Of man eaters and men

As I type this – news is that Ustad is most likely going to end up in a cage. If that happens, it will indeed be a sad day for Ranthambhore National Park. It will also highlight holes in our conservation methods and the fact that a tiger pays the price for humans in his territory. More importantly, it shows that commercial interests triumph above all.

The recent attack by a tiger on a forest guard in Ranthambhore National Park and his subsequent death have caused national headlines. Needless to say, the wildlife community in India is saddened by this incident and the loss of a man who dedicated his life to saving the very animal that killed him.

But what is sadder, and even shocking is the reaction by many within the tiger conservation and tourism industry. The incident has polarized opinions and there are those who are even calling for the alleged perpetrator, a tiger named T-24 (aka Ustad) to be shot.

The tiger has already been named a ‘man eater’ is buzz is that it will be relocated to another park or even permanent captivity. Three other deaths in the park have been attributed to him in the past.

While it is indeed a cause for concern – my personal opinion is that this clamour for Ustad’s head is a knee-jerk reaction and will be harmful for the park in the long run. Ustad’s territory within the park lies largely in the Tourism Zones 1 & 2. Apart from that he has often been spotted on the public road leading up to Fort within the park. He is also known to visit the nearby village of Sherpur and the main road outside the park. The road to the fort is a busy one all through the day – with cars, jeeps, motorcycles and even pedestrians using it. Point being that Ustad is used to significant human presence and yet, he has never attacked anyone in such circumstances.

Ustad is also a fit tiger – at around 8 years in age, he is little past his prime but nowhere near being incapable of hunting. Almost all recorded cases of man eating felines were of individuals who were somehow unable to hunt down their natural prey. In the words of Jim Corbett – a man who perhaps knew more about tigers than anyone else  – “Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds and old age, that in order to live, they are compelled to take a diet of human flesh.”

This is not to say that there are no exceptions to this rule. But for a fit tiger to kill 4 humans in 4 years and consume only one of them is clearly not a case of a habitual man eater. Even the National Tiger Conservation Authority has stringent guidelines on labelling a tiger a man eater and dealing with. Quoting from them

“There are several reasons for a big wild cat like tiger or a leopard to get habituated as a ‘man-eater’, viz. disability due to old age, incapacitation due to serious injury or loss / breakage of its canines etc. However, there may be several exceptions, and hence specific reasons have to be ascertained on a case to case basis.

The tiger bearing forests and areas nearby prone to livestock depredation, besides having human settlements along with their rights and concessions in such areas, are generally prone to ‘man eaters’.

Besides, loss of habitat connectivity in close proximity to a tiger source area owing to various land uses also foster straying of tiger near human settlements, eventually ending up as a ‘man-eater’.”

In Ustad’s case, none of these apply – neither are the proper reasons of his attacks of humans being ascertained. Instead, there is a demand from resort owners on the fringes of the park to have him removed one way or the other. They forget that his removal can lead to the death of at least 2 – 4 other tigers. His offspring, T-72 (Sultan) operates in the same area and is yet to establish himself as an independent adult. In addition, he has fathered two more cubs from tigress T-39 (Noor). The cubs and their mother will be in significant danger should another male want to take up the territory vacated by Ustad.

If Ustad is indeed a man eater then he must go by all means. But one must ascertain this with certainty before any action is taken. An individual tiger is responsible for balancing his immediate ecosystem, a large male like Ustad more so. So any step in deciding his fate should be based on facts and science – not on the demands of those will limited understanding or a vested interest.

The Roof Rider

Note: This account was a result of a piece meant for the Mint Newspaper. A slightly edited version of it appeared on Saturday 4th April 2015. Click here to read the piece online. The narrative covers two journeys, the first from 2009 and a second one made in Jan 2015.

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“That looks like a flying carpet!” my cousin Rishi had exclaimed. He had pointed at the framed photograph on my living room wall. Memories of that 11 hour journey from 2009 came flooding back.

It was still dark on an early March morning when the 6:30 AM Gwalior – Sheopur Kalan passenger trundled out of the narrow gauge platform of Gwalior station. The tiny train trundled alongside the early morning traffic of milk vans, tongas and long nosed three wheeled Tempos of Gwalior’s old quarter. The train encircled the massive Gopachal hill, atop which sits the massive Gwalior Fort. I could actually lean out and pluck flowers from someone’s backyard from the train.

**
Built between 1895 and 1909 by the Scindia rulers, the Gwalior Light Railway was a network of railways that covered the farthest reaches of their domains. Three lines radiated from their seat of power at Gwalior and headed towards Shivpuri (90km to the South West), Sheopur (200km to the West) and Bhind (130km to the North East). Many passenger trains, mixed trains and freight trains ran along these lines each day. In addition, the Maharaja’s personal train started right from the front porch of his palace. He even had special trains run daily to bring in fresh grass for his stables from the forests along the Chambal’s banks.

Of this network, only the Sheopur branch remains today – the other two having fallen prey to the Indian Railways’ drive to cover the country with Broad Gauge trains. At 200 km, this is the longest operating section of railway on the 2’ wide narrow gauge anywhere in the world. The Indian Railways preserved this line and submitted it for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list, a status enjoyed only by the mountain railways in Simla, Darjeeling and Ooty.

Trains had fascinated me from childhood. My earliest memories were of cross country train trips each summer to visit my grandparents. I would stay glued to train windows – learning station names and locomotive types. I would memorize time tables. Over the years, I ended up travelling on all sorts of trains to the furthest corners of the country – often preferring slow trains to faster ones, for that was the best way of learning more about the region and its people. As a lover of all things railway-related, I wanted to leave no train experience untried. So I made it a point to travel on as many meter and narrow gauge train routes before they were lost forever.

I visited the toy trains of the hill stations, where I savoured their famous saloon cars, first class cabins and stories handed down from the days of the British who had built these lines to escape the harsh Indian summer. My interest in the Gwalior Railways was piqued whilst reading the accounts of this line by Dr. Ian Manning, an Australian who taught in India in the 1960s and travelled extensively by the Railways. The Gwalior Railways were much more basic in comparison with the mountain trains, as these were meant for the common folk. I wanted to see how these slow trains had survived and continued in dizzying speed of 21st century living. This was what had brought me to Gwalior.

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As my train left Gwalior town behind, it ran parallel to the National Highway 3 running from Bombay to Agra. Trucks, tempos, and buses scampered past us. At one point, I could see the broad gauge main line, where trains between Agra and Jhansi clock more than 120 kmph. My train trundled on, capped by a maximum speed of 35 kmph.

35 kmph seemed to be a safe speed for passengers who hung on to each door. At Ghosipura, the second station on the way, the train had become so crowded that it was impossible to stay within the coaches and breathe.

I decided then that the way to escape from the stuffiness was to do as the locals did – to climb to the train’s roof. I always wanted to travel on the roof of a train. The unrestricted view from the top and the boyish thrill of bending rules made the decision to climb fairly easy. But as they say, making it to the top was never going to be easy – I had to use the various coupling appendages between coaches as ladders and scramble to the roof. Once I made it, I realized that the roof wasn’t any less crowded. Every square inch was occupied by people, luggage, and even goats and pet dogs. From my vantage point on the roof, the train ahead of and behind me looked like a floating strip of humanity. It was a photograph of this image that I’d placed on my house’s wall that had inspired the comparison with a flying carpet.

**
Past the smoke belching factories of Bamour, 20 kms from Gwalior the seven coach train turned west and into the Chambal heartland. From here on, I saw miles on miles of fields or scrub forest – with no industry or major city nearby to speak of.

I met Ashok Sikarwar, a school teacher in Gwalior on his way home to Birpur, who gave me a quick lesson in local economy. “From Bamour onwards for 200 km till the Rajasthan border, there is no industry whatsoever. There used to be a sugar factory in Kailaras but that too shut down a few years ago. Our ancestors farmed the land or went to Morena or Lashkar (former citadel of Gwalior) for work. Many hundred years later – we continue to do the same. This seems to be the land India forgot.”

For the next 30 odd kilometers we lurched through rough, stony country with only bramble and thorn for vegetation. It was only at Sumaoli did I see fields and houses. The station’s crowded refreshment stall’s patrons promptly approached the train, climbed atop the roof, and managed to find space where I thought there was none.

The government had built an extensive network of canals to channel the Chambal’s plentiful water to the fields of Morena plains, said Giriraj, who owns a jaggery plant in Sabalgarh. “The Chambal canals are the lifeblood of the region. We grow 2-3 crops a year comprising wheat, sugarcane and mustard among others. In the rocky terrain you otherwise need to bore to depths exceeding 300ft for ground water, but now its water all year round.” Unending fields of golden wheat and sunflower shimmered around me in the morning sun. We continued westward from Sumaoli past Joura towards Sabalgarh. A state highway ran parallel to us for most of the way – but road traffic was thin.

Sabalgarh was also the biggest town en route. The train halted here for lunch – and had a crossing with its opposite number from Sheopur. The twenty minute halt allowed me to walk outside the station in search of nourishment. In a lane in front of the station was Agarwal Nashta Corner. The crowd waiting to get its hands on the piping hot samosas coming straight from the frying pan convinced me to try them out. One bite and the crowds explained themselves – these were quite simply the best samosas I had eaten anywhere – they were soft but crisp, spicy but flavourful. When I accosted ‘Agarwal sahib’ for the secret of his recipe – he said ‘lagan aur anubhav’ – dedication and experience.

On a subsequent trip on this train route, I would learn that Agarwal ji sadly had passed away, and his son had taken over from him. While the samosas at Sabalgarh were still as good – the issues faced by the locals were the same as well. The tiny trains simply did not have the speed or capacity to meet their needs. The patrons outside the shop were pretty vocal in voicing their desires for the faster broad gauge connectivity. “Only with the Broad Gauge will our region prosper. Right now we waste a day just to travel a hundred kilometers. What hope we do have of reaching the outside world like this?” echoed Ramesh Bhadauriya, a local stringer for a national Hindi daily, while wiping his hands with makeshift napkins fashioned from old newspapers.

I learnt that local politicians like Narendra Singh Tomar and Prabhat Jha had made a great show of promises of getting the line converted to Broad Gauge. They had even travelled on the roof among the common people in full view of the Press. Since travelling on the roof is illegal under Railway law – it earned them a court case from the Railways. The case had been running for a few years now. In the interim Tomar became a Minister in the Prime Minister’s cabinet and Jha a member of Rajya Sabha. Their promise still unfulfilled and perhaps forgotten.
**
The road and the rail parted ways after Sabalgarh. The road took a south westerly route around the Palpur-Kuno forest to reach Sheopur. For the villages on the northern edge of the forest, the train was the only connection with the rest of the world. At places like Shampur, Raghunathpur or Khojipura, the train brought in people, supplies and letters from the rest of the world. Each train had half a coach dedicated to the Railway Mail Service – and I saw sacks of letters and parcels loaded and unloaded at each important village.

This was also rough country – once the dreaded lair of many an outlaw. While Phoolan Devi and Pan Singh Tomar are household names today, stories of many others are still handed down as folk tales. The dacoits sometimes referred to as ‘Baaghis’ – rebels fighting for a cause.

The ravines stretched as far as the eye could see. Thick clumps of babool and kikar hemmed in the track, pricking anyone who was careless enough to let his feet dangle off the train roof a tad too much. The post noon sun beat down mercilessly, roasting those on the roof and baking those inside. We tried to sit still as much as we could – any shift in position meant painful contact with the searing hot surface. The welded joints of the steel roof weren’t exactly specimens of master craftsmanship either. Jagged edges protruded, and before I knew it, I had a couple of cuts and bruises. The locals knew how to avoid them, but being a novice at the art of riding on train roofs, I could not escape these injuries.

At Birpur, half the passengers on the roof got off and advised me to do so as well. Ahead lay a low bridge across the Kuno River – anyone atop of train’s roof ran the risk of hitting his head against the bridge’s overhead beams. As the rooftop dwellers descended, the crowded coaches became packed even more than they had been. The fact that many people stayed put on the roof, unfazed by the others’ warnings, convinced me to try my luck – and stay on the roof. A couple of men reassured me that it’d all be fine if I lay flat on the roof. As the train approached the trussed bridge, I wasn’t so sure – my ample girth rose far above the lean frames of my co-passengers. I was fearful of being a winner of the year’s Darwin awards. But the locals were right – only a few inches separated my head from the steel girder above, but these few inches were enough clearance. Yet, I couldn’t help hold my breath and shift my gaze between the steel beams above and water below until we’d crossed the 250m long bridge.

At Durgapuri, the entire train emptied out. Some 400 people including the roof riders, the drivers and the guard got off. Just off the platform was a Durga temple and the train did not proceed till the time everyone had paid obeisance to the deity. While the scheduled halt was only two minutes, it was nearly 20 minutes before we proceeded.

It was well past 5 in the evening when we approached Sheopur, I was tired, scalded and bruised – yet this journey was one of the most enjoyable things I had ever done. I wondered if my fellow passengers thought of it the same way. For a coach that was meant to seat 37 usually carried three times number – with no fans, lights or toilets. Hardly anyone shared my enthusiasm for the Narrow Gauge train. Most locals were incredulous that I had come all the way from Delhi just to ride this train.

Ombir Meena, a farmer wondered if he would ever see his town get a proper ‘badi line’ (Broad Gauge) train? “I wonder why the railways are not providing us with the proper trains we deserve. This old line has outlived its purpose and should be replaced with the badi line soon.”

Sheopur was neither on any tourist’s guidebook nor a hot investment destination – it existed in a time warp in a little known, little heard part of India. It had the inexplicable charm of an end of the line station. A sort of a frontier town of yore. I counted more camel carts than cars outside the station.

I decided to explore the town a little more. Amin, a local lad who I had met on the train pointed me to the fort, a little over a mile from the station. I had chai and pakodi (lentil fritters) at a shop near the station and took an auto and escaped the chaos of its main bazaar for the solitude of the fort.

Local boys played cricket in the main square. The Archaeological Survey of India clerk manning the office was clearly displeased by the fact that I was asking far too many questions about the town’s history. Not much is known about the origin of the fort any way, except that it dates back at least to the 10th century AD and was held by famous kings such as Hammir of Ranthambhore (just 70km from Sheopur), Alla-uddin Khilji before the Scindias came to rule these parts.

I sauntered through the badly plastered halls open for display and the expected showcase of some forgotten Maharaja’s arms and armour. I climbed up a staircase – and walked into a deserted turret.

I stood in silence and watched the Sip River flowing quietly by. Ahead of me, a flutter of bats took flight and coasted away into the evening sky.

Tigerscape

Rajbagh – is a tiger lovers’ paradise. A man made lake set amidst a bowl ringed by tall hills. Countless documentaries have immortalized this corner of Ranthambhore National Park. With plentiful water and prey, it is most prized tiger territory of them all. Anyone who rules over this patch automatically earns the sobriquet of the ‘Queen of Ranthambhore’.

Krishna aka T-19 is the current Queen having taken over the territory vacated by her deceased sister Sundari (T-17). She in turn had won this by displacing her mother, the legendary Machhli (T-16). Machhli, in fact got her name and this territory handed down from her own mother, the original Machhli – The Lady of the Lakes.

We had been following Krishna and her latest litter of cubs for the last few months and one January afternoon we heard reports that she had been spotted near the tall grass across the ruins of the Old Hunting Palace. We made our way in the afternoon and searched for any signs of her movement. Finding none, we derided to play the waiting game, for tigers often move around sunset.

As if on cue, the grass rustled just as the dying sun cast an orange glow across the land. There, she broke cover and and made way for a fallen tree sprawled across the water. The next few moments were magic.

 

Bad news for the tiger

Tiger numbers in India have risen by 30% since 2011 and everyone is making a song and dance about it. But if anyone would care to listen, I’d say it is bad news for the Tiger. For the fact is that India’s Tiger Reserves have more tigers that can realistically manage, and their number is rising.

Almost every reserve has had cases where young male tigers have been forced to move out of the protected sanctuary in search of his own territory. Ranthambhore alone has had at least 3 cases in the last few years where its male tigers have left the park and wandered as far as Bharatpur, Datia and Kuno. Similar cases have been reported from  reserves in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well.

The tigers did not end up there by accident – they were only following instinct. An instinct that is being curbed by a rising human population. Most of India’s major tiger reserves are hemmed in by human populations. This has led to the vanishing of traditional migration corridors of animals. Sariska, Bharatpur, Ranthambhore, Kuno and Darra were once part of a single extended natural habitat. So was the case with Bandhavharh, Pench, Satpura and Kanha. Dudhwa, Pilibhit and Corbett were linked as well – but no more. Highways, towns and fields are now in the way and prevent any major animal migration. The tigers who made it out were lucky – some were not. The case of Broken Tail is perhaps a well documented example.

While the Minister and NTCA may celebrate the rising tiger numbers – they in reality have a huge problem on their hands and nothing that they have done in the recent past suggests that they realize it. There have been countless media reports and detailed studies on this subject but NTCA and the Ministry have provided only the cursory lip service. The Minister did release an ambitiously titled ‘Report on Corridors: Connecting Tiger Population for Long term Conservation’ – but no details of its contents or action plan are known yet.

For now the focus seems to be on relocation and repopulation. Tigers from Ranthambhore and Pench have been relocated to Sariska and Panna – whose own populations had been wiped out. These efforts have met with mixed success and long term impact is yet to be understood. But this to my mind is a near sighted strategy. All it is doing is contributing to the shortening of the gene pool.

As of today, more than half of Ranthambhore’s gene pool can be traced back to just 5 tigers. And the relocated ones in Sariska are from an even closer stock. The lack of corridors is restricting two way movement resulting in almost an incestuous situation. Similar examples are cropping up in other parks as well. This means that a single outbreak of disease can wipe out significant numbers before we realize it. Gir’s lions are facing the same issue but the Gujarat government’s myopic policies are creating a recipe for disaster.

Not all is bad news though – India has after all led the way in Tiger Conservation and is perhaps the only only country in the world where the magnificent beast’s future is somewhat secure. But foresight and initiative shown 40 years ago, when Project Tiger took shape seems to be missing today. And without that, no one can be rest assured – least of all the Tiger.

The most treacherous road in the world

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The sign by the side of the road makes it plain. We are travelling on the most treacherous road in the world. This is not a sign that has been put up a local, or some wise guy tourist. Somewhere there in the picture below, lies one of the most important roads in India. And that is why the sign is important. It has been put there by GREF – the General Reserve Engineer Force of the Border Roads Organization.

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It is their job to keep this road open all through the year. For this is the NH22 – better known as the Hindustan Tibet Road. A road that makes the Death Road of Bolivia, a walk in the park. The original Hindustan Tibet Road started at Rampur, the capital of the erstwhile Bushahar kingdom and entered Tibet at Shipki La 185 km away. Back then on pack mules, the journey took nearly a fortnight. Today it takes the whole day if the weather gods or kind or a week if the mountains decide to collapse.

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Today the road to Tibet is closed for civilians, but the men of GREF are in charge of the road all the way from Rampur to Rohtang Pass via the Spiti Valley. This is Spiti’s only link with the rest of the country in winter, when snow cuts off the route via Rohtang in to Manali.

The officer folk of GREF are not from the hills – nor are the workers who crush stones by muscle power and a hammer, carry heavy loads and camp under a tarpaulin sheet by the night at the edge of a precipice. Some come from Kerala, where it is green as far as the eye can see and oxygen as plentiful as water. The dry, high altitude desert which is their office, is as far removed from their home as it is from the steamy forests of Jharkhand.

Sajit Topno and his gang hail from the Chota Nagpur plateau. They’ve been here for the past five years, working with a GREF sub-contractor – a local who drives in an SUV and has a summer home in Kullu. They make minimum wages a day and send most of it home. They eat porridge and potato gruel on most days and miss their home though they are too proud to admit it.

We met them a few miles out of Kaza – the Spitian headquarters. They are repairing a road that was damaged by landslides. They need to fix this before the short summer ends – so they take the fast route – by blasting the hillside. But the only easy part is the dynamite – the resulting rubble needs to be cleared and that is Harman’s job. He comes from Batala in Punjab and he can make a backhoe perform more gracefully than a Bolshoi ballerina and that too at the edge of a 250 ft drop into the fast flowing Spiti river.

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We meet many such gangs all along the road to Manali, but even their best efforts can sometimes be overwhelmed by the sheer force of nature. Snowmelt in the summer causes many a dry nullah come to life. The Malling Nullah north of Nako has led to the road being reliagned, twice and it still in a headache. The Paagal Nullah, named so after its unpredictable nature was forgiving when we crossed it. But the Dorni Nullah was in no mood to relent. It required man and machine to pay obeisance to its power, before letting anyone pass.

The Dorni Nullah was proof that it takes naught but a second to wipe out man’s best efforts. But the men of GREF toil hard to keep this life line open. And is because of them, that most make it alive through the most treacherous road in the world.

Who needs a beach?

It’s 8 AM on a steamy March morning at Madgaon Railway Station. Taxi drivers and tourist ‘guides’ are falling head over heels, trying to peddle their beach properties. We make our way through the melee and manage to reach the Pre-paid taxi counter only to be met with a strange question – Why on earth do we tourists want to Aldona?

As it happens, Aldona is nowhere near a beach. And it is hard to find on the map for most people as the hinterland of Goa does not exist in their realm of geographical knowledge. Even our battle hardened taxi driver has trouble finding his way through the back country roads until Roberto comes to the rescue over the mobile phone.

We reach Aldona – Cancio’s House to be precise, to be welcomed by Roberto, Raquel and family. Their 500 year old estate, our home for the next few days. While our quarters are in the tastefully done up set of rooms away from the main house, we end up spending more time in their dining hall and living room than anywhere else.

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Our first meal there we decide that we could happily spend the rest of our lives in Raquel’s kitchen. Be it her traditional Goan recipes of fish, meat or poultry or her gobsmackingly delicious spreads made of banana, mango or guava – the taste of her warmth and love shows in each morsel.

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Our afternoons are spent talking about Goa, its people, culture and cuisine. Roberto is encyclopaedia on Goa. He’s been a hotelier, he’s travelled the world – but now he runs Cancio’s house and moonlights as the skipper of a speedboat and a luxury yacht which can also be chartered – What is not there to envy about his life?

We empty crates of beer over stories of festivals that involve jumping into wells, mugger crocodiles in the river and  why Goa’s traditions are slowly dying with the exodus of its natives and the influx of the businessmen.

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He arranges bikes for us and we are off exploring the bucolic Goa. Not a single yuppie is in sight, nor is a hippie. There are no Boom Shankars, Totos or joints selling Shakshuka, Chicken Stroganoff and Gobhi Manchurian on the same menu. Instead, there is one of Goa’s last traditional bakeries where breads and pois are still made by hand and are sold and eaten before they even cool down.

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There is Andron in the nearby village of Nachinola which is a meat lovers’ paradise. If you’re vegetarian, look elsewhere. Tony, the owner is around and offers sagely advice on pairing meats with feni. Between mid-afternoon beers and Old Monks, obscene amount of food is gobbled down.

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We even make a trip to Mapusa market to buy spices and take advantage of the tax laws. The evening is spent along the banks of the Aldona river, where locals fish, catch up on news and gently watch life go by. A distant train salutes the passing countryside, and the sound of hymns float in the air from the nearby church.

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We are glad we are nowhere near the beach. We are glad we are with Roberto and Raquel. Their three sons join us for dinner. And clear the dishes on roller skates! The youngest – a little babe back then is relishing the attention being showered by 6 grown men!

We pack to leave the next day, without having even been in sight of the sea in Goa – and all the more glad for it. We had come in as tourists, we were going back as family. The world definitely needs more people like Roberto and Raquel. It’ll be a much better place that way.

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