The Thais have a knack for bluntness. Recently at a restaurant we frequent the owner came up to me and said “Last year when you come, you fat, now you slim, body like Miss Universe”. That’s a direct quote. I’m thinking I should just take the Miss Universe compliment and run!
I know some of this bluntness comes from the language barrier. When you are not fluent in a language you often sound more blunt than you intend because you don’t know the nuances of the language. This was likely the case this time and Mr. Restaurant did mean it as a compliment. And he’s right, I have shed a few pounds since my last trip here, but I didn’t think he’d notice?
But his comment got me thinking about how Thai’s really do often ‘say it as it is’. I’ve seen a girl looking for someone and ask me “Have you seen my friend, she’s fat and has short hair”. It’s not an insult, it’s just a description.
I think this may come from one of the Thai cultural aspects I truly admire. They seem to be able to laugh at themselves. They don’t take life too seriously. Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles. And I think it’s well earned. The people naturally smile a lot. And genuinely so.
They also laugh a lot. In a group they will often laugh at someone, but it has feeling of ‘laughing with them’ not ‘at them’.
This is a picture I took last year at a political protest in Bangkok.
This light-hearted approach is a truly refreshing view on life. Maybe if I can laugh at myself more, and worry about the judgments of others less; I can feel less stress in my life? It’s a good idea because this ‘Ms. Universe body’ is not going to last long, I love Thai food so much I’m eating pretty much constantly. Soon Mr. Restaurant will see me and say ‘What happen, now you get more fat again?” and you know what, I can just laugh right along with him!!
When I'm in Bangkok I try to find a spare hour to wonder around the flower market. It's about 5 blocks long and 2 blocks wide of shops and street vendors selling only flowers. Surrounded by millions of blossoms; being in the middle of it is almost fairy tale-like. When I was there a few days ago it was late afternoon and the flowers were arriving by the truck-load for the evening market. Truck after truck full of flowers. Petite roses to orchids, to lotus, to long stem roses that standing came up to my chest.
Bangkok, by global terms, is not a really dirty city but compared to Canada it definitely has a grungy factor. It's not uncommon to be hit with a waft of urine that almost makes your eyes water when you step over a sewer grate. (Even the locals are seen covering their nose with their shirt sleeve.) Walking through the flower market you're transported to a magical place of beautiful colours and scents.
Roses, Roses, and more Roses...
Many of these flowers are destined for hotels, restaurants and spas as decor. You'll often get an orchid (that at home is so extravagant) as a garnish on your cocktail. If I lived here, I'd have fresh blooms in my home all the time (you wouldn't believe how cheap it is!)
In Thailand, flowers are more than just beauty and aroma. They represent a part of the Buddhist culture. Everyday thousands of blooms will be given as offerings at temples. Many will also be used to show respect for ancestors long gone.
This woman is weaving flowers into an offering wreath.
These will be taken to temples as offerings. They will also be hung (with a prayer for safety, good sales, etc) on car mirrors, boats and shop entrances.
Many of are made with jasmine flowers and the scent is truly heavenly.
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Lotus flowers are also often given as offerings at the temples.
In Buddhism the lotus flower is associated with purity, spiritual awakening and faithfulness. The flower is considered pure as it is able to emerge from murky waters in the morning and be perfectly clean.
The flotus flower is considered pure as it is able to emerge from murky waters in the morning and be perfectly clean.
Last week we took a short jaunt into Southern Laos. We have both been to Laos before but never this particular area in the South known as the 4000 islands. Situated on the Mekong River the area is dotted with many small (and some larger) islands. Depending on the season (rainy or dry) the number of islands visible fluctuates.
Laos is known for its quiet, calm atmosphere and people. It is a much poorer country than Thailand, which is obvious as soon you cross the border. The country is very rural and agricultural (mostly rice). Some Laotions grow crops and fish commercially but many live day to day harvesting or fishing for their daily family needs. Of course with the growing tourist industry some have found new careers as boat taxis, restaurant or guesthouse owners. But for most Laotions life has been pretty much the same for many generations.
More recent conveniences like motorbikes and boat motors have made life a little easier. And like almost everywhere in Asia it seems like most people have a cell phone. (people who live in the a tiny thatch hut with no water or electricity still have a cell phone?!)
To get to the port we took a local ‘bus’. Basically a truck with wood bench seats in the back. You get can get about 30 people in the back of this. It’s 90km from the border town to the port town. It took 3.5 hours on the ‘bus’ which included many stops for people to get on and off. Or unload goods to be delivered.
At stops along the way women will come up to the truck with snacks and drinks to sell. This woman had whole BBQ chicken on a stick. (that’s the feet at the top). The flies and the ants on it probably indicate it is not too safe for ‘foreign stomachs’.
This is the ferry that took us to the island.
With all the different islands, the river is wide and slow in some spots and faster with rapids in others.
Here, the other side of the river is Cambodia.
It was pretty hot, 30-34C, and the water can looking inviting for cooling off. Not sure I'd want to float into a water buffalo who also like to cool off in the river with just their heads above water. (not to mention the Mekong is known for it's river flukes.)
These kids were having a blast paying with this boat. No clothes and, at this moment, no worries. Truly kids being kids, no video games or tvs in sight.
Laos is about 60% Buddhist. The remaining practice animism or ancestry worship and a very small minority are Christians and Muslims This is the entrance to a Buddhist temple. This temple was built on the site of a Khmer temple, you can still see some of the ruins of the original 1000+ year old temple.
Laos was occupied by the French from the late 1800's until it was given independence in 1953. Some French Colonial buildings are still around, most in ruins like this one. The local school is located behind this building so the kids were playing games out front.
Since Independence Laos has struggled politically and financially and is officially a communist country. Laos holds a record not to be proud of. It is the most bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam war Northern Laos was heavily bombed. According to official figures, the US dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on 580,944 sorties. The total cost was US$7.2 billion, or US$2 million a day for nine years. (wow)
As with most undeveloped countries people are usually quite industrious. This man is 'sewing' his fishing net. I also found the hammock ,made from a single piece of bamboo, pretty ingenious.
The traditional fishing method on this part of the Mekong is to stand at the front of a small boat and throw a net with a weighted edge out into the water, then gather it in; hopefully with a fish or 2 caught in it. I can only imagine it take a bit of practice to be able to throw the net and be successful.
These women are peeling yaro to dry for food.
The yaro laid out on the ground to dry. A safe (?) distance has been left around the water buffalo paddy. yum?
Sunset on the Mekong River.
Seeing new sites, meeting new people, experiencing new food and seeing first hand local traditions. To me, the best part of any trip.
On arriving in Bangkok I usually have one thing on my mind; some sleep is usually needed after the long trip from Canada; but first, FOOD. It’s hard to go anywhere in Bangkok and not be surrounded by the aromas of various food. Thai’s are fantastic at cooking up amazing dishes in a flash. Bangkok is well known for it’s Street Food. Which generally refers to vendors with carts that each specialize in one item or dish.
A typical street food stall selling noodle soup with chicken.
One of my favorite places to eat in Bangkok is not quite street food, but also, it’s not really a restaurant. These on-the-spot-eateries, often set up at night, turn a street corner into a make-shift restaurant. Plastic stools and tables will start to be pulled out just before dusk (around 5pm) and the cooking will be done at a mobile kitchen. One I love to visit we affectingly call the ‘7-11 Restaurant’ because it is on the corner where a 7-11 convenience store is. It’s a short walk from our hotel and is open late into the night. They always have an array of Thai dishes ready. And several on the go.
It’s run by a group of 4 guys who look younger than they likely are. They are slammin’ busy every night and for good reason, they just keep pumping out the amazing food.
Multi tasking :)
The dishes are displayed in trays on the cart, You just start pointing at what looks good and they start dishing it up. Of course served with rice. One of my favorites is panang curry with pork. The best panang curry I’ve had! They also make this amazing pork with green beans in a sweet-hot chili sauce. The last time I had Thai green curry from these guys I think I burnt a whole layer of my stomach lining off. But it was SO GOOD!
A meal for 2 people with 3 dishes, and rice costs about $3 CND.
Sounds super cheap, but depending on your comfort level there is some compromise. You are literally sitting on the street on a plastic stool. If a large vehicle comes by you may have to get up and move your table over to let it through. And likely all of the exhaust fumes don’t do us much good, but the air quality in Bangkok sucks anyway. To me these are small compromises and the people watching is also great entertainment.
When you’re having your meal and your lips are about to fall off from the heat you’ll likely need a cold beer. These guys won’t sell you one, they tell you to just go into the 7-11 and get yourself one. So, in addition to great food, you get beer with no mark up. Cool.
I've had the privilege to travel to other countries. I have observed and experienced the lives of others. Sometimes I am hit with an overwhelming thankfulness for being Canadian. Something I had no role in deciding. Was it luck that I was born here and not in a grass hut in rural India?
Are there things that could be improved in Canada? Sure! Our country is far from perfect. But it is a REALLY great place to live. Sick? Walk into a hospital and someone will help you without first asking if you can pay the bill. Need to commune with nature? Even if you live in the biggest Canadian city a pristine natural experience is only few hours drive away. Truly amazing!
A picture from Lower Beverly Lake, less than 5 minutes from The Gecko.
When you travel through other countries. "Where are you from?" is a standard question. It's a way of people assessing you. I am always very proud to say "I am Canadian." Usually you are asked for your country even before your name. Actually, often you're never asked your name and are referred to as 'the Canadian' by 'the German'.
I hope today everyone in my country stops for a moment to be Happy to be Canadian. I know I am!
Happy Birthday Canada!
One of the artists whose work I feature called me "You know how I said I'd stop by this week? I just got an order for painted glasses. How about I paint them in the shop?" Wow, great idea! My first 'Artist-in-Residence' at The Green Gecko. Sounds exciting!
Lesley McDougall is the creator of Mehndi Glass: "a unique collection of hand painted glassware, jewelry and glass art inspired by the ancient art of Mehndi".
When Lesley first introduced me to her Mehndi inspired glass art I felt an instant connection. Mehndi is common in India; where I have spent time traveling as well as buying for the shop. India is a very special place. You can be amazed, shocked, mystified and inspired all within the same minute. A place where the markets are filled with the aroma of spicy curries and fragrant incense; cows have the right of way on busy city streets; the scenery is punctuated with the bright colours of women's saris and sadhu's orange robes; and the term 'line-up' has absolutely no meaning.
Traditional Mehndi uses henna to colour the skin; like a tattoo but not permanent. Originally henna was mostly used as a form of decoration for brides but you will also see it applied during special occasions and Hindu festivals. The design is usually drawn on the palms and feet.
On the streets in India I have seen many young women with their hands laid out having their palms henna painted. The designs are drawn 'free-hand' without a pattern to trace or follow. There are many traditional symbols and motifs which are intricately drawn and linked together to form a fluid design. Incredibly smooth strokes are used. I could never accomplish this! The symbols and designs have different meanings; for example flowers symbolize joy and happiness, the sun symbolizes deep and lasting love. In India, it is believed that the darker the henna colour forms on the bride's skin the more the husband loves her.
Lesley and I agreed on a date and time and she arrived supplies in hand. The weather was beautiful (27C in March!) so she set up her 'mobile studio' on the front porch and started painting.
I watched as Lesley painted her designs on champagne glasses, using the same fluid strokes I've seen the women in India use on a bride-to-be's palm.
painting her original design on the glasses.
A few customers popped by to watch and chat.
This is what Lesley created while sitting on my porch.
(click to enlarge)
Seeing the glasses go from clear crystal to works of art all on my front porch was pretty cool.
I wonder what other artwork can be created in this simple setting? Feeling like the store and my customers were a part of the process was neat. I think I should try it again. Any other local artists that would like to create on my porch?
Send me an email.
Food - a very integral part of Thai culture! As with many cultures Thais include food with all special occasions, events and ceremonies. Food is given as offerings to the gods, Buddha and nats (spirits). Although Thais are not naturally large people, they seem to eat all day. Small portions of food to nibble on all the time. I admit, I love it!
In any city/town you will find an abundance of 'street food' Food prepared on small mobile carts. Sometimes it's something on skewer to snack as you walk; sometimes there will be a few plastic tables and chairs, for you to take a break on, which are stack-able and move with the food prep cart. The array of options is astounding! On some street corners you'll find 5 or 10 different food carts. Honestly, you can barely go a block without finding something available to eat. Hmmm...could this have something to do with why I am always 5lbs heavier when I return to Canada from Thailand?
At first you might think it's a culinary adventure only for those with a strong stomach and small budget. But this is not true. Thais are incredibly clean people and the street food is no exception. Although a very economical way to eat, street food stalls are just as popular in commercial areas where at lunch time the small plastic chairs on the side of the road are filled with suits and high heels.
Sometimes it's a bit of an assault on the senses when you're eating some amazingly delicious, perfectly flavoured dish and find yourself in a sudden plumb of exhaust from a passing bus, or teetering on your plastic stool when a motorcycle whizzes by.
Never said it was calm, just wonderful!
tastes so much better when it's eaten in the country its grown in
dried fish & squid - a favourite with Thais
corn - served steamed hot, in a cup, topped with butter, salt & sugar
juices, soft drinks & coconuts
young coconut - the top is hacked off with a machete-style knife, you drink the milk with a straw then eat the young flesh with a spoon. great for energy.
"coffee is my life"...interesting philosophy
grilled salted fish
grilled chicken & noodles
curries are available in more varieties than I could possibly count
rice with spices
insects and larvae are particularly popular in the North
a tray full of fried larvae - tastes kind of like salty, crispy potato chips - this is in Chang Rai in Northern Thailand, near the Burmese border
freshly squeezed orange juice
squeezing the juice by hand
grilled squid on a skewer
fresh green papaya salad (one of my favourite Thai dishes and one you just can't make the same at home)
waiting for customers
fried sweet dough - similar to donuts
The list goes on and on....I can think of so many other delicacies that I don't have pictures of. But I think you get the idea.
Bangkok is a multicultural city. It is well known for its array of international restaurants. Italian is popular, as is Japanese Sushi and Korean BBQ. One of our favourite restaurants serves Middle Eastern Foods. Street food is usually a local flavour but sometimes foreign tastes are mixed in. Right now a Middle Eastern chicken kebab is popular especially in tourist areas. In a vibrant, multicultural city, some fusion is expected. But I never expected this:
I admit it. It's stereotypical. I'm a woman and I love to shop for clothes!
In my last post I wrote about shopping at Chatuchuk Market in Bangkok. For clothes, I visit another market which sells only wholesale clothing. It's housed in a 6 story building and you'll find everything from t-shirts with knock-off logos to Thai silk suits.
It takes countless days to navigate all of the alleys and see what is available. You can't start out too late, most stalls are open approx. 3am-3pm. Vendors who sell in other markets and centres come here to buy clothing in the early morning and then set out to their stalls for the day.
Whoever designed the layout of this building was not familiar with the term 'logic'. The shops and alleys use a system of letters and numbers as 'addresses' but the order is mystifying. And, to add to the confusion, at some point an addition was made to the building. So, sometimes numbers repeat themselves in the addition and on some floors you can walk from the 'old' bulidng to the 'new' but not on other floors. Thank-goodness for Peter! With my sense of direction I could possibly be lost in the 'maze' for days without finding the exit. I concentrate on being lured by the beautiful colours, fabrics & designs and he keeps track of where we have been and where we're going. Many times after several hours of walking around the complex I'll say "I want to go back to the shop 'back there'. You know, the one with the really cute flowered dresses." And somehow from this 'description' he navigates us back to shop I am looking for.
Seemingly endless rows of clothing shops.
As with all shopping for re-sale it's more than just "I like it" its about price, quality, available colours & fabrics, available stock, how long it takes to make-to-order....etc. Sometimes I find something I really like and it's about picking colours, fabrics and sizes. Sometimes I'll have the design altered to better suit our customers. This can involve considerable time checking and re-checking to make sure the specifications are met. I've definitely learned from experience in this market. I've fallen in love with beautiful fabrics and missed details. I brought home gorgeous tops to find that the arm holes were too small for any normal person. Live and learn!
Because this center is set up for wholesale purchases (both to locals and exporters) bargaining is not as intense as at other markets but you can still always negotiate and haggle a bit.
This year I found some really fabulous natural 'rough' cotton clothing. A new line I'm really excited about.
This is nice!
Somewhere in here is what I'm looking for.
The easiest way to get here is using the water taxi system known as the 'klong'. These boats run along the canal system through the city and have earned Bangkok the nickname of "Venice of Asia". I have never been to Venice but the pictures seem more romantic than these boats with thier loud diesel engines. But, none the less, it is a very efficient transportation - no traffic jams!
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Waiting at the pier after a full day of shopping.
Rough yarn hung out to dry after dying - as seen from the waterway, just in front of the market.
Once I've choosen all of the pieces I want to buy they have to be transported to our exporter's wearhouse. All textiles imported to Canada must be properly labeled. So, at the exporter Green Gecko labels will be sewn into every peice.
Then every piece must be carefully counted in categories: Women's Shirts, Cotton; Women's Dresses, Rayon; Men's Shirts, Cotton.....etc for importing documents.
Well, all except the few I've moved from the 'shipment' category to the 'my suitcase' category. A girl's gotta have a few perks! :)
I will likey post more than once about shopping. I spend alot of time here doing it. Buying special, unique items for the Green Gecko is how I finance my love for travel. For many people shopping is fun. And it is for me too. But there is always an element of work. It is my job to get a good price for a valuable product that customers at home will want. It's a much different mind set then browsing around looking for that new pair of shoes that catches your eye.
I spend a lot of time in local markets. Filled with local people (merchants & shoppers) it's often shopping and adventure rolled into one.
The largest, and likely most popular, market in Bangkok is Chatuchak Market. It is open only on Sat and Sun which has earned it the name of 'Weekend Market'. It is huge - 35 acres with more than 8000 market stalls and aways bustling with people.
I try to get there early before the crowds have grown too much and before the heat of the day. When it's 35C and a humidity of 90% it can feel pretty hot in a crowded place!
This is mid-afternoon at the market. I can always keep track of Peter because his head is well above all of the Thais!
You can buy almost anything at Chatuchuk. Literally. From clothing (new & used), shoes & jewelry to pets (from tiny fish to endangered species (sadly)). From home appliances, bedding & table wear to souvenirs & hand-made silk. And pretty much anything in between.
A crocodile skull
Although Thais far outnumber tourists at the market there are still stalls with flashy, tacky souveniers.
Some unscrupulous sellers have ivory products.
Cd's and dvd's (many pirated)
Buddhist symbolism is very prevalent.
Although many stalls are haphazard stacks of goods, there is a section that has recently developed into a more fashion forward area where you can find displays looking more upscale, Thai's are very good at mixing the antique Buddhist elements with modern decor for a very unique, pleasing look.
Testing a large singing bowl.
A large (3 feet across) gong.
An immigrant from Afghanistan selling imported jems.
'Hamming it up' with with the local sales man.
Buying here is alot different than buying at home. Making a good choice of product is only the start, negotiating a good price is part of the process. Bargaining is a part of the culture. The first price is never the price you pay. This is where the skills I have learned over time need to come in.
- Find something that catches my eye.
- Examine, make sure it is of a quality that I could resell. Think "I like it - but will customers at home want to buy it?"
- Price, calculate a price I can pay based on: What will customers at home be willing to pay for this? What will taxes and import duties be (based on product/material). Will shipping be expensive (is it heavy?) Is it made of a natural product that will need to be fumigated? Is it something I will need to pay for it to be correctly labeled for Canadian import?
- Ask the vendor the price, then start the back and forth negotiations to try to get to price I have roughed in my mind that I want to pay. Often the first line of 'attack' is 'mock' shock at the price stated. This usually gets a smile from the seller. Price bargaining can sometimes take along time! The vendor wants to get as much as he can from the sale, I want to get the best price possible to pass on to my customers. The best strategy is to always maintain a sense of humour. Thai's are good business people but above all 'loosing face' by getting upset in public is never acceptable. Sometimes, there can be hours spent with a single vendor, going back and forth with prices, other products I may be interested in appearing from a back storeroom, tea/cold water offered, taking items in and out of my purchase choices based on how the price is coming along.... slowly working towards an agreeable price.
Exhausting - sometimes, yes. A lot of fun - also usually yes.
Some things I actually purchased this year:
A young man counts out my choices of some fun brass & bead jewelry.
A yearly friend, this woman always has beautiful purses.
Fabulous! bo-ho purses
Hand-bound leather books
An 'old friend' Charl who hand makes clothing with accents of traditional tribal fabric.
In a moment of lapsed judgement (?), I fell in love with the cutest little pottery piece, likely paid too much...but I do love it!
Shoppers need fuel!
Food choices are pretty much as unlimited as shopping choices. Much of it available in small dishes 'on the go'. Who has time to sit down??
A 'refreshing' cafe - a very light cool mist is sprayed over the crowd, the air is so hot that as the mist lands on your skin, it immediately evaporated and has a wonderful cool feeling.
Bowls at the back are for pounding out traditional Som Tom (green papaya salad) the earthen urns at the front hold juices and sweet ice tea which is ladled over ice.
The Thai's commitment to their religion permeates here too. Often sellers will have small shrines set up at the entrance of their stall. Here a larger shrine has been setup in the walkway. It appears to be Chinese with offerings of candles, fruit, food and a bottle of whiskey. Obviously many prayers of good sales today were made.
If you haven't been sated by the 8000+ stalls inside, a flea market atmosphere is in the streets surrounding the market.
A full day! Some purchases will be forwarded to the export office, but many we will lug back on our own. Getting a taxi at reasonable price is the last challenge of the day. Taxi drivers spot a couple of 'tourists' with more purchases than they can carry and suddenly the price goes up! A few words in Thai let them know this isn't our first time at this game and after a few negotiations we're on our way. My last entry finished with sore feet and a full stomach....which is the same way I feel after a day at Chatuchak. A good feeling!
Chinese New Year in Thailand is a fairly big deal, there is a large population of Thai-Chinese. These hold dear thier Chinese culture and traditions. The New Year for Chinese is a time of renewal. A time when you can rid yourself of the errors of the past year and renew your 'luck' for the next year. For a week or so before the new year date you will see businesses and homes owned by Thai-Chinese busily cleaning from top to bottom. It's a fresh start and should be given the best chance.
The Chinese year follows the lunar calendar so the new year falls on a different day each year. This year it was Mon. Jan 23. Since many businesses are closed we took the day to enjoy the celebrations in China Town.
I often walk when I'm in Bangkok - you see so much more when you are walking than when you are in a vehicle. We stopped for something to eat and I couldn't resist taking a picture of this man who sat beside us. It was scorching hot and he was wearing a fleece lined ear-muff hat. He did order and ice-tea (to cool off?). He was just too cute for words!
As we walked closer to China Town, New Year decorations appeared. Red, the colour for good luck, is everywhere. Chinese lanterns were hung in the streets.
Everyone seemed to be stopping to get thier picture taken beside these lanterns, so I thought I'd join in. Can't hurt to wish for a little New Year Good Luck of my own!
A group of school girls pose for a picture. So cute!
We arrive at the market in China Town. This area is always a market, and I go every year to see what I might find, but today for new year celebrations there are extra vendors and definately more people.
fresh pomegranate juice
Me being me, I managed to find a shop with a fantastic sale on jewelry. Couldn't resist! Even though I had to lug around the 4kg bag the rest of the day. Totally worth it.
After snapping up a few more deals, we made our way to the centre of the celebrations.
The gates into the celebration.
It was the start of the year of the dragon. Lots of dragon souvenirs to be had.
Much like a carnival at home, there was food, food and more food.
pork & crispy pork skin
fresh strawberries (covered in a mixture of sugar and dried chilies)
steamed dim sum
We decided on duck soup for lunch.
These 2 girls were hilarious - walking advertisements for a dried seaweed snack product. (it's good, a lot like potato chips - really!)
Then, the climax of the day, the Queen & Princess of Thailand were arriving to perform the opening ceremonies. We honkered down with the locals and tourists alike who were all vying for a good view. The monarchy in Thailand are very revered. The Thais love thier royality especially the King. And deservedly so, he is an excellent leader and does much for the Thai people and the country. You never (ever, ever, ever) speak poorly of the King. In fact, they recently passed a new law, if you are caught sending an email that slanders the King, you can face a large fine and jail time!
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We all waited patiently for their arrival.
The streets were cleared and police security was everywhere.
These are the Queen & Princess' escorts, but pictures of the royalty is strictly forbidden.
It was well after dark before we started walking for home. When I got back I looked at the map and figure we clocked an easy 35km of walking. Starting the new year with sore feet but a full belly...life is good. Happy Chinese New Year!