A Travellerspoint blog

November 2011

Where Europe and Asia Collide

Two weeks in Turkey!

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We arrived in Istanbul early in the morning and were scheduled to meet up at the airport with Jeff’s sister, Charis, who was coming to travel with us for two weeks. We waited for her at baggage claim and were totally blown away when we saw not only Charis, but Jeff’s parents as well… It was a total surprise! We were so excited to see family after so many months on the road. They were heading to Rome for vacation (another surprise), but arranged their travel so they could spend a few days with us in Istanbul. After catching up over coffee at the airport, Sandy and Trent headed to their cushy hotel near the airport and the three amigos went into the city to seek out our hostel and rest for a while. We stayed at the Istanbul Hostel, a nice place with a great location near the Blue Mosque. Incidentally, it was also situated right next to the Four Seasons - Jeff is always taunting me :)

Istanbul is huge city with a population of just under 20 million. Its location makes it very unique as it is the only city in the world that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. The two sides are separated by the Bosphorus which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Because of its location, the city is an interesting mix of European sophistication and Middle Eastern culture. We visited the Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul’s most famous sights, and then got a “hop-on-hop-off” type bus tour of the city to cover more ground. We were amazed to see throngs of people everywhere. Next to India, it was the most concentrated population of people I think I’ve ever seen. After returning from our bus tour, we went to a great coffee shop next to our hostel for some hot chocolate. The restaurant had glass floors in part so that customers could look down on the ruins of an excavated palace below- history everywhere. The next day, we parted ways with Sandy and Trent who headed to Rome while the three of us continued our sightseeing of Istanbul and the rest of Turkey.
IMG_0573.jpgThe famous Blue Mosque at night
IMG_0342.jpg People everywhere- almost everyone on the bridge has a fishing line hanging in the Bosphorus
IMG_0400.jpg The bridge that goes to the Asia side of Istanbul
IMG_0550.jpg Inside Topkapi Palace- there were mosiacs that covered the whole wall
IMG_0520.jpg This is my favorite- See, teenagers are the same no matter where you go in the world :)
IMG_0360.jpg Our coffee shop next to our hostel- we're standing on the glass where you can see the excavations

After taking in the sights of Istanbul for four days (including Topkapi Palace and its famous “harem’s quarters”) and sampling the local food ((baklava, roasted corn, doner (their version of schwerma), kebabs, roasted chestnuts)), we headed out on an overnight bus to visit Cappadocia in central Turkey. The scenery is otherworldly - massive rock formations that over thousands of years have been carved by wind and rain into “fairy chimneys”. George Lucas had supposedly planned to film parts of Star Wars here and you can really see why. We went to an open air museum for a few hours and were surprised to learn that churches, convents and homes have been carved into these massive rock formations for centuries. Some of the rock-cut churches have well preserved murals dating back to the 8th century. We indulged in one of the most touristy activities of our trip so far when we went to "Turkish Night”, an all you can eat Turkish dinner with Dervish dancing, belly dancing, and live music. We went mostly to see the Dervish dancing as it is becoming banned in much of the country. The dance involves spinning in circles with arms open to receive God's beneficence. It is a dance that has obvious religious significance and followers of the Muslim sect want to keep that solidarity by not making it a touristy thing.
IMG_0679.jpgThe small town of Gerome where we stayed
IMG_0642.jpg At the open air museum- supposedly this was a convent that held over 100 nuns in its time
IMG_0628.jpg Inside one of the churches- a lot of the eyes were scratched out by the local inhabitants after the Christians left- they were suspicious of the evil eye
IMG_0685.jpg The scenery was amazing
IMG_0690.jpg On our hike around town
IMG_0654.jpgOne of the Dervishes- I guess that's where the expression "Dance like a Dervish" comes from

After Cappadocia, we continued on public transportation to Konya. It is described as Turkey’s “Detroit” in our guide book, so as you can imagine there is not much to see. It is a major transportation hub, however, and we did visit a museum devoted to and mausoleum for the founder of the Dervish Order.
After the quick layover, we caught an onward bus to Antalya, a sea-side town on the Mediterranean and the gateway to the Turkish Riviera. Unfortunately, the beach weather disappeared a month or two earlier and we were greeted in Antalya by rain. We meandered around town trying to check out the sights while not getting soaked. Since we were running out of time in Turkey and still had several things to see, we rented a car to make getting around easier and to see some things off of the beaten path.
For starters, we drove to Olympus, a summer backpacking mecca, but despite the rain and cooler temperatures, it was still really interesting. We stayed at a hostel that included not only breakfast, but dinner! That was a shocker for us. In the warmer months, backpackers come here to stay in “tree houses” by the sea, but the tree houses are less "Swiss Family Robinson" and more "huts on stilts". The place was chalk full of orange trees and we picked more than a dozen - healthy, tasty and free! Besides the beach, Olympus has two well know sights - the Chimaera and the Olympus ruins. The Chimaera is an eternal flame caused by methane gas leaking out of the Earth in between two very specific kinds of rocks that shift and spark frequently. The flames have been burning for thousands of years and the early inhabitants, not knowing what to make of them, thought they were holy. The Olympus ruins are all that remain from a sea side Roman and pre-Roman town twice sacked by pirates. The ruins are wild and untamed as they are only partially restored and excavated. The forest and beach are slowly reclaiming them. Although not as historically significant or large as other ruins we have seen, they were very impressive given their rough state and the natural surroundings.
IMG_0784.jpg The eternal flame- gotta love International safety standards- where in the US would you be able to stand on fire fueled by methane gas!
IMG_0869.jpg The ruins of Olympus

We then headed inland to Pamukkale. The town is known for calcium carbonate lined pools that cover a hillside and the adjacent Roman ruins (an ancient spa town). The pools were created by hot springs flowing down the hill and over thousands of years forming white pools. It looks like snow (but is hard as rock) and you really feel like you’re at a ski resort. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take a dip anymore, although it looked inviting. We stayed at cute little pension run by what I would describe as “anyone’s Grandparents”. The cute old couple served us apple tea on our arrival - one of my favorite things about Turkey - it was delicious!
IMG_0959.jpg The blinding white hillside of Pamukkale
IMG_0951.jpg The pools of Pamukkale
IMG_1033.jpg Look what we found :)

After our overnight trip to Pamukkale, we headed to the town of Selcuk to see Ephesus, supposedly the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Pompeii. We stopped by the Basilica of St. John (one of Jesus’ Apostles, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John fame) to see where he is buried and where he supposedly brought the Mother Mary for protection after Jesus' crucifixion. While we were there we spotted the one remaining pillar of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Living up to its hype, Ephesus had some really great Roman ruins. The ruins line a small valley and provide a glimpse of Roman city life 2000 years ago. In its heyday, the city had a population of 200,000. The city has been slowly destroyed over the centuries by several earthquakes but they continue to repair and excavate.
IMG_1081.jpg On the main road at the ruins of Ephesus
IMG_1099.jpg What was the old library- it was originally 3 stories high
IMG_1132.jpg The Theatre

While in Selcuk, we also partook in a hamam (Turkish bath). In short, it was an ok, but weird experience. Upon arriving at the hamam, we were told to undress, put on linen towels and enter the steam room. In the steam room, they dumped water on our heads and told us to lie down on a hot stone platform in the center of the room. Charis and I were the only women as most Turkish women go at “women only” times. “How’s it going” I said to the hairy, pot-bellied man next to me as I slid myself onto the marble slab. After a few minutes, we were each scrubbed down by a bath attendant using a rough mitt - he literally scrubbed a layer of skin off of me. After the scrub down, another bath attendant covered us in bubbly soap and gave us each a quick massage. Finally, after being rinsed off with hot water, we were given the option of taking a cold shower, the final step in a Turkish bath. All in all, it was enjoyable, but it would have been more relaxing if Charis and I were not getting our armpits scrubbed by a half naked man in a room full of dudes. Another experience for the books!
We spent our last night prior to returning to Istanbul in Canakkale. We arrived late at night and, besides a quick dinner, did not get to see much. For you movie buffs, the ruins of Troy are nearby and Canakkale proudly displays the wooden horse used in the movie "Troy". The next morning, we took a car ferry across the Dardanelles to the Gallipoli peninsula, the site of a major WWI battle. Both sides incurred huge losses, but for the Allies, the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand troops) suffered the most. Gallipoli is similar to Normandy in France in that there are numerous graveyards and war memorials spread out along the sea for both sides. It was a peaceful and beautiful spot.
IMG_1191.jpg An Anzac gravesite on the Aegean Sea

After a four hour drive, we were back in Istanbul to meet up for dinner with Jeff’s parents who had just returned from Rome. We all had evening flights the next day, Sandy, Trent and Charis to JFK, and Jeff and I to Bangkok, but we managed to squeeze in one last sight in Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern. A cistern is just a water reservoir, but this one is enormous and surprisingly beautiful. At the airport later in the day, we said our goodbyes and sent the Sirolly clan on their way home while we boarded our flight to Bangkok…hopefully, the city is not completely under water. We’ll write more soon!
IMG_1229.jpg Inside the cistern in Istanbul
IMG_1230.jpgThe whole clan inside the cistern

Posted by geldere 20:55 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

The Modern Day Promised Land

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When we arrived in Tel Aviv it had a very modern and liberal feel, especially in comparison to Jerusalem. After departing the bus station we made our way to the Florentine district which is supposedly the upcoming artsy/bohemian neighborhood. Our first day was spent walking all over the city and taking in the humanity. We walked through the markets and shopping districts with a stop in a mall for a movie (The Ides of March – pretty good). We also had a fabulous lunch at “Benedicts”. The restaurant chain serves breakfast 24-hours a day American style and has the classics such as Eggs Benedict and chocolate chip pancakes – yum! I tell you what – life is not bad when you are eating Eggs Benedict and drinking champagne on a Tuesday at 3 pm!
IMG_9948.jpg Our feast at Benedicts!
On our second day out in Tel Aviv we headed to the beach for some sun. The city is set on the Mediterranean and from the beach we had some great views the city. We ended our day on a high note with dinner at Choco-Lulu. They bring out your pasta on a giant wheel of parmesan cheese, mix it all around, and then put it back on your plate with the sauce of your choice- it was ridiculously good. Plus, they had gelato for dessert and you can’t just walk away from that! We enjoyed our two days in Tel Aviv a lot and were really impressed with the city itself and the people. The city has a European feel to it and is really very trendy, and everyone speaks English.
IMG_9966.jpg Tel Aviv view from the beach
IMG_9977.jpg Dinner at Choco-Lulu and the giant Parmesan wheel
Renting a car in Israel is surprisingly affordable, so we went that route to explore the northern part of the country. It is so strange- they drive like us (right side of the road, driver on the left, obeying traffic laws), but we are so screwed up from Africa and the rest of the Middle East (left side of the road, driver on the right, what traffic laws?), nothing feels natural anymore. We had to constantly remind ourselves what side of the road to drive on. We stopped initially in Caerasara to view some Roman ruins, but the weather was uncooperative, so we quickly headed on to Haifa. Haifa is situated on the Mediterranean and the city slopes all the way down Mt. Carmel into a busy industrial port. Their big claim to fame is the Baha’i Garden which takes up an enormous space in the center of town and is spectacularly beautiful (even in the rain). I myself have never had an eye for gardens or gardening, but you have to be impressed by the perfection of the grounds.
IMG_0015.jpg The Baha'i Gardens in Haifa leading down to the shrine
IMG_0080.jpg More of the Baha'i Gardens
After spending the night in the small fortified city of Akko, we headed inland to travel around the Sea of Galilee. The area around Galilee is lush and surprisingly reminiscent of Tuscany. It is particularly known to be the area of Jesus’ most influential ministry and where he recruited many of his famous apostles. We spent time in Tiberius, a city on the sea, and went to several historic sites from the life of Jesus.
IMG_0060.jpg In the escape tunnel in Akko
IMG_0066.jpg Akko
IMG_0203.jpg This church is built on what was thought to have been Jesus' home while in Galilee
IMG_0243.jpg A view of the Sea of Galilee (it's actually below sea level)
We also drove to the far north of the country along the border with Syria, commonly known as the Golan Heights. The area is chalk full history and has been heavily disputed over the last century. During the Six Day War in the late 60’s, Israel captured the area from Syria and expelled 90% of the inhabitants, only to have Syria unsuccessfully attempt to recapture it in the 70’s. Thus, the area continues to be a sore subject for Syria and will likely be an important factor in any peace accord between Israel and Syria. Despite sharing a border, the countries do not currently have diplomatic relations and it is virtually impossible for a tourist with an Israel stamp in his or her passport to visit Syria (or Lebanon).
The Golan Heights boasts some beautiful scenery so we completed a few hikes. We stopped at Banias Nature Reserve to see their famous waterfall as well as the remains of a former temple complex. A short drive away was Nimrod Castle which is set fairytale style on a hilltop. It is a very well preserved Crusader castle and, because of its location, had some beautiful vistas. Our last stop before heading back to Tel Aviv was the Gamla Nature Reserve which is set amongst canyons with a view of the Sea of Galilee. The ruins in the reserve come with a fascinating story: the small town of Gamla was located on a steep hilltop surrounded by ravines and during its time was a Jewish stronghold. When the Romans came to capture the town, rather than be conquered, almost all 5,000 residents dramatically leapt to their death. Only two women survived to pass the story on to those who came after. You can almost feel the story come to life when you’re there and standing on the end of the ravine.
IMG_0122.jpg At the waterfall in Banias
IMG_0148.jpg Nimrod Castle
IMG_0173.jpg Another view of Nimrod and the surrounding hills
IMG_0217.jpg A view from Gamla- really georgous
IMG_0224.jpg The top of the ruins in Gamla
That ended our tour of the northern part of Israel, so we headed back to Tel Aviv to get ready for our flight to Istanbul. We had to stop at Choco-Lulu for dinner a second time- it was that good! We’ll write more when we get to Turkey!

Posted by geldere 23:44 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Jerusalem and the West Bank

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We traveled to Israel via a shared taxi with some locals which made for good fun. The old lady next to me and the two men in the front were having what seemed like a very animated debate about something- I think it was the Palestine/Israel conversation, but I’m not sure. Here, people are very enthusiastic about everything and they might have been discussing who makes the best hummus in town- you just never know. We had heard that crossing into the West Bank via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge can be very slow due to security, but we passed through with no trouble and headed straight to Jerusalem. Once we were situated in our hostel (Abraham Hostel), we asked for a good, cheap, and local place to eat and were directed to the “Market”, an amazing amalgamation of shops, food stalls, and restaurants. We stuffed our faces at Pasta Basta and then stocked up on dried pineapple and dried strawberries – delicious!
IMG_9498.jpgThe Market and an assortment of dried fruit
Jerusalem from day one has totally blown my mind. It is a coming together of modern and old and is a true melting pot of religions. Our hostel offered a free tour of the Old City… so we, of course, signed up. It was really a great tour and took us through the major sights of each of the four neighborhoods. The Old City, an enclosed area less than one square mile, is made up of four neighborhoods or quarters - Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish - and each neighborhood has a distinctive feel. It was amazing to watch the character of the city unfold from street to street and to watch Muslims, Coptic Christians, Orthodox Jews and many others pass in the narrow streets. The Old City contains major holy sites for each of the three largest monotheistic religions. First, for Christians, there is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is the site where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Interestingly, several Christian sects have laid claim to the church, so in order to prevent chaos, the keys have been in the hands of a Muslim family for centuries. The church attracts thousands of pilgrims every week all wanting to retrace Jesus’ final steps before he was crucified. In the Jewish Quarter is the Western Wall, better known as the Wailing Wall. It is the only part left of the Second Temple which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. For some people it is a lifelong quest to come and pray at the wall and watching people do so can be a moving experience. People also leave notes and prayers in the cracks of the wall in hopes they will be answered. In the Muslim Quarter is the Temple Mount which houses the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s 3rd holiest shrine. It is the supposed site where Mohammad ascended to heaven. Lastly, it is strange for some to think that a section of the Old City is devoted to Armenians, but they were the first to adopt Christianity in 303 AD. Not to be out done, the Armenian Quarter contains the site for the Last Supper and the Tomb of King David, one of the most important Jewish figures in history. Jerusalem really is the most fascinating and stimulating place I have ever been. It is amazing how all this history exists in such a small space, but the constant Israeli police presence and numerous security checkpoints remind us that not everyone gets along all the time.
IMG_9521.jpg The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
IMG_9598.jpg Inside the Sepulcher church
IMG_9539.jpg The Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall)
IMG_9550.jpg Sneaking a peek of the Wall (you could walk up to it- there was a men's side and a woman's side)
IMG_9650.jpgA view from the Citadel (the Dome of the Rock and the Holy Sepulcher church in the backgroud)
IMG_9770.jpgThe Dome of the Rock (it is only open for 1 hour in the afternoon for tourists and we were the last people admitted in a very long line- total luck!)
IMG_9676.jpgThe market in the Muslim Quarter
IMG_9714.jpgA view from the Mt of Olives (you can see the Armenian Quarter and the Old City Wall)
IMG_9697.jpg One of the Hasidic Jewish folks in town- they really wore the most fabulous hats
We also participated in a cooking class at our hostel for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) where we cooked a traditional Jewish meal. Jeff was in charge of the baba ganoush- it turned out to be one of my favorite things – and I was in charge of the salad (it was a masterpiece :)). We also had someone give and explain the traditional blessing and, of course, we had to bless the wine. It was a fun night with good food and it gave us a better understanding of Jewish traditions.
IMG_9623.jpg Our Shabbat cooking class
After getting our fill of the Old City, we traveled to Bethlehem and the West Bank. Before you go thinking we’re out of our gords for traveling to the West Bank - it was fine and there were scores of tourists. Security checkpoints of course, but you can’t go to the mall here without walking through a metal detector and having your bags searched. Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank are under the control of the Palestinian Authority and thus have a very different feel from Jerusalem, more akin to Jordan and Egypt. In Bethlehem, we went to the Church of the Nativity which was built above the supposed site where Jesus was born. There are “Free Palestine” signs everywhere and propaganda to make Palestine the 194th country in the world. The other interesting experience we had was in Hebron, a Palestinian town with a few thousand Jewish folks living in isolated settlements under tight security provided by a few thousand Israeli soldiers. There is a mosque built above/around the graves of Abraham and Sarah as well as Jacob and Leah, important figures in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. Hebron has become the flashpoint for the Israel-Palestine conflict and with occasional violence flaring. In 1994 an Israeli opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the mosque killing dozens. In response, the mosque was divided in half and today a part of it is now a synagogue. Thus, security in Hebron is tight in general and even more so around the Mosque, where Palestinians have to go through three security checkpoints to enter. The West Bank is a different experience and our day there provided us with the Palestinian perspective on Israel. The whole time thus far has been a fascinating experience.
IMG_9857.jpg Inside the Church of the Nativity
IMG_9884.jpg The supposed site of Jesus' birth
IMG_9894.jpgA classic meal here- hummus, bread, falafel, and veggies
IMG_9917.jpg Just outside the mosque in Hebron- you can see the security just to get in
IMG_9906.jpg My snazzy outfit I was required to wear to enter the Mosque
We head to Tel Aviv in the morning and will write more later!!!

Posted by geldere 12:36 Archived in Israel Comments (0)

Amman, the Dead Sea, and Jerash

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Amman is the capital of Jordan and while it’s is not particularly known for its tourist sites, it does have a few and the city makes a great base for exploring the Northeastern part of the country. While walking around the city, we visited a Roman fountain and amphitheatre. Amazingly, the Roman amphitheater is still in use today, most recently as the staging for the Amman marathon (any takers for next year?). The city is spread out over 19 hills (still interested?). We also took a policeman’s recommendation for lunch and stopped by a local fast food restaurant for some great shwarma and hummus. We were pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals and the lack of hassling. Most people we walked by would say “Welcome!” and keep going. When we stopped in a shop to buy a souvenir, the price was fixed and fair, and the shop keeper extremely nice. He even asked us to join him for tea. After lunch and shopping, we also explored the Citadel, a hill top fort that was occupied by the Romans, Crusaders, and many others over hundreds of years. Each occupier added its own temples and personal marks to the site, so it has some interesting history. The Citadel also contains a museum with artifacts from 6,500 BC. Really amazing!
IMG_9306.jpgA view of the Amphitheatre and city from the Citadel
IMG_9285.jpgSome young girls on a school trip to the Amphitheatre
IMG_9325.jpgA 6,500 year old statue- thought to be one of the oldest sculptures ever found
IMG_9328.jpgIn front of the Temple at the Citadel
6IMG_9332.jpgA view of the city of Amman- and coincidentally the world's tallest free-standing flagpole- apparently the North Koreans claim the tallest but it is supported by cables which is, of course, not really free-standing (just in case it comes up on Jeopardy)
On our second day we headed out via public transportation to the Dead Sea. We spent the day at Amman Beach which was a nice mix of locals and tourists. What’s amazing about the Dead Sea is that it’s the lowest point on Earth, something like 1,300 feet below sea level. Because of constant evaporation, it is also extremely salty- 10x the salinity of the ocean. Even the densest person becomes instantly buoyant and the moment your feet leave the bottom, you float right to the surface like a fishing bobber. The water also has an oily feel (like ocean water mixed with baby oil). Jeff, who can absolutely not float, laid on the surface of the water forever marveling at his newfound ability. Plus, like I said in the last posting, the brush burn he got from falling in the tunnel hurt him like the dickens (salt on a wound). It was a fun experience and we also enjoyed some great people watching. Muslim women swam fully clothed while the Western women wore bikinis - it was quite the coming together of cultures, but everyone was cool with the other. We took refuge afterwards in the pool for a few hours before heading back to Amman. Luckily, we got a ride back to Amman with a local. He gave us the lift for free and refused any payment even after dropping us off at our hostel. While driving back, Jeff commented on the radio station he was listening to because it was more Western and our new buddy said “Well, this music is ok, but really, this is my kind of music” and he turned on Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler”. He and Jeff were fast friends :)
IMG_9358.jpg The classic Dead Sea photo- feet up, reading a book
IMG_9372.jpgTotally amazed with his newfound buoyancy
5IMG_9382.jpgYou can even float on your stomach- just don't put your face in- the water BURNS your eyes
IMG_9389.jpgA Muslim woman in her swimming attire
The next day we traveled via public transport to Jerash, located about 30-miles north of Amman. It was at one time an important Roman city that today has the ruins to prove it. It was cute too, when you ride on public transportation, the locals really look out for you. When we asked the bus driver if this was our stop, he said “wait, I drop you closer”, and then the locals on the front of the bus had a healthy debate regarding where the best and most convenient place to drop us would be. I am really digging the Jordanians! Jerash is enormous and well preserved in parts. It consists of several amphitheatres, roads, temples, and other stone structures. There were even several excavations going on while we were there sponsored by France. We also watched a “Roman re-enactment” which included a Roman Legion, chariot race, and Gladiator battle. In the end, it was the kids in the audience who were the most impressed. There was, however, one “gladiator” who liked to flex his pec muscles and then point at the old ladies in the audience- it was pretty hilarious to watch them giggle like little girls.
IMG_9457.jpgA view of Jerash's ruins
IMG_9432.jpgThe Roman Legion re-enactment- they even used Latin commands
6IMG_9441.jpgThe Chariot Races
IMG_9477.jpgSome of the ruins
IMG_9479.jpgWhat was the entrance and road into the city- it must have really been impressive in its heyday
After 11-days in Jordan, it is time for us to move. We really enjoyed our time here and especially enjoyed the people. Jordan is relatively easy to get around and there is a lot to see in one small space. Interestingly, we met more American tourists here than in any other country on our trip so far. We would definitely recommend a visit! Next stop for us, Jerusalem, Israel.

Posted by geldere 12:52 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

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