Dec 31, 2014
2014 Year in Review
Cebu city, Philippines
2014 started out on a good note - yoga. I was in Cebu City living at Jeanne's Dragonfly Yoga Studio and completely immersed in yoga. I would fanatically attend Veer's yoga classes, teach yoga at various studios, do my own practice and engage anyone with a yoga opinion - sometimes to a detrimental outcome. I even became reckless not getting rest even when injured - that injury stayed on and never healed. Let's just call that lesson learned. As good as it got going, I again felt the need to move on. When I got an invite to teach a yoga class in GenSan for a specific event, it seemed like the sign I was looking for. I will always be grateful to Jeanne for her friendship and her patience which were put many times to the test over my bullish persistence on what I thought was right. And to Veer, I can only say, "Thank You" for adopting me under his tutelage. It was a privilege to be one of his students. As for Cebu and Veer, a relationship I would call tempestuous, I am reminded of a Bob Dylan song that goes like this, "Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand...and rivers that ran through everyday...I never knew what I had...until I threw it all away". Of the few people I met, I have become a fan of a young gifted lady's many wonderful qualities, Gabbie, who bakes (she promised me a fruitcake if and when I ever return to Cebu), teaches yoga, plays piano, sings and always radiant with her smile and positive demeanor. I find that inspiring. A few more names come to mind...all wonderful people who helped shape the wonderful things that made Cebu a magical place or me - Ricco, Jade, RV, the YogiVeers...
Gen San City, Philippines
My invitation to teach at Marichi Yoga Studio was only for a couple of days. I don't know how, but by the time I left, I had been there 7 weeks, living mostly at the yoga studio. Again, I was immersed in yoga, seriously doing my daily practice and preparing new sequences for my teaching class. It wasn't just yoga. I developed a good friendship with Helen, the studio owner, together with her yoga community who admitted me within their orbit. Helen and I would talk endlessly about yoga, about life, love life, and everything else under the sky - always over food, to the extent we both got fat. The new friends I met were as warm and accommodating as they were generous. I was equally as glad to see an old friend from my previous Gen San visit, Ellen, and resume our friendship. As for the Mystery Lady of GenSan, it was something that saw a needed closure. There were a few looming possibilities within my peoplescape that were left unexplored. All is well that ended up well just the same. Gen San and its lovely people will remain special to me. Before I knew it, I was already off for Davao.
Davao City, Philippines
I have yoga friends in Davao and I thought I would be hanging out with them, but somehow that was eclipsed by the friendship I developed with someone I met at an art gallery - Lyn. Of the 20 days I spent in Davao, I was mostly with her or with my aunts. Lyn and I would be inseparable - talking, eating and laughing out loud over the silliest things. I can't imagine how Davao could have ended up for me if I didn't meet her. Abundance also rained on me while in Davao - closing hotel and resto deals that didn't put money in my pocket, but gave me a roof over my head and food in my tummy. I am glad that I am able to share my blessings there to people dear to me. With my aunts' kindness and hospitality, Davao has become home away from home.
Quezon City, Philippines
My reason for coming back to Quezon City was to celebrate my Dad's birthday. With my aversion to Manila, I wasn't seeing him often enough and he wasn't getting any younger. My short visit however, underscored our increasing differences - we see the same things in very different ways. We are also too steadfast in our conflicting resolve completely convinced we are both right. Again, I will have to love him from a distance - I have flown too far away from the nest.
Quezon City is also the place to treat myself to the Blues. I had a healthy doze of it at Black King's Bar in QC and at Heckle and Jeckles in Makati. I was particularly impressed by the Ian Lofamia Blues Band, with Ian pulling all the stops when he starts huffing and puffing on his harmonica. It was cool hanging out with Elwyn and Vehm again - 2 good friends who make the Blues scene come alive.
Another reason for my Manila visit was to do another 10-day Vipassana course. An annual participation keeps me on the rails, allowing me to regain perspective to navigate my moral and spiritual compass. Through the years, Vipassana has proven itself to be flawless - pure in its volition to help you develop an art of living in full compliance to the natural laws. Indeed, you see reality as it is, not what it was packaged to look like, and not what you want it to be. Vipassana will not solve your life problems - you come back from the course having the same problems, but you see them differently with a better understanding and appreciation. To put things plainly, with Vipassana, your burdens become more manageable and you become empowered to manifest your looming possibilities. In a materialistic and profit oriented Zeitgeist, Vipassana remains the vestigial hope in Pandora's box.
Widening my Coverage
I had been traveling the Philippines for 10 years already, some places I have already visited more than a handful of times. As beautiful as these places are and as wonderful as its people are, it was time to widen my coverage to include a long cherished dream of backpacking Southeast Asia.
My original plan was to tour SE Asia while deepening my Vipassana practice - I will do a 10-day course every month in a different country. I was to start my journey by being a server at the Vipassana center in Battambang, Cambodia. A server is one who has previously completed a 10-day meditation course and chooses to serve instead of sit. This means helping out in the kitchen to prepare the meals for the meditators, cook and clean up.
Doing Vipassana outside the Philippines presented unique challenges - hardly anyone spoke English and most of the communication was done by sign language. I also met some wonderful people who have become friends throughout my continuing travels. This is where I met Tuyen, a Vietnamese meditator who is likewise in pursuit of Dhamma (living life in accordance to the natural laws). Little did I realize then that I will be traveling the last 3 months of the year with her.
I would have done another Vipassana in India the following month, but after 2 back-to-back courses, it already felt like too much Vipassana. I have to venture out in the open world to live Vipassana as an art of living and not reduce it as a monthly ritual.
Tuyen and I became fast friends after the course as we explored Battambang, mostly on a bicycle. She would be my passenger as we roamed the city. This situation would be reversed when I visited her in Saigon - I would be her passenger on her motorbike. With help from Sokun, another Vipassana meditator, we went up Phnom Sampeuv, and for the first time, I had a glimpse of just how deep the Cambodians' devotion is to Buddha. There were countless statues, temples and shrines devoted to Buddha on this small mountain top. I soon realized that this is not unique. Cambodia is practically littered with pagodas and Buddha monuments.
Pol Pot and the Killing Fields
Battambang is where I was introduced first hand to the horrors that happened to Cambodia during the genocidal dictatorship of Pol Pot - in a short 3 years, 2 million people were brutally killed in a mindless attempt to purify the race from foreign influence - the infamous killing fields. Cambodia lost its best and brightest and had to start from scratch. Most of the Cambodians now are under 40 years old - those who were born after the genocide.
Seam Reap, Cambodia
As Tuyen left to attend another meditation course, I resumed my travel by going to Siem Reap - home to the world-famous Angkor Wat and its temple systems. Taking the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap, I met a Japanese traveler, Risa. The 8-hour boat trip gave us time to become friends. I would spend my first day in Siem Reap on a bicycle with Risa, going around town, exploring eating places and meeting other people along the way.
Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom
Of the myriad of temple systems in Siem Reap, the 2 that impressed me the most were Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom. Angkor Wat was the seat of the once powerful Khmer empire that covered south of Vietnam, Laos and parts of Thailand. The temple is both magnificent and massive. With the collapse of the empire, the jungle took over the temples until their recent discovery this century. Remnants of that could be seen in Ta Phrom where the root system of trees still hold the temple in its clutches.
With my Cambodian visa expiring, I went to Bangkok where I was given a 14-day stay. I had been to Bangkok before, but this time, I would be completely on my own. Bangkok is fascinating, diverse, and pulsing in energy. I didn't feel the need to go for the packaged tours (they were also pricey). Staying in the city and exploring its street food, market, malls and streets were enough. I met some interesting people as well - my cousin Sheila, Edith, Ellen and Kansuda. Bangkok was a challenge because no one spoke English. The simplest tasks became challenging. I would always get lost in the transport system because I couldn't talk English to the locals. I got lucky here with a hotel deal. My last 5 days were in a luxury room of a riverside hotel, compared to my $5/day dorm bed lodging.
With my Thailand visa expiring, I went back to Cambodia, this time taking the grueling 15-hour multiple bus rides to Sihanoukville. This is also where I got ripped-off by the unscrupulous transport providers at Post #16 at the Trat station. Sihanoukville is a party place for backpackers. Somehow though, it felt dead and highly commercialized. It was time to move. I took the ferry ride to Koh Rong Island.
Koh Rong, Cambodia
Koh Rong Island is also a beach party for backpackers, but the energy felt right and vibrant. If you want to party til you drop in one of the bars, this is the place. I tagged along a few people I met. I couldn't stay more than a few days here though...moving on to Kampot.
Kampot, like Battambang, is a charming town with its own unhurried pace. I first stayed at Arcadia Backpackers where I had a doze of extreme backpacker lifestyle. Its isolation from the city made it a free for all - booze, party and getting wrecked. I couldn't be part of that though but it was good to observe what was happening. I also met Matt here, an interesting guy who blogs, makes origami, knowledgeable, and a good story teller. This would be my last foray into backpacker culture as I moved to the city center for a more quiet time. It is best not to just stay in Kampot but to explore its surrounding areas. I had a wonderful crab meal in Kep, took a tour of Bokor Mountains and did a riverboat cruise.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I wanted to go to Phnom Penh to get a closer look at its recent history - the killing fields. I went to the actual killing field in Cheung Ek and to Tuol Sleng, the infamous prison system and its torture chambers. I saw the skulls pile high with puncture holes. I can only imagine the horrors that took place here. For what? An insane vision of a warped individual? It was all too mindless.
I would be once again reunited with my Vipassana friend, Tuyen upon my arrival in Saigon, where I get to stay at her empty unit. She was there on her motorbike and I would the constant passenger behind her. Even though I can drive, I would not risk it with Saigon's crazy motorbike culture. Motorbikes are like a swarm of locusts - too many and coming from every direction. Another fascinating feature of Saigon is its coffee culture. Cafes proliferate in Saigon - they come in various styles, format, theme and layout. It's really a culture unique to Saigon (and the rest of Vietnam). Street food takes on a new spin as Tuyen took me to the famous and best-selling local eating places where food is served in homes, called "quan an". They are inexpensive (around $1), delicious and they are everywhere!
Bao Loc, Vietnam
Upon the invite of 2 of Tuyen's friends, both Vipassana meditators, we went to Bao Loc, a mountain city 6 hours by bus north of Saigon. Bao Loc is a clean and beautiful city, lots of space with no congestion. Temperature-wise, I was told it's the best place to live in all of Vietnam. Temperature stays cool all year round. It doesn't get too hot like Saigon and it doesn't get too cold like Da Lat.
Son Nui, the Wise Old Man of Bao Loc
One of the reasons for going to Bao Loc was to meet the eccentric old wise man in the forest - Son Nui. Already in his late 70s, his mind remains sharp and his words like poetry. He is perhaps the last of his kind - a celebrated poet, environmentalist, an intellectual, a provocateur who engages you to think and iconoclast. My only regret is that I couldn't understand Vietnamese and his words had to suffer the loss of translation.
Da Lat, Vietnam
This was unplanned, but since we were only 2 hours away from Da Lat, it made sense to push forward. Everybody says Da Lat is one of the must-do mountain destinations of Vietnam. True enough, Da Lat is nothing short of breathtaking. It reminded me of Geneva by the lake. It looked like a new city that sprung up overnight, progressive but quaint, and still unhurried in its pace. The temperature is too cold for casual comfort - bundle up! It is said that meditators and people who seek inner peace take refuge in the serenity of Da Lat and Bao Loc. Both these cities are centered on a big placid lake that provides balance from its concrete massif.
The West, Vietnam
Upon our return to Saigon, which in effect was our homebase, we met up with another group of meditators and seekers who invited us to join them for a road trip to the West of Vietnam. The West, or the part of Vietnam that lies west of Saigon, is interesting for a few reasons. They have their own unique culture very different from their northern neighbors. The Mekong Delta spreads across the West with river systems resembling a busy interchange in Los Angeles. Their way of life is ruled by the river and the bounty that comes from it. In the market, you see all types of fresh water fishes, eels, crabs, etc. The West is also know for their beautiful women. Some of them go to the big cities in search of greener pasteur - as hotel front desk staff, guest relations staff or pretty women who wear sexy outfits promoting beer, cigarettes or SIM cards. They are also known to baby their men, almost to a fault. Becuase of the abundance of the river and the land, life is easy for them as can be observed through their calm and placid demeanor.
Sa Dec, Vietnam
Sa Dec is where I was awakened at 5am by the loud speaker system installed by the government to exalt the merits of communism. This is done twice a day, the next one at 5pm. There is no escaping this as the speaker systems are strategically placed to cover a wide area. Sa Dec has water coconut which can be had cheap ($xxx/kilo). It is also known for their flower and household plant industry. It's a slow town that keeps its pace. Sa Dec is also the setting of a true-to-life celebrated love story that was made into a movie - The Lover. I would later be visiting several places in the West where the rest of the story took place.
We only stayed overnight and headed out to Chau Doc to meet most of the crew for the road trip. They were seniors but still strong and vibrant. From here, we rode motorbikes for the 4 days of the road trip - covering most of the west including the west-most island of Phu Quok. Even as a passenger on Tuyen's ride, the road trip was exhausting, covering that immense area under the sun for the succession of days we rode on those little motorbikes.
Ha Tien, Vietnam
In the coastal city of Ha Tien, we stayed overnight to catch the ferry for Phu Quok the following day. Ha Tien is charming with a riverside promenade lined up with restos plus the night market. It has interesting pagodas where the monks encourage the visitors to sit and meditate instead of just passing through for pictures. It had a real feel to it - not a town designed and developed for tourism.
Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Phu Quoc Island is only 2 kilometers away from Kep, Cambodia. I could have crossed the border from Kep but I still had to visit Phnom Penh. I thought I have already forfeited my chance to see this island. The ferry took 3 hours. At US$45 for 2 pax plus 1 motorbike one-way, this was perhaps the biggest expense we incurred. Phu Quoc is being groomed to rival Singapore. Already, massive construction is underway with the likes of international hotel chains and resorts staking their claim. The new international airport has just been completed. With all the construction, it was dusty with roads that are yet to be paved. It has a few good beaches and it's know for its dive spots and coral reef. We had a chance to peek into its reef when a boatman offered us his home-made dive mask. It was a first for Tuyen who was mesmerized to see what lurked underneath the water. With her fascination, I much later on, arranged a trip for her to see the coral reef of the Philippines in Apo Island and Dumaguete...perhaps even Coron, pulling rabbits out of a hat to secure her hotel, resto and dive accommodations. And I did. Dhamma works! I think Phu Quoc can be best enjoyed 2 years from now when all that construction is already done.
Mangrove Forest, Vietnam
We were on the way back after 3 days in Phu Quoc. A surprise came when the group leader, Dang, took us for a pleasant detour on a mangrove forest that included a tower view overlooking the immediate landscape and a paddle boat tour in a pristine swampy mangrove that was habitat to a large number of big birds. I could not imagine a more ideal habitat for the birds. They had the swamp, the mangroves, the trees for nesting, abundant food, the protection of the law, the isolation from the general population...and no predators. Birdland Shangrila, if you ask me.
Chau Doc, Vietnam
Finally, we all reached Chau Doc where the crew split up and went about their own ways. Tuyen and I decided to stay in Chau Doc and see what's up with the place. First observation, Chau Doc is expensive - food and lodging. The city itself doesn't have much to offer except some pagodas and a trip to Sam Mountain. The floating market, according to some reviews, were a recent addition to the tourism landscape and may have been more for the tourist than the trading locals. Tuyen and I decided that if we were to see the real floating market, we had to make the longer trip to Phung Hiep. Chau Doc was a bit of a disappointment.
A Tale of 2 Seekers
One thing lingered with me with our West road trip. I was in the company of seekers - people in pursuit of higher evolution. In plain lingo, we all aimed for Nirvana. I witnessed 2 ends of the spiritual spectrum - one was a meditator who is learned in the scriptures, the rites and rituals, the proper path, and so on. This person can recite quotations of the Buddha, Krishnamurti or Osho. But this person has a self-righteous angst as if claiming her/his right to earned divinity. I don't think this person is happy. The other person is a practitioner of a local religion, although he never talked about it or engaged in any kind of 'spiritual talk'. He was just calm, always smiling and taking responsibility for his mandate. He would dispense fatherly advice learned from the trenches of life to locals we came across with, elucidating the values of family and harmony.. His aura radiated and you just wanted to be around him. He impressed me a lot. I sometimes fear that knowing too much of technical spirituality takes focus away from practising it as an art of living. Sometimes, knowing too much makes it a slippery slope to reducing this art of living to an intellectual spiritual adventurism.
Can Tho, Vietnam
It was not certain if we could find lodging in a small place like Phung Hiep so we decided to make camp for Can Tho, the capital of the West, 30 kms before Phung Hiep. It had its own charm so we ended up staying xxx days. Can Tho is huge with a central area by the river where foreigners hang-out. The riverside is lined by restos and cafes. We got lucky closing a hotel deal that offered comfort in a central location. Can Tho's main draw is its floating market, but we decided to forego that for Phung Hiep's bigger floating market.
Phung Hiep, Vietnam
Phung Hiep's floating market is special because 5 rivers of the Mekong Delta converge on this spot, connecting vendors and buyers coming from all 5 directions. Tuyen and I took off at dawn and gunned down the throttle for the 30 kilometer trip to make it in time. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the floating market was over! We could not stay another day for it as we headed back to Saigon after that. In retrospect, I missed the floating market in Bangkok, missed the floating market in Chau Doc, in Can Tho, and now missed the floating market of Phung Hiep. Sigh! Some things are never meant to be.
Continuing our travels, shortly after settling in Saigon to get our bearings back, we aimed to tour Laos - the land of a million elephants. But we had to go north to the highlands first to spend one night at Tuyen's hometown of Pleiku in Gia Lai Province, 12 hours by sleeping bus. Sleeping during the trip was a big asset - you don't feel the travel time, you gain one day and you save on lodging. The highland is known for its coffee and tea plantation. Given its elevation, it is cold. I got to meet the family of Tuyen and her high school friends who were all warm and accommodating. I got to see first hand how coffee is harvested in their family farm. It is interesting to note how coffee is laboriously harvested by hands, dried up, ground and packaged, until it is finally served to you in a cafe.
Pleiku to Pakse Bus Ride (Vietnam - Laos)
This is a horrible bus ride for all its discomfort. There is no comfortable tourist bus as there are no tourists in Pleiku. We boarded a cramped minivan full of Vietnamese workers crossing the Laos border to work. In this tightly packed environment with the windows closed (because of the cold), a lot of the men were smoking, completely oblivious to the non-smokers around them, babies, kids and women included. This is not an exception. Vietnam is a forward thinking country, but when it comes to public smoking, it is generations behind. Most advanced countries have dropped this practice, but not in Vietnam. I've seen smokers smoke in air conditioned cafes, restaurants and hospitals, even with the 'No Smoking' sign conspicuously visible.
Pakse is off the beaten tourism path. In Laos, the 3 famous destinations are Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang - but not Pakse. You still see some tourists, but not as much. You don't see too many people on the streets. Pakse is expensive. I would later find out that all of Laos is expensive. That is perhaps why Laos is not a favored place where travelers keep coming back to, unlike Bangkok or Saigon. Tuyen and I didn't go for any of the tours as they were all expensive, and at this point, we were low on cash. Fortunately, we got a hotel deal that gave us comfort and saved us cash. Abundance rained when we closed 2 restaurant deals - an Indian resto and a Vietnamese seafood restaurant. I can safely say that in Pakse, we were both looked after.
We proceeded north to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We were asleep for the 12-hour sleeping bus ride. Here in Southeast Asia, a 12-hour bus ride is common. How would this compare to the other capitals like Bangkok, Saigon or Phnom Penh? Vientiane felt old and tired. It has a charming strip lined-up with chic cafes, bars and restos, but that seemed like the only thing propping up Vientiane. The place felt commercial, with other nationalities who came there to do business just to cash-in on tourism - not necessarily for culture. Lots of places seemed nice on the outside to look pretty but quite neglected on the inside. The night market along the Mekong was particularly charming, specially when the highway is closed for the occasion. Tuyen and I rented a bike and gave ourselves a self-tour of the city.
Luang Prabang, Laos
We were almost disappointed with Laos until we arrived at Luang Prabang. Now, this place is uniquely charming. No wonder it garnered a World Heritage designation in 1995. The streets of the city along the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers are full of quaint shops, restos, cafes and hotels, all of them consistently keeping the French colonial architecture. The night market makes for most of the scenery at night with its narrow passages lined-up with interesting clothing. If there is one place you have to see in Laos, it is Luang Prabang.
I had been traveling the Philippines for 10 years now, visiting some places more than a few times already. They are all beautiful. But somehow, at the back of my mind, I kept wondering what the horizon is like with the rest of Southeast Asia. What am I missing? I have to be careful what I wish for - I usually get it. To tour the Philippines is fantastic! But to tour Southeast Asia is a definite level-up given the diversity of food, scenery and people. To travel these places is to have a ringside seat at their history and culture - you don't just see the movie, Killing Fields, you go to the place where it took place and hear first-hand accounts of what actually happened. You don't just see Pad Thai on a tv cook show but savour it from the streets of Bangkok. It's not tv, it's not a movie, it's reality.
I don't think I could do all this without being empowered by Vipassana. As a seeker in pursuit of Dhamma (the natural order of things, the truth), I placidly journey to these beautiful places knowing fully well my stay is not permanent - I will wake up the following day to a different place. The intoxicating sensory overload - the magnificent pagodas, the breath-taking scenery, the dizzying city lights, the bonding with people of dimension, the quiet moments by the river - are all fleeting moments to be experienced, not owned. When walking the path, good things happen in the most uncanny ways. With Dhamma on your side, you are looked after.
The beautiful places I'd been to are only exceeded by the beautiful people I've met - Veer for keeping me under his yoga-fold, Jeanne for giving me a roof over my head, Jade-RV-Gabbie-Ricco-YogiVeers for their friendship, Helen and her merry yoginis for making GenSan a home for me, Ellen D. who is steadfast as a friend, my aunts in Davao who continue to look after my well-being, Lyn for painting a better picture of Davao for me, my Dad for his unwavering support, Risa for the magic of Siem Reap, Kansuda-Ellen-Edith-Shiela-Moe for the memories of Bangkok, and the list goes on. These wonderful people are the best thing that ever came out of the Big Bang.
Given my nomadic mobility, there is hardly any constant - I experience everything and I meet everyone from a revolving door. However, in the last 3 months, completely unplanned, I had been with one person, day-in and day-out - my Vietnamese Vipassana traveling partner, Tuyen. Our devotion to Dhamma is our common ground - everything else follows. Tuyen is smart, quick-thinking, efficient and forward-moving. In Vietnam, she has been my translator, helping me talk to prospects and close deals. She organizes our trips, meticulously planning out our itinerary. She's keen on pointing out my blind spots and strategizes on how to make things better and more efficient. Indeed, I have become lazy with her doing a lot of what I should be doing for myself. Together, we blazed our travels complementing each other in ways that only deepened our friendship. We started out as Vipassana servers, then I became her overstaying house guest in Saigon, then we evolved into travelmates. Now, she is my best friend. I could not ask for a better partner. For her support, affection and friendship, I am profoundly grateful.
I have met so many people who were generous and opened doors for me. I reciprocate, but not in the way of money as I have meager means. The web has been my currency - I say "thank you" in ways that can enhance their business, or extend them hotel or restaurants credits. Sometimes, I just give them away to people I casually meet in my travels. When it comes to abundance, I am porous - the blessings go through me but it doesn't stay with me as I pass it around. In my parlance, "I share the love".
Rich people have money. Celebraties create trends just by being famous. Powerful people flatten mountains along their path. Power, money and influence make up the social scenery - nothing wrong with that. They can all be used for the greater good. But I have neither of the above even if I want them. My benevolent universe however, showers me with abundance in ways that have eased life for me. I used to be choosey if it was not to my liking. Now, I simply accept with gratitude. With that acceptance however, more doors open up and life reveals more of its secrets in little morsels. My currency is the freedom to go where I want to go, do what I want to do and be what I want to be - very few people on the planet can exercise that privilege. Yes, what a privileged life. I am always...always grateful for the blessings.
(Jan 8, 2015) I'm a lucky person to meet you:)
(Jan 8, 2015) What an amazing year you have had. You are such an inspiration to many to spread their wings and explore the possibilities of our world. xo
(Jan 8, 2015) Keep on riding my brother...
Dec 31, 2014
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