Un Anno a Roma

Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele

We left a cold and wet Toronto and returned to May Day celebrations and a glorious spring in Rome. Temperatures are in the high 20s, a heady scent of orange blossom permeates our neighbourhood and roses are already in full bloom. The only sad thing is that the two magnificient palm trees which dominated our street and which I loved are no longer there. Rome is dotted with palm trees which were fashionable to have in the 19th century and were mostly imported from Egypt. However, in the last few years, palms in the southern mediterranean have been affected by the red palm weevil. Each weevil can lay as many as 300 eggs which hatch into grubs. These grubs burrough into the heart of the palm and chomp voraciously thereby killing the palm. The palms in Sicily have been devastated and many in Rome are slowly dying. Treatment consists of inserting a tube into the heart and pumping in insecticide as well as getting rid of infected palms to prevent spread. Being a costly business, there is little hope of getting owners of individual gardens to comply with this measure and so the disease marches on. The palm trees on our street were around a 100 years old and about 80 ft high and we watched the tube treatment for weeks but it was too late. One morning just before we left for India in February, we   woke up to the sound of chain saws. Watching the trees being cut down was a heartbreaking sight.

Its been one year since my move to Rome and what a year of change it has been. In my family alone, we had a wedding (Busy Bees and a Wedding), a christening, and sadly, a funeral (In Memoriam). These, together with scheduled trips, made for frequent criss-crossing of the Atlantic and a frenzy of socialising when back in Toronto. Its a curious fact that we see more of some Toronto friends now than when we lived there full time since we make definite arrangements to meet, as opposed to thinking that we can see any of them at anytime and not getting around to it.

Its also been one year of blogging which is amazing to me. In fact my first post went out exactly a year ago on May 4th 2012. I started the blog just to keep my family and friends in touch with my life as it would have been impossible to write to everyone on a regular basis. In the beginning, I was worried about running out of things to write about after a month or two. Who wants to know that you spent the day lollygagging around or that you indulged in too many aperitivi and woke up with a headache the next day? Instead, I found that writing about things has made me more observant and thoughtful about what I see and here in Rome there’s plenty to see and reflect on. It also makes me look up information, albeit of dubious value, like the number of eggs a red palm weevil can lay!

So, the verdict on Rome? I love it here and want to stay but I still want to return to Toronto at regular intervals. Is it possible to have the best of both worlds or will I find myself in debt and not having a regular life in either one? I’ll keep you posted!

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When You Cannot See

 

Maura and Dudley

Sighted people cannot imagine what it is like not to see. My sister met with a car accident many years ago leaving her with only one eye. Tragically, over the last few years she lost sight in this eye and is now completely blind. Nevertheless, she manages very well and still does chores around the house as well as gardening, all by touch. She has to rely on her memory to keep track of how her clothes are arranged in her wardrobe, what she needs to do (where the rest of us make lists) and where everything is in the fridge or in the kitchen cupboards. We often forget that she can’t see, so we do stupid things like walking out of a room without telling her so she continues talking not realising that we are no longer there or we carelessly move things on a shelf and she no longer knows where they are. Life for her would be even more difficult without her ‘seeing eye dog’. The dog accompanies her on walks, helping her to avoid obstacles, cross the road, and essentially ensures that she can get around. The working life of a Guide Dog is about 10 years. She was on her second dog Pixie, when ironically, the dog developed cataracts and had to be retired. Another match had to be found and she went to the Canine Vision facility in Oakville for a two week stay to get matched with a suitable dog. She now has a beautiful, lively and obedient Golden Retriever called Dudley.

Pixie and Dudley

She has kept Pixie as a pet but understandably she is going through a period of confusion at not having to work. Guide Dogs knows that its time to work when they are called to heel and their harness is put on. It is fascinating to see how their behaviour and demeanour changes when this happens. Once the harness is on, they stop any playful behaviour and wait for instructions. Its like a soldier putting on a uniform and going on duty. The old dog Pixie comes to heel when my sister calls and can’t understand why she is not chosen to continue and why her role has been taken over by Dudley. Its really quite sad to watch. Dudley on the other hand hasn’t quite learned the ropes and needs some concentrated training in order to do what he is expected to do.

Autism Assistance Dog

Training Guide Dogs is an expensive and time-consuming process. The Canine Vision Facility is funded by the Lion’s Club. In the 1980s, the Lion’s Clubs across Canada decided to start a project to help Canadians with vision impairment and established Canine Vision Canada in 1989. They have two centres in Ontario and provide Guide dogs at no cost to people in need across Canada. As well, they train Guide dogs for people with special needs such as those who are deaf, those with epilepsy, or autism, and soon for people with diabetes. In a shopping mall last week, we saw two young teenagers with autism assistance dogs. The dogs help to reduce their fear of public spaces and decrease their anxiety. For those who are deaf, the dogs are trained to alert them to the sound of a doorbell or phone ringing and so on. It’s absolutely amazing how a dog can be so important to someone’s life and we are very grateful to the Lion’s club that their funding enables people like my sister to have as normal a life as possible.

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Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen

 

Superior Court of Justice, Toronto

……………………and luckily I wasn’t!

Our plan had been to spend about a month here and return to Rome around the end of April. However, when I arrived here from India and sorted through my mail, I found that I had been summoned for jury selection. I was told that it was a criminal trial involving a murder charge and that the trial could go on for 12 weeks. You can imagine my dismay at the thought of changing all our plans if I was chosen. My friends were full of advice as to how I might avoid being selected such as expressing bias or pretending I was hard of hearing. Being truthful by nature, I was not eager to make up a bias or invent a disability just to get out of it. Also, I actually believe that jury service is a civic duty and I would have been interested to see the courts in action if I was not living partly in Rome.

On the selection date, I made my way to the Superior Court of Justice to find that I was one of a pool of around 350 people. Half of us were in the juror’s lounge while the other half were actually in court. A closed circuit TV linked the two spaces so that we in the juror’s lounge could follow the proceedings. The case was introduced by the judge and the accused as well as their lawyers together with the prosecutors were presented. Since there were five people accused of murdering a fellow inmate in jail, the presentations themselves took a while. Once the pleas were heard (all the accused pleaded ‘Not Guilty’), the selection of the jury commenced. We each had a number and these numbers were randomly called to form a group of 25. This group of 25 was then presented to the court one by one and given a specific return date. Once your return date was set you could leave making more room in court for those in the lounge. After lunch, we all were in court and I found myself directly behind the box where the accused were sitting. I don’t believe I’ve ever been so close to a group of jail inmates ever before and it was a little disconcerting. They were sharply dressed and I noticed that one was wearing Armani spectacle frames when he turned his head. Any time a young attractive woman was called up and there was a sound of clicking heels, their heads swivelled around to take a good look. I guess there isn’t much opportunity for ogling women in prison! My group was the second last to be called so by now it was the end of day.

On the return date, I was most relieved to find out that the jury had been selected from the groups before mine. To my good fortune, it was not a biblical selection where those who are last shall be first! However, we had to return on the day the trial started just in case one of the jurors was sick and they had to select another. We had to wait until the trial was underway and the first witness was called before we were declared exempt from jury duty. Now I’m exempt for the next three years and can book a ticket back to Rome which I’m very happy to do as the weather has not been pleasant here at all. Those little white specks you see at the bottom of this sculpture outside the courthouse is snow!

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Memories of Mumbai

The Gateway of India, Mumbai

You may be tired of reading about my Indian travels by now and indeed since I’m back in Toronto, I feel should be writing about my time here. However, we enjoyed Mumbai, or Bombay as it used to be called, so I would like to share some of our experiences there. Although I have travelled to India several times over the past few years, I’ve always avoided staying in Mumbai as my experience has been that middle-of-the-road hotels are relatively expensive and poor value. This time, we had no choice so we consulted Trip Advisor and were lucky to find a newly built hotel at a reasonable price in the Fort area. To my surprise, Mumbai has improved considerably since my last stay there many years ago. For one thing, a new overhead Expressway has reduced traffic congestion and getting into the city centre from the airport is no longer the nightmare it used to be.

Clocktower in Fort Mumbai

The Fort area was a perfect place to be as it is the historic centre. The grand Victorian buildings almost make you feel that you are in England. It is really pleasant strolling around in this area with the sea and the Gateway of India close by. Cricket is a popular sport in India and there is a vast ‘green’ area called the Maidan where you see various teams playing or practising, many in their cricket ‘whites’.

We took a boat to Elephanta Island about an hour away where there are about seven rock-cut caves dating to between the 5th and 8th centuries. Five are Hindu dedicated to Shiva and two are Buddhist.

Lord Shiva, Elephant Caves

On entering the main cave you see a gigantic three headed statue of Shiva representing his masculine and feminine faces. Another World UNESCO Heritage site, the island was called Gharapuri until Portuguese rule began in 1534 and the Portuguese renamed it Elephanta because of a huge stone elephant at the entrance to the caves. The statue is now in a museum. Instead of a stone elephant guarding the caves, there are lots of monkeys.

Thirsty Monkey

We saw this one making a little hole in a bottle of water and drinking out of it. Smart monkey!

Incidentally, speaking of the Portuguese, the previous name of Mumbai which was Bombay is reputed to come from the Portuguese ‘bom baim’ which means good harbour. Undoubtedly a good harbour as Mumbai is now a city of over 20 million people.

A fascinating city of extreme contrasts, slums next to modern high rises; a population from all over India wearing traditional garb to haute couture; a mixture of intoxicating smells: jasmine and urine, spices and shit; obesity clinics with beggars and homeless on the street outside; children doing their school homework on the sidewalk.

Homework on the Sidewalk

In Bombay, anything is possible and Bollywood fires your dreams!

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Indian Caves and Canadian Birds

Ajanta Caves, Maharastra, India

On Easter Sunday, we went to High Park here in Toronto for a walk. Since spring is yet to arrive, we were faced with a dry and dead looking winter landscape. There wasn’t a green bud to be seen and the landscape reminded me of our recent trip to the Deccan plateau in India where we visited the Ajanta and Ellora caves.

Ajanta Cave #16

In Ajanta, there has been little rain for over a year and the annual monsoon did not arrive, as such, last year so the land is bone dry and the trees have lost their leaves. The river beds have dried up and there is hardly a blade of green to be seen. However, the caves, which have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are spectacular. Excavated from a horse shoe-shaped sheer rock face starting at the top and working downwards, it is hard to believe that such a feat could be possible. They were started in the 2nd century BC and used until about the 5th century AD by Buddhist monks. Of the 30 caves, some were built as temples complete with vaulted ceilings while others served as living quarters.

Ajanta Cave Painting

Originally covered with frescoes in the tempera style, most have been destroyed but a few remain and they are quite amazing. Note the perspective of the pillars in this painting done a thousand years or so before perspective in painting was employed in Europe.

 

 

 

 

Ajanta Cave Sculpture

The carvings are ornate and very beautiful.  It was seriously hot the day we were there and not the best for walking around but fortunately, inside the caves was cool, beautiful and peaceful. Just being in the presence of the sculptures was a spiritual experience.

 

Kailash Cave, Ellora

The rock caves at Ellora, some 60km away were even more impressive. Another World Heritage site, the 34 caves comprise Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples spanning the 5th to 10th century AD. The Kailash temple is said to be the largest monolithic structure in the world and it certainly felt like it as we climbed the steps in the heat. Not a lot of tourists on account of the heat so it was like having a private viewing at times.

Kailash Cave Detail

By noon we could not cope with the hot sun any longer. However, we were lucky to have a hotel (Hotel Kailas) just across from the caves so, not only could we see the complex from the hotel gardens, but we were able to walk back for a rest during the hottest midday hours. One of the nicest places we stayed in during our travels, we had a large room with a balcony for $30 per night. With a little bit of homework, its really quite remarkable how cheaply one can travel in India.

Anyhow, I digress! My photos do not do justice to the splendour of the caves but hopefully, you can get some idea. Its interesting how a dry landscape due to the heat, can resemble a dry winter landscape due to the cold. In High Park, where parts of it were similar to the Deccan except that we were muffled up in coats and scarves, northern birds have already migrated south in search of nesting grounds.

Male Wood Duck

We had the great good fortune to see wood ducks, which we were told, people drive miles to get a glimpse of. So together with swans, Canada geese, and common ducks, the pond was quite the happening scene. Between Indian caves one week and Canadian birds the next, as my friend John who runs WE Tango in Toronto says: “Life is Good”.

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Easter and Fertility Symbols

Eggs for Sale, Trionfale Market, Rome

Shiva Lingam, Elephanta Caves, Mumbai

Happy Easter to all my readers. Easter is said to take its name from the Anglosaxon goddess of spring Eostre and some have also associated it with the Assyrian goddess of love and fertility, Ishtar. Apparently, eggs were forbidden during Lent in Medieval Europe and many Easter meals thus featured eggs, not to mention that eggs are symbols of fertility as are rabbits. So, now you have something to ponder as you bite into those chocolate eggs and bunnies! What you may ask has all this got to do with the picture on the left? Symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, it represents the male principle which together with the yoni or female symbol, represents the inseparability of the male and female principles or the totality of creation, one could say the cosmic egg. Nothing to do with Easter but we saw it this day last week while visiting the Elephanta caves on an island off Mumbai and I thought it was very beautiful. Even more beautiful was to see people’s reverence for it with offerings of flower petals, money and coconuts.

Good Friday Parade, College St, Toronto

Of course among Catholics, Easter is associated with the crucifixion of Christ and his resurrection. Here in Toronto, there has been a catholic parade held in our neighbourhood on Good Friday, going back 50 years. Yesterday was a beautiful day and I actually watched the parade in its entirety where I had only seen glimpses in the past. I felt like I was back in Italy as the church which organizes it has a largely Italian congregation so people were praying in Italian as they walked along and singing Italian psalms. What a small world we live in!

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More About Kerala

Tea Estates Near Munnar

Apologies for this long gap in my blog. I have been overcome by the sights, sounds and smells of India and the lack of easy internet access during our travels precluded an up-to-date report. Although I’m actually on my way to Toronto, I think I will continue to share the Indian adventures. So, back to Kerala which must be one of the most verdant states in India. We wanted to see something of inland Kerala, and were lucky to find a small tour company run by Stanley Wilson in Cochin. For the princely sum of around $220 for two people, we had a car with a driver for three days, lodging and meals in a beautiful homestay within a tea plantation near Munnar in the Kandan Devan Mountains for two nights, and a 3 hour boat ride in the backwaters between Allepey and Cochin. How lucky is that?

Thankappan

Our driver, Thankappan spoke fluent English and knew the area well so all we had to do was sit back and enjoy. He was a fount of information and would take us for lunch to places where you ate off a banana leaf. Dressed in a white chauffeur’s uniform while driving us around during the day, he would change into his lunghi in the evening with the addition of a jacket and tuque after sunset as he felt it to be cold in the mountains at around 25C! Lunghis are worn by men in south India and I must say they are a graceful and practical garment, much more elegant than shorts.

Our journey started with a visit to an elephant training camp where we saw elephants being taken down to the river for their bath. While the older ones couldn’t wait to lie down in the water and have their backs scrubbed, the younger ones had to be coaxed or forced to get immersed. Sorry if I do go on a bit about elephants but the more I see of them, the more I like them and here in India, they are trained to do all sorts of things. They transport people including soldiers traversing the jungle, work in timber camps, and participate in temple ceremonies. Driving through the counryside into the mountains, we saw lush forests of flowering trees, coconut and areca palms, spice plantations comprising, pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and vanilla and rubber plantations. It was lovely to feel the temperature dropping to a comfortable level as we climbed and easy to see why the British used to leave for the hills during the hot season.

View from ‘Misty Green View’ Homestay

As we got higher up, vast areas of tea estates came into view laid out in geometric patterns. Our homestay was a joy to be in. Aptly named ‘Misty Green View’, it did indeed have a wonderful view overlooking the valley and being in a tea plantation, we were able to see how tea is grown and picked. The tips and topmost leaves are picked by hand and the tips, which are leaves that haven’t opened yet, are the most valuable and used for white tea while the young leaves are used for green tea. The lower more mature leaves are cut with shears to make black tea and, sorry to tell you this folks but the sweepings left on the factory floor are used for regular tea bags!

I had never seen tea flowers before and they are really very beautiful.

Camellia sinensis

We could have stayed in the mountains for days but all too soon, it was time to embark on our mini backwater trip. Another relaxing and laidback experience sitting in a ketuvalam (rice boat) watching life on the water. A more exciting trip in the early morning I’m told as you see children going to school by boat, vendors selling produce and so on. It would have been nice to stay overnight and chill but sadly, we did not have the time. I would definitely like to visit Kerala again!

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Cochin, Kerala

 

Chinese Fishing Nets, Cochin

Vypeen Island, Cochin

Cochin, a major harbour and naval base in south India and Kerala’s thriving capital city, is spread over a few small islands and a long coastal strip. Now, almost all the islands are connected by bridges but it is still quicker and more pleasant to get around by public ferry. We stayed on Fort Cochin island which is the historic centre. Colonized successively by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, seeking to profit from the spice trade, each has left their mark. There are Christian churches of various denominations, temples, mosques and even a Jewish synagogue. The catholic church, St Francis, built in 1503 is reputed to be the oldest church in India. It still has long poles above the pews, from which hang long strips of heavy cloth about 2 feet wide. The poles are attached to ropes leading to the outside which when pulled, create a breeze to fan the people sitting below. In the old days before the advent of electric fans, there would be punkah wallahs outside, operating the fans during a church service. The popularity of Christianity was amazing to us with trucks bearing names like St George, St. Joseph or Jesus, and cars sporting slogans like ‘Gift from God’ or ‘Kerala is God’s Own Country’. This must be one of the few places where new churches are still being built.

Pepper Packaging

The tip of Fort Cochin is dominated by Chinese fishing nets introduced by traders of Kublai Khans court and still in use. Huge cantilevered nets operated by weighted pulleys, it is fascinating to watch them in use. Walking by them, you can buy fresh fish, giant tiger prawns, and crab. Some vendors are associated with restaurants and offer to have the fish cooked for you to your liking. Unfortunately, we could not explore this tempting option as it was too early for lunch when we passed by. Spices such as pepper, cinnamon and cardamom, are still grown in abundance and brought to Cochin for packaging and sale. India is still the world’s largest producer of pepper most of it grown in Kerala. Kerala gets its name from ‘kera’ which means coconut in Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala, so as you can imagine, coconuts abound and the food is spicy and coconut based.

Kathakali Performer

Cochin is also the centre for Kathakali performance, a Kathak dance-based play performed by an all male cast with their faces heavily and stylistically painted to represent mythical figures. It was fascinating to see them getting their faces made up for a performance. All the hand and eye movements represent some action and having all this explained to us beforehand made the performance riveting.

Temple Elephants

Another unexpected spectacle was the inauguration of a new Hindu temple which was heralded by musicians and three heavily decorated elephants walking in procession down the street.

Temple Celebration

Women beautifully dressed in their finest saris, children in their best clothes, babies with their eyes outlined in kohl.

We were standing close to the elephants fascinated by them, when suddenly the largest elephant spread its back legs and released a vast stream of pee and a giant mound of poop, both at the same time. It was the most incredible sight.

Bathroom Stop

Having grown up in Africa, I’ve seen many elephants in my time but I must admit that I had never in my life seen an elephant penis. What can I say? A picture is worth a thousand words!

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Hampi, Karnataka

 

Hampi

Madgaon Station

We’ve seen more sunrises and sunsets in the past 10 days than in the past 10 years! Our early morning journey to Hampi requiring a pre-dawn wake-up was a 7 hour train ride covering about 350km over the western ghats (mountain range). Travelling on Indian trains is confusing to say the least as there are 7 classes and different types of trains offering different classes. There’s the usual 1st, 2nd and 3rd but also AC and non-AC, sleeper or chair, 2 tier or 3 tier, and figuring out the benefits of the different classes, which train has which classes and more importantly how to book seats, is worth a whole post in itself. For a little less than $15, we got 2nd class 2 tier AC berths which basically means that you have berths in a compartment for 4 people. Perfect, as two can sit on the lower berth and read or whatever and if you want to take a nap, both upper and lower berths are available. Linen is provided and it;s very pleasant to lie and doze to the steady rumbling sound of the train in motion. Everytime the train stops, a fleet of vendors hop on board selling drinks, snacks, fruit, and chai. Then orders are taken for lunch, usually chicken or vegetable biriyani. The journey is never dull and you get a better sense of the country than travelling by air.

Hemakuti Hill

Anyway, enough about the trains. We arrived at Hospet junction and took a tuk tuk to Hampi. Words cannot describe this stupendous place, now a UNESCO world heritage site. Giant boulders cover the hills while stone temples with spectacular carvings dot the landscape with the Tungabadhra river running through it. Site of the Hindu Vijayanagar dynasty between the 14th to 16th century, it was reputed to be larger than any 15th century European city including London and Paris. However, its glory did not last long as it was overcome by the Deccan Moslem Sultanates who laid siege to it for 6 months and finally systematically destroyed it. Significant archaeological work is in progress and many of the temples and monuments covering an area of 26 sq km have been unearthed and restored. It really is spectacular and quite unbelievable. If you look closely at the picture on the right, you will see a tiny speck, which is actually a figure in a white shirt, on the extreme right which gives some sense of the scale of the boulders and temples.

Snake Charmer

We stayed across the river in a lovely location bordering on rice paddy fields and took a little ferry boat to cross to the village and the side where most of the temples are located. The morning crossing was the best part as there was always a lot of activity on the other side. The temple elephant taking a bath in the river, snake charmers, musicians, children going to school and of course vendors of crafts and fruit. The rental scooters were a godsend as we were able to ride around the countryside and see the sights at our leisure.

Shanti Guesthouse Room View

It was seriously hot so we confined our sightseeing to the morning before noon and the afternoon after 3pm which left the right amount of time for lunch and a nap. A few beers would have been nice but Karnataka is a ‘dry’ state so we had to confine ourselves to water which was perhaps a good thing! Next we go to Kerala.

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Travels in India: Goa

 

Morning Catch

Here we are in north Goa where it’s hot, with clear blue skies and a warm ocean. Goa is a popular tourist destination so many of the beaches are crowded with beach shacks, vendors and of course tourists. However, there are lots of less well known beaches which are still unspoilt and beautiful. Long stretches of soft white sand with white capped waves on one side and tall coconut trees on the other. The best time to be on the beach is in the early morning soon after sunrise when the fishermen are out and in the evening before sunset, when it is cooler. Away from the coastline there are green rice paddy fields, cashew and mango trees as well as various tropical trees with brightly coloured blossoms. The fragrance of the cashew trees is what lingers in my memory and what I associate with Goa.

Shrine at Sinquerim Point

Further inland are forested hills and mountain ranges. We have rented a scooter and its really nice exploring the Goa along the back roads. There are white churches as well as temples dotting the countryside. Lots of little shrines everywhere even in front of people’s houses and well preserved old Portuguese style mansions.

Aguada Jail

This jail must be in one of the most beautiful locations in the world. Situated in Sinquerim  on the edge of the ocean with waves lapping on the wall below, coconut and other trees  behind and a wonderful view across the ocean. They probably get Goan fish coconut curry for dinner as well, made with freshly caught fish!

Mapuca Market

The nearest large town to where we are staying in Candolim is Mapusa which has a large market selling everything from various types of food and produce to jewellery and textiles each in its own little section. Even the produce is segregated with some stalls only selling fruit or coconuts or vegetables. I wonder how a vendor only selling bananas can make a living.

Anjuna Wednesday Market

Once a week there is a market at Anjuna beach which started as a hippie yard sale in the 60s and 70s where used items would be sold at the start of the hot season before the exodus to Kathmandu. It has evolved over the years to a huge market featuring vendors from all over India trying to sell craft items and clothing to tourists. We went there yesterday and some of the tourists were more interesting to look at than the items on sale! Tomorrow we are off to Hampi by train but more on Goa in a later post.

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