A Travellerspoint blog

Meeting S.A.M (Special Agent M) in Pokhara

How to "do-it-yourself"


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

After spending a day in Chitwan we really couldn’t wait to get out and finally get to famous Annapurna trekking gateway town of Pokhara. We left early in the morning on a local bus that probably had never changed its brakes in its entire existence and had no suspension to speak of. Every time the bus broke an ear shattering shriek like something out of the dark armies in the lord of the rings came out from where the brakes should be. When the bus hit even the slightest little bump I could feel my entire spine compress making me lose an inch or two of height. It’s a good thing I have some to spare. All this combined with the wildly windy mountain roads and lack of guard rails made for an experience that we promised ourselves we would never repeat again. We’d decided we’d rather spend the extra $10 per person for tourist class and get a bus that has seen a maintenance mechanic sometime this century.

We checked into our room, unpacked a couple of things, and literally 10 minutes after we did that someone knocked on the door of our room. Kristine opened the door and gave out a shriek of excitement as she saw it was our old friend S.A.M (aka Special Agent M) from Colombia and Ecuador! I’m guessing his bionic implant satellite linkup told him we had just arrived. OK, so in all fairness we did in fact plan to meet up that day, and we did tell him where we’re staying, but the exact timing was just too impeccable to be coincidence in my mind.

S.A.M came in bearing all kinds of wonderful gifts and reassurances to help get us prepared to do some hiking in the Himalayas. He had just done a circuit that should take 21 days and added a 12 day hike on top of it, except he did in less than 20 days for the whole bit. We were not surprised. He reassured us that the hike we were planning to do, the Annapurna Base Camp trek, was far easier to navigate then the one we’ve all done together in Ecuador and that we really didn’t need a guide or any type of other help as long as we prepared well. He also suggested 12 days was overkill and we could easily do it in 7 or 8. We felt much better about the whole undertaking after talking to S.A.M since he’s seen us in action and knows our abilities or lack thereof.

S.A.M also brought us some practical things we would need on the hike. The walking stick he used during his hiking which he put 300km (!!) on of steep up and down trekking, he gave to Kristine, as well as his sleeping bag. I got a fleece top and some fleece long underwear which would turn out to be a life saver in the upper altitudes of the hike. There was also a detailed map of the entire mountain range with all the trails marked on it and a smaller guide on how to go through the Annapurna Base Camp trail itself. It was all wonderful stuff and made us feel even better about attempting to do this trek by ourselves! Thanks so much S.A.M for believing in us!

He then took me shopping in Pokhara for a sleeping bag of my own when he used his magical negotiating skills to get me a great deal (my guess it’s the convince-O-ray implanted in his left eye). The last thing we did was go to get the actual hiking permits for the Annapurna Region. We left Kristine behind and headed out on the longish walk to the inconveniently hidden permit offices. I’m guessing that the reason they are so badly located and mostly unsigned has much to do with all the agents in town who will offer to get the permits for you for a “small” fee.
As we were heading to the permit office a large dark ominous cloud started coming in and we heard thunder. Then the wind picked up and we saw all the signs on the sides of the street being pushed over and thrown around and the store owners quickly closing their windows. Hmmm, we thought we’d better find a place to hide. S.A.M quickly located what looked like a little cement cubicle near a tall cement wall and we hid in there just in time as the torrential rain started coming down in buckets.

We shot the shit and chatted for a few minutes and then all of a sudden we heard a voice behind us.

“Please leave, you cannot stay here”

We looked around and we realized we were standing in front of army barracks and there was a guard behind the wall in a similar cement cubicle holding a rifle telling us to leave. Now, what I would have done is probably apologized profusely and ran hoping I don’t get a bullet in the back of my head. However, S.A.M calmly responded to the man by saying with a smile

“We are not leaving here until the rain stops”

I think the guard was shocked. He just looked at us and didn’t know what to make of the situation so he asked us to leave again, and S.A.M responded in kind again. Then to avoid any further discussion S.A.M turned around with his back to the guard and muttered

“If he wants me to leave he can come down here and try to arrest me”

I think if I tried a similar thing the guard would have been down there in 2 minutes arresting me, but there is something about S.A.M that the guard knew better than to try to arrest him. Now that’s badass.

The rain stopped shortly after and we proceeded to the permit office. Everything went super smoothly once again thanks to S.A.M’s advice as he guided me step by step through the convoluted process involving two different building and two different agencies basically both doing the exact same thing. It’s all just a money grab but if you don’t get both sets of permits, one of the agencies is going to stop you from hiking the trails.

We were now ready to hike the Himalayas thanks to all of S.A.M’s indispensible help! However, before we would head out into the mountains we had one more place to visit. The Pema Ts’al Sakya Tibetan Buddhist Monastery located between Pokhara and the start of the hiking trails where Kristine’s friend Elizabeth is teaching Monks English. However that’s a topic for the next blog.

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Posted by dariusz 06:29 Archived in Nepal Comments (3)

Chitwan - Rhinos, Elephants, and a King Cobra!

Chitwan is a nice, small town to go visit if you are trying to find some calm away from the bigger cities of Nepal. It is a tourist-centric town, meaning that all of the stores, hotels, and tours are geared towards tourism. Therefore, it should not have been a surprise when we arrived at our hotel and were offered “package deals on tours” before we were even shown our room!

Chitwan’s biggest appeal is its National Park for walking and jeep safaris, and elephant rides. And perhaps an even larger appeal is bathing with the elephants!

There are 2 types of elephant rides in Chitwan:
1) Privately-owned elephant rides – 1000 NPR for the ride itself and 500 NPR to enter the park. This park is right outside Chitwan’s national park and IS NOT the same thing. The ride lasts for about 2 hours but you’re squished into a small compartment with 3 other people and the park itself is unimpressive. It seemed as if the 1 rhino in the park was placed and there were a few frightened deer. The elephant drivers hit the elephants in the head on occasion in order to control them. We talked to other tourists who seemed very disappointed with this ride as well. Here are some pictures:
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2) Government-owned elephant rides - 1500 to 1700 NPR for the ride itself and 500 NPR to enter Chitwan’s National Park. The elephants here are owned by the government but cared for by the locals. These animals seemed much more happy! Had we known the difference, we would have opted for this elephant ride instead!
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The privately owned elephants are also the same elephants involved with the elephant bathing. We decided not to do this due to fear of acquiring a strange, water-borne disease. But in retrospect, this is one thing I sort of regret not doing. However, after watching some elephant drivers pounding the elephant’s heads with large sticks, I was glad that I wasn’t contributing to it.
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The next thing tour we did that day was the half-day jeep safari into Chitwan’s national park. The tour was 1400 NPR per person. We were EXTREMELY lucky during this tour because not only did we get to see rhinos up close, we saw families of spotted-deer crossing the road, crocodiles, peacocks, and a King Cobra!

The king cobra was the most scariest and most remarkable sight – you know something is quite out of the ordinary when your guide is freaking out and taking pictures of something along with you! And he’s been a guide for 17 years and had never seen a king cobra in the wild! It was about Derek’s height and completely black in color. It seemed that the snake was trying to cross the road but the we had surprised it, and it surprised us! It was almost comical as the guide was excitedly telling the driver to back the jeep up while fumbling with his camera, the girls on the jeep were freaking out and asking why we needed to get closer to this humongous and deadly snake, and the guys on the jeep were happily clicking away with their cameras! Here is a picture of the snake “running away” from us, and a picture we found on the internet to provide you with some sort of scale:
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The park and its animals are stunning. More animals came out of hiding during the evening and it was during this time we saw the most animals.
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After the jeep safari, a bunch of us on the tour enjoyed watching the sunset and headed for dinner at a local restaurant. My dinner was good, although it looked sort of like donkey or elephant feces. The company and conversation we had was entertaining, sobering, fun, and funny. We did all this in one day then happily set off for Pokhara the next day.
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Posted by krisses 06:00 Archived in Nepal Comments (4)

Nepal - First Impressions


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

Nepal is a bit like a fusion of India and China, and not coincidently, it lies between those two giant countries. When it works well it combines the best aspects of both of these great cultures and makes it into something uniquely Nepali and wonderful. When it works badly, it can be truly irritating, combining the Indian scams with the Asian “saving face” mentality means it’s very difficult to get to the bottom of things.

When we arrived in Kathmandu we took a taxi into the city and immediately there was a “tour guide” included with our ride. Apparently some tour agencies pay taxi cab drivers to allow their agents to jump into YOUR taxi taking you to town so that they can be the first to try to sell you a packaged tour. However the sales pitch was nowhere near as persistent or irritating as the ones we heard in India and once the guy realized we didn’t want a tour he still made sure the taxi driver took us to our destination. We also immediately noticed on our way how much cleaner Kathmandu was than any of the Indian cities we’ve been to. No mounds of garbage or cow dung everywhere! This is not to say that Kathmandu is a clean city by any means, it’s just that in comparison, it actually seemed like a breath of fresh air.

We got to our hostel, the Elbrus Home, and were greeted by a very friendly guy who spoke limited English so he asked us to sit down and wait for his boss to check us in. When the boss showed up he was very friendly and he told us “your room is on the other side of the street, the boy will take you there”. Thinking maybe this hostel is split between two buildings we followed across the street into a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT hotel that looked nothing like the room we booked on-line.

We immediately went back to the office but the “boss” who we found out is also the owner had conveniently left for the day by now. It was a rude awakening that while Nepal is certainly very friendly it’s still a country where you must stand up for yourself, or people will take advantage. We refused to leave the hostel office until we got the room we booked. The boy who was there finally called the owner and got me on the phone. At first the owner tried to play it off like nothing was wrong, but after he realized I wasn’t going to take that accommodation, he started making all kinds of excuses as to why our room wasn’t available. Clearly he gave our room away to someone else who had just come from the street and booked 3 nights while we only booked 1 night on-line and a week ahead of time. He figured he would get away with sticking us anywhere for just one night and we wouldn’t bother complaining. Finally he offered us accommodation at his other property called Avalon House. I had to ask him several times how far the other hostel was and I made the boy point it out on a map before I finally agreed to at least look at the room.

The owner promised us a cab to the new property, but as we went downstairs, and one of his guys kept going with one of our bags, it became clear he had no intention of waving down a cab. It was a good 10 minute walk with a very heavy backpack on my back.

The room itself was OK and much closer to the quality we originally booked. It even had a pretty nice view from the nearby terrace. However, this was definitely not a very favourable first impression and a very general lesson for Nepal as we would find out later. The lesson was DO NOT BOOK AHEAD OF TIME anywhere in Nepal unless you are really travelling at the absolute peak of high season. Booking ahead of time gets you a higher price and a good chance of your room being given away to someone who just walked off the street while you get stuck with the crappiest room in the entire establishment, or perhaps in a different establishment.

Posted by dariusz 07:49 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Jaisalmer: The City and the Camel Safari

Jaisalmer is a relatively quieter city in the Western part of Rajasthan. It is about 70 km away from Pakistan, is surrounded by desert, and is home to the largest sand fortress in the world. The fortress is literally made out of sand stone that would fall apart if too much rain were to fall. Luckily it’s in a desert.

Thanks to Morten and Claire, our hotel stay was wonderful! We had such a beautiful and CLEAN room! Also, the view of the city and its fort was fantastic from the rooftop.
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There are people actually living within the walls of this fortress although I have a feeling most are either running the tourist shops and restaurants or somehow otherwise involved in the tourist industry. Regardless, walking around the walled in city protected by 99 bastions is nothing short of magical. It really feels like you’ve been transported into a tale of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves or a movie set for Aladdin. If you consider the history of the fort this is actually not that far off from the truth. This city was once notorious for being fiercely independent and sacking other surrounding cities and passing Caravans to sustain itself. In fact it became wealthy by collecting a “passage tax” from any caravans going along the silk route from Europe to China. It has definitely retained much of this outlaw outpost character although these days you are far more likely to be conned out of your money by the fast talking merchants than to encounter any physical problems. If you like adventure Jaisalmer is a great place to just wonder around and explore.
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The biggest highlight of visiting Jaisalmer is going on an overnight safari. Sleeping under the moonlight next to a campfire -- sounds romantic, right? Derek and I had very different experiences…

First we took a jeep tour through an oasis and a couple of villages. The villagers were mostly welcoming and friendly. The children were especially playful and adorable. But in one village, a man kept asking if we had drugs to give him (right in front of his children), and there was another moment when the driver told us that he uses opium. I told him that he could potentially stop breathing and kill himself if he takes too much and he replied “that’s ok – everyone dies eventually.” Derek informed me later that he was probably trying to sell us opium.
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Eventually we reached an area where the jeep dropped us off and we met our fantastic camel driver and camels! Camels are quite fun to watch and I can’t describe why – they JUST ARE! Riding a camel for 2 hours is like a core exercise – your entire core HURTS afterwards due to all the bouncing you do. It’s super hot in the desert so you have to cover all exposed skin. This is how Derek and I looked:
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The desert itself was quite shrubby and even had some desert blooms. After 2 hours, we reached our destination by a bunch of sand dunes. Our camel drivers cooked up tea, snacks, and dinner – it was quite delicious! It was fun to watch the camels trotting around the camp, occasionally “arguing” over food, and inconspicuously they walk up to you then immediately walk away. There were also a bunch of large beetles everywhere. They kept making some strange “crunching” sound and I kept wondering what they ate, but they looked a lot like those scarabs from the movie “The Mummy” that somehow get under your skin, crawl around your flesh, and eat you from the inside. Ew.
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As it became dark, I realized that eventually I would have to go to the washroom. Fact is, the desert is a one giant washroom so one can supposedly choose a bush and go. But I found that there were too many angles one can see me from so I decided to wait until dark.
This would be the first time I would ever go to the bathroom outside. I was quite nervous about it, but after MUCH mental preparation (and Derek hearing how much I feared this), I was ready to do it. I would make my female portaging and camping friends quite proud!

Being female, I discovered that this endeavour would be much more difficult than I anticipated. I merely thought that I would bring a headlamp, toilet paper, do “my thing”, and that would be all! I was so wrong. First, it was so difficult to find “a spot” in the dark in the middle of the desert, so I decided to just go behind a sand dune. I turned off my headlamp and tried to “go”. It was pitch black, but at least no one could see me! In the midst of my business, I soon realized that going in a sand dune was very difficult because I slowly started sinking to the sand! I thought “holy cow, I’m peeing in quicksand in the DARK! ” To make matters worse, I could hear those scary scarab-beetles crunching around (crunching WHAT I have no idea?!) There seemed to be other noises about that I couldn’t recognize – a camel perhaps? Sand snakes? SAND DRAGONS?! Peeing in the desert isn’t supposed to be THIS DIFFICULT AND TERRIFYING, is it?!

And of course I had held my bladder for the entire day, so my bladder emptied a day’s worth. I think this was my longest pee ever as I slowly sank into the sand dune while those creepy, crunching scarab-beetles waited around to feast on my flesh, and I SWEAR that a camel keeps coming by to see what’s happening?!

I was mid-thigh deep in sand by the time I finished. If there was a most uncomfortable, heart-racing, terrifying pee ever -- I think I can say I did it.

But the “desert fun” didn’t stop there.

First, there was no campfire because they attracted a lot of bugs this time of year. Derek and I were quite disappointed but that’s ok since I wouldn’t want to attract more bugs anyway. So our beds were laid out on the sound for us to sleep. The beds were quite comfortable but you could hear the bugs everywhere! Then the one tourist that was with us kept slapping bugs and spiders on his chest, remarking at how large each one was. As I tried to sleep, I could hear bugs buzz by my face and those creepy, crunching beetle-scarabs trying to crawl under the sleeping bag! Sometimes you can feel them underneath you, crawling about looking for something to crunch on! I kept waking to strange, unrecognizable sounds throughout the night and did not get much sleep.

The only good thing about not being able to sleep was seeing all the constellations move throughout the sky throughout the night, watching the various gradients of color the sky makes as the moon and sun gradually trade places, and the amazing sunrise. There was even a beautiful electrical storm off in the distance. As paranoid and tired as I was, it truly was a beautiful experience.
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Derek slept throughout the night, DIDN'T have problems peeing, and woke up fresh and rested while the bags under my eyes indicated otherwise.
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Although children in Jaisalmer are said to grow up to be 4 to 7 years before they ever see their first rain it stormed for 2 evenings in a row starting the day we arrived back in the city after our desert trip! The city was at a standstill. This was unfavourable for the farmers since it was crop-cutting time in Jaisalmer before the rainy season. If the crops are wet, they are extremely difficult to cut. It makes one wonder how climate change affects everything…

Overall, we had a very pleasant stay in Jaisalmer and it was definitely my favourite part of our visit to India. I have but one piece of advice: If you’ve never tried to go to the bathroom outside, perhaps don’t attempt your first time in the desert!
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Posted by krisses 19:46 Archived in India Comments (2)

Ziplining from the Mehrangarh fortress in Jodhpur India


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

Having seen road traffic in India we were determined to avoid bus travel at all costs. However, as we found out to our dismay there is no train from Udaipur to Jodhpur (our next destination). This left us with some unpleasant choices. We could backtrack to Pushkar and then HOPE to get a train to Jodhpur, a very round-about and long way of going from point A to point B. We could take an expensive all day taxi ride alone with some random taxi driver in the desert or we could brave the dreaded Indian bus ride. We chose the lesser of all the evils and took a bus.

The bus itself was a piece of work. It had started its life as a relatively familiar reclining seat bus with luggage storage in overhead compartments. However given how over populated India is this was seen by Indians as a complete waste of space and could be improved upon. You actually have to admire their ingenuity while at the same time wondering how little a human life must be worth for something like this to be allowed. The bus was modified by taking away the “unnecessary” overhead luggage space (I mean the luggage can just go on top of the people, come on!) and putting in something that looked like dog kennels in the space above the seats. The dog kennels were being used as sleeper compartments where entire families, 5 children, grandparents and all, would squish in and ride. We were wondering if any of them had ever broken down and fallen on top of the seats killing the seat occupants but to be honest they seemed quite solidly built. Take a look at the picture below to see what it looked like:

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This is Kristine’s reaction to sitting underneath a kennel with an entire Indian family squished into it:

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The place we were staying at in Jodhpur was called Heaven Guest House and it was run by a wonderful Jain family who immediately made us feel right at home. For those that don’t know, Jain is an offshoot from Hinduism that respects all living things even down to insects (ie. Very strict vegans) and has decided to get rid of the caste system. The guest house was simple but far exceeded our expectation in terms of cleanliness, views of the fort, food and how welcome we felt. It was clear that Nisha, the mom, was the boss and I think that had much to do with how well the place was run compared to the male-only Hindu places we stayed at before. Here is the view from the balcony where we ate our meals:

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Speaking of meals this was also the place where we had our first Nepalese encounter as the cook was an extremely friendly Nepalese kid who cooked delicious food. If the rest of the Nepalese people are going to be this friendly we will really like Nepal.

The reason to visit Jodhpur is of course the imposing Mehrangarh fortress which, not surprisingly, has never been conquered by an opposing army. It is an amazing fairy tale like feat of architecture but also a very functional and practical defence mechanism. The corridors behind the heavy gates turn 90 degrees to the right or left and upwards right after the gate making any attacking army sitting ducks if they ever managed to actually breach the gates themselves. There are tons of twists and turns going up and everywhere there are vantage points where the defenders would punish any attempt to infiltrate the fortress. It is really cool walking around and imagining what it would have been like either defending or attacking this military marvel.

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Among all the amazing historical artefacts the fort has to offer there is one that is especially disturbing even more so when you consider how recent it is. Near the gates there are clay plaques with hand imprints on them. These hand prints belong to women who committed “Sati” (ritual suicide) by throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral piers. Given that it was usual for a high ranking man to have more than 10 wives (though the wives had to be completely loyal to just their one husband) this is one very creepy reminder of what was considered acceptable in India less than 100 years ago. Of course the man didn’t have to kill himself if any of his wives died, or even if all did, since after all a woman was just another of a man’s possessions and not the other way around.

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Going back to the military aspects of the fort, these days the best way to infiltrate the fort is to zip right into it from the nearby hills. That’s right, a British company setup zip lines in and out of the fort and for a relatively small fee you can zip line all around the amazing walls. This is not something we were going to miss of course so here are some pictures from our adventure:

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Kristine’s account on Derek’s 2nd zip-lining attempt:

First, you should learn about Derek’s history with zip-lining. Although Derek was injured during his first zip-lining attempt in Costa Rica, this did not deter him from trying again! His first try involved him almost being thrown from the zip line, and the line ripping through his swim trunks through his pants thus producing a massive, bloody scratch along the side of his thigh. The swim shorts were torn from top to bottom, but he was determined to keep going!

Zip-lining through the Mehrangargh fort and surrounding hills was amazing! The Flying Fox staff was thorough, ensured our safety, and were a lot of fun! I betcha didn’t know that some of the new Batman movie was filmed here! Derek’s thigh was spared but he did not leave unscathed. Due to the shoes provided for protection being too small, the shoes bloodied his already beaten toe nail beds. In addition, his protective glove was too worn therefore his hand became a little raw when trying to stop on the very last zip-line. The staff was great and tried to provide bandages and rubbing alcohol but the bandages were super dirty so we had to clean and disinfect his wounds elsewhere.

We were fortunate to meet another couple during our ziplining adventure, Claire and Morton. They were travelling for 3 whole months in India! They were from Ireland and coincidentally Claire was a nurse and Morton was also involved in something only Derek could relate to (yup… I still don’t get what Derek does). We all decided to have dinner together so we walked throughout Jodhpur, miraculously stuffed ourselves into a rickshaw, and headed for Claire and Morton’s hotel. Their hotel was HIGH CLASS compared to the places we are used to! Morton was incredibly pleased that we were able to utilize his super-stocked first aid kit, and we were able to fix Derek up in the gorgeous and spacious bathroom in Claire and Morton’s suite. We had a wonderful dinner and great conversation about everything from finance to nursing to India to Claire’s current stomach sickness. We really enjoyed their company!

We were having trouble finding a rickshaw back into town but Morton was kind enough to run around his hotel and try to organize a rickshaw driver. Also, because we were having such a great time we lost track of the time and realized that we wouldn’t have time to research and book a room in Jaisalmer. But Morton was kind enough to find, email, and reserve a place for Derek and I for the next day! WOW! Morton and Claire’s kindness and generousity with their super-stocked first aid kit, use of their washroom, fantastic tour-operator skills, and successful attempt in finding us a rickshaw will always be remembered and appreciated.

It is always great meeting people as awesome as Claire and Morton. Claire – I would love to hear your account on being hospitalized in Delhi (especially being an Irish RN!!) … and I hope you are both feeling much better!

Posted by dariusz 05:14 Archived in India Comments (2)

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