San Cristobal De Las Casas, Mexico

Upon arriving in San Cristobal, we wandered through the market for awhile, bought some mexican roasted corn with mayonnaise, chili powder, and lime on it, empanadas stuffed with potato and beef (4 for 30 cents) and then bought some tangerines. Now usually in the states if you go to a fruit stand youll see a bucket with 4 tomatoes precariously perched on top, but they know that you subconsciously assume that the bucket is full of tomatoes, which of course it never is. So when I saw about 8 tangerines perched on one such bucket, I asked how much it was, she said 60 cents, and I paid her expecting 8 tangerines, which was an OK price. Then she held out a bag and I held it while she poured the tangerines into the bag. As you probably guessed, the entire bucket was full of tangerines. We got 21 tangerines – and they were delicious, sweeter than Ive ever had at home – for 60 cents. And ten mangoes for another 60 cents. And a pineapple for 90 cents. And a papaya for well, you get the idea.

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They had the most charming way of displaying beans. I dont know what it is, but I really liked the way the colors popped out of the trays.

San Cristobal was without a doubt our favorite town of the whole trip. Food was plentiful, gourmet, and cheap. I counted 5 whole wheat bakeries in town and two health food stores. For Latin America, that is astounding. Hey, for Texas thats astounding. Thats why we chose to spend a week there, to rest and to eat. I had whole wheat bread at 3 different restaurants – one of which served it complimentary with the meal! And the food was great. All sorts of cuisines – Lebanese, Greek, French, Mexican, Italian, Argentinean, you name it.

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No doubt the reason they had all sorts of cuisines was because it was a very eclectic town. This map was hanging in a phone booth store (like it sounds, a store devoted to nothing but phone booths for calling home), and you can get an impression for who visited the town. This was a pretty good sampling of the nationalities on the trip, actually. Only a few americans, but tons of europeans.

The next day we found an ex-circus performer doing crystal stix, an art with which I am well acquainted (think a cross between baton twirling and juggling), so we hung out and did that for awhile. Went and had some whole wheat pancakes. Traded in my Star Trek book which I had finished for The Adventures of David Balfour by Robert Louis Stevenson – in Spanish. Went to the local artesian market and bought gifts for people back home. Went and had cat soup for lunch. Apparently, there is no actual cat in it, but think tortilla soup with milk and avocado in it and you have a fair idea of what it is. It was excellent.

We had fresh squeezed orange juice off the street for 60 cents, a 14 ounce glass. And not-quite-as-freshly-squeezed pineapple juice (but still real homemade juice), and coconut milk, for the same price. We did eat at one restaurant that annoyed me – they provided free chips and rather hot salsa. As we were most of the way into our meal, I took out the water bottle to drink, had a good drink, then a waiter rushed over and said I couldnt drink my own beverage. I said what? Its just water, but he said it was prohibited. It was a scam. They give you free salsa, to make you thirsty, then you have to buy water or a beverage from them at a greatly inflated price. Well, I was almost done with my meal or I would have made an issue of it. Probably should have anyway. There was no sign out front that said no BYO(Water), after all!

In wandering through the market one day, we saw this strange orange liquid in reused bottles. I naturally inquired what it was, and was told Rompope. I then asked them to write it for me, since I couldnt quite figure out what it was from that. I then asked them for a taste since even being written I had no idea what it was. Turns out it is basically a Mexican version of Eggnog. A very, very strong, thick eggnog. It must be half rum from the taste of it. Quite good though, in a different sort of way.

Somewhere in here we decided that we didnt really want to go the rest of the way through Mexico by bus if we didnt have to. We were running short on time (we had to be home in 9 days), but we really liked this town and if we were going to go home by bus wed only have 2 days here. And honestly, after 70 hours of bus travel, we were tired of it and needed a break. So we looked around for fares and found a flight from nearby Tuxtla to Monterrey for 85$ each. Since the bus fares would have cost almost that, we decided to take the cowards way out and fly most of the way home.

That night we had quesadillas, mushroom and peppers and all kinda things in them, for only 1 dollar each. They were huge and came with a serving tray with cilantro, beet-pickled-onions, fresh onions, jalapenos, and red and green salsa. See below:

Quesadillas - Everything you see for $2!

Quesadillas – Everything you see for $2!

The green salsa was hot. Coming from me, that means it was HOT. I took a drop of it and placed it in Crystals hand to lick it and then she said she had no feeling in her lips for an hour. I had two spoonfuls of it on my quesadilla and my tongue and whole mouth went numb. I could hardly breathe. It was awesome!

I wont make you more envious with tale after tale of cheap food, huge portions, and gourmet meals. It wasnt all great, anyway – but it is definitely high on my list of places to go back to, primarily for the food. nuff said about that. Basically, the next few days we didnt do much. Went to the markets occasionally, did laundry, ate, slept, did what sane tourists do – nothing.

We wandered around some of course. I found that same juggler again and we passed pins for awhile. It had been awhile since I did it, so I was a bit rusty, but I thought it turned out pretty good:

If a bit comical at times:

Only one more post left of this trip and well be home!

Posted on April 16th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Honduras, Mexico | 2 Comments »

Copan – Macaws and Deadly Ballgames

So after getting over my rapturous delight at finding real, cheap, food again – island food was getting old – we went to Copan Ruinas, the best preserved site in Honduras for seeing ruins. On our way, we stopped at the local market. As usual, I almost missed it – a tiny hole in the wall 5 feet wide lined with fruit enticed me in, then I found myself inside this gigantic flat space filled with booths selling all sorts of food and fruits. We had Tilapia and soup and tortillas for about 1.50$, bought a pineapple for 90 cents, then went to the ruins, just outside town.

The ruins were a bit pricy, 15$ each for entry, plus for once I decided to splurge on a guide since I would have had no idea what I was seeing. It was 25$ extra for a guide for 1.5 hours. It was worth it though.

About Copan.. what can I say. It was a well preserved, even opulent, pile of rocks which a great many peons spent millions of manhours carving and building for the enjoyment of a privileged few hundred people, and the honor of a few hundred pagan gods. It was impressive, yes, but I dunno. You can find plenty of pictures of the statues and carvings and things like that on the net if that sort of thing interests you more than me.

Anyway, they had some beautiful scarlet macaws at the entry to the park

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Along with some Agoutis, I think they are called

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One interesting anecdote about Copan, is that this complex was built to have a gigantic ampitheater to watch a ball game played with a rubber ball weighing about 8 pounds. No hands or feet were allowed to touch the ball, and bouncing that off your head HAD to hurt.

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This is the playing field, and the object was to touch one of the 6 goals on the sides of the field with the ball. But this game had an added twist – the winner got to be the next human sacrifice! (Should we really call him the winner? I mean, really??) Anyway, only the best was allowed to be offered to the gods, which was done on this altar here:

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Again, I have to wonder if anyone ever took a dive for the team I can imagine a comedy of players trying to under-play the others, trying to lose at least, thats what *I* would have been trying to do professional sports just doesnt have a future in a society like that.

Anyway, we got back to the actual town and it was about 4:30. We didnt want to stay here for the night, but I didnt really care where we went as long as it was south or west, towards El Salvador or Guatemala. So we walked through town, asking people, and everyone said the last bus had left already, but maybe THAT place would have a bus still after playing this game for about 30 minutes, we finally found a FULL collective taxi headed in what I hoped was the right direction. Actually, I didnt know where it was going but the road headed towards where I wanted to go in either direction, so I figured I couldnt lose.

Some people on the collective told me where to go next, so after a few more bus changes and several hours later we wound up at the border to El Salvador at about 11pm. Unfortunately, most of the hotels in town were full. One that wasnt was a bit expensive, so as I was walking around looking for more hotels, a local saw us and decided to help us. He spoke English somewhat and had lived in Houston for awhile.

Well, he told us this certain hotel had rooms and he had a reservation there and they would let us in. I had already asked there and they said they were full, and told him this, but he insisted he could work it out, maybe a bribe was all we needed he said. I found the situation quite interesting so I decided to play it out and see what happened. Well, he banged on the door, the hotel clerk came out andsaid they were full. He said he had a reservation, the clerk said he didnt, he said he did, then he said some people in the hotel knew him and could vouch for him, so about 15 minutes went by with the guy going back and forth into the hotel looking for people to vouch for this guy on the street. I found it all quite amusing, since I knew I had at least one option for beds and sincerely appreciated this guys help for us strangers.

Well, to make a long story short, (and you really had to be there to appreciate it) he finally said there were no rooms, but that his wife was in his room there and that we could take one bed and he could take the other with his wife. I explained to him that I appreciated his overwhelming kindness, but that we would seek out other options. He said that the town got unsafe later at night and we needed a place to sleep off the street and I told him again that the other place had beds and that we would go there, but if it was full we would come back and perhaps take him up on his offer. We finally agreed that if we didnt come back in two minutes, it would be a sign that all was well with us. Thanked him again, and left and got beds in the other hotel.

It was just an example of how much out of their way people will go here to help complete strangers. I doubt that would have happened in my own country, but we have met this sort of behavior all the time here. Earlier that same day a local walked 3 blocks out of his way after dark to make sure we found the bus station to the next town alright and safely.

But I think of all the countries, El Salvadorans were the happiest, nicest, most helpful, and healthiest.  It was my favorite country, and youll hear about it next post

Posted on February 22nd, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Honduras | No Comments »

Diving, Snorkeling and Eating In Utila

Upon arriving at Utila we were bombarded by people trying to get us to go to their dive shops. There are more dive shops on Utila than people. So we just put our heads down and ¨dived¨ through the crowd (so to speak) and got away from the hubbub. We wandered around town for awhile, noted that the prices were back up to Costa Rican equivalents, meaning 5$ a plate for food. Rooms were cheaper though. We were hungry, so we wanted to find something light. We were looking for Batidos, called Licuados here, which are basically blended fruit and milk. I asked about a dozen places, none of which had any. They said they were out of fruit. Finally I found a place that still offered Licuados, so I asked what type they had. They said Banana. I said ok, we´ll take one. We did, liked it, wanted another, so I asked for a second. He said he couldn´t, we ate the last banana. So apparently, since no other place had any, we ate the last banana on the island. Go us!

Bellies less empty, we set about finding a dive shop. All of them were basically the same price and offered the exact same item (an open water certification) and so we were left to decide based on how we liked a place. After trying every place in town, we settled on BICD, Bay Islands College of Diving. The instructors were upbeat, fun, and didn´t ooze that ¨hey dude, ain´t weed great!¨ vibe that some of the other shops did. Total cost was 271$ and that included 3 nights of room rental and 2 free fun dives after the course was finished. Plus, they offered free internet for students!

We walked down to the beach on Utila, which isn´t much of a beach for an island, where they had a slackline set up. Which was considerably harder than it looked. It is basically a tie-down strap put between two trees and stretched tight. So it is a poor man´s tightrope. They said I did quite well for a beginner, but to be honest that wasn´t so great.

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Later we had a ¨taco¨ in a ¨mexican¨ restaurant. It cost about 5$, and we were somewhat shocked to receive a plate with a cupful of chicken in the middle and chips stacked around the outside. I explained to them we ordered a taco, not ¨that¨. The menu specifically said it was ¨two tortillas deep fried with chicken¨. I pointed this out, and he explained that this used to BE two tortillas and they had been cut and deep fried into chips. And that this WAS a taco. I explained to him that this was NOT a taco, but that I would eat it. It actually didn´t taste bad, but it was a small portion for the price. This is a recurring theme on Utila.

Another recurring theme is that everyone on Utila quotes prices in dollars. And require payment in dollars, or in a very bad exchange rate for Lempiras, the local currency. But none of the banks or ATMs on Utila give out dollars.  So where do the dollars go? I never figured out, but bring dollars to Utila!

That said, if you don´t have dollars, you can go to the ATM and pull out money. In Lempira, of course. Then go down the street to Jose´s money changing shack (His name isn´t Jose, but I forget what it was) (and seriously, it was a shack!) and he gives a pretty fair exchange rate and has a gigantic wad of dollars under his falling apart desk. Unlocked of course. Sometimes things make little sense to me here, but I guess that is part of the experience of traveling :)

When we first walked into Utila, we saw a sign that said Indian Wok Restaurant. And I, being a fan of Indian food, promised myself wed eat there before we left. So that night I tried to find it again. Now mind you, Utila has 2 real streets, that run at 90 degree angles to each other, and a few alleys around these streets. You CANNOT get lost. And we KNEW wed seen this on Main Street. So we walked back and forth. Looking for it. Again and again. We just couldnt find it! We asked people, and they pointed us in a certain direction, and it wasnt there. We asked others, and it wasnt where they said either. 3 days we walked up and down this street on various errands and never saw it. Finally, when we had all but given up, I went on one last quest to find it. After sorting through the various directions, talking with the few people who seemed to have heard of it, I finally traced it to a certain place. I went next door and asked them if they knew of the Indian Wok. They said no, theyd never heard of it. I went back around and finally found a tiny building by a pier behind another building, that had no sign, where they were cooking. Turns out it was the Wok. They had a TINY sign that the put out only when they were actually open, which was only about 4 days a week from 6:30 till 11 pm. And they SERIOUSLY need to work on their advertising, is all I have to say.

So to digress a bit, while Crystal was getting certified as a diver (I have been for some years now) I had some time on my hands so I wanted to go get some dives in while I could. The only boat leaving when I wanted to go was from Parrot Divers. I didn´t like the outfit very much, but it was ok. Cost 52$ for two-tank dives. You can tell how long it´s been since I dove with a wetsuit since I accidentally put my suit on backwards. (Hey, the full-length body zipper is easier to pull up in the front!)

The dives were ok. I still am not too impressed with diving. I guess I´ve never been in the right place at the right time. Snorkeling is always so much better it seems. But I was glad when they were over. The next day I had a full day while Crystal was getting certified (It is a 3-4 day process).

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 So I noticed that they had three computers, but only one was turned on. I enquired why, and was told that the others didn´t work. Ah-hah! Something to amuse myself.

Having certain skills in the broken computer department, I volunteered to take a look at them. They said it was no use, someone had looked at them and said it was hopelessly broken. Ah-hah! A challenge! So they told me to knock myself out. 20 minutes later I had, to quote one of the instructors ¨three computers worth of parts spread out all over the floor¨. A swiss army knife was my only tool. This is how the computer looked when I started:

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So you can see, it needed help.  Well, I fiddled with it for awhile and finally got one of them up and running. Then I made the other one run faster (it was terribly bogged down with cookies and background programs and the like).

I was just about done when another instructor comes over and says he has a mini laptop that has died. Apparently, his antivirus program had deleted user32.dll. Which is, apparently, a file that windows considers important. So his computer was a nice paperweight for now. But it was so small it had no CD drive, so the only options were a network or a USB boot. Never having done either, it took me most of the day to work out a decent USB boot system. It was so hard and took so long that by the time I was done, he was practically begging me to give up. Hah!

Naturally, I did eventually get it working at about dark. The next day I decided to go diving with Crystal and BICD decided to award me 2 free dives in exchange for services rendered. So not only did I get to have fun, but I got paid for it!

These dives were significantly better. People make a big difference in such things, and the people at BICD were the best. Kinda like a disfunctional family. That night we ate at the Indian Wok, and had Garbanzo Curry, and Curried Hummus. Both of which are recipes I will be working on duplicating when I get home.

Next morning we headed for Jewel Key, a tiny island off Utila that was entirely built into a town.  To get there we took a water taxi, which was actually a 12-foot boat completely filled with propane tanks and 8 people. The boat rode so low in the water that it was in considerable danger of swamping several times. Plus the waves were rather high that day, so we actually surfed – in the boat – to the island. It was quite fun!

We were never more than 50 yards from shore though, and we passed about 20 dive boats on the way. I commented to the others that if we WERE going to get shipwrecked, then doing it surrounded by literally hundreds of rescue divers was probably a good place to have it happen!

And the driver of the boat (err, captain) didn´t charge us for the ride. Which was cool. We walked through the small key/town and tried a local specialty – fish burgers. I was not impressed. But interestingly, prices on Jewel Key were LESS than Utila. I get that everything on Utila has to be shipped in from the mainland. So it´s more expensive, OK, I understand. But why does ANOTHER boat trip to an even MORE isolated island make prices 30% less?? It hurt my head, so I tried not to think about it much.

Next morning we rented fins (we had been carrying snorkels since Costa Rica without using them) and took a water taxi to an even SMALLER island called water key. Which had some good snorkeling, as you can see:

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Literally thousands and thousands of minnows, it was like swimming through minnow snow.

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After that, we headed back to Utila. Checked my internet, and in responding to Emails ALMOST missed the last boat back to the mainland. Seriously, it was pulling away from the dock as I was running up. Crystal had gone ahead and was trying to get them to wait for me and they didn´t want to. When I made it evident I was willing to jump onto the receding boat, they caved in and let me on. I had already paid the exorbitant 25$ pp (each way!) fare. I WAS getting on!

Anyway. I didn´t really like Utila that much. It was hard to find good food that wasn´t white flour based. Street food was pretty scarce and restaurants were pretty expensive and portions were small. It was noisy on the weekends and it was just not too nice. I didn´t think. Not to mention the streets were about 10´ wide and was shared by trucks, mopeds, people, and bikes. There was a constant danger of being run over by something from one direction or another.  So I was SO relieved to get back to the mainland and have some REAL food. Tamales, Batidos, Soup, and affordable again!

Next we headed to Copan. Don´t touch that dial! (So to speak!)

Posted on February 20th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Honduras | No Comments »

Granada to Utila

So we got to Granada next, which was nice enough, but I wasn´t that impressed. Just another big town. We did find some unique foods – like fried cheese with honey on top. Which was not as good as it sounds. And we found a food I´d been craving for a year, ever since Ecuador Humitas! Well, they call them something different here, but they´re the same thing. Young corn ground up, stuffed in a banana leaf and made into a tamale. They are sweet (naturally, without sweeteners), and absolutely delicious. They are also a decidedly messy food, since they get everywhere. But it´s worth it!

After that we caught a bus to Masaya, intending to wake up and go to the Volcano there in the morning. We got off the bus too early in Masaya however, which was a much larger town than I had thought, so we had to wander ¨6 blocks¨ into the center of town to find hotels. It was closer to 2 miles, after dark in a strange town, but it was nice anyway I got to eat more street food, which is my number-1 favorite thing to do in Central America. This time fried potato cakes with sauerkraut on top!

So we finally found a hotel and next morning we were up at 7 to go to the volcano. Negotiated an appropriate price with the taxi, got there, only to find out it didn´t open for another hour yet. (Who knew volcanos closed at night??) so anyway, we didn´t want to wait so we skipped Masaya and went on to Managua. From there after finding a bus in yet another hectic bus station, we headed for the Honduran border. But first, the bus had to cruise through the local market, very slowly, trying to find more passengers. This made me unbearably hungry by tempting me with food on all sides, so I hopped out to go buy food. This freaked Crystal out, who stayed behind, but I knew what I was doing. Really! So I found some more Humitas and hopped back on the bus just in time and this way I didn´t have to ride hungry!

At the border, we were disappointed to find that they didn´t stamp our passports. But they did give me a FREE Honduras map (after I paid them 7$ to let me into their country) hey, maybe the map wasn´t free?

Anyway, I did learn a lesson here that I already knew, but this helped to cement it. That lesson is, always agree on a price firmly up front before letting anyone do anything for you. See, this is a rather long walk across the border here, and we were tired, so these tricycle taxis showed up to take us across. I asked how much, and he said ¨a small tip only¨ so I left it at that. Big mistake. They took us across the border, guided us through immigration, not that we really needed any guiding, it was a snap, and then they asked for their tip. So I gave them 3$ for the both of them. They had a hissy fit and demanded 20$. For a 30 minute ride. I said not a chance and offered them 4. They demanded 15 and were both screaming at me and quite a crowd had gathered. So I offered 5, and they were protesting and demanding 10. What I should have done at this point was, instead of offering more money, start offering less. Less or nothing. That would have solved the problem.

Anyway, I think I wound up paying them 10$ to make them go away. Then the tension broke and the locals all started laughing. One of them who wasn´t laughing pulled me aside and told me to always agree on a price before hand because I had just been fleeced. He said these guys had earned about 50 cents and I´d given them 10 dollars. He was quite angry at them. Oh well. I learned the lesson and so I consider it money well spent.  So then we caught a collectivo, (shared taxi-bus), which is always cramped and overcrowded. Then we caught a real bus to Tegucigalpa, spent the night there (it was raining, so it wasn´t a very nice impression the town left) .

Catching a bus in Latin America is always interesting. The buses hire hawkers to go out and pull you in from the street to their bus/ticket window/office. And these hawkers will lie and do anything they have to do to get you to their bus. They´ll tell you the other buses leave later, are slower, are broken – even when the other bus hawkers are right there, telling you that these buses have bad seats and stink, then they start cussing at each other, it´s quite an experience. I generally assume both are lying and ignore them and find my own way if possible.

As we left Tegucigalpa the next morning we passed through a market, so I leaned out the window and bought some more humitas from a lady on the street. Just asked for them and she ran up the bus window as it was pulling away and I gave her the money. Like a dollar for 4 huge humitas.

After we got to San Pedro Sula, we saw our first real bus station. Up until now they had all been, even in the cities, scattered over several blocks with independent stations. But in SPS they had a real, huge, bus terminal where all the buses stopped. Which made it much easier to find your connection. We stopped there for awhile and had lunch, which was nachos and mondongo. Mondongo, for the uninformed, is essentially beef gut soup. It was better than it sounds. Gigantic bowl for 2$ too.

Then we took a bus to La Ceiba, where the ferry leaves for Utila. Had plantain french fries for dinner, with fried chicken. I ordered one, but he understood one for each of us, so we got two. Then I tried to get a to-go box for the one I hadn´t eaten and he put in an order for a third one. Luckily I stopped him before he got it made and explained that no, I JUST wanted a box, not another meal!

It was still raining the next morning, and we had heard the boat left at 9 am. So we were up early because the taxi drivers told us the bus system was very hard to navigate. I was skeptical, but I wanted to make sure we didn´t miss it, so at 7am we started walking towards the bus stop. Found it and in a half hour we were at the boat dock. So it wasn´t that hard after all, it was yet another taxi driver lie after all, us taking the bus cost him a 5 dollar fare!

As it happened, the boat wasn´t scheduled to leave until 9:30. As it happened, it was late and didn´t leave until 10:30. So we had 3 hours to wait. The ticket counter had one extremely slow woman taking the tickets, and at least a 150 people in line, so it took about 2 of those hours just to get everyone a ticket.

Then, as the boat loaded, they loaded the bags separately and put them in a dry hold. So most of the people finally got on, and then as we were pulling away from the dock, there were about 10 people who the boat refused to let on. They said it was full. But they already had stowed their bags on the boat, and they had bought tickets! So of course the people started raising a stink and eventually they consented to let them ride.

The boat ride over was extremely rough. A large percentage of people got sea sick. I would have loved to have the dramamine concession on that boat. I of course thought it was quite fun. Some of the swells were at least 15´ tall and the boat had quite a bounce when it dropped to the bottom. Most of the boat was wrapped in a plastic cover to keep the passengers dry, and it was quite a large boat. However, there was space outside the plastic in the bow of the boat for passengers to ride, and I knew the bouncing was worst on the front of the boat, and naturally that is where I wanted to be.

It was rather cold this morning, and as I said, somewhat rainy. And with these waves, we were constantly drenched while being bounced. For about an hour. And I mean, really soaked. I have a picture of one of the waves hitting us, but I can´t upload it right now. But it was quite an exhilirating ride. When I got off I had been soaked so many times that I had salt caked on my skin. And that brings us to Utila, where we spent nearly a week, and that will be the next entry

Posted on February 15th, 2009 by Natnee and filed under Honduras, Nicaragua | No Comments »

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