About Mariellen Ward

Mariellen Ward

Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.

Latest Posts by Mariellen Ward

Top 5 Things To Do & See in Costa Rica

July 19, 2014 by  


Would you love to see crocodiles up close, in the wild? Or go horseback riding to hidden waterfalls at the base of a volcano? Or sink into a natural hot spring, covered in mineral-rich, warm clay? These are just some of the special moments I had in Costa Rica, where I experienced the best of both worlds:  the comfort of a luxury, guided tour and the excitement of authentic, cultural and wilderness adventures.

1. A boat ride into the wild

After driving for an hour down remote dirt roads, we arrived at the Rio Tempisque in Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica. My guide, Jose, unloaded a cooler, binoculars and a few other supplies from the SUV and we walked the few steps to a small dock, where a boat was waiting for us. Though the boat held about a dozen seats, we had it to ourselves — Jose, the captain and I. I was immediately struck by how unspoiled the park was, truly a pristine wilderness reserve, with no sign of human habitation.

We pushed off and spent a couple of hours slowly cruising the river, spotting umpteen lazy crocodiles, several godzilla-like iguanas and countless glorious tropical birds such as egrets, storks, kingfishers and herons. I quickly learned why Rio Tempisque has earned the reputation for being one of the best wildlife and bird watching spots in Costa Rica. Everywhere I looked I saw National Geographic worthy scenes of wildlife in action, crocodiles basking on sand banks, birds with massive wing spans swooping across the water. I wore out my trigger finger snapping the best photos of birds and animals I have ever taken. It was the closest I have ever come to feeling like a professional wildlife photographer — a dream realized.

2. Discovering the women’s corner of the forest

We could see the mountain emerging from the plains from a far distance. This was before I knew it was a volcano. And before I knew the story of the volcano, Rincon de la Vieja, which means “woman’s corner of the forest.”

As we got closer, my guide, Jose, told me the myth: Once upon a time, the daughter of a chief fell in love with a man deemed inappropriate by her family. The couple ran away to the forest, but they were chased and found, and the man was killed. The chief’s daughter lived the rest of her life in a remote corner of the forest and became a renowned natural healer. Tribal people would go to her for healing, saying, “We are going to the corner of the old lady.”

At the base of the volcano, we rode horses into the lush, tranquil “women’s corner of the forest.” Our guide led us along a narrow path to a waterfall deep in the think forest. The canopy of trees blocked out the light, and the sound of the water filled the air. Water pooled in a dark circle at the base, where I stood in quiet meditation, breathing the fecund, moist air. With my imagination sparked and my senses alive, I felt the life of the forest and experienced one of those transcendent moments that usually only happen in places of natural beauty.

3. Immersion into the good earth

We rode our horses back to the Borinquen Mountain Resort and Spa stables, from where we picked them up, and headed for the spa. The Borinquen Spa is built on a natural hot spring that erupts here thanks to the geothermal activity of the nearby volcano. Literally piping hot mineral-rich water gushes from the ground and fills the air with mist. A natural sauna is built above one such pool, the hot steam hissing up through the wooden floor boards, and a building housing the massage rooms sits above a warm water stream.

After a pore-opening steam in the very hot sauna, I slathered myself with rich, warm clay, scooped from the sides of the stream. Then, I chose the hottest of three man-made pools, each holding a different temperature of water from the hot springs. I sank into the pool to enjoy the heat, the sun, the natural environment and the peace. Before showering off the mud, my guide Jose helped me take some fun photos of my “Swamp Thing” look to post online. It was a fun moment, and relaxing too. And my skin glowed for days.

4. Stopping to smell the coffee

Up we drove, through wildly winding streets, until we reached the elaborate wrought-iron gate of Finca Rosa Blanca, a boutique hotel and organic coffee plantation. I felt immediately that I was entering a different world. The mountain top setting, artfully designed gate and lush greenery, set off with huge tropical flowers, created a unique, whimsical ambience from the first moment.

But then I saw the hotel. Imagine Gaudi designed a hotel in The Shire and Georgia O’Keefe painted it. Bold amorphous white shapes covered in murals of flowers bursting with colour. Each room completely unique, like characters in a play, and featuring all sorts of charming amenities. My room had a massive blue-tiled tub with a sky light above it, a mural behind the bed of sun-drenched fields, and a small balcony overlooking an entire valley and mountain range.

Finca Rosa Blanca boutique hotel and organic coffee plantation, Costa Rica

Sitting room at the Finca Rosa Blanca

Dotted throughout the property: a salt water pool with overflowing waterfall; an outdoor restaurant with the same magnificent view; a gourmet dining room ranged around a children’s book fireplace; a hot tub secluded in the jungle; and a walking trail through the coffee plantation. Delights around every turn of the meandering pathways, no straight lines here at all.

I soaked up as much atmosphere as I could in the short time I was there, feeling the creativity, the life-giving force of the organic garden and the care owners Teri and Glenn Jampol put into Finca Rosa Blanca. I felt I had found somewhere sacred and magical and I imbibed it fully, until it was time to leave. A wonderful last stop on my Costa Rica adventure.

Cala Luna Hotel yoga retreat, Costa Rica

Cala Luna Hotel yoga platform

5. Taking a deep breath with yoga in Costa Rica

While staying in a spacious villa at the lovely Cala Luna Hotel in Tamarindo, I joined the morning yoga class, among the  foliage. Under a simple awning and surrounded by luscious, tropical gardens, it was easy to breathe deeply and enjoy the tranquil setting. Distracted only by bird songs and the sight of butterflies lighting on bright flowers, I found myself feeling very peaceful and at one with the natural environment. The delightful experience continued with a healthy breakfast by the glistening turquoise pool afterwards, and then a long walk on the rugged nearby beach. It was the perfect way to start a perfect day in paradise.

Breathing deeply, and with consciousness, is an essential element of yoga and it really helps when the air you breathe is pure and richly oxygenated. This is no doubt one of the reasons there are many yoga classes and retreats all across Costa Rica. The Cala Luna lists their upcoming yoga retreats here, and you can contact Kensington Tours to find out about private guided yoga experiences in Costa Rica and around the world.


The Sheer Force of Niagara Falls is Mesmerizing

July 17, 2014 by  



Right at the edge of Niagara Falls water seems to throw itself over with an abandon of mythical proportions. The sheer force is mesmerizing: a mighty, terrifying spectacle of millions of litres of water dropping 30 stories, landing with a thunderous roar and sending up a churning tumult of foam and mist.

Niagara Falls, waterfalls, Canada, world wonder, top tourist attraction, picnic

All along the promenade, tourists from every part of the world gazes in hypnotic wonder, getting soaked by the mist when the wind changes, and clicking photos like there’s no tomorrow. An old stone parapet, the only barrier between the tourists and a misstep of doom, lines the walkway.

Watching this scene, it occurs to me that the tourists are, in fact, awestruck. Like so many things about Niagara Falls, the cliche just seems to fit.

But is the desire to feel awestruck enough to make Niagara Falls one of the top tourist attractions in the world today? Or, is there something more?

Each year, about 12 million people make the journey to a small town in southern Ontario, a couple of hours drive from Toronto, to visit Niagara Falls. There are 500 waterfalls in the world higher; there are many that are far more picturesque. But there are none that are more powerful. In terms of width and volume of water, Niagara Falls is number one.v

What makes Niagara Falls a World Class Tourist Attraction?

As I sat in Elements on the Falls restaurant, at a table overlooking the Falls, my Niagara Parks guide, Holly, said, “A million bathtubs full of water a minute go over the edge.” I stared at the Falls. I was having trouble seeing a million bathtubs of water. But I was having no trouble falling into a hypnotic trance.

The Falls seem to do that to people. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. Niagara Falls may in fact be one of the world’s first tourist attractions. I don’t know about the habits of the Aboriginal people who are native to southern Ontario, but early European settlers have been going on excursions to picnic on the banks of the Niagara River where the mighty falls drop 52 metres since the mid-1600s. The first sketch by a European appeared in a book published in 1697.

During the 18th century, tourism became popular, and by mid-century, it was the area’s main industry. By the 1900s, going to Niagara Falls was considered the trip of a lifetime. The 20th century saw the era of daredevils — did you know the first person to go over in a barrel was a woman? – and the rise of the honeymoon capital of the world.

Growing up in nearby Burlington, I too went on many excursions to Niagara Falls. Though in my case, “because it’s there” might well have been the motive.

Niagara Falls, waterfalls, Canada, world wonder, top tourist attraction, picnic

Picnic near the Falls. Image courtesy of The Niagara Parks Commission

There are certainly many things to see and do, when you tire of being mesmerized by moving water. There’s the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario — the tourist town that sprang up alongside the ‘Horseshoe Falls,’ which are the more spectacular Canadian falls.  The town offers a multitude of distractions for visitors who are in a holiday mood from bizarre museums and themed restaurants to a casino and more souvenirs than you can shake a snow globe at.

And the surrounding region, administered by the Niagara Parks Commission, features a multitude of diversions, from the Butterfly Conservatory and the Whirpool Aero Car to about half a dozen gardens and picnic areas and a cluster of heritage sights, including the quaint Laura Secord homestead. Niagara Parks is also responsible for the nightly illumination of the Falls and the summer fireworks series.

Holly was outlining all that Niagara had to offer when the waiter arrived bearing a plate of samosas. Tasty Indian treats were just the thing I needed as I pondered.

India, river, sunrise, Ganga, Ganges, Hindu

Photo Credit: carbajo.sergio via Compfight cc

Earlier that day, I had explored the Falls and talked to people. I stopped lots of tourists from India, mostly families and couples, and asked them, “What’s the draw? What made you want to see Niagara Falls?” Answers ranged from, “we studied it in school” to ” because it’s so famous.”

But one thoughtful couple, with a small boy, from Delhi stopped and chatted with me after we went through the Journey Behind the Falls together. They explained that to Hindus in India, the five elements — earth, air, fire, water and ether — are venerated as the sacred building blocks of life. Water in particular is revered as “the river of life.” Perhaps, they suggested, this deep connection with the water element could be part of the draw.

After much pondering, exploring and discussing, I decided that the water is what Niagara Falls is really all about, after all. I think there’s a primordial attraction to water, especially water of this magnitude and power.

So that’s what I did on my weekend in Niagara Falls. I let my fascination with the thundering onslaught be my guide and discovered the best ways for getting up-close-and-personal with Niagara Falls.

Journey Behind the Falls. Image courtesy of The Niagara Parks Commission


Experience Capilano Suspension Bridge Park & a Canadian Rain Forest

June 25, 2014 by  


The temperate rain forests of the West Coast of Canada are magnificent to behold. You could say that forests are our sacred groves. In a young and secular country with a small population and vast expanses of pristine wilderness, our forests are our natural temples.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

This is where we go to worship the beauty and majesty of nature, and what attracts many of our visitors. But you don’t have to be a rugged explorer to appreciate our northern paradise. The West Coast temperate rainforest can be found lovingly preserved at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Just a short drive across the famous Lion’s Gate Bridge from downtown Vancouver, and located in a well-to-do suburb, 27-acre Capilano Park is truly a delight and well worth the visit. The park is 125 years old, and has a rich and interesting history with interwoven strands of both Native and immigrant cultures, all of which are particularly well displayed.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

But what I enjoyed most was the atmosphere and the natural environment. For, though Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is a tourist attraction, it is a rare one. It actually preserves the special ambiance of the natural environment, while making it accessible with displays, signage, interactive exhibits and nature and history tours.

As you walk softly on a thick carpet of reddish pine needles you feel enveloped by the lushness, moist air and sun-dappled greenery. Iridescent ferns, bright mosses, and trickling streams of fresh water catch your eye at ground level. Crowds of evergreens — cedar, pine and fir trees — soften the middle distance. And majestic Douglas Firs thrust upwards, ram-rod straight, creating a lofty canopy. Birds twitter among the branches, while squirrels gambol up and down tree trunks and butterflies alight on lush ground-level foliage. There is a quiet sanctity, a reverence in the air that slows the gait and lowers the voices of casual visitors.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Up in the trees on the Treetops Adventure.

I met a couple from Kerala, both biologists, who were very enthusiastic about the park and about the new and different species they were encountering. Like me, they felt they truly were in the forest — a slice of forest well managed, maintained and easy to explore.

Capilano is an especially interesting destination for families and foreigners, I think, because there are so many opportunities to experience and learn about the natural environment in this part of the world. Elders can stroll the well-maintained paths while kids can climb up to the Treetops adventure and along the Cliffwalk. In fact, I met several families from India at the park, all three generations enjoying different activities. A family from Gurgaon told me they loved the warm people, the nature and greenery of British Columbia, and that “people are not in a rush.” Families from Bombay and Gujurat told me they loved the freshness and cleanliness.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

A Chief Joe Capilano exhibit at the Story Centre.

Where the forest is an open book

The first thing I did after reaching Capilano was walk slowly through the Story Centre, a well-produced and interactive pathway designed to teach you about the park’s history, in an entertaining manner. I learned that in 1888, a Scottish engineer named George Grant Mackay bought 6,000 acres along the Capilano river and built the first suspension bridge. A sturdier bridge replaced the original, and the site became a tourist attraction in the 1920s and 30s. In 1953, a new owner, Rae Mitchell, built the current bridge, developed the park and aggressively promoted it. His daughter, Nancy Stibbard, spent about 10 years (from 1983-1993) working on the park to bring it up to the high standard you see today.

I also learned there was indeed a connection with the Native people of this area. In fact, the word Capilano is derived from Kia’palano, a Squamish word for “beautiful river.” And Chief Joe Matthias Kia’palano was hired in the 1930s to tell stories and teach visitors about the Native way of life.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Some of the many Story Poles at Capilano, each with their own story.

More recently, in the 1980s, local Native artist Wayne Carlick was hired to create most of the Story Poles (often referred to as “totem poles”) you see around the property. Each is carved from a single cedar log and each tells a story through symbolism and imagery. My guide, Alex, told me the story of his favourite pole — all about how all the light of the world was held within a box until the chief saw that his daughter was beautiful, and released the light. Alex is a history tour guide, an anthropology student who knows a lot about Native art and culture.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

The suspension bridge.

The Story Centre and Story Poles are located on the east side of the Capilano river, along with a cafe, restaurant, the Trading Post store and the Cliffwalk. This is the park’s newest and most impressive attraction: a cantilevered walkway clinging to the granite cliff high above Capilano Canyon. It really is a marvel, and like just about everything else at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, built with sustainability and the environment in mind. Only one tree was cut down to make it and all the materials used are renewable. In fact, it was built off-site to lower the impact on the fragile environment.

The forest is on the other side, and to get there you have to walk across the swaying suspension bridge — 137 metres across and 70 metres above the Capilano River. On the forest side you will find trails, a trout pond, a rainforest exhibit and the Treetops Adventure — seven suspension bridges that take you 30 metres above the forest floor and give you a “squirrel’s eye view.”

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

In the rain forest canopy, looking towards the forest floor.

Walking among the canopy in the Treetops Adventure or suspended over the canyon on the Cliffwalk gives you a unique and special perspective on the forest. You can see it bursting with life at every level. Sun shining on the tips of evergreen trees make them look like intricate stained-glass designs. Water in the river far below sparkles and sings as it burbles over the rocks. A large bird with a wide wingspan soars over head, seemingly in slow motion. It is like being in a living temple, and it makes you feel part of the whole, part of the oneness that pervades all.

Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

The Cliffwalk is a sustainable and low impact activity.

Fresh, clean and well-maintained

I was truly impressed with this park, which preserves and displays the natural environment using taste and sensitivity. It’s spotlessly clean, well-maintained, very comfortable and offers visitors an astounding array of options. If you just want to eat and shop, you will find top-quality, local items for sale. If you want to dive into the forest and soak up the natural environment, who will find long trails winding through the woods. If you want some thrills, the suspension bridge and Cliffwalk will give you an eagle’s eye view of the river, way below. If you want to learn about nature, history or culture, you can join the guided tours.

There is something for everyone here. And long after you leave, if you are like me, you will remember how you felt surrounded by the majesty of nature, and by people who actually really care.

2 Documentaries Explore Issues Facing Women & Lower Castes in India

June 21, 2014 by  



The Backward Class, India, women, girls, Dalit, documentary, film

Recently, the two most prominent news items from India in the North American media recently were the sweeping election win for Narendra Modi and the BJP party in the world’s biggest democratic election; and the horrific rape and murder of two teenage girls, who were left hanging from a mango tree, in Uttar Pradesh.

Ever since the high profile Delhi Gang Rape in December 2012, the status of women in India has been under the spotlight, not just in India but around the world. I was in India during the paradigm-shifting backlash to the rape of the 23-year old medical student aboard a moving bus in Delhi and it affected me very deeply. It affected everyone very deeply. There were riots and calls for changes to the law and changes to attitudes towards women.

The deeply felt need for change was one of the reasons that the long-time ruling Congress party was ousted, in a landslide victory for Modi and the BJP. People in India are fed up with corruption, inefficiency and oppressive attitudes towards women and people from the Other Backward Class, including Dalits (formerly called Untouchables).

India is caught in the throes of great change, and certainly the new government has a huge number of massive challenges on many fronts, including the economy, national security, poverty relief, environmental degradation. But what the world is watching most closely, in my view, is the way India handles violence against women and women’s rights to education, opportunity and safety.

Delhi Gang Rape, India, women

Massive protests erupted in the streets of Delhi.

The protests and the fast-track courts are a step in the right direction. In less than a year, the four surviving adult perpetrators of the Delhi Gang Rape were sentenced to death by hanging; and the villagers in Uttar Pradesh would not leave the scene of the crime, staging a sit-in under the hanging bodies of the girls until officials took action. (Several police officers were fired and one was charged with the crime within a day or two of the murders.) After the Delhi Gang Rape, the city erupted in mass riots that continued for weeks. This is better than can be said for many countries around the world with terrible rates of rape and violence, including western countries.

But of course India has a long way to go, and this story of violence against women in India — whether it’s against local women or foreign tourists — has captured the world’s media. There are much worse rape statistics for many other countries including Kenya and South Africa, and more female tourists raped in other countries, but for whatever reason, the media is now equating rape and India, and closely watching how the progression of women’s rights unfold. I have my own ideas about why the media insists on equating India with rape — ideas rooted in colonialism, racism and a penchant for pointing the finger at other societies rather than facing problems in our own — but that’s a whole other story and an article I will one day write. In the meantime, you can read Look westward in disgust for a courageous look at this particular example of media sensationalizing.

So, it’s against this backdrop that I recently watched two movies that highlight the challenges facing women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds, lower castes and Dalits. They are both equally well made films, highly watchable and important. And, interestingly, both made by Canadian women. First up, The World Before Her; followed below by a review and interview with the makers of The Backward Class, which recently won the 2014 Hot Docs Audience Favourite Award.

The World Before Her, India, women, girls, Dalit, documentary, film

The World Before Her

Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja spent years making the documentary film, The World Before Her. And you can tell. She gained intimate access to the worlds — including the hopes, dreams and emotions — of two very different young women in India. One, Ruhi Singh, 19, is a Jaipur girl intent on winning beauty pageants, and the film follows her to the Miss India Pageant.

And the other, Prachi Trivedi, 24, is a Durga Vahini activist. (The Durga Vahini (DV) is the women’s youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.) In both cases, Nisha gained behind-the-scenes access to both the pageant and the camp; as well as into the family homes of both girls. The result is a riveting picture of the narrow opportunities for women in India, and the confining dictates of tradition and culture. Though the girls could not be more different, the similarities in their stories are eye-opening.

The film won the Best Canadian Feature Award at Hot Docs in 2012, but that was just the start of the journey for The World Before Her. After showings all over the world, Nisha wanted the film shown in India. Encountering many obstacles, she started an India Campaign, which included a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to get the film shown in India. (You can donate to the India Campaign here.)

That’s when I got involved, I donated to the Kickstarter campaign and was thrilled when they met — and exceeded — their goal. And then I went to a fundraising screening for the film and participated in a Skype interview with Nisha, who is from Toronto, but currently based in Mumbai. Nisha talked about the making of the film and her passion and integrity came through loud and clear. She is a thoughtful, dedicated documentary filmmaker and I became an instant fan.

The film opened in India on June 6, 2014, and my hope is that many people see it, talk about it, write about it, and that it helps affect change. Please, if you are reading this, share the website, Facebook page, Twitter  and YouTube channel for it, and get people watching and talking about it. It’s films like this one that will help attitudes in India change and give millions of girls and women a better life.

The World Before Her India trailer

The Backward Class

The other excellent India-related film I saw recently was The Backward Class. It won the Audience Favourite Award at HotDocs 2014, and I was there for the final screening. This film was made by Madeleine Grant, a Canadian filmmaker who travelled in India and volunteered at Shanti Bhavan, a very special school near Bangalore for Dalit children from poor families. Shanti Bhavan is unique in that it provides excellent quality education to a small, select group of children who would otherwise get little to no education at all. The film follows the first 12 students — six boys and six girls — to graduate from Shanti Bhavan as they study for the Indian School Certificate exams, which will enable them to pursue higher education.

It’s a story filled with drama and tension as the students face tremendous pressure to succeed from all sides. They are tasked with making history, proving the school is viable and worthwhile and hoping to be able to someday support their families, and raise them up, by eventually landing well paying jobs. While the sub-themes of the film are important social causes including the deeply entrenched caste system, poverty and a complete lack of opportunities for underprivileged children, the reason this film succeeds is the against-all-odds story and the disarming charm of the students themselves.

The Backward Class, India, women, girls, Dalit, documentary, film

The brave, hard working students in The Backward Class.

The Backward Class follows several of the students in particular, including charismatic Mala and hard-working Vijay. Both were actually in Toronto for the film’s premiere at Hot Docs, and I sat down with Madeleine and Vijay after a screening and talked to them about the making of the film, and how the process was both a labour of love and an organic unfolding. Madeleine and a small crew shot for several months in India over the course of several years at Shanti Bhavan, where she had previously volunteered as a teacher. “I didn’t know how it would turn out,” Madeleine said. “It was in the editing process that the story came into focus.”


The film reveals the struggles the students face, and even takes us into their very modest family homes. And it also shows the pressures the dedicated and passionate school founders and teachers are under to raise funds for the school and to deliver on their promise of a better life for the students.

You really get the sense they are all in this together, and by the end of the film, you are cheering them along, caught up in the drama of their fight to succeed. In fact, this is one of the reasons it one the Audience Favourite prize, no doubt. The majority of the students made First Class, went on to top-quality universities and are now working at global firms. Vijay is at Goldman Sachs in Bangalore, Mala is at Ernst and Young.

Madeleine told me she really enjoyed travelling around India, and loved living and volunteering at Shanti Bhavan. Like me, she is aware that so many of the international stories about India are negative, and she wanted to make a positive and hopeful film. She more than succeeded.

This warm-hearted and inspiring film shows what can be done, how even age-old systems can change, and what happens when you believe in someone and give them a chance. It’s a very inspiring film and I totally recommend watching it if you get the chance. If you want to  support Shanti Bhavan, check out their website for volunteer or other support opportunities at Shanti Bhavan Childen’s Project.


Behind the Scenes of Toronto’s CN Tower

June 10, 2014 by  



CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

I SEE THE CN TOWER virtually every day, as it rises above my hometown, Toronto, like a giant, concrete tree trunk dominating a forest of glass shrubs. But it’s been many years since I felt any excitement about it, and many years since I’d been up to the top. You get used to things, even if one of those things is — or was — the world’s tallest structure. The CN Tower (553.3 metres) held the record for world’s tallest freestanding structure for 32 years, from when it was built in 1976 until it was eclipsed by the Burj Khalifa (829.8 metres) in Dubai in 2007.

And though it has lost its crown as tallest, still, more than 1.5 million people visit the CN Tower every year. There must be something special about it, I reasoned, reminding myself that many visitors to Toronto didn’t grow up in the shadow of a super structure. So I traveled the short distance by streetcar to spend an afternoon and evening there with an open mind and a spirit of adventure. And I discovered that, yes, there are three very good reasons to visit the CN Tower — aside from it’s iconic status of course.

Explore travel in Canada

When I was there, I chatted with several visitors from India, including a family of four from Malabar Hill, Mumbai. I asked them why they were visiting the CN Tower and they told me that, after Niagara Falls, it’s the place they most wanted to see in Ontario. “We don’t have any tall towers in India,” daughter Sangita, 14, said. Her mother added, “You just have to see it.”

So here are my reasons why you just have to see it and below that are some fun facts.

Reason for visiting the CN Tower #3: To be on top of the world

CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

View of the Toronto skyscrapers from the CN Tower.

Simply going up to one of the viewing decks is well worth the price of admission. There are other things to do at the CN Tower, but let’s face it, riding a glass-enclosed elevator 346 metres up to the LookOut, or 447 metres to the SkyPod, is THE thing to do. It’s exciting to be that far up, way above all of Toronto’s skyscrapers.

Both the viewing platforms give you the opportunity for a 360 view of Toronto and Lake Ontario. From the higher SkyPod, you can see up to 160 kilometres on a clear day — all the way to Niagara Falls. Near the base is the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, on the Toronto Island. My favourite thing to do was watch the planes take off and land — from way above them.

CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

The Toronto Island at dusk, as seen from the CN Tower.

I also had fun pushing my fear of heights to the limit by walking out on to the Outdoor SkyTerrace (one level below the LookOut) and standing on the Glass Floor. I didn’t hesitate to go outside, but the Glass Floor was a bit much, I admit it. Of course, there’s really no reason to be afraid, it’s absolutely safe — apparently it can withstand the weight of 14 hippos — but looking straight down 342 metres is a bit … unusual … to say the least.

Originally, the CN Tower was intended to be a just a transmission tower, but the designers and builders started to dream big. They added elevators, viewing platforms, restaurants, shops, activities — and made it into one of Canada’s top tourist attractions. You can read all about this history, and the building of it, here.

Reason for visiting the CN Tower #2: To walk on the edge

CN Tower, Edgewalk, Toronto

Shivya Nath doing The EdgeWalk high above Toronto.

The newest attraction at the CN Tower is also, by far, the most spectacular. The EdgeWalk will test your nerves like few other tourist activities on the planet. It’s the highest outdoor walk in the world at 356 metres and was even given a Guinness World Book of Records award.

Luckily for me, the day I was there, the weather wasn’t cooperating but here’s what Shivya Nath said about stepping out onto the very narrow platform:

“I can feel the breeze caressing my face and blowing through my hair as I lean my body back, 1168 feet above Toronto! My mind says I should trust my harness and let go off the rope I’m clutching, but my heart may be thinking otherwise in its rapid beats. Let go of those hands, our walker calls out. And slowly, I do. Only the front part of my feet are in contact with solid ground now, the rest of me floats in the air. I close my eyes for just a second, and feel like I’m flying far far above the earth.”

If you want to know how people feel about being strapped into a harness and walking on the edge of a narrow platform way above the Toronto skyline, check out the 200 or so reviews on TripAdvisor. Almost every single reviewer writes, “exhilarating,” or “awesome!” or “best buzz ever.” So, if you’ve got the nerve, I would say this is a must-do on your visit to the CN Tower during the months it’s open (approximately April to October, weather permitting). One ticket price gives you a 1.5 hour experience that includes training, a 30-minute EdgeWalk, a video clip, plus access to all the other CN Tower attractions.

You can find out everything you need to know about the EdgeWalk here, on the website, including who’s eligible to do it and what you need to know.

Reason for visiting the CN Tower #1: Food with  view

CN Tower, 360 Restaurant, fine dining, Toronto

The luxurious 360 Restaurant at the CN Tower.

The view from the SkyPod is superb and the EdgeWalk is a truly thrilling activity, but eating dinner at the 360 Restaurant with friends or family is my top reason to visit the CN Tower. I met my friends Parmjit Parmar and Priya Chopra at the 360 Restaurant for dinner just before dusk. We settled into our window seats and immediately felt the magic. The view of the city, 351 metres below, the attentive servers, the fresh, tasty food, and of course our lively conversation combined to make for a very special evening.

CN Tower, Toronto, Canada, 360 Restaurant

Parmjit Parmar and Priya Chopra at the 360 Restaurant.

The 360 Restaurant revolves, which adds to the fun and the drama of the unfolding scenery. It takes about 72 minutes to make a complete rotation and we stayed for three, watching the sky darken and the city become a mass of twinkling lights.

My friend Parm is a freelance travel and food writer and Priya is a freelance journalist and together, we tried a number of the signature dishes on the menu. My favourites dish was a radicchio salad with pear, figs and blue cheese. But I also loved my dessert, Maple Three Ways, which offered up small portions of maple cheesecake, maple crème brûlée and maple-pecan tart with ice cream. Yummm, Canadian-themed and so delicious.

The prix fixe menus gives diners a wide variety of choices, including seafood options and a complete vegetarian feast – an abundance of inspired and truly delicious choices for vegetarians. Regional Canadian ingredients and market fresh cuisine is the specialty of chef Peter George, who runs a “scratch kitchen” (he makes everything from scratch, including his own broth). Apparently, fishermen call him literally from their boats to find out what he wants!

food, dessert, 360 Restaurant, CN Tower, Toronto, Canada

As we were happily enjoying our dinner-with-a-view, I asked Parm and Priya if they thought the CN Tower and 360 Restaurant would appeal to visitors from India. “Oh yes, Indians would love dinner here,” Parm said. “It’s a very special-occasion kind of place. They would love the luxury atmosphere and sense of a celebratory evening in a really special restaurant.”

I had to agree. The 360 Restaurant is one of Toronto’s top fine dining options. This place has it all. Elegant dining room decor, first-class food, professional service and the best ambience in the city. The revolving view, plus all the other amenities, makes dining at the 360 Restaurant a truly special event. Celebrities and dignitaries regularly dine here, and locals come to celebrate personal occasions and holidays like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.

If you go out for one special dinner in Toronto, my advice is to make a reservation, get dressed up and go to the 360 Restaurant. Your dinner includes access to the LookOut, complimentary coat check and use of a specially designated elevator to whisk you up.

CN Tower fun facts

  • At 553.33 m (1,815ft, 5 inches) the CN Tower held the record as the tallest building, tower, freestanding structure for over three decades. It remains the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.
  • In 1995 the CN Tower was designated a Wonder of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • Lightning strikes the CN Tower an average of 75 times per year. Long copper strips, running down the CN Tower to massive grounding rods buried below ground level ensure that each lightning strike safely finds its way to ground.
  • The upper reaches of the CN Tower are built to withstand turbulent winds with a wind resistance factor of up to 418 km/h.
  • The CN Tower was built with the strength and flexibility to withstand an earthquake of 8.5 on the Richter scale.

Guinness World Records over the years include:

  • World’s Tallest Self Supporting Building and Free-standing Structure on land, excluding guyed masts (1974-2009)
  • World’s Tallest Tower (1974-2010)
  • World’s Highest Wine Cellar (2006-present)
  • World’s Highest Outdoor Walk on a Building (2011 – present)


Diving into Canada’s History & Culture

May 25, 2014 by  


Totem poles, Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa, Quebec, Canada

Totem Poles. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of History.

Canadian Museum of History: Soaring totem poles, a freedom fighter’s jacket & Canada’s most artful building

THE FIRST MARVELLOUS thing I saw upon entering the Canadian Museum of History was a huge totem pole from the west coast of Canada. Carved with fantastic birds and animals, I imagined walking through the gigantic raven’s beak that was once used as a door. According to Native spirituality, entering a building through the mouth of a raven allowed one to take on the power of the mighty bird.

While no longer used this way, the totem pole sits majestically in the Great Hall and towers over the busy museum, a “portal to transformation.” Across from it are floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase the nation’s stately Parliament Buildings across the river and the effect is stunning — possibly the most “Canadian” view you will ever see.

CMH ext 1

A museum design inspired by the geography of Canada

The most striking aspects of the Canadian Museum of History are its position and design. Designed by Métis-Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal in 1989, the unique architecture highlights Canada’s geological past with curved shapes alluding to retreating glaciers.

The Canadian Museum of History is one of most dramatic buildings in Canada. The cream-coloured limestone on the river-facing side mirrors Parliament Hill and the plateau on which some of Canada’s most regal buildings sit, including the Canadian Parliament Buildings, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel and the National Gallery of Canada. The Museum completes the classic Ottawa view, with the wild Ottawa River and Quebec’s shoreline in the background. This is Canada’s most powerful real estate.

This sweeping vista alone is worth the price of admission, and will immerse you in the Canadian experience — fittingly, just a short trip from the heart of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. A small city set on a picturesque location where the Ottawa River meets the Rideau Canal, Ottawa is home to many fine buildings, parks, art works, vistas and landscapes. But the Canadian Museum of History is one of the most special places you can visit in this city of sites and attractions. And to be here during the Canadian Tulip Festival in May adds a splash of colour and a dash of history. (Read about the historical legacy the Tulip Festival honours here.)

Tulips and Parliament Building Ottawa, Canada

Tulips and Parliament Building courtesy lezumbalaberenjena via Compfight.

An engaging way to discover “all things Canadian”

The Museum is a noted Canadian Signature Experience because it captures the power of both the Canadian past and present, held together in an artfully designed moment. While the Museum houses an enormous array of art and artifacts that explore and explain Canadian history, it also reflects the present. This is no dusty museum of olden days; it will entertain, educate and engage you about “all things Canadian” and is a must-stop for foreign visitors.

Your tour begins in the Great Hall. It is steeped in Canadian wilderness motifs where even the marble on the floor was designed to reflect tidal changes. Here you come face-to-face with astonishing artwork, which only begins with the magnificent totem pole.

Louis Riel, Totem poles, Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa, Quebec, Canada

Louis Riel’s jacket. Photo Gary Blundell.

In the First Nations Hall of history you are treated to such compelling objects as the buckskin coat once worn by Canada’s most famous freedom fighter, Louis Riel. Riel is a legend in Canada, a Métis leader considered to be the founder of the province of Manitoba and a powerful opponent of British colonialism. As kids in Canada, we all worshipped Riel and his revolutionary zeal, so I was a bit star-struck by this piece of clothing. For Indian visitors, it would be a bit like seeing Mangal Pandey’s uniform.

The displays include both historical and modern items, such as the jerseys of Aboriginal hockey players in the National Hockey League. I was very pleased to see contemporary artists from my own generation, such as playwright Thomson Highway celebrated — an example of how the museum highlights the First Nations continuing contributions to Canadian culture.

Three contemporary Native Canadian art pieces stand out: Bill Reid’s plaster version of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, Alex Janvier’s Morning Star and Mary Anne Barkhouse’s ‘namaxsala. They are not only beautifully made, they also tell stories that blend historic fact and mythology. Once again tales of transformation abound.

Totem poles, Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa, Quebec, Canada

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of History.

Contemporary Native Canadian artwork at its best

Reid’s plaster version of a canoe containing 13 Haida spirits is one of the most famous works of Aboriginal art in Canada. In fact, it adorned the Canadian $20 bank note until recently. The original is in Washington, D.C. The Spirit of Haida Gwaii captures the mythologies of First Nations people traveling through time and place, towards an uncertain future, but with their identities in tact. It’s hopeful, playful and mindful.

Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa, Quebec, CanadaJanvier’s Morning Star adorns a cathedral ceiling and is every bit as intricate as the European medieval masters who influenced the piece. Gorgeously painted with bright colours, it shows the importance of the morning star First Nations’ people used to navigate their nomadic existence.

Sitting quietly and poignantly outside the museum, and pointed toward our nation’s seat of government, is the lovely ‘namaxsala by Mary Anne Barkhouse. The piece evokes a tale told to the artist by her grandfather, about an ancestor who rescued a wolf from drowning by offering it refuge in his boat. It illustrates the importance of animals to First Nations’ people.

Each of these art works reflects people who have struggled to maintain their identities in a changing world. Their stories are not only the myths that sustain them but also work as universal truths any of us can understand and relate to.

The Canadian Museum of History offers visitors something far more unique than just a repository for our nation’s mementos and objects of significance. Tales are told through the visual medium of art and based on ancient mythologies. As relevant today as they were many years ago, these stories place us all on a journey of struggle, transformation and hope.

The Canadian Museum of History is a wonderful place, important and inspiring and an international destination in its own right. It is also located a short trip from the heart of Ottawa and surrounded by other great places to visit. After your tour, walk across the Royal Alexandra Interprovincial Bridge to visit the National Gallery of Canada. Stroll through the popular Bytown Market, have brunch or tea at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier and spend some time taking in the majestic Canadian Parliament Buildings. By the end of your day, you will have increased your understanding of the history of Canada and the spirit of Canadian culture.

Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa, Quebec, Canada

Birch bark canoe and early Canadian settler’s hut. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of History.


Film Preview: Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox

May 20, 2014 by  


The Lunchbox, Dabbawallas, Dabbah Wallahs, Bombay, Mumbai, India, film

The city of Mumbai stars in charming new film

MUMBAI IS ONE of the world’s great cities, celebrated in movies, books and myth. There is so much lore associated with the city, especially if you are a long-time Indophile who longed for years to see the iconic sites like Gateway of India, the Queen’s Necklace, Elephanta Island, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the Dhobi Ghats and the Dabbah Wallahs.

On my first trip to Mumbai (Bombay), I stayed with a friend in Bandra and it was a few days before I ventured into the city by myself. I took the train — itself an icon of the city — from Bandra Station to the final terminus for the western line, Churchgate Station. Leaving the station I was amply rewarded for my bravery by coming across a score of Dabbah Wallahs sorting their tiffin containers (otherwise known as lunch boxes) for delivery.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawalla at work in Mumbai

The Dabbah Wallahs are one of Mumbai’s institutions, a simple yet elaborate system of lunch delivery, from housewives in the suburbs to their husbands working in the city centre offices. Clad in white uniforms and peaked caps, these men are often illiterate. Yet the Dabbah Wallahs are famous for their unique system of signs and symbols and unerring accuracy. They have even been studied by Harvard Business School and awarded an ISO certification for accuracy.

It was fascinating to watch the men quickly re-assemble the tiffin containers on metal racks, which they carry on carts, strapped to bicycles or even on their heads. There is something charming about all that robust energy being carried on every day in a jam-packed city that pulsate with life — all so that husbands can eat home-cooked food for lunch.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawallas of Mumbai

I took as many photos as I dared, without being too intrusive and annoying, and walked behind them some ways down the street. I was fascinated by this glimpse of Mumbai’s culture and felt lucky to have chanced upon them.

It is against this backdrop of the daily tiffin delivery that The Lunchbox is set. It’s a film about the one lunch box in a million that Harvard University says goes astray.

The Lunchbox is a film that works on every level. It is sweet without being cloying, sentimental yet realistic. The acting is superb, especially by Irfan Khan, who plays Saajan, a lonely widower nearing a joyless retirement when the errant lunch box lands on his desk.

Much to his surprise, instead of the usual lacklustre meal he gets delivered from a local restaurant, he opens the lunchbox to a rich and fragrant feast, cooked with hope and longing by Ila (Nimrat Kaur).

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawallas of Mumbai

Ila is a middle-class housewife who is trying to entice her husband with food cooked each day with the help of an unseen “aunty” upstairs. Spices, chilies and good advice are dispensed from above while Ila tries to awaken her husband’s interest in her once more.

A relationship develops as Ila and Saajan send each other notes tucked into the tiffin container. But this is no mere romance film, there is much more to it as the characters reveal their vulnerabilities and try to find meaning in a frenetic, modern and increasingly alienating city. Profound themes such as fate, existential angst and making difficult choices that go against societal expectations are examined.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawalla in Mumbai

The city of Mumbai itself is also put under the spotlight. Like Tokyo in Lost in Translation, Mumbai is a major character in The Lunchbox. The crowded trains, the hard-working dabbah-wallahs, the monsoon rains that drench the city streets — Mumbai is portrayed as an ever-present reality against which its residents hopes and dreams are realized, or not.

Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Slumdog Millionaire, The Lunchbox is a co-production set in India — and about India — that will appeal to westerners. If you can’t get to Mumbai, watch The Lunchbox and soak up some of the atmosphere and culture of the city.

Dabbawalla, Dabbah Wallah, Mumbai, Bombay, India, food, tiffin

Dabbawallas outside Churchgate Train Station, Mumbai


Welcome to that Famous Ice Hotel You’ve All Heard About!

May 12, 2014 by  


Ice Hotel, Hotel de Glace, Quebec, Canada

How to visit the Ice Hotel in Quebec City … without getting cold

CAN YOU IMAGINE a hotel made completely of ice and snow? No? I couldn’t either. And that’s the reason I wanted to go the Ice Hotel in Quebec, Canada. I wanted to experience it for myself. What I discovered was beyond my imagination. If you are reading this on a sweltering hot, sunny day … come along with me and cool down.

The Ice Hotel — known in French as Hotel de Glace — really is a hotel made almost entirely of ice and snow. But it’s also much more. It’s an inspired meeting of art and nature, a scene of crystallized beauty in a serene Canadian forest, and a portal into Nordic myth.

“Magical is part of our philosophy,” my Ice Hotel guide, Julie Richard, told me.

I went on a perfect weekend in March, when everything in Quebec was carpeted with a thick layer of fresh white snow, and it was not too cold to enjoy being outdoors for a couple of hours (if you are suitably dressed in a parka and lined boots).

The Ice Hotel is only open in the cold winter months. It is created from largely man-made snow in a real Canadian forest near Quebec City, the capital of the province of Quebec. This province is known for being historical, French and, in winter, cold. The cold keeps the hotel from melting from January until March, and also provides a picturesque snow scene setting. However, you don’t have to actually get cold to experience the beauty and magic of the ice hotel.

A castle, cafes and croissants

Here’s what I did and what I recommend that you do, too, to enjoy a magnificent weekend experiencing the beauty of Canada in comfort and luxury. I took the VIA Rail train from Toronto to Quebec City. It’s about a nine-hour train ride, with a short stopover in Montreal (just long enough to buy some of their famous bagels).

VIA Rail Train from Toronto to Quebec

This is not like a nine-hour train journey in other countries. VIA Rail trains are the ultimate in comfort, and business class is truly luxurious. Thickly padded seats, ample leg room, free WiFi and non-stop service from attentive and friendly staff regrettably shortened the journey. Snacks, full-course lunches and dinners, tea, coffee, drinks … it virtually never stops rolling down the centre aisle. You just have to sit back and watch the Canadian landscape flow past through huge picture windows.

When I arrived in Quebec City, it was a five-minute taxi ride from the train station to the 100-year-old Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. This hotel is one of the most magnificent in Canada, inspired by the medieval castles and regal chateaus of Europe and ideally located on a bluff overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River and Vieux-Quebec (Old Quebec). From here, you can easily walk to many fine restaurants, bakeries and cafes offering French pastries, chic shops selling fashion and art and areas of historical interest.

Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City, Canada

Fairmont Chateau Frontenac overlooking Vieux-Quebec

Like an enormous fairy tale castle, the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac towers over Vieux-Quebec.

Quebec City in winter is a wonderland. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, North America’s oldest settlement and the only fortified city north of Mexico. The upper and lower towns are a warren of narrow streets and old stone buildings, some dating back to the 17th century and all beautifully preserved and housing cafes, galleries, fine restaurants and shops. A fine silting of snow is like a garnish on the European atmosphere.

Where frozen art warms the soul

Ice Hotel, Hotel de Glace, Quebec, Canada

The Tibet Suite at the Ice Hotel

Quebec’s Ice Hotel is about 14 years old, and was inspired by the original Ice Hotel in Sweden. Each year they have to re-make it of course, and each year it gets bigger and more ornate. In 2014, there were 44 rooms, plus the Ice Bar, Ice Cafe, chapel, children’s slide, spa and a couple of heated, wood buildings (the reception building and the change room and washrooms for overnight guests). Also, each year there’s a different them to the ice and snow carvings that decorate the hotel and the suites. I was very lucky to go during the winter of 2014, as the theme was Myths and Legends from Around the World.

There was a suite decorated with Easter Island statues, another with the Greek flying horse Pegasus, and one richly carved with images from Lhasa. But the one that made my eyes pop and my soul stir was called Le Combat de Durga.

Durga 5

When I entered the Le Combat de Durga suite through a door cut into the snow, I felt transported into a shadowy world of fire and ice. Inside, the large room was lit by a soft yellow spotlight and my eyes took a minute to adjust. I was struck immediately by the large, intricately carved figure of Durga, riding her lion and slaying the demon Mahishasura.  The entire relief was carved into the hard-packed snow wall of the room. In fact the entire room was made of snow and most of the furniture, except the fireplace, made of ice.

The fireplace does not actually heat the room, of course; it just adds drama and coziness to the atmosphere. And if there’s one thing that the Ice Hotel has plenty of, it’s atmosphere. Even the staff who work there never tire of the atmosphere, nor the way the hotel changes during the season, and in different lights and different weather.

“It’s alive, it has a cycle,” my guide Julie says. “The hotel is always changing, and I am always seeing new things, every time I come to work. At night it is truly mystical, and so quiet. There is no sound at all.”

Ice Hotel, Hotel de Glace, Quebec, Canada

A polar themed suite at the Ice Hotel

Julie tells me that people are surprised and delighted by the hotel. “At first, they’re not sure how to walk. And they notice things, like the sweet smell of snow, they never noticed before.” During my tour, I gained an immense admiration for the many artists, crafts people and specialists who built the Ice Hotel. Julie told me that it took 45 people six weeks to construct, and used 25 tonnes of snow and 500 tonnes of ice. The builders included 15 snow specialists and 15 ice specialists, and some came from as far away as Peru to work on it. And it all started because owner Jacques Desbois began building igloos for his kids.

Near the end of my tour, Julie and I stopped in the Ice Bar to redeem my drink coupon and I had a shot of vodka and maple cider in an ice glass that I made myself. There were several groups of people obviously enjoying the atmosphere, and even relaxing around a fire. The drink warmed me up so much that I had to open my parka, and I could imagine spending the night. Soaking in one of the outdoor hot tubs to get warm, staring up above the evergreen trees to the sparkling clear night sky, and then bundling down into a thick sleeping bag on a mattress that separates you from the ice bed. I could imagine the deep quiet, all sound muffled by the snow, not even the buzz of electricity.

Ice Hotel, Hotel de Glace, Quebec, Canada

Ice Hotel at night, photo courtesy Ice Hotel.

To get to the Ice Hotel and back, take a shuttle bus, there are two daily that leave from the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. It’s a drive of about 20 minutes, into the country outside Quebec City. You can actually stay overnight at the Ice Hotel, but most people report getting cold. I recommend a morning or afternoon tour; there are about four to choose from.

Staying overnight is definitely an experience I want to try, but on this visit I was whisked back to my warm and lovely room at the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, where I sat sipping a warm tea and watching the mesmerizing movements of ice on the St. Lawrence River.

Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, Quebec, Canada

The view from my room at the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac

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