Ramadan Karim

”Ramadan is the best time of the year!” said my teacher Rashad with passion and continued: “It is a time when you get closer to God, when you think about who you are, feel compassion with others and show your most generous side. And it is a time of big commercialism. The streets will be full of people in the middle of the night! You can buy absolutely anything!”

Working the belts.....

Working the belts.....

The opinions of the goodness of Ramadan is views of contradictions. Amongst the ex-pat (foreign Western workers) community in Sanaa, not a very big one, Ramadan is a time of complications when the country stands still and nothing happens. Even though it is officially said that people do work between 10-15, it is also said that nothing seems to happen. But, personally, I really look forward to the Ramadan, even though I am not a Muslim. It is no doubt a time of festivity and joy. But not all Muslims are happy regarding all the tough restrictions on normal life, which the rules of Ramadan sets.
“These people are savages!” whispered an Iraqi to me yesterday, when he like me, was fighting my way to reach the overwhelmingly packed cheese and lebne counter at the slightly upper-class Hodda Super Market yesterday an hour before iftar, the break of the fast, “These people are almost talibans in their religious strictness. I got smacked in the face this morning when I tried to smoke. I miss Iraq under Saddam Hussein so much. You could do anything under him as long as you didn´t interfere with his life. This country would need a strong man like Saddam Hussein! He would sort out these religious bastards.”

Sellling belts......

Sellling belts......

For you readers who might not know, Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, where you, if you are a good and devout Muslim, fast from the sunset to the sunrise. At that means strictly no smoking, no drinking of water or other liquids, no love making, no food and no kat chewing. It is a fast who is supposed to make the believer understand and appreciate the harshness of life. Like being a Bedouin in the desert. Which is the origin of the Arab itself. So, Ramadan applied on modern life, it has its consequences. For me personally, what I have seen so far ( I am not fasting, that would be very dangerous with my blood sugar….anyway, I am totally against the concept of fasting anyway, it just does damage to the body unnecessarily) it has meant that the Internet here is irregular and almost impossible to use, which makes me extremely upset and I see that as a sign of a shitty government. Sorry lost my temper there a bit……on top of that, the day has moved forward 6 hours, so late breakfast and late dinner, which suits me perfectly. However, the gym is closed until 20.00 hours, and that is complicating things a bit. And, of course, I don´t drink or eat in public. It all takes a bit more planning, that´s all. And then, just enjoy this great month of Ramadan! Yesterday, I just walked the jambiyya souk (knife market) just after midnight in pouring rain and it was one of the highlights of my visit! It was like walking through a pre-medieval setting, 1000 of years back in time, everyone was getting ready for the big influx of buyers and electricity went on and off, and I tell you one thing, if I would walk all of the 40 or so souks which makes up the Old Souk of Sanaa, through all the winding and narrow alleys, it would take me years. I stopped and talked to one of the best known jambiyya and belt sales people, Abdullah Karim, and I sat with him an hour, listening to his stories and differences in quality regarding knives and belts of Sanaa.

Souk without electricty.....medieval!

Souk without electricty.....medieval!

“I do 90% of my sales in a year during Ramadan” , he told me with gusto, “This is one the rich people come and buy, but really, this is when everyone buys belts and knives.”
He showed me the cheap belts and knives, and than he opened a hidden door behind himself, whilst chewing an enormous load of kat, where he had his exclusives, knives for thousands of dollars and belts made with gold thread of the highest quality.
“I travel to China, Russia and India every year, when there´s no work. Which is the case 6 months of the year, when we basically only chew kat and wait for the prosperous times like the Ramadan.”
Ramadan Karim!

More stories from this great month to come!

See the pilot from the upcoming Expedition!

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A self made man

A facade belong to Old Sanaa.....

A facade belong to Old Sanaa.....

“It´s is all haram (forbidden)!”, my new very good friend exclaimed with disappointment and threw out his hands, turned his new Mercedes Benz around and returned back to what was not long ago a foul-smelling sewer canal, which is called the silo in local tongue, but now turned into an exiting main road through the city and he continued: “Every good idea to turn things around for the better for everyone in this country is killed by the religious fanatics and called haram!”

Can the Silo be turned into a floursihing Yemeni variety of le Seine?

Can the Silo be turned into a floursihing Yemeni variety of le Seine?

Let us call my very new good friend the Self-Made Man. A true description of this fighter in every sense turned into a powerful factor in this great, but complicated country. He was showing me one of his great visions to turn one part of the Old City of Sanaa into a great possibility to draw tourist from all over the world. Which is something the country desperately needs to have a chance to handle the future. My new friend is also a great visionary. He sees the silo, the main street, free of traffic, which is covered on both sides of the great buildings of Old Sanaa, turning into a Yemeni version of both sides of the river Seine in Paris, France. Cafés, an array of entertaining street artists, open door exhibitions, museums, open theaters for opera and local music. And, I fully believe, like him that it would be a great success!

Early start in Old Sanaa

Early start in Old Sanaa

It is early morning in Old Sanaa. Life is slowly starting up, I hear one noisy motor bike only, a car with a silent motor passing with blaring classical music, people walking past with tired steps on the stone layered street below my window, a dog barking in a distance, a neighbor having a shower and the call of the muezzin just finished. I haven´t slept many hours, because I enjoyed the meeting tremendously yesterday and this new friend of mine. Like me, he is a self made man and I do, naturally, prefer self made people far more than that other group of spoiled brats who have made their way up in life. I believe I have met another brother here in the Arab world, just like Talib in Oman. A soul mate. Ever since I had this vision to do this Expedition, the most amazing things have happened and I think this is part of the true Arabian Experience. Amazing things, almost un-explainable, does happen. Some of them almost like it would be a grace of God and like they would already be written in the stars. Another piece of the jigsaw of life falling into place. It happens all the time. My best friend here in Sanaa, Pam, is one of these almost un-explainable meetings. It was one of her friends in the US who knew The Self Made Man. She is also a self made person, a fighter of enormous strength. She has helped me with great energy with the planning of the Expedition.

Early morning, Old Sanaa waking up....

Early morning, Old Sanaa waking up....

I feel extraordinary privileged to constantly running into people who understands my vision and want to help. Most of the time, it is pretty much the same type of people. People with a positive attitude who´s lives have been up and down, but everything handledwithout bitterness, hate or negativity. Very positive, energetic people who want to make a difference and understands that big visions makes a difference. Like the Self Made Man. He liked my vision and after having spent an evening together, meeting a lot of powerful Yemenis, we realized that we have the same instincts. And love for Yemen. My friend, The Self Made Man, who you will meet more, in shallah, in my dispatches from Yemen, has really, better than anybody sold me the overwhelmingly positive aspects of Yemen and I will finish this off with him recounting when he came back to the country from abroad a few days ago:

“I returned back in the middle of the night from abroad, not really knowing if it would be good or bad to come back to this disorganized, sometimes hopeless country, but I decided to drive through the Old City. I turned up the the Verdi opera on my CD-player, opened all the windows and slowly passed through the winding and narrow alleys and souks. Suddenly I felt something grip my soul, like a belonging, like a major part of me belonged here, and I realized how privileged I was to almost daily to encounter the spirit of the Old City of Sanaa.”

The Self Made Man could well be the solution to the Yemeni problem. Both to the country and mine. Future will tell.

Me and.....

Me and.....

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4 days in Oman, compairing it to Yemen……

I have just put foot once again in Yemen, after four very relaxing days in Oman. I have been up and handling camels again…gee, I just love camels…they´re so sweet, cuddly, funny, difficult, independent and gracious….I cruised the dune ridges with a friend in the Wahiba Sands….silent, spacious, fresh air and open wilderness…everything that Sanaa doesn´t offer…..

Life is nevere, ever boring in Sanaa!

Life is nevere, ever boring in Sanaa!

I will keep it relatively short today, I did of course pick up a cold going in and out of air conditioned rooms and hotels in Oman and I started with the Arabic classes again today. So I am, as always, more or less knackered. But I just have to do some kind of a comparison, even if it is not a good idea to do. They´re two extremely different countries with different possibilities, Oman and Yemen. One has plenty of gas and oil for awhile and only around 3 million inhabitants in a country bigger than Yemen, where at least 25 million people fight for some fresh air in a country with very little natural resources as such.

The reason I went to Oman was two, first of all, just to keep myself updated with the Expedition planning, which hasn´t, of course, moved anywhere due to holidays and now the upcoming Ramadan…but good to see all of my great Omani friends,Talib, Dana, the boys and so on…secondly, just had to have a break from Sanaa. It is extremely demanding in every way. Water shortages, electricity shortages, noise, pollution, dirt, poverty, chaotic traffic and it takes such an enormous amount of energy to come across all these amazing personalities from the New and Old World! Sanaa is never, ever, boring!

A view of the Old Muscat, not far from Muttrah.....still very modern!

A view of the Old Muscat, not far from Muttrah.....still very modern!

But, the break was good. Less people, very orderly, no pollution hardly, great coffee (I have dreamed about espresso for 5 weeks now!), a feeling of luxury and just a rest for the brain. HOWEVER, I felt very happy getting of the plane in Sanaa again, yesterday, and 30 minutes later and much poorer due to the exorbitant visa price (65 dollars again!)hitting the souks with a almost dead taxi and once again ending up in this amazing array of life! Sanaas souks are probably the most amazing place regarding seeing interesting people on earth! I just love the sense of being alive more than ever!

And I am happier than I have been in many years! Latest time I was happy, was here!

And, do not forget my other blog at http://preparingforthenextexpedition.blogspot.com/

My very good Omani friends, Talib to the top right, one of my very best friends, and the guys sitting next to me, are Salim and Nasser who will join me on the Expedition!

My very good Omani friends, Talib to the top right, one of my very best friends, and the guys sitting next to me, are Salim and Nasser who will join me on the Expedition!

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First term pretty much finished!

I do get a fair amount of questions from readers who wish to know the development of my Arabic…..well, the truth is that it is better than when I came! It is like life itself, it has gone up and down, but since the first term is almost over, one day to go, I am more than happy that I took the choice to come here.

View of the old city of Sanaa from a well placed mafrag.

View of the old city of Sanaa from a well placed mafrag.

There´s no doubt that I have had some of the best moments of my life here. Much of it is due to the people I have come across here. It has been such a busy month where I have had problems catching my breath in between lessons, meeting people, planning the Expedition and trying to handle all these, at times, unbelievable impressions that you continuously run into here in Sanaa. So, just to get a bit of a break,and meet my great friends in Oman, I will head for Yemen’s neighbor for a four day visits. I will keep you updated about the visit.

Learning anything new in life, you need a good setting -it couldn´t be better than Sanaa, due to that very few Yemenis speak English plus that they´re very happy to take their time to listen to you- and you need a well established school plus good teachers and if you like me, are in a group, inspiring fellow students.  I have very strong opinions on the subject of teachers, I firmly believe they have the most import work on earth, and therefore, you need good teachers -good humans with a mission- to get inspired to study. I have had one teacher which has inspired a lot, Rashad, during my first term studies.

Rashad - engaged teacher

Rashad - engaged teacher

Rashad´s life is like any other Yemeni teacher, meaning a lfe dominated by lot´s of preparations and patience mixed with how to handle and survive the pressures of normal life.  Take Rashad, he is married with kids, his wife studies, so he supports them both, plus two of his brothers who are studing at university plus his father who´s not in the best of shape in life and he dreams of an easier life with better payment and the possiblity to buy a car, a house and to gather enough money to be able to do a pilgrimage to Mecca. But the cost to do this is enormous.  Yesterday he was away from school due to an eye problem caused by stress. So, the same applies to modern people all over the world, life is plagued by stress to fulfill dreams of the many.

My visit to Yemen constantly reminds me what a privileged human being I am!

The future of Yemen with his dad

The future of Yemen with his dad

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The general

”You have to speak up” , Abdullah Rahman shouted, ”I am almost deaf after spending so much time standing next to cannons!”

The palace of Imam Yahya....

The palace of Imam Yahya....

We were heading for the palace of Dar Al-Hajar, which was constructed as a summer residence for Imam Yahya in the early 1920`s, in an area which the locals of Sanaa in those days used as a weekend trip to rest their nerves after the busy life in the city. They still do. We passed through the outskirts of the city, where construction seemed to rest due to the demanding circumstances. It´s like people just began building and suddenly just ran out of money. We passed through several cramped stops for shared taxis, where people hurried around trying to find a seat that would take them out of the city for the weekend. My first thought was:

“Africa and matatus!”

The village of Wadi Dhahar

The village of Wadi Dhahar

There’s definitely a feeling of the great continent of Africa, on and off in Sanaa, even though the enormous amount of impressions one gets continuously can only be equaled by India. But Sanaa is far more genuine. And I can only imagine what the life outside the capital is, since no matter how you look at things, country life is always more genuine than city life. I would say that Yemen is easily one of the most interesting places on earth and in many ways perfect for visiting as a tourist. And that was the reason I was travelling with Abdullah Rahman and our common friend Kamel. To find out the possibilities to bring tourists to Yemen. Abdullah Rahman runs a hotel in the centre of the Old Sanaa named Dawood Hotel and loves his country and wants people from all over the world to come and enjoy its history and culture. But as always in Sanaa, after awhile, no matter how spectacular the surrounding, it is the Yemenis themselves which impress. Even though the palace was located in a spectacular surrounding, it kind of erupts out of a rocktable like a giant red and white toad stool, it was as interesting to listen to the stories of Abdullah Rahman and Kamel.

At home with the general

At home with the general

Abdullah Rahman used to be a general in the army up until 5 years ago, when he decided he wanted to spend more time with his family. His career is the modern history of the country. He commanded his troops in the, or always it seems like, troublesome north. But now he takes care of his country side mansion which is dotted with relatively lush gardens offering tasty fruits like pomegranates, a spiky cactus fruit called tiin schauki and plenty of the famed grapes of Yemen.

“If we would make wine out of these grapes” , the old General shouted, “one liter would cost a thousand dollars!”

Exclusive and expensive grapes.....

Exclusive and expensive grapes.....

The general pointed out the fact that half his garden was dry due to serious water shortages in the country. One of many major problems this spectacular country faces at the moment. One thing they don´t lack is generosity. The general being one of the most generous of men, we ended up in his fine red bricked mansion where the females of the family had prepared an enormous meal of local Yemeni food. Salta of course.

“The traditions say” , Kamel translated, “That we cannot finish until we´ve eaten 7 bowls of salta.”

This he said just after we´ve stuffed ourselves with roasted chicken, delicious veal, chips, rice and lots of great bread. And the general himself portioned out the best pieces to us, as the tradition says, to show he was utterly honored by our visit and therefore serves the guest himself. A tradition I like a lot personally. There´s so many things I like with the Yemeni traditions. The salta was delicious, but we stopped after two giant bowls and the last time I was this stuffed on the brink of exploding was in another Arab country, Algeria. An oasis called Laghout, located just southeast of Grand Erg Occidental in the year of 1986. That time my overeating made me throw up just outside town, and I had to set up the tent in 50 degrees Celsius in the desert and I spent four hours sweating the problem out, until it eventually gave me enough energy to speed through the Sahara Desert on a bicycle from north to south. One of the first in history to do just that.

“You just have to meet his daughter!” Pam shouted happily in a way that would make the general happy to me whilst I was laid back on the traditional Yemeni cushions on the floor after the filling lunch, the main meal of the day, which I love, “She has given me a black dress to try, a dress she has made herself.”

My friends Kamel and the general discussing during kat chew....

My friends Kamel and the general discussing during kat chew....

Pam is my best friend at school and I often ask her to join me on my visits outside school, because we will always meet women which otherwise is impossible. Pam is full of energy and life and her knowledge of the Arab world is astounding to say the least. It was the first time I shook the hand of a local woman in Yemen, however she was veiled whilst doing it. Amazing how different traditions can be globally!

“Do you want to chew kat here or in town?”

It was around four and about time to chew according to the general, so we went back to town and all the way up on the roof of his six-storey hotel, to its beautiful mafrag (place where you chew kat) and sat down with some of his own kat.

“Let us not talk business today” , the General said, “Let us just enjoy life.”

We spent three hours talking about the three most common subjects, politics, the Arab world and sex. All three subjects discussed in a very frank way, that even I, a Swede, felt slightly uncomfortable regarding the sex part. Regarding the other topics, I love the frankness, but let me just say that I have discussed this topic in many other parts of the world throughout my life, but it is never as blunt as in the Arab world, Oman apart, I have to say. It is the only subject I do not enjoy. As love it should be handled with respect.

My friends Pam and Kamel buying fruits at local fruitstand along the way....

My friends Pam and Kamel buying fruits at local fruitstand along the way....

However, I really like the kat chew as a forum to have time to talk and discuss things. (I have received plenty of emails from Sweden where kat is a forbidden substance and I jst want to add that I do not chew kat. )And as always in Yemen, you end up with new friends after each kat chew. If all goes well, in shallah, Sanaa will be full of privileged tourist again!

“The best time to sit in the mafrag an chew kat…” , Kamel, this very intelligent and kind local poet and writer said; “….is when its is raining, because at these times you will see the Old City of Sanaa change its dress many times.”

Arabic is such a poetic and beautiful language. In shallah, soon I should understand a bit more….

View of Sanaa from the Dawood mafrag!

View of Sanaa from the Dawood mafrag!

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Just going to the gym in Sanaa is an adventure

I met these ladies on the way to the gym.....

I met these ladies on the way to the gym.....

The evening muezzin is calling for prayer over Old Sanaa, dogs are barking, kids are playing football on the street below my window, I can see straight in to the backyard of a neighbor, a covered woman washing clothes, cars are giving noise a new dimension and motorbikes seems to try to set world records in highest speed in most crowded environment. I am sitting in the dark, another electricity brake is hounding the city and I am eating laban, a kind of a salty, thin youghurt with a taste of smoked milk. It is one way to add protein to the body. But building muscle and power in Sanaa is no easy thing, basically due to that it is hard to find enough protein. I eat a lot of eggs, youghurt, milk, but it ain´t enough. I have in a mere three weeks lost so much power and at the gym today I had to fight with ridiculous weights. So I am not surprised that all the young men who train there don´t have neither muscle or strength. It isn´t easy in an adventurous city like Sanaa!

Everyone needs a gym card....here´s mine!

Everyone needs a gym card....here´s mine!

Just walking to the gym is kind of an adventure, mainly due to the traffic which is really a world of its own, but it is good for training as well, since you spend most of the time dodging buses and avoiding to get run over by a speeding motorbike occupied by at least three young men. But you also pass through some spectacular souks full of life and when you eventually arrive at the gym, having stopped, conversed in poor Arabic a few times, one is really tired….

The gym....

The gym....

No women are allowed to train in the gym, only men dressed from toe to top. Most of them have no idea how to train and it makes me distressed to see them doing it all wrong. Too heavy weights and using the wrong muscles. It will take a life time, if ever, for most of them even getting close to the body builders, who´s posters dot the walls in the gym. The favorite is a Facebook friend of mine, The Lebanese Lion, Samir Bannout. The gym in itself is ok, barbells and dumbbells which is fine, but a bit disorganized. But, full of extremely friendly Yemenis which at times are so friendly I don´t even get a chance to do my reps properly.

Selling sweets...not good to eat after a workout...

Selling sweets...not good to eat after a workout...

I train for an hour and than I slowly cruise back home through the souk and once back home in my room, I am more tired than ever. Not through the traing session, but through the enormous input of fantastic images gathered in my head going back and forth to the gym!

To find out more, why a train in gyms in preparation for the Big Expedition, see http://preparingforthenextexpedition

A lad I met who wanted to have his photo taken....

A lad I met who wanted to have his photo taken....

.blogspot.com/2008/10/on-subject-of-physical-appereance.html

Next Expedition, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3GI-YeZP5E

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Chewing kat – the national past time of Yemen

“You see, it shouldn´t be called chewing kat” , my new good friend Kyle said, “It should be called storing kat, which is the Arabic meaning of the word.”

Selling kat on the way to the kat session....one bag costs about 750 rials, which is the equvalent to 3.5 dollars

Selling kat on the way to the kat session....one bag costs about 750 rials, which is the equvalent to 3.5 dollars

The chewing, or storing, of kat is a controversial issue not only in Yemen, but also in the surrounding countries. There´s a loud opposition against kat (read about kat on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khat) because it is said to have a big negative effect on Yemen’s economy. It is not an exportable product, it uses an considerable amount of the countries natural resources, lots of manpower and most of all, apparently almost 40% of the countries water resources. It is also said that it creates a lot of problems within the family, like for example alcohol, since it strains the family economy (a small bag of a one session chew is 750 rials, which is a lot of money for the locals, about 3.5 dollars) and it damages family bonds since the men are always gone chewing kat with male friends. All this is of course the same effects that any consumption of alcohol and such stimulants that we humans seem to need worldwide.

An avid kat chewer at the session....

An avid kat chewer at the session....

Anyway, chewing kat is after all the national past time in Yemen, and has the same social consequences as vodka in Russia, that it is through a kat session or a vodka party that you get the real insights into the country and its workings. It is said. So I joined Bob Burrowes , political expert of Yemen from the University of  Washington, who´s spent more than 7 years all together in this diverse country that he visited the first time 1976.

“I hope you will find that there are some very positive aspects of the kat sessions” , this veteran of thousands of kat sessions told me whilst we walked through the spectacular old city of Sanaa heading first for lunch together with another big Yemeni ex-pat personality, Kyle, “Whatever one´s position regarding kat, its presence is undeniably and impossible to ignore.”

The famous Bob Burrowes to the right, next to as famous Abdul-Ghani and Kamil

The famous Bob Burrowes to the right, next to as famous Abdul-Ghani and Kamil

These two veterans are two of the major personalities I have come across during my visit here.In Yemen, even the white people are interesting, which says a lot about the country. Kyle for example, has lived here for many years, speaks fluent Arabic and have been married to three Yemeni ladies and is a storyteller of sorts. One of these jagged personalities, dented by life, driven by curiosity and good humor, that one has the privileged to come across on and off on the global arena as a traveller. He first took us to a great restaurant, then we ended up at the kat session with a mix of expats and Yemenis. We spent almost 8 hours storing kat. Because that is what you do, store kat in one of the cheeks until it would like to bust. But you don´t spit this green substance out until the session is over. So in this case, we are talking almost 8 hours of storing. I have to say it is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable moments I have had in a long time, sitting in a group talking about the most amazing things of life. And you do learn a lot of Yemen during such a expanded session.

Me and Kyle and a couple of friends at the session...it was my first, but Bob he has the expat record of 58 kat sessions in a row!

Me and Kyle and a couple of friends at the session...it was my first, but Bob he has the expat record of 58 kat sessions in a row!

“We Yemenis are not an aggressive people, we like to talk, see how it is here, a kat session is an important way to socialize and solve problems” , Kamal told me in perfect english, “Therefore as you see on the streets of Sanaa, people take life is easy, even though the reputation of instability is racing across the country. But I don not feel worried. We will talk ourselves out of this problem and I think a federal initiative, to give all regions more autonomy is the solution. The only problem as I see it is the terrible corruption in the country.”

The restaurant serving the best salta and kebabs according to Kyle....I believe him...we stopped here for a great lunch!

The restaurant serving the best salta and kebabs according to Kyle....I believe him...we stopped here for a great lunch!

Since my days in Siberia , I have long ago realized some basic facts about the human mind and its quest to be a being. There´s no doubt that we are a homo conversencis, a being who needs to continuously communicate and socialize to feel content with life. Some of the happiest people I have come across during 23 years of traveling are people who continuously communicate with each other. And a kat session is very much like that. It is a very important social function and we humans need this gatherings, even though they put a heavy toll on other things in society. Life is a about finding an equilibrium, not just painting life in white or black. So far, my first kat session wasn´t only a success when it came to getting profound insights into the Yemeni life, hearing some amazing stories from Mali by a true story teller or a perspective of being Yemeni in Finland, it was a very basic way for human beings to interact and talk leading to a much less aggressive approach to life. Everything has a backside to it, it is just that things take time to understand and develop so if demanding and slightly negative people went to a kat session instead of moaning about the negative aspect of life, we would have a better and more fair understanding of the world. Especially the Yemeni one.

For more reading and insights to the meaning of life, please visit my other blog at http://preparingforthenextexpedition.blogspot.com/

It was such a long kat session that we passed in darkness return through the old city home to the school....

It was such a long kat session that we passed in darkness return through the old city home to the school....

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