Politics


One World, One Dream
This sign, the motto of the 2008 Olympics, is at the Great Wall, just outside of Beijing. This photo was taken in late June, on our way out of China. In today’s paper, an athlete competing in Beijing said, “Eerie how the sun never comes out all day.” Eerie indeed.

Affixiated Lara
Lara’s having a hard time breathing at the Wall.

Pretty Great
In this shot, the sign is in the upper right corner. It’s sad.

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We recently arrived in Beijing, a city busily getting ready to hold the Olympics in less than two months. To walk the streets of Beijing, or even look out the window, one has to ask how Olympic athletes will possibly compete here. It’s not possible to convey how polluted Beijing is in words. If Chengdu’s atmosphere resembled skim milk, Beijing is more akin to mushroom soup. One can see about a block or two, then the city recedes in the mysterious mists of smog. It’s like the early morning fog of California, but it never burns off.

Beijing Smog
Beijing, mid-day.

Beijing Streets
Modern Beijing.

It’s a wonder the government was able to convince the Olympic committee to hold the Olympics here. What would really infuriate me if I were a Beijinger, is the fact that for the Olympics, the government will stop the polluting industry, and restrict automobile traffic, so the air will be relatively clean. Then, once the Olympics are over, it’s back to pollution-as-usual. Lara and I discussed living in Beijing as embodying the frog-in-hot-water analogy. If the water, or air pollution, increases slowly enough, the frogs, or people, don’t notice. Until it’s too late.

Beijing Food Market
Beijing food market.

Food Market workers
Food market workers.

Bored Food Worker
Bored food worker.

Beijing is more hip than Chengdu. It is less socially conservative. People stare less here, or even notice our presence. The pollution is the first thing one notices, and it’s hard to get past.

We went to the Great Wall, or the Long Wall, as it’s known in Chinese. It’s pretty great. But again, the wall is overshadowed by the haze of pollution. One can barely see the wall itself.

Great Wall

Great Wall II

Great Wall III

Smog Wall

Steep

Wall Climb II

The most notable thing about our visit to the Great Wall was what happened after we climbed it. We sat down next to a group of people that looked like they were from Afghanistan, and had some coffee. We sat talking, while a women from Canada approached this group and they all started talking. Before you know it they were discussing Barack Obama and Bush. We soon figured out they were from Pakistan. They turned to us and said, We are against the policies, not the people. It was a big delegation, and a couple of them came and sat next to us, and began talking politics, explaining that Pakistan didn’t have problems with the Taliban until Bush and Mush (Musharraf) began with “their war policies.” He said they favored dialogue over war. He then introduced one of the members of the delegation as Musharraf’s brother, a “legitimate leader because he was elected.” Obviously Musharraf and his brother have some differences.

Yesterday we saw Mao’s body, under a red hammer and sickle flag, on display next to Tiananmen Square. Today we visited the Summer Palace. Tomorrow morning we leave for Portland. Our time in China has come to an end. Check back soon for final photos and some final thoughts on our ten months in Asia.

On Thursday, April 3rd, between eight and fifteen more Tibetan monks and lay people were shot and killed by Chinese para-military police forces in Sichuan Province. They were marching on a police station where two monks were being held for possessing pictures of the Dalai Lama, a crime in China.

The incident began when monks at a monastery in the town of Donggu, refused to allow a military force of over a thousand troops into their monastery. The troops forced their way in, ransacked the place, and found the pictures. They arrested two monks. All 370 monks from the monastery, joined by some 400 or so others, marched to demand the monks’ release. Once again, the Chinese police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing several and wounding many.

China acts surprised and outraged that the Olympic Torch relay has been disrupted by demonstrations in Greece, London, Paris, and San Francisco. Anyone who is paying attention to what China is doing should not be surprised by the anger and determination of the protestors. Outside China, the Communist Party can’t control public opinion. For this, they are looking to hire a public relations firm.

Despite all the international frenzy over China, Tibet, and the Olympic Torch protests, life here in Chengdu, Sichuan, goes on as normal. Simply walking around the streets here, one wouldn’t even know that China was in the middle of an international firestorm.

For me, normal life has included a renewed study of Chinese medicine and martial arts. Last week I started interning in the teaching hospital associated with Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I spent the week in the oncology ward, working with cancer patients. I also began training in a martial art called Xing Yi Quan at a Taoist Temple. Doing these kinds of things are the reason I came to China.

I ride my bike along the river, which runs through the center of Chengdu, to the hospital, a trip which, depending on traffic, takes about forty minutes. Before eight in the morning is rush hour, when one has to compete with scooters, electric bikes, other bicyclists, cars and buses. Two-wheeled vehicles have their own lane. These bike lanes are protected from internal combustion vehicles by concrete medians filled with bushes and trees or bright blue metal gates. In the mornings the bike lanes move faster than the cars, which suffer from roads not designed for the number of vehicles now appearing on China’s streets.

At the hospital I’m paired up with a couple of friends and a very good translator. We spend every morning with a doctor, either seeing patients who come in for herbal formulas, or doing rounds in the in-patient ward. Those coming in to see the doctor in most cases recently had surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy and are seeking herbs to aid in their recovery. The doctor prescribes herbs to help with the side effects of Western therapies and to treat the root causes of individuals’ problems.

For example, we saw a 66 year old women who was recovering from cancer of the bile duct. She had an operation one year ago, and had parts of her bile duct and stomach removed. Previously she had had three gallstone operations. She now suffers from stomach ache, distension after meals and heart burn.

After asking her a number of questions, taking her pulse and looking at her tongue, the doctor determined she was suffering from Liver Heat Attacking the Stomach, a TCM diagnosis. The lack of a coat on her tongue indicates she has Stomach Yin deficiency, caused by Heat. She was given a formula to deal with the excessive stomach acid by generating stomach mucous to protect the stomach and to ameliorate the acid regurgitation, which in TCM parlance are signs of Heat. Included in the formula where herbs to nurture her stomach Yin. Hopefully by resolving the Stomach Heat, one can help avoid another appearance of cancer which may result from the chronic irritation she is experiencing.

Another day we visited three in-patients, all getting a combination of chemo and herbal formulas. Most of these patients were pretty far along in the development of cancer, and the intention of the doctor is to lessen the pain and increase both the quality and the duration of their lives. I’ll be spending every morning at the hospital, except Thursdays, when I teach, and plan to move around to various departments and see as much as I can over the next month or so.

Ten minutes away from Chengdu University is the Qing Yang Taoist Temple, one of my favorite places in Chengdu. There I’m doing Xing Yi Quan, or Mind Intent Boxing. It’s what’s referred to as an “internal” martial art, which means that one of its primary objectives is the cultivation of internal power, or Qi. It is a sister art of Tai Ji Quan. I’m getting private lessons with a man who has been practicing this form for over 25 years. I go there with a friend, Zhang Hui, who acts as translator and thus gets free lessons out of the deal. That, plus I help him with his English.

In Xing Yi there are five “fists,” or punch/block combinations, associated with the Five Elements (Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire). Over the next two months my instructor plans to teach me all five, and a “linking form” which includes them all.

Being in the hospital and doing martial arts reminds me of the positive side of China, the ancient culture that paid attention to the body and mind and cultivated techniques and practices aimed at improving both. Doing these things reminds me that the people of China are not the government, a distinction people from other countries are kind enough to grant Americans.

While Chengdu is relatively calm, all roads West of here are closed to everything but military traffic. Unrest resides just beyond the blockades, in the areas with large Tibetan populations. With no journalists present, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in the Tibetan region. All we have to go on are word-of-mouth reports, as collected by Western journalists and reported in Western papers on-line. The Chinese papers are full of lies and distortions about the situation in Tibet, when they say anything at all. For example, they claim the Dalai Lama is calling for Tibetan independence, which he is not. They also have not reported the numbers of Tibetans killed by the police and military. They blame all the problems on “criminals” and the “Dalai clique” who are orchestrating the protests from India.

We know it’s not just Lhasa that has seen protest actions, but also Gansu and Qinghai Provinces to the North, and in Sichuan Province, where we live, there have been protests and Tibetans shot by police in Aba, Garze, and Luhuo, at least. We know that there have been protests as most recently as this past Tuesday, March 25th, in Garze, Sichuan when at least one monk was killed, and one critically wounded, and there are rumors that there is renewed fighting in Lhasa as of Saturday, March 29th. This is being talked about as perhaps the biggest uprising against Chinese rule since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. We have no idea how many Tibetans have been killed and rounded up. The latest figure from the Tibetan government-in-exile is 140 Tibetans killed. The Chinese admit to imprisoning up to 1,000 Tibetans, although the number is likely higher.

When I say Chengdu is calm, I should qualify that. Until yesterday, there have been half a dozen or more riot cops stationed at the front gate of our University every evening, plus an increased police presence on campus and throughout the city. There were also rumors of a bus bombing in Chengdu, which circulated widely and were countered by the police and media. This rumor was enough to cause an author scheduled to speak about Chinese writer and anarchist Ba Jin to cancel her trip here from Beijing.

Yesterday we walked around the Tibetan section of Chengdu, one of the city’s more interesting neighborhoods.. Because we are so close to Tibet, there are many Tibetans living here. People there seemed fairly low key yesterday, although many complain of not being able to call relatives who live further West. The phone lines are blocked. The Chinese like to control information.

There is a large police presence in the neighborhood, and all roads in are closed to vehicle traffic. Marked and unmarked police cars and motorcycles with flashing lights and lots of cops occupy major intersections. There are police cars and SUVs throughout the neighborhood, with their mars lights flashing constantly. Some cop cars are simply parked, with cops just sitting there, blue and red lights flashing. Police SUVs patrol up and down, with cops staring at everyone on the streets and in the shops and little restaurants. Generally you don’t see many police in Chengdu, so this is a pretty heavy presence, no doubt meant to intimidate the local population.

In terms of our personal lives, there have been some developments. Some of our emails are now turning up blank if there is any reference to Tibet, or if there are any links to news stories about it. Internet access to stories is also restricted, so if we try to click on a story, sometimes the page turns up blank and we get booted off line. It’s pretty creepy. If you write us any emails, please refer to Tibet in a coded fashion, such as T_bet.

It’s certainly a strange time to be in China. This police state is being put to the test in the run up to the August Olympics. The torch lighting ceremony in Greece was interrupted by protestors from Reporters Without Borders, who unfurled a banner with the Olympic rings depicted as handcuffs, protesting the lack of journalist access to events in Tibet. Still, the Chinese insist on running the torch over the Himalayas and right through Tibet.

In response to international pressure, China allowed a delegation of reporters to travel to Tibet, but this carefully managed show was interrupted by a large group of monks at one of the monasteries telling the reporters that “Tibet is not free,” and talking about the harsh crackdown by the Chinese. The monks in Tibetan monasteries are forced to recite political propaganda and denounce the Dalai Lama.

We feel safe, although somewhat uncertain about our status. We’ve been very vocal in emails and on our blogs about what is going on, and what things look like from here. Lara just did a radio interview about the situation with a community radio station in Portland. The only thing we are risking is deportation. It’s my guess though that as long as our protests are kept to the world outside China, they’ll tolerate it. Time will tell.

We are no longer able to see our breath indoors; life here is starting to improve. Thailand now seems like a place which exists in another dimension. We joke about this great dream we had, where we were warm and people were happy. We’re back in China, where the air looks like skim milk and people’s moods are rather dour.

I’m entering my fifth week of teaching college English. I have 120 students broken up into 3 classes of roughly 40 each. I do short presentations, then have the students work in pairs and small groups. My classes have a kind of workshop feel, with students speaking to each other, and me circulating, answering questions, and helping them out. Coming here I didn’t expect to be a college teacher, but I am and I’m really enjoying it. The students are very appreciative and seem to be learning and enjoying themselves.

Of course I can’t really talk to my students about what I want to. In China, we’re told about The Three Ts that can’t be discussed: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tian’enmen. I do talk to them about global warming and climate change. The environment seems ok to address, so far. Even the Communist Party bosses give it lip service. But I wonder if I would get in trouble if I told my students that four million Chinese die every year from urban air pollution. What would happen if I started pointing to the dark side of the Chinese “economic miracle,” to the massive displacement of people from the countryside, forced into the cities to work in factories? What if we discussed the inherent contradiction between ecological health and capitalist growth? Would that get me in trouble, in this ostensibly Communist country?

While so far I’ve been able to talk superficially about global warming, I can’t openly challenge the official version of what’s going on in Tibet right now. At first the Chinese media said nothing about the protests. We heard about them early in the week from someone in the States. Even then, a search on the Web only turned up a short report on the Washington Post site, under Religion. By Friday, when Chinese police attacked a peaceful march by Tibetan monks, and outraged Tibetan civilians reacted forcefully, the Chinese media could no longer ignore what was happening. Getting their information from Chinese TV news and newspapers, my students would be under the impression that the Dalai Lama was orchestrating “sabotage” from Dharamsala, India, and that “criminals” were killing Chinese shop owners and disturbing the “social harmony” which the Chinese government cherishes so much, especially in the run up to the August Olympics. The Tibetans are depicted here as hooligans, trouble-makers, and “splitters.”

If this weren’t China, I’d tell my students to seek out the Tibetan students on campus and talk to them about their perspectives on what’s going on, that they should ask the Tibetans what they’ve heard is happening from their relatives back home. I would encourage them to seek out information from varying sources and make up their own minds about the issue. I’d teach them about State propaganda and the way the media is used to manipulate populations, and how to deconstruct media sources and assertions.

I would ask them if they knew it is illegal to display the Tibetan flag in Tibet. And that it is illegal to display a picture of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Or that according to multiple sources in Tibet, at least 80 people have been killed, some shot down by Chinese police in the streets.

If this weren’t China, I’d expect the Tibetan Student Association to be holding forums on the situation, with updates from friends and family in Lhasa, or Xiahe in Gansu Province. I would expect a rally on campus protesting the crackdown. But, this is China. The Tibetan students on campus are being fairly closely monitored, in all likelihood. In a place like this, you think twice before you even approach a Tibetan student to talk. Who’s watching? This, of course, is the strength of a police state. One starts to police oneself out of fear.

Despite all these constraints, exacerbated and brought more into relief under these conditions, it’s interesting to spend time with these Chinese young people. Although college freshmen, they look and act more like high schoolers. Because of Yao Ming they are all Houston Rocket fans, and all the boys like basketball and the NBA, which is better than their misguided belief that ping pong is a sport, the national sport in fact. They are interested in politics, but also in Madonna.

In a discussion of film, I taught them the word “genre,” and gave them a sheet with my top five picks in eight film categories. They all love Titanic and Forrest Gump, so I felt compelled to clue them in to some more interesting films. In a discussion of responses to show interest and start a conversation, I taught them the words “bummer” and “excellent,” and the phrase “That’s cool.” Three of my students are sitting in because they’ll be going to the U.S. to study in the Fall. At the very least, I hope that I can provide them with some basic preparation to make the most of their experience there.

Although I’m not doing what I wish I could be doing with my classes, it is interesting to teach. It’s a good experience to get in front of groups of people to talk every week, and this is opening up my mind to different things I can do when we return to the US, in terms of teaching, public speaking, and political organizing. A big part of those kinds of activities involves feeling at ease talking in front of people you don’t know. That’s what I’m getting from my experience. And who knows, maybe some students may want to talk about Tibet, global warming and the negative impact of capitalist development, or alternative news sources, after class. Even then though, should I speak my mind?

We left Bangkok after a few days of taking in the various monumental and ornate wats (temples) and palaces.  One of our favorite activities in sprawling Bangkok was traversing the city scape via water taxi, boats which carry both Thais and tourists along a major river which snakes through the center of the city.  This is a very calming and meditative means of transportation, one I’d imagine the average Thai worker coming home from their job couldn’t help but appreciate. 

We headed north via train 12 hours to Chiang Mai.  Although very tourist-centered, Chiang Mai is more run down and humble than Bangkok.    We had to negotiate with Tuk Tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers over the exorbitant fares they wanted to charge to take us moderate distances, plus arguing against their attempts to take us to various tailors they get kickbacks from to deliver us to their shops.  Subsequently, as usual, we spent a lot of time walking.   It was hot and lazy in Chiang Mai, and I enjoyed wandering through the city’s streets, checking out the wats,  which were not as spectacular and glitzy as those of Bangkok.  Without the crowds of Bangkok the wats seemed more human and less on display.  We explored little restaurants off the tourist path, eating a Thai version of hot pot and a jungle curry.  Our last day there I got ill for the first time in Asia, ironically after eating at a fairly fancy restaurant overlooking the city, which took us half an hour walking up a hill to get to after we refused to pay the extra 100 baht the Tuk Tuk driver insisted upon to actually take us the full distance.  I spent the night moving between the bed and the toilet, moving very slowly the next day until we got on a train back to Bangkok.

Back in Bangkok we paid 1000 baht to watch Muay Thai (kickboxing) fights.  At an exchange rate of roughly 30 baht to the dollar, this made for an expensive evening. Most of the fighters were teenagers, weighing around 100 pounds.  A couple of the fighters exhibited skills beyond knee strikes, kicks, and punches and were quite exciting to watch.  These guys had obviously been training for more than a couple of years. Of equal interest to what was going on in the ring was the frenzied betting going on all around us, with men winning thousands of baht per fight.  We stayed for seven fights, getting our fill after several hours.

Our friend Audrey from Portland arrived the next day and we took another train south to Surat.  We spent less than 12 hours there, mostly sleeping, and got a ride to the rain-forest of Khao Sok National Park with the owner of the hotel we stayed at.

Khao Sok has the remains of a 160 million year old rain-forest.  This was the jungle interior part of our trip.  We took long boats deep into the jungle ala Apocalypse Now, then trekked in even deeper.  Our Thai guides had mischievous smiles upon arriving at a cave complex, where the three of us and four Germans were led deeper and deeper into a dark, wet, huge cave crawling with water and life.  Several of us had headlamps which followed our gaze around the cave’s interior as we sloshed through ankle deep water in flip flops.  The guides advised us we would encounter chest-high water, but we didn’t know if this was real or hyperbole. 

Looking up towards the ceiling of the cave’s interior, we could see hundreds and hundreds of bats dangling from their feet, hanging upside down, twitching either from being disturbed by our lights or as part of their natural physiologic processes.  The cave was pitch black, as evidenced anytime one of us strayed far from the lights.  We crawled over boulders and through rocky crevices, encountering spiders as big as our hands.  Half way through we came across a spring, which soon turned into a stream and eventually a narrow, quite powerful river.  Climbing down between the rocks, sure enough, we were soon immersed chest high in strong currents of water, navigating through the darkness in a journey which didn’t come to any quick or tidy conclusions.  At one point we had to swim along the length of a gushing river squeezed between narrow rocks in the direction of the only way out.  I had to be careful not to submerge the battery attached by two wires to the headlamp I was wearing.  After close to an hour we finally saw the hint of daylight in the distance and soon returned to the heat of the jungle. It felt exhilarating to make it through the cave complex, seeing a world one seldom encounters, navigating the darkness to emerge on the other side.  At times it felt crazy to even be in there, Whose idea was this?  Upon exiting back into the light, we sat and drank water and laughed about what we had just been through.

In 1932 Thailand went from being a Monarchy to being a Constitutional Monarchy.  There’s a monument to this transition dubbed, prematurely, the “democracy monument” in Bangkok.  It was here, in 1973, that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest the very lack of democracy in Thailand and the control by the military.  The military opened fire on the pro-democracy demonstrators and at least 75 were killed near the monument.  It was partly in response to this kind of oppression that many students headed south to the jungles of the rain-forest to gather and organize against the government.  Khao Sok National Park was a prime location for students and communist insurgents to hide out in during the 1970s. 

From the interior’s rain-forest we headed towards what most foreigners know Thailand for, namely the beaches.  We spent a night in Krabi, a sleepy little town with an awesome food night market, and a veritable Clown Navy of colorful fishing and transport boats.  At the night market we had Phad Thai, which was quite good, made by Muslims at a small cart.  From Krabi we took a longboat to Railay, a beach recommended to us for its beauty.

We found an affordable place to stay at the top of a hundred stairs.  Railay is where we got in the water and lay on the beach for the first time.  In Railay we went snorkeling, diving off a boat into water filled with myriad multi-colored fish.  The water is warm and embracing.  We visited surrounding islands, swimming and exploring beaches.

Unfortunately, Railay was clogged with tourists by the thousands.  It was far too dense with European, Australian, and US tourists to really be very enjoyable, and everything there is outrageously expensive.  The tourist circuit in Thailand is about as expensive as New York City, although Thailand is more affordable off the beaten path.  Railay was not always a tourist haven.  The area around Railay once sheltered pirates who used its extensive beaches and inlands to hide out in and plan attacks. 

From Railay we took a boat a couple of hours further south to the Island of Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee), part of which was made famous by the controversial filming there of The Beach.  Upon landing in Phi Phi it appeared as bad if not worse than Railay in terms of base commercialism, but some advanced research led us to a fairly secluded little beach where we found an affordable place to stay.  We ended up spending three nights there, lying on the beach, snorkeling, playing cards, writing and reading.  There was hardly anyone else there, and the people that worked there were very kind.  The only way back was by long boat, or an hour hike through the jungle.

Phi Phi was largely wiped out by the tsunami three years ago, and its rapid redevelopment is haunted by this recent cataclysm.  Many businesses and small shops give thanks in their advertising for the international support given in the destruction’s aftermath.  One day we hiked 1,000 feet practically straight up and over a bluff back to town to get some supplies, check email, make some phone calls, and arrange the next stage of our trip. 

Sadly, we had to leave. After a couple of boat rides, two ferries and a mini-bus we are now in a little working-class town called Trang on our way to islands further south.

From One-Party Dictatorship to Post-Coup Constitutional Monarchy, here we are in beautiful Thailand.  As you may know, Thailand had a coup just over a year ago to oust an allegedly corrupt Prime Minister who also happened to favor the rural poor, possibly as part of his own political maneuvering.  With him in exile, a political party favorable to his cause recently won elections here, and the Supreme Court is currently sorting out various alleged election irregularities which may either deny the party a governing majority in the parliament, ban them outright, or hand them the keys to power.

Although the military is currently largely in control, Thailand is anything but a country under martial law.  Although in our week here we’ve been limited to Bangkok, the capital, and Chiang Mai, the largest city in the North, we haven’t seen any overt military presence in the streets, with the notable exception of air-force jet flyovers that woke us up one morning. 

Of course we haven’t been to the South, where 40,000 police and soldiers are suppressing an insurgency by members of the Muslim population, and bombings and drive-by shootings are an almost daily occurrence.  Thailand is 90% Buddhist, and some in the Muslim minority feel mistreated, although no organization has yet emerged to identify a list of demands or put forward any kind of ideology.

While the constitutional side of Thai government is sorted out, the Monarchy is going through their own changes, as the King’s sister recently died.  There are pictures of the King everywhere you  go, and his sister has now joined him in poster-sized tributes.  Our first night here we walked out of our hotel in bustling Bangkok to completely still traffic and everyone on the sidewalks also standing still.  Knowing something strange was happening we were soon informed that the King was coming and we should stand and wait.  Sure enough motorcycle police with their lights flashing and a convoy of SUVs suddenly appeared, speeding down the road surrounding a very regal looking car with Thai flags flapping from each side of the hood.

Despite being ruled by a King and being at the tail end of their 18th Coup (although the first in 15 years), Thailand feels much more free and open than China.  The modern has not bulldozed the past the way it has in China.  Ironically, the Cultural Revolution layed waste to any potential cultural opposition to the emergence of blatant consumerism.  Thais seem not to have lost their connection to their own history, the way people in China have.   The old and the new are better integrated here and, quite frankly, Thais are a lot cooler than people in China. 

People here smile, with a warmth and sincerity one doesn’t encounter in China, or most places in the West for that matter.  In a way similar to India, there is a real sense of benevolence here.  It may sound ridiculous, but the mere fact that cars stop for pedestrians is striking after four months in China where that never happens.

So this is our Winter break.  Chinese New Year is February 7th – the Year of the Rat is upon us.  Classes don’t start for a month, so Lara and I are here, with a potential visit to India in the works.  The sun is out every day, it’s in the ’90s, and we’re very happy.  Thailand feels a lot closer to our home in Portland, both because the people here are more like home, and because we feel more like ourselves.

I know it’s cruel to post a Blog about Thailand and not include any pictures, but that’s what I’ve done.  Once we work out some technical issues, photos will be forthcoming.

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