Adventures of Two Americans Living and Working in Nepal

Archive for the category “Life”

Volunteers Come, Fog Lifts

It’s been a strange fall in Nepal, weather-wise. Though skies here are usually clear and sunny in November, the time of year when the country experiences the highest amount of tourist traffic, the past few weeks have been a steady series of foggy, rainy days. And since pilots manning in-country flights fly on sight, it takes just the smallest smattering of clouds to make the skies impassable. Let’s just say the skies this month have been thoroughly smattered, and flights in and out of the mountains have been a rarity. In fact, the Everest Region made headlines recently when more than 2,000 tourists were stranded for several days at the Lukla airport because planes were not able to get in.

Emily, Edge of Seven’s Program Director, arrived in Kathmandu last Sunday with an itinerary that had her spending most of the past week at the project site. But the weather didn’t cooperate, so she has been here with us for the week. Which, frankly, has been awesome. In addition to loving the company, we’ve been making good use of her time in Kathmandu prepping for the trip, planning for logistics and supplies, and meeting with other NGOs working in Nepal.

Emily and Travis - Edge of Seven employees.

But the good news is that the weather has made a dramatic turn for the better and the past two days have been beautiful and sunny – great timing for the volunteers, who have all arrived safe and sound as of today. Travis actually made it out on a flight to Phaplu a couple of days ago and arrived in Phuleli yesterday afternoon. He texted earlier to report that it was exciting to get to work at the school site and that throughout his introductions to all of the villagers today he had consumed 12 cups of tea (which Emily pointed out would be a terrific title for a blog post from him at some point). He then called later to say that he spent a good portion of his evening helping a villager “chase his pigs” into their pen. A banner day for Travis by many measures.

The volunteers have all arrived and this afternoon we took a stroll from Thamel to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. We visited a few of the more notable buildings, including the Kumari Ghar, or House of the Living Goddess. The Kumari (Living Goddess) is a young girl who is chosen at the age of 5 or 6 to live as an object of worship until she reaches puberty. The selection is made based on a host of criteria that begins with the girl’s caste. Though Kumari worship is an ancient tradition in Hindu cultures, I think the concept is a bit tougher for us Westerners to swallow. You can’t help but feel for this girl, who, while well taken care of, is confined to a life of sitting in a building with lots of makeup on, making an appearance at a window a few times a day.

This evening all of the volunteers went for a traditional dinner of Dal Bhat and milk tea. I have to say I was extremely impressed with everyone’s energy level. Going halfway around the world creates a hard level of jet lag to cope with, and I probably would have been face down in my plate had I just been through some of these flight schedules. But everyone was excited to be here, and conversation flowed freely. I can tell already that this will be a great group. Karma commented to me that everyone in this crowd seemed particularly fit, physically, and I have to agree. Hopefully they will all bear with me as I huff and puff to the project site. Or else just carry me.

At dinner tonight everyone was given their Nepali names, but tomorrow the true orientation occurs. We leave early Tuesday for the project site, and I will try my best to get another update up here beforehand.

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The past several days have been somewhat low-key, as I have been sick with a fever off and on. As a result, there hasn’t been too much going on at Ghar Hughbanks that has been worth reporting.

But all of that will change very soon! Tomorrow, Emily, Edge of Seven’s program director arrives in Kathmandu, and the first group of volunteers will be here next week. We’ll be headed back up into the mountains on Nov. 22. I will stay with the volunteers through the end of the month, and Travis will be there for 5+ weeks. Hopefully, we can get a blog post out of him before he leaves in a few days.

We did manage to recently make a quick trip up to Pokhara, the base city for all of the Annapurna Range treks, one of the most popular trekking areas in Nepal. After being in Kathmandu for so long, Pokhara felt a little bit like heaven.

Situated on a big lake with snow-peaked mountains all around, it is extremely laid back and lacking all of the pollution of the capital city. Granted, it is also swarmed by tourists, which may not be an experience everyone is seeking when coming to Nepal, but it’s still a nice respite. The tourist industry has given rise to quite a few good restaurants and makes for an excellent people watching scene. Most Westerners in Pokhara are guaranteed to have at least one of two looks going on: spiffy, high-tech hiking pants and a walking stick or dreadlocks and patchwork clothing.

The main purpose of our trip was to meet with the women’s collective I have been working with on Sapana Bags. It was really inspiring to see their shop and talk with the founder, Tara, who is an incredible woman doing a lot for women in her community. (More on this to come.)

Women weaving material for handbags in Pokhara.

We also got to spend some time with our friend Bikash, the brother of our good friend Binod. Bikash runs Natures Grace Lodge, a cozy hotel tucked away off the main street. Last year, we stayed there for several days during the May 2010 Maoist strike, so having Dal Bhat with Bikash and his cousin Ganga in the Nature’s Grace kitchen this week most definitely brought back memories from that time.

Nature's Grace Lodge in Pokhara!

Aside from that, we’ve had several good meetings in Kathmandu, finally ate lunch at Nina and Hager, a deli across from the U.S. Embassy that has terrific sandwiches/burgers and has been recommended by pretty much everyone we’ve come into contact with in Kathmandu, went to a documentary screening about Monsanto’s move into Nepal (a big deal that has the potential to be very harmful to Nepali farmers), and have even made a few friends.

Lastly, and I don’t believe I have mentioned this on the blog before (though I have told the story to many people), but there has been another pigeon incident.  Those of you who know me may know about my pigeon aversion, second only in severity to my rat phobia. During our first week here we were having a snack at a restaurant in Thamel and sitting at a table by the windows, which were open to let in the breeze. As we were close to finishing our food, a sick pigeon with an open sore on its head flew in the window and landed on our table. We tried to shoo it away, but it didn’t respond. Instead it stumbled across the table, walked into our plate of hummus, and sat down. I jumped out of my seat and screamed a little, which the men sitting behind us found hilarious. “What?!” they yelled at me. “This has never happened to you before?”

Well, today I went out to the balcony to do a little laundry and there was a big, dead pigeon in the outside sink. Travis tried to get me to suck it up and dispose of the body myself, as I need to learn to deal with these things, but I just didn’t think so. Next time, I’m sure I will have more courage.

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Photos: Bhai Tika, Durbar Squares and a Cute Baby

Just a few photos taken out and about around Kathmandu. We ventured out to the Durbar Squares in both Kathmandu and Patan for Bhai Tikka, the last day of Tihar when brothers are honored by their sisters, and surprisingly there was quite a bit of activity, despite the city being more or less shut down for the holiday.

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Farewell to Some Things I Really Like

Though I am sure you would all love to hear about the exciting errands we’ve run over the past few days and the incredibly stimulating research and computer work that has been going on in our apartment (which is actually very interesting to us), I thought I would take a minute in this post to publicly bid farewell to some things that we’ll miss having in our lives while living in Kathmandu.

1.       Presentable Hair – I did break down and buy a small hairdryer the other day, but its small wattage is really no match for the frizzy mess that is on my head. Plus, and many of you may already be aware, but electricity is a real problem in Nepal, even when it is on, and I haven’t had much luck getting the dryer to run for more than 5 consecutive seconds at a time. So, goodbye hair that looks sort of good sometimes! In truth, you were a rarity even at home, but it was nice to have you around now and again. I hope we meet again someday.

2.       A Life After Dark – It took us about four hours of living in our apartment to discover that in Kathmandu the night belongs to the dogs, particularly on the roads without streetlamps. Our residential street is lined with stray animals, and, as a big-time dog lover, it breaks my heart to see the condition some of them are in. But when the sun goes down, it can get a little scary. Our first day here, we were at a nearby Internet café until about 6:30 p.m. sending emails. On the walk home, we were followed closely by barking and snarling dogs pretty much all the way to the front door, where our landlord’s dog then started in on us from the other end. I straddled the gate between our driveway and the street and called our landlord from my cell phone in a panic. While the dog at our building has now warmed up to us and is really friendly, the street dogs, I am sure, never will. Lesson: Be home before dark or be prepared to take a cab.

3.       The Ability to Control Our Own Means of Transportation – Lots of foreigners living here get around by car, motorbike or scooter. And I am seriously impressed with all of them. Because I really can’t imagine that there will ever be a day when I would willingly put myself in charge of any sort of motorized or pedal-driven vehicle in the craziness of Kathmandu traffic.

4.       Breathing While Running – Running in this city is complicated, if not completely impossible in many areas, and while saying that I “really like” running is a stretch, I know I should do it (see previous post about hiking). A couple of times we’ve run on a path in the fields behind our building, and breathing has been a challenge. Dodging cows and motorbikes on these jaunts, we  inhale lots of exhaust, dust, and smoke before always arriving at a very fragrant (i.e., gag-inducing) pig farm. We haven’t totally given up yet, but hope to find a better route soon.

5.       Mexican Food – This is, obviously, a given. But I couldn’t resist bringing it up because I really miss it! I’ve actually been contemplating a blog series titled “Yak Mex,” where I will chronicle my attempts to recreate Mexican dishes using local dairy products. Thoughts?

I’m sure there are other things, but those are the current stand outs. In the end, though, it’s worth all the trade-offs.

Happy Tihar!

It is the Nepali festival of Tihar, much like the Hindu festival Diwali, which means “festival of lights.” And all I can say is that it is simply beautiful here!

Tonight, the Kathmandu Valley is lit up like a Christmas Tree, and since we still don’t know many people here we spent the evening taking in all the illumination, fireworks, and singing/dancing/celebrating from our balcony, which turned out to be a pretty good vantage point since our neighbors had a big party. It was the biggest night of festivities so far.

Tihar is a five-day festival, during which Nepalis honor crows, dogs, cows, the Goddess Laxmi, and the brothers of their families, among other things I am sure I left out. Typically, each “honoree” has a day devoted entirely to them, but we were told the Lunar Calendar this year was slightly off, so they had to double up a bit. Yesterday, all of the dogs in the city were sporting tikka and marigold garlands. Today, it was the cows.

One of the main goals of Tihar is to draw the Hindu Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, to a person’s home by cleaning and lighting all the candles, string lights, and fireworks you have. Also, singing, dancing, and trails of rice and tikka apparently help get her in the door. Tonight we witnessed bands of carolers going from house to house, singing and dancing for the residents in return for a small donation. Every few minutes fireworks go off.

Here’s a few photos from what we’ve seen so far!

The lights of Kathmandu at Tihar.

Our landlords made a tikka and marigold trail to our front door and up the stairs.

Candles from our balcony.

Women making a rice mandala for Tihar at the local supermarket, Bhat Bateni.

Our landlord's dog Puppy, with his necklace and tikka.

“Without Up and Down, There is No Nepal” (and Narrowly Missing Richard Gere)

During a tea break on our recent trip to the Solukhumbu Region, we had a nice chat with a seasoned trekking guide from the district while making our way from Phaplu to Phuleli. As we finished our tea and prepared to move on, we were feeling a bit weary and asked him if the rest of the trail to the village was flat or steep. He laughed in a way that indicated it would be steep. “Without up and down,” he said. “There is no Nepal.”

I can now say with authority that truer words have never been spoken. I am not sure who Travis and I thought we were when we assumed that we could just breeze in and bang out a 20-hour hike in 2.5 days, which included more than 12,000 feet of straight ups and downs, after having had no exercise in the past two months (aside from deadlifting a fork to our mouths). But all I know is that we are now on a steady diet of squats and crunches to get in shape for future trips.

We left last Thursday morning for Phaplu on a small prop plane out of Kathmandu, and the flight was quite an experience. First, the plane looked like something that had been dug out of a Pick-n-Pull, dusted off, and pushed over to the airport in neutral. Second, while the takeoff was relatively smooth, the landing, for us newbies, was a bit crazy. Travis and I had the benefit of front-row seats in the plane, and looking out through the cockpit window it appeared we were going to nosedive straight into the mountainside. The descent to the runway was achieved with what seemed to be an abrupt 90-degree angle, sort of like the pilot just cranked the “steering wheel” all the way to the left. Thankfully the noise from the engine kept the other passengers from hearing us whimper.

The Phaplu airport is pretty basic and utilized mostly by Nepalis. While the Solukhumbu District is a major trekking area, being that it’s home to Mt. Everest, most tourists fly into nearby Lukla, which is apparently an even hairier airport that requires a much sharper descent. We’ll stick with Phaplu, thanks.

After a quick lunch of Dal Bhat, we were off on the first leg of our 10-hour hike to the project site. The first four hours were pretty nice with moderate ups and downs. We hiked along, practically skipping in our naivety, with big grins on our faces, taking in the gorgeous scenery and offering a cheery “Namaste!” to folks we saw along the path. The goal was to make it to Nunthala, a village that is, to Nepalis familiar with the area, about a three to four hour hike from Phaplu. For people like us, though, it is much, much further.

Around 4 p.m., we stopped for tea in a village called Ringmu, and after that things got serious. From Ringmu to Nunthala, it is about 2,000 feet straight up over rocks to Taksindu Pass, the highest point at nearly 10,000 feet in altitude, then about another 3,000 feet straight down over more rocks. On our way up the ascent, it began to hail ice chunks. And then it got dark. Crossing the top of the pass, we started going down, but the rain made the path slippery and it was hard to see. All I could think was, “Going down is the worst!” So we stopped early at a nice guesthouse in Taksindu owned by the brother of Babu Chiri Sherpa, the legendary Sherpa guide who holds the record for the fastest ascent of Mt. Everest in just 16 hours and 56 minutes. Amazing.

The next morning, we finished the descent to Phuleli, arriving before 1 p.m. to meet with the local villagers and School Committee. I have to say it was a great meeting, even if the two of us barely said a word. (Read more about the Phuleli School Project.)

The School Committee welcomed us with tea, traditional scarves and marigold garlands, and a lovely speech from the president of the Committee, during which we were told he talked about how excited the village was to have Edge of Seven and its volunteers there. For about 30 minutes, we sat while Karma explained the concept Travis was pitching – that of building the school with earthbags. While we couldn’t understand a word, we could tell it was an entirely new idea for the Committee members to process, as it was for us just a few months ago. The School Committee members just kept shaking their heads, and we weren’t sure whether they were saying yes or no. But toward the end of the conversation, Karma told us that they very much liked the idea and were excited to be the first village in Nepal to use the construction method (at least that we know of). Especially in the wake of the recent earthquake that hit Nepal, the epicenter of which was very close to the Solukhumbu Region, the value of building with earthbags is emphasized, since it is much more earthquake resistant than traditional stone construction. Think of how a stone building would react in an earthquake versus one made of packed dirt. The rigidity of the stone and mortar would easily fall apart, while earthbags can absorb the movement without much disturbance. (Click here to read about an earthbag shed the Austin Architecture for Humanity Chapter is building for The New Farm Institute.)

After the meeting, everyone spent a few hours measuring out the site and discussing supplies. Around 4 p.m., we hiked back to Nunthala to spend the night and have more discussions with the local district engineer. The next morning, Travis and I set out by ourselves to hike back to Phaplu, while everyone else went back to the village to start making arrangements. It was a beautiful morning, but by 9:30 a.m. I was spent. Muscles still aching from the previous days’ hiking and nursing a few blisters, I started to think I would never make it back. Despite the fact that my backpack contained just one change of clothes, my camera, and a water bottle, it felt like it weighed 100 pounds. We straggled up to the top of Taksindu Pass, and all I could think was, “Going up is the worst!”

When we finally got to Ringmu, I would have jumped for joy had I been physically able to jump. “Easy way from here,” our lunchtime waiter told us. Hallelujah. After lunch, we were moving slow, but figured we were in decent shape now that the rough stuff was over. And that’s when it began to pour icy hail and rain. We stopped under a few trees, but could tell it was a vain effort. The storm wasn’t stopping any time soon. So we took a deep breath and kept trudging on. By 5 p.m., we came limping into Phaplu, soaking wet, and looking like two people who had been lost in the woods for 40 days.

We checked into our guesthouse, spent some time in our sleeping bags warming up, had some tea by the fire, and then went for a brief stroll to check out the town. This turned out to be a big mistake.

When we got back to our guesthouse, a trekking guide and his client, who we had been chatting with before while having tea, were waving at us excitedly. “Guess what?! Richard Gere was just here having tea!” they said.

What?!?! Richard Gere. In Phaplu, Nepal. In our guesthouse, where only two other people were staying??

Karma, who had made it back to the guesthouse by then (after having visited what sounded like every village in the Solukhumbu District in the time it took us to get just from point A to point B), explained that, yes, there was an Italian film crew in town visiting a famous Lama at a nearby monastery, and that Richard Gere was with them. “Who is Richard Gere?” he asked. “Is he a politician?”

The next morning, while walking by the airport with my camera, I noticed a huge crowd of people looking at a helicopter taking off. Zooming my lens in as far as I could, I captured a shot of a man with gray hair and glasses looking out the passenger side window of the helicopter. Richard Gere! It had to be. I spent the flight back to Kathmandu thinking about how cool it was that I probably had the only photo of Richard Gere in the Solukhumbu and how People Magazine would probably be banging down my door for a copy. But when we got back to the apartment and I blew it up in Photoshop, I discovered that it wasn’t Richard Gere, but just some other guy with gray hair. Alas.

A few takeways from this trip: First, I continue to be humbled by the strength, perseverance, and spirit of the Nepali people. I realize that many of the people we saw on the trails have grown up traversing mountains paths while I grew up with a nice sofa in the suburbs, but each step I struggled to make on this trek was put in perspective when I passed a local person walking by in sandals with four wooden tables and a 20-gallon jug of water on their back. I certainly had no grounds to complain. Second, along the same trajectory, this is some advice for any of the volunteers planning to come in November: In the next few weeks, go for some runs. Lift a weight or two. Do any physical preparations you see fit.  Anything would be better than the nothing I did. Trust me.

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Solukhumbu Tomorrow

Well, friends, we have found an apartment! Initially, based on what we had heard from other expats in online forums, it sounds like apartment hunting here can take quite awhile, given the wide variety of apartment quality, price and location.

But a couple of days ago, just as I sat down to begin hunting online again, I received an email from a woman looking to rent a flat in her building. It turned out to be a good fit for us. It’s in a slightly more peaceful area of Kathmandu, and the owners are really lovely people. In short, I think we got lucky. We moved our stuff over this morning, right before our trip up to the Solukhumbu District tomorrow to visit the first project site in Phuleli.

We’ve had some free time in the past few days in between meetings and apartment hunting, so we’ve had many long walks trying to figure out the roads, and we’ve also tried our hand at the city bus, further cementing the fact that the bus system here will be a major learning curve. None of the buses are numbered, and basically, each route employs a young boy who hangs out the door and shouts out the bus’ end destination. Since we have no idea where most of those places are or how the bus might go to get there, we are still reliant on the kindness of others for guidance.

Tomorrow will be our first foray out of the city, and we are both looking forward to seeing the mountains and meeting the villagers in Phuleli. The main purpose of this trip is to present the village leaders with concepts for the new school addition and discuss the idea of implementing earthbag construction. Guidance and approval from the village is absolutely needed before Travis can finalize any design, so it’s an important trip to make as soon as possible, before the arrival of volunteers in just one short month!

Namaste, Kathmandu!

We have finally arrived in Nepal! Our flight landed Thursday afternoon at Tribhuvan Airport, where we were greeted by Karma Sherpa, the head of The Small World, the Nepalese NGO Edge of Seven is partnering with on the Solukhumbu Development Project. Karma was gracious enough to come welcome us to town and help us navigate to our hotel.

I have already been reminded of a few basic travel rules on this trip, such as always err on the side of “really heavy” when estimating your bag weight for flight bookings. But the one that really came to mind when we got to our hotel in Thamel, Kathmandu’s touristy backpacker district, is don’t reserve a room at a place that lacks photos on its website.

View of Thamel, Kathmandu.

In truth, our room is fine. It’s bare-bones basic, but relatively clean, with two beds and an attached bathroom. Its biggest issue, however, is its direct proximity next door to Kathmandu’s premiere death metal club, where the live music starts around 2 p.m. and doesn’t stop until 10 p.m. It is so loud. Sitting in our room is like being front row at a Gwar concert. Thankfully, around 8 p.m. the bands switch to somewhat “lighter” covers. For example, we were lulled to sleep last night by a stunning rendition of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.”
So far, we’ve spent our time getting some practical errands taken care of and exploring the city by foot, trying to orient ourselves a bit. Yesterday, we met with Karma first thing in the morning and decided it was a good opportunity to go ahead and get our bank account set up. At the local branch, everything was going swimmingly until the bank manager looked at our visas. Pointing to the date in our passports, he informed us that the visas had expired earlier this year. We said that was impossible, that we had just arrived the day before.
In Nepal, most government bookkeeping is done by hand, so the margin for human error is high. In this case, the customs official at the airport had mistakenly written down an expiry date of 2011, when it should have been 2012. Since the bank couldn’t process our account without a valid visa, Karma put us on a bus headed toward the Immigration Office to sort things out.
When we got off the bus, we ventured into the Tourist Services office to ask for directions. After explaining our visa situation to the man there, he gave us a huge grin and mapped out the route to the Immigration Department. “Go there,” he said. “They will laugh.”
At Immigration, we were bounced around to about 7 or 8 different desks before reaching someone with the power to help us. He and another employee stared at our passports for several minutes, pointing repeatedly at the visas, while exchanging a lively dialogue and trying unsuccessfully to conceal their laughter. Finally, one of them took out a pen, crossed out “2011” and wrote in “2012.” Done. Why didn’t we think of that?
Our jaunts around the city thus far have reminded me just how completely chaotic the streets of Kathmandu are. Travis hops through traffic like he owns the place, while I tentatively navigate my way through all sorts of moving vehicles and animals. Yesterday, as Travis pulled me along for the umpteenth time, he slapped me on the back and said, “You’re going to do well here.” I appreciated the vote of confidence.
It’s really great to be back in Nepal. It’s the kind of place that plays on every sensory nerve in one’s body, where even small things can seem exciting and time seems to slow down so that each moment can be properly acknowledged and recorded. At the same time, it’s impossible to walk down the street here and not notice how hard life is for so many people. One minute, I am marveling at the beauty of such a colorful city; the next, I am tearing up at the sight of a young street kid. We are really looking forward to getting settled and getting to work.

No Direct Flights from Boise to Bangkok? Shocking.

Over the past several months, this day has, at times, seemed like it would never come. At the same time, having spent so much time talking about it and planning for it, it’s also seemed like this day has always been with us, permeating our every conversation and activity. But now it’s finally here! Tomorrow we leave for our nine month stint living and working in Nepal. In all, there will be seven flights in between our departure city of Boise, Idaho, where we’ve been visiting Travis’ family, and our final destination of Kathmandu (where we’ll arrive after a brief, five day detour to Thailand.)

The school site we worked on last year with Edge of Seven in Nepal.

To give a little background, the proposition to move to Nepal came up several months ago, when Travis was offered a job as the lead designer and architectural fellow on a five village educational and infrastructure projectin the Solukhumbu Region of Nepal, where Mount Everest is located.

We’re not exactly college kids anymore, so a move of this caliber definitely required careful consideration and planning. On top of leaving our jobs, leasing our house in Austin, Texas, and cramming the belongings we didn’t sell into a 10-foot-by-10-foot storage unit, we also had to say farewell to our family, friends, and our little dog Chester, who will be well cared for by Travis’ sister Andrea and her boyfriend Brad while we are away. (Thanks Andrea and Brad!)

Chester: A Face Only Everybody Can Love

But, truth be told, we both felt right away that this was not an opportunity to be missed. Not only do we love Nepal, its culture and its people, but, having spent two months in Nepal last year working on an Edge of Seven school building project, we know there is much to be done there and are grateful for the opportunity to contribute in any way.

That said, there are many things we’ll miss about home, food being one of the first things that comes to mind outside of friends and family. I won’t take up space listing everything we’ll miss here, as I am sure anyone who plans to keep up with this blog will hear enough about our queso cravings and longings for basic electricity in the months to come.

For now, the plan is to arrive in Kathmandu next week and immediately begin working and apartment hunting. In addition to the Solukhumbu Development Project, I’ll also be pursuing other projects and work with NGOs based in Kathmandu and look forward to keeping everyone updated on new developments, adventures, and culinary experiences as they arise! We’ll be building the blog out a bit more over the coming weeks, so stay tuned, but if anyone has any topics they would like to learn more about or issues they’re curious about, please send us an email and suggest it for a blog post!

And before we officially get started on this journey, we have to say a huge THANK YOU to all of our amazing friends and family members, who have been there for us and helped us throughout this endeavor. We couldn’t do it without your support!

We are ready to get going. Next stop – Thailand!

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