India: Chai, Chaos and Trains

As we arrived in Delhi, the sun gently illuminated this vibrant city of 20 million people and it would be our home for the next 5 days. Tamar had warned David many, many times to expect a hectic scene when leaving the airport, but it turned out to be less crazy than when Tamar arrived  many years ago (2002 and 2008). The newly built airport and the metro lines to every part of the city including the airport makes life so much easier and quicker, with less hassle. We would soon find out that whilst a few things had changed, most had stayed the same…

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We had arranged a pick up from the airport, so we arrived quite smoothly at our hotel in Paraganji (the hectic hotel area with a bazaar near the railway station). The minivan used to transport was obviously magical as it could transform the smallest bump on the road into the mightiest jolt inside the vehicle. As we hadn’t slept the previous night, we went to bed at 07:30 and slept until 11:30. Still tired, we walked out of the busy bazaar and towards Connaught Place (CP) for something to eat and some coffee for David who was already becoming hangry (what else is new, hehe). The streets were of course packed!
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Whilst we were sitting down at a coffee bar with our city map open, trying (in vain) to make a plan for the day, a sweet and energetic Indian girl introduced herself as Ishita and asked if she could join us. We talked a bit about Delhi and then decided to join her and a friend for a visit to the Red Fort.
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We had a great time together and afterwards we went to the hair salon of one of Ishita’s friends (Gunika). Haircuts we needed for us both, with David further indulging in a shave and Tamar a hair dye.
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We ended this beautiful day of meeting new friends with a yummy dinner together with Ishita, Gunika and another friend of them. A taste of true Indian hospitality on our first day!

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The following day we slept in and fiddled on our laptops for some time, getting back in touch with everyone. We didn’t get out of the hotel until 3 pm (the hotel had great, cheap room service food). Then we walked to the railway station and bought train tickets to our next two destinations, but by the time we were finished it was already 5pm (here in India everything takes a lot of time and maybe we also had to go back to the hotel to get our passports even though we knew we needed them on forehand…). We had an appointment with one of Tamar’s old friends (Sanchit) for dinner, so with not much time left we decided to visit the Indian gate.
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After hanging out with the other thousands of people at sunset at the Indian gate, we went back to CP and met Sanchit for some dinner at Haldiram’s. Sanchit helped us select many delicious dishes, not easy when the menu is so big! It was great for Tamar to see Sanchit again and catch up. Afterwards we strolled along CP and had a nice drink at a bar.
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On our third day in Delhi we brought David’s camera to a Canon service shop for cleaning (this is really cheap in India and much needed after the deserts in Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and took the metro to Lasjpat Nagar. The area where Tamar used to live in 2008. From the market in this area Tamar could just remember how to find her old home, so we visited her former landlord. We surprised them with our visit, but they were happy to see us (you’d be killed for dropping in unannounced in Holland). We had some snacks with tea and coffee and they showed David the house and Tamar’s old room. They gave us a big and heavy gift basket of food when we left as their blessing to us.

We travelled back during rush hour and we had thought Bejing metro at rush hour was busy.
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When we reached the hotel and got wifi again we discovered that David had to travel back from where we just came from, for his evening out with an old uni mate, Karan. Tamar was meeting an old university friend Froukje, but luckily for her, she only had to walk one street for her night out. David had dinner, lots of drinks and went to a bowling hall afterwards. Many laughs had, an excellent night out.

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Tamar had dinner with Froukje and some drinks and then went home for a Skype call with her sister and niece.

On day 4 we took it easy in the morning (David had a small hangover. Totes worth it) and took the metro after lunch to Qutab Minar. We walked around and took some pictures, before heading back to the hotel.
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That evening we had a dinner appointment with Pradeep. Tamar’s old translator, when she was doing research in the slums of Dehli. We had a great meal at Hotel Saravana Bhavan (another famous food chain. They serve home cooked quality food, for very cheap prices). It was very nice to talk with Pradeep and see how well life is treating him, although he has to work very hard for it.
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Leaving Delhi had a hard time finding a taxi or tuk tuk that would to bring us to the train station at a reasonable price and by the time we found one, we had 50 minutes before the train to Jaipur was going to leave. Oh no, not again!!! We jammed our luggage and ourselves in the tiny tuk tuk and sat for the entire 4 km ride thinking that we were going to miss our train for sure. When we arrived at the station we had to cross a busy street, find out were our train was leaving from (of course the furthest away gate) and find the correct carriage. Running like madmen (entirely natural for us at train stations by now) we made the trains with 4 whole minutes to spare. We bought some chai straight away and started chatting with the other passengers at our carriage. We had booked tickets for second class sleeper. This means, 8 beds (which during the day are also filled with other people) and fans. While sitting on the train, sipping our hot and delicious chai, we were both struck with the feeling that our journey through India had really begun!

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David’s first impressions of India:
Sun, sound and smell. The sun attacks you from every angle, the sound doesn’t come through your ears as much as it simply reverberates inside your skull and the smells (good and bad) fill your nostrils. Indians appear to live 100% of the time at break-neck speed (apart Goa, life is much calmer there)

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Tamar: For me it felt like coming home. The smell, the noise, the people. It all brought back good memories and an intense smile on my face.

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Jaipur (pink city)

Jaipur is actually quite a large city, with over 6 million people living there. We couchsurfed with Saleem in the Muslim area, sort in a warren of houses, which meant we had to call Saleem and he spoke to the rickshaw driver, giving him directions. He lives in a house that has been in his family for 300 yrs, since they came to India from Afghanistan. What with all brothers and sisters and mother, plus all the children living there, it could be quite crowded but was always fun. The first and second evenings Saleem took us just out his front door to have dinner at the local festival, celebrating the Haj. It was a honour to be invited to eat here, as it is only for extended family (just 300 people). Afterwards we shared some chai on his roof as we chatted, looking out over the city. You can always see someone doing something and from his rooftop you can peer into the courtyards and balconies of many places.

The first day we actually managed to accomplish quite a lot and saw the Hawa Mahal, Albert Hall Museum, Amber Fort and the Jal Mahal. The Hawa Mahal is an old palace, and looks quite nice from the outside, although there is not much at all to see inside.

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The Albert Hall Museum was filled with many interesting items, some replicas and many originals. It had a sort of ‘constructed for the edification of the locals’ air about it, as it was constructed by the British, apparently to universal enthusiasm of the ‘natives’ (according to the signs)

The Amber Fort is quite large, and we didn’t see a whole lot, as David had come down with a fever during the day, which left him quite exhausted, he needed many rests. The views were great and being here towards the end of the day was quite nice as the colours really changed and deepened.
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The Jal Mahal was beautifully lit by the setting sun, bringing out the gorgeous reds.

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While we were walking along the lake we were of course hassled by small children that wanted some money (this happens many times a day), but in the end they were also very satisfied with the candies they received from us. Yes, we know it is not good for their teeth, but we guess that is least of their problems.

On our second day in Jaipur David woke up with a fever, but with some strong medicines David was good enough to explore the city some more. After a nice chat with the Chinese couchsurfers of Saleems brother, we went to see Saleem’s gemstone cutting workshop (with the 3 of us on his motorbike), then to what we imagined was his store, to see some more examples of cutting. Not quite. We did go to another store, but they tried to sell us a variety of gemstones. We felt very uncomfortable, as we hadn’t expected this at all. We managed to leave without buying anything and started walking to the monkey temple. Halfway up the hill, in a quiet spot, a boy of about 12 was yelling at us (as children do all over India, just yelling Hello, in a friendly way). What set this apart was that he had his penis out. David reacted quickly, in his own words: “I used my level 10 voice (this is for anyone from AISR, I guess the loudest I ever raised my voice was about 5/10 and I was never mad) and with extreme anger started running towards him. Very very luckily for him, he ran off. Had he been slower, we would have had an exchange of views of the subject and I am sure I would have been able to communicate effectively my thoughts on the matter”

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This put a bit of a dampener on seeing the monkey temple. Combined with the fact that it was the middle of the day, we decided to go instead to the Astronomical Observatory. After being hassled at the bus stop by a glue junkie for money, we arrived already a bit hungry at the observatory. It was interesting to see the very large structures that they built to measure the movement of celestial object, for example. There was a huge sundial accurate to 2 seconds and many other structures in the same vein.

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We got back to Saleem’s place just on dusk and headed up to the rooftop again for chai. Not prepared for the amazing sight to greet our eyes. Kites, kites, kites, kites, kites! There must have been thousands of them. We learned that it is all big competition, to fight with the kites of the people near you and cut their string before they cut yours. (Just like in the book and movie ‘The kite runner’. the kids make the kites themselves and they have competitions). Pretty amazing way to finish off our time in Jaipur!
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Jaisalmer (golden city)

Arriving the next day around lunchtime (by train of course , how else) we were picked up by the hotel manager. He has just started the little hotel and he is doing everything he can to make it as great as he can, asking for feedback and not pressuring (very unindian) us into a tour. Tired Lazy again, we slept a bit in the afternoon in the soporific (sleep inducing) heat. Afterwards we booked a overnight camel tour and strolled through the town, the old fort and had some drinks on a rooftop terrace. The next day we walked through the old fort and had some drinks on a rooftop terrace before it was time for our camel tour.

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On our way to the camel tour we first went to see a ghost town and were told a rather unlikely story of how it came about (involving a girl and a king). To be honest, were we much more interested in the bats infesting the old buildings. Whilst we couldn’t get it on camera, we also saw a snake, trying to sneak up on the bats for a bite to eat!
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We were then taken out to the desert proper, for the camel ride and camping. Camel rides, no matter how short in duration, are an amazing value for money. Ours was just one hour, but it felt like five (already painful to walk a bit afterwards)! Bargain! We arrived to the dunes in time for sunset
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whilst the best chai we had India was being prepared.
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You are probably looking at that picture and thinking ‘Wow! That is a HUGE amount of sugar!’. What that picture doesn’t tell you is that it was his third handful! With basic equipment, they prepared a truly delicious meal and we took our bedding out to the dunes for star gazing and sleep.
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Just the two of us, it was a lovely experience.

We had an interesting sunrise, there was no sun! Instead heavy clouds, and fog greeted us, rather surreal. The sun came out for breakfast and we had a nice camel ride back (although the pain in our bum and legs from the camel ride the day before, was noticeable every step of the way).
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On the way back to Jaisalmer, we stopped at a lake with that was absolutely invested with catfish, it is apparently very popular to feed them.

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So many fish, that we are sure falling into that water would then require years of therapy to get the nightmares away! Our time in Jaisalmer was great, but happy to leave the desert, we boarded our train to Jodhpur.

Jodhpur (blue city)

We arrived in Jodhpur in the middle of the night, so after a shower we went to bed quickly. We woke up with a power cut, that lasted after breakfast. As we only had until that same evening to explore the city, the first thing we did was visit the fort. The fort was only a 5 minute walk up the hill from our lovely hotel. Tamar was wearing the same dress as 13 years ago when she was visiting the same fort, so we had a go at recreating the shot. Which is which? We checked out the fort in detail with a headphone guide and spent quite some time wandering around.
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Afterwards we walked to the city centre where David had some Thali for lunch (and Tamar had Sahi paneer), before arriving at the railway station to attempt to book a train ticket from Mumbai to Goa (you have to book ahead, because the trains are often fully booked with waiting lists). Unfortunately all the trains were already fully booked with a very long waiting lists. We ended up getting a bus ticket instead. Around 5 pm we headed to the train station of Jodhpur to catch our train to Mumbai. We had to wait some time as our train was delayed. So we chilled out on the train station, had some talks with locals and spotted about a million big rats at the tracks.

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Mumbai (Bombay)

At midday we arrived in Mumbai. We took a local train to get to the right train station close to our hotel and traveled from there on with an auto rickshaw (tuk tuk). When we arrived at the hotel, we had an unpleasant surprise. We had booked the hotel through booking.com with a secret deal. Yes the deal already looked to good to be true (it gave us an 80% discount on the hotel), but we always book through booking.com and we never have had any problems. When we arrived in Mumbai though, the hotel staff told us at first that they never got the booking from booking.com and the manager of the hotel told us he informed booking.com about not having a room available for us. So we called the bus company and asked them whether we could change our bus ticket from Friday to Wednesday (so leaving that same evening). This was no problem and we left the hotel for an unhealthy but yummy meal at MacDonald’s. As our bus was delayed, we had to wait a few more hours at the bus station than planned, but we were transferred onto a AC bus (we had to pay rps 400 extra for it though), so we were not complaining. Goodbye and good riddance Mumbai Shumbai.

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Goa

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After a bumpy ride in our luxurious sleeper bus (we got lunched up in the air more than 20 times during the night) we arrived in Paranji, in Goa. From there on we took a local bus to Margao and from there a local bus to Palolem (the best beach in Goa). We sat down at a restaurant with our bags and David started with inquiring along the beach for free beach shacks. Which was quite hard as they have to take down the huts every year before moonsoon and only just started building again. So we sort of arrived at a construction site. After David it was Tamar’s turn to explore and check out the possibilities and in the end we found something suitable and affordable at the beach.

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This was Tamar’s 3rd time in Palolem. She has been there in 2002 with Chakira and in 2008 with her parents and her friend Joshi. In all those years Palolem has changed a lot. In 2002 it was a small and calm hippy village with shabby beach huts where backpackers stayed for months as it was cheap and so relaxed. In 2008 there where more beach huts and they looked a bit better. There was even already Internet to be found. The prices where still cheap though and backpackers would still stay here for months. Now in 2015, the beach  is filled (well becoming filled when we were there) with luxurious beach huts and restaurants, with prices much higher than anywhere else in India for rooms and food. The atmosphere is still the same though (at least when we were there, before the season had started), the beach still had this relaxed vibe that made us feel that we were in paradise. Not so hard to image that we extended our stay here from 5 nights to 9 nights.
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We filled our days as followed: we woke up and run along the beach, we would go for breakfast at a local cafe and then finish of with a nice swim in the warm (at least 30 degrees) ocean. Then we lay on the beach or sat at our veranda with view of the beach and go for another swim when we felt like it. We had lunch at a restaurant or we would buy some avocado and bread and then relax some more. Somewhere during the day we would buy some ice cream and at the end of the day we went for another swim, a shower, go out for dinner and go to bed. In between we fill up some days with renting a scooter and exploring other beaches or walking to beaches here in the area.
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We met a nice Swedish couple that live close to Kiruna (a place in Lapland that we visited in February 2014) and had dinner with them twice. We had some Skype calls with friends and family when we dined in a restaurant with wifi and we had a wonderful date night with fresh fish for dinner. In the meantime we also arranged our train tickets to Agra, Agra to Dehli and Dehli to Gorakhpur so we could enter Nepal.

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We were sad to leave relaxed Goa, we totally understand people that stay here for many months, but we were also ready for our next adventure and for sunrise at the Taj Mahal.
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Agra

As the train from Goa to Agra left around 3:50 pm we had our daily morning routine, then packed up and left our beach shack around midday. We saw some buses at the bus stand, but as someone told us they came every half an hour, we left for a good lunch at a restaurant first. At 1 pm we were ready for the bus, but no bus… At 1:30 pm still no bus, 2 pm no, 2:15 pm yes there was the bus which didn’t leave until 2:30 pm. In the meantime we were already getting afraid that we were going to miss the train, but… we were lucky again. After a 1 hour and 15 minutes ride, we jumped out of the bus, took the first tuk tuk we saw to the train station and arrived with 1 minute to spare at the right platform (lucky for us the train had a delay of 5 minutes). Nicely done David & Tamar, you nearly missed your train for the 6th time…..

We shared our train carriage not only with Indians but also a nice French couple, who just lived for two years in New Caledonia We talked, played cards, shared travel stories and food and enjoyed our 36 hour train journey to Agra.

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We arrived in Agra at 3 am and wanted to vist the Taj Mahal for sunrise at 6 am. So we took a tuk tuk to our hotel, took a shower and headed out. The gate was only a five minute walk from our hotel, the place where you have to buy tickets was unfortunately 20 minutes further away from the gate. The first irritations started to come after only a few hours sleep and the long line and the gate not opening until after sunrise did not make it better. When we were inside at last, we had to walk back to the hotel because Davids backpack was to big and they didn’t have a place to store your bag nearby. David did not swear very loudly at all…..

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The Taj Mahal was nice (one of the minarets was in scaffolds), but a bit over hyped (no surprise). We walked around, took some nice pictures and went back to the hotel. The rest of the day we spend relaxing and hiding in hotel or at one of the rooftop restaurants. We went to bed early and left for our train ride to Dehli at 5 am.

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Back in Delhi

During our three hour journey to New Delhi (direct trains to Gorakhpur were fully booked, hence this detour) we talked with a newly wed Indian couple. One arrivle we parked our luggage at the railway station and walked to CP. There we went to Starbucks for some drinks (David ordered the biggest coffee I have ever seen) and then had some lunch at MacDonalds (Tamar) and Hotel Saravana Bhavan (David). To have something to do while waiting for our next train we went to an Indian Bollywood movie. The movie was about three handsome bachelors living in a gigantic apartment, meeting all the girl of their dreams at the same time, but in the end ending up single again because the girls only gave them a big headache. David could not appreciate the movie any more after an hour, but he watched the whole movie while playing some games on his phone. After the movies we had dinner at Haldiram’s and walked back to the train station for our overnight train to Gorakphur for our journey to the border of Nepal.

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As a big Hindu festival had just started, people in India and Nepal were on holidays. The train was packed with people, many of them having bought a ticket, but with nowhere to sleep. During the night, people were still sitting at the foot end of our beds and sleeping at every space possible (hallway, near the toilets etc). So after a not so comfortable night we arrived with a big delay (due to someone being robbed, someone told us) in Gorakhpur.

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A friendly family in our carriage who were also on their way to Nepal told us to come with them so we could share a taxi to the Nepalese border together. Lucky for us, they did all the hassle with the taxi drivers and after 30 minutes we stuffed five people including all their luggage in a normal sized car. The taxi ride took us 3 hours (with a short stop for the taxi driver to have lunch…, serious… grrr). Close to the border we saw hundreds of trucks waiting due to the conflict between Nepal and India (due to the Fuel Crisis). We would learn more about the fuel crises and the big impact on daily life while traveling trough Nepal. But first we had to cross the border in Nepal and after some hectic days in India, we were looking so forward to a change in scenery. Trekking in the Himalayas here we come!

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9 thoughts on “India: Chai, Chaos and Trains

  1. Nearly missing a train seems to be somewhat of a theme for your trip. 😀

    A lot of beautiful pictures from India, seems like a great place to visit overall. Hope you’re having fun in the Himalayas! 🙂

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  2. You have really captured the essence of an India visit in this post. I felt nostalgic, happy and repulsed all in one go. What a strange country. What unusual people. Such a mix of everything. The people can be so friendly and welcoming and then there are the evil and scheming ones as well. The food can be awesome or can do a number on your tummy. After 8 years of living in India I still couldn’t predict what to expect next. There is order in the chaos. If you let yourself be swept along and not try to control anything you’ll see that it all goes OK. I loved the before and after pics! You both really lived it out in Goa I see. Tamar, seeing that picture of you in the train comoart

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  3. You have really captured the essence of an India visit in this post. I felt nostalgic, happy and repulsed all in one go. What a strange country. What unusual people. Such a mix of everything. The people can be so friendly and welcoming and then there are the evil and scheming ones as well. The food can be awesome or can do a number on your tummy. After 8 years of living in India I still couldn’t predict what to expect next. There is order in the chaos. If you let yourself be swept along and not try to control anything you’ll see that it all goes OK. I loved the before and after pics! You both really lived it out in Goa I see. Tamar, seeing that picture of you in the train compartment made me wish we could do a trip to India together one day. Maybe we’lol do South India. That’s still on the cards I guess. Thanks for this post guys. It brought back a lot of happy and bugging memories 🙂

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  4. Very entertaining blog and really great photos David and Tamar, it certainly brought back some memories for me, like all memories of India some good some bad. Looking forward to the Nepalese installment.

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  5. Een prachtig verslag en overweldigende foto’s. Het bracht mij weer terug naar India, heerlijk. Ik zou voordat ik India bezocht in 2008, nooit gedacht hebben dat dit land en zijn bevolking zo’n indruk zou maken. Bedankt Taam, dat was een onvergetelijke ervaring. Heel veel plaatsen die jullie nu aandeden, zijn John en ik ook geweest. Heel grappig om het openlucht museum (the Astronomical Observatory) terug te zien, het Waterpaleis enz. De meest indrukwekkende foto is voor mij de foto van Tamar in de trein(?). Alhoewel er zoveel mooie foto’s zijn, dat jongetje wat kijkt naar de vlieger, de foto’s van jullie samen. Ik zie heel gelukkige mensen, maar ik mis jullie wel hoor:-) Dikke x

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  6. Wat heerlijk weer om even weg te dromen en mee op reis te gaan via jullie prachtige blog! Het begint steeds meer te kriebelen om ook meer te zien en te ervaren wat deze aardbol te bieden heeft! Fijn om te zien en te lezen dat jullie het ook zo ervaren en er samen ten volle van kunnen genieten! Pracht foto’s weer…van mens, natuur, architectuur…Bedankt!
    Lieve mensen NJOY..hier in Nederland gaat de herfst “gewoon” zijn gang zoals ieder weer kerend mooie seizoen……DAAR kunnen jullie volgend jaar dubbelop van genieten! 😉
    x Knuffel van ons uit Den Haag

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