Archive for the ‘Ben in Venezuela’ Category

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My Last Final…

August 7, 2009

In case anyone has failed to notice, there has been a decided lack of new entries in my blog. I feel that I owe an explanation, but honestly, the only one that I can come up with is that Mérida sits atop some kind of vortex that distorts time. Actually, it may be even more complicated than that, as I have discovered that during the past three weeks (coincidentally the same period of time during which I have been taking Spanish 1004) time has been moving both rapidly and excruciatingly slowly, but this somehow occurs simultaneously! At times, I feel so overwhelmed by the course work and the amount of material that I am required to remember, it seems like it will never end, and that all I do is go to school, study, and occasionally eat and sleep. On the other hand, weekends seem to come and go with the blink of an eye, and suddenly, here I am, sitting in a classroom with only two days of school left.

Yes, the truth is that I have been too busy to blog. That does not mean that there has been nothing to report, however, and my experiences here have continued to be amazing. I am writing this, what may be one of my final blog postings from Venezuela, as an attempt to quickly capture some of the more exciting points that have occurred while I have been here, and also as a brief synopsis of what the next three weeks hold for me.

Holiday in Plaza Bolívar, downtown Mérida.

Holiday in Plaza Bolívar, downtown Mérida.

So, let’s start with the immediate future. I have the last exam of my undergraduate career tomorrow. The format has been revamped, and now each of the students in my class is responsible for “teaching the teacher” in an effort to prove that we know the material inside and out. We did this for the last exam as well, and I have to say that it was both enjoyable and an excellent way to review. All three of us received great grades, but we also had the opportunity to go over everything point by point, further solidifying that which we have been studying during our tenure in Mérida. And that’s it. That is the culmination of six long years. I am very excited, and can not think of a better way to finish it off than by studying here in Mérida and actually gaining the ability to speak in a foreign language (or at least give it a pretty good try).

The three weeks that follow are going to be a lot of fun I think. Tomorrow night I will be getting on a bus with three friends…Lucas, Alec, and Madeline. We are taking an overnight bus up to the colonial town of Coro in the north of Venezuela. Founded primarily by German immigrants, Coro was the very first capital of Venezuela and still boasts some of the most interesting and well-preserved architecture in Venezuela. It is also home to several interesting places, including a house that has over 100 windows in it, and the oldest Jewish cemetery on the entire continent of South America. The bus ride itself is a 12 hour journey, and from what I have heard the buses in Venezuela require several layers of clothing because the air conditioners run at full blast, usually putting the air temperature in the bus at somewhere just above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It should be interesting…

…and just in case that is not interesting enough, there are a few other “unknowns” that still have to be uncovered. For instance, we tried to purchase our bus tickets yesterday, but were told that you have to buy your tickets on the day that you travel. That means that tomorrow morning, the four of us need to show up at the bus station at 7 a.m. in order to buy the tickets before class. The trip doesn’t really happen unless we can get bus tickets. The other big unknown is where we are going to be staying once we arrive in Coro. Now normally I probably wouldn’t worry too much about this, but Venezuela (yes, most of the entire country) has August off. That’s right, they have the entire month…off. It is referred to as “temprana alta” or the “high season” and from August 1st to August 31st prices are much higher, and availability of EVERYTHING is severely diminished. No problem, we could just make reservations, right? Well, not so fast. Reservations in Venezuela do not simply require a phone call and a credit card in order to hold your room. Instead, it is a complicated process that requires you to receive a bank account number and physically go to a bank, make a deposit of half of the total, and then call the hotel or posada again in order to confirm that they have received the payment. Needless to say, since we are leaving tomorrow, we do not have the time to make that happen. So (assuming we can get the tickets) we are headed to Coro hoping to find a place to stay.

My friend Lukas the day we headed to El Valle together.

My friend Lukas the day we headed to El Valle together.

We are going to spend a brief two days in Coro before heading over to Puerto Colombia, a beach that is relatively close to Caracas, and where almost all of the other students from VENUSA are going to be congregating on their way out of town. We will have one full day at the beach to soak up the sun before saying goodbye and heading our separate ways. For most that means a trip to Caracas and the airport… for me it means a 12 hour bus trip back to Mérida, solo. When all is said and done, I will have something like 38 to 42 hours of time on busses during the next 6 days. Suddenly I am very glad that I brought Shogun (a HUGE book that will hopefully carry me through the entire journey).

Next Wednesday night is when Jess is supposed to arrive in El Vigía, and I can hardly wait. I have rented an apartment for us in Mérida where we will stay for a week. During that time I have scheduled a few day trips…hiking in the mountains around Paramo, taking a natural sauna in El Valle, a visit to the indigienous village of Jají, and of course, a schedule parapente jump! But more than anything, I am looking forward to being able to show Jess where I have been living for almost three months. We are going to hang out with my family here, and we have also been invited to have dinner and play dominoes at the home of the cook at Venusa, Joan, and his wife Yiya. I have become very good friends with them in the last few weeks, and I am very much looking forward to being able to go to there house and see them again before I leave. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: Parapente

July 13, 2009
A cloudy day meant no thermals.

A cloudy day meant no thermals.

It was strange to spend the Fourth of July outside of the United States. Actually saying that sounds almost sarcastic coming from me (who is not exactly the most patriotic of individuals on a good day), but this year I missed being there. I kept thinking that if I was at home Jess and I would probably be over at Jeff and Gene’s playing bocce ball. Instead, I was stressing out about my new Spanish class and wondering if I am actually going to be able to graduate or not. Not exactly ideal, in fact, I felt a little depressed. So, like any sane individual, I realized that the best solution was to jump off of the side of a mountain.

The story really begins about two days earlier when our guide, Bruce, started talking about getting a group together for parapente. Parapente is essentially hangliding using a parachute, and Mérida is reputed to be one of the best “launching” sites on earth because of the mixture of accessible altitude and crazy thermals. At the time, a large group of people told Bruce that they were interested, but while people were signing up on a scrap of paper he stressed that it was important to get an accurate count since he needed to arrange for one pilot for each of the people that would jump. It was at that time that we realized that all of the students who signed up had just arrived in Venezuela and no one besides me had a cell phone, so I was elected the group leader by default, and Bruce told me that he would be calling me on Friday about 3:00 p.m. to get the final list.

So, in an attempt to make everything easier, I took advantage of us all being stuck on the same bus and told everyone that if they wanted to go on Saturday morning, they needed to friend me on Facebook and then send me a message asking to be added to the parapente list. I also told them that this needed to happen before lunch on Friday. I thought this would make things simple…that Bruce would call me on Friday, I would log on to Facebook and get the final count and that would be it. Man, was I wrong. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: Paramo

July 3, 2009

The last week has been tough, although I am not exactly sure why. Perhaps it is that my first class ended, and without classes for a week I feel a little bit of “what am I supposed to do now?” happening. Or maybe it is because many of the friends that I had made just left Venezuela, heading back to their homes in the States. Possibly it is knowing that I am starting a new class, a harder class, in less than a week. Although I got an A in my first class, I still feel like I am not ready to be in Spanish 1003. Or maybe being abroad is starting to catch up with me…I have read that most students who study abroad have an initial high about being someplace new, but then at some point it fades and is replaced by a serious longing for home. Maybe I have just finally hit that point and just need to work through it. Whatever the reason, the important thing to understand is that I have been in a bit of a funk. Is that accepted term? I hadn’t been out of the house for a few days, and was just spending a lot of time lazing around. Studying a little, reading more, sleeping the most. I didn’t feel depressed, just tired. Maybe I really was just recharging, but it was beginning to feel like I really just needed to force myself to get out of the house.

I said that I didn’t have school for almost a week. This is because the new kids arrived on Monday. They will be down here for the last 6 weeks, but nothing really gets started until after a few particulars are taken care of. Tuesday they have an all-day orientation, and then in the afternoon there is a tour of the city. Wednesday is a day trip up into the mountains. Since I came down halfway through the first semester I didn’t get to participate in any of this the first time, and was invited to go now. I really didn’t feel like it, but as I said, I needed to get myself out of the house. Besides, I loved to hike, and the chance to see the Paramo region (which is where the group was headed) was one I knew that I should jump at.

Man-made waterfall at one of our stops.

Man-made waterfall at one of our stops.

So on Wednesday I had an early breakfast, threw a few things into my backpack and headed out the door. I got to VENUSA earlier than I had expected and had about 30 minutes to kill. Well, 30 minutes if we had left on time. Somehow, students from the United States and all of Venezuela have the same understanding of schedules. Although we were supposed to leave at 9, we really didn’t get into the bus until about 9:30, maybe 9:45. I can almost feel several of my friends snickering as I type this, but believe it or not I am aware that my obsessive type-A personality adores sticking to schedules, and that at times like this I need to remind myself that Venezuela (and apparently college students) move at a different pace, but that somehow, it will be alright. So as we finally piled into the bus, I picked out a seat near a window and settled in, quietly chanting to myself “Schedules don’t matter…schedules don’t matter…” Ironically I will probably start to get used to this concept about the time I need to go back to work in the United States were schedules DO matter. Okay, I can hear my friends laughing again. You are all right, I will NEVER get used to that. Schedules are a part of who I am, and so far, this trip was tough for me.

We needed to stop a few times along the way to acclimate to the altitude. Mérida itself is somewhere around 5,500 feet and we would be ascending to over 13,000 in the course of a two hour bus ride. That means that we were gaining altitude to quickly…we needed to take a few 15 minute breaks. So, at each stop, we clambered out and I would scamper off by myself to take pictures. As the 15 minutes was up I would rejoin the group and climb back onto the bus. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: Hiking in the Andés

July 2, 2009

I have been in Mérida for three weeks now, and although I have been exceedingly busy (with school, studying, family events, etc.) I am constantly finding myself staring up at the tree covered hills leading into the mountains, wondering when I will have the chance to get out and hike in them. I see them from the patio at home; I see them as I gaze out the window during class. In Mérida, you see mountains everywhere you go…but I wanted to see them closer.

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A teleférico car suspended in space.

Before coming to Venezuela I had read a little bit about hiking around Mérida, and about the different ways to reach the peaks. The easiest (and quickest) way to get up into the mountains is to ascend via a cable car system known as the teleférico. In fact, Mérida is home to the longest cable car in the world, measuring at just over 12.5 kilometers! It goes through 4 stations, and ascends a ridiculous amount of altitude before dropping it’s passengers off at Pico Espejo at an altitude of around 4,765 m (or around 15,600 feet!). The best part is that the teleférico leaves right from the edge of el Centro. It is about a 2 hour ride, and then you are free to hike around the mountain until you decide to catch the teleférico going back down. As I said, that is the easiest way to get up into the mountains…when it is working.

I discovered shortly after I arrived that the teleférico has been broken since last August. Rumor has it that the system will be operational again by this August, but that is only a rumor. There was a prior rumor that it would be done by April of this year, but that didn’t happen. As I am learning, many things in Venezuela move at a unique pace, and there really isn’t anything to be done about it. As a matter of fact, the last time that the teleférico was shut down for repairs, it took 7 years. So I am probably not going to be able to use it before I leave.

I consulted a guide book on Mérida and noticed that there is actually a trail that, according to the rough map I was looking at, appeared to depart from the same spot as the teleférico. So I asked Franko about it and he confirmed it. He also told that hiking in the mountains can be a bit dangerous, and that every year a lot of people get lost, disoriented, trapped by storms, or succumb to any of a plethora of other misfortunes. He also warned me that the trail leaves from the edge of town, but is fairly secluded for a while and might not be safe to hike alone. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: El Centro

June 27, 2009

My summer in Venezuela is proving to be a very complicated balancing act between the need to study and the desire to experience. Although initially nine weeks sounded like a long time, the truth is that much of my time here is consumed either in school or studying for school. After all of the time I spend studying, there is not much left of those nine weeks. Let’s just say that I am very glad I will be staying down here an extra two weeks after my classes are over.

I am discovering that there is a strange relationship between studying a language and actually using the language. If I simply wandered the streets trying to pick the language up, I would not be able to learn the grammar required to pass my exams. At the same time, studying constantly and mastering grammar does not mean that you have consumed the language enough to be able to answer even simple questions in a conversational setting, regardless of how you do on your exams. So, like I said, it is a rather complicated balancing act.

That being said, this past week has been testing my sense of balance. Since it was the final week of my Spanish 1002 class most of the week was spent preparing for Thursday’s final exam. In addition, I also had to write two papers in Spanish. If you have never had to write a paper in a foreign language that you do not know all that well, I am not sure that you can ever really understand how difficult it is. I found out that I could not simply write in English and then translate because I do not understand the Spanish language well enough. I am not talking about vocabulary… you can always look a word up in the dictionary. What I am talking about is how the language itself is constructed… how you phrase things… how the language actually lives and breathes. The truth is that in order for me to write a paper in Spanish I need to start in Spanish and work with the limited grammar that I understand. It can be very frustrating and a little humiliating because you feel like you are writing like a child (which I suppose I am). It would be roughly equivalent to drawing well enough to receive an art scholarship, and then have someone hand you a coloring book and tell you to practice staying within the lines.

A small plaza hidden in el Centro.

A small plaza hidden in el Centro.

Wednesday was a national holiday so the school wasn’t open, but a friend and I hired our professor to meet with us at a café for a few hours of extra practice. After that, I went home to write my final paper, ate dinner, and then spent the rest of the night cramming for my exam. By 1:30 in the morning I fell asleep with flashcards in hand, hoping that it was enough. Although I exhausted myself, I ended up getting 96 out of a possible 100 on the final exam. Thursday night, after enjoying congratulations from my host family, I passed out in a tired heap on my bed. The long 24 hours of studying had done me in completely. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: Fútbolito

June 20, 2009

Today I played fútbol (soccer) in Venezuela! Actually, this is a little strange because it is NOT the most popular sport here. Unlike the rest of South America where fútbol reigns supreme, Venezuela is thoroughly a baseball country. Since I have been here I have seen people of all ages participating in a variety of sports; everything from baseball and softball to cycling and fencing!

Here in Mérida however, soccer is still a pretty popular sport. Most people play a version of fútbol referred to as fútbol sala or fútbolito. Literally, little fútbol. Fútbolita is played on a playground basketball court. The ball is smaller and harder than a normal soccer ball, which makes scoring really difficult because there aren’t really goals. Instead, you need to tap the small, hard ball off of the basketball post. It is not easy.

Alejandro had tried to arrange a game with some friends, but it apparently fell through at the last minute. So Franko, myself, and Alejandro all headed down to the court to kick the ball around for a while. When we arrived there was already a game in progress between four boys who were probably in junior high school. After a minute Franko and Alejandro talked to them a little bit, and the youngest of the bunch walked off the court. They had arranged a game for us…Franko, Alejandro, and I were going to play the three oldest boys.

In Minnesota we refer to kids like this as “rink rats,” a term born amongst the many local ice rinks that appear scattered throughout the neighborhoods in the winter. ”Rink rats” are the kids who go to their local ice rink everyday after school and play anyone and everyone who shows up. Because of this, they tend to be very good. In Venezuela it is apparently no different.

We were off to a shaky start, going down 2–0 before I even knew what happened. However, just when it seemed like the game was going to be fairly short (we were playing to 5 points), Alejandro caught a nice pass and deftly tapped it off of the rusty pole. One of the kids who had actually been talking on his cell phone while playing decided that he needed to pay a little more attention and actually hung up. It woke Franko and I up as well. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: A Typical Day in Venezuela

June 20, 2009

By now, anyone who has been reading about my trip to Venezuela probably has the impression that every day is some new and exotic adventure, and that my life has become a cross between an issue of National Geographic and an episode from a travel show. In a sense this is true…on a daily basis I am surrounded by a culture that is foreign to me; the language, the people and the food are all new and different. However, at the risk of disappointing some, I feel that I have to set the record straight by explaining that I actually have a fairly structured ‘typical day.’ Actually, most days here are exactly the same for me. I have a family and school, both of which come with schedules and responsibility. So, although not as dramatic as some of my other posts, I think it is time to introduce what life is like for me in Venezuela.

I am going to start by introducing my family. They have been by far the best thing that has happened to me in Venezuela. While I have heard horror stories from other students, I look forward to going home after school. My family is incredibly engaged with me, asking each day what I have learned in school, helping me practice Spanish, cooking for me, showing me around Mérida and generally including me in everything that a typical Venezuelan family does. In short, I have been treated as one of the family since the night I arrived, and I don’t believe that there are words strong enough to express my gratitude for that. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: The Night I Learned to Play Dominoes

June 14, 2009

I had been in Venezuela for only a few days when someone told me that there was a weekend trip to Catatumbo and asked if I would like to come along. I was undecided about whether I should be going on a trip my first weekend in Venezuela. On the one hand, the way they described what Catatumbo was sounded beautiful and part of the reason that I chose to study abroad was to see and experience things in another country. On the other hand, I was behind in my class. Way behind. The other students had already been there for three weeks, and I needed to study very hard in order to catch up. In the end, I decided that it was only an overnight trip, which meant that I would have all of Sunday to study. Still, even the morning of the trip, as I grabbed my pack and headed out the door, a part of me was still questioning if I had made the right decision or not.

Before describing the trip, let me give a quick explanation of what Cataumbo is and why the idea of going was so appealing to me. Catatumbo is essentially a predictable lightening storm that occurs every single night. There is never any thunder. Maracaibo Lake is the only place on earth that this natural phenomenon occurs. No one knows exactly why it happens, but each night, sometime between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m., the show starts. In order to view the phenomenon, you take a small boat through a mangrove swamp that is home to howler monkeys, anacondas, and a plethora of bird species. After twisting through the swamp you emerge on the south end of Maracaibo Lake where you spend the night out in the lake in a small house on stilts. Like I said, although I was worried about not having enough time to study, this adventure sounded too good to pass up.

Ultimately there were 5 students that decided to go; Josh and Jordyn who are in my class, Michelle who is currently in 1004 (the last class she needs in order to graduate), Alle, a freshman at the Carlson School of Management, and Jen, a student from Michigan who’s Spanish is impeccable and who also happens to be a very talented photographer. In addition, there were two other guys that booked on to our trip; Marco, a Dutch electrical engineer, and Steve, an Englishman who was currently nearing the end of a 4 month tour through South America that would take him to every country on the continent. As impressive as that sounds (especially considering he was travelling alone) it is nothing compared to discovering that Steve has actually been to every country on earth except for Libya and East Timor! So, along with our guide Manu (which is short for Manuel) and our driver Ricardo, an eclectic team of 9 set off at about 8:45 on Friday morning.

The vehicle we were travelling in was…cozy. The seats in the back were two long bench seats, one on each side, so as you rode you were looking straight across at someone else. While it was not very comfortable, getting to Catatumbo was a long ride and being positioned in this fashion meant that we were forced to talk a lot. Marco and Steve were both incredibly funny and intelligent and fit right in with the group. Before a full hour had passed we were all good friends.

cimg0146-225x300We pulled off the main highway a little way outside of Mérida and started upon the winding road that twisted up a steep mountainside. It was bumpy, hot, and generally uncomfortable. I am still a little sore as I am writing this two days later. However, this road offered a remarkable view of the country. As the truck slowly progressed, often having to bypass whole sections of the road that had washed out down the hillside, we gazed out on forests, small towns, deep valleys and small mountain streams. We stopped in a few small towns along the way, including the quiet mountain town of Jaji, and a picturesque waterfall. We had heard that this was supposed to be a breath-taking waterfall that was great for pictures and which had pools deep enough that we could go swimming if we wanted. The waterfall was pretty, but I never saw any pools deep enough to swim in. Even if there had been, the water was very dirty. Actually, most of the water in the state of Mérida is polluted, and I have already heard horror stories of students who swam in the water and then got a variety of infections in anything they had pierced, an open blister, etc. So instead of swimming, we took a few pictures and then piled back into the truck to go up the road for lunch. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben’s first adventure: Caracas, El Vigia and Mérida

June 8, 2009

During a quick chat from the Houston airport, I received some sage advice from my wife; take everything one day at a time and things will start getting better. I married a very smart girl, and at that point it was exactly what I needed to hear. Especially since I still had more than half of a very long journey ahead of me.

Little things started to go my way the moment I got on the plane to Caracas. I found my seat and there was a woman sitting in it. Now I normally like to have a window seat, but I saw that she was taking her shoes off… this meant that I was free to take my shoes off, and I knew that would help me relax a little. So I sat down in one of the other two seats. We smiled at each other, and then both began to look expectantly towards the front of the plane. Boarding was almost complete, and although most of the flight was filled, there was still an empty seat between us. It was almost five long minutes before the cabin door was sealed shut, and we both breathed a slightly less than discreet sigh of relief; the extra seat was ours!

With the seating arrangements out of the way, and with my shoes off, I leaned over to ask the woman next to me if she spoke English. She did not. However, between the two of us we were able to discuss briefly who we were, where we lived, and why we were going to Caracas; one of us was headed home while I was leaving mine.

A sleepless flight, a small bite to eat, and we were on the ground in Caracas. Now, the directions I received on checking in for the Santa Barbera flight to El Vigia did not mention the gentlemen that I met immediatley on the other side of the door into the National Airport. I was immediately accosted. “Where are you going señor?” “Welcome to Venezuela señor!” I tried to reject their services, but what can I say, they were very good at their jobs. Before I knew what was happening I was being quickly whisked away by a team of two, one tall skinny guy with a great smile, and his portly counter part who reminded me of a Venezuelan version of someone out of the Sopranos. I think the large wad of bills that he carried helped make that association… or it could have been the tinted sunglasses and the fact that he never smiled.

I had to show them my ticket to explain where I was going, and from the moment I did that it was all that I could do to hang on to an edge of it! The tall skinny guy grabbed the paper and walked away, me clinging nervously to my only proof that I had a reserved seat of the flight to El Vigia, and I have to say that I was not overly reassured by his constant assurances that “it will be okay, I work here!” I am fairly certain that he did not.

When all was said and done, these gentleman helped me get my ticket from the Santa Barbera counter, helped me get my bag checked, helped me over to pay exit taxes, and exchanged money with me for higher than the “official rate.” Now, this of course all comes for a price: 100,000 Bolivares. Based on the exchange rate I had just received from the mafioso, that meant about $35. Yes, I know that I got taken… to some extent. But in hindsight I am glad that they were there. Their services really did help me. The price is exorbitant, but it basically erradicated (well, at least expidited) a very stressful situation. I had been in Venezuela less than 30 minutes and I could already tell that things worked very differently here. With smiling faces, as much as the mafioso could smile, that sent me on my way with cries of “Enjoy Venezuela!” I of course needed to remind skinny that I had paid him 100,000 B. for his services, but that he had also grabbed the change from the tax counter. With a good natured grin he immediately handed me the change. I laughed and went on my way.

Now, the 11 hour layover seemed ridicuously daunting. The flight had landed before 5 am, and by 6:30 I was sitting in the terminal trying to kill time. There was a T.V. hanging over one of the gates, but I realized incredibly quickly that it only played the same 4 music videos over and over, with something like 8 different commericials randomly interspersed. Definitely not enough to kill 11 hours.

I started to look for the other student who was supposed to be arriving in Mérida at the same time. I have heard that his name is Benjamin Kline. Every time I saw a single twenty-something guy seated at the gate with a bored or distraught look on his face, I was certain that was him. Of course, every time I had gathered up enough courage to go over and introduce myself, a traveling companion would sit down next to him. I felt like I was waiting to meet a blind date. I have still not met him.

The 11 hours eventually passed, and except for a last minute gate change, I boarded the plane to El Vigia without incident.

Here is where the real adventure begins… Read the rest of this entry ?

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