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To meditate on meditation

One of these posts, the harmonica elephant will have it’s moment.  But now’s not the time.

So I was thinking I now have less than a month before I’m back in The True North, Strong and Free.  It would be cool to try to squeeze in another authentic Thai experience before that since I imagine it’ll be a long time, if ever I return here.  I’ve heard lots about these meditation courses that you can enrol in pretty much anywhere in South East Asia that practices Buddhism.  They’re available in the West as well, but over here it would be undoubtably cooler.   There are thousands of Wats (temples) scattered across Thailand alone and many of them offer these meditation experiences.  They sound really interesting though most of them you should be able to speak some Thai and I only know a few words that, with luck, will get me fed.  Some of the more organized Wats have websites and online applications and have teachers and monks who speak good English.  They’re obviously the most popular with tourists but all the same a very authentic experience.  The typical meditation course runs 10 days and you live and learn to meditate like a monk.  At the end of which, a modest donation to the temple is expected.  Sounds pretty cool right?

So I was on this great website browsing different possibilities (http://www.dhammathai.org/e/meditation/page1.php) and came across one in particular, Wat Pah Nanachat which means “International Forest Monastery”.  Sounded amazing – monastic lifestyle in secluded forest mountain, English is the teaching medium with promising meals.  “Where do I sign up?” is running through my mind.  And then I got to the very bottom where I read, in order to demonstrate my renunciation I’m expected to shave the hair on my head.  No big deal my head is mostly buzzed right now anyway and my beard comes and goes every two weeks – and my eyebrows.  When I read that part my eyes went wide and my eyebrows would have been arched across my forehead to express the astonishment that was in my face.  Something you can’t do without eyebrows.
Once I read that I jumped on Google and queried, “eyebrows how long to grow back?”.  Not soon enough, I’m afraid.  The most reasonable estimate I came across was 8-12 weeks before you notice them.  Damn, I don’t know if I have that kind of renunciation in me.  While I was exploring I came across numerous frantic posts from young women who had made grievous errors with their grooming habits.  Turns out there’s a whole community of women who have serious problems with eyebrow plucking.  I had no idea.  I can’t speak for any female but personally, I don’t believe risking a complex over the way your eyebrows look is worth it.  We all enjoy grooming, but when it comes to applying CASTOR OIL on your face you gotta draw a line somewhere.

I have however applied to a more conventional and accommodating meditation experience just outside of Bangkok.  It would be brilliant to participate since I’ve heard so many good things from people who have done it and my time is running out.  Also this rural living is doing everything it can to bring me to my knees and 10 days of silence and reflection after so much time here in Thailand would be extraordinary.  At the same time, I’ve committed myself to this teaching experience and although I’ve paid money to participate and I receive no real recompense, there are people counting on me to hang around until the end.  The end being 29th/30th of July when I return to Bangkok for my last couple days.  We’ll see.

The day Buddhism came into my life, part 2

I almost forgot, Happy Canada Day everyone!  Being over here for such an amount of time I can say one thing with utmost certainty – Canada is great and beautiful country with room for improvement but that’s where we come in.  Wave the flag proud, drink a cold beer and wish someone HCD.  I wouldn’t want to wind up anywhere else.  (New Zealand sounds pretty sweet though. . . )



And so we pick up where we left off. . .

I awoke at my now standard 5:30 am to find students already milling about, getting started with their day.  Soon afterwards we were being ushered outside for intentions I had yet to discover but hopefully breakfast wasn’t far from top.  The temple, Wat Khao Sukim was enormous with many passages and pathways leading to different parts of the grounds.  All the while I’m snapping shots furiously as we come to an open cafeteria for breakfast of rice gruel.  Afterwards I’m going with the main current of students as we make our way to a tall buddha statue surround by four pillars and covered by a dome.  I’m standing watching students pray, while moments later my arm is being tugged as I’m encouraged to participate.  I make a donation and take a small bouquet of flowers and light three joss sticks.  Holding everything together between my palms I pray as I was taught and then step down from the statue’s gaze.
I follow the students to a new set of stairs and once inside at the top of the landing, I can tell this is something important.  Statues, vases, furniture, artifacts of all manner, shapes and sizes fill a room wall-to-wall no less the size of a school gymnasium.  Wow.  I feel my pulse up a notch as my finger twitches towards my camera.  I’m just about to get started when I look to a table and there in the unmistakable saffron and crimson robes is a monk speaking to me, asking me to kneel before him.  It takes a moment for my brain to demand my legs forward but once I do, I’m on the floor with my hand out stretched to the monk as he speaks to me both in Thai and surprisingly good English.
“Do you speak Thai?”
“Nit noy, kap” (A little – with respect)
He recognizes me as a teacher and then ties a small, braided white bracelet around my wrist and presents me with a  rolled up sheet of paper as if I just convocated.  I can’t think of anything to say but to give thanks while he invites me to take many pictures.  Ignorantly, I ask if I may take one of him.  He silently shakes his head.  A little embarrassed, I thank him once more and get busy with my camera.  The room unsurprisingly was a museum and featured hundreds of Thai and Buddhist artifacts covering hundreds of years.  Many artifacts relating to the King and Royal Family were also on display. 
A staircase going up led me to an open roof-top terrace with a couple smaller buildings open for viewing.  The view from up there was stunning – you could see for miles across to adjacent peaks and down into the thick valley below.  I wandered into a  little building and was marvelling over the pieces when I caught a glimpse of another disciplined looking monk sitting in a chair, quite silently.   Caught off guard and worried that I might break his meditation, I spun 180* and made for the opposite side of the room.  Peering over at the monk, he still hadn’t batted an eyelash, much less move or fidget.  “I have got to learn focus like that”, I thought to myself.  I edge closer and closer and the man is like some kind of statue, staring complacently into the wall on the other side.  I literally walk right up to him, regard the faded tatoo on his right arm and wave my hand in front of his face.  “What the . . .   Jeezus Kriest!!  He’s Wax!!” (A resin epoxy of some nature, but whatever).  I laugh in spite of myself and immediately take a photo.  That’s when I notice the English, water damaged sign hidden behind plastic leaves that reads “Please Don’t Touch”.  Right.  I walk back outside still grinning over the personal bit of drama I just went through when a student appears and informs me it’s soon time to head back to the bus.  “Nooooooooooo!  I’m not ready, there’s still so much to look at!”  Grudgingly, I start making my way back the way I came but before I exit the museum I see another seated monk (this one definitely real and much elder) speaking softly into a microphone.  To his left is a large urn, filled undoubtably with holy water, and resting next to it is a brush with long, stiff bristles.  On his right is a small collection of religious looking papers and trinkets.  Kneeled in front of him are six Thai people all bent over in prayer.  The monk speaks to them through the mic while he dips the brush into the urn.  The brush dripping, he flicks it over the heads of the worshipers while he speaks his blessing.  Once finished the Thai people stand, give thanks, some give donations and go about their way.  I make eye contact with this monk and from that point I’m the Millenium Falcon caught in the tractor beam.  Except this time it has nothing to do with an Inter-galactic axis of evil.  The next moment I’m kneeled down directly in front of him along with a few other Thai  who have joined.  I bow forward in deep prayer and the monk begins his sermon once again.  I feel the drops of water soak into my sweaty scalp and shirt and for a moment, I feel relaxed as my mind clears.  A moment passes and I start to look upwards when I feel round two of the water shaking.  Whoop.  After the  blessing, I’m beckoned by one of the non-monks to give a  donation.  I would have anyway and so I reach into my pocket, pull out a note and slip it into the box.  Before I walk away, the elder monk calls me forward, reaches under a scarf sitting next to him and from a bowl, he hands me a colourful braided bracelet.  It’s adjustable, but even so my hand is too large for it.  Looking down at it, I think this must be the most sacred adornments I’ve ever received.  Now I need to figure out where I can put it.  I thank the monk as graciously as I can and make for the exit.

It’s only 9 am but I’m already heading back down the great flight of stairs as other visitors are just arriving.  I wish I could have spent more time there and I wish I understood more about Buddhism.  That Intro to Religions in the East I took in first year has not aged well but thanks to Wikipedia I was fast refreshing myself back in town.
When I was walking down those stairs I was thinking about my first intense non-christian experience.  When I was in Pakistan immediately after high school with my good friend, Kareem, I remember being taken to a large mosque somewhere in Karachi.  Not realizing what was happening at the time, I remember suddenly finding myself in a long line of Muslim men about to commence prayer .  Thoughts like “sacrilegious”, “inappropriate” and “oh, shit” all came to mind but ‘when in Rome. . .’

And so I prayed like a Muslim and it felt really good.

There, on top of that mountain in such a holy place I prayed like a Buddhist and it felt really good.  It’s helped give some new insight towards how I feel about religion but I won’t get into that here.  Once those entirely unholy buses came into view my mind returned to more depressing and immediate matters.  The ride back needless to say was terrible to the point of me contemplating hitching or perhaps sabotage, but I made it back nevertheless.  Thank god I’m getting to know Thailand.

The day Buddhism came into my life, part 1

First of all,  goddamit Toronto, what gives with the riots?  People who have no better way to express themselves than by smashing private businesses and torching things need to buck the fuck up and remember you’re not four-year olds throwing a tantrum in the supermarket.  I’m embarrassed.

Sorry folks but the harmonica elephant will have to wait a little while longer – I was taken on a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts over the weekend (not related to the pic in lasts’ post.  I’ll talk about that with the elephant).  Volunteering by the way is freaking amazing.

So here we go – I was fortunate enough to  hitch a ride along with an exodus of students down to Rayong Province, in the South-East part of Thailand, North of the Gulf.  I never did get the exact purpose of the trip but it involved paying homage to Wat Khao Sukim – one of Thailand’s most respected Buddhist Temples.  It would seem however that the road to enlightenment is paved through hell and I certainly experienced my own personal version of it.  If I were to atone for all the sins of the world it would involve me in one of these rickety sardine crates designed to both cross highways or procure confessions from Soviet spies.  Within this smelly tin of grease you will find upwards of 70 Thai students all shouting some unreasonably distasteful and loud karaoke music on multiple televisions from 10 at night until 8 the next morning.  In total there were 4 of these supersize brain smashers and each time we’d make a pit stop, I’d burst out with my bag and steal a seat on another bus, hoping the next driver hadn’t already had his ear drums shaken to a pulp.  As it turns out, Bus #3 was the winner.  Not only was the volume slightly more reasonable the music wasn’t half bad either.  It became a little awkward when the video turned to a lengthy rock concert with 8 dancing girls about one “wardrobe malfunction” away from being softcore porn.  This must be where lap dance moves are experimented with before being released into action.

When we finally made it into Rayong there were all typical tourist functions about amongst the students such as shopping for dried squid and hanging seashell wind chimes over each other’s heads.  We visited a pretty serious aquarium.  I don’t remember the last time I was at one, but it all seemed quite tragic – the fish were stunted and rather spiritless.  I felt my heart sink while I watched a White Spotted Eagle Ray meander about and bump into the walls.  It made a huge difference having seen most of these fish in their natural habitat and none of them here elicited any type of behavior I’d have expected in the wild.  It was nice to know almost everything I was looking at though and the students were impressed I could tell them what the English names were.
Eventually we made it to a public beach.  It was amusing to watch nearly 300 Thai kids splash about in the surf while fully clothed.  The beach itself was horrid.  I decided to give swimming a go anyway but when I passed a dead cat I had had it.
Later that evening  we stopped for dinner in a great market with all manner of slaughtered animal plus the typical clothes, toys and other randomness.  It only took 9 months but I can now go into a Thai community of zero English and feed myself for a fair price.  I had my dinner in hand and beaming with pride when I was whisked away with the male teachers.  These guys are a riot, always joking with each other as do most Thai.  But once the students were out of sight, out came the cigarettes and whiskey sodas.  You gotta love a place that lets you bring your own bottle of cheap booze to a restaurant table and first thing they do is bring out glasses and ice.  At the end of it all I had a bit of a buzz going on but I wasn’t the only one.  One teacher was busy telling me how handsome I am (not unusual for heteros to display overt affection for each other), while another teacher tried his hand and back at break dancing.  It didn’t work at all but was hilarious all the same.  I remember thinking if all this was happening back home it’s just a matter of time before the merry-go-round shudders to a halt and out come the handcuffs.  Maybe it was the whiskey sodas or maybe the 9 months away from home but none of it ever seemed particularly out of line.  There’s simply different rules and expectations for students and teachers.  And refreshingly, none of this soft risk management crap.  One teacher beckoned a student while on the bus to come give him a shoulder massage and the student went straight to work.  It was like he could have been his son, both were laughing and joking and would give an endearing whap on the back of the head to other students who poked fun.  The kid knew what he was doing too, I was trying to make mental notes on his technique.

At the end of the day all 4 buses pulled through a very impressive temple gateway and we then piled out into a large receiving area surrounded by giant Buddha statues everywhere.  We had arrived at Wat Khao Sukim.  We then climbed a long and sweaty flight of stairs up the mountain side to a large hall where we would spend the night.  As my new Thai friends and I got ready for bed I spent some time to draft this entry and to take in the awe-inspiring sight.  That night I slept on a red carpet before 24 golden statues and a painting of a very important looking monk (and that was just on the one side of the room). One of my students taught me how to pray before a Buddha statue and I remember thinking I haven’t felt this auspicious in a long time.  I fell asleep that night thinking well of  friends and family back home and wishing I could share the experience.  Sleep soon came fast.

Part two, along with some pics will come in a couple days.  Not to worry, I haven’t forgot about the harmonica playing elephant – I just need something else to talk about later.
Cheers

2 posts in less than a week? (slight edit)

I actually have a tremendous amount of things I’d like to share on here so check back again in another few days for tales of harmonica playing elephants and Thai weddings. 

But for now, I’d like to indulge some moments of reflection now that I’m a few days removed from my diving experience on Ko Tao and am as busy as ever with this volunteering business.
I love humor, but who doesn’t? Satire is the best.  What I enjoy most is being able to weave bits of humor into personal stories that I care about.  Now aside from some occasional cussing I’m sure we’d agree that the content here is mostly PG-13, but that’s the way it should be.  Honest, mildly entertaining but most important, palatable for most tastes which keeps me in the good graces with all the down-to-Earth people back home.  I must be honest though, if I could take some liberties with some more ‘flavourful’ personal opinions you can imagine how the tone of the blog might change.  Everyone knows how stiff being PC all the time can be.  Personally, I’d love it so long as it’s not too offensive or simply hating.  I like to be expressive because it helps to alleviate stress and can sometimes give me a better perspective of things when I see how I feel on paper.  I feel I can be tolerant of pretty much anything but finding genuine appreciation for things such as Thai drivers or music producers (ask me later for the not so PG-13 perspective) is something I don’t ever expect to conquer.  So anyway, all I have to do to keep this clean is remind myself there’s a line between personal memoirs and public reading material. 

My other concern with more of a “tell all” approach to writing has to do with how people interpret my stories.  This blog of course is for my friends and family back home – people I care about (but if I don’t know you, that’s cool too).  It’s not a commercial venture for people I’ll never meet and who don’t give a damn about how they feel about me.  What would my children think of my ‘year down the rabbit hole’, reading through this the first time?  I don’t think it’s a great secret that the raw, uncensored, hi-def playback of this experience, in a more conservative perspective, would raise alarms like Chicago did in 1871.  Now before you pop your monocle keep in mind I never did anything I regret or anything I would judge others for doing the same.  I like to think of it like going away to summer camp but the stakes are raised all around.  Such as Bull Sharks in the swimming hole or a lady-boy show on Variety Night.  No roasting marshmallows but fire poi and questionable meat are the norm.  The custodial staff that doesn’t speak your language and regards you with a mild form or resentment is totally the same. 
Joking aside, how does one relate a ‘story more scorned’ of which you cannot possibly recreate the appropriate context?  The egoist in me says self-censoring is bullshit and that you should be privy to the full experience so that you may better relate to me and my story but here’s the final answer: Buy a ticket and find out for yourself. 
Not that I wouldn’t want to share with you when you ask,
“So Ben, how was Thailand?”
“Oh pretty cool, ups and downs you know?  Spicy food. . .”
A question like that says your either being polite or don’t know where to start asking, but that’s fair.  The chronicles of my experience through this blog is the most sincere reflection I have of my time in Thailand and the closest thing I can do to bring an experience to life on a computer screen.  Ideally, what I’d rather answer questions to are things that have to do with stories from the blog or things I might have left out, only because of the impact the trip has had on me and how much I’d like to impart the experience to others.  Either that or hear from someone who can challenge me on my personal decisions and ask why I did as I chose (I’m looking at you, Ms. Parsons).  The point is I want to provide a complete and as rich of a first hand account of this culture warp both for those who have read along with every blog and for myself.  But modesty has a place in every occasion so therefore. . . 

The truth is there are some things I’ll never share except with those closest to me but that’s the way it’s supposed to be isn’t it? – and I’m sure everyone reading this knows exactly what I mean.  In the end there’s no easy way to rationalize irresponsible behavior.  That’s why God invented peer-support groups and Ko Tao and I can tell you quite honestly I’ve fraternized enough with the latter.  I’ll chalk it up to the learning experience and the chance to live out a dream long enough for me to take away the best of it and walk away clean.  Time to put that madness in the past and focus on what matters most.  I’m very glad I’m in a new environment which is culturally fast tracking my experience in Thailand like I never imagined. 

I guess my soul-searching is through for now.  Remember – harmonica playing elephant! 

Here I am looking as Cameron so lovingly put it, "my bald head and pants"

The first vehicle of any sort that I fully owned

Cheers,

The top pic by the way is me at the top of a mountain-esque Buddhist Temple from last weekend.  More about that next time.  The bottom pic is my jalopy of a motorbike, but with a custom paint job.  Guess what it is?

Holy shift gears, Batman!

. . .and out of the smouldering ashes gave a deafening roar and flying up towards the heavens was the fiery and magnificent Phoenix, gazing down at the Earth below.

I think it’s safe to say this near year long voyage has taken an abrupt ‘about face’.  Yes, the charred remains of Will the Dive Instructor have given birth to Ben the Volunteer English Teacher.  Anyone who has been following with this blog could tell that things were no longer sunshine and rainbows in terms of the professional dive community.  My trip is less than 2 months from termination and all things considered, I felt as though I had little to show for it.  Particularly when you consider I was completely stalled in the diving business and not willing to recommit to the job hunt and stay on Ko Tao for the sake of a few extra weeks of diving (It all went to shit anyway). 

So here I am now, with a new haircut and my old name and oh my lord, did it come at a good time.  I’m in a village outside of Chaiyaphum, a seemingly forgettable town in the middle of Thailand.  It feels a lot like Vietnam in the sense that I’m new, know nothing and everyone wants to talk to you.  Best of all, I haven’t seen another Westerner, let alone a tourist since I left Bangkok.  The trip up here was all a bit sketch, of course.  The ferry and train ride into Bangkok was no big deal, but if it wasn’t for the explicit instructions on how to get here from Bangkok I’d have never made it.   It depended on the trust of complete strangers who don’t speak your language and hoping the bus driver remembers to tell you when to get off.  Thankfully things work themselves out and now it won’t be long before I’m in long pants, button shirts, shaven face and ready to hit the classroom.  I’m quite the grub as it is now.

I don’t really have many details about the job exactly but it’s a secondary school with kids from ages 12-18.  From what I can tell, there have been other volunteers through here in the past, but I’m the only Westerner out of 52 teachers now and 700 some odd students.  Did you know I’m allowed to strike students?  Wild.  I can’t say for other nations but I’d be shocked to find out some Canadian volunteer smacked some poor bugger for disrupting class.  It doesn’t seem to be significant concern either way.  On a somewhat related topic, I also might be the biggest person in the town.  Grrr. 

Just kidding.

Already I’m learning more Thai in a day than I probably did in my first 8 weeks in the country.  Minimal English around here, for sure.  The thing with language on Ko Tao is you don’t learn to speak Thai – You learn to speak shitty English for the Thai and they respond in kind.  This place seems to take itself a little more seriously.  I guess we’ll find out.

I’m going to hike about the grounds and see what’s going on.  No pics yet, but next time I promise.

Above: English Teacher.

Of rice and men

I’m done here, I’m both sad to say and slightly bitter.  I’d say I need to get away now before my unforgettable Ko Tao experience completely stagnates and leaves me with more of that bitterness.  Maybe that’s a little harsh but either way, today was the clear ending of one experience and now I’m in a bit of a limbo before the next one begins.  What I mean by all that is, probably my best mate in Thailand left for home today.  Luke, if you read this you’re equal parts Legend and crazy.  Best of luck mate.  Also, I’d just like to note that Luke left the island carrying enough weight to sink an iceberg and yet still in barefoot.  An islander to the end, eh?

That’s just it though, your experience really revolves around the people you spend it with.  The best days of Ko Tao, (peak season in the Winter when everyone was always earning money) we were enjoying the island to it’s fullest.  Friends become family, shitty bungalows become home sweet home and dive sites are as familiar as a backyard.  Something like ‘The summer that never ended’.  Or so we would have liked to believe.  Peak season ends, jobs become scarce.  Everyone talks about ‘Red Shirts” this and “volcano’ that and the island really seemed to take a turn for the worse.  Not only that but my dive gear was showing signs of wear, such as my torn fins and I’ve now witnessed coral bleaching occur before me.  Underneath Ko Tao, the corals are white.  So the wheels start to fall off a little bit and the ugliness of the island becomes a little more evident.  Time away from the shop and the water you start to reflect that maybe things weren’t so hot and that the people you’ve worked and are friends with suddenly seem more tainted and jaded.  Now that I feel I’ve come full circle on Ko Tao it seems that in the end, everyone leaves and you’re alone on Ko Tao.  Now admittedly, that’s bleak.  Ko Tao has changed very little, I’ve simply grown out of it.  And now that one of my good mates, whose own Ko Tao experience has in many ways mirrored my own, has left the island I have little reason to stay myself.  I could never forget to mention however, how much of a good friend Ashley has been.  Ashley, whom I’ve known most of my time on Ko Tao has always had my back and will be who I miss most when I leave myself.  Followed closely by Popeye.

So my remaining days on this little slice of paradise are close to an end.  My motorbike is going up for sale, I have some things to mail and things to simply make go away but then I’ll be off onto the final phase of my travels and the now highly appropriately named adventure, Bangkok Dangerous.  I’m through with diving, I can’t afford it anyway so I’m going to rural Thailand to do some volunteering.  The organization is called VolunThai (volunthai.com) and the plan is to do some informal English teaching.  The plan has been set in motion and I start when I sell my bike and get off the island.  The town is called Chaiyaphu but I’ll give you some more details when I’m sorted.  I’m really looking forward to it.  Vietnam was excellent in the sense I was in the middle of it all and none of this soft, tourist, ‘poor imitation of Western food’ crap.  I might actually learn some Thai while I’m at it.  It’ll be great to be working with locals.

I’m thinking more and more about home.  Not ready yet, but it’ll be great to see everyone when I do.  8 weeks exactly.

Sorry for the lack of steady photos but I’ve not been able to put any together lately.  Soon.

Burmese live in Myanmar?

I made the most efficient border excursion thus far today.  Last night I left on a night ferry to take me from Ko Tao to Chumphon, on the mainland.  Within moments I was on a bus on my way to Ranong, which is a town on the Thai/Myanmar border.  Immediately we were punched through customs and herded onto a leaky narrow boat to take us across the river and into Myanmar.  Never have I smelt such a foul and objectionable stench.  What a pit.  It almost seemed like a futuristic dystopian with these large empty cargo/ferry boats marauding about, with a lone pilot and long-tail engine.  Perhaps you had to have been there. . .  On the boat coming into Myanmar there was a guy with a big black bag holding out a chart with a list of all the pills that you could buy off him as you were coming into official customs and passport control offices.  Seriously.  I mean, it was after all only Viagra, Xanex, Prozac, Valium, Codeine and Tremadol among other knock offs.  From talking with some mates who have done this trip before, I knew they guy was coming and I’ll admit, my curiosity had me studying the chart more so than I would have otherwise.  I mean how often do you really get to browse a completely illegit cornucopia of frightening drugs?  And the fact that I was about to walk through customs I thought was hysterical.  We passed a small island with a bunch of guys strutting around in army fatigues.  In total, I was in Myanmar no more than 15 minutes or so.  I did however buy a cheap bottle of gin from a Burmese guy who held an umbrella for me during the rain.  I’m actually pretty sure about that dystopian thing.  By 3:00pm I was back on Ko Tao with my passport fully updated.  The lesson to be learned is getting the double entry visa is a huge time and money saver.   And if you ever need a carton of ‘boot-leather’ cigarettes for the cost of a bus fare, go to Myanmar.
Despite my first impression of Myanmar, it’s supposed to be a cool place to check out.  The military has itself a bit of a despotism and money goes all the wrong places, but the people are friendly and genuine.  Maybe next time?

pic to come soon