Spiritual Boot Camp

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An intensive Vipassana meditation retreat promises to help you “see things as they really are.” But will it be worth ten days of torture?

Vipassana Meditation Retreat

If you were given a free trip to anywhere for 10 days, where would you choose to go? Cocktails in Hawaii? Sun worshipping in Bali? An African safari? How about a donation-funded retreat that involves 4am wake up bells, absolute silence, abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol, only two meals a day, and a high chance of excruciating pain from 100 hours spent sitting in meditation?

Huh? Any takers?

“Life changing,” is how I most often hear the Vipassana meditation retreats described by those who have braved it. Out of curiosity and an apparent addiction to torturous experiences, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to attend this course in Asia for years. I searched for one while living in Thailand, but found that even in the remote corners of the country they were booked up months in advance. I thought I’d missed out.

But recently I discovered they run Vipassana courses all over the world, including right here in Victoria. And while it will lack the exoticism of golden monk garbs, gecko calls, and the warm hug of tropical air, when you’re sitting cross-legged listening only to the sound of your breath and the wild screeches of your crazy monkey mind losing its shit inside your skull, it doesn’t really matter where you are. It will mostly suck either way.

So beginning this afternoon, I will be engaging in 10 days of ‘nobel silence.’ No chatter on the inside of my head, no chatter on the outside, and no acknowledging other people whatsoever. Even if I have something urgent to say like Ohmygod I’m so bored, or, Holycrap my knee caps feel like they’ve been whacked by a baseball bat, or, Who farted?, I cannot rant at anyone, not even through my seven different social media platforms.

Maybe you’re wondering why a person would put themselves through this kind of thing. Well…

Reason 1:

A break from pointless distractions.

During every silent beat in my day, I’m compelled to reach for a digital device. It’s an itch that I simply must scratch, an overwhelming OCD impulse. Much of the time I don’t have any real purpose for disappearing down an internet rabbit hole, but I generally wake some hours later in a slack-jawed stupor, scrolling through Buzzfeed lists of cute cats doing stupid things.

I don’t even like cats.

The internet is an endlessly exciting tool, but it’s also just a giant porn machine. Travel porn. Cute animal porn. Meme porn. Craft porn. What-are-other-people-doing-with-their-life-and-dammit-I’m-jealous! porn.

Louis CK put it beautifully when he said:

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s being a person.” 

What will it be like to spend ten days away from this constant stream of noise? Given that I can’t read, write, socialise, or even exercise during the retreat to keep myself engaged, what will I find in the deepest recesses of my silent mind once everything stops? (Hopefully not images of cute cats doing stupid things.)

Reason 2:

To become wondrous like a child.

I haven’t been making much art lately. To me this is tragic. After giving everything to my first book to help it succeed, I’ve come to associate art creation with sheer exhaustion. An idea will pop into my head and for a minute I will think: Oh, that’s a great idea! I should make that. But the burst of energy quickly turns to memories of all-encompassing exhaustion, and the fragile seed of an idea is immediately crushed by defeated thoughts: Too hard. Too draining. Sleep = better.

Yesterday I was reading the paper and I saw a write-up on my favourite artist, Leunig. In it he said this:

“I notice that, in contemporary life, all sorts of people are wanting to meditate and be mindful, and be wondrous, like a child again. It’s happening everywhere. It really is a reclaiming of a more open-minded, innocent state, instead of the embittered, prejudiced, over-educated, brain-ridden constricted state which Western society finds itself in.”

Perhaps the “embittered, prejudiced, over-educated” brain he’s referring to is what forms after too much time spent online, watching TV, reading papers—consuming rather than creating. Perplexed generations of the future will surely look back over our frantic Tweet streams about the twerking habits of Miley Cirus and facepalm in disgrace.

We busy ourselves with unimportant topical issues, gobbling down content until we’re in a frenzied froth, then we blast our heated opinions at anyone who will listen. This is an outrage! I think it should be more like this! I think it should be more like that! But nobody is really listening. Nobody cares. These topical pingpong matches are just cheap distractions to keep us from the discomfort of what is there inside us when all the noise stops. And what could that be?

Vipassana means “to see things as they really are.” I don’t know about you, but I want to find out what that is.

I’ll be back in a few weeks to tell you how it went.

What about you? Do you think you could sit in silence for ten days? 

Leave a Comment

  • Kim Schutte October 8, 2013, 2:47 pm

    Wow–I’m impressed…and a little intimidated for you. Sounds like an amazing challenge. Good luck! I look forward to hearing all about it in a couple weeks.

    Reply
  • Anita October 8, 2013, 3:17 pm

    I just returned from the ten day vipassana course on Sunday! Definitely an arduous, difficult, sometimes painful process. I think it will take some time to process everything, but in the end, I think it was great. I would love to hear more about your experience when you return!

    Reply
  • Michelle @ Mishfish13 October 8, 2013, 5:02 pm

    No, but I should. Lately have been feeling like the days are slipping away from me. Maybe this can help me slow things down…

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  • Linda D. October 8, 2013, 8:24 pm

    I am so excited for you! Two of the biggest challenges and gifts of my life are Travel and Uncomfortable – both get me out of myself by getting me INTO myself…if that makes any sense. When I remove my context and stretch into the unfamiliar, it strips away my masks and distractions so that I can hear my own breath. Bloody marvelous and terrifying at the same time. I hope this will be a wonderful adventure for you. As a pagan friend of mine is fond of saying, ‘this or something better’ whenever he utters a prayer for me. Bonne Chance!

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  • Britany October 8, 2013, 9:15 pm

    I love the idea of giving this a try… But holy crap, ten days??? That sounds incredibly difficult, but I guess that’s the point. Escaping technology and discovering real silence would be so refreshing, but maybe for three days to start and make sure my brain doesn’t explode? Good luck to you and I can’t wait to hear how it goes!

    Reply
  • Hannah October 8, 2013, 9:56 pm

    Wow Torre, I’m very impressed!

    I’ve been wanting to do a 10-day meditation retreat for a while but have a huge amount of trepidation around whether my sanity is strong enough to withstand 10 days of abstaining from pretty much everything I love (reading, writing, exercising, connecting with others). I imagine it would be horrendously difficult and a strangely wonderful growth experience at the same time.

    Good luck, I hope you find the experience fulfilling. Would love to hear how you find it.

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  • Christy October 8, 2013, 10:01 pm

    I can’t wait to hear what you think of this experience! I’ve been wanting to do this for years as well. I should look into retreats in my area instead of waiting until I can make it happen somewhere exotic. Good luck!

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  • Steph October 8, 2013, 10:29 pm

    I genuinely can’t wait to hear about your experience, Torre. All the best with it!

    P.S. I love your artwork on this post. :)

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  • Bart Blankenship October 8, 2013, 10:40 pm

    Yes, Tori, I think so. I wonder if the pain of sitting so much might make me want to yip a bit. But for sure, it would bring insight. One challenge to think about would be why go somewhere just to sit? I could do it right here. It wouldn’t be exotic. It wouldn’t be expensive. And my only support system would be my family who would understand. But I’m not at all poo pooing you going for it. I think it’s cool and will be very interesting. Reflection is great and this will be way beyond that.

    On another subject, I really enjoyed your book and several of my friends read it after I told them. I did break up with my girl friend after. Not your fault. She had sailed with me a few times, and while it was fun, I realized while teaching one of those horrific Outward Bound courses sailing in Maine that our comfort levels were too different and that made me realize that I must not love her as otherwise it wouldn’t be an issue. Two things she wanted was nicer sheets and a refrigerator.
    Anyway, I’m glad your book was/is a success. I like how spunky and gritty and real it is.
    I look forward to reading how your retreat was. Bart

    Reply
  • Shana October 8, 2013, 11:28 pm

    Wow and bravo! I know that I couldn’t have done this 5 or 10 years ago, but I think where I am today in this moment, I could attempt it. However, I am not sure how my body would like sitting for those long hours!! I will be curious to know how you manage that part!!

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  • Nicole October 8, 2013, 11:45 pm

    Sit in silence? Well, now, I don’t know if I could do that. There are literally just so many distractions. But, it would be nice to know what happens after. What are the results and how do they make you feel, you know? You’re right, some of the stuff we put our energy into paying attention really just suck. =\

    Reply
  • Joanne Joseph October 9, 2013, 12:18 am

    I don’t think the quiet part would be as much of a challenge for me as the sitting in one place would be. I am really looking forward to hearing about your experience.

    Reply
  • Rachel @ Rachel's List October 9, 2013, 12:24 am

    Good for you Torre. I thought about doing it for many years, most recently when I read Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens (which chronicles in detail her Vipassana experiences). Haven’t committed yet, but the idea teases at me from time to time (I love meditating but I’m more of a 20-minute meditator. All day kinda scares me :))

    Good luck!

    Reply
  • Tatiana October 9, 2013, 4:26 am

    Squee. I’m so happy to see you have posted! :]

    Also, I want to do a several day silence retreat SO BAD. Awhile ago, I looked into becoming a Buddhist nun for several months at a monastery in upstate NY, but one of the conditions was that you couldn’t have any debt. I’m not sure WHY – I’ll probably have to go back and look and e-mail somebody. But the idea of living a deeply spiritual life where all I do is pray, sleep and eat is very appealing to me.

    The only thing is that I wouldn’t want to sit in meditation for hours, because I find it so unappealing, but I could handle all the other stuff. I mean, I go days without talking to people and it wouldn’t be difficult to give up internet and the like. I WANT TO GO.

    An old client of mine is going on a 10 day silence retreat and I was super jealous. >:p

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    • Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 19, 2013, 11:26 pm

      Hey Torre,
      Just popped by to see if there were updates. I’m wishing you a very pleasant pause! One of the best things I did in 2013 was take a nice, long break from online busyness. So refreshing… I think it’s given me a new cadence and a new stride for 2014. We shall see, anyway. :) Cheers from Oregon xx

      Reply
  • Hannah October 9, 2013, 9:57 am

    I’ve always wanted to go on Vipassana – I’m really interested to hear how you find the experience. Good luck with it!

    Reply
  • Maarja October 9, 2013, 3:13 pm

    I hope it goes well for you. My 10 days was probably one of the hardest experiences I’ve had, but then again, I was only 20 when I did it. The effect was great, you feel all calm and happy and ‘centered’, but it goes away in a week or so, unless you keep practicing.

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  • Jess October 9, 2013, 4:18 pm

    Good luck – I can’t wait to hear how it went! xx

    Reply
  • kirri October 9, 2013, 10:22 pm

    It sounds like a huge challenge but I imagine, incredibly powerful.
    I would have no trouble being silent for 10 days but who knows what would be happening inside my monkey mind…quite a scary thought!

    Reply
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) October 10, 2013, 6:44 am

    Torre, I’m so happy that you’ve decided to do this—somehow it quells my fears for my own impending Vipassana retreat which I’ll tackle in the coming months when we hit India! I hope it will restore some vital part of you and that you’ll feel energized to share the experience with us.

    Reply
  • Beth October 10, 2013, 2:19 pm

    I once had to sit in silence for two hours during a Buddhist meditation at 4am … and I thought that was near impossible to get through! I still can’t figure out how to not allow thoughts to run through my head, I continually got distracted throughout the 2 hours.

    Best of luck for 10 days! Can’t wait to read about it when you’re back.

    Reply
  • Jessica October 11, 2013, 12:12 am

    Go Torre, go! I’ve only sat in a two day vipassana but a 10 day is on my list. Interested to hear how it goes for you. What a challenge. But a beautiful practice to cultivate. Good luck!

    Reply
  • Kara October 14, 2013, 7:28 pm

    I have thought about this experience a number of times and have read or spoken to a few people who have engaged in it. It seems like a 10 day retreat is a huge challenge – and if nothing else it will hopefully change your perspective on how to be in the moment and mindful, terms that are very à la mode at the moment. Good luck with this!!

    Reply
  • Jim October 17, 2013, 5:42 pm

    OK, Torre, times up …. what’s it all about, really?

    BTW, LOVED your book, bought several more copies for friends, can’t wait to see the movie!

    Reply
  • Alex | Partial Parallax October 21, 2013, 2:05 am

    Sounds very interesting to get away from everything for 10 days. I don’t know if I could last that long but would like to give it a go, I look forward to your follow up on how it went no doubt it will be a very interesting experience.

    Reply
  • Louise October 23, 2013, 7:14 pm

    I did it in Chang Mai in 2010, one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences !! I wrote about it in a blog I did for that trip to Asia. (I put the link in the website section of this comment post). The hardest thing was that I went into the course planning to write about it, and they don’t allow pens or writing!! I nearly stole the pencil from the laundry-drop form every single day. I fantasized about that pencil. I went crazy trying to remember everything, repeating it over and over in my head. On Day 10 I finally got my pen and frantically jotted down as much as I could possibly remember. I bought the Discourses book also so that I could jog my memory of each daily ‘lesson’ and put it in my blog…. I am wondering how you will have faired without a pen either, and how you will manage to write about your experience after. Can’t wait to find out!!!

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  • Sally October 27, 2013, 4:55 am

    Just found your blog an Now hearing about you 10 day retreat Bravo to you!!!!!
    I look forward to hearing about it I too have been wanting to do this but I am just about gathering the strength for a 4 day retreat .you are quite an inspiration Torre!

    Reply
  • Ruth October 27, 2013, 4:03 pm

    A Retreat, literally or figuratively, seem to be what our spirit longs for when we come to a time of deep change in our life. I hope this one fed your soul. I just read you book. Found it while I searched for books about sailing in the Sports section at Barnes +Noble. (I am 68 + have always wanted to learn to sail). Now looking into places where to learn. Must tell the bookseller that your book belongs in the Travel section, but am grateful for the Karma which allowed me to find your story. My fear? —Letting go of possessions and a settled way of life. Any and all help appreciated!

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  • Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot October 30, 2013, 11:35 pm

    Hi T,

    I need a spiritual boot camp too – but one with more food and where reading and writing is allowed. Did you read Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens? She did the V thing, loved it and wrote all about it. Great book and lovely woman.

    I am changing my life the slow way, by meditating in between loads of laundry, supermarket runs and fixing meals for my many hungry children. But apparently enlightenment is all about being mindful while doing drudgery so I guess I have an advantage although I am currently only just enlightened enough to realise that I will probably never be enlightened.

    But I did just sneak off to Africa for 10 days with no family which was epic and gave me a big boost. Travel is still the best.

    One thing I do know is you will be glad to get home :)

    xoxo A

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  • LoTekGirl November 8, 2013, 4:46 pm

    Soooo……did you survive?!?!

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  • Robyn November 20, 2013, 12:18 pm

    I’ve had friends who’ve done this, but I haven’t done it myself. I practice Contemplative Prayer (and running is also a source of meditation for me). I’ll be interested to read about your impression after you return.
    (Also, I love your About page and the picture of your family. They seem adorable and hilarious.)
    Best,
    Robyn

    Reply
  • Patricia Sands December 5, 2013, 7:00 pm

    Nope! I don’t even do naps because there’s always something better to do … like read! However I am fascinated by those able to immerse into this type of experience and I want to know all the deets. It can only be helpful in one way or another and I am looking forward to hearing if you feel you can now “see things as they really are”. I always thought you were very good at that! (I’m emailing you too Torre, so check through the pile when you are are back online.) And now … shhhhhhhh …

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  • Russos December 6, 2013, 10:27 am

    You can do it torre….i have just this moment finished your book….it brought back memories of a great sail from cocos to the seychelles…..if you can do that with your initial fears of the ocean and the bitey things wot live there..vipassana will be a doddle!…….after the first three days that is!!!!

    Good luck, and thanks again for a great read.

    P.S MY LOVELY OLD GAFF RIGGER HAS BEEN PASSED ON , TO BE REPLACED BY A STINKBOAT….MY PARTNER LOVES IT…THE FULL HEADROOM TOILET THAT IS!

    Reply
  • Travel Makes Me Tick December 14, 2013, 9:52 am

    I’ve always been interested in doing a meditation retreat, but my problem is that I really, really cannot sit cross-legged for hours on end (not an excuse, promise!).

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  • Nathan Gotch December 30, 2013, 2:40 pm

    Getting away from all of the distractions is a must, and this seems like a really great way to “let go” and tap into that inner child :P Seems awesome and I can guarantee you’re going to love it!

    - Nathan

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  • Helen December 30, 2013, 9:39 pm

    This might be my favourite blog post of the year.

    Hope it went well! Quite fancy doing this myself. Well, of sorts…

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  • John January 7, 2014, 6:08 pm

    Fearful Adventurer? You can experience fear and adventure with meditation. I can attest to that since I have been at it for about 40 years. I started on this path when I was your age. Maybe your are ready for this experience by now. Lets start with adventure, the finding out about yourself by going into the deepest part of who you are, that is your feelings and to know the cause, which can be hidden by the intellect, the rationalizing calculating part of the mind. After a while you will experience enlightenment while meditating, finding the wisdom about how to proceed and evolve into a better person. But first lets see about discovering the subconscious. You can be anxious about something, and realize it, but why? For instance in your book you say that you fear the ocean. Eventually you realized that it came from the movie, Jaws. With a psychologist, one can sit and talk about a fear and eventually find where the fear originates. With meditation you can concentrate on a fear and realize immediately whence it springs. It’s quick and you do not have to pay someone to listen to you, although in you situation, I think you wrote an interesting book instead. As for your fear of sharks, you desensitized yourself by facing your fear by getting on a sailboat and putting yourself into an area where there might be sharks. That’s how a psychologist works with a phobia by placing the client in a situation that evokes some fear, like knowing that sharks do not exist near dolphins so you get your feet wet and eventually you are not that fearful when there are no dolphins about.

    When you meditate, you take something and concentrate on it, like your breathing. Here is what I think is a very good write-up of that: http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/mindfulness_in_plain_english.pdf but most anything that the calculating part of the mind cannot analyze will work. Eventually the intellectual mind goes away and the subconscious thoughts come up while doing meditation. There can be a difficulty here if the intellectual part of the mind reestablishes it presence and tries to analyze the problem jumping like a monkey from thought to thought not knowing which to choose, no consistency, for a solution. If you find you can add numbers in your head, the intellect is back, so start concentrating on your breath again to put the intellect away. However, the intellect has its place. If you witness a crew overboard situation, you do not sit and meditate about it, you throw a lifejacket at them, hopefully with a personal locator beacon in it and a strobe light if night time, hit the crew overboard button on the chart plotter to mark the place in the ocean (if you have the chart, one that is on) and go through the procedure for recovering the person. Of course the person overboard should have had the lifejacket on already, and have been tied to a jack lines that runs around the exterior a few feet from the edge, not the edge of the boat, that keeps a person from going over in the first place. I have nothing against modern technology, even computers; after all I am using one to post here. Setting aside a quiet time every day to meditate; however, is necessary I think. For me it was 45 minutes a day lying in my back. I like to be comfortable because I find the lotus position painful after a while and I cannot meditate while in pain. If you are flexible, maybe you can do the lotus position as it does give a person a kind of grounded feeling while watching the breath. After practicing for a few months, you can just slip into meditation without watching the breath, or whatever you like to concentrate on. You can just do it automatically.

    About fear, after enlightenment, a problem that is discovered in meditation is offered up to the Presence that is there while one is experiencing the enlightenment phenomenon. From that comes an answer that is always consistent, you meditate and get an answer, you meditate the next day having the same problem and offer it up and get the same answer on how to proceed. Also, no one gets hurt following the answer from the Presence. Now here is the fear part. A person does not want to change their personality. In fact I have even heard it said that trying to follow that Advice is like dying, or maybe for you, the possibility of drowning. So, there is the fear of changing yourself to something better, your intellect, who you think your are, does not want to change. Therein lies the problem of why most people do not take up meditation. A person has to realize that the problems of life are too much to handle with the intellect and search for a spiritual solution, and that can take perhaps several lifetimes of work.

    Reply
  • David January 10, 2014, 2:26 am

    Impressive Torre! If I get a chance, I would give it a try. 10 days feels like a short time but once you’re in there, I’m sure it would feel like a 10 years. It would definitely change you, I guess it depends on the person if he really focus on the program. We want to hear about your experience! I will wait for your next post. Good luck!

    Reply
  • KT January 10, 2014, 5:22 am

    OMG! that’s super impressive! I shared this article to my friends! :) I can’t wait to read your next post. I was in Thailand 3 weeks ago and did an acrobatic yoga, somehow I meditated and concentrated on flying. I’m not sure if Vipassana is same with Theravada Buddhism. Good luck!

    Reply
  • Sarah January 22, 2014, 12:38 pm

    Great idea, I will give a try surely, I am doing Yoga classes right now and really it helping me a lot….nice post

    Reply
  • Ryan February 3, 2014, 2:31 pm

    It’s kind of funny how so many people think of it as torture to simply sit and breathe. Actually, there’s walking meditation at many Vipassana retreats as well. The alternation between sitting and walking helps a lot with the physical challenge of sitting for so long. Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai is a great place to do a retreat if you’re serious.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche February 4, 2014, 12:13 pm

      This particular retreat was sitting meditation only. You commit to doing one hour long sits without moving your hands, feet, or mouth. Yes, it can be torture. It’s not just sitting and breathing, it is overcoming incredible internal challenges. But eventually the torture dissolves to be replaced by acceptance and peace. That is precisely the point of the meditation!

      Reply
  • Sheri February 4, 2014, 4:10 pm

    Hi Torre. Are you going to write a post on your experience at the retreat? I’m very interested to hear more about this!

    Reply
  • janelle February 23, 2014, 1:00 pm

    At least you know what you are in for!
    I didn’t think through it nearly as in depth as you did beforehand.
    Which means that for me, the most challenging day was day #2… at 4am in the morning when I realized I had 9 more days of that!

    But wow. What an amazing experience.
    I did mine in the South of Thailand, at Wat Suan Mohk. They do not take reservations, you just have to be there a certain day of the month.

    However, sitting within yourself creates a much more intense feeling of vulnerability to all stimuli around you.
    I hope that you take it easy and don’t try to immediately bombard yourself back in the land of hyper-realty (aka the “interweb”).

    We’ll be here whenever you are ready. :)
    lots of love!

    Reply
  • Charlotte March 3, 2014, 5:04 am

    I completed a 10 day retreat in Malaysia in January as part of my fresh start to the year and I was surprised how hard I found it.

    It wasn’t the not talking for 10 days that got me, in fact this part I actually enjoyed. It was the sterile loneliness it brought on o and having to sit for god knows how many hours…I ended up having to sit on a chair at the back.

    Yet i would still recommend it to anyone to do one course at least one point in their lives.

    http://offonalittleadventure.blogspot.com.au/

    Reply
  • Kara March 18, 2014, 7:21 pm

    Not sure I could join you just yet on this, but I have heard wonderful things from other friends and writers who have participated in these kinds of silent retreats. I hope it went wonderfully!

    Reply
  • Ronna Lee Wells June 28, 2014, 6:29 pm

    I have been looking for you

    Reply