A Travellerspoint blog

Kalpetta, India

We are now in the hill town of Kalpetta, near Wayanad National Park. Hitesh and Ruchi, who we also met in Ladakh and last saw in Delhi six years ago, met us here. When they arrived, it felt as though no time had passed, and we had the same instant connection that we felt the first time. Now in their late 30's , they looked the same, and they felt the same about us.


The guest house here has just two adjoining rooms with a sheltered terrace surrounded by tropical vegetation. It is located just far enough off the main drag of Kalpetta to be quiet and peaceful, except for the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our host Mary, a Christian, is taking good care of us and is obviously well educated, as is her son Sunil, who spent 20 years living near Toronto. This time of year, Wayanad doesn't get much rain, although we have had a few showers. There is still a lot of green, but plants and trees look a little parched. It is also much hotter than I expected, quite different than the hill towns in Malaysia. Nights are fine, but afternoons get very warm.

On the first day we hired a car to take us around to some of the local sites. The first and most interesting place was a bamboo factory. It was run by an NGO, and there were several Nigerians studying building techniques with bamboo, which is also plentiful in their own country. Just by accident, we learned that this same NGO was building a nearby eco-resort, also out of bamboo. As it turned out, we had heard about this place from Henry, the Swiss architect, who was staying next to us on Thottada Beach. We had wanted to visit, and found it quite by accident. Though incomplete, a few of the basic structures were in place, which gave us a good idea of how it will eventually look.



There is also a separate house, where the architects are currently living. It is quite an unusual design, looking vaguely like a Swiss A-frame with a Chinese twist. It is built directly over a small pond to keep the place cool in the tropical heat . Henry's idea.


From there, we went to the "Wonder Caves," which didn't quite live up to its name. It is privately owned, and the proprietor more or less insisted on showing us every rock and plant on the mountainside, until we persuaded him to speed it up, and finally got to the top of a rocky outcropping with a fine view of the valley below.


Then we rode 20K or so to a waterfall, which, despite the 1k walk to get there and the admissions charge, the place was packed with Indian families. It was, after all, a Saturday. Due to the crowds whooping and hollering, and most likely peeing in the water, the swimming did not seem inviting. It was a very Indian scene, with men in singlets and underwear, and women in full saris, standing or attempting to swim in a few pools of water underneath the falls.



The drive back through tea plantations with Chambra Peak in the distance was the highlight of the day. The tea plantations have a different feel than those in Thailand and Malaysia, with their orderly rows. Here they are somewhat more chaotic, and the plants different shapes. Perhaps this is a statement about the Indian temperament, or maybe it is just because they grow different varieties of tea. Or both?


Kalpetta is not a particularly attractive town, with the usual run down shops and potholed streets, along with a large assortment of auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks, by another name, as well as Tata trucks.

Even with the incorrect spelling, I couldn't resist this sign of an umbrella shop

There are also hammer and sickle banners flying about in various spots, representative of the Communist Party, although they are no longer in power. There is clearly poverty here, but most everyone has enough to eat, and there are few beggars on the streets.

CP parade outside of town

Yesterday we attempted a climb of Chandra, at 2200 hundred meters, the highest peak in this part of the Western Ghats. Unfortunately, we were told we could not go beyond the small heart shaped lake about half way up. We tried to sneak past the guards on two different occasions, but they caught us each time, after we got a little way up the treeless ridge line. Very visible I'm afraid. We were told that there are Naxalite terrorists higher up on the peak. This seemed completely absurd to all of us. Most likely someone got hurt higher on the mountain, and the local officials got blamed. They are obviously unprepared to launch any kind of rescue. They also told us not to go into the forest. Wild elephants might attack us.

Elephant forest in foreground, Chambra ridgeline in back

While there were some other people around, it was still enjoyable to hang out by the small lake and dip our feet in, until we were told that that too was not permitted. It seems they are quite big on rules here in Wayanad. Whatever happened to good old chaotic India?

Hitesh wading in the pond

The views were impressive, and the hour climb with maybe 500 meters of vert, gave us our first bit of exercise in two weeks.


Today we decided to forgo the car, and set out across a tea plantation to see what was there, and to look for a small stream that both Mary and Sunil had mentioned. We walked up and up on a narrow road, getting hotter by the moment, but unfortunately the only stream we could find was barely a trickle at the edge of the forest. On the way back, we saw these school kids out on recess, and then managed to snag a tuk-tuk about half way down, to avoid some of the long walk back into town.


The only liquor store in town is tucked away in a small alley, in a place we would never have found on our own. There was a long line, and of course, no women, but luckily we were able to send Nanette and Ruchi to the front of the line, simply because they were female. We have spent most nights imbibing beers, and gin with sprite, since there is no tonic available, and have discussed just about everything from politics to babies. One night we enjoyed an excellent tandori dinner in town, and last night Mary cooked a great meal with various local specialties, including a cucumber, coconut curry whose name I can't recall.

At the moment, I am sitting out on our terrace, and a nearby Hindu temple is playing some Hindi, or more likely Malayalam music (the language of Kerala), in an apparent attempt to one up the mosque. Our white noise machine has proved quite handy at night, while they are battling it out. Thank you Bill and Suzanne for this. We never leave home without it. Tomorrow we head out on a long car ride through the mountains and back to the Arabian Sea, to an area of northern backwaters, less touristy we are told than Alleppey, which is further south.

Now this last pic could very well turn out to be a collector's item. Somehow, when I uploaded the photo to my tablet from the camera, David Hasselhof, from Bay Watch fame, showed up in the background. We, of course, had no idea who he was, but later learned that it was some kind of April Fool's prank. Several photos were corrupted, but luckily I only uploaded a few on that particularly day.

Nanette, Ruchi, and yup, you guessed it, David Hasselhof

Posted by jonshapiro 08:50 Archived in India Tagged waterfalls mountains people Comments (2)

Theyyam in Northern Kerala

Last night we awoke at 3 AM to attend a Theyyam, a local religious ceremony, native to this area of northern Kerala. There are many different kinds of Theyyam's, and each one held in a different community is somewhat unique. The custom of ritual worship appears to go back thousands of years. It is rather difficult to figure out the meaning , at least for outsiders, but the one we attended seemed to have aspects related to fertility, coming of age, and even house warming.

Wikipedia says the following:

It can be said that all the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal, and religious worship has widened the stream of the Theyyam cult, where "even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect,"[2] and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of millions. For instance, the cult of Bhagawathi, the Mother Goddesses, had and still has, an important place in Theyyam. Besides this, the practices of spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, masathi-worship, tree-worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease, and the worship of Graamadevataa, (Village-Deity) are included in the main stream of the Theyyam cult. Along with these Gods and Goddesses, there exist innumerable folk Gods and Goddesses. Most of these Goddesses are known as Bhagavathy (the Mother-Goddess that is the Divine and United form of the three principal Goddesses namely, Brahmani (Saraswati), Vaishnavi (Lakshmi), and Shivani (Durga).

Unfortunately, our driver showed up almost an hour late. Just when we had given up and gone back to bed, the other couple who was going with us knocked on our door to tell us he was here. We piled into his Tata Nano, a lot like a smart car, but cheaper, and we drove the 15K over very pot holed roads to the village where the ceremony was taking place. There were several hundred onlookers, men, women, and children, but we appeared to be the only foreigners This was clearly the real deal, and not something being done for the benefit of tourists.

It seemed we were not that late, as the first of three avatar Gods was being fitted out with an enormous headdress and face mask just as we arrived. After a short while, he began to dance around, accompanied by a cadre of furious drummers, conch shell blowers, as well as the occasional blast of what sounded like a renaissance sackbut (an elongated trumpet).




After a time, he was joined by some other man, also with an enormous headdress, rather large artificial breasts, and a face mask with several flaming torches set about three feet from his face and attached somehow to his costume. His headdress was also set aflame in various places. There was more drumming while he went around blessing everyone with yellow powder.



At odd moments, there were earth shaking booms of what sounded like cherry bombs, and then some actual fireworks.


A young teenage boy was then dressed in palm leaves and face mask. He danced to even more rapid drumming, and proceeded to gather the village elders, all men of course, and then blessed each one in turn. One of them became so emotional over this that he started to cry. Perhaps this was the boy's father?



After a time, the teenager was fitted out with even longer palm leaves which covered most of his body. In the meantime, a bonfire had been started in the back, and by now, had died down to a large and very hot bed of coals. After much preparation and blessings by the head Brahmin, he was led back to the coals and placed on top of them face up, but head resting on the coals. He was there for several minutes until his palm leaves started to catch fire, at which time he was lifted out and the flames tamped down, although his head and back were still smoking This happened repeatedly, perhaps a half dozen times. This was clearly the culmination of the ceremony.





Several hours had gone by since we arrived, and by now it was 8 AM and the sun was fully out. Finally, not wanting to miss breakfast back at the guesthouse, we decided to leave, although it was unclear whether or not the boy was finished with his ordeal.

It was quite an evening.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:11 Archived in India Tagged people Comments (5)

Thottada Beach, Kannur (Kerala, India)

Blue Mermaid

We have now been at this lovely beach resort for six days. Pramila, our friend and caretaker extraordinaire, left yesterday to return to Mumbai. The beach itself is completely undeveloped, although there are several guest houses that line an adjacent small road. There is clearly some house building going on up the hill, and I shudder to think of what the next ten years will bring. Isn't that always the case with deserted beaches. The water is a perfect temperature, just cool enough to be refreshing, although the undertow and surf can be rough. The lack of shade and the scorching sun tend to restrict our beach time to early mornings and late afternoons.




Tapping tree for palm wine, photo by Nanette

There have been a number of interesting guests staying here, at Blue Mermaid.


View from our terrace

One of the more interesting couples live in Scotland. They have spent the better part of their retirement, 26 years ago, on the road. The first three years of which, they didn't return at all, except for their daughter's wedding. They are really intrepid types, always taking local transport, even carrying their own gear up to Everest base camp. Now they have paired their luggage down to a mere 6 kilos each, roughly two changes of clothes. I thought they were ten years older than we were, but as it turns out they are about the same age.

Another younger British woman, staying here with her husband, used to work for the UN in Sudan, and is now a development consultant with plans to go to Afghanistan.

Staying right next to us is Henry, a Swiss gentlemen our age, who runs a cross-cultural architectural firm in Bangalore. He has Swiss students do an internship with him in India, and in turn, sends Indian students to do the same in Switzerland. One of his major projects is building an eco-resort for a non-profit NGO in the hills of Wayanad. He is here to visit a factory in Kannur that makes fabric, some of which he is hoping to use with this project. He designs the interiors as well as the exteriors of the buildings. From his description, the place sounds fascinating, and as we are headed to Wayanad from here, perhaps we will stop by.

Today, an American family showed up with two young kids. They have been traveling for six months with plans to continue for another six. Being here, is once again a reminder that there are lots of folks doing the same things that we have been up to. Sometimes this is easy to forgot when we are home.

There is indeed, not a lot to do here, and we spend our time lazing about, finding shade where we can, talking to the other guests and to Pramila, when she was here. This is punctuated by two extended dips in the Arabian Sea. The south Indian food, largely vegetarian, is quite good, and our host, Indu, most hospitable. She made us feel at home.

Indu, her husband, and lovely daughter

Posted by jonshapiro 07:31 Archived in India Tagged beaches people Comments (2)

Southern India & Teaching in the Himalayan Culture School

Book Six: Bombay/Mumbai

Arrived in Mumbai after an uneventful flight from Newark. This followed an aborted attempt to get to California for a wedding, when our flight was cancelled and others totally booked. Our friend Pramila, who has been so helpful in planning this entire trip, has kept us busy more or less non-stop, here in her home town. Nanette met her seven years ago on a monastery tour in Ladakh, the last time we were in India. On this trip, we decided to focus on the south, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, with a side trip to Sri Lanka.


After a night's sleep near the airport, we went on a tour of Mumbai's largest slum, Dharavi. It was led by a student who continues to live in the slum, while he attends college. The company he works for, Be the Local, was started and continues to be run by another student from the slum. So now, this company provides a part time income for students from Dharavi, as it attempts to create a different impression of slum life. They want to show that the slum is not just a place of lazy drug dealers, and that it is in fact, a relatively safe place of industrial and hard working people, who often work together to eek out a living, mostly by recycling plastic, cardboard, aluminum, and anything else that others throw away. We walked around for a couple of hours, and viewed the various recycling industries taking place in Dharavi. Indeed, it did not seem especially dangerous, though it was obviously ramshackle and dirty. Most everyone we saw seemed hard at work sorting plastic, grinding it up, and then packing it for shipping to be reused in some other capacity. Cardboard was also being recycled, and aluminum cans and scrap were being melted down into ingots, to be sold to others outside the slum. The tour certainly did create a different impression than I got from reading Katherine Boo's Book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, though it was about a different Mumbai slum. Of course, the tour provided a superficial view, but if the guide's intent was to get people to question their preconceived notions of slum life, he did a good job.

When Pramila suggested a slum tour, we were initially reluctant, because it seemed exploitive, and kind of weird, almost voyeuristic. But because of the nature of the company, it did not feel that way. Right now, one of the main issues that the residents of Dharavi are dealing with, is that the city wants the valuable land that houses the shacks and business of the slum dwellers. Much of it is located in what is now prime property, and Mumbai's prices are among the highest in the world. At any rate, the politicians are trying to arrange a land swap. They will provide tiny, but new apartments in a small section of the slum, in exchange for the residents to give up a significant percentage of the land they have been squatting on for generations. There is resistance to this, so it will be interesting to see how things play out. In the end, I suspect the residents will have no choice, and will have to strike a deal of some sort.

Overall Mumbai, despite its larger size, seems less crazy and harried than Delhi. Yes there are beggars, and clearly there are enormous slums, but somehow, despite the constant honking and the traffic, it is a less overwhelming place than Delhi. I'm sure, the fact that we had Pramila as a guide obviously had something to do with facilitating our transition, but even taking that into account, it feels easier here. Somehow there is a greater sense of personal space, and certainly less of the constant harassment that we felt in north India.

On another day, we took the boat out to Elephanta Island, about an hour's ride through the harbor of Bom Bay, so named by the Portuguese, because it was a good bay and a good port. Elephanta, according to our knowledgeable guide,a university professor, was first started as a cave temple by Buddhist monks some time around the 7th century. Not long after, Buddhism more or less died out, and and the caves on the island were taken up by Hindus, or Shivites, as they are called here, worshippers of Shiva. They proceeded to carve detailed, three dimensional images of various incarnations of Shiva, out of the hard, basalt rock. More than a 1000 years later, these statues continue to impress with their detail and sense of movement conveyed through the stone. The Portuguese did their damnedest to destroy many of the statues by using them for target practice, but large parts remain intact.



We learned that there is a division between north and south India. While both Hindus, the Dravidians were a different race than the northern Aryans, and Shiva apparently figures more prominently in their style of worship than he does in the north. There are other differences as well. The Dravidians consider themselves the true and original Indians, while northerners are seen as more recent interlopers. Not surprisingly, this is a a matter of some dispute. What is true, is that the Mughals never made it to far southern India (south of Mumbai), which was ruled by the Cholas for hundreds of years.

After returning from Elephanta we had a fabulous lunch of thali, the south Indian version of rijstaffel, consisting of numerous small plates of incredible tasty vegetables, rice, roti and paratha. After stuffing ourselves, we made our way to the Modern Art Museum, which, as in China, seemed to be more or less permanently closed. We did manage to find one of the largest art galleries in town, where I proceeded to make fun of much of the art, seemingly every other piece having been named best this or best that in the show. My favorite was a painting of a chair that won for best portrait, even though no portrait could be seen. Perhaps that was the point.

Walking on, we considered a stop at the British Museum, aka Prince of Wales Museum, aka, some long Indian name that I cannot spell or pronounce, but we were tired at this point. I suggested a drink at the Taj, one of the fanciest hotels in town, built by Papa Tata, (who I now know was actually a Parsi), later partly blown up by terrorists in 2006, and then more or less rebuilt to the original specifications to its previous magnificence, except that is, for a rather tacky, high rise, new wing. Anyway, we managed to get ourselves kicked out of several lounge areas after being asked for our room number, and not quite having the balls to lie about it. We ended up in the Sea Lounge, open to the public, and managed to get a booth overlooking the harbor. There we whiled away a couple of hours drinking gin and tonics, beer, and tea, respectively. Pramila, had the tea, but that did not prevent much laughter all around discussing family, politics, religion, etc.

The Taj

Nearby India Gate

Jewelry and Corn chips Sellers near Taj

The next day Pramila had some work to do, but once again arranged and insisted on paying for, the"Off Beat Tour," with the same company who ran the slum tour. This time they took us to various sites around the main parts of the city. We started out in the fishing center, more or less what the South Street Seaport used to be.


Then it was on to one of the largest outdoor laundries in the city, where we watched men doing the washing, partly by machine and much by hand. They took in laundry from hotels and various businesses and washed it under primitive conditions, but nonetheless on an industrial scale.


From there we went to the thieves market, more or less an entire neighborhood of flea markets and antique shops, probably mostly fakes. Pramila later told us that it is called the thieves market because in the early morning, much of the merchandise is in fact hot, and therefor dirt cheap. The story we got from our guide had something to do with a mispronunciation. Hmmm.


Next, we went to see the dabbah wallahs, where an entire industry is devoted to delivering lunches all around the city. The food is made by housewives for their working husbands. These guys pick it up, and then deliver it by train or bicycle. Neither rain, nor wind, nor storm, can stop them from their appointed rounds. Apparently they almost never make a mistake, and needless to say, they are not computerized.



Later we met up again with Pramila in a tea room, where in true British style, we summoned the waiter with a bell.
Following tea, she had arranged yet another tour for us, this a historical, architectural, walking tour, not far from our hotel. We viewed many of the old British buildings, many in high gothic style,and most still in use, in varying states of repair, or disrepair. As you can see, no rest for the weary, but we have seen much of what this enormous megalopolis has to offer. Tomorrow, we will meet Pramila at the airport and she will accompany us for a few more days to a beach in northern Kerala. There will be nothing to do but relax.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:14 Archived in India Tagged cities_postcards Comments (3)

Malaysian Borneo

We have just come back from a few days around and near Mt Kinabalu, a two to three hour drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu. At over 4000 meters, it is the highest peak in Southeast Asia. We gave some thought to climbing it, but the steep price tag put us off, as well as time restraints. It is a fairly serious undertaking, though not technical, with some 8000 feet of vert. Most people complete it in two days, although we met some young bucks who had managed it in one, partly in order to save money. It is also a bit dicey with the weather, as it is often socked in by rain and clouds that rise up from the tropical south China Sea.



The area around it is very lush, as it is more or less a rain forest that sees precipitation on many days. It is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with tree ferns, enormous dipterocarp trees, many variety of orchids, rhododendrons, and even carnivorous Pitcher plants. One of these almost got my friend Debbie on the way in. (just kidding)

The four of us took some short hikes through the very dense forest around the perimeter.

We also had a bit of an adventure with our rental car. Bill tossed me the key, which I missed, and it fell to the ground. It had been taped together, and the two parts separated with the fall. After putting it back together, the car refused to start. It was getting dark and starting to rain. At first, we couldn't figure out the problem, but then realized it must have something to do with the "smart" key, which had become stupid, because of the tiny chip which had fallen out. With the help of park staff, we were able to call the rental car company in the city, who agreed to send someone to drive up into the mountains with the only spare. In the meantime, we were able to walk the mile back to the main road, where, just outside the park entrance, was a decent restaurant. After warming and filling up, we then walked to our guest house, luckily just a few hundred meters down the road.

Sure enough, later that evening our man showed up with the key, and gave us a lift back to the car. The next day, Nanette and Debbie returned to the scene, avoiding the Pitcher plants, and surprisingly, managed to find the chip. It worked fine after we reinserted it, but we noticed that the spare key was also taped together. Obviously, although the car itself was fine, the keys were not. Perhaps this was why the rental car company didn't give us an argument about having to drive up with another one. It had happened before.

Getting the car started enabled Bill and I to drive part way around the mountain to the Mesilou trail, which sees much less traffic than the main route. Our plan was to go for a long day hike and see how far we would get.

Bill on a bridge on the trail

On the Mesilou trail

It is very steep and muddy, with many ups and downs in both directions, gaining and then losing vertical, until the final pitch to a trail junction, where it meets the more heavily traveled path from the other side. Sensibly, with the near constant rain, Bill turned back before I did. I continued on through the gloomy cloud forest, which became increasingly stunted as I gained altitude. I made it most of the way up to the junction, before being turned back by drenching rains, and near white out like fog. On the return, I met a number of local kids who seemed like they had no business being on the mountain, given their lack of equipment, obvious inexperience, and hypothermia inducing weather.


A rare sunny moment

Mt. Kinabalu at sunset from a viewpoint near park entrance

Before returning to Kota Kinabalu, we were fortunate to get a glimpse at the world's largest flower, the rafflesia. It blooms infrequently, and then only for a few days before decomposing. We just happened to be there at the right time.

large_IMG_0698.jpg b

For our last day in Kota Kinabalu, Nanette and I went out to Sapi, a small offshore island, to do some snorkeling. Sitting next to us on the beach was a mother and her daughter, who are Chinese-Americans. The daughter, a lawyer, lives in Hong Kong, while her mother, a very spunky lady, our age, remains in Michigan. We quickly hit it off, and later went out to dinner with them and our friends, in the large, outdoor food market.

Vendors were furiously barbecuing everything imaginable, and an aromatic cloud of smoke hung over the market and extended out to the adjacent harbor. In very Chinese fashion, the mother quickly took charge, told us where to go, and which fish looked the best, even arguing with the cook about the exact ones she wanted and how fresh they were.


Malaise in Malaysia

Overall, Malaysia has been a mixed experience. Perhaps this is because of the ethnic and religious divisions that are so much a part of life here. The Straits Chinese, roughly 20% of the population, tend to control much of the economy, and are largely Buddhist. Seven to eight percent of the population is Indian and Hindu, and they also have an outsize impact on the economy. Ethnic Malays, a somewhat diverse group themselves, are roughly 60% of the population. They are increasingly religious Muslims, and though they control the government, seem to resent the other two groups because they are generally poorer. In 1969 there were race riots in which several thousand people were killed.

On an individual basis, the Chinese and Indian Malayasians, seem to be reasonably cordial, if not that interested in getting to know us. However at a number of hotels, and not necessarily the cheapest, the service has been sorely lacking. Maybe this is because of ethnic tensions, but often the staff never offer to help with bags, and don't seem to have a clue as to how to treat guests. Our present hotel, Eden 54, in Kota Kinabalu, is a delightful exception, possibly because the owner was educated in the states.

Even some Malays have confirmed that the service industry is lacking. There seems to be some kind of problem with the work ethic and the educational system. One young man that I met while hiking on Mt. Kinabalu, an educated, ethnic Malay, told me he thought it had something to do with the colonial past, but I said to him that certainly the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians have even more reasons to be resentful, and yet they don't appear to be. Of course, they don't have the same ethnic divisions as Malaysia. He didn't respond to my comment, though he was very friendly and generous, and insisted on giving me a sandwich, because I had a long walk back and very little food.

These recent quotes illustrate some of the problems.

"The Malays have been left behind as they lack feelings of shame, discipline and are not hardworking, charged former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad today. (Malaysian Insider, January 7, 2014.)

"The raid (of a Methodist church charity dinner) may reflect tensions that undercut Malaysian society, which is divided along both religious and ethnic lines. Sixty percent of the country is Muslim, and just over half are ethnic Malay.

According to the constitution, citizens claiming Malay ethnicity must be practicing Muslims, speak the Malay language, and adhere to Malay cultural values. The conditions are in place to ensure that only the Malays may claim protection under special laws that reserve jobs and other benefits for the ethnic majority. Although they are an ethnic majority in the country, the Malays have been historically disadvantaged, advocates say, because of ethnic Chinese and Indians’ advantageous roles in trade and commerce.

As a result, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the civil service, universities, and at other institutions. (Al Jazeera, Aug 25th 2013.)

A note to my loyal readers: This marks the end of last year's excursion, but stay tuned, because we leave for southern India on February 20th. I will be gone for three months, and as usual, will blog on my return, after taking copious notes and photos.

Posted by jonshapiro 14:26 Archived in Malaysia Tagged landscapes mountains people Comments (2)

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