Arranging our next travels

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It’s been quite a while since we’ve last posted anything, since we were too busy working and taking care of some other stuff. I’m also trying to deal with some final remarks regarding my thesis and that is dominating a large part of my time draining up whatever energy is left in me. However, we haven’t neglected this year’s travel planning, although we had a very slim window to determine what to do and where to go. Our choices have been made, most of our arrangements have been taken care of and we’ll disclose them over the next weeks.

Furthermore, I managed to find some time and escape to a small day-trip to nearby Albania. Catherine couldn’t make it, but I wasn’t alone on this one, since it was an organized trip by a photography club, which I have to give thanks to (the club’s facebook page if you’re interested), since they offered me the chance to visit some of the country’s most prominent landmarks. I will post the highlights of this day trip in my next post (hopefully, within a couple of days).

 

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Day one of our Desert tour- part 2, Spending the night at Dades Gorge

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After tasting a rather indifferent lunch we resumed our trip towards our next stop, while enjoying the magnificent scenery the rocky desert offers. The view compensated us for our recent unsavory experience and made me regret that I wasn’t that interested in that part of the Sahara, before this trip. The desert consists of three types of landforms, Ergs, , the typical Sand dune scenery, which are the ones we were mostly keen on visiting and Regs, where gravel is predominant and which we were crossing through at that moment on a speeding air-conditioned mini bus. The third type of desert landscape are the Hamadas, elevated masses of rock like the Atlas mountains, which could be seen far on the horizon.

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On our way out of Ait Benhaddou, we passed in front of a movie studio, which stands as a gentle reminder that many famous movie and tv stars have worked in this place but what surprised us most was the mild raindrops that serenely knocked on our bus. Could we perchance witness a rainfall on the Desert? The scenery kept me company for most of the ride as Catherine took a nap while we were traveling through the grey gravel covered terrain which altered to an orangie- reddish hue that was sprinkled with a few scarce notes of green. Some old wrecked Kasbah’s and a large traditional styled building near a small oasis were interrupting the landscape’s monotony, while an almost dry river bent seemed to make a claim that this arid scenery would not prevail over it so easily.

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Our next stop was Vallée des Roses, an area famous for its rose production as the name suggests, where an annual festival takes place sometime in May (the date depends on the collection of the roses). We only made a brief stop near the small village that lies on this valley, so we don’t really have much to say about the place (I found some info here though). We did make a stop to a small village on the following day though and I kinda feel that there’s not much difference between the two (except from the rose scented air of course). There was a small shop where we bought some water and we visited a gift shop where there was a small exhibit of instruments used for the distillation of rose oil, but we were familiar with the use of rose oil and water for cosmetics and pastries, so we were not that impressed, although the experience will probably satisfy anyone else. My guess is that the May festival must be the highlight of this area, but we were a few months late.

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In the afternoon we made a short stop to enjoy the fantastic view of Dades valley, where  a velvety green foliage shone intensely through the reddish colored rocks rewarding even the most demanding gaze. It kind of reminded us of Meteora (where we constantly concur that we should pay a visit in a few days, but we never do make the short two hour trip to show up there). This view was a great way to end a long day of sightseeing and we rushed back on our minibus for the last leg of our ride for the day. After a while we entered Dades gorge, where our hotel laid and we eagerly rushed into our room hoping that it would be comfortable enough to compensate us for the last sleepless couple of days. Thankfully, the room was great offering a sensational view of the gorge from its little balcony.

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We enjoyed a shower and relaxed on that small veranda for a while, before joining the rest of our party for dinner, which was tasty, but with very small portions (even a five year old kid wouldn’t savor its appetite on that amount of food). Nevertheless, we were tired enough and keen on resting on our room, regaining some strength for tomorrow, the dawn of the day we had been anticipating more eagerly while we were planning this trip. I never dream, but I’m certain that I dreamt of camels and dunes that same evening.

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Organizing our next travel

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It’s been a lengthy period of time since we last posted, but we couldn’t really help it, since we were very busy and we still are. Personally, I have to intensify my efforts to present my doctoral thesis and also take care of stuff regarding my job, while Catherine has recently returned to a normal work schedule, but has yet to adapt to that. I hope that we’ll have sufficient time to prepare for this year’s trip and maybe even pay a small visit to nearby countries, but we haven’t decided anything yet, apart from the fact that we can only travel in August. We have done some preparation and we’ll get on with our homework over the next couple of months and hopefully our plans will start getting some shape. For now, our budget seems to be swelling at a good rate and lots of cities feature in our plans, most of them in Europe, but we are yet to determine if we can produce some order from this chaos.

Day one of our Desert tour- part 1, way to the yellow city of Yunkai

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To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect when we subscribed to this particular tour as the booking process seemed a bit odd to us and the price was awkwardly cheap compared to the ones offered by other tours. We are glad we didn’t regret it though, as it proved one of the best experiences ever. Before venturing on this trip, we were mostly eager to be in the Sahara, overlooking most of the other stops on the tour’s itinerary, but the scenery straightened up our minds and senses easily to our benefit.

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We chose the tour offered by Marrakech desert trips and – as already stated – it was an excellent choice. After resting for a few hours in the tiny and hellishly hot room of our riad, we got our luggage once more and walked towards the nearby Cafe de France, a meeting point for many such excursions as we came to understand. While waiting there on the square, that was shyly beginning to fill up with vendors several tour guides approached us checking out if we were on their lists, till eventually our guide showed up and gathered most of our group after a while.

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The Berber alphabet among some local artworks

 

We got comfortable to our seats and after a couple of short breaks – for picking up the rest of the group and refueling – Day one was on. Our driver proved to be an awesome and skillful fellow and soon I was left alone admiring the route – as Catherine was falling asleep by my side, after all the – insufficient sleep experience was running for the third day, up to that point.

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It took a while to escape the city that was starting to wake up, as people were preparing to begin their busy day, but as we got outside of Marrakech, the scenery changed and I noticed some open air markets in most of the villages (in some of them the vendors were using their trucks as a shop) and hills that were loaded with prickly pears (a familiar image in Greece as well and possibly in many Mediterranean countries). Many buildings seemed old and they blended harmonically in the scenery but the similarities to Greek landscape became more intense when we started climbing the mountain road, until eventually we made a short stop on our route in order to buy some snacks and water (and allow any smokers to have one).

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Our next stop was on the Tizi Ntichka pass, which is the highest mountain pass in North Africa. The place is considered to be the gateway to the Desert and is offering great views to the barren mountainous landscape. Our next stop was at the main highlight of that day’s itinerary, the village of Aït BenHaddou, a Ksar (fortified village that is) where many old and modern films have been shot. Among them Pasolini’s Oedipus rex, Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nasareth, Scorsese’s last temptation, R. Scott’s Gladiator, Stone’s Alexander etc while most recently the village was a filming location for the series Game of Thrones (as the city of Yunkai).

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The village consists of many Kasbahs (fortified houses) made of clay, most of which are abandoned, as the villagers live opposite the hill where the original dwellings stand in more modern accommodations. A wide but dry river bend separates the old village from the modern settlement (we were told and saw it in a couple of old photos, that a few decades ago, the river was running wide and mighty on its bend, but nowadays just a small stream of melted snow flows down that path in springtime).

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The name of the settlement signifies that the tribe of Aït , descending from the chieftain Haddou dwells on the spot. The Berber tribe that lived there had strong ties to each other and were originally pagan, before converting to Islam, but many of them were also of Jewish faith and there were even a few Christians. Our ascent to the hilltop would be a tricky one as the sun was high on the sky, but we would be refreshed by some short breaks inside the cool Kasbahs, whose construction material acted as some sort of heat repellent. The ceilings were made of some large wooden logs and many dry reeds, while the walls were mostly made of clay and straw. When we got up a flat rooftop of one of the houses, I thought I felt as if my feet were standing on a rocky boat, but it seemed like a solid construction.

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Catherine looked very pretty in her green dress and panama hat. A bit later she looked pretty exhausted and after a while, I even left the group for a few minutes, as I purchased a turban and the kind old vendor offered to help me wear it on my head, Berber and Tuareg style. I guess my appearance caused some laughs to our group, Catherine certainly found it funny and I was very happy to wear something to assist me battling the sunlight. We also visited an artist who used a technique to make drawings, by which he would use his materials to put the shapes on the surface and then introduce the drawing surface to some heat, so that the shapes would finally form the drawing.

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After reaching the hilltop, where the old granary was situated, it was finally time to leave the old village. We made a final stop to a souvenir shop, where we bought some much needed water and sodas, while I acted as a turban model to everyone’s cheer once more and I have to say, it was a very funny experience.

Subsequently, we marched to a restaurant to have lunch and I was mostly eager to taste Tajin for a first time. The place offered the choice to a three course menu for the price of ten euros, which was ok, maybe slightly overpriced compared to other places we visited, but it ain’t a big deal. The food was below average though, but thankfully that experience didn’t discourage us from trying a few more tajin dishes during the following days.

 

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Landing on Morocco

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We were about an hour away from reaching the African continent and we were quite tired as we hadn’t slept on a bed since we left Lisbon, a couple of nights back. Spending a night on the train to Madrid and most of the day walking around the Spanish capital, put on some extra weight on our backs and all we could think about was the bed that awaited in our riad. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses houses that feature an interior courtyard. We were eager to reach ours as we were so tired that it would probably seem like a palace to our eyes once we got there. To our disappointment there was a huge line for passport control once we landed, resulting in us missing the last bus to Jemaa el Fnaa, where our riad was situated. That meant we had to catch a cab, which implied that we had to haggle with the airport taxi drivers.

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Haggling is a thing that Catherine hates – even if it is about clothing, but it is an affair I am mostly keen on delving into whatever the object of trade. However we were tired and a cab was our only realistic option to reach our bed without much hassle, so we started the show with the man in charge for hooking up drivers and passengers. The original offer was twenty euros (200 darahim), but after a while we agreed on fifteen, which taking into account that the time was way passed 1.00 am and there were no bus, seemed like a good choice. We had to threaten that we would rather walk downtown in a rather theatrical manner and start our bargain at the ridiculously low fare of five euros. The price could possibly go a bit lower, but we weren’t interested in gaining an extra euro or two not to mention that if anyone had offered to guide us straight to a place where we could drive all of our fatigue away, we would gladly pay triple the amount.

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Needless to point out that the driver couldn’t leave us outside our riad, since no cars are allowed inside the narrow souks, so we would have to do some walking. We wouldn’t have any time to enjoy the city as we had to catch a bus and take part in an organized tour to the Sahara early in the morning, but we would return to Marrakech after a couple of days. The thing is, we were so close to our accommodation, yet we were tired and disorientated and what’s worse we had no internet access. As we were also carrying our luggage among the crowd, looking lost, we were becoming potential pray for scammers that offer to help confused people to find their way.

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Actually a small group of them followed us for a while and we ended up taking a small break for a refreshment inside a small cafe, as it had been hours since we had tasted a drop of water. In the end we struck a bargain with one of these guys that offered to guide us to our riad for the price of a mere euro. We haven’t formed a clear view on these sort of services yet, but I will disclose my opinion on the matter on a next post, as we had a couple of more similar encounters once we were back in the city a couple of days latter.

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The facilities in our riad were fairly basic, as we booked this place intending to take a short nap, so we couldn’t find any point in spending more money for something more pricey. It was an adequate choice, but we would avoid booking there if we had planned to spend more days in Marrakesh. Finally, we took a long anticipated shower and had a few hours of sleep, before enjoying the main part of our journey, a trip to the desert. Taking into account that we had been on the road for the past couple of days, joining a three day tour without proper rest didn’t really sound like the best of choices, but it proved to be less tiresome a task as we imagined and one of the best choices we made during this trip…

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Relishing a slight piece of Madrid

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Arriving in Madrid after an overnight train ride from Lisbon turned out to be quite exhaustive and we were totally disorientated as we were making our first awkward steps on the Spanish capital’s metro. According to our original plans we were supposed to start our tour visiting Debod temple but we ended up visiting the nearby Royal palace instead. We opted to limit our expectations to outside views as we were physically and mentally in no condition to visit the place, while we were also in dire need of coffee. We found a nice cafe near the palace that enabled us to pull ourselves together and finally regain some much needed stamina.

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The palace was Royally huge and we were impressed by some guys (seemed like paparazzi to me) that were larking outside the huge building, all of them hanged over an iron railing waiting for a chance to get a shot. It seemed as if we were watching a bizarre National Geographic documentary. It was as if you could hear Sir Richard Attenborough describing:

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The hunters await patiently. A flock of paparazzi is setting an ambush, calmly awaiting for its pray, challenging the Royal servants, the paparazzi natural enemy, which can be seen in the distance, taking care of the Royal possessions. They are in a symbiotic relationship with the Royals and their relation to the hunters’ is a complicated one as they rush to protect their benefactors whenever the paparazzo attacks. A herd of tourists is hooting loudly nearby, while some solitary vendors are hissing trying to cut of the weakest of the herd. Suddenly tension rises as the Royal family, the paparazzi main prey leaves its nest! The flock squawks loudly sensing the impending battle and turns its attention towards its natural prey which will defend itself with its natural camouflage. Tons of money that will secure its best chance of survival and keep this ancient drama rolling for as long as time will exist. But life in the Spanish Savanna can be tough… “.

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We left the palace and made a brief stop to a souvenir shop, before continuing to Plaza de la Villa, a historical square which used to be one of the Medieval centers of the city. Some nice architecture there, but as we were too tired to appreciate what we saw, as we were also carrying our luggage for the duration of our stroll through the city, we continued onward to Plaza Mayor.

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The 17th century plaza wasn’t too crowded at the time we got there and we lingered around for a while, admiring the buildings that surround it. The inquisition used the place for its own show during the 16th century, but nothing reminds of these times nowadays. Some beautiful murals decorate the facade of the edifices around the square and I guess it would be livelier later in the day. Still, we could only experience a small taste of Madrid as our flight would take off in the evening.

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So, we made a small stop for a snack and we were lucky enough to find a shop that sold simple sandwiches with jamon or calamari. We tried them both and they were great. The popularity of calamari in a place so far from the sea surprised me, but it was a taste I’ll most certainly reproduce at home, since it was quite simple. Fried calamari rings inside bread. Who could say no to that?

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Our next stop was at Plaza del Sol, which was certainly more lively as time was passing by. Since we were visiting the country just a couple of days after the Barcelona attacks, there was a prominent presence of the police in most public places and the main plazas were no exception. There were also some signs that expressed solidarity towards the victims but life kept moving on carefree as it seemed. We stayed on the spot for a refreshment as it was a mildly hot summer day and greeted the bear that was desperately trying to taste some strawberries before we began our descent down the city’s metro, advancing to our final stop on our Madrid itinerary.

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Buon retiro park belonged to the Spanish monarchs until it became public in the 19th century. It’s quite huge and it is situated in close proximity to the Prado museum, which we opted to write off our list, since we were already too tired to appreciate its value fully. The park is truly a pleasant retreat as the name suggests. We sat on a bench to quench our thirst with some water before proceeding further into the park. After a brief exploration our steps led us to the monument of King Alfonso, where we spent some time viewing the fish and turtles that swam inside the pond. Many people were enjoying a ride on some small rowing boats and the place was full of cheerful people. We decided to join in on the cheer, so we sat on a canteen facing the monument, ordering food and refreshments. A couple of beers latter and we regained some of our lost strength. We devoted ourselves to relaxation on that spot for most of the time remaining before our flight left. We only payed a brief visit to Palacio de Cristal before hitting the metro once more to catch our evening flight to Marrakesh. We were very tired, but we could not rest yet as we still had to make our way around Marrakesh, before finding our riad and spoil ourselves with a brief four hour nap, before joining a tour to the desert…

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Last views of Lisbon – Waving Tchau to a splendid city

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The last day we were about to spend in Lisbon was bound to be the onset of a rough couple of days in our itinerary. For starters we should find a place to leave our baggage for the day, as we were leaving Lisbon in an evening train to Madrid. Once there, on the following morning, we should also try to find somewhere to place our belongings as we were boarding on the evening flight to Marrakesh. That meant that we would not be sleeping on a bed for these couple of days and we should really save on our stamina and good mood.

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The day started a bit disappointingly, as our favorite bakery, Popolo cafe was closed since it was Sunday. We moved to the nearby Time out market, which was stuffed with choices for snacks and coffee and after a small stroll inside the building, where to our surprise we discovered a rather vibrant stamp collectors’ market (as vibrant as stamp collection can be that is), we started our day with a refreshing cold coffee.

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Our goal for the day was to simply visit the Belem district and we got positioned on the back of a big line of people that waited to get a ticket from the vending machines. I kept cursing myself for not responding positive to Catherine’s suggestion to buy those damned tickets last evening, when we returned to the very same spot from Cascais. The train station seemed crowded with people that were about to take advantage of the proximity of Lisbon to some fine beaches that were easily approachable by public transport.

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Our sort journey came to an end near the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the monument of discoveries, a construction that commemorates the golden age of Portuguese explorations around the globe. It was built in the middle of the previous century and it stands on the river bank in front of the massive Jeronimo’s monastery. It resembles a ship and its sides are ornamented by several figures depicting warriors, priests, cartographers and so forth, while on its front side the figure of Prince Henry the Navigator, patron of Portuguese exploration, gazes at the endless horizon.

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The place was much more crowded than we had expected, but we lingered around for a while, taking advantage of a food stand that served some delicious sandwiches, which we savored sited by the river bank, keeping an eye for the ever begging seagulls that roam these place.

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We carried on with our walk towards Belem tower, a military structure built in the 16th century to guard the city. It was once situated in the middle of Rio Tejo, but it is said the great earthquake of Lisbon changed the river course and the tower found itself near the shore (not true though, the shoreline extended gradually towards the small island where the tower was built). A beautiful park adds much to the site’s charm and as every place we visited this one was also crowded. We bought some refreshments once more and sat on a bench watching some guys playing football. One of the things I always regret on these journeys is that it’s never a good time to join other people playing football whenever I find them, so I decided to try and take some pictures of the game that was taking place in front of a 16th century monument instead.

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The tower itself is quite alluring and it was a joy to visit this site. The white limestone blends harmonically with the colors of the river contributing to a lovely sight. This was probably the last image of home for many sailors and settlers of Portuguese origin, as they were leaving Europe to make a fortune in lands unknown to them. We left this place not being very decisive on what to do during our last hours in the city. Our belongings would be carefully stored in our hostel for the next couple of hours and it was already lunch time. We walked back to the train station, after taking some time for souvenirs and we were back at Cais do sodre.

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Since we had already experienced the place and found it to our liking, we made a stop there for a snack and something to drink. I was a bit reluctant to order any alcohol, but the vibe was so cheerful and we were having such a great time, I decided to get a beer. Later, some girls showed up, setting up some sort of hen party and that put more wood on the cheerful vibe fire. Therefor we stayed for a while longer, but it was about time to go and pick our stuff.

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Our train would be leaving Lisbon in a couple of hours after we got to Oriente train station, so there was lots of time and a few things to do. We had something to eat at a subway, lingered around the place for a while, spend some time at a bookstore, shop some snacks and water from a supermarket to get by through the journey. The place is designed by Calatrava though and we could easily discern the resemblance to the Olympic stadium in Athens, a design by the same architect.

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The wannabe gangsta crew

After enduring several blows of boredom, we walked up to our platform where we waited patiently, only to be informed a few minutes before departure, that our train was awaiting for us on another platform. I have never seen so many people running to catch a train, but eventually we boarded minutes before the train left the station and we tried to find our seats. That’s when the fun started.

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Our seats were occupied by some guys that seemed like a caricature of a Ghetto gang. There were three of them. I’ll call them Leader, Pugnacious D and Fan boy slim. All three of them were listening to hip-hop and they were speaking a mixture of Portuguese and English. Leader seemed to be in a better mental state than the others, he asked us if we wanted them to leave our seats and they all politely got up and sat somewhere else. Leader sat in the front, trying to establish connection with a girl they were all talking about in a rather lewd manner but after a few flattering remarks towards her he got asleep! Fan boy slim was a simple follower, he didn’t do or say much, but Pugnacious D was a loud mouth. He kept making obscene remarks towards the other passengers in general (addressing girls mostly) and he occasionally enjoyed a sip from a whiskey bottle all three of them shared. An old lady tried to protest to all this annoyance but Pugnie D shushed her and she was quick to look the other way terrified.

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After a while as he tried to say something to the Leader he accidentally annoyed the passenger seated in front of him, who protested furiously and Pugnacious D reacted by continuously annoying him, but avoiding touching the guy. Eventually the train conductor came to check everyone’s tickets and he found out that the “gang” was lacking both tickets and bravery. However, Leader woke up and pleaded with the conductor not to throw them out, as most of the passengers turned against the poor gangsta crew. The old lady in particular was furiously arguing with the conductor that he should get rid of them.

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That put the crew in a defensive position for a while, but some time after the conductor left they started getting annoying again, shouting profanities and trying to dance to some sort of hip hop rhythm that could be barely heard through a small transistor’s speaker. All this dancing became more intense after a few moments. Soon we all understood the reason for this vivid display of their dancing moves. They had reached their destination, so no harm could be inflicted upon them. They hastily left the train and once outside they started shouting. We were amused but we were left inside a train that had its A/C set to North Pole mode and we were about 8 hours away from our destination.

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