Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Bangkok, Thailand, Day 60 – 76, 4-19 June 2008

Bangkok, Thailand, Day 60 – 76, 4-19 June 2008

Soundtrack:

‘The Filth and the Fury’ – Sex Pistols

Theme to Bladerunner – Vangelis

‘Burning down the House’ – Talking Heads

 

DB: Once settled in our apartment it became apparent that itself was a metaphor for the city in which it resided: quite large, rather dishevelled, badly planned, if at all, cared for by its numerous residents like a cheap rental car, and prone to getting dirty just by looking at it. It also had the pretence of being a grand and sophisticated abode, when in reality it was a crumbling box not unlike thousands of others in its vicinity.

Our main purpose for being in Bangkok, capital of Thailand – and the reason for our haste in getting there – was to send our truck off by sea to Los Angeles. This journey would take three weeks or so, so we had time to kill.

Unfortunately, as many would know, Bangkok isn’t the easiest place to kill time, unless one likes to shop til their limbs fall off (or suffer terminal brain implosion). It is even harder for children – it is overcrowded, street pavements are uneven and $4 knock-off Rolex watches are just not that exciting.

And, being the beginning of summer, it was hot and wet.

And it stinks. Let’s not beat around the proverbial, but Bangkok is probably one of the most polluted metropolises (metropoli?) on the planet, and it’s hard to escape.

Unless, of course, you have loads of cash or get a buzz out of trawling one of seemingly several thousand white, glass and chrome shopping malls. They are as vast and numerous as they are, well, pretty boring. Acres of shops and food courts teeming with westerners and selling stuff that is available in those westerners’ own home towns.

Yet we were not to be deterred. Sandy and I were last here some seventeen years ago, after about 361 days backpacking around the world, so we were not all that interested then in trying to discover the ‘real’ Bangkok, or gain insight into typical, or even traditional, Thai life.

First thing’s first. We’d barely survived driving into Bangkok and we were not about to start puttering around and looking for parking spots. All of Bangkok’s roads make Chapel Street on a Saturday night look like an outback cattle station on a quiet day. What was needed was local transport. A tuk-tuk.

As those who have been to Bangkok before know all too well, these little growling beasties are a mad scientist’s almost successful attempt at fusing the front of a motorbike with the back of a ute that’s been accidentally washed in hot water and put through the drier. They belch smoke and sound like a hoon in St Albans has taken to the exhaust of his Mazda rotary engine with a chain saw. They’re more expensive than a regular cab for short trips, and significantly less comfortable. Or safe. As mentioned before, in describing road travel in Thailand, road rules are merely suggestions that prove far too annoying for sensible Thai drivers to take any notice. Like Lightning McQueen’s ‘Opposite World’, red means green, left means right, go means stop, one-way means any way you want, footpath means road, and traffic coming towards you are merely obstacles requiring a deft foot on the peddle and a hand permanently on the horn.

(Pic: Tuk-tuks in Bangkok)

Which is why we loved them.

Of course, Bangkok traffic is psychotic and hopelessly overcrowded – a seemingly never-ending stagnation of furious automobile/truck/scooter hell. Peak hour allegedly goes for four hours from about 4pm, but I found it difficult to tell the difference. (But despite the chaos, there was absolutely no road rage. Maybe the system works! SK)

We did attempt to do more than eat and shop, but not always successfully. Like when we saw on a map the ‘Siam Discovery Centre’, which we naively took to mean perhaps a cultural experience describing Siamese/Thai life, turned out to be nothing more than yet another large shopping centre.

A great highlight for us was catching up with my cousin Gaby (B, not S, who’s in Melbourne and just had a baby – yay!) who took us along to a very traditional Jewish Friday night shabbat dinner, hosted by an expat and attended by about twenty others, including, if you don’t mind, the Israeli Consul. A fun night, but strange to eat foods that originated from Eastern European shtetls centuries ago in the balmy climate of southern Thailand.

Nevertheless, we did eventually find some hints at a Bangkokian’s hometown experience by using canal boats and the new and pretty nifty Skyrail to get around, and eating locally and downmarket.

The canal boats were fast, efficient, cheap and probably made our pre-departure travel shots all the more worthwhile, as there was no telling of the cocktail of viral and bacterial Armageddon lurking beneath and on the surface of what is loosely referred to as ‘the water’. So polluted is this sick soup that the canal boats have rudimentary plastic sheeting on a pulley system along the sides that passengers can use to shield themselves in hope that some of the liquid doesn’t initiate an immediate skin peel.

(Pic: Sandy and Maddy shelter from the ‘water’ in a canal boat)

The canals are also home to what will surely be a significant contributor to the death of the planet – the ubiquitous plastic water bottle. Soon the world will be carpeted in them, and anthropologists and archaeologists from the planet Zorkon will one day land here, after we’re all gone, and wonder how these plastic parasites were able to breed.

In short, Bangkok waterways – and streets, gutters and footpaths – are treated like garbage dumps. At the end of the line where we disembarked the canal boats, the conductors gather any rubbish left in the boat and toss it into the surrounding cesspool.

Yet our many trips on the canals gave us a view of Bangkok life that many don’t get to see. Bangkok is essentially a poor town in a developing country. People make use of every available space and building material just to get by. There is nothing romantic about it – it seems to be a hard life of just getting by. Some houses simply add rooms onto the one previously added, which means sometimes onto the water.

(Pic: Maddy gazes at some of the river houses)

Our trip on the Chao Phraya river that runs through Bangkok gave us a different view of the city yet again. The river is alive with industry and tourism, but there was one thing we hadn’t seen before, here or elsewhere; the river is rife with floating vegetation, which makes navigation frustrating and fraught, as this vegetation clogs up pumps and wraps itself around propellers. It turns out that this exotic cane toad of a plant was once imported by the Queen of Thailand for one of her fish ponds, and, naturally, made a bid for freedom. It now grows unabated and flows down the river and into the sea. We were told that some industrious locals have worked out a way of harvesting the reedy stems and using them to fashion baskets. But it seems they are making little if any impact on the volume of this virulent vegie.

Yet, even though it was the Queen who introduced this pest, the monarchy is still held in the highest esteem in Thailand, and especially Bangkok. Not only are images of the King and Mrs the King displayed in every shop, stall, factory and office, as well as on huge hoardings along roads and across bridges, but the kind folk of Thailand regularly wear special yellow or pink polo shirts with the royal insignia on the breast. Cars have “Long live the King” stickers on their back windows, and the King’s anthem is played twice a day on radio before the news.

This anthem is also played at numerous public events, including, as we were to discover, the cinema. We knew it was coming, but it was still a little confronting, and at the same time amusing. One stormy afternoon we took the children to one of the many cavernous cinema complexes located in equally vast shopping malls to see Kung Fu Panda (really, the kids wanted to see it, so Sandy and I went along only to chaperone). After half an hour of shorts, promos and advertisements (yep, some things are universal), an image of the King appeared on the screen with a voiceover, and everyone stood in the dark and in silence, as the song started up and further images of the King on his throne, in army uniform in the field, taking photos and shaking hands with dignitaries flashed across the screen. Until this moment, we weren’t entirely sure about the whole monarchy thing here, given that most people in Australia (well, the ones we know anyway) treat the British monarchy as a tired and quaint anachronism populated almost entirely of overly pampered in-breds with sallow skin and prone to making inappropriate comments in public. Not, it seems, the Thais. They love their King and Queen openly and honestly in a happy symbiotic relationship that nurtures the Thais. However, it seems it can’t last forever. Ma and Pa King are getting on, and we are told that the Thais aren’t exactly enamoured with their eldest boy, who enjoys gadding about in flash cars, flash bling and flash women on his arm. In one conversation I had I was told that the Maoists – recently so successful in banishing the King of Nepal into oblivion, are shaping up for a rumble when the King goes to that great palace in the sky.

Then again, it’s highly unlikely one would hear anything negative of the Kingmeister as, well, lets face it – it’s illegal. Even at the time of writing there were journalists and politicians facing charges of ‘lesse majeste’ – and a long time in gaol – for allegedly insulting the king personally or the monarchy in general.

(Pic: This won’t hurt a bit – Raff works on his Mum at massages at Cabbages and Condoms)

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Thai massage is world renown and somewhat of a necessity when in these parts. Massage is a Thai staple, and locals regularly submit their bodies for a regular pummelling in order, we are told, to maintain good health. My take on it is that you feel so sore after a Thai massage that you feel the need for a remedial one a few days later – a type of self-fulfilling prophecy of the muscular variety. I’ve never been one overly enamoured with a stranger’s elbows being screwed into my shoulder blades, but we indulged at what turned out to be our favourite restaurant with a name that makes one titter and raise an eyebrow at the same time.

(Pic: Dinner with Gaby B at Cabbages and Condoms)

Cabbages and Condoms served brilliant Thai food in an almost fairy-garden atmosphere, with traditional Thai musicians playing, a massage room and proceeds going to the cause of Aids/HIV prevention. The owner, Mr Mechai Viravaidya, has been so popular in promoting the use of condoms throughout the region that condoms are often known as ‘Mechai’. A free vasectomy clinic is next door, if you’re up for it, and after dinner mints are replaced with condoms. The kids had fun blowing them up as balloons! They also had traditional Thai foot massages, and Raffy entertained the masseurs by repeating their technique on his mum – so much so that upon our return a week or so later (with Gaby) the masseurs’ faces lit up at the sight of Raff.

In fact, Raff has been an all-round hit with the Thais, to the extent that he became quite sick of being touched, patted and stroked. It was all well intended, but quiet confronting for the boy.

We did have some terrific Thai and Chinese meals, and of course spent some time trawling some of the markets gawking at all manner of cheap souvenirs and designer brands with spelling mistakes. Truth be known, we weren’t averse to stocking up on some clothes or electronic gizmos, but the sheer volume of the merchandise on offer almost repulsed us. By the end our eyes would just glaze over, and we would move on (although the sight of two women in full burquas rummaging through some timber statues and trinkets didn’t seem to either notice or care that most of them were somewhat intentionally phallic by design).

Sometimes, however, it wasn’t that easy to just move on, as my path would be blocked by a smiling gentleman, often from the subcontinent, who would hear none of my objections to entering his store to look at his fantastic array of bags, luggage and/or suits. One man in a turban stopped me in the street, his arm outstretched offering me his hand, and, of course, asked me where I was from, naturally. And, naturally, his “best customers are from Australia!” Naturally. Indeed, he told me that my face promised untold wealth and fortune, including “many, many ladies.” It didn’t seem to matter that my partner and mother of my children was standing next to me, and that I told him I wasn’t interested, but I quickly retreated, with his rising voice fading in the din, extolling that if only I dressed better. The nerve! Yes, I currently look like a schlepper because I’m on holidays, but man I can look sharp. I’ve a good mind to frock up and find that so-and-so to teach him a thing or two…

We were fascinated by the Bangkok construction industry as essentially it seems to have been born from childhood cubbyhouse construction techniques. While the final product might be relatively OK, it just looks like things are thrown together from the ‘Found Objects’ hardware store. Scaffolding is bamboo lashed together with twine and is climbed like a giant ladder. Almost everything is done by hand, including lugging bricks and concrete to upper floors, and workers dangle perilously close to the edge of incomplete floors while building walls.

Amazingly, a substantial number of construction workers are women. It is dirty, hot and dangerous work that continues throughout daylight and into the night, and is very labour intensive, which suggests to us that perhaps many of these women are not in the game as a career move. And, aside from the conditions, workers cover their bodies entirely with heavy clothing and wrap their heads and faces in cloth. Indeed, it seemed that the more manual your labour the more clothing you wore. To us, wilting in the tropical heat, it looked like torture, but for them it was survival.

We watched scaffolding being erected across the street from our apartment and noticed that the only thing holding it upright was it being lashed to a power pole, itself one large human fry-up waiting to happen.

Indeed, quite disconcerting were the power transformers and dodgy electric cable connections that would hum and buzz after a downpour – a sound both ominous and predictable. It was a sound that added to the feeling that the entire city was a seething mass tempting apocalypse. The torrential rain that, at the beginning of summer, would come with the regularity and predictability of a phone call from a market research company at dinner-time, transformed the city into a scene from the film Bladerunner – oppressive, sinister, unyielding and dramatic. The streets would darken in minutes and fill with dirty water that would send humans and beasts scurrying. Some streets, like ours, would flood, stranding residents at home and visitors marooned.

(Pic: Clouds converge over some of Bangkok’s more interesting overhead wiring)

One thing we did find odd about Bangkok and much of Thailand was the ever-present packs of stray dogs roaming the streets looking for food, and trouble. And nobody really seemed to mind. Dogs were everywhere, one looking more dishevelled and diseased than the next. The children mentioned that not only did it seem dangerous but also probably not very fair on the dogs, either.

While there, I read an article in a local English-language journal that was subtitled “Should Bangkok be burned to the ground?” The author made a convincing argument that centred on the notion that the entire city had been neglected for decades; planning, construction and sanitation standards, social cohesion, support for the underprivileged. The traffic was an official and state-sanctioned joke, the pollution a foregone conclusion. I couldn’t help think that the rain was simply trying to wash the entire mess into the sea.

Social action in the form of organised protest was a daily occurrence in Bangkok during this time – more and more people essentially feeling ripped off by a government that initially had promised significant change after the previous military coup that ousted billionaire soccer-team owner Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. I was tempted to head out there and see what all the fuss was about, but every travel warning told us not to go anywhere near a protest or rally, and so we couldn’t take the kids there.

But the main reason for hanging around Bangkok was to get the truck off to Los Angeles. Again, this theoretically was to be a relatively straightforward process, but as we have now learned, nothing is that simple.

Our first and major hurdle was the repercussions of the inaccurate customs form we received when entering Thailand from Malaysia. It seemed that Thai customs were not willing to allow us to export our truck when the documents had incorrect information. It was fixable, but would take time.

After numerous faxes to the shipping agent of copies of the truck’s registration, our passport and visa details and sundry data, we finally go the go-ahead. Initially we were to hand the truck over five working days before it was to depart by sea, but our paperwork palaver made us miss several deadlines. We were to take the truck down to a local shipping agent where it would be loaded into a container, sealed, taken by truck to the port and loaded onto the ship. Missing that deadline meant we would have to take the truck directly to the port. The shipping company was to send a representative to our apartment one day at 8am and I would drive with him to the port. No problem.

Raffy was up for the adventure, and it was estimated that the entire process shouldn’t take more than two or three hours. The back seat of the truck had been loaded with all the gear from the roof again, but I made some room for Raff to climb in, while the Thai shipping rep sat in the passenger seat.

We knew that Bangkok is a port city and we weren’t too far from the coast, so it should be a quick dash to the port, and away we go. Our shipping agent arrived and, with halting English, we managed to hit the road. He guided us along some major roads until we were driving down a narrow, busy road lined with containers, and ships in the distance. This should be it.

“Now turn left,” he instructed, and I did, onto a more major road again, “and we drive now for maybe one hundred kilometres.”

Wha? I started to get nervous. Where was he taking me? And how were we going to return to Bangkok if it was that far away? After some more questions and improvised language, he assured me it was right, and sure enough, ninety minutes later after a rather hair-raising drive doing the South-East Asian slalom and dodging slow-moving vehicles and pedestrians, we got to the enormous port area.

Unfortunately, our guide didn’t know his way around the port, so it meant another half an hour of asking passers by and making phone calls, until another bloke collected us and we followed him to his shipping terminal.

And then we waited.

And waited some more.

I couldn’t fathom what he, or his people, were doing. The shipping container was there, open, and ready for the truck. I had handed over carnet, my passport and other documents, and we hung around.

We were directed to a canteen not unlike the one Sandy and I experienced in Singapore. We had some food and water, and hung around. The rain came, and went. Dock workers wandered in and out, ate, slept, bantered and stared at the local soap opera on the TV in the corner.

I finally got to drive the truck into the container, and some dock workers went to work securing it inside. I knew that the truck had to be secured inside the container as there are too many stories of pristine cars being backed out of a container after a sea voyage, battered and bruised from being knocked around inside. I had come prepared with a few ratchet tie-downs, but the dock workers weren’t impressed. They presented a bunch of ropes, some timber, a hammer and nails. The ropes were tied to each corner of the truck, or thereabouts, and to the corners of the container. The timber was inserted into the doubled rope and twisted tight. One end of the timber was then nailed to the floor of the container. We’ll check in Los Angeles if they were as effective as they promised.

We eventually got a lift with another shipping guy in his dodgy ute to the bus station at around 5pm. Raffy couldn’t believe that the ute had 19 stereo speakers and flashing lights on various amplifiers, yet the music the man played sounded even more crappy than the original producers of bad Thai pop intended.

Our bus terminated (and not a bad thing too) at a bus station about four kilometres from our apartment. From there we caught a cab – which took an hour. For most of it, we sat, motionless, in teeming traffic, all honking and tooting at each other, and not going anywhere at all.

But it was done.

Raffy was a trooper the entire day. What was supposed to be a couple of hours dropping off the truck ended up being eleven hours of tedious frustration.

And so, aside from our short sojourn to Koh Samet, we spent our days in Bangkok doing a little shopping and exploring, eating and sheltering from the heat, humidity dodgy overhead cables that would sometimes fall from the sky, and pollution, in the apartment. Maddy and Raffy did a decent amount of schoolwork and Sandy and I were able to plan some more of our trip. We discovered some amazing restaurants that seemed entirely juxtaposed to the city in which they nestled, including the fabulous Atlanta Hotel, allegedly one of the first western-styled hotels in Bangkok that retains a beautiful art-deco dining room and reception with original furnishings and early jazz piped through the speakers. There were a number of historic photos on the walls, but one caught my eye: it was a shot of the King of Thailand, a renown musician, on saxophone, with none other than Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Benny Goodman on clarinet. Unfortunately, detracting from this amazing scene was a young and equally goofy-looking George Bush senior grinning at the camera.

(Pic: Raffy and Maddy enjoying the stinkiest fruit in the world, Durian, at ‘Café 7’)

SK: Maddy set up Café 7 in our apartment – complete with menu and bills (she is enterprising and earning way over and above her pocket money). Parents were banned from any activity in the kitchen, unless it was to be waited upon! Having our own space where we could hang out, prepare meals, and unwind was so important for us all. Especially as a foil to the chaos around us.

The kids were entranced by the Wats that we visited, especially Way Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). Raffy was keen to understand the notion of offerings and wanted to participate in the Buddhist rituals. Maddy and Raffy also expressed their awareness of the contradictions of the opulence of the venues, the austerity of the monks and the crazy numbers of tourists who swarmed all over the places like rats, often whose experiences were only through the view finders of their digital cameras.

Maddy, and Raffy in particular, were moved by the plight of beggars (mothers with small children, people maimed, injured or disfigured). They were generous with their money, and Raffy often remembered to bring his wallet when we went out only for the purpose of sharing what Baht he had with the people less fortunate on the streets.

(Pic: Danny and Maddy have a snooze with the reclining Buddha)

Maddy and Raffy were also interested in the Buddhist shrines that dotted shops, streets and offices. Ordinarily, the shrines portray an image of Buddha and have some joss-sticks burning (or previously burnt) and some offerings. What seemed somewhat incongruous was that the offerings were not always traditional food, but also cans of soft-drink, junk food and cigarettes. After reviewing the evidence after a while, Raffy decided that Buddha must like Fanta more than Coke.

DB: One of the other startling and yet common scenes on the streets was that of ‘mixed relationships’. Or, more to the point, white men hand in hand with Thai women. Now, ordinarily I would not have a problem with this, however the dynamic of the couple always made me edgy. Why was it that nearly every man was fat, over fifty and often badly tattooed, and the women were young and had a look of fear in their eyes? References to ‘sexpats’ and ‘mail order brides’ abound, yet while I wouldn’t suggest that every ‘mixed relationship’ in Thailand is inappropriate, the notion of western men bringing hard currency and promises of a better life to young women in developing nations smacks of cultural invasion and opportunism of the worst kind.

Almost as bad is the south-east Asian habit of borrowing the worst from western – and mainly American – popular culture. Thai culture and music is inseparable, yet modern Thai music almost exclusively takes the worst of that sappy, pseudo-emotional oeuvre from US mainstream pop that incorporates a monotonous verse, chorus, verse bridge chorus pattern and a singer who is incapable of any other state of being other than closing their eyes and moving a closed fist slowly downwards. I did get some snippets of some Thai music that could be otherwise found in the ‘alternative’ section at JB HiFi, but never on radio or TV.

And TV was sometime a saviour, particularly with the Australia Network. Would there be a better station in the world than one that provides healthy doses of news and current affairs from the ABC, ‘Home and Away’ and the footy live to air? I had some strange moments watching the Saints play and the ABC commentary streaming through the laptop.

(Pic: Maddy and Raffy in Bangkok chat with Uncle Paul, Talulah and Cherry in Byron Bay)

The laptop and albeit haphazard internet connection have made this trip markedly different to previous trips, particularly overseas. (OK, we didn’t own computers that ran anything more sophisticated than DOS and that were the size of baby grand pianos last time we were overseas, but that’s not the point.) Through search engines and links from other sites we are able to find recommendations and advice at the touch of a few buttons. And, of course, we can stay in touch with loved ones instantly. No more so than the program we use regularly, and one that we used to dream of when we were kids. Back then we called it a ‘TV phone’, but now it’s called SKYPE. For the uninitiated, this program essentially allows us to speak to and see others – for free. Drop us a line if you’d like to Skype us.

(Pic: Durian on the beach at Koh Samet in a brief patch of sunshine)

The rain was becoming more regular and intense, and our attempt at an idyllic break on a Thai island was all but a wash-out. Koh Samet would probably ordinarily be a fun place, but there’s not a huge amount to do when it rains. Well, that’s not entirely true, as the British teachers there for a long weekend demonstrated with copious amounts of Singha beer and cackling laughs. The rain didn’t daunt the numerous Scandinavian tourists, either, who were out on the beach in all weather. While we slipped, slopped and slapped when the sun was briefly out, they turned pink; and when we took shelter from the storms, they were out playing soccer on the beach in the rain. I guess that we were on a much longer break, and they were desperate to cram a great holiday into whatever brief time they had.

The island wasn’t working for us. So we needed another plan. We still had two weeks to kill and we didn’t want to use the opportunity to sit in hotel rooms watching bad TV, so we decided to go north to Hanoi.

Vietnam was one of the countries we originally wanted to drive through (on the return leg through Asia) but we were advised it was impossible to do so without a Vietnamese driver’s licence or to bring your own vehicle into the country. So, this was a great opportunity to get a taste for it. And we moved pretty fast, too.

We left Koh Samet and returned to Bangkok on a Tuesday, submitted our visa applications to the Vietnamese embassy on Wednesday, booked our flight and accommodation on Thursday and collected our visas, and landed in Hanoi via Taipei on Friday – for the next stage of our journey.

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5 Comments»

  Wally&Eleanor wrote @

Hi D S M R It just took me half an hour to read your blog. I like your style of writing I had a few laughs. I have also been to Bankock and yes I know what you are talking about. I have also been reading Jon Faine travel blog and I also find it very interesting. Yes we have skype either look us up skype name wallyele or Wally Jablonka Eleanor Zaprudsky. I am usually on comp. late at night. Love your blog Keep on treeking Wally.

  David Taylor wrote @

Hi Guys, Great reading yet again. The photos are an added bonus. My God! What a dump Bankok must be, but interesting, none the less. You certainly are getting into the nitty gritty of each place you visit. Much better than just seeing the glossy brochure stuff. I’m pleased Maddy & Raffy are getting on with the school work O.K. Raffy, Duke & Puss Puss said they are missing you heaps. We’ve had some bitterly cold weather the last few weeks, but a least a little rain. Last Tue, top temp was 10 C. Keep up the good work with the blogs & pictures. Hope Vietnam is a more relaxing sojourn. Keep well,
Luv, David.

  Hilary wrote @

hard not to feel breathless reading your adventures into sci-fi land. the world, as sbs used to tell us, is an amazing place. love from me

  Wally & Eleanor wrote @

Hi D S M R I am waiting with baited breath for your continuing saga of your travels. I have alsobeen following Jon & Jacks travels.Are you able to log on and see where they are up to.What is your skype name I would like to talk to you all. Keep on treaking Wally.

  Posttour wrote @

wow !! So Cool I Think


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