Posts Tagged With: seafood

On to Hoi An

If you are traveling in Asia for any period of time then there will come a point when a certain two words will strike fear in your heart: “Buddhist Temple”. There are a lot of them, and you may be sure that at some point you will feel that either you have visited every one or must feel vaguely guilty for not having done so. We hit that point yesterday morning on our way out of Hué when we stopped at a temple both whose name and history went in one ear and out another. I will grant that it was in a beautiful and serene setting, marked by a cool pagoda over looking the Perfume River. That’s about all I can tell you about it, so here are shots of the pagoda and the river scene that it overlooks.

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The colorful boat at the bottom is a dragon boat, the same one we were aboard the previous night for our folk music concert. The river is full of them; they are popular tourist attractions and also serve as houseboats for the owners.

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We walked down to the river bank from the pagoda and boarded “our” now familiar dragon boat, then set off down the river. No concert this time, just a few minutes of Zen as we motored peacefully down the Perfume River. Phil took the wheel for a few minutes, then asked if anyone wanted to try. You never want to pass up an opportunity like that — I have driven an ox cart in Thailand, mind you — so I jumped up and sat myself down, successfully navigating us down the river for about ten minutes, including passing under a bridge without actually hitting anything.

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Back on the bus, we left town heading for Da Nang and then Hoi An, the latter a center for crafts and our destination for the next three nights. The city gave way to countryside surprisingly quickly, and we were underway for well less than an hour, paralleling the coast before we found ourselves in a very rural area indeed, with the Tam Giang-Cau Hai lagoon on our right as a foreground to the mountains of Bach Ma National Park. The lagoon hosts a large number of traditional oyster farms, and the nets and poles stick out of the shallow water along a few mile stretch. I desperately wanted to stop the bus and take some photos but we were en route to a lunch reservation at a seafood restaurant out over the water where I might have another chance.

The restaurant, as it turns out, had a view of its own, as you can see here, and served us yet another spectacular eight course lunch.Hue IMG_7935-HDR-Pano

But I really wanted those oyster beds, and Phil — in typical OAT Tour Lead style — delivered. As we were finishing lunch, he whispered to me to follow him outside and, admonishing me not to tell anyone we were doing this, handed me a motorcycle helmet and led me to a motorbike. He got on, I got on behind him, and off we went, a mile or so down the road to a spot that afforded me these views.

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This sort of thing is one of the reasons we travel with OAT.

Lunch consumed, we continued Hoi An-ward. But along the way, we passed through a 4-mile long tunnel that brought us to the city of Da Nang, the largest city in central Vietnam. That’s a pretty well known name to my generation: Da Nang airport was one of the hubs of US military operations during the war, and at the war’s peak was the busiest airport in the world.  It’s still a major port and fishing center, and as you exit the long tunnel into the city you first cross, and then drive along, a river dotted with blue fishing boats. In Vietnamese tradition, many are decorated with stylized eyes at the front.

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We walked along the river bank and encountered two unusual (for us) sights: first, a man fishing in a coracle, which is basically a bowl that serves as a boat, i.e.:

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Phil informs us that the popularity of these devices — I keep thinking there should be a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker in there — stems from the fact that boats are taxed and these are not. So if you’ve got good balance and minimal space requirements, it makes financial sense. According to Wikipedia, the craft is actually of Welsh origin, where its name is — you might want to sit down for this —  cwrwgl. (That’s not actually as unpronounceable as it looks: the Welsh w is a vowel that is pronounced like oo.) Anyway, how they got to Vietnam is not clear to me; apparently they are used in Iraq and India too.

The other new sight to us was a method of fishing that I had never heard of: flour in a jar of water.  You take a jar (about the size of a peanut butter jar), fill it 3/4 with water and stir in a tablespoon or two of flour. Attach to a fishing line, twirl around and cast, then wait a moment and drag it back in. A fish (a small one, obviously) swims in to eat the flour and if you drag it back at the right speed it is stuck in the jar. This guy on the riverbank successfully demonstrated this technique to us, and of course a couple of us tried and failed. I had never heard of this technique… any fishermen reading this, have you?

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Rather more conventionally, a little further up the road we stopped at China Beach, one of Vietnam’s major resort areas. It’s a 20 mile stretch of sandy beach, a popular R&R venue for American soldiers during the war. Today it sports resort hotels along part of its length, but the stretch where we stopped was pretty deserted, save for a few coracles scattered along the beach and some fisherman pulling nets in the surf. You can see all the fishing boats anchored just offshore.

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We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon, but deferred going into town until this morning; I’ll write about that in a day or so. We are staying at the Hoi An Silk Village resort hotel, which is quite the most luxurious place we have ever stayed on an OAT trip. It’s spread out over about 10 “villas” of several very large rooms each, in a complex that includes two large infinity swimming pools plus a tastefully upscale shopping complex featuring local crafts — Hoi An’s claim to fame — at about twice the price that you’d pay in the town itself, barely a mile down the road.

What we did do, a couple of hours after arriving, was get a Vietnamese cooking lesson/demo from the hotel chef, who was a major league wise guy and quite funny to watch. Here are a couple of travel mates, Kim and Linda, getting a lesson in spring rolls..

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…and here we are, going full Iron Chef to end the day.

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Cozumel

I am (like many people) a fan of New Yorker magazine cartoons, and one of the many that have stuck in my mind is from decades ago. It depicts a man and a local Hispanic guide, overlooking a village from a viewpoint on some generic Central American hillside. The guide is saying, “This town has no history, señor. It was built 20 years ago entirely for the tourist trade.” Which brings us to Cozumel, Mexico.

It’s a little unfair to say that Cozumel has no history, but it doesn’t have a lot. A small arrowhead-shaped island less than 20 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, it hummed along for a few millennia, hosting a population of about 10,000 Maya, until the Spanish showed up in 1520 with the gift of smallpox, plus a predilection for destroying Mayan idols and replacing them with Virgin Mary statues . You’ve read this story before; fifty years later the population was less than 300. About the only other event of historical interest was Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt in 1861 to buy the island from Mexico as a home for freed slaves.

The island is very flat — it’s highest point is less than 50 ft above the surrounding Caribbean — and covered mostly with scrubby tropical vegetation. But it has beautiful beaches (when they are not clogged by sargassum seaweed, about which more shortly) and is one of the world’s premier snorkeling and scuba diving destinations. The main attractions for us, however, are our good friends and occasional travel companions Laura and David, who retired here in August 2018. So here we are.

Our friends live in a large and beautiful apartment overlooking the Caribbean to the west. From their balcony, just on the horizon, you can see the resort of Playa del Carmen across the channel on the Yucatan. You can also the comings and goings of a steady stream of enormous cruise ships; Cozumel is one of the major stops on the Caribbean cruise circuit. The largest of these that we’ve seen is the largest that you can see, the Allure of the Seas, which until 2015 was the largest cruise ship in the world and is now a close second. The Allure towers above everything around here including the buildings, with 16 passenger decks reaching the height of a 24-story building (far higher than any of the actual buildings on the island). It’s as long as four football fields and including crew carries eight thousand people. They could have called it the Behemoth of the Seas.

Because Cozumel is so small (a little under 30 x 10 miles), flat, and close to the coast, it does not enjoy the full climate-moderating effects of the surrounding ocean. It is pleasantly breezy, but hot and humid and subject to the occasional buildup of brief but intense tropical downpours in the afternoons. (The “breeze” is frequently a strong steady wind; I have not yet been able to fly my drone.) Here’s a photo from our first evening, when we were treated to a simultaneous sunset and rainstorm.

The main population center of the island is the town of San Miguel, home to about 3/4 of the island’s 120,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t have much in the way of cultural attractions — no museums or art galleries — but has plenty of cruise ship port-side bars, souvenir stores, and restaurants, the some of the latter sporting debauchery-friendly names like “Mar Y Juana”.  The restaurant and bar competition is intense: if your walk down the street brings you within 30 feet of a restaurant — and it will — then you will be accosted by an excessively friendly person carrying a menu and latching onto you like a remora in an attempt to get you into “his” restaurant/bar.  And if you are looking for a particular restaurant and ask about it — “I’m trying to find Luigi’s” — you will be assured that yep, this is it, regardless of the relationship between that statement and verifiable reality. In short, it’s really all about the cruise ships here, and their hordes of hopefully-free-spending passengers.

But there are some very good restaurants to be found if you know what you are doing, which in our case means having friends who live here. Among our food destinations so far was La Perlita, a little open-air back street place whose specialty is lionfish, which you have probably never had, and which you can see here (not my photo).

Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s the good news. The bad news is that those dorsal spines are venomous as hell — stings can kill children and the elderly — and to add to the fun they are extremely invasive, not native to these waters. People have figured out that they are delicious, however, and so one way to control their population is to eat them. Which we did most enjoyably, doing our part for the environment.

That environment is a beautiful one if you know where to look, which in the case of Cozumel often means underwater. I mentioned that it is famous for its scuba diving, and rightfully so: I went diving yesterday on the well-known Palancar Reef off the southwest coast of the island, and enjoyed one of the best dives I have ever had. At a depth of ~62 ft (19 m) the water visibility was at least 100 ft (30 m) and the variety of sea life stunning: sting rays, sea turtles, moray eels, huge jacks, groupers, parrotfish, angelfish, blennies… it was like a National Geographic episode, and a half day very well spent. (No photos, alas: my small underwater camera would only survive to about half the depth I was at.)

Our island explorations yesterday bought us to Punta Sur (“South Point”), the southernmost point of the island and also home to one of its most beautiful beaches. Such beaches are unfortunately a sort of monetized commodity here: although there are very attractive venues where you can simply go to the beach, large stretches of the most  beach-worthy coastline have been turned into a string of commercial beach parks with admission charges. They offer amenities that include huge inflatable climbing toys (e.g., a Mayan pyramid) anchored a few feet offshore from the sugary sand. I’m not crazy about this; it is apparently deemed insufficient to simply enjoy the view and the water.

The water is on fine display at Punta Sur (at a US$16 admission charge), along with a number of other points of interest, notably a crocodile-filled inland lagoon and a lighthouse that offers a commanding view of the coast.

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Notice the spectacular color — more accurately colors, plural — of the water. It is responsible for much of the overall beauty of the island, the vegetation itself being largely unimpressive and the animal life restricted to coatis, raccoons, and peccaries. (Those are the mammals; beyond those are copious iguanas and geckos.) But in the photo with the direction signs, notice also the thin line of orange brown stuff where the surf meets the sand. That is the infamous sargassum, mats of stringy algal seaweed. At this location on the island it is a noticeable problem; you can see a line of it along the beach in the panorama photo. When flying from the Yucatan mainland across the channel from Cancun, you can see football field-sized mats of it floating below.

But on the eastern side of the island, it is a crisis. Exposed to the winds from the Caribbean, vast tangles of it are blown ashore in the surf, covering every square inch of beach in thick, tangled, rotting mounds up to a few feet deep. No amount of trucking or shoveling can make a serious dent in it; there is little to do but wait it out and hope that as water conditions change throughout the year the environment will becomes less hospitable to it and less will be formed. We drove down the eastern side, encountering any number of scenes that would have been classically tropically beautiful had they not been overwhelmed with this stuff. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it.

We made our way down the eastern coast all the way to Punta Sur, then rounded the point and headed back into town to pick up some groceries. Once you leave the tourist area at the waterfront, San Miguel is a typical Central American town: wide dusty streets, lots of storefront mom-and-pop businesses, painted in primary colors and with roll-down aluminum shutters, a sultry slow-moving gestalt. Laura and David are learning the ins and outs of where to go: the best restaurants that only the locals know about; which gas stations to avoid (they don’t reset the counters on the pump when you drive up); which supermarket has the particular items they need.

Today was our 22nd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated with an experiment: our friends wanted to try a recently-opened upscale Japanese restaurant called Shii Fu. I am happy to report that it was excellent.

Categories: Central America, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Maximum Fish, and a Mad Scramble

A lot of images spring to mind when you hear the word “Japan”, and for Alice and me one of those words is “sushi.” And like the old saying goes, “Teach a man to fish, and he will eat a lot of sushi.” Something like that. But anyway, as you doubtless know fish is a very big deal in Japan, and consequently one of the major go-to sites in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is where it all happens: the tuna and other catch brought in during the predawn hours of every morning and auctioned off to the wholesalers. It is possible to see the tuna auction itself — that’s the biggie, with the biggest fish going for hundreds of thousands of dollars (and that is not a typo) — but it isn’t easy. They only allow 120 spectators in, and demand for a seat is high. The auction starts at 5 AM every day and it is recommended that you show up two hours before that if you want to have a decent shot at getting a seat in the gallery.  So naturally Alice and I, intrepid travelers that we are, looked at each other and said…. “Uh uh.”

If like us you are sane enough not to go to the auction, your next best course of action is to show up at  the much more congenial hour of 10 AM, at which time the wholesale floor opens to the public. The wholesale area is a huge warehouse, a good one or two city blocks in size, shaped like a giant Quonset hut with endless banks of incandescent lights receding into the gloom above you. As you enter — being careful not to break your neck on the perpetually slippery floor as it is constantly hosed down — you pass through the loading area, dodging the little electric loading trucks as they barrel heedlessly past you.

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“Hey, does this place smell fishy to you?”

Once past the loading area, you find yourself in a maze of stalls, navigating past the vendors on narrow passageways which, somehow, the delivery flatbeds still manage to squeeze though without killing anybody. No matter which passageway you turn down or which direction you look, you are likely to see scenes and characters like this:

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They sell every fish you have ever heard of, and a fair number you have not. There were more than a few specifies that neither of us could identify, but there were plenty that we could: tuna, eel, gar, snapper, clams, scallops, mussels, octopus, whelks, crabs, shrimp, and on and on. It was pretty impressive, and a lot of fun to behold. Some of the vendors have all their wares on ice; others have them displayed live in tanks. There are hoses and Styrofoam bins of crushed ice absolutely everywhere — and a few stations manned by guys whose sole job was to continuously wrangle suitcase-sized blocks of ice into giant ice crushers.

The complex is ringed by countless tiny seafood restaurants — some seating ten people or less — and street vendors, all offering fresh-as-fresh-can-be seafood in its many forms, prepared in as many ways. Radiating out from the ring of restaurants is a network of crowded market alleyways, also thronged with people, seafood restaurants, and sushi vendors. So here is our lunch being prepared:

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That’s about eight different kinds of fresh seafood — at least one of which we couldn’t even identify — steamed and then braised with a blowtorch over the grill, and served on a big scallop shell with a pair of chopsticks. Seriously good.

That evening, we did the Shibuya Scramble.

The what?

The Shibuya Scramble is not a dance, though it sort of sounds like one. Although come to think of it, it actually is a sort of dance, as you will see in a moment. More narrowly, it is a place, officially known as Shibuya Crossing, an enormous intersection in front of the Sibuya train station in central Tokyo. Five streets come together in a very broad intersection ringed by over-illuminated multistory department stores, pachinko parlors, restaurants, and everything else, all with animated light displays. It looks like this:

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Even the side streets get into the act:

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So the name of the game, as elsewhere in Tokyo, is “sensory overload”. But what makes Shibuya Crossing special — and it shows up in most “Top Ten” lists of things to see in Tokyo — is the traffic flow, which would probably not have been your first guess. The thing is, that because of the stores and the train station, an exceptionally large number of pedestrians flow through this huge multi-lane intersection at any given moment, and the traffic lights are timed such that everybody crosses in every direction at the same time. The lights turn green and the scene suddenly looks like an explosion in an anthill:

shibuya-005 Hence the name “Shibuya Scramble.” At ground level, in the middle of the crowd, here is what you see as you cross:

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If you want to see this in action, check out this YouTube video. And if you want to watch it as it happens, there is even this live feed webcam. There is a weird anticipatory pleasure as you watch the ebb and flow of people, watching the car traffic pass through the intersection as you wait for the magic moment when the light turns and those hundreds of people all surge forward at once. It’s sort of like watching the waves at the ocean.

In short, the Shibuya Scramble is utterly lunatic and it is enormous, incomprehensible fun to be a part of… I’m not altogether sure why. It is, in its way, quintessentially Japanese: a detailed, choreographed aesthetic overlaid with a veneer of batshit craziness. Or maybe the other way around. It’s Blade Runner meets the Bolshoi. We’re really glad we went.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tree-Climbing Goats. ‘Nuff Said.

Our group split up this morning with much hugging and promising to stay in touch. But before I depart Marrakech journalistically I’d like to offer two final photos. This one is an overview of the square at night; the lit tents are all food stands and you can see the crowds milling in the darkness, overseen by the lit mosque at top right. (This photo was taken by our travelmate Liz, who also took the shot of me face to face with a camel at our hotel in Erfoud about a week ago. She demands a photo credit, so this is it. I will also provide an unsolicited plug for Elizabeth D. Kennedy & Co. Catering in Vero Beach, Florida. Are we cool now, Liz?)

And here at last is the grand final group shot of our 16-person OAT ensemble on our last night together. That’s our tour lead and father figure Momo at the far left. Alice is on the floor in the blue shawl, with Thumper behind and to her right. That’s me and Steve next to each other at lower right. And on the floor at center, dressed as either a Berber woman or Pocahontas (they’re surprisingly similar) is Liz the Caterer, who has now been mentioned by name four times in two paragraphs, which ought to be enough for anybody.

Goodyes all said and hugs all exchanged, the remaining six of us set off for Essaouira: Alice and me, Steve and Thumper, Pat (at Thumper’s right in the group photo) and Dave (3rd from right in the back). We have a new tour lead for this final leg of the trip, a handsome and fit-looking 32 year old named (wait for it) Mohammed, who has been with OAT for less than a year but has been a tour guide for seven. We have also downsized from our bus back to our original van, since there are only six of us again, plus Mohammed and the driver. Mohammed sits up front with the microphone and keeps up a pretty continuous patter of facts, figures, history, and legends.

Essaouira is a resort town on the Atlantic coast, about 100 miles west of Marrakech, known especially for kite surfing because of its winds. It’s also in a region that is pretty much the sole producer of the presently-trendy Argan oil. Which is how, halfway there, we came to encounter the tree-climbing goats.

What? You don’t know about the tree climbing goats? You are obviously not fully up to date on your viral YouTube videos. I will help you out by offering you these photos:

At this point you are entitled to ask exactly what the hell is going on here. Here is the official narrative:

The Argan tree bears a fruit that the goats like to eat, and they actually climb the tree to get at it. Then they do what animals of all types do, which is to say that they digest the edible part and poop out the indigestible part, which is a nut about the size of an olive. People then sift the nuts out of the goat droppings — you want to make sure you finish college so that you can avoid this career — and then crush and press the nuts to extract Argan oil. It is very popular for both cosmetic products as well as being edible as a dip or salad dressing. In addition, people like us come from far and wide to watch the goats climb the trees and do their thing.

That, at least, is the official story, which is in fact true as far as it goes but leaves out some significant parts. First, there aren’t enough goats in Morocco or anywhere else to satisfy the demand for this product, so in fact the virally famous tree-climbing, fruit-eating, nut-pooping goats are responsible for only a small fraction of the production; most of the nuts are harvested through conventional non-excretory means.

Second, the fruits bloom (and thus the nuts are only collected) from June through August, so if there isn’t any fruit then why are these goats climbing trees for us in mid-October? Answer: they aren’t. The guys who own the goats put them into the trees within easy sight of the highway so that passing tourist buses and vans (like ours) stop and the passengers (like us) get out pay the guys a dollar or so for the privilege of photographing their involuntarily-treed goats.

In our defense, I will remark that the goats seemed perfectly well fed and cared for and unperturbed about being in a tree out of season. A few munched contentedly on leaves. The rest kind of stood there and occasionally looked around, no doubt asking each other, “Wasn’t there fruit up here a couple of months ago?” and “Do any of you guys remember how to get down from here?”

So now you know. The day after tomorrow we will actually be visiting an Argan oil processing place, so I will probably have more exciting goat-related information at that time.

As we approached Essaouira from the hills to its east it became clear that it resembled seaside resort towns the world over: low blue and white buildings, hotels along a strip of beach. The are two small offshore islands, as you can see in the picture: the long low structure at the left end of the leftmost island is an old prison, no longer in use. (I guess it’s the Alcatraz of Essaouira.)

The town, as we inferred from the distance, could easily be a resort in Greece, France, or Spain. You can see the town square here; there’s a street off at the left that leads into a maze of shops, a sort of more sanitary, PG-rated version of the grimy souks of Marrakech. They are wider, cleaner, and generally more tourist-friendly if less authentic in their choice of goods.

Adjacent to this square was a promenade of open-air grilled seafood tents, all blue and white, all equipped with benches and shrouded in charcoal smoke from the fish, all displaying their piscine offerings on a bed of ice out front, all with staff inveigling inviting you to inspect the fish and come sit down. Which we did, Mohammed choosing stall #14. (I know this because as we left, the owner kept shouting after us, “Remember us! We’re stall number 14!”. Which is understandable, because there are about 25 of them, all identical.)

The ordering process was essentially random, the owner throwing some samples of aquatic life onto a tray for Mohammed’s inspection and then ushering us to a picnic bench. A short while later, vast quantities of shrimp, squid, monkfish, and sardines, all charcoal grilled, were delivered to our table, and we attacked it with a combination of plastic forks, our fingers, and gusto. It was as fresh as fresh could be, grilled to perfection, accompanied by fresh French baguettes, and fabulous. (I am a sucker for grilled sardines. Steve remarked that if I took off my sunglasses that he expected to see my eyes rolling back into my head.)

After lunch we headed into the market street, an activity that can engage Alice and our credit cards for hours but which I tire of quickly. Pat and I split off, intending to head back to the hotel, but as we passed back through the square our attention was drawn to the sea wall and the boats there. We wandered over to explore and were rewarded by finding ourselves in the fish market, among the boats themselves, where the catch was unloaded and the raw fish — the stuff we saw at lunch, plus some crustaceans and lots of eels — variously negotiated for and sold at stands.

Alice returned from her hunting and gathering a short while after Pat and I returned to the hotel, having bargained aggressively for more crafts that will somehow magically fit into our suitcase in three days.

Oh, speaking of hotels, we are staying across the sett from the beach, serenaded by seagulls, at the Hotel des Iles, one of the venerable hotels of the area. It is elegant in a spare sort of way, with wide hallways, high ceilings, and a lot of open space. One of its claims to fame is a room named after Orson Wells, who I think may have stayed here. It’s hard to tell: the entire town is Orson Wells-crazy because his movie “Othello” was filmed here in 1952 and no one has gotten over the excitement yet. There is a statue of him just off the town square.

Sunset is in about an hour as I type this. Our plan is to watch it from the hotel rooftop before dinner. We will tour the city tomorrow and probably learn more about Orson Wells.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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