Monthly Archives: February 2009

Gone Tubing

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Vang Vieng is a place that makes as much money as it does primarily, I think, due to its location.  By the time you get here from anywhere you are a bit travel weary, thinking how nice it would be to curl up with some pizza and beer while watching TV, so the town has accommodated.  So much, in fact, that you cannot walk down the main street without hearing a band singing “so no one told you it was gonna be this way…” from one of the bars-

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There are a few dozen bars in Vang Vien, and the number one activity in them is playing an endless stream of Friends episodes.  I’m not sure why this is as my international friends tell me Friends was never as popular abroad as it was in the US, but I haven’t really watched it since high school so I confess a few hours have gone into this endeavour.  “Hey, this is the one where Joey and Rachel finally kiss!” “No we should stay for this one, it’s the one where Monica and Chandler go on their honeymoon…”

It never fully dawned on me how soap opera-y Friends was until I got to Laos.  Welcome to the twenty-first century!

(Oh, and for those who don’t like Friends some of the bars show Family Guy as a distant second, and The Simpsons is the third runner up.  Except they only show the new ones, so I don’t watch.)

It should be noted that Vang Vien is also ubiquitous because of all the “happy” menus you can ask for in addition to the regular meals, for all the backpackers eager to get any type of drug in their shake or on their pizza.  I don’t though because a. it’s not my style, and b. the local police have realized lately how profitable this is so lots of undercover cops are around ready to catch tourists and charge a $500 “fine,” which beats the part where the law in Laos says they’re supposed to throw you in prison and/or excecute you.  Somehow I think such an incident would put a damper on my trip.

When the TV shows get boring the other popular thing to do around here is go tubing on the river in an old tractor tube.  You go past a bunch of bars which are all too eager to pull you in for a drink, and give you a chance to try their swing-

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There is a video of this too actually, but the video will need to wait until the faster Internet connection in Bangkok… Until then I must say, while I don’t have much of a future in being a trapeze artist you have to trust me when I say it’s really fun.  I liked it a lot more than the zipline or the water slide at the other places we stopped at actually.

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A picture snapped on the river while taking a tubing break.  I like this one because all I could think of was how moms in the US always wait at the school bus stops to ferry their kids home in cars, and this woman was ferrying her kids via boat (except there was no school bus stop in Laos, obviously).

There are more tubing pictures as well, but I wasn’t really using my camera as it was mainly stored snug in someone else’s dry bag.  But when I get them, I will post them.  Until then, I will mention a bit about my guest house, which has a great view-

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I must say, I really like this place because I scored my own little bungalow for $6.  And the company can’t be beat- the first morning I went to breakfast I saw Anne, the friend I’d made my first day in Laos but hadn’t seen since, as it turned out she had the bungalow next to me.  Squealing and hugging ensued with everyone looking on understandingly, as you can’t go more than a few hours without running into someone you’d met before in Laos.  There aren’t that many tourist destinations after all, so everyone tends to go on the same path.

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For fun, a giant moth a guy found at the guesthouse, with a girl’s hand for scale.  I should mention by the way, if you’re scared of giant bugs and spiders don’t come to Laos.  Skipping all of South East Asia would probably be a good idea actually.  Your life would be one constant stream of freaking out a few times a day.

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And as a final note of advice, if you come to Laos you should always carry an emergency reserve of another, better currency with you. (The highest preference is for US dollars but Thai baht are also gladly accepted, Euros not as much.) Why?  Because this country has only a few ATMs and you can only withdrawl a max of 700,000 Lao kip (~US$70) a day assuming the ATM is working.  As of yesterday, suprise!, the ATM in Vang Vieng has had its international line down.  First day was fairly ok until they ran out of money (no international line, no credit cards!), and today they have extra security at the bank to guard the new cash infusion sent from the capital.  But lots of tourists are nonetheless stranded until the ATM comes online again.

I am sure you are all happy to know that I am not an idiot and do not travel ill-equipped to nations which didn’t even have a single ATM ten years ago- my main worry right now actually is to not have too much cash when I leave, as you can’t convert kip to any other currency!  This more to remind others on the road that even if Vang Vieng has everything Western from milkshakes to sitcoms, you are still a long way from home.

Planning the Grand Tour

It’s hard to believe, but in just ten days time I will be leaving Asia and heading for Europe!  I will be arriving in Munich after which the plan is to head south for some skiing in Austria, down to Italy while the rest of Europe is still cold, and then over to Hungary for Easter with my relatives.  After that… I don’t know yet.  I have until about late May planned for Europe with no definitive plans, and thought some of you might like to offer input as to where I go!

The main factor here, by the way, is the fact that I have technically already been to a lot of Europe.  The problem is for most of it I was at an age when you are more interested in the local playgrounds than the rest of the local sights (I recall a boring morning I spent staring at the floor of the Sistine Chapel when I was four years old, for example) so there are some places I’m more willing than others to visit.  To narrow things down further…

– I was in Spain when I was sixteen and France when I was twelve.  I have no issues going through France again (French people are actually nice to me thanks to my name) but not sure if it should be a focus.

– Scandanavia sounds interesting, but when even Europeans call it expensive it makes me think this might be a destination best saved for when I have actual income later in life.

– I was in Transylvania (Romania) three summers ago, no real interests to return there.  Russia might be neat but is surprisingly expensive and getting a visa is really difficult.

With that, my initial potential locations are either Ireland and the UK or Greece and Turkey- conveniently as far apart as possible on the continent.  Does anyone have any thoughts or opinions on this?  Or are there some places you’ve loved on the continent that I should look into further?

Thanks all!

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is one of those places I would send my parents to if they ever decided to go to South East Asia.  The town is unquestionably nice- an odd fusion of French colonialist and Lao architecture wedged between two rivers, filled with so many lovely temples you keep running into them.  The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site actually…asia-004

A view not far from my guesthouse on the road going into town, about a ten minute walk.  My guesthouse is entertaining because the owner is in one of those people determined to fatten me up.  He keeps pointing at the bowl of free bananas saying “banana? you eat banana? you very small, eat banana!” and won’t let me out of sight until I start eating one.  Then he gave me free fried rice for dinner tonight.  I’m not going to guarantee that his grand scheme will work, but I’m not saying no to the free food either.

But what is the coolest thing about Luang Prabang?  Actually, it’s a series of waterfalls-

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About 32km outside town there is a series of cascading waterfalls called Kuang Si that are a prime tourist attraction- it is impossible to walk down the street without having a tuk-tuk driver saying “waterfall?” in a hopeful voice.  And for good reason- it gets decently hot in the middle of the day in Laos, and some of the waterfall pools are great for swimming!

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And jumping, and rope-swinging naturally.  Actually, this place is quite unique and I’ve never been anyplace quite like it.

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The tallest waterfall, under which you are not allowed to swim.  However, a Canadian scallywag climbed to the top of the waterfall to provide some scale to the picture.

(Alex left today actually, realizing he needed to hightail it to Bangkok if he is to make his flight by the end of the week.  He will be sorely missed!)

asia-009And because we are in the middle of the dry season, we ended up climbing up past the “danger, do not enter” signs to check out some of the further up waterfall pools, which involves climbing up part of the cascading waterfall itself.  Surprisingly not that difficult actually, as there is so much limestone deposited your feet get a great grip, plus we got some of the falls all to ourselves.

And it feels odd to write about a town where the pictures mainly focus on something next to the town, but the Internet cafe is closing so further pictures will have to wait.  Cheers!

Why I Will Never Forget Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a lovely little town in the north of Laos, but what ensures I will never forget it is an email I got earlier today- I was accepted for graduate school!  Ok, so it was Case Physics and I would have been depressed had my alma mater not accepted me (thanks guys!), but one is infinitely better than none and it’s nice to know I have some sort of future.  We’ll see what happens next, as I have only heard from 4/10 schools so far…

Anyone else have good news?

PS- One of the main reasons I am quite tickled right now is I once tried to work out where I might be upon my first graduate school acceptance, and figured Luang Prabang was about right so my mind concluded this is what would happen.  I’m almost wondering if I mentioned this to someone back home…

Luang Nam Tha

At 720am three mornings ago Alex knocked on the door to inform me that he’d just learned the bus to Luang Nam Tha was leaving in ten minutes, and would I like to go? A few frantic moments later we were on the bus, ready to head to the north of Laos.   I finally leaned back in my seat to relax a little, hardly noticing a woman who  had  placed a sack in the aisle next to me after getting on, until I heard Alex say “hey, there’s a  chicken in that sack!”

I leaned over to check, and sure enough the old rice sack had several breathing holes ripped into it.  But there were definitely two chickens in there based on the squawking, which  occurred every few minutes whenever the grumpy chickens decided to fight each other.   The squawking and shaking from the rice sack would abate only when the lady who brought them on kicked the sack, after which she would send  a glance towards my giggling that  implied  that of course it was normal  to discipline your misbehaving chickens on a bus, as any idiot  would know.

By the way, did I mention this was the V.I.P. bus?

Anyway, when I wasn’t  laughing at the chickens I was busy napping or admiring the scenery, which really is quite nice-

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Northern Laos has mountains that feel just right to me, interestingly enough.  The reason for this is said mountains are just about the same height as those you find in Pennsylvania where I grew up, so while I obviously find myself in awe of steeper ranges these mountains are ones whose height I am quite comfortable with.  Somehow this matters more than you’d think! I spent the few hours of the journey admiring the scenery, wondering just what it would be like to be born into one of the little roadside villages, assuming most of the world is like your village and places with a few thousand people are cities.

And after a few hours of admiring mountains we pulled into Luang Nam Tha, a town in Laos so surrounded by hills that it is 15km as the crow flies to China but 60km by road.  Beyond the Chinese characters adorned to many signs, this mainly effects the town by having the market filled with exclusively Chinese crap.  Not to complain too loudly- I picked up a pocket shortwave radio for $3.50!- it’s just I didn’t know there were quite so many ripoff products made in the world.

We spent our two days in Luang Nam Tha exploring on rented bicycles- I have been cautious about my foot and biking seemed a good low-contact activity, and Alex is a bicycle nut.  As this coincided with the weekend it was great fun- plus the scenery was gorgeous!

asia-001 It was impossible to pedal a few minutes without running into an elementary school gang wandering around in an attempt to make the most of their free days.  You would return the greetings of “Sabaai-dii!” the kids all shout, distribute a few high fives, and press on amidst the rice fields.

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A Buddhist stupa on top of one of the hills around Luang Nam Tha, recommended to us by the locals.  There was absolutely no one around except for us.  In ten years I’m certain it will be crawling with tourists, but for now it was all ours which was really neat.

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Alex doing his best naga impersonation.  Naga is a Hindu god who rescued Buddha from a terrible storm (Hinduism is to Buddhism as Judaism is to Christianity, so far as continuity goes) and thus every set of stairs leading to a Buddhist temple is flanked with nagas.

The best thing about Luang Nam Tha, though, occurred on our first night, when we had wandered towards a commotion near the night market where we saw the biggest party I’d seen in a long time, complete with announcer on the stage.  We tried guessing with a pair of Israelis just what was going on until one of us figured out it was a wedding reception- and no sooner had we figured this out a kind Lao man came over and invited us to join their table!  Instantly a spoon and pair of chopsticks was cleaned for each of us to try the food, while another man set to making sure our glasses were always filled to the brim with BeerLao-

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If that weren’t enough, said guy also started pouring us shots of lao lao, which is the traditional rice whiskey around here.  It burns.  A lot.  The Lao gent laughed at my reaction.

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And because this was a wedding, sooner instead of later I was invited to dance!  Luckily it turns out that Lao dancing is so simple you can figure it out in two minutes without paying attention.  In short, you and your partner walk slowly around in a circle with everyone else, never touching but occasionally switching sides, walking rhythmically but primarily focusing on moving your hands in odd twisted positions.  This has the advantage that for all I know I could have been dancing with the local creep but there was never a chance for such a thing to be discovered, but disadvantageous in that it has to be the most innocuous form of dancing I have ever participated in.

But wow, that wedding was cool.  Between the food and the constant shouts of “nuk chuck!” (“bottoms up!”) and settling on an odd form of communication by a few phrases and hand signals, it was amazing.  I would not believe the reality of my life if I were not the one living it.

The Gibbon Experience

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Day 1

When I first heard about the Gibbon Experience through the traveler grapevine, deep in the Bokeo Nature Reserve of Laos, I knew I wanted to go.  Living in a treehouse for a few days going through the jungle on a zipline?  Doesn’t it sound like something any five year old dreamed of doing?  It was a bit pricey for Laos as a lot of the money goes toward conservation efforts in the nature reserve, but I went.  It was worth it.

One thing about the Gibbon Experience is getting there is in itself a self-selecting process- getting there consists of a three hour drive crammed in the back of a pickup truck with ten other people for three hours, half of it over dirt road.  Then you end up at a little village that looks like this-

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and then the real trek begins.  You need to hike an hour up into the Laotian jungle to reach the beginning of the zipline world, where you are given a harness that you subsequently wear nearly nonstop over the next few days as it is impossible to even get into your accommodation without a zipline.  If you want an idea of the scale we were living on, here is the view of the treehouse I lived in from below-

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I will admit that treehouse life in the middle of the jungle is not nessecarily the most idyllic thing you will ever do- at night there are giant spiders that show up on the roof that would freak the hell out of most girls I know, and some rats like to scurry about after everyone goes to sleep to see if anything was left out to chew on. (If you put your bags inside your mosquito netted area then it’s alright.  Shoes too, or they’ll be chewed on!) And as the food was just the traditional kind eaten by the Lao in this part of the world it really wasn’t something to write home about- we only got a little meat the first night, and by the second day when we had eaten our nth cabbage and rice dish the dinner conversation was dominated by what kind of Western food we would eat upon returning into town.

This didn’t go over so well with some people understandably, but most of us understood we were in the middle of the jungle and adjusted accordingly.  I never even seriously minded frankly- I mean, just look at this view!

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Plus I’ve got to say, ziplining is fun.  Really, really fun.  I wish I could post the video I took on a 300m long zipline flying over a valley, but the Internet in Laos is too slow so that video will have to wait.

Day 2

I suppose at some point I should mention that I never actually saw gibbons- this part of the reserve is the home to the black gibbon, of which there are only a few thousand left in the world, and the reserve is so huge you can’t guarantee seeing one.  But hearing them is another matter- in the mornings if they’re nearby you can hear the gibbons singing to each other in the trees, and we even heard them swinging in the trees near us during the night.  Very haunting and beautiful.

I mention this because after waking up at 630 for an unsuccessful short hike to see if we could find the gibbons, a few of us decided to penetrate deeper into the nature reserve to an area known for its waterfall, a two hour hike away.  The waterfall itself was really nothing unique to write home about but the ziplines around it were, as they were incredible!  The hike was quite nice too, though the uphills wore me out quite quickly.

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A Lao bridge to traverse a creek that I thought was particularly nifty with two girls who hiked with us, Amanda and Angela.  Most of the time of course there’s no bridge, you just walk across the rocks very carefully or even in the creek bed itself.  I don’t want to think of what this hike must be like in the rainy season!

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Most of the time, though, the jungle surrounded us looking impenetrable like it does here.  The guy on the right was our guide for the trek, who confounded us all by doing the whole thing in flip-flops and thinking nothing of it, and the guy on the left is Alex from Vancouver, Canada who was the best friend I made on the Experience.  We spent a lot of time arguing which one of us was the bigger geek and things like that (I won, of course) and Alex, who knows more of the Lao language than any Westerner I know, spent some time teaching me a few phrases.  It’s actually a lot easier to learn than Thai for some reason, albeit I never get over how words like “cop chai lai lai do” (the formal version of “thank you very much”) sound like some sort of odd musical scale to my ears.

The second day was also interesting because we indulged in a bit of night ziplining- something you’re officially not supposed to do due to potential dangers, but in practice everyone ends up doing anyway (someone with a headlamp leads the way to light the platform for the later person).  And let me tell you, night ziplining is one of the most magical things I have ever done.  You are flying through the air with the mountains surrounding you, awed by the stars above that shine brighter in the jungle than nearly anywhere else on Earth.  It’s an unforgettable experience.

Day 3

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The following is written in great detail more for my memory than anything else.  That and I figure its subject material makes for more interesting reading than the average occurrence…

Not to sound too dramatic, but this is the day physics saved my life.

There were a few hours left this morning before breakfast at Treehouse 1 and the subsequent hike down to the village where the truck would be waiting, and most people spent this time doing a final circuit of the zipline network.  About halfway through, however, on a 250m zipline whose end I couldn’t see, I spent a bit longer than usual adjusting my harness before pushing off.

Once I was out of the trees it was obvious that something was terribly wrong- an Australian girl had been chatting on the platform not paying attention to what she was doing, and had just taken off on the zipline marked with red tape instead of green.  My zipline.  There was no way about it, we were going to hit and I was going at 35mph (60 kph).

The few seconds that followed probably taught me more about my thought process than anything else I have done in my life- I knew the harness system was good enough that a hit wasn’t going to make us fall, but it was going to hurt and my job was to minimize that.  Breaking wasn’t an option as I was still going downwards at full speed and the breaks weren’t designed for that and I was going too fast to grip the cable, though I noticed the Australian girl succeeded in doing so (she wasn’t on the right line so the slope obviously didn’t make her go as fast) and she was bigger than me.  So then physics-mode took over in my mind- I spent the last semester teaching freshmen about elastic versus inelastic collisions, and my mind immediately focused on the problem of how to best smash into someone while transfering most of my energy to her and leaving me the most intact at the end. (Some people asked me later if the latter was also a physics thing but my answer was no, when it’s you or someone else on a zipline it’s a survival thing!) I’ve also fallen enough in skiing to know above all you protect your head, so I decided to hit feet first.  Holding them as strong as possible, lest my ankle twist and break.

Once that was settled I spent a moment vaguely wondering what it would feel like to break a bone (as this is something I have never done) and promising myself I would go home early if it came down to that, and in the first moment of consideration for the other girl aimed my feet for her thighs.  And I thought this all over in the course of about seven seconds.

We hit- my aim wasn’t perfect but the brunt of the force was taken by my right foot, a second by an area just below my left knee which was only a scrape.  It was soon obvious that the right foot really hurt but I was fairly certain it wasn’t broken or sprained as this wasn’t a new kind of pain, just an intense version of ones I’ve experienced before.  While this was registering Australia girl was apologizing profusely for her mistake and forcing me to grab her harness- she hadn’t really been hurt at all- but I wasn’t saying anything until she said “oh my God, are you in shock?!” which made me vaguely think oh yeah, maybe I should say something.  I muttered something about my foot that was borderline unintelligible as she pulled us both in to the platform, where a few others were waiting who had seen the whole thing and a few people debated if I had broken my ankle.  The consensus amongst the kids who had done first aid was no, just a bad hit, and I agreed.  Then it became obvious that we needed to get to Treehouse 1 as a platform fifty feet above the ground is not the best place for a bunch of people to be, so I hopped on my good foot to the correct zipline across and let a guide strap me in.  Let me tell you, even if you’ve just had a midair collision ziplining is still fun.

At the other side, Alex caught me.  He then proceeded to be my savior by putting me on his back and carrying me down the ten minute walk to Treehouse 1 while another Canadian carried my backpack, thus solving the age-old question of what sort of person you hope will be after you on a trail when you hurt your ankle and need help. (To be fair my first choice would be a doctor, but second off I want a Canadian!) Because without Alex I am not sure what would have happened.

By the time we got to Treehouse 1 word had spread, so I got a good spot to elevate my right foot and wait for breakfast and accept various offers from people’s first aid kits.  A crazy hippie girl offered to take the “bad energy” away from my foot and I agreed on the grounds that I had nothing better to do (ice would have been best but that’s a bit short in the Laotian jungle), and she proceeded to do some odd movements over my leg and was satisfied to later learn the pain had dissipated, though I suspect the aspirin offered to me some Flemish women was what really did the trick.

After a little bit I was feeling better, and it was time to head down the mountain to the village.  By this point I could hobble on my foot but needed assistance only on the steeper parts, so I started the hike with a stick in my left hand and Alex’s grip on my right as needed.  And I made it, in decent time too, which I am proud about.  Next time someone calls me a wimp, I plan to say “oh yeah? well I trekked an hour down a steep hill in a jungle in Laos with a gimp foot!

And that was the Gibbon Experience.  Believe it or not I recommend it- what happened to me pretty much qualified in the “freak accident” category of things as the guides said it didn’t really happen, and it is unlike something you will do anywhere else.  You know, next time you’re in the middle of the jungle in Laos.

Holy Laos!

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This is Laos. (Which is, by the way, pronounced as “Lao” by the local people and the “s” is just some transcription error during colonialism.) You can tell it is Laos, as opposed to Thailand, because it is on the western side of the Mekong River.  If it were on the eastern side, ie the side I took this sunrise picture on, it would be Thailand.  You still even get full Thai cell phone reception in Houang Xai, Laos, ie the town across the border. (Hear that, mom and dad?)

Getting to Laos consists of jumping into a little ferryboat (the closest permanent bridge across the Mekong is a few hundred miles down it, in the Laotian capital) and then going to one of the more crowded borderposts you’ve ever seen.  It shouldn’t be, but all the people who cross here are backpackers requiring visa-on-arrival, and the visas need six stamps, and one guy does them, and he takes… very… slowly.  Clearly, the end of the world would happen if the Laos border guard misplaced one stamp slightly, so we all wait in a huddled mass until you’re lucky enough to see your passport being held up by immigration!

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This is my room for the night here in Houang Xai, while I wait for my awesome treehouse zipline adventure to begin tomorrow morning.  I am sharing it with a schoolteacher from Brighton named Ann who I’ve been wandering around with, and it cost the equivalent of US$6.  You can use dollars here, by the way, along with Thai baht or even the Lao kip in a pinch, but it’s 10,000 kip to a dollar so it’s not the preferred currency. Laos has got to be the only place where the Thai baht is considered stable!

Town itself, by the way, is a one-street affair with guesthouses, cafes, and a school at the end of the road filled with red kercief-wearing children which confused me until I remembered Laos is still communist. (But in the way China is communist, I’m told.) Not like it shows in anything else though- this side of the river at least is pretty similar to the other side, albeit not as touristy and a little more like what you imagine South East Asia to feel like.

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This is the view from my room, towards the Thai border post.  That’s one of the little ferryboats in the middle of the river; the line of trucks are waiting for a barge to take them across the Mekong.

And this is where this post ends, as the Internet here is very slow so the pictures take an age to upload.  Cheers!