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Archive for the ‘Temple’ Category

On Sunday, there will be a solar eclipse in the late afternoon and evening that will be visible here in the western part of the United States. It will be an annular eclipse, meaning the moon will line up directly in front of the sun leaving a thin ring of light visible around the perimeter.

According to Vedic tradition, eclipses are taken very seriously and considered a somewhat inauspicious occasion. They are generally regarded as a poor time to undertake an important or new activity, and a good time for meditation and chanting mantras. When I was in India last year, a lunar eclipse occurred while I was receiving pancha karma treatment, and my doctors encouraged me to stay inside, explaining we are particularly vulnerable to negative energy while undergoing such deep release and detoxification.

Here is some advice from the Sai Baba Temple of Austin:

“Solar eclipses are not good times to enter into contracts, embark on new ventures, travel, do most religious ceremonies, or undertake important ventures.  However, they are considered excellent times to perform japa, or repetition of God’s name.  Repetition of mantras like AUM NAMAH SHIVAYA, HARE KRISHNA, AUM NAMO VASUDEVAAYA, etc., are hundreds or even thousands of times more powerful when done during an eclipse than during an ordinary time.  Particularly recommended is the recitation of these mantras while standing or sitting in a body of water like a lake or stream.

Other suggestions:
-Pregnant women are suggested to stay inside and avoid the eclipse light.
-Throw away leftover food after the eclipse.
-Take a bath/shower after the eclipse.
-Fast during (and if possible for a few hours before and after) the eclipse.”

Sunday’s eclipse will begin around 3:15pm Central Time and end around 8:30pm. Sounds like a good time to head down to the Green Belt and find a quiet spot to immerse in the cool waters….

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Ft. Kochi at sunset - until next time...

When our week in Fort Kochi was up, Emily and I reluctantly took the ferry back across the waterway to the train station and bid our sweet community goodbye. We had begun to feel like regulars in town, with people recognizing us on the street after seeing us in a store. We had found the most magnificent restaurant (called Oceanos, in case you find yourself in the neighborhood), and ended up going there almost every night (try the kerala red beans with pumpkin, or the okra coconut curry). Likewise, we found a sweet café a few doors down from our hotel and got to know the owner, Biju, after spending several mornings eating his wife’s and mother-in-law’s masala dosas while watching the pick-up cricket game in the field across the street. I expect we’ll be back someday.

Our next stop was Thrissur, about two hours north of Fort Kochi by train, and the hometown (or “native,” as they call it around here) of our dear teacher, Dr. Ramdas. His wife Lima met us at the train station and welcomed us into the house where Dr. Ramdas grew up and where his mother still lives – in fact, where he and Lima and their two children lived until three or four years ago when they came to Vaidyagrama. Their 2-year-old daughter, Rtu-parna, and 15-year-old son, Rithwick, are an integral part of the fabric of Vaidyagrama now.

Rithwick, his cousins, and Lima at a special birthday celebration dinner

Ostensibly we came to Thrissur for Pooram, an annual temple festival famous across India for its elaborate elephant procession; however, it was a joy for us just to be at Dr. Ramdas and Lima’s home in the midst of their family, which was gathering because of Pooram. Dr. Ramdas’s sister Radika and her husband were at the house, as were his niece and nephew from a different sister who couldn’t come. The nephew lives there full-time with Dr. Ramdas’s mother, which all adds up to a full house – and lots of incredible food. Radika and Lima are stupendous, mind-blowing chefs. It seemed we never stopped eating the whole time we were there – one meal would end and it would soon be time for another.

Pooram itself is a day long festival in which two temples hold a friendly competition. Each sends an emissary of about twenty decorated elephants to the square in front of the town’s main temple. Each elephant wears elaborate head ornaments and has three men mounted on top: one carries fans made of peacock feathers, another swings batons with plumes of white fur, and the third holds a brightly colored umbrella high above the elephant’s back.

At the climax of the festival, the two lines of elephants face off across a huge field packed with over 100,000 people, and to the sound of mad drumming, the umbrellas from one line of elephants are taken down and replaced with umbrellas of a different pattern or color. The crowd cheers and then it’s the other side’s turn to show off a new set of umbrellas. This goes on for hours: umbrellas exchanged for new ones, drums pounding and people cheering. I am not sure if there is ever an official winner, but everyone plays the judge of which temple had the better umbrellas. (I am certain it was the devi temple.)

Our guidebooks warned that Thrissur Pooram has become an enormous affair which some men might use as an excuse to “get intoxicated and grope women in the crowd.” The crowd did take on a certain feverish pitch, with the trance-inducing drums and the surges of cheers. I just love the fact that two temples competing on the basis of elephant fashion, one could say, inspires such reckless abandon and drunken revelry. What a wonderful reason for a display of passion. Only in India.

Auspiciously perhaps, that same day we went with Dr. Ramdas to pick up the new car he and Lima recently purchased (a Chevrolet Spirit from “Gee-yem Motors,” as the dealership sign read). We made a motley crew: Dr. Ramdas with his brother-in-law, his 2 year old daughter, and two white girls from New Mexico. After the final papers had been signed, the salesman escorted us outside and arranged us all for a photograph in front of the car. Then, according to custom, he placed a lemon in front of each tire and we rolled over them on our way out of the lot. No one knew the reason or origin of the custom, but it seems meant to ensure an auspicious future for the vehicle.

ShreeLakshmi, Rtu, Emily, me and Lima in our finest

The next morning we drove the car to the Guruvayur Temple, an important and enormous Krishna temple about an hour away, to hold a puja for the car. We awoke at 4 am in order to arrive at the temple by our 6 am appointment, and we all dressed up (Lima dressed Emily and me in her saris for the occasion). We stood outside the temple at sunrise as a priest conducted the ritual: he lit incense and chanted sacred words to invite safe and smooth travels, placed a garland of flowers across the car’s hood, dotted each window with sandalwood paste – and placed a lemon in front of each tire.

The Dhanvantari temple

From there, we drove on to one of only two Dhanvantari temples in southern India. When Dr. Ramdas completed his training as an Ayurvedic doctor twenty years ago, he and one of his classmates came to this temple and slept there for 21 days, paying homage to the god of healing to whom they were devoting their life’s work, eating only the prasad that visitors to the temple brought. Although usually only Hindus are permitted inside, Dr. Ramdas intervened on our behalf and we were welcomed in. It was a powerful experience. A relatively small temple, it holds a quiet calm that is reassuring and comforting. The Dhanvantari idol enclosed in the center shrine is completely covered in butter, the traditional sacrificial offering at this temple. We made offerings of our own and pictured Dr. Ramdas’s 21-day pilgrimage. To imagine we were walking in his footsteps for even a few minutes was an inspiration. We felt initiated.

The last day we were in Thrissur, we went to Lima’s parents’ home, about an hour away. We were excited in particular to see her mother, whom we had treated during our training a few months ago. She taught us how to make a traditional kerala dish, kind of a sandwich of sweet coconut meat in rice flour steamed in banana leaves. They live about two kilometers from the beach but apparently don’t go very often, so in our honor, we all piled in their small mini-van (along with some neighbor-relatives) and went. It was a beautiful beach, and Emily inspired Rithwick to go in up to his chest. The rest of us stayed at knee’s height and watched a beautiful sunset.

We were sad to leave Thrissur’s warmth – and Lima’s incredible cooking – but after five days, it was time for yoga. We boarded the train and headed south to Trivandrum and took up residence at the Shivananda Yoga Ashram. Perched on a hilltop with enormous trees bearing brilliant red blossoms and dropping ripe mangoes (well, not the same trees), we felt like we had arrived in heaven. As a fellow yogi commented, “This place is like yoga Disneyland.” It really was. The rigorous schedule of meditation, yoga, and seva (mopping the floor, in my case) was a welcome dive into Spirit and heart, a good transition in advance of pancha karma. I stayed for ten days before heading back to Vaidyagrama on my own, with Emily to follow a week later.

This bathing suit is all the rage in south India.

On one of my last days there, the ashram planned a day trip to Kanyakumari, the very southern most tip of India – the place where the India Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal come together. I had not expected to make it there this trip, so it was a true surprise treat to get to take a dip in those waters. We then waited several hours to get on a ferry out to the rock where Swami Vivekananda meditated for two days straight before deciding to come to Chicago for the world’s fair in 1893, at which he gave a riveting speech that effectively introduced yoga to the West. From the rock, I looked north towards this vast and complex country and counted my blessings once again.

*******

Someone had to remind me that this past weekend was Memorial Day in the States. Being so far away myself, I think of all the soldiers and civilians who have died far from their homes under our flag. I remember too the Army officer I met on the first leg of my flight to India (he got off in Atlanta). He said he was always embarrassed when people thanked him for his service, because he loves his job – “It’s the best job in the world.” I’m not sure which aspects he loves. I think of all those who have died in wars, and I hope that they have found peace. I am grateful for peace wherever we find it, and perhaps especially wherever we make it.

Upon reflection today, I realized that’s really why I’m in India, why I am studying Ayurveda – to learn to create peace.

Sarve bhavantu sukinah

Sarve santu niramayah

Sarve bhadrani pashyantu

Ma kashchid dukha bhagbhavet

May all be happy;

May all be free from disease;

May all see only the good in others;

May none suffer from sorrow.

~from Vaidyagrama’s daily prayers

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Emily and Ras walking down the streets of Rishikesh

We have had an amazing voyage. We left Rishikesh last Wednesday with our minds full of new ideas, our bodies well exercised, our eyes imprinted with new visions, and our bags bursting with souvenirs – and dirty laundry. It’s taken me a full week to get caught up enough in my daily life here to write again. (Plus, we dove into hands-on treatment training this week, which has turned our whole daily routine on its head in a very exciting, all-consuming way.)

We arrived in Rishikesh in the middle of the night in a howling rain storm after a full day of travel. Blessedly all of our travel details had been arranged for us by the Punarnava staff, including a friendly driver named Sunny who picked us up at the New Delhi airport and transported us in style the 7 hours to Rishikesh. His minivan was outfitted with understated beige and tan tassels around the sun visors that wiggled in unison with every bump, as well as a dashboard shrine to his guru (which we discovered lights up at night) and electric blue interior lights (which he turned on when we pulled in to a restaurant or any other stop that might provide an audience). When we finally arrived in Rishikesh, and he dropped us at one end of a massive metal foot bridge that was suspended 100 feet above the coursing Ganga below, and we fought our way against the driving wind in the near-darkness to the ashram on the other side that was to be our home for the next ten days. Our friends from Punarnava, Aparna and Nagaraj, met us with hugs and escorted our weary bodies to our rooms.

The front entrance gate

The Parmarth Niketan Ashram is charmingly worn around the edges. I don’t know when it was built, but you can imagine the myriad monks in training as well as more recent yogis and backpackers who have graced its halls. The rooms are very basic, although ours had a hot water heater in the bathroom, which was all the more welcome given that there was no heater in the room itself and it dipped well below 50 degrees Fahrenheit the first two nights. One of our favorite features at the ashram was the clock that tolled the hours – there was a bell tower next door that chimed every hour with a lovely round gonging sound, and just after that, the ashram “bell” would toll, sounding suspiciously like a man banging a large pot with a metal utensil – each night at a different speed, and not always as many times as the clock next door. Emily and I roomed together, and we would dissolve in a fit of giggles every time we heard it.

Upon waking the first day, we headed out to see the town by daylight. The front gate of the ashram let out onto a main street directly in front of the Ganga, and I immediately ran down the ghats (kind of like large steps) to the water’s edge. The Ganga’s presence is massive and fresh and joyful. I can’t explain why it is so magnetic and emotionally riveting to me – putting my hands in the water instantly brought tears to my eyes.

Each night, the ashram holds an aarti ceremony on the same ghats beneath an enormous statue of Shiva, with a fire ceremony and jubilant singing by the resident students of the ashram in their yellow robes. People come from all over the world and join the singing, which is amplified and carries easily over the water casting a spell over the whole town. Every night, I sat rapt watching the water and those boys, some of whom couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7, as they chanted the Hanuman Chalisa (presumably as they have done every night for years), some with their eyes closed in devotion, and I wondered what their inner lives are like. In some ways, as I’d watch two of them joke and push each other in between songs, I could have mistaken them for any boys found across the globe, and then with the next song they’d fall into introspective swaying and I’d remember that they are in training for a life so very different from anything most of us will ever know. They were captivating to watch.

Meanwhile, the singing would roll onward, sometimes in the call-and-response style of kirtan, sometimes a simple singalong. The finale of the evening was the aarti itself, honoring the river with the flames of lit camphor. Everyone would stand and face the Ganga and the ashram boys would light serpent chalices and platters and pass them among the crowd. We’d all take turns placing a hand on the nearest chalice and move the flame in circles to honor and thank the river goddess with our small lights in the waning sunshine, a tiny reflection of all the goodness that Mother Ganga brings to us. Then the chalice would be passed on to the stranger next to you, who by this time is starting to feel like family. This happens every night, rain or shine, a grand display of gratitude and joy and song. It was enough to send me into tears each and every night.

The second day we were there, we hired a driver to take us to Vashishtha’s Guha or Cave, reportedly the actual cave that this legendary sage lived in 9000 years ago. (Today, many yogis know him for the pose named in his honor.) Our teacher, Claudia, had put it on our “do not miss” list. We headed up the river for about 45 minutes of curving roads with switchbacks that offered beautiful views of the green Ganga weaving gently below us. Our driver, who spoke minimal English, eventually pulled over and headed down an unmarked trail on foot, passing cows on the narrow steep path, until we reached what appeared to be a small ashram. No one spoke English,  and the place was devoid of tourists. We were instructed to remove our shoes at the patio and waved towards a door next to a huge banyan tree. It appeared that we were entering a building that was built into the side of the mountain, but beyond the door was a natural stone tunnel with candles lit at the far end. We stumbled towards them, questioning each other, “Is this it?” Moments later, our driver rushed in and said we had to hurry to catch the ferry across the river, so we laughed realizing that Vashishtha’s cave must be across the river. We caught the “ferry,” which turned out to be a big rowboat, and then took a short hike up the other side to another ashram. This one was very, very small and rural. It had some lovely homegrown-feeling shrines, including one to Shiva that was housed in a tin shed.Shiva shrine in the country

Our driver then took us to a restaurant for a late lunch, and as he turned the car back towards town, we started to wonder when we were going to get to the cave. After a belabored attempt to question him about its location, we finally realized that the small cave from the morning HAD been Vashishtha’s cave. We couldn’t believe we had blown right through it, after everything Claudia had told us about the amazing energy inside. Emily convinced the driver to take us back, regardless of the fact that the adjacent ashram was about to close, and we scrambled back down the path and sat for about 15 minutes in the cave. The silence felt ancient and heavy, and after our day of searching, we sunk into the quiet with enhanced reverence.

On a different day, we hired a guide to take us on a hike into the mountains above Rishikesh to the Neelkanth Mahadev Mandir, a Shiva temple.  The hike was about 14 km, all up. There were many Indians taking this trail on a pilgrimage to the temple, and the atmosphere was celebratory. People were calling out as they traipsed up the path and other groups would respond. “Bum bum bolay!” echoed down the hillside, and as we caught on, we joined in which tickled the natives around us to no end. We encountered packs of curious, and at times demanding, monkeys and were grateful that our guide Prem brought monkey food to distract them away from our backpacks. For the last two miles, I chanted “Om namah Shivaya” to myself and prayed that Shiva would transform anything holding me back from wherever this path is taking me.

Outside the temple, we bought flowers and water as gifts for Shiva, and then we stepped into the stream of worshipers as they flowed inside, carrying us with them. After pouring water on the shiva lingam at the entrance, and placing flowers at each murti, and giving a coconut to the priest, and receiving a tillak in the shape of Shiva’s trident on our forehead, we found ourselves outside again. After hiking all morning up hill and paying respect to Shiva, the day felt auspicious and uplifting, made moreso by the festive mood of the crowd.

We’re getting more used to being a tourist attraction at the tourist attractions we visit. One time we came out of the ashram and found ourselves in a crowd of beautiful Indian women who appeared to be from out of town. We all smiled at each other appreciatively, and Emily started taking pictures of them and they started taking pictures of us. Everywhere it seems, people want to be in photographs with us – they will make hand motions to suggest being included in a photo with us, and then they will eagerly scramble to see themselves in the photo displayed in the camera’s monitor.

My hiatus from technology, specifically the Internet, was revolutionary – I highly recommend it. Many of us have become addicted to the constant information flow without even noticing it, but the withdrawal symptoms make it clear it is an addiction as sure as any other. Try this (especially if you don’t think you’re addicted): make a commitment to a certain period of abstinence (say, 24 hours, or even 48) and watch your cravings for stimulation or information as they arise and disappear. Just watch (and don’t give in). After about four days, I didn’t even miss it, and the free time available to connect with the world around me was welcome.

Spending a bit of time as a tourist was also welcome after a month of studying. However, Punarnava’s conference – ostensibly the reason for our sojourn – was truly inspiring and well worth its own blog post, so stay tuned…. In the meantime, consider lighting a candle or bringing a flower into your home today to honor mother nature in whatever manifestation you find her. Jai Ganga ma!

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Farewell Mumbai

One thing that makes Mumbai so challenging, I find, is the juxtaposition of order and chaos, glamour and poverty, development and rubble. It prevents you from making easy judgments or putting things in tidy boxes – or from averting your eyes.  There is luxury and excess to be found here on par with any western city, but also there is an inability (or perhaps a lack of desire) to hide the underbelly of the city. It’s all mixed together. There are begging children with babies in their arms sitting right next to fine restaurants, and shiny new high rise apartments climbing nearly on top of decaying houses.  In the United States, we take great pains to remove beggars from the main thoroughfares, to keep downtown areas “clean” and appealing to visitors, to segregate the downtrodden from the affluent. In Mumbai, there is no such pretense.

It is jarring and painful to walk by dirty malnourished children who don’t have an adult with them, even though I knew to expect it. I guess I don’t really want it NOT to be painful, and certainly that’s a risk too – becoming numb to the sight. Rather, it feels like somehow it’s appropriate that tourist attractions and visible impoverishment are mixed together, that I can readily see the poor children whom I know are here. It just feels honest; brutal, but unapologetic. You’re walking through real lives. There is no artifice.

On Tuesday, two of my classmates arrived in Mumbai and we met at the SiddhiVinayaka Mandir, a renowned temple of Ganesha located smack in the middle of a busy city block. We felt it would be auspicious to start our India experience with a visit to this holy site to make offerings of laddus (the sweet confection that is Ganesha’s favorite) to ask him to clear our path of obstacles.  Lynn and Ras had also each been told by a jyotishi (a vedic astrologer) that they should make an offering of radishes to Ganesha at this particular temple to appease a certain planetary arrangement in their birth charts.

Miraculously, we found each other immediately among the crowds outside, which I took as a remarkable sign considering I was rather late due to my search for radishes at an outdoor market for them. Lynn and Ras had landed only hours before and were feeling rather ragged. After only five minutes or so in the queue, we found ourselves at the doors of the inner sanctum which held a surprisingly small orange-red murti of Ganesha, maybe three feet tall, seated on an altar and surrounded by flowers. There were four or five bare-chested priests who received the offerings from the crowd, placed the gifts briefly on the altar before Ganesha, and then moved them to the side, one after another – all day long, all year long.

It was at this point that it became a full-contact event. As we approached the altar, people began pushing from behind and we ended up pressed against the low wall of the priests’ area with people thrusting their offerings over our heads. Someone’s flower garland was dangling over my face and suddenly I found my ear nestled against Ras’s radishes as I listed sideways. I was leaning heavily against Ras’s shoulder, trying to raise my arms to lift my laddus onto the counter. When I finally did, I said a quick prayer and then ducked my head and started slinking backwards until I popped out of the crowd like a smushed grape relieved of its skin.

After leaving Lynn and Ras with plans to meet at the domestic airport the next morning, I took one more walk around Daniel’s neighborhood. It was my last day in Mumbai and I wanted to photograph some of the buildings I had seen around his apartment. Their flowery and bucolic names might have seemed ironic had there not been an entirely unselfconscious quality to their idyllic reach. Instead, they seemed somehow naively optimistic.

For more photos on an ongoing basis, you can check the home page of this blog at http://www.AyurvedaInTranslation.wordpress.com and look in the right column for “My Photos.” Clicking there will take you to my photostream on Flickr.com, which I will update throughout my time in India.

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Turns out I know even more people in this enormous, anonymous city than I thought. Sunday afternoon I took a taxi from Daniel’s apartment in to Mumbai proper, about a 45 minute drive south, to meet up with my friend Aditya’s parents. As my 18 month old niece Koruna says, I felt like a Big Girl, heading off by myself into this roiling mass of activity. Daniel had prepared me well for the taxi: “The meter is on the outside of the cab, on the passenger side, so the driver will reach over to the outside of the car to turn it on. When you get to your destination, the meter will say a number and the driver will hand you a card with a grid that shows all the numbers and the fares that match up so you can see the appropriate fare- unless it’s an electric meter, and then it will just say the fare. And there is no tipping.” Got it.

Miraculously, I managed the taxi on my own and found the right flat. Aditya’s parents Rohini and Shekhar were waiting for me with lunch on the table – the most scrumptious meal of green pepper, onion and spices, peas and potatoes, and roti (thin bread cooked on the stove top), followed by rice and yogurt. Rohini explained the finer points of using your hands instead of utensils, a lesson well needed.

Gandhi's room at Mani Bhavan

After lunch, Shekhar took me to a very conveniently located tourist attraction – Mani Bhavan, the home of Mahatma Gandhi when he was in Bombay, is literally across the street from their flat. The three story house now holds a library, many historically significant letters and documents, and a sweet little display of figurines depicting important moments in Gandhi’s life. It felt right to pay homage to Gandhi during my first days in this country, and fortuitous that such a site emerged in my path without me even seeking it out.

When we returned, Aditya’s brother’s wife Heetal had arrived.  I liked  her instantly. She took me with her to buy some candles a few blocks away. It is fun being someplace so different (and being in an open enough state) that a simple errand becomes an exciting field trip, an opportunity to simply see things around you. On our way back, we passed what looked like a nondescript office building with a small crowd at the entrance, and I could hear chanting inside. When I asked, Heetal said it was a temple. “Do you want to go in?” she asked. I hesitated, nervous about looking out of place, but realized this was only the first of many times that that feeling would arise in the coming weeks. “Absolutely,” I said.

Inside, about 25 people were standing in a small room facing a murti (a sculpture of a deity) ensconced in glass in the middle. I stuck close to Heetal’s side as many pairs of eyes followed our movements. At the edge of the group, several women moved together to make room for us and waved us closer so we could view the murti more easily. It was a beautiful goddess, with flowing colors and flower garlands around her neck. I didn’t recognize which form of the goddess it was, and Heetal explained it was Ambe Ma, also known as Ambe Mata. We stayed several minutes, and when Heetal started moving towards the door an older gentleman brought us each a flower from the murti as a blessing from the goddess.

That evening, Aditya’s parents had arranged a dinner party inviting Aditya’s cousin Sanjay, whom I had met at Aditya’s wedding, and a couple I used to know in Boston, Maya and Dunigan, who unbeknownst to me had relocated to Mumbai. Dunigan works at Bain as a consultant and Maya just gave birth to their second child three months ago. It was wonderful to see some familiar faces. We caught up over another delicious meal until my jet lag kicked in and my eyes started closing.

The next morning, Rohini planned to take me to several tourist sites, but their driver had not shown up. Neither Rohini nor Shekhar drive these days (a wise choice, I think, having now seen the Mumbai traffic), so they hire a driver who is on call for them during the workdays. Rohini called her brother and was able to borrow his driver for the morning, so we headed off to the Hanging Gardens, which overlook the Arabian Sea. Next, we drove down to the Gateway of India, a large Arc de Triomphe-style arch on the waterfront built by the British to commemorate the visit of King George V to India in 1911, the only visit of a reigning British monarch to India. Ironically, the last British troops to leave India in 1948 exited through the Gateway too. The Gateway of India is right next to the Taj Palace, the high end hotel where terrorists targeted tourists in the November 2008 bombing. We went into Victoria Terminus train station, drove past the Rajabai Clock Tower and drove down Fashion Street. In honor of my brother Ian’s visit back in 1999, of which Rohini happily recounted many stories, we went into an art gallery that she had sent Ian to.

I am reminded how much energy it takes to simply take in sights, to observe, to feel the movement of countless bodies around you. It is no surprise, then, that with jet lag and visual overload, I thankfully fell into another nap that afternoon. Hopefully by now, I am finally caught up on lost sleep.

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