How to Prepare for Your First Trip Abroad – Paranoid Parent Edition

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As I prepare to go on my next great adventure, to  a far-off land, filled with reindeer, moose and lingonberries, not to mention loads of quaint small towns with quaint small churches, I am reminded of the first time that I travelled overseas.  I tell this story, not because I aim to teach anyone anything, but rather because my parents, well-meaning though they may be, seem to be – how can I say this politely? – outliers when it comes to their views of preparation for disaster (see also:  my future posts about getting rid of imaginary lice after going to Papua New Guinea and avoiding me like the plague after returning from China, in case at some point I accidentally came into contact with something that may have at one point been a fish).

My first trip overseas, by myself of course, was during my sophomore year of university, when I would travel to Malta to live for a semester.  I was so excited!  Actually, there aren’t even words to describe it.  I came upon going to Malta after deciding that, since I didn’t like my university (loved the scholarship, the academics, the city, just not the social aspects of it) I would take advantage of the fact that I could actually study abroad for two solid years.  The first stop, after confirming that I wanted to spend a whole year in Ireland and a term in Spain to help me with my Spanish skills, would be the small, beautiful, island nation of Malta.  It’s still the place in my heart to which I dream of retiring, if such an event ever happens.  Even travelling back there years later led me right back to the love of it that I had before.  But, I digress.

My parents wanted to prepare me for anything.  Especially my father, who, as a former military man, and a man in general, felt that, as his one and only daughter (insert embarrassing nickname here) was going to be going so far away, all alone, and perhaps not meet anyone else from the US or that speaks much English, I needed to learn how to protect myself.  Now, mind you, this was really a time before cell phones and broadband internet, so communication wasn’t as easy as it is now, if something should happen.

So, how do typical parents help their children prepare for such a milestone (at least from the conversations that I have had with others)?  They make sure that they make plenty of clean underwear, any medications that they might need, along with their written prescriptions and probably at least one pair of comfy shoes.

How did my father help me prepare?  Well, let’s start with the fact that this was also during a time before 9/11, when you could still wait with your family at the actual gate in the airport.  Therefore, the first thing that my father did was drive me to the local airport and have me (repeatedly) go through safety drills, including, but not limited to:

1.  Learning how to stand on an escalator, facing the inside, and making sure that I had a line of sight to everything and everyone around me.

2.  Putting various objects through the screener at the check-in, literally holding on to them until the very last second, when even the security guards started to think that I was paranoid about something, only to release my grip once I was finally forced to walk through the metal detector.

3.  Walking by numerous glass walls, such ass where stores are located, making myself look completely self-centered, since I was told that I had to frequently look at the glass in order to see who was around me, especially behind me.

4.  Make definite eye contact with everyone on the street, just to let them know that I see them.  Presumably, according to my father, if people see that you see them, they won’t approach you or bother you.  Of course, if you do like I did the first few times, you might make them think that you are after them, which is probably not the ideal situation, especially in states with a conceal-and-carry law in effect.

5.  Practice walking on sidewalks.  No really.  I know, I know, most people know how to do this.  But did you know that you should walk on the part closest to the street?  That way, according to my father anyway, you have more than one out if someone approaches you.  You can either go closer to the wall, or grass or whatever is on the interior, or go out into the street (where, presumably, getting hit by a car isn’t such a high risk…still don’t get that one).

I did this all, by the way, not just once, but three times.  Three trips to the airport, three times through the screener, dozens of trips up and down escalators…well, you get the idea.

Now, you ask me, did any of this help me?  Well, it’s hard to tell.  Most people in Malta speak English, fully 1/3 of the people in the flats were from the US or Canada, Malta is continually (or at least was before all of the English and German tourists took it over) rated one of the safest places in Europe.  In fact, my friends and I hitchhiked, walked around unfamiliar areas at all hours of the day and night, randomly decided to walk across the country (a mere 9 miles, really) one day and even take that wonderful short trip to Tunisia, all without incident (other than my friend, Mike, trying to sell me off to a Tunisian shop owner for some camels and 2 Ferraris – thanks, Mike).  So, yeah, it’s hard to tell.

However, I will say this:  I actually find myself, to this day, looking in shop windows to see if people are around me, I still face the inside of escalators to watch what’s going on around me and frankly, I still like holding on to my items until the very last moment in the security lane.  I just don’t want anyone getting their hands on my shoes!  They are darn comfy, you know.

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The Perfection that is Fig Jam – A Tunisian Breakfast

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Some friends and I were on a brief trip from our temporary home in Malta to the, at the time, stable, North African nation of Tunisia.  We had gone there for a few days, since it was close to Malta, the flights were cheap and we wanted to explore the world as much as possible.

We had already spent a night there in another city, but had travelled by train down to Matmata, on a “pilgrimage” to the area where the original Star Wars films were made.  The original movies apparently take place partially in a place called Tatouin, but the actual filming took place a few miles over in Matmata – basically, a waste of a town that didn’t really have much going for it, other than the filming locations (more on those later).

Matmata only really had one place to stay, so at least they had something going for them.  Mind you, it wasn’t a Hilton or really even a Days Inn, but it had clean (at least, compared to the ones that we had in Tunis) beds, and bathrooms that didn’t share the same space as the bedroom part of each unit.  In order to be safe, since there were four of us – two girls and two guys – we had split it up, so that one guy would stay in the same room as each of us girls, which was fine….at least in Matmata and Sous, they were separate beds.  Too bad that I couldn’t say the same for Tunis.

The night went by quickly, as we were all tired.  The previous hotel hadn’t offered breakfast, so we had been on our own.  This one, however, offered a very basic breakfast.  And one that would go down in my memory as being one of the most memorable breakfasts, certainly one of the most memorable hotel breakfasts, that I have ever had.

No, it wasn’t a buffet, like Wurzburg in Germany; nor was it the cold board from Oslo.  It was, however, where I was introduced to fig jam.  Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like a revelation, but when you a) have never eaten figs before – isolated in the US suburbs as you had been while growing up; b) didn’t have a long history of trying new foods by that age just yet (that would come slowly, but certainly it started around this time in Malta) and finally; c) were just plain starving and willing to eat dried camel if they gave it to you, it was like manna from heaven.

Served with just plain, almost stale, yet sort-of warmed up sliced french-style baguettes and weak coffee, we found a basket of individual fig jam packets on the table before us and each one of us gingerly took one to spread on the bread slices.  I think that Megan and I were the first to smile as the flavor hit us.  Not too sweet, not chunky, but with bits of actual figs still in it, the jam spread easily, and had a richness of flavor that I hadn’t experienced before.  Not tart, like other fruit spreads, and not creamy like a peanut butter.  Somehow, this jam managed to straddle both worlds, being thicker than normal jams (closer to peanut butter than jam) and yet with a hint of just something extra.

Now, I know that we were hungry, but to say that we ate it all and asked for more is an understatement.  As I recall, we managed to polish off all of the packets available.  As in, not just the ones in the basket set before us, which by the midway point had been reduced to a couple of strawberry packets that we had abandoned in favor of the fig jam, but the entire hotel’s worth of fig jam.  There simply wasn’t any more left.

We were so disappointed.  Megan and I, at least, were planning on taking a few for the road, but no such luck.  We were left to try to locate it once we arrived in Sous for the final night of the trip.

We ended up not even being able to find it there, nor anywhere in Malta, to tell the truth.  Instead, I had to wait until I moved back to the US and managed to locate some “high-end” fig jam at a local upscale supermarket.  It wasn’t the same, though.  It was too thick, it tore bread when you tried to spread it, and the taste was all wrong.  Artificial somehow.  Not right.

I bought it a few times, and every now and then I go back to it, hoping that the recipe with either have been magically altered to the one that we had in Tunisia, or that my memory will fade enough that I will love it just as much.  It never seems to work.  At least I still have that memory, though.  Sitting in a quiet hotel “restaurant,” just my friends and I, enjoying a slow start to the morning, watching the Sahara desert slowing come awake, while stuffing ourselves with stale bread and the best fig jam in the world.

The World’s Best Bread

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You know, sometimes there are things in life that you run across that are just perfect.  They don’t need added embellishment or jewelry or toppings or anything to make them better, because they are just perfect in their original form.  A beautiful autumn full moon night, with clear skies and a slight wind bringing a touch of chill to the air is one of those things.  No amount of lighted pumpkins or cups of cider will enhance that experience.  It’s just great like it is.

The bread at the Balzan Bakery is like that.  I, along with everyone else that lived in the student housing flats in Lija, Malta, discovered it and honestly, I can’t even remember how we first ran into the place.  I can’t imagine that it was when we were entirely in our own minds, since the place is really only open between 1am and 6am, which historically (at least among college students) is not a time when minds are completely clear, whether from alcohol, sheer lack of sleep or some combination of those two, coupled with a long night in the discos.

Balzan Bakery is so unique that I have never before nor since encountered any bakery like it.  Not even watching Bizarre Foods or No Reservations on television.  It’s at the most only a small bedroom in size.  Just big enough for the large, and I really mean, immense stone oven in the back, a large, flour-covered table in the middle and a shelf of freshly baked bread, and other sweets to the right.  No credit cards.  No checks, of course.  Just cash.  

Run by a family, which appears to include a husband and wife, the latter’s sole purpose in life seeming to be to take your money, bag your bread (as if that was necessary) and then yell at her children to get back to work, as they stop what they are doing and stare at the tall, extremely white (or sun-burnt, depending upon the night) foreigners who can’t speak more than a few words of Maltese drool over the freshly baked Maltese breads and sweets; and of course, the two boys (at least, that’s what I remember) who could barely reach the top of the large table, and were covered in flour, rolling and kneading dough all night.  In the heat, with the door open, so that air could come through.

One lone light in the tall ceiling managed to highlight everything there, as the glow from the oven beckoned you and the overwhelming smell of the yeast, salt, flour and unmistakable and indescribable Maltese water (seriously, this stuff is strange) perfectly charred on the outside and perfectly airy on the inside enticed you to come, night after night, with one sole purpose in mind:  Get more bread.

Drunk or sober, tired or wide awake, it was like a pilgrimage every time that we went.  Like a pact among thieves, we would conspire in the evenings, sitting by the pool, or in unit #207, to gather a handful of us together and wander over there.  Always dreaming of the bread loaves that we would hopefully get our hands on.  Oh sure, we could buy the same type of bread loaves in the market, but these were just ethereal.  As if the ingredients that this family used or the oven they employed or the techniques that they used just somehow elevated their bread to another level altogether.

There was another understanding, too:  Everyone went with the intention of buying at least two loaves of bread.  If you could that much.  Sometimes, you would go with four people and they would have only four loaves of bread left.  Those were depressing nights.  Why two, you ask?  One was definitely for bringing home, so that the next day you would have it for breakfast, spread with newly discovered Laughing Cow cheese and strong black tea (to help alleviate the hangover that you might be experiencing) or for lunch / dinner, dipped in pure olive oil and a little salt.  The other loaf, that was the best one.  That was the one that you tore into right away after you gave the mother your coins.  It was the one that burned your fingers as you were too eager to bite into it to wait for it to cool, since it had inevitably just been pulled from the stone oven.  You would see the char bits on your fingers, tiny, like dust, and tear off a piece, exposing the airy pockets that characterize Maltese bread, and on the walk home, proceed to devour it, heedless of the fact that it was really the size of a normal loaf of bread, but heavier, denser.  You didn’t care.  No one did.  It was too perfect.  No toppings, no spreads, nothing.  Sure, we added those later, but only because it was habit, or the options were there.  But really, nothing truly made it any better.  It was perfect just in that form.  So perfect that, as you stepped back into your flat, you would still be happily be licking the last flecks of flour and char that has stuck to your fingers as you tore into the loaf, piece by delicious piece.

I still dream of that bread.  I have tried to make it here, but as people in NY think about their pizza not being able to be recreated anywhere else, because the water in NY was somehow different, I realize that there was just something magical about that particular bread that cannot be replicated anywhere else.  Not really.  Not even close.

And when I went back to Malta the second time and found the bakery again, a few years later, and tried it.  Was it the same?  Did the memories live up to reality?  Well, the only difference was that now, the boys were better able to knead the dough, having grown tall enough to reach it more easily.  But otherwise, it was exactly the same.  And yes, I still bought two loaves.  And yes, I burned my fingers.  But sometimes, you have to make small sacrifices to experience heaven, don’t you?

Food Quickie – The Wall of Candy Bars

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One of the things that i find really fun and entertaining when I travel is to spend time wandering around the local supermarkets.  I always find that the main restaurants in any country are either a) the standard fare that you can find the world over, such as McDonald’s and Italian joints or b) touristy, and geared to the people that are afraid of really trying local cuisine (high-end and low-end).

So, I make it a point to see what the actual inhabitants of any place really eat on a day-today basis.  This is where it can get really interesting.  I find that the supermarket is such a great indicator of what a culture is like.  Is it insular?  In Vienna, I rarely found food items that I did not immediately associated with German / Austrian culture, including sausages, lots of great bread and Muller yoghurt.  In Spain, it was hard to find anything that wasn’t associated with Spanish culture, like pork (including Jamon Iberico) and white bread as far as the eye can see (and surely I will write more about those experiences eventually).

One of the more interesting supermarkets that I have wandered into was in Slovakia.  Bratislava to be exact.  A former Eastern Bloc country, I had visions of a store with only a few aisles, focused mainly on meat and root vegetables (yes, I admit that I have cultural biases and misinformation, despite my best efforts to learn and expand my knowledge base beforehand).  And in large part, I did find those.  I was there in May, and even then I didn’t see a lot of fruit, or really a lot of anything fresh.  That didn’t surprise me very much, and nor did the enormous case of meats and seafood of all kinds.  I tried the herring, some sausage and couple of items that I never did identify and weren’t amazing.  Good, but somewhat unremarkable.

It was in the middle of the supermarket that I was stunned.  Half-way through the store, which was about the size of the average American supermarket, which was already a bit of a surprise, given that Europe (at least in my experience) tends to lean toward smaller footprints for their stores (Asda and Tesco aside), I ran into a literal wall of candy bars.  One entire aisle, the length of a typical US store aisle, but a little taller, was *covered*, completely *filled* with candy bars!  I couldn’t believe it!  Willy Wonka would have been overwhelmed!  The majority were geared toward the “Kit Kat” variety – i.e. wafers covered in chocolate in every iteration that you can imagine with that – but there was every conceivable kind of candy bar that you could possibly think.  To eat five a day, I think that it would still take me months to try every kind.  I chose most wisely, it turns out.  I never learned what each of them was, but I definitely found more than a few with hazelnut / Nutella flavoring, which was a boon, as well as almond and caramel.  Nothing was a disappointment.  Some were definitely better than others, but all were good on some level.  If I lived there permanently, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have a serious diabetes issue going on.  I think that my jaw nearly dropped when I first encountered that aisle, and I think that part of me still dreams that one day, in some far off and lovely distant future, I will see a wall like that again.  And then I will die happy.

Food Quickie – The One Spanish Dish That I Couldn’t Eat

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One would think that, liking each of these parts individually, I would therefore like the whole, as the whole is usually more than the sum of its parts.  Well, one would be wrong.  Very, very wrong.

About my second month into my life in Spain, I had begun to assume that there was nothing that my Spanish senora (the mother in my host family) could *not* make.  And make really, really well.  Somehow, this woman managed to turn what is essentially noodle soup (like cup-a-noodles) into a divine creation that you just wanted to slurp day and night, even in 90+ degree weather.

Her paella was such that, to this day, I will not even attempt to make it or order it anywhere, because I know that nothing will ever live up the rendition that she lovingly fussed over every Sunday and which I looked forward to like a salivating dog knowing that their master was bringing home ribs and that I was going to get all the bones to myself.  Just the words “a comer” on a Sunday afternoon was enough to start me drooling!

So it was that, one weeknight, for dinner, she introduced me to what I am told is a traditional Spanish dish.  One that is simple and light, and that is beloved the country over.  Which is also why I think that the Spanish must have a screw loose somewhere.  What she set before me, as I mentioned, was something that by all accounts *should* have been tasty.  It was simply rice, an egg and tomato sauce.  But, and I emphasize this, it was *how* they came together that made my stomach churn.  It was the one dish that I ate my entire time there that I couldn’t even pretend to like.  And this includes the cold Spam pizza that she was served (no joke – even that was better).

What made this so hideous, you ask?  Well, for starters, it was cold.  Ice cold.  As in, sitting in the fridge all day, cold.  The rice was pre-cooked, dry and now moist from having been in the fridge all day.  Plus, it was conveniently formed into the shape of the small cup in which it had sat all day, soaking up the various flavors of whatever else was in the fridge.  Then, on top of that, she put a cold, long-ago-fried egg.  I hate fried eggs.  I love eggs, don’t get me wrong – scrambled, in omelettes, etc – just not fried.  And especially not a cold, old, fried egg.  Finally, on top of rice and the egg was a mash of crushed, once-again, cold tomato sauce.  Like someone had thrown a tomato on the floor, picked it up (ten-second rule!) and then poured the remnants on top of the rice and egg.

The fact that I sat there, twitching after barely being able to swallow the first (and penultimate) bite, watching the rest of the family very nearly literally scarf their plates of that stuff almost made it even worse than it already was.

I have eaten a lot of strange stuff, some of it during that time in Spain, but to this day, this dish still stands out as one of the few things that I could not, just could *not* eat.  It ranks up there with taro and sago (kids, yeah, I have an idea!  Why don’t we see if we can cut down a tree, mash the hell out of the bark and then boil it so that it resembles snot in both taste and texture – I bet that will taste great!).

Traveller Tip:  When in Spain, avoid the rice / fried egg / tomato sauce dish.  Or at least have a lot of Sangria to wash it down.  Strong Sangria.

The Milky Way

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Have you ever seen the stars?  I mean really seen them.  The way that our ancestors did before electricity, satellites, and fireworks clouded up the night to the point where you are lucky to pick out Ursa Major.  I have.  I always took for granted the fact that, on the farm with my grandparents when I was younger, I could see a clear night sky and the world of stars above me.  I even saw the amazing, ethereal Northern Lights a few times, although I haven’t seen those in decades, sadly.

Little did I know that those stars, the ones that I thought were so beautiful, were just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s a whole other world out there of stars and planets that you don’t even know exists until you get out there.  Really out there.  I mean so far out there that for hundreds of miles in any direction, there are no artificial lights.  In a place that shuts down at sunset (conveniently occurring at roughly 6pm every single night of the year, thanks to being only a couple of degrees from the Equator), because there are no lights and therefore nothing to keep you up, if the rain prevents you from lighting a fire to sit around.

I admit that the time that I spend in PNG was rough.  A lot of it was really difficult to deal with, probably because I came with too many expectations and the belief that being Western was enough to get me by in a place where four-year-olds wield machetes more deftly than I can use a steak knife on a tough piece of chicken.  There were a lot of moments when I just wanted to speak English.  With someone.  Anyone.  And not have a gaggle of small children follow me everywhere, just to see if the white women ate, drank or bathed (or other things).

But then, at night, when everyone would go to bed (after I convinced the mother of “house” to keep the door unlocked at night, despite the danger of that with me there – mostly because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go to the bathroom, which is another story for another time), I would sneak outside and look at the stars in the sky.

I don’t think that there is another place on the entire planet that is so far from modernity that the Milk Way displays itself so clearly, in all of its glory.  The sky itself is black.  Pitch black.  Tar black.  And if you look closely, you can even see the occasional blinking of satellites as they float by across the night.  But the real show is the Milky Way.  It’s like a painter, working is sparkles on a huge brush painted a single, thick, stroke of glitter across the night.  If you have ever seen the film “Contact” you have something near the idea of what it feels like to be surrounded, or at least feel that way, by glitter so otherworldly that you just want to reach out and touch it, just to see if you can move them with your fingers.  You feel that close.  Everything else fades away, just like it does in the movies, where the background, in this case the lapping water on the beach and the cicadas that normally serve as a monotonous, headache-inducing thrum, just disappears and you feel all alone in the world, in the best way possible.  Like you could just reach out, grab a star and fly away.

That feeling of being completely by myself, for the small amount of time that I wasn’t surrounded; quiet, alone, and watching this stunning show.  There are only a handful of other times in my life that I have genuinely felt that calm, peaceful and at one with the universe.

There are a lot of things that I didn’t want or need to experience while in PNG and on that island.  But that show every night, that experience – I would willingly go through the entire experience over and over again to see that and to feel that connected, and awed by what nature created.

Tourist Sites That Surprisingly Impressed Me (Part One)

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1. The Leaning Tower of Pisa – Okay, I know, it leans.  I get it.  I have seen it in photos my whole life and have heard all of the stories about why, and all of that.  It’s really, though, just a building that was constructed in a rather bad location.  Well, I wasn’t expecting much.  Mostly because I figured that, really, being just a building in an unfortunate location, the hype is probably pretty exaggerated.  Let me say this, first:  I saw it *only* at night, while it was in the process of being propped up with wires, so I didn’t see any of those in the pitch dark.  There were lights in it that were glowing, but only slightly.  Really, just enough to let you know that the tower is actually there.  Couple that with the fact that I was there when there were only a handful of others around (which naturally detracts from the whole “touristy” feel of the place) and one Australian guy who happened to join me from Florence to Pisa, since he was headed that way eventually anyway, and you have the makings for a very positive experience.  Quoting my actual words when I first saw it:  “Fuck me.  It really leans!”  (I told you there would be colorful language, so it’s your own fault if you are offended, sorry).  That sucker, for all of the hype, and all of the “touristy” schtick surrounding it, really does, completely, visually, incredibly, lean!  It’s great!  It was the most underrated thing that I saw during my whole trip to Italy.  Cooler than Venice (which smells), cooler than Florence (riddled with tourists), better than Rome (I think that I am still disappointed that I didn’t get to ride a vespa – still want to do that just once, by the way).  I loved it.  Highly recommend it!  Just, you know, try to see it at night.  The lighting is better, trust me.

2.  Inis Mor – I had already been in Ireland for a good couple of months when a friend invited me to join her for a trip to one of the Aran Islands.  We travelled up through Galway and to a ferry that took us to the largest of the islands, Inis Mor (or Inishmore, if you must).  Now, I am aware that Ireland is famous for being green, and rainy and rich-looking (due to the fact that that place rains like it’s going out of style, with gale force winds to boot).  And I had heard that the people on the Aran Islands still spoke Irish <sigh> Gaelic (if you must) and not much English.  And I guess that a part of me never really believed that to be true, or at least not to the extent that people told me about.  However, I have never, and I mean never, seen any place in the word so utterly, completely green in my life.  Every square inch of the island that wasn’t a gravel or stone road was green.  Shades that Crayola couldn’t even replicate!  The air was so fresh smelling that you almost never wanted to exhale, because you would be afraid on not being able to smell the freshness for half a second.  The people literally spoke minimal English.  and not just because they wanted to hide it from us tourists.  Some of them spoke English well, but in the one loan pub that ran were in, the older gents in it…nothing.  Not more than a handful of words.  They as much English as I do Russian.  And I can basically just swear in Russian, if that tells you anything.  Anyway, back to the point.  The point is, Inis Mor is amazing.  Utterly.  I don’t even need to get in to the Cliffs of Dun Aengus (which I will, though, eventually, in it’s own post).  It’s just the quintessential Ireland.  In every respect.  Complete with the giant crucifix in the bedroom at the B&B that my friend and I stayed in.  Along with a Celtic cross.  I mean, you might as well cover your bases, right?

3.  The Temple of Karnak, Egypt – Talk about monumental!  This temple was the last one, actually, on my trip through Egypt.  I had already been Luxor and Deir-el-Bahri, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut and was duly, though slightly less than I would have predicted, impressed.  Karnak, however, is on a whole other scale.  We were there on a perfect day, too.  There were clouds, but plenty of sun, and that let the light shine down into the temple – there was no roof – and highlight the hieroglyphics on the walls and the paint that was left on some of the columns.  The temple itself is more imposing than I ever could have imagined.  It dwarfs anything else, not necessarily in size, but in proportion to everything around it.  And it was meant to be that way, too.  And you feel about the size of an ant.  At one point, I broke my own rules of not touching anything, and just sat down on the foot of a column and just took it all in.  It was the most small that I had ever felt in a temple or ancient construction of any kind.  And I loved it for that.  What’s more, over time, nature had taken its course and trees and flowers and other plants had taken over part of the area, even though the government tried to keep them at bay.  It made it all the more impressive with those, though, because the juxtaposition was incredible.  Hard stone, stories tall, paired against green, beautiful foliage.  It’s hard to even know how to describe that feeling of at once being so a part of the past, and yet so removed from it that that temple gave me.  I will never forget it.

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