More Gujarat images

20140131-230520.jpg First of many geography lessons. Followed by a sign at the Somnath Temple http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somnath
located on the shore of the Arabian Sea that read:
A far light stretching
Without obstruction
Up to the South Pole over
The end of the ocean.

We were treated to viewings of fabulous heirloom and antique textiles in private collections as well as artisan-made treasures waiting to become heirlooms:

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Artist’s hands at work:

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Village scenes and welcoming faces:

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Crazy architecture:

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20140131-231956.jpgSome people thought we were celebrities.
But in fact we were just some westerners in search of alternative modes of transportation:

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Or interested in local wildlife:

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Or simply color:

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The Gujarat Ten (Plus One Terrific Guy): Dusty, Determined and Dazzled

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Nine other women and I came to India loosely united by the friendship or knowledge of an exceptional woman, Mary Ann Marino. Two of us were Mary Ann’s longtime, dear friends, three of us only got to know her in the last years of her shining life, and one met her at dinner party at which Mary Ann shared her extraordinary story. The other four heard we were going to India to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable person and asked to come along. You can read more about Mary Ann in the February post of last year.

Five of us had traveled in India previous to this trip and thought we knew what to expect. Three were seasoned travelers in other parts of the third world, one had been to Africa and mainland China, and the bravest (and, as it turned out, the pluckiest) of all was jumping off a virtual travel cliff, without the benefit of any travel experience beyond Europe’s most civilized countries.

We traveled in two vans that dodged water buffaloes, cows, camels, the occasional elephant, and frequent pot holes the size of jacuzzis. The roads, sometimes paved and often not, were always dusty. We were dusty. Conveniences that until now we took totally for granted, like hot water and the Internet, were unreliable or non-existent. ‘Bathrooms’ between hotel stops were, for the most part, typical third-world squat toilets. You don’t come to India for gourmet cuisine – although we did have a few delicious meals – and we ate with care and crossed fingers that all would be well the next day. For a group that mostly didn’t know each other before we began our trip I must say the chemistry was excellent. We all seemed to enjoy each others’ company. There was never any whining or complaining, everyone was a very good sport and most important everyone was on time – to a fault. Our excellent teamwork made for a really terrific trip. Our rewards were many, including the new friends we made thanks to this most excellent adventure.

In addition to two calm, cool, collected and occasionally daring drivers, we had the fortunate company of two very personable guides, each with his own area of expertise. As our schedule was jam-packed we benefitted from their gentle shepherding off and on the vans, in and out of villages, temples and other stops along the way. As we bumped and swerved over the primarily tabletop flat land, Vikram (our principal guide) supplied us with facts and background information while Chandrajee (his sidekick) charmed us with tidbits of local customs, including his upcoming wedding to which, he says, we will all be invited. I don’t think there was one of us who could wrap her head around the fact, in keeping with the tradition of parent-arranged matches, he wasn’t going to see his bride until they were married.

I picked Gujarat a bit by accident. When we were in Hyderabad last year we met a woman at a dinner party who suggested with great enthusiasm that we spend the final month of our four month trip touring the famous weaving and handicraft villages of this western state that bumps out into the Indian Ocean directly south of Pakistan. I like looking at textiles and David lit up at the plan when he discovered that Palitana, a complex of Jain temple that he was determined to visit, was included on our itinerary. Then we checked the weather. We couldn’t get to Gujarat until March, when average temperatures were a scorching 110-115 degrees F. It seemed we had missed the ideal season to go there last year. So, instead, we headed north to the Himalayas.

However, I kept the extremely comprehensive and detailed itinerary our friend had provided last year. When Santha proposed the reunion of Mary Ann’s friends on the anniversary of her death I wondered if a tour of weaving centers might appeal to the group coming from the States. It did and, as our tour ended at Palitana, David signed on to join us for the final few days.

We assembled in Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad. Some of our group had spent the previous week traveling to other places in India, and some had just stepped off the plane onto Indian soil for the very first time. Ahmedabad is not the ideal gateway city for an India virgin visitor. There’s not a lot of charm here. Traffic chaos reigns and the result is deadly gridlock at every intersection. There doesn’t seem to be a real center of the city – just endlessly truck, car, tuk-tuk and cow-clogged streets clouded in a jarring cacophony of honking horns. It took such a long time to get anywhere it was almost time to leave as soon as we arrived.

We all looked forward to visiting the famous Calico Museum of Textiles which, for many of us, was going to be a highlight of the trip. It turns out that tickets must be booked well in advance for the two daily tours that each accommodate only 20 people. Our tour operator who had made all the arrangements hadn’t done this, so we were basically out of luck. Every string that could be pulled was pulled, but to no avail. Starting out with this major disappointment made me anxious about what lay ahead as I was the one who had talked everyone else into joining me on this great adventure.

One salve for our disappointment was that our arrival coincided with an annual kite festival that is celebrated all over India.

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It was a joyous celebration where almost everyone from the smallest child to the oldest grandfather held onto the control end of a soaring kite, pulling the string to make the kite dive and soar. Many kites had glass or razors impregnated into the string and a facile operator could cut the string of any kite that his crossed paths with.

We spent a few peaceful hours at the Gandhi Ashram which housed an extensive collection of memorabilia and photographs documenting this remarkable man’s life. Quotes along with portraits of notable pacifists and people who challenged the system in non-violent ways were posted on the walls. The panel dedicated to Henry David Thoreau demonstrated how very far Ahmedabad is from Concord when I tried to explain to one or our guides that I often walk for exercise around the pond where Thoreau lived while he wrote his famous book. “What is your destination?” he asked. “Just around the pond,” I told him. This didn’t compute. It was clear that walking around a pond for exercise was an indulgence right up there with car seats and designer dogs. I felt, not for the first or last time, like the wildly pampered westerner that I am.

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In our way out of town we stopped at the Rani Ki Vav stepwell, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Rani-ki-Vav is situated about 2 km to the northwest of Patan district of Gujarat. It is the most magnificent stepwell in Gujarat, built during 11-12th centuries. The structure was constructed around a stepped corridor that was compartmented at regular intervals with pillared multi-storyed pavilions. Each of the four pavilions, which demarcate the stages along the descent, have multiple storys – two, four, six and seven respectively. Sculptures of deities and other images adorn the walls flanking the staircase. Nearly four hundred niches on the walls display images.

The sight, and the light were especially wonderful.

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While Gujarat is one of India’s poorer states, it is by far the richest in terms of exquisite handcrafted things, made following traditions that have been passed down for generations. Villages are remote, far from each other and often located at the end of narrow tracts that look more like alleys than streets. Most of the places we visited appeared dramatically poor, especially as viewed by western eyes. Water is carried from communal wells in metal containers balanced on the heads of women who somehow manage to walk gracefully and quickly from well to home.

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While there are some children obviously well cared far (clean, wearing school uniforms and shoes), others are barefoot, tassel haired, street-wise kids who don’t appear to go to school. Instead they sit alongside a family member hawking bangles, earrings, beads and the like.

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One result of this tour is that I will never again look at a piece of fabric or article of clothing without thinking about whose hands have worked to turn it from a silk worm thread or tuft of sheep’s wool or seedy cotton puff into what I am now holding. Humbling and mind-boggling are words that come to mind as I watched women sewing tiny, precise stitches into purses and shawls. Unbelievable is the only word that can describe the seven stage process in which workers apply intricate stamps of hand carved teak to lengths of silk and cotton to create panels of complicated tie dye and dazzling batik.

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An entire family of weavers can work on a sari of gold, blue and red silk, all colored with natural dyes, made in a traditional design. The sari will spend the better part of six months on a loom, growing just inches a day, before being shipped off to a wealthy woman to wear to her daughter’s wedding, and then to pack away as a family heirloom for her daughter to wear for her child’s wedding. And then it will be passed along to the next generation.

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In many of these village we were told that the knowledge and skills used to create these masterpieces are in danger of disappearing. “People don’t value the work of artists,” was something we heard over and over. Young women who in the past would spend years hand embroidering a wedding trousseau that would became part of their dowry were now limited by the elders to a much shorter time so they could, instead, do work that would bring in more money for the family. Some people had begun using synthetic dyes instead of the natural ones that were traditional. Some weavers and silk screeners now use mechanized looms and presses instead of the hand looms and hand presses. It was jarring to hear at a cotton weaving factory the harsh clack of mechanical looms in one in room after just leaving a room, at the same facility, where the looms were operated by hand (actually by foot) and make a sound like flannel wrapped castanets.

What struck each of us at every stop were the incredibly low prices attached to these treasures. We were seeing first hand what happens to the price of a stunning hand woven silk scarf when it leaves the village and ends up at Neiman Marcus. It wasn’t budget, I am guessing, that reined in our desire to buy everything, but the serious charges for overweight on our flights that would have made anything we bought four times more expensive than what we would have paid.

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David and Sons in Varanasi

The “Indian experience” cannot get more intense than Varanasi, the pilgrimage city on the Ganges. Where you see bodies on the funeral pyres at the burning ghats, one with a foot extending out from under the shroud; where you see deceased sacred cows floating down the river; where all the pre-deceased sacred cows give rise to a whole new dimension of “holy shit” wherever you step or (in the unseasonable monsoon-like downpours we encountered) slip. But, supposedly, where:
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That sentiment is only aspirational here. Luckily so for all the hungry cows, bulls, water buffalo and goats that walk the streets.

Varanasi is also a place where you can get talked into doing something that you’d never allow yourself to do anywhere else. Like Max and Jonathan walking along the main ghat in the evening and discovering that, ultimately, “no” means “yes” when faced with a persistent solicitation for a massage. Amidst thousands of passersby, they allowed themselves to be stretched out side by side on a wooden platform (photos in Lora’s posting on Varanasi), with 2 men working on them, pulling and shaking and crunching their limbs. In spite of those efforts, Max said that their wallets got more massaged than they did.

A similar experience befell all of us when, as we left a restaurant after lunch, we asked the waiter how to find a certain place. “The restaurant isn’t busy so I’ll take you there. You don’t have to pay me anything.” That last comment meant the situation was not going to end well. After leading us in circles for 15 minutes we happened upon his friend, who happened to work in one of the weaving operations that filled every building in that section of the city, and who happened to have some time to show us the entire operation from the spinning of the yarn, to the punching of the player piano-like templates that controlled the creation of the patterns in the woven cloth, to the overwhelming clatter of the looms that emerged from every sweat shop room in the area. After an hour, it was “Let me show you the final product. You don’t have to buy anything.” How could we say “no” when the guy had just given us an hour of his time to take us on a very interesting tour. At that moment, we just happened to be outside a door that led to a large room with thousands of bolts of cloth surrounding a circle of floor cushions on which we were invited to sit. We got taken for more than just a tour.

One of the best things to do in Varanasi is to simply wander in the old city’s labyrinth of alleys. The only thing that kept us from panicking that we were lost forever was knowing that we would inevitably come to the Ganges if we kept walking east.

Chitrakoot

David: Chitrakoot is a small Hindu pilgrimage town where the god Rama lived for a number of years in self-imposed semi-exile. Lonely Planet says all the trains stop there at stupid o’clock in the morning. When I asked our Hyderabad travel person if wi-fi would be available at our hotel, she said that if we really wanted to go there, we would get hot water at our hotel only if we wanted to buy it by the bucket.

We arrived in town a little after 9 pm and checked into the government Tourist Bungalow, which Lonely Planet says is the best place in town. But the Tourist Bungalow had never heard of us. It turns out that Lonely Planet and our agent were referring to the Tourist Bungalow run by Utter Pradesh state. By mistake, the agent had booked us into a place around the corner, the Tourist Bungalow run by Madhya Pradesh state. Only in India.

We were fortunate. The Madhya Pradesh operation was fine, and the super deluxe room ($28 per night for a double, breakfast included) came with all the hot water we could use.

Chitrakoot turned out to be a great place, in part because it is definitely off the Western tourist itinerary. We didn’t see a single Western person in all of our time there. Everyone in town was either a local, a Hindu making a pilgrimage, or an Indian tourist. There was a downside, however, when we asked our driver where we could eat. “There are no restaurants here for you. You must eat at hotel.” The same hotel where the Corn Flakes at breakfast tasted like they were part of Kellogg’s first production run.

There was a big poster map in the Bungalow lobby that showed the location of 6 sites in the general area. We told our driver to pick 3 of them. One was a temple to Rama outside the town. The main feature of the temple is an imposing 20-foot tall statue of the monkey god Hanuman, a devotee of Rama and a very buff guy. The statue depicts Hanuman ripping open his chest and heart to expose an image of Rama in his heart. I can’t imagine a more compelling rendition of “I Give My Heart to Thee.”

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Varanasi: The Ultimate Tourist Test

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“Driving is much like a video game,” my driver told me me as he careened around craters, bounced over ruts, dodging dogs, cows, bicycles, tuktuks and pedicabs on the dusty road from the airport to the hotel. Everyone in charge of a conveyance wants to get there first. The guy with the loudest horn and the most chutzpah wins.

Welcome to Varanasi – people are literally dying to come here. Actually, they come here to die. Their bodies, wrapped in red and gold funeral cloth, accompanied by the sound of chimes and drums, are carried by litter through the narrow cobbled alleys down to the ghats (the broad steps leading down to the Ganges River) where they are set upon funeral pyres and burned. Their ashes are swept into the river. This is how one achieves Nirvana and escapes the cycle of rebirth.

You’re either going to love this city or you’ll want to get out of town the moment after you arrive. Varanasi is where the pedal meets the metal, where (as our son Jonathan said), “The shit gets real.” It’s the supreme test of a first world tourist’s ability to go with the flow in a people and bovine-packed third world city. Cows, goats, dogs wander freely, grazing on the piles of garbage that cover the streets. As Monday follows Sunday, it’s garbage in and, after a trip through some wandering animal’s digestive system, garbage out, whereever the animal wishes.
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We planned our trip for the dry season and, almost as soon as we arrived, the rains began. “Most unusual weather,” our pedicab driver responded as we nervously listened to the full throated thunder followed immediately by bolts of lightening that lit up the foggy sky. Rain that started as fat splats became pelting sheets that turned the lanes into flowing streams of merde de vache (somehow this sounds better in French) and rendered the cobblestones as slick as stewed okra. An unending procession of humanity and livestock – merchants, locals, pilgrims, school children, beggars, tourists, men staggering under the weight of sacks of this and that on their backs, ‘pallbearers’ carrying bodies down to the burning ghats, cows, bulls, goats, dogs – played hopscotch across bottomless puddles of thick red mud consisting of you-don’t-want-to-know, egged on by the incessant, demanding horns of men on motorbikes pushing through the throngs.

The boys stayed in a guest house on one of the ghats in a quiet section of the old city. Their room afforded a stunning up close view of the Ganges.

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From the adjacent balcony we could watch boys flying kites, monkeys swinging from treetops to roof tops. We watched cows lumbering up and down narrow stairs to the river. Who knew that cows could climb stairs? The more heavily touristed areas and burning ghats were up river a bit, but the smoke and fog, the crazily crowded boats full of pilgrims, the sound of bells and the cries of street side hawkers bore witness to the fact that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

We spent hours walking along the ghats. Everywhere we turned there was something either astonishing, incredible, and/or unbelievable. Even the simply unusual sights took on a new dimension as we were both jet lagged and stunned by the fact that a few days ago it was bitterly cold and now it was summer. Granted, Taipei wasn’t bitterly cold but Jonathan, who’d never been to India, was stultified by the scene. I could sense how hard it would be to translate this place into words. So I took lots of pictures. Here’s an example of graffiti Varanasi-style, followed by sari-drying and wandering cows:

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Max and Jon availed themselves of the spa services:

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We walked past piles of wood stacked and ready for the funeral pyres.
Peaked into doorways of homes lining the narrow alleys:

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Before David and Sam headed off to Rajasthan, we treated ourselves to a farewell dinner at the Taj.

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Feeling the need to take a break from the muddy streets, Max, Jon and I hired a driver to take us to Sarnath’s museum and nearby temples. Ten km. from Varanasi, Sarnath is the site where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon “Maha- Dharma-Chakra Pravartan” (in Buddhist terminology, ‘turned the wheel of the law’) after his enlightenment. Sarnath is one of the richest cities in Buddhist antiquities ranging in date from the times of Ashoka down to the 12th century. Ashoka built here the Dharmarajika Stupa and near it erected a pillar surmounted by the magnificent capital of four adorned lions that today forms the national emblem of India. Among other structures at Sarnath are the ruins of the brick temple representing the Mula-Gandha Kuti, ruins of stupas and monasteries. Among the more imposing ones is the Dhamekh Stupa, adorned with delicate floral carvings in the lower part, the Chaukhandi Stupa and Mahabodhi Society’s Mulgandha Kuti Vihar Temple. Sarnath has also yielded an extremely rich collection of Buddhist sculptures comprising of numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images which can be seen at Archaeological Museum, Sarnath.

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We attained a bit of enlightenment and saw the sun for a few moments in an otherwise stormy day.
Then the three of us headed back to Delhi and caught our respective planes – Max back to Western Mass. where Joanna and Eli were anxiously awaiting his arrival; Jonathan, lugging a huge parcel of gifts, back to Taipei; and me, bound for Ahmedabad to start my adventures in Gujarat. It was, as always, hard to say goodbye to the boys and see this phase of the trip end. Knowing that we would all be together soon at Sam’s wedding (!!) made for a slightly easier farewell.

Sam Brody launches India’s latest satellite

It all started so innocuously.  Sam landed in Delhi and caught up with Jonathan, Max and me (David) in Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh.  It’s a very nice city. That’s not intended to be damning with faint praise.  It really is a very nice city. Much calmer and more orderly, and cleaner, than most other cities we have visited. Maybe that’s another way of saying it doesn’t have the same vibrancy and intensity that makes us keep coming back to India.

Anyway, the four of us were walking along the river from one area of interest to another.  The walk was long and I was wearing lousy shoes that made my feet and legs ache, so we headed over to a grassy knoll to rest for a while.  It was all very innocuous.

But then we discovered a sandlot cricket game underway on the backside of the knoll, and a couple of the kids strolled over to join us as we watched the game.  I don’t remember whether it was one of us, or one of the kids, who invited Sam to try his luck at bat.  He laughed at the suggestion and I thought I glimpsed a bit of the “deer in the headlights” look.  But the crowd liked the idea and Sam had to surrender to his fans’ demands.  The rest is history, recorded in the attached link. The reaction of the bowler (cricket language that means the pitcher) at the end of the video says it all.

Delhi in January: Play Misty For Me

Lotus temple Delhi20140106-182504.jpg20140106-182343.jpgI made a lot of noise about not flying into Delhi at night because of the ‘adventure’ we had landing here last January. Having your landing aborted at the very last minute due to the impenetrable fog leaves an indelible impression. When it happens in a jumbo jet the impact (forgive the choice of words) is even greater. I figured a daytime landing would present a fighting chance of an uncomplicated arrival. The fog rolls in here sometime in December and lingers until the end of January. Sometimes it burns off by midday, but at least for the time I am here, things stay pretty murky. Colors are muted, buildings and monuments are viewed through the equivalent of cataract shrouded eyes. The morning are cold and damp. This is the first time I’ve been in India and needed both long underwear, a wool turtleneck and a down jacket. The area Where i am staying is called Hauz Khaz Village in south Delhi. It’s a pretty amazing place – a (mostly) carless warren of narrow streets and winding alleys constructed in typically helter skelter Indian fashion around the ruins of a13th century medieval city. I picked it because it’s a relatively safe place for a woman traveling solo and I feel perfectly comfortable going about (as long as I remember to dodge motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional taxi zooming down lane. There’s the man selling peanuts from the back of his bicycle and the laborers hauling bricks and bags of gravel on their backs. It’s a cross between Soho and the medina in Fez. Upscale shops selling beautiful clothes (the kind that leave you looking like someone who went to India and bought clothes that looked fine in India but not so much back home), are jumbled between and on top of a United Nations of restaurant choices that line muddy, semi-paved crooked streets and narrow alleys. The sound of the call to worship amplified by loud speakers perched on top of buildings mingles with the sound of boys playing cricket and the cry of the peanut vendor as he pushes his bicycle over the rutted streets. The smell of pakoras frying in giant black kettles is a tempting siren pulling me toward the dangerous mistake of eating street food and thus disregarding my first rule of avoiding Delhi belly.

I’ve revisited a few favorite places – top on the list is the Lotus Temple, which looks even most mystical in the ever present fog.

In a few days I fly to Varanasi to meet up with David and the boys for four days. The last time Sam was here with David it was 110F which they dealt with by hoping the next plane north to Darjeeling in the Himalayas. The weather forecast, to their relief, is much different for this trip – cool and clear and, as in Delhi, fog until the sun burns through.

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When the sun’s out here the place is quite charming

Snow Job

Happy New Year to all!

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Who said it would be easy? The weather gods are shaking their angry sticks and who knows how our flights will be affected. Sam leaves tomorrow morning (hopefully before the full force of the storm descends). I leave on Friday, but am attempting an end run around the snow by staying overnight at an airport hotel connected to a terminal. Whether it’s my terminal has not been revealed, but I sure hope it is since I’m leaving my coat at home. Somehow the idea of a shuttle bus at 6am when it’s -7F doesn’t get me too excited. When I made the reservation the person asked if I wanted a king size bed, I sighed and said, regrettably, the king wouldn’t be in residence that evening. I sure do miss the king. It’s mighty quiet here.

All this week I’ve been aware ever time I take a drink of water from the sink, hold my toothbrush under the bathroom faucet or open my mouth in the shower that I won’t be doing that for a while. Sitting here writing this the only sound is the hum of the refrigerator and the occasional howl of a coyote. Outside you’d be hard pressed to find a piece of trash on the ground. When I get off the plane in Delhi (hopefully) on Saturday morning none of those things will be true. But other absolutely wonderful things will be true. Opps. Hold that thought. Sam just arrived and suggested that I should check to see if I could check in on line on the British Air website and what do I find?

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CANCELLED!!

It’s 6:30 pm on New Years Day. I’ve been on hold with British Air (who keep repeating over and over that my business is important to them) for close to an hour and then I remember why I use a travel agent instead of booking on the Internet. Now, to be fair, my travel agent happens to be my good friend (otherwise I’d never be able to call her at home on a holiday evening), but Carol and Shelley to the rescue. Before you can say “Bob’s Uncle” I’m booked on Sam’s flight tomorrow morning.

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We celebrate by going out for soup dumplings before hitting the sack for a few hours sleep before our 5am pickup.