A Filipino Farewell

So that’s it. Home tomorrow via a few days in Hong Kong. Sadly, two and a bit weeks in The Philippines has come to an end. Am sitting in the shade with mango juice in hand, looking out over an ivory beach with turquoise blue sea and white surf hissing up the the sands, reflecting on the trip. I have really enjoyed these wonderful islands and these lovely people.

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My lasting memories will be the smiles on open.friendly faces, the welcome at every stop, their politeness and respect. I have been addressed as ‘sir’ on every occasion, in every situation, on the street or in restaurants and hotels where you’d expect it maybe, by a cheerful, seemingly happy Filipino. Yet most of these guys earn a pittance, 30% of the population is below the poverty line, with an average income of 2 dollars a day. If they can keep a smile of their faces all the time why can’t we?

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The scenery, upland to lowland, is also rather special. Sunshine, ivory sanded beaches, green jungle foliage, pine stretching ridges, river carved ravines and gorges, patterns of emerald rice terraces contribute to a rich textured tapestry outside the brieze blocked, cemented, corrugated ironed towns and villages.

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The signature image is that of rice terrace. Rice production is evident through out the countryside – terraces, paddy fields, irrigation, planting, harvesting, threshing, drying, bagging. In the highlands they manage one harvest a year, in lowlands up to three harvests.

Towns are a dumbledore of dwellings, shops, tangles of electricity cables, lines of uniformed school kids, exhausting jeepnies, motorbikes, zooped up motor trikes. The most impressive buildings in every town and village is always the large Catholic churches. That’s not to say that Ameicanisarion has not hit this place hard. In every town at least one McDonald’s, Jollibee (the Philippines’ KFC whose speciality is the Yum Burger), 7 Eleven, Starbucks, Maxs-The House That Fried Chicken Built, Subway stand bright and shiny in amongst the local businesses and stores.

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Food, hmmmm. Lots of rice and more rice, with chicken or pork. It can be quite tasty. I spotted chicken and sweet potato chips on the menu. The chicken was lovely and crispy. Potato chips arrived with a sachet of sugar – literally, sweet potato chips!

The whole country is so youthful and full of laughter and smiles. The place has a gentle, friendly buzz with youngsters giggling their way to school or hanging out together, families sitting around or choring together, men rocking in the shade and chewing the cud, shopkeepers quietly anticipating customers under dusty, shaded awnings, convoys of bike trikes with teeth gleaming riders and oustretched hands of greeting. I loved the whole experience. Try and get here if you can.

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Outrigging it off Alona Beach on Bohol Island

Sorry about this bit, guys. A short flight from Manila brings me to Bohol Island and the resort of Alona Beach. It’s not quite what I expected in so far as it is a beautiful coral sand beach but it is in the early stages of developmen and there are signs that its days of quiet, retro charm are limited. It reminds me of those beautiful Thai beaches, ten years ago before full on tourism and buckets of cocktails and full moon parties changed paradise forever. So still unspoilt but newer, larger hotels are being built to cater for the increased numbers of westerners and Koreans that a new airport will bring to the island.

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So for now take advantage of Alona Beach while it is quiet with only a handful of hotels and hostels. The beach is still quiet with tons of space to find chill out time in the shade of leaning pesos or to bar-b-que the tan out in the full glaze and, boy, are there some tans that have been nurtured for weeks! There are two obvious groups who strut their stuff, parading up and down the beach – young western backpackers showing of their pecks or bikinis and young Koreans showing of their beach garb to stay as covered up as possible even when swimming.

The main entertainment, after sun bathing, is going out in one of the hundreds of outriggers that ply their trade from the beach. Aloma Beach is a diving and snorkeling centre but I joined Capt. Gabriel and his passengers to visit nearby islands. It was great to get away from baking Alaska on the beach and to smack through the waves, with the wind cursing in my hair accompanied by the smell and noise of an ancient diesel engine. Other outriggers kept us company like crabs scuttling sideways across the ocean. The boats collect together along the coral white beaches of the islands and unload their human cargo of travellers who trot off to snorkle a line of buoys or drop off bigger crabs to dive deeper reefs or dash to the shaded to drink coke or eat grilled Jackfish or maybe wander through the blitzing sun taking in the array of craft before joining fellow travellers in the shade.

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I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the blazing sun, the feel of the sun on the body, the crust of salt on the skin from cooling down in the clear waters of the South China Sea, the smell of grilled fish on the bar-b. It is lovely showering off the day, lotioning up, stretching out on a bed under the air con, anticipating a beer and bite later. After all, this will be all over in a day or two and I’ll be back home with you and it will all be just a lovely warm memory. Enjoy it with me while you can.



Village life in Luzon Province

So now it’s back down though the cloud and mist and grey to the lowlands on the way to Manila to grab a flight south to the beach. First is a drop off in a small settlement called Sta. Juliana, a one street village in the middle of a military firing range. Most of the locals are either farmers or earn a living in their 4x4s driving tourists up to the start of a trail up to the crater of their local volcano, Mount Pinatubo. I’ve put this collection of images together to show what village life is all about – from cool dudes with machetes to kids with catapults to mums with amazing babies to dads  in carts pulled by caraboue to even cooler cowboy dudes. I you get a sense of timelessness and peace and calm and the inevitability of this life.


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Exploring Banaue’s famous rice terraces in a jeepny

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These mountain towns have a character all of their own. Banaue is no exception. The first impression is slab like buildings created using blocks, planking and cement and then covered with corrugated iron to keep out the elements. It doesn’t help that the cloud is low, a polite way to say it is raining, and everything is seen through a gloom.


Jeepnies are more substantial to deal with the gradients and are enclosed to keep the passengers dry and warm. That does not mean they enjoy any modern mechanics. Most are held together with wire and any concept of an MOT passed them by years, nay decades ago.


There are thousands more rice terraces around the town which, if unravelled and placed end to end, would stretch halfway around the planet. On a grey morning the bashed up jeepny roars out dollops of grey exhaust and struggles out of town and up and over to the surrounding valleys leaving the grey structures of Banaue behind us in the mist.

Eventually the cloud has swirled away enough to spy in the gloom the patterns of three rice terraces around their respective villages.

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And here are a few of the locals.

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The Hapau River Rice Terraces

The drive through the highlands from Sagada is dramatic. This is real mountain territory with high sharp peaks and forested ridges cut apart by dry cobbled river beds wishing for the monsoon rains to top up their levels. The road follows the same meanders as the rivers although clinging right up on the sides of the ravines, peering down to the bottom as it rises through high trunks that cling into the rocky ground for dear life. There are so many giants around here. The backs of their hands positioned side by side on a table and their huge arthritic, gnarled hands and knuckles and veins are a challenge for all but the most competent of drivers. The rivers have cut deep into the mountains forming deep canyons, sharp ravines and rocky gorges.


Wherever the river flattens out for a short while, terraces rise from both banks and follow the line of the tumbling waters as it stretches up the valley keeping the river company, way below us.


Crawling up to the ridge top, engine grinding all the way up the gradient and then ahead there is nothing above us, no sharp ridge, no tall timber, just blue sky. So then, with a huge last desperate roar, it’s up and over and down into the neighbouring valley with a huge gasp of exhaust  and engine relief (did you like the way I did that?). 

Then down, down, approaching the crossing point at the bottom, through the corrugated iron that makes up the village or town there, over the rickety rackety bridge and then it starts all over again, grinding our way up the other side.

Along the road and along the rivers every space possible is terraced up to enable the locals to carry out their family farming. Valley sides and valley bottoms host the flattening effects of terraces where rice, in particular, and vegetables are grown in contour hugging collections of shape and size and colour and texture.

If you get a chance check out a guy called Masferre. He was a Spanish Filipino photographer who took some wonderful images of tribesmen and village life in the Bontoc of region. Truely stunning. I think I have a fair bit to go.

The Hapao Rice Terraces, just outside the town of Banue, are the main man when it comes to rice terraces.

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They have been here for over 2000 years and were the prototype for all terraces in the Philippines. Some are created with mud walls, which can collapse after heavy rain, and others, the stronger ones, with stones and boulders. All are irrigated efficiently and have clear water trickling through or beside them in narrow channels with simple weirs to control the flow.


The hanging coffins of Sagada

Today is a long drive southeast to the rising hills of the highlands. The road passes through emerald green and harvested brown paddy fields, squares of sun drying yellow corn and white flecked rice, chomping, humped, white cattle, cash crops of maize or onions. Hamlets, villages then towns line the route. Construction tends to be the same – concrete blocks with the omnipresent corrugated iron roof. In the county there tends to be simpler, bamboo shacks mixed in and in the towns, multi-storied houses with balconies and chrome bling add variety and indicate greater wealth.

Every town has an imposing church lording it over the skyline. The Spanish friars certainly did their job well. The buildings themselves20160213233835_IMG_4734

date from different times, ancient and modern, but all were established in the 16th century when the conquistadors first arrived. 


The domination of the church of Santa Maria over the hearts and minds of the faithful is complete. Dating from 1810 and constructed in brick its faded glory stretches along the ridge for 90 metres. The fact that it’s Sunday and mass is taking place just adds to its peace and harmony, not just of spirit but also of ambiance as beautiful singing nightingales out of the open doors from the packed congregation who express their delights and celebrations over the surrounding scene.


Then the bus starts to climb. Within a few moments the road is wiggling and winding up through jungle foliage and palms and stretching branches. Then it is into the sharp, taloned chicken feet of forested high valleys and ridges, carved and dissected by water into a scenery of gnarled fingers and arthritic knuckles on a tapestry of hands.

My destination is Sagada. Sagada is a small scruffy little town, full of corrugated iron and wooden panels, high up in the highlands and a favorite, for some reason, with the young couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. Being at 1400 metres the air is fresh and even chilly at night. The locals dress up in fleeces and woolly hats to keep out the cold that they seem to feel.



The town is renowned for a truly remarkable practice. The locals have been air burying their dead in coffins perched high on cliff faces for over 2000 years. Why? It could be to keep the preserved bodies away from wild predators or they may have believed it took their loved ones that much closer too heaven. Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit macabre. Thoughts of falling skeletons from worm rotten coffins comes to mind but it is reassuring to know this rarely happens due to the hardness of the wood. It is still done today with the latest body buried in this way in 2010. There are several cliff faces for this use.

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At least the Spanish introduced cemeteries and underground burials even though gravestones and slabs are not so picturesque as hanging coffins.

I had lunch in  the hills just outside town in a stilted cafe overlooking the houses and paddy fields. I love this image.


The charming, cobbled streets of Hispanic Vigan

Vigan has a charm all of its own which is felt immediately you wander through the narrow streets, avoiding the buzzing motor bike/sidecar tuktuks, whose body work, here, resembles Roman legionnaires, and the loud clip clopping nags pulling their elegant, two wheeled tourist carriages, into the gentle hubbub of the plaza. It is one of the few Hispanic towns left in the Philippines and a reminder of the arrival of the Spanish searching for spices for their dishes and souls for their church. 

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The plaza, as with all Spanish towns home and abroad, is the centre of town life. Vigan is no exception and has a few unique features. The traditional eateries are common, as are the families and groups sitting around passing the time together. The skate boarders trying out their skills are slightly more unusual. But what about these guys?

And this is a first. The only ice skating rink in the Philippines. I really had to pinch myself and chuckled out loud at the sight and particularly the plastic polar bear aids. The queue to get in was phenomenal. They have no idea what snow is like, they’ve never seen it. They now think it is white plastic stuff which is really hard to fall on and that polar bears are less than a metre high.

The grid ironed streets are lined with elegant colonial houses with carved wooden facades to the upper stories and torn plaster covered brickwork at ground floor level. Although tatty and run down the place still oozes atmosphere throughout it’s shady, overgrown centre. The Spanish conquistadors, the Chinese before them and the local Filipinos have all had an influence on the architecture and layout of the town.

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Nighttime is quite magical. The old street lights give a warm glow to the wood and the broken plaster. Restaurants and bars seem doubly welcoming as the streets are taken over by tables and tat shops open up to the souvenir hunters. The old tourist carriages negotiate a path through.

In daylight the tourist trail is a bit arbitrary. It covers the cathedral, where two funerals are taking place at the same time, three museums, a pottery, a weavers, a garden centre for lunch (they’ve copied the UK’s diversification from plants into meals although it was nice and shady), and a farm with the young workers putting on a cultural show. See if you can match these images with the activities.

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The best bit was the day spent in the carriages clip clopping between all these places both in town and a bit further out in the country, passing through villages and hamlets, through fields of maize. It felt a bit like royalty passing as we waved and smiled back at waving and smiling locals.

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We did get into trouble though. The mayor saw our convoy of 8 carriages with their skinny nags and the main man of the drivers was called to account in his office for speeding. Some chance.

Cockpits, residential palaces and Baroque churches

Cockfighting sounds pretty barbaric. Every town and village seems to have at least one breeding centre. Certainly at five in the morning, where ever you are in this country, a chorus of crowing birds greets the dawn and it sounds like that is a complete underestimate. Hundreds of roosters all sound off at each other, a bit like boxers at the weigh-in trying to outdo each other.

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These roosters are magnificent birds, full and plump and powerful. They gleam with strength and colour. They have their own shelter of slab tiles where they are tethered in the shade,  lined up in a yard with fifty or so tilted homes. They are fed up, food ways I mean but I am sure the other way as well, and watered. They peck about and strut and scream out to assert their position in the pecking order. See how I did that? Anyway, as the big day approaches I am told they are starved until they are desperate for food, razor blades are tied to the backs of their legs and they are thrown into the pit to battle it out to the death; feathers and blood and gore. It’s rowdy and raucous with men yelling their bets and encouragement.

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Every town has a cockfighting pit. These are not small structures. They are more like stadium with room for hundreds of spectators. This is the one in Manila which is named after King Slasher, king of the ring, a champion of the razor kick.

Today is a leisurely drive down the coast to the heritage city of  Vegan. On the way a pop into Marcos’s northern palace is in order and also this wonderful church built of brick and stone.


The cornerstone was laid in 1704 by the Augustinian friars who had arrived in the 16th century. When in danger of falling down, 12 buttresses were built on each side, constructed from stone and smoothed coral. That didn’t help the protection of the local reefs.

A comfort break and a refuge from the heat and the dust of travelling is required. Sitio Remedios is just that, reinvigorating the spirit in particular. A true oasis of calm and peace on the edge of the ocean.

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I could have stayed for ever in the hammock, in the shade, listening to the silence and losing myself in the monotony and perpetual motion of surf on sand out there in the blazing sun.



Exploring the coast north of Lauag

The Republic of the Philippines is made up of 7,107 islands in the Pacific Ocean the largest of which is Luzon. It is a short flight from Manila up to Laoag in the north of the island. Today is spent exploring the most northern part of Luzon. And it’s beach day!

But first of all a stop in Batac. This is a small town whose main claim to fame is the centre of support for the famous, or is it infamous, President Marcos. Here is his mausoleum and a museum dedicated to his life. It is a small town with lovely people going about their business. These lovely ladies were preparing the local delicacy of empanadas.


and these lovely ladies were ready to take orders in their air conditioned Makky D’s.


Then it’s up the coast road. The jungle is far behind us. Now it’s dry arid scrubland with the occasional settlement of low scruffy one storey dwellings surrounded by simple fishing outriggers nesting on the flat coastline. There are no golden beaches yet. Volcanic clinker is the main element of this coastline. Up here the main source of income is the manufacture and selling of salt and the sale of small onions and garlic.


The lighthouse was built in 1892 and is still in use.20160211035910_IMG_4133

The ride up on the space shuttle bikes is cool. I was a bit suspicious of my driver as he did not seem to know the rules of the road. Would you trust him?

A quick stop off at the market to buy lunch. Now careful. Traditional dishes are poki poki, fried vegetables mixed with shrimp paste (very strong), or fried aubergine. Neither of which are to my taste so maybe I’ll order pulled pork from the menu. The Filipinos do like their pork, pulled or otherwise. Oh, you need to be careful. Poki in Chinese means vagina.

And then the beach at last. 🙌 🙌 🙌. The landscape has changed over the past few miles as the highlands rear up inland. It is more luxuriant, back amongst the palms and jungle foliage and rice paddies. Then following a sign to Ivory Sands it is through Veronica’s restaurant and there is this long, palm fringed crescent of soft, inviting, silver sand around a turquoise loop with darker patches of fronds of gently lapping seaweed cruising around flattened coral. Sorry guys but I have to put this image up. Yes, the water was as glorious as it looks.


Swiming in the South China Sea before a cool beer and, I decided on, a plate of fried calimari, was just heaven.

Village life in the land of volcanoes


I know a few things about jeepnies now. The base unit is the military Willis jeep, left by the US after the war with two bench seats, each designed for three personnel.They were surplus to requirements when the Americans left and some in factory condition. Local Filipino mechanics would use their inventiveness to extend the chassis and bodywork to fit up to 20 passengers. To power this beast they would whip out the original engine and put in a Mitsubishi truck engine. And there you have it – the jeepny. That was interesting wasn’t it?

Anyway, this is volcano land. I stayed in Tagaytay on the edge of a large fresh water lake which must have formed part of a volcano at some point in the past. So, after clambering aboard an outrigger and a short hop over the lake to Taal Crater Island which so looks like a proper volcanic come.


Then I have a choice. I either hike up to to the top of crater rim or I wander around the village at the bottom. Hmmmm. Quite easy really as I have seen quite a few volcanoes in my time and that incline is quite steep enough.

Firstly I explore the small centre where the locals hire out their skinny nags to take tourists up the volcano.

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Having had a rather disgusting cup of Nescafe and take the very difficult decision to walk left along the beach rather than right. Soon I am amongst the village houses and livestock and families. Such a joy.


The camera opens up smiling faces and roars of laughter and shy grins.20160210025642_IMG_3987 20160210023903_IMG_3956 20160210031907_IMG_4011

What a lovely, warm, friendly people with no axe too grind and no agenda other than to make a crust by tapping up the tourists or managing their offshore fish farms. Life is pretty basic and simple but a smile comes to their faces quick enough and they seem content with very little. Maybe we could learn a thing or two.

I love these two images. They seem to sum the whole thing up.



Bamboo rafting on Pandin Lake

After the day spent at carnival the peace and shade of the oldtown within the walls is a welcome respite from the clangs and drums of the Dragon performance. Two churches survive the devastation of the war. The church of St Agustin is built of volcanic stone and is the oldest church in the Philippines built by the Spanish friars around 450 years ago. There is a conveyor belt of wedding parties waiting for their slot to tie the knot. Even though Catholic, there must be something auspicious about being wed on the first day off the year of the monkey.

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Manila cathedral takes up the slack with the faithful, providing space and opportunity for prayer and reflection.

Today brings the real Manila to life. The streets fill with school children filling like ants to their places of learning. It seems that so many Filipinos work abroad that the young are left to build their country’s future. Traffic builds amongst the growing pedestrians walking the old streets within the wall. From above the tricycles skittle their way around and through the gates in the wall like mini robotic toys on mini tracks on endless journeys to locality nowhere. The main roads fill with traffic a thousand of commuters put into town. Every other vehicle is a jeepny with its cargo crouching down to get some air into its squashed confines. The occasional bigger coach, Toyota taxis,shiny private cars compete for space amongst the gridlock of the main routes into the commercial centre of bright lights, posh shops, tight uniformed security guards, retail outlets, western coffee houses and stretching Hightower apartments and offices.

Travelling by bus I am squeezed out onto the skyway heading for the provinces and the open spaces to the south of Manila. Outside the capital the jeepny is no longer king. Here the motorised tricycle tuktuk has taken over as the main form of public transport. These are the shiny silver cockpits of space modules attached to the side of a motorbike and will take two passengers in a rather intimate space plus one on the pillion.



Pandin Lake, outside San Pablo City, is enclosed by a jungle of palms and bananas and coconuts. The rains come for a while as the path to lakeside passes the corrugated iron security fence of a cock fighting breeding farm emitting the perpetual crowing of hundreds of birds. Cock fighting is the national sport of the Philippines along with boxing and basketball. Bamboo rafts, propelled by locals, men and women, pulling hard at a rope strung across to the far side, plough a lazy channel over to the far side and back again. Quite why I am not sure. Maybe just an attraction to get the tourists in. On the return leg the sun comes out making the scenery so much more attractive and enhancing the whole experience. These are some of the guys working the rope.

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Happy New Year from the Philippines

Welcome to the year of the monkey.  I am told that I have struck lucky. I fly into Manila, the capital of the Philippines, at Chinese New Year and the place is so quiet. Well that’s what the locals say. The trip from the airport to the hotel only takes 25 minutes and the next day is a bank holiday so I can explore the city without getting gridlocked with the added bonus of the excitement of street celebrations.

A quick bit of context. The Philippines has 100 million people and 17 million of them live in Manila.80% are Catholics and 5% are Chinese. The islands were colonised by the Spanish in the 16th century who were looking for spices and converts. The Brits invaded for a couple of years and then the US took over as part of a deal at the end of their war with Spain in the 19th century. During WWII Manila was smashed by the Japanese in their occupation and then by Americans as they took back the islands and the capital. The country finally became independent in 1947. The people speak English because of the American context and operate the world’s call centres.  There’s a surprise.

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Ok into downtown Chinatown. Public transport is completely different to other Asian cities. First are the jeepnies. These are a. cross between a bus and a taxi. and are brightly coloured converted jeeps that the Americans left at the end of the war that have been extended to seat up to 14 passengers. They bang along their designated routes belching out smoke and gently sounding horns. Passengers flag them down, pay their 7 pesos (10p) and bang on the roof when they want to get off. Then comes the modern Toyota taxi with its air con-the Prince of the road. At the bottom of the heap are hundreds of mostly pedal powered tricycles where every journey costs 3 pesos..


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So down into the chaos of Chinatown. The noise of cymbals and drums and canned music compete with cries of sellers and screaming kids and music boxes and street bands. Snaking dragons and fluorescentmoths rear up at clusters of brightly coloured Mickey Mouse balloons or knock on the door of banks or shops.The most inventive are the street kids banging out a funky rhythm with two bits of wood on an olive oil can or a large water container while their mates do the moves holding a plastic veg tray on their head covered with a dirty sheet. Brilliant. There is definitely a place for the Horns and if a band of Manila’s ladyboys can get a samba groove together there is certainly a place for Larkrise.

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Its quite nice to get into the old town and visit a few churches. The pace drops, the temperature drops and everything gets calmer. What a great first day.