Tag Archives: Beach

The Last Leg…

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THIS IS IT..the FINAL COUNTRY; last border crossing, last set of ‘useful’ phrases to learn, last feeling of utter confusion as we try to calculate how many (insert currency) to the dollar / pound / (insert whatever currency we’ve just left).

SO…

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Where we have been…

The first map (red line) shows where we have been. It looks a little unorthodox but remember we are still a merry company of seven so need to start and end at the same place. From Cambodia, we gathered up our gleaming halos and took an epic 36-hour bus ride to Nha Trang, a small city on the South China Sea.

After a few days in Nha Trang, we (or some of us anyway) got the bus five hours down the road to Mui Ne, an idyllic beach town just a little further down the coast.

Another night bus will take us back to Ho Chi Minh city and this is where we will say our goodbyes. Many thanks to Rhys, McEvoy, Chris, Daw and Jamie for being nutters.

 

 

Where we're going...

Where we’re going…

Cel and Imogen will continue down to the Mekong Delta before going back to Ho Chi Minh city and flying (we just couldn’t face another three-day bus journey, and price-wise there’s not much in it!) up to Danang.  From there it’s the historic town of Hoi An, the picturesque Halong Bay and finally ending up Hanoi.

 

See you somewhere along the way..!

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Thailand Island Hopping

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Our route.. in minature

Follow the yellow stars from left to right: Koh Phi Phi (bottom left), then across the mainland to the Gulf of Thailand and the islands of Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao.

 

 

Here we go….

Koh Phi Phi

“Oh how beauty can be a burden. Like Marilyn Monroe, Phi Phi’s stunning looks have become its own demise”

Thank you Lonely Planet. For once, you’re absolutely spot on.

Of course, we can’t exactly speak PERSONALLY from experience of the burden of beauty, but we have become aware of  it’s bittersweet truth having spent a few days  on the Thai island of Phi Phi (Pee Pee.. it never gets old).

As you catch the boat over the Andaman Sea towards the island, the sparkling azure waters, fine white sand, and towering cliffs rising over great lagoons give you every reason to think that you are in paradise. But it’s this appeal that is killing it – it’s a hidden treasure that is not so hidden any more, and the island’s resources and infrastructure are buckling under the swelling tourist demand.

The views towards Phi Phi

The views towards Phi Phi

 

Of course, there’s plenty to see and do. The actual island is tiny; home to a minute resident population and completely devoid of cars. The tourist village of Tonsai, once consisting of a handful of hotels and completely battered in the 2004 tsunami, has grown and re-grown to a beach holiday mecca; plenty of accommodation, any style of food, all-night bars spilling out the streets, dive centres, beaches, pharmacies, 7/11s – you name it, in terms of convenience, Phi Phi has probably got it. Although most of the accommodation is centred around Tonsai, there is a clear divide between the more upmarket hotel-resorts of the south side, and the lashtastic hostel holes of the town centre.

This works well for both parties; those who want a relaxing holiday pay that little bit extra and avoid the town chaos, and those who are having a bit of a blow-out don’t have to worry about making too much noise. If you are going to stay in Tonsai, you’ll have a tough time escaping the tween traveller trail. Who can blame them? Phi Phi is every 18-year olds dream; dirt-cheap alcohol buckets, streetside tattoo parlours, bunches of sexy farang (foreigners.. that’s you and me) touting for bars on the streets in exchange for free booze and a guaranteed good time, and absolutely no one to tell you that the sea isn’t a bin, the street isn’t a toilet, and flailing about with a Bacardi Breezer and sunburn isn’t a good look.

Thankfully, Phi Phi isn’t all rum and neon, it’s also a great place to make the most of the sea, and is the starting point for some fantastic day boat trips. It only takes a few hours to go round the whole island, including stop off points at uninhabited Mosquito and Bamboo islands as well as Monkey Bay on the main isle. Depending on which boat trip you have, you are more than likely to be able to stop and jump off for a bit of snorkelling whenever you want.

 

Most trips continue onto the neighbouring island, Phi Phi Leh, which ticks every box in terms of an antidote to the rowdy main island. It was here where Alex Garland’s cult classic, The Beach, was filmed, and naturally has become a sort of pilgramage for the modern day traveller. The scenery is stunning – so much so that you can easily forget that you are sharing the water with hundreds of other boats, and there is almost no accommodation, which means the island remains largely unspoilt. This is one experience not to miss – swimming in deep clear lagoons in the shadow of craggy cliffs. You know that typical postcard perfect ‘image of Thailand’? Longtail boat, turquoise sea, rugged rock face in the background…? Well, this was it in the flesh.

 

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

 

So, that was it. Phi Phi Don (lash) and Phi Phi Leh (beaut). To be fair, although I’ve definitely had a good old moan (M.A.I = Middle-aged Imogen…I should probably get back to my knitting), it’s not all bad. Despite feeling like we weren’t young enough or our clothes weren’t neon enough, we did adopt an ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude fairly quickly. Which was fun. Very fun.

I guess it’s just a word of warning: we were under the impression that Koh Phangnan was the party island and Phi Phi was the calm before the storm, but this is not the case. If you go to Phi Phi Don expecting deserted beaches and a true taste of Thailand, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But go for some cheap voddie and maybe a tattoo or two, and you’ll have a blast.

 

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From here we sweated on to the ferry to Krabi, bussed it across to Surat Thani, on the Gulf of Thailand, and landed on the shores of Koh Phangnan as the sun was setting…

Koh Pha-Ngan

 

Look for the two red circles - First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

Look for the two orange circles – First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

 

Everyone knows about Koh Pha-Ngan. That’s where the Full Moon Party is, right? So it’s going to be crazy and drunken and dirty and loud and generally a bit minging, yes?

Well, not really. At all.

For a start, Koh Pha-Ngan, although smaller than neighbouring Koh Samui (which we didn’t have time to go to), is much bigger than Phi-Phi. And you can feel it. There are people who live permanently on the island and it doesn’t have that feeling of a purpose-built resort about it. Cars, pick-up truck-taxis and mopeds storm about on concrete roads and authentic Thai street food stalls far outnumber the dodgy western fare. Yes, this may be the site of one of the most famous parties on the planet, but its overall appeal is immediately evident

So we started off with the Full Moon Party. Sorry, Mum, but as someone said to us when we arrived, ‘The Full Moon Party is kind of like smoking. You know it’s not very healthy, but you have to try it once to see what it’s like’.

 

Gearing / painting up for the Full Moon

 

It all takes place in Hat Rin (Haad Rin), a town set on a peninsula on the southernmost tip of the island and geared up in every way possible for the monthly influx of full mooners. The tongue of land jutting out into the gulf has a beach on either side; handily called Hat Rin Nai and Hat Rin Nok, Sunset and Sunrise respectively. Sunset is smaller and quieter, whereas Sunrise is where all the lunar madness happens.

You can tell that the Hat-Rin-ers are used to the parties because they are absolute pros. As the sun goes down, makeshift bars pop up on the street sides and along the beaches, tattoo artists sit outside their shops drawing swirling patterns in UV paint on the bodies of willing tattoo-ees, EVERYONE has some sort of neon item of clothing or paint on and the streets are packed, which gives the whole town a kind of eerie glow, as though you are seeing everything through a phosphorescent lens. The actual party doesn’t kick off ‘till late, when the whole town is sufficiently fed, painted and lubricated.

As for the party itself, there is no doubt that this is one of the best parties we’ve ever been to. The music is phenomenal, there are literally thousands of people and it all takes place on this paradise island moonlit beach. And if it all becomes a bit too much, you take time out and marvel at the revelry on Mellow Mountain or Kangaroo Bar set on the rocks above the beach. Recounting stories is probably going to be mighty dull (you had to be there, mrah), so if anyone fancies going, here are a couple of tips:

 

Some of our lovely roommates (we were in an 18-bed dorm) .. I think the girl’s expression on the left says it all…!

 

1. If you go to the island but miss the Full Moon, don’t fret. The enterprising Thai locals have cottoned on to just how lucrative the blow-out traveller trail can be, and have created an array of almost-but-not-quite Full Moon parties; Shiva Moon, Black Moon, Moon-Set – it’s all just an excuse really.

2. If you do make it to a Full Moon Party, you MUST book accommodation in advance. This does include weird and wonderful deposits which nearly always get declined and leave you with some very confused email conversations with hostels. Obviously the town is full to the brim around party time and most places want you to stay for between 3 and 5 nights. So get organised.

3. DON’T TRY TO LEAVE TO GO TO KOH TAO just after Full Moon. It’s where the party continues and everyone has the same bright idea – ferries are packed, and more often than not you spend a couple of hours in the merciless sunshine only to spend the next two tucked up in a sweaty corner of a jam-packed ferry.

In fact, thanks to some good advice from Luke ‘I’ve-been-here-so-many-times-I’m-basically-a-local’ Farley, we managed to totally avoid the Koh Tao crush and instead spent a few days discovering the rest of Koh Pha-Ngan…

Haad Salad/ Hat Yao

What. A. Place.

If anyone is planning a honeymoon anytime soon, you should seriously consider spending it here. Haad Salad, set on the northern side of the island, seems like an undiscovered chunk of paradise. Far less busy yet far more beautiful, this gives you an insight into true Thailand island life. From hammocks and beach bungalows at Lucky Resort (gorgeous family-run resort, unbelievable value) to freshly caught fish at the seafood market in Chalok Lam and lonely longtails silhouetted against a pink sky, this was such a find.

 

Hammock love at Lucky

 

During our few days of R&R in the north, we managed to rent a jeep for 24-hours, which gave us access to the whole island. OK, so the roads sometimes just descended into sheer drops of terrifying terrain and we may have come across a couple of wandering elephants on the roadside, but honestly, having the freedom to discover a place for yourself is ideal. Hats off to; Cel, who managed to get us out of the clay rut on an almost vertical hill with minimal clutch damage; Ali, who proved herself to be a ridiculously good cruiser after having been sans voiture for more than 2 years; Farles, for being reckless but really really knowledgeable; and Imogen, for not crashing.

 

Local Thailander behind the wheel

 

Perhaps three days wasn’t enough, but time is of the essence and we had to continue onwards and upwards to…

Koh Tao

 

Koh Tao

 

There is no doubt about it, Koh Tao is cute.

At only 21km2, the place seems tiny in comparison to the other islands of the Gulf, but that is most definitely part of its charm. It doesn’t have the holiday hedonism atmosphere of Phi Phi and is famed for it’s deep sea diving, so the sunburned Thailash-heads are diluted with cool-looking active types sporting six-packs and oxygen tanks.

There is more than enough for everyone. We spent some middle-aged time (probably my idea) at Shark Bay (see the map) – a quiet cove renowned for it’s coral and impressive array of marine life. The adjacent bay, Chalok Ban Kao, went  down  well as somewhere to relax with a cold drink as the sun goes down and the tide comes up. We had something a little bit different at Hat Sai Ree, the ‘town’ in Koh Tao. Busier than the remote reaches of the south, this was like a really relaxed version of Sunrise Beach, Koh Phangnan. Some great bars spill onto the sands – chilled out music, giant beds, and mesmerizing fire shows. You can party hard here, but the nice thing is you definitely don’t have to.

 

One of the ridiculously talented fire dancers on the sands of Koh Tao

 

And so ends our trip to the islands of Thailand. Apologies for a mega post.. it’s hard to be concise when you’ve  got over two weeks to cover and you’re fighting with an internet connection. I’ll work on that.

Any last thoughts about the islands?

Yes, a few.

It is ridiculously easy to get to and from and around all of them. Because this is such a time worn travel destination, you’re ushered from boats to buses like a herd of very sweaty sheep. They have this almost fool-proof sticker system (except when you’re Celyn and manage to lose it) so it’s clear to everyone where you are going and where you should be. The infrastructure of the islands is exemplary, and the roads are crammed with Sorng-taa-ou – basically, pick-up trucks with benches on the back working as taxis. Prices are non-negotiable – word on the street (Farley) is that they’re owned by the Thai mafia, which seems plausible given that on Koh Phangnan the taxis would routinely stop and pay a sort of informal road tax. The trucks on Koh Tao don’t have any roofs, which makes for fun if not slightly hair-raising (literally) rides.

The Thai people are gorgeous. Nearly everyone we met was so friendly and helpful and they absolutely love a practical joke. The food has been spectacular, (Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Banana Shakes, Flied Lice…), the service sporadic and the bars absolutely brilliant. Plus, there is no denying that this is paradise. We’ve been treated to beautiful sunset after beautiful sunset, snorkelling with tropical fish, eating deliciously fresh food, drinking chilled beer… it’s perfect. And although we all complain of profuse sweating ALL THE TIME, we’re not really that bothered. Heat is heat is GOOD. And sweat clears your pores and makes you lose weight… right?!

Of course, there are some glaring flaws; tourists often treat the islands like a theme park and possess an astonishing disrespect for the people and the places, stinking piles of rubbish line the streets and cups and wrappers can be found floating in the shallows of the beaches, and the eggy smell of full drains is never far away. Yet, tourism is a massive deal here, and for every tourist tyrant, there are a whole load of people who come and enjoy and spread the word. For our part, we hope that everyone has a chance to visit at least one of the Thai Islands. It’s well WELL worth it.

 

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Not-a-White Christmas (In the style of Seren Nia Thomas)

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12.01 am Realise it’s Christmas halfway through a tremendously long yet very well orchestrated church service. Whisper Happy Christmas to each other and notice that Georgie has gone to sleep. Wake her and sing the descant to Hark the Herald.

 

1.00 am Leave the Cathedral. Be shocked at how obscenely warm it is outside.

 

1.07 am Get lost on the way home. Drive the wrong way up the motorway.

 

1.15 am Manage to get off said motorway.

 

 

1.17 am Get back onto said motorway, but this time in the right direction.

 

1.40 am Get home and sit by the fire before one by one we all fall asleep and go to bed.

 

2.00 am Wake up to speak to Celyn’s family.

 

2.32 am Wake up again to speak to everyone on the ‘Christmas Eve Walk’ in Chepstow. Except it’s not a walk, it’s in the pub. Spend about half an hour doing sign language and telling Tom Heggs how disappointed we are in him. See almost everyone’s tonsils – apparently when in doubt about what the other party is saying, just open your mouth at the camera. Sorted.

 

3.30 am Actually go to sleep.

 

4.45 am Wake up and remember it’s Christmas Day. Smack Celyn in the face and shout, ‘Santa’s Come’.

 

Go back to sleep.

 

10.12 am Get woken up by everyone storming about the house shouting, ‘Merry Christmas’. Realise that it’s boiling hot. Get dressed in inappropriately warm attire and go out to the garden.

 

10.13 am Go back inside and get dressed properly (swimming stuff and nothing else)

 

10.30 am Skype Edinburgh. Play the head game. Forget Miss Fritton’s first name. Remember it’s Camilla. WIN THE GAME.

 

11 am Pump up paddling pool. Drink champagne (even though it’s not champagne) and eat German Sausages and Pretzels. Or Bretzels as they are apparently known in Bavaria.

 

11.14 am Get into paddling pool. Continue eating sausages.

 

11.26 am Get out of paddling pool as there are 12 people in it.

 

11.35 am Watch Barbara and Jess have a wrestling match in the paddling pool. Switch to beer. Reapply suncream. Choose factor 50.

 

12 pm Eat a pigs-in-a-blanket croissant. Think of home. Have another beer.

 

12.40 pm Get a bit burnt. Sit at the bar out of the sun for a while.

 

12.41 pm Realise that the bar is no cooler than outside. Get back in to paddling pool.

 

1.00 pm Transfer Secret Santa presents from the sellotape Xmas tree to the bar. Have a debate about whether to open the presents or not.

 

1.01 pm Open the presents.

 

1.05 pm Try to play the secret santa present game with dice.

 

1.06 pm Fail.

 

1.15 pm Play with new secret santa toys.

 

1.30 pm Go upstairs and open more presents. Say thank you to Parental Units in the UK (telepathically). Put on new clothes.

 

1.31 pm Take off new clothes as it is too hot.

 

3.00 pm Try to get stuff ready for going to the beach. End up just emptying the fridge into a portable fridge. Put portable fridge by front door.

 

3.30 pm Get into Rave Taxi. Rave all the way to the beach. Sing medley songs at a rate of knots and shout ‘Merry Christmas’ aggressively at everyone. Get aggressive ‘Merry Christmas’-es back.

 

3.42 pm Arrive at beach. GET INTO THE WATER.

 

4.00 pm Get out of water to have a G&T and a chicken, salsa and corn chip corn-chip-sandwich. (Don’t knock it till..)

 

5.30 pm Jump over Adam’s sand sculpture. Watch Celyn do a once again surprisingly-gymnastic front flip. Be impressed.

 

5.33 pm Watch a child ruin the sculpture.

 

5.34 pm Join in the sculpture-ruining-effort.

 

7 pm Leave beach and get back into Rave Taxi. Realise driver is a KFC Colonel in his spare time. Be VERY impressed. Sing songs all the way home and watch the sun set over the Cook Strait. Be more impressed at the beauty of the scenery than at anything else that has happened in the day. Including Gin.

 

7.28 pm Get home after very long detour. Wash. Wash again. Get dressed in new clothes. Make cheese board even though dinner is being prepared.

 

7.45 pm Get the cheese sweats. Play the dictionary game. Learn the meaning of autarchy, otiose, and piccalilli.

 

7.59 pm Eat Swedish meatballs and beetroot salad (courtesy of Igor and Georgie). Eat more sausage.

 

8.50 pm Start cooking the ham.

 

11 pm Start eating the ham. Enjoy the accompanying cinnamon carrots. Fall slightly asleep.

 

11.25 pm Sit on beanbags on the roof. Digest.

 

11.30 pm Notice clouds are starting to cover moon. Try to discern shapes in clouds.

 

11. 57 pm Fall asleep.

 

12.37 pm Move from roof to room.

 

12.38 pm Try to watch Love Actually. Fall asleep again. Admit that Christmas Day might be over. Sleep for real this time.

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS.

 

(from Igor, Jessica and Celwyn Jones in the paddling pool)

 

Pacific Ring of Fire

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No, this ‘ent the drinking game. (I’m being serious!) Nor is it the aftermath of a southern hemisphere curry. It’s actually a chain of volcanoes running for 250km through NZ’s North Island. Pretty big deal.

Even bigger deal is Pacific Ring of Fire master, the Oruanui eruption. Blowing it’s top 26,500 years ago, this former molten mess of lava, ash and pumice in fact collapsed, and created a 606 sq km lake in it’s place – Lake Taupo. And that’s where we are, in the town of Taupo (pop 21,040) on the shores of the enormous lake. Although the surrounding area is apparently still volcanically active (eeep!), the lake looks like an enormous millpond; speckled with sailing boats, jet ski’s, random lost skydivers, and a pontoon made for whacking golf balls onto. In a word, it’s lush.

The mountains you can see in the background (above) are part of the Tongariro National Park. The Tongariro River in fact flows into the Lake on the south side, and the Waikato flows from it on the north east side (at Taupo). The Waikato is known as an absolute beast i.e. that’s a hella lotta water for a hella lotta time. You can see this in the Huka Falls (below) where something like 5 Olympic pools worth of water fall every minute. Nyom, how relevant.

Anyway, we’ve settled here for a bit, working in a hostel in return for free accommodation. Seriously, knocking on people’s doors and saying ‘housekeeeeepeeeng’ is genuinely very fun. Place is great, work is horrendous, juggling is fun, sunsets are unreal.

Here are a few photys to keep you amused.


Grim up north, is it?

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It’s grim up north, right?

Well, no.

In fact, this statement couldn’t actually be more wrong. For a start, north, as it is commonly known to us northern hemisphere-ers, is equated with cold. Not so much here. Go a couple of hundred kilometers north and you’re closer to the equator. Which means sun. WIN. Add to that mile upon mile of dramatic volcanic scenery; mountains which go right up to the sparkling Pacific Ocean and suddenly fall away to reveal golden sandy coves and hidden bays. You get my drift?

So after a fair bit of life admin (yes that still exists on the other side of the world) and catching up with old friends in Auckland, we put Rosie through her paces and drove the 200 odd (some very odd) km to the northern town of Whangerei (pronunced ‘Fan-gerr-aay). Thankfully, she was great, aside from a few ‘surface’ hiccups. (Such as the heating being stuck on full blast, so every time we make a journey, we emerge looking as though we had just hiked in gale force winds to the South Pole and back. Meh.)

The town itself is a little bit nondescript, it is described in the guide-book as ‘somewhere in the middle of the pretty to ugly spectrum’. Nice. However, the beauty of the area lies in what you find around it. We shacked up in a cute wee hostel a couple of km out of the town (**Little Earth Lodge – run by a guy from Birmingham with a NZ accent and his Japanese wife. Clean rooms, Balinese furniture, loads of hippy outdoors-y types. We definitely recommend it!**) and first things first, we CELEBRATED CELYN’S BIRTHDAY! Massive thank you to everyone who was super-duper organised and sent a card, there was quite a collection (and we BOTH got emotional. Oh you guys).

In not-so-typical birthday fashion, on the morning of his birthday, we went caving. The hostel is right next to the ‘Abbey Caves‘ which, despite their slightly uninspiring name, are incredible. We were advised to borrow sexy croc-esqe shoes and helmets, much to our amusement, but we soon found out that they were more than necessary. The 3 caves (Organ, Middle and Ivy) were PROPER DARK CAVES LIKE! The caverns didn’t look much from the outside but as soon as you climbed in, they opened up into enormous rooms. Not only did we have to clamber over rocks and scale enormous walls (no word of hyperbole), but also we had to wade through icy cave water up to our brea-/che-sts (and for the vertically challenged amongst us, necks). There were stalactites and stalagmites everywhere which had formed in crazy, almost sculpture-like poses. However, the most magical aspect was that if we turned our torches off, instead of plunging ourselves into ‘The Descent’-esque darkness, the ceilings and walls were lit up by hundreds of tiny glowworms. It was beautiful.

Emerging semi-scathed from the caves, we hopped back into Rosie and with a minor detour into town (Cel wanted a birthday perforation…or 2) we headed to the world-renowned Whangerei Falls. Word on the street is that they are photogenic but overhyped and there are many more in NZ that top this one. However, when you can hear them and feel the spray before you even see them, we thought that this was one sight that was well worth the trip, even on a dull day. Add to this the enchanting Kauri forest – made up of enormous Kauri trees, native to New Zealand, revered in Maori legend and some up to 500 years old – and you’ve got a winner.

As if this weren’t enough, on a whim we drove up the coast past Tutukaka and onto Matapouri and Whale Bay. If these are just names to you, google them.

No seriously, set on the coast, these are some of those ‘hidden bays’ that we were telling you about. As we arrived, the sun miraculously made an appearance, and we were treated to spectacular views over the ocean. Now I know we’ve been working hard on trying to get to grips with Celyn’s camera, but even with a smart SLR, the colour of the photos just doesn’t do it justice. So it’s up to you to imagine the turquoise-blue sea; a medley of greens and purples on the mountains; grey sand transforming into a bright, almost unnatural yellow sand; and the most ridiculous pink and orange sky, starting on the horizon and gradually spreading as far as you can see, so that even the roads seem to turn the most delightful shade of magenta.  Red sky at night and all that, we decided this was a good omen for the weather!

So that was Cel’s birthday, fairly standard? For the time being we’re heading further north still, towards the seaside town of Russell (described by Dickens in the 19th-century as full of ‘the refuse of society’. We’ll fit right in!). And then on to visit the Bay of Islands and (fingers crossed) to catch a ride and camp on one.

A bientot!

Listening to:

Natty, Man Like I

Jack Johnson, In Between Dreams

(Surf music in the car to pretend that it was sunny. So far, it seems to have worked!)