Category Archives: United States road trip

Crossing Borders

During a morning walk in suburban Florida this week, I passed this pile of discarded plastic flamingos on a lawn that looked cared for but not really used, and I couldn’t help but think about the American dream as we approach the inauguration of the next president. America is going through some funky, disturbing times. There is a sense of mourning among many, and yet, also around the corner from my rented house here in Cape Coral, Florida, a Trump/Pence sign, so not everyone is mourning. Also on my walk, a young guy greeting me “good morning” while holding a rifle in each hand, manatee-shaped mailboxes, and upright pink plastic flamingos adorning lawns filled with plastic candy canes and inflatable polar bears.

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Honestly, as I hang out in Florida, I’m in shock that I’m still in the same country that is also home to Portland, Oregon, and to Chicago and to Shamrock, Texas (had a layover there back in 1998), and to New York City, my backyard for the last 13 years. The fact we’re still a union at all answering to the same red, white and blue flag stuns me, and we should consider this progress even though there’s so much vitriol and bipolarity and -isms right now. We are 50 *very* different states. I celebrated my first birthday in Texas; I grew up in upstate New York; I lived in Seattle, then moved to Washington, D.C. (not a state, I know). I got married in Vermont. I have driven the width of the Contiguous 48 three times. I have visited 30-plus of America’s diverse states—haven’t yet visited Alaska or Hawaii—and each state functions as their own little universe. I lived in New Hampshire for six months about 20 years ago. New Hampshire, despite a shared geography with Vermont, has a completely different mindset from the Green Mountain State; it’s like comparing New Mexico with Arizona, or North Carolina to South Carolina, two states that still cannot agree on the proper way to serve barbecue. Despite shared borders, these are not apple-to-apple comparisons by any stretch. Why is that? Why do things change so much when you cross borders drawn by dead white guys?

It’s easy to happily function inside your bubble, mingle among like-minded people, never go beyond your borders, but I like going to other people’s bubbles, even if we disagree on who should lead America or the Second Amendment or the nutritional value of almond milk. America is just that, a string of bubbles, and communities feel increasingly less inclined to Venn-diagram with one another. Someone looked surprised when I mentioned I wasn’t going to unfriend Trump voters. I even had brunch a few weeks ago with a staunch Republican, who is a dear friend of mine. Our bubbles overlapped over eggs and Bellinis.

I’ve been fascinated by regionalism and differences long before Trump shocked millions of us by winning the electoral vote. To answer my own query, I started reading Lewis and Clark’s journal entries earlier this year, trying to picture what America looked like before being claimed, parceled and mapped out, before Texas was briefly its own Republic, before Abraham Lincoln had to fight to keep the country from ripping itself apart, before Los Angeles turned into Tinsel Town, before Wal-Mart took over the landscape, before “coastal elitism” became a term. Lewis spends several—and I do mean several—pages lamenting about the morning fog slowing things down, perhaps not thinking that two centuries later, a 40-something suburban mom who hates America’s ubiquitous malls and themed parks would be scanning his words for clues. Entries are spelled out phonetically, so it’s not smooth, intuitive reading; his meditations about what America used to be require stepping away from the puzzle pieces to see the bigger picture. And I’m still not sure on the answers, on when all these political, social and cultural tectonic shifts began, or where they’re going, and maybe these changes are harder to gauge because these movements are still moving.

Had America not been so goddamn big, had Sacagawea said to Lewis and Clark: “Find your own way! Jean Baptiste needs his nap!” or had Napoleon not needed to sell off “Louisiana,” which constitutes most of middle America, to fund his warmongering, what would America look like now? Who would be assuming power in four weeks? Where would the red and blue states be? Is there a singular American culture anymore or are there many American cultures? Those who drink their coffee with soy-free almond milk versus those who prefer whole milk from cows that grazed on pesticide-treated grass, and everyone else in between? Who is America today?

These “what if’s” are folly, as all “what if’s” are. Regionalisms will always prevail, no matter how much the Internet attempts to globalize us. As I write this, I am playing George Michael’s 1990 album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” a thoughtful, moody album about working out our differences, finding some common ground, and breaking free from the shoulds, coulds, and woulds. I keep replaying “Cowboys and Angels” a wispy, jazzy tune that feels like clouds floating by—perfect for a lazy day in Gulf Coast Florida. The day after tomorrow, I will be in a car with my husband and tween, driving about 800-plus miles back north, dreading the Northeast’s go-go-go attitude, its cold and darkness, missing clouds and sunshine and plastic flamingos and swimming pools surrounded by chintzy Christmas decor. All these things are closer than I realize, they appear not so far when I look at a map, yet when I am back in suburban New York City in just a few days, these things might as well be on the moon. We will cross seven states to return to New Jersey, a state that I thought would only be a pit stop, that after 13 years of keeping a residence there, still doesn’t feel like home. And as I pass through each state, I’ll be wondering who America is becoming, where are we going? And will we all get there together?

My Quixotic Search for Small

Maybe it’s because I live in the shadow of the Empire State Building or that I’ve been in a car accident during rush-hour commuter traffic on the George Washington Bridge or that a homeless guy in the West 4th subway station peed on my foot (I was wearing flip-flops, a no-no in New York), but lately my travel interests have shifted to anything that feels smaller, more green, less crowded, and reflective of the past because my day-to-day can be too big, too gray, too busy and sometimes too 21st century.

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(American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930)

It’s a tall order. Small, green, uncrowded and old are hard to come by in this sprawling, metropolitan, monochromatic area of millions where too many people dress in black year-round. History lives on every block, but New Yorkers themselves don’t seem to have an awareness of these places. Ask strangers passing through the subway where George Washington threw a party to bid farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War and you’ll likely get a quizzical look (it’s the Fraunces Tavern, a great place for charcuterie and live Irish music). Washington’s name is all over the Big Apple, but 21st century New York City doesn’t seem to remember its 18th century self after so many face lifts. The Fraunces Tavern down in the Financial District near Battery Park is a great example of old, but it can get crowded. Heading north of the tavern to Chelsea, the High Line is a great example of something green, but it’s always crowded. Continuing north, I suppose Central Park is somewhat old and usually green but it’s way too crowded. Long story short, occasional bouts of green and vintage can be found across the city, but nothing uncrowded, even if I were to inch my way up to the Bronx and into Westchester where there’s a lot of green.

So where in America can a gal stretch her legs and quiet her mind?

Plenty of places, but not many that I find super-inspiring (with exceptions of our national parks; I’m talking about unprotected land). I’ve driven coast-to-coast three times so far and have become increasingly turned off by what I see, the “golden arches,” rampant obesity, billboards for Walmart, malls, malls and more malls. Yes, there are many Americas in America, but the one I just described is the one that’s most obvious from the highway, and it makes me wonder what the United States looked like before corporate consumerism swallowed us whole. I’m looking for something very particular, old like a random 19th century farmhouse on a slow road, not manicured Colonial Williamsburg-old. Or something not golf course-green, but an uninterrupted forest green like Vermont (it’s in the state’s name after all), where billboards are illegal and the farm-to-fork movement isn’t a movement but daily practice.

Ok, so farmhouses are often smallish—at least smallish compared with McMansions—uncrowded and green and old, right, so maybe I’m on to something there? I can already hear my 11-year-old’s eyes rolling with this one (though she does like my idea of AirStreaming through Canada into Alaska and picnicking on salami and salmon along the way). I do like farmhouses, so maybe I drive around America checking out old farmhouses and taking pictures of them the way photographer Robert Dawson and his son Walker traveled America photographing public libraries. Nearby in Brooklyn is a Dutch saltbox farmhouse built in 1652 that has successfully weathered urbanization as well as generations of hippies, hipsters and the craft beer revival. It’s called the Wyckoff House and it looks like a fun day trip, but it’s also spittin’ distance from a BJ’s, so not very green, and definitely not uncrowded. I could meander up the Hudson into the Catskills, back into Vermont’s verdant valleys, around New England and find some old farmhouses in sparsely populated towns there. Maybe that will quell this urge. We’ll see.

My quest for smaller, quieter space is undoubtedly a Quixotic one, but I’m convinced these places, these old farmhouses and less developed nooks in America exist, though they are getting harder to find because so many are being encroached by suburbanization. (Suburbanization is simultaneously ruining cities; stand in the middle of New York’s Union Square as I recently did and every store front can be found everywhere else: Children’s Place, TGIF Friday’s, Barnes and Noble, Staples. Yes, Union Square has a bustling farmers’ market but those veggie stands are besieged by Corporate America.) Lately, I’ve been wondering what Washington would think if he could see America now? Would he applaud our entrepreneurship or mourn the loss of land and landscape?

My need for these quieter, unvarnished slices of Americana is in direct reaction to the suburban affluence that surrounds me. As I write this, construction workers are hammering away at a couple McMansions; two are going up right now on the next street over. I jog or bike by them daily. Mid-century homes are getting bulldozed left and right while my husband and I work to renovate our quirky 1926 Colonial. We’re getting backyard chickens this spring, and, yes, while Brooklyn hipsters are also doing this, I know my interest in raising hens is to create at home what I am losing in my community, something small and sweet, hopefully green, not too busy, with some age to it—before someone knocks it down.

Land of Enchantment

“You’re going to love this,” our host, Richard, told us as we wheeled our luggage into the casita. “Taos is really a magical place.”

That word——magical——was uttered several times by strangers during our week in Taos, New Mexico. The artist I interviewed said it. The gallery attendant said it. The lady next to me on the ski shuttle said it. The state adopted the motto “Land of Enchantment” before World War II, and continues to live up to this creed daily, and remains fiercely protective of its natural resources and cultural traditions. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Blood of Christ) comprise the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Range, and circle the tiny town of Taos, home to the historic and beautiful Taos Pueblo, about 5,700 people——many of them artists, skiers or both——80 art galleries, several mules and horses, and lots of chickens. Taos requires wheels, which is one of the best ways to experience the town as well as all of New Mexico’s enchanting mountains and valleys, for the landscape is the kind found in art galleries. That’s why there are so many hot air balloons dotting the sky; you want to breathe in New Mexico and experience it slowly.

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I first encountered New Mexico’s infinite and astounding vistas sixteen years ago this week, when I spent nine days driving from Rochester, New York, to Seattle, Washington, and made stops to visit friends and sights along the way. (This would become the first of three cross-country road trips, so far, for me.) I remember cruising in my 1994 Geo Metro with my cat Nigel, years before iPhones and iPods, relying on local radio stations to keep me entertained as we inched along Interstate 40, which stretches from North Carolina to Southern California. I had chosen a southern route for my drive, since it was the thick of winter, and I had wanted to see the Grand Canyon. But New Mexico made me want to stop the car and take a look around.

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Up until crossing over the state border, I didn’t really know anything about New Mexico other than it was there between Texas and Arizona, and that it was one of the “Four Corner” states where you could straddle four state borders at once. During that 1998 trek, I drove through New Mexico on to the Grand Canyon making a promise to return to the red mountains. Fifteen years after that drive, I read a Travel & Leisure article about spending Christmas in Taos, and plans started to take shape. We arrived in Taos on December 22, and spent the week at Casa Gallina, a place that rivals five-star hotels and is managed by Richard Spera.

Taos, New Mexico, has been an artists’ colony for over a century, but in 2013, the town and its artists continue to reel from the 2008 economic downturn; when money gets tight, art is often the first luxury to go. While some artists have begun to reemerge and reopen galleries along Kit Carson Road, they still struggle, and many galleries remain closed. Yet the landscape always inspires painting and sketching no matter what is happening to bank accounts. Artists cull stones from the earth to piece rock into jewelry or whip earth into clay to mold pottery. Old soda cans are twisted into flowers. Glass and color are heated into portraits and ornaments. Locally-made artwork adorns Taos municipal buildings, the hospital, hotels, coffee shops, restaurants and gas stations. A gallery attendant told me many artists in the area live on $10,000-$20,000 a year, yet this undercurrent of rural poverty is haloed by glorious paintings, sculptures, pottery and jewelry. Artists in Taos create to just create, and if income comes from that, well, all the better.

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Creativity was everywhere in Taos Christmas week, including in the two evergreen trees that stood like sentinels in front of St. Jerome Chapel, the 19th century church at Taos Pueblo. Taos is a poor, yet resourceful town, and the two evergreens were decorated with compact discs sprinkled with glitter and hung with string. They caught and reflected New Mexico’s abundant sunshine beautifully. Inside St. Jerome Chapel, the flowers were plastic and the small aisle was decorated with the kind of tinseled garland you can find at any convenience store. After all the opulent cathedrals I have visited across Europe, this small, humble church in the mountains resonated the most with me. Christmas is when Taos mixes Christian with Native American traditions, and the best time and place to experience this is on Christmas Eve at Taos Pueblo when the priest and congregation of St. Jerome hold a procession around the Pueblo while residents guard bonfires that were easily three stories high. Luminarias line Pueblo rooftops and walkways throughout the reservation and a few miles away throughout downtown. I feel that nothing I write can do justice to what I saw in Taos on Christmas Eve. I choked up and just watched the silhouettes of men, women and children move around the light being thrown from the many luminarias and bonfires, the edges of those high yellow flames reaching for the countless stars above us, as if sending a reminder to the heavens that we were still here, below, celebrating how lucky we all are to enjoy this planet and all its enchanting beauty.

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Trouble Sitting Still

Spanish royals funded Christopher Columbus’s travel. The Dutch East India Company paid for Henry Hudson to cross the Atlantic and tour North America. Centuries later, no matter who you are or where you’re going, getting from here to there still costs a lot of money, even when you navigate Internet deals or work corporate membership points systems. It’s been an expensive year here at Casa Martinez-Woznicki; a milestone birthday trip to Japan, my husband traveling to a few national conferences this year to promote his debut science fiction novel The Daedalus Incident, some quiet time in the Adirondacks and Vermont, our annual summer schlepping around California, which we always love, and this Thursday, we return to Montreal, because, well, I’m chasing art exhibits again, like I did when we jumped the Atlantic to see David Hockney’s art in Paris.

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(Here I am heading to London on Christmas Day, 2009; again…just can’t sit still.)

This time, I’m chasing Dale Chihuly’s Utterly Breathtaking exhibit hosted by America’s most trusted trading partner, Canada. I had wanted to return to Seattle to see Chihuly’s Garden and Glass pieces and catch up with some friends. Then, I learned a similar exhibit in Montreal was ending next month, and click, click, click, tickets were purchased, hotel reservations were made, and everyone is now figuring out what they want to put on their poutine next weekend. We’re excited. What would make it even more exciting is if someone else would pay for it, but I’m no Columbus or Hudson, and this blog doesn’t get the kind of traffic that excites tour companies (not yet anyway…gotta think positively!), so our jaunts come from our own pockets. All of them. Visiting Montreal twice in one year, you ask? Sure, it’s expensive, unnecessary, not entirely prudent. I completely agree with you. Mike and I have already designated 2014 as “The Year of Austerity” which will involve some discipline when it comes to making travel plans. But like any diet, you already scheme of ways to cheat.

I don’t seek to be a nomad, ditch the shackles of modern Western life and travel the world. There are some places that don’t interest me, and I like having our nest and enjoy the freedom to visit other nests. But austerity and exploration don’t go hand-in-hand. I was recently interviewed by Anna Pratt from The Society for Professional Journalists for its freelancers’ blog The Independent Journalist, where I state that travel isn’t about distance but about having a sense of exploration. Sounds inspiring, right? What I didn’t say is that the costs of short trips add up quickly, and sometimes taking one long, far trip can be easier to track. Montreal is an example of one of these three-day weekend excursions that are intended to cost less than they actually do.

How does one stick to a travel diet (which is really a money diet) while writing about travel and occasionally giving in to that urge to explore? I don’t have the patience for outsmarting online airline sales or digging for bargains or working reward programs to score the best deal. Plus I’m not good at it. I like going, doing, and writing. What seems to help is reliving my own trips for CheapOAir; this week I wrote about eating in Tokyo, cafe culture in Toronto, and recently blogged about leaf-peeping in Vermont. Upcoming writing assignments for CheapOAir include spas, haunted Savannah, and more coverage of my favorite West Coast cities, Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Reliving vicariously through myself will get old and I hate sitting still. We’d have a beautiful new kitchen by now if I could sit still. Yesterday, we bought a Honda CRV after our beat up 2002 Honda Accord decided it was time to leave this world (car payments are another reason for a needed “Year of Austerity”). So maybe there’s more road tripping in our CRV and less time in the clouds in 2014. Plane or car, tickets or gas will come from our wallets, so I better get cracking on the work that pays the bills.

Hanging With 1,300 Bloggers in Toronto

Five years after launching, TBEX, an international conference for travel bloggers and peddlers of tourism, sells out its sponsorship. That tells you (and me) quite a bit. Everyone seems to want to ditch it all and Instagram their global adventures. The 2012 conference in Colorado attracted almost 800 people. This year, more than 1,300 attendees descended into Toronto with big dreams, tight budgets and cell phones hot from incessant tweeting.

The beehive that was TBEX made for an interesting three days, and I hope the million buzzing conversations happening at once yield lasting relationships, which mean more to me than compensated press trips. Yes, I want to see the world, but I’ve been doing it on my own dime so far, an approach that’s gotten me into some pretty big publications. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, try some new things along the way, see where that goes and if someone wants to fund that, well, super.

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Meanwhile, Toronto. I’m not a party blogger, I’m a travel blogger so I skipped sponsored convention parties and wandered the city with Mike and Anna because that’s what we do and we’ve developed a rhythm with our sojourns. We stayed at the Westin Harbour Castle, a curvy hotel on the waterfront that is lovely on the inside and surrounded by construction work on the outside. In fact, much of Toronto is under construction, as the city enjoys an influx of immigrants and Canadians seeking opportunity. More than 51 percent of Toronto residents aren’t even from Canada. Luxury condo complexes are sprouting up like beach umbrellas. And even in early June, with Lake Ontario’s temperatures just hitting a nippy 60 degrees, there are real beach umbrellas to sit under at a place known as Toronto’s HTO Park.

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Like a Jean-Claude and Christo exhibit, the HTO Park uses the sunny appeal of large objects to draw in passersby. Cities are innately gray, filled with steel, glass and concrete; a yellow umbrella against a cerulean blue lake pops. Before 2007, this space, like so many stretches of waterfront, was polluted by aggressive industry. It was re-imagined as a green space for urban dwellers, a soft, sandy oasis amid all the hard steel, glass, and concrete. The umbrellas are plastic and permanently installed so strong winds off Lake Ontario won’t suddenly turn an umbrella into a torpedo. Sit under these umbrellas that are the color of fresh lemon peel, have your back to the city, and watch the lake sparkle. Anna built a sand castle. I sat and daydreamed. HTO Park is one of the few city parks I have visited in this world where I felt a genuine re-connection with nature, and it wasn’t just because I had sand between my toes. For about ten, fifteen minutes, I forgot we were in Canada’s largest metropolis of more than two million people. Usually in cities, you have to cocoon in a shoebox of an apartment or a hotel room to feel privacy. In Toronto, hang out alone on a city beach on a Monday morning. It’s better than being the first customer at your favorite Starbucks.

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The Distillery District was another favorite Toronto discovery. This wasn’t my first trip to Toronto; I had visited in 1992 and 1995, though it was probably a different city 20 years ago, and my visits came before the rebirth of the Distillery District as a hipster hangout and the city’s only pedestrian village. It was early Sunday evening and shops were starting to close as we arrived, though I managed to score a lovely necklace hand made by someone in Poland, which resonated with me, because, well, take a look at my last name. We ate sweet potato fries and Mike sampled beer at Mill Street Brew Pub, but the real highlight for us was Balzac’s cafe, a coffee chain that feels anything but. To quote Andrew Weir, the vice president of communications for Tourism Toronto, Balzac’s is a local favorite, “a time warp but with a modern espresso machine.” If I lived in Toronto, this would be my home office. It’s a two-story, 1895 harbor front pump house renovated into a funky Parisian-style cafe now pumping coffee. A diaphanous chandelier looms over guests on the first floor, whereas on the second floor, a sofa the color of tiger lilies faces the CN Tower, a landmark that appears to be visible from every vantage point in the city. Balzac’s is where you bring a good book or have a meaningful conversation or think the kinds of thoughts that will set you on a new course in life. And that’s just as awesome if not better than being the first customer at your favorite Starbucks.

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Outside Balzac’s sits an old pickup truck. This is how I picture our retirement in Vermont.

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A closed shop in the Distillery District, which is good, because I might have impulsively purchased a funky purse I don’t need. But I would’ve been funky.

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Of course, you have to do the CN Tower when visiting Toronto. It’s 114 stories, one of the tallest, pointiest skyscrapers tickling the clouds, and there’s a view of Lake Ontario that on a clear day makes the $35 admission ticket more than worth it. During our last night in Toronto, we enjoyed an eerily beautiful sunset.

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Toronto’s restaurant scene rivals New York’s or London’s or Tokyo’s. You can find fresh innovative anything anywhere. Our most innovative foodie experience happened during our first night at Susur Lee’s restaurant on King Street. I don’t want to spoil it. Just go. Anything you order will be amazing. The menu is here. A native of Hong Kong, Chef Lee has been named one of the top 50 chefs in the world. We get why. Oh, and they sprinkle edible flowers on your drinks and some of the waiters have sexy accents. Make reservations.

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While I attended convention sessions about marketing, blogging, and marketing your blog, Mike and Anna spent a day at the world renowned Toronto Zoo to see white lions, snoozing polar bears and the latest additions, pandas. Giant pandas on loan from China just began their 10-year stay in Canada last month. People are excited and lines are long. I had to wonder if Anna’s generation would be the last to see pandas for there are only 1,600 left in the world and two of them are hanging out in Toronto. I remember the white lions from my 1995 visit to the zoo, and apparently the year before was when the last white lion was seen in the wild. So many of these rare animals now live in faux habitats in captivity, under intense preservation efforts, and while that initially feels sad, it also makes me feel hopeful that perhaps their numbers will turn around, and we can correct our wasteful ways…maybe even restore a little more green balance back to our planet. Getting off my conservation soapbox, the zoo was so fantastic that my daughter won’t cut off her admission wristband, and that’s never happened.

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And finally, Niagara Falls, nature’s ultimate shower about an hour outside Toronto. Perhaps the best time to visit the falls is the day you check out of your hotel, for if you’re in a rush and didn’t have time for a morning shower, a ride on the Maid of the Mist (on the US side) will remedy that. Adults cost $15.50 USD and kids are $9. You get a half-hour ride around the falls, plenty of OMG photo opportunities, and a blue plastic poncho, which you will most certainly need. “Mist” is an understatement; you will get hosed.

The area is a bit over-developed with gaudy commercialism, but the park is pretty and the falls are riveting. Maid of the Mist tours have been running since 1846, and Niagara Falls is America’s oldest state park, protected by a small group of environmentalists who in the 1860s, on the tail of the Industrial Revolution, had the foresight to challenge economic leeching along Niagara Falls. The falls, the zoo, Toronto’s city parks all gave me a feeling of hope, that caring about our natural resources isn’t just something that’s trending, but is intrinsic and hopefully timeless. TBEX brought me to Toronto and I learned a great deal, but I would say I learned just as much outside the convention center as I did inside.

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