Friday, April 25, 2008

Watch out for telephone wires!

The other day I was went to the post office to pick up my weekly economist and check if I had any other surprises. It was a sunny day (pretty much all days between October and May are with varying degrees of hotness and haziness) around two in the afternoon with the sun just starting to make its decent towards the horizon – just low enough to escape the shield of my helmet’s short visor. I biked down one of the few paved roads and turned west onto the barren dirt road leading to the post office. I was cruising down the street at a fairly swift pace – just below full speed where you start to sweat but fast enough to get a good breeze going to cool you off. I suddenly felt a rapidly increasing pressure on the front of my neck just below my adams apple… the next instant I was off my bike and flying through the air! I’d been clotheslined!!! I’m talking clothesline straight out of a movie where the character is abruptly thrown backwards by an invisible force.

I can only imagine what it must have looked liked – me obliviously biking down the street when out of the blue I fly off my bike and crash onto the ground. Unfortunately, nobody was able to enjoy such an amazing incident, as the road was empty when I went down. I imagine I would have quite a popular YouTube video had it been on film.

A telephone line traversing the road had fallen off one of its poles and fell to rest on a six-foot wall below. This left the cord precariously strewn across the road at the perfect (or not so perfect) height to catch me on my neck as I rode by on my bike. It happened so fast – I literally had time to think: “oh, how strange, something is pushing on my neck” – WHAM! I’m in the air.

The cord slid up my neck till it reached the top of my throat where my head connects. Next, it forced my head backwards as it lifted up my chin and I was almost horizontal to the ground. Luckily, not only did I have my helmet on for the impending crash that was to come next but there was some slack in the cord or I might not be here today to write this. Somehow, my right foot got stuck in the triangle of the frame and my knee got twisted pretty good too.

I was most concerned with my knee at first since it immediately swelled up and was black and blue but that went away after a few days of constant ice and advil. My neck turned out to be the real issue. Long story short – after many x-rays, a trip to Bamako, more x-rays and a CAT-scan I was given a neck brace and diagnosed with a sprained neck. I can’t tell you how silly I looked in the neck brace let alone how silly I felt. I pretty much didn’t go out in public for a while.

Fast-forward a couple months to the present and I feel much better. There is no such thing as “physical therapy” in Mali, so I was left with figuring out my own exercises to rehabilitate myself. For a while, my entire spine was seriously tweaked but now just the top of my neck where it meets the back of my head is causing problems – where the whiplash gave me the most pain. The crazy thing is – this really isn’t that weird of an event – it is just another random thing that can happen in Africa. You just never know when a random telephone wire is going to be hanging across your path… I suppose I’ll watch out for them next time???

Theft panic hits city...

I'm on the lookout...

(Reuters) By Joe BavierWed Apr 23, 1:07 PM ET

Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises after a wave of panic and attempted lynchings triggered by the alleged witchcraft.

Reports of so-called penis snatching are not uncommon in West Africa, where belief in traditional religions and witchcraft remains widespread, and where ritual killings to obtain blood or body parts still occur.

Rumors of penis theft began circulating last week in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo's sprawling capital of some 8 million inhabitants. They quickly dominated radio call-in shows, with listeners advised to beware of fellow passengers in communal taxis wearing gold rings.

Purported victims, 14 of whom were also detained by police, claimed that sorcerers simply touched them to make their genitals shrink or disappear, in what some residents said was an attempt to extort cash with the promise of a cure.

"You just have to be accused of that, and people come after you. We've had a number of attempted lynchings. ... You see them covered in marks after being beaten," Kinshasa's police chief, Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Police arrested the accused sorcerers and their victims in an effort to avoid the sort of bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 suspected penis snatchers were beaten to death by angry mobs. The 27 men have since been released.

"I'm tempted to say it's one huge joke," Oleko said.

"But when you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it's become tiny or that they've become impotent. To that I tell them, 'How do you know if you haven't gone home and tried it'," he said.

Some Kinshasa residents accuse a separatist sect from nearby Bas-Congo province of being behind the witchcraft in revenge for a recent government crackdown on its members.

"It's real. Just yesterday here, there was a man who was a victim. We saw. What was left was tiny," said 29-year-old Alain Kalala, who sells phone credits near a Kinshasa police station.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mary Gabriel)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

To Timbouctou and back… almost

After lots of planning and changing of dates, my brother and parents left Bamako early the morning of January 8th heading up country. We made a quick pit stop in Segou to drop off some fantastic goodies they brought over – enough to fill an entire suitcase between them – before continuing Northeast towards Mopti. There, we met up with my good friend Hassimi who would be our guide over the next few days through Dogon Country.

If you’re a frequent subscriber, you might recall Hassimi from my travels when my friend Dom visited me last August. Most Peace Corps volunteers use him as their guide – he speaks English and is used to our peculiar mix of needs: clients who expect the usual guide package but add in our language and cultural knowledge from living in Mali and we require someone on their toes… plus we know how much things cost.

Early January was chosen for the cooler weather as to not shock my family too much – late February to early June and October/November were out of the question due to the oppressive heat (something I’m enduring as I write this now halfway into April). The “rainy season” from June to September was ruled out as being too difficult to get around and also still too hot. Thus the “cold season” from December to mid-February seemed intuitively appropriate for my cold whether family to visit. However, in retrospect, the rainy season is probably the best time to come. Sure, it can get hot but cools off whenever it rains and it rains frequently. The countryside is green versus the barren deadness of the dry season where by January it already hasn’t rained in three months and won’t for another five. Add in the dry harmattan winds blowing in from the north over the Sahara bringing a gray haze that obscures the sun a good 20 degrees before it can reach the horizon and, yes, it is hotter but I now firmly believe July to September the best time to visit. And I digress…

Dogon Country was as fantastic as always – I’ve now made three trips and plan at least two more before I’m done here – this time we started in the middle/south section of the escarpment that stretches southwest to northeast and hiked northeast for a few days. We weaved our way up and down the fallaise wall hopping from tiny village to village. I think I have said it before in another post, but the similarities between ancient Dogon villages (then inhabited by the Tellem peoples) and the Anasasi Native American tribes of the southwestern United States always amaze me – their villages perched in the cliffs high above the plains below.

Hassimi started by taking us to the first Dogon village to convert to Islam with the oldest mosque in the region (if you look back in my photo album, it is the white one near the beginning of the photos). From there, we meandered between villages along our route – visiting bogolon cooperatives (mud dyed cloth), basket weavers, blacksmiths and woodworkers all practicing the age-old techniques of their trades. While it was technically the ‘cold season’ we still did our best to avoid being exposed to the sun between 11am and 3pm as the African sun never quite looses its intensity. Even when the sun wasn’t at its height, we would dart between the shades of the Baobab trees sparsely placed along the way.

Quick note: I don’t know if you remember but the ‘baobab’ tree is the same one from Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince – before coming to Africa that was my only exposure to this bizarre creature. I have never seen any plant quite like it. It has a thick trunk, especially when contrasted to its short scrawny branches – equally out of place as a T-Rex and his tiny arms. The legend goes that god ripped it out of the ground and smashed it back in upside down with its roots twisting towards the sky. While at times it seems like the ugliest tree imaginable, it simultaneously arouses a sense of beauty strange, as it is mystifying.

Appropriately, the last village we visited was the most animist of the trek with the lone mosque relegated to the obscure edge of the village. Conversely, each family had their fetish prominently placed in their concession along with numerous village fetishes placed throughout the village each with a specific purpose and its own set of superstitions.

At one family, Hassimi asked if we had any medicine we could spare to a reliably unlucky family – especially for an ageing old woman. Not being a roaming medicine cabinet yet still propagating the stereotype that every white person is a doctor, we produced about seven packets of Lemon-Lime Emergen-C. Given we were in fact not doctors (contrary to popular opinion) nor did we know exactly what was ailing her – we figured some extra vitamins could at least supplement the meager amount she received from nothing but millet and sauce three meals a day.

Before starting our way south back to Bamako, I took my family to Mopti where I purposely got us lost to wander the narrow streets of the city. I feel that one of the things tourists miss is just letting yourself be enveloped by the charm of the place and becoming lost to your senses. Some people might not agree with me – and at times, I can hardly argue – but while sheer poverty can be, and often is, overwhelming there is something to be said for the rawness of their existence at all. Of course one could do without the trash strewn everywhere along the ground and stepping over the reeking sludge/sess-poll gutters but if you can get past that you might just surprise yourself. The light was perfect and I got some amazing shots of the grande mosque just as the sun made its plunge westward.

For the voyage back to Segou, I insisted on leaving the private rented car we took on the way to Mopti for public transport. I felt it important to show my family not just what I go through whenever I travel but what all Malians endure whenever they move from place to place. The bus was certainly on the nicer end of the scale of Malian transport but still provided sufficient doses of chaos to satisfy my urge to share this part of my life. In order to make the trip not too punishing for my family, we took the first bus at 7am to avoid being on the road during the heat of the day. While at the time they resisted, I think they now appreciate the experience – having glimpsed, just glimpsed – a little bit of my life and a perfectly regular day-to-day experience for hundreds of Malians.

In Segou, we shared lunch out of a communal bowl with my homologue and his family – by this time my family had a few chances to practice even though their performance was less than perfect, especially the hopelessness of my dad’s – demonstrated by the huge pile of rice between his feet and the bowl. My mum presented my homologue with a pair of glasses an optician from Aspen had so generously donated which he was extremely grateful to receive.

We visited my service, the counterpart organization where I am placed, OMATHO (the regional office of the Ministry of Tourism) and met everyone I work with. Otherwise, we took it easy the couple of days in Segou – sort of a respite from the breakneck pace the trip had been so far. We even rented a boat and had a nice relaxing ‘cruise’ on the Niger. Overall, it was nice to be back to my home away from home. It feels strange even writing that but it’s true: Segou is my home and has been for almost two years now – amazing how much time has gone by and how fast it went. I am really glad my family came and was able to share in my experiences over here. Now when I talk about the Niger, Madani or the Djoliba they will know exactly what I’m talking about – even be able to picture it themselves.

Good to be a gangster

A friend sent me this and I thought you all might enjoy...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Another point of view

Here is a recent article from the Economist about one of their journalist's travels through Mali...


High livers

Apr 17th 2008

The Dogon find safety in altitude

Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday


THE Dogon, a Malian tribe best known for their ritualistic wooden sculpture and the unusual architecture of their villages, live primarily in the Falaise de Bandigara, a 150km escarpment entirely different from the flat, desert scrub that comprises so much of Mali’s landscape.

A guide for Dogon Country is best picked in one of the region’s main cities, Bandiagara or Douentza. They will be most familiar with Dogon cultural etiquette. We take a chance and rendezvous with Allaye—our 23-year-old guide from Djenné—in Timbuktu and travel south together through the Réserve de Douentza. We reach north Dogon country at dusk and stop in Banani for the night.

 Safe haven

For Allaye, this trip is a homecoming: he originally comes from Endé in south Dogon, but lives in Djenné during the tourist season where he can find more lucrative work. When the tourists go home, so does he, to help his family farm its millet crop. On this visit, close to the festival of Eid, he is on the lookout for a sheep for the family to sacrifice as part of the celebrations—as will every family. His parents are depending on him to deliver.

There is no better way to enjoy a night in Dogon (outside the rainy season) than to sleep on the roof terrace of the village camp. Malians find it a little cold; I had no problem, and braving the gentle evening breeze to sleep under the blanket of stars, unpolluted by neon lights, is one of the highlights of my time in Mali.

In the dark I can make out the faint outline of the top of the escarpment, looming over the village, and wonder what sights the dawn will unveil.

It doesn’t disappoint. Banani sits under an overhanging cliff, the face of which was once home to a Tellem village. Their mud houses and cave stores are still visible, hundreds of metres up, clinging to the vertical cliff face.

The Tellem people are said to have inhabited the escarpment around a century ago, long before the Dogon made their homes there. Little is known about the Tellem but according to Dogon legend, they were pygmies who could fly or had special magic powers—how else could they have built dwellings in such inaccessible places? Scientific theories suggest a wetter climate allowed vines and creepers to cover the cliff face, acting as natural ladders.

Many Dogon villages also cling to the cliff face, though much lower down. At Ireli, we trek up into the village using strategically placed boulders as steps—some so steep I must clamber on all fours, feeling slightly foolish as villagers sail past effortlessly, often with babies on their backs and a load on their heads.

At the togu-na—a seating area beneath the shade of a millet-stalk roof—some elders are shooting the breeze. Allaye stops to chat, giving us a chance to catch our breath. Most villages in Mali have at least one togu-na: villagers bring their disputes here for male elders to thrash out. The roof is built too low for any man to stand up straight—a deliberate flaw designed to serve as a cooling-off mechanism. Stand up in anger and you will hit your head.

Fetishes are another mainstay of the Dogon village. Often a simple dome of tightly-packed, dried mud, these sacred objects are believed to protect the village and their powers are strengthened with the blood of animal sacrifices.

Further along the falaise in Endé, the villagers make their homes at the foot of the escarpment, but it is still possible to trek up through their abandoned village on the cliff’s face to the very top, where the Hogon—a Dogon spiritual leader—once lived. Scan the low-lying roof carefully and you can spot the teeth of the animals sacrificed in honour of the Hogon.

According to historic accounts the Dogon—largely animists—built their homes halfway up the falaise to avoid capture, enslavement and forced conversion to Islam.

As I turn my back on the Hogon’s house and look out for miles and miles across the low-lying plains at the foot of the escarpment, a slight feeling of vertigo sets in, and I start to understand why, in those times, clinging precariously to a cliff-face was the safest way of life.

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“WHY do you want to spend two nights in Timbuktu? There’s nothing there,” Allaye asked us over breakfast back in Djenné. Malians’ lack of enthusiasm for this fabled city can be surprising but is, in the end, well placed.

Strategically located at the edge of the Sahara Desert and the top of the Niger bend, Timbuktu became a trading post in the 11th century for gold, slaves and ivory from the south and salt from the north. Over the next two centuries it grew wealthy, and in 1336 Kankan Musa—the king of the Malian empire—ordered the construction of the Dyingerey Ber, Timbuktu’s grand mosque, which made the city a centre of Muslim scholarship.

 The journey's better

But Timbuktu began to decline in the 16th century, and though it remains an important location on the salt-trade route, it is a mere shadow of its former self. The sandy streets seem somehow silent and deserted despite the hustle and bustle of daily life, and I realise that the allure of this city—now synonymous with the “end of the world”—lies in the journey there, rather than the destination.

Between 1588 and 1853, 43 Europeans tried to reach Timbuktu, which was then barred to all non-Muslims. Gordon Laing, the first European to reach the city, is said to have been murdered as he tried to leave. René Caillié fared better, mainly because of his intricate preparations, which included learning Arabic, studying Islam and disguising himself as a Muslim before entering the city. Heinrich Barth arrived in September 1853, disguised as a Tuareg, and stayed for the best part of a year before narrowly escaping with his life and returning to Europe.

The sightseeing tour of the city—which takes just an hour, even at a gentle stroll—takes in all three explorers' houses and (my favourite) the well on which Timbuktu supposedly began.

 Bouctou was here

The well, so the legend goes, was tended by Bouctou, an elderly Tuareg woman whose tribe set up camp in the area around 1000AD. When the men left to tend their cattle, Bouctou was put in charge. Tim means well in Tamasheq (the Tuareg language); the encampment came to be known as Timbouctou—the well of Bouctou.

My companion is sceptical about the dried up hole in the ground, but I’m willing to take any stories Timbuktu has to offer.

“What about the Flamme de la Paix?” I ask, as Kalil—our guide in Timbuktu—starts to wind up the tour. Looking a little inconvenienced, he beckons one of his young associates over. “He will take you to see the monument,” says Kalil. “I’ll meet you back here in an hour for the camel ride out into the desert.”

Situated on the north-western edge of the town, the Flame of Peace marks the spot where a Tuareg uprising in the 1990s—fuelled by claims of discrimination at the hands of the Bambara-dominated government—ended with the ceremonial burning of 3,000 weapons. Many of the guns were used to make the striking monument, which glistens bright gold when the sun sets.

The peace has been short-lived. In autumn 2007 36 Malian soldiers were taken hostage by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, a Tuareg rebel leader. Another 33 were kidnapped in March.

He recently issued a host of demands, including a reduction in the Malian military presence in the north, the release of two Tuareg said to be held by the authorities and the creation of a new regional development board. Reports in the Malian press suggested that business interests, more than political concerns, motivated Mr Ag Bahanga’s actions.

Mali’s burgeoning tourist trade currently peters out at the edge of the Sahara; it requires a peaceful solution to this standoff. Both the British and American governments warn their citizens against travelling to northern Mali because of reports of rebel fighting and banditry in the region.

Despite that, Mali’s salt traders still make the 36-to-40-day return journey, by camel and caravan, from Timbuktu to the salt mines at Taoudenni in the north during the cool season, from October to March.

 To the salt and back

I walk a few hundred yards beyond the Flamme de la Paix to the edge of the Sahara. Looking out across the forbidden desert with my back towards Timbuktu, thinking about the lonely, unforgiving salt routes and rebel fighters who command the dunes, I really do feel like I’m standing at the end of the world.

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ONE can drive or even fly to Timbuktu, but the most picturesque route to this legendary place is via a slow boat on the Niger River—a journey that’s only possible during the second half of the year, when water levels are high enough.

The river’s lush banks and calm waters are a haven from Mali’s hot, dusty roads and bustling inland towns. We hire a pinasse—the most popular boat amongst Malian riverfarers—in the port town of Mopti for our long journey north.

The Bozo, a fishing tribe, are the unofficial keepers of the Niger. Watching a Bozo fisherman standing at the head of his pinasse, effortlessly casting his net across the river’s surface is one of the journey’s chief pleasures.

 Slow boat to Niafunké

The camaraderie on the river is infectious; I quickly find myself waving to every boat we pass. At each village, the children run down to the waterside, waving vigorously as adults saunter down behind them and offer a calmer greeting. I wonder what they would make of the unspoken “No talking, no smiling, no eye contact” rule of commuters on the Thames back home in London.

No river journey to Timbuktu is complete without a stop at Niafunké, the former home of Ali Farka Touré—a blues guitarist who died in 2006. One of Africa's most renowned musicians, Touré maintained close ties with Niafunké, even naming one of his best-selling albums after it.

In 2004, he became the town’s mayor and put much of his own wealth into upgrading the roads, sewers and electricity. The affection between him and his compatriots was mutual and even now, two years after his death, one inevitably hears Touré’s rough voice and sinuous, hypnotic guitar licks flowing through rolled-down car windows across the town.

We visit Niafunké on market day. Markets are the preserve of women in Mali—they are both buyers and sellers—but they shoo my companion away when he points his fancy-looking digital camera at them. Here in Niafunké, one of the larger markets along the Niger, you can buy anything from fish (fresh or dried) to grains, pulses, herbs, spices, powdered okra and shea-butter soap, all displayed with a healthy dose of buzzing flies.

There is one exception to the women-only rule—red meat, which is butchered and sold by men, often in a cordoned off section of the market. One of the traders lifts a cow’s head up by its horns like a trophy for the camera.

If women in Mali are generally camera-shy, the children definitely are not. When we leave the market, school’s out and we find ourselves surrounded by kids looking for a high-five or a handshake. There are screeches of “Toubabous! Toubabous!” and “Ca va. Le foto?” as they eagerly jostle each other to line up for a snap.

Amadou, our guide on the river, tells us that a toubabou is a white person. “Even me?” I ask, slightly puzzled. “Surely I look more like a Tuareg,” I say, reckoning that my Indian colouring is closer to the lighter skin tones of the northern Malian tribe. “No,” says Amadou. “You’re definitely a toubabou.”

As we approach Dagaberi—a village an hour or so down the river from Korioumé, the port for Timbuktu—Amadou warns us that “the children are quite friendly here.” I wonder how much friendlier they can get but find out soon enough.

As we walk through the village, a separate child grabs each of my fingers. There appears to be a scramble for the little fingers. “If you get to hold the little finger, it’s meant to be good luck,” says Amadou.

Back at the pinasse, the kids peer into the boat, pointing at our pile of empty water bottles. Malians’ have a remarkable talent for recycling, and the kids scramble for the bottles Amadou distributes. A scrap breaks out and one boy wrestles another into the shallow part of the river, grabbing his bottle and sprinting off with it into the village.

I’m embarrassed that empty water bottles are all that we have to give away. Guidebooks advise donating through charities; former visitors tell you to bring useful things like blank exercise books and pens. That sounds like a good idea when you’re surrounded by tens of children asking for a cadeau of some sort, but with so many left standing empty-handed, what is the right thing to do? I still can’t figure it out.

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DJENNÉ has just disappeared. I am standing on the banks of the Bani River, tired and irritable after a day’s journey from Bamako, Mali’s capital. The sun has set, and without streetlights, the city on the other side has grown invisible. I wonder if I will have to roll my sleeping bag out on the wrong side of the river.

After a series of frantic mobile-phone calls to Baba, our fixer in Bamako, we hear something snaking its way through the river towards us. Usman, Baba’s friend in Djenné, has persuaded a local fisherman to bring us back across the Bani.

As my feet squelch in the mud on the floor of his unsteady boat, I’m thankful for the informal network of guides, fixers and friends of friends that help shuttle independent travellers across Mali. That help comes at a price, of course, which I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford.

 Many hands make light work

Mali is not a common tourist destination. In the run up to the trip, everyone I tell gets excited about the prospect of my holiday in Bali.

That could soon change. Tourism is a growing industry in this land-locked, sub-Saharan country. In 2007, 250,000 leisure visitors came to Mali—a 155% increase on the 98,000 tourists in 2002—generating $175m. That’s still dwarfed by the revenue generated by the more established cotton, gold and mining industries. Tourism is held back by weak transport infrastructure and, outside Bamako, a lack of hotels acceptable to the mainstream traveller.

Our receiving party—Usman and Allaye, an English-speaking guide, which is fairly rare in this former French colony—deposits us at the Auberge le Maafir, which my guide book calls a “pleasant place” with “attractively furnished rooms.”

Alas, a mosquito net hangs over the linenless bed and a battered wardrobe stands in the opposite corner to a rickety desk and chair. Another corner of the concrete-floored room is walled off for a shower head, a ceramic basin with unsteady plumbing and—the one luxury—a flushing loo. “I’ll see you at seven in the morning,” says Allaye. “We can visit the mosque.”

Tourism is transforming the lives of many Malians like Allaye. Most visitors hire guides, and the work is much more lucrative than, say, cotton farming. Allaye has learned English and a smattering of Italian from his clients. Some leave behind thank-you gifts of clothes and other useful things (one particularly generous tourist gave Allaye a laptop computer).

In the morning we proceed to the Great Mosque, one of Mali’s major tourist attractions. The largest mud structure in the world, the mosque was built in 1907 on the site of a predecessor that dated back to the 1200s. Its curved lines remind me of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família.

The morning sunlight casts a golden hue across the mosque’s walls, contrasting sharply with its cool, dark interior, splintered with shards of natural light coming in through small holes in the roof that, in the rainy season, are covered with ceramic pots.

Officially, non-Muslim visitors (particularly women) are barred, but a guide can get you in. It is worth the trouble. I am not Muslim but there was something about the mosque that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise, in acknowledgement that I was in the presence of something great.

Perhaps it was the sheer scale of the building, and the labyrinth of corridors created by the rows upon rows of roof-supporting wooden pillars that I knew would later be full of worshippers bowing their heads towards Mecca—a scene that will look no different than it did a century ago. This extraordinary building, like the city it dominates, had resisted (or missed out on) the advance of progress.

At the end of Mali’s rainy season, in September, around 4,000 volunteers from Djenné and the surrounding towns and villages will flock to the mosque to render its external walls with mud, by hand. It’s said to take just one day.

Such traditions die hard in Djenné. Some are necessary, others less so, but still they persist. As we wander around the neighbouring village of Senussa I notice that the teenage girls going about their daily chores—pounding millet, carrying water from the village well—are all bare-breasted. “They go without clothes until they are married,” says Mohammed, our guide for the afternoon, noticing the flicker of curiosity on my (British) face.

Where I've Been...