A Travellerspoint blog

South(ern) Africa

The cliches are true. The stereotypes are false.

sunny 84 °F
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I recovered from malaria in style catching a train from Johannesburg to the Eastern Cape coast on a mostly empty train in my own compartment. Next door was my new best friend in South Africa, Zonke. During the ride Zonke brought me up to speed on contemporary South Africa. We dined together as the countryside passed by and discussed her potential for an appearance on "The Apprentice." Soon enough I arrived in Port Elizabeth. While I'm still getting a feel for how people interact in South Africa, I can say South Africans are very gracious and generous. The first day I was given a coke while putting my bicycle together in the train station, a map when I couldn't find one in the book store, and a water bottle for no reason at all in the checkout line of a supermarket.

Physically South Africa looks a lot like California to me, with the exception of the townships and makeshift housing. With no real strong connections in this modern country, I followed more of a tourist route here. But, I didn't cage dive with sharks, visit the snake sanctuary, do the highest bungee jump or ride the ostriches. Mostly I was reading and riding. I delved deep into Nelson Mandela's autobiography during rest breaks as I cruised along the coast toward Capetown. It was really fascinating to be engrossed in this country's political history book while observing modern South Africa. While it was mostly a solitary experience (not a bad thing), I did arrange a visit with a family of cyclists on a farm through a site called warmshowers.com (the cyclist's version of couch surfing). It was a very pleasant experience to dine, converse and stay in their country cottage. Even the irony of a refreshing cold shower in this drought ridden territory made me smile. They directed to some of the most beautiful territory I've visited, off-road and into the desert and mountainous Karoo.

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With all this time on the bike I've had some time to contemplate my habits. Thus I present the top ten things I do while cycling in southern Africa:

    1. Look around
    2. Respond Bom Dia (Mozambique) I am fine (Malawi) Good Afternoon (Zimbabwe) Thumbs up (South Africa).
    3. Sing (from Jorge Bem to Cat Stevens to K'naan)
    4. Compose blog entries and reflections in my head that occasionally get written
    4. Look down at the ground
    5. Think about food
    6. Think about things other than food
    7. Listen to music
    8. Swelter in the sun
    9. Practice good posture
    10. Ride on the wrong side of the road though there were so few cars most of the time it didn't matter

If nothing else, I have made people here laugh, sometimes intentionally, sometimes for no apparent reason. At times my helmet was a most ridiculous accessory. While I enjoyed the sound of laughter, I preferred the sound people make here of surprise or acknowledgment. For women it's something like: eeiiii and for men: aghghghg (with mouth wide-open). I've picked up both. Something else I've gained a greater appreciation for are trees. There are all types of big beautiful trees here, most well utilized for their shade as meeting spaces and relief along a short or long journey. I'm told most people come to Africa to see animals. I prefer humans (they're much easier to see and interact with). However, I did get to observe a number of interesting species along the way, plenty of baboons, wild boars, elephants, etc. But mostly I saw birds. From ostriches on down, all colors, makes and models.

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I had a fantastic week with my father in Cape Town. We covered the city well with a different journey everyday, mostly by foot, but also train, bus, and finally car. It was a nice break from my vagabond ways to spend time with my father and sleep in the same place for eight nights. In Cape Town I put on my urban affairs hat and tried to understand how the city was making up for hundreds of years of inequality by attempting to provide new housing for townships dwellers. The task seems virtually impossible. But I found the sociology of Cape Town perhaps even more interesting then the politics that caused it. Apartheid titles like "coloured" are still used. Coloured was a term used essentially as caste that sought to group all people of mixed identity and those of strictly Asian decent. What's fascinating today is that at some level, it worked. We went to a "minstrel show" a traditional event of the "Coloured" community which involves singing and dancing competitions between neighborhoods. It was amazing to see the mix of faces and religions in this group and the absence of white or "black" faces. While the terminology used for this event and this identity group is pretty hard to digest, I do think Seattle needs a dance-off between neighborhoods.

Today my father set off on a train for Johannesburg and I a plane for Porto, Portugal. However, just to end my time in Southern Africa with a surprise, I was abruptly stopped on the street by some undercover Cape Town police. They looked like something out of '21 Jump Street' in basketball jerseys and couldn't have been older the 24 or 25 so of cours I didn't believe they were police. I had made the mistake of trying to take the alternate exit from an underground internet cafe ending up in a shady spot. Still I was shocked when these two grabbed me 2 blocks down the road. I finally agreed to a search, and stuck my hands in the air, though they repeatly told me it was not necessary. This fortunately and faithfully proved my innocence before a streetfull of onlookers.

Now on to Porto en route to Cape Verde and Sengal fully itinerary here

But before you go, this is my time in southern Africa summarized in moving pictures with sound:

Posted by dericvito 01:29 Archived in South Africa Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

Zimbabwe

After the meltdown there are still dipped cones

sunny
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Even before I saw the glass towers, it was the full fledged fitness gym that let me know I was entering a new world. Malawi was a rural country, which was visually rich in agriculture (though I was told there was a food shortage) with small huts dotting the tropical plains. Zimbabwe feels urban and sophisticated. In Malawi, search of cold water I would scour for power lines riding through the countryside. In Zimbabwe dipped cones are available 24hrs a day from the Creamy Inn. I've enjoyed Zimbabwe for these and other contrasts and strangities. It is a country of big boulders, beautiful babies with big eyes buried in their mothers backs and the world's biggest reserve of U.S. two-dollar bills.

After just a morning in Harare, I caught a bus for the mountainous east to mount my bicycle. On the way a raucous group cheered and jeered the driver as he passed and was passed by other vehicles. In Zimbabwe I cruised along on well paved roads, one day in the mountains and three days moving towards South Africa. The only thing that slowed me down was the heat and the constant police road blocks, which I learned to enjoy. The easy questions were straightforward: Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you from? But the tough questions provided some challenge, here are some excepts:

ZIM POLICE: Do you know where Sean Paul and Riana live (pop musicians)
ME: NY, LA?
--
ZIM POLICE: Aren't you afraid traveling alone?
ME: No... should I be?
---
ZIM POLICE: You look like that swimmer, what's his name? Oh yeah, Michael Phelps.
---
ZIM POLICE: Didn't you bring something for us to remember you by, maybe five dollars?
ME: No
---
ZIM POLICE: Do you have cold water? Can I have some?
ME: OK
--
ZIM POLICE: Let's you and me go to the saloon tonight and find some ladies.
--
ZIM POLICE: What's your phone number? Will you call me when you get to America?

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Apparently the police were there in part to interrupt the diamond trade. All along the road men would hiss at me and make a diamond symbol with their fingers. The police policy to shoot poachers on site has massively cut down the trade I was later told at the empty hotel at which I arrived (which was often the case). According to the lonely and unpaid receptionist, the place was filled with diamond traders the previous year. On the road I found people in "Zim" more reserved than in Malawi. Or perhaps it's because white people are less of a novelty here. In any case they made up for it with fantastic whistling skills.

You are likely aware that Zimbabwe has been through some rough times, which hit the international news hard: an aggressive land reform policy that expropriated white farmers large land-holdings, hyper-inflation leading to empty grocery shelves (and they have so many grocery stores here!), cholera and bulldozed slums. Zimbabweans are very sensitive to this reputation and remiss about better days past. Indeed I didn't even consider coming here till I talked with some travelers. But I'm glad I did, because it's a fascinating mix of what I assume is old England and modern Africa. African women walk the streets with British wedding hats and bumbrellas, school children in flower cut dresses or khaki shorts worn high and belted tight with blue button-up shirts. Groups glad in white robes sing along the road. It's also a very pleasant place to be. The land reform issue is widely talked about, and I heard both sides, but their doesn't seem to be any active tension. The currency issue was solved by adopting three other currencies, the Botswana Pula, American Dollar, and South African Rand, all valued differently in different cities!

Sometimes the best thing after a long day of cycling is a cold bucket shower. But often in Zimbabwe the bucket was missing. As was the toilet seat. I have no idea how Zimbabweans bathe or use the toilet; I mean that literally. Most often there is a tub, but no drain stop and no bucket and no curtain. Similarly, they have western toilets, but no seat, I would think a squatter would be more effective. It's also the only tropical type country I've been to where wall to wall carpeting is common. A record temperature here is under 70 degrees, yet all the beds have a warm blanket under the comforter.

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I spent ten days traveling in Zimbabwe, most of it very independent and some way out where there was no one to ask directions and that was enough this trip. I tired a little of the evening power outages, always right when it got dark. Hot candles can be unpleasant when it's still 80 degrees. Outside of the cities, food could grow quite mundane as well. Every day the choice was the same, chicken or beef, rice or sadza (like cream of wheat, but corn), usually with either coleslaw or pumpkin leaves (quite tasty). Perhaps this routine lulled me into a daze of forgetting my Malaria pill or perhaps I did take the pill, but in any case it hit my full-on about an hour into a six hour bus ride. High fever, achy legs and general discomfort. The mini-bus let me out at the only town along the way with a hospital. I was diagnosed by "the sister" a nun I assume, and given some pills. Generally disoriented I somehow arrived at the guesthouse of the Zimbabwe Power Company, which overlooked a plant looking something like Homer Simpson's workplace. Of course even here the power went out, but I was satisfied for the comfortable bed and vanilla ice-cream. Not even the thunder and lightning which rocked the place could wake me from a twelve hour sleep. With the fever gone I traveled on and after a three day course I've 100% recovered. I'm now in South Africa making my way to Cape Town along the southern Coast.

While I couldn't manage or bother to capture Zimbabwe in photos, I will leave you with just a taste of culture from the streets of Bulawayo.

Posted by dericvito 07:07 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

From Mozambique to Malawi

It was the holiday season in Southern Africa too

all seasons in one day
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My skin has turned the color of a honey-roasted peanut. There are constantly strands of fruit stuck between my teeth from tiny mangoes sold by children, five for a nickel. The air smells strongly of roasting cashews, though apparently the season is almost over. These were my last reflections from Mozambique

I spent Christmas eve and day with my traveling companion (hint: it has two wheels) riding from Nampula in north central Mozambique to the coast, Ilha de Mozambique. While the only visible signs of the holiday where the occasional santa hat and even more occasional small plastic Christmas tree, there was a palpable holiday spirit in the air. It was in the calls of 'boas festas' from those I passed and the busyness of the market on the 24th, ´dia de familia´. Perhaps it was even in the spirit with which women and children skinned down to their underwear and less when the rain started. They did so to take advantage of fresh puddles to the road to wash their clothes.

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I arrived in Ilha to a wedding. Along the way I saw many people taking advantage of the holiday season for ceremonies. There was traditional dancing, a circumcision ceremony and other occasions which I was not privy to. I landed at a private home and a courtyard filled with children. My room had an overhead fan and a bright
green bathroom. Over the next few days I plied the street of the island, one of first European settlements in Africa and the southern hemisphere. Young-men aspiring a career in tourism approach me with sophisticated and casual pitches. I usually had a ten to 16 year old accompanying me at all times. Ilha is home to some beautiful and smart European owned restaurants as well as a densely populated African villages. Children play freely on the beach, roll tires and enjoy their nakedness in the puddles. It was here that Mozambique's seafood reputation finally caught up with me. A chunk of fish in broth, lobster salad, shrimp and calamari. Some of it even lacked the customary grains of sand that have appeared in almost every dish I ate since my arrival. At night the sleepy colonial island filled with the beat of club Nautico and dancing youths. It was with reluctance that I left Ilha and caught a train to the border before my visa ran out as well as the year.

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I crossed the border into Malawi by bicycle. Either I was at some altitude or Malawi is all down hill, but regardless it was a beautiful decent down to Lake Malawi and the city of Mangochi. I managed to spend keep my bicycle in one piece and unpacked for my entire visit to Malawi although I found new obstacles along the road. Baboons, women dancing, and children crying out "Azungo". They would do so individually, "Azungu, Azungu," collectively AZUNGU, and even chant, "Azungu! Azungu! Azungu!. Their other favorite phrase was "give me money." I can almost imagine the vision in their head of a gangly (relatively) pale cyclist grabbing fistfuls of Kwacha notes from his bicycle bag and tossing them into the air. In fact I could afford to do this. There is only one bank note here worth more than $1.30. Should I? While perhaps it is a needed economic stimulus, my rationale not to is that it would reinforce paternalist notions that run strong here. Should I instead give to the international charities who have a strong presence in Malawi? I fear for propagating the NGO industrial complex. However it's hard to disregard foreign aid altogether when I get met workers at an independent foundation that has reduced malaria deaths by 90% in a community I visited, just by opening a clinic.
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From the peaceful, bicycle friendly town of Mangochi I biked to the water's edge to pass the new year at a small beach community. I fell in love with the large and beautiful Lake Malawi. On new years eve, the midpoint of my journey, I was plucked from my travelers isolation by by some Irish nurses and taken to the roasting of a goat. There we were entertained by the a band of children with drums. They played Malawian classics like "Who let the dogs out" and "How are you; I am fine." The next day I caught a ferry up the lake, which was a time of great peace, only briefly interrupted by Malawian tourists who boarded at every port to check out the ship on their day off and take photos with me (for status? strangeness, I don't know). A few days cycling and chasing wildlife and I'm departing for Zimbabwe tomorrow. This is the most travel intensive portion of my journey. I know I'm getting a bit worn down because I've been hanging out with other travelers for the first time and staying at backpacker places. Still I'm happy with this adventure and looking forward to the future.

Reflections in Bullets:


    I´ve been slowly trading away some of my high quality goods for handiwork. I took the frame off my backpack and had a tailor put in on my bicycle bag so I´m basically just carrying the bike now and a shoulder bag. Some guy liked the thick rubber on my heavy Chacos so I traded them for some flip-flops.

    I feel like somewhat of a friend sl-t here. I met so many people, but within a week I´m gone. I knew it would be hard and it is. Hard for me to process and II feel guilty for knowing there are few I will actually keep contact with.

    In Mozambique there´s a marketing war of epoch proportions between two cell phone companies, Vodocom and Mcell. They plaster there logo on everything, free shirts are particularly effective. Or perhaps its the absence of all other marketing I noticed.

    It is widely known police, like everyone, put the pressure on during the holiday season. Bus drivers will be stopped four times over four hours and either talk or bribe their way through checkpoints. My first night on the bike in Maputo I was waved over by a cop. My heart pounded as the officer requested papers for my bicycle. I stalled and eventually he let me go.

    Not bribing is one stalwart rule of the travelers to do no harm. Another I´ve tried to follow is to purchase down the economic chain. Buying from street vendors can be healthier for me (often fruits or homemade goods), the environment (generally no or natural packaging) and the least well off. Unfortunately It´s been a struggle , as those packaged cookies with the frosting inside can provide relief from a stressful day of travel.

    Malawi's got religion! The presence and prominence of both mosques and church and their respective schools and charities was distinct from subtle Mozambique.

Finally got to upload some photos, https://www.travellerspoint.com/gallery/users/DJG/

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Posted by dericvito 09:24 Archived in Mozambique Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Mozambique

Adventure and new friends in this pais tropical

sunny 39 °F
View A Backpack, A Bicycle, And a Bonderman Grant to Travel the World on dericvito's travel map.


I went to sleep at a sunny 4am this morning to the sound of the muzzen call to prayer. But I'm not in the middle east anymore, I'm in Mozambique. That, and the best south Indian food I've consumed outside of India are a testament to the diversity of this country. The hour I arrived is a testament to the challenging transportation system and strange time zone that make the sun rise before 4am.

I spent my first week in Maputo, the capital. My first impressions (coming from Beirut) were a slower pace, orderliness (people following traffic laws / waiting patiently in line), and the high numbers of people out on the streets during the day. I hit the ground running with the help of some friends and friends of friends. I had dinner the first night with friend Abdul and his family who I met when he was studying public health at the UW. The next night I connected with a friend of a friend, an American who works at an NGO here.

Maputo is a pleasant city with large street-trees that provide shade from the summer heat. I spent my first days running errands, looking for visas, cooking lunches. I found a street ball organization and watched their tournament, only narrowly deciding against joining the dunk contest in my street shoes and cargo shorts. But I enjoyed Maputo mostly for the nightlife. A fashion show and concert at the french cultural center, live performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazoo and a host of local groups, a private dance party into the early hours. I witnessed the the most creative dancing I've ever seen by four 14-year old boys who role played amongst themselves a teenage romance dance. Oh, and I'm now an incredible dancer too :-) (somehow it's just easier here).

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I spent time with expats in Maputo, because that's who I was connected to. Always an interesting group, most have good intentions and some are doing great work. Unfortunately they 7 we all bring cultural baggage. One woman complained about waiting for a Mozambican room mate to see her flat. "She was late, I couldn't believe it, I mean don't make me prejudice!" My favorite story however was of a raid on expats at their primary hangout, a bar called Mundos. Apparently anyone who didn't have their papers in order where kicked out of the country. I found the idea of immigration raids on white, highly educated folks hilarious, but of course they didn´t think so.

I have also had to confront many of my own prejudices here. Coming to Africa I feel like I got a lot of warning explicitly and inexplicably about danger. I've had to transform my barometer of when I'm really threatened and who I should really fear. In the three weeks I've been here I think I've made a lot a progress at this. I often try to walk towards someone who appears to be a threat (but my instincts tell me otherwise) and start a conservation. Usually these poor, black young men (some holding machetes) were happy to talk and other times they simply shrugged me off. Overall the legacy of oppression here is very tangible in everything. People on the street call me "patrao" or "boss." This is also used for wealthy locals. A friend on staff at the hostel in Maputo would joke with new arrivals that I was his boss. It was awkward.

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After Maputo I spent a week in the beach town of Tofo, pretty much taking it easy. I rode around in the sand. I talked with locals about philosophy and business at restaurants and along the walk from my hut into town. Sometimes I did that walk in the pitch black and couldn´t see the nose on my face (I usually can). And of course there was a beautiful salty ocean.

Most recently I departed Quelimane, the first city I've spent any time in where bicycles outnumber every other form of transportation except feet. All the taxis are bicycles, the only obstacles to a Utopian bicycle society are the potholes and giant white SUV's of the NGO's. Here, on my first night I was lucky to land at my only little "Hidmo" (for those who are familiar), a two week old restaurant / community center run by a woman named Dona Luxa and assisted by three or four friends who welcomed me into their group. There was Mario the drunk and horny man from Beira, Catia a 24 year old who I later discovered had a nine year old and four year at home, who´s husband died from Malaria, and Abelito, the charismatic student who DJ´s at the local nightclub. For the four days I and passed most of my time there chatting, eating and drinking.

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I have a lot to tell, but little time, so I´ll save the rest for the next post and leave you with a few other reflections:

    • People work hard here.
    • Speaking the language well is one advantage that I counted on. My Portuguese is about 80% effective here, but because it´s many people´s second language and it changes from the north to the south, conversation can still be a struggle.
    • I my mp3 player has been mostly dead here, which you would think would be a struggle, especially during the multiple 18 hr journies where I´ve hitched in trucks, caught mini´buses which broke down in the middle of the no-where, and true buses where people stood in the aisles for more than 9 hours on dirt roads. Most of the time I had a child in my lap. But only 14% of people have power here, so music is music is mostly consumed publicly. It´s nice that way.
    • After three months in the middle east I finally got a decent handshake, the Mozambique handshake which involves a little thumb swagger.
    • People eat more rice here, that makes me happy.
    • My bicycle has become a commodity . It is something tangible that Mozambicans can own, which is great, but I've received to many propositions to feel comfortable.
    • It's very hot where I am. Very hot. But still ok.
    • People make requests, strange ones with no apparent justification. A decently dressed teen approaches me at a cafe and "makes a request" that I buy him a sandwich. A server at a restaurant tells me she wants me to "offer her" the change from my meal and hands are constantly extended. But for all the "begging" I've also met many entrepreneurs.
    • The service here is very deliberate and attentive. It make me uncomfortable.

Unfortunately have only a few photos and no video to share due to the fact that: 1) it seems almost absurd to take out my digital camera here 2) there is limited and weak internet here 3) I lost my camera battery charger.

Next week I catch a train to Malawi, then down to Zimbabwe, before entering Johannesburg.

Posted by dericvito 03:15 Archived in Mozambique Comments (0)

Reflections on Lebanon and Syria

Taking a look back and the last couple of months


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I'm in the airport in Prague right now, still at the begin of my 36 hour journey to Mozambique and I have a little time to reflect on the last 2.5 months spent in Lebanon and Syria. I feel like I've experienced so much in such a short amount of time it's hard to digest everything I've participated in and witnessed. Overall this segment of my trip was exactly what I hoped and planned for and I feel blessed. I toured Lebanon with my family, got to know Beirut and its nightlife, a city I've come to enjoy mostly for the sweet and interesting people who live there, I "lived" for a moment in Damascus and learned enough Arabic to meet people and have simply conversations during my bicycle tours and I organized and supported a cause I believe in.

Comparing Lebanon and Syria has been fascinating, because of their shared culture and stark contrasts. The former a sophisticated cosmopolitan place with very weak institutions, infrastructure and a phyche altered by war. The later a strong state with a modest standard of living and way of life that is more traditional or as one travelers put it "authentic" (HA!) .

While I really haven't been alone much at all because of visitors and the friends that adopted me in Beirut and Damascus, I've found moving from experience to experience alone is perhaps richer then doing so with a partner, but of course more difficult to share, which is half of the pleasure. So here goes:

These were a few of my favorite things

  • When schools gets out in Damascus and children in little blue uniforms pour onto the streets, jumping, yelling, consuming aluminum bags of chips and clogging up the roads on the street.
  • Searching for a Critical Mass in Beirut and finding some very enthusiastic and endearing people
  • Visiting with Lebanese family, and finding out that our common language is Spanish
  • Cycling the mountains of Lebanon; in French!
  • Eyebrows and noses that go on for meters (all too familiar)
  • Seeing the face in my mother in a few little girls and young women
  • Drinking tea with curious Syrians in the countryside
  • Lebanese girls who speak English with the in between words in Arabic, "I think we should go for a walk, BAS it is raining. MUMKIN we could go to a movie instead. INSULLAH we can do something."

Things to bring home

  • Service taxis - why not pick up a few people standing around at the bus stop on your way home from work today? Seriously, with some simple certification and use of the Orca card system this could work!
  • Fresh bread - people line up for bread in Damascus, and clamor to bring home a heap of hot pita because they won't accept anything less than delicious new bread to scoop hummus, Baba Ganounj and maybe roll up a falafel (interestingly falafel far exceeds Western renditions, but schwarma (or Gyros) are significantly less tasty.
  • Bicycles with saddlebags bags and electric bicycles, ubiquitous on Damascus's streets.
  • Beirut nightlife - ok not the Bentlies and porches and fake lips, but the music, carefree dancing and open-minded social interaction at unique venues that makes time slip by and the morning arrive early, lightening your heart and your wallet.
  • The urban village realized in Damascus, shops under homes, small streets with life, neighborliness, abundant sweets and easy access to everything you might need.
  • Daily life, but at night, what a concept, commerce goes on in Lebanon and Syria late into late hours.
  • $1.50 shave and a haircut

In other news, the second Critical Mass was a success. We almost doubled our numbers to 12, including 8 new riders one coming traveling an hour to participate.

Sorry no photos this time - but stay tuned.

Posted by dericvito 00:56 Archived in Syria Comments (1)

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