Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Los Angeles, California to Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Day 93-120, 2-19 July 2008

Los Angeles, California to Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

2-20 July, 2008

Soundtrack:

‘Before Hollywood’ – Go-Betweens

‘Burn Hollywood Burn’ – Public Enemy

‘LA Woman’ – The Doors

‘Hollywood Tale’ – Royal Crown Review

‘Jewish Pot Pourri’ – Leo Rosner

‘Star Spangled Banner’ – Francis Scott Key

‘Anthem’ – Tiddas

‘California Uber Alles’ – Dead Kennedys

3 July 2008 (or is it the 2nd? That wacky International Date Line knows how to mess things up…)

4.28am

We flew over and into Taipei and marvelled at its size; for an Australian any city of a certain size with literally hundreds of skyscrapers is a sight to behold. A city such as Taipei, or even a country like Taiwan, is often a metaphorical dot on our geographical landscape, yet it serves as a reminder that our own population in Keating’s “arse end of the world” is rather insignificant on a global scale.

The flight was tolerable and the children were great. I’m not sure if it’s just a reflection on getting older, but travelling cattle-class is getting harder. Surely there was more leg-room last time? We landed at about 2pm local time, which meant about 4am body-clock time, and, upon arrival, our jovial Captain Speaking alerted us to – wait for it – a bomb threat at the airport some hours earlier. This meant that, after the ‘all clear’ was given, there was a huge backlog of planes that had to take off before we could disembark. So we sat on the tarmac for another hour. We thought about the places we had been so far, and even some of the travel warnings provided by the Australian government, and noted that the only hint of trouble so far has happened in the so-called leader of the free world. Who would hold anything against them?

Our arrival in LA was both momentous and a little wearying. Air travel had us guessing where all the time had gone, with the children particularly feeling as though entire weeks had disappeared into the ether. “What, Hanoi was only last night? It feels like last month!”

But, all’s well. We rented a great little apartment in West Hollywood (that took a while to find online over the last few weeks), and after we got settled we went out for a quick meal and did some grocery shopping. The kids crashed at about 7pm local time, which was great, and S and I were asleep by 8.30, but we were all up at 1.30am eating breakfast cereal.

5.57am

The kids thought it a great laugh and whispered and giggled to each other for the next few hours until sleep came at about 5am – a similar time to their normal bedtime. I’ll try and wake them at about 9, I think. I dozed for a bit but nothing substantial. It’s now just before 6am and I know I’m going to get tired and grumpy some time today, but it will all work out.

We’ll make contact with the shipping company to see when we can get the truck. It should have arrived today. Tomorrow, being the 4th of July, is a public holiday. Then the weekend, so we might just have to sit tight for a week until we can hit the road.

The evening was still, cool and crisp. The sun is now gently rising and the air is rather a novelty, given our last two-and-a-half months in hot and humid surrounds. Our walk last night also seemed a bit of a turn up: wide footpaths with few people, quiet traffic and drivers obeying traffic light and pedestrian signals. At once I was both relishing this more relaxed environment and missing the hectic streets of Hanoi. I’m really looking forward to getting in amongst it all, though, and soon hitting the road again…

(Pic: Iraq ‘War’ commemoration, Santa Monica Beach)

Our contact at the shipping company gave us no clues as to if and when our truck would arrive at his depot, so it was time to do the LA thing. We deliberately chose to stay in West Hollywood to be within walking distance of some interesting and fun shopping strips, especially along Melrose Avenue, but also into Santa Monica, and Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Having an apartment meant that we didn’t have to eat out every meal, but we did sample some American delights, including the ubiquitous Mexican restaurant and taking the children to Johnny Rockets, a retro 50s diner (we did it for the kids, honestly).

One of the most quintessential American experiences is baseball. It is something that hovers in the same cultural space as jazz, rock and roll and sitcoms, yet is less accessible for most Australians as it doesn’t encroach on our daily lives in the same way. Baseball is enjoyed by millions of Americans, yet it has had only a few dismal and aborted attempts back home.

So, I looked up when the local team, the Dodgers, were playing a home game. I had attempted to go to a baseball or football game when S and I were here last (I’ve given ice hockey a wide birth – if I want that much sanctioned violence I’ll check out the professional wrestling!), but all teams conspired to play away games wherever we were. I was taken a little aback at how pervasive American cultural references were to us living on the other side of the planet as not only was I able to recall who the local team was, but that they originally came from the other side of the country, in Brooklyn, New York. It’s like knowing the words to numerous American pop songs of the 70s and 80s, yet buggered if I can tell you much about the periodic table or algebra.

(Pic: Take me out to the ball game – Sandy and Maddy aren’t too impressed)

Entry into the arena was simple enough. We only had to choose how much we wanted to spend on tickets and we were in. And the show began.

Oh, not the baseball, the pre-game entertainment. This was our ‘mom and apple pie’ introduction to fervent American patriotism, with the arrival by parachute of four Navy Seals (US Marines) bearing flags, the swearing-in of some new recruits, and the singing of the national anthem by a big-voiced Armed Forces alto. The voice-over guy asked everyone to stand and to remove their hats, to which everyone obliged and placed hands over their hearts and, while singing along, all turned to our left. At first I couldn’t see why they were all trying to face the same way – Mecca? – but soon noticed the huge stars and stripes flag being raised. The vast majority of the crowd sang along loud and proud, and cheered earnestly. For an Australian who has attended many football games, this was astounding. Australians generally consider their national anthem as a quaint obligation, particularly at sporting events, when its conclusion signals the opportunity to roar for your team. During AFL finals games the final phrase of Advance Australia Fair (only the first verse, of course) is often drowned out by hungry fans hollering not for their country but for their colours. But at this baseball game at Dodger Stadium, the punters were genuinely cheering their armed forces, and their country. Fists were raised, tears were wiped. This honest and authentic display of patriotism – or perhaps nationalism – would be replicated for us in various ways as we traverse this nation.

I’ve since discovered that the USA national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, provides some interesting insights – and challenges – into the American psyche. For example, I only just realised that the final phrase of the first verse (the only verse sung officially, it seems) has a question mark on the end of it. So, it reads: ‘Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’ I’ve always thought it was a grand proclamation of how Americans see themselves and fellow citizens, but it does seem to be challenging them to ensure that they all are part of this grand ideal. And obviously, not all Americans are free. The final three versus end with the same phrase, but without the question mark. But nobody sings these stanzas.

Another part of the baseball experience also surprised me with its almost hokey throwback to days of yore – the organ player. Nancy Bea has been playing the organ in between plays at Dodger Stadium for years. At first, I thought it must be a digital version played through a computer at a touch of a button, but the various bum notes and tempo changes gave it away. And all the classics were there, including ‘Baby Elephant Walk’, and the ever-present ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’.

And finally the game started. We tucked into staples of Americana, including Raffy’s supposedly world-famous Dodger Dog which was, well, a hotdog, and a baseball helmet filled with popcorn. And Sandy and I had a couple of beers, which got me thinking about a Simpsons episode when Homer is ‘on the wagon’ while attending a baseball game. “You know,” he says, “I never realised how boring this game is.” And to be honest he was right. The game starts and stops every few minutes after not much happening at all and, unsurprisingly, the crowd find their own ways to keep themselves amused, such as marriage proposals beamed by camera onto the big screen, and overweight, hairy men standing up in the bleachers downing a large cup of warm beer while the crowd around him call out “skol, skol, skol”.

One last observation that rattled my brain was the naturally parochial crowd openly and loudly booing one of their own. They booed Andruw (sic) Jones when he was introduced to the crowd as the team entered the arena and whenever he went up to bat. A fan behind me explained that, basically, he was having a rough patch and currently had a low score rate, so the crowd let him have it. All the time. I tried putting this in the context of the broader American experience and comparing it with my own cultural framework, but still found it extraordinary that there were thousands of people in the stands who were seemingly by nature so defensive about their own and passionate about their team, and at the same time hateful of one of the people in their own uniform. While Australian football fans are often known to have a go at one of their own players – and my father takes this to another dimension – it was still a little unnerving. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if these same people in the stands took the same approach to their politicians. Many Americans’ engagement in politics could be paralleled with their engagement with baseball; fiercely parochial but only take notice when something monumental, like a home run, or an affair, occurs. The rest of the time it’s everything else around that seems more interesting.

We kept checking in with the shipping company, and nothing was doing. This was about to put some pressure on our accommodation arrangements, as we were unable to extend our stay at our apartment as it had been reserved by others at the end of the week. The apartment was owned by budding Hollywood star Josh Fineman, who went out of his way to look out for us and give us some suggestions about other digs and things to do. I’m sure Josh will one day soon receive top billing on a cinematic blockbuster, and of course we’ll take some of the credit for furthering his career. You’re welcome, Josh!

(Pic: Maddy and Raffy on their ‘chopper’ bikes, Venice Beach)

At the end of our first week we had to move out, but we found a short-term place about 25km away in the fabled Venice Beach – home to long, wide sandy beaches, burned out hippies and other assorted funsters, freaks and the foolhardy buying, selling or cruising up and down the strip. Our host Greg was an affable guy, who shared lots of great travel stories with us. We rented bikes and rode to Santa Monica beach and back and generally hung out. I went out for a walk late one night to acquaint myself with the fabled LA nighthawks, but the place was deserted. What happened to this place? We had hoped that the two nights there would be enough time for our truck to clear customs, and we could then hit the road. No such luck.  

We had to move again and Josh had put us onto the smallish ‘boutique’ Le Petit Hotel back in West Hollywood. With plush décor and a rooftop pool with views of the Hollywood hills and surrounded by various beautiful people and sundry Hollywood deal-makers, we lapped up the lifestyle. We discovered that the desk staff had checked out our website and were so impressed they shouted us dinner on the roof.

(Pic: Sandy catches up on The West Wing on the laptop at the rooftop pool of Le Petit, West Hollywood, as you do)

But it wasn’t cheap, and even though it boasted a kitchenette, cooking was difficult. So we called Josh again, and Terry. Terry has a number of properties in LA and had put us on to Josh in the first place. Eventually Terry got us a small house only a few hundred metres from the Le Petit – our fourth home in under two weeks. Terry was fabulous – a great source of information, assistance, travel advice and a pleasure to finally meet. At this apartment, we were able to spread out again and, again, keep in contact with our shipping company, and line up our car insurance thanks to Ella at Hollywood Insurance.

(I spent a number of hours with Ella at her office organising insurance. The main hurdle was that the model of our truck wasn’t listed on her database. To wit, we are now responsible for having a Nissan Patrol added to the listings of a major US insurance company.)

(Pic: Fashion is politics)

The rep at the shipping company eventually told us that US Customs selects one per cent of the approximately eight million shipping containers to enter its shores annually to inspect, and ours got lucky, or unlucky, as the case may be. We were somewhat amused as well as annoyed as when the container would be x-rayed, and opened, what would be found is a locked vehicle. Sure, the vehicle would be filled to the brim with plastic containers, camping gear, spare parts and clothes, but unless Customs decided to break in they wouldn’t see any of it.

So, we waited some more.

We walked a lot, and Maddy and Raffy applied themselves especially well. We trawled vintage clothes stores and ate a large, hearty and nostalgic meal at the famous Canter’s deli. The kids had matzo-ball soup and matzo brie, and Sandy worked her way through their signature pastrami-on-rye. I had gefilte fish and cold borsht, and was a little melancholy thinking about my grandparents.

(Pic: Maddy gets up close to Vinny Barbarino)

We went to the La Brea tar pits and museum, and discovered that camels once roamed the US, and stumbled upon the Petersen Car Museum that housed numerous American automobile legends that just got us dreaming about how we would fill our imaginary endless garage. We spent a few hours at the brilliant Skirball Museum and Cultural Centre and trawled Hollywood Boulevard and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where we got to stand in the concrete footprints of Hollywood luminaries such as Jimmy Stewart and one of our all-time favourites, Danny Kaye.

We also ate a lovely meal at a restaurant on Santa Monica that was once a house that became the recording studio for the Doors when they recorded LA Woman.

One rather odd yet apposite past-time that Sandy and I indulge in is watching episodes of the American television series ‘The West Wing’ after the children had gone to bed. We were latecomers to this extraordinary program when it began screening on Australia’s ABC network some way into the series. We then began borrowing and renting the series from the beginning while we were still in Melbourne, and eventually I was able to purchase the entire series in Hanoi for a full $7. (I’m assured it is genuine and I have nothing to worry about, and I’m not arguing. I got the full series of ‘Blackadder’ too, but that’s another story. Funnily, they had never heard of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Strange.)

Like much of the world, and few Americans, we have been following the long, somewhat laborious but nevertheless fascinating lead up to the US Presidential elections. To do this and watch a brilliant TV series that focuses on machinations in the White House has made the experience that much more exciting – especially when life imitates art that imitates life. The American political system is baffling and mind-boggling at the best of times (in some states you can turn up to vote in primaries to choose the leader of a party without being a member of that party) and yet sometimes it’s difficult to determine which is closer to the truth – the TV series or the TV news. Maybe Hollywood is just as powerful as its moguls would like to think.

And then, one afternoon when I was at the supermarket, my phone rang. Our truck had been cleared through customs and had arrived at the depot, and I agreed we’d come out to the boondocks the following morning.

Carson was around 50km away, so a cab would’ve cost a fortune. We decided to take the relatively direct public transport option. I was quite keen, if not a little uneasy, as the train would take us through areas made infamous by popular culture – especially hip hop – and modern history, including Compton and Watts. South Central LA has historically been a hotbed of class and racial dissent, but seemingly quiet since the Rodney King riots some sixteen years ago.

Of course, it was all fine. The train was clean and efficient, and people were keen to help us out with directions. In fact, the hardest bit was trying to locate a cab after alighting from the train to take us to the warehouse. We ended up having to trek to a vast yet somewhat deserted shopping centre and ask staff at a department store to call one for us (the staff at the first store refused to help out because they “didn’t know the number of the cab company.”)

We rolled into the parking lot of the warehouse and were confronted with acres of mostly classic 1950s and 1960s Americana waiting for shipping to all corners of the globe. It has been a dream of ours for years to come to the US and pick up a cheap and glorious beast with fins, curves and chrome to make your eyes pop and your heart melt, but we had convinced ourselves that this trip would not provide us with the necessary resources to do it. Raffy still thinks we could buy one and just tow it home. Maybe next time. But what a sight.

(Pic: Sandy gives the truck a welcoming pat before it is backed out of the shipping container while Danny looks rather relieved)

And, like in Singapore, there it was. This time our truck was sitting quiet, still and, thankfully, unmolested, in a shipping container. The container doors were open, but only we had the keys. The truck fired up first go, even though it had not been driven in more than a month, and backed out.

And yes, the stereo, and everything else, was intact.

It was parked temporarily amongst the cruisers and hotrods out front where Sandy and I hastily removed all the gear from the back seat and loaded it onto the roof so Maddy and Raffy could climb aboard. And then, with great trepidation and a grin on my face, we headed out into the carnage that is the Los Angeles freeway system.

Our carnet had not been returned from customs, we were told*, which was cause for some concern, but our man on the ground assured us that all was in order and that he would forward the carnet by post as soon as he received it. Without the carnet we can travel the US to our heart’s content, but getting the truck into Canada, let alone exiting the Canada and the US for Europe will not be possible.

We wanted to put our planned itinerary into action immediately but hit a snag. We planned to drive to Las Vegas, but the weekend was coming up, meaning everything in Vegas was booked solid. We needed to sit tight a bit longer.

We used the opportunity to go further afield in LA while we had our own transport. First stop – Universal Studios. We checked out the Shrek ‘ride’ and took the kids to the Hard Rock Café for lunch. We also made sure we were around for one of the scheduled Blues Brothers revues, as undoubtedly it is one of the greatest films of all time, but walked away half way through, bitterly disappointed. Fancy making the character Curtis, played by the late, great Cab Calloway, the husband of diner operator Aretha Franklin? So, so wrong. If they couldn’t be true to the Blues Brothers, then no wonder the whole country’s in trouble.

The piece de resistance though was the new Simpsons ride. The famous yellow family had been on my mind for weeks. Quintessentially American while showing Americans in a mirror they either don’t want to see or don’t know exists. Last time Sandy and I were in the US, the Simpsons had just become a pop culture leviathan, while it was still unheard of in Australia. We couldn’t work out who this Bart kid was and why we needed to eat his shorts. Eighteen years later, the Simpsons have taken over the world and serve as a consistently accurate commentary on American life and times.

(Pic: The Simpsons welcome us to Universal Studios. It’s really them. Honest. Maggie was asleep.)

The ride itself doesn’t go anywhere. Instead your ‘vehicle’ dips, jumps and shudders as you watch a large screen depicting the Simpson family destroying a roller-coaster. Raffy was not looking forward to it at all and spent most of the time with his head buried in my chest, but Maddy shrieked and laughed the whole way through. And even though the ride lasted a fraction of the time we spent queuing, we were tempted to do the whole thing again.

Queuing for rides is now quite fascinating. Back in the day you simply stood in a line in the blazing heat for a couple of hours or so, praying that the end result was going to be worth it. For the Simpsons ride, and others such as the back-lot tour, you snake around what seems like miles of walkway with hundreds of other punters, the whole while staring at strategically placed TV screens showing relevant clips. For the Simpsons ride we were shown various snippets of Simpsons episodes that related to theme parks and the like. And, funnily enough, the queue of hundreds of people moved steadily and orderly along the lines, without fuss and complaint, for almost an hour. “That’s it!” I thought. “The power of television!” What better way to keep a bunch of people – and lets face it, mostly Americans with a few other westerners – happy, or at least compliant, than put TVs in front of them, all the time. Imagine what it could do for public transport! Imagine what it could do for childcare! Oh…

Of course it is popular culture, and more specifically television, that is held in such high regard in the US, and in particular Los Angeles. Dozens of tour companies ferry deluded fans in open-topped buses or air-conditioned minivans around the area to perve on so-called ‘celebrities’ and sundry rich and famous. In fact, we had our own brush with fame; we sat at a table at a French bakery next to thespian royalty.

Colin Friels and Judy Davis with their children were looking windswept and interesting while tucking into croissant and café au lait. Typical – we come all this way and the first celebs we run into are a couple of Aussie actors.

And while not wanting to downplay the importance of Judy and Colin’s contribution to the performing arts, we were comforted to then walk down Melrose and pass the brilliant diminutive American actress Rhea Perlman, better known as the sharp-tongued waitress Carla Tortelli (and for mine, the star) on the TV sitcom ‘Cheers’. Partner Danny DeVito was nowhere in sight.

Yet, even with all the so-called glamour and dream-making, I did feel an overwhelming sense of the sinister side of Hollywood and LA. While West Hollywood (WeHo, dahling), Beverly Hills and the like are swimming in cash and luxury, the vast bulk of the city has the look and feel of one big struggle-town.

Almost 11 million people call greater LA home in an area of more than 10,000 sq km, which is only slightly larger than Melbourne. Outside of the glamour areas, businesses boasting “Pay checks cashed on pay day” is booming. We take for granted some of the services and supports available to us as Australians, yet for many Americans, simple things like housing, employment and health care are a constant battle. Almost all of the manual labour, particularly in the service industry, is provided by Hispanics – and one suspects many of whom are in the US illegally. Yet without them, at six bucks an hour, the economy (LA County is believed to have a GDP that would be within the top twenty nations of the world) would collapse.

(Pic: Maddy’s turn to cook dinner on our last night in LA.)

On our last day in LA we unpacked, cleaned and repacked the truck in readiness for the road. And, oddly, the truck’s alarm went off every ninety minutes throughout the night. This had never happened before, and I couldn’t work it out. It was a Friday night, and perhaps there was more traffic around rumbling past that may have set it off, but just didn’t make sense.

And then I felt it.

Lying awake I looked at the glass of water on my bedside and noticed it rippling. Dinosaurs? No, this is LA. Well, maybe. California is an often safe Republican state. No, it must be something else. Earth tremors.

I remembered from last time here that we often felt earth tremors that were so common the locals were immune. So, the next morning, I did a bit of research (http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/recenteqsww/Maps/region/N_America.php) and discovered that the alarm would often coincide with a tremor in the area. I’m still not entirely convinced, but the truck alarm has not been set off since we left LA. We’ll wait to see what happens in San Francisco. (Also check out http://www.theage.com.au/world/los-angeles-rattled-by-54-magnitude-quake-20080730-3mzj.html)

We hit the road and, some five hours later, with Elvis on the stereo, we rolled into Las Vegas, Nevada. After driving the length of the Strip we made our way to the Orleans Casino – we had decided to go for the entire Vegas experience.

And we very quickly got sick of it. Vegas has a mystique to it that it never lives up to. Even when Sandy and I were here last time it had a wackiness about it that nobody should take seriously. Its golden age, of course, was the 50s and 60s when the Brat Pack ruled supreme and it was a chance to frock up and pretend the rest of the world didn’t exist. Now, though, it seems to be almost entirely populated by pie-eyed tourists and desperate locals. It is said that around 5,000 people are moving to Vegas every month, yet we can’t really work out why.

Vegas now takes itself much too seriously. Look past the faux representations of European cities, Middle Eastern backdrops and the use of an obscene amount of water in the middle of the desert and you just see a bunch of people looking for an escape that’s not really coming. People trawl the slugging plastic yard-glasses and dozens of men and women try to hand you cards advertising sex and porn. Entire billboards and hoardings on the back and sides of moving trucks make no attempt to hide the fact that women were, it seemed, cheap and available. Numerous rows of newsstands provide free publications advertising women of the night, day and in between.

This required some explaining to the children. Maddy, in particular, was at the same time inquisitive, embarrassed and self-conscious. I sometimes noticed her holding my hand a little tighter than usual as we walked along the street. Ultimately, Vegas is full of drunk white men in their early twenties looking to party, and that usually means paying desperate women for sex. Trash at its worst.

Vegas also used to be a place that would offer inexpensive food, drinks and shows to entice the potential gambler, yet even these things are gone. I was keen to catch a show – maybe Penn and Teller, Roseanne Barr, George Wallace or perhaps Jay Leno, but there were no bargains to be had. The Amazing Jonathan is now a resident, but having toured with him in regional Victoria one year I have seen enough.

(Pic: Raffy and Maddy aren’t that impressed with the pretend Paris in Las Vegas.)

One other thing that Vegas is famous for is the ease in which you can not only get married (or divorced, for that matter), but it can be done by the artist formally known as Elvis. This is something Sandy and I almost did last time when we were here, figuring no-one would ever find out. We did get married since then, but thought we could do it again, for a laugh. We convinced the children it would be one of the silliest things we’d do on the trip, and began researching.

And discovered that to get some sad, overweight pretender in a wig and a white jumpsuit to wiggle his hips and say “I now pronounce you man and wife, uh-huh huh,” would cost about $300 at a minimum. “I don’t want to buy the guy,” I said, but to no avail. We dropped the idea.

We’d spent two weeks in one of the largest metropolises in the world, and now two nights in what is fast becoming a most disturbing anachronism, and needed to get back to nature. We hadn’t camped since Devils Marbles, Northern Territory, Australia, but, thankfully, we were about to get back on that horse.

* The carnet would become a saga. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!

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4 Comments»

  Hilary wrote @

gosh – what a very large helping of travel food here, full of extra delicious tales: fascinating as usual. it’s as though i travel vicariously in your wake. a propos of which, was the getty museum on your agenda by any chance? if so i look forward to your take on it – just being greedy here!
love
hilary

  David Taylor wrote @

Hi Guys,
Yet another marathon blog, but great non the less.
Thoroughly enjoyed the read. Helped fill in this miserable, & cold Sunday. All sounds so great, it seems like Murphy’s Law, “if it can go wrong, it will”.
What a great way to test your resolve. Even, as reading, I go, ‘oh, no!’, not another problem, you’re descriptions indicate there is a touch of humor & irony about it all. Thank God for a sense of humor.
Anyway, great descriptive writing, will be enjoyed by all.
Take care, stay safe,
Love & Peace,
David.

  Wally & Eleanor wrote @

A good read I amlooking foward to the next exciting chapter of the adventures of Dan San Mad &Raf.Love talking to you on skype the other day. The 50 60 cars that you saw were they originals or replicas?. Can you ship one over please A 56 Corvette. Keep on treking Wally

  Acai Juice wrote @

Nice bog you have here. I pretty much lurk the internet when I’m bored and read all I can about the organic lifestyle, but I really liked you view on things. I’ll bookmark the site and subscribe to the feed!


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