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rje May 7th, 2016 11:42 AM

A 6-week waking dream in North and South India.
This was my second trip to India, and C's first. I'd already been to Tamil Nadu (and also Karnataka), but Kerala and Rajasthan were new to us both.

I won't spend much time describing the most common attractions we visited, as these are either well-known on this board or easily researched.

Traveling by car, train and boat in India feels like floating in a waking dream. Brief glimpses of unforgettable scenes at the side of the road, on riverbanks, while passing through towns and villages were like watching little 5-second plays. Glimpses of drama, comedy, even musical theatre, complete with singing and dancing. Which is the way we dream - a series of disconnected stories that often make no sense, but are nonetheless compelling. This is multiplied by the sheer "foreignness" of India for westerners. I sometimes took photos through the windows as we as we whisked by these moments, and sometimes that actually worked, but usually we were already past before I could have possibly raised my camera. So most of the striking images I saw reside in my memory, rather than digitally in a computer.

Of course the time we spent staying put and letting India slowly reveal itself was richly rewarding. But we also really enjoyed the time we spent while traveling from place to place.

<b>Planning and some general impressions</b>

Now clearly, six weeks of travel anywhere provides the gods of mayhem a lot of opportunities to rub our noses in the fact that we don't control what happens to us. And clearly India has a whole lot of gods. I hoped that careful planning would help ward off such ruination. But I packed my lucky travel socks, just in case.

All through the trip we took low dose generic Rifaximin once every morning. We bought it at a hospital pharmacy in Cochin for a tiny fraction of what it costs in the US. As a result, we both were able to eat whatever we wanted, which included lots of salads, raw fruit, vegetables and herbs, juice, and street food. We're not vegetarians, so we ate fish and chicken, but didn't eat any beef while in India. We did avoid any places where we had any reason to doubt the sanitation or food handling (including buffets where food sat around). And neither of us had any problems during the 6 weeks, so either we were lucky, or the Rifaximin worked.
I wrote more about this here:

I tried to plan our itinerary around Indian weather patterns. That meant we needed to finish in the south by late January, before things turned scorchy, and then head north to Rajasthan at the end of the month, when temperatures should have warmed to pleasant ranges, and the fog dissipated. This plan worked perfectly in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, where we enjoyed temperatures in the high 70s to the low 80s, but was sometimes less successful in Kerala, where early January this year was hotter than the seasonal norms. Munnar was, of course the exception in Kerala, as being up in the hills provided temperatures that were cooler.

Our mode of transport from JFK to India was both indulgent and strategic. We wanted to arrive in India rested, so as to shorten the adjustment to the new time zone. But more importantly, C has disabilities that make flying in coach physically painful for her. And while business class would have sufficed, I decided to make the first leg both super comfortable for her and also celebratory by cashing in a pile of miles for an Etihad first class award. It turned out to be a great decision, as I was able to snag 2 of what Etihad has named "The Apartment". They were dazzling. We may never be able to do such a thing again, though!

Each apartment on the A380 is actually a room with several windows and a closable sliding door. They take up half the width of the sizable aircraft, with a single aisle down the middle. In addition to a wide reclining seat, each person also gets their own big leather couch which opens into a long flat bed. There is a closet with hangers and various drawers throughout the apartment, and large storage drawers for carry-on bags under the couch, configured much like a captain's bed. And there is a shower in one of the bathrooms, so you can bathe at 40,000 feet! I had actually planned to do that, but never got around to it.

One of the photos I took shows my POV of watching our takeoff on the big entertainment monitor, as seen from the tail-mounted camera, so that I could see both the plane and the surrounding area. This could be switched to a camera mounted in the belly of the plane, looking straight down at the ground. While this provided a beautiful view as we flew over the Nile reflecting golden sunlight at dawn, the view was far less inspiring whenever the plane was sitting on the ground!

Even if you don't care about planes, you should take a look at these photos I took of the interior. I'm certainly not an airplane geek or blogger, and have never before posted plane photos, but this was really quite an aircraft!

<b>Photos of the Etihad apartments we flew in are here:</b>

Kathie May 7th, 2016 11:48 AM

Wow - love those "apartments"!

Looking forward to hearing more about your trip.

rje May 7th, 2016 01:29 PM

Thanks, Kathie, glad you'll be reading along!

(more thoughts)

Southern India at the latitude of Kerala and Tamil Nadu has developed in such a way that most of the foreign tourists are likely to be found on the coasts, with fewer in the interior. The west coast especially has been marketed enough toward tourism that cruise ships dock in Cochin (and to the north, Goa). Some areas of the coasts now display less of the "foreignness" and exoticism that draws many foreign visitors to India, although these areas are limited. There are far more hotels and restaurants of an international or fusion style there than in the interior. And the increasing rise of tourism by Indians within their own country has furthered this trend. This can be a positive on a trip to the south, as arriving at one coast can provide visitors a gentle emersion into India, and the other can be a place to relax at the end of a trip. Kind of like an "India sandwich", with the interior being the main ingredient. Although I'm not really sure what the coasts being the bread means in this analogy. But this is all relative, as we saw far fewer foreign tourists in <i>all</i> parts of southern India than in Rajasthan. And there are still plenty of fascinating, beautiful, unspoiled, and exotic locations on both coasts to make these rewarding areas to visit for those who have a limited interest in the India/International fusion style.

We did research before we left and for the most part had good experiences with food in India. On the advice of several Indian people, we checked out, as many of the reviews there are written by Indian residents, not tourists. While selective use of sites like Tripadvisor can be helpful for researching hotels, the restaurant reviews in many countries are a lot more… dubious. We're no strangers to Indian food, as there are a lot of Indian restaurants at home in New York City, but surprisingly, a large number of them are run by Pakistani owners! So it was interesting to compare the versions of dishes we knew from home with the ones in India. We only went to driver-recommended places when in remote locations where we didn't have a clue where to eat. These recommendations varied considerably in quality, and although they were some of the worst meals we had, we also had a couple of the best!

Throughout both north and south India we found that a simple specific request in restaurants helped improve the food hugely for us. We like Indian food that has a lot of flavor, but that is not especially hot. For example, we like food containing things like ginger, coriander, etc., but not a lot of chili, which is where most of the heat comes from. We found that in most restaurants we could find someone who spoke enough English that we could communicate this preference successfully. And when we did this, the food was usually much better and less tourist-bland than when we didn't!

C began to learn some Hindi prior to leaving, but found that not very useful throughout our trip. Although it is the language being taught in schools and proscribed by the government, in most of India people may know individual words, but seldom more. Although it is widely spoken in Delhi, as we traveled further throughout Rajasthan, we found the language changes rapidly. And in places like Tamil Nadu, the Tamil words may change even from village to village. Even our Indian drivers sometimes struggled with communicating outside of their home towns.

In most cases, we found roads in the south infinitely better maintained than in the north, and provided a smoother ride. Even in poor rural areas. Because of their good condition, many also allowed for higher speeds, cutting travel time between more distant destinations. In contrast, if we had been told that some of the rural roads we took in the north were in reality not roads at all, but instead we were driving on dry rocky riverbeds, we would have believed it.

The head-bobble. This has been commented on in this forum before, but I just wanted to mention a theory of its origin:

“For well over 400 years, Indians were ruled by the British Empire and before that it was all monarchy. And people were afraid of saying no as an answer.”, Neither the British nor the monarchy liked to hear ‘no’ as an answer. They don’t care. It doesn’t matter if it’s feasible or not. They just want to hear ‘yes.’ So people were afraid and instead of saying a strong ‘no, ’ they would just nod their head this way and leave it up to the other person to judge whether it’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and leave it there.”
Of course, it also means many more things than just "no"

(coming next, Cochin and the backwaters)

thursdaysd May 7th, 2016 07:37 PM

Wow, that looks like one comfortable flight! I will try not to think about it the next time I fly economy... (Have you read the recent report about walking through first class inducing rage in economy class passengers? Hope they don't walk past these!)

Enjoying your TR.

tripplanner001 May 7th, 2016 07:59 PM

Thanks for sharing. I'll be following along too.

loncall May 7th, 2016 10:39 PM

I love your description of seeing a multitude of brief snapshots of local life as you drove through India. You have captured the fascination and privilege of travel perfectly.

Very much looking forward to hearing more as I plan for my Northern Indian trip later this year.

dgunbug May 8th, 2016 04:48 AM

Omg...that was some flight...and we thought our business class flight was wonderful - not anymore! What a great start to your trip report. I've been looking forward to following along on your adventure as you did mine. Can't wait to hear about your opinions. As you know, we loved Tamil Nadu.

rje May 8th, 2016 06:53 AM

well, we may see you in economy, as we usually fly that way, too!

I did see that article, and wondered about it. It seemed to me that most of the air rage stories I hear about originate from the airlines increasing trend of taking away more and more comfort from economy class while cramming people closer and closer. And here's an interesting reaction to that story:


Happy to have you along!

Thanks! And you're right, it truly is a privilege to be able to travel to the all wonderful places we get posters on this forum have been lucky enough to visit.

We love Tamil Nadu, too. I was so glad when you got there, as I had thought that would be the part you'd like the best!


Our trip officially started when I received a text message from Etihad that our complimentary car to the airport was waiting for us outside our apartment building. This was a nice way to start our trip, and the drive to JFK had surprisingly light traffic. Soon we were ensconced in the spanking new Etihad JFK lounge, which was comfortable and attractive, and served very good food, although we only nibbled so as to save our appetite for the flight. When it was time to board, the process went quickly, as the A380 has separate jet bridges to both the upper and lower levels of the plane. Have to turn down the pre-flight champagne after having read about the dangers of mixing valium with even small amounts of alcohol. So I gazed at the bottles of champagne being offered with a tragic expression and attempted to endure this wretched existence I've been consigned to. I console myself with a mocktail of mango, lime and grenadine (as I write this, I notice that Spellcheck has changed mocktail to cocktail. Spellcheck wants to get me drunk).

The charming on-board chef visited shortly after takeoff to consult on how we'd like our meals. We could order off the menu. Or have him put together something to our taste, which is what we did. When I told him I'd like the biryani, he suggested having it with rack of lamb, which was sensational. After dinner, the flight attendants made up our beds, which were spacious and yet surprisingly hard. I wonder why Etihad allowed such an oversight. Maybe it was intentional and they were just preparing us for those infamous beds of India! But every other aspect was wonderful. Although it was a very lengthy trip, traveling in such a manner meant that the time flew by, both literally and figuratively, and before we knew it, we were watching the evening lights of Cochin glitter below us during our approach.

<b>Photos of Cochin and the backwaters are here:

All photo albums are here:[email protected]/albums</b>
They look better and show more if you make them large!

We stayed in the Fort Kochi area, which I'd recommend, as that central location allowed for easy strolling to many sites and restaurants. The Old Harbour Hotel is a charming oasis located right across from the most famous group of Chinese fishing nets. Despite this, it's a quiet and relaxing place to come back to after a long day. Hidden behind its high walls is a large and lovely garden with water lily ponds and a pool. The hotel itself is a beautiful old colonial building, with interior decor to match. It is also quite popular, so reservations are required well in advance.

Across the street and through a park, a promenade runs parallel to the shoreline where those Chinese fishing nets are located. Many Indian people come to stroll, get some sea air and a snack and watch the sunset. There is a playground where families come to frolic, and areas to sit where young couples steal a kiss. If you don't look like you are from India, the guys at the Chinese fishing nets will likely shout to get your attention as you walk by. They've discovered that they can get tourists to pay a hefty price to be allowed to lower and raise the nets. Nice when you can get someone to pay you for doing your work! My practice is that when people shout at me to come spend money for something I don't want, I pretend I didn't hear them and keep walking.

Early the next morning we were picked up at our hotel by Peter Thomas from Salmon Tours. I'd heard very good things about him from a couple of people on Tripadvisor who'd toured with him. We'd emailed him before the trip to arrange for a traditional country boat trip into the backwaters around Cochin. The boat is quietly poled through narrow canals surrounded by beautiful lush foliage, pristine and teeming with birds. Included is a visit to a traditional village and a chance to cook and have lunch with a village family. We passed on the village, as we knew we'd be in many villages soon, and were more interested in the serene nature. It was a lovely trip, with no tourists at all to be seen. In fact, hardly any other people at all, which was fine with us, as we would be taking another small boat ride in the backwaters south of Cochin, and that would include more people and villages. Occasionally we'd pass small canoes carrying local people as we glided through the greenery. Peter was great, sensing when we just wanted to be quiet and listen to the gentle sounds of birds and the breeze rustling through the leaves and when we wanted to talk about the politics and culture of India, which was conducted mostly in the car! Peter is intelligent and interesting and speaks English well, and based on our great experience would recommend him for a tour in the Cochin area.
[email protected]
[email protected]

A highlight for us was Santa Cruz Cathedral, which we loved. It has a great mix of Portuguese and Indian cultures inside. We've never been to Goa, but I suppose there is a lot of that there. Thursdaysd, maybe you can comment on that, as I remember you spent time in Goa?

As in many parts of India, we enjoyed wandering aimlessly on our own, through interesting traditional neighborhoods. Those parts of Cochin resemble more a continuous series of villages than a typical Indian city. The great thing about wandering in India is that there are usually tuk-tuks to bring you back to the hotel if you get lost.

One of the best meals we had during our entire trip was a lunch at Fusion Bay in Fort Kochi. The word "fusion" in the name makes it sound like it might be silly-trendy, but instead it is a modest little place with modest little prices and exceptional Kerala seafood dishes. I could rhapsodize about the Corriander Fish Pollichathu, a fillet of nicely spiced fish smothered in fresh herbs and then baked in a banana leaf. So very flavorful, but not too hot. Also, Prawns Kerala. And everything else we tried was delicious, too.

Also very pleasant and a very short walk from Old Harbour House is Kashi Art cafe (international food - casual). They even have Banana Cream Pie! We countered the heat with excellent iced coffee.

Turns out that Cochin was a great place to cheaply (insanely cheaply) fill our Rifaximin prescription. Due to the many hospitals in the area, pharmacies there were good and plentiful.

After careful consideration, we decided not to take any anti-malarials, but would be religious about using insect repellant. We're big fans of the unfortunately named Bug-X –– towelettes that come in little disposable packets which fit easily in a pocket. It is not noticeable on the skin and has almost no odor. It had worked in Laos where it repelled a lot of mosquitos. Luckily, there were none to be seen in India during our 6 weeks. Even in the backwaters. OK, actually there was one… exactly one!

One negative was that Cochin was the only place in the south where we encountered sales pressure on the street from merchants. The walk down a narrow street to the Jewish synagogue has been turned into a cattle chute through which hapless tourists have to endure a barrage of salesmen coming from a line of tourist shops. We walked the gauntlet, eyes fixed above those shops to the second floors, which frankly had the more interesting architecture anyway.

I was also surprised to see a number of young women (western tourists) walking around the busier sections of Cochin wearing shorts cut so high that most of their bottoms were exposed. I would have thought most visitors would be aware that modesty of dress is part of the culture of India.

While planning the trip, I'd had a hard time figuring out where to stay and where to visit for our backwaters experience. I'd read that there is a less visited area north of Cochin, but was unable to find enough information before we left. And I kept hearing that boats leaving Alleppey now had to travel through overcrowded waterways, so we looked for other places. One area that intrigued me was around Monroe Island, which is south of Alleppey, and is supposed to be very unspoiled and beautiful. But we never made it there, as out trip was already getting ridiculously long! We also loved the idea of a home stay in the backwaters, but most that interested us didn't have air conditioning, which we both need. Also, I had visions of mosquitos, so in the end we chickened out and went the more splurgy route, and stayed at a beautiful character-rich hotel called Purity. It is a restored old mansion/estate on the shore of Lake Vembanad, and is relatively small and intimate, unlike all those huge resorts located on the lake. One nice thing was that we were able to have a Shikara boat pick us up early in the morning right at the hotel dock. The Shikara ride was a nice compliment to the country boat ride, as it crossed the big lake full of fishermen at sunrise, and then moved into narrow canals full of old village homes, where we saw village life from our boat. It had an engine, but it was mercifully quiet, and so narrow that we could easily go through the most narrow canals. The fact that it had a roof was welcome as the sun became quite strong, and the deck style recliners also ended up being welcome.

We stayed at Purity for 2 nights, enjoying the local life around us and the lush tropical location, and then were ready for the driver I'd arrange to pick us up for the next leg of our trip into the hills of Munnar.

(to be continued)

dgunbug May 8th, 2016 07:22 AM

So glad you enjoyed Cochin and the backwaters more than we did. Your pictures are beautiful, but you missed the largest mall in Asia!!! Looking at your pictures and my own, which are also beautiful, I still say that much of the scenery on the backwaters was like south Florida. I guess I'm spoiled. I am really enjoying your report.

rje May 8th, 2016 07:39 AM


That mall sounded like a hoot! I think we drove by it on the way to Munnar from Lake Vembanad.

I have to say I disagree with the South Florida comparison. I was born in Miami and spent my first 16 years there. I also still visit family there frequently. And I thought that while both places have palm trees and egrets, the comparison pretty-much ends there.

The differences were so big that we wouldn't think them at all similar. The architecture of the homes, the people and their clothing, the boats, smells, and most of the wildlife sang "India" with a capital "I" to us.

I will say that I did notice a few Florida-style towers while driving past one area of Cochin city, but this was not an area we'd ever had wanted to visit.

Kathie May 8th, 2016 07:59 AM

Enjoying your report. We haven't yet been to Southern India but I find it calls to me much more than the Golden Triangle are that everyone visits.

rje May 8th, 2016 12:50 PM

One of the things we loved about much of southern India is how few tourists you see there, as compared to the Golden Triangle. So it looks so much more atmospheric. (Unless one runs into me there, in which case I'll spoil it for someone, by being a damn tourist in their photo.)

A lot of sites are also blissfully uncrowded. Some of the great temples in Tamil Nadu, for example. So that the mood is so much calmer and more like being in another time.

rje May 8th, 2016 12:53 PM

I realized that I forgot to include our itinerary for the trip.

South India:
New York - Cochin
Cochin - Lake Vembanad (backwaters)
Lake Vembanad - Munnar
Munnar - Madurai
Madurai - Chettinad region
Chettinad region - Tanjore
Tanjore - Pondicherry
Pondicherry - Jaipur (flight)

Rajasthan (and Mumbai):
Jaipur - Shekhawati region
Shekhawati region - Bikaner
Bikaner - Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer - Jodhpur
Jodhpur - Narlai
Narlai - Bera
Bera - Khempur
Khempur - Begun
Begun - Bhainsrorgarh
Bhainsrorgarh - Bundi
Bundi - Delwara
Delwara - Udaipur
Udaipur - Mumbai (flight)
Mumbai - New York

This may sound like a lot of driving (which it is) as well as a number of short stops.

But we find being driven by car in India a lot easier than train, bus or flying. None of the schedule worries and rushing, no need to move bags around or pack carefully, and the freedom to stop where and when we wanted. And having done it before, I had some knowledge of what to expect, so to the best of my ability, I tried to place more comfortable and/or longer stops at regular intervals in our itinerary, which ended up helping a lot.

And as C had never been to India, we made it a bit like a sampler platter, so that we can decide where we might want to return for a more relaxed trip with fewer destinations.

progol May 8th, 2016 01:57 PM

I'm thoroughly enjoying your report and love your comparison of traveling in India to "floating in a waking dream". What a perfect and beautiful analogy! Love how you capture the flavor of the experience -- I'm happily along for this ride.

As I'm now planning a trip for Tamil Nadu and Kerala for 2017, your report is much appreciated. And I look forward to reading about Rajasthan, a place that my husband and I fell in love with.

Of course, it will only be a real dream for us to travel in the Apartment! But I so enjoyed looking at the photos. That will be us in economy, hopefully not becoming too wild with rage!

tripplanner001 May 8th, 2016 02:31 PM

Appreciate the detail in your report, and your photos really bring India to life. I've been flirting with the idea of India for several years now and your report, as some of the others, inch me closer and closer to making the leap. Some day...

progol May 8th, 2016 02:49 PM

Yes, the photos are lovely! I just looked at Cochin and the backwaters, and they are lovely. I do feel like I'm floating along in the boat, too -- mesmerizing.

rje May 8th, 2016 04:37 PM

Thank you, your kind interest is helping to motivate me to keep writing and posting photos. And if you guys love Rajasthan, I think you'll love southern India, too.

That leap took me years to make, too.

But now I wonder why I waited so long!

rje May 8th, 2016 04:44 PM

<b> Munnar </b>

<b>Photos of Munnar are here:[email protected]/albums/72157665972558042</b>
They show more if you make them large!

I'd contacted the driver service from my last trip to south India, who I'd found through recommendations on He had been terrific, and less expensive than booking through most agencies. But although we'd reserved him for this trip, a few days before we would meet up with him, we discovered he'd still be on a long tour when we arrived, so the owner offered to be our driver. I had met him at the end of my last trip, and thought he'd also be good.

Unfortunately, when he showed up at our hotel with a shiny new Innova, as requested, he also had his son with him. He explained that his client had unexpectadly extended her trip, so he'd have to leave us and have his 20-something son drive us. We didn't have much of a choice at that point, but I was annoyed at the switch. Still, the son seemed nice, so we decided to proceed.

He told us there was a strike that was closing some of the roads that would normally have been our route from the Purity Hotel to Munnar. The hotel manager felt confident that we could drive on smaller roads past the road closures and urged us to go that way, but our new driver lives in Madurai, and not being as familiar with this area, he insisted on taking the route that would make us go through Cochin and then up to Munnar. I would have insisted on taking the country route, but we found out there would be no signal to use Google maps if we got lost, so I reluctantly agreed to the longer and much less scenic route. I fumed a bit when we got behind numerous trucks that themselves fumed more than a bit. The traffic near Cochin steadily increased, and as it turned to stop-and-go traffic, I regretted not having insisted on the more scenic route. But of course we had no way of knowing if it would have been a terrible mistake, and this was the safer option. Anyway, as we climbed out of city traffic and into the increasingly cool hills, we relaxed and enjoyed the views and found that happily our young driver had really excellent driving skills.

Where we would stay in the Munnar area was not an easy choice, as information about the best area for our purposes was not easy to find. There are a great many places to stay in Munnar, varying in price and quality. Many of them are largish places that seem out of scale to me for the landscapes they occupy. We were looking for smaller places to stay. The region considered to be the Munnar area is actually quite large, and while some areas are very beautiful, other areas are comparatively bland. This is less of an issue for the many Indians who visit Munnar largely as a relief from the heat in the plains, and so are likely to be pleased with locations that seem more ordinary to us, since just the presence of clean cool air, hills and trees is already a big plus for them. After a good deal of research (including liberal use of Google Earth), we decided to spend 2 nights in 2 different places along the way, partly to break up the trip, but mainly to place us in easy range of the tea plantations on our second day. Munnar town held little interest for us, being rather nondescript. We were more interested in seeing the beautiful plantations located past Munnar town (on the route to Madurai) and exploring the villages where the workers lived.

The first night we stayed in Bracknell Forest, a modest relatively inexpensive place with a terrace in the trees. I got up early the next morning and had a delightful walk through the surrounding forest. The floor of the forest was thick with lovely green cardamom plants, giving off a heady scent. Later that morning we headed for our next hotel, and the landscapes became increasingly magnificent. The terraced sculptural quality of the tea plantations enthralled me. They somehow looked like giant Japanese moss and rock gardens. I had the driver stop repeatedly so we could get out whenever I spotted a likely village, temple, landscape, or location where tea pickers were working.

Our next hotel was the Spice Tree, clinging to a steep hill in the Chinnakkanal area. Very comfortable and attractive, and conveniently close to a particularly beautiful area of tea plantations, and not too far from the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate where I'd hoped to go. Kolukkumalai looks to be a great area for landscape photography, but is located at the end of what is widely reported as an hour-plus arduous spine-rattling-y jeep ride. Photos of the unpaved road strewn with what were practically boulders looked daunting, and C's disability would prevent her from going, but I still considered it for myself, only dropping the idea when I found that my back wasn't feeling 100% during those few days. Still, the alternative tea gardens in the area were gorgeous, and the next morning I was able to visit several tea plantations, wandering happily through narrow paths between the tea plants in the crisp morning air under brilliant blue skies. Something about it felt magical. A waterfall, a small village and a local temple rounded out the day.

(coming up next, Madurai.)

CaliNurse May 9th, 2016 12:36 AM

RJE, I just found your report and am thrilled!!!!!!! Thank you for the wonderful "pictures in words" - will open your "real" pix soon and comment, of course!! Keep going...this is bliss!!

progol May 9th, 2016 02:53 AM

Your photos from Munnar are definitely magical, rje! They're stunning!

Thank you for posting this! I'm so enjoying reading and viewing the photos; I feel like I'm traveling along!

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