My Buddy Max

I have been back to work for nearly a week now after a world wind trip to Nepal and Bangladesh and I’m still dragging. My weariness is partly due to jetlag and mostly due to lack of sleep caused by a common cold and nagging cough.

My dog Max though reminded me this morning that my condition could always be worse. You see Max is a 16 year old toy poodle weighing in at eight pounds soaking wet. He is nearly blind due to cataracts, cannot hear a thing, and has to deal constantly with 12 pounds of constant terror in the form of a puppy named Ollie.
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Just coming in the back door, Max has to negotiate getting past Ollie who has assumed the pounce position. Any opportunity to maul his older brother is fun for Ollie.

All the while, Max just does his thing. He waits until Ollie gets bored and flies past him before Ollie realizes he missed.

Max has not been the brightest bulb over the years. His brother Niko (who we lost last November) used to hide his own treats and then come steal Max’s. Niko used to let Max fetch whatever was hurled across the room only to have Niko take it from him just before returning it to the hurler.

Just the same, Max would just do his thing.
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What is Max’s thing? He is patient and he is a cuddler. Of all his personality quirks, Max’s greatest gift is his love. He gives it away like a bee makes honey. All he has to do is a few butt ups for a back scratch and the opportunity to snuggle. He waits and waits and waits. Then he just nestles alongside you insuring he has contact somewhere with someone.

How does this help me in my state of fatigue? Max reminds me that all God asks from us is to operate out of the gifts He has given us.

Max does that every day.

All day.

Back To Reality

I got back to Charlotte about 11:30AM on Saturday and I’ve been dragging ever since. Man… 39 hours of travel will make you delirious.
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My sweet wife took me to breakfast even though it was noon here and 11PM where I had just come from. There is nothing like blueberry pancakes and crispy bacon to welcome a guy home.

Fighting through the process of unpacking including starting laundry I found myself wanting to take a nap. That was probably not the best thing for me to do since I needed to get back to normal, but boy, it sure was tempting.

Working on about four hours of sleep over the past two days I had to fight through it. “Keep busy” kept echoing through my mind. “Keep busy!”

A nice warm shower was helpful and what a delight. We are so blessed to have running water let along it be warm. I soaked for quite a while.

Once all my stuff was unpacked and sorted into stacks I threw in a load of whites and headed out to run a few errands with Lisa. It was nice to just be hangin’ with her again. I missed her cutting wit and her piercing smile.

Soon it was 6PM and my goal became survive until 8 o’clock. Like my 80 year old friend’s daily ritual, I was looking to make it through Wheel of Fortune before the shutters came down. At 7:30PM even a dip in the hot tub seemed to be a chore and that is saying something.

Ahhhh, 8PM is finally here and I forgot how nice a sheet warmer can be and how comfortable it is to sleep in your own bed. Soft linens and fluffy pillows.

Ten hours of sleep later I still felt groggy. Went to church and visited with a lot of friends that were praying for me on this trip. I am a lucky man to have so many great and caring friends.

Lisa is on a mission to find a TV stand for our new 40 inch HDTV we bought ourselves for Christmas. That took all afternoon. We prepared ourselves with a trip to Shomar’s for a grilled chicken sandwich and a strawberry milkshake. Good stuff.

I fought through dinner due to simple fatigue. It had nothing to do with Lisa’s cooking although stir fry from a bag is not real stir fry, especially after eating real Chinese food in South Central Asia for the past two weeks.

I found myself missing my traveling sisters. We had so much fun dealing with worldviews so much different than our own. In no particular order I miss Jessica keeping us on track, Elizabeth’s disarming sense of humor, Nicole’s little dance “getting jiggy with it,” Laura’s amazing ability to cite information on almost any given topic off the top of her head, Meredith’s sweet nature and Julie’s contagious laugh.
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So, now here I am on Monday morning feeling drugged from sleep trying to get motivated to go to the office. Back to reality! No more climbing into a van to be escorted from meeting to meeting. No more comp lunches from NGOs and aspiring politicians. No more “Out of office” messages to deflect email and phone calls.

Now it gets real!

Guys… please keep the prayers coming?

Thanks To My Traveling Sisters

I am still in the process of traveling home now with all flights behind me except a 90 minute hop from Dulles to Charlotte, NC. No challenges after more than 36 hours in airports that started at 8:30PM on Thursday. It is now 9AM in Washington, DC.
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Every check in and transfer went smoothly until I hit stateside. The snag came with United losing one of my bags which we were able to intercept on its way to US Airways. Not a big deal except for a short connection to Charlotte.

My friend and Legislative Fellows’ coordinator on this trip, Jessica, stood by me all the way insuring I was on my way home before heading home herself. I was hesitant to ask, but the nearly forty travelers in line for final clearance to the gate were cordial and accommodating as I moved to the head of the line.

The hustling and jumping to the head of security lines proved to be an exercise when shortly after arriving at the gate it was announced the flight to Charlotte is delayed an hour. Now I wait.

I don’t know how many of you have traveled overseas, but the flight home always seem to take forever. There is nothing like getting home to the security of our own homes, dreams of sleeping in our own beds, and being with the ones we love the most. I’m ready to get there.

All in all though, this trip has been very smooth and drama free. There are always challenges with international travel that we cannot foresee. The only other situation that could be considered a snag would be the check in process in Dhaka when the check in clerk tried to finagle some extra cash for our extra bags. This was another valid reason to travel light.

When traveling in groups there are extra challenges that arise, especially when all the parties in the group begin the journey as strangers. This group was great.
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There were six women in our group leaving me the only male. They were all young enough to be my daughters, which was a reality check in itself. How did I get here so fast? Along with Jessica who kept us all on task and insured our smooth sailing the entire way, the others were made up of very successful women.

Each and every one of them inspired me. They were passionate about their work and were willing to share their experiences as world travelers. They each had a clear message to convey to our new partners in this new world we found ourselves entrenched in.

Each and every one of them was fun and felt free to express their feelings about any given issue or situation we found ourselves in. It became very clear early on that we were all willing to help each other along the way.

The drawback with taking a trip like this is you live together for a full couple of weeks and suddenly it is over. We find ourselves back home in our regular routines.

I feel amiss because I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to each of them since we disembarked our flight together and then found ourselves scrambling to the next flight taking us to our respective homes. We spent nine hours in Dubai as we waited for our flight to Washington, DC having fun and reminiscing, but I didn’t tell me individually how much I appreciated them. I figured I had plenty of time with the upcoming 15 hour flight.

We all promised to stay in touch and I hope we do.

Thanks ladies for an amazing journey. I’m sorry I didn’t give you a hug goodbye. Please know this, you all were a very big part of this magical experience for me. This journey would not have been as impactful without you.

Life as usual?

There is something to be said about visiting three cities in two weeks. Some would call it ambitious. Some might call it crazy. I call it amazing.

In the past 16 days I have been to Dubai twice, Kathmandu and Dhaka. A week each in Nepal and Bangladesh. A blur. A vapor. Soon to be only memories.

Great memories I may add, including fun with six amazing women. All very accomplished and inspiring because of their passion for the people they help. Newly found friendships that I will cherish.

I am very excited to get home to see my beautiful wife, the puppies and to sleep in my own bed, but…

How do I go back to life as usual when I now know there are millions of people in Nepal without electricity 12 hours out of the day?

How do justify letting the tap water run freely when I have had to brush my teeth using a cup because water is so scarce, let alone clean enough to drink from the tap in both Nepal and Bangladesh?

How do I go into a grocery store and not feel overwhelmed by the choices we are so accustomed to in the United States.
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Are we spoiled? Yes.

Are we ungrateful? Sometimes.

Are we blessed? Always.

I have spoken with so many people that have traveled abroad to under developed countries and they all say the same thing. “Seeing how people survive will change your perspective.” In my heart this trip has change my life.

My greatest fear heading into this trip was the potential exposure to the reality of real poverty. I was afraid of the possible heartache. Once realized, I didn’t realize how deep people could go into a this abyss.

We barely scratched the surface only traveling a couple dozen kilometers outside the capitals of these countries. In both cases running water was not an option. Homes were mere shelters not much bigger than a tent accommodating multiple generations of families.
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Being perfectly honest, I get annoyed by lack of space in my 1,800 square foot home. Not today though. Not after seeing how the majority of the 160 million people live in Bangladesh. Not after seeing homes shared with wild stock in the villages of Nepal. Not after seeing the remnants of a burnt out garment factory where more than a hundred lives were lost.

My prayer is I never forget and that I remember how lucky I am to live in a country that I do not always agree with.

One thing is for sure. We are all blessed to even have creature comforts let alone a bathroom indoors. We do not comprehend what it like to live without heat after dark on cold damp nights.

Thank you Lord for putting me in a place where I can live beyond my means. Please help me stay humble and grounded and content with what you have so freely provided me.

In The Streets

There is very little tourism in Dhaka other than a handful of museums, a couple of memorials and a lot of mosques and temples. The campus of Dhaka University is very nice.

If none of that does it for you then you need to head to the streets. Even with the poverty level so high that begging is expected, the trek is well worth it.

It is not uncommon to have heart breaking mothers, struggling with their kids in tow, to follow you for blocks to gain any morsel. The more affluent you look the more persistently they pursue. Don’t take their picture because they will expect payment from you since they need help so desperately. And once you succumb and dish out even a taka or two (1 taka = 1.26 cents) the other homeless and desperate come out of nowhere.
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The street markets are beautiful with colorful fruits and vegetables, aromatic spices, rice of all types, live fish, freshly slaughtered meat, and live chicken plucked and de-feathered on the spot. (see photos > http://tiny.cc/09nbrw)

The best part is the people. It is a bit disconcerting at first, but you learn to embrace the fact that they will flock around you. Because we are so different from them we stand out.

At first I thought it was just the men gawking at the six beautiful women I am traveling with, but local women were in the crowd just as eager to get a glimpse. Some had phones taking pictures while others playfully jumped in front of the camera.

I then noticed that they were watching me too. It became apparent they were reveling in the fact that we were interested in what they were offering. They loved the fact that we cared about them through our wanting their goods. They loved the fact we were willing to come down to their neighborhood.

At one point I turned to find my party was gone. I figured they had wandered further down the street. I did not see them anywhere. I suddenly felt alone and a bit apprehensive. Almost instantly I saw nearly a half dozen locals waving to me that my party had crossed the street. They did not want me to lose my friends. I then felt completely safe.

Suddenly I was being escorted by two young boys; probably younger teenagers. They cheered and laughed as I started to step into traffic. One of them actually grabbed my arm at one point to save me from a high speed rickshaw.

It seemed the entire crowd was cheering as I finally made it across. My two young escorts cheered the loudest and received my high five of thanks. Others in the crowd patted me on the back with congratulations as I joined up with my traveling companions.

For me, this experience on the streets assured me that the Bangali people cared for me. They loved seeing me succeed. In turn, I now find myself cheering for them hoping they succeed through all their political challenges and economic struggles.

Thank you my friends in the streets of Dhaka. Thanks for welcoming me into your world.

Is It Politics?

I am not a politically minded person, so I am feeling a little over my head in Dhaka. Every conversation turns to politics because they love it here.

There is a sophistication and air that comes with politics. I remember my parents always getting into a fray with their friends as to which view was right or wrong. I struggled with the conflict.

I feel that kind of struggle here. There is a debate taking place with the Opposition Party about the upcoming election. An election they are not certain when will take place, but it is certain that it will at some point in the next year.

The sticking point appears to be the appointing of a caretaker government during the election. The current ruling government does not want one. The Opposition Party does to the point of seriously considering not running against the Prime Minister as a way to draw international attention to the issue.

The concept of a caretaker government, as I understand it, is an assembly of people would be appointed for approximately three months to run the election to insure that neutrality is kept in place. I guess the main concern is pressure from the ruling party on the people to vote their way.

Similar to my parent’s discussions, I understand the desire to debate. I feel it is healthy to get all of the ideas out on the table. Where I struggle is when a line is drawn in the sand with no willingness to come to consensus.
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It seems to me that we all need to be willing to give up something along the way. I am coming up on 21 years of marriage and feel sometimes our success is due to our daily negotiations. What we will eat for dinner? Who is going to do the dishes? Who will get up in the middle of the night to take the dogs out? If I didn’t come into these conversations with a willingness to concede on some things I would spend most of my life sleeping outside.

The debate here is much more important than whether or not I am going to take out the trash, I know. Where the real struggle comes is a lack of meeting people on their turf instead of our own. A willingness to view the world outside their own beliefs. A “My way or the highway” mentality.

At some point the Opposition Party is going to find it will need to concede something. I hope they do and do not find themselves sleeping outside another 20 years.

Our First Day in Bangladesh

The Legislative Fellows begin our journey today in Dhaka, the capitol of Bangladesh. It feels a little strange to me already because today is Sunday. The work week starts on Sunday in Bangladesh and will end on Thursday.
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Our local guide is Jamil Ahmed. He is the Chief Executive at JATRI which is the Journalism Training & Research Initiative for all of Bangladesh. He is very well connected. Our first stop is to meet him at his office which is a couple of miles away. With the traffic in Dhaka it could take as much as an hour. We are lucky and get there in thirty minutes.

After seeing the JATRI facilities with everything from a computer lab to recording studios we set off to meet a very large group with the Khan Foundation. The event is bringing together many of their partners from all over the country to meet us. The Khan Foundation was founded by Former Minister of the Government of Bangladesh, Dr. Abdul Moyeen Khan and his wife, Advocate Roshsana Khondker. This was a very productive meeting including hearing stories from women elected as representatives in one of the 450 areas of Bangladesh. There are nine wards within each of these areas along with three overlaying wards. Women are now represented in nearly 2,000 of these wards.

Dr. Khan laid out these main points for us today.
> The local government structure has been in place for nearly 100 years.
> Bangladesh is not a Muslim county. Even with 95% of the population being Muslim, religion is confined to the individual.
> Women became voters in Bangladesh long before the Suffrage movement in the United States.
> People can perform far better than the government. Bangladesh has averaged above 6% GDP for a number of years.
> The people can transform the country.
> The Central government feels they can control the local government level. If they succeed, democracy is ruined.
After this great discussion, The Khan’s hosted a lunch for us. The chicken was rough, but the prawns with curry were really good. Overall, I feel we made some friends.

The afternoon was slated for a cultural tour, but with Jamil’s desire to build relationships we stopped in for a visit with Barrister Kayser Kamal. Interesting gentlemen with a jovial nature and a sinister smile. He is an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh working human rights cases. The Barrister offered us tea, local sweets and snacks. It became obvious that he’d be offended if we didn’t partake, so we obliged. Our discussions surrounded the air of the controlling party and the struggles of the opposition party.

It is apparent that the Prime Minister (http://tiny.cc/ls67qw) and the Opposition do not speak with each other. Bangladesh is a government dominated culture. (49% of the people have no voice) The Prime Minister is the ruler of the country. She assigned the current President (http://tiny.cc/hg77qw) who is viewed as an ornamental position.

The Cake Festival
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We did make it to the Dhaka Cake Festival which had music and bakers from various districts of Dhaka demonstrating and selling their tasty treats. (See photos > http://tiny.cc/v867qw) This was a lot of fun, especially when the crowds started to gather. I thought initially it was the local men gawking at six American women, but it became clear the people were intrigued by our interest in their local customs. A reporter from the largest newspaper in Dhaka, The Daily Star, was there and interviewed me and one of the ladies. It is possibly going to print in tomorrow’s edition.

Our work day ended with a visit to The Daily Star which proved to be another opportunity for tea and sweets and yes… snacks.

Elizabeth Has A Birthday

Most of the Legislative Fellows gathered for a birthday get together for Elizabeth Gomez who turned %$ today. Secretly a couple of our colleagues got a small tart (since we have had enough sweets already today to make Londoner Keith Martin want a break) and a boat load of candles, plus a postcard we all scrambled to sign. It was sweet.

Celebrating over poorly made Tom Collins and Heinekens from the can, the local band played “Happy Birthday” on their gubgubas and odd looking accordion in a wooden box. Very cool. (To be posted at a later date since YouTube is banned in Bangladesh due to interviews of villagers that were posted causing mayhem.)

What’s Up For Tomorrow?

Monday we will go to the U.S. Embassy for a briefing. We do not know if Ambassador Mozena will meet with us or not. We will meet with two members of Parliament and tour the National Parliament. The day will end with dinner in the home of a former Legislative Fellow from Bangladesh.

Check out all of the photos of our journey at http://www.facebook.com/MikeSextonNC and read about what we are doing on http://MikeSextonNC.wordpress.com.

The People Are Nepal

The past few days have been a blur. We have been very busy meeting with our U.S. Ambassador of Nepal (Peter Bodde) to ceremonies with members of a small village, visiting Co-ops to Non-Government Organizations.

Everywhere we have been this week discussions have been held on how the Maoists are reluctant to give up control, how the Parliament is no longer in place, there are numerous political parties unable to find common ground, yet the Nepalese people still prevail.

The spirit of this country is amazing. They do not currently have a constitution and it appears they will not come to consensus any time soon, but the spirit of the people is compelling. Their love for each other and their pride is moving. You get a very strong sense of hope from them even when their government has failed them to the point of near collapse.

Everywhere we have been we have been received by people moved to help their fellow man and women. Programs designed to share their wealth through co-ops utilizing microfinance. Visiting services to help widows regain their voice when their community has blamed them for their husbands’ untimely death. Human rights groups fighting for refugees they don’t even know. Child advocates and shelter workers.

All the while, the people of Nepal celebrate their history of failed democracies and turn a blind eye to other nation’s views of them as a failed state.

This week has stirred me. It has drawn up emotions in me for a people I just met and barely know. A people I want to see succeed. A nation I am proud and blessed to have been able to participate in. Even for just a little while.

Tomorrow our Legislative Fellows Program moves on to Bangladesh. I am excited about what the next week has for us, but it is going to be very hard for my heart to completely leave Nepal. Forever I will cherish my time here.

Day 4 Nepali Politics & Culture

Today was a very interesting day here in Kathmandu. Our tour guides (Samudaik & Siraha) joined us at 8:15 AM for a full day of talks and site seeing.

Our first stop was a meeting with Sanubhai Sunar, District President of the democratic Madheshee People’s Rights Forum. He shared his efforts in promoting dialogue with the two other political parties in an effort to meet consensus on a constitution (and ultimately on an election process). Currently the extreme left (Maoist/Communist) are in power and have no interest in an election. There currently is no Parliament. The other party is the extreme right (liberal Democrats). The Madheshee party presents themselves as in between these two and the only party where the people are not marginalized. The economy is in crisis with high unemployment and there is no law and order.

Our next meeting was a very quick visit with the People’s Rural Development & Awareness Programme Service (PRDAPS). They are a non-government organization (NGO) devoted for implementation of integrated community development for vulnerable and disadvantaged people of Nepal.

We then met with Professor Parsuran Kharel, retired Professor Prem Khatri and retired President of the Nepal Press institute Mr. Gokul Pokharel over lunch. We had some very interesting discussions on a number of fronts regarding political transition and culture in Nepal. All seemed somewhat frustrated by the Country’s lack of any form of unified leadership. The Caste System is utilized in this region only adding to their challenges.
(See more > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India)

Gender discrimination with clearly defined roles for women is common place. The logic they hold is that the women work very hard in the home and they do not have time for education or politics. The literacy rate for women in all of Nepal is 1%.

Swayambhunath Temple

The Swayambhunath Temple is the largest Hindu temple in Kathmandu. People travel from all over the world to come see it. Lots of vibrant colors and amazing faces (see photos > http://on.fb.me/TWJ4Z0)

Durbar Square

We spent the last few hours of daylight in or around Durbar Square. The streets are filled with colorful vendors, cows walking the streets, and more temples for numerous god s and goddesses, including one for the Kumari, or Goddess of Virginity.
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The Napali tradition holds that a young girl (4 or 5 years old) be selected. Once the girl has been selected she is brought to the temple to live without her family. She is educated and looked after. She is then put on display for visitors when she is expected to sit in the middle window with all of her makeup and traditional wardrobe. The crowd then publicly worships her and pays a donation on their way out. She is kept there until she matures at which point she is considered unclean. It is at this point she is welcome to move back with her family or go it alone. (See more > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumari_(children))

What’s up for tomorrow?

Tuesday we go to the U.S. Embassy in Nepal to talk about conducting elections. For this I get to wear a tie. Oh my! In the afternoon we will meet with an NGO to talk about coping with violence against women in Nepal.

Check out today’s photos at http://www.facebook.com/MikeSextonNC and join me again tomorrow for another installment on http://MikeSextonNC.wordpress.com.

Day 3 Headed to Kathmandu

Wow! Dubai was spectacular. Rich, vibrant and alive. Loved the people and the sites. The night life made me feel like we were back in the glamour days of the 50’s in Hollywood. People dressed up and smoking was a very common reality. Visiting men in suits. Women with minks .

The local Muslim men wore robes and white head wear. It is tradition. White cloths reflect sun light, black cloth does not. Sun light produces heat. So, to keep themselves safe from HEAT of the SUN in the deserts, Arabs wear white cloth over their head.

The local Muslim women wore robes and head wear covering everything but their eyes and hands. “Hijab” is a word that indicates several conditions for the women’s Islamic dress. (http://islam.about.com/od/dress/tp/clothing-glossary.htm)
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Here are some of the conditions:
1. Clothing must cover the entire body, only the hands and face may remain visible.
2. The material must not be so thin that one can see through it.
3. The clothing must hang loose so that the shape of the body is not apparent.
4. The female clothing must not resemble the man’s clothing.
5. The design of the clothing must not resemble the clothing of the non-believing women.
6. The design must not consist of bold designs which attract attention.
7. Clothing should not be worn for the sole purpose of gaining reputation or increasing one’s status in society.

The reason for this strictness is so that the woman is protected from the lustful gaze of men. She should not attract attention to herself in any way. It is permissible for a man to catch the eye of a woman; however it is unlawful for a man to look twice as this encourages lustful thoughts.

Traveling to Kathmandu

The journey to Kathmandu has been eye opening to me. It is very apparent that women are viewed as second class citizens in this region. An afterthought almost. Possessions to be beckoned.

The Dubai International Airport waiting area clarified this for me. There was a room set aside for women. A local man told me it was for their privacy, but my perception was it was clear they were set aside; out of view. It appeared that only men sat in the open waiting areas. The only women you saw in the open were Westerners or non-Muslim women.

It has been very interesting thus far observing how men do gaze at women. I find myself doing it. The Napali men on the plane took this to another level. Creepy really. And walking the Kathmandu streets tonight was deserted by women. I found myself purposely walking behind my colleagues as a protector. My seven sisters instilled “the protector” in me at an early age, but this was different. My awareness was definitely heightened.

The lesson of the day for me is respect for women is more than chivalry guys. It is standing up for them. Defending them. Protecting them. Not looking at them with thoughts of physical pleasures, but honoring them. Help them feel safe. Empowering them to be all that God have designed for them.

What’s on tap for tomorrow?

Our first meeting of the trip is at 9AM to talk about the Status of Party Politics in Nepal and then on to an Introduction To Political Transition and Culture in Nepal. This should be interesting in light of the fact that the county of Nepal does not have a constitution and they do not appear to have a consensus as to how to get there.

Tomorrow afternoon we have a cultural tour of Kathmandu including a visit to Swayambhunnath (also known as the Monkey Temple). It is an ancient religious complex atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley just west of the city. We all are hoping to see some monkeys.

Check out today’s photos at http://www.facebook.com/MikeSextonNC and join me again tomorrow for another installment on http://MikeSextonNC.wordpress.com.