Natural Wonders of the World – Underground River of Puerto Princesa


Philippines is hidding a real gem.  In fact, scratch that, they are hiding some of the most amazing islands for vacation in the world.  I’ve been to the main island a couple of times, but it was this intentional visit to go see the 7 natural wonders of the world that brought me to the little gem of an island of Palawan.  Puerto Princesa Underground River started with a motor boat ride to the nearby beach to an outfitter to provide us with smaller boats bright mandatory big orange life jackets and shiny hard hat helmets. 

The puerto princesa national park is a limestone karst mountain landscape. The actual St. Pauls Underground River Cave is more than 24 km (15 mi) long and contains an 8.2 km (5.1 mi) long underground section of the Cabayugan River. The river system of the cave flows into the West Philippine Sea and is navigable by boat up to 4.3 km (2.7 mi) in from the entrance. The cave includes major formations of stalactites and stalagmites, and several large chambers, including the 360-meter-long Italian’s Chamber with approximate 2.5 million square meters of volume making it one of the largest cave rooms in the world.

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Tourists getting ready to enter the cave

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Just inside the cave system

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On the first boat headed to the beach with the smaller boats

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The island of Palawan has many uniquely styled canoe boats designed to move quickly over the water

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The boat captains love and live on the water.  It is life.

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Bats, snakes, birds, there’s a lot of life going in and out of the caves.

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Chili crab.  Some of the best food on a banana leaf.

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The boats are a very important part of life on Palawan island

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I stand back to back with our guide and she’s next to one of the indigenous oldest elders.  They are known as pygmy people due to their height.

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Palawan not only has an underground river cave system, but also native tribes!  This friendly looking tribe recently emerged from the forest.  They danced with us and taught us about their mythologies and shared traditions.  A young guide who is from another nearby tribe can speak their language and helped us communicate with them.   The young ones are now attending a school built right next to the huts, the teacher resides nearby.

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There are 70 indigenous peoples and the Bataks are thought to come from Asia 50,000 years ago.   The island of Palawan, the largest province in the Philippines, is home to several indigenous ethnolinguistic groups namely, the Kagayanen, Tagbanwa, Palawano, Taaw’t Bato, Molbog and the Batak tribes. They live in remote villages in the mountains and coastal areas.  We drove as far as we could and then walked across 6 streams to this remote village.  We visited this small tribe of about 17 individuals, some of the last of the Batak tribe.  The Batak tribe is a group of indigenous people who reside in the rugged interiors of the northeast portion of the province of Palawan. These group of people lives close to nature and are extremely peaceful and shy, traditionally they believe in nature spirits with whom they communicate with through the aid of a shaman. At present, there are only about 500, or less, Batak people remaining in the Philippines.  This group is now Christian and preferred not to talk about the old beliefs, but did tell us how much their lives changed when they found rice.  It was rice ultimately that drove them from hiding in the forest to coming out and coexisting with the other people.

Visit Beautiful Palau Micronesia Islands Nation of Nature


When I first thought about visiting Palau I for sure wanted to visit the Jelly Fish Lake, but then after researching it I found out it had been closed due to mass loss of jelly fish due to a number of factors and they’ve denied access to humans until they repopulate.  Palau is an archipelago of over 500 islands including the popular rock islands, part of the Micronesia in the vast Pacific Ocean. Koror Island is home to the former capital, also named Koror, and is the islands’ commercial center.  It’s really where most of the island population is.  It was an island territory of the United States until 1986.  It is now an independent UN nation of Micronesia, but is defended by the US.  

Palau Islands

Where is Palau?  It’s in between the Philippines and Guam.  You can fly direct from Guam.  The airport is quite small.  Palau has become very attractive for diving and as such has become fairly expensive.  We stayed at an airbnb and the frequency or infrequency of flights kept us on the island for a few days.  It was very relaxed and chill on the island… very low crime.  The largest city feels like a small village.

Map of Federated States of Micronesia

Nearest neighbors are Yap Island and Guam.  There are a ton of other reasons to go to Palau.  The diving is the best in the world.

The Republic of Palau is scenically magical. For such a tiny area of land, it packs a big punch. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by its extraordinary array of natural wonders it’s an island archipelago of about 500 largely pristine limestone and volcanic islands

kayaking in Palau

But there are a lot of other non diving reasons as well.

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The “bai” traditional huts preserve the history. The monoliths connect to the old ways and old religion of the island. The symbols are fantastic. The people of Palau were Matriarchal and the women were the backbone of society. I see how this continues today based on our interactions at the market with a mother who gave her son permission tp take us around the island. very rich culture and customs that are overlooked as most spend their times in the best waters in the world.

Babeldaob

The larger Babeldaob has the present capital, Ngerulmud, plus mountains and sandy beaches on its east coast. In its north, ancient basalt monoliths known as Badrulchau lie in grassy fields surrounded by palm trees.

Reality Check:  The new capital building seems like it is away from everything, much like Palau in the world.  It’s distant, but also disconnected… but there is hope the little island nation will grow.  I personally worry it is already setup on an expensive path that keeps the tourists away.  If the island could find a way to get more attractive flights from China and reduce their permits for just about everything, tourism would definitely grow.  There is a lot to see and experience, but the lawman of this little nation state need to understand the laws of supply and demand.  Cheaper prices will attract more tourists and they don’t need to nickle and dime the tourists to use the water.  I would love to go back, but it was quite expensive to get there, and it was one of the most permit heavy islands I’ve ever visited.  It was extremely beautiful and I would have loved to have dove here.  I did some snorkling and enjoyed it, but the prices encourage you to bring your own equipment which is cost prohibitive.  I’m hoping they’ll learn.  Don’t let this totally detract.  We found a way to work around most of the expensive water use permit issues by spending most of our time on the island.  Vote in new politicians and say we want more visitors who will obviously spend more money on the island when they visit.  Protect the Jelly Fish and preserve the nature.  I hope to see them when they are recovered.

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The bai is the school, the community council meeting place, the town hall, the place where laws are made.
Funny enough the young men we were with shared that there’s a pee hole in the floor. So yeah. They rarely need to even leave.

Palau Monolithic Stones

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Stone Face Monoliths of Ngarchelong State.  On the grassy flats along the eastern coastline

of Ngarchelong sit 37 ancient monoliths.  Many of them have carved faces.  They say the purpose of the monuments and when they were constructed are still unknown.  The largest is over 5 tons.  Some experts believe the monoliths were built in 100 AD.  Some of these large Monoliths use to hold a bai. One of those old community houses. Some of them have faces like the Easter Island heads

Palau – Ngardmau Waterfall

It’s a nice hike to the waterfall on the western coast.  It is worthwhile, but quite slippery.

Palau - Ngardmau Waterfall

Don’t eat the Turtle it tastes too good so you might like it.

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We did find a local food place, which they said you couldn’t find.  They served Clam, Pork, or Turtle wrapped in banana leaf.  We ate a variety of meats with Taro and rice.

Amazing to visit such an interesting island.

Tribal Adventures in Papua New Guinea


The tribal chief would explain to us that when he was a boy he was wandering through the forest and he and the other boys heard a sound.  Large bats up in the sky.  They were afraid.  This was first contact.  What an incredible story to hear how their entire tribe would be transformed with World War II.  War planes would later land and change their lands forever adding roads, infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and more.  Papua New Guinea has an ancient and very modern history.  They hold onto tradition and have a rich culture which provides an insight into the past I haven’t seen elsewhere to such depth.  I have lived with tribes in Mali, Swaziland, and Fiji and LOVE the opportunity to connect with these tribes on their terms.

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Yotube my footage: Massive Tribal Sing Sing in Papua New Guinea in Mt Hagen

All of the photos and videos you see linked here are mine captured during my trip. Enjoy, but if you want a copy of any of these let me know, I have higher res ones.  In addition, I created a number of fun short videos you can see in a single playlist  Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

Joel Oleson Youtube Channel - Papua New Guinea Playlist

It started with a friend of a friend on Facebook, named Felix.  I explained to him I wanted to have a true tribal experience and he replied quickly saying we could visit his tribe in the hills.

Felix - the SharePoint and Exchange guy on the island of Papua New Guinea

Felix from Port Moresby, PNG

He was an Exchange Administrator who had even done SharePoint in the capital.  He had a good job.  We had arranged to meet Felix at the airport and continue on.  He said he wasn’t able to get off work, but that his brother Saki would be there.  Saki has been out of work, and had ample time to take us around.  His english was very good and he was very well educated.  Come to find out, Felix and Saki’s dad is the tribal chief.  When we arrived at the village, the villagers surrounded our van and cheered.  It was an incredible feeling.

Sari tribe, Kali Clan, Puman Clan Papua New Guinea Highlands

Some of our new friends from the Sari Hill Tribe (Kali Clan and Puman Clan) … Saki is in the middle with the hat.  The boy with the gun is a gangster (just kidding, it’s a toy gun, but for real he was our body guard as was a half dozen other guys)

The tribes and clans in Papua New Guinea still operate on foundation of offerings of pigs and tribal war rules.  We stayed with a tribe that was very peaceful, loving, and trusting.  They worried about our health and safety at all times and made sure we had plenty of villagers to be with us.

 

We attended a funeral

PNG Traditional Tribal Funeral March

At a funeral the mother’s tribe traditionally puts mud on their bodies and adds ferns to the waist line.   Marriage is very frequently across tribal lines which create alliances and offerings that create stronger bonds in the community.  A bride price could easily be dozens and dozens of pigs.

View the video on Youtube: Traditional Funeral March in Papua New Guinea

Sharing an umberella with the colorful tribal friends

Colorful rainbow umbrellas are popular among the villagers.  The people sometimes look Mauri, native Australian, they love their beatlenut which is another form of currency.

Looking for something to eat

Shoes are optional.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are some of the happiest peaceful people on the planet.  They live off the land.  I wouldn’t call them poor, as they have some of the most beautiful land in the world, and they have fruit on the trees and yams and sweet potatoes in the ground.  With a few pigs for trade, they are doing great.  The family, tribe and clan bonds go very very deep.  The wealth of the tribe contributes to the wealth of the individual and visa versa  It is commune style living.

We saw a sing sing in action as tribes from across the island gathered in Mt Hagen in anticipation of the Prime Minister of PNG.

PNG Mudmen

Mudmen

SingSing in Full Swing Mt Hagen Cultural Dance Festival

You can identify a tribe based on their paint and look.  These tribesmen are from Mt Hagen.

Tribal Abs of Steel

Tribal thumbs up

Their beautiful features are some times from endangered birds so that creates controversy, but these guys don’t seem too concerned.  There is a hierarchy of needs.

what are you looking at willis?

Scary kids!

Some of the war paint is definitely designed to look scary.  Shaving the heads down the middle too.  Yikes.

Cultural Dancing in Mt Hagen with little kid

I love how the kids get into the tribal dancing too.  Traditions being passed on.

Enga dance troupe

Saki recognized some of his friends, he was showing us how it was done… drumming on the SharePoint mug

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Youtube: A Walkthrough of the Beautiful Tribal Sing Sing of Papua New Guinea in the Highlands

Catholic Church Singing in the Small Village in Highlands Papua New Guinea has a Tribal Sound and Feel

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I have to imagine the tribes are in different stages of living off the land or embracing western society, but it is great to see them coming together to sing and dance.

There is one serious thing the tribes and clans still need help fixing.  It is the tribal to modern warfare.  It was a great education to see how problems would have been settled in the past.  I’ve heard even in the capital some Enga people still don’t trust the judges to settle issues if they feel marginalized and wronged.

Enga is still known to have tribal fighting.  This is a clip from the museum in Wagga.

Modern Warfare Papua New Guinea

Rules of Warfare in Papua New Guinea

The tribe where we stayed has not been involved in a war since the mid 90s.  They have decided it is better to pay the bigs and kina than retaliate.  The tribal warfare goes back many many years, but it has become more dangerous due to the escalation in weapons.  All tribes have weapons including bows and arrows, how most of the wars start.  We did visit a tribe where their huts and buildings had been burned to the ground.  It was sad to see, but they were happily rebuilding.

Rebuilding the town with a smileEnga Tribal Dancer

Left: Rebuilting their houses and huts.  Right: Traditional look of the tribes we were visiting.

 

 

 

 

PNG traditional hut

We spent one night in this hut.  It was Felix’s Uncle’s house.  We all slept in one big room on the elevated floor on mats around a fire in the middle.

 

On our last night the kids caught a cecada massive flying bug, and asked us to eat it.  Saki explained that’s what they use to eat and they still did.  He popped one in his mouth.  They found another and another and before long I was crunching down on what I can only describe as a cream puff taste.  Michael thought it tasted like peanut better.

Eating bugs

Youtube video: The kids brought me a treat!  A large Cicada, of course I’d give it a try….

 

I’d love for you to see some video as well… go to my Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

 

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YT Video: Cool Dancing Music with PVC pipes with Funny Dancer

Meet the Fijian Hindustanis – The Other Side of Fiji


Fiji is a multi racial and multi ethnic place. In my previous post on Fiji I wrote about the native Fijians and my experience connecting with the locals.  The majority of Fijians are native Melanesians.  43% of the population are Indo-Fijians or Hindustanis. Indian indentured laborers were initially brought to Fiji, Indo-Fijian. In the late 1800’s Indians came as indentured laborers to work on the sugar plantations. Most have been here in Fiji for multiple generations.  They even have a fusion language.  After the indentured system ended, many stayed on as farmers and became businessmen.

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Now you have the most amazing fusion.  Hindu temples on an island jungle with culture, language, and society that is culture and tradition rich cultural island nation mixed with the incredible history of India. A little bit of curry goes a long way to spice up a dish.  The colors really light up the place.

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My friend Michael of sharingtheglobe.com is *really* good at travel.  When we put our minds together, we put together incredible adventures.  Michael knew that the hindu holiday of Holi was happening.  So while the first day of our trip, we knew we wanted to venture deep into the island and spend our time in a village.

The adventure began when we woke up on Holi morning.  We knew we wanted to find out where the holi celebration was happening.  We asked around and some mentioned that the Hari Krishna temple was where it was happening.  We tracked it down, and visited it, but while a beautiful building, they weren’t having it there.  They told us to go to a different hindi temple. It was there we saw a small gathering.  It was the super soaker of purple dyes that really made a mess.  We knew as we approached that we were going to get really painted up. 

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Within a couple of minutes, we were soaking with colors of the rainbow.  It was fun, exciting, and we joined in music and food.  The kids were loving it just as much as the adults.

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It was after we left the temple that we we driving a long all painted up when we saw a big truck full of Holi day people.  The truck was like a large military truck with room for tons of people. We waved and they waved back.  They were excited to see follow holi friends and gestured for us to follow them.  We followed them as they drove to a house.  An older lady answered the door, and the music and dancing began and paint started flying.  In western terms it felt like a mix between trick or treating for Halloween, and Christmas caroling, but the colors feel like a mix of easter and a spring water fight.  Amazing.  I hope you can just imagine the joy we were spreading as we were going from house to house, singing and dancing, and letting go of norms.  It was very energizing to let go and connect with these people.  In the end we stopped for a round of Kava.   

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The purple dyes would take over a week to get out, but the feelings lasted even longer.  I gained a huge appreciation for the hindi people in this experience.  The love, the friendship, it was amazing to see the outreach and ability to connect a community.  These traditions should be respected.  When I found out that not 50 miles from where I’m currently living, the hindu temple has an annual gathering and the community gathers to celebrate with the Hindu people.  If you ever get the chance to celebrate holi.  You must.  It will help you gain a huge appreciation for India, Hindus, and the global culture that has brought spice to the world. Happy Holi, and I pray for continued peace on the island of Fiji.  What an amazing place!!!

Fiji – An Experiment in “No Reservations” Cultural Island Travel

The interior of Fiji

 

I bought a cheap flight from New Zealand on my way back to the U.S.  On a discount Jet Star flight, I was in Fiji for a couple of days for less than a difference of somewhere between $100-200 USD.  It was great.  I loved Fiji.  The people were amazing!  The adventures I had in Fiji could not have been planned, and no guide could have planned some thing as authentic as what we experienced.  This post is the first night and I’ll separate the other experience in another post.  Fiji was just too amazing for one post.  Michael condensed his into one post on Fiji titled “Kava Shots and Holi Wars”, and I borrowed a couple of his great photos.  This post on our experience with the native Melanesian people and my second post on the hindustanis and celebrating “holi” with them.

When some people think Fiji, they think of beaches in paradise.  I was thinking… Natives in grass skirts, a real tribal experience that I couldn’t find in the Caribbean.  I knew I wouldn’t have my wife and kids with me, and hanging out on the beach was the furthest thing from my mind.  I wanted to go local and seek out a real adventure.

On the flight to Fiji I asked a flight attendant where I could find the most native village and one where I could live with the locals.  I was imagining huts or sleeping on mats or hanging hammock.  I was given the name of a place somewhere deep in the island.  When we went to pick up the rental car, they said we’d want a 4×4 to get there.  Ultimately we picked up a 4×4 and headed out into the woods.  Before we headed out, we wanted to make sure we had a gift for the village to cover any expenses we might incur to the village.

It was long before we started out on dirt roads, and deeper and deeper crossing rivers, and getting strange looks.  Miles and miles deeper we drove.  The stares started getting longer and polite “Boolah!” we would get.  We’d respond, “Boolah!” and smile big.  Then someone stopped us… where are you going?  We explained we were going deep into the heart of the island to this very native village.  He told us that was impossible and that we should turn around.  We let him know we weren’t in a hurry and were enjoying the drive.  He gave us a warning that the river had washed out the road.  It got more and more challenging as we drove along and finally we met our match.  The road was too much, so we turned around.  You’ve heard about Anthony Bourdain and his No Reservations show. On this day we were definitely traveling without reservations.  We were both up for adventure.  I was traveling with my friend Michael Noel of SharingTheGlobe.com and I said.  Tonight I want to sleep in a village, and we agreed even if we were on someone’s floor.  We were open to adventure.  As we drove back the way we came, we saw a big tent and a local gathering.  We slowed down to avoid the crowd walking along the street and gathered around the tent.

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Young men were pounding long metal pipes in little wooden canisters.  They’d lift and pound, twist lift and pound. We slowed and said “Boolah!”… What’s going on?  He replied, it was a birthday party for his 1 year old daughter.  The entire village was gathered for the party.  The women were inside the home, and the men underneath the tent.  He invited us to join them.  We had heard about the need to bring cava roots as a gift, so we were prepared.  I was so excited to join this exciting moment and the family was happy to have some foreign guests of honor.  We were brought to the head of the tent to the elders of the village and sat down on mats.

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The village chief elder asked us a few questions, but invited us to participate in a ceremonial “Kava” drink.  Kava is such an important part of the culture.  It is only consumed sitting with your legs crossed, with no legs and foot pointing to the sides.  The kasava root is pounded then put in a sock and water is added to create the drink.  The first person claps their hands twice, and from a large bowl a half coconut is dipped in and then the person who is presented the cava claps twice, then drinks the cava, after he’s finished he throws any remainder over his shoulder and hands the coconut back.  Both hands are used at all time.  It felt like a handshake, trust, confidence, and an opportunity to make friends all at once.

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The tent was filled with happiness and order.  Those with the most age were at the front of the tent and as a rite of passage, you had to be twenty or twenty one to enter the tent.  Those at the back of the tent had paid their dues in the pounding of the cava and only those who had come of age could drink the cava.

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In our search for a unique cultural experience we were given one.  We had arrived late to the party and the men had already eaten.  We were invited to eat with the women and children who as custom would have it, eat after the men.

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They accepted us and we had some interesting looks, but had some great local hand cooked fish and rice. The children thought we were interesting or funny looking.  Either way, we made friends with the kids, and eventually re-emerged back out toward the tent.  A couple of younger guys from the back of the tent approached us and asked us about our story.  Why we were here, asking if we were having a good time… Of course we were.  We were offered more kava.  At this point I was getting a little nervous.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to have strange dreams or what affect this kava might have.  I knew there wasn’t alcohol in it, but beyond that I didn’t know much about it.  I explained to the young man that I shouldn’t have too much.  He asked why.  I said for religious reasons.  He asked what religion.  I said. LDS.  He said.  “No way.”  I said, “yes way.  I am a Mormon.”  He replied…  That was impossible.  He stopped and said. I am a Mormon.  That house over there.  They are Mormon.  Many in this tent are Mormons.  I wasn’t sure if he understood me, or what, but then I remembered as we had turned off the road, I had seen an LDS church.  He said the prophet had told them that they could drink kava, but they should not drink too much.  Having spent the last 3 hours involved in the ceremony with the elders I could see the cultural importance, and for a young man this was a huge privilege for him to be under the tent and mingling with the men of the village.  He asked us where we were staying and I told him we were hoping to find a place to stay.  A while later he told us he had talked to his mother and we could stay with them.  Perfect!  We would be able to stay in the village and even if on the floor we had a real local experience rather than staying in some cheap hotel.  He wanted to stay at the party as late as possible, so I asked him about what time he’d be leaving.  He didn’t know, but somewhere around 1am.  We agreed that would be fine.  He ended up going back to the party after we settled down for the night.  The 1 year old’s party lasted till at least 2 or 3 am.  Wildest 1 year old party I’ve ever heard of…  The people celebrate together.  It’s a very communal society.

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Music got more lively and ultimately it turned to dance, and we were invited to boogy.  After learning a few local moves, we were invited by some locals to start dancing.  We had some more kava.  Danced some more.  Had more kava, met more locals and spent the evening having a blast with the local Vatuvu villagers. Fiji was amazing and we were experiencing it raw.  No guides, not paid group.  Our payment, a gift of Kasava root, smiles and friendship.

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That night I would sleep on my new friend’s couch, and feel what it was like to be a villager.  Mission accomplished!

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