Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bourj al-Barajneh – How the Other Half Lives

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A while ago a friend of mine, currently teaching English in one of the Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut, Bourj al Barajneh, invited me to join him and some other volunteers for a weekend activity with some of the kids there for the first time. We were going to be volunteering in a bi-weekly program a physical therapist set up in the camp for disabled kids in the camp, since so few resources are available to them and they have no options for professional therapy at all.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures while in the camp, apparently you have to get permission from General Security to take photos inside. I’m not surprised either, with the conditions. Everything is so cramped, with only a couple main roads and then tiny, winding alleyways between buildings for people to walk through. From the outside you would have no idea that there’s an entire city hidden behind a couple nondescript buildings, and then you walk down a tiny alley and it’s like night and day. You have to live there for a while to be familiar enough with the area so that you don’t get lost all the time. It was bustling with activity and noise, even on a Saturday morning. Palestinian refugees are only allowed to own businesses inside the camps, which keeps all the Palestinians inside and everyone out for the most part. It’s very difficult for Palestinians to get jobs anywhere outside the camps unless they’re extremely qualified and it’s hard for them to get into any of the biggest universities, both due to expense and discrimination.

Back to business. My friend knows his way to his school by now, which is where the therapy is held, so we find our way there soon enough. The director of the program was there already getting started with the activities for the 5 kids. For their therapy they do really simple, but hands on stuff that lets them be creative, artistic, and have fun, such as painting, coloring, making creations out of tissue paper (one girl made the most amazing pictures with hundreds of tiny balls of rolled-up paper) and just hanging out and socializing with each other and us. Despite the hurdles these kids face they’re still so open, happy, and friendly. They don’t let their lot in life get them down because they know they’re still alive and surrounded by people who love them and things could always be worse. I think a lot of people I know who are always complaining about stupid little things in their life should take a lesson from this kids and maybe be a bit humbled in the process and get some perspective, realizing all their whining and woe-is-me is so useless when people like the Palestinians living in a camp like this still manage to enjoy what they have instead of constantly moaning for more.

After we hung out with the kids for a few hours, they were sent home and the director took us around the camp on our way to another kid’s house. This kid had received surgery a few days earlier to relieve some extreme pain as a result of his warped legs. He was so small, probably only around 10 years old, resting on the only bed in a one-room house shared by himself, his parents, and his 2 sisters. It was only through the generous donations of nonprofit organizations working in the camps and doctors working pro bono that he had managed to get the surgery in the first place, and his family was struggling to come up with the $50 to pay for a leg brace that would keep the efforts of the surgery from reversing. Again, despite all this, they accepted what they had in life and worked on making the best of it while enjoying everything and everyone they had. This kid was happy about the simple toys we brought him and that we just came to hang out for a while.

Just being with this family made me appreciate what I had more and being here I’ve found myself not wanting more thing to fill my life, but the company and experiences of friends and family. Though I’ve encountered some less-than-stellar folks here, there have also been the ones that I’ve been able to become true friends with. These people I will miss when I’m gone and make an effort to see again when I can. Because really it comes down to the people. You can have all the stuff in the world but without anyone to share it with you can’t hope to be happy with it all. I guess this means I can’t wait to go home.

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Beach Season, My Favorite Time of Year

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A few weeks ago it was Byblos public beach. I tried to make it all the way up to Batroun but traffic was killer (thanks carpet factory, for catching on fire and blocking the only highway). The free beach there is decent, small but nice, and surrounded by fancy shmancy private beaches.

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That’s one thing I will never understand or accept the requirement to pay to go to the beach. I can understand paying for parking or using the lounge things, but to access the sand? It’s almost evil. And it’s not even as if the beaches in Lebanon are world-class, because the beach I went to every week it was warm enough in summer in Florida was way nicer. Maybe I’m just spoiled…

Anyways, not counting the awful traffic that doubled the one-hour minibus ride, my first beach trip in Lebanon was a success. Being on a beach just makes everything in life better. I also got a chance to test out the new henna I got in Istanbul, finally! I was a little rusty at first but then it all came back with the ease I have of being able to draw pretty things on people.

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The next weekend was a private (ugh. AKA expensive.) beach in Tyre (Sur). It was really beautiful and they had lounges so we didn’t have to lay in the sand. As much as I love beaches, I kind of hate sand. If I can avoid it getting all over me, I will. Sand in my stuff, in my hair, all over my skin is no bueno.

After hanging out at the beach for most of the day, we walked through Tyre to the famous Hippodrome, apparently the most well preserved hippodrome in the world. It was really cool, walking through the ancient necropolis, finding a couple tombs with bones (!!) in them. Through the triumphal arch and into the arena, just a small section of seating is left standing after thousands of years of wear and tear, war, and natural disasters, but it is enough to see how epic the stadium was back in its heyday.

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The van ride back was actually kind of eventful. Not only did we see a gigantic pelican being teased by some guy on the side of the road, a collection of old-school horse carriages on the side of the road, and the famous Saida pile of trash, but we got caught up for a while in traffic resulting from burning tire roadblock. That was fun…except it wasn’t. I don’t understand people’s obsession here with making a statement by blocking traffic, its just annoying rather than effectively conveying a message.

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Oceana was next, thanks to a coupon I found online for half off the normal (expensive) entry fee. In Damour, it’s a short 20-30 minute ride from Cola on a normal day. The beach itself it nestled in a banana plantation about 10 minutes walking from the highway and looks pretty fabulous. All slinky black and white with a pool that had a bar inside it, it was definitely luxurious. The sun was hot and strong that day, and only frequent dips in the cool pool and a strong breeze kept us from roasting alive. The sound system there was fantastic, I could easily tell why they had big parties there at night, but seriously, 3pm on a Saturday is a little early to start bumping the club beats full blast.

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The next weekend I made it over to one of the private beaches in Byblos, Bay 183, thanks to another half-off coupon. It was pretty decent, a couple cool pools and some good food but the service kind of sucked. I guess you can’t have the best of everything. I was just enjoying my time out of the polluted Beiruti air with the fresh sea breeze (one of the reasons beaches are one of my favorite places in the world) when the smell of paint thinner invaded my nose. And stayed there. For the next two hours until we left. Looks like I can’t even get fresh air at a beach here…Oh well, it was good while it lasted.

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There’s still a few more I want to explore, I would be more than happy spending the rest of my time here with the sun, sand, and salty water as my companions. And that’s how it will be.

Into the Deep: Qadisha Valley

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Even though it’s in the Middle East, Lebanon is definitely NOT a desert. I don’t think there’s even any desert in the whole country. And here’s some proof for you:

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A couple weeks ago I tagged along an AUB (American University of Beirut) International Student Group trip with a couple of people I know taking classes there on a hiking drip down Qadisha Valley. I was wearing sandals of course, so I got some weird looks and the hike leader told me it would be difficult for me not wearing sneakers. Except I was the only one who was able to take my shoes off and stick them in the nice, cool river rushing along the valley. I don’t even own sneakers…and I don’t see any reason why I should get any.

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It was really relaxing, being in a lush green forest again was so refreshing, especially considering the difference in air quality between the valley and Beirut. Near the beginning of our walk we visited a Maronite Christian convent and an church from back when the Maronites took refuge in the valley.

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At first I thought this was the Blablabla tree…and then I just realized it was a no talking allowed sign. Oops.

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We ended up at a restaurant and had a good mezze lunch before driving up to Bcharre (where Ski de Nuit a couple months back) to visit the Khalil Gibran Museum. This guy was a great artist, but he was all sorts of crazy, having his coffin on display in the basement. To each his own, I suppose.

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On the way back to Beirut we stopped to get some ice cream (yes!) and saw some interesting things to see and play with…

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I really want to do some more hiking after this, especially in the Chouf Cedar Reserve. It’s all about keeping an eye out for opportunities at this point.

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Tasting Turkey

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Ahh of course, food again. I had some crazy good food the week+ I spent in Turkey, and some I was not so crazy about as well. For started, Turkey doesn’t hold a candle up to Lebanon’s delicious yogurt, hummus, and olive oil. I was out of my element to actually have to ask waiters for olive oil instead of just having it on my table. It wasn’t nearly as good either. Nothing beats Lebanon’s labneh yogurt and the hummus…I don’t even want to talk about the hummus. Needless to say, I tried it once and didn’t touch it for the rest of the trip.

Alas, it is not all bad! In fact, most of it was pretty good. The breakfast buffets at the hostels were always delicious, filled with veggies, meats, cheese, thin yogurt and homemade jam to mix it with. Lunches and dinners consisted of a lot of meat and veggies, like the delicious pottery kebop, cooked until perfect tenderness and dripping with juices.

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Everything was amazing, I’m glad I spent more meals at actual restaurants then eating street food because it was totally worth it. The street meals were all pretty much the same thing, shawarma meat in different types of bread, somewhat bland and only handy if you’re on the run. Street snacks were better though, mussels, doughnuts, roasted chestnuts, watermelon, sooo much corn, cucumbers, and a bunch of other good, cheap stuff.

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Walking through the Spice Bazaar I also got to taste a lot of new things (the advantage of being a girl traveling with a girl, shop owners are so much more “welcoming” to you). Yummy string cheese, weird gummy fruit candies, Turkish Delights, strangely seasoned almonds, sticky sweet baklava, plus everything else people beckoned me to try. They really don’t take no for an answer.

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Then there’s the ice cream. Soooo much ice cream. I don’t know how I’ve never tried banana ice cream before, but I’ve been shown the light and it’s definitely one of my favorite flavors now. Turkey also a type of ice cream I’ve never heard of or seen before, called Maras. It’s tough to work with, kind of like taffy, and the guy who sells it to you practically has to wrestle it out of the container. Then it just sits there in the cup, not really melting or anything, and you can fling it all around and it’ll just stay there. I wasn’t in love with it, but it was pretty cool.

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Let’s not forget the Turkish Apple Tea! Now anyone who knows me knows how weird I am about drinks. I can’t stand coffee at all, I can be inside of a Starbucks for all of about 2 minutes before the smell is too strong for me and it grosses me out so I have to leave. Tea tastes like dirty, warm water to me. Ever since I gave up soda 3 years ago I’m totally turned off by it (except Guarana, but that’s a different story). When people find this out they ask me, bewildered, what I drink. Ummm…water? You know, the thing that makes up, what, 70% of your body? Yea you should try it sometime, it’s actually pretty good. And juice, the kind actually made from real fruits, not that processed sugar crap you buy in bottles and boxes from the grocery store that has maybe 5% of fruit juice concentrate, if you’re lucky.

Anyways, I’m getting off topic. Turkish apple tea is a gift from the heavens, deliciously warm and appley and sweet. It’s so completely different than tea, made from these little pellets that dissolve in hot water rather than leaves. It tastes a bit like warm apple cider, but different somehow. I’ve always wanted to like tea, it seems like such a soothing, warming drink, but I haven’t been able to get myself to drink the stuff until now. I wish I had bought more before I left, I’m almost through my entire supply.

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Enjoying tea after a long hard day of relaxation.

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Plus everywhere I went in Turkey I could find fresh orange and pomegranate juice! The guys have stalls or shops on the side of the road and juice fruits up right there, its fantastic. Call me spoiled, but living in Florida for such a long time with access to fresh squeezed orange juice nearly year round has made my taste so that I can’t even look at that gross grocery store stuff without cringing.

Now I’m hungry. I hope lunchtime is soon…

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Enjoying a nargile after tea, the Turkish way.

Here’s to the crazy ones…

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It’s final. I’m hopelessly addicted to pashminas. They’re just so soft and pretty! How could I help but love them so much? We made another trip to the Grand Bazaar this morning before our friend’s flight got into Istanbul, getting soooo many pretty pashminas that I will love forever. I don’t think I have any reason to buy a regular scarf ever again.

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The rest of the weekend was just relaxing, walking around, showing our friend to our favorite sights so far (AKA the guy who sells mussels by the water…we really just wanted an excuse to go back there). A reminder was home, but it made it hard to go back to Beirut the next day. It’s been a long five months, with ups and down, and I’m about ready to go home to all my crazy people. Of course, I still have some things to do before leaving Lebanon, like completing my scuba diving certification class and going to the beach every weekend (Boston’s beaches suck, and Lebanon’s aren’t world class but they’re definitely a step up), but at this point the end is so near its pretty much just a countdown.

I’m definitely going to return to Turkey as soon as I can though. I feel like I barely got to scratch the surface and there’s so much more to see and do and learn. This was a great week and I can’t wait for my next chance to return to this huge, diverse country (where the people and cats are so friendly!).

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Vibes, Good and Bad

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It should be illegal to be awake and shove into the world at 5am. And yet that is exactly what happened to us.

We were dropped off in the middle of the town of Pamukkale and ushered directly into the bus company’s office. From the start, we got weird vibes from these guys. We wanted to go to Bodrum that day and the time they told us their bus would leave was a couple hours after we wanted to leave. They tried to convince us that it was the only time we could get a bus there but we aren’t stupid and knew that all bus companies do not have the same times. After I went out walking around to a few other bus companies to ask the times they had buses leaving, the guys at the company were short and shady with us, obviously displeased that we could not easily be duped. Too bad for them.

Waiting around for the site of Pamukkale to enter was nearly torturous, relieved only talking to some fellow travelers, a couple from Australia who had been on the road for a while now, vaguely searching for a place that they might like to call home in the future. When it finally reached 7 or 8am, we hopped on a bus to the far entrance to walk our way back to the beginning.

Pamukkale is half travertines and half ruins. The far entrance is the ruins, which were…odd. They seemed old yet unnatural, almost staged. They were cool to explore but the paved road going straight through them felt forced. It was a peaceful early walk through them, and emerging from the ruins to the travertines was a nice sight to see.

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Though a lot of the pools were empty, they still looked really cool. And the pools that were full were stunning next to each other. Crisp, white, calcium-dyed pools stacked on top of each other and looking out to the town, with warm, blue, spring water filling them to the brim and shining back at you.

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Breathtaking.

Even though we tried to take our time going through Pamukkale, we were done by 11am and decided to try and hurry back to the bus office and switch out tickets for noon rather than 3pm. Running down the pools and stopping to take some photos, we barely made it to the office in time but succeeded and were soon on our way to Bodrum! I’m happy we were able to make this switch, Pamukkale had some weird vibes going on with their people and we made it to Bodrum just in time to settle into our hostel (run by a couple of the most hilarious meatheads ever) and make it down to the seaside to catch a gorgeous sunset during dinner.

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Looks like we have a visitor…

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We had a chill night that night, hanging out with everyone in the hostel on the roof for hours. Already, I loved the vibes of Bodrum. The people were cool and helpful, it was clean and beautiful, and of course, it was right on the water. The next day, when we took a bus down to Tropical Camel Beach 30 minutes away and relaxed for hours in the sand, water, and hula hooping, is when I came to the realization that I have no choice in life but to live by the beach if I want to be happy. I am a beach bum at heart, plain and simple. Though that doesn’t mean I’ll ever go back to Florida, it’s too humid and gross there, and living by the mountains is also a necessity, but being in a place like Bodrum with a sparkling sea and soft sand surrounded by mountains is beyond perfect.

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Sandmonster! This woman rolling around in the sand after  being in the water and stuffing it all up on her face and in her clothes was just…bizarre…

Leaving Camel Beach was hard, but it had to be done. We had a plane to Istanbul to catch! And taking that quick flight to Istanbul was about a million times better than another brutal overnight bus ride, especially considering they came out to about the same place. The Bodrum airport was tiny, with one entire wall of the airport being glass windows, facing the west so we could see the vibrant, colorful sunset straight ahead.

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Sheep’s first place ride.

One short flight later, a shuttle bus to Taksim, and a hunt for a place to drop our bags, we’re on our way to see the artist Rustie performing at one of the clubs off Istikal Street. Though short, the show was great, and afterwards we managed to finagle our way backstage to chat with Rustie and get our tickets signed. Heading back to our hostel, we settled in, looking forward to our big Boston reunion.

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This place is hilarious, bars sell tequila, vodka, melon, etc shots right on the street.

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The hostel we left our bags out for a few hours had an interesting character.

The Land of Beautiful Horses: A Photoessay

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After a brutal 10 (or 11 or 12? It was all a blur of Tylenol PM, melatonin, and discomfort…) hour bus ride, we finally arrive to the small, dusty town of Goreme in the early morning light.  Our nearby hostel, the Shoestring Cave, was actually in a cave, with rooms carved into the rock surrounding a central courtyard. We managed to settle in before getting ready for our 9am tour. Usually I’m not one for tours, but in such a large and spread out area such as Cappadoccia Valley, with a lot to see in little time, we decided the best plan of action would be to sign up for a tour package that would let us see and experience the highlights. I’ve heard from other people that with more time, renting a bike to get around is a really nice option.

Day One: Green Tour and Goreme’s sunset point

First stop: a panoramic view of Goreme.

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Then, we made our way to the Derinkuyu Underground City. It was freezing down there! And people in the past must have been tiny, I’m super short and I barely fit through some of those tunnels and stairways.

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Followed by a nice, 2 hour walk through the beautiful (and warm!) Ilhara Valley, seeing some rock-carved churches and old frescos along the Melendiz river, with lunch at the end in the village of Bellsirma.

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We then climbed around the carved-out monasteries of Selime for a bit.

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Finally, overlooking Pigeon Valley (all those holes carved in rocks are entrances to pigeon homes). And then on to an onyx factory, where I won an onyx egg by remembering the meaning of Capadoccia (The Land of Beautiful Horses, even though I don’t think I even saw one horse while I was there…)

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We returned to Goreme at the end of the tour and met up with our tour guide after grabbing some snacks to see a gorgeous view and sunset from Goreme’s own sunset point on the edge of town. (Seriously, iPhones take hands-down the best sunset pictures)

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Day Two: Red Tour, Turkish Dinner

Day two begins with Uchisar Castle and Cavusin Village, a old Greek-style village half carved in the rock and half built up.

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Goreme Open Air Museum, and the loss of a dear friend. I’m sorry for dropping you off a cliff, sheep. My pain was so great I neglected to take any photos of the Museum, or lost them, or something. I’m not sure… This Japanese man on our tour practically died when sheep fell and I tried to climb down to get him, he was laughing so hard.

Lunch, more pottery kebop! And a big sheep.

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In Avanos we visit a ceramics workship where we watch this skilled pottery expert create the body of a traditional wine serving jug in less than 5 minutes.

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Pasabagi holds the best examples of Cappadoccia’s famed fairy chimneys.

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And then we have Imagination Valley (or Devrent Valley), where imaginations run wild guessing what all the different rock shapes can be.

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In Urgup we make a quick stop at a winery, Turasan, to taste the local Cappadoccian wines.

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The Red Tour is finished with a stop at a famous rock formation that looks like a family of 3 with many different stories behind it.

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Sheep is reborn! Sheep I will never be forgotten, but Sheep II will carry on his legacy.

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Finally, a fantastic Turkish dinner with whirling dervishes and a belly dancer, enjoyed in the company of the hilarious family visiting from India we were sitting with.

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Day Three: Hot Air Balloon, Chillin’

Waking up at the ungodly hour of 5:00am was completely worth it for what was to come. Getting to the hot air balloon site and we are immediately thrust into a world of color and gigantic balloons.

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Take-off, everyone’s leaving the ground at once and balloons get close.

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We float around for a little over an hour before touching down and celebrating our victorious flight with a champagne toast.

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For the rest of the day, we relax in style (after going back to sleep for a few hours), by exploring the town a bit and hula hooping on the roof of the hostel before boarding our next overnight bus to Pamukkale.

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