Where my Christmas?

December was a busy month so I wanted to share an update about where I spent the holidays!

The last week of school before Christmas vacation was a pretty slow week. Attendance was low as many students (and teachers as well unfortunately) decided to begin their breaks early. But the students who were there kept asking me, “Miss S, where my Christmas?” Here in Liberia that’s a way of asking “where’s my Christmas present” or “what’d you get me for Christmas?” As the holidays got closer I heard more and more people around town jokingly asking each other that. So when my students asked me, I’d point to the blackboard and tell them I brought their Christmas notes!

School closed for the Christmas break the Friday before Christmas and I spent the weekend in my community. As I wouldn’t be there on Christmas day, my friend made me my Christmas meal a few days early: Liberian barbecue and a cabbage salad. The barbecue was delicious: chicken and cow meat in a sauce made of country peanut butter and, of course, Liberian peppeh (peppers). And the salad was a treat as finding any fresh vegetables (besides cucumbers when they’re in season) is not easy in my town!

Liberian barbecue and cabbage salad

On Christmas Eve, I headed into Monrovia to spend a few days with some fellow PC volunteers. I was bummed to miss Christmas at site, when all the children would be running around in their fine new Christmas clothes playing with balloons and noise makers–though I’d already heard plenty of noise makers in the weeks leading up to the holidays!

What’s usually a quick trip into the capital was a bit crazier than usual: from my community into town, I first take a car to an area called red light and get a different car from there into town. Red Light is a big parking hub where you can get taxis to many different parts of the country. It’s also a huge market and being the day before Christmas it was packed–like the equivalent of going to the mall on Christmas Eve! On top of that craziness, I was in a car with not only 7 human passengers, but 7 goats in the trunk along with my suitcase!

Goats in the trunk of the taxi!

After the trip into Monrovia, I was able to spend a couple relaxing days there with Peace Corps friends. We went out to dinner on Christmas Eve at one of the fancy hotels in town, where we took bluffing photos in front of the Christmas tree! And we spent Christmas day hanging out by the pool.

Then the day after Christmas, I headed to the airport to catch my flight… I met my mom in Rome for a week! It was a great trip: we visited the Colosseum and Roman Forum, took a tour of the Vatican and saw the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

We took a couple of day trips to see the ruins at Pompeii and Ostia Antica.

One of my favorite things we did was taking a cooking class where we learned to make homemade pasta–it was delicious! Plus, of course, we ate plenty of pizza and more pasta, drank some wine and got gelato even though it was wintertime!

After a great trip, I’m back in Liberia and have been getting back into the routine of things at school, as we’re getting close to the end of the first semester!

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Visiting the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas

On our free morning in San Antonio with no Fiesta Week activities, we decided to visit the Alamo. First established as a mission in 1718, the Alamo was one of many settlements established by Spanish missionaries in an effort to convert the indigenous population. In San Antonio alone, there are five missions still standing (read about our bike ride to the other four here!). Although there were many missions established, the Alamo was made famous by the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” referring to the battle fought there on March 6, 1836.


When we arrived downtown I was surprised to realize that the Alamo is literally smack dab in the middle of downtown San Antonio. We headed to the mall across the street first to watch the film “Alamo: The Price of Freedom” to get a better feel of the mission’s history before walking through the actual Alamo. The 48 minute long movie is a tribute to the 189 Texans, Tejanos, and settlers who died defending the Alamo from the Mexican Army led by General Santa Anna. No one knows exactly what happened inside the Alamo during the 13 day siege but the film represents historians best guess for what passed.


Next we walked across the street to the front of the Alamo to enter the church. No pictures are allowed inside the church but walking through the remains we could see the rooms where some civilians waited out the battle. After exiting the church we stepped out into a large courtyard with a few buildings surrounded by a small stone wall.

The courtyard houses a building with exhibits displaying the history of the Alamo, a gift shop and food stalls. Outside there are canons used by the Mexican Army and sometimes reenactors on the lawn! Although the men at the Alamo were defeated, the fall of the mission rallied the Texas troops in the fight for Independence from Mexico with “Remember the Alamo!” as their battle cry. Before visiting I definitely recommend either watching the film like we did or doing your own research. It gave us a lot better perspective of the significance of the small Mission.

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Vacationing in Liberia: Libassa Ecolodge and Wildlife Sanctuary

While we were in Liberia for almost two weeks we were busy almost every day, from doing engineering activities with Kim’s students to shopping in the enormous Waterside Market in Monrovia. For our last full day in Liberia we decided to relax by visiting the Libassa Ecolodge, about an hour away from Monrovia and not far from the airport. We called a taxi driver we had used previously during the trip to take us to the resort directly, instead of doing the less expensive, but much more time consuming traditional way through various taxi stations.

When we checked in our room wasn’t ready yet so we dropped off our bags and headed to the poolside. Before jumping in the water we relaxed under the warm sun and sipped on our complimentary fresh coconuts. The resort has a multiple swimming pools, a lazy river, a lagoon to swim in plus lounge chairs along the beach. We dipped in the various pools and floated in the not-so-lazy river (the pump was broken at the time so the water was still). After the pools, we headed towards the beach to walk in the sand and dip our toes in the water–a first for me on this side of the Atlantic!

On the same property as the Ecolodge resort is the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary. The recently opened sanctuary is home to wild animals rescued across the country from people that illegally kept as pets. Our wonderful guide, Angie, led us around to the different enclosures and explained the progress of various animals towards being reintroduced to the wild.

We saw many animals including different types of monkeys, mongooses, a small deer and the cutest little pangolin. Pangolins are actually the most sought after animal for poaching in the world because their scales are believed to have healing properties. We were surprised to learn that the small deer, technically called Maxwell’s Duiker, had been rescued from the beach front restaurant in Monrovia we ate at the night before! The poor deer were so overweight from a diet of pizza and beer that even though they had been at the sanctuary for four months, they still looked obese! The sanctuary was an eye-opening experience seeing the types of animals native to Liberia, as well as discovering the extent that some people go to keep them as pets.

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A Little Motivation from my Students

Teaching is hard work! I recently posted about starting my 2nd year of teaching here in Liberia and some of my challenges. From classroom management issues to figuring out what’s most important to teach, there are days that are really frustrating. But I recently had a conversation with some of my 12th grade students that reminded me why I’m teaching and really motivated me to keep at it despite the challenges, so I thought I’d share.

In preparing my 12th grade students to take the WASSCE, the graduation exam here in Liberia, I’ve been teaching many topics that are fundamental in math because I want to make sure they have a good understanding of those before starting a new topic that builds on these fundamentals. For instance, this year, I started with basic algrebra of solving for a variable and then moved to the coordinate plane (both topics that come in the curriculum in earlier years of school).

At first I was concerned that students may be offended that I’m teaching them topics that they’ve already learned. But I’ve found that those who’ve seen the topics before welcome the review and many students have not seen them before (or don’t remember learning them). After teaching my first lesson on the coordinate plane, I asked a few 12th grade students if the new math notes seemed familiar to them. Instead of just finding out if they’d learned them before, I got some answers that surprised me:

One student said, “Miss S, I like the way you teach us math. Even though we saw that same math in junior high, I really didn’t have idea on it. After today’s class, I have a better idea on it now. The way you teach us step-by-step helps me to understand it. Even the math you taught us last year, if I see it on the WASSCE, I still have idea on it and could do it today.” (The phrase “have idea on it” is a Liberian English way to say that you understand something).


Another student added “Like the math you taught us last period, they’re doing that in 9th grade at the other school. Some students showed it to me yesterday and I’m glad you taught us it because it would be embarrassing if I’m in 12th grade and can’t do the 9th grade math. I could solve all of their math problems, but couldn’t have done it before. You taught it so that I could really understand it.”



That conversation with those two students really reminded me why I’m here. Even with all the obstacles in teaching in Liberia, the students are the reason for teaching! While the big looming challenge is preparing my students for the WASSCE, even just the little things like finally understanding how to graph a point in the coordinate plane or being able to help your younger brother with his junior high math are important too. And it’s in these little things that I’m finding the most motivation!

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Reflections on Teaching: Starting Year 2

With one year of teaching under my belt, I’ve started my second school year here in Liberia! We’ve finished the first of 6 marking periods and about this time last year I wrote my first post about my experience so far teaching in Liberia. So it feels like a good time to write an update, reflecting on what I’ve learned in my first year and sharing what’s new this year.

I started this school year feeling so much more prepared than last year. One thing I struggled with at the beginning last year was where to start! I was meeting all new students, many coming from different schools (as my school is the only government high school in the area) with a wide range of ability levels. But this year, I was able to follow my students: last year I taught 10th and 11th grade and this year I’m teaching the same students in 11th and 12th. So rather than spend too much time figuring out where to start, I at least know what they learned in math last year and could pick right up where we left off!

I’m also feeling more confident in my lesson planning, as I have a better idea of how much we can cover in one lesson and can better predict what questions my students might have (but not always!). Plus, with the exception of a few who are new to the school, my students are used to me–the way I talk, my teaching style and the procedures I follow during class. I’m already seeing it when I compare this year’s 11th graders (who I taught last year) to last year’s 11th grade class. With teaching the same material as the year before, I was able to get a little bit ahead and fit in an extra topic in the first marking period that last year I didn’t get to until the next. I don’t think it’s because one class is stronger than the other but because we, the students and myself, can better understand each other after a year.

With a new school year also came some new challenges for me. One is that I’ve got bigger class sizes this year. Last year, my biggest class was the 11th grade with 60 students. This year they’ve grown to about 65 in the 12th grade this year, not too big of a difference. The big change is in this year’s 11th grade. Last year, the 100 10th graders were split into two sections of about 50 each. This year, they’ve become about 85 but they’re all in one section because the school doesn’t have enough classrooms to split them into two (the school actually already converted the library–the only available space–into another classroom to split one of the junior high classes that was even bigger). So my classes of 50 and 60 students are now 65 and 85, and let me tell you, those 25 extra students make a big difference! So I’m working on figuring out what still works with larger classes and where to make adjustments in how I manage the classroom.

Teaching 11th grade for the second time makes my planning for school a little easier–with just some small adjustments, I can use the same lesson plans and follow the same sequence of topics as last year and don’t have to start from scratch. But teaching 12th grade is a different story! The 12th graders will take the WASSCE graduation exam in April. The WASSCE is an exam taken across West Africa and the students must pass it to graduate. The list of math topics that can show up on the exam is extensive and I know that we won’t be able to cover everything during class.

My principal and vice principal have given me free rein with the 12th grade to decide what to teach from the list, rather than having to follow a specific curriculum. It’s a pretty daunting task, but I’ve decided to focus on areas that seem to come on the test each year (I’ve got a couple previous exams I’m using as a resource) and make sure to cover the fundamentals. I started the year with a basic algebra review, making sure they’re able to solve for a variable, as so many areas of math rely on this skill. I’m also trying to do extra review sessions outside of school to review topics they may not have seen since junior high (like fractions).

The new school year has brought new challenges but with my experience teaching last year, I feel prepared to tackle them. And I’m excited to work with the same students again and to continue to watch them grow!

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Making Belgian Chocolates in Brussels, Belgium

During our week long trip in Belgium, we knew we had to enjoy some famous Belgian chocolates! After a little searching online we found a Belgian chocolate making workshop for 35 euros each. We signed up before our trip to reserve our spots in the class. At 11 am on the day of the workshop, we met our guide, Effie, on the Grand Place just outside the tourist office. Effie then led our group of 22 a few streets away into a building nearby. We split into groups of 2-3 people each with a crockpot of molten chocolate!

In the class we made two different types of chocolates: pralines (hard crisp chocolate on the outside and a soft ganache filling inside) and mendiants (hard chocolate discs with nuts or dried fruits on top). We started the class by tempering our chocolate. Tempering the chocolate is a process to make it smooth and glossy for the shells of our pralines and it is achieved by heating and cooling the chocolate in a specific sequence. We cooled our chocolate from 50 degrees Celsius, down to 33 degrees then back up to 35 degrees. Now our chocolate was all set to start making the shiny shells of our pralines!


Armed with our molds a spoon and a spatula, one by one we prepped the top layer of our pralines. Praying for perfection we each carefully poured the molten chocolate filling our molds. Since we wanted to leave room for the ganache filling we poured most of the chocolate back into the crockpot hoping for a thin shell. We placed our molds into the freezer to set and moved on to making some mendiants!


The mendiants were much simpler and almost impossible to ruin. The first step was spooning a thin layer of chocolate on our own wax papers in any shape you wanted to try. Not as easy as it sounds: after attempting a K, I ended up sticking with simple ovals! Next we had an assortment of nuts and dried fruits to chose from to garnish our mendiants. When we put them in the freezer to cool it was neat to see the fun shapes other people attempted!


After we set our mendiants aside to cool, the class came together to make the ganache filling. A few volunteers, myself included, made our the filling from scratch! Mixing milk chocolate, dark chocolate, cream and honey we created our ganache. We filled piping bags to pass around and everyone took turns adding ganache to their cooled shells. We left a little room for a bottom layer of hard chocolate adding this layer much like we did the first. After the last layer was applied our pralines joined our mendiants in the freezer for one final cool down.

While we waited for our chocolates to set, we used the leftover dark chocolate to make some delicious hot chocolate for while we waited! Each person got their own little chocolate box to put their chocolates in once they cooled. Overall the workshop lasted about 2.5 hours and we walked away with over 30 chocolates each! This chocolate making workshop was definitely a highlight of our trip and none of our chocolates made it back home, they were too delicious to save!

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Visiting Kim’s Classroom: Marshmallow Structures

For our second day helping Kim teach at her school, our lesson was all about structures. For anyone who missed the estimation activity last class, Mom and I reintroduced our selves. We explained how we are both engineers and a little bit about all the different types of engineering. Since we are engineers, we wanted to bring an engineering activity to do with them. Kim started the lesson with a few vocab words like structure, cube, tetrahedron (pyramid shape) and strength. The goal of the activity was to see which type of structure, the cube or tetrahedron, could hold the most weight.


To start the activity we split the class into small groups and gave them their building materials we brought from the US: toothpicks and marshmallows! Each group was tasked with making one cube and one tetrahedron. We made some examples for them to use as a reference and walked around the room helping out the different groups. After a little help each group was able to make their own structures.

To test which shape is the strongest we combined four groups together and had them put all their tetrahedrons together on a desk. Next we used their “copybooks”, or notebooks, to see how many the small structures could hold. The students gingerly placed a copy book on the structures one at a time until the structures fell, then repeated the process for the cubes. The cubes fell with just one copy book placed on it while, the tetrahedron could hold more weight, falling on the second copy book. In later classes, we switched to seeing how many notecards the structures could carry instead of the copy books. This way instead of falling right away under the thick copy books the whole process was more suspenseful and fun having the students place notecards one by one.



At the end of the lesson we revealed to the students that marshmallows are actually candy! They don’t have anything similar to them in Liberia so every student stared at us in disbelief. They wouldn’t eat their building materials until they saw Kim eat one to prove they were edible! Even then they were skeptical, but once they tried them they kept begging for more!


After doing the activity for three different classes we invited any students who wanted to do more to stay after school for another activity. During class earlier, they learned that structures using triangles can hold more weight than one built with squares. With the the knowledge they’d learned in class, we challenged the students to build the tallest tower they could, with the same materials. We split them into teams then gave them twenty minutes to work before measuring to find out which group could build the tallest structure. The students seemed to really enjoy it and were proud to show off their final towers (even if a few of the groups had to hold theirs up). From all the classes the tallest free standing tower measured at 22 cm and the winners from each grade got a prize!


We adjusted a few things from class to class, learning along the way, but overall the activities were a hit! We were only slightly exhausted at the end of 5 sessions, but the students seemed to enjoy them and hopefully learned something too! Plus we got to share an American treat with them: My absolute favorite part was the reactions on the students faces when they saw us eating the marshmallows! Our activities with Kim’s students are something I’ll never forget.

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Visiting Kim in Liberia: A Morning in Kakata

Since Kim lives relatively close to the larger city of Kakata, we decided to take a morning to visit and see the Peace Corps training center and to meet her Liberian host family who she lived with during her initial training in Liberia. Instead of trying to hail a cab on the side of the main rode with three open seats in it, we called our cab driver from the other day to bring us there. While its much more expensive to do it this way it definitely made things easier plus we got a taste of the true Liberian way to travel on the way back from Kakata. We had breakfast on Kim’s front porch enjoying the cool morning air waiting for our cab driver to arrive.


Once in Kakata, we headed straight to the Peace Corps training center. During our visit the newest Peace Corps volunteers had just arrived but were off one site visits (like Kim did) so we had the facility basically to ourselves. Instead of one building it is more of a compound with multiple buildings and plenty of green space in between. We walked around and explored the training center and dorms and then practiced using the pump to draw water.

Next we took a winding dirt path, through peoples yards, up and down a small hillside to reach the home of Kim’s Liberian family. We met her Ma, her sister, Blessing, and her little brothers Prince and Seth. We sat on her Ma’s porch and spent some time catching up with her family. They were very excited to meet us and Mom got a chance to thank them for all the help they gave Kim adjusting to life in Liberia.

Kim’s Ma walked us out to the main road to say goodbye, then we headed to a tea shop for lunch. Liberian tea shops are similar looking to a bar outside, where you sit at a counter to eat and drink. The difference is that, the main thing they serve is assorted teas and coffees and then “bread with egg” to eat. We ordered three bread with egg and a coffee to share. The food came one at a time, since she was only using one pan to make eggs mixed with onions more similar to an omelette than scrambled eggs (with more oil than we tend to use at home!). The eggs were served on a long bread hot dog style to eat. We sat in the covered open air shop enjoying the food and the coffee and watching the passersby.

After we filled our bellies, we headed to the local market area to walk around. Since Kakata is a much larger city compared to Kim’s community, they have a market every day rather than just one day a week like Kim’s site. The market was huge! We walked up and down streets lined with small open air shops selling anything you can think of. In addition to those shops, there was also a large covered area filled with tables where various food commodities were sold. Most of the food is sold by the pile, so tables are lined with piles of various foods. We saw everything from piles of beans to piles of raw chicken feet!

After we finished exploring the different sections we headed back to where we saw the bright colorful lappa fabrics so we could pick some patterns out to have made into dresses! The way it works is you buy the fabric in the market then take it to a tailor shop to be made into anything you want. We planned to get measured by the tailor at Kim’s site and show him pictures of the dress styles we like to have them made into fitted dresses! Since those wouldn’t be finished until after our visit, Mom and I each bought a premade dress at the market to wear during our trip!

After we finished exploring the different sections we headed back to where we saw the bright colorful lappa fabrics so we could pick some patterns out to have made into dresses! The way it works is you buy the fabric in the market then take it to a tailor shop to be made into anything you want. We planned to get measured by the tailor at Kim’s site and show him pictures of the dress styles we like to have them made into fitted dresses! Since those wouldn’t be finished until after our visit, Mom and I each bought a premade dress at the market to wear during our trip!


Visiting Kakata was an amazing experience. We loved getting the chance to see the Peace Corps training area and meeting Kim’s Liberian family we’ve heard so much about! Once we made it back to Kim’s home it was time to start prepping for our second day of activities in Kim’s classes — post about that coming soon!

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Visiting Kim’s Classroom: Estimation Activity

At our first day in Kim’s school, we were surprised when we arrived to find that it was a “working day.” That means that instead of classes, the students work to clean up the school’s campus. They hadn’t started cleaning yet, so we decided to still do our prepared activity with the students who were there early before they started cleaning. Since my mom and I are both engineers, we wanted to bring some math and science activities to do with Kim’s students. After introducing ourselves and talking a little bit about all the different types of engineering, we jumped right into an activity all about estimating.


We started the lesson with a few vocab words so the students would have some notes to write down in their copybooks (notebooks). We gave definitions for the words volume, guess and estimate. The idea of the lesson was to show the difference between a guess with very little information and using more information to make an estimate. We displayed a clear 5in x 3in x 1in container which was filled with beans we bought from the shop in front of Kim’s house. We asked each student to write down their guess for how many beans were in the container just by looking at it.


Next we showed them an identical container filled with one inch cubes and had a volunteer from the class count and tell us that 15 one inch cubes fit into our container. After that, we showed them smaller containers that could each fit one cube inside. To help them make a better estimate we poured beans into these smaller cubes then gave groups of students their own set of beans to count.



Knowing the number of beans that could fit in the one inch cubes, we asked the class how they could make a better educated guess or estimate of how many beans could fit in the larger container. Many students answered right away that they could do 15 times the number of beans! With their new number and the idea that the beans can vary in size, we asked each student to write down their new estimates to see who could get closest to the actual number.


After everyone’s estimations were turned in we revealed that the grand total in the large container was 1358! The students who had the closest estimates received a few jolly ranchers we brought with us from the US as their prize. Overall the activity was a hit, the kids enjoyed doing the hands on activity (and getting out of a little cleaning)!

To round out our day we decided to visit a cook shop down the road from the school. Cook shops look a lot like any other house on the street. Locals can spot them because they have a clothe hanging in the doorway as a door but an easier way to spot them is some hang a sign out front that says “Food is Ready”. The way it works is the Ma cooks a bunch of soup and rice for the day then puts her sign out and sells a soup and rice mixed together until she runs out of food for the day. We asked for the soup and rice to be separate since Liberians really love their peppeh aka a hot pepper that they put in a lot of their foods. I don’t handle spicy foods well so I had bites of mostly rice with a small bit of soup. We sat on benches inside the small shop enjoying the traditional Liberian dish!

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​Life in Liberia: Market Day!

Here in Liberia, grocery shopping is not as easy as jumping in the car and heading to the Kroger around the corner! Unless you’re in a big city with a supermarket, buying food and other things takes a little more work!

I’m fortunate to live in a big enough community that I am able to buy most of my food and necessities throughout the week. My landlord, who lives in the house right in front of mine, has a pretty good-sized shop, mostly of dry goods like rice, beans, onions, spaghetti, tomato paste – enough that I knew from day one that I at least wouldn’t starve here! And in the first few months, I slowly figured out where to buy other foods – there’s a shop near the school that sells bread, a house on my walk home that sells “cold sausage” (frozen hotdogs bought from nearby towns earlier that day) and a house across from mine that often has eggs (though for a few months there was an egg shortage in the country and they were very hard to find!).

So if I plan my day right, I can pick up everything I need to make my dinner on my way home from school. I also keep an eye out as I walk around town for other things like plantains, cassava or African potatoes and whatever fruits are in season – these are most often found in small amounts outside anyone’s house; people will sell the small amount from their own gardens that’s left after feeding their own families.

And then on Tuesday, we have Market Day! Once a week, people come from miles around to buy and sell in our town’s market. So every week, I’ll keep a list of things I want to make sure to pick up on the next Tuesday. Throughout the rest of the week, the market sits almost completely empty, with the exception of a few local market women selling a few various foods. But on Tuesday the place is packed!

You can find the same foods that are there throughout the week, but also a lot more: there’s a whole aisle of “wheelbarrow shopping” – clothes in wheel barrows or piles, most of which was sent over from the states or Europe, that you can sort through to find what you need.  There’s another area with people selling produce – whatever seasonal fruits and vegetables they’ve grown (though you have to get there early for the good stuff – I often miss out because I teach in the morning and don’t get to the market until the afternoon).

You’ll find people selling lappa fabric or pre-made clothes, sandals and slippers (Liberian English for flipflops), packaged cookies and snacks, soap and hair products, small electronics and more. I’ve made friends with a man named Boikai (who’s name I can remember because it sounds to me like “Buckeye”) who comes to my town every week from Kakata to sell bags – backpacks and the colorful plastic “Ghana-must-go” bags.

In addition to the different stalls set up, there are plenty of people walking around selling food! I always look for plantain chips or popcorn, freshly made shortbread or donuts, and find the woman who sells fried plantains and sometimes fried chicken legs! You can also find people selling more traditional meals of soup and rice or Liberian spaghetti.

Even on weeks that I don’t really have a list of things to buy, I always try to go take a walk around the market, see if there are any surprises to be found and say hello to my friends who are selling!

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