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Read Don's blog and poems of our year around the world 2011

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Fishing village on Lamma Island, Hong Kong

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

San in Cambodia - Nov 9-11

There has not been a country that has caught our love and admiration in just two short days like Cambodia has. First of all, the weather was glorious! There was real sun, not filtered through a smoggy haze or a sporadic drizzle. It was clean fresh air and though it was hot, it wasn’t too hot. We flew from Danang, Vietnam on Wednesday afternoon and had a very nice flight, landing in Siem Reap, Cambodia an hour later.  This airport has the longest runway in all of Asia, thanks to the American military. The airport was built in the ancient style so that it looked like we were landing into a little village. It took us a while to get through the customs and immigration and money exchange. We had left our American cash for the entry visa in our luggage but luckily they had an ATM machine conveniently located near immigration that gave US Dollars. Since they can trade in US Dollars here, we got enough for our stay as well as some Cambodian Riel for Don’s coin collection. They no longer use coins since their currency is in such large denominations. For example: we bought an Angkor beer and it cost us 12,000 Riel. Sounds outrageous but it only cost us $3. So you can imagine why they don’t have any small coins! 

We were the last to leave the airport and as we walked out the front door a very nice young man asked us if we needed a taxi. We told him our hotel name, he nodded  and we climbed in. As he drove, he gave us a little information on what to expect in Siem Reap and as we neared our hotel, he asked if we would like him to be our driver for the next two days of our stay. He quoted us $30 a day as well as gas charge if we went farther than Angkor Wat. $30 a Day? What a deal. We couldn’t have done that in Europe or the US!  We agreed and planned to meet him at 9 in the morning.

At the hotel we were greeted by a charming bell man, bowing with clasped hands, welcoming us to Tara Angkor Hotel. He took our bags and set them to one side as we were greeted by another hotel staff. She was dressed a silk blouse with a long silk brocade skirt, wrapped around her small body. She directed us to two comfortable chairs and gave us a small glass of cold lemon grass tea. She also set a platter with two cold, wet wash cloths, scented with ginger. What a wonderful way to be greeted as we signed our paperwork for the hotel room. We went up to the 4th floor to our room and again, we were amazed by the spaciousness of the room. It was beautiful with local designs printed on silk panels for artwork.  There were two double size beds with a basket of fruit on a bedside stand. And we only paid $68 for all this!! And that included our buffet breakfast. Not only are the people wonderful here, but you can live very well on such a small amount of money. My kind of vacation!!

We were met by San, our driver, at 9 AM the next morning and planned out our next two days. We decided to postpone Angkor Wat and go to the floating village and Beng Mealea, a temple in ruins.  Friday is a holy day for the Buddhist monks and they close the 3rd floor of Angkor Wat for their religious events. We decided to go there on Saturday when we could see everything.  Our first destination was a temple from the 14th century that has not been restored so it is in its natural state of decay. The Strangler Fig and the Silk-Cotton tree have torn down walls and done a lot of destruction but they are so cool looking.  There were not many tourists there and we enjoyed the leisurely walk around the temple area. The cut stones were covered with moss and looked so soft against the black stone. You could see the arches of the temple and the library and walls with designs and carvings of beautiful women. The inside of the temple area had boardwalks cross-crossing the open areas, keeping you up above the water that had flooded here just two weeks ago. I found this temple so interesting, especially because it had not been restored. You can almost imagine being an explorer and stumbling across this broken down temple in the middle of the jungle.  We then continued on to a second temple that has a Thai name but has been renamed for the famous movie, The Tomb Raider that was filmed here. That is pretty sad when Hollywood can over-ride history and rename a temple that has been standing for 700 years under different name.  Whatever it takes to bring the tourist and their dollars! This temple was really cool, with trees growing out of the tops of walls with their roots spanning the face of the wall, hanging on for dear life. I love trees and I especially love roots, so I snapped a zillion photos! I could have spent a whole day doing a drawing of those roots.

Next we drove to the floating village. These are houses that are on the river and low lands of the delta and are built to accommodate the rise and fall of the river. Most of the houses in Siem Reap are built as two story homes, with only the upstairs walled in and the first floor is just the pillars holding up the house. This is not because of floods, but it provides a shady place from the afternoon sun.  Short platforms of wood are built just above the ground so that the family can sit on these to eat their noon day lunch and the kids can take naps in the shady breeze. However, the houses we were visiting near the river are built specifically for flooding. We climbed on a boat to see this village that was built for water.  This village has homes that are built on platforms, like those we had been seeing, but their first floor is completely under water in the rainy season. Since Cambodia was hit with more rain than it could handle this year, their river is swollen to historical heights and some of the homes are completely under water. The people use boats as their only means of transportation. They fish for a living in the lake nearby but with so much water, they can fish out their front door. We saw pigs in a pen, just above the water line. They had small floating stores, carrying dry foods. We saw a wood platform where people were putting out shrimp to dry.  Since these homes do not have electricity, there is a man whose job is to go from house to house, picking up their batteries, charging them all day, and returning them that evening so that people have power for their lights and TVs. Yes, they too enjoy the favorite pastime of the world. There were many TV antennas on top of their tin roofs. Everyone appeared so happy and we waved at the people passing us and they smiled their big gold toothed smiles. There seemed to be two kinds of boats. Small boats with a platform on top instead of rows of seats like a row boat. These were usually rowed with oars. Then there was a larger boat, usually painted bright primary colors and it had an engine at the end of a long pole. He would lower it or bring it up closer to the surface of the water, depending on how fast he wanted to go.  

November is the time of the year that the Boat Festival takes place in Cambodia. It is a time of boat racing and festivities but because of the flooding and so many people losing their homes, the government decided to spent the festival money on helping the displaced people instead of the festival. But that didn’t stop a few groups of young boys from racing their canoes against another group in a friendly competition. It was a Friday, so there were festivities going on in the temple on an island that served the floating village. Everyone seemed in such a festive mood. Unfortunately that wouldn’t allow our boat to get very close to the temple to get a closer look.

The next village we visited on the water was of Vietnamese immigrants. Their homes were built on either platforms or a boat and not in the ground at all. They really could ride out any flood that would come their way.  Our driver pointed out how their homes looked so different from the Cambodian homes, more like the Chinese.  Don and I couldn’t tell them apart. It is interesting how it takes a while to see the subtle differences between cultures.

On our drive home, San asked if we were interested in going to a dinner and a cultural dance that is put on for the tourists. It is at a local restaurant and it is only $12 per person for a full buffet of Cambodian food and a one hour performance of traditional dance. It did sound rather nice but we thought it would be even nicer if San and his family could join us. He wasn’t sure what the family had planned but he told us that he would ask and would see us at 7:15 to drive us there. 

At 7:15 prompt, San showed up with his whole family, his wife, two daughters and his mother-in-law. We were delighted that they could join us for dinner. The little girls, 3 and 5, kowtowed, clasping their hands together and bowing, and said “Hello, nice to meet you”. They were darling girls, their hair in dark little ringlets. Their mother had worked all day in a restaurant called Red Onion and I am sure she was tired. His mother-in-law takes care of the little girls when they are not in school.  All of them were very petite and pretty, with beautiful colored skin. We all piled into San’s Camry, us 3 women in the back holding the two girls and the men in the front. It was a short distance from the hotel and we had arrived just a few minutes before the dancing started. It was the oldest daughter’s birthday, so we were glad to give her a special treat. We perused the buffet that was wonderful and sat at a long table and watched as beautiful costumed men and women performed traditional dances for us. The Cambodian dancing is very slow, deliberate and graceful. They wore ornate gold headpieces and moved with such grace. Our favorite dance was the fish dance and of course it was a flirtatious love story. After the dinner and performance, San drove us through the market area of Siem Reap explaining what we could buy from each area. It looked like a lively place to get great deals, even though it was past 9 PM.

The next morning we set out to Angkor Thom, another temple near Angkor Wat. This whole area has several temple ruins within just a few miles.  We drove by San’s house that is within the UNESCO protectorate and on our way back he invited us for coconut milk under his house. The way the housing works is that the daughter brings her new husband to live with her family after they get married. In San’s instance, his wife was living with her single mom, who owned the home, and he moved in with her. The house is about 30 years old and the wood planks in the second story house were rubbed smooth with wear. The upstairs was a large square room, probably 20’ X 20’. The roof was made of corrugated aluminum with space between the roof and the top of the wall for the heat and moisture to escape. The mother had built a square room for her bed and San had just built another square walled room for him and his wife. One daughter slept with grandma and the other one with mom and dad. The two glass front cabinets in the living room held all their clothes. The only other piece of furniture was a television and a table.  The kitchen was a small room downstairs on the ground floor. San had told us that he is considered middleclass. It makes us stop and pause. Do we really need everything that we have in our middleclass homes?  San showed us photos of his wedding. They had probably 100 professional photos of them in different costumes that were lovely. His wife was made up so pretty. There were also some pictures of the wedding party that was held in their home and the dinner that over 200 people came to celebrate with them.  He handed us a wedding photo and a group photo of  his family. We felt so humbled by the gift and we felt bad that we had nothing to give in return. We tried to finish our coconut milk but they were so huge it was impossible!

On to Angkor Wat. We passed several temples on our way and stopped long enough to take photos. We could have spent another week there! Also on our way, we noticed small stands selling some gold looking liquid in Johnny Walker bottles. We were told that this was gasoline for the motorcycles. If they need gas, they just pull up to one of these stands, pay a little less  than at the gas station, fill up their gas tank and off they go. There are many, many motorcycles and scooters in Cambodia. And they will carry anything on them. We passed a man with a cage full of piglets, tied to the seat behind him. They can carry whole families on these bikes. The largest family I saw was a little boy standing, the father on the seat with two little children between he and his wife and she had a baby wrapped in her arms. That is a motorcycle for a family of 6! And these are little motorcycles, like 80s. Pick-ups haul people piled in the back. Workers from the field sit on top of bags of rice in the back of a truck. And of course the Tuk-Tuks and a few bicycles. It is amazing their forms of transportation!

Angkor Wat was truly amazing. It has been completely put back to the way it was in its day of glory. It is the largest religious monument in the world.  The gallery has carved rock bas-reliefs of past military conquests and everyday life. There are also carvings of beautiful women in so many nooks and crannies of this temple area. There is a stairway that goes up to the third floor so you can look down onto the inside of the entire temple area. Angkor Wat is still used by the Buddhist monks for worship, so we had to be dressed appropriately to enter the inner temple.  Unfortunately, I forgot my scarf in the car and was not allowed in because I did not have a way to cover my shoulders. Men could go in any way they wanted, but the women must be covered.  I sent my camera up with Don and the photos were great. As we were walking back to the car, we talked to two young Buddhist monks and the younger of the two was unsure whether he should, or was allowed, talk to me. Women are not allowed to touch a monk, which I didn’t know at the time, so it is good I didn’t hug them just because they reminded me of CJ.  You know how moms can be! We crossed the moat full of water, that is a couple hundred feet wide that goes all the way around the city walls. This place alone deserves two days to take it all in. Again, I wished that we had more time.

We said a very sad goodbye to our friend San, promising to write. He doesn’t have internet in his village, but his friend does, so we will keep in contact. It would be so wonderful if he and his family come visit us in the States and we could drive him to all the tourists spots. We have told so many people to come visit us once we are home and wouldn’t we be surprised if they really showed up! It would be fabulous fun!

I must say that we love Cambodia and hope to return and see more!  And this is all because of one man, San, who showed us who the Cambodian people are. Thank you San!! Cambodia needs to be on everyone’s list of “must see places” and ask for San!

11:02 am est 

Whatís so Big about Little olí Hong Kong?

EVERYTHING! For starters, I am big on Hong Kong!  It is one of the largest cities in the world.  It has more skyscrapers than any other city, maybe even country, in the world.  Hong Kong is the most vertical city in the world. More people live and work above the 14th floor.  The whole country is only 426 sq. miles but has 7 million residents! That is a lot of people living in a little, itty-bitty space! Since the city covers such a small area, the metro system is great. The people are big on riding the metro and bus system, like 90% use it, more than any other country. Hong Kong has lots of roads and when there is no more room for a road, they just build up. There are so many overpasses on top of overpasses on top of roads. They also have the largest bronze outdoor seated Buddha in the world. And it is very impressive!  Did you know that Hong Kong claims to be the most international city of the world? That is a lot of Big facts about a very Little country!

I booked a hotel on Lamma Island through Expedia. (I am trying to get reward points so Rashawna can use them to go to Hawaii to her college roommates wedding in April) I read the description and it sounded great, though I had no idea where Lamma Island was in relationship to Hong Kong, that is also an island. It is actually very easy to get around in Hong Kong and since most people speak some English, if not perfect English, it is easy to get help as well. We arrived in Hong Kong by bus and we asked how to get to Lamma Island. We were directed to take the Metro to Central and walk to ferry Pier #4. Sounded simple enough and we did find all the above so it really was pretty simple.  The ferry ride was under US$2 and took about ½ hour to reach the island. We had taken the 3 PM ferry so it was full of school children, ranging from elementary through high school, all riding by themselves without any adult supervision. Hong Kong must be a very safe place and children are very well behaved here! We got off the boat and just followed the crowd walking to town. A school girl who sat near us had heard us say we needed to go to Concerto Inn and she gave us a very detailed explanation of the route. Once we took it, we understood why the details.

I should explain that there are NO vehicles on the island, at all! OK, there is A van that the power plant uses on the one road that goes from the plant to the wind mill in the middle of the island, but that is it. Everyone walks or rides a bike.  There are little carts with 9.5 liter engines that have a pickup back that carries supplies for the shops or luggage for tourists. These vehicles drive on the sidewalk, the only path through town and around the entire island. There are about 5000 residents on the island and about 40 percent are expats! No wonder we feel so at home. This island was settled by Han fishermen first, of course, then the British hippie in the 70s and 80s. Instead of skyscrapers like Hong Kong, they live in apartment buildings that are only 3 or 4 floors high. The law is that the apartments are either 350 or 700 square feet. Strange law! Pretty small apartments but everyone has a sea view!  But I am digressing from the story of our arrival.

We walked and we walked  and we walked, pulling our suitcases along the cement path.  We walked a good mile before we saw a wonderful beach and there was the hotel with the sign: Concerto Inn.  We made it. We had no idea it was such a long walk! Glad we only had one suitcase and one with wheels!  Our hotel was right on the beach. Yay! We were shown to our room overlooking the beach and we decided we wanted to spend more than one night. I asked the desk if we could stay longer and he told us that the room was reserved for the weekend. However, they had some apartments with a little kitchen if we wanted to stay a week or more. No prodding necessary! Yes, we will take the apartment. So we moved all our things over to the apartments and chose the one that had the glassed in balcony overlooking the beach. Ah, some beach time!

That was 19 days ago! Our one night stay became a week that grew into two weeks and then some!  We have loved it here, waking up in the morning, going for a swim, eating breakfast on the patio and tanning on the beach. We rented two bikes for $2 a day so we have our own transportation. What is there not to love?  I had lost my inspiration to draw but being here on this beautiful island, I have done four drawings. The island is covered with lush jungle that is home for tons of frogs and unfortunately mosquitoes. There are not that many beaches and the water isn’t clear like the Caribbean, but it is warm and the sand feels wonderful. On the week days the island is quiet, but on Fridays, the school children come to the beach, all wearing school shirts and pack the place out. On Saturdays and Sundays the beach is full of families and couples, having a great time relaxing from the stress of the city. It is a wonderful place to be a part of and watch the changes.  Another thing I noticed is that when we take the ferry from Hong Kong to Lamma Island, everyone is talking to each other. Everybody knows everybody else. It is so nice! I love Lamma Island and I actually really love Hong Kong as well. It is a great place to visit and Don and I have agreed, that this is the first place we could actually see ourselves living, if we didn’t have parents, kids and grand kids that we love so much.  I have a feeling we will be back!! In a BIG way, of course!

10:58 am est 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Land of Israel (October 10)

I have been in China for two weeks now (September 26th to October 10). It is about time I started my blog.   I know that my title made you think I was going to write about Israel, didn’t it?  I am, but not in the way you are thinking.

China has been a wonderful surprise for us. Our first clue that we were in a whole new country was the loud recorded message  “Welcome to China” blaring through the loud speakers as our train pulled into the border town. It was clean, it was modern and the border patrols were very polite and courteous. That tells you a lot about a country. Our first impressions have proven to be pretty accurate for the duration of our visit.

By the time we arrived in Beijing, Don had been sick with the flu for a full three days. He was sweating up a storm and so weak that instead of trying to find a hotel,  we shared a taxi with Jesus (Mercado, from the train, not The Jesus!)  and went to his hotel.  True to his Philippino heritage, he was staying at the best hotel, at the best price, in the best location. What a find!  We settled into our room and Don climbed into bed.  I climbed in right behind him. I hadn’t been able to avoid the flu after all and felt the fever and chills creeping in.  Hope we like this room since we are going to be house bound for the duration of our stay.

My brother’s girlfriend, Dong, is from Beijing so we wanted to meet her parents. Dong had given us the phone number of one of her friends who spoke English and we arranged an evening to meet for dinner. We were so pleased to meet her parents, who are so down to earth you would never know that he was instrumental in bringing computer technology to China. We also ate with Dong’s childhood friends and their spouses and we had a great time. Dong’s parents brought us a gift, a scarf for each of us, that were just perfect.  We went the failsafe way and brought some liquor in a pretty bottle. We couldn’t read the Chinese and no one could tell us what it was but it was expensive enough  that it should be good quality and it came in a pretty bottle, so we figured, at the very least, they would have a nice bottle to serve their soy sauce. After eating a delicious dinner and having good conversation, we quickly toured the restaurant. I have never seen a restaurant like this one. It was 5 floors high, with a large dining room on the bottom floor in the center of the building. The 2nd -5th floors were open, with rooms and balconies looking down on to the bottom floor. This restaurant has been a favorite of dignitaries. It was pretty impressive.

Our next impressive meal was with Israel (Ah, this is the Israel I was referring to), Rashawna’s friend from high school, who is studying and working in China. We had gone to church with Israel  and went  for lunch at a “hole in a wall” near his apartment. It was good, local food and all for under $8 for the three of us! Then we decided to go out for a traditional Peking Duck that Beijing is famous for. Since we wanted a special treat with Israel, we went to the most famous of all Peking Duck restaurants. This one was also a five floors (or was it 6 floors?) of large dining rooms, filled with people eating delicious duck. It is in a beautiful building and we took a seat on blue plastic stools out in the parking lot while we waited the hour for an open table. There were at the very least hundred of us waiting so we had plenty to watch. Once our number was called, we took the elevator(no 4th floor, the bad luck number) to the 5th floor and sat at a large round table. We let Israel choose the dishes. Whole duck, duck feet, duck brain, (yes, Don really did eat a little bite) crushed cucumbers, duck liver and duck hearts. I know there was more, but these are the ones that were the most memorable. We watched from behind a glass while the chefs put a whole duck in the brick oven until it was toasty brown. They had a hook at the end of a pole that they grabbed the neck and brought the duck out, put it on a platter and sliced it for our table.  The food was delicious….I can pass on the duck brain and web feet! But I think it was the experience of it all and the good conversation with Israel. It is so cool when your kids and their friends grow up and their lives are so interesting doing careers you never imagined for them.  Thank you, Israel, for the wonderful evening! We will cherish the chopsticks and duck holders as a good memory of our evening.

We spent most days sleeping in, lounging around the hotel room,  wandering down to the Dashilar Alley,  and eating lunch or dinner, whichever one we decided to get that day, at the restaurant across the street from the hotel. Don had tried it out the 2nd night in Beijing, the day the flu put me to bed. He brought home rice, vegetables and chicken and it was delicious. As the week progressed, it became our restaurant of choice. The first night we had ordered off  the hotel menu and it cost 380 Yuan, around  $70 and. A little pricey but was more geared for the tourist palette. (After Europe, the price of food will never shock us again.) Our meals across the street cost us under 80 Yuan ($13) and we had plenty of food and it was deliciously authentic Chinese!  And it was more fun eating there! Luckily the menu had pictures so we generally just pointed to what looked good. We had seen someone eating broccoli that was not on the menu so we tried to order some but did not know the Chinese word for it.  I drew a picture of a flower of broccoli and they amazingly figured out what I had drawn and brought us a huge bowl of steaming broccoli with garlic. Delicious! One night we went there for dinner and the place was packed. There was just one table available. After we ordered “our usual”, we did our “usual” people watching. Every table had a steaming pot with a sterno like fire underneath with several dishes of  vegetables and raw meat that was gradually added to the pot. Everyone was busy using their chopsticks to grab out the contents  of the communal pot. It smelled delicious!  Then several people lit up their cigarettes and chatted, ate some more, smoked another, throwing the cigarette on the floor when done. One table had no less than 10 cigarettes under their feet, along with napkins or anything else they no longer wanted on their table. Don and I were discussing what slobs those men were until we realized that there were other tables doing the same thing and this was customary in the traditional Chinese restaurants. After the guests left and the tables were cleared, a woman would come by and swept up the floor like it was no big deal!  You can see why we loved this restaurant! It was a wonderful experience.

I had a list in my head of places we had to see in China. The Great Wall was one of them. We were told that we needed to go about 50 KM out of Beijing where there were large sections of the wall stretching for miles. Don met a very nice man who offered to take us on a tour of the Wall. As a rule of thumb, it is better to go with a known tour organization rather than a man off the streets but it did turn out OK.  We could see the wall up on one mountain and looping around another mountain. It was a wonderful sight to see. We ambitiously thought we would try to get to the eighth watchtower but once we started on those stairs to get to them, I was fine with getting to the third one.  Don reached the sixth tower to my amazement. I had been in bed since arriving in Beijing and this was the only real exercise I had had in weeks. To reach these towers, there were hundreds of steps, with the walls on either side. These ancient steps had been built for utility, not with the public in mind so the steps were unusually tall and of varying heights so you had to watch your step. I was very grateful that there were railings on either side. Some places were pretty steep and it reminded us of Machu Picchu! When we came down from the Wall, our guide took us to a Jade Factory where we watched skilled artists cut beautiful objects out of Jade. Then we visited a Silk Factory and we were shown the process from the silk worm to the cocoons to the finished product of beautiful silk clothes and home fabrics. The last destination was a tea house where we tested several types of tea that were all delicious. I thought it was a nice touch that he thought to take us to these places and then I found out why. Tour guides negotiate with these factories to receive a certain percentage of whatever we buy.  And we, like perfect tourists, bought something at each location. Not knowing this fact, we had been feeling so bad that we had keep the driver and guide well beyond their 8 hours we hired them for. It is no wonder they kept reassuring us they were in no hurry and they encouraged us to shop as much as we wanted.  The more we shopped, the more they made!  We really should read our guide books before we do anything.

Don loves getting massages and the Orient is known for its many massage parlors. Being a little apprehensive that he would end up in one of “those” massage parlors, he enquired at the hotel. Yes, they had a spa service so he promptly set up an appointment. He left for his massage treatment and an hour later arrived in our room, with the masseuse behind him. He had brought her to our room thinking I would like it as well. I had been in bed all day with a fever and was as weak as a kitten. Massages are not my favorite thing and it was the farthest thing from my mind. I tried to protest but I was no match for Don’s desire to make me feel better. I gave in but insisted “Feet only!”  She had the sweetest smile so I was not prepared for the ferocity that she attacked my legs. She worked them so hard that I knew she must have rubbed my  tan completely off. She pinched and poked her way up and down my legs.  I have never felt so much pain in my life. And I was too weak to protest and Don just looked down on me smiling, having no idea what this woman was putting me through!  When she asked if she could do the rest of my body, again my protests were ignored by Don’s “You will love it and it will feel so good!” So she abused my poor, hot back with more diggings, pinches, slaps and pokes. Please tell me when this will feel good! After an hour, she finished, smiled sweetly and with a sigh of relief that it was over, I was finally able to relax. For three days I had tender spots on my back and legs.  Every day she would call our room to ask if I wanted a massage. NO!  Don did have more massages and he was finally able to tell her he preferred less brutal massages. The Chinese men must love the abuse!  However, she really was a sweet lady and when we left, she came by our room and gave us two little Chinese dolls.  Her generosity was so touching!

Our stay in Beijing was so memorable. We love the Chinese people, so generous and helpful and I felt that they were happy to meet us too. Now if only they could do something about their smog!

2:13 pm edt 

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Mimi Lamp


It all started here, a little gallery in Idyllwild, no better place on earth. Or so I think.  My husband Don and I are on our way around the world this year. Watch my website for new drawings, sketches, watercolor washes of places we visit.

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