I Am a Sucker for a Deal

So, the price was right. An almost round trip ticket to Johannesburg, South Africa, from New York for about $435. Sounds reasonable. I booked it. I was going to have a little dream trip and go on safari to Kruger National Park and see me some cuddly wild cats.

After much research and planning, and dragging my long suffering mother along for the ride, I had identified my lodge, my transfers and the end game for the trip.

Phase One: JFK to Doha, 14ish hours. Here’s the thing: the ticket allowed ONLY 70 minutes to change planes in Doha. When I called Priceline to try and get a different outbound flight, they denied me, saying I had enough time. WELL. You people are wrong. Dead wrong. We landed and after the small delay at JFK, and then actually getting off the plane, it was a full on sprint. Doha airport was beautiful and clean and a big blur. Some running, a tram, finger crossing, and a great deal of cursing, we were one of the final few to board the plane. The cursing, by the way, was from my mother to me for making her run and literally drip sweat. But we made it and that’s what matters. Right? Are we having fun yet?

From Doha, a city I’d love to see at another time, we had another 8 hours to Johannesburg. And I have to say, it was a lovely and relatively easy flight. At least for me. My mother shot me side eye across the aisle as I slept comfortably.

After 20 plus hours of flying, running and educating the locals on American expletives, we arrived in Johannesburg. Customs was a long twisty line that appeared to be a mess yet went by relatively fast with a fair amount of indoor sweat. Again. After winding our way out of the airport to the shuttle area, and shooing away every single person asking for a tip for reasons unknown, we arrived at the Protea Marriott. It’s a delightful airport hotel modeled after an airplane, it even has the corrugated metal detail. Just delightful.

We grabbed a shower – a shower, which, by the way, was in the bathroom area. An area, not an actual room, as the shower and sink AREA, was sectioned off by a hospital curtain. Literally, you pulled the curtain around to separate the shower from the bedroom. Incredibly strange, but I guess it made sense in the interest of space, but still. At least the toilet had a door.

Dinner was in the hotel since we could barely hold our heads up. We had an early flight the next morning to Nelspruit, just outside Kruger. I hope we don’t have to run to make this flight.

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Costa Christina

I beach hopped each day. I visited the ports – Porto Cervo, Porto Brandinchi, Porto Rotundo, Puntaldia, and Golfo Aranci. I shopped the stores for regular junk to take home, like magnets and t-shirts. I shopped the stores for clothes I will never wear and never buy, and honestly, I don’t know who would or how those places even stay in business. Somewhere is an unfortunately dressed woman who is going to credit Sardinia with her brightly patterned look of coral and tropical fish and locals the land over will cringe. She’s likely sitting next to a man in pants that are too tight, too short, too linen and too pink to be useful anywhere else.

I more than enjoyed the local scenery – the limestone mountains, the cliffs, the sweeping seascapes. And I enjoyed the locals and the poor to nonexistent English. There’s something gently charming about being in a place where they can take you or leave you. I like this. Gesturing, pointing, trying to recall words that sound like other words in Italian that I have heard or read in the past, simply trying to fill my Fiat up with gas. It’s an adventure, each day a small challenge to be won.

My favorite is presenting my credit card and watching the merchant read my name. I often watch the expression on their face go from abject indifference to welcoming acceptance. On more than once occasion I heard something like, “Your surname….it’s Italian, yes?” Then it was like the front door of their home swung open, and I was ushered in, had a glass of wine thrust in my hand and sat at the dinner table. I was in. I just wish I was in enough to find out how they make a living and how much do cars cost and what the winter is like…

I found the whole island to be relatively undeveloped and therefore fascinating. The occasional roadside inn, pizzeria, food truck. A smattering of food stores and hotels. None such that you would know what you were looking at if you weren’t actually looking for it.

And each day was harder and harder to end, the sun just never set. Not until 10pm when it finally ducked behind the limestone mountains.  I didn’t feel I could end the day until the day itself ended.

I did spend many several hours on the beach and I was warned not to ‘overdue it’ but I don’t know what those words mean and now I am now permanently colored somewhere between rotisserie chicken and pulled pork.

Speaking of which, the food. Oh, dear, the food. The island itself is Italian, but it is very close to Corsica, which belongs to the French, and has some Spanish influence that dates back thousands of years. That being said, one might expect to find a thorough mix of these cuisines and maybe they can. But not me. That’s not my goal. My goal is to eat the Italian from morning to night. The fresh tuna, the blindingly tender clams and muscles, the mouth melting pasta – where does one begin? One evening, I went into the center of Olbia, and dined outside. I had an Ichnusa beer, the spaghetti with clams and panna cotta with a raspberry sauce that brought tears to my eyes. You know the food is fresh from the sea when along with the clams you chew a little sand. I didn’t mind much. So the dish was a little gritty, just like Sardinia itself.

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I spent each day exploring a different beach, fighting parking lot crowds because no matter how early it was, I simply wasn’t early enough. But I always found a good spot and managed to enjoy 10 or more hours reading, sleeping, and frolicking in the water. I snorkeled and picked shells, some already had occupants.

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In the evenings, I explored the center of the town, the shopping areas teeming with bright colors and billionaires. I fit in quite nicely, if you ask me.

Sardinia is my little dream island. It’s small but had everything, and nothing more than is necessary. The water and beaches are to die for, each one more spectacular than the next. The scenery was stunning no matter where I went. I thought it would be amazing based solely on the adverts in Fiumicino Airport, and it was.

I had an entire week of beach days, no rain, no clouds. I bounced around among the glitterati on the most beautiful island I have ever stepped foot on. I would recommend it highly but I prefer to keep it my little secret.

 

 

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I Said I Was Going

Last time I was in Italy, I passed large adverts on the airport walls for a land not far off.  A land of white sand, crystalline waters in shades of turquoise and emerald; happy, tanned people frolicking along the beach. I, too, wished to be one of these people diving off rocks into cerulean pools on the Costa Smeralda.

In a spur of the moment decision, with about 3 weeks notice, I booked a trip to Sardinia. Because why not. I had grandiose plans of visiting the caves and grottoes, seeing the ruins of Sardinia’s past and shopping in Cagliari. Well…

Turns out, there isn’t a lot of literature about this place, at least that I could find. And what I did dig up wasn’t very fruitful in terms of tourist friendly information. Is it possible I have found a land of relative seclusion? One where Americans are not the usual visitor? Tuns out, yeah, I kind of did.

I flew from Rome into the most northern port, Olbia. And pretty much stayed there. Why? Because 30 minutes in any direction from my hotel was a beach. And not just a regulation beach. But beaches so far into my wildest dreams, it was like I stepped clear out of my head and into those advertisements I saw on the airport walls. It is real.

From the road, you get glimpses of the coast line through the shrubbery, ragged and jutting into the sea. Vistas of navy blue water catching the sun, dotted by white – sailboats and yachts – mega yachts, even, that have dropped anchor just off the beach. Emerald and turquoise waters with gleaming silver tips,  calling my name from miles away.

I had a hard time getting to the water each day. I was more compelled by the homes I saw, jammed into the cliffs overlooking the water. I wanted to pull into their ornate stone driveways and knock on the door, offer to be a live in maid or nanny.  Whatever it takes. I don’t need a lot of space, really. Or perhaps these kind people would invite me in to have a look around. I imagined sitting down on the veranda scented with gardenia to discuss the things I really wanted to know. What are your property taxes? What do you do for work? Is it expensive here? Did you build this house new yourself? Do you stay just in summer? Do you have a landscaper for these ornate and perfectly pruned flowers of purple and pink and white that caress your custom made entrance gate? If not, do you want to hire me? Do you have any sons my age? Is that lunch?

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But I don’t because I have no interest in visiting a Sardinian jail lest it’s waterfront or has an infinity pool.

Anyway. Sardinia. Wow. It is one of the most rustic places I have visited. Rustic land, like upcountry Maui or Sicily or Montana. To get to the beach, I drive through dry grass, hills, sheep, rocky, unpaved roads. It seems like such a contradiction in terms. But it is real and it is magical.

But the beaches. My first beach required parking in a dirt lot. And here I thought arriving around 9am guaranteed me first crack at parking and a spot on the beach. Well, I could not be more wrong. I left my car in the middle of the alleged lot, grabbed my bag, and began a short hike to the beach, along with tens of other people. It was packed! It’s SO early! Ugh.

I eventually found a spot, dropped my hotel towel (thanks, guys!) and marveled at how pristine the sand was, how clear the water. I walked in up to my ankles, and looked down. The sand glistened and glittered like I was standing on actual diamond dust. With every step, I kicked up chunks of glittery diamond sand that billowed into shiny clouds of soft powder. It was so shimmery, had so much luster, that I felt I could sit down and pan for actual karats.

I looked around, the water was clear and turquoise as far as the eye could see. I watched the sun hit the gentle ripples in the water, and it actually looked like chunks of gold were washing ashore. The way the light reflected off the water made me feel like I was swimming in liquid gold. I stood there admiringly for so long my shoulders began to burn.

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That picture doesn’t do it justice, you’ll need to really envision my description.

I spent a whole 8 hours on the beach, in the water, reading, rotating, like I was on a spit.

And for the next four days, I did pretty much the same. Laying about, admiring the view. Marveling over the water, the glistening, the warmth, the Italian spoken around me, the cloudless sky, the powdery sand, the yachts moored just off the coast inspiring awe and envy.

But doing all that nothing takes quite a bit out of you.

I can’t tell you how tired I was 10 – 11 hours later! The thing is this, the sun never seemed to set. I didn’t know what time it was, ever. The crowds never thinned out such to indicate a certain time of day or a certain meal is approaching. I suppose I would have known by my own hunger pangs, but I brought some stuff with me, so I never felt like I needed to eat. Not that it mattered, because I determined not to leave until I absolutely had to.

My first day was actually quite overwhelming, despite doing not a whole lot. I think I was so enamored of this island, the breathtaking beauty of it. The completely clear water and it’s warm yet refreshing temperature. I am not sure I ever considered such a place existed.

 

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Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese

I am basically torn between “educate me and tell me everything about how this is done so I replicate it at home against my better judgement” and “can we please fast forward to the part where I get to put it all in my mouth?”

Alas, we aren’t there yet since raw milk products cannot be consumed before 60 days, so no eating the newly made product. We are at the point where things are taking shape, and so we move along the tour. But seriously, feed me.

As I walk along the hallowed corridors, I still faintly smell the pigs, but do not hear them.  I notice the halls are pristine, and are often decorated with posters and maps that celebrate the local area. Occasionally, I will pass an open window, letting in a gentle breeze. I notice that some rooms don’t have any vents or window units, no air or heat. The dairy really lets the environment do the work, and it is pure magic.

While the cheese is taking shape in the mold for 48 hours, still absent the parmigiana part of the process, all the natural lactic bacteria starts to create an unfriendly environment for competing bacteria. This is just natural protection against any potential invaders. It’s like it creates it’s own immune system. In doing so, the acidity is very high, and then the lactose turns to lactic acid, then it becomes lactose free – rendering it free of allergens. Hypo-allergenic cheese.  Aside from that, true parmigiana has 30% fat content, and it incredibly rich in nutrients because of the highest quality milk. The calcium content is among the highest in the world of any cheese product and it contains lots of protein. You might even call it a perfect food. If you won’t, I certainly will. And then I will enjoy it in large quantities.

It’s so perfect, in fact, that it is the first sold food given to infants in Italy as recommended by pediatricians. Take that, Gerber.

I am reminded that the cheese is just cheese until it meets the salt.  Down another hall and past some offices and behind double doors is where the transformation takes place.

I burst through the doors, and find a huge room with wall to wall vats of cheese wheels, delicately bobbing in salt water pools of maturity. The windows are open here as well, and the smell of the pigs outside wafts in and slaps me in the face. It is briny combined with that of farm animal. After a few minutes, I’ve forgotten all about it.

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The glorious wheels sit in a sea salt brine for 18-20 days, completely saturated, and are rotated on a daily basis. I can say with authority that it is strongly advised you do not poke the wheels in the water to watch them bob up and down in their salty pools of delicious.

This salting is the first agent that forms the rind. The salt hardens the cheese, both inside and out. This process makes the cheese officially parmigiana and no longer a generic cheese. And now,  we wait. It’s going to take one whole year to sit and swim before it is really, truly, officially parmigiana. Fortunately, no one is going to make me wait a year as that would be cruel and unjust.

These pigs that assaulted my nose, by the way, are born and raised on the same dairy land, and they are only allowed to eat the whey left over from the cheese making process. Windows in the facility are all open because the climate is just as crucial in this process as anything else. From local dairy farmers to the cheese makers to the pigs, the whole process is more than local – it’s regulated.  It’s clear that it is personal to everyone involved, and there is great respect in the process. Even the pigs are treated with reverie and fed only the best, most pure food, creating a circle of life type of feeling.

The next part of this process is something that my dreams are made of.  The wheels are shelved in a giant room with open widows where they rest for a year or more and under go quality checks. A massive library of parmigiana. Shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle of beautiful, aging, parmigiana reggiano, from floor to ceiling. file (1).jpg

I separated from my mom and tour guide at this point, and I ran up and down the aisles, running my hands over the wheels, letting the wind catch in between the buttons on my bunny suit. I heard harp music with each step. I paused to take photos with some wheels, others I just caressed with my cheek. One I tried to wrap my arms around, just to see if I could. I swear I heard it say it loved me, too.

When I was done being one with the wheels, I resumed learning. I heard something about quality testing and perked up. I was disappointed to discover that meant using a tuning fork type of hammer to determine how far along the cheese was in the aging process. There are expert testers who spend their formative years knocking on wheels and listening for the sound of perfection. And that is how they check – knocking on the cheese allows them to listen to hear how compact the inside is. That determines if it is ready to go. So simple.

Possibly my favorite fact: banks will take the wheels as down payment on a loan and have their own maturing facility. Wish that was on the tour.

At the end, amidst facts and figures about cheese making and the pigs and cows that are responsible for the glorious treat, I get to taste the finished product. I get the regular every day cheese, aged about a year, and then I get the fancy, holidays and special occasion cheese aged 36 months. I heard the harp again. I did a little dance. I cried out to the heavens that this was so good and ohmygoodnessohmygoodness.

But really, I was so tickled to have been allowed in the halls and processing facility, in the heart of Parma. I saw experts who train their whole lives to ensure the perfect product is created. I smelled pigs that are better cared for than I care for myself. And I tasted the final product. Who is luckier than me?

 

 

 

 

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The Cheese Stands Alone

Finding the hidden gems and local specialties that are tucked in the corners and verandas of Italy are part of why I continue to return. Each corner more beautiful than the next, with flowers and vines climbing the brick walls, woven in the wrought iron balconies. Smelling the baking dough and cheese waft from the pasticceria down the street. Walking under the delicately hung night gowns and other unmentionables that criss cross from window to window to dry. Charms that are inherent to ones imagination when thinking of spending a day lazily wandering the cobblestone streets.

What they are often missing is the history of those smells.

One of my most favorite things is in the world is cheese. Good, old fashioned formaggio. It was more than a pleasant surprise when I learned I could visit the cheese dairy from birth to storage. It was one of the greatest moments of discovery I have ever known.

So I embarked from Milan to Parma via train, early in the morning, to arrive at the dairy to catch the start of the day. As I pulled up in the cab, I watched the sun rise over the fields and could smell the sharp scent of pigs and their muck. I could not see them, but there was no question they were around.

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I was greeted by an extremely knowledgeable guide from the Parmigiana Consortium, which is a group of dairy farmers and cheese producers who work together to protect the identity and authenticity of the parmigiana. The producers, however, are not the cheese makers but the farmers with the milk producing cows. Imagine that this process is so intense and sacred that the people more intimately involved formed a group to protect the integrity of the cheese. Amazing.

I bunny-suited up from head to toe to protect the cheese from me, which, I suppose, makes perfect sense. We enter the dairy and I am in it, among the giant bell shaped copper vats of milk swirling and heating. Milk that was delivered fresh, early in the morning, and immediately put to use. A set of magicians are at the giant bowls, one vat at a time, to mix and add the fermented whey and rennents.10-23-2016-6-38-03-pm

While I contemplated leaving my Jersey life and moving to the Italian countryside to live among the cheese and pigs, I am reminded that each of the cheese magicians are trained and come from long lines of other cheese makers. I can’t just take up residence and start stocking my own wheels. So I am neither trained nor really welcomed in this respect. Which is just as well because they work every day including holidays and that isn’t really my style. Even Jesus took a day off.

I turn my thoughts to making some of this glorious cheese at home, given there are only 3 ingredients inclusive of the milk. I am quickly brought back to reality when I get to see a wheel in the mold with the etching that will give it authenticity and the rind we are all so familiar with as its imprinted with the dotted parmigiano reggiano brand.

Once in the mold, each wheel gets its own ID number, its first mark of origin so there is no question as to the authenticity of the product. It’s hard not to appreciate the thought that goes into this whole scenario. Especially since that ID number is directly related to the farmer producers so when it’s sold, the right people get paid. Tracking from the start of the supply chain all the to the consumer…Incredible! But, it’s still not official parmigiano yet. It’s just kind of wheel of..cheese-like stuff.

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But it is still a wheel of cheese-like stuff I want to take a bite of like an apple. However, I have discerned that this is likely frowned upon so I don’t touch anything.

Yet.

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It’s Still the Desert

So on this day we journey far afield from all that which we know: luxury hotels, a car held together with bubble yum, air conditioning that requires a down parka just to maintain body temperature.

We are going to take a trip into the desert, the Arabian Desert, which is so large, it touches on five countries and is one of the largest deserts in the world. This I learned in the car on the way in; didn’t do any research prior, I like to be surprised. I booked a tour with Platinum Heritage, and I do not regret it one bit.

But first! We are picked up the hotel in a Mercedes G Wagon, which is what we are going to be using for the whole of the safari. Again, not to shabby for my taste. I grab shotgun because I want the best view and to ask questions all day long. I am probably the single worst nightmare of any tour guide. I wouldn’t be surprised if  I was on some underground database of insatiably curious customers. They have categories like: asks too many questions (askholes), doesn’t participate, drunk, annoying, cheap, picky eater, know it all, big dummy, and so on. And you are rated on all of these charming qualities and then there’s a chance for comments from tour leaders. It’s a low down Traveler Yelp (Trelp) for tour guides. Anyway.

I’m the front seat for the hour long ride to the protected desert area for this safari. I am so excited I am almost twitching. My mom is in the backseat; we both watch the city disappear behind us, passing warehouses that give way to camel race tracks.

Upon pulling into the sheikh owned area, I see Indian Jones style Land Rovers and I immediately wish I had a whip and leather jacket. So badass. After some chit chat, we get on our way with another couple. Two lovely men who clearly didn’t want to be there and I couldn’t figure out why they bothered. I know for sure they are in the Trelp because they sucked. They sucked as passengers, they sucked as participants, they just sucked all the way around.

I digress. We cruise over sand dunes, through the desert, endless sand in varying shades of gold. Probably best to wear a seat belt and not be susceptible to motion sickness for this portion of the day. Honestly, I could not get enough of this. Our driver must be respectful of the land so not to damage it. It’s still home to lots of animals, we mustn’t tear it up. No matter how bad I wanted to hit the gas and launch across the dunes.580.JPG

We saw oryx drinking from the watering holes, and lots of animals and bird poop. I feel like nothing is official if you don’t see poop. Like somehow the animals don’t really live where they say they live, they are carted in for the benefit of the tourists. But once you see poop, you  know those animals made themselves at home and really live there. It’s the real deal. Show me the poop and I’ll show you some serious wildlife shit.

We stop, and have the chance to get out and climb some hills, take some photos. I find the skull of an oryx and hold it up over my head, a sacrifice to the sand gods. I now have the power of grayskull, I am Skeletor.

I loved this, though. I had long since kicked off my flip flops, so I was happy to get my bare feet into the warm sugary desert sand.

Few things have made me feel like I was my own Indian Jones, but this did it. Cruising along, hot desert sand kicking up alongside the truck, far from home. I am totally Indiana. See? Same car and everything. 197 (1).JPG

So we do the dunes, and then we see a falcon show. Nothing like a South African teaching me about ancient Middle Eastern falconry methods. Honestly, he left me with more questions than I started with; such is my way. Trelp me, go ahead.

After that, the part I was most excited about – the camel rides. Since I was too chicken to do it in Egypt, I was more than happy to do it here. Momma was excited, too, in so far as she can be excited about mounting an otherwise potentially stinky and temperamental creature. Turns out, she was right to be wary.

The long and short of it is this: when they tell you to lean this way or that, just do it.  My camel, loving, gentle and my spirit camel, did all he could to ensure I had a lovely journey through the desert. My mother’s camel was resentful and angry, as proven by a series of loud grunts and attempts at dissension from the camel crew. At one point, he would have been guilty of all out mutiny. The camel wrangler got him under control, but I could see as I turned around that my mom was struggling a little bit and perhaps wasn’t having as much fun as I was.

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Upon the dismount, the instructions are relatively simple: lean back, hold on. That’s it. I got off my buddy with ease, and turned around just in time to see the camel jerk ever so slightly as my mother’s head whipped back; she looked like a pez dispenser and I was waiting for the candy to slide out of her throat. She held on with both hands, for dear life. The tour guide and wrangler held onto my mom as she almost had one foot in the sand. I heard another odd noise but I determined that came from my mom and not the camel.

I admit, I stood by while this was happening as camel dismount is not my area of expertise. But in doing so, I was able to take what is perhaps the greatest series of 3 picture I have ever taken. When they say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, trust me when I say that no explanation is needed to describe exactly what was going on.

After the near soft sand landing by camel, we dined in huts under the starts. It was by far and away one of the best meals I have ever had, cooked outside on brick fire pits. Hummus, chicken, vegetables, all of it. Amazing. I wish I could have taken it home with me. 689.JPG

After dinner, we did a little desert, some hookah and some henna. We wrapped it up late, I don’t even know what time, and drive back off into the dessert to our hotel. Fat and happy and thankfully, in one piece.

Fun fact: when I visited, it was at the stat of 3 days of mourning as sanctioned by the government as 3 men had been from the AUE had been killed fighting terrorists in a neighboring country.  As  such, there was no music on the radio other than classic, and there was no dancing in the safari as was promised on the website. It was ok, thought, I totally understood and respected the decision, not that I could change it. I developed an appreciate for Bach on long drives, too.

My mother – still sweating to death.

 

 

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High tea atop the Burj Khalifa. Reservations required, no jeans, elevator escorts, all of it. We would be dining on floor 122 for the view and the food at At.Mosphere. Not for those who are afraid of heights or $300+ lunches.

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It was superb. The views from 122 are beyond expansive. You can literally see the city limit, the edge of the desert and then for miles beyond that. I can see new buildings, cranes, and the homes that make up the older sections of Dubai. They look like raised thumb prints in the sand compared to the monstrosities being built a few miles away.

You can also get more bang for your buck by getting drunker faster at such an altitude. The champagne hit like a fright train for some reason. But I guess if you are gonna be there, may as well go all the way.

Tea was exceptional, several courses punctuated by champagne. Tea selections from the world over or champagne. Finger samwiches and champagne. So basically, the champagne was really good.

But look! Look at the view! Not bad post sandstorm.

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The afternoon spent here is an afternoon well spent. It is truly something best told in photos. Overall, the  food was good, not amazing. But I didn’t go there for the food, really. I went for the views, the experience. The paradox of an incredibly old city and culture mashed up against what is clearly the present but inarguably the future.

 

 

 

Getting High is Expensive

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