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Essay

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Friendships & Farewells

John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the third part of his travelogue through this land of mystic pagodas

Bagan. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Our new guide, Lyme, took up the slack where Swan had left off. The boat drifted away from the shore out into the open waters as Peter and I settled in for a two-hour ride downriver, heading south to the next city on our itinerary called Bagan. The guide Lyme struggled to talk to us over the loud noise of the boat’s engine; but eventually gave up when he realised that he was actually losing his voice. There would be time enough to get to know each other over the next few days of travel. So, I settled in to enjoy the afternoon’s leisurely ride downriver, with the countryside of Burma spread out on either side of the river with its exotic landscape of trees and stupas and golden tipped pagodas that specked the countryside as far as the eye could see. One could never hope for a more peaceful setting.

The next morning, having slept contentedly in the Sincere Smile Hotel, a comfortable, unpretentious three-star hotel that was perfectly adequate to our needs, Lyme met us punctually in the hotel lobby after we finished our sumptuous buffet breakfast. “Pagoda hopping for today,” Lyme joked, a handsome young man who spoke fluent English with an air of an impish, street-taking cavalier. Where and how he was able to pick up such fluency, like a New York street urchin, I would never know. “But not to worry, you will be taken through the grounds of a temple at the end of day in a horse-drawn cart. That should loosen up your bones,” he said to me affectionately at me as he took my arm.

Shwegizon Pagoda. Courtesy: John Herlihy

First stop along the way was the Shwezigon Pagoda, a prototype of Burmese stupas, that consisted of a gold-leafed circular stupa surrounded by smaller temples and shrines, gleaming the sheer essence of gold in the sunlight. Built amazingly enough at the end of the 11th century, this pagoda has especial religious significance because it is said to enshrine a bone and tooth of Gautama Buddha.

From there, Lyme took us to the Manuha Temple, also built in the late 11th century by the captive Mon King Manuha and one of the oldest temples outside of Bagan. The king had colossal Buddha images built at Myinpagan while he was held in captivity. Stricken with remorse, according to the Glass Palace Chronicle, he built a colossal Buddha with legs crossed, and also a dying Buddha, saying: “Whithersoever I migrate in samsara, may I never be conquered by another.” As I visited these pagodas and temples and heard the stories about these kings from our dutiful guide Lyme, I couldn’t help but marvel at the rich and enduring events that took place in the past and the legacy that these people of ancient times left behind for us twenty-first century travelers. Nearly a millennium into their future, we still wander about to gaze upon the wonders they created.

The short, horse drawn cart ride that we were promised turned out to be an ordeal as we were taken through a pot-marked and rutted pathway through the landscape of these gleaming golden temples. Peter mounted the cart up front with the driver, but the guide Lyme and I were tucked into the narrow confines of the open carriage on the back seat. As the horse, trotted along, I was tossed and turned in every direction, holding on for dear life so as not to slip down out of the back of the carriage. It made for a charming picture, but was a most uncomfortable experience, bone-rattling indeed. We also saw the Myingaba Gu Byaukgyi temple, known for its spectacular mural paintings on the walls and ceilings, a true marvel to behold considering the ancient time when they were created. Another spectacular day ended on a cliff at the end of the carriage ride overlooking the grand Ayeyarwaddy, Myanmar’s largest river that now in the dry season as half the size of itself with elaborate sandbars, but still a magnificent sight as its waters cut through the exotic landscape speckled with gleaming pagodas in the twilight.

The next morning, expectant of another day of adventure, I told Lyme, our faithful guide and newly found brother, that we needed to change money. Peter and I exchanged turns changing money to share, changing $50 first one of us that we would spend for a few days, and then another $50 from the other. An odd situation did arise when it came to the bills. Peter was very proud of his dollars (in Germany where he lives, he usually deals in euros), but when it came to changing the money into Burmese kyat, they wouldn’t accept his bills. “Why not?” Peter shouted in outrage as he clutched his precious dollars.

Peter must have been a formidable sight to these diminutive and demur peoples as he towered over them with his close-cropped hair and colossal bulk. We came to learn that the Burmese wanted (and would exchange) only crisp new bills and held firm on this point as they smiled at us sweetly. Having lived abroad for many years and travelled extensively to such places, I quickly understood that they would not budge on this point and that we would have to scramble to find suitable bills among our stashes. Fortunately, I was able to find a few suitable bills that managed to service our needs for the rest of the trip down to Yangon, the former capital known until recently as Rangoon.

The stately and knowledgeable Swan was now a distant memory as the impish and talkative Lyme saw to our every need. We had grown accustomed to his presence with us as we travelled along, like a newfound brother we didn’t know existed. There is no doubt that travelling brings people closer together than would otherwise be experienced. On that particular morning, Peter and I were sitting in the back seat of the car, while Lyme sat up front as we waited for the driver to take care of some business. Like all people these days, he fiddled a while with his phone, searching, surfing, and more searching, for what I know not. Then he put the phone down. Lyme began chit chatting about himself, telling us a little about his experiences as a guide. Upon questioning, it wasn’t long before he opened up and confessed that he had a travel company that he was managing with a partner. They had gotten involved in some kind of student exchange program, he told us dreamily; they had contracts with some high schools in European countries and Lyme’s company facilitated their entry into Burma where he served as their guide. “It was a thriving business,” he told us, “Until my partner cheated on me and ran away with $10,000. I couldn’t pay the bills and couldn’t cover the costs of the hotels and other things.” How many times have I heard that story from friends of mine and others who were cheated somehow by their ‘friends’.

I sat there in the back seat feeling moody; but continued to listen to Lyme as he told us about his family. He came from a big family, and he was the last in line of many children. All of his siblings were married with children of their own. He was the only single son left to take care of his father when he suddenly came down with a serious illness. “My father was my responsibility, that’s our tradition here in Myanmar, as the only son still left at home.” He went on to explain that his father was getting weaker and weaker. Lyme was out on a tour with some high school kids away from home and while he was gone one of those nights, his father had passed away.

As he told us the story, he began to quietly sob. Peter and I sat there stunned as we sat listening to Lyme’s sad tale. He blamed himself apparently for his father death and said that if he had been with him, and had taken better care of him, he would still be alive. “I can never forgive myself,” he told us from the front seat of the car. He continued to sob now, his story ended, and I made a few sympathetic remarks hoping to console him. “You don’t have to forgive yourself, Lyme,” I told him. “I am sure your father looks down upon you now as the faithful son that you always were.”

About a minute of silence passed that morning in the car as we waited for the driver to return. Lyme shook himself like a bird refreshing his feathers as the driver approached the car. “Let’s go,” he said, as if wishing to snap out of it. “We have a full day ahead of us.” Indeed, I thought to myself. We never know the sorrows that other people carry around with them, nor do we know the courage that they bring to bear in meeting life’s moments with the dignity they deserve. I was moved in the way Lyme shared his story with us and his willingness to show the extent of his emotions as well, as an extension, a gift in fact, of a special trust among strangers.

As it happened, I had my own mountain to climb later that day. We headed further south on our way to Mt Popa, an extinct volcano located in Central Myanmar southeast of Bagan. Down through history, it was known as a pilgrimage site with numerous Nat temples and relic sites atop the mountain. Southwest of Mount Popa lies Taung Kalat or pedestal hill that rises 660 meters into the sky. A monastery lies atop of the mountain pedestal that can be reach only by climbing the nearly 800 steps. “Are you up to the task,” Lyme asked, and Peter answered the question for me, “Of course he is, John is like the Duracell battery,” he quipped. I recalled the over 200 steps I had to climb with Peter to reach the Heidelberg Castle several summers earlier, so the thought of nearly 800 steps or nearly 4 times the climb seemed daunting indeed.

Monastery on top of the Mountain. Courtesy: John herlihy

The passageway lead through the base of the cliff where an elaborate marketplace sold their wares to the locals and the tourists alike. Many of the tourists were locals from other parts of Myanmar. The crowds on pilgrimage were vast and the steps making their sinuous way up the mountainside were narrow and deep; but fortunately, there were railings to cling to along the side of the passageway that aided in my ascent. We were an unlikely threesome, Peter, the guide and myself taking up the rear. The ever-present monkeys along the mountainside tried to intrude into our midst looking for food. We had been warned not to let down our guard with these rude, insinuating creatures who like to steal things and make their great escape. Smart phones were their specialty. “Is that red powder or paint smeared upon their asses,” Peter asked naively. “No, Peter,” I chided him. “That is completely natural.” “It can’t be,” he insisted. “Oh, but it is,” I confirmed. Upon reaching the top, where the monastery lay amid the rocky crags, we were treated to yet another fabulous view of the surrounding countryside awash in the clarity of the harsh winter light, clear to the horizon.

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After making our way back down to Earth from the heights of the hilltop monastery with its clear view to Bagan, we now had a 7 to 8 hours drive through the countryside heading further south to a city called Kalaw, in the Shan State of Myanmar. When we finally arrived at the hotel after the long trek on the windy roads, we were tucked safely into our hotel, called the Royal Inle Hotel, by our faithful guide Lyme. Goodbyes are never easy, particularly when you know you will never see that person again, and we had come to know and value the kind-hearted Lyme. He will always hold a special place in my heart in the way he extended his friendship and trust by giving the true sentiments of his heart away in the telling of his tale of sorrow and woe. Lyme embraced me warmly, like a son to a grandfather, and then he was gone, another gentle breeze to be lost in the wind.

Courtesy: John Herlihy

Click here to read Part one of Once Upon a Time in Burma

Click here to read Part two of Once Upon a Time in Burma

John Herlihy, travel writer and poet, has published two collections of travel essays, Journeys with Soul and his more recent Distant Islands and Sealight, available at online booksellers and Amazon.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Babies and Buddhas

John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue through this land of mystic Buddhas

My friend Peter had slept poorly, the reason being that he had spent much of the night visiting the inner sanctum of the toilet. Alas, the revenge of the spices from last night’s adventure was finally exacting its heavy toll. While I remained free of any stomach trouble, poor Peter had fallen victim to the age-old trials and tribulations of those with no experience with the culinary delights of Asia. We had gone to “the best restaurant in town” according to our Google advisory and indeed, it had turned out to meet our expectations when compared to the mosquito-infested nightmare that Peter had experienced the night before; the swarms of mosquitoes hadn’t condescended to touch, much less bite me. For the cost of about $6 or 9,000 kyat (a tidy sum if you live on the local economy), we were wined and dined with an array of fabulous foods.

The restaurant actually employed a system that I quite liked, namely, that the diner ordered a main course, and an array of side dishes was brought to table, including soups, breads and spicy sauces. I ordered lamb casserole in a creamy, curried dahl (lentils) stew baked in a pewter pot that was utterly delicious and Peter followed my lead in figuring out the best selection from local menus letting me order for both of us. The waiter brought on a dazzling array of sides dishes and a delectable soup that we both wolfed down in various gulps, being hungry after the long day’s trek and the far distance of the hotel breakfast. We tasted everything from curried chickpeas to braised eggplant seasoned with garlic, tomatoes and pine nuts. We need more, I thought to myself as Peter and I fought for the meager remains, but there was no need. The waiter quickly refurbished the little bowls with ample tidbits to last a lifetime, much less the evening meal. Peter, of course, had ordered an extra bowl of rice, two bowls in fact, in addition to the one he had. I had warned Peter about the little sauces served up in small dishes that were intended to be added drop by precious drop to the food to enhance the flavor with a hint of hot chilli. But Peter, in his traditional style, put heaping teaspoons into his food as if he would never taste these things again and needed to remember their flavour. I noted he begrudgingly scooped up the last remaining kernels, the fieriest part of the hot pepper, on his plate at the end of the meal. Indeed, now he was recalling their exotic flavours in unexpected ways.

The next day on our busy tour, we were scheduled to visit the Mahagandayon Monastery, but first we made a quick stop at the local market to find a remedy for the gentle giant’s diarrhea and dehydration problem. “Sticky rice,” Swun immediately said when I mentioned the problem to him. These local remedies can be quite effective; I knew from my own past experience on other trips. I had recommended doses of fresh lemon juice that had worked for me; but Peter wasn’t having it. When Swun suggested the sticky rice by saying, “I know just the place where we can get it,” I thought, yes, the perfect solution. Peter trudged along behind at a reduced pace through the hectic market until we found Swan’s contact standing before a large vat of sticky rice, nearly empty at that hour of the morning. The woman dolloped out several heaping spoonfuls of the steaming mass of rice in a plastic bag sealed with an elastic band. Not exactly pharmaceutical splendour, but it promised to do the job. Swun’s smile concurred as I laughed myself content. We returned to the car and insisted that Peter swallow the heaping brew which he gulped down quickly making grimacing faces that would scare the hand-carved gargoyles we saw earlier in some of the temples.

Our first stop was the Mahagandayon Monastery where more than a thousand monks live and study. A large group of tourists had gathered under the morning sun to see hundreds of monks return from their morning trek through the village with their begging bowls seeking food for the main meal of the day. Security police and a few senior monks, curiously chubby looking, created order of the disarray of Chinese tourists of every size, shape and colour behind police barriers, clear of the roadway where the returning monks would be walking. A hush and then a rumble of whispers announced that the monks were approaching down the street from the distance of the nearby village, walking briskly in a single file, holding their begging bowls, now filled or filling up fast with the charity offered to them. People from the sidelines approached with fruits, packages of biscuits, and the like, and even money, a thousand khat here and there which actually represents less than a dollar, but in local terms meant something; and given the size of the crowd could add up to a reasonable hoard. I took note of the soft, youthful faces of the young monks, their heads shaved clear and wearing the traditional orange wrap-around robes that we have become familiar with in Thailand. Some of the monks were very young indeed, children, eyeing the onlookers impishly and seemingly ready for flight. My friend Peter had a clear advantage as his giant stature afforded him the luxury of towering over everyone in sight to have an unimpeded view of the procession of the monks into the monastic enclosure. The monks soon disappeared into the surrounding buildings where they would have their one and only late morning meal of the day.

U Bein teak Bridge. Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

A short, pleasant drive down lush tree-lined streets soon brought Swan, Peter and I to our next destination, the more than 100-year-old U Bein teak bridge, built in 1850, the oldest and longest teak-wood bridge in the world. The 1.2 km bridge spans the Taungthamam Lake near the ancient royal capital not far from Mandalay to an island nearby that could service the local villagers who wanted to get to the mainland across the broad lake to sell their crops. It features 1,086 pillars that stretch out of the water. Though the bridge largely remains intact, there are fears that an increasing number of pillars are becoming dangerously decayed. Damage to these supports have been caused by flooding as well as a fish breeding program introduced into the lake which has caused the water to become stagnant.

Of course, the old kilometer long bridge represented a challenge to Peter who was anxious to “make tracks” across the waters in his traditional swaggering style, leaving nothing behind in the wake of his hurried footsteps but a gentle wind. I also valiantly followed in his footsteps; but soon lost him as he made his way ahead into the thickening crowd. The local Burmese, many of them villagers and many of them in groups of families who were tourists, were making their way across the bridge as they have done for hundreds of years. I was prepared to put up a brave front and make my way across without complaint under the cool winter sun, but as I tripped my way forward across the creaking wooden planks, I became increasingly more uncomfortable. A kind of phobia took hold, as one might experience in confined spaces or riding shaky elevators. The truth was the bridge looked none too stable. The wooden planks were aged, chipped and broken throughout; gaping holes yawned where planks had broken through.

I took note of the fact that the bridge itself was fairly narrow, wide enough for three or four people, but there were no guard rails, just a gaping chasm on either side and a sizeable drop several hundred meters down to the murky waters below. I made my way forward nearly to the halfway point, where I saw Peter up ahead towering over the crowds of people, waiting for me under a make-shift wooden structure with the traditional pointed roof that marked the halfway point. Other elderly people had the same idea as I had; time to rest and take stock. “You go on ahead and make it to the other side,” I told Peter. “You can tell me about it when you come back. I’ll wait for you here.” And my valiant companion was off without further coaxing.

I tucked myself into a shady corner of the narrow bridge, which at that point was extended a little to accommodate the wooden structure marked there as a resting point in the river crossing. It was time to rest, to be alone for a few minutes, to gather myself into my own space and reconstruct the blessings of solitude as the crowds of people made their determined way back and forth across the age-old bridge. It was a cool mid-morning with a gentle breeze under the warming light of the winter sun. At my feet sat a local Burmese woman, with her jet-black hair collected into a wooden hair clip and adorned with a cluster of wildflowers. Her pudgy face held an eternal smile that matched the smile she held in her eyes. At her feet were the goods she was selling to the tourists and other local travelers crossing the bridge, as women have probably done for the last several centuries since the bridge was built. She had a good business for all that, seasoned sticky rice, spicy noodles, and a variety of fruits, all sold for pennies and packed into a little plastic sack and tied with an elastic band for safe keeping. I wished I could understand her chatter; but contended myself with the bird sounds that the Burmese language sounded to me as I listened.

A little boy, probably about one-and-a-half years old, sat at her sandaled feet. He sucked contentedly on a tangerine rind and half dozed with heavy eyelids as if he sat on the fringes of heaven and not on the fold of the wrap-around longyi (the Malays call it sarong famed for its batik cloth) of his young mother. I watched the child as he sat in dreamy splendour without a care in the world as if woken up by the breeze, or perhaps the chatter of the passers-by sounding like river stones. He now looked around as if interested in everything. It wasn’t long before his infant gaze fell upon me, an old man on a journey, lost in his own trance. Children are like cats; one doesn’t like to intrude on their space without alarming them; but leave them to their own devices and they will make their own way. I sat there contentedly; it was enough to rest my weary bones and take in the colour of the local life. I do love children, especially infants, and can sit and watch them for hours, their antics, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their sweet, angelic innocence remind me of another time and another place. I also wonder from where they have come and where they might be going.

When suddenly, the infant’s random glances fell upon me as I sat on the bridge resting. I pretended not to notice, not wishing to interrupt the rhythm or the intensity of his gaze. Indeed, children can come to us uninvited, as if they have known or are wanting to know. They do not bring with them all the excess baggage that we carry around as adults, who seldom look into the eyes of another, and if or when we do, we feel uncomfortable. The child looked at me with intense interest, as if he were remembering something and was still lost in thought. I smiled at him, and he immediately smiled back. I scowled backed him and he immediately scowled back. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. Some inner harmony had struck its chord. The years dissolved and the miles between disappeared as he threw the tangerine rind aside and began to crawl on all fours. His mother was distracted by a sale and was stuffing mango cubes and their sweet juice into a plastic container, selling the pulp for pennies to the taste.

The determined little fellow made his way over as I sat on a low stool. When he reached my legs, he extended his arms as if reaching for the open sky. No doubt, I looked to him like a grand patriarch with my thick mustache and bone-white beard. He soon found his way onto my lap, where he again sat content as if lost in reverie to the surrounding lake and countryside just as I was lost in sweet reverie, so unfamiliar to me, so familiar to him. “Found a friend, did you,” my companion Peter asked with a broad smile. “Children sometimes like me,” I mumbled embarrassed. The mood was broken, the happy child returned to his mother with a longing, backward glance and this is my backward glance to him in the only way a writer knows how, in the love and beauty of words written down on the page in sweet remembrance that will never die.     

We met our guide Swan after breakfast the next morning. Oh yes, a word (or two) should be written about our delightful buffet breakfasts that both Peter and I had come to look forward to. We had established a routine of a solid breakfast, followed by a full day of activity and touring the countryside, but no lunch or snacks of any kind, until evening time, when we took pains to find a nice place for dinner. By now, Peter was well over his stomach trouble, the sticky rice acting effectively as a sealant that put him to rights. We knew he was feeling much better at breakfast the next day. We would rise early, to get the jump on the waves of Chinese tourists that seemed to appear, especially in the breakfast room to lay waste the buffet table like hungry locusts.

I usually went to the egg station as soon as possible to get my order in. “Two eggs,” I whispered timidly, “Over easy,” I said, showing with an upside-down wave of the hand what I wanted, and then sliced down dramatically, “and cut the yoke.” The last thing I wanted were runny, undercooked eggs. The eggs were made in buttered splendor – they actually tasted like real eggs – and not the tasteless fare that we usually get in most modern metropolises. I skipped over with my plate of eggs to another table to pick up my freshly made toasted brown bread awash in melted cheese and butter.

“That should take care of me for the day,” I thought happily, when suddenly I heard a booming voice from the egg station. “Six eggs, please,” Peter cried, holding up a handful of fingers, plus one, to make sure the cook knew how many he meant. He returned to our table with a stack of untoasted bread to wash down the eggs in great gulps. Not to be outdone, I tiptoed back to the cooking station and asked for a crepe. I had seen the cook making a feather-light and thin pancake served up with Burmese honey and fresh cream that was cooked to perfection; but Peter had the final word with his stack of six pancakes dripping in honey and assorted jellies.

Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

After breakfast, we met up with our beloved guide Swan again in the hotel lobby. “Not another pagoda,” I cried out in mock dismay, but Swan was now attuned to my humour and took up the slack by affirming that indeed we would be visiting another remarkable pagoda surrounded by 845 small stupas as though in deferent tribute to the richly decorated central pagoda. Work began on the pagoda in 1939 at the start of the Second World War and was finally completed in the March of 1952. There are many buddha statues row upon row in niches along the walls, all coloured gold, a truly sublime sight filled with religious nostalgia. The entrance is protected, not by the traditional mythical lions, but by the statues of the magnificent white elephants that are sacred and auspicious in Buddhist symbolism. Thereafter, we took a short walk through the nearby banyan tree grove Boddhitataung, where a thousand Buddha images lie at rest among the sprouting banyan trees. Ah, walking through the aged banyan trees is like walking through an ancient grove associated with the mythic gods of Greece. One half expects a centaur or unicorn to come trolling through the corridors of trees in this mystical setting. The banyan trees is considered sacred in places like India and Burma and is well known for the mercy of its abundant shade. In fact, in India, the leaf of the banyan is said to be the resting place of the Lord Krishna.

But even the shade of the banyan tree faded into darkness, and it was time for us to move on, even if we did feel most welcome in the the banyan tree’s embrace. We were scheduled to go down to the river and bid goodbye to our guide Swan, as we would be making our way by riverboat down to a town further south called Bagan. We were to meet the new guide on the boat who would escort us there. It was a little sad to bid goodbye to Swan. He was such a charming little fellow, a student who would complete his university studies soon. He worked on the side as a guide and had done this for the last few years. It doesn’t take long under these circumstances to get to know and like the guide, so it was with a heavy heart that both Peter and I bid him farewell.

However, Swan was to help me through one last challenge. After bidding me goodbye, he helped me down the side of the dusty hill to a steep embankment at the edge of which lay the river boat that would take us south to Bagan. When I saw the wooden plank that I had to walk across to get onto the boat, I stopped dead in my tracks. I can’t do this, I immediately said to myself. At my age, I now know what I can and cannot do, and crossing that narrow, wooden plank sagging perilously in the middle and crossing a no-man’s-land muddy cliffs and water about 50 meters seemed an impossible task.

Swan took me by the hand and coaxed me on, not wishing perhaps to have his charge stranded along the way without any option of moving forward. Peter, of course, was already up ahead on the plank himself with his usual bravado, but he also almost slipped and was standing on one leg before balancing himself once again, preventing himself from falling unceremoniously down in the muddy waters below. I took a deep breath and mounted the plank. Mercifully, two people stood nearby, a woman on the riverbank’s edge and her husband perhaps on the boat itself holding a lengthy bamboo pole that I was able to hold onto as a kind of makeshift handrail as I perilously crossed the narrow wooden plank like an infant learning how to walk in his new toddler shoes. Once on the boat and tucked into the lounge chair, I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t made a fool of myself.

Traveling on Irrawaddy River from Mandalay. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Click here to read Part one of Once Upon a Time in Burma

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John Herlihy, travel writer and poet, has published two collections of travel essays, Journeys with Soul and his more recent Distant Islands and Sealight, available at online booksellers and Amazon.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL