Category Archives: Adventure

One short day in the Emerald City…I mean, Paris!

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One short day in the Emerald City…I mean, Paris!

When I was in London last month, I decided to take a day trip to Paris.  Why?  Because I could!  There is something very cool about boarding a train in London and coming out in the heart of Paris just a little more than two hours later.  And, if you book far enough ahead of time, the fares for the Eurostar high-speed rail are pretty inexpensive.  I took the earliest train from London St. Pancras, which leaves at 7:00am.

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I got to the station in plenty of time to grab a coffee and a croissant.  I meant to exchange some money for Euros, but I didn’t have time…I figured I’d do that when I got to Gare du Nord.  The train was comfortable and I napped most of the way.  When we arrived in Paris, I immediately went to the nearest Bureau du  Change and inserted my debit card into the machine – as I have done many, many times before in many, many places.  Only this time, the machine gave me this message:

“Transaction défendue. Carte retenue.”

Which means “Transaction denied.  Card retained.”

I stood staring stupidly at the machine for at least a minute.  Then I went over to one of the women behind the change booth.  “Your machine kept my card,” I told her.  “Cards are a 12% commission,” she replied.  I tried again.  “The machine didn’t give me my card back!”  She looked at me with a bored expression. “That’s not our machine,” she said.

I went back to the machine and looked at it again.  My card had not magically reappeared.  I went to the second booth and changed the measly £30 (pounds) I had into €30 (Euros) which theoretically should have been about €37, but there apparently was a 10% commission on cash.  Whatever.  I tried one more time to find out what to do about the card-consuming machine.  This time, I was told, “There’s a number on the machine you can call.”

Figuring that trying to get someone out there to open up the machine and return my card would likely eat into most of my day, I decided to forget it.  I now had a bit of cash, I had other credit cards and most places took credit anyway.  I walked out into the bright Paris sunshine and started to walk towards Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sienne.

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I have a love-hate relationship with Paris.  It is not a very friendly city.  People are brusque and sometimes downright rude. The streets can be crowded and confusing.  But – you are never more than 500 meters from a metro station…and wherever you walk, you see gorgeous architecture, fountains and statues.

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It was a hot and sunny day and I stopped frequently to sit, take pictures and just soak in the busy-ness of Paris.  Finally I reached Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Entrance to the cathedral is free, but the line snaked all the way around the block…and I have been inside before.  I love the square, though and the magnificent statues around the arches of the doors.

I found a little cafe a couple of blocks away and had a lunch of home-made pâté, crusty bread, poached salmon with potatoes and red wine.  I mentioned my problems with the cash machine to the waiter and he told me he thought all the machines at Gare de Nord were faulty.  Luckily, this place took American Express.

I then continued my walk along the Sienne.  There are beautiful bridges and a walkway right down by the river.  One of them is the famous “Pont des Arts” where it has become a tradition for lovers to “lock up” their love by putting a padlock on the bridge and then throwing the key into the river.   IN recent years, this has become a problem, as there are now so many locks on the bridge that there is danger of collapse and rust from the locks is leaching into the Sienne.  Apparently, a portion of the railing actually did collapse this past June and was replaced by plywood.  There has been talk of trying to ban the practice of placing locks, but to my eyes, this has not had much effect.

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I continued walking until I came to the Tuileries Garden.  This used to be part of the Tuileries Palace, which was destroyed during the French Revolution.  The Gardens are now open to the public, with many beautiful fountains, statues and plantings.  It is a popular place to walk, sit, read, get a bite to eat and just hang out.

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I found a public toilet at the end of the garden.  Unlike London, which prides itself on its many available, clean and free public toilets, Paris’ facilities will cost you 2 euros.  $2.65.  To have a pee.  I was outraged.  However, I didn’t think anyone would take kindly to my using a bush in the public garden…so I coughed up my €2.

By this time, I could clearly see “la tour Eiffel” in the distance.

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I continued out of the Tuileries and along Avenue des Champs-Elysées…that very famous street with the Arc de Triomphe at the end.

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There was a lovely side section along the Champs-Elysees called “Allée Marcel Proust” with some benches, green grass and a couple of statues dedicated to the writer.  I got myself a fruit drink from a vendor, spread my scarf out in the shade and lay down.

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When I woke up, it was a bit cooler.  I continued to walk, past the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais and across the Sienne again.  I made my way down to the pedestrian walkway right on the river and stopped at a cafe for a cappuccino and some people-watching.  I was right by the Pont Alexandre – such a beautiful bridge.

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By now it was getting to be late afternoon.  I decided to re-cross the Sienne one last time and find myself a new place for dinner.  I had dearly wanted cassoulet, but it was really too hot for it, so I opted for some delicious French onion soup and a huge salad Niçoise (tomatoes, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, Niçoise olives, and anchovies with a vinaigrette dressing.)  Accompanied by crusty bread and wine, of course!

I took the Metro back to Gare de Nord, went through passport control and found my seat in a half-empty train.  I dozed most of the way back to London and thought what a great thing it had been – to go to Paris for the day.

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Iceland!

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Iceland!

On my way back to Zambia after my summer holidays, I decided to spend a week in London, seeing some old friends.  Because of the way airline tickets are priced, I needed a one-way ticket from Boston to London and because one-way tickets can be ridiculously expensive, I decided to fly with Icelandic Air, who has (by far) the most reasonably priced airfare to London.  The caveat: you make a stop in Iceland.  The cool part: you can stop over in Iceland for as long as 7 days without paying any more for the plane ticket.  So – I decided to do just that and spend a full day and night in the “Land of Fire and Ice.”

The plane landed at midnight and the sun was just sinking below the horizon.

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There was a bus to take people to their various hotels and hostels…everyone got on together and then we were taken to the city center, where we boarded smaller buses to take us to our respective lodgings.  My bus driver welcomed me to “the best county in the world!”  By the time I got to my hostel, it was 2:00am (Iceland time) but the place was warm and welcoming and the desk clerk was happy to give me my room key and show me where everything was located. 

I stayed at a hostel called “Hlemmur Square” which was a very comfortable “upscale” hostel with a full kitchen on each floor, very comfortable beds, a full bar and an optional breakfast in the morning.  Oh, and free wifi – always a good thing.  I found my room and found a free (bottom) bunk and got myself sorted.  Each bed had lockable drawers underneath, a reading light and a plug for charging phone, iPad, etc.  Very nice.  When I woke up, the sun was high in the sky and this was the view from the room windows.

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I had pre-paid for a “Hop-On, Hop-Off” bus tour around the city and also a late-afternoon/evening tour of the “golden circle” which had some incredible sites and views.  It was raining on and off as I walked down towards the town center.  The hostel was in a great location, on a street with shops and cafes and many of the streets were designated for pedestrians. 

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The street that my hostel was on was called Laugavegur, which means “wash road.”  It used to lead to the hot springs in Laugardalur, where women in the olden days took their laundry for washing.  It is the primary commercial artery of downtown Reykjavik and one of the oldest shopping streets. There is a modern statue at the foot of the street, depicting a woman laboring up the hill with buckets of water.  Apparently, this statue was removed at one point, because the city thought it was “too modern.”  But it was later returned.  I liked it a lot.

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Laugardalur is also the location of the Icelandic Phallological Museum.  That’s right.  It’s a museum devoted to penises.

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It is not quite as risque as it sounds…it has 280 examples and samples of penises from many species land and sea animals, including (they say) Icelandic elves and trolls.  It apparently has a couple of human specimens as well.  You can read more about the museum HERE.

Unfortunately, I did not have the time to go in…but I did take a few pictures from the street.

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It was a bit colder than I had expected…and I was chilled from being in the rain.  I had always wanted one of those cool Icelandic sweaters.  So – I did my part to stimulate the Icelandic economy.

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I probably could have skipped the “Hop-On, Hop-Off” bus tour.  The city is quite small and I had slept in, so didn’t really have time to do any of the “hopping on and off” that I would have liked.  However, it gave me a good sense of the city of Reykjavik, a little history and some interesting buildings, statues and other historical bits and bobs. 

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I had a quick bite to eat at a cafe and then it was time for my “Golden Circle Tour.”  This was a small van, with a driver who was also our guide.  First stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the great Atlantic rift is slowly pulling Iceland apart – and it is clearly visible.  Every year, Iceland expands by 1 centimeter in either direction.  “Soon,” our guide joked, “We will become a major world power.”  It was pretty amazing to see the rift and imagine the land moving, slowly but inexorably.

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Thingvellir National Park is also the site of Iceland’s first Parliment in the year 930.  There are still ceremonial events held here.  It became a National Park in 1928 and there are numerous hiking trails and camp sites.  The rift has formed the largest natural lake in Iceland.  Many of the rifts are very deep and have incredibly clear water, making them popular with SCUBA divers.  The width of the little gift shop is supposed to show how far the plats have moved apart in the last 1,000 years.

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The next stop was Gullfoss Waterfall (meaning “Golden Falls.”)  This was stunningly beautiful, with an interesting history. .

During the first half of the 20th century,  there was much speculation about using Gullfoss to generate electricity. During this period, the waterfall was rented indirectly by its owners, Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson, to foreign investors. However, the investors’ attempts were unsuccessful, partly due to lack of money. The waterfall was later sold to the state of Iceland. Even after it was sold, there were plans to utilize Hvítá, which would have changed the waterfall forever. This was not done, and now the waterfall is protected.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson was determined to preserve the waterfall’s condition and even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall. A stone memorial to Sigriður, located above the falls, depicts her (rather severe) profile and the story is that she actually saved the waterfall…although this may not be entirely true.  There are paths built so you can walk along the top of the falls and steps to climb lower down.  By this time, the sun was trying to appear and it was really a spectacular sight.

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Finally, we arrived at the Great Geysir (pronouced “geezer.”)  This was the first geyser described in a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. The name Geysir itself is derived from the Icelandic word “geysa” which means “to gush”, the verb from Old Norse.  There were actually several geysers, some more “regular” than others.  Most of them had names. You could smell the sulphur and feel the heat from the steam rising out of the ground.  We were warned not to get to close to the active ones. There were several pools of hot water that were almost unbelievably blue.  It was pretty cool.

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We were able to have a bite to eat at the cafe there and then it was time to head back.  The sky was still very light and the scenery was stunning.  We passed several herds of Icelandic “ponies” (although they call them “horses” – there is no word for “pony” in Icelandic.)  These are sturdy little creatures who can be trained not only to walk, trot and canter/gallop, but also to do an ambling gait called a “tölt” and a fast paced called a “flugskeið” or “flying gait.”  Up until relatively recently, there were no roads outside the city and these horses were the primary means of transportation.  They come in many colors and in the winter, they grow long, wooly coats. They still play a large part in Icelandic life.   (These pictures are from the internet…I was not able to get close enough to take any good pictures of the horses!)

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I was sorry to leave Iceland after such a short visit.  I plan to return when I can have a more leisurely trip (and visit the Penis Museum…)

And then, I was off to London!

Lion’s Head and Table Mountain

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Lion’s Head and Table Mountain

Cape Town is a beautiful city with the ocean on one side, mountains on the other and arts, culture and excellent food in the middle.  This makes it the “best of all possible worlds” in many respects.  The biggest, and most famous of the mountains is called “Table Mountain” – so named because of the flat top.  The extensive clouds that cover it are sometimes referred to as the “tablecloth” although there is also a legend about a pirate smoking his pipe up there. IMG_0129

Lion’s Head is a monadnock, and a very popular hike.  It is right next to “Signal Hill” which is sometimes called “Lion’s Rump” and when seen from the water, you can how the two hills resemble a resting lion – his head to the right and the rest of him stretched out behind.

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I had decided that I wanted to climb Lion’s Head – supposedly not that difficult.  I had been advised not to hike alone, so I engaged a guide – a very nice young woman named Jo, who had lived in Cape Town all her life.  We started out at about 8:00am…it was a beautifully sunny day.

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The path was not hard, but much steeper than I had anticipated….and I realised that it had been well over a year since I had done any real climbing.  It was frustrating realising how out-of-shape I had become.  But I kept going, anyway!

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The trail wound around the mountain, so you could get views from all sides.  It was really spectacular.

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About two-thirds of the way up, as the trail became a little more rocky and a lot steeper, I began to feel queasy…not like myself at all.  At first I thought it was just because I was hot, tired and out of shape.  And then I realised, with mounting dismay, that the burrito I had had for supper last night (at a somewhat dodgy Mexican place in town) was – shall we say – making itself known.

Oh, dear.

I mentioned this to Jo and she said she knew exactly which Mexican place it was and shook her head  in sympathy!  By this time, I was frantically looking for a bush…and praying that I did not disgrace myself on my first visit to Lion’s Head!

Meantime, we were coming up to the last part of the hike – which involves chains and ladders bolted into the side of the rock.  (These are from another website, but they give you a general idea…)

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I (wisely) decided to forgo the summit this time.  We sat and rested on a bench near the turn to the ladders.  Jo produced a banana, some energy gels and then – miraculously – a couple of Imodium A-D.   And we headed back down…slowly and carefully.

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(My ever-patient guide, Jo)

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I was sorry not to get to the top, but it was still a great hike – and after some more fluids and rest, I felt more like myself again and ready for the rest of my time in Cape Town!

I had been tempted to hike Table Mountain…but that would have been a full-day hike.  So I decided to take the cable car up, instead.  This was one of the stops on the “hop-on, hop-off” bus tour. The cable car ride is very quick – less than 5 minutes – and the interior of the car rotates so everyone gets a view.  One of the hiking trails goes directly under the cable car.

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The top of Table Mountain had a gift shop, a pretty decent cafe, and many trails and walks going off in all directions.  The tables in the cafe had descriptive tops, with facts about Table Mountain.

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There was also wildlife…including birds that were bold as brass as they tried to sample your lunch…

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And “dassies” – which look like kind of a cross between a hedgehog and a hamster.  They are known as the “rock hyrax” and their closest living relative is the elephant!  They were very friendly and not afraid of humans at all.  They hung out on the rocks, foraging for food and waiting to see if any of the tourists dropped a morsel.

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The views were amazing.  You could see Lion’s Head and Signal Hill, of course and the entire city spread out in front of you.  In addition, you could see the range of mountains behind Table Mountain, stretching all the way to Cape Point.  Part of this range is known as “The 12 Apostles” and they are very popular with hikers.  (No one knows why they are called “The 12 Apostles” and it is even stranger since there are actually 17 of them!)

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This is a view of “The 12 Apostles” from the bottom

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Lots of beautiful flowers and other flora in the rocks.  And locks…padlocks on the view-point fences.  Apparently this is a tradition on the tops of other mountains, too.

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I loved the mountains of Cape Town and really hope to return to do some serious hiking in the not-too-distant future!

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White-water rafting on the Mighty Zambezi.

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White-water rafting on the Mighty Zambezi.

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The last day of my vacation was in Livingstone.  I had already seen the falls the day before and wanted to do something special on my last day.  My first choice was going to be an all-day safari in Chobe, Botswana…but at the last minute, that fell through.  The tour company suggested that for special price, I could do rafting in the morning and a river cruise in the evening.  So, I thought…why not?  I was a good swimmer, I liked the water and I had never been white-water rafting.  I would give it a go!

(Yes, I am aware that I am blogging out of order.  I did lots of interesting and exciting things on my vacation…and will get to them all in due time.  But this is fresh in my mind!  And a good story…)

I was picked up at my hotel at 8:00am and taken to where the rafting “activity” started.  There were 14 of us in the group, some singles, some couples, a few small groups traveling together.  We were fitted for life-jackets and helmets and informed that because of the “high water” we would be starting at Rapids # 14 instead of #1.  The first 13 were just too high right now.  This also meant that instead of walking down a nicely graded flight of stairs, we would be walking down what amounted to a steep, rocky wash down the gorge.

I was wearing flip-flops.  But they were TEVA flip-flops and I had already paid.  (Note:  I had asked what I needed to wear/bring and was not told about any special foot-wear.  Very annoying, especially since I am a stickler for the right shoes!)

Anyway.  I made it down the gorge without falling, twisting my ankle or loosing my shoe.  I did most of it by holding onto the shoulder of one of the guides as we picked our way down.  I was not the only one who had trouble…and we were all sweating buckets by the time we finally got to the put-in.  We could see the rafts all inflated – each raft holds 8 people; plus there was a “safety boat” and two little tiny kayaks (“trick kayaks” they called them) that would accompany us.  In addition, they had guys taking pictures and videos all along the way.  We were given some instructions about what to do if the boat capsized and told not to panic if it happened.

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We loaded into our boats and got some instructions on how to paddle.  Basically, forward or back…and sometimes one side would do one and the other side the other.  Also – HARD! That meant paddle faster.  And finally “GET DOWN!”  That meant put your paddle sideways, sit at the bottom of the boat and hang on to the rope.  Our “captain” was named Melvin.  So we were “Team Melvin.”  Go, team.

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We all were nervous, but smiling as we departed.

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We paddled as instructed and soon hit the first real rapids.  We shouted and screamed and paddled and “got down” and got through it without incident.  This was fun!

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A few more rapids and we all felt like we were getting the hang of it.  But then…we came to “The Terminator.”  And…well…

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It was absolutely terrifying.  I completely forgot all the stuff about not panicking, and panicked.  I knew the life jacket would hold me up, but my helmet strap felt like it was choking me and the water was swirling around me like a washing machine.  I could hear myself calling for help…and I wasn’t the only one.  Of course, that meant I swallowed water, choked more and panicked more.  I could hear Melvin telling us to grab the ropes on the side of the boat, but I couldn’t get a hold.  Finally, I grabbed onto something…and Melvin pulled me up onto the bottom of the capsized boat, telling me not to panic, it was okay.  In the last picture, you can see him reaching over the side to pull me up.

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The water was still swirling and we still had to right the boat.  I had to get back in the water again and we all had to pull from one side to flip the boat back over.  And we did it!  Only…now I was under the boat.  This time, I did keep my head and managed to swim under and out…but the boat was being swept away from me.  Some people had managed to get back in and some people were still floating around in the rapids.  I was pushed along towards the other boat (which had also capsized) and someone stuck a paddle at me – I grabbed it and got pulled into the boat.  By this time, I was really shaken up and my head was pounding (I think a stray paddle had hit my helmet.)  I knew I wasn’t really hurt…but I was shaking so hard I couldn’t find my balance.

Oh, and my pants were falling off.

Everyone was getting organized back into their boats and I got into mine – but I was obviously not 100%.  People were very kind and a bit concerned and I heard Melvin ask, “Do you want to go in the safety boat?”  At first I thought I would stick it out, but he asked a second time and  I heard my little inner voice say, “Don’t be an idiot.”  (Later a couple of people told me I was white as a sheet.) So my boat took off with one less passenger…

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And I went in the safety boat.

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The safety boat was a raft with a wooden seat strapped into it and a huge, strapping Zambian (named Roger!) to stabilize it with two gigantic wooden oars.  At first I was still so shaken that all I wanted to do was sit in the back…but after a little while, Roger gently encouraged me to sit up front and enjoy the ride.  So I did.  The scenery was absolutely breathtaking…the Zambezi is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.  The gorge is deep with stunning cliffs on either side.

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There were a couple more fancy rapids which made me glad I had opted for the “safety boat” but none of the boats capsized again.  When we finally made it to the docking point, everyone cheered.  We divested ourselves of our helmets and life-jackets and headed for the cable car which took us to the top of the gorge again.

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And you know what?  I think I’d do it again.  And try not to panic if the boat capsized…at least, not as much.

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