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The Maldives!


Girls trip to the Maldives!!


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This is a long intro...but stick with me!




What a special trip this was.  My friend Jane was celebrating her Big 50, AND her friend Sue and my cousin Maria were visiting from the US.  So we planned a few girls' trips around Asia. 



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Wait until you hear what Jane and I did to surprise Maria and Sue.  We asked them where they wanted to go, and they picked Cambodia and Koh Samui (KS), Thailand, as they wanted to see a beach in Asia.  When Jane and I were planning the trip, we were having a hard time getting a good price on the tickets to KS and we found a great price to the Maldives.

So.... we purchased tickets to the Maldives, planed the entire trip, but did not tell Maria and Sue.  We wanted it to be a surprise.  I knew it was a dream trip for my cousin, but when she had asked early on about the Maldives, I told her it was just too expensive... which it normally is!

We wondered how far we could get them before we had to tell them where we were really going.  D took us to the airport, as he wanted to see their reaction.  Check in... D keeps them distracted while Jane shows all of our passports to the ladies at the desk.  We whisper to them it is a surprise.  They keep quiet. 



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Next, passport control.  None of the guards say anything.  We go through the gate and they hand us landing cards, which do say THE MALDIVES.  I jump in front of everyone and say I'll take those.... I am the tour guide".   


Hey Sue and Maria - show us where you are going...

This photo makes me laugh, as they still have no idea!



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And by now you are asking  - really... how could they NOT know?  It says Malé on the boarding pass, as this is the main city in the Maldives.  We tell them Malé is the airport in Koh Samui.  Neither have traveled in Asia - they have no idea.   We laugh and say we are going to "male" for Jane's big 50!  

Jane was not the only one with a surprise; we had a crown and beads for her to wear for her big celebration.



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We actually get on the plane and they still had no idea!  The announcement comes on and they say enjoy your flight to Malé.  Perfect.






After the plane took off and we had our champagne in hand, we gave them this printed itinerary....





Were they surprised?





We were only there for three nights but was pure perfection.  We stayed at the AMAZING Banyan Tree - Vabbinafaru - where the hotel is on its own island (photo below).   In Maldivian, Vabbinfaru refers to a round island circled by a round coral reef.

I did not take the photo below (pulled from Google images) but I wanted to show how AMAZING this island is.  





These are my photos, along with some by the girls...






We also visited the sister property Angsana, where the snorkeling was drop dead gorgeous!  Yes, the water is actually this color in the shallow part. 



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Cousin Maria and I shared a Villa and Jane and Sue shared one.  Each had an outdoor shower, pool, and jacuzzi.



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The back of our room opened up onto this view of the beach.


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For the record, this trip tied me with D for the number of countries we visited, 54!! 

I told you I was going to sneak off one day...



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We woke up early each day and enjoyed the sunrise and coffee on the beach.



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What is great about an all girls trip is you can pose for corny photos - which we did!    The pictures where I am in the photo, or all four of us, are taken by photographer extraordinaire, Sue Harris Photography.



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It was interesting how the blues of the sky and water changed at different times of the day.  We were told by the hotel staff that on a scale from 1 to 10, the day we were there would have been around a "3" for water color and clarity.  Only a "3"?  It was stunning... I cannot even image what a "10" day looked like!


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Meet Moosa, the adorable guide we had for snorkeling and all marine life activities.  He started us off with a one-hour presentation on what Banyan Tree is doing to help sustain the Maldives, which are disappearing.  




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The Maldives is the lowest lying country on Earth, at just 8 feet above sea level.  Within 100 years, the entire country will be under water.  



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Angsana is said to have one of the best house reefs in the world.  I believe them!  The sea life we saw was more of the level you see when you are scuba diving, not just snorkeling.  You can see from the photo below we were not in very deep water.  Moosa took these photos for us with his underwater camera.



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Yet, what we saw was incredible - with a punch of color.



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I have to share this image even though it is not the clearest one.  Jane had never been snorkeling and we were very proud that she gave it a go with us.  What a great thing to try on your 50th Birthday!



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And look at Sue go - she was really going deep in the water!  I had to stay at the surface - but it was so clear you did not have to go very deep to see the splendor!



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And I lost my breath (we all did!) when we saw this - A SHARK!!!   I was hanging on to sweet little Moosa for dear life.  I wished they had taken a photo of my face at this exact point.  What we saw are black tipped reef sharks and they are not dangerous.  We saw several of them, each time giving us a jolt of excitement!



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The most spectacular scene was at the very end - and of course we ran out of memory space on the camera at that exact point!  Moosa went deep and swam directly into this school of fish.



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I am not even sure how to describe this.  The fish started to swarm around him in a circle.  If he flipped his arms out they would break away in perfect formation and then come right back to the circle.  He would kick out his leg and they would do the same thing.  It was like nothing I have ever seen.



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After an amazing day of snorkeling... it was hard to imagine that the evening could be better... it started off with another surprise by Jane and this time I was not in on it! 

A sunset cruise...

on a yacht....


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with just the four of us...



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with champagne and appetizers...






We had to recreate the scene from the Titanic.






Had the night ended there it would have been perfect.... but there was more!  Look out into the ocean...



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Can you see that very small island (technically a sandbank)?? 



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As we got closer..... 



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We could see two adorable young men holding 4 glasses of champagne...



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the moon, and a beautiful table set for four!



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Really?  Dinner on a private island?  And we are the only guests!




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Cheers cousin Maria!



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As the sunset, it cast a delicate pink hue... like a dream.



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Here's to Jane... Happy Birthday!



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Our dinner was impressive given we were on a small island with no electricity.  Everything for the dinner, including the grill was carried on the yacht to the island.

We started off with a grilled shrimp salad, followed by lobster, chicken, baked potato, and corn.  Then we enjoyed a second main of grilled lamb and veggies and we finished with a fruit and cream brulee.





Where did they cook this amazing meal?? 

On a very small grill!  



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The entire meal was catered and cooked by these five men.  They also took  great photos of us.



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 It was an incredible evening! 

What a PERFECT 50th Birthday we had... I mean Jane had!



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When we got back to our rooms, they had decorated for Jane's Birthday.  But there was a gift for each of us - a sarong with our names embroidered on them.  You will see us wearing them in a group photo towards the end of this post.



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Other fun things we did during our holiday...

No photos - but we all had one-hour massages - ahhhh so relaxing!

The marine center (our guide Moosa) does a daily feedings of stingrays and sea turtles.  It is fascinating that wild stingrays know to come to a specific location on the beach everyday around 4:30 to be fed.



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We took a demonstration cooking class to learn how to make Maldivian food.   We learned how to cook Mas Goulah (fish balls) with coconut Roti, Kulhi Boakibaa (tuna dish), and chicken curry.  They cook most dishes with coconut milk so I was in heaven.   SO YUMMY!



Cooking class

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We went by speedboat to visit one of the local islands.  The Maldives is an Islamic republic, which lies off the Indian sub-continent. It is made up of a chain of nearly 1,200 islands, of which only 200 are inhabited and around 90 are developed as resorts. 



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The islands are spread over 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 sq mi), making it one of the world's most dispersed countries.  We were on the North Male atoll area.




The population of all of the islands is only around 350,000.  Alcohol is prohibited in the Maldives, but resorts are allowed to serve it.



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A very interesting fact about the Maldives...they have a 98-percent literacy rate among adults and 100 percent of children are enrolled in primary school, with a 99 percent graduation rate to grade five.  





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Our last day - Jane's Birthday Breakfast


We finally got to surprises Jane by wrapping 50 presents for her to open on her special day!



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Exactly how many cakes did you have Jane?





More group photos on Jane's b-day with our matching Sarongs (note our names at the bottom).



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Most of the staff came out to wish us well when we left.  I just hope that I can one day go back and visit this beautiful island!



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This was a fantastic girls trip - one we will always remember!



Mekong Delta, Vietnam - Christmas & New Year 2014


Saigon & the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Christmas & New Year 2014



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This was a last minute trip.  We realized D had a week of vacation left along with the Christmas/New Year holidays, so we wanted to go somewhere.  Especially because this is our last Christmas in Asia! 

We pulled up fights to see what country was the cheapest, and Vietnam popped up.  The Mekong Delta was on our list of "places we wanted to visit" so we found a match.  What we were NOT expecting was that Vietnam would be so festive for a country that does not celebrate Christmas!



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Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is a large, busy city.  I actually enjoyed it more this time than last, maybe because it was extra festive during the holidays.   



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We flew out on Christmas Day and spent the first night in Saigon.  That evening the streets were packed with families riding around the city on their motorcycles.  We were told this was the big thing to do on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 



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Many of the children were wearing Santa suits and hats - so adorable!



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Christmas decorations paired with the communist hammer and sickle symbol...  an interesting contrast.



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Look closely at this motorcycle - it has a little wicker seat attached to the front for a child as well as a stuffed animal shaped pillow for emergency padding, the motorcycle version of a car seat and "air" bags.  And we saw them both in use all over the city. Like we always say - safety first!







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Bonus points if we capture a family of five on a bike!  We saw many this time.



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How about a puppy?



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The next day we hired a car to drive us to our hotel in Cai Be, situated in the Mekong Delta region.  Our hotel had individual huts that looked right out onto the Mekong River. 



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The Mekong River is the world’s 10th-longest river and the 7th-longest in Asia.  It covers an area of approximately 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers).

We loved sitting on our back porch watching the daily activity on the river.  These men came every morning to check their traps.  



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 They were so close I almost felt like we were peering into their homes.  Well, really we were.



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We enjoyed a foot massage in the outdoor spa.  D finally learned to enjoy one!  He loves full body massages but hates having his feet done.  Not me - I will sit for hours if you massage my feet.






We had never seen open boats full of rice like the ones below.  This area is often referred to as the 'rice bowl' of Vietnam due its huge production of rice crop.



Rice boat



I am not sure I could squat like this on a regular floor without falling over, let alone off the back of a boat!






Bouquets and notes placed on our pillow each night.  How cleaver to write the note on the leaf.  We really enjoyed this hotel and found the area to be extremely relaxing.



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Can Tho


We stayed at the lovely Boutique hotel Nam Bo in Can Tho.  It was our 26th wedding anniversary!  They left us a sweet treat and a heart of roses on the bed.  Awe...



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 D in front of the Ho Chi Minh statue while wearing his Ho Chi Minh T-shirt.




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The biggest and best floating market in the Mekong Delta is Phung Hiep. The market opens at 4.00 am and closes around 11.00 am, so you need arrive early.  It gets pretty packed with tourist, but still worth a visit.  



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Farmers from the region bring their fruits and vegetables to the floating markets on the larger boats and sell them to local dealers (in the small boats). These dealers in turn sell the products at local markets, or to shops in the neighboring towns. 



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Vendors hang the product they sell from the top of a pole attached to their boat so the buyer can see from far away.



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Our boat driver/guide bought a jackfruit - he must have gotten a good deal as he was very happy.



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 D saving us from a collision!



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Food and eating is a big part of the market.  There are small boats selling coffee and soup and other items to eat. They are for the locals, but some tourists come for breakfast.



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We had a cup of coffee from this woman.  Her big smile was infectious! 



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A few snapshots of everyday life on the water...



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Our guide was so much fun.  He spoke very little English, but we had a great time with him.  And he was quite talented in making things from the reed and flowers found along the water.



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Our lovely hotel was only available for two nights so we decided to stay the last night in a home stay. Not a typical choice for us, but we decided to give this one a try.  It was very sweet, but one night was enough!   :  )



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They were simple walls of grass tied together.  You had to be very quiet or you neighbor could hear everything.  The owners were a young couple.  She had just finished university and he was a policeman.



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We had to sleep in a mosquito net.  And they were not to just make the room look pretty!



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There was a relaxing area next to the huts with hammocks. 



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A jackfruit tree, where the fruit can get as big as 80 pounds each.  Jackfruit has a very strong smell (not as bad as the durian) but taste quite nice.  Described as a cross between an apple, pineapple, mango, and banana.



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This is a good shot that shows a banana leaf.  Banana leaf salad is very popular in Vietnam.



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  banana flower



The home stay also had small boats we could take out on our own.



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Yes, I actually took a boat out and rowed on my own.  Not that I went very far  :   )    The scenery was beautiful.



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We did a boat tour here too.   It gave us a very different perspective then the others we had taken.



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It was very junglesque.  We even saw Tarzan!

We have no idea what he was doing. 


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Our guide was one of the helpers at the home stay.  He only spoke one word of English, "hello".  When he wanted to get our attention to show us something he would say hello.  hello.  He was quite ornery and had us laughing a lot.




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D loves to cross rickety old bridges.  I use the word "bridge" loosely.



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 A mini bridge for me to cross.  Isn't the green moss on the water a beautiful color?



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Local life on the river....



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We saw several people cleaning vegetables and fish (above) as well as bathing and brushing their teeth (below) with the river water.



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And we visited a crocodile farm!  This place was bizarre.  It was not for tourists.  In fact, I thought it was very dangerous as no one was around to see if we were going to climb into the pen.  There were hundreds of crocodiles.  There were close to 15 large pens, each holding the same size and age from babies to huge adult crocodiles.  I read that this was a farm for skin and meat and their main market for selling the skin is China.



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As I mentioned, there were lots of fun activities at the home stay.  We even went bicycling with the chef/housekeeper.  The entire staff was really good, helping out wherever they are needed.



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Of course we had to stop for a scoop of ice cream when I saw this vendor.  Forgetting that this probably was not the safest thing to eat!






Our guide had to run an errand so we tagged along. 

She spoke around 5 words of English.  Can you guess what she bought?



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Below is the bag she walked away with. 

Here is a hint; they are warm and fuzzy...



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Baby ducks! 

We asked if they were to eat by running our finger across our neck.....

they were not!



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We stopped by a local temple and met the older woman who lives there and takes care of it.  From what we could gather she was around 88 and her husband is still alive, but was in town drinking. 



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We shared our drinks with her and she gave us cookies.



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She showed us the graves of her parents and grandparents.  Three generations having lived in the temple.



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This was a sweet little scene - a neighborhood of children and adults playing bingo outside.



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We toured a rice noodle factory.



Noodle making



We both tried our hand at making them.



D Grid



I am going to share my moment with you... when I fell of my bike.  The tire caught on the edge of the sidewalk and I went down.  Fortunately no injuries, but it really scared our guide!



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Another snack we tried... Banh Bong Lan - translates to sponge cake.  





Back to Saigon to celebrate New Year's Eve. 



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Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, Saigon was "officially" renamed Ho Chi Minh City. However the old Saigon name is still used by both Vietnamese and tourists.  I like calling it Saigon as I think it sounds exotic!



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A visit to the market.



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A crazy old man (more likely a drunk old man) posing for me to take his photo.



Old man



Check out this guys pet...



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Sweet children, always happy to pose for the camera.



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The little guy is holding hands with one girl and is waving to the other.  Priceless!



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And then he turns around waves to me!  Quite the little flirt.



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Usually I get the bride, but this groom was just too cute.



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We found these mangers very interesting.  It looked like a nativity cave for the little Christ figures.  We saw many of them on people's porches - some small, some large.  The catholic population in Vietnam is less than 7%. 



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Nap time!


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I will end this long blog with New Year's Eve!  This is the view from our window around 11 PM.  The road was completely blocked with motorcycles and people.  Fortunately our hotel was in a fantastic location.



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Me in the middle of the crowd.



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And the fireworks! 

What a great way to end 2014 and to welcome 2015!



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