Flowers in #Holland for a Memorable #BirthdayCelebration

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Feeling a little like Cinderella on this special day.

Do you remember the first time you put on a floral dress and thought how beautiful it made you look and feel? 

In recent years, I have become  more and more fascinated by the amazing selection of flowers on show throughout the year. As soon as I see flowers, and no matter where, my first reaction is to smile, an unknown but definite happiness arising from the bottom of my heart, seeping through my veins and making me giddy with pleasure. My other inclination is to snap it on my phone, keeping that moment of beauty for longer. As we all know, no flower will stay blooming for long, and when they do, no matter how enchanting and vibrant, they can not last. Does their fleeting beauty make them more precious?

For me, flowers represent not just beauty, everlasting or temporary, they symbolise life and renewal, and often signalling the arrival of  Spring, a transition from freezing winter to gradual but inevitable warmth and growth, from darkness to brighter, longer daylight. Their ever-changing colours, shapes and fragrances, purifying the air we breathe and decorating our world in a delicate, ephemeral, extraordinary beauty. They are a collection of petals, sepals, stamens and pollen. That is the science, but that conveys little of the emotions they can arouse in human beings who appreciate them.

For a number of years, I’d wanted to go to Holland/Keukenhof for its wondrous selection of tulips and other spring flowers showing. I’d known friends who had been, I had seen pictures and video clips, but naturally nothing ever beats what we can see with our own eyes and to experience them at first-hand.

2019 is my Gap Year, which means a lot of traveling and doing things that I have always wanted to do but somehow not able to in the past. So in the second week of April John and I flew from Birmingham to Amsterdam, a route we have taken numerous times on the way to somewhere else, but this time, an extended holiday in several Dutch cities, and of course, the main purpose of the trip, Keukenhof  Tulip Appreciation. 

It was a super clear and crisp spring day with bright blue sky, the sun shining beautifully. From our base at the city of Leiden, it was a 40 minutes’ bus ride. It was Wednesday so the internet told us that it was the least busy day of the week. That was a good start. 

Do you know where tulips originated? 

Tulips originated in the Tianshan mountain range in western China and they were first actively cultivated in the Ottoman Empire (current day Turkey). Carolus Clusius (French Humanist, Physician and Botanist) wrote a major book on Tulips in 1592, they became extremely popular, so popular in the Dutch Golden Age that in the mid-seventeen century, they created the first economic bubble, known as ‘Tulipomania’. Tulips became so expensive and were even used as money. You could buy a house in Amsterdam with the value of one tulip bulb. Imagine that. I saw a play some ten years ago about the height of Tulip Mania and how the market crashed eventually. 

Now in the 21st century, the Netherlands is still reaping the rewards of cultivating tulips. currently there are over 2,000 kinds of tulips being cultivated by the Dutch, a love for tulips perfectly combined with an economy which brings tourists from all over the world.

In Keukenhof, the largest flower  garden in the world, you will see fields of different colours surrounding this area south-west of Amsterdam. Apparently there are more than seven million tulips in bloom there in the two months each Spring when Keukenhof is open to the public. Every autumn. the gardeners spend three months cultivating the bulbs, according to the overall strategic design. Keukenhof receives about 800,000 visitors during the two months, with 30 full time gardeners looking after the beds, so flowers are kept in perfect condition throughout. We saw slightly imperfect flowers, just past their sell-by date being uprooted and carried away, in the picture below.

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John and I spent a few delightful hours wandering through the various tulips, mostly outdoor but also in a large sheltered area. I can only share a very small selection of the tulips I took (about 400 photos on the day from my Iphone alone), but you can see how amazing the gardens are. 

Visitors can go on a boat tour along the surrounding canals or hire a bike to see more tulip fields around the area. Given it was a perfect sky albeit a bit cool, we decided to hire a tandem, which meant that I could sit on the back, letting my cyclist husband to do most of the peddling and enjoying the sights and taking photos. Unfortunately John was pedalling so hard against the northern wind that his bike chain broke only minutes into our cycling tour.

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Never mind, we still managed to struggle around the circuit and see some of the fields and had an amazing feast for our senses. 

The visit to Keukenhof marked my birthday and the beginning of our new discoveries of the Netherlands, beyond Amsterdam. I learnt a lot more about the country, her art, culture and people. I will probably write more about our explorations of the Netherlands, but for now, enjoy more pictures of flowers of Holland.  

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Heavenly Kingdom #Sichuan & Capital #Chengdu 天府之国四川/成都”

AvSSJLHCIAAMdW4Over the past eight blogging years, I’ve written a number of posts about Sichuan, the capital Chengdu and what makes this region in the Southwestern China such a special place for me. The reason is really simple: I am a proud and genuine ‘Spice Girl’ – not Posh, nor Ginger but the original spice girl. No matter where I go and how long I’ve been away from Sichuan, people I come across all over China will inevitably regard me as a Spice Girl. 川妹子/辣妹子 in Chinese is not a label I’d ever reject. 

If you are widely read and well informed in western literature, you may have heard of or watched the play “Good Woman from Sichuan” by German playwright Bertolt Brecht. If you have, you’ll probably appreciate my pride and joy. Within China and in the wider diaspora of Chinese community, women from Sichuan enjoy a wonderful reputation, fair, virtuous, hardworking and tough. I hope that my life up to now measures up to that reputation.

Sichuan, literally meaning Four Rivers, are known for a great many things: famous mountain ranges, rice paddies, lakes, hot springs, waterfalls, limestone caves, temples and not to mention the home of Giant Pandas, and an amazing selection of spicy and mouthwatering foods and snacks. Chengdu is known for her numerous tea houses, easy living and slow life styles. 

It’s quite impossible to provide a comprehensive guide to one of the largest provinces in China, a region the size as big as France and a population which reached over 100 Million in 1997 before Greater Chongqing split up from the rest of Sichuan to become an independent Metropolis. I shall, however, offer a brief introduction to this “Land of Abundance”, so sit tight and hop on to your personal tour with me.

Long, Rich and Diversified Cultural Heritage 

The Kingdom of Shu, as Sichuan once was known, was one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization. Mankind’s presence in the region dates back a long long time, perhaps as much as 200,000 years, and the Shu ancient civilization was developed around 25,000 years ago.  During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) , Chengdu became the capital of the Kingdom Shu.

This long history has left the province with an abundant historical heritage, including  the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project, the oldest and only surviving no-dam irrigation system in the world (http://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/sichuan/chengdu/dujiangyan.htm )  and the Leshan Giant Buddha, completed well-before the end of the first millennium of the Christian era (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leshan_Giant_Buddha ). 

Sichuan also boasts an amazing diversity and is home to more than 15 minority groups (Han nationality makes up the overwhelming majority in China, about 92%). Among these minorities are the Yi, Hui, Tibetan and Miao; each has its own culture, language, different dressing styles and unique customs. As a cultural and economic hub in the Southwestern China, Chengdu has served another strategic significance: Gateway to Tibet. 

Sichuan’s beautiful landscape is credited for inspiring literary giants, Sima Xiangru and Yang Xiong from the Han Dynasty; Li Bai and Su Shi, the most eminent poets of the Tang and Song Dynasties. Sichuan Opera is also one of the oldest and most famous operas in China, with unique styles like changing face masks and spitting fire.

Varied and Amazing Natural Beauty

My home province has some of the most amazing landscapes in China and is blessed with beautiful mountain ranges, hills, valleys, plains and plateaus. One of the most outstanding and beautiful, Mount Emei (峨嵋山), at 3099 metres, is the highest of the four Buddhist Mountains in China and is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I first paid my homage when I was a student in China, back in 1982, and again in the spring 2011. The mountain remained the same but I have changed – At the very top Golden Summit, I actually felt the lack of oxygen during my later visit, which I was completely oblivious of when I was younger. 

Another popular tourist site is Jiuzhaigou, “Nine Village Valley” (九寨沟), namely home to nine Tibetan villages. It is a national park located in the Minshan Mountain range in Northern Sichuan, where more than 220 rare bird species, endangered animals and plants live, including the Giant Panda, golden money and different types of orchids and rhododendrons. There are spectacular waterfalls and lakes of different colours of blue and green, due to colouration by natural minerals. Again I was lucky enough to have paid  a visit back in 1982, when it was still relatively unspoilt by the mass tourism that has ensued ever since.

Jiuzaigou 九寨沟

The pictures have faded but memories stay.

Hot Spicy Sichuan Cuisine Winning World-Wide Recognition

I simply cannot write a blog about Sichuan without highlighting the famous hot and spicy food, the essential ingredients that made me who I am :). If you are a lover of Chinese food in general and Sichuan cuisine in particular, you would immediately know what I am talking about. Even if you’ve never been to China, and you live in the most remote of Scottish highlands, you probably have seen “Sichuan Gong Bao Chicken” or “Beef Sichuan Style” on your take-away menu. Although I can’t guarantee how authentic they are, you get an idea how prominent Sichuan Style cooking is, securely at the very top of the most popular Chinese culinary delight. 

If you are adventurous and frequent a Chinese restaurant in any of the China Towns near you, you may have tried Mapo Tofu (beancurd with Sichuan Peppers and Hot chillies, with or without pink mince). Other famous Sichuan dishes include the mouth-watering Hot Pot, Tea Smoked Duck, Twice Cooked Pork, Husband and Wife Cold Beef Tripe, Water-Cooked Meat or fish dishes, Dan Dan Noodles, and the list is incredibly long! 

Just a couple of days ago, I saw someone on LinkedIn sharing a photo of Chinese menu, without an accurate translation, which by the way, happens a lot in many restaurants in China. My advice has always been: don’t worry about what they say on a piece of paper (Some dishes have wild translations and even the Chinese have no idea what they are), dig in and see how your tasty buds react. You never know, you may just fall in love with Sichuan food, as millions of people already do.

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I am flying out to Chengdu today, and I can’t wait to join the fun of Hotpots and get-togethers with other foodies. If you are on my social media circles, you will have some very hot and tasty updates. 

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#GranCanaria: ‘Hygge’ Picnics at #Sunsets

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The colours are striking, blue sky, reflected in an equally blue ocean; the mighty waves, the rocky landscape, the sunbathers and the surfers, all constitute a picture of both calm and movement. The sun’s rays, like glittering crystals, sparkled and twinkled, like bright little stars, reflected on the surface of an ever changing sea. Trees of various shades of green, tropical flowers of red, pink, orange, white and any other colours in between, and cactus, wondrous formations of different shapes and spikiness, not to mention the burst of flowers at the tip, displaying amazing beauty and grace. They are not the usual kind; a combination of tough thorns and soft petals.

The sun is setting, progressing from a big bright, blazing fireball, slowly shrinking to an orange half dome until it completely disappears into the horizon. The sea sparkles and shimmers with multiple reflections, as the surfers ride the crashing waves, up and down, up and down and then falling! It is a thrill even just to watch, as we walked along the Playa de Canteras, in Las Palmas, the capital.

The Canary Islands are a lot closer to Africa than Europe, hence longer days and warm climes. They are our favourite destinations for a winter break, and our most recent at the end of February marked the 4th time to GC, and countless times to other Canary islands. 

John loves GC because he can cycle up and down some amazing climbing routes with wonderfully sculpted, volcanic landscapes, and I love it because of the ever enchanting ocean, constant sunshine, fine selection of tapas and amazing sunsets above the sea and mountains.

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This Cyclist likes to train in GC, as many professional cyclists do.

If there was a paradise somewhere on earth, this could be it. No worries, no stress, just simple pleasures of relaxing with a fine company, sipping a chilled drink, listening to the sound of the waves, and feasting our eyes on the ever-changing colours on the evening sky – sunsets never cease to amaze me, no matter how many times I have watched them, and where. It’s a mesmerising experience which  puts me in a semi-trance. 

During the previous three visits, we stayed in the fabulous resort town of Maspalomas on the southern tip of the island. When we were not out exploring, or John out on his bike, I would normally join the sun bathers by our hotel pools. My iPad provided both music to the ears and Kindle books for my eyes, and socialising with friends far away naturally.  Life was easy, far from the madding crowd.

I enjoyed dipping into the pools, downstream, or upstream, and it circulated, under little bridges, with poolside bars for drinks and food, but nothing beats swimming in the sea, when it is relatively calm. Couples, families, old and young, all out there, topping up their much needed vitamin D and enjoying the warm caresses of the African sun. One week, usually at Christmas time, was quickly gone.

This time though, thanks to John’s retirement, we were able to stay longer. Three weeks in two of the Canary islands was a special treat for both of us. We also stayed in two different places up north, close to the capital which has the best beaches. With a hired car, and the cyclist not cycling every day, we were able to explore more places in the North and the Centre, and consequently we got to see much more of the natural sights of GC, from the stunning mountain villages/towns, to majestic national parks along the magnificent West coast.

I often find that words are limited when I try to describe Nature, and sometimes pictures are simply more direct and visual. So I am sharing a tiny selection of my holiday snaps with you, and by the time you’ve come to the end of the blog, tell me that you love it too.

Just before I leave you with more photos, I’d like to tell you the absolute highlight of my trip: picnic on the beach as the sun slowly sets and the skies alights with wondrous colours. Heavenly! 

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#Happiness is …

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Happiness is on a beach in New Zealand

A moment. 

A series of moments.

A gentle touch of a hand; a loving hug; a wee kiss.

The sound of the sea, waves crashing against the pebbles on the shore; watching the snow falling silently and your world turning into a blinding white right in front of you.

A picture of a place long ago; an image that comes to your mind when you’re least expecting it. 

A friendly smile from a stranger; a look from your pet, a voice on the other end of the phone, Skype or WeChat, someone who is glad to hear your voice too.

An exchange on Facebook, an interaction on LinkedIn, with people who share your sentiments, or someone you have only ‘met’ virtually but with whom you have an instant connection.

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My friends on various Social Media make me happy!

Happiness, in my humble view, consists of millions of small moments, fragments of our memories, pieces of our souls, dreams of the future, expectations great or small, and that ever present feeling of longing. 

In the last few years, as always, my life has been a roller coaster, punctuated with many ups and downs. However, even at the darkest hour, I could see a glimmer of hope, and light at the end of the tunnel. 

Waking up from a night’s adventure in my dreams and sometimes nightmares, I rise each morning, greeted by birds chirping from the trees outside my window.  If I am lucky,  I catch swift movements of a squirrel – the sun sometimes warms my face, and sometimes not, but I know it’s there just behind the clouds, ready to shine without a moment’s notice.

Switching on one of several electronic devices, I am instantly connected with hundreds of people on social media. With a few clicks, pictures of exotic flowers, music videos and smiling faces of friends, from four corners of the world, they light up both the screens and my heart. There is a fascinating world out there under my fingertips.

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Most days, when I am not travelling for work or leisure overseas, I go out for a walk, I hear the ducks chatting to one another, in a language which I do not understand; Our swan family, headed by the domineering and psychotic “Surgio”, are often close by, either waiting outside our front door waiting to be fed, or trying to chase off other swans, especially his own offsprings towards the end of each year. The pond in our Nature Reserve is vibrating with life, often full of activities, with residents coots/mallards/moorhens/tufted ducks, visiting Canada geese and many a seagull. They swim towards me, excited with their squeals and eager for food. 

We’ve learnt that bread is not good for them, so John ordered special swan food online, and once in a while, I feed the swans my favourite choice of cornflakes. 

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Yes, food, glorious food. This makes me happy. 

The bubbling of Chongqing Hotpot on a winter day, the heavy scented, mixed spice in the air, the mouth-watering Cantonese dim sums, the Korean bibimbaps, Vietnamese spring rolls, Japanese sushi, Spanish tapas, Italian ice cream… The culinary treats are endless.

Sitting across the table full of heavenly delicacies and beyond the misty, fragrant hot steam, are the faces of friends and family – they make me happy! 

Numerous moments like these have made my life interesting. Then of course, there are the actual travels to the far away places, countries, cities and villages, some I have been to before, and many for the first time, allowing me glimpse of a different way of life, fascinating cultures and customs. I love the sounds of a foreign language.

Discovering new places and meeting new people, they make me happy. It opens my mind and enriches my soul, showing just how amazingly diversified our world is and how wonderful.

There are words, books and reading – they take me to places I’ve never been or back to the times when my ancestors lived a life quite unlike mine. They not only tell me where I came from but guide me through every step of my time on earth.

Writing lurks inside me too, some days the urge much stronger than others. I let my inspiration lead, as a way to reach out and touch lives. I’ve come to realise that I do not have to write best sellers to find a world wide audience. With today’s technology, each day we are communicating with other human beings, friends and strangers alike, engaging and sharing. As Gandhi said: my life is my message. Our life is our message.

In recent decades, I have become a fan of most things Scandinavian, especially  what it is now spreading like fire to the rest of the world: Hygge. A few pictures I downloaded on-line perfectly illustrated what Hygge is.

So here is to a a year of Hygge. The Chinese Year of the Pig officially begins on the 5th of February. Let’s take a drink, for all the happy moments in 2019.

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Be Happy

To HAPPINESS! 

Home, sweet home

Acts of Kindness

People We Treasure

Places We Travel to

Inner Peace

Never say never

Enjoy Every Day

Smiles

Say Thanks!

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#Patagonia: The Sky Is the Limit

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Perfect day for photos

It was Iguazu Falls which drew us to Argentina/South America at the end of 2018, and Patagonia is the place that will take us back there again in the not too distant future. 

The last leg of our recent SA trip led us hundreds of miles away from the Jungle and Argentinian cities, all the way to the south of Argentina. As a former climber, John had friends who had climbed the mountains of El Chalten and Fiztroy, which form the border between Chile and Argentina. It also happens to be a favourite outdoor clothes brand John likes. So heading there while we were in the country seemed natural, if not compulsory.

We stayed in El Calafate, which is situated right next to one of the two big lakes, Lago Argentina, a tourist hot spot, a perfect base to explore the National Park of Glaciers. With our hired car, we were able to explore the amazing Patagonia, as well as giving lifts to fellow tourists. It was fascinating to me to talk to the young backpackers who joined us in part of our drive to the Glaciers, a couple from Netherlands, a young man from France and a young woman from Italy, all adventurers who have been on the road for months, and the French man for years.

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The Driver John with two Dutch backpackers en route to Glaciers Moreno

The weather had been perfect during five of the six days when we were there, a rare favour from high above apparently.  On the first day, we drove to Glaciers Moreno – Perito Moreno Glacier was named after the prominent explorer Francisco Moreno (1852-1919), a hugely influential figure in his time. Not only one of the most awesome glaciers was named after him, he also lent his name to a town and a mountain peak too. His statues were seen in many places and his story retold in the Glaciers Museum. We discovered that Charles Darwin did a five-year HMS Beagle voyage around the world (1831-1836), almost two of those years on dry land in South America, exploring, observing, and collecting.

With 250 square kilometres of ice formation and easy access from El Calafate, Glacier Moreno was a stunning sight. My phone was busy all the way as we sauntered along the walkway, getting closer to the glaciers and from different angles. The contrasting colours from the red flower trees, known as the Chilean Fire Bush, and the glaciers in pure white and various shades of blue, against the brilliant blue sky and mountain hues behind. Photo Perfection!

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During our road trips to various places in Patagonia, we saw very few cars on the road, even on the famous Highway 40. We had Lake Viedama all to ourselves during one long day trip. On the day we set off to El Chalten, with fabulous scenery all the way, we passed about five cars in the 130 mile drive each way. We stopped from time to time to commit memory to pictures, and we came across many wild animals including birds of prey and lamas running by our car windows. 

A ten-mile hike took us along a very scenic route, passing many walkers on a varied climb, from rugged landscape to pretty meadows of wild flowers. I was mightily pleased with myself for having enough fitness and determination to proceed with the hike. What a view!

On the last day of our Patagonia stay, we went on a boat tour along Lake Argentina. The weather was changeable with wind, rain and then sunshine. Along the way, we saw icebergs of various shapes and sizes, sculpted by Mother Nature, falling from the glaciers. Glacier Uppsala was named after a Swedish University whose staff first explored it. It has been shrinking and we were not allowed to get too close to them. Who says that there is no such thing as global warming?! Six miles’ shrinkage in just 50 years.

We were able to sail close to Glacier Spegazzini along another arm of the Lake. We waited patiently to see if any icebergs would fall or “calve”. It was our lucky day – we listened to the roaring sounds of ice, mixed with the howling wind. A large piece of ice fell into the lake right in front of our eyes, caught by my camera too. It was utterly mesmerising to watch and an unforgettable experience to witness it. 

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In our three-week holiday in Argentina and ever so briefly in Brazil, I took nearly 3,000 photos on my phone, plus another 500 on the compact camera. Memories are made and will forever be treasured in my heart. 

Patagonia, with its many natural wonders and amazing skies, will lure us back. Next time, we will be heading over to Chile too. 

Take Two: John’s Words

Patagonia was always going to be the highlight of Argentina for me. 

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I was amazed by Iguazu Falls, impressed with both Buenos Aries and Córdoba but the mountains and lakes of the Southern tip of South America are majestic and unique. The mountains are not the highest in the world but they are formed into amazing shapes. Glaciers plunge down the mountains sides with icebergs breaking off and crashing spectacularly into the blue-green lakes. The rain comes from the Pacific, falls as snow, takes 50 years to travel down the glacier, melts into the lakes and flows down the Santa Cruz river to the Atlantic. Quite the cycle to behold. 

I had heard stories of Patagonia from climbing friends who went there to conquer the peaks in the 1970s,80s and 90s. Their tales told of hurricane force winds, cloud and rain for months on end as they waited in huts for the weather to clear. On two occasions friends were there for 3 months and never even saw the whole mountain. One of my old climbing friends did his last big ascent there on Cerro Torre , an epic climb of rock and ice that he described as the toughest of his career. They were stopped 30 metres from the summit by an enormous ice cream like cornice of snow and ice and had to retreat. The route remains unrepeated since 1981.

Besides the lakes and the mountains the prairie and the skies deserve special mention. Because all of the rainfall is on the mountains there is nothing left for the prairie which fades into desert after 80 kilometres. This is in stark contrast to both the mountains and the trees in their shadow. Condors , with their massive wingspan soar high above the peaks and Junying became an expert in spotting them as we drove and walked around the national Glaciers park. These were, for me, an even more impressive sight that the glaciers and the mountains. The last time I had seen Condors was in 1980 on the east side of the Sierra Nevada in California. We saw up to three at any one time, masters of all they surveyed. Other bird life was equally impressive including eagles and ibis.

The Argentinians have done a great job in protecting their natural assets from overdevelopment and the areas around El Chalten and El Calafate are no exception to that rule. Once you are out of these two towns there is nothing but farmland, prairie and the sky; and what a sky. The cloud formations were truly incredible with the high winds blowing from Chile over the mountains. Huge, stretched lenticular formations arched across the sky. These were the most impressive skies I have seen anywhere on the Earth and we had perfect weather just like we had in New Zealand a year earlier. Our luck in that respect is truly amazing.

I was sorry to have to get on the plane back to Buenos Aries but glad that the G20 meeting had blocked our flights out for four days, meaning we had time to gain a full appreciation of what is only part of a truly spectacular part of the World.

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