Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Thailand Tuesdays: Sightseeing in Sukhothai

After all the difficulty in getting to Phitsanulok, I was in the city for a remarkably short time. I’d planned on spending a day there before moving on to Sukhothai, but a closer look at the guidebook and the knowledge that I’d lost a day in Lopburi convinced me to skip it. So after a night in an unremarkable hotel, I bought a ticket for the first hour-long bus ride of the morning to Sukhothai.

A kingdom in its own right 150 years before Ayutthaya rose to prominence and a modern UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sukhothai had been on my must-see list from the get-go. Thai children are taught that this is where King Ramkhamhaeng invented the Thai script, though the archaeological record apparently casts some doubt upon this story. Still, I wasn’t about to question the history books (aloud, anyway) in a country where lèse majesté is still an imprisonable offense, and as we’ve established, I’m a sucker for palace and temple ruins. Sukhothai promised both, and plenty of them.

I even found myself a couple of travel companions with whom to visit them. There were two guys in their twenties on the same bus—one from America, the other from France. We introduced ourselves while waiting for the bus and told stories about the other places we’d traveled during the ride. By the time we reached our destination, we’d decided to stick together for the next day or two.

After pooling our resources to “splurge” on an air-conditioned room in a lovely little guesthouse, we took advantage of the free bikes to explore the town. Lacking the river boundaries, Sukhothai has spread quite a bit more than Ayutthaya in the past 700 years. Instead of residing atop its past, New Sukhothai is distinct from Old Sukhothai, and the latter is contained within a historical park.  Since we’d already lost most of the morning, we decided to postpone our visit until the next day and made a haphazard circuit of the city, eventually working our way over to the impressive Phra Mae Ya Shrine. It houses an idol dedicated by King Ramkhamhaeng to his mother—and, according to local belief, the spirit of the great king himself.

As was so often the case in Thailand, the shrine proved too large for me to get a good picture of the whole structure; if I managed to get all five of the towers into the shot, it also included undesirable items like street lights. Happily, our visit to the historical park the next day gave me much more camera fodder!

Wat Mathathat is the largest and most important set of ruins, and also the closest to the park entrance. This “temple of the great relic” was great indeed: the intervening centuries have stripped away the gilt and glitz the buildings must have had when first built, but their scale and grandeur remain undiminished.

Large and imposing as this complex was, however, it was only the beginning of what the park had to offer. While the boys and I opted not to pay the admission fees for any but the central zone, we did rent bikes in order to visit as much of that zone as possible. Sometimes, this meant a long trek around large moats that afforded a spectacular view, while at others, we crossed smaller moats to more intimate-feeling temples like the lovely Wat Sa Si.

What I really appreciated as I wandered through the park was the complexity of the structures it contained and the emotions they evoked. While I wasn’t sufficiently versed in Thai architectural history to know from the shape of a chedi the era in which it was built, even I could see from the many subtle variations in design that they bore witness to the preferences of different time periods and ruling peoples. Nor did I have to know whether a chedi was Lanna, Lanka, etc. to appreciate its many facets. Even the most massive temples boasted intricate adornments not yet lost to the erosion of time. Recent visitors had also added to these monuments in  unexpected ways: not with the offerings I’d grown used to seeing in Mongolia, but with little Buddha figurines tucked into unexpected corners.

Wat Si Sawai

Wat Si Sawai

Just as in the majestic cathedrals of Europe, I found myself in a contemplative state of mind while wandering the park. Even teeming with noisy tourists, there was something meditative about these spaces. You can only witness the silent, stone serenity of so many seated Buddhas before you either grow twitchy with boredom or fall under the spell yourself. And in a place this gorgeous, who could ever be bored?

Sukhothai Historical Park

Many thanks to my mother for post-processing and color correction on all photos in this post!

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Thailand Tuesdays: Lopburi, Land of Monkeys

This is Part IV of my Thailand Tuesdays series. If you’ve missed them, please check out the Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III.

There’s nothing quite like waking up to an unidentifiable sound in a place you hadn’t expected to be.

I grew up in midwestern America, where rooftop rustling is common heard and easy explained. The vast majority of the time, that scratching sound your window or above your head is the scrabbling of a squirrel–if you’re very unlucky, a raccoon. But after a year in Mongolia, I’d grown unaccustomed to the sound. I quickly placed my location, my bandaged hand reminding me how I’d landed in a hotel in Lopburi, but the noise still perplexed me.

Then I got up and looked around the room, and all was explained. I’ve seen plenty of warnings printed on the back of hotel doors, but this one was a first:

Please do not open the windows, or monkeys may steal your belongings.

I hadn’t done any research on Lopburi prior to arriving, and it wasn’t in my northern-focused guidebook, so I took to the internet. Lopburi, it turns out, is the kind of city where WikiTravel’s Sleep section is divided into two categories: “Places with lots of monkeys” and “Places with few monkeys.” The better hotels in Old Town, which plays host to most of the monkeys, are enclosed by cages that keep them at bay, allowing the guests to open their windows. Clearly, mine was not one of these.

After acquiring a map of the city, I purchased a ticket to a fenced-off brick ruin and found it to house hundreds of the things. An older Thai gentleman approached me once I entered the compound and offered to sell me a plastic bag of corn, saying that feeding the monkeys would keep them from biting. I declined, envisioning myself besieged by hungry, demanding simians. My fears proved well-founded: the next pair of tourists to enter the gate found themselves swarmed. The monkey sitting at your feet, reaching inquisitive fingers up to take a piece of corn from your hand, is cute; the one that climbs atop your backpack and refuses to be dislodged, not so much. The ones that jump you from behind when you try to back away, grabbing hold of your jeans and swinging themselves up towards your face, are downright terrifying. I came to the couple’s aid, swatting at the monkeys with my map and my water bottle, and we all beat a hasty retreat to the street.

Monkey and ChldEven there, we weren’t entirely safe. The fence was there to keep the tourists out; it did nothing whatsoever for the monkeys. They were everywhere in this part of the town: roaming the streets, lazing on the sidewalks, walking the power lines, even invading some of the ground-floor stores. I snapped a few pictures of the admittedly adorable babies but quickly discovered what the locals already know: they are clever, mischievous pests, made all the more pestilential by their intelligence and opposable thumbs. What I really wanted was a monkey stick, one of those long bamboo rods the shopkeepers used to to keep the macaques at bay without coming in range of their teeth. Lacking such a device, I tread amongst them with care. Never have I been so aware of my lack of a rabies vaccination as I was as I made my slow way through the monkey gauntlet, doing my utmost not step on anyone’s tail.

Monkeys everywhere!In all respects but one, though, I made my way through the city without incident. My bandaged hand drew a lot of attention throughout the day, and I found myself continually having to explain that it was not (thankfully!) from a monkey bite. The nurses at the clinic I visited in the afternoon were among those who asked the question. I’d been instructed to have the bandages on my hand rewrapped every day, and while that seemed like overkill, the sheer difficulty of keeping the gauze clean and neat convinced me to have it done at least on that first day.

Of course, it was after paying to have my hand rewrapped that I tripped on a curb and instinctively put out my hands to break my fall. Not a good instinct: the impact pulled at my stitches and, I could have sworn, every nerve ending in that hand. I had not cried once the previous evening, but at the blinding flash of agony that seared through my hand when it hit the ground, I sank to the curb and sobbed as the reopened wound quickly bled through my freshly wrapped bandages. When I reappeared at the clinic, tearstained and bloody, less than an hour after I’d left it, the nurse took pity on me and patched my hand up for free. After both flows had ebbed, I thanked her and resumed my explorations.

If Ayutthaya had reminded me of The Jungle Book, the profusion of primates in Lopburi meant that the feeling was only intensified here. At any moment, I half-expected to encounter King Louie’s wonderfully danceable demands for fire. (Monkeys with fire, by the way, is a terrifying thought.)

Lopburi’s ruins were as plentiful as Ayutthaya’s, and often easier to access. Again and again, I found myself awed by the scale and intricacy of these ancient temples, not to mention the fact that I was actually allowed to enter them. I’m a total sucker for interesting places to sit and write, so I broke out my journal for a peaceful half an hour at one of the temples. With so many sites to see, it was hard to rationalize staying any longer, but if I had access to these kinds of ruins on a daily basis, I’m sure I’d visit regularly to write. How can you not be inspired by the majesty of an ancient yet still-standing chedi, or the mystery of a gallery of headless Buddha figures?

As the afternoon waned, however, my tour of Lopburi was cut short. I had intended to head across the tracks to the eat side of town, which I’d neglected in my wanderings, while I waited for my train to Phitsanulok, but a look at the skies was all it took me to scrap those plans. The clouds overhead meant business, reminding me that it was, after all, the rainy season. When the women at the night market stands started battening down the hatches against the strengthening wind, I decided that sticking close to the train station might be prudent.

The rain, when it came, was sudden and intense; not the most drenching downpour I’d seen that summer, but not one I’d want to face unprotected either. I took shelter under streetside awnings along with others caught in the deluge, slowly working my way as close to the train station as I could without getting completely soaked. Thankfully, it soon subsided to a gentle drizzle I was happy to brave, and a breeze and welcome cool followed in its wake. Sitting on the platform to finish recording the day’s experiences, I was comfortable outdoors for for the first time since arriving in Thailand.


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Lopburi: An Unexpected Arrival

Sorry for the delayed posting of Thailand Tuesdays these last two weeks! Grown-Up Life Stuff, it turns out, doesn’t care whether you have a blog post due, so Thailand posts should go up Tuesday and Thursday of next week.

Also, I should take this opportunity to warn you: if the implications of the phrase, “that’s definitely not pomegranate juice” alarms you, you might want to skip this post. Check out last week’s Adventures in Ayutthaya instead, or my attempt to break down the complicated rules of Mongolian card games.

As you may recall, I wrote very little in my journal on the train to Phitsanulok. Partially, this is because I was in no hurry to start writing once aboard, but mostly it’s because of my fateful decision to snack after only a paragraph of writing.

A pomegranate is a messy fruit under the best conditions, and difficult to eat under all of them. If there is no table on which to put it, I would not recommend holding one in your hand while you slice it open. I especially would not recommend doing this with a new knife you acquired at the black market earlier in the week (though, of course, most people don’t need to worry about their knives being confiscated during an accidental venture onto Mongolian presidential property).

Before I could get halfway through the fruit, the train jerked, the knife slipped, and the sticky red liquid dripping from my hand was definitely not pomegranate juice. “Sh*t,” I said, inspecting the damage. “I think that’s bone.”

I had gotten stitches on a different finger of the same hand barely three months earlier after an incident with a rotten carrot and a freshly sharpened (and previously very dull) knife; the most stressful part of that process had been debating whether I need to go to the hospital for stitches or not, since I didn’t want to brave Mongolia’s largely undeveloped health care system unless I absolutely needed to. This time, there was no cause for debate. The cut was deepest at the base of my left ring finger, right in the crease of the joint, and continued in a small crescent shape onto the lower-most segment of my pinky. There isn’t much flesh at the hinge of a joint, even on the inside, and I had clearly cut through all of it; whether it was tendon or bone, I don’t know, but seeing white at the bottom of the wound didn’t seem like a good sign.

Balling my left hand tightly, I fished around in my bag for a few napkins and used them to stem the flow of blood as I made my way to the train conductor. “Excuse me,” I said, calmer and more clear-headed than I would have thought possible. “I cut my hand, and I’m going to need to go to the hospital.”

Had this happened in Mongolia, I would have been completely SOL. Mongolian trains are impressively slow, and towns with hospitals are few and far between, so it would likely have been hours before I was able to reach one. Once there, the language barrier would have rendered me unable to communicate much beyond, “I’m hurt, please fix this” – both because my Mongolian is limited and because most Mongolians outside the capital speak so little English. Just asking the train conductor where the nearest hospital was and how to get there would have been an undertaking.

Thailand was an entirely different experience. My conductor spoke accented but entirely understandable English, though he wouldn’t believe I needed to go to the hospital until I showed him the wound. Reluctantly, I unclenched my fingers and removed the wad of napkins to show him, provoking a shudder and a grimace. It didn’t seem to bleed at all so long as I kept the area constricted, but as soon as I opened my hand, the flow was renewed, and I replaced the napkins quickly.

“Paper?” he said, and then, “no, bad,” tearing open a plastic-wrapped pillowcase for me to use instead. The next town the train was to stop at didn’t have a hospital, he said; it would be an hour before we reached the next one that did, but he’d make sure I got off the train there. He walked me back to my bunk and asked for my ticket and passport: he had an accident report to file and Lopburi to call, to make sure medical assistance would be waiting when I got there.

I lay back on my bunk, keeping my hand elevated, and waited.

Having done it twice now, I’ve observed that it’s remarkable how little a cut from a very sharp knife actually hurts; the primary sensation I felt at the time of both injuries was surprise rather than pain. The conductor, when he returned, seemed unnerved by how calm I was. If I really needed to go to the hospital, shouldn’t I be crying? But I didn’t that evening, not even while they stitched me up.

Mostly what I felt was embarrassment. Never having needed stitches once in my childhood of tree climbing and fort building, or even in my adolescence of camping and set construction, I was humiliated at having injured myself. Two rounds of stitches in three months, both from stupid knife handling, after twenty-four years without? I must have gotten awfully stupid this summer.

But the other thing I felt, funnily enough, was lucky. Lucky that of all the places where I could have cut my hand open, I picked a train car overseen by a conductor who spoke enough English for us to communicate. Lucky that said conductor did everything in his power to help me: calling ahead to the station at Lopburi, carrying my backpack off the train for me so I wouldn’t have to try to manage it one-handed, even writing a note on the back that allowed me to redeem it in Lopburi for the remaining portion of my journey to Phitsanulok, as long as I undertook it at the same time.

Lucky, also, to have done this in a country known for medical tourism. With my experiences in Mongolia fresh in my mind, I was very impressed with what I saw of Thailand’s medical system. The one doctor in the emergency room who spoke good English was called over repeatedly as the staff asked important questions like what I had cut myself on, whether I was allergic to iodine or penicillin, and whether my tetanus shots were up to date. The doctor who stitched me up said only three words to me – “I will suture” – but she was quick and thorough, and I didn’t have to worry about sliding off plastic stool as she worked.

I left the hospital that night with seven stitches, a Thai medical ID card, one packet of main meds, and one of penicillin. The entire visit, including the medication, cost me about 20 USD – less money than I would have spent on drinking in the week of antiobiotics when I now couldn’t. And less than it would cost me, even with insurance, to get a cortisone shot shot a year later in order to resolve the case of trigger finger that would result from the damage to my tendon.

And now I had a day to spend in Lopburi, a town I otherwise would have skipped.


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Adventures in Ayutthaya

In early September, the sun sets much earlier in Thailand than in Mongolia, and faster; the afternoon comes to a close, and suddenly the sun hurls itself at the horizon, as though it too has tired of the oppressive heat it’s provided all day. As I watched it set on my day in Ayutthaya, I felt cheated; as much as I dislike the heat, I would gladly have borne it for a few more hours of exploration. Alas, it was not to be.

“Ayutthaya very small,” I was told by the staff at my hostel in Bangkok. “Maybe only three hours, you can see.” I probably would have taken the earlier train anyway, but Front Desk Lady urged me to take the 11:00, pointing out that the earlier train cost ten times as much as the later one.

I should have spent the extra $4.50.

I could have spent several days in Ayutthaya and still found things to do. The island is a curious mixture of modern city and ancient ruins, sometimes situated right on top of each other. At one point in the afternoon, for instance, I passed a school built a stone’s throw from some ziggurat-like brick structure. In America, you probably wouldn’t be allowed within thirty feet of something so old, but I saw several small faces peering down from its height, clearly quite pleased with themselves at having found the best part of the playground on which to play tag and hide ‘n’ seek.

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This juxtaposition of current and long past was part of the reason I’d chosen to come here, rather than shooting straight up to Chiang Mai as do so many tourists. I’d done my homework in planning my route through Thailand–at least, to the extent that reading the WikiTravel page counted as homework. The second capital of old Siam (after Sukothai, where I’d stop as I continued north) sounded like a place I wanted to visit, especially now that I knew it had once been the largest city in the world (in 1700, with a population of one million). And it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site, which carried some weight too.

Everything I read recommended seeing the city by bike, so the first thing I did after alighting first from the train and then the ferry across the river was to look over the rental shops thronging the island’s first street. The bicycle I ended up with was a simple fixed gear with a basket on the handlebars–a far cry from the 24-speed I ride at home, but perfectly adequate for this task. It was certainly faster than walking, and that was my primary concern.

Map in hand, I started a course that took me around the periphery of the island, marveling at the existence of ancient ruins on named, signed streets. I’d seen such things in Europe, of course, but Old European Buildings have an entirely different feel to them than Old Asian Buildings, which made this an entirely novel experience. As I meandered from crumbling brick chedi to tall stone tower, I felt constantly as though I’d wandered onto the set of The Jungle Book.

The elephants doing one-block laps were the first I’d seen in the country, but I passed on the the offer to ride them. There would be time for that later, if I found a place I was confident treated its elephants well. I also declined to enter any of the many sites that charged admission. Few charged more than 50 Baht (about $2), but I was reluctant nonetheless. With such a wealth of free sites to see, I reasoned, there wasn’t much point in paying; I had more than I could handle as it was. At Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest compound on the island, I made do by taking the best pictures I could from over the walls or through the gates; elsewhere, I simply stopped, observed and appreciated what I could, and moved along.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

At the southern end of the island, my bike and I began to have disagreements. Something in the chain or gears seemed to have gone awry, and I could feel it resisting me as I pedaled. While I’m no cycling guru, I’ve biked a few thousand miles in my life, and putting a derailed chain back in place is well within my limited repair capabilities–except, of course, when the entire mechanism is encased in a metal sheath that prevents you from accessing it at all. I tried, believe you me, but the box, grown hot with the friction of the problem, would not be broached.

So I struggled onward, my gaze now fixed on a tall stone tower to the southeast, on the other side of the river. It was tall, and it was old, and it was accessible to the public, which was all that I and my deep love of high places needed to know. Alas, this was as close as I got.

When the rapidly setting sun eventually forced me to abandon my goal and high-tail it back to the rental shop, I was slightly disappointed, but not for long. My journal contains one paragraph of writing from that day of exploration, hastily scribbled while I waited for the train that would take me on to my hotel in Phitsanulok. It reads as follows:

I have spent the last few hours battling a bicycle that wasn’t particularly inclined to move. I have a large bruise I don’t remember getting on my upper arm and the beginnings of a wicked sunburn on the back of my shoulders. I have entered none of the ruins that required payment, however little; quite possibly I have missed everything of historical import. It has been glorious.

My thanks to my mother for her help retouching my terribly over-exposed photographs of a very sunny place. Had she been there, she would have taken much better pictures!


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Thailand Tuesdays: First Impressions

Thai, if you have never heard it, is one heck of a language. It has particles you affix to the ends of words to denote politeness and the gender of the speaker. It has trills and aspirated consonants and sounds I’ve never heard of, and then it has tones on top of that. It has a beautiful, bewildering alphabet (well, abugida) with forty-four consonants, many of them duplicates. To call it musical would be terribly cliché, because all tonal languages sound musical to English-speakers, but apt nonetheless. Thai English sounded to me like rain on a metal roof: rapid, with hard-hit consonants that created a staccato effect, and yet melodic.

It’s a good thing so many Thai people, particularly those in the tourist hotspots, speak English, because I learned a grand total of four words during my two weeks there: hello (sa-wat-dee-ka), thank you (cop-coon-ka), yes (chai), and no (mai) – and no, those are not the correct spellings. But with these few words and my Mongolia-honed pantomime skills, I got on just fine.

Aside from their mutual foreignness to me, Mongolia and Thailand have very little in common. One is tropical, the other cold, arid, and elevated; one’s food is known for its complex flavor combinations, the other for its lack of spices; one packs 67 million people into 198,000 square miles, while the other spreads 3 million over 604,000.

One thing they do have in common, though, is Buddhism. They’re entirely different schools of Buddhism (Mongolian Buddhism is Mahayana, Thai Theravada), but it’s still a point of commonality. Unschooled in the finer details of Buddhism as I was, I needed some sort of cultural touchstone around which to center my experience in Thailand, and so I spent a lot of time visiting temples. Such a chore, to drown in an abundance of opulent architecture.

I’d visited a few of Mongolia’s major temples, but Thai temples were another beast entirely. Most of them lacked the bodhisattvas I’d seen in Mongolia, but they more than made up for it in the extravagance of the decor. Finely carved details, temple facades I could never fit into a single camera frame, and elaborate rooflines on the exterior; inside, gold and mosaics prevailed. Thai, it seemed to me, is the Baroque of Buddhist temples.

To the locals, I’m sure this eventually fades into the background, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is just a backdrop when it abuts your backyard. But to me, it was all shiny and new (and did I mention shiny?), and I have a couple hundred temple pictures to show for it.

None of them do the experience a lick of justice.


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Thailand Tuesdays: Zoom Zoom

Zoom zoom.

I’m pretty sure my Uncle Mike has written this at the close of the written message on every card I’ve ever received from him. He says it aloud too, on the phone and in person, usually as we finish discussing something that’s happened since the last time we talked. It’s his verbal representation of the passage of time—a self-deprecating reference to the fact that his household’s Christmas cards typically get mailed in April, perhaps, but a more broadly applicable statement as well. When you live several hundred miles from your extended family, it’s all too easy to let several months go by in between conversations with them.

Zoom, zoom. That’s the phrase that comes to mind when I contemplate the date. A year ago, I had just arrived in Thailand for a visa run vacation utterly unlike the life I’d been living in Mongolia. It hardly seems possible that an entire year has gone by since then, but according to the calendar, it must be so. To think: a whole year, and I still haven’t written anything here about my two weeks in Southeast Asia. Shame on me.

But I spent last Sunday working out a writing plan for the month, and so I’m introducing a Thai Tuesdays series to get those stories out of my head and onto this blog. It’s high time I told you about the monkeys, the elephants, the food—oh man, the food. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Why Thailand?

A lot of seasoned travelers seem to regard Thailand with a certain degree of scorn. Thailand is where the tourists go. And it’s true, they do—they have for many years, and in great numbers. After so many years as a tourist destination, a lot of the paths to, from, and through Thailand have been worn pretty smooth. A quick Google search will show you several Thai-language phrasebook apps, though you can traverse the country without ever learning more than “hello” and “thank you.” The Lonely Planet guidebook on Thailand is a whopping EIGHT HUNDRED pages long, nearly three times the length of the Mongolian edition. Everyone has heard of Bangkok and Phuket, if only in reference to the vaguely dirty sound of the names in English. If you’re looking, as my generation so often is, to blaze entirely new trails, Thailand is blasé.

But I had just spent a year in a country 80% of Americans probably couldn’t place on a map, where the roads were mostly unpaved and the language, at least to the rest of the world, mostly unknown. Trailblazing 24/7 is exhausting, and while I pride myself on my ability to rough it, I was looking forward to smoother paths.

I don’t even mean that metaphorically. I went to Thailand, in large part, because I knew it had widespread paved roads and the infrastructure that accompanies them. If this was my vacation, I wanted to take it in a place where travel could be said to zoom rather than bump bump shake.

I was not disappointed.


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This is a Ferguson Omnibus

everywherebuthome:

Readers,
This post is not about Mongolia, or my travels therein, or even my experiences elsewhere. I know that this is not what you come to my blog to read. But it’s too important not to share.

Originally posted on Disrupting Dinner Parties:

If you’ve looked at a computer or television screen in the last week, you’ve probably heard something about Ferguson, MO and a boy named Michael Brown. Perhaps you’ve heard a lot of conflicting stories. Let’s gets some facts straight.

This is Michael Brown. He was 18 years old when he was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson.

This is Michael Brown, on the right. He was 18 years old when he was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson.

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