Oct 25 2011

Bali: This is why you bother

Published by at 11:26 am under Ubud

Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ran a piece titled “Bali: why bother?” by staffer Carolyn Webb. It’s obvious from the story that Webb didn’t especially enjoy her time in Bali — that’s not at all unusual and thankfully Bali isn’t for everyone. What was unusual was that the piece got a run in “serious” newspapers. Was it just linkbait? Probably, which is sad. But it has got people talking, so let’s go through it, piece by piece.

Another painful day in tourist hellhole Ubud.

Another painful day in tourist hellhole Ubud.

“I once vowed never to go to Bali. The drunk Aussie tourists! The traffic! The noise! The tacky souvenirs! I mean, why would you go?”

Why indeed Carolyn?

“Well, earlier this month I caved in. They were holding a writer’s festival at Ubud, the bustling town in the hills, well north of both the smoggy capital Denpasar and the beachside tourist trap of Kuta.”

It’s also about an hour southeast of Jatiluwih rice terraces and 90 minutes’ south of the glorious beaches and snorkelling at Amed.

“I wanted warm weather, and it was cheap. Wasn’t Ubud full of temples, verdant rice fields and friendly people?”

I wanted a cheap holiday awash with cliches. And yes, Ubud is full of temples, verdant rice fields and friendly people.

“Well I went. And I wasn’t greatly impressed.”

Sorry to hear that.

“First the good points. Perfect weather, lovely countryside once you get away from the towns. Fantastic, fresh cuisine including home-grown fruit, meat and coffee. Sumptuous but cheap hotels. Beautiful culture with Hindu temples every 20 metres, lovely dancing and artwork.

The Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, starring singer Paul Kelly and novelist Alexander McCall-Smith was great, staged in laid-back tropical cafes and function centres.”

Sounds familiar. We hear this frequently.

“In short, Ubud would be a great holiday destination, if they removed the frankly terrible street touts, and the tacky souvenir shops. I am not exaggerating to say that vendors of transport and souvenirs harass tourists from morning to night.”

Ubud is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island, but there are touts and tacky souvenir shops. Welcome to Asia, Carolyn.

Bali: Where children walk through verdant fields to attend tout school.

Bali: Where children walk through verdant fields to attend tout school.

“Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going … miiiisss?” I thought my name had been changed to Miiisss.”

This statement is simply rubbish. Single women? What? How can you speak for people who are not single women? Many people get harassed. Most people ignore it.

“I was once strolling along one of Ubud’s main roads when a young man drove his motorbike across the footpath, blocking my way so I had to stop. (The word “taxi” is used loosely in Ubud – they’re not regulated, nor do they have meters and anyone can call their motorbike or car a taxi.)”

Rubbish. There are private cars for hire and there are taxis.  Motorbike taxis are very rare in central Ubud — I don’t ever remember seeing one downtown.

“This tout smiled and asked if I wanted “transport”. I smiled and explained very politely that, in Australia, if a woman gets on a motorbike with a stranger, that is called prostitution. He looked as though I’d just told him the sun was a balloon. I don’t think he honestly had a clue what I was on about.”

I’m not surprised — I have no clue what Carolyn is on about either.

“So why did I decline? Umm. Apart from possible serial killer issue, how about the strong likelihood of falling off the unregistered and possibly unroadworthy bike with no safety gear or helmet on to the crappy roads, well beyond the reach of any known travel insurance policy?”

Well, the simple response is not to get on the motorbike. Travel insurance companies have heard of Bali.

“I often wondered what these touts would think if their sister or mother got on a motorbike with a strange man.”

Nothing. It’s normal. It happens all the time. What does your family think when you get in a taxi in Australia that is driven by a man?

“On another occasion, I had slipped away from the noisy, dusty main streets into the countryside and was happily walking past rural villages and fields (which are quite lovely) when another young motorcyclist stopped and approached me.

“You want transport, miiiissss?” he yelled. “No thanks,” I smiled and kept walking. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer, following me on his motorbike. “Where you staying, miiisss? You must need taxi.” This went on for about five minutes, with me walking away from him until he left.”

One day, in Asia, I was harrassed by a persistent motorcycle taxi driver. Quick, send a missive to the SMH.

Sex on wheels, Kuta.

Sex on wheels, Kuta.

“In the space of a week I started to hate walking the streets of Ubud – a bizarre thing when you’re supposed to be relaxing on holidays. I would cross the road if I saw a gang of young men sitting on a stoop but they still would yell out ‘MIIIISSSS, TRANSPOOOORT!!!”

I hated it so much I spent a week there.

“I once saw a Western tourist with a T-shirt that said “no transport, no massage”, which I laughed at, but I later seriously wished I had my own.”

Versions of these are available across Southeast and South Asia — depending on what the most commonly spruiked goods are. In Nepal they tend to include “No hashish”. I hate to think what frenzy that would have thrown you into.

“Then I started pretending to use my mobile phone as I walked, which oddly enough actually worked, save the odd, determined “Miiiisss … “”

Translation: I started to talk to non-existent people rather than just saying no thanks or ignoring the person who was actually talking to me.

“I developed a resentment of locals, which I’m sure is undeserved. I just wish they could see how bad their touts are and lock them away in a dark room.”

Yes, it is undeserved.

“Tourists are similarly harassed in Ubud if they go shopping in the kilometre-long retail love-in that is Monkey Forest Road. Picture walking down Chapel Street and being constantly screamed at from each doorway to buy things. Should I have enjoyed this?”

I’ve walked up and down Monkey Forest Road perhaps fifty times and have never, ever had a shop owner yell anything at me. To be clear though, I do always speak to imaginary people on my phone when in Ubud to avoid contact with other humans.

The wooden penises are kept out back.

The wooden penises are kept out back.

“As I walked along this thoroughfare, I started to notice ever-cheaper and more tacky souvenirs – wooden penises, plastic skeletons having sex. I mean, who buys these things?”


“Imagine the conversation with the quarantine officer at Melbourne Airport: “Aah, thank you sir, we’ll have to get your wooden penis irradiated but otherwise, it’s all fine.””

Knowing Australian customs, they’ll probably confiscate it.

“More to the point, who makes these souvenirs? Are there entire villages near Ubud that make wooden penises?”

Well, there are entire villages across Bali making all manner of tourist knick knacks out of wood. This is how they make their living. The wooden penis you’re fixated on is actually a phallic symbol to do with other-worldly matters rather than the carnal pleasures you’re on about. They also make lots of beautiful wooden treasures — not surprisingly you don’t mention them — you must have been on the phone when you walked past.

“Occasionally in Bali, itinerant hawkers would bail you up. One of the most disturbing incidents was the day I went on a half-day bus tour of the countryside taking in a spectacular volcano north of Ubud. We stopped on the rim road to view the distant volcano and on the way back to the bus an elderly man shoved a wooden statue of a Hindu god in my face, babbling in a very agitated way “You BUY?’, pleeeese Miiiiss!!! You buy!!!!”

I made the mistake of touching the sculpture and he shoved it further towards my face, screaming at me. I knew it was an act he put on for every tourist so I didn’t get too upset. It was just absurd. And really rude. Then he blocked the path to my seat. My tour guide watched on benignly. In the end I edged into my seat, stared straight ahead and the hysterical hawker went away.”

One day, in Asia, I was harrassed by a persistent wooden Hindu God vendor. Quick, send a missive to the SMH.

Gratuitous beach shot. Uluwatu.

Gratuitous beach shot. Uluwatu.

“Many times, with the “transpooort” guys and hawkers, I wondered: do the locals have any idea how their treatment of tourists comes across?”

This is probably the one valid point in the entire story: touts really are annoying. But I can say that in a sentence, not a rambling piece in one of Sydney’s best newspapers.

“Then I thought, is it just me? Do other Australian tourists find the whole tout behaviour thing charming or amusing? I mean, do they see it as part of a carnival atmosphere that you just laugh off?”

It’s just you, Carolyn.

“I thought it was vile. It didn’t reflect well either on the Balinese or on the tourists; it was a lowest common denominator tourist hell.”

You went to one of the most popular tourist destinations in Indonesia and it was a tourist hell.

“Maybe I’m uninformed.”


“Maybe the locals are so impoverished they adopt desperate measures to grab cash when they can, and we as rich Westerners should feel glad they are making a living. We should thus smilingly welcome the overt rudeness and invasion of privacy and lack of respect.”

The locals are just trying to get by. They work in restaurants, hotels, as drivers, artisans — all sorts. It’s called making a living.

“(Bad behaviour does go both ways – I equally would condemn those frightening Aussies overseas who urinate in the street and wear bikinis into temples. I was gobsmacked to see one topless young white guy at 11am one day strolling down Monkey Forest Road, open stubby in hand, his shorts almost down to his thighs to reveal his underpants).”


“My point is, aren’t there better ways of doing business? If a tourist is treated so badly they don’t want to ever return, isn’t that a bad thing for Bali? Or do tourists not care how basely they’re treated as long as they get a cheap flight, room and meals?”

My point (mine, not Carolyn’s) is, aren’t there better ways to have a holiday? Bali is a big place. It has magnificent beaches, stunning countryside and much of it has an utterly untouristed appeal. There are hundreds of villages and destinations that see a fraction of the visitors Ubud does.

But you didn’t bother to make the effort to see or experience any of this, Carolyn. You visited Ubud across the Writers and Readers Festival, when, not surprisingly, there are a lot of visitors. You didn’t like it. But rather than get up and find some of the gems that have had people falling in love with Bali since the 1920s, you decided to opt for a lazy cheap shot raving about dildos, touts and serial killers.

Yes, Bali faces challenges. Traffic and the environment in particular require urgent attention — I’ll be the first to volunteer that. But opportunistic rants like that above, which offer zero in the way of constructive criticisms really do nobody any favours.

Hope you enjoyed the Festival.

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33 responses so far

33 Responses to “Bali: This is why you bother”

  1. animaon 25 Oct 2011 at 11:51 am


  2. Kirsten Lodgeon 25 Oct 2011 at 11:52 am

    Oh. My. God. Seriously? What a moron.

    PS. I like your response to the article better than Richard Woolveridge’s.

  3. Venyon 25 Oct 2011 at 11:54 am

    Nice one Stuart. I thoroughly enjoyed that, your piece of writing that is, not that of Carolyn, obviously. While I may not be a bule single girl (I am an Indonesian), I never find myself harrassed with those guys offering transport as a simple no thanks and a smile would stop them.

    I was appalled at the writing quality if anything, and a lifestyle editor friend of mind, along with several Bali-based magazines editor concluded thatmthe copy editor must’ve been away that day. edited.


  4. tdon 25 Oct 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Although Carolyn’s article is obviously provocative, it’s equally bad, in my view, to pretend there are not serious problems there. Kuta for example is one of the worst examples of pernicious mass market tourism I have ever seen. And would you be happy if your teen kid was being offered drugs every 10 minutes? – because that is what DOES happen in Kuta. If the development continues in Bali unabated, I fear what it will be like in 10 year’s time.

  5. Tabithaon 25 Oct 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Really great article. Thanks. I don’t think I could have responded so calmly and reasonably myself. I have been frothing and seething and ranting instead.

  6. Adam @ SitDownDiscoon 25 Oct 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Yeah, no doubt about it, it was a rubbish article. Whenever rich tourists visit poor countries, local people will do anything to extract a few bucks from them. It’s the way the world works. The thing is, once you’ve experienced touts, you quickly learn how to deal with them — that is by either ignoring them or quickly dismissing them (politely or not). If your feathers are ruffled by touts, there is simply no point leaving your home country as they are in almost every tourist destination in the world.

    I think that Bali gets a particularly bad rap from Aussies because they often have only been to Bali or the USA and it is a culture shock. That and the fact that it is cool to bag Bali because of the Aussie bogan factor.

    Good on you Stuart for pointing to the 99% of Bali that is barely touristed. When you get your Java guide up an running, hopefully more of Indonesia will be exposed to a wider audience. It truly is a magnificent place.

  7. Somaon 25 Oct 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Nice one! I totally agree with you Stuart, especially “This is probably the one valid point in the entire story: touts really are annoying. But I can say that in a sentence, not a rambling piece in one of Sydney’s best newspapers.”

    Can I just say to those people who think that a simple “No thank you, followed by a smile” is enough to get them off your back – these days it just isn’t enough anymore. I was born in Ubud and have grown up here, and the game has changed. Unfortunately the hassling is getting worse, and what’s more, the aggressive sexual harassment has really gone up a notch. I’m often offered charming sexual encounters while walking Jl Raya. That is, once I’ve smiled and said “No thank you” to the offers for transport. The quiet cat calls and hisses are particularly fun too.

    In summary, awful article by SMH, but people need to also realise that there is a problem here and someone needs to address it. I’m guessing it needs to come from the banjars, and other leadership within the Balinese community.

  8. Theodoraon 25 Oct 2011 at 2:23 pm

    A more detailed response than an article that plain ignorant, frankly, deserved. But thank you, all the same.

  9. Ericon 25 Oct 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I’ve had my fair share of travel, covered 5 continents, and I can say touts exist everywhere. Some so annoying that you want to schedule breaks to hide from them.

    Does it make the whole place bad? No
    Does it mean it’s impossible to enjoy your trip? No
    Does that make you and every other target of touts a victim? No
    Does it warrant a long ramble in a national publication? No
    Does it make the writer look like a spoiled brat who does not have the credibility to write anything travel related? Yes

  10. Kristyon 25 Oct 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Well said. Bali is no better or no worse when it comes to travel. It is just different. The same touts exist at the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and even downtown Hollywood, California USA.. haven’t you ever been harrassed to purchase a star tour map?

    Thanks for the very well written rebuttal.

  11. Neetson 25 Oct 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Massive applause! It appears the Aust media really love to jump on Bali whenever something negative appears in the news ie… the 14 year old caught with pot. People! It’s ANOTHER country. Things happen to be done differently here. And yes, surprise face… drugs are illegal.. are they not in your country?

  12. Ron 25 Oct 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Nice response! IMHO, you can’t expect everybody to have the same experience in Bali. From my experience, I have to say that the REAL Balinese locals are very polite and friendly to the tourists, both Indonesians and foreigners (of course they want the tourists to come back again to Bali in the future, duh) Despite the fact that the locals demand extra charge for everything, they’re just trying to make some money. Isn’t that what happens to tourist spots all over the world?

    Here’s my response to Carolyn’s experience of harassment: I am Indonesian who’s been to Bali more than once. The last time I went there with my friends, we hung out at Kuta Beach. While we were eating, some guy harassed me, saying things like, “Hey miss, how’s the food? We should eat together. What’s your name? You’re so pretty” it was uncomfortable. Finally a local man, who looked like some sort of a local figure acting as a security, approached me and shooed the guy. Then, the man apologized for the inconvenience and told me and my friends that most of the troublemakers are non-Balinese. Most of them are migrants from Java, Sumatera, and other islands. Yeah, even in Jakarta where I live, those migrants know no boundaries when it comes to harassment.

    So IMHO, Carolyn shouldn’t criticize something without knowing the fact. There are more to Bali than meets the eye ;)

  13. Amoson 25 Oct 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Fantastic Analysis – Nail on the Head!

  14. Livon 25 Oct 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Why write such a negative article? I mean, why bother?

    (I’m going to Bali in December for the first time and cannot wait!)

  15. pia@umalason 25 Oct 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Carolyn, *please* get a life and get a *new* job (surely not as a journalist!)

  16. Aisleenon 25 Oct 2011 at 8:04 pm

    Just watch out for those pesky touts #Liv! ;-)

    I must say, we were pretty overwhelmed with harrassment in Kuta – not so much by the touts (it can actually be quite fun thinking of alternative, creative ways to turn them down every 5 foot! Most of the time they just shout at you out of habit then carry on their conversation with their mates). But what we really didn’t like was the sheer amount of drug pushers on the street – they are the ones we had a real issue with. I seem to remember writing a few scathing comments in our blog, but unlike Carolyn, we did NOT completely write off an entire country and tar everyone with the same brush with sweeping generalisations. We chose to go to an overly touristy place, what did we expect? Doesn’t mean the whole country is like that. I think she suffered from a severe case of sense of humour failure – i thought it was meant to be us Brits with a stick up our a****, Evidently not. Go with the flow Carolyn, and chill the heck out! :-)

  17. Bellaon 25 Oct 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Carolyn is an uptight bish needing some good Balinese massage. And Arak.
    But what the heck, she had her chance and Bali/Indonesia definitely don’t need another snotty whitey. Blah

  18. Barb McIvoron 26 Oct 2011 at 5:25 am

    Dearest Carolyn, Having been an old traveller of some 40 years in Bali, India, the East etc, I can understand your feelings. Firstly may i suggest a way you may like to view your journey and hopefully future “journeys to the east”. This planet called earth has many smaller planets on it. Some operate in certain ordered ways for example the place called Australia, some operate in ways that may represent chaos to a mind fresh from Australia. But this is the magic of being able to operate in other zones. Firstly survey the terrain. Sit quietly, observe, reflect and learn a few simple artful direct friendly words that say, no thank you i have enough, i am just going walking walking. Person to person, look them directly in the eyes, lovingly and surprise surprise, they will treat you in the same manner. Yes there are a lot of people, some of whom are living in relative poverty compared to us who are taking the cream of the milk but if you leave all of those concepts behind you and totally be where you are placed on your journey, you will start to see and experience such a magic that will entrance you rather than repel you. In time when you start to ponder your experience little pieces may start to awaken in you and again beckon you to travel to these exotic overpopulated dirty beautiful soulful full of hassels and full of genuine awakening shores. Hare Aum sister. TO THIS AWAKENING.

  19. Davidon 26 Oct 2011 at 8:01 am

    I have been to Bali numerous times and love it The touts and wooden penises I can tolerate but the drunken Australians in Kuta I cannot, they are an embarrassment to our country and should be put on the first flight back home.

  20. scottyon 26 Oct 2011 at 3:08 pm

    You are a sad, unfortunate creature, and have missed the point of life entirely . . .
    I feel so sorry for you . .

  21. Stephanieon 27 Oct 2011 at 12:06 pm

    People in the world trying to make a living with their ways and Ubud invite you to come to Ubud writer’s festival to appreciate the difference and make life better in their respective cultures (I also joined the festival). The difference between you and the people of Ubud is they do not need to create a negative article about the culture and procedures of other countries in national newspapers for a living. I think the only mistake made by ubud is inviting people who are incompetent, you.

  22. clementineon 27 Oct 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I was at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. I wrote this in response to Carolyn, and it’s going to be republished in The Punch tomorrow:


  23. […] Why bother?’ Well cool man Stuart wrote a response via travelfish.org, its great, read it! I especially like this […]

  24. Andyon 28 Oct 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Was that your first time travelling abroad dear?!? pity you…..
    It happened everywhere, Middle East, Europe, US, let alone Asia….it always depends on how we react to it and responds…….GET A LIFE Carolyn….

  25. Andrewon 28 Oct 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Beautifully said

  26. Rosalindon 18 Jan 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Living in Ubud a block off Jl. Raya I’m constantly offered transport. What works for me is looking them in the eye, smiling as warmly as I can muster that day, and saying “no thank you” as if I really appreciate their offer. They love this–being seen and acknowledged as human beings. Sometimes they respond “welcome, maam!” or begin to have some fun with me for a couple of more sentences.

    They’re sitting there all day hoping to take home $3 if they’re very lucky. A moment of engagement is a gift, to them and to yourself. Life is all about turning lemons into lemonade Carolyn.

  27. Martinon 14 Apr 2012 at 12:57 am

    It’s funny that as tourists, I mean travellers, we don’t like places that are too touristy yet, those places that usually are(touristy)..need to be seen. Bali has some places like Kuta that I agree are designed for tourists and perhaps lost some of that authenticity yet Ubud is still very unique and beautiful. We loved our stay, the amazing landscapes, the performances, the art and certainly the people. They are truly amazing. Mind you, we had enough of some of the street vendors and temple guides who just don’t understand ‘no’, but regardless Bali remains of those unique places that many travellers just must see during their Asia travels.

  28. tamikaon 12 Jan 2013 at 11:03 am

    As an Australian prostitute I am both perplexed and horrified by Carolyn’s description of Australian Sex Workers jumping on the back of someone’s bike. Sorry Carolyn but in Australia prostitutes actually work in brothels, perhaps you should visit one sometime, it appears you could do with a massage with a happy ending after all this. Anyway’s I’m busy packing my acid wash jeans, my thongs and my credit card in anticipation of buying as many wooden dildo’s, bitang t-shirts, sunglasses and handbags as my little heart can stand, and after all that I will probably enjoy a few massages, all the while grateful that my money is helping support a very poor country.

  29. FAR60on 24 Aug 2013 at 7:26 am

    I read with great interest Mr. McDonald’s retort to Carolyn Webb’s article about Bali. I realize this is a little older article, but I would be interested in getting some “guidance” from Mr McDonald or other knowledgeable person. It is fair and reasonable that he provides criticisms of Ms Webb’s piece; however, he then fails to provide clear substantiation for his claims. Where are these “…hundreds of villages and destinations that see a fraction of the visitors Ubud does.”? I am a somewhat seasoned traveler, however, I willingly admit that my greatest deficiency is finding these places of which Mr McDonald speaks with the small amount of time I am often afforded to visit places like Bali.

    I will confess that I am looking for some luxury. For instance, right now both myself and my girlfriend are deployed on a mission in the Middle East (we are both in the military) where there is no privacy, the diet is horrible, there are constant levels of stress beyond the normal expected, and we are confined to a small camp with water restrictions and insane work loads. Yes, there are far worse conditions to be experiences in life, I have experienced some of those as well living out of the back of an armoured vehicle in Afghanistan. But for this next trip we hope to find a comfortable balance between luxury, being pampered, and finding “Bali.”

    Can you help? I believe the content and structure of Mr. McDonald’s article suggests he can. Will you help? I am not looking for bookings to be made for me, just some polite recommendations.

  30. Samantha Brownon 24 Aug 2013 at 7:50 am

    Of course — that’s precisely what we do on Travelfish.org! Please head to http://www.travelfish.org/region/indonesia/bali
    Under “Jump to a destination” click on Bali. You’ll see about 30 destinations (in Bali) listed. Click on the destination; then there’ll be a “sleep” button at the top of each, listing places to stay. If you want luxury, however, you don’t get that without getting other tourists. If you’d like to see places we’ve reviewed in greater detail, see: http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/indonesia/
    We just reviewed Alila Soori today, which is stunning and luxurious, but sadly has a big price tag to match.
    Good luck!

  31. Samantha Brownon 24 Aug 2013 at 7:54 am

    Actually you might like Alila Manggis, which is quite luxurious, cheaper than Alila Soori, and does lots of local-focused activities. If you do stay here, consider doing a cooking course at the lovely Bali Asli (though it’s a bit of a hike, I think it’s worth it).


  32. adminon 24 Aug 2013 at 8:23 am

    @Far60 – seems Sam beat me to it (as I was out scoffing seafood in Thailand when your comment came in).

    Regarding my response to Webb’s report, I’d have suggested probably Sidemen (depending on how lux you want) as a worthwhile Ubud replacement as it gets very low tourist numbers but is still lovely and especially scenic.

    Other areas that spring to mind (where you can enjoy comparative luxury without the hordes while still seeing Bali) would include:

    Grabbing the house at Life in Amed

    Hanging out at Kali Manik

    Also the Organic Farm

    Each of these are unique in their own way, offer a bit of an other-worldly charm plus, walk outside and you’ll be right in Bali.

    More questions, feel free to ask, or drop me an email (I received the email you sent, but thought better to answer here for the benefit of others who may have similar queries).



  33. Winon 30 Jul 2014 at 1:00 am

    Love your article. Experiencinf Bali for the first time as a single female. I’ve had no problems. Coming from an Asian background I knew what to expect. Bali is pretty good compared to other Asian countries I’ve been to. Isn’t that the whole point? To explore and experience cultures and ways of life? Country side always makes me feel grateful for what I have.
    Thanks for your piece.