and an olive oil producer via bicycle, rented (along with a map) from a well-named company called Bikes and Wines.

Walking through Mendoza at virtually any time of day or night, you will find the city’s residents wandering the streets, filling the tree-lined plazas scattered around the town and eating and drinking wine at the sidewalk cafes that are too numerous to count.  I’d heard that Argentineans like to eat dinner late, but I never truly understood that until our first night in Mendoza.


With my parents – who met us for a few days in Mendoza before catching a cruise circling Chile and Argentina ((Many people have asked me how I got the travel bug.  The easy answer is, “from my parents.”  Growing up, we traveled the States every year seeking out new destinations in our pop-up camper, from which many of my greatest memories were produced.  Once my sister and I started traveling internationally, my parents quickly followed…with a vengeance.  In the past 15 years, my Mom and Dad – who both grew up on farms in rural Tennessee – have seen over 30 countries and keep adding destinations to their must-see lists.  They are just one example of the many people I’ve met who started traveling internationally later in life; it goes to show you that it’s never too late to see the world!)) – we set off to sample grilled meat (an Argentina specialty) at 9:30 pm.  As we entered the restaurant, we noticed we were the only diners, making us nervous that we were eating at an establishment recently receiving a bad review by the local health department.  Our fears were soon allayed when we looked around at 10:00 pm and every table was full.  This phenomenon continued for our remaining days in Mendoza, as diners seemingly hid in their homes until they were allowed to exit around 10 or 10:30 pm.  As we walked back to our hotel after 11 pm each night, virtually every restaurant we passed was completely packed.


During our few days in Mendoza, we assimilated to the Mendozan way of life quite easily, sleeping to 10 am, drinking coffee until 11 am, eating lunch around 2 pm and starting to think about which sidewalk cafe we should dine at somewhere around 10 pm.  On our last day with my parents, we sat down for lunch at a cafe around 1:30 in the afternoon and didn’t leave until almost 6 pm, having an extended lunch and playing heated card games while fueling our systems with coffee and light conversation – the kind of day where you do virtually nothing memorable but know that you’ll never forget.

While the city of Mendoza isn’t remarkably beautiful (you have to drive a few miles out of the city to the surrounding vineyards for that), its pace of life is.  Coming from work- and money-obsessed America where taking vacations and slowing things down is considered a character flaw in many circles, you can’t help but think that the Mendozans have figured some things out that we Americans are unfortunately decades (if not centuries) from discovering.

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San Pedro de Atacama is in the southeast corner of the area of Chile known as the “Norte Grande,” or the “Great North.”  The moniker seems an apt description for San Pedro, where everything is, indeed, great in size: the desert stretches on for miles, the sky is immense, even the prices are huge.  ((Having only recently left Asia, where almost everything costs considerably less than it does at home, San Pedro’s prices really jolted us back to reality.  It’d been a long time since we had paid $2 for a bottle of water.))  Only the town itself is tiny–just a few adobe buildings in the middle of the Atacama desert. This place is the most arid on earth.  It hasn’t seen any rain since January, when it rained for about 30 minutes, and the last big rain was–get this–in 2001, when it rained for five hours.
While San Pedro itself has plenty of bars and restaurants, it’s the stuff outside of “civilization” that has tourists arriving in droves.  Every night, just outside of town, the sun puts on the best show around.  As it sets in the Valle de la Luna (or “Valley of the Moon,” so named because of the lunar-like landforms there created by eons of wind and floods), it paints the sky in spectacular shades, each section a different color.  We were lucky enough to see it one night after an amazing hike among the valley’s sand dunes.  To the west were yellows and oranges; turning a bit, we saw pinks and reds; the east was awash in blues and purples. Derek has a habit of describing things by rank.  A truly amazing meal is “one of the top five meals” he’s ever had.  A great hotel might be “one of the ten best” he’s stayed in.  For one of the first times in my life, as we watched the sun setting over the valley’s rolling sand dunes, I heard him pronounce that the sunset was the BEST he’d ever seen.  No rank needed.
About 40 miles south of San Pedro are the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama.  Like something out of a Salvador Dali painting, weirdly shaped rocks fill the landscape and extend for as far as the eye can see.  In the middle of it all is Lake Chaxa, a lagoon that plays home to three of the five flamingo species.  Only a handful of the pink ((Did you know that flamingos get their color from all of the pink shrimp they eat?  This fact has made me think twice about my massive consumption of cherry red Twizzlers, lest I take on a rosy hue…)) creatures were on hand when we paid them a visit, but I really loved being able to see them outside of the confines of a zoo.
Nearby the salt flats stand Laguna Miscanti and its smaller cousin, Laguna Miniques.  One day, we hiked through the sandy terrain surrounding the lakes for a lunchtime picnic.  A few bites into my sandwich, I realized that we had a guest: a small but determined desert fox watched us from a safe distance, getting ever closer as he realized that we were both harmless and in possession of food to his liking.  And he wasn’t our only companion from the animal kingdom–from a nearby hillside, about eight vicunas (they looked just like llamas to me…) cast watchful eyes over the group.
Tourists willing to awake on time for a 4:00 am departure from San Pedro ((This group included me, though I would replace “willing” with “coerced by spouse.”)) can head to El Tatio, the world’s highest major geyser field.  For the price of a few hours of sleep (and a small admission fee), you get to walk through the steam bath created by the world-famous geysers, all of which are located in the collapsed center of a volcano.  ((Allegedly, the early-morning arrival is imperative because, as the morning wears on, winds arise and sweep away the picturesque steam from the geysers.  Given that the steam was still entirely visible by mid-morning, when we left, I find the whole thing a bit suspect.))  This is no American tourist attraction, replete with guardrails and large-print warning signs.  Tatio is a free-for-all where tourists stroll among the thin-crusted geysers at their own risk.  Four have fallen to their deaths in recent years.  Most of the accidents have taken place near a particular geyser, now aptly referred to as “killer.”  This probably was not the best venue for my still-groggy self, but I survived without incident.

This fact is particularly surprising given that Derek and I, in a “you only do this once”-induced moment of insanity, took a plunge in one of the geyser-created hot springs.  The water, though warm, did little to cut the chill of the 30-degree air.  While falling to our deaths wasn’t a real threat (we were there with a knowledgeable guide), catching pneumonia was.  Alas, we survived, and we headed out of San Pedro with little more than good memories and fantastic photographs.

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Having lived in cities all of my life, I’ve rarely been in areas remote enough to really view the stars.  Like many people, I’m fairly ignorant of space.  Other than a basic understanding of how the earth rotates and the ability to point out a couple of constellations on a clear night, I’ve generally chosen to ignore the world above because prolonged reflection on space tends to freak me out. 

The Atacama Desert, located in Northern Chile, is a world-class destination for astronomers due to its remote location and perpetually clear skies.  On the first night of our arrival in San Pedro de Atacama, the small town that plays home to the desert, we looked up into the sky in amazement as thousands of stars appeared before us.  The next day, we signed up for a star-gazing tour led by a French astronomer, Alain Maury, who came to the desert to view the stars and never left. 
Because the sun sets late in Chile at this time of year, the tour didn’t start until 11 p.m.  After a short ride out of the metropolis (population less than 2,000!) of San Pedro de Atacama, we arrived at the small country house owned by Alain and his wife.  After a quick introduction, Alain began a brief overview of the sky and fortunately answered many of my very stupid questions before I had the chance to ask them.

A few minutes later, we were outside in the cold desert staring in disbelief at the stars above.  With a slick, green laser pen, Alain was able to point out specific stars and constellations.  For the first time in my life, I was actually able to see the Milky Way, the galaxy in which the Earth resides.  The arc of clustered stars was so obvious in the desert sky that it seemed imposssible that I’ve gone my entire life without seeing them before.

A few feet from his house, Alain has six massive telescopes pointed to different areas of the sky.  We took our turns bending down, and in some cases climbing ladders, to peer through the eyepieces at the radiant sky.  As pointed out by Alain, the light from the stars we were viewing (traveling at 186,000 miles per second) had taken several years to reach the spot where we were.  A few seconds of contemplation of this fact was all I could handle at 12:30 in the morning. 
The oddest moment came when we approached the telescope pointed at the planet Saturn.  Expecting to see a blurry image of this distant planet, we were instead greeted with a picture of Saturn that had to have been a cut-out from a piece of paper.  The image was so clear (the picture to the right doesn’t do it justice) and Saturn-esque (?) that I truly believed it was part of a cruel joke played by the Frenchman.  After questioning him, he confirmed that we were not the first doubters, but the image was true. 

After some hot chocolate and a wrap-up from our teacher, we headed home around 1:30 am having a greater understanding of our planet’s surroundings but also a greater feeling of insignificance as only a minuscule piece of this massive universe.

The following is our first GUEST BLOG, written by Shane (Shanna’s brother) and Leyna (his girlfriend), who met us in Santiago, Chile for four days
Pablo Neruda, the unofficial poet of Chile, was reputed to only write with a green pen, as green was the color of Esperanza (which means “hope” in Spanish).  Once, presumably talking about one of his many wives or mistresses, he wrote, “I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride; so I love you because I know no other way.”  He could have just as easily been talking about Chile.  Chile is familiar and yet strange, frantic but peaceful.  It is a country where 70% of its inhabitants declare themselves Catholic, and yet entwined lovers can be seen on any available flat surface.  Remnants of Pinochet’s rule can be seen in the utilitarian architecture, devoid of any aesthetic value, but their vibrantly painted exteriors speak of renewed hope and a lust for life.
Our first dinner was in the Bellavista district, at Azul Profundo, home to excellent seafood, colorful buildings, sidewalk cafes, Pablo Neruda, and the only mountaintop zoo we’d ever seen.  During our first full day with Shanna and Derek, we rented a car to make the drive from Santiago to Valparaiso, a Pacific port city sometimes compared to San Francisco.  A wrong but fortunate turn took us through gorgeous winding mountain roads, and we arrived on the coast after a four-hour journey.  After exploring Valparaiso’s hills and extravagantly painted back alleys on foot, we ate lunch at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the ocean.  We soon noticed that our plates were being continuously speckled with pieces of ash.  Though people at the surrounding tables were smoking cigarettes, this ash was mysteriously thick.
After dinner, we made our way down to the coast of the neighboring town, Viña del Mar.   It was there that we noticed a huge plume of black smoke being belched from the mountains behind Valparaiso.  We had read that Chile had over 2000 volcanoes.  We had apparently found one!  The ashy cloud coated the sky and the setting sun, providing a beautiful walk on the beach and several excellent photos.  In fact, two Chilean “Golden Girls” temporarily commandeered Derek’s camera in order to take our picture in front of the ashy sun, screaming and laughing in Spanish, while Derek anxiously analyzed any potential exits they might suddenly take advantage of with his camera.

As darkness fell, we began our journey home.  Within 10 minutes we encountered a crash and had to detour.  In the US, detours generally take you along flat country roads.  On the Chilean coast, detours apparently take you through treacherously narrow and hilly urban roads that only consist of hairpin, 175˚ turns.  Thanks to the kindness of a Chilean cab driver, who allowed us to follow him through some alleys and down some hills, we made our way back to the highway and home to Santiago.
That night, while Shanna and Derek retired to their hotel, we decided to sample the Santiago night life.  Leyna discovered the citrus-veiled evils of Chile’s specialty drink, the pisco sour (“Vicious and delicious!”), and Shane found out that there is a reason Chile is known for its wine-production, rather than its beer exports (“Awful.”).  We awoke to find that, not only did our heads hurt, some cash had “disappeared” from our hotel room.  Though our money was stolen, our passports were thankfully left untouched. After spending a day at the Concha y Toro winery, located on a beautiful expanse of land in the countryside, we soon forgot about the unfortunate occurrence.
After our short stay, it was time to return home.  Upon arriving at the airport, we were informed that our nine-hour layover at the São Paulo was prohibited by the Brazilian government, which institutes an eight-hour limit on layovers for travelers without visas.  This was shocking, as our 13-hour stay on the way down was not a problem and this information is nowhere to be found on the internet.  The airline wouldn’t budge and calls to our online travel broker proved to be frivolous.

When all hope began to fade, Shanna and Derek arrived at the airport to catch an unrelated flight.  Upon hearing about our situation, they morphed into an efficient and relentless double-pronged lawyer machine.  Their ease of navigating such a stressful situation made our feeble attempts at handling the predicament look laughable.  It was like a major league ball player pinch hitting for the ninth batter on a 2nd grade tee-ball team.  Although we never made it onto our original flight, Derek’s Jedi-mind tricks allowed us to purchase two relatively inexpensive tickets back to the US, and we managed to make it home without any additional delays.
Like Neruda, we aren’t sure what is was that made us fall in love, but we did.  We fell in love with Chile during our short stay there.  It is not the most glamorous place we have traveled.  Not the cleanest.  Not the sexiest, nor the most worry-free.  But there is something about it that immediately feels like home.  It manages to excite in the most unassuming way.  The people are genuine, the food is fantastic, and the landscape can be surreal at times.  Chile makes no apologies, as our interactions with hotel staff and airlines can attest, but it is that same honesty that makes the journey worthwhile.

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A few days ago, in the middle of our 50-hour, epic journey from Bangkok to Santiago, we had a layover in Detroit.  In a way, we felt that we were coming full-circle in this, the middle of our journey: our trip had begun six months before with a flight out of the same airport.  After spending all but four days of those six months in Asia, which often felt very, very foreign, it was nice to be home, even if only in the airport and only for a few hours. 

My parents live in Rochester, a suburb of Detroit, and so they, along with my aunts, my cousin and one of my best friends, met us during our layover.  They came bearing gifts.  Although I was bleary-eyed at the time from 24 hours of flying, I managed to consume embarrassing quantities of Diet Coke (the stuff abroad is not nearly as good as the Real Thing, I swear to you), homemade chocolate-chip cookies (impossible to get on the road) and a full meal from Kruse and Muer, the restaurant whose food I always crave when I´m away from Rochester for too long.  In my few hours on home turf, I tried to soak up as much of the U.S. as possible.  I drank water straight from the tap, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn´t make me sick.  I watched the snow fall.  I luxuriated in the friendliness of the woman who drove the airport shuttle bus.  And, much too soon, it all came to an end and we were waving goodbye and boarding yet another plane, this time to Chile.

For me, our brief foray back into America really broke up the trip.  We´re now at Mile 13.1–half finished with a journey that is much more a marathon than a sprint.  In the past six months, we´ve had countless amazing experiences, a handful of trying ones and quite a few about which the numbers will tell the best story…

  • Countries visited: 16
  • Pairs of shoes worn through: 1
  • Bouts of food poisoning: 2 (Derek); 1 (Shanna)
  • Friends and family members who joined us for a leg of our journey: 10
  • Pieces of luggage destroyed by the airlines: 1
  • Pictures taken (not including the thousands we´ve deleted): 6,423
  • Visits by Shanna to the dentist: 7
  • Mattresses purchased for a Chinese orphanage: 120
  • Electronic appliances lost or stolen: 2
  • Missed flights: 0

Having spent a semester studying international business in Bangkok and passing through the city 5 or 6 times on various trips to Southeast Asia, I’ve spent more time in Bangkok than in any other city outside of Nashville, Tennessee and Durham, North Carolina.  Many people arrive in the city counting the seconds until their departure, overwhelmed by its size, congestion and pollution (which seems to be steadily improving).  I’ve only had the opposite reaction.  Of the many foreign cities I’ve visited, it is one of the few where I would consider residing.
During Shanna’s two prior visits with me to Bangkok, we skipped the sites and took advantage of the many cosmopolitan offerings of this large city, sampling the amazing food on offer at the countless restaurants and visiting the upscale day spas where a half-day at the spa costs the equivalent of 15 minutes in a American spa.  On this visit, however, I felt obliged to accompany Shanna and our friend Dana on an afternoon visit of the most prominent sites in Bangkok.
After a short boat ride down the Chao Phraya River (the heart and soul of Bangkok), we arrived at the Grand Palace – the former residential complex of the King.  ((If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you probably know that the Thai people LOVE their king.  Over 80 years old and the longest reigning monarch (having been on the throne over 50 years), the King is considered a champion of Thailand’s poor.  Although the King technically has no legal power in Thailand, his influence is immeasurable.  Pictures of him can be seen in virtually every business and home throughout the country, and utterances of a negative word about the King will put you in jail and will likely put you in the hospital or worse.  In January, the King’s sister died.  In response, the whole country went into mourning, building shrines to the princess on virtually every street corner.  I can’t imagine the country’s reaction when the King eventually passes away.))  While we are definitely at temple overload considering our six months in Asia and the approximately 1.2 million temples/wats/pagodas we’ve visited, the sites at the Grand Palace didn’t let us down.  The Grand Palace complex consists of multiple buildings (including the Grand Palace, which is unfortunately closed to the public) with the most impressive being Wat Phra Kaew.  This ornate wat, described by Shanna as the Taj Mahal of wats, contains the venerated Emerald Buddha, a fairly tiny Buddha statue actually made of jade (not emerald).
Next, we walked through the crowded Bangkok streets to Wat Pho.  From the outside, this wat would look fairly ordinary.  However, the interior contains the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world, measuring almost 150 feet long and 50 feet high and filling almost every inch of the wat.  The reclining Buddha, modeled out of plaster around a brick core and finished in gold leaf, contains a rather content smile – representing the euphoric feeling of the Buddha as he prepares to enter nirvana and end the cycle of reincarnation.

These world-class sites are a must-see in Bangkok and a fitting end to our sightseeing in Asia.

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After several days in Luang Prabang, Laos, we caught a short flight to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand where we immediately boarded a minibus headed towards the mountain town of Pai (pronounced “bye”). The road from Chiang Mai to Pai is legendary – three hours of countless hairpin turns that combine to create one of the best motorcycle rides in the world. As I stared out the window keeping my eyes focused on one object in order to quell the feelings of motion sickness, I momentarily thought I was back in Tennessee driving through the Smoky Mountains on my way from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove – the geography was strikingly similar.

Pai has achieved legendary status among the backpacker, hippie crowd. Its idyllic climate in a spectacular mountain setting combined with ridiculously cheap prices and all the amenities a backpacker craves (including abundant Internet cafes and travel agencies, day trips galore and a friendly, tolerant community) keeps travelers staying here for much longer than originally anticipated. We met several travelers who have stayed here for months at a time and continue to return here year after year. I understand the appeal. While I’m about as far away from a hippie as someone can get, I do enjoy the laid-back feel that the backpacker community generates.
After a three days of doing virtually nothing in Pai (other than an eventful elephant ride by Shanna and our friend Dana–Shanna’s elephant threw her over its head and into the river…twice) and a couple of days in Chiang Mai doing the same, we flew to Bangkok and headed straight to the most famous backpacker spot on the planet – Khao San Road. Due to Bangkok’s central location in Southeast Asia, backpackers tend to wind up in Bangkok several times during any trip to the region. Needing a cheap place to stay, travelers found a few, cheap guesthouses on Khao San Road (a small street conveniently located near most of the can’t-miss sights of Bangkok) a few decades ago. In the past twenty years, Khao San Road and the surrounding area have exploded with hundreds of guesthouses, restaurants (including the addition of Burger King and McDonald’s, inflaming many in the hardcore crowd), bars, Internet cafes and travel agencies.
Khao San Road may be the most diverse place in the world and is my number one place to people watch. Sitting in a roadside cafe for just a few minutes, you might see a young German couple passing through Bangkok on their way to the islands of Southern Thailand, a Thai hipster with pink hair, an aging hippie trying to relive his glory days when he came to Bangkok in the 60s, a wide-eyed 18-year old woman from England just starting out on her “Gap Year” ((In England, many high school graduates take a year off to travel the world before they head to college. The practice is so common that the term “Gap Year” has become common in England and has spread elsewhere in Europe and Australia. I fear the term will never gain traction across the pond…)), a dreadlocked Australian and even…a couple of 30-something lawyers from the States.

A visit to places like Pai and Khao San Road draws strong reactions. Many people despise these communities, commenting that these places are not the “real” Thailand or whatever other country in which they may be located. Others understand that, of course, they are not “real”, but they are a community nonetheless where fellow travelers can momentarily escape the stress that traveling in a foreign environment for a lengthy period can sometimes create. Regardless of a vistor’s reaction, travelers tend to keep coming back, seemingly incapable of avoiding their unique and sometimes overwhelming draw. Given that Shanna and I have already been to Khao San Road twice in as many years, I’d say the same is true for us.

As the true jewel in Laos’s crown of tourist attractions, Luang Prabang–with a population of only 26,000–is not a big city.  Rather, it’s a small town with a lot to offer the ever-increasing number of tourists who come to wander its idyllic streets, dine in its French-influenced cafes and soak up its incredibly contagious relaxed attitude.  After five days of doing just that, I find that I can sum up our time in Luang Prabang by recalling three great experiences and one that I’m still worrying about.

First, the good stuff…
As we meandered through Luang Prabang’s neighborhoods, we came across temple after temple that housed both ancient relics and young novice monks eager to practice their English with passers-by.  Like so many churches in small-town America, the temples felt very much like the center of the town’s community life.  Wat Xieng Thong, a temple just down the street from our guesthouse, was celebrating a once-a-year festival while we were there.  We were lucky to witness the temple’s vibrant religious community performing ceremonies on their own behalf, rather than–as we’ve seen elsewhere–because tourists expected them to do so.
One day, Derek, Dana–my good friend who joined us on our travels for a couple of weeks–and I took at boat down the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves.  Docking on the riverbank, we found two caves situated one on top of the other in a limestone cliff.  Both were crammed with Buddha images of all sizes and styles, and a few locals were on hand to pay their respects to these unique additions to the natural world.
The next day, we all hopped aboard a tuk-tuk and rode an hour through the Laos countryside to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls.  What an incredible surprise!  You know those glossy brochures that advertise tropical getaways?  They usually feature a happy couple laughing under a waterfall while standing in a turquoise pool of water, surrounded by tropical foliage and brightly colored flowers.  Well, I’d say that there is a fairly strong chance that those pictures were taken at these waterfalls.  They were stunning and, because we arrived just as the park that houses them was opening, we had them nearly all to ourselves.  A random but fantastic bonus were the caged bears and tiger that greeted us at the park’s entrance.  Rescued from poachers, they now live out their days in large habitats under the protective watch of the park staff.

And now, the worrisome part…
On our last morning in Luang Prabang, we woke up early to witness a ritual that surely has been taking place for as long as the townspeople can remember.  Every morning, just after 6:00 a.m., hundreds of monks line up and walk down the main street, collecting offerings of food that will serve as their meals for the day.  In their saffron-colored robes under the early-morning sky, the monks are a sight that most everyone would want to see.  And that’s just the problem: everyone does.  Tourists piled off of buses and onto plastic stools placed along the road for them by enterprising tour operators.  With their flashing cameras and their frantic efforts to capture every move that the monks made, they would have put the American paparazzi to shame.  And I admit: we all did our part to add to the madness.  We guiltily snapped pictures and took videos alongside the rest of the onlookers, only adding to the sense that the monks had way too much in common with the caged animals we saw at the falls–lovely to look at and permanently on display.  And therein, I suppose, lies one of the biggest paradoxes of independent travel: we all want to witness (and photograph) unique, authentic occasions.  We just wish that everyone there to do the same would stop ruining the experience for us.

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