The Travel Day from Hell

26 Comments February 25, 2008


Sometimes traveling for business can be fun. As part of my job, I've been able to travel all over this wonderful planet. On my business trips I've gotten to see great sites like the Great Wall of China, Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, India, Old Jerusalem in Israel, Petra in Jordan, the Alps in Switzerland, and the Traveler's Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum in Okemos, Michigan (and many, many more). In addition, I get to eat all that wonderful local food. As my waistline proves, I've definitely had more than my fair share. The best part, though, is getting to meet people and learn about their culture. The biggest thing I've learned is that people love to laugh no matter where they are from. I've tried my best to be a good ambassador from my country and make as many people laugh as possible.

Occasionally, business travel can be miserable. While I've had my share of screaming kids next to me on planes, flight delays, and bad hotels, on Sunday I had, short of a plane crash, the worst travel day I've ever had.

This story takes place in China. However, it's certainly not unique to China, and I absolutely do not want you to construe my story as a complaint about China or the Chinese people. I love visiting China and always look forward to my trips. Especially for the food! Real Chinese food is simply amazing and I can't even eat Chinese food in America anymore because I've been completely spoiled. The best food is in the restaurants where the locals eat. While I speak no Mandarin, my trick is to walk in to a local restaurant and walk around with the waiter. I point to whatever others are eating that looks good. I've had truly excellent meals this way, but I'll never be able to recreate one again since I have no idea what I'm eating. I also enjoy the Chinese people. I've had many impromptu conversations in parks and museums where someone wants to practice their English and I've appreciated every one of them. I also love the clients we work with in China. The engineering teams are great and they challenge me to work extremely hard to keep up with them.

I'm working in China for a couple of weeks and on Sunday I had to fly from Shanghai to Beijing. My flight left at 7:45am so I wanted to leave the hotel in plenty of time to catch my flight. Fortunately, there was a taxi outside the hotel at 5:30 when I was ready to leave. I hopped in the cab and my neck immediately snapped back as I happened to choose the one driver in Shanghai who was practicing to be a Formula 1 racecar driver. I don't mind riding fast, but this guy was passing on the shoulders and squealing tires all the way. We got to the airport and I pried my knuckles off the door handles as the driver hopped out to get my bag out of the trunk. The meter was for 60 RMB and all I had was a 100 RMB bill. He wanted me to hand him the money outside the cab. However, having traveled the world, I know the taxi driver's trick where he will get back in the cab once you're outside and take off with the change. I stayed in the cab and signaled that I wanted the receipt and the change. He got back in and gave me the receipt and two bills. I got out and realized that he handed me two 10's instead of two 20's about the instant his tires smoked as he pulled away. Great, a taxi driver ripped me off first thing in the morning. However, my day was about to get worse.

In the airport, I got in line to check in. When I got up to the agent, he typed and typed on his terminal. He asked if I could hand him my paper tickets. Huh? I booked my flights through a well-known US travel site and they told me my tickets were all electronic. I told the agent I didn't have any paper tickets and he said that he couldn't put me on the plane without them. He took me over to the ticketing department and the fun began. The China Air ticketing agent worked and worked to see if he could get the tickets changed, but since they were purchased through an Air Canada, there wasn't much he could do.

With time ticking away, I realized I was going to have to call the US travel company. The one thing that's really painful about using your cell phone outside the US is that you instantly become the profit center for all the cellular telecommunication companies that route your call. (I carry my phone just for emergencies.) However, I really didn't have much choice. After explaining my predicament, the travel agent said she would call China Air and get it straightened out. She put me on hold and all I could think about was being at the gas pump and watching the money counter go around and around as I seemed to be on hold forever. More than thirty minutes go buy and I'm getting desperate as my phone charges must be approaching the cost of a Rolls Royce. She finally gets back on the line and says, "We've got it worked out. Just go to the Air Canada desk and they will issue you the paper tickets."

My day was going downhill and now it was picking up speed. There was a small problem. I was standing in Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport, where all the domestic Chinese flights are. Air Canada only services the Shanghai Pudong Airport. I asked the travel agent if she thought I could I could make the 140 mile round trip between the airports in the time to catch my flight, which was taking off in 25 minutes. Her response: "Oh." I asked if her company would reimburse me for the new ticket I now had to buy. She said she had to talk to a supervisor and put me on hold again. After waiting another five to seven minutes, with the phone bill now approaching the cost of a Gulfstream G550, I finally hung up when the China Air agent said if I didn't buy the ticket now, I was going to miss the flight. I made it through security and got to the gate with 10 minutes to spare, but will now have to fight the travel site to reimburse me for the ticket and the phone charges.

The flight was the best kind, uneventful. One thing I did find neat is that China Air has a camera pointed at the ground so you can see what's underneath the plane on the in-flight entertainment. We landed in Beijing and that's when my day started to get truly bad.

After getting out of the airport, I fought my way through the unofficial drivers that want to drive you to the city for exorbitant rates to get in the official taxi line. The security guard points me to the next taxi in line and saw there was a driver and a passenger. I thought the guy in the passenger seat was probably a new driver learning the trade. I throw my bag in the trunk and hold onto my computer bag. As we drive off, the passenger is telling me that it's a really, really long way to the hotel. I told him that it was my eighth or ninth time to Beijing and it's not that bad. The passenger is talking on and on, but I can't really understand him.

We are riding around the loop to the toll road that leaves the airport and I realize that the driver has not turned on the meter. I tell him that I'm only going to pay the meter rate and he better turn it on if he wants to get paid. The passenger tells me that there's no need for the meter because it's a fixed rate. I raise my voice and tell them that I've been to China before and if he doesn't turn on the meter I will refuse to pay for the ride. The driver finally flips the meter on. The passenger pulls out a laminated card and tries to tell me that the rate to Beijing is 600 RMB. Having always used the same hotel in Beijing for those eight or nine trips, I know it's only like 150 RMB. I start telling him forcefully that there's no way I'm going to pay that and I'm only going to pay 150 RMB. The passenger says the tolls are very expensive and I must pay 600 RMB.

We are getting near the tolls so I roll down my window and tell them that I'll pay the tolls myself (I believe they are only 10 to 20 RMB). I also figured I could start shouting at the toll collector for help. The driver goes through the toll quickly, drives on about a quarter mile past the tolls, and pulls over to the side of the road and flips the meter off.

The passenger screams at me that if I don't pay, they will leave me on the side of the road. I scream back that that's fine but he has to get my bag out of the trunk first. The driver pops the trunk and the passenger gets out and orders me out of the car. I keep screaming that I won't get out unless he gets my bag out. Of course, I knew the instant I got out of that car they were going to drive off with my bag. I just sat there screaming for my bag. There are enough police cars near the airport that I figured if we sat there long enough one would have to stop. Our screaming match continued for about five minutes with the passenger outside the car and me on the inside. He gets out a piece of paper and writes down 450 RMB as the price. I grab the paper and write down 150 RMB. He screams some more and I refuse to budge. I finally write down 250 RMB and he realizes I won't do any more. The driver is yelling at the passenger and I can guess it's something about they have to get moving as he's gesturing to the road.

The passenger gets back in the car and I throw the 250 RMB at him to show him that was all he was getting. We finally start driving and the two guys are obviously not pleased based on the yelling and gesturing at me they are doing. I'm thinking that now my day has now officially moved into horrible category.

Based on the sounds from up front, I figure I need to start thinking seriously about protecting myself. The only thing I have that's possibly a weapon is a writing pen. I grab it out of my bag as I figure it's better than nothing. What the driver and passenger didn't know was that as a former Green Beret, there was no way I was to go down without a serious fight. After a few minutes of silence, the passenger turns to me and of all things offers me a piece of gum! He was offended when I turned him down.

I pulled out a piece of paper and started writing down all the identifying numbers I could in the car. The passenger asked what I was doing and I said nothing. Now the driver and passenger really started yelling to each other. This is when my day moved to truly and completely sucking.

The passenger also continued to yell at me that he needed more money for the trip. I continued to yell that he got all he was going to get, keep driving on the main road, and take me to my hotel. Based on the gesturing going on between the driver and passenger, I could guess that something was about to happen. They were yelling about something and the passenger pointed at an exit. We were far short of the main roads in Beijing when the driver started to pull off on that tiny exit on the edge of the city. Since every other time I've gone from the airport to the hotel, I have stayed on main roads the whole way, this was definitely not looking good. The only thing I could do was lunge up between the seats, push the passenger away, and grab the steering wheel. Having the element of surprise, I got a good hold on the wheel and tried to ram the taxi into any other car on the road. There was no way I was going to let these two jerks take me down some alley filled with their friends. The driver and I fought for control as we veered back and forth over three lanes of traffic. We got past the exit and the passenger managed to push me into the back seat. Amazingly, even though the road was crowded, all those other cars got out of the way, which disappointed me greatly.

All three of us were screaming at each other. I was screaming at them to stay on the main road until the 3rd Ring Road. Looking at the driver, I could see that he was scared and not too happy how this was working out. The passenger was extremely upset and screaming like crazy. I could barely make out something that he claimed that they were taking that exit to avoid traffic. Being so far outside the city, I knew it was a lie. I kept screaming to stay on the main roads and take me to my hotel. That's all I wanted.

Continuing to scream "Take me to the hotel" over and over, the passenger and driver were talking to each other, and I could guess that they were trying to figure out how to get this crazy guy out of their car. I started laughing like crazy and moving my hands between the seats like I was going to grab the steering wheel again. I figured that would keep them off balance.

I finally started to recognize some buildings we were driving around and was wondering how this was going to play out. At least we were on a main road and it was in stop and go traffic so there were people around. The passenger was screaming at me that they were just trying to avoid this traffic jam with the exit. I told him I didn't believe him.

When we got closer to the hotel, I started recognizing more of the area and thought I really might make it to the hotel. The driver had been really quiet since turning off the airport road to what I recognized as the 3rd Ring Road. As soon as the hotel was off in the distance the passenger started pointing and telling me "see we are taking you to the hotel." I told them to drop me off at the front door of the hotel.

We turned on the road to the hotel, which is a busy thoroughfare and they pulled off the side of the road, not into the hotel entrance and told me to get out. I screamed that I paid for a ride to the hotel and they had to drop me off at the front door. My plan was to stay in the car as the bellhops came up, have them get my bag from the trunk, and only then would I get out of the car. At the hotel I stay at the bellhops all speak very good English so I was going to tell them what was going on and try to get the police down there.

The passenger was out of the car screaming at me to get out and I was screaming that I needed my bag before I got out. He opened my door and I moved away from him while continuing to scream for my bag. He got it out of the trunk and set it on the ground in front of the door. I moved as though I was getting out of the car and lunged for my bag. He went for the bag as well, but I was stronger, more motivated, and had a better grip to get it pulled into the car. I yelled that they had to take me to the front door of the hotel, as that's what I paid for.

The driver was sweating hard at this point and yelled at the passenger to get in. He started driving around the block to take me into the hotel. The passenger was really upset by this and was screaming at the driver. I tried to force them to go down the side street that's a one way to the hotel by grabbing the wheel again, so they could not get away from the entrance. They were more prepared for me that time and got me pushed back quickly. The driver pulled over on the same spot in the street again and refused to go into the hotel. The passenger was screaming at me to get out.

The passenger jumped out, yanked my door open, and tried to pull me out. I moved into a position where I could kick him away. There were many pedestrians on the street so I started screaming "Help! Help! The taxi driver is ripping me off! Help!" I kept kicking the passenger who was still trying to pull me out of the car.

About 10 people gathered as I was screaming for all I was worth. The driver was screaming at the passenger about something. In fact, it was the loudest I had heard him scream the entire time. The passenger finally said "I'll pay you to get out of the car." I screamed as loud as I could that it would be 250 RMB to get me out of the car. I continued screaming that I wanted 250 RMB when the passenger threw 150 RMB at me and told me to get out of the car. I figured I should try to get all my money back for this hellacious ride so I kept screaming for the other 100 RMB. I also didn't want to have to get out of the car with my two bags and the passenger standing in front of me. Now there were 20 people around the car wondering what was going on. The passenger slammed my door and jumped in as the driver started to drive off. Seeing my chance, I kicked open the door and got out as fast as I could. Fortunately, the driver slowed down so I was able to hop out with my bags and not take a tumble.

I grabbed my paper out of my pocket and wrote down the license plate: BH 2383. (I suggest you avoid that taxi if you're in Beijing.) The crowd of people stood there completely perplexed. One gentleman spoke some English and I tried to describe what was going on. I think he got it because he saw the passenger throwing the money at me and he said: "After that they paid you to get out of the cab?!" He thought that was extremely funny. I walked off as he was telling the others what they witnessed.

In the hotel, I explained what happened to one of the bellhops and a manager. We discussed calling the police, but in the end, I figured it was going to be a lot of hassle and I will be busy with the client the rest of the time I'm here. The manager said I should look on the bright side: I got a 1/3rd off taxi ride to the hotel. While I'd like to agree with him, I don't think the trouble was really worth the 50 RMB. If any good comes of my experience, I hope the driver and passenger think twice about trying to rip off a westerner at the airport again.

While my voice hurts from screaming for 40 minutes, I'm safe in a great hotel. My belly is full and I'm comfortable. In the big scheme of things, my horrible day isn't that bad, but it's the worst travel day I've had. What's your worst travel day?


26 Comments

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    TraumaPony February 25, 2008 9:08 AM

    My worst travel day also was in Beijing.

    Me and my class went to Beijing for a month in Grade 10, and we were accompanied by a couple of teachers and some parents. A couple of friends and I, and one of our guardians were going to Wangfujing st to get lunch. It was only a few blocks from our hotel, but we didn't feel like walking, so we caught a cab. So, we told the cab driver that we wanted to go to Wanfujing st. Another group of friends were right behind us in a second taxi. Half way there, their taxi got into a nasty accident, and one of my friends had to go to the hospital to have an x-ray for her skull, as she hit her head so hard on the dash.

    We didn't find out about this until later, but we decided to walk from then on ;)

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    Aaron Lerch February 25, 2008 9:10 AM

    W O W.

    I don't travel much (thankfully), but I think after that story I might never travel again!
    Just kidding :) But that's a horrible experience - it sounds like you handled it well, all things considered! Glad it at least didn't get worse than that.

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    Greg Duncan February 25, 2008 9:59 AM

    Like Aaron said, Wow.

    Glad you made it through.

    And BTW, great write up. You could feel the emotions through your words (I think my heart rate increased a good precentage points as I read it )

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    Ray Kinsella February 25, 2008 10:35 AM

    Good grief John, give them the money already, I know 80 dollars is alot ... and no none us like being ripped off .... but good grief you could have been killed.

    Glad you weren't though, keep trucking.

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    Elaz February 25, 2008 10:35 AM

    Unfortunately, it is a common thing in the 3rd world country. As soon as they see western people, then they can play that game.

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    Jeff Lewis February 25, 2008 12:51 PM

    Wow, you win! The worst experience I've had is someone trying to pick my pocket while in a "publico" in Santo Domingo. When I grabbed my wallet from his hand, and started yelling that he was robbing me, the driver stopped and this *passenger* got out rather quickly.

    But you definitely win.

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    Jonathan February 25, 2008 1:45 PM

    Sorry to hear you had such a bad experience. It's a good reminder to always be careful when travelling someplace unfamiliar, but I hope it won't stop anyone from travelling.

    As a westerner living in Beijing for the last year and taking taxis almost everywhere, I've never experienced this. In any case, it goes both ways. I've talked to taxi drivers who are wary of westerners because they've been ripped off by individuals who promissed to go get the money from an ATM and then disappeared.

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    Dilip February 25, 2008 2:52 PM

    I have to agree Greg Duncan. You have a gift of the garb. Reading your post sent my heart racing!

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    Eleanor February 25, 2008 3:06 PM

    I heard some bad traveling experience to mainland China from friends and relatives. This is worse I ever heard. Next time if you go there; whenever you take a taxi you should 1st write down the license number, if there is a driver ID remember to write it down. Find emergency number or police number (like 911- make sure they speak English). If something like this happened call that number. Try to leave your luggage next to you, just in case. You should consider you were lucky these jerks did not drive you to some deserted place cut you into pieces. (One tour group from Taiwan went to Chin-Dou (an island in south of China) few years ago, they robbed everyone killed the entire group then put fire to burn their body this is a true story.)

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    jrobbins February 25, 2008 4:58 PM

    Everyone,

    Thanks for your comments. :) I just want to reiterate that my story could have happened anywhere, it just so happened to be in China. Everyone has their bad apples.

    Johnathan is absolutely right, westerners have been just as much jerks as anyone. It's all about treating people with respect.

    The "Golden Rule" is worth living by.

    - John Robbins

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    Mark Scott February 25, 2008 7:34 PM

    Wow, I have been living in Beijing for four years, and thank goodness I have never had anything like that. Maybe they were taking a test run of how they will get rich during the Olympics. My new game will be to see if I can find your taxi and get a picture of it, just for fun. What color was it? Most taxis are two-tone, gold and some other color. I wonder if his navigator is always with him. Glad you got out of it okay. There are a few con-artists here, but most of the local Chinese are super-nice.

    As far as your airport experiences, you never know what you will get with the Chinese airlines. I was sitting near the airport one beautiful day waiting for a friend to come in from Guangzhou. There are some great spots north of the airport where you can get close to the runway and watch the planes. Back in the States, I used to sit and watch MD-80s, 737s, and 757s, but in Beijing it is more like 747s, 777s, A340s. So, whenever I get a chance, I watch the heavys here. Back to the point. It was a super day, and while I was waiting, I got a call from my friend who said they just landed at Tianjin because the weather was so bad in Beijing they couldn't land. At least that was their excuse. I think they just needed to position their plane, so they thought it was cheaper to land at Tianjin and bus the people to Beijing (only 100km or so). But to blame it on the weather? I guess mother nature is the perfect scapegoat.
    Cheers!

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    Flavio February 25, 2008 9:52 PM

    I had a very similar experience in Rio de Janeiro, during a business trip... and the irony is that I am Brazilian.

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    Shingo February 25, 2008 10:50 PM

    It is much more dangerous if you are a lady in this scenario.

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    Eugenez February 25, 2008 11:35 PM

    The good thing is that you are safe!
    And I must tell you, may be you should switch your blog from technical to fiction; the story was really compelling!

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    Yixie February 26, 2008 4:17 AM

    Terrible experience. It's really dangerous to get on a taxi that already has a passenger, and you should get the number of the taxi and call the police.
    There should be services reserve taxi, or the hotel may provide one.
    Please take care and thank for the excellent training!

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    Mark Robbins February 26, 2008 9:39 AM

    YOUR BATMAN ! ! ! It's great to know that I've got some of the same genes as you. Maybe you can go back with Amy when she picks up Emma! Hang in there and can't wait to hear the story in person when we meet up in NYC.

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    Evolving the Software Organism February 26, 2008 11:24 PM

    John Robbins asks, "What's your worst travel day?" Wow, he sure has me beat. I can't top that. My worst

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    Bingfeng February 27, 2008 2:33 AM

    I'm chinese and live in Beijing now. It's relative safe in most cases. You are lucky and safe is the first thing. I guess you took an unregistered taxi which our try to avoid if possible, even it has a meter. Dialing 110 (emergency number, like 911 in US) is a good choice under such a condition. Hope you "enjoy" the travel :)

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    Tonys Microsoft Access Blog February 27, 2008 9:21 PM

    The Travel Day from Hell - Wow, what a story. An interesting tidbit there. If something very strange

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    kevin February 29, 2008 8:20 AM

    John, I'm a chinese guy who has just learned a lot from you during the training. Really sorry to hear the story and it happened in China. Hope it won't affect your next trip to China. And I'm very very sure that most Chinese people are friendly, not like those two. Next time in China, I think I can pick you at the airport^_^

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    softarts March 2, 2008 9:37 AM

    摘要: 正好在看johnrobbin写的关于net 调试的书籍(Debugging Applications for Microsoft .NET and Microsoft Windows),去他blog结果看到今年2月他在北京的不幸遭遇,再这样下去这家伙以后不愿来了 http://www.wintellect.com/cs/blogs/jrobbins/archive/2008/02/25/the-travel-day-from-hell.aspx 从北京机场出来遇到黑车司机,到酒店要价600rmb,robbin..

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    Notes from a dark corner March 4, 2008 4:23 AM

    John Robbins, author of " Debugging Microsoft® .NET 2.0 Applications ", " Debugging Applications for

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    Jialiang Ge March 4, 2008 9:01 AM

    Hello John, I attended your debugging courses when you were in Shanghai Zizhu. I am very sorry to hear you got such a bad experience when you left Shanghai for Beijing. I am in hope that I can recover the unfavorable first impression of Chinese when others read this. This is indeed an instance of the innocent majority being penalized because of the actions of a small minority. Chinese people are friendly to foreigners. We may not be as sociable and open as American people due to our culture but we are striving for civilization and courtesy. Please give us time and more understandings. I believe that driver will be justly punished for his behaviors.

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    Michael Daniels March 4, 2008 10:02 PM

    Wow John that is one awful day. I had an awful experience, but it was closer to home. I used to live in El Paso, Texas which is located directly north of Juarez, Mexico.

    In high school I met a really cute exchange student and asked her out. She wanted to go to the Mexican night clubs and I agreed. We were able to get into the night clubs in Mexico in high school.

    We started to Mexico just after dark. I had never driven in Mexico, but as I mentioned before the exchange student was very cute - cute girls equals stupid high school boys.

    It didn't take long for me to get lost. I turned down one well lit street and realized I had turned the wrong way down a one way street. As luck would have the first car I met was a cop. They flipped on their lights, and I quicly turned into a nearby parking lot. It was then that my exchange student informed me that as an exchange student she wasn't supposed to cross the border.

    The police approached the car and asked for my license. Then they called me out of the car. They spoke very little english. They managed to tell me that I needed pay a fine.

    OK. How much? Twenty dollars they tell me. I only have ten on me (yes that was enough in the 80s) and I quickly give it to them. They tell me that it's not enough and I'll have to go with them to the station.

    I knew going to the police station would be my doom.

    No I tell them, I'm not going to the police station. They say yes, I say no. I tell them just take the ten dollars and go and that we just want to head home. Twenty dollars they tell me.

    I lean back in the driver's door of my car and ask my date if she has any money. She tells me no. I get back outside with the cops and tell them ten dollars is all we have. I'm not going to the police station. OK they finally say and hand my license back to me. Have a nice night and be safe.

    I quickly got back into my car, and promptly headed for the border. I can't believe I stood my ground with those cops, but it worked out.

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    N Vedala March 25, 2008 11:04 PM

    I always carry one swiss knife in my handbag.
    Guns for show, knives for a pro.

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    bal March 29, 2008 5:28 AM

    Nice to meet you.
    I had a look at blog.
    Please link to this site.
    http://www.geocities.jp/uha876/

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