It's official: I'm clearly insane

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"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" - Albert Einstein

Yep. I must be insane. Why? Because I did something I swore I'd never likely do... I returned to Puerto Rico (willingly) for a vacation. Some of you might recall the tome I penned after my last trip to good 'ole PR.

To make a long blog entry short(er): I strongly disliked the 2011 trip because: (a) the food was terrible, and (b) the locals weren't exactly friendly or accommodating.

To spare you the trouble of reading this entire entry, not much has changed from 2011. Puerto Rico is "still an experience" and the food is "still island food (fried and crummy)" and the locals are "still stand-offish."

For those who want to share my painful experience, read on...

My coworker, Marty (whom I went on a camping/NASCAR trip with in 2013), suggested that we take a little tropical vacation.

The idea was intriguing and interesting. It became even more enticing when he offered to pay for the housing and rental vehicle, meaning all I'd need to do was find my airfare for the trip. We kicked-around some ideas before he offered up Puerto Rico as an option. I reminded him of my past experience, and he countered with the low cost, proximity, and warm weather benefits.

I eventually agreed to give PR another try. Marty picked-out a gorgeous, 21st floor condominium which was situated directly on the ocean. We found a really good deal on a rental car, and, to seal the deal, our airfare from Chicago to San Juan was only about $300 round-trip. By January 14th of 2015, we had everything locked-in. All that remained was "the wait."

Well, October 19 arrived, and we found ourselves en route to O'Hare. At 3:00 in the morning... We had booked early flights out of O'Hare so as to maximize our beach time in Puerto Rico.

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That's Marty's head in the background; upon arrival to O'Hare, we were confronted with one of the world's longest security lines. Luckily, we made our flight, and were soon airborne. Marty, Jenny and I managed to score seats together, and by an incredible stroke of luck, we were moved to an exit row. The seats were quite welcome during the four-and-a-half-hour flight, although you'd never know it by looking at Marty's expression as I snapped this photo.

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By 2:00pm, we were on the ground in San Juan, and making our way to the car rental office. Things were going great, up until this point. And that's when we got PR'd for the first (of many) times.

I had offered to pay for the rental car, in exchange for Marty covering the condo rental. We *had* booked a full-sized car at a rate of about $275, which we were told included insurance. You may recall how poorly the locals drove, and how I regretted not getting insurance the first time around.

When we went to pay for the rental, the actual cost was $494. Apparently, the insurance quote as originally provided only covered theft of personal items, and did not include collision or accidental damage. Ugh. Only in Puerto Rico... oh, and there were "additional local fees" to the tune of nearly $90 to boot.

More comically (or should I say "typically for PR"), when we arrived at the garage to get our car, we couldn't find an attendant to help us. After a brief wait, someone appeared and asked us what kind of car we had reserved. We told him it was supposed to be a Ford Fusion. He looked around and said, "Yeah - we're out of those. Just take whatever you want."

HA! Our options consisted of a Dodge mini van or a Toyota Rav4. We picked the Toyota and were on our way, no questions asked.

So we were on the road to Luquillo (the location of our condo), and before long, arrived at the 21st floor of Playa Azul #1. We opened the door to the place and were instantly relieved. It was gorgeous.

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The views were spectacular from this 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom condo. And, it was in excellent shape - insanely clean, recently updated, and very comfortable. Talk about a win. Marty picked his room, and we decided to go with the ocean view master room. This picture doesn't do the room justice; our room had a nice master bathroom, a huge walk-in closet, and an absolutely amazing view of the ocean.

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The views from our deck were also quite impressive. Here's what we could see when looking in either direction:

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After unpacking, we decided some food and drink would be quite welcomed, so we hoofed it over to a familiar haunt from my last trip: Board Riders. I'm happy to report that nothing has changed with the place - it's still nothing too look at from the outside:

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But, the service is still decent, the food is solid, and the drinks were cold, tasty and cheap. We had some hummus and an order of grilled tuna bites - both of which were great.

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After a few drinks at Board Riders, Marty had a hankering to check out the infamous "Kioskos" (or, as I remember them: a dirty, run-down, poorly serviced, deep-fried-hell of food court shame). So, we obliged, and before long were strolling along the Kioskos. Most of them were closed because it was a Monday night, but we did manage to stop-in to a few. We had drinks at one of the Kioskos, and "food" at another.

Marty sampled his first (and only) round of Mofongo. He reported it as "good, not great" and "greasy." ...welcome to Puerto Rico, my friend. Jenny had a salad and I had a burger, which mysteriously arrived to the table about 20 minutes after the other food, and was a poor excuse for a $18 burger.

After choking down grub in the Kioskos, we returned to the condo and hit the hay. It had been quite a long day, and we wanted to get up early so as to enjoy the beach the next day.

Tuesday morning arrived, and I went for a nice run. Because it was so warm there (mid-to-high 90s during the day, with a lot of humidity), I woke up extremely early and was running by 6:00am.

And that's when I got PR'd again.

The condo building and surrounding facilities were completely secured. A guard shack, complete with metal gates, monitored the entry and egress of each and every vehicle. Special keys granted access to-and-from the beach area, as well as the amenities within the complex (there were pools, basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, handball, and more).

When we had checked-in on Monday, we were told there were two types of keys: a "Master key" (with a white dot) and "Regular keys" (no dot). Conventional logic would suggest that the "Master key" would get you everywhere within the complex. So, that's what I took with me, as I planned to exit the complex while running.

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As soon as I left our condo unit, I made my way down 21-flights of stairs (by choice), used the key to exit the building, used the key to exit one of the gated areas, and then tried to use the key to exit to the beach area.

Only, the key didn't work. So, I tried a different gate. No luck. I tried a third gate. No luck. So, I back-tracked my way back to the condo office and told them my issue.

"The master key only works for the front gate by the guard shack," said the attendant. "It doesn't work anywhere else."

I responded, "So, the master key isn't truly a master key? It only works on one gate?"

"Si, senior," was the response. Oye... so, I made my way up to the 21st floor, exchanged the "master key" for a "regular key" and within minutes was running along the beach.

I finished my run by 7:00am, showered, and changed into beach wear. Marty, Jenny, and I took the "non-Master key" and went down to the beach for some much-needed sun and relaxation. The condo owner provided us with coolers, beach chairs, beach towels, boogie boards, and... a football!

Marty and I decided to frolic on the beach and toss the football around for a bit. Jenny snapped this great action photo of us:

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After playing catch for a bit, I decided it was time for a drink. We had the foresight to hit the local "Amigo" (aka "Wal-Mart") for some brews and snacks, and boy, how I had forgotten how great the local Medalla Light was. It truly was refreshing, light, and very tasty. It was also very low in alcohol - 4.1%, which made for a great beach beer.

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We spent the majority of the day on the beach, relaxing, and trying not to interact much with locals. Why? They're not really fond of Americans. According to a guy that we ran into at one point, they're distrustful of us and they see the US as being oppressive while abusing Puerto Rico's natural resources and not returning many benefits. Hmm. Ok, I guess. The local also shared that Luquillo's government is incredibly corrupt. Great.

Jenny and I decided to take a stroll along the beach; we walked for a total of about an hour or so. The location of our condo was perfect - we could walk about 20-30 minutes in either direction (east or west) and always be in view of the condo. Here's a photo of us; you can see our condos in the background (the big, tall buildings). Ours was the one to the right.

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Upon returning from the stroll, we decided it was time for lunch. We had recalled seeing a sign for a "BBQ" place, so we hopped in the car and made our way to "El Verde BBQ" (The Green BBQ). The place was jumping, so we figured it had to be solid.

After determining how to actually place an order for food (talk about a cluster-bomb of confusion), we found a small picnic table and waited for the grub. Before long, the food emerged:

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A whole chicken (deep fried), a portion of pork shoulder (deep fried), and a small chunk of blood sausage (Jenny's request, also fried).

Now... call me crazy, but when I hear or see the term "BBQ" I think "grilled" or "smoked" or "wood-fired." I don't think deep fried.

PR'd again.

With our bellies thoroughly coated in grease, we headed back to the beach for some more relaxation. After a few hours, we decided to visit another infamous landmark -The Brass Cactus - for an early-evening cocktail or two. The Cactus reminds me of a TGI-Fridays, only PR'd. Here we are, posing for a selfie, just before heading back to the condo.

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Dinner that night was made at home - some chicken breast, zucchini, mushrooms, and onion. Ahhhhh. Nice, normal food (Marty had Subway).

On Wednesday, after my early morning run was complete, we decided to visit the El Yunque Rain Forest. But first, we needed some breakfast, and a Yelp search revealed an incredible-sounding breakfast place near the forest. So, we hopped in the car and made our way to the small town of Palmer, where this great place was supposed to be.

Upon arrival to Palmer, we discovered a massive amount of road construction, and, as a result, the restaurant was closed. Ugh. While we were standing there, the owner of the restaurant popped-out and suggested that we try another place, "just down the road" called "Puerto Rico Bakery." He said it was decent, and that he hoped to open his place again on the weekend.

We ventured over to the Puerto Rico Bakery, and were promptly PR'd. I'll spare you the details, but...

They had a menu posted behind a large pastry counter that had entrees listed in both Spanish and English. The clerk behind the counter seemed to have selective understanding of both Spanish and English. We tried to order the "vegetable omelet" - he didn't understand. So, we said it in Spanish, "Huevos revolutos con vegetales." Again - no comprendo. So, we pointed at the entree. Nothing. We broke it down for him: "Huevos" (eggs). Yep, got it. "Revolutos" (scrambled). Yep, got it. "Con vegetales" (vegetables). Yep, got it.

Good. Now, how about some coffee? Again - no comprendo. Ok... how about some "cafe"? Yep, got it. Sweet.

We grabbed our table, and what arrived were: Lattes instead of coffee, and the eggs were covered in cheese, and filled with bacon and ham. UGHHHHHH!!!! Damn you, Puerto Rico!!!!

When we went to pay, the jerk that took our order said (in perfect English), "How was your breakfast today?" I said, "It was terrible - you gave us the wrong thing." He then claimed to not speak any English.

I wish I was kidding or exaggerating, but I'm not. I had two other witnesses. Marty found it hilarious, but I was ready to burn the place to the ground. Morons. Just complete, passive aggressive, dip-sh**t morons.

We got in the car and ventured up to El Yunque, where the rain forest was as great as always. As we made our way up the mountain, we stopped at the old guard tower:

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We climbed our way to the top and took in some of the awesome views of the surrounding area.

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After enjoying the views, we made our way to the trail-head that would eventually take us to the infamous waterfall. We hiked for about 30 minutes and arrived to the waterfall, which was as cool as ever.

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Even Marty seemed to enjoy the waterfall, so it was a good hike, and a good way to put the breakfast memory behind me. We spent a total of about 3 hours in El Yunque before returning to our condo for some more beach time.

For dinner that night, we drove to Fajardo with the hope of grabbing some fresh seafood. We decided to check out a little place called "El Pescador" (the fisherman), which was situated directly on the ocean. The place was tiny, completely outdoors, and very quaint.

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Our meal was good, but not great. Service was excellent, which helped, but... again, call me crazy; when I order "grilled fish" I don't expect for it to arrive drowning in oil. Marty ordered "deshelled grilled lobster" and it arrived swimming in some type of sweet-and-sour sauce. I'm not sure why these places have to kill everything with oil or some crummy sauce. I'm even more baffled as to why they don't include that info in the description of their dishes. Alas, what do I know...

Our $28 appetizer was quite good - it featured steak, octopus, conch, lobster, and shrimp.

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And, while I already shared details about the entree, here's a photo of our grilled hogfish. The fish is on the right, under that pile of greasy vegetables and on top of the oily sauce. A fried plantain topped the $45 dish. Yay.

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We drove back to the condo, and spent the night chilling inside. Speaking of the condo... I forgot to mention that it had quite a large population of stray cats. During the day, the cats would sit under cars or in shady areas, trying to stay cool.

Marty found this quite peculiar. And, during one of the previous nights, as Marty strolled over to Subway for a bite, he sent me this text.

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Apparently the cats changed places at sundown. Smart, if you ask me. But oddly hilarious. We snapped a photo of one of the car cats as we returned from Fajardo.

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We spent Thursday on the beach and traveling to San Juan, where we picked-up Marty's other friend, Jamie. He flew in from Madison on Thursday to spend the remainder of the trip with us. After picking him up from the airport, we returned to Fajardo, where we grabbed dinner at my absolute favorite restaurant: La Estacion.

You may recall that I really enjoyed this place during the last trip, because they actually grilled fresh food, and didn't ruin it with sauces, oils, and whatnot. I'm thrilled to report that they are alive and doing quite well.

Their drinks: outstanding. The appetizers: delicious. The entrees: well, see for yourself.

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If it looks familiar, it should. I had nearly the same thing last time... fresh-caught (we had to wait to order until the fisherman arrived with his day's catches) yellow-tail snapper, with a fresh papaya relish and a fresh, organic salad. Oh so good.

Here we all are, enjoying our dinners. The photo is dark, but it'll give you an idea of the place.

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The dinner was truly outstanding. Such a highlight and welcomed relief from all of the other fried, crappy food in Puerto Rico.

Friday was rather uneventful - we spent the majority of the day on the beach. Although we did witness the locals harvesting coconuts from the palm trees that lined the beach. It was crazy to watch them climb the trees with nothing more than a strap, hack down some coconuts, and then cart them off.

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Now... for those not familiar with coconut harvesting, they apparently knock down unripened coconuts and let them lie on the ground for a few weeks until ripe. You may not also be aware of this, but young/fresh coconuts are encased in a very thick, very fibrous, very resilient green shell, as seen here.

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Maybe it was the Medalla that coaxed me into this, but I somehow got the idea that I'd open and process my own fresh coconut. So, I went about trying to open that green monster, without any tools.

After 30-40 minutes of attempting to open it by banging it on the sharp edge of a sidewalk, slamming it against a fence post, hitting it on a fire hydrant, and trying to pry it open with my fingers, I gave up. The things are tough!!!

One of the local harvester guys must have seen my futile attempts because he shouted out to me in Spanish (slang that I didn't understand), and then approached me with a machete.

I was a little nervous... but, he took the machete and used it to crack open a ripe (non-green) coconut, remove the outer shell, and then proceeded to break open the familiar looking brown, husky coconut and remove the snow white flesh. He gave it to me, along with another coconut that he hacked-open and told us to drink from.

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The coconut water was *delicious* and the raw coconut flesh was even more tasty. What a treat, and what a kind gesture (about the only one we experienced on the trip). If you can ever try it, I urge you to sample fresh coconut water and fresh coconut.

After sipping the coconut water, Jenny and I decided to stroll westward on the beach. It was clouding over, which was probably for the best. We each had seen more than our fair share of sun that day. As we walked, we stumbled across a bunch of lava rock, some of which was sticking out of the ocean. Other bits of it were sitting on the beach.

When I say lava rock, I mean "boulders" - they were huge. We stopped to sit on one, and snapped a picture of the ocean behind us. If you look closely, you can see the water splashing over one of the rocks in the ocean.

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(I told you we both had a fair amount of sun that day)

Saturday morning arrived and we decided to explore San Juan. And, since Palmer was on the way to San Juan, we pressed our luck and returned with the hope of checking out the "good" breakfast place (the one that was closed on Tuesday, due to construction).

We were thrilled to find that it was open. The owner remembered us, and thanked us for returning. And boy, am I glad we gave it a try. The place was gorgeous inside - very modern, very chic - it could've easily been in downtown Chicago. That's how cool it was. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity, be sure to check out LLuvia Deli and Cafe.

Our server was fantastic. The coffee was excellent, and the omelet was quite honestly one of (if not the) best I've ever had. Man, it was great.

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Bellies full, we drove the 20-ish minutes to San Juan, where we parked and then explored the city by foot. We did the usual activities: visited the forts, shopped around, and had a few beverages. Here are some photos from our adventures:

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Ok... that was enough San Juan. We hopped in the car and drove back to the condo, where Marty and Jamie enjoyed cigars and a stroll over to Board Riders for more drinks. Jenny and I stayed at the condo and did some crossword puzzles while unwinding on the deck.

The skies clouded over, and we could see a monster storm forming over the ocean. And then I saw something truly odd and incredible - a massive tornado, right in the middle of the ocean.

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It was surreal, because it didn't appear to move. Instead, it just sat there, spewing a huge spray of water that had to go 100-yards high (or more). The funnel lasted for about 45-minutes, before disappearing back into the clouds. It was so crazy.

When Marty and Jamie returned, we decided to go back to Fajardo for dinner. We found a place fairly near to El Pescador, and while the venue wasn't quite as nice, the food was better than El Pescador, although only by a hair. My steak arrived, and do you care to guess how it was?

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That shiny finish on the oil and the rice? Oil. Yay.

On Sunday, we woke-up and decided to visit a small coffee shop in Luquillo, and it turned out to be quite tasty. Marty, Jenny, and Jamie all went with sandwiches ("tortas" in Spanish), and I went with the Huevos Rancheros. In this pic, you can see my eggs, and Jenny's Cubano sandwich in the background (it was *massive*):

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We spent the rest of the day on the beach, which was really enjoyable. A cute little dog was romping around on the beach and decided to make her way over to me. What a little charmer!

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The rest of Sunday was relatively quiet and uneventful, save for one last "PR" experience... I was in line at the local Amigo (Wal-Mart), attempting to purchase some beer and a few snacks. Mind you, I didn't have a cart stuffed full of groceries and knick-knacks, but rather a small handful of items.

There were two people in line in front of me, and the cashier wasn't in any hurry (as stated before, no one in Puerto Rico is in any hurry, unless they're behind the wheel of an automobile). The first person in line (checking out) was a woman, and as soon as the cashier showed her the total amount due, the woman decided she needed to purchase a holiday CD from a nearby rack.

Problem: the CDs were locked-up in some type of contraption that required the cashier to unlock.

Problem #2: the cashier couldn't figure out how to unlock the contraption, so, she summoned a second cashier, and the two of them spent several minutes trying to figure out how to unlock the contraption.

Eventually, a Christmas CD emerged from the rack and was presented to the woman. She took the CD, and then declared that she wanted another CD, so we repeated the entire process of fighting with the contraption.

That single transaction took more than 10-minutes to complete.

The gentleman in front of me checked out with his items, and I began to place my things on the conveyor belt. That's when the cashier waved me off and motioned for the two people in line behind me to check out. They passed by me and proceeded to check out, while I stood there with a 12-pack of Medalla, some mixed nuts, and an 8-pack of Diet Coke.

When the others were done checking out, the cashier rang up my items and stared off into the distance. These folks are just so friggin' friendly! Ugh. Oddly, this wasn't the only bad experience with Amigo, but it's a prime example of what things are like in this area.

After our day on the beach, we decided it was time for one last meal at La Estacion in Fajardo, so we piled into the car and made the 10-mile drive to this little oasis. Once again, service was excellent and the food was outstanding.

We deviated slightly from the grilled fish and decided to try the "combo plate" - ribs, chicken, and shrimp, all grilled.

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While the BBQ was excellent, I couldn't help but think the fish would've been just slightly better. One thing that was beyond excellent were the drinks that night. La Estacion offered us a "Cucumber margarita" and a "Pineapple Mojito," both of which were superb. They were so good, in fact, that upon returning to the States, we made our own versions.

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On our way home, Jenny noticed an interesting "store" of sorts. When she told us what the sign said, we had no option other than to turn around and verify it ourselves. Talk about a classic end to the trip...

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Monday morning arrived; we packed our things, closed-up the condo, and made our way to the airport. A 5-hour flight saw us back to Chicago, and before long we were on familiar roads, with sane(r) drivers and better food/drink awaiting. As we had been traveling all day, we decided to stop for a quick bite and a familiar brew. I'd argue this was perhaps the best part of the trip...

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So... I'm super grateful and appreciative of Marty's generosity - the condo truly was excellent, and really enjoyable. Overall, the trip wasn't awful, but I don't think I'll be in any hurry to return to this part of Puerto Rico.

That said, Marty was/is a great travel companion - he enjoys watching my misery, and we enjoy his company. "Hey buddy!"


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Here are a few random photos that didn't really fit into the story. Enjoy.

The *brand new* sunglasses that I bought upon arrival to Puerto Rico that broke in half while I was wearing them. I literally heard and saw them crack for no apparent reason. They broke within the first hour of my wearing them. PR'd.

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The seaweed art that Marty created to say "hello" to our coworkers back in Madison (a gang later defaced it that night... PR'd):

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An abandoned Honda CRX that looks like it hadn't moved from our condo parking lot in 5+ years. It was still sporting a "Se Vende sign (for sale)":

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The breakfast of champions, while waiting at the airport (McDonald's coffee and radishes - don't ask...):

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The pictures you find on your phone after asking Marty to snap a few of you...

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...and that seems like an appropriate place for us to end this tale.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steve published on November 16, 2015 11:56 PM.

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