Sep 2013

Asia, Blog, Gear Reviews


Gear Review: Roasting Coffee on the Road

When we first started our blog nearly two years ago, we intended to do regular gear reviews. So far we’ve done a grand total of zero gear reviews, and have leaned more toward stories from the road. A few months ago, GSI Outdoors came to us and asked if they could help us out by outfitting us with a brand new car kitchen setup, as well as a new camp cookware setup. We’re excited to get to the Himalayas to give the camp cookware a good shakedown, but in the meantime we’ve been using the Nacho cooking setup a bit. So please allow us to step out of character for a moment for a gear review- something that we hope to do more of in the future.

Back before Sheena and I became destitute vagabonds, we were always in good supply of freshly roasted coffee. We ensured that our stream of tasty caffeine remained unbroken by sticking to a weekly regimen of home coffee roasting. Life was good, and the living was easy. But on a long road trip such this, being addicted to coffee can be a real problem.

Forget about freshly roasted, at times it’s been a battle to even find anything that resembles coffee. We initially set our standards low, and said we’d be content with anything in whole bean form, that we could grind ourselves. But by the time we hit Argentina coffee became next to impossible to procure at all, so we did the unthinkable: we switched to instant coffee. I can already hear the collective gasps, but it was necessary. And it was horrible.

So what did we do? The same thing any addict would do in a time of desperation: we started roasting our own coffee on the road. Whenever we found raw coffee beans we would buy a few kilos and keep the fresh roast coming until we ran out. We recently procured some fresh beans in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and for the sake of future overlanders in need of a fix (or those coffee loving souls at home who simply don’t have a coffee roaster), here’s how to keep the good times rolling…

CHOOSE A LOCATION. Setting is important. Do you think you can make a pleasantly quaffable wine in a Shanghai slum? Well you can’t! Same goes for coffee. For today’s roast we chose this sleepy seaside camp spot on Cambodia’s southern coast. Wherever you are, be sure that you have good ventilation because coffee roasting produces quite a lot of smoke. Open the windows and turn on the fans. If you’re doing this at home and you have a fire alarm, ask the nearest sucker to stand under the fire alarm with some newspapers and some stamina.

THE COFFEE. You’ll need to find some fresh, unroasted coffee beans. Back home I ordered mine through Sweet Maria’s, but on the road you’ll have to be inventive. We usually buy ours from coffee farmers, but for our latest roast we bought them from a coffee shop that roasts their own coffee. After some pleading and sad eyes, they relented and sold us five pounds. The typical cost of a pound of unroasted coffee is around $4-$5, or 50-70% less than what you’ll pay for quality roasted coffee back home. This, by the way, was an unstated aspect of our savings plan for this trip. The coffee shop in Chiang Mai sold us 5 pounds of hill tribe grown beans at $8 per pound. It’s high, but it’s still half the price of commercially roasted coffee.

THE HEAT SOURCE. Back at home I use a legitimate coffee roaster from Hottop. It’s easy, and requires minimal training to produce good coffee. In lieu of a real roaster, you’ll simply need a stovetop. There are other ways to do it, but this is the most widely available heat source on the road. We’ve roasted on stovetops in our little cabin in Colombia, in a climbing refuge in Hatun Machay, Peru, and inside of Nacho.

THE HARDWARE. You’ll need very little in the way of equipment: a high quality large pan for roasting, a stirring implement such as a spatula or spoon, and a large heat-resistant container for cooling the roasted beans.

Here’s a list of the equipment we use, which is all of very high quality and produces an excellent roast:

In this roast we used the Bugaboo 10″ Frying Pan from GSI, and it worked very well. However, in a subsequent roast I used the smaller of the two pots included in the Pinnacle Base Camper set, and it worked much better because I could stir more vigorously without worrying about spilling. Both have Teflon coatings, so the beans slide around easily to resist burning, and both are robust enough to avoid hot spots.

This time I used the GSI Pivot spatula to stir the beans, although in the future I will use something made of wood, as the beans get very hot and can deform the spatula if you’re not careful. We really like this spatula because it folds in half for easy storage.

Once the roast is finished, we transfer it to the larger of the two pots from the Pinnacle Base Camper set. It comes as a part of a bigger set of cooking pots and pans, and they all nest nicely in one another, taking up minimal storage space. The folding handles are a plus, as the pot itself can get quite hot when the beans are transferred.

And now…

The Nacho Guide to Roasting Coffee on the Road

Step 1: Measure out the green coffee. Don’t roast too little at a time or else it’ll be hard to keep a consistent temperature among the beans. Today I’m roasting about 600 grams. I typically see weight yields of 85-88%, meaning that if I start with 500 grams of green coffee, the roasted coffee will end up weighing around 430 grams (~ 1 pound).

Step 2: Turn on a medium-low flame. We don’t want to burn the hell out of the coffee, so cook it like a lady. The same advice can be given for fried eggs, but we’re not talking about fried eggs today. Slow and steady wins the race.

Step 3: Put the pan on the flame and immediately add the beans. Don’t preheat the pan – you’re not making a stir fry here. Add the beans to it while it’s still cold.

Step 4: Stir, stir well, and stir continuously. You heard me, never stop stirring. The goal here is to keep all of the beans at about the same temperature, so don’t let the beans on the bottom stay on the bottom for long. Scoop, stir, twist, scoop, stir, twist. Settle in, because you’ll be doing this continuously for the next 45 or 50 minutes. Yep. (NOTE: As mentioned before, I recommend using a pot instead of a pan for this, as it allows you to scoop and stir more vigorously to more closely approximate the action of a drum roaster.)

Step 5: Watch, listen, and stir. The overall roast will take about 45 or 50 minutes. After 15 minutes you’ll begin to smell something like sweet, wet hay. At 27 minutes I saw the first wafts of smoke and the beans started to undergo what is called “first crack”. This will sound like breaking pencils; it’s the sound of the beans parching. First crack, using this roasting method, will be spread out over about 20 or 25 minutes.

Step 6: Listen more, watch more, stir more. Once the beans become uniformly brownish the first crack will slowly wind down and there will be a period of silence, the duration of which will depend on many factors, most of which are extraneous and immeasurable, so just relax and get a feel for it. If you like a light roast, you’ll probably stop roasting just as you hear the first of what we call “second crack”. This is when the beans start audibly cracking again, but this time with the sound of breaking toothpicks. Once second crack gets rolling and steady, you’re probably about done. Just use your eyes to see when it looks good. Oh, and you should still be constantly stirring, because you will have never stopped doing so.

Step 7: Pour and wiggle. Once the coffee reaches its desired roast level, quickly pour the beans into the cooling pot and then proceed to swish them around until they’re sufficiently cool. Failure to do this step will result in burning, because late in the process the coffee can become exothermic and continue cooking themselves long after being removed from the pan. So swish them, toss them, and blow on them for a minute or two.

Here’s a pictorial account of today’s roast from start to finish. Note how the color change occurs slowly at first, but really picks up at the end.

WARNING: Don’t go too dark! If your beans look completely black, you’ll have to start over. Some inexplicably popular coffee brands like to roast dark because it burns away all of the actual coffee flavors, hiding the origin notes. The scientific name for that flavor is “ash.” If you haven’t yet been, you will soon be born again. Your coffee, depending on origin, should have notes like citrus, chocolate, loamy soil, tobacco, cinnamon, caramel, cherries, and nuts. The flavors that you taste will depend on roast level and coffee origin, but if you go all the way to “French Roast”, you will have turned all of those characteristics to coal.

And no, there’s no such thing as “espresso roast.” Espresso is best made with a quality medium roast coffee, not dark as usually found in America. Espresso brewing makes the coffee stronger because it’s brewed at pressure and with smaller grain size, so the flavors are exaggerated. Big companies, whose beans are typically not very good, market their ashy black beans as “espresso roast” so that you won’t be able to taste just how bad it actually is.

NOW DRINK IT. Well, not so fast. First you should bag it up in an air tight bag with a one-way valve and let it rest for a day (for regular coffee brewing) or two days (for espresso). This gives the beans time to off-gas, during which time the gases from the roasting process escape. You can visualize this by making a French press with freshly roasted coffee. When you add the grounds to the water you’ll notice a distinct volcano-like phenomenon as the trapped gases all escape at the same time. Also, your coffee won’t smell like coffee until several hours after roasting, and if you drink it too soon after roasting it’ll taste unpleasantly sour and bitter. So hold your horses.

OKAY, NOW DRINK IT. Grind your beans as you need them, not all at once. Because of the higher surface area of ground coffee and the resulting attack on it by Oxygen molecules, ground coffee will go stale in about 20 minutes. Use a quality burr grinder (we use this one from Black & Decker in Nacho). Don’t use a whirly blade grinder, as they produce too much variability in grain size. The big grains will brew slowly, while the small dust particles will brew quickly, making the coffee somewhat sour. But if all you have is a whirly blade, knock yourself out.

Now choose your favorite method of brewing and go to town! Here’s our magical GSI espresso maker at work. Enjoy!

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Sep 2013

Asia, Blog


The Cambodiwood Encounter

One day, in a Dairy Queen near Sheena’s parents’ house, a strange thing happened and we found ourselves sitting in the booth adjacent to the booth occupied by Alice Cooper. Several years later, in a place very much unlike a Dairy Queen, we once again found ourselves in the company of creative greatness. This time it was in Cambodia, in the tiny seaside village of Kep. But first, Alice Cooper.

“Oh…my…God, lookovertherequick—it’s Alice Cooper!” I was screaming and whispering at the same time. I had long since passed through the gates of puberty, but was still taking a risk; if my voice had cracked at any point while scream-whispering then I would have inadvertently screamed the information mere feet from the celebrity himself, rendering my sighting not only non-secretive, but outright embarrassing.

“Oh wow,” my mom whispered back. “I can’t believe it…now, which one is she?” I flopped my head around wildly as if it were attached to a neck of rubber and then stared deeply into her eyes so as not to be misunderstood. I spoke loudly enough so that Sheena could also hear, just in case she too lacked this basic knowledge, but not so loudly as to allow Mr. Cooper to overhear. “Alice Cooper is Freddy Mercury’s long lost scary cousin.”

“Freddy who?” It was no use. She took it on good faith that Alice Cooper was a big deal, and without warning stood up and started walking over to his table. What!? No! You can’t just show up uninvited! It was too late.

“Hello,” she said, bending down right in the man’s face. “Are you Alice Cooper?”

“Yes I am,” he said, Oreo Blizzard in hand. His wife and kids stared at my mom. This had probably never happened before. At least not since Wayne’s World.

“I just wanted to tell you that you have a very beautiful family.” And with that he went back to eating his Blizzard.

Having spent the last several months socked in by mountains and jungle, we’d had enough and decided it was time for the sea. We drove southward until we could drive no more, whereupon the road curved from south to east, and to our right the angry sea lashed the shore with dark, frothy wavelets. The road became narrow and winding, and to our left a mountain grew up out of the jungle creating a bulbous jungle-covered peninsula. On the far end of the peninsula we arrived in the small town of Kep. Signs advertised fresh crab and the water’s edge was lined with thatched cabanas. This would do. Oh yes, this would do.

Just outside of  town, beyond the last row of cabanas, we came upon a grassy area shaded by the outstretched branches of a very old tree. We situated Nacho twenty feet from the sea wall so that our sliding door opened to the ocean. The sound of lapping waves made the rest of the world inaudible and the faint hint of ocean spray did nothing to help the small rust spots starting to form in Nacho’s window frames. Awning, lawn chairs, table, drinks. From our very own roving beachfront resort we sipped our beverages and let the tension from the road seep out the soles of our feet as the sun plunged into the horizon and set the sky ablaze.

In the morning as we lay in bed listening to the waves lapping the shore we heard someone get into a car, which had been parked at some uncivilized hour next to us.

Reer reer reer…reer reer reer…reer reer reer…

“Engine’s not getting any gas,” I said to Sheena, still half asleep. The driver tried for several minutes, but the engine never fired. “He’ll drain his battery.”


I looked out of my screen window and saw the driver walking away from the car toward the road.

We got up and made breakfast, and in doing so realized that we were almost out of coffee. When breakfast was over we opened all of Nacho’s doors and windows, and started roasting a batch of coffee. It occurred to me that doing a write up on how we roast coffee on the road might be interesting to some, so I got out the camera and a notebook. Just as the beans were getting into a nice rolling first crack, the driver and his compañero returned to the car to try to get it going. Above the sound of cracking coffee beans I could hear the failure.


Soon the two came around to find us; Sheena greeted them and then they started talking to me.

“Not now amigos,” I said, juggling a camera and a stirring spoon while trying to keep the beans from burning while writing down cook times. “Give me ten minutes!”

When I emerged from the van, the two men were sitting in their dead car waiting for me.

“It is dead” one of them said, pointing to the battery under his open hood. I gave the engine a quick once over and then told them what I’d deduced while lying in bed that morning.

“Your engine isn’t getting any gas.” They stared at me, confused, and then sprang into action and removed the battery. Once the battery was free they brought it over to Nacho and asked if I could charge it. I figured, what the hell, and charged it for a couple of minutes and gave it back. Within a few cranks it was dead again.

“You guys are out of gas.” Finally one of them left to go get some gas.

While the younger of the two was out getting gas, we got to talking with the other. His name was Prom, and he split his time between Phnom Penh and Kep. He had a wife and a kid, preferred the city to the country, and wait, what?!

“I’m a movie star here in Cambodia.”

“You’re a what, now?”

“I’m a movie star. Have you seen the movie My Family, My Heart?”

“Uh, no. But it sure sounds good.”

He went on to describe what the film was about, and informed us that he played the leading role, a bad boy obsessed with money.

“So do people in Cambodia recognize you on the street?”

“Yes, especially in Phnom Penh. That’s why I never go out unless I’m wearing a pollution mask and sunglasses.”

“Can I touch you?”


The following day, Prom swung by our campsite with his wife, a thin and shy young woman with a great big smile, and their two sons. We hopped in their car and headed for the interior of the peninsula where a friend of his operated a butterfly farm on the land owned by an elderly and wealthy out of town German fellow. We frolicked with butterflies for a while before climbing to the top floor of the tall three story house, designed and constructed out of natural materials by Prom’s friend, putting us above the jungle canopy. From behind the house two ridges fanned out on either side of the property creating a shallow canyon that emptied into the sea. From our vantage point the ridges perfectly framed a view down the valley to the ocean, perhaps a mile away. We welcomed in the evening from our deck chairs, watching the ocean turn from green to dark blue to black, and then it was time to go home. Probably a typical evening for a Cambodian movie star, we figured.

On the way back we rolled along the base of the mountain for a while before stopping beside a roadside shack where an old woman served bowls of rice noodles from a giant cauldron.

“So, is this okay?” Prom seemed worried that we wouldn’t like it. “I don’t know if you’re worried about…eating clean food.”

“Prom, there is nothing that you could do to this food that would make us not want to eat it.”

“Okay, it’s just that some tourists are worried about getting sick.”

The following evening we decided to have a picnic dinner at our beach side camp site. We spent the afternoon preparing food and setting up a nice picnic area next to the sea wall, and then I decided to go explore the interesting boat launch just a short distance from our camp. It was made up of two elevated concrete ramps that extended out into the sea before slanting downward and into the water.

I coolly strolled out onto the narrow concrete plank above the water. I pulled my sunglasses down and slid my hands into my pockets and daydreamed about starring as the bad boy in my very own Cambodian romance flick. As I reached the high tide mark the slanted ramp became covered in razor sharp barnacles. La-de-da—I walked on. A moment later, nearer the low tide mark, I placed my sandaled foot on a green slimy mess of bio-growth, and my foot immediately squirted out from under me like a bar of wet soap. I did the splits, a thing that feels terrible to a grown man having inelastic groin tendons, and began sliding on my side toward the angry green ocean, only a couple of feet away. Just before reaching the water, however, the friction between the razor-sharp barnacles and my doughy white skin was enough to stop my downward trajectory, sparing me from a painful and watery dip. I whimpered, frowning, afraid and dripping blood from my hand and ankle, as I inched my way back up the dangerous barnacled plank to safety.

The picnic dinner went off much more pleasantly than my evening explorations. We ate Burmese pumpkin curry, fresh vegetables, cucumber salad and fresh fish as the cool air poured over the sea wall and the faint salty mist made the air feel charged. We chatted about life in America, and then switched to the far more interesting topic of life in Cambodia. Prom recounted his experiences in film and in business. Like many others we’ve met in developing countries, he longed to visit America, but found it impossible to come up with the money given the low value of Cambodia’s currency.

In the days that followed we relaxed at our camp by day, while by night we hung out with Prom and his wife, exploring the best seaside restaurants, dessert spots, and scooting around the small town in his little white Toyota. On our final night we sat around a table at a seaside restaurant sipping drinks. By now his shy wife had really opened up, and we felt as though we were hanging out with old friends. For the first two days we didn’t think that she could speak English, but now Prom’s wife was easily conversing, laughing, and playfully harassing Prom. When they dropped us off for the final time we were sad to say goodbye.

In the morning we awoke early and began breaking camp. The village was quiet and the coastal road carless except for one car parked on the roadside far off in the distance. We ground some fresh coffee and pulled a couple of shots in our GSI espresso maker, and then sat on the sea wall to drink it. Finally, as the morning wore into day, we fired up Nacho and rolled out. As we made our way down the coastal road, we could see that the parked car from earlier that morning looked familiar. As we drew closer we could see that it was a small white Toyota. I rolled up next to it and lowered my window.

“Prom, I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

“I know, I’ve been here all morning.” He looked really happy to see us. “I was headed to the gas station and I ran out of gas. Now my battery is dead.”

After a friendly haranguing and a quick lesson about internal combustion engines, we put some of our spare gas into his tank. Now it was finally time to say goodbye. But what can a common man such as myself say to a cultural icon such as this that he hasn’t heard a million times already?

“Take care of yourself, Prom.”

And then I remembered my old friend Alice Cooper, and followed up for good measure.

“You have a  very beautiful family.”

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Sep 2013

Asia, Blog


Cambodian Dolphin Hunt

Brad had finally reached defeat. His stomach gurgled and groaned and kept him horizontal for 24 hours straight. He lay in bed exhausted by nausea and uninterested in exploring the world around him. He wasn’t the only one.

Four of the seven people in our group (myself included) came down with a nighttime bout of stomach related issues, yet Brad’s seemed to be the worst. Finally he’d stop talking about his gut made of steel and unparalleled superhuman powers. “I only eat at dives. The dirtiest dives you could imagine!! And still, I have not once been sick on this trip! Just eat where the locals eat! You don’t see them walking around sick, do you?

He lay in bed all morning and afternoon and not even the rare and critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin could wake him from his trance. I did what any girl would do. I bought him a bag of sticky rice and a wedge of pineapple and told him I was off in search of the Irrawaddy dolphin.

I closed the hotel door, ran down the stairs and hopped into a tuk tuk with a group of friends. I had high hopes of seeing these critically endangered dolphins. Less than 90 remain in the Mekong River, while larger populations still inhabit places like Bangladesh.

For the next hour our tuk tuk driver skirted up the same pot-holed dirt road that we drove down just the prior day. After crossing the border we had entered our fifth and final country in Southeast Asia: Cambodia.

Once again, we passed by the dolphin-themed karaoke bars, women dressed in their flowered pajama sets, and children on their oversized bikes. I can only guess that some NGO in the past distributed a few truckloads of adult sized bikes and that the kids learned to make do. They worked them like elliptical machines and with each revolution of the crank their tiny bodies would rise into the air and fall back down again. These kids were powerhouses, often times carrying a friend or sibling on the back seat.

I was happy. Cambodia seemed to be everything I thought it shouldn’t be, especially given its horrendous history and all around poverty. It was a place with moody skies, green fields, dirt roads, thatched hut homes with red tiled roofs and beautiful people. It was also evident by the first day that we’d be travelling through one of the poorest countries in our travels thus far.

Back on the tuk tuk we continued down the long straight road. As we approached a shoddy looking bridge our driver slowed to stop and motioned for us all to get out. Would he race away as soon as we got out of the carriage? No, the bridge was just in such a state of disrepair that it was safer to walk rather than drive across in a tuk tuk at full capacity.

In order to see the Irrawaddy dolphins it’s a bit of a game. Like all attractions in these parts of the world, you’re not going see anything for free. A boat must be taken, even if it only travels five minutes upstream, and if heaven forbid it is possible to see something for free from the shores, you can rest assured that they will build a wall to hide it from your view. So we followed our designated boat captain down to the water, just a mere boy really, and like all Cambodians (and Asians for that matter) was dressed in long sleeves and pants to protect his skin from the sun.

Sometimes it can take me a while to notice the simplest of cultural differences. And then one day it just stands out like a sore thumb. This is one of those differences: wearing sunscreen is very much a Western concept. Asians do not tan in the sun- they don’t even let their skin see the light of day. Hats, masks, socks, and gloves are big business here.

Braaapppp…Braaappp…Braapp…Brap! Brap! Brap!  The engine on Boat 21 was irritatingly loud considering that we were in search of the region’s critically endangered dolphins. I was shocked that this was standard procedure. We motored up the river for just a few minutes and parked next to an outcropping of weeds which our captain used to secure the boat in place.

Now it was time to wait. To see or not to see? Earlier in the hour, two Germans had told us that they had tried to spot the dolphins for two days, but for two days had seen nothing. And so we waited in a motionless state, entirely at the mercy of the dolphins.

After a short time, I could hear a sound nearby. Psshhhh…psshhhhh…psshhhh.  It was the sound of a small family of dolphins releasing the water from their lungs and coming up for air. They knew we were there and circled our boat in a clockwise motion for the entire hour; disappearing and rising back up again, quickly revealing their shiny backs and dorsal fins.  We constantly shifted in our seats watching their every move. While I never saw a face I knew they had a silly grin that stretched from eye to eye, as their nickname was the “smiling face of the Mekong.”

They were so consistent in their actions that I didn’t even have to watch to know what they were doing. With the sound of each re-surface I knew where they were and in which direction they were moving. The sunset was gorgeous that night. In one direction the sky exploded in vertical bands of blue and in the other direction, fluffy clouds lit up among a motley of yellows, oranges, and reds.

No wonder the Irrawaddy dolphins live here.

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Sep 2013

Asia, Blog


A Chance Encounter

It all started with a note clipped under Nacho’s windshield wiper.

Hello friends- I am a fellow Volkswagen T3 owner and have some questions for you about your set up. Please call and we will meet up. – Soenke

We found the note shortly after we had wandered out of our hotel and into Nacho’s living quarters. As we cooked our morning eggs and espresso three shoeless kids in tattered clothing wandered past our open sliding door. As they passed by they froze mid-step and stared at us like little does in a set of headlights. They had never seen a kitchen inside a car.

I invited them in. Whatever they were doing and wherever they were going didn’t seem to matter anymore. Two sat next to me on the couch and the last one stood facing us. They were enamored by all of the new objects around them and wanted to touch every last one of them. They pointed to every book on the shelf and I obliged, hypnotized by their gorgeous chocolate eyes and radiant smiles. I showed them photos of India and Laos, and plenty of other photos that looked just like their back yard. They peered inside our empty sticky rice container and I could see the confusion in their eyes. If we didn’t store our sticky rice here, where did we store it? They found everything and wanted everything. Mostly though, they wanted our food. They rubbed their bellies and stared at the eggs in the pan.

Suddenly, the hotel staff member who slept on a cot in the hotel lobby rushed over to the van, worried. He could only see that our door was open and that kids were inside. We told him everything was a-okay—we had invited these little rug rats in with us.

It was a weekday and I asked the staff member why these kids weren’t in school.

He seemed surprised by the question. “These kids don’t go to school. They are poor children. They find bottles on the street and collect them for their families to sell.” He moved to the side to display the evidence: the children’s plastic burlap bags. They were massive—big enough to hold a few hundred bottles. So far they only had a handful but it was only eight in the morning and they still had the whole day ahead of them.

The whole thing just sucked. It was all so wrong and unfair and I wondered how these kids would ever break the cycle of poverty. How could they though if they never even got the chance to go to school?

We packaged up a bag of fruit for the children and gave them a stupid little stuffed animal that I had promised my family I’d take pictures of. I was quite certain they’d cherish it more than I would.

Well, that’s Cambodia for you. It’s sad and beautiful all at the same time.

Soenke, the man who had left the note on our windshield turned out to be a blue eyed German man. He had married a sweet Cambodian lady and now split his time between Cambodia and Germany. He had just bought a boat and kindly invited us to join his family on a sunset tour around the nearby island. We instantly accepted. He said we could even invite our friends—the more the merrier. And it just so happened that we had some friends to invite. We had met a few new faces just that day on a bike ride on the same island that we’d be circumnavigating on our sunset boat ride.

Soenke met us in front of the hotel and led us down a road that paralleled the Mekong. In the center of a maze of streets he led us to his home—a true mansion in comparison to the stilted homes that surrounded his. His home had glass windows and the walls were painted and made of brick and mortar. The driveway was a clean sheet of cement and the bottom floor was a combined garage and commercial space. We cut through his backyard and in between the neighboring yards until we reached a steep embankment that dropped down to the shore.

“Now I have to tell you, I have a medical kit but I don’t have any life jackets. You enter my boat at your own risk!” It made no difference to Brad and me. I felt pretty sure I could maintain a butterfly stroke across the Mekong if push came to shove.

Soenke passed by us and waved us on. “Ah yes, here is my new boat!”

It was a tiny boat, and easily the smallest boat I had been on in recent memory. We slipped off our sandals and piled onto a wooden platform overlaid with a decorated bamboo mat. Beside Brad and me sat our new friends Karen and Heath, Soenke and his wife, her father, and another family member. Soenke climbed in last and worked his way to the far end, viciously rocking the boat from side to side. I thought we would likely sink, but I made it unknown. Karen and I locked eyes and it looked like hers were going to pop from their sockets. We made for a comical site. I wasn’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into, but something about it was fun. I felt like we were going on a danger picnic.

Brad assured me us that since we were on a boat, which by design is wider at the top, it would be nearly impossible to sink the boat at its current capacity.

“The lower the boat rides in the water, the more pressure it takes to sink it. Seriously, we’d need twice as many people in here before we’d have a problem.”

I felt better. [editor’s note: making up sciency-sounding reassurances is a great way to make your spouse feel good in times of despair]

As we motored against the current I attempted to talk to Soenke’s father-in-law. He was positioned last on the boat and I was his only company. Our conversation involved many blank stares and silent pauses and despite my constant answer of “no”, he proudly asked me over and over again, “Parlez-vous Frances?” Like many older Cambodians and Laotians, he could speak French. I nudged at Karen and begged for her to be my translator. She was from Quebec but she said Soenke’s father-in-law was incomprehensible. His accent was just too strong.

As we rounded a bend Soenke’s father-in-law pointed down the river toward a few dozen homes that rested above the water. “Vietnam, Vietnam!” This area was known locally as the Vietnamese floating village. We passed by and peered into a world of fishing nets, wooden boats, and homes patched together with wood, dried palm leaves and scraps of tin. Wardrobes hung from bamboo poles outside and despite the very evident lack of resources, every home had electricity for their bare hanging light bulbs and television sets: the ultimate luxury in these areas.

The sun was beginning to set and I was starting to feel hungry. Fortunately I had come prepared, having bought a snack of steamed sticky rice and coconut milk inside of a bamboo stick. I tried to open it myself, but Soenke’s father-in-law quickly confiscated it from me. He took the bamboo and rolled it against the deck like a rolling pin, loosening the sticky rice from the inner walls of the bamboo. He dug his nails into the giant wad of leaf roughage that served to plug the end, and discarded it in the Mekong. And then, like a banana, he peeled the bamboo siding down in layers. The rice held its shape: one gelatinous floppy tube of goo. Everyone broke off a chunk and enjoyed its subtle coconut sweetness.

As we rounded the far tip of the island a new setting appeared before us. The trees disappeared and only a grassy field and a sandy stretch of beach remained. I thought maybe we’d stop but we kept going. We cut the engine and finally began moving in the direction of the current. It was quiet and peaceful and as the sun set the guys practiced their gondolier skills. Brad was fond of his new role and brought us all the way back home.

I felt lucky—lucky to have had this chance encounter with Soenke and his family, and also to see new things and make new friends. Inevitably, these types of chance encounters always beg the question: who we will meet next?

Back on land we walked down Kratie’s boardwalk. In our hands, two servings of ice cream melted in their bowls, the remnants of us accidentally ordering durian-flavored ice cream. Near the end of the busy boardwalk a vehicle called out to us. It appeared to be lit up the way a vehicle is lit up when it is lived in. Just like the Cambodian kids, we walked past the open sliding door and stopped mid-step to stare inside. Chad and Chompa, the Indian-born couple from England eagerly invited us into their home—a converted Sprinter van—where we spent the next couple of hours sharing stories of home and the road, drinking tea, and reminiscing of our old lives.

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Sep 2013

Asia, Blog

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One Day, Four Thousand Islands

Just as the captain pushed the boat away from the shore a seventh body catapulted onto the deck. He was winded but clearly excited to have made it with not a second to spare. We didn’t know who he was but he surely wasn’t a local. He was like the Incredible Hulk with tan skin and curly shoulder length hair.

Once he settled in on the bench he spoke. “Excuse me, but can you tell me where we’re going?”

What kind of crazy person…?

Someone explained to him that we were on a boat trip down the Mekong River to Don Khon—a different island—where we were going to ride bikes for the day and then later in the afternoon head back to our island. It would be an all day kind of thing.

He didn’t seem like the bike riding type so I was quite curious to hear what he thought of his new itinerary. He laughed and clapped his hands. I think he was pleased. “I saw the boat leaving and said to myself, I don’t know where it’s going, but I want to go!” He smiled and then looked at his feet and was silent for a moment. “Do you think they rent scooters?”

On the boat there were six of us now: Manuel from Germany, John and Karen, who we’d met in Laos, and now a crazy free-spirited Algerian.

I told him he was the first Algerian I’d ever met in my life and he laughed, clearly excited to be representing his nation. His excitement about pretty much everything was contagious.

The day before, we had arrived at the highlight in southern Laos: Si Phan Don or 4,000 Islands. It’s here that the wide and shallow Mekong allowed for the formation of a great number of islands, which vary largely in number and size depending on the season, although it’s safe to say that even an estimate of a thousand islands would be a bit of a stretch. We could only guess that the exposed lumps of grass and random tree saplings must have been included in the count.

Within these “4,000 islands” only three were inhabited, and of these three, only one had a car ferry. So, we drove Nacho onto a rickety ferry and headed to Don Kong. It was an easy crossing and while we waited at the ferry’s loading platform, we watched the locals on the motorcycle ferry. It was a creative contraption; merely a wooden platform that stretched across two canoes.

Within five minutes of arriving on Don Kong we had pretty much seen and done everything. We expected that would happen—hence the reason that the entire island’s foreign population was now aboard a boat on the Mekong headed somewhere else.

Aboard the boat we moved down the Mekong. The water was murky and brown, but it was still beautiful. The weather was good with sufficient shade and plentiful breeze. It was a quiet morning and we didn’t see another boat for the entirety of our commute. At an hour and a half we broke our huddle under the boat’s canopy and followed our boat captain up Don Khon’s steep embankment. Once at the top he settled into a hammock and told us when to return.

We stopped at the first nondescript restaurant and had lunch, delaying our bike ride by an hour to foolishly coincide with the hottest part of the day. Lunch took forever and Brad joked that the lady must have had to go catch a fish before preparing my meal. My dish of pok la was definitely worth the wait; a moist and fragrant mix of river fish, coconut milk and herbs of ginger and basil steamed in a banana leaf.

From the same establishment we rented cruiser bikes at $3 for the day. I loaded my cruiser’s wire basket with a few liters of water and Brad loaded his with a new cat friend. Our dirt road wandered through the sleepy village where families rested under their raised bamboo homes and water buffalo faces poked from the murky ponds.

We continued on until our road turned into a boulder strewn mess and pitched down to the beach. The rocks were sharp and loose and for a moment I imagined I was on my mountain bike somewhere in the desert. Brad and I raced down and I can’t remember for sure, but I think I won [editor’s note: she lost]. At the bottom was a fishing village of some sort with nets stretched across the burning hot sand and wooden boats pulled up out of the water.

This remote little sandy beach acted as the primary take off point in Laos for spotting the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. With only seven Irrawaddy dolphins left in Laos, they are verging on extinction and even despite the species being fully protected, the numbers have continued to decline. Locals don’t know why but it’s thought it is related to polluted waters and loss of habitat.

We walked for a bit and cooled off in the shade under a nearby shop’s canopy.  The shop owner wasn’t interested in selling me a drink or food, rather he just wanted to show me his adorable son sleeping in a nearby hammock. Various stuffed animals held the boy in place, and his mother slept in one of those conservatory chairs next to his hammock.

“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” the man asked, stared at his son with admiring eyes, and then rearranged the baby’s arms to make him more comfortable.

Our last stop for the afternoon was Don Khone waterfall, a wide and powerful cascade. Up to this point, I had not seen the Mekong looking so fierce. We all expected this would be an ideal place to swim, but we were clearly mistaken.

Our bike ride had been too ambitious and we arrived back in the village far beyond our allotted time. I feared our captain would be put off, yet this was island life- even better, island life with Buddhists.  It was hard to put them in a bad mood.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that our captain hadn’t moved since we had last seen him. He looked to be in no hurry and slowly rolled out of the hammock, stood back on his feet and said his goodbyes. We were off, back down the river amid the 4,000 islands.

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Sep 2013

Asia, Blog


A Landslide Brought it Down

The arrival of rainy season in Laos fell on deaf ears.

“It sure seems to be raining a lot lately,” Sheena would say.

“That’s just orographic precipitation and the rain shadow effect, my dear Sheena,” I would confidently retort. My lady can be so silly.

We woke up and started driving south, the rain continued to fall, and it seemed it would never stop. Without any warning, the mud on the side of a particularly steep mountainside got very saturated, and then became free from friction’s evil grip and covered the road—our road. We came around a bend to find a long line of cars just sitting there. I asked Nacho to stop and I walked all the way to the front of the cars to see what in God’s name was going on.

And then I saw the rocks and mud and very mature trees all sprawled out across the narrow mountain roadway and I realized what had happened. It was a dang landslide, and it made even me start to question everything I ever learned about orographic precipitation and the rain shadow effect.

Initially I stood there like a wide-eyed schoolboy, sheltered from the driving rain by my purple umbrella, staring with amazement at the enormity of the mud and detritus strewn all over the place, and then at the naked hillside devoid of trees and much of its prior landmass. And then the mud. And then the hillside. Wow! I eventually walked back to the van and told Sheena.

“Wow! There was a hillside with nothing on it, and there was also a thick layer of mud and detritus!” She was just going to have to see for herself, for I was too excited to give a non-cryptic description.

We speed walked together back to the scene, she with her orange Snoopy umbrella and me with my purple one, and watched the scene unfold. The folks on the near side of the slide stood around in the rain, looking at the mud. The folks on the far side looked on in a similar fashion.

Ironically, the first vehicle to arrive on the far side was a semi truck carrying a very large bulldozer, but I rationalized that there was something wrong with the bulldozer that would prohibit it from clearing the slide. I came to this conclusion after the bulldozer failed to make any attempt at clearing the slide. After much nervous chatter, some brave people had ideas.

First, a man with a 4×4 Toyota Hilux fired up his truck and timidly approached the slide. He steered off the road, toward the thick vegetation separating the road from the bottomless abyss of the deep canyon below. He gunned it, slid all over the place, spun his tires, flung mud, and just by the skin of his teeth managed to get his truck back onto the road before either rolling or sliding off into oblivion.

The confidence of the people had been aroused, and a few other Hilux owners followed suit. The Hilux is a popular truck in these parts. Soon, a crazy bastard in a two wheel drive sedan tried and succeeded. I stood there for many minutes studying the best lines, noting the obstacles hidden by the deep river that had formed in the right tire track, and visualizing Nacho’s triumph over this seemingly insurmountable challenge.

“I can do it! Nacho can do it!” I exclaimed.

“I don’t know, ” Sheena said, “I’m going to make a salad. Let’s try after lunch.” And so it was. Sheena made her salad and we sat down to a nice lunch while we watched through Nacho’s window as more and more people became brave enough to make the treacherous crossing. I wanted to get on it before my bravery waned, so we ate our fancy salads with balsamic vinegar and olive oil very quickly. All of the other cars had made the crossing now, leaving Nacho alone.

Just as we finished forking the final pieces of lettuce into our mouths, a young man on a farm tractor whizzed by.

“Oh joy! A young man on a farm tractor!” I exclaimed.

I touched the corner of my mouth with a napkin the way British people do, and then I took my purple umbrella to the slide to watch the tractor boy work his magic. Oh the utility of people under hardship! The miracle of communism, just the way Marx envisioned! By the people for the people!

The young man on the tractor started by proving his worthiness with a bit of showboatery. He worked the controls like a machinist, deftly scraping one or two tons of mud into the tracks that once served as the only passable route from our side to the other. Next, he pulled to the side of the road, turned the engine off, and sat there silently.

“What? Hey, why’d he stop? Sheena, do you know?” I walked over to the tractor and inspected the undercarriage. Was it broken? I took my shoes off and walked into the mud to see if the track was passable any more. It definitely wasn’t.

“Bah, I’m going to read a book.” And so we retreated to Nacho to read books. It would be thirty minutes before the young man on the tractor was content with the growing number of drivers that had collected on either side of the slide. He fired up the tractor and resumed his work while two of his associates worked their way up the line of cars. They approached Nacho, so I rolled down the window.

“Man oh man,” I commented, “that guy sure is making good progress.”

“Good money, good progress,” the tractor man’s associate said. “We’re collecting ten thousand Kip from every car.”

Marx would be saddened to know that communism in Laos had failed, even despite the Vietnam war in which the evil Americans were defeated, allowing communism to thrive. But dare I say that even Marx would be at least somewhat impressed by this young man’s astute planning and entrepreneurial prowess.

The rain continued to fall. It fell and it fell, and it covered the roadways. When it was shallow, we drove through. But when it was chest deep we had to find another way. Laos is serious about its rainy season.

Since arriving in Laos, we’ve been the proverbial thorn in the side of the country’s Buddhist monk population. Owing to southeast Asia’s distinct lack of camping opportunities, we’ve had to get pretty creative with our camp sites. Sometimes we simply camp in public parking lots (romantic), while in extremely rare cases (like twice), we find a nice beach overlook or rare dirt road into a forest where we can camp. While complaining to our friends in Thailand about this, one of them suggested that we camp within the grounds of Buddhist temples.

“Just ask the head monk if you can camp in their parking lot,” he had told us, “they always take care of travelers.”

And so we did. I must say that getting Sheena to agree to camp next to Buddhist temples is very hard, and I can’t understand why. It must be some deep ingrained malformation in the female genome that makes her feel uncomfortable whenever people know that we’re sleeping  inside of our car, and it’s especially strong when those people are peace-loving Buddhist monks. But on occasion when we’re desperate enough, she will agree to it. This night was one of those nights.

After descending the mountains beyond the landslide site we arrived in a small village in heavy rain just as evening set in. We asked around at a couple of huts to see if we could park for the night, but were pointed in the direction of a temple. Sheena wailed her disapproval at the idea, but after convincing her that it was either this or on the side of the road, she grunted, crossed her arms, and silently agreed. I parked Nacho in the driveway of the temple, grabbed the paper from our dashboard that a Laotian man had written for us, which asks in Laos script if it’s okay for us to camp here for the night, and I headed into the monks’ house.

After five or six monks had read my note, each giggling a little bit and passing the note on, the paper landed in the hands of a monk who knew the English word “yes”. Riding high on the sweet endorphin wave that success brings, I floated back to Nacho, hopped into the front seat, and started lying to Sheena about how charming I had been when dealing with the monks. I threw it into drive and lurched forward. Almost immediately our front wheels disappeared straight into a hidden mud trench, and our bumper slammed to the ground.

While no villagers had been visible before, our state of distress seemed to have been broadcast into every bamboo hut in the area, and within minutes we were surrounded by curious onlookers. I circled the van cursing our bad luck so close to our final destination. I decided the solution would involve our trusty jack, so I got that out and started jacking up one front corner. Soon the villagers swarmed the van, each making suggestions to me in Lao, which I didn’t understand. I jacked, villagers dug mud and collected pieces of wood and rock, and soon Nacho’s front wheels were supported by terra firma. I fired up the engine, and to the choir of incomprehensible shouting, I drove forward.

Now Nacho’s wheels straddled the trench, and I figured it best to use my bridging ladders to create a bridge for the rear wheels. I began to get out of the door.

“Ooga bing dang booga!” The villagers shouted, signaling that I should gun it and stop being a pansy.

“But I should use my bridging ladders, no?” I suggested.

“Dang ooga bing dang booga!” they shouted, again signaling for me to stop being such a sally girl. Did they know something I didn’t? I looked at the holes I’d just escaped from and they looked deep like bomb blast craters. The villagers pointed to the holes, told me to sack up, and signaled for me to gun it.

So I gunned it. The first thing I felt was slow forward motion, and then I felt the ground give way under the van, and then the rear bumper landing solidly on the ground. Yep, should have used the bridging ladders.

Monks joined the entourage and we again jacked, dug, and shoved trash under tires. I gunned it, nothing happened, the entire village pushed, I gunned it again, and still nothing happened. Finally a 4×4 truck found its way to the temple, we attached a tow rope, the truck burned its tires, I burned my clutch, but nothing. Finally, adding village pushing power to the towing force, we managed to get loose and drive into the temple grounds. We profusely thanked the villagers, saw them off, and parked for the night.

As we parked, the monks streamed out of the temple, picked up two wheelbarrows and an array of shovels, and went to work filling the bomb blast craters in their driveway. I grabbed my shovel and joined the effort. Buddhist monks are happy people, always smiling, but I have to believe that they must have thought that we were a huge pain in the ass. We finished filling the holes, the monks smiled at us, and they retreated.

Later on, one monk returned to the van carrying a cell phone. I came out of the van and he handed me the phone.


“Yes hello, I am the monk’s friend. He wanted me to ask you what you want them to make you for dinner.”

“Oh, please, nothing. They’ve done enough. We’re just passing through and have our own food.”

“Do you need bedding? A place to sleep? They can do anything for you.”

I told the man that we were totally self sufficient, and that we appreciated the help they’d already given us. All the while I wondered how, after having been such a pain in the ass, they could extend such unwarranted kindness towards us.

In the morning there was a knock on our door, and outside we could hear someone yelling “Hello! Hello!” I opened the door to find a monk carrying a warm bowl of tapioca and corn porridge. They’d made us breakfast! He asked if we wanted any coffee, made sure we had everything we needed, and then we watched him walk through the steady rain, back to his room.

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Sep 2013

Asia, Blog


The Saga of the Magic Worm

The silkworm is exhausted after five long days of work. It is happy and warm and lays there in the darkness, dreaming of the wings that are soon to blossom from its back. It will never be a monarch butterfly, but nevertheless, it will have new freedoms. But the worm is awoken from its dream. Its body is spinning out of control and its cocoon made of tightly wound silk is unraveling at lightning speed. Soon it is left naked, shocked and without wings. Like a spool with no yarn it has served its purpose.

Like most people, I knew little about silk. I knew that it came from silkworms, but the question of how, that remained a mystery. Ask most Laotians and they’ll probably know. That’s because at one time nearly every family within certain provinces produced their own silk. It was a common material and many household goods were made of it, from sarongs to diapers. It was at a farm called Mulberries late in the afternoon where I learned the story of the domesticated silkworm.

“Would you like to see the worms?”

Heck yeah I did!

When we stepped into the rearing house, I thought, well this is a new sight. A few middle aged women squatted next to a cluster of wooden trays. Behind them was a shelving unit extending the length of the room, and on it were many more trays covered in blue netting. They held little worlds inside, each one representing a different stage in the silkworms’ lives. Some trays were full of mere infants while others were nearing their final days.

I picked up a silkworm and it danced in the palm of my hand. Its skin was slightly translucent and it glowed a pale yellow. It bore an uncanny resemblance to a seahorse with deep set eyes and long nose, although Brad thought it looked more like a wolf. A wolf? Seriously? Maybe Brad ought to stick to Nacho maintenance.

Even though the silkworm can do spectacular things, its day to day life is rather mundane.  It primarily revolves around eating and pooping. But this is crucial for its big task ahead. It is the responsibility of the crouching women to continuously remove waste and uneaten foliage from the trays while restocking the worms with more leaves to eat.

The silkworms have incredible appetites and will consume 30,000 times their weight in food during their life span. As a result, Mulberries has acres upon acres of mulberry bushes, used mostly for worm food, but have other purposes as well: the berries are for eating and making dye, the bark is for tea, and the remaining leaves are used as fertilizer.

After three weeks of binge eating and pooping the worms are plucked from their communal trays and given new homes; “private flats” if you will on a revolving gridded tray. It is here that each worm will begin and complete the big project: making a cocoon. For five days the silkworm busily secretes two filaments from its mouth: a strand of silk and a cord of gum, which when exposed to air harden into one strand. This filament is worked around the worm’s body in a figure eight pattern until it’s fully enclosed in its cocoon.

Finally the job is done. The worm is happy and it lays there in the darkness, dreaming of the day it will emerge a level-one badass: a magical worm with wings. Yet what happens next is quite unexpected and tragic. Without any notice it is pulled from its tray and thrown into a pot of boiling water.

This is the only way to remove the silk from the little seahorse-wolf creature. It is flipped around and around as its silk is pulled away, through a collection of bicycle wheels and pulleys. The system is archaic but efficient and the cocoon’s figure eight pattern quickly unwinds leaving the worm naked and lifeless in the water.

The result from one cocoon is 250 meters of gorgeous yellow or cream silk.

Nothing goes to waste. The worms are eaten by the workers and the unusable outer floss of the cocoon becomes stuffing material for pillows and blankets.

To prepare the usable silk as weaving material it continues through a multi-day process: it is soaked overnight in rice water, rinsed, dried and then boiled in a pot of ash water to create a softer more silk-like texture. It’s then hand twisted in a single or double thread and finally dyed using the plants in Mulberries gardens. On this particular day, a few thick bundles of radiant orange and dark blue silk hung from the post drying in the sun.

Our final stop was the weaving room, a tightly packed space of inward facing looms.

“It’s sticky rice season so no one is weaving right now. Everyone’s in the fields working but maybe they’ll return in a few weeks. You wouldn’t believe how loud this place gets. People are just talking and laughing all day long.”

It was easy to imagine. I walked around the perimeter and peered into a place so incredibly rich with creativity. All of the artists were at different stages; some looms exposed a few feet of design and color scheme while others had just finished the skeleton of their work, a tedious process of arranging the threads through wefts and combs. In time, every project in the room would reach completion and a new set of projects months down the road would begin again.

Before leaving we stopped by the small on-site shop that sold silk products made on the farm. I admired the shawls and scarves that had taken weeks to make by hand using the cocoons of thousands of magical worms. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Brad running his fingers over a silk shirt.

We quickly agreed that a $100 silk shirt was not in the cards, and “besides”, I told Brad, “you could never pull of wearing a silk shirt”.  Instead we settled for some mulberry tea and a silk soap sleeve. At least this way we could keep ourselves smelling like berries.

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