Hey everyone!


It’s been quite some time since I last wrote – I seem to have broken my Sundays blogdays plan – and as my last message was pretty much on the down side it’s time to let you know how I’m doing.

I’m doing better! Thank you all for your kind loving messages, those really did help 🙂 A lot of stuff has been going on since my last post but today I’m not in the mood to give you an extensive detailed report as I did before. So here you go, a short version:


1. The rainy season started but seemed to be taking a break, going from days of being soaked by rain to days of being soaked by sweat (yum). Well, it does make the field work easier when it’s not raining so much that rain boots become foot baths. Much more mosquitoes though now, and dengue and chikungunya are popping up.


2. The car has been acting silly for some time more, leading to frustrations and ideas of selling it and renting a car after all, but in the end we seem to have fixed the most important things. Since last Wednesday we had no problems at all, miraculous!


3. We found a third plantation with bromeliads! Yay! We kept searching but it seems like three is going to be the final number. The farmers here usually remove the bromeliads from the plantations because they (falsely) assume they are parasites. Very frustrating but it does make my research more relevant.


4. Ivania (Marvin’s wife) gave birth to her first baby, the cutest little boy called Marvin Ivan that likes to sleep during the day and spends all night awake.


5. I developed a nasty fungal infection on my leg that was falsely assumed to be Leishmania three (three!) times. Today I finally got the verdict that it isn’t Leishmania, after spending a week uselessly putting an antibiotic ointment because they thought it was a bacterial infection. The treatment of the local Leishmania is a series of 40 injections, one every day, you can imagine how glad I am that it’s a fungus! I almost cried when they told me about the 40 injections when it seemed certain that I was infected with Leishmania. :p

Now they gave me two ointments to put but with the message that I’d better put mashed young leaves of a tree named Madero Negro, or even better to use Hombre Grande. My first thought was Giorgia’s story; when she got bitten by a monkey in Kenia, they tried to cure it by putting papaya on the wound. But people seem very convinced about Madero Negro so I’ll give it a try, using it together with the creams.


Madero Negro mash to kill the fungus

And wow, the hospital here… Shocking for someone used to first world medical care. Beds that have been urinated upon and that haven’t been cleaned, the same for beds with pools of bloods as if a woman just gave birth in it, smears of blood on the walls, lots of flies and mosquitoes (perfect place to get infected with dengue or chikungunya), chickens walking though the laboratory, a doctor that didn’t use gloves to take a sample of my wound which I only noticed afterwards when he was pointing out that he just got rid of a fungal infection on his finger nail, a nurse washing her muddy shoes in the laboratory’s sink… Overall just not most hygienic conditions. But it is really good that they have at least some kind of medical care here, imagine having to spend four to six hours in bus to get to the city every time you need to see a doctor. All kinds of emergencies would be lethal in that case.

Oh and apart from the infection on my leg, I also have a fungal infection in my mouth and very probable a parasite in my intestines (yes, I’m taking medication, no worries). Gotta love the tropics 🙂


6. I finally met another student here! Esther is French and is also working on cacao. She focusses more on the economical side of it since she’s working for Equitable, a French company that buys Waslaleñan cacao. It’s for sale, so you can even try to get some! Only for dark chocolate lovers though, it’s bars of 70% cocoa. (I am still amazed about living in a cacao producing area without being able to find any kind of chocolate but Snickers and M&M’s.)

It’s really nice to finally have someone to talk to that really understands how I’m feeling about Waslala and about living here. And about living abroad for a long periods of time. Esther and I really have a lot in common from that point of view so our cooking dates are always fun. And our Sundays, pizzeria days plan is also something I very much like :p


7. I should really start to take pictures. The only ones I have are of cacao trees, bromeliads, car trouble and the fungal infection on my leg… Not really the most exciting collection of subjects when repeated over and over again :p

Well, here are some less boring pictures, phone quality snorry

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(p.s. I wrote this a couple of days ago, was waiting for the internet to be able to post. For those worrying about the fungi, it seems like the treatments are working, looks much better now 🙂 )


Many Whèè’s and some Whii’s

This week has been awful.


Wgho what a great way to begin a blog post. So great I have to repeat it. Here we go.


This week.

Has been.



Dramatic. Builds up tension. Creates expectations. Love it.

Must be one of the best things that happened to me this week.

I’ll have to watch out or I’ll disappoint your expectations that by now must have your hands shaking. But let me have this pleasure, let me be a drama queen for once. Please? 🙂


So yes, it hasn’t been the greatest week of my life, although it didn’t start bad. Last Saturday (because aren’t weeks much better if they start with the weekend?) we finally managed to buy a car! Woop Woop! Don’t get too excited, this feeling quickly turned into Poop! Poop!

To start from the beginning we left in the early morning to go to La Dalia, a village between Waslala and Matagalpa. Marvin had talked to a guy there that was selling a car that seemed good, so we went to check it. After another long bumpy motor bike ride we arrived, the car guy wasn’t there yet and Marvin kept me waiting while he was fixing some paperwork. Not the first time and again I was annoyed to not have my e-reader with me, but ach. When finally the guy arrived we went to check the car. I disliked it from the first moment. It’s red and shiny, it has 4 wheels, 3 seats and a motor and that’s about all the positive things I could discover. On the downside it has no side mirrors, the wind shield is cracked, it sounds like a WW1 aeroplane, the clutch has a bad character, the battery doesn’t charge, the taillights and direction indicating lights don’t work and I could go on a bit more. But hey, the car guy (didn’t catch his name) gave us an impressive ride to show us the power of the 4×4 motor and Marvin loved it. Since it’s going to be his car in the end, I told him it’s his decision and he decided to buy it. “woop woop” We drove to Matagalpa to get some more money from the bank and paid the guy for the car. And after that I had a moment of joy in the supermarket (a luxury you won’t find in Waslala) buying all kinds of goodness. I even found chocolate spread! Whiiii this Belgian girl was all smiles and almost hugging the jar :p (ok this was for sure the best moment of the week hahaha) But the apples, o man, apples are expensive here, djeeez. One normal sized apple costs about €1.66! What a shock but still I bought some, to make up for the loss of my fruits in the airport in the USA :p

After this excellent example of what Masha would call “consumption panic”*, we left for Waslala. It was to become another bumpy bumpy ride, I hadn’t expected this what so ever. We both had to get used to the car and its wicked clutch and gear stick. I drove about 45 minutes (I think, it felt like hours) until I was completely frustrated and angry with myself, feeling like a worthless driver unable to handle this car in a proper way. When I saw a driveway on the side of the road, I decided to pull over and to stop. Marvin looked at me with terror in his eyes, he had no clue what was going on. I was so frustrated I almost started crying, and that’s when I realised that I was getting closer and closer to hitting the proverbial wall. After stressful last weeks preparing and one month away from home with not much quality sleep, I realised I needed rest, lots of rest and not doing anything at all. I told Marvin that it was better that I wasn’t going to drive more because I was really annoyed with the car and my driving-in-the-mountains-with-a-censured-car skills. So long story short Marvin drove us home, but not without a break to pick up parts that were falling off the car and trying to attach them again. We parked the car, I unloaded all my yummy food and hit the bed to receive lovely lovely sleep with my brain loving itself so much it made me drive the car in my dreams all night long.

I woke up around 7.30, first time it wasn’t between 4.45 and 5.30 so yay. I didn’t feel very energetic but had some plans for the day that I couldn’t ignore. Sundays are laundry days, Sundays are food shopping days, but mostly, Sundays are laundry days. As I am washing by hand it takes me quite some time to get all the dirty field clothes clean. There was no water, as is very usual here during the largest part of the day, but the sister of Marvin’s wife, at which house I can wash, had some water in a barrel. I decided to soak the clothes and leave them in detergent for some hours until the water would come back. And then I made the mistake to go sit in the sun while talking to the aunties**. It was only about 9 in the morning but man, the sun hit me hard. This poor little chelita is too sensitive and ended up with a huge head ache. I went back home to rest and to pity myself for having put my clothes to soak; I would have to wash them. After spending about 2 hours doing so in the afternoon, all what was left of my energy was completely gone and I was ready for the bed. Although it was only 4.30 in the afternoon. I watched some television and made it an early night. But not before warning Marvin that we wouldn’t be going to the field on Monday, which was ok because the car had some more fixing due.

That Monday is easy to describe: no physical activity, no energy, not feeling hungry, too much time to think, missing home and friends, feeling very much alone. It sucked and I cried, thinking about what Dr. Brennan had said in the episode of Bones I saw another day; that from a (neuro)biological point of view it’s unhealthy not to cry. Thank you television for giving me an excuse not to stay strong :p On Tuesday I had more energy and at least I was hungry, but I decided to stay at home another day, to make sure I would get back to a normal energy level and not crash again after one day of activity. On Wednesday I felt strong enough so ready for the field! When we wanted to leave we first discovered that the battery of the car had died, so we had to push the car into action. To then discover that the clutch didn’t work well either. After about half an hour we finally made it to leave and made a pit stop at the car fixing place to adjust the clutch and after pushing the car into action once again (which we have been doing ever since) we finally left to go visit some cacao plantations. Or let me say cacao plantation, because after visiting the first one, the clutch decided it didn’t want to work anymore and we got stuck next to a quite remote and desolated plantation. Marvin called some friend to come and help us out but we ended up waiting two hours and had to call someone else in the end. When he showed up it soon became clear that we wouldn’t manage to fix it there. But somehow we did manage to drive the car back to Waslala without using the clutch a single time. It was a useless day, only 15 minutes of cacao plantation and it didn’t have a single bromeliad. Ugh. But they spent the whole day fixing the car so on Thursday we could go to the field again. A long first rainy and then boiling hot day without car problems but also without bromeliads. Enough to get me frustrated once again. After visiting over 40 plantations, we only found 2 that have sufficient bromeliads, it’s hard not to lose hope at times. Then today, Friday, what a day. I got up and got ready for another day of explorations. But first Marvin slept in and his “give me 5 minutes” became half an hour, enough to get me a bit annoyed because we left half an hour late every single day that week already although I was always ready in time. Then we had to stop for fuel and a chit chat to the fuel people, later a talk to the car fixers, to be topped up with a talk to the guy who sells motor oil (because did I mention the car leaks oil by what seems to be litres at a time?). Finally at 8 am, one hour later than what I’d hoped, we left Waslala. Not good for my mood. We drove for some time and the car seemed ok apart from some weirdly shaking gear stick at times but we didn’t worry about that too much. Even from a distance it was clear that all the plantations in the community we visited were devoid of bromeliads and apparently Marvin’s father lives in the far end of the community so huyhuy another time of me sitting and waiting for the chit chat to finish. After visiting a plantation we wanted to leave to go see another one but we didn’t manage to push the car into life. Turned out the drive shaft had gotten loose and that we actually lost the nuts and bolts somewhere along the way, the explanation for the weird gear stick movements earlier. After some 2 hours of trying to fix it with near to no material and help from friendly passer-by’s we thought we could do it. Just to break down again after about 50m of driving. Thank god the only bus of the day passed by around that time so we managed to get back to Waslala, might have been a challenge otherwise because we were also in a zone without telephone reception.


So very long story short, a summary of my past week:

Feeling homesick, car trouble, no bromeliads where I want them to be (because the censured apparently love to be right next to the plantation but feel too good to live inside of a cacao agroforestry system), big waste of time and car trouble.

I can only hope the car will behave the coming next months and that I’ll find plantations with bromeliads soon so I can finally start this research!


I’m sorry for all of the complaining and for ending up with such a long story again. I’ll have to work on more stringent forward selection mechanisms while writing. :p



What you expect your “first car experience” to be like: all smiles


What it can turn out like:


(but at least some lovely farmer offered me star fruits 🙂 )




*Oh tropipooping Peru crew, I also found Ritz cheese crackers and Chips Ahoy! 😀 Brings me back to our times in Iquitos with every bite 🙂

**Let me explain this a bit. Marvin lives about 50m away from where I live here, with Ivania, his wife. Next to them, Ivania’s sister lives with her husband and 2 lovely daughters. I have no idea who exactly lives in the house next to it but it seems to be Ivania’s mom (that thinks my name is Betty) and one or two of her aunts and their kids. Another aunt lives a bit further away. They usually spend the largest part of the day together. In plastic chairs in front of the house. All lovely and friendly people.

About bromeliads, Barbie’s adventures and cows

Hey everyone!


Here I am again with some stories to share! New brooms sweep clean, don’t they? 🙂


Since I last wrote, we have been starting up the explorative part of my field work: visiting the cacao cooperatives of Waslala, getting lists with cacao producers in the nearby  communities, preparing lists of data to gather during explorative visits of the farms and a letter in which we ask the farmers permission and explain a bit about what the research is about and finally we started with the visits! We have visited 9 farms so far and the first one was the one I loved the most: LOTS of bromeliads 😀 Yay! The others were quite disappointing from that point of view: most farms have only a couple and usually those are located at the edge of the plantation where the bromeliads can more easily get the sun they need to grow. There are some 35 plantations more on the list, so knock on wood!

(oh and if I talk about “we” I mean Marvin – my Waslaleñan field assistant and local guide – and I)



For those that not really know what my research is about, here a brief explanation: cacao is a crop that is limited by pollination, this means that if there would be more pollinators the yield would increase. In the case of cacao, the pollinators are mainly tiny midges of less than 2 mm long, their fancy scientific name is Forcipomyia. These midges lay their eggs in humid habitats such as rotting cacao pods and rotting banana plant stems but they have also been shown to lay their eggs in bromeliads.

Bromeliads can naturally occur in cacao plantations (that are typically a bunch of cacao trees -unk!?- with higher trees planted in between to provide shade to the cacao) but, as can be found in scientific literature and as I know from talking to the few cacao farmers we visited, farmers don’t really have an idea about which type of plants growing on top of other plants are bad and which are not. They do know that the mistletoe species that occurs here is bad for the shade/cacao trees because it sucks up nutrients from the tree’s sap. But they don’t know if this is also the case for orchids, ferns or bromeliads (which in fact do not harm the host tree) so they typically just remove any kind of plant growing on their cacao or shade trees.

So, by removing the bromeliads, they could actually be removing a source of pollinating midges! And apart from that they also remove the habitat for other bromeliad-inhabiting insect species which could include predators of insects that harm the cacao. Or more general, insects that could just be food for insectivorous birds that are often absent from cacao plantations and even for some frog species that live in bromeliads. You can see that keeping bromeliads in the plantation has several possible positive effects, and that exactly is what I’m trying to find out during my PhD.


Back to what I’ve been up to lately.

Last Wednesday, we decided to go to Matagalpa, the closest-by city. Close-by as in a 2.5 hours long bumpy motorcycle ride away. We had to go there because the bank in Waslala (yes, there is only one) doesn’t want to accept either of my bank cards and also because Marvin wanted to buy a car which I could rent from him for the field work.

So, we got up early and left Waslala at 6 a.m. on that warm, greyish Belgian autumn-like morning. Marvin had fixed me a helmet, I could use the one from another student working here. The helmet was bright pink with a black wind shield, I kind of felt like Barbie wearing it (too bad I didn’t think about taking a picture!). The only difference with Barbie (apart from other evident ones) was that when I took of the helmet after some time on the motorcycle, my hair didn’t sensually flow about my back in slow-motion with miss Piggy moves from my side. It looked more like some kind of Trumpy hairstyle you would expect on a warty toad. Wups… 🙂

After the 111km ride on initially dirt roads and later on windy paved roads, riding through clouds and their humidity, we arrived in Matagalpa. It was actually a really nice ride from the sightseeing point of view (although I had to keep my eyes on the road as much as possible to “Mind the Put-Hooole”) but my butt and I were happy that we were going to get back by car. After a short restyle moment we went to the street where all the banks are located, there are at least 6 of them in that street. It took me over an hour and some phone calls to my mom to figure out there is a daily withdrawal limit and that that was the reason my attempts to withdraw lots of money were failing in every single bank :p But in the end I managed to withdraw money so we could finally go see the cars we wanted (I am paying a part initially, as rent for the months to come). What a bunch of dumpsters on wheels! Wow… Really really crappy and dirty cars, we almost lost it :p Driving all the way to Matagalpa to find out we didn’t want to buy any of the cars, painful experience. At the most for our butts that had to sit through another 2.5 hours on the motorcycle :p But we didn’t leave after having lunch at a buffet place where the mushrooms I thought I asked for turned out to be some part of chicken intestines. Interesting but no thanks, even Marvin didn’t want to eat it :p

Ah well actually in the end we didn’t sit on the motorcycle for 2.5 hours, thanks to the tire that experienced multiple punctures. First some nice people along the road helped us to fix them but only 15 minutes further away the tire started leaking massively again. In the end we had to leave the motorbike with some farmers that live next to the road and we tried to hitch hike. Very unsuccessful at first but then some nice guys allowed us to jump in the back of their pick-up truck. Whiiiiii. Until we realised they weren’t going all the way to Waslala. . But luckily at that moment one brave taxi driver willing to ruin his car on the rubble road popped up in the di(/u)stance and we managed to get home. After only 12 hours of useless running around!


Another thing to mention is the yearly “feria” here in Waslala. Has been going on since I arrived here but is ending tonight. For my West-Flemish friends, you can compare it to two weeks of Zotte Maandag en Lwozn Disndag. Or otherwise you can compare it to Carnaval Oilst but without the Voil janetten, parades and costumes: just pure cycles of getting drunk and getting rid of your hangover by getting drunk again the next day. Only one detail, here that’s combined with a cowboy lifestyle including all the hats, boots and short sleeved checkered shirts that Jani Kazaltzis would drop dead just at the sight of it.

Yesterday we went to see the Montadero, the rodeo show. Including: live mariachi band, brave cowboys and –girl, crazy and a lazy torros, cowboy hats and lassos, less blood than I had expected, one bull that left without its rider, loud music, people y/selling food and men getting more and more marinated with Toña – the Nicaraguan preferred beer… Here you have some pictures (because sadly this site doesn’t allow me to add videos):







A first (long) message from far away

Before I left Belgium, many people had asked me if I would write a blog about my time in Nicaragua. My standard reply must have been something like: “Naah, won’t have time for that, won’t keep up with it.” But well, here I am after all. Being abroad for two weeks now, I feel the urge to write down my thoughts and share them with you all.

I left Belgium on April 7th, not flying from Zaventem but from Düsseldorf, for obvious reasons. My parents had stayed over at the apartment in Brussels and we got up early to drive to Germany before the traffic jams would start. I had never been so much in time for a flight, ever. Probably a good thing for someone with a habit of always nearly being late, hahaha. The airport was weirdly empty, I am more used to stacked airports, people chaotically strumming around, trying to find their check-in desks. We were trying not to think too much about what had happened in Zaventem two weeks earlier, and not to worry too much. We had a coffee and to pass time we were staring around, and making remarks on people passing by (one of the Vandromme’s favourite passing times) between taking turns running to the bathroom to release our stress (if you know what I mean… :p ). And then in the end the time for the goodbye had come, they would start boarding my plane soon. We hugged and cried a little and then we were brave enough to each go in our own direction. I passed all possibly existing security checks, which seems to become a habit, but hey, someone carrying around a microscope and fluorometers is not an everyday thing.

Then after some long and boring flights with glasses of red wine to help me sleep and the confiscation of my Belgian pear (snif), I arrived to Managua, Nicaragua. First some more struggles there; the border control confiscated one of my bags because I was carrying syringes and piss pots of the medical type. My bright (though exhausted) smile, jokes and begging didn’t help, only made one of the officials, a young chap, fall in love with me, sigh. Apparently what I needed was a permit from the ministry of health. I was picked up by Elvin and his son and after a bowl of fresh tropical fruits I was ready to hit the bed.

You can guess what my next days looked like… Let me describe it with a quote of Holly Pharoah, the first secretary of Tropimundo:

“Live the dream! (But don’t forget to stamp it)”

Trying to get the permit, running around for copies of passports, spamming Bram into writing letters explaining the syringes, translating those letters into Spanish, establishing contacts, getting to know the city, eating some fluorescent candy that made me think I had a serious bladder infection because it turned my urine bright pink…. And in the end buying bus tickets to Costa Rica where I enrolled for a course on cacao agroforestry. Not a bad idea for someone starting research in cacao that had never seen a cacao tree or agroforestry system in real life!


A long bus ride, new stamps in my passport and a taxi ride later I arrived in Turrialba, Costa Rica. Lovely place with temperatures more bearable than in Managua! I had an interesting 5 days of intensive learning, trying to avoid an overdose of rice&beans, field technique training and group works with a bunch of lovely people from Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, France and Haiti. And I got to see cacao! Yay! Lovely! For the Peru tropimundo crew, it was similar to our “meeting of the Amazon ‘borning point’”-moment 🙂 Aah sweet memories!

A moment I will not easily forget was the barbeque we had on the third day of the course; one of the cooks accidently inhaled a HUGE chunk of meat and that’s the story of how I tried to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre for the first time in my life. Several people tried but it didn’t seem to work. Luckily the man could still breathe a little and after some scary minutes he managed to get rid of the chunk and recover. Pfwief…


Then another time getting up at 4a.m. (third time in 10 days), another long bus ride, more stamps and I arrived again in Managua. Totally exhausted and finally starting to realise I am not going home for long time, bringing my mood a bit down. And when I learned the next morning that Lorenzo, one of the Tropimundo students had passed away during his thesis research, I cracked. I didn’t know Lorenzo very well, we met only a couple of times but even from those it was clear to me that he was a great guy. Full of life, full of smiles, living to the limit, having lots of plans for the future. Life is never fair, but young people like him shouldn’t be dying. Still filled with sadness when thinking about it. My thoughts are with his family and close friends…


Then some more feverish days of fixing things, buying material, taking a driving test to be allowed to maybe rent a car and discovering the virtues of my mom’s e-reader (danku moemsie!) and it was finally April 20th, the day for the trip to my final destination in Nicaragua: Waslala.

The trip was long and dusty during the last 35 km where the paved road had ended and turned in a dirt road. We arrived in the late afternoon and didn’t take any rest before starting to fix more details of my stay here. We met Marvin, a local agroforestal engineer that will help me with fixing contacts, with transportation to the cacao plantations and with the fieldwork.  After talking through the details, he invited us to eat with him and his wife. Lovely people! They have fed me more times than I can remember by now, and it’s only my fourth day here, imagine 🙂


Waslala is a little village in north-central Nicaragua, in the Region Autonómico Atlantico Norte department. It’s larger than I had expected and seems to be “The cacao capital of Nicaragua”, with what must be about (rough guess) 600 small-scale producers. Waslala is located in a hilly landscape that has been gradually deforested since the 90ies, a pity, must have been extremely beautiful here. Not that it’s not beautiful now, in the contrary. I’ll try to take some pictures to share with you later.


The Waslaleñans are short, like most of Latin-American people, so from that point of view I fit in.  There are only minor other differences that make sure I do not though. Here, I am a “chela” or “chelita”, a “pelo de mais” (corn hair). Something I get to hear what seems to be every three steps if I walk in the main streets of the town but thus far it doesn’t bother me as much as the never-ending “gringuita!!”-‘attacks’ I suffered from in Peru. Marvin’s wife gave me the advice to reply with “su madre” hahaha “yo’ mama” is quite universal apparently 🙂


Some more fun facts about Waslala and/or Nicaragua in general:

  • People don’t like to pronounce the “s” if it’s located at the end of the word. So if you want to buy two breads you don’t say “Dos panes” but “Do pane”. Will be hard not to adopt that into my Spanish!
  • People like(d) to name their kids to the saint that’s celebrated on their birth date, therefore you can find people like: Don Maria, Don Carmen, Don Isabel… Poor men :p
  • There’s a population of (US) Amish here. Quite liberate Amish though, for the men at least, the women don’t seem very free to me.


I can say that (for now at least) I like Waslala. It’s small and the people are quite poor but they are amazingly friendly. I feel like I’ll become part of at least some families here 🙂

Besides that I LOVE cacao plantations! They are amazing 😀 I haven’t seen so much of them for now but I am really happy I have the chance to work in them. From the bromeliad point of view, I was quite pessimistic about it after a complete absence of them in the cacao plantations I saw in Cota Rica but in the plantations I visited so far there were at least some! And man, there’s a HUGE species of bromeliads here! Try imagining a completely green bromeliad, with broad leaves. Now imagine a Labrador (yes, the dog). Now fit those two images together by making the bromeliad of a size it can be used as a bed for the dog. Thàt’s how huge they are 🙂 I need to start taking pictures soon so I can show you.


As a final fact I can tell you that I had my first motorcycle driving class yesterday. Quite successful 🙂


I’ll leave you here now, plenty to read already (sorry about that, once I get going…). I will try to keep writing every once in a while, but I won’t make any promises 🙂


Many greets to all of you! And distant hugs! I miss you all!