adventure

Today I went on a new adventure.
I reconnected with my origins and marveled and how far I’ve travelled since then.
I drew pictures of my past and built Lego models of my future, in the hope of making the present more meaningful.
I ignored the “what” and the “how” in favour of exploring the “why”.

The afternoon drew to a close and the rain fell.
Suddenly unsure of myself, I stood in the doorway watching the storm until at last, gripped by a sudden certainty, I stepped out and let the raindrops wash my questions away.

what’s important?

In no particular order:

Integrity.
Armour (killer heels; a good suit; the perfect lipstick).
Loyalty.
Having a vote.
A sense of place.
Grammar.
A feeling of self-worth.
Good red wine.
Freedom to travel.
A nice cup of tea (or coffee, if you must).
Grammar. (yes, I’ve listed it twice)
Books.
Knowing where your next meal is coming from.
Access to knowledge.
Decent cheese.
A good winter coat.
Honesty.
Heritage.
The ocean.

down memory lane

On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stroll up the street where I grew up to catch the bus into town for the first time in more than a decade.

The 78 bus is gone now, replaced by the number 40 that crawls through working class suburbs west of the city, over O’Connell Bridge itself and finishes its journey in the deep north of Dublin.

Older women with shopping trolleys wait in line by the electronic sign showing waiting times for the different buses. That would have been handy when I was a teenager. “Remember, you can get any number but the 18 bus”, Mum says. “you don’t want to be ending up in Sandymount.”

I hop on board and my favourite seat: upstairs at the very front. The main shopping drag is busy this morning. Jackie’s florist has lots of handmade evergreen wreaths for front doors and graveyard headstones. There is no hearse in front of Massey’s this morning, although when leaving the house I heard the slow tolling of the funeral bell up at St. Matthew’s Church, which this very day is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of its doors. Impossible to imagine burying a loved one in the week that’s in it.

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Down through the lower end of Ballyfermot, I have a perfect view across the river to the Phoenix Park and the Pope’s Cross. There is a new cafe at the GAA club down at Sarsfield Ranch, but next door the draughty scout hall I spent half my youth in, first as a sea scout and then as a venture scout, has been torn down. Wonder where they meet now.

As we go under the railway bridge, the border between Ballyfermot and Inchicore, I look with fresh eyes over the big stone wall into the railywaymen’s houses with their symmetrical windows and colourful front doors. They look huge and fancy from the outside, and I can’t imagine how they can be only two-bedroom houses.

Inchicore village is much changed since my youth: they even let women into the front bar of the Black Lion these days. There is a nice looking Italian enoteca next door, and a handful of international groceries selling Turkish, Polish, African and Indian food. Over the Camac River, St. Patrick’s Athletic grounds are now surrounded by newer apartment blocks as well as the old red-bricked terraced houses. St. Michael’s Church is not far from the street where my father grew up, but the bus heads towards Kilmainham and St. James’s Gate rather than down the South Circular Road, so this is as close as I get.

I remember the name of a girl I went to school with, as I pass her mum’s house in Old Kilmainham. The entrance to St. James’s Hospital is more modern now, with the Luas trams driving right into the hospital complex. Past Guinness’s iconic St. James’s Gate and the green dome of St. Patrick’s Tower, the former windmill of the long-closed Roe whisky distillery, past St. Catherine’s church, the site of the execution of Irish patriot Robert Emmet. I know these places not from history at school but from the stories my Dad told me every time we drove or took the bus down this route. His knowledge of the history of Dublin was encyclopaedic.

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Thomas Street and Meath Street, the heart of the Liberties, are as run down today as they were in my youth. Street sellers call out in their unforgettable Liberties accent: “Get the last of the Christmas wrapping paper, there now five sheets for two euro!” I remember when it used to be five sheets for ten pence. As my father would have said, that was neither today nor yesterday.

The heart of the Liberties has not changed for centuries, the imposing church of St. Audoen’s only in the ha’penny place beside the even grander structures of Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral around the corner. So strange that, with the history of this city, we ended up with two Protestant cathedrals and no Catholic one to this day.

Dame Street is heaving with traffic and people. Trinity College is surprisingly bare of Christmas lights but the big old Bank of Ireland is looking great with a huge lit-up tree and plenty of Christmas garlands.

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Round by Westmoreland Street the crowds continue. The Spire rises up into the cold grey sky like a giant silver needle, dwarfing everything on O’Connell Street. Hard to imagine Dublin now without this marker of the new millennium.

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I hop off the bus at the GPO. School kids from Belvedere College are holding a sleep out in aid of the homeless. Clery’s is wrapped up with a huge ribbon of white lights. There is a big Chirstmas crib at the bottom of the tree in the middle of the street: no baby Jesus in there yet though. not till Christmas morning. The last few years saw a fancy artificial tree on O’Connell Street but we are back to a more traditional spruce this year.

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Eason’s is jam packed. Dads queue up with Christmas annuals for the kids. The three-for-two book deals are popular. I don’t manage to escape the shop without a book or two, even though it’s the second bookshop I’ve visited in twenty-four hours. Dublin always reignites my passion for reading somehow: must be all that literary history in the water. I entertain myself for a few minutes looking at the Irish tourist tat on sale near the front doors, and choose a few classic “you know you’re Irish when…” greetings cards to support local small business.

Back outside, it’s not that chilly. The crowds are thickening as the lunchtime crowds start to hit the streets. A day of shopping and family awaits, but for now I stand in the heart of Dublin and try to take in the moment: I made it home for Christmas.

where in the world?

 

same same, but different

Twelve months ago I ranted about how private sector people often perceive those who’d spent time in the not for profit world, how things were often much the same in both theatres despite the efforts (on both sides) to differentiate.

In the year since then, I’ve navigated the waters of the private sector and reflected on what I miss the most – and least – about the not-for-profit world.

The IT support is still woeful: I am still looked after by a bunch of blokes (yes, they are all men, unlike in Red Cross) who bend over backwards every day to do what’s needed on a shoestring and without any obvious IT strategy. Tick.

I am still working for an organisation talking about a flash new e-recruitment process that still hasn’t arrived. Tick.

I still work in a small, committed team whose mutual support and comedy banter is a joy and inspiration most days. Tick.

I still do a week of duty officer (a little more frequently with a lot more to do out of hours). Tick.

I’m still known as Darth Doyle.

Performance management is different. Holding people to account is not only talked about here, it’s expected. In the past year I’ve handed down countless first warnings and a handful of final warnings, and I have fired a couple of people. You don’t perform, you’re out. We have no room for passengers. At Red Cross we huffed and puffed quietly about poor performers until they left: not hugely helpful to the rest of the team or to the quality of our services.

I travel much further to work, but at least when I get there I have my own office, my own quiet working space. No more open-plan working. So I don’t work from home as much – I don’t need to. I can be hugely productive in my work environment.

Finance management is not too different. I steward my labour budget with a rod of iron and question every request to put another shift on the road; but in my not for profit role we counted the pennies obsessively too.

The business intelligence is much, much worse. I managed a $7 million budget with almost no BI at Red Cross. Now I manage a significantly larger budget with absolutely nothing apart from what I can pull together myself with my less-than-adequate Excel skills. It never ceases to alarm me how little analysis support I have, and how much relies on my long-winded workings.

I sit back at the end of each day, week, month, like every General Manager, and look at the numbers. It’s winter, so patient activity is up. This means more work, closer logistics management, worse traffic, but more revenue too. If my P&L matches budget and my productivity levels look good, I stop fretting and look ahead to the next month.  Job done. It’s that simple.

At Red Cross, it was a little different. Of course we carefully counted the financial cost of putting a thousand volunteers in the field, delivering hundreds of meals across dozens of towns, managing dozens of evacuation centres in flood-affected regions, doing outreach to hundreds of households following a devastating bushfire. We had funders and philanthropic donors to satisfy. We had to prove that we were a trustworthy steward of scarce relief and recovery funds, to demonstrate that we could make those funds go far and touch as many people as possible.

But we didn’t sit back at the end of the day (or summer) satisfied that we did what we said we’d do and stayed within budget. We worried about the outcomes of our actions. And I mean worried.

We visited disaster-affected people in their homes, providing information and practical support. We provided a safe place to sleep for people who’d had to evacuate their home. We took thousands of calls from people trying to locate their loved ones after the bushfire raged through their neighbourhood. We kept detailed spreadsheets and produced reports to show how many of each action we did.

But we also asked: did that visit, place to stay, phone call actually help those people in a meaningful way? Could we measure in some specific way exactly how our assistance hastened their psychosocial recovery? How could we be sure we did no harm to anybody, ever? How would we be able to measure our contribution in terms of long-term outcomes, not short-term outputs? Because if we couldn’t, chances are the funding would dry up, the donors would walk away.

Looking at my current job through that lens, it would mean that not only would I be concerned that we had moved every patient on time with no overtime, but I’d have to do research on how the quality and timeliness of my patient transport materially affected their healthcare pathways and by how much it hastened their recovery.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Perhaps it’s as easy as saying that governments and large corporates outsource only simple tasks, but we all know that’s not true. Across the world every day people are cared for in hospitals, kept secure in prisons, fed in schools, trained at work, looked after in nursing homes, given home help and cooked meals, all by armies of workers employed not by the government or the company being paid, but by outsourcing companies like mine.

We are not required to measure and be paid according to the health outcome of the patient we care for, the rehabilitation prospects of the prisoner we secure, the adult fitness and health levels of the school-child we feed, the quantitatively improved career prospects of the worker we train, the quality of life of the elderly, vulnerable lady we look after every day.

We deliver good service, on time and on budget, we record the data, we send the bill, we deliver the budgeted amount of profit, we switch of our laptops off and go home, we do it all again tomorrow.

But everything we do will have had some impact on the lives of the people we have served.

And yet…. and yet. The private sector is still seen as more complex, more difficult, more challenging, the real world. The private sector is where the real workers are, the ones who know what they’re doing.

The not for profit world is perceived as softer and fluffier, populated by well-meaning, left-leaning, sandal-wearing social workers who are probably still being bankrolled by Mummy and Daddy. Those who can, do. Those who can’t will probably be able to get a job in a charity somewhere.

I look back at the strategic planners, the IT service delivery gurus, the change managers, the logistics people, the departmental heads I’ve worked with in the not for profit world. All of them could run rings around many of the people I’ve come across in the private sector, in terms of intellect, strategic approach, long-term focus, commitment, ethics and sheer hard work. But most of them will never be considered for a role in the private sector, because their skills are not believed to be transferable.

And you know, it’s probably true. Many of their skills won’t be transferable, because they would not be used or valued. Many of them would see their skills wither away in the private sector, with its often shortsighted focus on this month’s bottom line, this quarter’s results or the exec team’s end of year bonus.

So do I regret my move? Not at all. This is not a polemic against the private sector world, just another small attempt at levelling the playing field. Most working environments, most teams, most organisations have more in common than divides them.  They are all less unique than they believe they are. And that’s across the board.

Private sector workers coming into the not for profit space will have some valuable short-term tactical focus, pretty robust people management skills, a fair amount of less-thinking-more-doing attitude to contribute.

Not for profit workers taking on a private sector role may have the ability to look a little further out and a little further up, consider the unintended consequences a little more, understand reputational risk and how to avoid it a lot better. They’ll sure as hell know how to make a little go a long way and still look good.

Same same, but different.

 

singapore weekend

Global cities are well defined in economic terms. They dominate the trade and commerce of their home countries and beyond; they have global decision-making capabilities, and they are centres of distinction and innovation in education, entertainment and technology.

Global cities to me always had a more visceral definition: larger than life, they know they are different, more important, create a larger vortex. And crucially, they don’t care. They are too busy being a global city to think about it too much, and they certainly don’t care what you think. A visitor to a global city is not required or expected to fall in love with the place, to applaud its many merits and achievements. Citizens of global cities really just want visitors to walk at a decent pace, learn quickly what side of the escalator to stand on, spend their money and generally not get in the way.

As a result, of course, we all adore these places. Never mind that New Yorkers are brash and direct, that the rents are as sky-high as the buildings. Those most critical of US foreign policy or cultural domination will sigh at the mention of New York and declare it their favourite city on earth. Never mind that London is congested and chilly, or that the tube has no air-conditioning, or that Heathrow is a nightmare. Everybody wants to go and live in London in their gap year. It’s the buzz, you see.

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Some people equate Global Cities with something more: on top of the economists’ definitions, they also expect them to be multi-cultural melting pots, intersection points for all the races and cultures of the world. To me, this melting-pot criterion is not necessary: you don’t really get that in Tokyo or Hong Kong, and yet they are true Global Cities.

In the late 1990s some academics in Loughborough University, of all places, made a catalogue of Global Cities. In A++ place were London and New York, naturally. In close second at A+ level were Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Singapore and Dubai.

According to my definition it’s almost right. Hong Kong may technically be part of China but it will always be, defiantly, just Hong Kong. Similarly, Shanghai’s colonial past sets it a little apart from the rest of China and it has its own unique feel and sub-culture. Beijing is inextricably linked with the rest of China, both culturally and economically, but its citizens remind me more of the people of New York than the people of Xi’an. Come and visit if you like, just keep out of the way.

Paris, is, of course, Paris. Enough said.

But Sydney? To me, Australia’s largest city is still far too self-conscious to be a genuine Global City. Yes, technically its economic and political influence is significant both in Australia and in Asia Pacific, so the Loughborough University definition stands. But it tries too hard to be liked, admired, acknowledged. It’s like the younger sibling of one of the cool kids in high school, hanging around with the big boys, trying to fit in. It’s Sandra Dee, or a young graduate with their first proper job, hiding their lack of self-confidence money and swagger, but little sophistication.

Also, to this Old-Worlder, it’s difficult to see such a young city as a real Global City. To me, Global Cities are simultaneously ancient and new, patched together, organically developed, hectic places where you can almost see the growth rings like those of an old tree.

The chaos is only barely under control; the plumbing and sanitation and road works and public transport survive each day somehow, and everybody heaves a sigh of relief. One unfortunate passenger under a tube train, one set of Manhattan traffic lights on the blink, one Star Ferry running late, and London/New York/Hong Kong teeters on the brink of rush-hour annihilation.

That to me is what a Global City feels like.

A weekend in Singapore, then, was an interesting scenario. This famous city state holds around 6 million citizens in an area about the same size as the Tasman Peninsula in Australia, half of County Dublin or the Isle of Man. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, but those in the central business district are so tall that the “regular” buildings further out don’t seem to warrant the name.

I had few expectations except for tales of humidity, pristine streets and underground shopping malls built to shield Singaporeans from the heat above ground. I looked forward to the biggest observation wheel in the world and plenty of rooftop cocktail bars.

Did it feel like a true Global City? I don’t know. Again, the economic influence is undoubted, and the urban landscape is sensational. The shopping is fantastic, the street food legendary, the coffee alone worth the trip. A smattering of world-class iconic structures make the cityscape interesting: the enormous Singapore Flyer and the Marina Bay Sands, a warped surfboard resting on a wicket.

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But…. It was a little sterile. Of course, Singapore is renowned for its cleanliness and order, rules and regulations: no chewing gum, no littering, no durian fruit on the trains.

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The trains run on time, the people all stand on the correct side of the escalator, and they all walk on the left hand side of the pavement. The result is a little futuristic and surreal, if like me you come from an ancient and chaotic town like Dublin. The people were unfailingly polite, friendly, warm and helpful, which was lovely. Whilst it was an incredibly busy place, there was little of the barely-controlled frenzy you often feel in other huge cities. I liked it, mostly.

The vast warren of inter-connecting underground shopping malls was a real eye-opener. I’m not a bit claustrophobic, but I ended up feeling quite relieved each time we emerged chilled and blinking from that air-conditioned fluorescent netherworld into the tropical sunlight. At any given time, six million Singaporeans are hermetically sealed in vast steel-and-concrete tubes, either horizontally underground or vertically reaching for the sky. It can’t be right.

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The rooftop bars were a delight. No matter where you are in the centre of town, the views are sensational. From the understated sophistication of the seventh floor Lighthouse Bar at the Fullerton, to the de trop ostentation of Ku De Ta atop the Marina Bay Sands, we tried them all (or many of them, anyway).

The Lighthouse was just delightful. “You look beautiful!”, exclaimed the (female) manager to me as I emerged from the lift. I didn’t, but I accepted the compliment graciously. A perfectly made Bombay Sapphire and tonic was the way to enjoy the tacky but entertaining laser show across the water at the Marina Bay Sands. Time your visit for 8pm or 9.30pm (and 11pm on Saturdays) to watch the dancing lights in understated luxury.

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Ku De Ta is of course the place to see and be seen, and they keep away the hoi polloi with plenty of rules: men must wear closed-in shoes (women are good to go in strappy sandals). No shorts, singlets, slippers or tank tops. You’d better book ahead even for drinks (but the minimum spend is quoted as S$80 a head, and you don’t get a seat). The door staff on the ground floor will vet you even before you get to the lifts. The result was a spectacular view, no shelter if it rained, a disappointing drinks list, far too much ice and marmalade (you heard me) in my cocktail, very little space to take it all in and a quick decision to move on to the next bar.

The City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Stamford, on the other hand, may look north away from Marina Bay and That Building, but the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming and much more grown-up. Karen the manager got to know us by name, scored us window seats every time and brought our “usual” cocktails to us with a smile.

The Lantern on the top of the modern Fullerton Bay is a great spot, not too high but perfectly placed to enjoy the unique Marina Bay skyline. It’s a bit after-worky in the early evening, but a great place to watch the sunset and get in the mood for the night ahead.

So is Singapore on my personal lists of Global Cities? No. Is it a good destination for a weekend break, a spot of shopping, a reason to sip a Singapore Sling by the pool, a chance to overdose on kopi peng (Singaporean iced coffee), an opportunity to dress up and bar-hop with the best of them? Absolutely.

See you next time, Singapore.

 

 

 

curly questions

I’ve had curly hair all my life. I had long hair for most of my twenties that eventually grew to be a curtain of unruly waves, then got chopped back to a bob.

1996 25 October Mairead Fiona Sue

my thirtieth birthday!

In my “world traveller” phase I chopped all my hair back to a pixie cut and when I grew it back the curls were a lot lazier, less defined.

Over the years I spent ten fortunes on hair products trying to tame my frizzy mane. John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease was my best friend. Styling my hair at home became a complex cocktail of up to seven (seven!) products in a specific order. And still five days out of seven I looked like Worzel Gummidge’s slightly messy younger sister.

The older I got, the more frustrated I became. My hairdresser bill grew and grew as I tried every new product on the market. Cupboards filled up with bottles, aerosols and pump-action containers of hair products, all seven-eights full. More times than not if I caught a glimpse of my reflection, my spirits would sink. I wasn’t vain and I didn’t have high expectations: I only wanted to look respectable really.

The dreaded mid-forties came. Looking for a new job, I polished up my working wardrobe and got new headshots done by a professional photographer. On the morning of the shoot I took particular care with my hair but it still grew into a halo of amorphous frizz. At the photographer’s suggestion I twisted my hair back into a severe up-style just to look halfway decent.

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before…..

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… and after.

I turned to the internet. Maybe I needed a new hairdresser. All roads led to a man called Neel in a funky-sounding salon in Collingwood called Cherry Bomb. Didn’t sound like a salon for an ageing executive with no tattoos. But I got an appointment anyway.

That first appointment changed my life. I walked into a colourful, cruisy salon staffed by an army of curly-haired stylists, and was taken in hand by the famous Neel. A young man from Brighton in England, Neel has made curly hair his niche (even though he wears his own close-cropped). He was positively evangelical about his advice, learned over the years from curly hair specialists all over the world.

  • First: shampoo is not your friend. It is full of sulphates that have been sucking the moisture out of your hair for years. Go home and throw all your products out.
  • Second: silicones are not your friend. John Frieda is an imposter. Silicones only give the illusion of a frizz-free solution for a few hours until your hair realises it is actually being parched to death and reaches back out into the atmosphere in search of water. Go home and throw all your products out.
  • Third: towels are not your friend. Your curly hair is actually quite fine and fragile. You need a micro-fibre towel and a gentle touch. Go home and throw all your towels out.
  • Fourth: hairbrushes are not your friend. You are damaging your fine, fragile hair every time you brush. Go home and throw all your hairbrushes out.
  • Fifth: your hair is unique. If it is cut when wet you will have no chance of showing off what curl you have. Always have your hair cut when it is dry.
  • Six: Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise.

Over the next three months I read all the books, subscribed to all the blogs and brought my haircare regime back to basics. I really did throw all my products out. I started to wash my hair with conditioner, massaging my scalp with my fingers to clean it instead of relying on the squeaky-clean feeling of a head full of suds.

I slathered good, simple, sulphate- and silicone-free conditioner onto my hair and didn’t rinse it all out. I wrapped my wet hair in a micro-fibre towel, combed it gently with a wide-tooth comb and then slathered even more conditioner onto it before allowing it to dry naturally. I washed my hair only every five or six days, and revitalised it in between washes with yet more conditioner.

After a month I could really see a difference. After another two weeks on a tropical island with pure coconut oil in my hair, I was like a different woman. Even after scuba diving I could simply soak my hair in conditioner and walk out the door looking fantastic. I finally achieved my impossible dream of half-decent hair every day.

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after Neel cut my hair for the first time

The strange thing is that all of this cost so much less time and money: most of these pure products were very affordable and could be used as both a conditioner and a styling product. My seven-step styling regimen was reduced to a quick once-over with a wide-tooth comb and a generous dollop of Sukin conditioner. In summer my hair dried naturally in the car on the way to work. The extra time taken to wash and dry my hair in the morning went from one hour to barely ten minutes.

So why am I telling you this? Because so many women don’t know. We believe the Unilever/Procter & Gamble marketing hype. We don’t realise we are poisoning our hair and stripping away the very thing we are desperate for: moisture. We buy products full of petroleum-based chemicals, drying alcohol, formaldehyde and artificial perfumes, and wonder why our hair doesn’t react well. The alternatives are not expensive or hard to find, but I suppose they don’t help the bottom line of Garnier or Proctor & Gamble.

Lou Davison is a young Scottish woman who spent the early years of her life hiding her curls until an accident a few years ago left her with a lot of time on her hands. She did lots of research and discovered the so-called “curly girl” online community. When she moved to Melbourne Lou found that there were almost no resources for curly-haired people here so she started her own blog, sharing tips and tricks in the hope that she could inspire others to discover what she had.

“It sounds ridiculous, but discovering this new haircare method literally changed my life”, Lou tells me as we chat with other curly-haired women at a meet-up in Brunetti’s in Melbourne. “I used to hate my hair and now I embrace it. I see women in the street who are doing what I used to do, and I feel like going up to them to tell them there is another way.”

Love Your Curls

It’s hard to believe that Lou could ever hate the beautiful mane of golden spiral curls she loves so much now. Her website is a treasure trove of information and inspiration for all things curly. She even has interviews with regular curly-haired women who tell all about their routines and care tips – no two curly heads are the same so we are always on the lookout for similar people whose secrets we can share.

These days there are good websites and blogs in most countries for curly-haired people (mostly women) to get informed, share information and support each other in their quest to be kind to their hair. The interesting thing is that curly-haired people are still often seen as dangerous, uncontrolled, and even unprofessional in a workplace setting. It takes a little bravery to take the first step, but I can almost guarantee you that like Lou and myself, it will change your life and save you money and time into the bargain.

Useful links for curlies around the world:

www.loveyourcurls.com.au

neellovescurls.blogspot.com

www.naturallycurly.com

www.britishcurlies.co.uk

www.curlynikki.com