Priya

Priya is only seven but she’s the toughest hustler I know. She sells flower-candles on the bank of Ganges river in the 3,000-years-old city of Varanasi, and never takes no for an answer. “How many you buy? Two, three? Good price for you! ” While I take too long to decide, she is scanning the crowd with her huge brown eyes, scowling to prevent other flower kids from getting anywhere near me. “Listen”, she commands before I even agree, “You buy from me only!»

They say it’s not the size of the dog in a fight, but the size of the fight in a dog. Which may explain how does this tiny body contain such domineering personality. And she will push her candles onto you in English, German, Japanese, or Italian, whatever it takes to close the deal. It’s an ancient Hindu tradition to float the candle-lit flowers upon the holy Ganges to make a wish. I tell Priya I got nothing to wish for, as I already have everything I ever wanted. It takes her a split second to come up with the solution: “No problem. You make good wish for Priya!”

The only concession I achieve in this ruthless negotiation is that we limit business to one candle a day. She agrees to it only in exchange for the exclusive supplier contract. The deal is immediately announced to the dozen of other flower boys lurking nearby. They are visibly disappointed – a foreign woman is an optimal target in this cutthroat business – but keep respectful distance. Only once in her absence one of the boys sheepishly approaches me, the others stepping closer to watch, when out of nowhere Priya descends on them like Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Wrath and Retaliation, her whole body vibrating with anger. The boys retreat, tails between their legs, but my honor is intact: I haven’t betrayed her even for a second.

For the rest of my month-long stay I am buying her flower-candles every time she spots me at the river. She politely allows me to sit and watch it in peace for a few moments, fidgeting in my peripheral vision, before she grabs my hand and leads me to water to float the purchased candle together. She’s way better floater between the two of us: when I do it, the candle sometimes lingers nearby caught in the current; with her push, it always heads out right away as if propelled by an invisible engine.

After a candle launch, I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. She says a teacher. Because everybody has to obey the teacher. Family, kids? Oh, no, no. No husband and kids till she’s 50, Priya says resolutely, she’s got stuff to do. Priya’s mom is a street fruit seller, dad – a boatman. There are four other siblings at home, living hand to mouth, her candle sales paying for their school supplies. She started working at the age of five, cruising the river bank every night, and it was her idea. “So, are you buying two candles tomorrow or what? I can’t sit here all night.”

As lost as I sometimes feel in life, I never suffer from lack of direction in Priya’s universe. Here, my role is clear and well-defined. So every night I buy a candle or two from her, watch them float away into the dark waters, and every night at this oldest wishing spot in the world I ask Mother Ganga the same one thing:
Please guard her from harm
Please let all her plans succeed
Take away from me anything you want, but please give her the destiny she deserves.

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Assi Ghat, Varanasi, India, 2010

 

priya and me

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Church of Wanderlust

For decades I thought I wasn’t religious. Until I realized: my religion is Wanderlust.

The temples of my faith are scattered all over the world. They are Babylonian airports and abandoned landing strips overgrown with weeds; bustling city squares and sleepy fishing villages; mountain-top castles and back-alley dive bars, awash in neon lights, lingering smoke and that tingling feeling of déjà vu.

The scriptures of my religion come with blank pages. You fill them up yourself, with all the secret words you find along the way. Passwords you earn by showing up and taking it all in. Like the Japanese «kikubari», the Spanish «duende», the Tibetan «lungta» and the Finnish «kalsarikännit».

There are millions of us Believers, and we have our own sacred rituals: swapping road stories (that time you crossed the Tibetan-Nepalese border on foot), travel tips (never join a Great Wall of China tour) and anecdotes picked up around the world, like the one about popular Austrian T-shirts with «No kangaroos here» – because of how many foreigners allegedly confuse it with Australia.

Our altars are invisible and intangible, built of memories and scars: the first time you inhaled the air of India, that time your flight landed safely – but not the one right behind yours, that time you drank with a real Viking, that day you got to ride an untamed Mongolian horse and almost got killed in the process, that beautiful stranger on the opposite side of the planet who became the lover you’ll always carry in your heart – but will never see again.

Our priests are grandmas the world over who feed every stray soul that comes through their door before they even ask your name or where you’re from. Our angels are people finding creative ways to give you directions when you don’t share a single language in common. Our prophets are those who have traded security for discovery; achievement for contentment; retirement money for frequent flyer miles.

We are everywhere, and eventually, we will take over the world. We won’t need bombs or economic schemes. We’ll just blend the borders by blending our families. We’ll continue to spread our ideology through street foods, ethnic tattoos and cultural holidays. We’ll quietly convert everyone by making them fall in love with people in our stories – until each and everyone on the planet becomes us, the Wanderlusters.

And that’s the only thing I religiously believe in.

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Fleur Sullivan

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Everybody around us is uncomfortable. We are sitting in a rustic family restaurant overlooking the bay in the remote New Zealand village of Moeraki, and our table is now drawing sideways glances from the rest of the patrons.

The General is being loud and obnoxious. The General is always loud and obnoxious. As the number 5 government official in Russia and an old-school military brass, The General is not used to hearing any form of “no” or wasting time on pleasantries like “please” or “thank you”. Everything out of his mouth is a command, or an erratic soliloquy on why Russia is the best at everything. The General is on a business trip here in New Zealand, and I’m hired by the receiving side to help steer him towards the successful completion of the mission.

It’s lunch time. Our table has already ploughed through the restaurant’s supply of smoked fish, oysters, fresh crab and champagne. The General is in good spirits (i.e., loaded) so he awards the table with his prize anecdote of how in pre-school, they kicked him out for molesting his teacher, and in the third grade, they almost sent him to jail for attempting to rape another one. While I try to put a Disney spin on the X-rated original in translation, The General is cracking himself up by wildly gesturing with his hands what, where, how big and how fast. The guests at our table along with the rest of the restaurant are now staring at us in horrid disbelief.

The one-man show comes to a screeching halt when The General decides it’s time for vodka. When a young waitress brings him a shot and attempts to leave, he grabs her by the wrist and pulls her in. I register the look of horror on her face and start scanning the table for sharp knives to use as jaws of life, if he doesn’t let go. Turns out, The General just wanted to inform her that one sip of vodka at a time is not something he’s used to – or going to – waste his time on. She starts explaining that the New Zealand law prohibits serving more than one shot per person at a time, while trying to wriggle herself free.

All of a sudden somebody from behind our backs plops on the table a silver bucket full of ice and in it, a properly frozen bottle of Russian Standard vodka. The General lets go of the girl’s wrist and slowly turns around. This is how I meet Fleur, the owner.

Fleur immediately assures The General that of course no laws apply to a man of his status. She knows Russians are very special, she says with a straight face – and she’s here to help. In front of our eyes, The General converts from a belligerent bear into a happy puppy. The rest of the lunch is a study in crisis management. Fleur does shots with the General and gifts him a jar of her homemade pate. He keeps kissing her hand and rolls his eyes to express how smitten he is with such a worldly hostess. We finally leave after the two finish off that bottle. They hug it out on the porch. For the rest of his stay in New Zealand, The General keeps talking about Fleur.

I return to Fleur’s Place after he’s gone, because I can’t forget her either. The first thing out of her mouth is “Did you see that giant flock of mutton birds in the sky? There must have been a hundred!” I’m confused at her excitement. Fleur disappears in the back and returns with a faded newspaper clipping. The headline retells another instance when a giant flock of mutton birds flew by Moeraki , seen as an important omen by the locals. It happened on today’s date exactly 100 years ago.

Everything else she says that day is extra memorable. How she went from being a teenage cook for the truckers to running a local pub at 22. How she didn’t want to be just a stay-at-home wife after getting married, so at 28 she bought a vintage 19-room hotel, which she expanded by adding a restaurant, a gallery, and an antique shop. How happy she was with it because it made her learn how to do interior designing, gardening, and plumbing. How her husband took out the mortgage on the place without telling her, and how she had to sell it when the marriage fell apart and move to a new town with her 3 kids and $60 to her name. How she built a new restaurant there, which in 20 years became one of the New Zealand’s most famous places because of its stunning food made from all locally grown ingredients. And how she had to sell it all because a rare cancer hit her hard and she was getting ready to die.

Fleur moved to the tiny fishing village of Moeraki because it was serene and it had a bay. She loved going out to sea on the boat with the fishermen, it made her feel calm. It didn’t take long for Fleur to notice they were throwing away the carcasses after filleting the fish, and she started thinking soup. Hearty, filling, inexpensive, easy to make soup. Honest food she could sell from a one-stove shack to fishermen and passing drivers. Something to do while she healed. The soup caravan blew up immediately after it went live. And then Fleur noticed the abandoned whaling station sitting in the bay that could easily house a kitchen and a few tables overlooking the bay. Against her own judgment and despite her children pleading with her to focus on getting better, she turned the abandoned station into Fleur’s Place.

The local council was vehemently opposed to Fleur’s plans. No woman had ever owned a business in Moeraki, plus Fleur wasn’t even a local. The day Fleur’s Place was scheduled to open, her fisherman came in and said “You have to go outside now”. In the bay looking at the restaurant sat a huge single whale. They hadn’t seen any in Moeraki in years: the locals believed the whales were avoiding it because it used to house a station where slaughtered whales were carved for meat. Except the station was now Fleur’s Place. Fleur went back inside, told the kitchen staff to stop chopping and prepping, turn off the stoves and join her on the bluff. They watched as the whale cruised up and down the bay three times before he left. She wasn’t the only one who saw the sign: a local Maori elder went to the council and told them to leave Fleur alone.

Fleur’s Place is now a gastronomic treasure of New Zealand. Everything she cooks is locally grown, every supplier is family. She saves her food scraps for her egg farmer’s pigs – and he brings her parsley from his garden. Her fishermen adore her. Her venison-rabbit-pickled walnut dish is so popular, all of New Zealand now orders pickled walnuts from her guy. Fleur says she is healthy now and has no plans of slowing down. She tells me she wants to fly to Nordic countries to see how they harvest and use seaweed. When I leave, she hugs me like she means it.

I don’t collect cookbooks, but years later I still keep a copy of Fleur’s. She signed it “You never know who you’ll run into at the fish market”.

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The Thar

Inspired by an old man and his deep-sea marlin. Based on a true story.

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Trophy hunting is all about scoring high: the more rare the species, the harder the hunt, the better-looking the trophy – everything counts.

Deep-pocket hunters love to go to New Zealand. First off, it’s God knows where, which makes for a great subject to bring up at dinner parties. And second, in addition to very impressive deer and irresistible kiddie-size wallabies, they got Himalayan mountain goat here, imported and thriving in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Himalayan mountain goat – stage name “Thar” – is a magnificent creature. For starters, it wears a thick cappuccino-colored coat that looks richer than a floor-length mink on a 90-year-old Manhattan socialite. Because of its mane, a Himalayan goat trophy is never butchered just for antlers, like deer, or cut at the shoulders, like antelope, but mounted whole, standing proud on a rock pedestal, a perfect conversation piece for its accomplished owner.

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The elusive species is also known for its love of solitude, living primarily on rock-bare mountain tops. Harvesting this son-of-a-bitch is an ultimate challenge: a Thar never runs straight, instead zig-zagging like crazy towards the razor-sharp edge of the mountain, leaping over it and plunging straight down, defying all laws of physics and leaving a hunter empty-handed, out of breath and schooled. Sometimes it takes several attempts even for an experienced hunter to get one, making it a very special trophy. Watching a Thar hunting scene from a helicopter above is an ultimate reality show.

I have respect for the Himalayan mountain goat. He’s a die-hard.

Roger was nothing like the other hunters. He stood out in this five-star exclusive lodge, teeming with Texan oil tycoons and their well-trained wives in diamonds and camouflage. He came alone. He wasn’t rich. He hadn’t been to Africa or Kazakhstan. It took him several years to save up for a very special dream: a Himalayan goat trophy. He came to this ultra-exclusive hunting lodge, famous for top American hunters harvesting numerous Himalayan goats, and he came wound tight, his best guns in tow.

Every night around the dinner table the others would boast about a prize buck they had just harvested, the fun they had slaying down the pest wallabies, and how many tries it took them to finally bring down a Himalayan goat. Roger’s face expressed nothing, aside from his jaw muscles slowly churning under the skin. His smile was nothing beyond polite, his body stiff, his gaze non-connecting. He wasn’t there to socialize. He wasn’t there to make friends. He was there for the Thar, and it was clearly his only chance for one.

On a Tuesday afternoon, the helicopter dropped Roger and a hunting guide on the mountain top. They spotted a Thar twice, but the goat was too fast for Roger’s aim. At dinner, Roger’s guide shared the news of the day in his most positive voice, and everyone at the table took turns cheering Roger up: a Himalayan Goat is not an easy trophy for anyone. Surely he was going to get one tomorrow. Roger responded with silence, his gaze fixed on his gourmet dinner plate.

On Wednesday, they came back empty-handed again – Roger had taken two shots and missed both times, the goat vanishing before he could take aim again. That night Roger finished dinner early, turned down desert and went straight to his room, skipping all the small talk. His hunting guide and the lodge owner exchanged glances and stepped outside, speaking in hushed voices for a minute before returning to the table.

On Thursday morning the weather turned finicky, with the unruly air currents and promises of rain later in a day. The helicopter pilot, a seasoned hunter himself, said he’d manage if they left immediately. The best hunting guide in the country, the owner took one look at Roger’s face and said he’d go out with Roger himself. Roger put down the unfinished cup of coffee and rushed to get ready. The owner’s face slowly turned from the usual warm friendliness to stern determination. The lodge was a second-generation family-run business. A guest was more than just a client. Nobody had ever left here unhappy. In just a few minutes, all three loaded up into the helicopter and took off into the grey sky.

Because of the weather change, it was a long and gloomy day back at the lodge. Lunch time came and went, the wives declined to go out to shop or visit a spa, staying in their luxury suites, lethargic. The dogs spent the day dozing off outside the butcher shed. A small rain came over the valley, sprinkling the grounds and moving on. In the distance, the clouds were hanging low over the mountain top, and everybody was thinking of Roger. As daylight began dissolving, the hunters came back one by one with the usual: some got just the trophy deer they needed to beat their local record, some had a good day scouting for tomorrow, all got wet and tired and couldn’t wait for a hot dinner and the usual scotch-and-storytelling around the fire place. Roger and the owner were still out.

At the sound of helicopter approaching at dusk everyone at the lodge poured outside, hoping Roger had scored. He had. When the chopper dropped down a lifeless cloud of fur and landed, Roger climbed out and walked over to the body slowly, like a sheriff who had finally got a prized fugitive.

The house dogs went insane, barking up the storm. The owners’ kids, age 6 and 8 – training to take over the family business – started kicking the body to assess its size. It was getting dark, and the owner turned on his flashlight to illuminate the trophy. The excited crowd drew a tighter circle.

That’s when everybody saw the goat was missing one horn. Roger’s smile weakened. The trophy wasn’t perfect. The owner quickly regained his composure. “Roger got him really high up. Great shot. It was almost 300 yards up away. Tumbled all the way down, the horn must have broken off on the way. No worries, Roger – we got plenty of spares to put on him, it’ll look better than his own!” Roger managed a stoic smile. As a Himalayan goat trophy is displayed whole, it was important. Luckily, the lodge had a butcher shed full of spare antlers, skulls and skins for every species harvested here. The helicopter pilot started telling everyone how incredible the hunt was from his view point – the goat was just about to make it over the edge of the cliff when Roger laid him down by the third shot. Roger turned to the silver-haired man to thank him for taking the flight in less than perfect weather.

“Whoa!” – shrieked one of the kids playing with the goat’s eyelids. The whole crowd was now staring at the ghostly blue cataract completely covering the goat’s right eye. The guides exchanged quick glances. The beast had clearly been half-blind. Roger blinked and said nothing, his face dropping ever so slightly. “Listen”, said the owner, carefully putting his hand around Roger’s shoulder. “You saw how he ran. Full speed, good as any. He was a trooper, but so are you. That was an excellent kill!” The news was met with silence. Sensing the change of mood, the dogs quietly dissolved into the dark air. Kids stopped fidgeting and wrapped themselves around their father’s legs. Roger stood there motionless.

That’s when one of the guides let out a surprised whistle. Before he could catch himself, all eyes were on another surprise: goat’s mouth was agape, with none but a single yellow crooked tooth sticking out at the edge of its lower jaw. The dams looked deserted and worn out. Clearly, the goat hadn’t eaten in a very long while. The guide rushed to close the invalid’s mouth, but it was too late.

It took two whole minutes of complete silence before the owner spoke up again. “Listen, Roger. These goats are crazy. When a male gets too old to breed, the young goats gang up and drive him off a cliff till he jumps to death. This one must have been escaping them for a while, but they would catch up with him soon. You gave him a chance to battle for his honor.” The words lingered. Everyone wanted to believe. The crowd solidified around the pale-faced, measured-breathing Roger and his one-horn, half-blind, toothless goat.

Unlike the usual, the dinner was a dignified, almost somber affair, all low-voiced and soft-spoken. No hunting stories, no trophy talk, no loud cheers, no crude jokes. The owner sent the kids to bed early, took the seat next to Roger and stayed for the whole dinner, talking weather, sports and politics. Roger kept silent until desserts came out. Standing up, glass in hand, he toasted everyone at the table one by one, thoroughly thanking the owner, the pilot, the hunting guides and the lodge staff for giving him an incredible opportunity to make his life-long dream come true, and wishing the rest of the hunters the best of luck. He had the time of his life, he said, and he would fondly remember everyone back here. Before anybody could respond, Roger excused himself to go packing for an early flight home and left the room.

Hours later the lodge finally went silent, but Roger was still lying on the bed, fully dressed, staring at the ceiling. In a cold shed less than 40 yards away laid a cold body of a veteran Himalayan mountain goat.

The sun was slowly rising over the Southern Alps.

Way beyond Rudolph

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You can’t help falling in love with the reindeer.

Among all the animals roaming Mongolian expanse, the reindeer stands out as the most sophisticated, the most touchable and definitely the tastiest one.   While a yak stares at you with all the emotion of a pommel, a reindeer casts a diva-like glance from under the long eyelashes.    A camel always wears the unsightly brown crust on its ass, but a reindeer’s classy butt is heart-shaped, while its antlers are gift-wrapped in velvety baby fur.  Camel milk tastes like the sour wind of the Gobi desert, but reindeer milk is clean, heavy and feels like hot silk in your mouth.   A horse has to constantly waive off the relentless taiga flies with its tail, but no flies swarm around a reindeer – the otherwise lethal taiga insects descend only  to create a beautiful shimmering halo around reindeer’s head for a brief moment of pure adoration, before moving onto the usual prey.  Standing in the middle of sheep or goat herd, you get DOLBY surround sound effect of the relentless group farting, but when the reindeer run past you like a beautiful stream of snow white and herring gray, all you hear is the delicate sound of ankle bones rustling – tsa! tsa! tsa!  – and that’s why “tsaa” is the taiga people’s name for the reindeer, and Tsaatan people call themselves just that.

Among Tsaatans, reindeer is very much a member of the clan.  Every family chooses a special reindeer to be sanctified by a shaman to carry inside the living spirits of the locale.  The designated reindeer wears a pretty scarf, usually of blue silk, it never gets eaten or even tied down, so it develops a habit of roaming around the village, sneaking inside empty yurts or following somebody around.

The spirit reindeer of my family happened to be angel-white and totally shameless.  The relentless beast viewed me as a personal entertainment channel with the 24/7 access.  My pet-owning friends often complain how awkward it is for them to act naturally in the bathroom in the family dog’s presence. Now imagine yourself on a mountain, in pristine taiga, ankle-deep in the early morning dew, preparing for the inevitable in the endless open space, with no doors or walls to create a comfort zone.  And now picture – three steps in front of you – a very patient white reindeer, staring.  You have to go urgently, and he’s got nowhere urgent to go.  Guess which one of the two has more fun playing this game and doesn’t ever get tired of it.

Sometimes reindeer are used as cargo transport for moving the tribe from an old pasture to a new one.  Loaded with pots, pans, solar batteries and other household stuff, a reindeer occasionally readjusts the cargo weight by shaking its skin, the pots and pans rumbling  as if the animal is performing a shaman ritual to procure good luck for its own upcoming journey.

But the very best moment in a reindeer herders’ place is when a herd pours back into the village at sunset, preceded by a delicate sound wave of ankle bones clicking, as if a flock of angels is descending upon you.   And you feel it’s the perfectly magical moment to make a wish, yet you can’t remember anything you ever wanted before, but it’s all right, it is actually quite all right with you.

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99 problems

Grandma’s oldest son walks slowly, dragging his right foot a bit, and has a sad look. Apparently, the guy had a stroke recently when he turned 40. High blood pressure is a growing problem among Tsaatans, who have switched to Chinese and Russian diet, including processed foods and alcohol, and it’s literally killing them now.

-He’s a weak one, – explains says Grandma, pouring some of the fire water into a cup. – Just needs a little vodka from Mom’s hand, it’s good for his health.

The dude can barely hold a cup straight. He stares at the ground, shoulders slumping, with all the energy of a busset hound. Five minutes of silence and heavy sighs. I start feeling very bad for him, wishing he’d stop drinking with his bad-ass mother and spend more time outside. Or something.

Finally, he downs his medicine, and suddenly lightens up.
-I’ve been to Paris, you know.

Sure, I nod, Paris, Mars, whatever is going on in that head of his. He gently puts the cup down on the ground, wipes his sad mouth with a dirty coat sleeve and limps out of the yurt. I turn to Saraa, who can barely contain herself from bursting with information.

-Are you ready for this? – she giggles and lays it all out for me.

Turns out, the dude really HAS been to Paris.

Apparently, a French woman once visited the village and got totally smitten by our stud-muffin, still pre-stroke back then. (Dark and brooding – what’s not to love?) So she returns to France and sends him an invitation to visit. And off he goes. (It blows my mind trying to imagine this road trip – horseback through marshes, hills and vulture-guarded canyon to the Tsaagannuur village, from there – 14 hours of bumpy road on a Russian van to Murun village, followed by a 21-hour bus ride to the capital Ulan Bator, and then it’s just a straight shot to Paris in a big metal flying machine).

So our Love Ambassador spends 2 months in Paris and comes back, clouded in mystery. Tells everyone the French woman set him up in her apartment, and he had a cappuccino from this special machine every day, and developed the taste for croissants, and everything was fine but he’s back because he missed the mountains.  Couple of months later he gets married to a local woman, eventually fathering 5 children with her, and so the life goes on.

Until a few years later, when the French woman returns to visit a Tsaatan festival at the nearby town, bringing with her a kid, that looks suspiciously like our playboy – says EVERYONE IN TAIGA.

So now the dude has a French ace up his sleeve and a very vindictive Tsaatan wife, who, when angry, always curses at him to “go live with your French whore and her bastard!”

As for the others in the village – they really, really enjoy this story. It’s a good one to tell the visitors.

And it’s actually pretty funny, n’est-ce pas?..

The Salt of Life

The Old Man is from the next village over. Been friends with the Grandma for ages. Smokes his pipe non-stop and likes conversing with the newcomers , using plenty of long meaningful pauses for added dramatic effect.

This was the right person to tell us about the behind-the-scenes of the nomadic tribal life.

-So… – we start, nonchalantly, – how is married life in Tsaatan taiga? Villages are so small… People ever cheat on each other?

The old man gazes at the sky for a moment, then puffs on his pipe, stretches out his legs and stares at the mountains.
-Well… I’ve been married to my woman for 50 years, and yeah, at times I felt like strangling her, but it all worked out…. We’re very happy. The youngsters – those do fool around sometimes…

An inquisitive tourist draws nearer, all tingly with curiosity:
-But… where? The whole village is wide open, with only 5 yurts around… how do people pull it off?

The old man blows out the last smoke, taps out the pipe, shuffles his feet, glances inside his coat.
-Well, you got yourself enough room – the hills, the valleys, the waterfalls… Or when you need to ride down to the valley for salt, or some other errands…

Just like we thought.
It’s no different here from New York, Shangai or Moscow.
Just closer to nature.