Home away from Home

Our home away from home deserves a quick post.  The Mangelsdorfs have taken us in 4 times, always with love, laughter, generosity and comfort.

Max Lisa Lucas Ethan and Ana (M5) are friends from our time in South Africa.  The first year we were there, Lisa was pregnant with Ethan, the second year I was pregnant with Mia and wore all of Lisa’s maternity clothes.  They held Mia the day she was born.  They were like family then and they are absolutely family now.

Since South Africa they have lived and worked in Sumatra Indonesia and now Malaysia for the past 8 years.  M5 took a year off last school year and traveled the states visiting family and friends.  We were lucky to be one of their stops.  We talked long about traveling in Asia and through those discussions our four 4 four destination was decided.

We originally intended to spend only 1 week with M5 in Kuala Lumpur in January.  As it turns out KL is the little known center of the universe and all cheap flights go through KL.  So, we spent a week at the house in January, a few days in February, a week at spring break and a final night before we left this morning to fly home.

Lisa said that she thinks we could probably live together long term (in a bigger house) because we really understand each other’s crazy.  I agree and it will be hard not to pop in for a visit very soon.

We are so grateful for our time together, our time in a family home and so many laughs.

During our time together:

We had 3 adult nights out including roof top drinks with views of the towers and a secret entry speak easy for drinks.

We had Food Food and more Food – Nasi Kandar, chicken rice, Dumplings, Indian, Tapas and of course home cooking. We had chicken fish and Durian challenge in a down pour

I went to book club, the boys played basketball and soccer at the school, we saw Rogue One, visited the SPCA and children’s hospital.

We hiked in the jungle and were attacked by leeches (I’m not kidding and they are the most vile creature).  We visited a bamboo eco resort for water play.

We saw Lukas’s school performance of Hamilton (AMAZING)

We played many rounds of The Game (a version of charades) and were introduced to the fun group phone game Drawful.

Thank you Mangelsdorfs.  We love you and will miss you.

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The Dark Side of the Cave

I could see my ugliness reflected in the faces of my distraught and sinking children.  I was in danger of souring the day with no chance of recovery.  I could see it all happening and yet I could not stop myself.  Fueled by thriftiness, justice and the desire to be right, I picked a fight at the dark cave.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam is home to massive wet and dry cave systems, one being the largest in the world.  Most of the caves are closed to the public and/or require a guide to enter, we opted to visit only the ones that allow self-touring.  It turns out that only one of two visited actually allowed self-touring.  It also turns out that we wish we had paid to do a more extensive tour, because the caves and jungle were amazing.

The first cave we decided to visit was the dark cave, because it advertised ziplining into the cave, cave exploration and a mud bath.  Believe it or not, this aspect of the adventure was what caught Mia’s eye.  She has a new found appreciation for mud after making mud sculptures and mucking waist deep in a lagoon at Railay beach in Thailand).

We arrived at the dark cave on motorbikes.  Motorbiking into the National park was an activity in itself.  Beautiful primary jungle, very little traffic, freedom of the road.   Mia and I always ride together because she doesn’t like to go fast and I have a comfort speed zone that is just too safe and slow for Porter.  We make a good team.  She navigates and waves at little kids, I drive and try not to get hit by a bus.  Mia and I kept losing our engine on the steep down hills but would just coast to the bottom and fire it up again. The road through the national park was spectacular.  I thought that I had been in the jungle before, but this was pristine, dense, lush jungle.  It feels as though you drink it in like a thick green smoothie.  I hoped that Mia and Porter might absorb some good green nutrients that have been so lacking from their white rice diet.

After arriving at the dark cave, the sign up woman at the entrance informed us that the kids would not be able to zipline due to being under 40kg and therefore we would have to kayak to the entrance instead.  This was the first annoyance.  I mildly argued that we had just done the world’s most extensive network of ziplines; we know how to do it, and pull ourselves across if needed.   Porter was especially chuffed not only because he likes to zip but he considers himself a bit of an expert post Gibbon Experience.  Porter has also been feeling generally ignored in Asia.  We call it “adored but ignored.”  Patted, pinched and pet but not really heard.  As I write this, I realize that the Gibbon Experience and Bees were two places that allowed Porter the freedom to learn and discover on his own, he was trusted with responsibility and his needs were heard.  They were also his two favorite experiences of the trip.

I got a little worked up about the no ziplinng and asked if there was a family discount since their rule precluded us all from ziplining.   She said no discount but the kids are half price.  I let it go, felt good about the kid price and knew that a safety rule is a safety rule and not likely to bend.  The sign up woman then waved Mia over to a measuring stick and informed us that she is too tall to get the kid price.  Too light for zipping, but too tall to be a kid.  WHAT?!?!?!?!

I boiled at the injustice.  I let every bit of Vietnam frustration rush to the surface.  I was going to punish this ticket person for my travel fatigue, my disappointment in the food, our encounters with Mr. Angry Pants, the difficult language, the cold weather, my untethered, homesick, and purposeless angst.

“How can she be treated like a child and not get child prices, that makes no sense!” We went back and forth several rounds, I was getting uglier by the minute, she was keeping her composure and a plastered smile, hoping that I would just go away.

Meanwhile, the kids were sinking as deeply into their negative moods as they were into their chairs.  Porter was verbalizing his dislike of this place and “what a rip off.”  We have been trying to limit how much we talk about bigger costs of things as Porter has developed a bit of a money worry while traveling.  His interest in the good deal has morphed into genuine concern that we are going to run out of money.  Even with this knowledge, I could not stop.   I told the kids that I was aware of how I was ruining the experience but it would be over soon and we would be a happy family once again and the cave would be GREAT! (clenched teeth),  BUCK UP everyone! (forced smile).

It is in my nature to be both a rule follower and a rule breaker.  John is always taken off guard when one or the other instinct pops up.   I may not want to jump the fence and face getting in “trouble” but I certainly don’t think that excessive entrance fees apply to me.  Needless to say, this was a rule worth breaking, destroying, obliterating and most definitely not worth following.  I was certain I could break this rule.

And so, I called in the Manager.  A short athletic type with the typical endearing outdoor-rec chummy humor.  His charms worked, I let up and he agreed to ask the “big boss.”

“I ask big boss,” he said, pointing upstairs, “I just little boss, little boss loose my job if I don’t follow rules.”

It’s hard to argue the case for Mia being small when she is nearly the height of most grown men – including the manager.  He was quite literally “the little boss.”   I’m not sure the call actually happened, but he did go through the motions.  No discount.  It’s over, I lost, we move on right?  No.  My classic next move when I know I’m losing the battle is to seek validation that although I have lost, “I AM RIGHT!”  A few more rounds, manager has lost his charm, I am utterly defeated.

In the end, I accomplished nothing but souring the mood, accosting a woman and feeling ashamed of my misguided conviction.  I apologized to the family for my behavior and turned on my uber-chipper-make the best of it-attitude.  My family is resilient and forgiving.  Every step away from the check in, moods started to lift.

Kudos to Mia.  Her 28kg skin and bones frame jumped into a cold river, walked into a dark cool cave wearing only a swim suit and headlamp helmet.  Shivering along the muddy passage ways, hands bracing on the muddy walls, entering a cold muddy pool with no shore and no shallow end– not a peep.  When John pointed out that she was really a four-4-four trooper on this day, she responded calmly but firmly, “oh I know, I know….and you owe me some painful shopping days.”

The highlight of the cave was a chamber filled with mud.  Waist high, latte-colored swimming pool with the texture of gritty thick water instantly covered our bodies in a thin layer of creamy brown.  Kinda cool?  Kinda grosss? Kinda mysterious?  Yes, yes and yes.

Porter was of course leading the pack with the guide and entered the pool first.  We had heard that the mud was more buoyant than water but we were all still on our feet and it just seemed like muddy water.  Suddenly, Porter was floating on his back with most of his body out of the muddy water.  He was laughing and shouting with disbelief and delight.  We all tentatively lifted our legs and boing, up to the surface we bobbed, most of our bodies pushed out of the slurry.   It became a giggle fest in the echoey chamber.  Once floating, it was hard to get my legs back under me and my body just kept rolling around on the surface.  Mia and I experimented with the balance point curled up in a ball and paddled ourselves across the pool in this position.

We were the last of the large group to leave the mud chamber.  With the rest of the group out of site down a skinny corridor, six of us paused in the adjacent dry chamber. We turned off our headlamps and stood in silence in absolute, complete darkness.   For me it was at first exhilarating, timeless, and vast.  In the next moment, just before turning on our lamps, a glimpse of crushing panic, thick air, hard to breathe.  John and I looked at each other wide eyed, “did you feel that?”  “I felt it.”

The day ended with John and Porter playing on a series of ropes and small zip lines over the river.  Mia and I shivered our way through a cold shower and dressed in every layer we brought.  Pringles have never tasted sooo good.  We motored home with the setting sun, leaving behind my dark mood.  I could feel a shift happening in my psyche that often comes with unrelenting nature and good old fashioned giggles.

I have included pictures from the national park and Paradise cave, which we visited the next day.  Paradise was discovered in 2005 by a local farmer.  A small opening only a few meters wide, opens into a vast cavern reaching dimensions of 72m high and 150m wide.  It measures 31km in length.  We walked the boardwalk 1 km in.  Although the cave was built up with boardwalks and flood lights and attracted many tourists, it was a wondrous site to behold.

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Po Po, Peanut Butter, P-Town, Mr. Silky Pants

I love that boy and he makes me laugh every day.  Porter has quickly morphed into the quintessential Asia backpacker and has embraced every backpacker fashion trend. He really has a remarkable flair for fashion and he always knows exactly what he wants when we are at the market.  I used to be doubtful and look at him sideways but now I know, you don’t get named Mr. Silky Pants for nothing.   Here are some highlights:

 

 

 

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Garbage

Ugh, the garbage/plastics situation is not good, in fact it feels dire.  As my friend Lisa said, the longer you live in Asia, the more hopeless the garbage situation feels; efforts that we put forth in the states can not even begin to make up for the amount of plastic used here. But don’t give up, there is hope. Shifting the collective subconscious from dispose to reduce reuse recycle takes time, patience and persistence.   There are some people making changes in select communities.

If John were writing this, he would have some useful statistics about plastic use and production, plastics in our oceans and what it’s doing to the planet. But, that would require some additional research so take my word for it or look up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Okay, I did some research.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a plastic mass twice the size of Texas, 9 feet deep.  There are 5 major ocean patches on the earth.

7 billion pounds of non recyclable plastic are produced every year

only 7% of the plastic in the US is recycled.

The issues I witnessed in SE Asia are two fold:

In some areas, garbage disposal is a problem.  There are not well executed systems for collection and disposal. Insufficient systems lead to people dumping or burning their garbage, which is of course toxic for the people and the planet.

The other issue is plastic production.  ALL THINGS COME IN COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF PLASTIC.  The packaging situation is out of control.  Most drinks, even if it is not take away, is put in a plastic cup with a straw or two, then put in a plastic bag or a special plastic strap holder so you don’t have to hold your drink.  I’m not sure the purpose except maybe so your hand doesn’t melt the ice?????  Even plastic water bottles can be purchased with a straw and a bag for carrying the plastic with water in it.

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In Indonesia upon first encountering the garbage, I had mixed feelings.  On one hand I wanted to be at a clean beach or clean jungle path free of garbage while on my vacation.  On the other hand, I knew it was important to see it and be in it because that is the reality.  The clean swept beach is an illusion and the garbage that was removed for your viewing pleasure in paradise, is piled up at the end of the beach, ready to be burned.

Mia has been vigilant about not accepting bags for our purchases and bags and holders for our drinks.  We have not been so vigilant about straws.  Our friends, the Mangelsdorfs order drinks with no straw knowing that it will always arrive with with one.

We have seen some recycling efforts.  In Cambodia – recycled art.  John got a rubber tire belt, we all have paper wallets, I have a necklace of beads made from wrapped paper.   We saw people going through garbage pulling out plastic bottles, indicating some sort of reuse or recycle.  Les Manguiers guesthouse in Kampot had recycling bins set up.  The Green Umbrella school had a garbage compressing machine that makes garbage bricks to be used for walls.

I don’t know very much about the problem world wide.  I’m certain, like all things, the problem is complicated.  Introduction of fast food, westernization of production without infrastructure for disposal and transport, lack of refrigeration but increased production of transportable foods.  The banana leaf, although still used as a bowl, bag, wrapper, plate etc, just isn’t keeping up.

So, the garbage situation is bleak but let me leave you with this little nugget of hope and good times. One morning while at breakfast on Sriboya, a french expat invited us to join a trash clean up effort partnering with the local school.  Great, we were due for a project and a give back.   He started the Sriboya chapter of Trash Hero, an international community based program focused on education and cleanup efforts.  They have a facebook page if you want to check it out.

We met the next morning at 8:30 and walked the beach 1 kilometer to meet up with the students age 8-11.  We divided into groups and headed out to do the clean up.  What ensued was the same group dynamic with a large group of kids in a loosely organized activity that I have witnessed everywhere I have ever worked with kids.  The separated groups immediately became one large scattered mass of friends, loners, hard workers, slackers and defeated adult volunteers.  Most of the girls were picking up garbage, the smart studious boys were picking up garbage and then there were the packs of naughty little boys destroying things, turning plastic bags into wind kites, hiding in the trees.  Ant and I got a few packs of the naughties to engage and fill some bags.  One boy communicated clearly to me through body language that he simply did not pick up garbage, it was below his pay grade.  I stuck Ant on him and he filled a whole bag with Styrofoam.  In the little packs there was usually one girl, you know, the girl that runs with the boys.  Who do you think was doing the job when the group was approached?  She was.

There was one pack of girls huddled up in the tide pools so I checked up on their progress.  They were smashing shellfish attached to the rock and scraping out the tiny slimy animal inside.  TO EAT!  I thought that was Badass and left them to it.

The whole group gathered to sort the garbage and have a snack. Mia and Porter worked hard.  Mia jumped right in despite the searing heat, sorting the garbage until the job was done. We played games with the kids, tried to communicate, took selfies.  At one point, Mia started quietly singing the cup song with a water bottle.  At first the girls became quiet to listen, then the boys were silenced with curiosity, then the girls all squatted down to see more clearly what she was doing.  Her voice got stronger and a pack of 20 kids were silently listening.  It was Awesome and Brave, everyone cheered when she finished.  After that Mia had a few little cuties that wouldn’t let go of her hand.

 

A job well done, hopefully some education about the problem and for us, some fun connections with kids.

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solidarity

On January 23rd we returned from an Island where we did not have electricity and therefore internet.  Upon returning I was overwhelmed by messages and information about the women’s march around the country.  The largest protest in US history.  It was emotional for me to read, I felt a longing to be there but also glad to be where I am.  I felt immense pride in my people, especially the turnout in Bellingham 10,000 strong.  You rock Liz Isaly!!!  I am inspired by the message of love and action. 

I am also emotional traveling through a country that was recently devastated by a narcissistic dictator.  It was only 40 years ago that Pol Pot wanted to make Cambodia great again.  The Khmer Rouge regime removed intellectuals, free thinkers and anyone who was in opposition to his narrow view.  An entire generation was wiped out or forced to slaughter.  There are so few people over 50 years old and the few who survived suffered so greatly.  The country is young, but healing, beautiful, kind, welcoming and generous.   The Epic Arts program in Kampot calls Cambodia, The phoenix of Asia – rising from the ashes.

We are trying to do our part by being open hearted Americans, getting to know people and spreading the love.  My comments below are not new ideas or revelations but still so important to say out loud.

We have met Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists.  Everyone we have met has offered a kind heart, generosity and openness. 

Islam is NOT Terrorism – Hate and ignorance is terrorism.  And Buddhism is not peace – loving action is peace.  My antidote for prejudice and judgement? Having a conversation, asking someone about their family, observing someone with their children.  Learning something about their culture, language, life. 

I will wrap up this reflection with my own story of facing prejudice.  While at Angkor Wat, visiting the temples I had some very judgmental thoughts and negative feelings toward one ethnic group arriving in great numbers on tour buses.  It happened two days in a row, I was annoyed, I was starting to overgeneralize and did not like how it felt but the stronger I felt it, the more true and justified it seemed.  So I outed myself and talked to john.  He pointed out first that the tour bus demographic in all cultures is not typically our cup of tea but even then, each of those people has a story.  I tried to keep perspective into the evening and look for counter examples.  At dinner, we watched a large family at first appear to be ignoring each other, all on cell phones including the very old grandma.  I judged again then realized that they were playing an interactive game and totally enjoying each other with  fits of laughter mixed in.  Mia and I fell in love with the grandma on her I-phone.  John asked me later, “did you dislike those people?” “no, not at all.”  The next day, Mia and I were climbing steep temple stairs at sunset and two older women got the giggles as they climb/crawled up the stairs.   We were so endeared to these women and the giggles were infectious, everyone around them joined in with the laughter and the struggle. I loved these women.   My tour bus angst began to fade as people became people again.  (but its still better to go early in the morning or at lunch before the buses arrive: )  Negative Judgement is a slippery slope, toward self, toward others.  It’s work to keep it in check.

Thank you to all the love warriors out there working daily to protect freedom, improve equality and protect the environment.  I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to be with my family and travel.  I think I’m learning to be a better person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OPM (over-parenting moment)

Classic case of over-parenting with consequences.  This most recent episode of over-parenting ended with me having a palm full of black urchin spines piercing my skin.

Over-parenting is something my family is familiar with and they have now coined the term OPM.  An example might be, warning too loudly about dog poop on the ground and then they do step in it even though they were totally clear of it before the warning.   And then there is the motherly involuntary verbal vomit “BE CAREFUL!!!!”  Never useful and totally over used.

We spent 2 days on a small island, Koh Ta Kiev, off of the coast of Cambodia.  A small, super chill, no  electricity, no cars, funky cool, tree housey, open air, bungalow island guesthouse.

On our second evening, I asked Porter to snorkel with me at a spot down the beach with good coral.  Our beach was known for the black sea urchins which are very cool and totally avoidable (unless you over-parent and lose your head).  We had a nice snorkel in the setting sun, held hands, pointed to cool stuff together.  As we approached shore, I showed Porter how we needed to aim for a certain point on the beach in order to make it to the sandy safe section and not drift into the rocky section of beach.  As we approached we hit the sand and let go of hands.  The story could have ended with me saying nothing and both of us happily swimming to the shore, but NO!  I couldn’t stop myself.  I had to issue more warnings about possible stray urchins in the sand and to not just walk out without looking and blah blah blah.  Meanwhile we had drifted, we were over the rocks, I yelled commands to Porter to the left, swept my hand through the water to the right and bam! spikes to the hand. More yelling, a little navigating and then assessing the damage.  6 bloody punctures stained black from the urchin spines.  I was able to remove one spine but made a run for the guest house to get tweezers for the rest.

Oh, how was Porter?  Just fine.   Just fine before I said anything, just fine before I panicked and just fine after I panicked.  I like to think I saved his life, I sacrificed my own for his safety but the reality is that he was fine and I had spikes in my hand.

Black Urchin spine attack looks pretty nasty.  We didn’t get a picture so I will include one I found online as an example.

I told john that from here on out, if it is not life threatening, get a photo (which he did today while mia was puking from car sickness just after we arrived to our new guest house in Kampot. img_9486 I wish I had a picture of him taking a picture.  One hand holding her hair back and one hand taking a photo from above with a sheepish look on his face).

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately,  there was plenty of local wisdom for dealing with the urchin.  It didn’t hurt very much but I had heard that it can get infected or make you sick from the toxins.  The first bit of advice came from Ozzy, the steampunk meets island hippy German who worked at the guesthouse.  He said to “smash a beer bottle over your hand many times.”  Hmmmm…. He went on to say that it will help to break up the spines.   I first thought he was making a joke that I may as well break glass over my hand because I’m screwed, but then saw that he was quite serious.   John finally clarified by asking “So break a bottle and use the sharp jagged end for what?”  Ozzy howled “Nooooo, I’m German but I’m not crazy! Hit your hand with the smooth bottle to break down the spines in the skin.”   Advice #2 came from TJ, full body tattooed ex-marine Hawaiian living in California, with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.  He recommended very hot water to draw out the toxins.  Advice #3 came from the Cambodian cook who said both ideas were solid.  By morning, it was sore but faded, a few days later still a little sore but it looks like it never happened.

I have included pictures of the cool guesthouse called Coral Beach.  It is owned by a French chef and the food was AMAZEBALLS!!!  Each meal was a choice of 2 meals that had to be ordered at a specific time.  Everyone gathered together to eat, drink and enjoy each other’s company.  We befriended an Aussie couple, Indigo and Laura, with whom we played cards each night.

 

 

 

 

The Kids

The kids continue to inspire and delight.  There’s nothing quite like a day in bed with stomach problems, then a weak but able sunset temple visit to make me reflect on the love and gratitude for a great family, and creative, silly, tender-hearted and curious kids.

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We’ve been trying to connect with NGO’ and their affiliated “social enterprises.”  Services or shops that support the development and growth of disadvantaged Cambodian youth or those blinded, deafened or disfigured by land mines (that still exist off the beaten path).  The first night in Cambodia, we went to a Friends restaurant where all of the staff are former street kids training for restaurant work or to improve English and move on to higher education.  There is one teacher server and many student servers.  They also had a retrash shop filled with upcycled art, bags made from rice sacks, wallets out of rubber tires and beads made from wrapped paper.  The kids loved the whole concept and it really set the stage for looking for opportunities to support good causes while we eat, shop, and recreate.  On this particular night, Porter ordered grilled frog legs.  He was so brave, it looked like…well…frog legs up to the waist.  It was basically a Frog and Toad massacre disguised as 5-star cuisine but he powered through.  I tried to play it cool but could not watch him eat it.  John got a delicious steak salad sprinkled with red tree ants!!

The next morning after watching sunrise at Angkor Wat (kids willingly got up at 4:15am), we came upon a monk doing blessings.  The kids were eager to engage.  The monk was playful and kind.  It is amazing how quickly kids take to all of the cultural protocols.  No hang ups about using language, taking shoes off, bowing with hands in prayer, kneeling in front of a monk.  When Porter bowed in prayer pose, he had his shoes in his hands.  The monk giggled and said “bless the shoes, bless the shoes.”

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Porter found one of my trip highlights at the Angkor Thom temple.  He said, “hey guys, there’s something where you take your shoes off and it looks cool.”  We all followed and discovered at the heart of the temple, a small dark chamber filled with Buddha statue, offerings, candles and incense.  We took off our hats, packs and shoes, entered and kneeled together.  Even though the temple complex was filled with other tourists, we had almost 5 minutes alone in this sacred space.  We each lit incense and sat in contemplative silence.  I was so moved and filled with love.  We tiptoed out, bowing our respects.

In perfect kid form, 10 minutes later, I said how special that was for me and Porter asked, “what experience? What room? When? What candles? Ohhh yeah” I am going to just assume that the experience was so wonderful that it bypassed short term memory and went straight to deep cellular memory and a lasting impression.

Yesterday, we found another social enterprise, silk screen t-shirt making.  The kids will write more details about the experience, but mia and porter were so excited to participate and adamant that we had to do this particular activity because it was a “social enterprise”.  It was a group effort but the kids were in the lead with design ideas.  They both know exactly what they want and they are great at compromising and blending ideas.

Unfortunately, I did not get to join them for the actual screen process since I was laid up in bed all day with crummy tummy.  The bathrooms are well designed for this occurrence.  Most bathrooms are one multipurpose room, toilet, sink and shower.  So, if you fear expelling from both ends (which I did fear), no worries, because you can just hose down and shower up.  Fortunately, it never came to that, my system decided to take turns.

The kids of course were loving and tender when they returned with stories of print making, so proud of the family shirts they created.

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We ended our time in Siem Reap at Pre Rup temple for sunset, wearing our team shirts.  The kids got really into using the good camera and learning settings.  Then a beautiful tuk tuk ride home with the rising orange full moon.