Oranges, Las Fallas and Paella in Valencia

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We have travelled to the Valencia region of Spain…. pronounced ‘Balenthia’, which will be our home until mid-April. The sun has come out and it’s about 22 degrees; very pleasant for March. I here storm Gareth has been causing havoc in the UK and I’m feeling rather guilty that we are bathed in spring sunshine ( but not a lot!). First, we stay in a campsite North East of Valencia for a few days and enjoy a wonderful cycle along the Via Ojos Negros Greenway, a 160 km walking/cycle track which runs from Ojos Negros in Aaragon (wasn’t he a hero from The Lord of the Rings?) to Valencia. We travel south of the city of Valencia to our next campsite which is near the coastal town of Oliva and the next day we cycle along an old railway route to Gandia. As we cycle past the orange groves, there is blue sky for miles and the trees are bursting with fruit. The smell of orange blossom wafts across the path and stirs the senses. I hope to rekindle this memory on those dark January days in Scotland.

We have an opportunity to visit the city of Valencia and join a bus trip organised from the campsite. We have struck it lucky, Las Fallas de San José (torches) festival, a traditional celebration, held in commemoration of Saint Joseph (the patron saint of a happy death) is on while we are here. We take a ‘free’ walking tour (https://mentavalencia.com/) which are a great way to find your way about a city and learn about local history and culture. Usually the guides are well informed, enthusiastic young locals and the idea is that there is no set fee, but that you tip the guide with what you feel reflects the value tour of your tour. Our guide, Natalie, has impeccable English and is beaming with pride for her home city. She tells us that the Fallas festival was originally celebrated to mark the arrival of Spring. Old wood left over from the Winter months was brought into the city and burnt on pyres, clearing the way for the new season. In modern times the wooden bonfires have been replaced by Fallas or ‘ninots’ (puppets) which are set alight on the final night (known as La Cremà -the Burning) of the two-week-long festival. Behind the scenes crews of artists, sculptors and craftsmen have spent months producing up to 350 elaborate constructions of paper, wax and wood brightly coloured displays of caricature figures towering in the many plazas of the city. Each is produced by one neighbourhood who raise large sums of money to attract the best artists to create the best Fallas and every year one Fallas is saved by popular vote and earns a place in the Arts and Science museum. In the Plaça de l’Ajuntament, a huge statue the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Forsaken is covered in flowers and is the last to be set alight. During the festival each neighbourhood also has a ‘reinas falleras’ (queen of the festival), who parades around the city in her casal faller (traditional Valencian) costume. Local traditional bands accompany the queens as they make their way through the city. We are visiting early in the festival but catch a glimpse of some of the Fallas still under construction and pass a table full of reinas falleras who are sharing a drink and having a natter.

As Natalie, guides us through the streets of Valencia, we pass many stunning buildings. Valencia is very old, originally a Roman colony which was first established in 138 BC and some of the original roman roads are still visible. It is the third largest city in Spain, after Madrid and Barcelona and is a leading economic centre. Natalie proudly tells us that it has the best climate of Spain…. 300 days of sunshine, with a minimum daytime temperature of 16 degrees. It could be a twin of my home town Troon in South west Scotland which has 300 days of rain and maximum daytime temperature of 16! She tells us that Valencia has the narrowest house, the biggest market for fresh produce (central market) and the largest urban park (which is the old river bed of the river Turia) in Europe. It has its own language, is the home to the Holy Grail, the crucifixion cross of Jesus (not sure about that one though!) and is where Spain’s national dish, Paella was created.

On our day trip to the city, these were just some of the highlights:

Serrano Towers

Originally built in the 14th century Torres de Serranos is one of 2 remaining towers which were part of the old city wall, which has sadly now been demolished. It was used as a prison for noblemen for nearly 300 years and provides a good view of the old city from the top.

Plaza de la Virgin and Valencia Cathedral

The cathedral, which houses the Holy Chalice (Grail) is a must-see destination in the city and sits in the Plaza de la Virgin, one of the oldest plazas in Valencia. The plaza is surrounded by the cathedral, the Tribunal del las Aquas, or water court, the Turia Fountain and Palau de la Generalitat (Valencia’s seat of the government). It has plenty of bars and cafes, providing a little oasis of open space and is a meeting point for many guided tours. The magnificent bell tower of the cathedral is well worth a visit. The spiral staircase (there are no lifts) leads up to a lovely terrace from which you can see the city all the way to the coast.

The Silk Market

The Silk Market, ‘La Lonja de la Seda’ was built in the 15th Century, when Valencia was at its peak of silk trading and is one of the best examples of gothic architecture in the city. The Contracts Hall where the silk merchants brought their samples to trade is striking, with its spiral columns reaching up to a domed roof. In its day, the roof was painted blue and was spangled with stars. The sandstone columns were painted brown to represent the trunks and branches of trees reaching up to the sky. You can imagine what a buzz there would have been here. It’s well worth a visit and entry was free as part of the menta walking tour.

The Church of San St Nicolás de Bari

Also known as the Sistine Chapel of Valencia, this inconspicuous church is tucked behind the city’s narrow streets. Behind its doors there is an extraordinary fresco, depicting the life of St Nicolas (from whom the figure of Santa Clause is thought to have been based). The ceilings have recently been restored and this is a little jewel which is well worth a visit for the wow factor.

The City of Arts and Sciences  

At the end of the Turia River Gardens sits the City of Arts and Science park, a sci fi complex which hosts an array of attractions. There’s an opera house (the tallest in the world), a science museum, an oceanographic aquarium (the largest in Europe), IMAX cinema, laserium, an outdoor garden and sculpture park known as the Umbracle and a concert hall. It is worth a visit, even if you don’t visit any of the attractions. The architecture is very other worldly and wouldn’t look out of place in the set for a sci fi movie.

And at the end of our day we had a lovely Valencian paella (made with chicken (or/and rabbit), lima and green beans and plenty of saffron and a glass of Sangria. Delicious and a great way to finish off a fabulous day in the wonderful city of Valencia.

It was a long way to Santander………via Tipperary

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We head off on our next adventure one bright, blustery spring morning in our motor home, affectionately known as Cassy. We plan to tour Europe for the next 7 months and on the first leg of our journey we drive south to the ferry port of Cairnryan, near Stranraer. John and I always compare this stretch of road to our honeymoon trip along the Big Sur in California. Perhaps it’s not quite as spectacular, but the small cliffs known as ‘the heads of Ayr’ rise above the deep green sea and the Islands of Arran and Ailsa Craig are a dramatic backdrop to this south Ayrshire coastline. The sun is shining, and the frothy waves crash spectacularly along the rocky shores, as we drive pass Girvan, Lendalfoot and Ballantrae. At Cairnryan we board the Stena line ferry to Belfast and enjoy the trip across the Irish sea. There’s a small cinema on board and even a spa……if only I’d known, I would have brought my cossie on board. We arrive in Belfast harbour mid afternoon and make our way to a campsite on the outskirts of Dublin. Johns been gasping for a Guinness all day and at the Green Isle hotel, a 5-minute walk away from the campsite his wish is granted. We spend the next morning braving the Baltic shower block and then go for a walk around Corkagh Park which is right on our doorstep…… lovely park, shame about the showers!

As we make our way to the next campsite near Tipperary, an engine warning light comes on……’top up your adBlue now, or you may not be able to restart your engine’ our dashboard announces. What’s adBlue we say and why do we need to top it up? We’ve just had a service, so why wasn’t it topped up then! Thanks to google we locate the nearest Peugeot garage which is in Kilkenny, much further west than we planned to be. We make our way there along winding single-track roads, where tractors pull in to let us pass and a small bridge over a stream looks dangerously close to collapse. We arrive at the garage 20 minutes before closing time and by the time our adBlue is topped up and we make to the campsite, it’s dark and absolutely chucking it down! As in the title of a well-known songs ‘it certainly was a long way to Tipperary!’, but then as I remind John, these ‘off piste’ moments are the ones we’ll remember and the making of true adventures.

The next day the rain is still heavy. We make our way to Cork to board the 26-hour ferry to Santander but leave 2 hours later than planned. Our Captain informs us that he had some ‘stowaways’ to deal with. I’m puzzled why anyone from Ireland would want to smuggle themselves to Spain…. mind you, perhaps it’s for the weather! After the Captain announces that the crossing will be ‘moderately rough’ I take my seasickness tablets, but John waits till we are about an hour out of port…. a fatal mistake. He spends the next 20 hours of the crossing in the cabin. As the boat heaves to the left and to the right and spirals over the grey expanse of water known as the Bay of Biscay, John was also doing some heaving in the cabin toilet. I try to while away the time and managed to get to the restaurant, but only by doing a full on ‘Monkeys’ ( that’s the band from the 60’s not the animal) funny walk’. Defeated by the rolling sea I climb into my cabin bed and I’m lulled to sleep by the rocking ship.

By the next morning the swell has settled, and we manage to stomach some breakfast. As we meet the Northern coast of Spain in the late afternoon, it feels like the longest 26 hours of my life and we are both glad to get off the boat and drive to our first Spanish Campsite, which thankfully is only 45 minutes away. The scenery is unexpectedly beautiful. There are snow-capped mountains in the distance and lush green meadows rolling onto wide windswept golden beaches, it feels alpine, rather than Spanish.  We arrive at our campsite in time for a lovely walk to the beach and try out some Spanish cuisine at the campsite restaurant. ‘Bonjour’, I say…pleased that I’m attempting the local lingo. The waitress smiles and its only later that I realise that we are in Spain, not France! I think all that sailing has frazzled my brain…. that’s my excuse anyway!

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A fresh fortnight in Troon visiting friends and family

 

 

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We are back in Troon, and as I walk into town for my dental check-up (carefully planned to fit in with our visit home), the first thing I notice is the air. There’s so much of it. Its cool and fresh and very sniff able. I breathe in deeply and I’m filled with joy. There’s a strong south westerly wind which is fondly known as ‘blowin a hoolie’ in Scotland, and I’ve missed it, along with many other things that I didn’t realise I had missed until I was back. Of course, we have both missed family and friends and our home comforts. But there are other unexpected ‘missing’s’, like ‘ginger beards’ (aren’t they so amazing… how do all those colours of copper, gold and red find their way into one beard?), the light from our Northern sky’s, the vast expanse of green countryside and then there’s the colloquial use of ‘wee’ frequently added to describe little people, objects and units of time…. but most of all I have missed the  good old-fashioned Scottish banter, which is so much part of Scottish culture.

On a bus journey back to the ferry on the Isle of Cumbrae after visiting Johns brother and his wife, a conversation made me smile. It’s a short journey and 2 minutes in, the bus drivers’ phone (which is on speaker phone), goes off. He answers, and on the other end a Scottish twang says “Are you there Dougie, its Jimmy here…. it sounds like you have a bus load tonight.” “Aye I do”, says the driver “Any chance you could pick Wullie and me up from ‘The George’ (a local drinking establishment) once you’ve finished your run to the ferry. We’ve had a few wee drams you see, it being a Friday night an all.” “No problem” replies the driver, “see you in 10”. It’s like a scene from the well-known Scottish TV series, ‘Chewin the fat’. Only in Scotland would the local bus driver be swinging round to pick the locals up from their ‘local’, to take them, what would be a maximum of a 10-minute walk, back home!

As our house has been rented for the duration of our ‘seniors gap year’ we are staying at an Airbnb in the centre of town. Great for accessing public transport, plenty of room for visitors and parking at the front for our motorhome which we’ll be packing for our next adventure to Europe, I thought. Only there’s a wee problem…. we think there might be a ghost living in the house. My daughter who was meant to be with us for the weekend promptly refuses to stay and we sense a presence in the front bedroom. The house is odd, full of personal photos, DVDs, books and magazines. There’s a cupboard in the kitchen full of out of date food and many of the drawers still have personal belongings. I meet a friend for dinner, and she tells me that her mum (who lives in Troon) knew the old lady who lived in the house and that she has recently died ……spooky or what? As the week goes on any foreboding presence dissipates and it feels like we rather get used to living side by side with the ghost, in this quirky haunted house. On the other hand, perhaps it was just the jet lag wearing off!

It’s been a busy fortnight catching up with many friends over breakfast, lunch, coffee and dinner. We’re part of some amazing celebrations, my dad’s 80th birthday meal, and I also got to see my first grandchild (via a 4D scan), who will be arriving some time in late July. We experience one of the hottest February days (15 °C) on record and feel the tail end of storm Freya battering against the windows in the night…. but of course, this is Scotland and 4 seasons in a day is a frequent occurrence.  We have enjoyed our fresh fortnight and now we are all packed, leaving Troon behind and ready to set off on the next chapter of our adventures. This time we are heading to Europe in our van……so, watch this space.

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Sun, sea and Singha in Samui

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We have finished our amazing 30-day tour of South East Asia and now have some chill time on the tropical paradise of Kho Samui, Thailand. Our first afternoon on the beach was filled with thunderstorms, but the next day and the day after, and the day after that  blue sky and sunshine was plentiful. We visit a few different beaches while we are here; there’s the long stretch of narrow yellow sand of Chaweng, the gorgeous little bay of Coral Cove where we snorkel with the stripy fish, stunning Chong Moi with its aqua sea and powdery white sand and the palm fringed ‘off the beaten tracks’ stretch of  Mae Nam beach…..and that’s just a few to choose from on Samui. My daughter has come out to join us on this part of our trip and we go on a snorkel tour to the coral reefs of Kao Tao and Kho Nang Yuan. As the sun lights up the aqua blue waters we watch the rainbow coloured parrot fish munch on the coral and the sea slugs and crabs scuttle along the sea bed, we spot the silver needle fish darting along at the top of the ocean and swim amongst the shoals of brightly coloured fish. To finish off the day there is a cool and refreshing beer waiting and there’s plenty to choose from in Samui: Chang, Leo, Tiger or Singha. They all go well with the delicious Thai food.

I’ve been to Kho Samui before, more than 15 years ago, and it’s changed. The island now caters much more to the tourist, rather than the traveller. What’s the difference you say? Does it matter? There are plenty of organised tours to be bought and one can easily be swept into doing what everyone else is doing. For the traveller it’s more about the journey and the experiences along the way, and not just the destination itself. By not planning too much or too far ahead, one can be in the moment more and stumble across unexpected experiences. Being more of a traveller than a tourist (I’ve done the quiz and the results are in!   https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/quizzes/are-you-a-tourist-or-a-traveller-quiz/ ), we try to break the mould and walk the 4 miles to Coral Cove and we hire a motorbike and explore the North of the Island, rather than sign up for the usual tourist tours.

 

So now as I sit on the flight back to Glasgow, I can’t believe it was 3 months ago that we set off on our adventures. This experience has been so rich and full of wonderful experiences, the memories of which will stay with me forever. We have experienced and learned about many different cultures and made some wonderful friends along the way. When we were in Goa for Christmas, I bought the book ‘Alice in Wonderland’, in a ram shackled Indian bookstore. I had never read it growing up, always meant to as an adult, but never quite got around to it. Reading it on the beach in Goa was magical and Alice’s remarks have stayed with me since, and sum up how I feel on this journey home. She said “I knew who I was this morning (when I left in November), but I’ve changed a few times since then”, and just like Alice I have loved every moment.

Angkor What!!??#

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In Siem Reap we have two days to explore the 294 temples scattered around the city’s boundaries, including the jewel in the crown of Cambodia, Angkor Wat, visited by over 3 million tourists every year. As it turns out we only have time to visit 5, but what a memorable tour it is!

Many of the temples in this area were originally Hindu and were built over 600 years ago, but abandoned in the twelfth century due to a severe drought. Lost to the jungle for hundreds of years, they were rediscovered by a Buddhist king in the 1600’s and then Hindu gods sat side by side new statues of Buddha. Angkor Wat, the biggest of the temple complex in Siem Reap, is one of the largest religious monuments in the world originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It took 40,000 elephants and 400,000 people, many of them slaves who were later granted their freedom, 37 years to build, finally being completed in 1113.

In contrast with the many of the Hindu temples we visited in Southern India, the intricate carvings have lost their detail, ravaged by the jungle and by war, but It’s the scale and setting of Angkor Wat that’s impressive. Despite the thousands of tourists here, the buildings radiate an uplifting spiritual serenity. Several Monk’s sit in the inner sanctum, offering a blessing for a small donation. There is a majestic quality and the structures blend seamlessly with the surrounding woodland and lakes. We visit twice and the second time is to see the sunrise over its towers. It was worth every minute of our early rise a truly unforgettable experience.

Whilst in Siem Reap we visit other temples; Baneteay Srei (also know as the Lady Temple), Angkor Thom (the great wall), the Mayon temple and Ta Prohm, the famous ‘Tomb Raider’ temple. Ta Prohm, originally a tomb for one of the great Khmer King’s mother, lay undiscovered for many years and the jungle has taken over. Huge banyan trees have cracked the immense sandstone blocks of the temple, which formed the spectacular backdrop for the film, Tomb Raider. Restoration continues and Angelina Joli, the sweetheart of the film and mother to an adopted Cambodian orphan, has donate $1 million to this project. The trees are very slowly destroying the foundations of this temple, but felling these imposing trees would result in the ancient temple crumbling. It is a race against time, history versus nature….but the effects are sight to behold.

On our final morning in Siem Reap we visit the final temple of this trip, the Mayon Temple, with its 4-sided Buddha statues. We arrive just before throngs of Chinese tourists pour in to take their thousands of selfies. It’s a hot morning and we have only visited 5 temples over the past two days. For now, we are ‘templed out’ and an afternoon by the hotel pool calls. We will just have to come back again …… there’s only another 199 left to visit!

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Superstitions of South East Asia: Phi houses and re-internment

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As we’ve travelled through South East Asia, I have been fascinated by the little houses which sit outside houses, shops, lanes, trees and sometimes fields. An assortment of ‘offerings’; flowers and incense, food, drink and other gifts are carefully placed on its veranda.  Initially I thought they might be mini shrines to Buddha, but in the remote village of Pak Ben in Laos, I finally asked our guide, an ex-monk himself, what they were.

These miniature houses known as ‘Phi’ or spirit houses are for wandering spirits and the gifts that are left, are there to appease these spirits so they will not make any trouble for the inhabitants of the house/land. Unlike our western culture where believing in ghosts, ethereal land spirits or fortune telling is often frowned upon and generally doesn’t mix with religion, in South East Asia Buddhism blends seamlessly with mysticism and superstition. The appearance and stature of the Phi houses are dictated by the wealth of its owner. Government institutions, luxury hotel resorts and shopping malls will have impressive, ornately decorated spirit houses. In contrast simple homes in the countryside are more likely to have Phi houses made of wood. On closer inspection some stand on 4 pillars; for the spirits of the land and some sit above one pillar; for the spirits of the house. A second smaller Phi house (Saan Pha Phum) incorporates an angel with money and a sword professing to protect its owner, bringing both luck and fortune. Tiny figures often stand inside, epitomes of the home owners’ ancestors. In Thailand, a bottle of strawberry Fanta, always with a straw, is the offering beverage of choice. I’m not quite sure why spirits need straws to drink… maybe its because their hands don’t work properly? The idea behind using a red liquid as an offering, dates to when sacrifices were made, and blood was offered. Blood, the giver of life, brings good fortune and fertile land and I guess in modern times red Fanta is the next best thing! Sometimes other offerings are given; fake money for luck around the Lunar New year and at our hotel in Siem Reap a bottle of pink nail polish and perfume…… just the job for a bit of spirit pampering!

In both India and South East Asia culture Astrology or the Chinese Sheng Xiao is given high regard, and fortune tellers or Shaman are sought to determine anything from couple compatibility to the best day for harvesting the rice. Travelling on the bus past the sodden rice fields in Vietnam there were many small, walled cemeteries, and our guide tells us more about the funeral rituals of the people living in the countryside of North Vietnam. Here it is the local Shaman who decides whether the day you die is a ‘lucky’ day. If you are blessed to die on a ‘lucky’ day……. although it’s not such a lucky day really as you’ve just died……. then you will travel seamlessly onto the next life. However, if the day you die is ‘unlucky’, then several rituals need to be followed so that the curse of dying on such an ‘unlucky’ day, can be reversed. Money is placed in your mouth to pay the toll for the afterlife, and all mourners attending the funeral wear white, not black. No tear drops can fall on the body and any household cats must be kept out of the house while the body rests, for fear that the spirit might enter the animal causing it to become possessed. The family continue to make a meal daily for the deceased for 49 days, just in case there are any issues with them passing into the afterlife, after all they need to keep their strength up for the journey. The strangest ritual yet however is that of re-internment, where 3 years after burial the body is removed from the ground, the bones are washed and then re buried in a small stone coffin, protecting their loved ones from the frequent flooding which affects this land. “But what if the flesh hasn’t fully decayed?” we ask… “there are 2 options”, she replies, the first is to re entomb the body, digging it up again in 3 years, hoping for full decay to have occurred. The second, is rather more gruesome. After the body is exhumed, any remaining flesh is pared away from the bones, allowing re-internment to occur as originally intended.  Although this custom is growing less popular, nowadays a specialist team is employed, and the ceremony is performed in the middle of the night in Winter. Many families still believe this ritual to be an important expression of filial piety, respecting ones elders right to the end, which is one of the strongest ethics in Confucianism and Buddhism.

Our Western practices of scattering of ashes and leaving out a glass of milk for Santa at Christmas now seem quite tame in comparison to these startling superstitious practices of South East Asia, but certainly gives food for thought.

Cycling around Battambang

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Most people come to Cambodia to visit the ancient temples of Siem Reap, but as always when travelling some of the most memorable experiences are those you stumble across rather than those you seek out. Our cycle around Battambang is one experience that I will treasure forever. After a long bus journey, we arrive in picturesque Battambang, in the northwest corner of the country. It’s a welcome respite after the horrors of the killing field and genocide museum and the buzz of Phnom Penh city. I’m looking forward to checking into The Classy Hotel. The breakfast is amazing and there’s a pool…. all’s good in the life of a ‘classy lady’!

The following morning, the sun is shining, and we set off on a cycle tour in the  countryside, where we will also visit some local families. We are out of the city in minutes, cycling along country roads full of villagers going about their daily lives. It’s Sunday and the local children are playing, shouting hello and waving as they run beside our bikes with their happy smiling faces. It’s clear that the villagers have very little, but  accept the strange convoy of westerners wearing helmets and they too smile, clasp their hands together and bow, saying ‘Arun Suesday’ (Good morning). We stop at the homes of two families, one family is busy making rice paper, in the other  a women shows how she sun dries bananas over bamboo and collects rubber form a handful of trees on her land. The homes here are wooden and built on stilts which helps to prevent the flood waters in the rainy season from reaching their homes, and also serves as a useful work and family space which is cool in the hot season. Both families tell us how the years after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime were hard.  They returned to their homes in 1979 to find that there had been ‘a first come first serve’ policy with regards to property and land, and many families came back to find their home’s already occupied. Civil war with Vietnam continued for another 20 years and it was only in 1992 that the UN finally arrived in the country to help. Cambodian’s fought with each other for property and land, forcing many of them to look at alternative ways of surviving. Many died from starvation and disease Healthcare was in short supply after 90% of doctors in the country were executed during the Khmer Rouge’s regime.   The people we visit work hard, often 7 days a week just to keep their family fed, clothed and educated. I am humbled by the welcome they give us in their homes.

On our return to the city we visit a street vendor who makes and sells Kralan, bamboo sticky rice cake. Small bamboo sections are stuffed with sticky rice, red beans, grated coconut and coconut milk and then slowly roasted over a charcoal fire. The blackened outer bamboo casing is trimmed off and the bamboo layers are peeled away to reveal a tasty afternoon snack. I must admit it is delicious. I have loved this morning. I’ve always enjoyed cycling, one becomes part of the countryside in a way that walking or using a motorised vehicle doesn’t and I think any future visits to this country will definitely  include travelling by bicycle.

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