How To Cross The Street In Vietnam

Traveling to so many different countries has taught me that often in another country you have to let go of some of the rules or norms from your home country. I ignored my mother’s rule of always eating with silverware in India and following the norms on the country by eating with my hands at a fancy restaurant. In Vietnam I had to ignore one rule that was ingrained in me since I was young: look both ways before you cross the street, and wait until there are no cars in sight or the cars have come to a stop. In Vietnam the rule is to look down when you cross the street and keep walking.

The most shocking thing to me was the notion of not looking at cars when crossing the street. A cab driver filled us in, that they suggest tourists not to look up while crossing, because they might get scared and stop walking. If one were to look up in the middle of the street they might feel the same fear that a squirrel does, and everyone knows how good squirrels are at crossing the street.

I wondered why it would be such a bad thing if I became a deer in the headlights and stopped walking. As it turns out the motorbikes, and cars will work their way around you, and they are anticipating that you will continue walking – so it is imperative you do just that! If you do stop in the middle, you could cause a car accident or even become a dead deer.

The first time I crossed the street following “the rules” my heart raced. I was on the corner of the fancy Rex Hotel, and I was trying to get to a little restaurant called Pho 24. The street was littered with motorbikes spewing black fumes as they buzzed by. There were of course some cars and an occasional city bus. I stepped off the curb and took a deep breath, and fifteen seconds later it was all over. I had successfully crossed the street; I had let go of the rules from my culture and adapted to the ways of the Vietnamese people. By the end of my five-day visit I was crossing the street like the Beatles on Abbey Road.

Carrie Clough

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Prisons and Museums

All museums are different and unique, but any given museum is an adventure to me. They are like a flashback in time, a way to get to the past without a time machine. It is a chance to go through the past events and lives of people whom I have never met through old pictures, remains of letters, artifacts, and echoes of words that probably make very little sense nowadays. The collections in many museums grow large and older with every passing year. People who witnessed certain events might perish, and museums with their yellow pictures and dusty manuscripts are the only things that remind people how things happened in the past. In fact, time is not easy on anything. Great empires disappear, their people get older, and many relics in museums accumulate more dust. From the philosophical point of view, this is simply part of life. On the one hand, a place like a  museum can be considered a snapshot of one moment in the lives of humanity. On the other hand, a place like the Tuol Sleng Museum in Cambodia shows its visitors something more. It illustrates how precious is a moment of life by showing hundreds and hundreds of images of people who tried to live at least few moments longer.

 

On my itinerary list, the Security Prison (S 21) in Phenon Penh, Cambodia was considered to be another visit of yet another political prison. I expected it to be rather similar to Robben Island, for example, a place where the political opponents of the South African government spend their young years. My initial idea was to compare those two facilities turned museums.

 

Afterwards, I can say only one thing: in comparison to the Tuol Sleng Prison, Robben Island seems to be a five-star hotel and not a maximum security facility for political prisoners. Nelson Mandela, for example, served seventeen years in a seven-by-eight foot room for his political standing on the issue of apartheid. In S 21 (the number meant that the prison guards were about twenty-one years old with no education, but physically strong and ready to perform any orders without questioning them), people were lucky if they lived more than one week. To put it differently, the living conditions were so harsh that the guards of S 21 checked every prisoner every few hours for hidden objects they could use to commit suicide. The torture system in the prison was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. The “perpetrators” who were identified were executed. It is believed that the vast majority of prisoners were innocent people.

 

As a visitor, who had only one hour to look through the museum, I did not see much: only about two or three hundred images passed by my eyes. The whole place is designed like one big photo album with thousands of pictures around the compound and I simply had no time to go through everything. There are not many witnesses left, but according to the records, on any given day between 1975 and 1979 the prison held 1,000—1,500 prisoners. In three and a half years, approximately 90 thousand people were sentenced to death inside those walls. Imagine the archive size if upon arrival to the prison, everyone was photographed. Moreover, the tortured victims were photographed too.

 

The prison was a sort of the assembly line for death sentencing. The difference between the Robben Island and S 21 was in fact drastic: the walls of the former high school did not keep its prisoners for long. Only several people were taken for interrogation longer than two or three months, and only six or seven people survived. Thus walking among the pictures on the walls, seeing young and old faces on the photographs, and knowing their similar fates brings sorrow.

 

At the end of the Building “B”, there is a wall where somebody wrote with red paint, “I am free! Thanks to you!” Those simple words seem to be written in blood and they stay there as a reminder that the lives faded in that prison were not worthless and “cleansed” away. What is more important, the whole place demonstrates how our world can become a place of misery and agony, but a moment of life is still worth fighting for against all the odds. Otherwise, why would tortured people try to deny their charges even though they knew that there was no escape?

Nikolai Eber

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Doing Good

The youngest member of a panel on Civil Disobedience, I looked out at a sea of faces. My palms sweated, my legs readjusted numerous times, and my head swiveled between the calmer looking “disobedient” professors and panelists seated next to me.  When my turn came to share my experience of rebellion, the stage lights brightened and someone turned up the thermostat.

As I eased into my familiar story, the stomach butterflies slowed their rapid flutter. In the Fall 2009 semester, I slept out on the Boston common in protest of my dorm room being powered by dirty electricity. Hundreds of other students joined me from colleges all around Massachusetts; it was an incredible communal statement to the public, media and government.  Climate change demands attention and action now! I was proud to tell the shipboard community about lobbying representatives in the statehouse, which ultimately helped to pass a bill that created a taskforce to “Repower Massachusetts” with a majority of clean energy by 2020.

Our civil disobedience was fruitful and so was my criminal record! In reality, the citation I received for occupying the public square didn’t go on my permanent record. We had to pay fines, all 300 of us, yet none of that money is going to build windmills, shut down coal plants or give tax incentive for hybrid car owners. Despite our frustrating monetary contribution to the legal system, the bill we passed will help to fund our cause.

Taking my seat and reflecting on the words I just shared, my meager sleep-out felt dwarfed amongst the faculty’s stories of spending time in prison and risking expulsion from lying in front of deans’ offices during the Vietnam anti-war era. Nevertheless, every act of defiance helps, whether it’s raising awareness among peers, donating money, sleeping on public property, or just writing a letter. Story after story shared from the panel, made me realize the profound power of individual efforts coming together to demand change.

Yet, there seems to be a current lack of activism in our country. Especially among students, there seems to be indifference towards wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Joel Savishinsky—an anthropology professor on the ship—blames this apathy on the lack of a draft.  Students and their parents aren’t affected personally by the war, because they aren’t forced to be involved.  According to Savishinsky, Americans are apathetic due to this lack of personal involvement. The panelists really encouraged students to inform themselves about the wars we are currently fighting. I was inspired by these calls to action; it’s up to the students of this country to rile the media and the public. We must stand up and say something.

Historically, anti-war movements didn’t change political policy overnight. It begins with individual efforts, small group formation. Slowly the cause gains momentum, participation and power. Ultimately a widespread movement is formed, full of daring drive, passionate oomph and an incredible collective capability. The words of Margaret Mead lift my spirits and dry my nervous palms: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Once the panel was over, I heard a small, familiar voice call my name. Two wrinkled hands squeezed one of mine, passing electric wisdom. His eyes entered me and his voice grabbed hold of my heart, “Good, good, good,” whispered Desmond Tutu.

— Kira McCoy

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Dirty Love

There is something magical about being dirty. Not the old mustard stained shirt dirty. The gritty dirt covered and water soaked, filthy with adventure dirty. The kind of dirty where you want to keep wearing your clothes because they are so dirty dirty.

This thought came to me on top of a waterfall in Hunan Province in southwest China. I had just spent two hours clawing my way up cliffs, navigating my way through caves with a lighter, my only source of light, and sweating my way through dense woods to get to this point. I was staring out over the falls upon deep gorges, snaking their way through the wilderness. They had the appearance of a vast canyon like crossword puzzle. Huge pillars of chalk- and sand-colored rock pierced the sky and loomed over the forest, where trees were beginning to change colors from deep, lush green to a campfire orange to a depressed brown.

Amid the calls of birds and chirping of insects, a new sound arose. My attention was diverted by the familiar whir and click of a camera shutter. I turned to my left to find my hiking buddies, Cody and Joe, giggling. “Dude,” Joe said, “You look awesome.”

I examined myself and realized how unbelievably dirty I was. My hiking boots were slathered with a deeply brown muck. It looked like I had just smeared two jars of Skippy Extra Chunky peanut butter all over them. My socks were soaked from river water, and my jeans were caked with dried mud and the dust from rocks that I had dragged myself over. A new assortment of rips adorned my shins and the back of my legs. My shirt was soaked from dirt, that, when mixed with perspiration, had run down my face and neck, blackening my collar and chest. A few new holes to match my jeans, along with a few scrapes completed my wardrobe. I looked like nature’s landfill, as if Mother Nature had just swept up all the earth that did not quite go with her woodsy living room and dumped it on me. Pig Pen, the perpetually and bewilderingly dirt-covered, bath-deprived boy from the cartoon Peanuts, looked like George Clooney on Oscar night compared to me. I spit out a mouthful of grime and smiled for the camera.

We could have changed clothes after we trekked back into the small local village where we would be spending the night. We could have gone into the basement of the local inn and taken an old fashioned bucket shower, but we were just too dirty and looked too damn good. Wherever we walked, we got quizzical stares from wrinkled and hunchbacked old Chinese women who furiously attempted to clean us. One woman jokingly went after Cody with a broom to the hilarity of the children nearby. But, we had three days of backpacking left and zero intentions of showering.

When we did get clean, it was two days later. We stumbled across a small pool, created by a dam in the river, filled with disconcertingly blue water; it looked like a toilet bowl that had just had bowl cleaner poured into. I leaned back on the rock and noticed that the bottom of the pool was pebbled with trash and plastic bottles. We stripped down and plunged into the frigid water. The chill took my breath away and made me squirm and thrash about under the surface in a seizure-like dance to shake the cold off. I erupted through the surface of the pool and hoisted myself up onto a collection of mossy rocks. I gazed around the piercing cliffs and gnarled trees. Steam rose off my flesh and clouded the air around me. It swirled in tight circles, like a great smoky dragon, bucking and twisting through the air before dissipating. The dirt and mud had melted off my legs and arms leaving my skin more or less resembling its original tone.

Being clean was a bittersweet affair. I enjoyed the refreshment and surely not having to scrape out the dirt that continually fell into my food would be nice. Still, it felt as if I had just washed away our adventures, as if now that chapter was over. And I did not want it to be over. I suppose that’s why I love being so dirty after a good adventure, rugby game, or any other physical activity. It’s a reminder of your accomplishments. Grit and grime are medals to be displayed; they appeal only to you and repulse everyone else. You can’t taste or smell pictures; similarly, no one else can feel the water in your shoes or the mud caked on your jeans. But I love that feeling. So I’m going to keep getting dirty. Dirty is what I want to be.

— Dallas Koller

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Staying Safe

Before almost every port, we are warned repeatedly to neither drink the tap water nor eat food from street vendors. I’ve found this a fairly easy rule to follow, buying my drinks in bottled form and making sure I know that my food has been cooked thoroughly in a legitimate kitchen. With the exception of orange juice in Morocco, I’ve managed to avoid anything that could upset my stomach. But I ran into an unexpected question of etiquette in Vietnam.

I went to visit a friend of mine, Long, in Hanoi for a few days. Long was excited to show me around his city and to share with me things that locals would do, and I was just as excited to learn. Our objective on this voyage is to attempt to understand each culture from a native’s perspective, and to try to experience the same things they might experience.

Long showed me around the city, and when we were hungry, asked what I wanted to eat.  My answer was always the same: “I want to eat something you would eat. What do you think is good?”

But what native Vietnamese people eat is street food. Long pointed out to me numerous times the corners of sidewalks where people were gathered around a spit, sitting on overturned crates or boxes. It was like fast food; this was what people ate on their way from point A to point B. Driving through town, Long would point out congregations of native Vietnamese people enjoying a meal straight from a fire pit outside of a shop front and explain that this was the kind of thing he would eat on a  regular basis.

The first day, I was adamant that we could only eat at sit-down cafes and restaurants. Long would shrug agreeably, perhaps assuming that I just wanted a more upscale experience, and bring me to places with indoor kitchens. After a while, though, I began to wonder if my dismissal of street food was offensive to him, or if I seemed snobby for turning my nose up at the rice he ate every day without a problem.

By the third and last day of my visit, after I had insisted on “safe” food for every meal, Long’s annoyance with me started to show. We had a full day of sightseeing ahead of us, and needed to eat breakfast on the run. Standing outside at 7:30 in the morning, he finally said, “I don’t know why you think this food isn’t safe, this is what I always eat.” He couldn’t fathom the problem I had with it, and was disappointed that this was a part of his culture I apparently didn’t want to try. It was then that I decided that eating street food, as long as it was cooked, and risking an upset stomach was preferable to offending my friend’s culture and seeming uninterested in his daily routine. Putting aside neurotic fears of food poisoning, I bought a carton of chicken and rice. I didn’t get sick from it, but more important to me was the fact that I’d been able to let go for a moment and experience an aspect of Vietnam the way my friend did.

—Micaela Jones

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Taking the Leap

When I think of India, I don’t associate it with a good place to go for a swim.   But myself and twenty-two others piled into the back of a rusty antique truck; happily squished in like sardines anticipating what our Indian host family does for a refreshing dip.  Passing the coconut trees silhouetted against the moon and stars, I felt a buzzing calm…I had a feeling that tonight would be a one of those nights where I say: this one’s for the memoirs.

We had arrived.  As we walked up to the deep and endless precipice, I thought that the water had dried up. Setting myself up for disappointment, I peeked over the edge of the abyss. I noticed one pipe sticking out expelling water and noticed that the hole was not dry at all, but the water line was extremely deep within it, about twenty feet.  Immediately, one of the California boneheaded frat boys jumped in.  Surprisingly, he did not break anything and surfaced the water wooing in victory.  More boys joined in the jump.  I decided to step down the stairs onto the ledge about 12 feet above the water level and hop in.  SPLASH!  The water was surprisingly warm.  I searched for the concrete bottom of the pool in the filled silence of the watery depths, but never found it.  After surfacing, I was told that this huge swimming pool sized concrete hole is a well…. 80 feet deep.  That’s when I decided to make the 20-foot jump.  After a good solid count, “1…2…3!”  I jumped, over and over again from that exhilarating height.

Then the frat boys decided to push the limits.  Across the way, a higher ledge, about 35 feet awaited.  Again, they woo’ed and hollered as they flew through the air and plopped into the watery abyss.  And again, many people, including myself, followed suit.  It was glorious.  Better than any high dive I’ve ever conquered.  They were doing back flips and cannonballs, but I stuck to the jackknife and took once chance with a head-first dive. Luckily the plunge took me deep enough in the water to give me ample time to pull my swimsuit back on before I surfaced.

Then, the frat guys outdid themselves.  One of them managed to climb on top of the roof to the building right next to the well.  This is where a pipe and two metal poles protruded out of the side.  This was a 50-foot jump before touching the water’s surface.  With many hoots and hollers from his peers, he took a big leap, flailed his limbs airborne, and made a huge seemingly painful PLOP sound when he hit the water.  All of us groaned in empathetic pain when we heard the sound and anxiously stared, waiting for him to surface.  After almost too long of a wait, he came up, gasped and hollered louder than before.  “That had to hurt,” Adam said.  “No, dude,” the frat boy said.“It was awesome!”  Soon, his frat friend and one sorority chick did it.  The fact that a girl made the jump sparked my curiosity. But after Adam, the trip leader made the leap, I knew this India trip wouldn’t be complete without me jumping off this building into a well.

After I was boosted to the roof by the frat guys, everyone was cheering my name. I stepped on the slippery edge and looked down at the obstacles that could kill me on my drop. I counted to three in my head.  That didn’t work.  I said it quietly to myself and…. I was still on the roof.  Then, everyone joined in the count,  “1, 2, 3!” Whooossh!  Time slowed down… That’s a lie. And a horrible cliché. But I flew for three-and-a-half seconds.  And that’s a long time, damn it.   And then… CRASH, deep into the watery depths… At this moment, I realized… that I was deep inside a well…in the middle of the night… in India.  I immediately thought about my journey through this ongoing trip around the world.  My growing mentality embodied in this one 50-foot jump into the depths of the unknown, past the fears, possible dangers, not knowing exactly how or where I will land, into a pool of seemingly unending mystery.  And here in this realization, I found myself swimming to the surface of this watery abyss, unharmed, never feeling more alive! I welcomed the thick Indian air and the applause.  I conquered yet another fear, another danger, and created yet another story of adventure.  It was beyond exhilarating.

Like all the other adventurous dives I have taken in life, the splash only hurt a little bit.  And I absolutely went back for seconds, recruiting two more girls to join me.  The second time I bruised my tailbone.  And came up from the water, laughing at my hilarious injury.  Even as I sit here in my chair days later, writing these words, shifting from the lingering pain from that night, I have to smile at the enduring aching souvenir of my brave adventure; a lasting reminder to always take the leap in ports to come.  No regrets.  Absolutely, no regrets.

— Erica Johnson

 

 

 

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Sailing So Swiftly

Suddenly, we have only a month and a half left at sea. It’s goodbye, shiny Singapore, tonight.
I call my mom to tell her. Her voice does a double take. “You’re leaving, or you just got there?”

Good question, I think.

We spent the same amount of time in Singapore as in Mauritius. Since then, though, seconds steal away our sleep. Where has October gone?

India flew by in a whirl of sensory overload. Gaining a sister through a smile. Sari shopping and insights from dinners spent discussing intimacy on rooftops. Rattling rickshaw rides down smelly streets showing the prevailing spice of life in history and poverty and me.

After India, Singapore is surrea: we arrive in a glittering harbor, disembark in dictatorial Disney World for adults, walk the sanitized streets of Little India pinching ourselves, gape at architectural awe and aesthetic amazement. Prostitution is legal, but people are killed for selling marijuana.

Manesh likes India better. A worker on the Singapore flyer, the world’s tallest Ferris Wheel, he moved here two months ago. He came to study. We coax his opinion on his new country. He feels repressed here. And, he misses his girlfriend. She can’t come. I don’t know why. I tell him I miss my Indian boyfriend back home, too.

The wheel turns, and we step off. I must make peace with ghostly yearnings of paths untraveled. We are ourselves under dictatorship, explorers obedient to the mother ship Explorer sailing on through the South China Sea. Our minds do double overtime to assimilate a backlog of memories and experiences, trying to make sense of it all. Writing helps. So does talking to friends. Getting no sleep doesn’t. Meditation helps most of all.

I head for Vietnam tomorrow, ride on wings to Cambodia the day after.  Soon it will again be Asian industrialization, China’s Great Wall, independent train travel to see Steven, a mish-mash of finals, skydiving and hula dancing, saying thank you and goodbye. No, good morning. I must remember, an ending is always also a beginning.

I will be processing my semester at sea for a long time.

—Ellie Nolan

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Window Seat

I sat down in front of the window in the back corner of the M/V Explorer‘s library—my favorite place to find solitude on this busy ship—and the sun was shining.  Low, grey clouds with sheets of virga beneath them ranged the horizon, and thunderheads billowed up through the stratosphere, but where the Explorer was, there was calm and sun.  Flying fish flitted above little swells as occasional waves white-capped in the wind.

The peace was not to last.  I leaned forward in my chair to look in the direction that the M/V Explorer was sailing, and a wall of grey hove into view.  Grey clouds blended into grey fog that met the grey sea.  As I watched, we neared this steely bank, then entered its clammy embrace.  Tendrils of fog wisped past my window as rain streaked it, blurring my view.  The ocean had become a sheet-metal grey, rippled with gusts of wind and pock-marked with rain.  Between the rain and the fog, I could barely see two hundred yards from the ship.

And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended.  We emerged from the cloud bank and were once again sailing through calm, blue waters.  I could look back and see the rainstorm through which we had passed, black and ominous, but the window was dry, and I could see blue sky.  The whole procession, from clearing to clearing, took less than twenty minutes.  Welcome to the Strait of Malacca.

— Lander Ver Hoef

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The Meal I will Crave Forever

“You have to finish everything on your plate or it is considered rude.” My heart began to beat faster as I heard these words from my roommate, Emma. I am the pickiest eater ever, even at home. I knew I would survive; however, my anxiety had my heart racing and my mind thinking about the most absurd and foreign foods that could be served.

Mama Nozolile, my mother for the evening, yelled out the front door to Wong and me. Wong was the Semester at Sea student staying with me at the Tambo Township outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Assuming she was calling us in for dinner, we headed through the crowds of young children. As we entered the house, a tantalizing aroma filled the house. I noticed two enormous plates, about the size of a car steering wheel, on the living room table with a generous amount of plain white rice, with a heaping spoonful of butter plopped on the top. I inched closer, eager to see what else was on the plate. There were two large breasts of chicken and a mountain high pile of dark green, steamed, seasoned broccoli. My mouth salivated as I stared at the plate, anxious to dig in. My stomach began to growl in anticipation. I was still a little scared that I would be disappointed by the flavor and foreign spices, but I was wrong.

This was not just a meal that would satisfy my hunger; this was my all time favorite meal. The meal was what I eat at home on a normal basis. As I was devouring my plate I forgot I was in a township in South Africa. I started to giggle to myself, because even though it is my favorite meal, I have never eaten that much in one sitting. The food had so many different flavors; I did not even know food could consist of that many different flavors. Sometimes I catch myself craving this culinary feast, and I quickly come to the realization, I will never experience this meal again, unless I go back to visit Mama Nozolile.

—Mackenzie Walsh

 

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Going to Dhobi Ghat

With a few short hours left in the bustling city of Mumbai, I flip through brochures of tourist attractions that I grabbed from the airport earlier today. Dhobi Ghat is found towards the end of my frantic search through these pages and pages of temples, arches, and shopping centers.

Dhobi Ghat is an area of Mumbai in which hundreds of washmen clean clothes by hand in concrete wash tubs and then hang them to dry outside. These jobs are usually passed on from generation to generation.

My mind instantly goes to a time when I was a child and my brother and I would watch my mom sort our dirty clothes into colors and and throw them in our oversized, off-white washer and dryer. Blue, black, pink threads would swiftly pass by our eyes as we tried to follow them until we felt dizzy and bored. I think to myself that watching people wash clothes is probably the last thing I want to do with my remaining time. Regardless, I am unanimously out voted by four of my closest friends and we direct our efforts towards finding transportation to this region of town.

As we approach Dhobi Ghat, my senses are soon working over-time to try to capture all the chaos. My nostrils are over stimulated by the smells of what seems to be a mixture of rotting fruit baked by the sun and body odor. I take a panoramic glance to see locals sitting behind stands selling their products for the day. Putrid fish, heads of lamb, wooden drums played by the vendors, colorful varieties of fruit, and rows and rows of vegetables are all in view from our taxi, which is currently playing “dodge the pedestrian.”

As we slowly make our way down the street, I see hundreds of white bed sheets folded in half over a clothesline through the cracks and man-made holes of a concrete partition.  I see the washmen’s children learning the trade that they will soon take over.  As the sea of white sheets quiver when the wind picks up, I am mesmerized by the overwhelming amount of labor this process must take on a daily basis.

Suddenly, I am awakened from my daydream by a quick rap on the taxi window. And then again. I turn to find an older looking man’s face, which appears to be the host of a pound of dirt on his leathery skin. As I stare into the eyes of this unfamiliar face, an anxious feeling starts to arise from the pit of my stomach.

More people realize the obvious features of a tourist—fair skin and light hair—and rush to the glass. Soon the air is filled with continuous bangs from the folded fists that obstruct our view of the outside world.

This is the most poverty stricken area I have seen so far. I couldn’t tell if the reason we are being harassed is because these people want money or because they feel resentful of the fact that we want to witness this extreme poverty for ourselves.  I feet guilty about our decision to come here and immediately persuade the taxi driver to turn back towards the exit.

The difference between the Dhobi Ghat children’s upbringing and mine are beyond fathomable. On our way out of this street, I think back to a more comfortable time of watching my family’s laundry roll around in our automatic dryer and wished for that comfort.

— Marcelle McCune

 

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