A Travellerspoint blog

Oaxaca and la costa

Since it had taken me close to five minutes to translate a phrase from English into Spanish and then spit it out as abstract jigsaw puzzle pieces, I decided to take a week long course in Spanish in the infamous Oaxaca de Juarez. Arriving on Sunday arfternoon from Mexico City, I walked the picturesque streets of the city looking for a Spanish school. I finally found one, and started the next day.

Initially I started at a level that was below my abilities, to the delight of my ego, but changed the following day. Having studied Spanish at university for three years, I am familiar with all the tenses etc, but my speaking skills are sub par at best for my three years of study. Still, it was good to reinforce the subjunctive tense. Thankfully, there was only one other student in my class, making for a good learning environment. The majority of our conversations constituted topics such as; what is real beauty? Is religion necessary and to my delight, the upcoming US Presidential elections and other world problems. Basically, a political science major's crack.

Oaxaca is without doubt the kind of city you can spend three weeks in without doing anything. I met a very German guy in my hostel who was staying there for a month just tuning up on his ancient greek (no joke), writing, reading and watching movies. I'm not sure he saw anything of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca city is fascinating. It's a capital city without the cultural vacuum that is often a by product of a modern metropolis. The city itself has managed to be home to the expansive and enthrawling Indigenous cultures of the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs amidst a European style architecture of cobbled streets and magnificent cathedrals. My Spanish teacher told me that Oaxaca city encaptulates everything Mexican and all that Mexico comprises, if you really want to get to know Mexico, visiting Oaxaca city is a must. There certainly is truth in that. The city seems to be an eclectic crossroads between a modern European style city, awash with modern and renaissance period art with a cafe and bar culture mixed with traditional Indigenous artisans markets. Despite its modern city ambiance, the artisans still employ traditional and painfully slow methods of creating colourful clothing and rugs for tourists eager to capture a part of this city. Of course, not all agree on the beauty of their merchandise...I recently bought a shirt that almost made my girlfriend detest me, it's still the topic of intense disagreement. I will concede however, that it makes me look slightly preggers.

The food, always an obsession of mine and a major factor in deciding to come to Mexico, is incredible and very unique. Who could forget the spicy chocolate sauce that is mole, the cinnamon infused hot chocolate drinks or the chapulines (grasshoppers), fried with garlic and lemon, eaten as a snack as if they were a packet of chips. Karl Pilkington would have a field day.

Prospective travellers, if you are headed to Oaxaca, I strongly urge you to stay at Hostel Casa Angel. It was the best hostel i have stayed at so far in Mexico. The internet is amazing, the terrace has a great view of the city, the breakfast is great, but above all the staff are awesome. One guy that works there, Nestor, reminded me a lot of my great friend in Ecuador and was super friendly and knew everything about the city.
I went out a few nights with a group of Icelandic travellers, with whom I had the best game of "Would you Rather" ever. One of them was a master, who asked the question "would you rather fuck a goat and no one know, or not fuck a goat and everyone in the entire world think you did." I was happy my Icelandic was up to scratch to understand it.
The following day they bought a car planning to travel South in Guatemala and the jungles of Mexico. Fearing for their safety along the way, they all bought machetes that would put Danny Trejo's to shame, good luck fighting off the military's M-16s with a knife fellas.

After my first week in the Oaxaca state capital, I slightly reluctantly made my way to Puerto Escondido, an unofficial Australia colony on the coast. It was here that my ability to speak Spanish almost came to die. After a week on the coast, travelling with fellow Aussies, a Dutchy and a South Carolinean, I discovered how easy it is to lose the ability to speak a foreign language. Puerto Escondido was pretty much what I expected, every second local offering weed and/or surfing lessons, equipped with an OK beach. Sick of the heat, I thought jumping into the water would be refreshing. Clearly I had forgotten my experience in Sayulita, the act of jumping into the ocean in Mexico being much like jumping into a bowl of soup. I may poo poo it, but i did have fun in Puerto Escondido, owing in large part to the hostel in which I stayed, as well as an unhealthy consumption of alcohol.

It took us about three hours to find suitable accomodation in Mazunte, me being super paranoid about robberies, we needed somewhere secure. We stumbled across a cute little hostel, incessant with the smell of sweet Mary Jane. It also seemed to be the place to go for a mosquito orgy, the lagoon surrounding the hostel swarming with them. On our second day there, we discovered that the lagoon was home to a crocodile. So, honouring Steve Irwin's name, I jumped into the lagoon and wrestled the crocodile and pulled a baby out of its mouth, before spit roasting it over a fire.

One of the worst things about laying back on a Mexican beach, or nearly any beach in a developing country for that matter, is the neverending flogging of useless shit, which seems to be in endless supply. I don't blame them of course, they have to make a living, but it gets a bit tiresome. Why, for example, would I buy an empanada while I am in a restaurant waiting for my food? On the second day I chatted with a local dude, who seemed to be just chilling out. After a break in conversation, he said to me, "do you want to but 2 kilograms of cheese?" He read my mind, 2 kilos of cheese was imperative to my survival.

One more observation, when a Mexican is trying to sell things, he is more of a bullshit artist than an Italian telling a story, or a 16 year old recounting their many sexual experiences. While on a boat tour of the surrounding beaches, our guide suddenly jumped out of the boat and grabbed a turtle he had seen. I asked him facetiously if the turtle was his friend, and he said "of course, it's rosalina, a friend to everyone." It was sweet, but clearly bullshit. Having said that, it was incredible being so up close to such a beautiful animal, who didn't seem bothered by being man handled. While sitting on Mazunte beach, I noticed a white rock sticking out of the sea about a kilometre off shore, that almost radiated at night. Being a scientific genius, I hypothesised that the rock was white due to bird deposits...and it turns out I was right. At least according to our trustworthy guide.

Back to Oaxaca city for the day of the dead celebrations. Unfortunately, Hostel Casa Angel was fully booked, so I had to settle for another hostel. It's fair to say it was quite shitty. I don't need much, but I would like the person manning reception to be over 12 and have some idea about the city they live in, not screw up reservations, not lose deposits for a key and not overcharge my friends and argue when questioned about it. Whoever designed this place was clearly a tad crazy. There were powerpoints outside the rooms, not inside, a powerpoint half way between two floors and 16 powerpoints on the roof. The unisex bathrooms were tiny and awkward, with a urinal in plain sight, right next to the sink. The bathrooms were attached to the dooms, and someone had put the lock on the dorm side of the door, meaning that if someone locked the door, you were stuck in the bathroom untill rescued by a reluctant staff member. The kitchen, equipped with modern appliances, was out of use for the whole week, and the jaccuzi on the terrace, with attracted me to the place, was empty. I know what you're thinking, this part of the blog should be posted on whitewhine.com, but it was frustrating. Just as frustrating as a $3000 espresso machine not frothing milk properly.

The celebrations of the day of the dead were fascinating. The day of the dead, which should be called days of the dead, takes place over two days in which Mexicans visit the graves of loved ones, offering them food and mescal in the hope that their souls will visit. The ritual is said to have its origins in pagan indigenous tribes up to 3000 years ago, with families of the fallen keeping skulls as trophies and using them during various rituals. What really struck me about this festival, and something I really liked, was that the act of visiting the grave of a loved one was not depressing, but rather it was a celebration of their life. I'm not one of those wanker travellers who whenever they observe a cultural difference say, "Oh my god, the West has it all wrong. These people are totes beautiful and their simple way of life without modern technology is how we should live," and then post it on facebook using their iPhones, but I do think this is a better way to remember someone, sharing humourus stories and laughing, rather than being all depressed about it.

I maintain that Mexican kids are the cutest in the world, and seeing them dressed up in day of the dead costumes just reinforced that belief. Seeing them walk down the street with their faces made up while their parents followed was probably the cutest thing ever.

I was kind of sad to leave Oaxaca, but took solace in the fact that I know I will return someday, hopefully for an extended period of time

Posted by jeremyampt 17:14 Comments (0)

Guadalajara and Sayulita

The first three nights in Guadalajara constituted my first experience with couch surfing. I stayed with this really chilled out and cool guy who lived about 15 minutes walk from the centre. From the moment I turned on my computer and realised there wasn´t any reliable wifi (white people problems), I knew by Friday night I had to be gone. Normally I wouldn´t care too much, but the swans were due to play the grand final on Friday...and I needed good wifi if I wanted to watch them take out the premiership!

My host spoke perfect English with an American accent as he lived in LA for many years, before being deported from the land of the free. Active within Couch Surfing, he frequently goes to Guadalajara meet ups, and on Thursday, he brought me along. We went to the oldest bar in GDL, where I met all the other hosts and took in the atmosphere of mariachis in the background. I was also given a much needed crash course in Mexican slang. Notable expressions include no mames (literally translated as don't suck me), meaning I don't believe it, or fuck me. The other one that sticks out is of course chinga de su madre...I'll let you find out what that means.

After my second night there, when we were walking home from a pub, I asked him if he wouldn´t mind telling me how it all happened. He obliged, and seemed surprised that I thought it was a big deal, I suppose he´s just a really down to earth guy. It all started when his family, having arrived undocumented years before, decided to apply for citizenship. Their request was denied, despite the fact they all spoke perfect English and had lived in the US for like 15 years. They immediately appealed, and that was also denied. Shortly after, when he was thinking of leaving the US anyway, agents came to his family´s house and decided to deport them. The fact that they tried to go through the proper legal channels, were denied citizenship and then to add insult to injury, were deported, was a massive injustice. One thing my host told me that was particularly interesting and surprising is that out of the homeland security agents, the biggest dicks are the second or third generation hispanics (usually Mexican). They were the ones who called indulged in racial slurs against their OWN background, using terms like beaner and wetback. I can only wonder as to why this is the case, one hypothesis floating around in my head is that the agents really want to be considered American, so they employ jingoistic behaviour just so no one questions their patriotism.

One of the coolest thing about my host was his undeniable passion for tequila. He is an expert. When we were in the supermarket and i was looking at thge various tequilas, he told me, ¨don´t worry about buying tequila man, I´ve got that covered.¨ He told me the difference between blanco (unaged), joven (a mixture of blanco and reposado), reposado (aged between 2 months and 1 year in oak barrels), añejo (aged for between 1 to 3 years in oak barrels) and extra añejo (aged more than 3 years). According to national Mexican law, tequila, to be called tequila, has to be produced in the states of either Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit or Tamaulipas. In addition, Mexico has the exclusive right to the word Tequila, and has threatened legal action against manufacturers of blue agave spirits wanting to call their product Tequila.

When I got to my host's house, I discovered there was a 20 something Scottish couple who were also staying there. Although it was not my main reason for leaving, I was glad to be rid of them. Apparently they both knew everything about everything, even beginning to lecture me on the situation in my own country, reminding me of an aging doctor, who, because he's a doctor, naturally means he is all knowledgable. The end point was probably when I mentioned that I hated extreme political correctness. They continued to lecture me, saying that "sexist, racist and old white men say that to try and continue with their old ways" and that "not in any way am I calling you a sexist or a racist or a bigot, but when you use language like they do you have to have a look at yourself." FUCK OFF. Who gives a shit if they use that language, I know I'm not a bigot, and you don't even know me so shut your dirty trainspotting mouth.

On Friday I arrived at the hostel, which was located in Chapultepec, about twenty minutes drive from my hosts' place. Chaputepec is a cultural melting pot of Mexicans, comprising snobby middle aged Polo Ralph Lauren wearing white Mexicans, skaters, couples who seem to get off on PDA, hipsters and 'others.' On Saturday, the day after the Swans' ultra epic win, I made my way to these alternative markets I had previously heard about. I have to say, by this point I was convinced that Guadalajara is the Melbourne of Mexico, i.e. the cultural and artistic capital. I wonder if alternatives in other cities in Mexico stroke their fringes while saying "I totes wish I was born in GDL," kinda like people from Sydney do when talking about Melbourne. These markets had all the hip young crowd of GDL could want; leather jackets for goths and 1970s rock enthusiasts, vinyl, block sunglasses for hipsters, weed pipes, tarot reading for the mentally ill, old school marxist propaganda and possessed teddy bears with massive claws and blood shot eyes...they looked like they were high on ice.

Even more protests...they don't stop. Loyal readers will recall my 'core' promise to find out what all these labor reform protests were about. I know you have had many sleepless nights waiting for me to lay down the details, so thankfully you will sleep well tonight. The Labor Reforms actually remind me a bit of Work Choices, making it easier for employers to fire people, thus making it easier to hire them, or so the 'pro' argument goes. The reforms will also pave the way for temporary working contracts that don't require compensation when they expire and create contracts for employees to be paid by the hour...so in a nutshell, the casualisation of the labor market. The anti reform argument is also similar to as it was during work choices, i.e. that the reforms would lead to lower wages and less secure employment. Imagine though, if Labor had voted for the reforms. That's exactly what has happened here, with the centre-left party, PRI, voting for the reforms in the lower house.

Certainly another event that stuck out in my mind was when I was sitting down having dinner, and having glanced to my left, I saw a woman telling her child to cry. I had no idea why she had requested such bizarre behaviour, until she went around to everyone in the restaurant, balling child in arm, telling people 'my children are hungry, please give me money." I thought it was quite an inventive begging technique, and knowing that innovation is essential in a vibrant market economy, I rewarded her effort with 10 pesos.

After the night in the oldest pub in GDL, I decided to join the GDL group on couchsurfing.org, where travellers and hosts alike arrange activities and detail their future travelling plans. As I logged in to the conversation threads, aimlessly skimming over information about where to get a camera lens fixed, I came across a photo someone had posted that blew me away. After doing some research and finding out where it was, I was sold. That was my next destination. The photo I'm talking about was of the Marieta Islands, about an hour by boat off the coast. I google mapped the closest small beach town, I didn't want to stay in Puerto Vallarta, and made my way to Sayulita.

Sayulita was nice enough, but the beach was a bit grey and it was full of loud, crocodile skinned Californian retirees...I was sick of it by the second night. Additionally, I think it may have been more refreshing if I swam in soup than in Sayulita beach. Sayulita was hot, so I ran into the water to cool down...only the water was 30 degrees, how ridiculous.

Marieta Islands certainly didn't disappoint, I have nothing bad to say about them. I took a tour with a friend I made at the hostel and two guys from Mexico City for about $50 each. The Island is a magical place, with a big hole in the middle leading to a picturesque agua beach. Our guide told us the official watching over the Island would look the other way if we wanted to quickly walk on the Island and take pictures. As it is a protected area, officially you are not supposed to step foot on the Island. But readers will know this blogger as someone who never says no and is always pushing the boundaries...fuck you society is my favourite saying. To get to the 'pocket beach,' as I like to call it, we had to swim through these caves that run into the Island, even having to duck under water to reach them as it was high tide. I'm not great with adjectives, so I'll just use the word 'amazeballs' to describe the beach. Unfortunately I couldn't take photos either, as I don't have a waterproof camera.

Posted by jeremyampt 17:02 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Zacatecas and Guanajuato

So after I finished detailing this piece of information, many readers (maybe 3 out of the 5 people who read this) will come to the conclusion that I am an idiot and will therefore will not continue to read this blog, but what the hell.

So I left Taxco on the 20th of September to catch a flight from Mexico City to Chihuahua later in the afternoon. I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, after arriving at the wrong terminal and having to take an obscenely expensive taxi to Terminal 2. Note to travellers; if you find that you need to get from Terminal 1 to 2 in Mexico City airport, take the FREE air train (kinda like the monorail), instead of paying $100 pesos for a five minute trip.

I got all my info out, and started the automatic check in process...of course there was an error, with the machine informing me that I could only check in if the flight was to leave between 24 hours and half an hour later. Shit, I then remembered that my flight was changed a few days earlier, and that I had only vaguely glanced at it, only realising in the airport that my flight was changed to the day before. Taking this as a sign that I shouldn´t go up North and with no intention of paying another $200 for a flight nor battle a 20 hour bus journey, I caught the next bus to Zacatecas. It wasn´t untill I got to Zacatecas that I was able to check my email and discovered that in fact my plane left the day after, not the day before. It was midnight in a town 8 hours from Mexico City, so I decided not to go back and forget about the sorry affair.

Zacatecas is awesomely wierd. For some reason there were a shitload of shoe shops, sweet shops and law practices. I´m not sure why this is the case, maybe it´s an asylum for criminals. I took a tour of a silver mine nearby, about a half hour walk from town. Owing to the fact that the tour was in Spanish, of which I understood a little, and that I had been to Potosi in Bolivia a few years earlier, I found the mine to be interesting, but not fascinating. From what I could gather, it was the usual story of the Spanish discovering something valuable and using the indigenous population as slaves to mine the silver...you know, that old chest nut. From there I could an overrated cable car from one side of the town to the other, to where there was an amazing view of the city. Did I mention the architecture is amazing?

Next stop was the picturesque town of Guanajuato, described as 'wonderfully colonial.' NEWS FLASH: LONELY PLANET ARE COLONIAL APOLOGISTS! To be fair to the ole LP, I'm pretty sure they were referring to the impact on the architecture there, and not the slaughter and enslavement of the local people, you know, the not so wonderful things about colonialism. Guanajuato is a uni town with plenty of art students, a handfull of hipsters and otherwise stereotypical Mexicans, but there weren't as many cowboys as in Zacatecas. Shame. Like with most places I have been in Mexico, there was also a sizeable political movement. It's extremely exciting politically here at the moment, at least for travellers, I'm sure for Mexicans the fact that someone bought the election and that the narcos own the government isn't quite as fascinating. But anyway, there were Yo Soy 132 in the square, talking out against the major parties and Labor Reform...I'm not sure quite what that's about, but I will read into it and let you know. No doubt the maybe two people that read this won't be able to sleep untill I tell them all the details. I do know a bit about the Yo Soy 132 (I am 132) movement. Loyal readers may remember me talking about Pina Nieto and the PRI party in Mexico. During the presidential elections Pina Nieto was at a town hall gig addressing a number of people, including 131 students. After someone asked Pina Nieto about his role as governor of the Federal District in ordering the violent repression of a 2006 protest which ended in two deaths and the rape of women by some in the police force, Nieto defended his actions, saying he prevented something worse from happening. After the town hall, PRI and the national media accussed rival parties of stacking the event with these students, further angering them. To show their solidaity with the students, the phrase Yo Soy 132 was born, meaning I am the 132nd student. The movement campaigns against media bias, electoral fraud and corruption, and has become quite massive here.

Guanajuato is home to one of the more bizarre museums i have ever been to, the Mommy Museum. I forgot the details, not that there were many on display, but apparently a bunch of bodies were found around the Guanajuato area in the mid 1800s, which now fill the displays of the museum. The severely fucked up thing was seeing fetus mommies, as well as the fact that most of the mommies still had hair, which humanized them and made the place even more creepy. Visiting the museum was challenging, because I had met a Japanese guy who had little knowledge of English and none of Spanish. So i tried my best from translating Spanish signs into Australian English and then into English that can be understood by someone trying to learn this ridiculous language.

Posted by jeremyampt 20:26 Comments (0)

Mexico City and Taxco

My $1200 35 hour flight via China went surprisingly well, it wasn't the most comfortable of journeys, but i hate bitching about air travel...it's the ultimate first world problem. What I do have to say is that the border security officers at LAX are total fuckwits. I handed this dude my passport, and told him I was only there for one night. He started asking me where I was going and I said Mexico. Initially I thought he was trying to engage me in small talk, but then he asked me, "where's your itinerary?" When i said i had it in the form of emails on line, he told me I was lying. Taken aback at his douchebagness, I said i thought when he scanned my passport into the computer it would show where i was going. Again, "no, why would it show that. I think you know it wouldn't." Oh I don't know, because we are in an airport and the US spends billions on the Department of Homeland Security every year. Eventually he tried to test my Spanish by asking me "where are you studying in Mexico?" I told him again I was travelling, not studying, then he said "stare at me again" and let me through.

I don't think I could live in a country where tipping is a necessity, add 20% odd to the bill and I'll be much happier. Plus do you know how awkward it is when you only have big bills and ask for change? It's very awkward. In my extensive travels through the United States, aka one night in LA, this was my experience and I found it stressful. How much is too much? How much is too little? Why don't you pay people properly so they don't have to rely on tips?

My hostel is Mexico City was heckerrrs and narly, as this Aussie guy kept saying. Kinda getting sick of Aussies, they are everywhere and totes obnoxsies. But anyway, I met some awesome people, some of who I am in Taxco with right now. I was delirious when i first arrived in Mexico, but since the hostel was so close to the main square, I decided to have a bit of an explore. What i discovered was a political science major's crack, a bunch of Mexicans that had set up tents protesting the recent elections in which a man named Enrique Pina Nieto of the PRI was elected President. The fascinating thing about this is that PRI was the party that held a monopoly over Mexico's political system from the 1930s until 2000 under what some labelled a perfect Dictatorship, given that the President's overwhelming power was hidden behind a democratic curtain. Despite a win for PRI in the recent Presidential elections, there seems to be widespread belief that the electoral process was rigged and hence the tents in the square. The tents were occupied mainly by Marxists or progressives, with many doing what I call the Nazi dance; comparing Pina Nieto and other Mexican leaders to Hitler. They had constructed their own fascinating, yet probably inaccurate, version of recent Mexican history.

Initially intending on going to the Ecuadorean embassy to try and get a visa, the day after I arrived I met a few people from the hostel who were heading to the pyramids of Teotihuacan. I heard they were amazing, so i decided to go with. These things were massive. I was only after I arrived that i realised the biggest pyramid there, the pyramid of the sun, is actually the third biggest in the world. The entire site is said to be around 1750 years old, and at its peak had a population of 125 000, then one of the biggest cities in the world. It's founding however, is much of a mystery, with archaeologists debating who built it...no doubt surrounded by their superior smugness, unable to concede any ground. Of course, the place was flooded with people flogging mostly useless shit. We met one seller who was 70 and had been selling his artifacts, mostly pipes, for 50 years. Some of the people I travelled with had an in depth conversation with him about which pipe was best to smoke pot with.

From here on I am going to have difficulty what I did on each day, so here are the highlights.

A couple of us worked our way to the colossal mercado de la merced, which has to be one of the biggest markets I've ever seen. There seemed to be a 'porn' street, where DVD sellers proudly displayed their high class Mexican porn to the public (no, unfortunately they didn't play any). I also don't know what people can do with soo many pigs heads, one sign read "Pig's Heads, 100% Mexican," as if a pig's head not being Mexican would be the only thing stopping you from buying a FUCKING PIGS HEAD. I bought a Mexican wrestling mask and a LITRE of juice for one dollar each. That night, if I'm not mistaken, was Ema's birthday, a new friend I met at the hostel, so we decided to go out for a "few beers." We ended up at this taco joint/drinking hole where we met Mexicans who insisted on communicating through song, alcohol, and telling us which celebrities we looked like. Apparently, I'm Kurt Cobain...before he put a gun in his mouth (too soon?). It was certainly a night I will never forget, especially this Mexican who came onto Ema, who seemed to forget whether or not he had a girlfriend.

El dia de la independencia was interesting, that being the day and not the night before. The night before was anticlimatic, between it pouring down rain and my $130 gortex jacket going missing (#whitepeopleproblems), I decided that was a sign that I should stay in and get 10 hours of sleep. The next morning I felt like I was in North Korea. The Mexican military put on a march in an impressive fete of dick measuring with other countries. It would be funny and ridiculous if it wasn't quite so scary. The city was packed but we had a good day walking around, and met this clearly fucked up American who had lived in Mexico for 12 years. I was with two Israeli friends and when he was informed of their ethnicity he turned to me and said, "don't fuck with them muthafuckas man, them muthafuckas is tough." He then ranted for a bit about fuck knows what until he said, "I got the good shit man, want some?" No, I thought, I don't want to smoke anything that you've been on.

I forgot to mention the Museum of Anthropology, which was without doubt the best museum I have ever seen. Words can't do it justice, at least not mine, so I will just post some photos.

On the Tuesday, the two Israelis, an American who left the navy disgusted at American foreign policy and a Swiss girl and I all headed to Taxco, about two and a half hours south of Mexico City. Taxco was a beautiful little town, but the sellers were way too aggressive. The founding of the town is pretty much due to its nearby mineral wealth, where Silver mines nearby drove its development. Unlike most mining towns, which in my extensive experience have been not easy on the eye, Taxco was an architectural masterpiece, especially seeing the view from the big Jesus on the mountain.

That brings me to now, where I write on a rooftop terrace in Zacatecas, about eight hours North of Mexico City. I wasn't intending to get here until a bit later, but due to unforseen circumstances of me being a complete idiot, making one mistake after another, here I am. More explanation to come

Posted by jeremyampt 15:02 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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