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Musings about me as a traveler

I don’t blend in.  I’m not quite Vinny bad, or maybe I am, but I am always visible.  I am so sensitive to cultures, or at least I try to be. But I am always spotted as an American.  And worse (or better, who knows) as a middle aged American woman traveling alone.  I’m like the freshest meat possible for vendors.

I’m not very good at saying no, but I’m getting better.  I hate, hate, hate the phrase “free for looking, no obligation to buy,” which I have heard around the world.  And so often I’m drawn into these stores because I happened to catch the eye of the shopkeeper and he (its always a he) goads me in.  Today, I walked the entire market area in old Jaipur just repeating the word no. It was liberating.

I always get a little bit scammed.  Overpaying usually.  In Marrakesh I cave a snake charmer like $20 just to stop following me.  In Delhi I took my change without looking at it after buying something or other.  When I went to use the money I learned it was useless. The currency changed two years ago and someone handed me one of the worthless 500 rupee note.  That was a harsh $8 lesson.

You have to trust someone.  I generally chose to trust whatever guide I have for the day.  They always try to bring me to shops and tell me what is best to buy – commission is a powerful motivator – so that stinks, but alas, as a woman alone, I want to make sure someone has got my back and if that means buying a trinket or two, I’ll do that.  I’ve had guides that I’ve liked better than others, but I’ve never had a bad one (well, maybe once – I’m talking to you Morocco).  And when I do decide to buy something, I have to believe it will all be all right.  Today I had my purchases shipped to New York.  I left the store with a receipt but no tracking number.  I brought all my Christmas presents from one textile shop in Jaipur and if they decide to keep my money and not ship the items, it will be the year without a santa claus.  But I think they will.

I am very tolerant of discomfort, but a little uncomfortable with luxury.  I was bored in my gorgeous Agra hotel and even a bit bored by the fab massage.  But the chaos and confusion of the bazaar rocks my world.  The poverty is real and it is troubling, but I don’t feel like staying home because it bothers me is a good option.  We bear witness and do what we can and really understand what is happening out there.

I really like traveling.  Like I really like it a lot.  I need to do more.

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Sunset, Sunrise

I pondered what to do in Agra on my first afternoon, knowing that I had a boat trip to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal on my second day.  I suggested to the woman checking me in that I might go for a walk and she laughed  “it is not possible to walk.”

I checked into my room and brushed my teeth.  That’s what will ultimately do me in – brushing my teeth.  I have a bottle of water near me at all times, yet I immediately forget and put my toothbrush under the running water.  So far so good, but when it happens, that’ll be why.

Then off for a wonder.  The hotel in Agra is more resort like than I am used to.  On their website they tout that Conde Nast Traveller dubbed them one of the top five hotels with a view of Taj Mahal.  It seems to me that there can only be about 5 hotels here with a view of the Taj Mahal, but it’s not my cocktail party.

I wondered the beautiful marble lobby, watched the preparations for an Indian wedding and dodged the shops selling saris, pashminas, and jewelry and eventually made my way to the in-house travel agent Mr. Rajeev.  “I have a boat trip scheduled for tomorrow to see the sunrise, but what else shall I do?” I asked.  “What boat trip?  There is no water in the river.  Last time there was water was July,” was the reply.  Ok – that’s something do deal with later, I thought.  He probably just doesn’t want me to be booking with someone else.

He proposed that he could get me a drive to take me to the mini-Taj first and then the gardens behind the Taj Mahal for sunset.  Then tomorrow, I could get a guide and got to sunrise at the Taj, back for breakfast and then the Agra Fort.  I would see there was no water in the river, but if I still wanted a boat trip, I could go at sunset.  Fine – That worked for me.

Booked, he began to share with me the details of what I would see.  First the “mini Taj” a mausoleum built five years before the Taj Mahal.  It is a mughal style temple built by a woman for her father.  She earned the money to build it by selling her knitting.  “That’s incredible!” I exclaimed.  “I know,” Mr. Rajeev replied “a woman!” I let it go and he went on.  The garden would be the perfect place to watch the sunset.  “I think you will be safe there.”  Another one to let go.

Then we began to talk about sunrise at the Taj Mahal.  “What time do you want to get there?” he asked. “What time is sunrise?”  “Well, I don’t know.  Does it really matter if you’re there for sunrise?”  Um YES.  “Ok – I will let you know when you come back.”

I told Mr. Rajeev that I didn’t not want to shop.  Please don’t have them bring me to shops.  “They may just want to show you what Agra is famous for. If you don’t want to buy, no worry.”  “I won’t buy, please tell him no shopping.”

At 3pm I headed out with my driver Lal.  He pointed out large the old city and the preparations for the many weddings that would be taking place through the town.  Young men pushed carts with giant, flower bedecked Ganesha statues and glittering lights.  Women rode on the back of motor bikes in a flurry of pinks and greens.  In the distance, I could see the familiar dome of the Taj Mahal looking like a painting against the sky.

We arrived at the mini Taj and Lal pointed me inside.  It was breathtaking.  The marble inlaid with brightly colored flowers.  Like the Taj and I suspect all Mughal temples, there was perfect symmetry. I wandered to the far side and looked down to the river, or river bed as it were, where children were playing where water once ran.  There is no possible boat ride here.

From there we went to Mehtab Bagh, a garden on the north side of the Taj Mahal.  I followed the crowd to find a mall looking at the great tomb.  I actually caught my breath when I saw it.  I don’t know why it made me teary – Machu Picchu, Angkar Wat didn’t – but this did.  I could feel the tears well up.  I walked to the river bed and sat on what remained of the foundation of a planned black Taj Mahal, that was never completed as the king was sent to prison by his son.  The international crowd was in great spirits as we passed cameras around and compared photo angles.  When the bright orange sun melted into the horizon, the sky turning pink and dark as it did, we all cheered.  There was some hugging and I got teary again.

Back in the car, Lal stopped unexpectedly, opened my door and said come now.  This is what we are famous for and ushered me into a shop selling marble.  The door closed behind me and there was no sight of the outside.  Several men surrounded me telling me about the marble.  “No no, it’s beautiful, but I cannot buy it.”  I moved towards the door and men stopped me, saying “this way out,” and pointed me into another room, this one filled with silks.  I turned to move out of the room and men blocked me, their arms full of pashminas.  The next room was full of trinkets “these are cheap.  You can buy,” they cajoled.

“I WANT TO LEAVE,” I shouted, frustration mixed with fear.  The all moved aside and opened a door for me.  Back on the street Lal said “very nice, no.  you should buy.”  “Thank you, it was lovely. Let’s go back to the hotel now.”  “Yes yes,” he said and stopped at a fabric shop.  “I don’t want to go in.” I said.  Just for a moment, then we will go back. I went in, at least there were windows here.  I looked at a few saris and got back in the car.  Lal stopped driving at a jewelry store.  “I’m not going to buy anything,” I promised him and he finally brought me home.

Mr. Rajeev was there to greet me when we arrived back.  “How was it,” he asked.  “I told you no shopping. You can’t have a woman alone go into a store with many men and no exit.  It is very scary.”  He made many apologies and told me he would fire Lal, and I backed down.  Seriously, do men traveling alone have to deal with this?

Early this morning, I met Manish, my guide for the Taj Mahal.  We got there about 6:30 and waited til they opened the gates about 7.  “So much for sunrise,” I joked to the brits near me, but I was wrong.  The sun was stunning on the mausoleum and I got teary all over again.  A photographer joined us and posed me in all the usual ways.  Any photo you see of someone holding the Taj in their hand, or sitting on the “Diana bench” is, I have now learned, the work of the roaming photographers at work at the site.

After my photo shoot, we donned booties over our shoes to protect the site and Manish told me how it was built for the beloved wife of the Mughal, one of four wives, the other three got nothing, who died giving birth to her 14th child.  I looked up at the glowing dome and noted that no one would love me enough to build something like that for me.  “If he really loved her, he wouldn’t have made her have 14 children,” Manish replied.  He is my favorite guide.

We wondered the sit for a while and sat on a bench as he told me of his dream, god willing, to ride a motorbike around the country to raise money to send children to school.  I love him.

Next stop, Agra Fort.  The home base of the Indian army,  as well as a historic part to visit.  There were four palaces available to us of the many that were originally on the site.  The first was the home of a Hindu and his four wives.  “He was a very good politician,” Manish informed me.  “One wife was Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian, all the people loved him.”  Then he showed me the sex room.  Apparently all palaces of the time had one.

The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort are connected by a 2km garden walk which I suggested we take rather than go shopping.  Manish seemed surprised, but game.  We had to cross a busy intersection, cars and motorbikes zipping everywhere.  On the other side Manish cheered me for my bravery in getting across.  I thought it was fun.

The garden is in a bit of disrepair and is overrun with monkeys and was great.  Devoid of tourists, Manish and I had time to talk about politics (like everyone else I’ve met, he expressed shock and despair that Trump is in office) and the Indian government and pop music.  i was back at the hotel by 1 for lunch, a nap, and some pool time.  Now I am off for an Ayurvedic massage.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haridwar to Delhi to Agra

As we began the long slog back to Delhi, I was desperate for an ATM.  I’d wiped out all the rupees at the Istanbul airport, but that didn’t result in enough to pay Ajay for the ride (It did before the pashmina).  We stopped in a few in Haridwar, but they were all out of service and I could tell Ajay’s good spirits about it would only last so long.

I’m sure we’ll find plenty in Delhi, I pointed out optimistically, visioning a shiny corporate center (as opposed to the crumbling storefronts in Haridwar).  Ajay nodded / shook his head in the cryptic Indian way and we were off.

As we took to the highway, the UP to the UK, Ajay informed me, it is important to note once again, that the roads in India are as crazy and the movies make them out to be.  Even the highways.  For a brief moment, I had thought to self die this trip, as I have trips in Europe and the US.  If I had, you would never hear from me again.  I’d still be on the side of the road waiting for my moment to merge.  There is a vague left lane goes one way, right goes the other, but that only holds til someone finds an opening to get to where they want.  Cars merge from every direction, motorbikes carrying 2, 3, 4 or more people, generally without helmets whiz through.  Bicyclists and crowded bull-driven carriages as well.  The highways are crowded with festive trucks as well.  The only way to explain these trucks, almost all made by the Tata company of India (which makes cars, trucks, cell phones, luxury goods, you name it).  The best way to explain these trucks is to imagine an elephant decked out for a parade.  Now imagine that elephant is a truck.   They are gorgeous.

The traffic is not.  Soon after leaving Haridwar,  a motorbike directly in front of us, carrying three young men, toppled over spilling the men into the oncoming traffic – specifically us.  Ajay swerved quickly and sped forward as I twisted against the seatbelt to look behind.  They’re ok?  I asked panicked.  Yes, yes.  They are lucky he said, never looking back.  Shouldn’t we stop, I asked.  No! He told me if he stopped he would be in trouble, which didn’t comfort me, but I couldn’t do anything.

After a while, Ajay pointed out a camel on the road and started chatting hesitantly till my heart was beating normally again.  A bull carrying a flat bed with about six sari-garbed women and a teenage boy passed by us.  The boy was pulling new sneakers out of a shoebox to show off to the women.  Boys are the same everywhere.

We stopped for lunch where I offered up my debit card and the result came back rejected.  SHIT! I didn’t tell Bank of America that I was coming to India and the blocked my card.  Ajay will not like this! I risked roaming charges to call and use the phone system to update my travel and hoped that by the time we found a bank, they would have kicked in so I could pay Ajay.

For the last legs of the trip, as darkness fell, Ajay told me about the other people he’d driven over the years.  Germans, who liked ganja too much, Brits who drank to much, and Spaniards who were vulnerable to the rapists because of their warm spirit.  Apparently, according to Ajay, the rapists don’t like Americans.  I didn’t learn why, but I’m fairly grateful.

In Delhi we stopped at a “plaza,” a dusty collection of buildings housing McDonalds and Subways alongside cheap sari stores.  Teenaged boys and young men gathered together in groups smoking and laughing.  There were few women and they were all on their way somewhere or shopping.  The Bank of India was open for business, and my card worked and all is right with the world.

I bid Ajay goodbye with a big tip (he was awesome, except for maybe leaving the scene of an accident), and got ready for the next big drive.

In the morning my new driver, young Neerij arrived to take me to Agra.  He wove through traffic loudly playing Indian rock music and asking me about New York.  The sun was bright as we headed east, but he had no sunglasses.  I looked around and no one else did either.  Nor regular glasses for that matter.  I realized what a luxury Ray Bans are.  We stopped early at a highway reststop for chai, where Neerij introduced me to shop owners and they showed me their wares despite my protests.  This is common in many developing nations (and probably developed ones) and I’m sure the guides get commissions, but it is very awkward.  I passed on purchases and we were on our way.  Neerij spent the drive trying unsuccessfully to teach me the Indian nod. IT is a beautiful, complicated thing, that I will never master, but maybe will start to understand what the different speeds and angles mean before I leave.

After a fun ride, we pulled up to my Agra hotel and I bid Neerij goodbye.  As I settled into the hotel, my phone buzzed with his Facebook, instagram and whatsapp connection requests. He was delightful, but I didn’t accept.

 

 

 

 

I awoke early in Haridwar, eager to start the day, but there was no breakfast yet, so I decided to take a quick walk outside.  One step out of the gates blocking the hotel from the street and it was clear I was not ready for a walk alone in India.  The streets were crowded with sadhus and bikers.  There were tents lining the road. some with small fires, some selling chips and cokes, and not a cute coffee shop in sight.  Not that I expected one, but still.  I popped back inside, got coffee and breakfast and we were on our way to Rishikesh!

Along the way, we picked up Krishna.  Not that Krishna, a 20 year old business student, who would be my guide for the day.  Ajay (I finally learned his name) dropped us by the Ganges and lit a cigarette as Krishna and I headed for the bridge – a 450 foot suspension over the Ganges and built in the 1920s.  Motorbikes, dogs, and pedestrians going in both directions shared the single lane and every step made the bridge sway, but the views of the mountains – my beloved Himalaya – and the river below us made it worth it.

On the other side of the bridge and river lay temples and ashrams.  This is the birthplace of yoga.  There is an annual yoga summit that brings tens of thousands of people every year.  The few westerners I’d see all day were at the ashram and were easily identifiable as Kripalu types who were taking their practice all the way.

There was a tree that had formed an Om and the face of Genesha (my favorite god) in its trunk and there were signs at every statue saying “give only your spirit.”  It was a very zen place.

As we left, Krishna said do you like pashmina?  No sooner had I said yes then I was sitting in a shop with row after row of delicate scarves being unfurled in front of me.  A rich pink beauty in my bag we got into a boat to take us to the other side of the river.  An older indian woman shoved her phone in my face.  A small child waved from the screen via FaceTime as the woman and her companion laughed.

The trip across the river was no more than 5 minutes, during which I dangled my fingers in the holy river.

Back in Haridwar, one of the seven holiest places for Hindus, we wandered through a crowded parking lot, over a bridge and to Har Ki Pauri, the holy city along the river.  There hundreds of worshipers were ritually bathing and performing prayers for the dead.  Krishna asked if I would perform one for my mother (whom I’d earlier outed as dead when the pashmina salesman tried to up-sell by telling me a blue one would be perfect for my mother).

A practicioner sitting at the ready smudged my forehead with red dye, filled my hands with flowers and asked me to repeat sever Hindi words.  I got Visnu and Om right but that’s about it.  He dipped my forehead in rice and then sent me to the water.  Ankle deep  I tossed the flowers into the river and watched them float away.  Another practitioner tied my wrist with red and saffron threads.  Im not sure the significance, but i like having it.

We dropped Krishna off on a highway overpass to make his way back to Rishikesh and Ajay and I headed back towards Delhi.

More later.  Must sleep

The Road to Haridwar

I didn’t see the Red Fort or Humayun’s Tomb or the Lotus Temple (which looks cool but was built in 1986, so it;s like the Delhi version of Blue Lagoon – marketing made it the must do).  I didn’t do any of those things, because I spent the day driving away from the pollution and towards the Himalayas – the mountains always end up calling me.

There seem to be no clear traffic rules in India, but no one seems to get hurt.  I worried for the women on the back of motorbikes, their long saris or scarves coming dangerously close to the wheels.  Cows wandered into oncoming cars and bright buses, which just wove around them.  Children played under the highway and the sides of the road were littered with tents of people selling fruits and veggies and coke.   We were only a couple hundred kilometers from our final destination, Haridwar, but the old car couldn’t move much faster then the tiny motorbikes (not that it would make a difference given the non-stop traffic).  It didn’t matter there was a lot to see along the way.

As we moved out of Delhi, the sides of the road we chock-a-block with large event spaces all decked out with shimmering red, orange, fuscia and purple draping and twinkling lights.  “Its wedding season,”  shared my guide.   Wedding season in India! How lucky can one girl get!  “The wedding day is the happiest day of a man’s life,” my guide went on “he is sad every single day, but happy, happy on his wedding day.  The woman is happy, happy on every day of her life, but the saddest is her wedding day.” He looked at me through the rearview mirror. “You understand me?”  “Indeed I do.” I smiled.

We stopped along the way for saag paneer and coffee and I spied on the event team of the restaurant as they prepared for a wedding.  As we neared my hotel my guide (who’s name I don’t know and should) shared with me that he would be taking a ritual plunge in the Ganga (the Ganges) tomorrow morning.  I started to ask if I could as well, when he told me it was a holy ritual and I realized there are some traditions I should respect.

I had a loved biryani and some homemade lime soda, am watching a little bollywood and headed for bed.  Tomorrow, tourism really starts.

Delhi in a day

Whenever I tell people about my travels they always ask if I’ve been to India.  I think it seems like i take spiritual” trips and nothing is more spiritual than India.

In september, frustrated by unemployment, I started Googling trips and India emerged as an affordable one.  In less than an hour from when I first had the idea, I booked a ten day tour of India’s greatest hits – Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Mumbai (where I’ll celebrate my birthday).  Then I got a job.

After 20 hours of planes and airports (including some nuns playing saxophones), I arrived In Delhi.  Thee pollution problem is heard so much about was evident the moment I left the airport and was hit with an oppressive chemical smoke.  Deep breaths hurt.  The sun glowed through the haze.  I had been toying w going north to the Himalayas and the pollution sealed the deal for me.  I cant imagine walking around all day in this.

i checked into my Delhi hotel and feasted on dosa and curries, then napped – the vivid malaria pill dreams already kicking in after only one dose.

At noon my driver arrived and we’re heading north – me with a bandana covering my nose and mouth and he smiling at how light the pollution is today.

As we drove out of the city, he pointed out sights, asked me about Trump, told me of his affection for Obama (I told him of mine), and dodged traffic.  Cars often go both ways in one lane.  Motorbikes dodge in and out, and cows wonder everywhere.

At one point he explained to me that old Delhi is very dirty and New Delhi is clean. “So we’re in Old Delhi” I surmised. “No, this is New Delhi!”  So I’ve done my ugly American thing for the day.

Now to nap my way to Haridwar.

A total eclipse of our hearts

I hate the phrase “once in a lifetime.” I reject the whole idea.  If something is wonderful, why limit the experience.  I haven’t been back to Nepal yet, but I know I’ll get there.  And there have been many adventures since.

Since it was 1979 the last time there was a total solar eclipse and it didn’t make it to Maine anyway, it occurred to me late last week that this eclipse might actually be once in a lifetime and I should get to it.

I convinced my friend Lynn to bring her two daughters (11 and 7) and join me. Convincing involved mostly saying “hey, let’s do this.” and Lynn saying “okay!”

Like most of you, I’ve been a bit heartsick about the state of our country.  Between the events in Charlottesville, the president’s appalling response and the reality that there seem to really be two Americas, I was a little hesitant to head south.   Lynn is African-American, her daughters are mixed race.  We decided laugh at the many possible responses we might encounter heading to that part of the world with our New York license plates.

What we encountered were a lot of confederate flags, a lot of signs reminding us that “Jesus Saves” and quoting various Bible versus, banners on the hotels proudly stating they were “American Owned,” and a lot of really nice people.  It was confusing.

Our first stop was Lancaster, PA, where we hoped to lunch with the Amish.  We popped into a Home Depot to see if we could find something with which to watch the eclipse.  Dave, the eclipse enthusiast greeter, told us far more than we needed to know about the science behind what we were to witness, and sent us in search of welding glasses.  They were all sold out.  We thanked Dave as we left and he say, why don’t you come back at 2.  It was 12:30, but we headed to Walmart for a picnic blanket and then camped out at a Ruby Tuesday til the appointed time.  The Amish would have to be rescheduled.  When we got back, Dave handed us three eclipse glasses, apologizing that he didn’t have a fourth.

Back on the road, we stopped for gas at the West Virginia boarder.  My companions popped inside while I got us fueled up.  And locked the keys in the car.  It is a unique sinking feeling when you know you’ve done something you can’t undo.  This was that.

But inside the service station two women with rainbow hair, lots of makeup, and big smiles handed me a phone and said – “happens all the time.  Don’t worry.”  We bought some playing cards, found a slightly shaded patch of grass behind the pumps and waited for help.  Help arrived quickly in the form of a tow truck driver with a blood pressure guage that he used to open the window enough to reach in and unlock it.  He asked us where we were from and going,  laughed as we came very close to locking the door a second time as he was getting in his truck to leave, and followed us to make sure we closed all the doors properly.  I’m certain there was a cape hiding beneath his overalls.

A sleepover on the road, weirdly good Mexican food in Lancaster, VA, and another few hours on the road, we arrived in Pigeon Forge, TN.  The town, whatever it may have been, is now dominated by what is essentially a carnival midway with go-karts, rides, and tacky t-shirt stores.  Most also have bible verses on the walls.  The Old Mill, now a restaurant, was booked so we ate at its sister spot, the Pottery House, were all our dishware was locally made.  As readers of this blog know, I love a hiking store and Hikey Mikey’s looked right up my alley, but alas it was closed.  We went to the distillery instead, where I indulged in the moonshine tasting (and bought some for home) and headed back to the Go-Karts.  I learned the following:  I am a chicken in a Go-Kart.

A bit more wondering and it was off to sleep.

Worried about traffic, we rose early to head to Cades Cove in the Smokies.  The drive took us winding up the mountain with no other cars in sight.  Know for its wildlife, we were thrilled to spot a wild turkey, deer, and very friendly raccoon along the way.

We found the traffic in our last six miles.  Along the way, there were beautiful fields that seduced many travelers into pulling off and setting up camp there.  We hung in (despite a lot of wingeing – all on my part) and made it to a large park.  Rangers directed us where to park and we joined a growing crowd setting up chairs and blankets.  Rangers and volunteers were on hand to answer questions and hand out eclipse glasses (we have so many now.  If anyone needs them for 2024, I’m your girl!)

Penelope, 11 or 12 (I should know) and I took a long walk to an old mill, still in use, where I bought some corn meal (cornbread at my place!), waded into the mill stream (something her mother would kill me for if she knew) and indulged in the many activities set up for kids – chalk drawings of the eclipse, bracelet making, etc.  Jess and Jenn, two high school volunteers talked us through the stages of the eclipse – partial, solar flairs, diamond ring, total.  We went back refreshed and excited.

There were likely a thousand or more people waiting in the vast field.  We’d come from all over America and we represented America.  Everyone, young and old, black and white and in between, were in great spirits.  People chatted, shared food and travel tips (you really need to go to the Dolly Parton Jamboree, we heard more than once).  The conviviality felt so helpful.  Lynn chatted for a long time with a leather faced man from Georgia who teased hear about the “War of Northern Aggression,” but delighted in sharing his experiences in New York.

I felt hopeful for the first time since I saw video of a car driving into protestors in Charlottesville.  Either that or we were like the people inIndependence Day who rushed to welcome the aliens, and ended up… well, you know.

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Then it happened.  It was incredible.  As the moon slowly moved in front of the sun, we looked up, noted that it was cool, and kept talking.  About 45 minutes later, the totality began, the tiny sliver of sun disappeared as red solar flares danced around the sun.  A cheer went up in our field and sunset colors dotted the horizon.  Crickets started singing and a bat whooshed by,  And then the diamond ring appeared and the sun began to peek back through.

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It was amazing!

High on nature we returned to Pigeon Forge for catfish and sweet tea and more Go-Kart racing.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the surprisingly well done Titanic Museum where an actual Titanic deck chair got me a little teary.  We were all given the identity of an actual passenger and followed their journey to see if they survived or not (we all did – I suspect most people do).

Our drive home was a sad one.  While I definitely don’t think the south is for me long-term, I loved the moment when we all united as a country to awe at the power of nature. We are all small specks, very similar to one another with more in common than not.  I hope we don’t have to wait til 2024 for another reminder of that.

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