The Golden Land: Burma


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“I have lots of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that nothing ever happened, so don’t worry. It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect. We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere: Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes into everything is one thing. It’s a dream already ended. There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be glad about. I know this from staring at mountains months on end. They never show any expression, they are like empty space. Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away? Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space, which is the one universal essence of mind, the vast awakenerhood, empty and awake, will never crumble away because it was never born.”

 ― Jack Kerouac

As I write this sentence I am nine months into the future from when this happened. Memories from this ancient land is like water crawling through the cracks, falling from the ceiling in drops until I am flooded with the past. Until I inhale and disappear into the golden dust again.

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From Laos I took a bus back to Thailand. My bones ached for the sea. I felt the palm trees and tides calling my name. So I decided to head to Koh Chang Island for a week before flying to Burma. Two buses, a border crossing, a minibus, two tuktuks and 20 hours later. I am back in the islands and I am sea-drenched and it is perfection.

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I realized that it’s been awhile since I’ve hiked to a waterfall on my own. Solitude allows me to purely breathe the euphoria I withdraw from the world into my flesh and bones. It’s different when I’m alone. The silence heightens my senses. I’m with the sweet company of my own contentment. I listen to my footsteps and my breaths, I look up at the trees and listen to the leaves murmuring, I steer off the path and go on the stream and navigate my way through the rocks. Then I get to the waterfall and watch the humans swimming in it. I climbed the rock to the top and sit alone for a while and let the beauty and oneness weep into my spirit. Happy to be where I am, grateful for simply breathing. I dip my body in the water and it instantly replenishes me. Then I overhear some people talking and say that this waterfall wasn’t really worth seeing. I close my eyes and float for a while and imagine myself levitating from the earth. Then I think, how can anyone ever think that all of this is not beautiful? It may not be pretty to all. It may not be as pretty as all the other prettier ones you’ve seen. But beauty is there, right in front of us waiting to burst into its own light if we widen our eyes and souls and hearts to engulf it and the dust it shakes.
And if we don’t see it, well that’s a shame. That’s another quivering ghost sent back into hiding. Waiting again. For the right pair of eyes to see it once more.

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Admiring a loving mama and her littles as she takes them for a dip in the springs.

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“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

– Mary Oliver

I found Bangkok growing on me. I detest the city for a while but it was just my conditioning. This time, I decided I wanted to see it with a new pair of eyes.

There’s this quote I read from a book or on article a while ago. It describes that being at peace with something isn’t just about finding places or people or things that make you feel at peace with yourself. Nor is it about finding peace in peace. It’s about staying in peace amidst chaos and discomfort, no matter where you are. If you find that, you find stillness.

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I do this often, I let myself fall in love with strangers. I fall in love with their humanity. The subtle expressions that washes over their faces giving you a tiny glimpse of their world of thoughts, a tiny glimpse into their lives.
I’m in it for a few moments. I observe her gaze and feel her thoughts drifting into a different realm. I couldn’t help it, my hands reached for my camera and I freeze her in a memory I hold in my hands. She’s someone’s daughter. Someone’s best friend. Someone’s entire world. She’s had triumphs and adversities. She has loved and has been loved. She has hurt and has been hurt. She is a reflection of me, and you, and them.

Then the train stops. And she is washed away by the crowd pouring out, as another pours in. Then just like that, the doors close. And the window reveals the reflection of us all.

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From Bangkok I flew to Yangon. I woke up before the sunrise and take a taxi to the airport. There’s something about being on the empty roads at that time. Just moments before the rest of the world starts waking up. I have goosebumps on my skin, the cool early morning air sticks to my flesh. Nebulous thoughts float through my mind. I love that early morning feeling of going somewhere. You’re asleep but wide awake at the same time. The hair on your skin is rising from the morning cold and your veins are alive with excitement. I’ve loved that feeling since I could remember.

On the plane, I realize how exhausted I am so I close my eyes and let the music take me away to different realm.

I arrive in Yangon. I take a taxi to the city and start conversing with the taxi driver in broken English. I asked him how to say hello in Burmese. “Mingalabar,” he says. “Funny word, huh?” I replied. Later, I find out that Mingalabar is more than just hello, it means “May you be prosperous and fortunate.”

I told him to say a sentence in Tagalog, I said “Bababa ba?”

He laughs and asks what it means. I tell him I’m asking if this is going down. He laughs again, “You talk funny. Same, like us!”

I laugh and say, “Yea, same. Like you.”

I lean against the window and watch the traffic chaos buzzing around us. If India and China made love to each other and had a baby, Burma would be their love child.

My goosebumps send me chills all over my body and it feels good. The sign that I’m supposed to be exactly where I am now.

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In Yangon I stayed at Pickled Tea which is a lovely boutique hostel located in the heart of the city, owned by a Burmese-American man from LA. I met a Singaporean woman staying in my dorm room. Her name is Chrissie, a lovely Chinese chef who is extremely passionate about food. I could sense her fiery love for cooking food by the way she filled herself up with wonder and curiosity with everything she eats. She draws inspiration from everything she consumes, it was refreshing to witness. She tells me that we should go visit the Pagoda together. I said I’d love to so we invite Dustin, another Singaporean to come with us.

It was hot and bright during the day time. Everything is white and gold. Monks break through the blank canvas with their wine-colored robes. I watch people praying, meditating and chanting. All lost in another realm.

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I wandered through Yangon’s bustling streets with my hostel mates. We got lost in old book shops and markets. I marveled at the perfect strangers.

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The next day I woke up before the sunrise and took a taxi with my dorm mates to see the golden rock on top of the mountains. We stop by Bago to see some more of the temples and explore around town. They sell sparrows in cages then the rest of the vendors sell them fried and stuffed with herbs. I felt sad and wanted to break the cage so they could be free. But I didn’t cross that line.

When we got to the base of the mountain that held The Golden Rock , the taxi driver pointed us to a big open truck with metal seats. We talk to the drivers, lost in translation, they tell us a price and all three of us jump in. It fills up almost instantly and the truck starts moving. I play Paul Simon’s Obvious Child at the perfect time, right when we’re about to endure this bumpy, bone-shaking, ass-lifting truck ride. I’m grinning like a baby as the truck throws us around our seats. The music plays, our truck practically flies to the very top. We get dropped off at the entrance. I see the Golden Rock from the distance. I am hot from the sweltering heat. I see men crowded around the rock, being careful as they stick golden leaves and flakes into the holy symbol that was said to house Buddha’s tooth and hair strand.

I breathe it all in.

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The day after the Golden Rock I bought a bus ticket to Bagan and left. The taxi driver brought me to the bus station and I waited a while for my bus to arrive. I sat beside an old couple going to Bagan and met these two French girls in the bathroom. Our bus arrives and I hop in. I had two seats to myself. The layout was like a plane, they even had a movie screen. We even had a “stewardess” and that wasn’t even 1st class. I watched Warm Bodies. I listened to music. I watched the stars through the windows.

I wake up and we’re in Bagan. There’s a crowd of taxi drivers waiting outside to take on customers. I ask the French girls if they wanted to share a cab ride with me. We bargain. The burst of chaos begin. The French girls are getting frustrated with the drivers and started yelling at them because they were all trying to scam us. He says a price that was different from the one we agreed upon. The girls start chatting to each other in French. I tell the driver that he needs to stick with that we agreed upon. I do it calmly and reassuringly. I know he’s a good man, but I also know that it is scam hour for them and he probably needs to pay rent and feed the children. He sensed my sincerity and he agreed. He drops the girls off in New Bagan. I was tired and absorbed with the light slowly making its way through the horizon. He drops me off at my hostel. He mentions something about my accommodation being far, hinting I need to give him more. But he was nice so I gave him a little extra anyway.

Later on at my hostel, a Dutch girl asks me if I wanted to join her for sunset. I said yes. I made a vow to never miss a sunrise or sunset during my time here. We rented bikes with this Swiss guy in our dorm room then we start making our way to the temples. I lead the way and as I was speeding down the street my bike chains come loose and I had to steer quickly to the side to avoid cars. We decided to leave my bike there and I hopped on the back of the German guy’s e-bike. We follow the Dutch girl and I watched her pedal through the roads with her beautiful blonde hair blowing in the wind. We go on the side of a dirt road and find a temple to watch the sunset in. I take my shoes off, feel the ancient temple that has endured centuries beneath my feet. We make our way through darkness and keep climbing the stairs until the light shines our path. We make our way up to the top and I find a spot to sit on.

I fell into silence for a while. 3,000 temples scattered in a 15-mile radius of trees and desert. It felt like I was in some old movie watching myself sit on that edge. Then dusk came and twilight started settling, enveloping the horizon. We leave and start making our way back.

The Dutch girl and I go for some beers at At Bagan Hostel. She tells me that she’s going to the Philippines and I get excited and do the exact same thing I do for people who tell me they’re going to my motherland, I ask if I could write in her guidebook. She lets me. I zealously write all over her map as we consume more beers.

We get hungry so we hop on over to a different restaurant and order delicious fish egg rolls and some sort of pumpkin curry. We tell stories. She tells me that she’s bisexual and that she’s been in relationships with both men and women. “Does loving either one get any easier or harder?” I asked.

“It’s the same level. Except sometimes it gets harder and more complicated with women.” she says in between chewing. We talk about sexuality and delve into our past relationships, peeling each other’s life stories as we get lost in the night. Then we realize how late it is and started heading back home. The next morning I had to wake up early to go to the temples and she had to wake up before that to catch her bus to Inle Lake. We hug and wish each other well.

The next morning I went to watch the sun rise over the temples for the first time with my Swiss dorm mate and a Canadian girl who had just arrived the day before. We bike to Old Bagan until we found a temple with only a few people in it. We climb up to the very top. The sunlight started to slowly brighten up the horizon. Then the hot air balloons slowly started rising up and drifting over the temples as if they were some sort of creatures floating through the golden haze, drawn to the rising sun. As I sit and watch this for the first time with Outro flooding my ears as I sit in silence, completely enamored by life’s design.

The air that I breathe and the words that I speak have escaped me. There is only this. Just, this.

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That same day I moved into a different hostel which was recommended to me by three of my friends, I knew I had to go there. The hostel is brand new, it had been running for two months and it’s already buzzing with backpackers, couples, and families from all over the planet. I took a nap and when I woke up, a blonde woman walks in. I cheerfully say hello and ask her where she’s from. She’s from Denmark.

She was just fresh off a bus from Mandalay. As she spoke she was frantically searching through her things and tells me that she couldn’t remember where she put her passport. Then she looks up with a face of triumph and exclaims, “I found it!!”

“My name is Line,” she adds with a smile.

That afternoon I rented a push bike and paved my way through dust and dirt as I pass by countless of ancient temples.

I ride through the desert and pretended that I was in a different era. It sure felt like it. I felt different as I walked through another temple. It was huge and dark. I was shining my lights on the old ancient scriptures and texts. I’d imagine a different era. One that was way before mine, or my parents, or their parents, and other generations before them. The sun started going down, on its final hour again. I find myself a new, old temple to climb on and sit on the very top. Next to me is a beautiful French couple, probably saying sweet nothings to each other in their language. And on the side of the roof of the temple is a Chinese couple with their heads against each other. And across from them is me listening to my music.

As the silhouettes of temples and trees and the horizon comes to claim our golden star once more, the bliss of the moment turns into liquid and fills my eyes with tears of bliss. I am loyal to my moments. I will do whatever the hell it takes so I can be here, now, and jump into its revitalizing pool of magic. I lose myself to the descending sun until dusk swallows me whole.

The next morning Line joins me for sunrise at the temples. We step out into the brisk, dawn air and went over to the bike rental place across our hostel. We take our new rides for a spin. Mine was dinky and lopsided, so I drove with my butt to one side. We drive until we got to the outskirts of Old Bagan and into the temple on the right side of the road fork. I found myself ungracefully falling off my bike until the sand caught my fall and dirt was in my mouth. Line is looking at me in disbelief, laughing. I laugh with her and can’t breathe for a minute. After we got that out of our system we head to the temple and watched the sunrise together.

Since then, we never missed a sunrise or sunset in those temples together. And we kept it that way.

Everyday we did the same thing. We’d wake up before the sun does, bike to Old Bagan, find a different temple, climb to the top to sit and wait for the dawn to break over the mist. I’d come back for sunset and do the same thing all over again. There is nothing like watching our golden sun ascend and descend over the traces of these ancient temples with music flooding my ears, sending euphoria to every cell in my body, dissolving all that binds my flesh and bones and making me feel infinite. No words or images can ever do justice to this magic.

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Line and I celebrated Chinese New Years with the hostel owners and our dormmates by lighting up lanterns and sending them to the sky.

The world starts spinning. All of a sudden we were surrounded by fireworks shooting up until it explodes and disappear into the night sky above us. Line and I talk about our plans after Bagan. I was planning on heading further up north before and she had plans of doing the trek from the mountains of Kalaw to Inle Lake. I’ve heard about this trek before, but I didn’t actually make the decision to do it until I met her. Then one morning, I told her I’ll do the trek with her. I wasn’t prepared for it, I didn’t have any shoes. Only my worn out Vibrams that had holes all over them and my black flip flops that I bought for a dollar in Thailand. But I knew I had to do it. When else will I ever get a chance to? That’s when I was reminded that we’re never actually prepared for anything in life. Everything just comes and goes. And if it feels right, we take our chances.

In our room met a lovely German girl named Tina who was also doing the trek. But she fell ill and decided to do the overnight trek instead. We booked our bus tickets that night. The next day we were squeezed into an old brown van heading to Kalaw. We picked up a few more people along the way. A few Germans. A beautiful couple, a black man with long dreads and his beautiful partner, a vibrant woman with big, gorgeous curls bouncing around her head. The roads were bumpy and I was so uncomfortable because my knees were locked and my legs had fallen asleep. I tried to nap a few times and I’d be waken up by my head hitting the window. Line looks at me and laugh. I smile with my eyes still closed. Eventually we get to Kalaw and the bus drops us off on the side of the road.

We took a short walk to find our guesthouse. We decided to get two rooms and dropped off our bags. Our rooms were musty and moldy. All the shared toilets were clogged with toilet paper and shit.

“How am I going to pee or shit over that?” Line says with a laugh. Oh well, we get what we pay for. It was a cheap place to rest our heads before our trek. It was good enough for one night.

The next day, we started our trek after breakfast. Our guides were two of the sweetest Burmese women, always smiling and giggling. Line was wearing her Converse and I was wearing my Vibrams. It already started hurting a couple hours into it, plus I had an open wound on my foot from the time I fell off my bike in Bagan. I took off my Vibrams and put on my flip flops instead. To my surprise, it felt better.

We’d pass through plains and fields and streams and lakes and rolling hills and mountains and valleys and villages and roads and train tracks.

We’d sleep in a different village every night. We’d sit outside and look up at the blanket of stars above us. My feet, knees and muscles were aching. Line is in horrendous pain from all the sore blisters on her feet. We were tired but we pushed on each day. We were gifted with big beautiful Banyan trees that had long branches spread like arms as if they’ve been waiting there all day to give us shade. And an infinite sky, wild stretches of beautiful land and the kind hearted locals we’d pass by on our trek. Despite my physical pain and the heat, I still felt grateful. I’d watched myself trek as if I was split into two, another me floating over the real me. The girl I was years ago wouldn’t believe where and who I am if she saw me now.

 

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On our first break from trekking we had lunch at a restaurant on top of the hill. I listened to a Nepalese man’s stories of his home country. As his words raises the hair on my skin, I told him that Nepal has been a dream of mine, that I will find my way there this year and trek through the Himalayas.

He paused in between making bread and as the smoke thinned out he said, “Those mountains will change you.”

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I want to know how you make love to a moment. Do you just grace the surface? Do you peel any of its layers? Do you feel it hovering over your flesh in a mad anticipation to dive into the darkest depths of your soul? Do you even let it?

Or do you devour it, watch it, feel it seeping into your humanity like an ocean flowing through your veins. Like a dose of euphoria reverberating through the most minuscule parts of you. Do you cry out of bliss and happiness when you witness this magic? Do you drink everything to the very last drop until it all withers away? Until you are left in awe, unable to decipher if you are still human or if you are the moment itself.

I hope this is true. I hope you feed on it like it’s the last moment you will ever have, and that you let it feed on you.

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When we finally got to Inle, Line and I celebrated with beers, food and revitalizing cold showers. We stayed there for a few days, enjoying the lull of our journey. We’d ride boats across the lake and watch the incredible fisherman balance on one leg on the tip of the boat. We’d ride our bikes to the hot springs and melted into the hot water. We’d bike all the way to the vineyards for wine tasting and pick at the skins of our history together.

Funny thing about friendship. You pick a human who’s as abnormal as you, someone who shares the same ridiculous, sarcastic, awkward sense of humor. You bathe in each other’s weirdness and explore together for ten days and just like any other relationships and friendships you’ve had on the road, you have to go and they have to go.

They become a part of the web of friends and lovers sprinkled across the world, opening spaces for you to arrive in one day. And all you can do is trust that you’ll see them when the universe paves the way.

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On my last day in Inle I caught a vile stomach bug. I had to catch a dreaded bus to Mandalay and say goodbye to Line. My last image of her is by the lake, waving and smiling at me as she turns into a distant blur. 

From Inle I arrive in Mandalay right before the break of dawn. I was exhausted beyond belief, still recovering from my stomach bug. I prepared myself for the crowd of Burmese men waiting to sell me on a taxi ride. I look around with an absent expression, shaking my head to their offers saying it was too expensive. I knew my guesthouse wasn’t that far off. I was waiting until I found a calm one with good energy. I walked away. One of them followed me. He said a price I agreed with. He smiles and says “You tired, I know. Come.”

I hopped on his “taxi”, an old motorbike. He put my big, blue backpack in front and I kept my gear pack on my back. “Your guesthouse. It’s far. But we go, I know where.”

The streets were empty. There was almost no one in sight. A few cars here and there. He knew exactly where to go though, and I trusted him. We got to my guesthouse and he gives me a piece of paper.

“I give you tour, yes? Call me if you need tour guide, I show you around Mandalay. Best place.” he says.

I replied “Okay maybe. I’m tired. I’ll think about it tomorrow. Thank you so much though.”

I didn’t want a tour guide. But I kept the paper anyway.

The staff let me in and said I could sleep on the couches for the meantime before check in. I thanked them and doze off. After some time, a couple joins me. They were French and were about to travel to the parts of Burma that were closed off to tourist to study a tribe. We all doze off together. I wake up and they were gone.

I decided to book a tour with the taxi motorbike driver the next day. I found it was the cheapest way to see the city.

He takes me to a monastery. Pagodas. Temples. And the U-bridge in the afternoon. I walk around in a state of awe and wonder.

We had lunch together. He has a wife and two daughters.

“The oldest one, give me hard time,” he says with a laugh. I ask him why.

“I want her to be lawyer or doctor. She wants art. She likes to paint.”

“What’s wrong with that?” I ask.

“No money in art! Better money in medicine and law.”

“But she’s happy doing art, yes?”

“Yes, but more happy if she make more money.”

“People need money for certain things. But money will not make you happy. To her, art is what makes her happy. Maybe you should let her do that?”

He smiles and says, “Not easy for me. Hard decision.”

“I know. I have a father too, you know. I travel the world pursuing my art. He worries about me sometimes and doesn’t agree with some of my decisions. But he accepts it and he still let’s me do what I want because he just wants to see me happy. That’s one of the many things I love about him.

You and my dad. Same same. ”

He smiles, nods and says it’s time to go. I can see a little of my dad in him, and I can tell he sees a little of his daughter in me too. We’re all so different. But we’re all the same. Same stories, same experiences. Different people, different places. We’re rays of light reflecting one another as we glide by.
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On one of my last bus rides in Burma, I had a realization. I was running low on travel savings and had just lost my steady monthly income. For the first time in a long time I ached for stability. I thought about my plans for Vietnam and knew that I couldn’t continue anymore. As much as I love the constant movement, after nine months of backpacking I finally needed a break. I needed solid ground to get back into my yoga practice, to feed my body with healthy organic food, and to write and work on projects. And so I made the decision to go back to Vikasa Yoga, my Koh Samui sanctuary for a month. I would go to Malaysia for a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat. Then I would go to Australia to work for a year, something I’ve been dreaming of doing for a while. My mind was slowly starting to map out my future.

I felt the stars pulling me to a different direction. I close my eyes, surrender and let the cosmic force carry me away.

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“Observe the movements of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.”

― Marcus Aurelius

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47 thoughts on “The Golden Land: Burma

  1. Pingback: The Golden Land: Burma | Gay Guide To Asia & Cambodia

  2. I can’t begin to tell you how beautiful I found your post. Everything! Your words, your experiences, your open heart … your photos. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful journey with us!

  3. You inspire me to see the beauty in all things, even in the darkest days it’s difficult but your words make it sound possible. I can see a bit of my dad too in the Burmese man. It is not easy, I know this because I am from Malaysia and in many respects it is quite a similar way of thinking, both our cultures. I’ve been thinking about ways to break through that misconception. It isn’t easy but I’m open to and trying to see things differently and hope to inspire others and to show that it is possible.

    I always look forward to your writing 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for sharing. I loved every part of it: from the way you experienced the waterfall, to the taxi with the ‘talking funny’ part (Mingalabar) to the chef tasting and finding inspiration in every food she ate. And the pictures were just amazing! I love the way you describe things… it is so beautiful… so spiritual…

  5. Thank you for this lovely trip back to Burma. Your trip was harder than ours, we don’t do the backpacking thing, but we both found the magic of that special place, the magic of the people, the magic of being on the road.
    Alison

  6. I wish you would soon publish your own book. I love to imagine myself on my long hours on the train reading your book. This is a very lovely story. BTW, what books do you read? those quotes are really inspiring.

  7. Pingback: The Golden Land: Burma | A Friendly Wanderer

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