Fisterra

Sunday, June 1

Yesterday, for the first time in 33 days, I let a vehicle move me from one place to another instead of my own two feet.

But let’s start the day before that, when my Camino ended.

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I woke early in Olveira and went to the café for coffee and toast. Bernie and Debbie were there also (everyone was, it’s the café owned by the hospitaleros so it’s the closest and easiest place to eat). I said hello, and sat facing the television. The weather report began — clear in Galicia! Well, maybe not clear. But not raining either.

I ate quickly and left as the sun was beginning to push through the clouds on the horizon. In the cool air I walked briskly, but paused often to take photos of Galicia without rain and fog. I wandered off the trail into a field as high as my knees to get a better photo of the landscape against the glow of sun. And I walked back out with shoes and pants wet from the dew. Worth it.

The route was windmills and river canyons, green stones in the water, hilltops and sunlight. And somewhere forward was Fisterra.

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I was about to follow a marker past the last hospital when a woman who worked there called to me and warned me there’d be nothing for 15 more kilometers. So I stopped and had a sandwich and a Coke. Bernie and Debbie were there, and we wished each other a good walk as they stood to go.

Leaving the hospital I began to walk and talk with two Americans, Chris and Duncan, both from St. Louis. Chris is active in the Catholic association on his campus and had organized a group trip from Sarria to Santiago, and afterwards he continued towards Fisterra. Duncan is a friend of his who came on his own to join him.

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Along the path we found two horses standing, munching grass. One took a quick liking to Chris, responding to scratching behind the ear as gleefully as a dog.

In time Duncan fell behind at a slightly slower pace. Chris and I walked a long way talking, and so the kilometers to the coast passed quickly. We arrived at the top of a hill, where a marker read “To the end.” In front of us we could see the coastline and a few peninsulas. One seemed to extend farther than the other and it had the right shape — it had to be Fisterra.

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Sitting nearby and enjoying the view was a German I’d seen a few times but not spoken to. Chris knew him (it turns out Chris knows everyone. He’s very outgoing). We chatted a bit and took photos, and Chris decided to stay at the hill and snack a bit. The wind was in my sails; I kept going.

The descent was steep and rocky. I was glad to have my walking staff. I found myself zigzagging across the wide path to find the flattest ground, but at times there was none. Stone to stone in uneven steps. Down and down.

I finally reached flat land again and came upon the first coastal pueblo. As I passed through I saw a dog in the street, near a house with an older woman out front and some chickens. I came towards the dog and reached out, and she shied away, head down. But she didn’t run. I reached my hand out more slowly until she allowed it to touch her. Then she tucked her head away again.

I kept my hand out but brought it back a bit towards me. She stepped forward. A little more and we touched again. Suddenly she was open and affectionate, letting me pet her and pressing up against my leg when I stopped. Sometimes she would back away again, but she always returned.

The old woman had been watching. I smile at her. “Te gustan los perros?” she asked. You like dogs? I replied yes, that wherever I go they are always my friends. I smiled and said goodbye.

As I passed through Cee, I was stopped by two old men. One first tried to guess my language, and he lit up when I responded in Spanish. He started telling me about all the languages he can speak, and telling me about the way the path went and where I could stop to eat. His friend often tried to get a word in without much success. A woman passed by and as she left he told me she was Italian, and he speaks Italian. We said goodbye in every language either of us knows.

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As I left the old men, Bernie and Debbie caught up. We only briefly walked together and discovered suddenly that the Camino was not well marked here. The arrows vanished. I started asking locals which way to go. Bernie and Debbie followed albeit hesitantly. Finally we came to an open park with a view of the ocean, a road along it, and the next pueblo. A local told me to head there to a plaza where I would find arrows again.

Bernie and Debbie stayed behind to snack. We said goodbye. I wouldn’t see them again, it turns out..

I walked to the next pueblo, finding arrows along the coastal road. But within the pueblo they were again poorly marked. Locals directed me towards the church, and another man there pointed me down the correct street which climbed up to the back of the town. Finally there were arrows again. I found myself in a narrow alley, walls covered in vegetation, climbing steeply out of the town and up the hill behind. It took me briefly through the woods until it it came out again to another town and then went on to rejoin a road, then left it again for the hills which offered the best view yet of Fisterra, which still seemed so very far away.

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Onward and onward and onward, seemingly forever. Finally, I emerged onto a beach-side path that led into Fisterra. Many pilgrims walked the sand as the path diverged inland, but I wanted to stick to it in case there was anything interesting along it. Eventually the path joined the beach again at a bar, where I found Sven relaxing and enjoying a beer.

He urged me to drop the pack and go enjoy the water, but I was a man on a mission. Many pilgrims seemed to be checking into albergues first and leaving their packs there, planning to go up to the lighthouse another 3km away for sunset. I couldn’t stop. I had to reach the end with my pack on my back and my staff in my hand, so I kept going.

It was the hardest 3 kilometers of my life. I hadn’t sat down since I ate that morning. My feet burned and ached on the asphalt and I could feel that the skin was not doing well. But I couldn’t stop. The street climbed and arced along the hillside until finally I approached the lighthouse, surrounded by tourists and cars and buses. Feelings swelled as the final marker appeared in front of me. 0.00km. People were posing with it, but they stepped away as I got closer.

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I reached out with my hand to touch it, to make it real, and sat down on an angled stone in front of it. Not so much sitting as collapsing. My head down, I took some time to just be there, exhausted, at the end.

I heard the click of cell phone cameras behind me. I guess the tired pilgrim at the end of his journey makes for a photogenic moment.

But the stone wasn’t really at the end. The lighthouse was behind it. And behind that, the cliffs. I stood, took a few photos of the stone and with it. I kept going.

On the cliffs I found many people, some of them burning articles of clothing or paper on an altar that bore a cross, or on the rocks nearby.

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I descended as far as I could, my feet sending my brain constant and painful status updates. Shut up, we’re nearly there.

I found a boulder that was as far as I could safely go with my bulky pack, and sat. The end of the world at last. The end of the Camino, 33 days and hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers from the beginning.

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Eventually I stood again and climbed to a rock closer to the lighthouse. I took off my right boot to see what my foot was complaining about. Not good. A new blister, and a lot of damaged skin. An old French woman walked over to see how I was, frowning a motherly frown as she looked at my foot. She offered water but I assured her I had some.

I was the only one there with all my belongings, and people noticed. Another woman came over to me and offered me food that looked a bit like a date. I accepted it with thanks. I was very hungry.

After bandaging my foot a bit I put my boot back on and endured the 3 kilometers back to town. I found an albergue and a supermarket where I could buy some foot cream to help heal the skin, and took some time to shower and relax.

But not too much time. I wanted to go back up for the sunset. I ate at a nearby bar; pulpo, razor clams, and chipirrones.

I really do think a pulperia would do well in Los Angeles.

At around 8:30 I left for the lighthouse, arriving about an hour before sunset. I climbed back down to the boulder I’d sat at earlier and stayed there for a while taking photos and video and enjoying the warmth. Nearby I saw three wild goats approach, munching on the grass. There wasn’t much room on the cliffs and normally there are many people here, so I was surprised to see animals. More photos and video, of course.

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I climbed back up and found a boulder with a good view of both the sunset and the people watching it. Next to me were a pair of boots with a small bouquet in them; a recent tribute to the end of someone else’s journey

The crowd was growing. I heard a lot of German and Korean and a bit of French. But I didn’t see Sven or Kasumi as I’d expected to. Maybe Kasumi went the Muxia way, or maybe she didn’t do Fisterra in 3 days. Sven must’ve stayed in town, I suppose.

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As sunset neared I saw Chris and Duncan and called out to them. They came over to my boulder and said hello, as did the German from earlier, whose name I learned was Markus. He had started about 100km farther back than me, deeper in France. So for him, this sunset was even more significant. I took video as the sun dipped. The guys passed around a bottle of wine. The lighthouse lit up, and we began walking back under the sliver of the waxing crescent moon.

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I was glad not to be alone at the end.

Back in town we went a bar where live music was set to go on at midnight. Which means it actually went on at 12:45, because Spain. We drank some beers. Most of the guys were half asleep. As we sat we saw the cute hospitalera from the municipal walk in with her friend, and Chris and I went over to chat with them. The musicians finally started playing; something in between rock and flamenco.

Soon after, we saw that the rest of the guys were getting up to go. We said goodbye to the girls and left.

Chris turned to Duncan and told him it was time to go for a dip in the harbor. Duncan cursed him but followed. I’m blessedly immune to most peer pressure at this point, but I came along to see if they’d really go into the frigid water on a cold night.

Sure enough, they did. They stripped off and Chris charged ahead into the shallow water near the boats, and Duncan followed. A few moments later they came back out, dressed, and we walked back towards the municipal. I said goodnight to them as they entered, and continued to my albergue farther on.

The next morning I woke, had breakfast, and boarded a bus to Santiago and then Porto on a whim. I’ll save all that for the next post.

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-Daniel

Olveira

Thursday, May 29

Today was rain and rain and hills and rain, for 34km and change, alone. I’m not sure if the weather reflected my mood, or my mood reflected the weather. I took only a few photos.

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Back home things change. Doors open and close. And of course they do — the world doesn’t stop turning just because I go on a stroll. Hopefully when I’m back I’ll have a few open doors to choose from.

Come tomorrow, when I’m standing by the sea at Fisterra, I think I’ll have walked somewhere around 560 miles. I’ll have crossed from the border of Spain and France all the way to the far west coast. And you know what? It really wasn’t that hard. Yes, I’m sore and I have blisters and my tendons and muscles and bones ache. But really, truly, it wasn’t that hard.

Life, on the other hand, is hard. There aren’t yellow arrows to keep you on track. There’s no guidebook to give you an idea of how far you have left to go to reach a goal. You don’t get to put your feet up after walking, call it a day, drink some beer, and eat some food; there’s always some business needs doing.

And you don’t know for sure that everyone you meet is going down the same path as you. Chances are they aren’t. So maybe you get to know them in the way you really would like to, and maybe you don’t. Maybe they just come and go. Or maybe they pop in and out until one day when they don’t pop in anymore.

Tough stuff. If only figuring it all out were as easy as walking a few hundred miles.

Cross your fingers for good weather tomorrow. Finisterre!

-Daniel

Palas de Rei, Arzúa, O Pedrouzo

Sunday, May 25

The days blend a bit. The first, it rained all day. The next the sun came out, then hid again, and came out again, and continued the pattern even until now in O Pedrouzo. When we left Portomarín we found Juanito again, and I said to Larissa that here in Galicia something amazing happens every day. A shame the camino here always smells of dung.

Unfortunately after we found Juanito we lost him again. He was walking with a lot of pain. But perhaps in Santiago.

Sometimes we’ve come across Michele, or Virginia and Lucca, or Kasumi, or Diego and Ísabel, or Fabrizzio. In my mind it’s a fog, like the niebla we usually pass through in the mornings in the valleys and forests. We joke that O Cebreiro is hiding in the mist.

Tomorrow I’ll arrive in Santiago. It will be one month exactly since I left Saint Jean Pied de Port some 500 miles ago. It seems I’ll probably spend more than one day there. The arrival day, then the day to attend the mass and receive my Compostela. And then I’ll continue to Finisterre, another three days away. And then, something. What is “something?” Going home? Am I ready to go home?

Until now, Santiago never felt like an ending. Just a pit stop. But knowing that most of my companions will stop there brings a sense of finality to it all. Like the book ends tomorrow, and Finisterre will be an epilogue or a story in the appendices.

I’m not really sure what to say about it and the feelings are more than a little swirly, so I think I’ll leave it at that for now. Let’s just have some photos.

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Larissa

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Miguel

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The renowned pulpo in Melide

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-Daniel

Sarria and Portomarín

Thursday, May 22

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In Galicia, you could be forgiven for believing in magic. Here in the hills and forests with ancient, fat-trunked, gnarled trees and paths lined with moss-covered stone walls, there must be sidh under the hill and faerie folk beyond the veil.

We stayed in bed a bit later than usual in Triacastela. It’s easy when the sky is gray and heavy and raindrops are falling lightly. After breakfast we set out in the rain and the cold.

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We met with Fabrizzio, Kasumi, and Virginia along the way. The forest formed a tunnel around us, dark and damp. At the front of the line I slipped on the wet slabs of granite below our feet, but caught myself. We passed farms with bulls in brown and white — one, standing above me and to the right in a field I couldn’t see from my place on the path, held eye contact with me eerily as he munched. Fabrizzio made jokes about elves in the forest.

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Fabrizzio

When we came across a sign for a bar we made a slight detour, and we arrived at a very tiny building, crowded with pilgrims and backpacks that had all arrived within minutes of each other. We huddled in and ate. For me, an empanada con atún and a Coke.

Fabrizzio’s knee had been in pain for some time, and two women overheard him talking about it. They had him extend his leg out, and then one of them rubbed her hands together and placed them on his knees, eyes squinting in  concentration.

Nonsense.

We set out into the cold again. Fabrizzio grinned and in a faux-whisper said that the women with their magic hands must’ve been elves. His knee was no better.

A storm came on us quickly. The wind whirled around us, howling and pushing our giant wind-catching packs this way and that. I lowered my hood and spread my arms out wide. Something about it made us all loco, except Alejandro who seemed withdrawn. But I laughed and grinned and dared it to get worse, and we all sang songs with each other loudly. Fabrizzio is like a jukebox of American songs, and some Brazilian ones, and of course Italian. One of the songs we sang was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Larissa and I did a duet where she sang in Brazilian Portuguese and I in English.

Wind madness, if there is such a thing. As the storm raged I felt completely present and euphoric.

In Sarria we took the first albergue along the path in the town center, which blessedly had a room with only four beds, so we knew no one would flick the light on at 6am and start talking loudly. Our room was upstairs next to the kitchen and comedor, a big and comfortable area with a slanted roof of wooden logs. Fabrizzio, Virginia, and Kasumi chose the same albergue.

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After showering and doing laundry we went to a nearby pulperia. Pulpo Gallego is a specialty in Galicia. It’s octopus cut up and served with oil and peppers, and it’s delicious. I feel a bit torn about it since octopi are known to be very intelligent. But it’s so tasty that I joked with Miguel about opening a pulperia in Los Angeles.

We also stopped in the supermarket and bought bread, cheese, chorizo, coke, chocolate, two bottles of wine, and a bottle of crema de orujo. We’re a bunch of drunks, apparently.

Back at the albergue I spent some time writing and uploading photos to the tablet. I sat with Virginia and Kasumi at one of the dining tables as they snacked on some chips and beer. Poor Virginia has back pain, and the bones or tendons around her shoulder blade pop and crackle when she moves her arm. I’m sure something is wrong with the fit of her pack.

She lives in Granada, and we met her for the first time a few days ago in Villafranca del Bierzo after she set out on her Camino from Astorga.

Kasumi, as you might guess, is Japanese. The Italians have nicknamed her Gina. She’s picked up a bit of a tan here on the Camino, which she says is not at all fashionable in Japan, and we often poke fun that she won’t be able to go back. I first met her in Calzadilla back in the flat lands, along the old Roman road.

It was a good night. We were joined by two Germans I met in Foncebadon, along with another Italian named Lucca who often travels with Fabrizzio, Kasumi, and Virginia. We ate, we drank, we joked. The hospitalero had to ask us to quiet down so the people downstairs wouldn’t be kept awake.

We stumbled to bed at around 11. In the morning I got up at around 7:15, which is delightfully late for a pilgrim. Alejandro woke soon after, followed by Larissa and then Miguel.

As before, we set out in the rain after breakfast, passing through more enchanted forests and farmland until we eventually stopped for food and a bar filled to the brim with tourists. And I mean tourists, not Pilgrims. People traveling in cars or with guides or buses. These last 100km are going to be strange.

As I sat down to eat I saw out of the corner of my eye a familiar face, though at first I didn’t react. Then I did a double-take — it was Michele! I thought he was an etapa or two behind me, but here he was in the same bar. I called out to him much too loudly, and his eyes lit up. We stood, walked hurriedly towards each other, and shared a mighty bear-hug. He was traveling now with some more Italians and a Spaniard, I think. I introduced him to my companions including Fabrizzio, who lives in Milan but was born in the south.

It’s difficult to express how joyful it was to see Michele again, and to know that we’re back on the same path. We didn’t say much, but his eyes said a lot and I imagine mine did too. Later I would see him again at our albergue in Portomarín.

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After lunch we started to walk at slightly different paces. Alejandro ahead out of sight. Miguel with Larissa and I until she and I stopped at the sight of a young goat standing on top of the old stone wall that bordered her field. We slowed as we watched her reach up into a tree to nibble at the leaves. We stepped closer, and to our surprise she was unafraid and didn’t run. I took photos and video of Larissa reaching out towards the goat, and then she did the same for me.

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As I held my hand out the goat sniffed it a bit and licked it once or twice. Hoping for food, I imagine. She let me pet her head a bit, and at times she butt her head with a little bit of force into my hand. Me standing there with my wooden staff and my hand resting fully on a goat’s head made for quite a sight.

For a city-slicker like me, it was a magical moment in an enchanted landscape.

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But there was more magic to come. When we arrived at Portomarín, a lovely city overlooking a large river, we checked in at a nearby albergue called O Mirador and I turned on my phone’s Wifi. Moments later I received a message from my mother with an image of my unborn niece’s face via sonogram. Today, for the first time, I saw her face. My niece. Me, Uncle Daniel. Uncle Daniel. Imagine when she’s older and I can tell her this story!

We went upstairs to the restaurant for a meal. I don’t know if it was lunch or dinner and I suppose it doesn’t matter. We sat for a long time in the comedor where a wall of windows overlooked the river. Afterwards Larissa and I watched a few Brazilian music videos and I tried to play a video of The Dustbowl Revival for her, but the connection was slow.

We went downstairs to the albergue. She’s resting. Miguel and I are writing. Alejandro is listening to music. Later we’ll probably go back upstairs for some drinks and food. Outside the rain doesn’t stop.

-Daniel

O’Cebreiro

Monday, May 19

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It snowed here not thirty minutes ago. This is O’Cebreiro, a name that conjures up images of an imposing stone town at the peak of an isolated mountain, with an ominous ring of clouds overhead. The town is indeed stone, but it’s charming rather than frightening. Even now in the cold and fog, though it’s difficult to explore, it’s far less menacing than the image I held in my imagination.

The road today was a long one at 30 kilometers, with two separate and challenging climbs. We were told it would be cold and rainy, but it was neither. After breakfast we left Villafranca del Bierzo by the steep route to Alto Pradela, 400 meters up. Alejandro, Miguel, and I charged ahead while the others took a more reasonable stride. The beginning was steep; a reminder of the initial trial-by-fire that was the Pyrenees, except that this route was lined with trees. Later it became more graceful, with the path winding broadly across the mountainside and offering wide views of the valley below.

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I found myself thinking of those who’d chosen the route that runs along the highway. For some it’s a matter of health, but others choose the easier route solely because it is easier.

To each their own Camino, they say. But for me, to choose the easy way is to choose a road paved with regret. It’s strange to say, but regret is a central motivator in my life. Or rather, avoiding regret. If I walked the easy road I’d doubt the choice with every step. So I couldn’t possibly go that way.

Regret is the worst pain of all. When someone leaves our lives, we mourn the loss. But worse than the pain of loss is the pain of things left unsaid. The proper goodbye that never happened. And so it goes with everything else. The regret when you wanted to say, “I love you,” but didn’t. The regret of not standing up for yourself when someone wronged you. The regret of not apologizing when you wronged another.

Why am I on the Camino? Why now? Because I could have pushed it off for all eternity. There would always have been something in my career or in my life that would have taken precedence over the Camino. But I can’t stand the notion that I might find myself living my last moments of old age with this regret on my lips: “I never went on the Camino. I wish I’d made time for that.”

So I took the hard way.

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It was rewarding. There are two kinds of joy I’ve experienced today and yesterday. Once in VIllafranca del Bierzo, sitting outside the bar while one friend played with the barkeep’s dogs, and another sang her favorite songs in a voice as beautiful and elegant as a lily. A drink in my hand; the blue sky overhead; nowhere to go.

The other was the joy of reaching the top of the mountain after a difficult climb with 23 pounds of equipment weighing me down.

I ended up on a detour through the small town of Pradela, because the yellow arrows pointed that way even though it wasn’t necessary. Unless you need to visit the bar, you can hug left at the fork instead of right and carry on. Still, the small valley the town overlooks was beautiful in the sunlight. Great fields and meadows and farmers tending the soil.

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I reunited with Alejandro there, and then with the rest of the group soon after. We descended and began the long trek through a valley carved by the Rio Valcarce along a road. We passed through several lovely pueblos before beginning the steep climb to O’Cebreiro. The rough stone path through the forest, leading first to La Faba, reminded me of the ascent to Upper Yosemite Falls. Which is to say, it was pretty brutal. We all reunited at La Faba and then carried on, separating again as our paces varied. Here the path rose more gradually, gently riding the curvature of the mountains and passing into Galicia. A few kilometers later we reached O’Cebreiro as the sky turned darker and the air colder.

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As the fog rolled in and the air chilled we ran to the nearest restaurant to eat. Caldo Gallego for me, and also a Galician stew. Another simple but deep joy — warm soup on a cold day after a hard walk. All totaled I think we climbed some 1100 meters today, broken down between the first peak and the second.

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So much of the road here reminds me of California. And I know that I’m only a week from Santiago, and a few days more until Finisterre. It begins to feel like I’m walking towards home. I wonder what it will be like to return to Los Angeles. What will it be like when the Camino is over, and I’m left to digest it all in my mind? People like to say that although this Camino ends, the Camino of your life goes on. I appreciate the poetry but I find it too convenient — it seems like a mantra we use to protect ourselves from a difficult thought.

An older Spaniard in Ponferrada told me that the truth of how the Camino continues is more concrete and less poetic; When I return, I’ll have all these experiences swirling in my mind and in my heart. In time it will settle into something. I don’t know what.

-Daniel