Jun 2012

Blog, Central America


Sandwich Shop Payment Drop

Standing in the cramped bathroom of the Subway sandwich shop, I counted the money: $2,100.  I uncrinkled the oil-stained cookie bag that I’d snagged from someone’s tray as I had walked toward the bathroom, and slid the one inch thick stack of twenty dollar bills inside.  I folded the oily bag around the stack of money, slid it into my pocket and then stared at my tired, unshaven face in the dirty mirror.  I hadn’t done anything this shady since I lent that beleaguered Nigerian Prince my whole life’s savings.  But we needed to get across the Darien Gap – the 80 mile long swath of impenetrable, guerilla-ridden jungle separating Panama from Colombia – and it had come to this.  The Subway cookie bag was our ticket to freedom.

The only way to cross the Gap with a car is to place the vehicle in a shipping container and retrieve it on the other side.  We were teased with the promise of a new ferry service that would connect the two sides, but on the day that we went to the ferry office in Panama City to reserve our spot, they told us that it had been delayed by another month.  The next morning we began the dehumanizing process of getting Nacho on a ship.

In the morning our shipping agent emailed us, describing how to find the nondescript building in a Panama City ghetto where our car was to be inspected. The first step to safely crossing the world’s most deadly stretch of jungle was to drive into an equally deadly ghetto and have a guy look at our engine.  The directions weren’t confidence inspiring:

“Go toward Sante Fe hospital and continue as if looking for Albrook…Stay in the left lane when you turn to Santa Fe…and when you see the bridge don’t take it…on the left where there are buildings – ugly buildings hahaha…there in the open ground – where there is construction for roads…this is vehicle control…there will be various automobiles.  Climb the ladder to the metal door, announce yourself and open your hood to cool.  Important…announce yourself because these are special cowboys…”

Detecting our navigational ineptitude, the agent ultimately met us on the banks of the Panama Canal and led us into the heart of the ghetto herself.  After a hair-raising drive through Panama City traffic and an hour sitting in the dirt parking lot surrounded by slums, we were informed that no inspectors had come to work that day.

“Tomorrow they will work,” our agent promised.  We would have to venture into the belly of the beast one more time.

The next morning we sat around the ghetto parking lot wiping the egg from our faces after the inspectors failed to materialize again.

“They are in a seminar,” our agent told us, “they will be back at noon”.

“Great, so we’ll just wait until noon and they can inspect our engines when they get here,” I said.

“Not possible.  They only inspect engines between 10 and 11.  Noon is not between 10 and 11.”  We had to remember that this was Latin America, where things don’t always happen in a logical fashion.  Inspecting our engines at noon would cut into lunch, and if lunch were pushed back, it would cut into the 2-hour afternoon naptime.  That would inevitably cause issues with the period of late afternoon lazing around.  Don’t rock the boat.  Monday was only 3 days away.

Before we left the ghetto, I decided to give away a pair of Sheena’s old running shoes.  I saw a crazy man in a wheelchair without any shoes in front of one of the slum buildings, so I called to him to see if he wanted them.

“Man, I’ll take the shoes, but I can’t wear ’em.”

I didn’t want them to be sold, or else traded for crack, so I decided to give him 50 cents instead.  I couldn’t just leave him hanging, so I ducked through the chain link fence and handed him two quarters.  He dropped them into his lap and then snapped his head back quickly, staring straight into my soul with his crazy Jack Black eyes.  He started making shapes with his mouth, flexing every muscle in his stringy face.  I thought he might be having a heart attack.  Suddenly he started scratching at his chest and somehow managed to wrestle his shirt off.  He reminded me of a swamp rat.  He still hadn’t muttered a word since taking my quarters.  Before I had time to retreat, he started waving his arms around slowly while shifting his eyes from side to side.  His arms snapped into a karate chop to one side, then the other.  Several tai-chi moves culminated in a series of fast karate chops at an invisible enemy.

His eyes again locked on mine and it looked like he was in deep thought.  Although his hands were still stiff and weapon-like, he had forgotten about the karate.  Slowly his head tilted back, he closed his eyes, and opened his mouth wide like a wounded spider monkey.  He winced hard as he mouthed silent screams into the air while clubbing at his bare chest.  His head straightened and he looked at me again.

“Muy impresionante,” I said.  What the hell else was I supposed to say?  I took a few timid steps backwards and then hurriedly ducked back through the chain link fence to the relative safety of our ghetto parking lot.

The process of getting Nacho onto a ship became a series of long waits punctuated by hurried, stressful visits to various customs offices, government buildings, and port officials.  During the periods of waiting, we did our best to fill our time exploring Panama City.  Our guide to the city was Ciro, whose exceptionally pleasant mother operated Jamraka, our homestay on the edge of the city.  With Ciro we explored the inner workings of Casco Viejo, the colonial portion of the city.  We dined at street carts serving up plates of rice and barbecued pork, explored the district’s bars, and spent one evening on a rooftop terrace overlooking the city with a film crew celebrating its completion of a Panamanian beer commercial.

Over the weekend, after two unsuccessful attempts at finding the inspectors at work, we opted to tempt fate by taking Nacho on a road trip to the abandoned fort at San Lorenzo, and to the small Caribbean town of Portobelo.  Bearing in mind that Nacho had just suffered a long string of breakdowns, we threw caution to the wind and loaded the van with our road tripping crew; Ciro, our new friends Margaret and Madison, Sheena and me; and hit the road.

After driving across the width of the isthmus from Panama City to Colón, we turned westward and followed a string of dilapidated roads through an abandoned military base and into the dense jungle.  We crossed the Panama Canal below the enormous gates of the Gatún Lock while four foot long fish jumped like dolphins in the turbulent water, once again proving that the Caribbean is well endowed with fish compared to its scant Pacific counterpart.  Winding through the jungle on the approach to San Lorenzo we followed an anteater before it ducked into the undergrowth.  We ended the perfect day by eating seafood while overlooking the bay at Portobelo.

While our time in Panama City was spent waiting for inspectors to do their jobs, in Colon it was our shipping agent who no longer felt like working.  “Be at the Super 99 at 8:30 sharp so Boris can meet you and take you to the port.”  Our instructions were clear, so we awoke bright and early for the hour drive.

When we arrived at the Super 99 in Colon’s seedy center, right on time, Boris was nowhere in sight.  After 30 minutes we called him.

“I will be there at 11:00,” he said.  At this I reminded him that he was supposed to meet us at 8:30, and that we preferred not to sit in the parking lot for two and a half hours.  “Yes, but the port doesn’t open until 11:00,” he said.

“Boris, we still have to go to customs before we can go to the port,” I reminded him.  “Okay, okay, I will come at 10:00.”  This Boris was not making a good impression on me, nor the rest of my shipping partners; Mark, the Canadian who I was to share a container with; Bart, the Dutch legume salesman; and Alejandro, the Mexican lady’s man who was making the trip to Argentina in a clapped out minivan, and was paying for his trip by selling postcards along the way (“In Nicaragua nobody would buy my postcards, so I make a fire show in the street.”)

By 10:15 there was no sign of Boris.  I called him and got his voicemail.  For the next several hours I continued to call him, but he never answered.  Finally, at 1:00, he picked up his phone.  “Oh hi, are you at the port or at customs?” he asked.  “Boris!” I yelled, “We’re still in the damn parking lot, REMEMBER!?  We’ve been here for five hours!”  At this he acted surprised and promised to have one of his guys pick us up.  Ten minutes later a man showed up on a motorcycle to lead us to the customs office.

The unwritten laws of inefficiency in Latin America would dictate that our simple tasks at the customs office would not go smoothly.  First, it was discovered that Alejandro had accidentally overstayed his visa.  Next, Mark was accused of forging the stamp on his car importation permit.  Each was demanded to pay $250.  Of course they refused, and an hour long debate ensued.  Arms flew into the air, sad faces were shown, pleas were made, several calls were made, and ultimately Alejandro’s bribe was reduced to $10.  They also agreed that, in fact, Mark hadn’t forged his import stamp.  At 4:30 we emerged from the customs office, ready to drive our cars into their containers.

“It’s 4:30, you’re too late.  You must load the containers tomorrow” our moto guide told us.  At this we became furious.  Our shipping agent, through laziness, had forced us to miss our time for loading the containers, and we would have to grab a hotel in Colón.  An angry phone call to Boris ensued, but he played innocent.  Mark, Bart and I split a hotel while Alejandro raced the minivan back to Panama City to party the night away.

The next day unfolded in much the same way as the first; we waited for an hour for our motorcycle escort to show up, after which time he escorted us a few hundred yards before waving us on without him.  At the port we waited for another hour for another motorcycle man to show up, and then once he showed up we waited longer while he talked to people.  Finally in the afternoon we loaded our containers and locked them up for the short trip to Cartagena.

After waiting for an hour while yet another moto man brought us a handwritten receipt for our container fees, we took a taxi back to the seedy parking lot in Colón’s center followed by our moto guide.  After going to the ATM it was time to pay our dues.  We walked into the Subway restaurant and bought some drinks.  I snagged an oily cookie bag off of someone’s tray and walked into the bathroom.

When I emerged I looked at Luis, our motorcycle guide, and gave him a nod.  He followed me out the front door and we stood on the curb, looking out into the parking lot.

“Do you have the money?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s in my pocket.”

“Do not let anyone see it.  They will rob me if they know I carry money.”  Truth be told, this was one of the nastiest cities I’d ever been in.  I didn’t blame the guy for his caution.

“Did you count it?” he asked.

“Yes, I counted it.  Do you want to count it?”  It was feeling more and more like a dirty drug deal.

“No, I won’t count it.  I trust you.”  We stared at the parking lot.  Timidly, I pulled the oily bag from my pocket and slyly handed it to Luis.  He didn’t look at me.  He slowly strode to his bike, pulled his helmet on, gave me a quick nod, and sped away down the dilapidated street, weaving through traffic.

The taxi ride from the Subway to the bus station was like a trip into the ravaged center of Mogadishu or Kabul.  Choose your favorite bombed out third world capital. Cracked buildings were held together by plaster, clothing hung from every window, trash piles littered every open space, and people hobbled around like injured hobos.

“This is the RED zone, man!  You don’t WALK here!  You get yo self ROBBED…or SHOT!”  Our elderly taxi driver was from Panama, but had spent his life in Texas and his accent was proof of it.  He continued to murmur his warnings as we weaved past the bombed out building carcasses.  “ROBBED!…or SHOT!…the RED zone…”

All of a sudden there was a gap in the bombed out buildings and there stood the Colón bus station.  Our taxi driver steered over to a group of police officers and cracked his window.

“These guys need to get on the BUS!  They’re FOREIGNERS!”  At this we got out of the taxi and were shrouded by the police officers.  One of them signaled to us to cross the street, and he flanked us on one side as we crossed, rapidly moving his head around in all directions to keep watch.  As we got to the other side of the two lane street, he ushered us onto a waiting bus and slammed the door behind us.  He had literally escorted us 15 feet.  We sunk into the seats for the long haul back to Panama City.

Central America, it’s been fun.

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Jun 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

Monthly Summary – May 2012

A note before the blog:  Yesterday our transmission failed.  It’s just the next occurrence in a long string of mechanical failures, but we’re trying to roll with the punches and keep a good attitude.  We’ve had a lot on our plate and haven’t posted to our blog as often as we’d like.  We’ll try to do better, but in the meantime, if you’d like to keep up with us on a more daily basis, go to our Facebook page and click the “like” button.  This will allow you to stay up to date with the things that happen on a daily basis.  Like mechanical issues with Nacho…

In May we spent money like it was going out of style.  Nacho underwent what was supposed to be a thorough maintenance routine to get us ready for South America (although this plan backfired on us).  We also paid for the Panama side of shipping our van from Panama to Colombia, which ended up being very time consuming and very costly.  We also bought a second laptop and finally caved in and bought a GPS unit for driving directions.  This all added up to our most expensive month.  In fact, it was 2.13 times greater than our previous most expensive month.

For the sake of information, here’s roughly what it cost us to ship Nacho from Panama to Colombia, a distance of 250 miles.  Note that some of this goes into next month’s report, as it was spent on the Colombian side:

Shipping container:  $1,050

Port fees: $243

Flights:  $656

Hotels for 14 nights (yes, it took THAT long!):  $523

Buses, taxis, miscellaneous:  ~$60

`              TOTAL:  $2,532

There was supposed to be a new ferry service that would connect the two countries by now, but we are in Latin America, and so things happen at a different pace down here.  The original startup date was May 10, which would have allowed us to make the crossing for about $1,000.  As of now they’ve pushed the date back to July 2nd, but I suspect it’ll be the end of this year or the beginning of next before it actually starts running.

Fortunately we budgeted for this month’s shipping expenses.  However, we still managed to go over our budget by $1,358, largely due to the money we spent on Nacho, the GPS unit, and the new computer.  We’re not too sad about this though, because after five months of travel we’re still under budget.

Countries driven: Costa Rica, Panama

Miles driven: 926 (Trip Total = 8,000; odometer reads 284,500)

Total Spent: $5,399 ($174.17/day)

Notes on our spending:

Gas – This was our cheapest gas month so far, as most of our time was spent idle, trying to get Nacho on a dang ship.

VW Expenses – We spent around $800 on preventative maintenance while we were in Costa Rica.  In hindsight this was almost a total waste of money.  Almost everything the mechanic touched has since failed, and our engine leaks more oil now than it did before we replaced all of the oil seals.  The transmission has also started leaking from a new location.

We did find a nice Volkswagen parts house in Panama City – actually the first one we’ve seen since we left home.  We took advantage of this gold mine and bought a new clutch, clutch plate, transmission axle seals, brake caliper rebuild kits, and a few air filters.  Unfortunately they didn’t have any rear wheel bearing housings, so we probably have some more wheel bearing failures to look forward to.

 Camping/Hotels – The first 13 days of the month were free, as we were still in our friends’ house in Costa Rica waiting for Nacho to be finished.  The hotel bills really racked up later on though once we started the whole shipping ordeal.  In all our shipping process took 14 days, and we stayed in hotels the whole time.

 Food – Our food spending finally bucked its upward trend.  We’ve started eating out at local joints a little more than we have been over the last couple of months, which is usually far cheaper than cooking for ourselves.

 Borders/Visas/Permits  – Getting into Panama from Costa Rica was free.  The only expense incurred here was the obligatory car insurance at the border.

 Other – Almost a grand for “other”!?  It happens.  We’ve been sharing a laptop up until now, which has been a constant struggle.  Between web surfing, Skype, blog writing, Facebooking, Kindle syncing, and other computer-based activities, one computer just wasn’t enough.  We went to Valdemart and bought a small second computer for around $400.

Everyone we’ve met on the road so far has used a Garmin GPS unit to tell them where they’re going.  We decided before we started this trip not to use a GPS, because it would require us to interact more with “la raza”.  If we didn’t know the way, we would simply stop and ask directions.  This has served us up until now, but it has been a constant struggle.  Most of the time the people we ask either have no car of their own, or simply don’t know the correct directions, so they just make stuff up.  I’m not kidding.  It’s like they’re ashamed to admit that they don’t know, so they just make up directions.  It’s nothing malicious, it’s just the way it is.  The other issue is that the streets down here typically don’t have names, and it’s very hard to navigate.  We finally caved in and bought a Garmin Nuvi 50 for about $150 at a mall in Panama City.

Finally, we went to the Panamanian version of Home Depot and bought a bunch of tools, some new water filtration equipment (turns out you can’t buy the 3M water filters we need for our water sanitation system outside of the USA), and some various odds and ends.  This set us back a couple hundred dollars.

May: ouch.

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Jun 2012

Blog, Central America

DISCUSSION 25 Comments

Not All Rainbows and Unicorns

Lying on my back under Nacho on the side of the road, my hair becoming matted in oily mud, It occurred to me: this is probably the first time in five months that an office desk didn’t seem like a bad place to be.  The events over the last 65 miles leading up to this point were almost unbelievable.  Like listening for hours on end of the bone-chilling sound of children’s laughter, this too was a test of endurance.

In Costa Rica, our planned two week stop in Atenas had turned into a month.  We had dropped Nacho at a shop for a week of TLC, but after a week they hadn’t yet started to work.  After two weeks, the engine and transmission were on the ground, but no real progress had been made.  Meanwhile, Sheena and I were going stir crazy.  The list of jobs I gave to the mechanic at the beginning was a half page long, including the replacement of several oil seals, new brake rotors, a clutch inspection and slave cylinder rebuild, and a full-fledged investigation into why our rear wheel bearings kept failing.  At this rate, we would be back on the road in a year.  Maybe two.

Week three in the shop saw me spending every day there, doing much of the work myself.  There was no other way we’d get back up and running otherwise. By the middle of week four, Nacho was ready to roll with new engine oil seals, transmission seals, an inspected clutch, new valve cover  and water pump seals, new brake rotors and front wheel bearings, and all new fuel lines in the engine compartment.  I also managed to install an industrial fuel filter before the fuel pump to combat silt-laden gas later in our trip. Notably absent from our list of complete projects was the full-fledged investigation into our rear wheel bearings – the main reason we stopped in the first place.  After a month, however, we were unable to hang around any longer. The rainy season had come, and we had long overstayed our welcome at our layover house.

At long last, a full month after we arrived in Atenas, we hit the road.  Our friends had invited us to go trout fishing in the mountains outside of Cartago, and as we climbed the steep road into the mountains, we saw the first bad omen: our oil pressure light started to flicker.  Without an oil pressure gauge, there wasn’t much I could do, so we kept driving.  Before long, we arrived at the dirt road that led to the trout pond.  Waiting for us at the turnoff were our friends James and Lauren, who, after having seen the road, assumed (correctly) that we’d need a tow up the steepest section.

A hundred yards down the dirt road, all hell broke loose in Nacho’s front end; in an instant it sounded like our van was being attacked by Langoliers.  You know, from that Stephen King movie.

I got out in the pouring rain and mud, and jacked Nacho up.  It was immediately obvious that something had gone horribly wrong; the front wheels were totally effed up, as we engineers say.  I took the wheels off and found that both hubs were about to come apart, and both wheels were hanging onto their spindles by a few threads.  Further investigation showed that our mechanic had failed to adequately peen both front hub locknuts, and they had almost completely backed off.  I disbelievingly unscrewed them the rest of the way with my fingers.

I reassembled the hubs and torqued the locknuts to the factory spec, and then peened them in place.  After putting everything back together we again got underway.  Some of the noise had subsided, but it still sounded like a dominatrix was whipping Nacho with a chain as we drove.  Not a nice dominatrix either – more like a truck driver dressed as a dominatrix.  It was bad.  We were only a few hundred meters from our camp, and decided to press on and figure it out later on when it wasn’t dark and raining.

In the morning, I found that one of our front brake caliper bolts had fallen out, and the other one had backed out 90% of the way.  This would have been due to improper torque being applied by the mechanics when they reassembled the brakes after we swapped rotors.  Our caliper had been smashing around as we drove on the dirt road, making all kinds of racket.  We walked back on the road and miraculously found the missing bolt, and then I remounted the caliper and set the torque on all of the brake caliper bolts.  With a  torque wrench.  The way Mother Nature intended it.

At the trout farm we met up with several of our overlanding friends; James, Lauren, Jessica, Kobus, and Jared.  We spent two days stream fishing (with limited luck), pond fishing (with ease, as the pond was stocked with trout), Dutch oven cooking, and seeking refuge from the newly arrived rainy season.  The pond was so well stocked, in fact, that it seemed like a great idea to try spearfishing for some trout.  You see, after so much time away from academia and other forms of intellectual stimulation, my mind is becoming soft like baby fat.

On the second morning, I wrestled myself into my wetsuit and donned my flippers and mask.  I slipped into the black, icy cold pond carrying my speargun, and put my head under the water.  It was worse than the red tide in Playa Coco.  In a small pond containing hundreds of slimy, writhing water-breathing beasts, I couldn’t see a thing.  Do trout have teeth?  So terrifying.  I held the speargun up in front of me, but couldn’t see as far as the tip.  It should have been obvious to me that if you can’t see the spear tip, you won’t see anything in front of the spear tip either.  The odds were stacked against me, but the frigid water was constricting the blood flow to my baby fat mind.  I hunted on.

After 15 minutes I had failed to spear anything and was teetering on the edge of hypothermia.  Our new friend Juan even came down and fed the fish all around me, trying to give me a clear shot.  Even with hundreds of trout bodies slapping my body in a feeding frenzy, it wasn’t to be.  My repeated blind shots failed to kill anything except for my dreams.  The trout had won.

Back on the road, we pointed toward Pavones in the far South of Costa Rica.  If all went well, by the following morning we’d be surfing the world’s second longest left hand break.  The mechanical gods had a different idea, and a few miles after leaving, while traveling up a long climb in the pouring rain, our front brakes overheated.  We pulled over as smoke billowed out from our front wheels.

After pulling the front wheels off, it became clear that our front brake pistons were frozen.  This meant that when I would apply the brakes, the pads would squeeze the disc brake, but wouldn’t retract, leaving our brakes on at all times.  I removed the brake pads and cycled the pistons in and out, trying to loosen them up.  I noticed that the rubber piston seals were shredded, allowing water and grit to fly right into the calipers.

Back on the road, we made it no farther than a few more miles before we smelled the unmistakable odor of burning asbestos.  My half-assed brake fix had failed to solve our sticky piston problem.  We pulled to the roadside, this time on a descent leading into an enormous valley in the middle of nowhere, and settled in.  I decided to rebuild our calipers there on the roadside, and make a crude repair to the dust seals with some RTV silicone.  We were ready to spend at least one night on the side of the road.

While removing the first caliper my wrench slipped and I ripped a chunk of flesh from my thumb on the fenderwell.  Not a great start.  As I pulled the first caliper from the van, a man walked up to us.  His engine had blown a few kilometers down the road, and he was trying to find some food for his waiting family.  He told us that if we were able to coast down to where he was stopped, his son, a mechanic from San Jose, would be arriving at 8:30PM to give him a tow.  He called him and verified that he would be able to help us out.

At 11:30PM, the man’s son and another mechanic showed up and started working on Nacho.  Rather than rebuild the calipers, they opted to cycle them in and out as I had done earlier, only this time they sprayed WD40 into the pistons.  Not quite as good, but it was enough to get all four pistons moving enough to move along safely.  We spent the night by the roadside, and in the morning we headed out.  I would just have to find a couple of caliper rebuild kits soon.  My new rotors had already warped due to the stuck pistons, and I would need to get everything back to normal before any more damage was done.

We carried on through San Isidro, and started the long descent to the coast.  I put Nacho in first gear and slowly crept along so as not to have to rely much on our brakes.  We arrived in Dominical late in the day and turned South on the coastal road.  A mile down the road, I heard a light tapping from the rear wheel.  I swerved a couple of times to assess where it was coming from, when all of a sudden we lost all engine power and a rapid beating sound erupted from our rear end.  It sounded like we’d run over one of those improvised explosive devices, but I quickly ruled that out.  Seemed unlikely.

As I got out, my mind first went to a transmission failure.  I really hoped it was a failed CV joint instead.  In the sweltering heat and humidity I lowered myself into the dirt and crawled under Nacho’s underbelly.  I grabbed the axle and it spun freely in my hand.  Somehow the passenger side outer CV joint had come completely unbolted from the stub axle.  All six bolts, the ones I’ve been battling for the last two years to keep tight, the ones I replaced right before the trip and slathered with “permanent” Loctite, had all come out.

Since the CV joint was exposed to the elements, I had no choice but to unbolt the entire axle and rebuild the joint.  This is a job I’ve done at least a half dozen times in my ongoing quest to keep the CV bolts from coming loose, so I knew exactly what to do.  What I didn’t count on was the downpour that started just before I was ready to crawl back under Nacho to bolt everything back in place.

As I lay there on my back, my hair becoming matted and my shirt becoming soaked in oily mud, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.  This whole ordeal had started with preventative maintenance.  Then, in a span of 65 miles we had a tire puncture, an oil pressure light, had to be towed up two hills, our hubs came loose, our brake caliper bolts fell out, our brake pistons seized up, and our axle fell off.  Now I was lying on my back in a mud puddle with mosquitoes buzzing around my face while I slowly hit each of the 12 passenger side axle bolts with brake cleaner, wire brush, Loctite, and a torque wrench.

I will henceforth be doing all of my own auto mechanics, and that’s final.  There’s a reason I spent two tedious years learning how to work on Nacho correctly.   And while many days make our hearts want to explode with overwhelming joy, days like this remind us that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns out here.  But we’ve come this far, so what the hell.  Might as well see what tomorrow brings.

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