Tag Archives: travel writing

Hitchhiking to Detroit

5 Mar

“You’re hitchhiking to DETROIT?!” friends asked of me incredulously. “Are you mad?” they would enquire, ever before a mentioned I would also be couchsurfing there, i.e. staying on an absolute stranger’s couch for the weekend!

I never planned to go to Detroit; it all just seemed to fall into place. I was invited to attend the Detroit Couch Crash, a meeting organized by all the wonderful couchsurfers in Michigan to unite people from all over for the US Memorial Day weekend. It also happened to take place during DEMF (Detroit Electronic Music Festival), an annual event attracting thousands of hard core music fans.

After standing awkwardly, on the main highway out of Toronto, with my thumb stuck out and a strained smile on my face, I waited patiently for a kind stranger to pick me up. Many people pulled in, slowed down or stopped, before performing rude hand gestures or shouting obscenities in my direction and subsequently speeding off…Charming.

Eventually I secured a ride with what seemed to be a very decent man travelling all the way to Windsor, a border town with Detroit. However, his greeting was anything but conventional.

‘I hitchhiked myself once, from LA to Montreal fifteen years ago. Yup, got picked up by a mass murderer and all. You just ‘know’ when you have sat into a car with a mass murderer…’.

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Dear Diary – Laughter and Crocodiles

3 Jan

I have to wonder sometimes why we put ourselves through hell, why I chose to endure sky rocketing temperatures, no electricity, no water and a culture unlike anything I have previously experienced rather than staying at home in Ireland like most sane people my age?! How is it that we can endure such body ache, such frustration, such pain and keep coming back for more? We don’t just simply give up and go home, we get knocked down but by God do we get up again!

I’ve always disliked fish and have been somewhat allergic to it, but today suddenly I pushed this knowledge aside as Beth, Kerrie and I  scrambled our way up the back of a moving lorry, almost over flowing with foul-smelling fish. A lorry we had to cling on to for our dear lives as it sped across the Northern Kenyan desert, as we sat on the roof top at laughing at our lucky escape from the hellish weekend we had just had.

But let me rewind…

We set off to the beautiful Lake Turkana Fishing Lodge for the weekend, which after a 2 hour bus ride and 7km walk across the desert surrounded by about 100 kids, we discovered had shut down about 5 years earlier. Thanks a lot Lonely Planet!! We were ‘befriended’ by a guide who turned out to be a dirty, rotten, cheating, scoundrel! We had to sleep the night on the beach,exposed to all the elements and who knows what else, drink dirty water and had nothing to eat but fish.

We were cajoled into risking  life and limb by getting into a dodgy ‘boat’, which was in fact more like a tree trunk, in gale force winds in a lake inhabited by the highest concentration of Nile crocodiles in the World! After much stress over money with Thomas our ‘guide’, miles of walking in the desert heat without food nor water, and losing all our cameras as they were flung overboard into the swelling waters… after all this emotion and stress, what did we do when the trip was suddenly cancelled? We laughed. Because nothing else could possible go wrong at this stage. We were in hell. We could have cried but instead we laughed, it could never get worse than this…or so we thought!!

Suddenly we are ‘obliged’ to pay Thomas for a trip that was cancelled and he runs off with all our money leaving us penniless! What do we do? We laugh again. It will be ok, we can survive this. We set off across the shores of Lake Turkana, angry, thirsty, hungry and a little faint from the heat. All is good though, we will be ok, we always are.

As we waded waist deep in water backpacks raised above our head, attempting to cross the channel – all the local children start screaming at us. ‘Crocodile, crocodile!‘ -Fuck. I swear my heart has never pumped so fast in my life. I stood, my feet glued to the river bed, my eyes darting in every direction, thoughts rushing through my head. We need to get back quick. We have one hour to walk 7km in order to get last bus from Kalikol to Lodwar. So fuck the crocodiles we are crossing this channel! We wade, one foot after the other, heart pounding, across the crocodile infested river – knowing if we can make it through this we can make it through anything. I can remember thinking if I would prefer to lose an arm or a leg and decided upon an arm…a frightening thought to say the least.

4km later, totally lost and literally dying of thirst at this stage (but happy to be out of the water) when suddenly a 4 wheel drive jeep comes driving by. Oh my god what a feeling! “We’re saved. I knew we would make it!”, I said to the girls! The jeep slows down and the front seat passenger winds down her window, looks us up and down then shouts, “Bye Mzungos!(white people) See you in Lowdar” and off they speed! If only you could have seen the look on my face as I collapsed into the sand, anger and delirium taking over as motivation to keep going faded away.

But what choice did we have but to laugh it off, and keep on going. We eventually made it to Kalikol and I have never been so grateful to be handed an ice cold bottle of coke and a plate of hot chips. So what if we were sitting on top of shit, in some guys hen-house surrounded by goats an other animals?!

Minutes later we were back on are feet and in search of the last bus to Lodwar…which, yup you guessed it, had departed minutes earlier. With no money and classes to teach the next morning we were starting to panic a little. And then we saw the truck, like a knight in shining armour, full to the brim with fish, and with a big smiley driver who welcomed us to climb aboard…by scrambling up the back of the truck and falling onto the piles of smelly fish.

We were alive, we were homeward bound and all we could do was laugh at the absolutely disastrous weekend we had just had.

Only in Kenya!

Dear Diary- Hello Kitale

23 Dec

Dear Diary,

Day of luxury-if the people back home saw us now they would laugh so hard! Taken straight out of a holiday brochure for spain- as one of the girls so nicely put it. We spent the day at the ‘Kitale Country Club’- swimming, sun bathing, chatting and laughing. Gazing up at a cloud covered Mount over the vast, beautiful golf course, spotting our first monkeys- over 30 of them!

As Lowdar was ‘out of water’-whatever that means- we have to stay  put here in Kitale until we are given the green light to continue the journey North towards Sudan. Fine with us if it involves lounging in the sun, getting a tan!

After 2 hours at the club and one very burnt Beth, we headed into town- a short 2km walk away. Greeted my endless children shouting ‘how are you FINE, how are you FINE?!’- I guess no matter where you go in Africa the children are the same friendly selves!

We found an internet cafe, checked our mail, bebo, the news and 1 hour only cost 60 cent! Brilliant!! After some shopping, befriending a local boy- ‘david’- whom we discussed Roy Keane, Ronaldo, Beckham and….Bosco with, we found a busy, wooden interior and exterior restaurant opposite the bus stop.

The menu confused us as everything was converted in cents. E.g Chips-30cent, Coca-Cola 20 cent. Were the exchange rates different here? NO! We got a drink each and chicken stew and pilau rice with beef (3 meals!) all for 4.40 euro! PLUS a complementary tossed salad from the owner-man was happy to see us I guess!

Back to the club for an afternoon tea (cough white wine!) for only 65 cent-it tasted kinda like banana-very weird- but I drank it anyway! Sister Geraldine (name changed for privacy reasons!) collected us and brought us home. Then the bishop collected her – off to watch the French Open- Oh how could she miss such a spectacle! She is some character it must be said! So straight forward and direct. “HAVE SOME TOAST GIRLS!” “GODFREY- GET SOME TEA!!” Right little gossiper she is too- always giving out about her italian friends drinking habits, other people stealing habits and how children are ‘forced’ into the catholic church even though they aren’t even Christian- SCANDALOUS! ;)

We played with Margaret, little girl named after Sister Margaret who delivered her to the hospital on day of her birth. We finished the day by watching Wimbledon and Bridget Jones Diary- jeez we are living the life of luxury!

Finally after 2 days in Kitale we have Sister Kathleen said we can go to Lodwar tomorrow. They have no running water at all but now have jerry cans to transport it around so we can survive with those. No showers for us for 2 months..this should be interesting! As weird as it sounds to be happy about no running water, it will be an experience of a lifetime and we are kind of sick of being pampered at this stage-we are ready to get down to work!

Even people here laugh at the mention of Lodwar…’it’s hot there you know, way hotter than here’, our waiter informed us today. Eeekkk Why do so many people seem to think we are crazy going to Lodwar? What is it going to be like…hot, we know that! No idea what to expect tomorrow- a bus or a matatu, a house or a hut, a town or a village?! Whatever comes,we’ll be ready.

When in Rome….I mean Kenya!

 

Bye Bye Kitale!

Guest Post 2: Notes from the Random

23 Jun

The mystery of the missing popcorn factory was hell on my feet.

Full Moon Festival by Day

The town of Hsipaw (pronounced See-paw) isn’t known for attractions. Mainly a starting point for trekkers, we’d gone there just to go. The popcorn factory stuck from a list of attractions that ranged from interesting to time killing, so it was on the road leading out of town, the temperature nearing 40 Celsius, when I began walking toward hell.

We’d inadvertently arrived the day of the Full Moon Ceremony, and after a night sleeping under our guesthouse stairs (the last affordable accommodation), we’d found transportation (a cross between a jeepney and a tuk-tuk), made it to a field massed with merchants and tents and a temple, ridden the one ride, toasted with rice wine, and, in my case, wandered off into a temple for some “peace of mind.”

Excluding the tastes of trekkers, who eventually don socks, flip flops are as much a part of the backpacker uniform as could be said to exist. They accommodate the Southeast Asian heat and cluster wherever there’s comfort—the legs of veranda tables, hostel entrances, beach eateries and bars.

For the past months, I’d sported a slick pair of flip flops I’d bought the first summer in Korea. Cloth-thonged with smooth black soles and an imprint of Africa (a reminder, I told myself when I overpaid for them, of where not to forget to go), they marked the rare occurrence of successful shoe-shopping in Asia, particularly for someone whose feet have been compared to those of clowns.

They were also the only pair of flip flops I’d ever owned, despite living in Southern California, where flip flops aren’t so much a uniform as the symbol of a state of mind, one I’d never been able to share (what with the Thursday to Sunday jaunts to another city or campus to see someone, some band, something, crashing on random floors, leaving before the sun came up or way too long after, or, later, splitting class with two jobs and always being on the way to somewhere else—a lifestyle accommodated by the close-toed and laced, forget slipping shoes on and off, I slept with them on), so my buy brought with it the lame feeling of late acceptance. Anyone who knows me (or read the other guest blog post) knows that stuff isn’t a big part of my life, but the right stuff can make a big difference.

—-

Back in Hsipaw, someone stole my shoes at the temple while I watched people lather Buddha with gold. You leave your shoes at one of the entrances of the temple, and I circled every one looking for the only pair of over-sized, black and red flip flops that could be at the festival. Then I walked back through the festival, hailed a jeepney/tuk-tuk, made my way through town, found my friends, had dinner, and retreated up the stairs into my room, barefoot.

I had, of course, been lucky till then. Four countries, and I’d not lost my shoes or had them stolen. This was uncommon. The fucking things are so popular because they’re so cheap, dispensable, replaceable. Drunk people confuse their shoes and take the wrong pair. I’d sat with people while their flip flops were literally taken from under, swiped from the pools of shoes at restaurant entrances.

Most Westerners shoe-shopping in Asia run into a problem at some point. If you’re in a small town, you might be out of luck finding your size. People have this problem in Korea, in China, in Taiwan, and I was in Myanmar, whose imports seemed to come mainly from Thailand and China. The biggest shoes were too small, and so began not only the hell but a cycle of loss and compensation constantly falling short.

—-

The popcorn factory had apparently shuttered for good. The only person who knew this and spoke English was a local monk. In consolation, he said that it had been a small operation and not much to see.

A couple weeks later, I left Myanmar. By then, the cheap plastic of the thongs had steadily and surely gashed my feet, scabbing the sides and the space between the big toe and its neighbor, red and blood melting with sweat and dirt air, and they continued to gash and tear at the scabs, reopening and gashing again and again.

That pair was stolen in a hostel in Taiwan the night before my flight. Broke and needing to compensate, I stole (or, karmically, traded for) a sleek black pair from the rack that turned out to be smaller and older. It not only continued the work of its predecessor but was also too short at the back and scratched the soles of my feet on the rough streets.

That pair made it through Songkran, the Thai New Year, where the streets flowed with water and clay washed off peoples’ faces and where this mud washed over the scab and gash (I thought of a friend who’d almost had her foot amputated when a foot wound set dirt into her blood). They were stolen from the pool of flip flops by the guesthouse door a few hours before my flight home.

So I compensated yet again, the same way I’m sure people are still compensating and have been and will continue to. After three flights and 13 hours or so of planes, the immigration officer’s “Welcome back” was a nicety paled by the pair of over-sized, almost comically large flip flops my ride put before me. There is some truth when people say that the little things are what matter in life. In my case, they scarred my feet.

If you’re hard-pressed to find my point, it might be because there isn’t one or because shoes and, more to the point, feet aren’t the stuff of stories. Over a fairly short period (4 months), I used various transport, and what stayed with me most was the feeling whenever you disembarked whatever plane, ferry, riverboat, skiff, random chunk of metal/wood with motor attached, bus, minivan, jeepney, taxi, tuk-tuk, motobike, elephant or horse-cart. In the end, you’re back to just standing there, knowing that you have to choose a direction and walk.

Has the Postcard become obsolete?!

7 Mar

If google was a slow as snail mail...

In this age of digital communication, from email and facebook to skyping home in the blink of a second, has the age old tradition of sending a cheesy postcard become obsolete?

I adore receiving postcards, sticking them to the side of my wardrobe or wall to dream of places visited or places yet to go to. I love sifting through all my old ones, as they help to jog my memory about friends past and present. Finding a dusty postcard sent from some back-arse-of-nowhere town in the middle of Ireland, from a friend who was probably just driving through on her way back to boarding school are always the best ones.

As much as I love receiving and collecting postcards, when it comes to sending them myself from my travels, to say I have been lacking would be a huge understatement.

While on vacation on the heavenly island of Boracay in the Philippines I could not help but buy a stack of stunning postcards to send home to friends and family. I wanted to let them know I was thinking of them and, of course, make them green with envy at the life I was living! Sure I bought them, and a few weeks later I wrote them (very clever and witty so they were), but you bet your money that they are still sitting at the bottom of my backpack (6 weeks later!!) and will sadly probably never see the light of day!

While I could make this post about a much deeper issue, one in which the written word itself is in decline, (with newspaper sales falling progressively and even the closure of post offices worldwide thanks to the increase in email and internet banking), however I would like to stay on point and simply look at the beloved postcard!

So now that everyone, no matter where in the world we are, from the deserts of Africa to the mountains of Machu Picchu, can easily access the internet to mail home or even skype their loved ones, is there really any NEED  to send postcards?

Nowadays the stamp is as, if not more, expensive than the postcard itself. And while picking up a handful of cards is easy, attempting to find a shop that sells stamps and a post office near the beach, or hiking trail or lake you are visiting may be a lot more challenging!

Do you appreciate a silly postcard full of cliched small talk about the weather is “simply beautiful” and how the place is “amazingly peaceful” and how your friend is having the “best time ever” blah blah blah…or would you appreciate an email, that will probably be a little juicier thanks to it’s more private nature and probably go into more detail as the sender does not have to squash all that they wish to tell you onto a tiny, crappy, rectangular piece of card?!

Amazing weather and it's just SO beautiful!

Or perhaps you would prefer to have quick chat with them over skype, see them face to face, laugh at their sunburn or their frizzy hair thanks to the awful humidity which you would never hear about it a postcard.

Even a txt message might be better, as you almost feel with the person as your phone beeps and up pops the message, “Lying here on the beach watching the sunset while sipping a pina colada out of a coconut, listening to some local rasta strum along a Bob Marley song…thinking of you”. Sure you’d be jealous but happy to know your buddy i=thinks so much of you that they interrupt such an idyllic moment to send you a message!

So I wonder, has the postcard become obsolete?! Or will the shiny little card with the often atrocious captions or ridiculous pictures (as displayed on this site HERE) always have a place in our hearts?!


International Adventurers: Polar Exploration

29 Nov

Ernest and Jonathan Shackleton

“By endurance we conquer”.

Ernest Shackleton

 

This year marks the Centenary of Irish expolorer Ernest Shackletons legendary attempt to reach the South Pole. His cousin, Jonathan Shackleton, talks about what it is like to walk in his famous footsteps and how polar exploration is more accessible than ever.

We are sitting in front of a cosy fire in Shackleton’s beautiful Co. Cavan home, surrounded by shelf after shelf of exploration titles and reference books. Shackleton, whose stands over six foot tall, is wrapped up in a thick, red, arran sweater, with a cup of hot tea resting in his weathered hands.

Having studied botany and natural history in Trinity College, he says his interest in the Antarctic started after reading about his cousin’s famous explorations combined with his love of wildlife and natural history. “I would find a lot of inspiration from the wildness and remoteness of the place,” he says.

With an apparent love of family history, he says he spends a huge amount of time researching the Shackleton family. Taking the famous saying, “You can’t know where you are going until you know where you’ve been”” quite literally, he set off to discover the wonders of the Antarctic.

Jonathan Shackleton

“I find something very important about knowing that there are places where I have been and I have walked where he once walked too,” he says.

Along with his cousin’s photos and diaries, Jonathan also posseses Shackleton’s original Sled which he used on his Endurance trip. It was a pure coincidence that he came across it one day while in New Zealand.

A couple were auctioing off their house and belongings and in the midst of all the junk there lay the sled of his heroic cousin. He knew in his heart he had to buy in and had it shipped back to Ireland within days.

One of his most memorable moments was visiting Ernest Shackleton’s grave in South Georgia 10 years ago.

When I was there for the first time I was the very same age as he was when he died, only 47. It’s a fantastic setting – a beautiful island with snow covered mountains and glaciers behind all the graves. It’s a really great place for him to be buried.

“Most people in the graveyard are Norwegian whalers and most of them would have actually met Shackleton so they are probably chatting away underground now,” he says with a smile.

On that same trip he tells me that he managed to land on Elephant Island, the very place where Ernest Shackleton and his crew – including Kerryman Tom Crean and Corkman Tim McCarthy – landed in their rescue boat after their ship Endurance, was crushed in the ice.

He looks at his watch and tells me that they actually landed on this very day, the 14th April.

“Elephant Island is a shocking place. Really gaunt and grim. With sheer slopes and glaciers forming the backdrop, its very hard to imagine anyone surviving there for more than a few days yet Shackleton’s crew had to wait there for over 4 months,” he says.

Antarctic exploration used to be for strong, hardy men willing to endure extreme living conditions, illness, starvation and possibly death. Now, thanks to modern technology, the ships are equipped with satellite navigation, rescue helicopters and even the internet.

For the Millenium, Shackletons whole family flew down to the Antarctic peninsula where they celebrated the night in a hollow, collapsed Volcano.

“There were four ships inside this nine mile wide volcano – it was absolutely crazy. We had this amazing dinner followed by a concert given by The Chieftans, Diana Krall and Paul Simon. It was very weird!”

In 2001, Shackleton led the first ever group of Irish students to the Antarctic on a trip he says they will never forget. “Its left its mark on all of them forever. It is a very inspiring place.”

Along with nature lovers, scientists and students, he has also played host to people like Baroness Jay of Paddington- daughter of former British Prime minister Jim Callaghan and South African Poet Ian McCallum.

He tells me one of the most amusing people so far was Kenyan paleoanthropologist, Richard Leakey, whose family discovered the first Humanoid fossils in the world.

It was very fascinating hearing him talk about his views of the world.”

“Both Leakey’s legs were prosthetic,” Shackleton tells me, “and when he did his landing on the continent, he got out of the boat and you just saw these pale, bare legs, that would make you shiver just looking at them. Somebody said to me ‘why didn’t he put his socks on?!’ not realising that the legs were artificial!” he laughs.

Shackleton explains just how much things have changed in the last few decades.

“The real world is much closer now. Getting help is much more immediate and these trips are not as big a risk as they used to be. Back then there was no help and when the Endurance ship sank it took them more than a year to find it.”

Wildlife such as fur seals and penguin colonies, which now attract tourists to the Antarctic, were used for a very different pupose 100 years ago, Shackleton tells me.

I can’t remember reading any diary extract that mentioned Ernest commenting on the beautiful wildlife,” he laughs. “When they looked at an Emperor penguin, which I see as sacred, they saw 8 pounds of meat. It was a matter of survival.

“On South Georgia island alone there are about four million fur seals. In the 1930’s you would hardly find one. The sealers wiped them out for their fur skin,” he says.

At present there are more than 20 million penguins in the Antarctic, which act as one of the biggest temptations drawing Shackleton there. “They are very fascinating things. They are totally fearless. These three foot high birds just come up to you and peck at your boots. Then they just go away again,” he recalls.

“The birdlife is spectacular too,” he adds. “You are crossing the drake passage from Argentina into the Antarctic peninsula and you see these enormous albatrosses gliding around effortlessly. It’s a totally evocative sight. After Christmas you can see spectacular whaling sightings too; from humpback whales, minkies and the southern right whale to huge killer whales a short distance form the ship.”

Enticed by the wildlife, Shackleton has three more trips planned this year to see “the holy grail – Emperor penguins breeding on ice”. He also plans to visit King Penguin colonies in the Antactic peninsula and return to the grave of Ernest Shackleton for the third time.

In the mean time Shackleton continues to promote the life of his cousin and the Shackleton family through lectures, talks and guided trips to the Antarctic, and is hoping his book about the life of Shackleton will be a success. As the Shackleton Family motto goes, “By endurance we conquer”.

NEVER A DULL DAY

14 Jun

Profile I wrote on Irish Travel writer and presenter ‘Manchan Magan’.

From riding in the back of an ex-army truck across Africa to battling rabies and drinking his own Urine, Manchan Magan is not your regular D4 head!

He may have grown up in Donnybrook but he is living a life far removed from the world of Yummy Mummies. He could speak Irish before he could speak English and despite being the great-grandnephew of nationalist “The O Rahilly” he has always felt disconnected from Ireland.

“I never connected with the world I was brought up in and it left me feeling depressed in my teenage years”, he says.

He is talking to me via Skype from New Mexico, where he is currently helping with the Obama Campaign. Never a dull day I would say.

At the young age of 20 he embarked on a trip of a lifetime. He brings me back to a young, innocent Manchan Magan about to begin his first ever adventure; an epic six month trip from London to Nairobi in the back of an ex-army Truck with 18 unlikely adventurers from 2 privately educated schoolgirls to a locksmith who claims to be a UFO-abductee.

Magan holds back nothing when describing some of the hilarious, eccentric, and shady characters he travelled with, which he explains is why he waited nearly 20 years to publish it.

“When I was younger I preferred reading books that were honest so I like to be brutally honest about everything, whether I am writing about the terrible things I did in South America or the terrible things people did to me in Africa”.

On this first trip across the Dark Continent he encountered witch doctors, drug runners and missionaries. He talks about hitching with dessert nomads in Morocco to being stranded in the middle of the Congo with no food and no money. He was looking for some romance and compassion but all he got was an infectious disease.

“When I returned home with Bilharzia, the doctors here had never seen it before and were entranced by he tests”, Manchan recalls.

“The doctors in the tropical medical bureau out in Dun Laoghaire couldn’t hide their excitement. They seemed to forget my life was in their hands! A new cure had just been released and the Irish government was obliged to use me as a guinea pig to try in out and I was cured within days.”

As I listen to Manchan talk about his travels I can’t help but smile. I can immediately sense his passion and love for the places he has been. That is until I get him talking about his years at a student in UCD, where he studied Arts for 3 years.

“I promised my mum I would go back to College so it was only for her. I was disgusted by how little I had learnt in 3 years in UCD compared with everything I had picked up in Africa. It was my travel experience that created me!”

“The trip I enjoyed the most though was my time in Ecuador”, he tells me. As he reached the Valley of Longevity he realises he had reached a place he could call home. Here he settled down for 7 months where he worked at an organic health spa.

“I also had no choice but to stay put as the Doctors there were treating me for Rabies”. Honest as always.

From running a spa in Ecuador to living in a cave and befriending a gay Leper up in the Himalayas, Manchan has had no shortage of diversity in his life. It was here, high up in the mountains, that Magans brother Ruan came to rescue him.

“I was living the life of a Hermit and had lost all communication with the outside world. I had become delirious living on my own Urine so when Ruan came along with the camera it was the only thing I could talk to.” It was from here that Manchan Magan became the renowned travel presenter he is today.

Now a full-time writer, broadcaster and TV presenter he has a travel column in the Irish Times, regular slots on RTE radio and has made over 50 documentaries worldwide. Yet Magan says he is sticking to his Idealistic ways. He lives in a house made entirely of straw surrounded by his self planted forest in Co. Westmeath.

“I got the idea when I was living out in British Colombia for a few years. I needed to find what I connected with in life and ended up living in a hippie commune where everything was environmentally sustainable.”

I ask him his plans for the future, and he tells me he plans on following his heart…right back to Africa, where all this madness began over 20 years ago. Another crazy adventure awaits for Manchan Magan.

Manchan Magan

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